Wednesday 16 September 2015

The Dead Lord

It had not gone as planned. Reven and his company of mercenaries hunkered down behind tipped over tables as crossbow bolts and arrows thunked into their wooden shield. They had come up through the sewers of the old fort and walked straight into a trap. The men were already grumbling at having to walk through human excrement but now their whining was irking Reven more than the constant patter of arrows. They were there to kill a disgraced lord, it was their biggest contract to date and they had spent a week planning it. No doubt the weasel observer that had been sent to liaise with them by the magistrate had been a turncoat. He would be dealt with as would Lord Umpold, the mark, but first they had to get out of this room.

The two long dining tables in the barracks room they had emerged into were taking a pounding and Reven knew they had to move soon. Umpold must have paid some serious coin to get this many guards in. He was supposed to be woefully unprotected. Reven thought this contract to be a gift, something that would elevate them above the other mercenary bands operating out of Blackcliff but obviously, the intelligence they had was wrong. He looked over at Agrippa and Muldar who were behind a table with Kris, “Ag, move forward in five” he shouted across the room. The guards held a line across the end of the long room, crossbowmen knelt before the bowmen. More troops filed in behind them choking the doorway, the rooms only exit. Reven hadn't waded through shit to turn tail and run. He would complete the contract. At his signal, the men at his sides and those behind the other makeshift protection lifted the tables and rushed forward using them as shields to close the gap between themselves and the guards. Taken aback by the move the hail of fire faltered and the mercenaries used the opportunity to launch the heavy tables at the front row of defending troops. Swords were drawn and Reven’s men hacked into the startled front ranks of the guards who were hastily drawing swords of their own. Reven was in the centre of the line, whirling and spinning with Bloodthirster in hand. He gutted a guard, his sword going through his chain-mail like a warm knife through butter. Blood droplets swam about him in the air as his vampiric blade drank in the crimson of its wielders foes. He decapitated the man to his left before spinning away from an attack on his right, returning with backhand swipe which took the attackers arm off at the elbow. Reven’s relentless assault was mirrored by his men who fed off their leader's fervour for battle. Muldar shattered and pounded opponents with his mighty war hammer, the big man was speckled with blood that exploded from his foes with the force of his blows. Agrippa fought with sword and shield, drawing men in by taking hits and then launching into them as they extended toward him. Kris and Bran both fought with short swords in each hand. The twins fought as one, trading blows with multiple opponents and dispatching them with clinical strikes. Orwin the youngest of the troop fought with sword and dagger, his unorthodox style of fighting saw him defending with his longer blade and attacking with his knife.

Soon the guards that had been clambering to get into the room only moments before were on the retreat and trying to squeeze back through that same door. The mercenaries spilt out after them, shouting taunts and slights as the last few guards managed to run clear past the next line of defenders. These troops were different, big and decked out in plate armour head to toe. These four iron giants carried two-handed blades the length of a man and stood unmoving. Reven quickly assessed his options and a window to his right gave him the opportunity his men needed. “Gentlemen, through the window and up. Kris, Bran keep climbing, find the fat Lord and bring him to heel. Ag, Orwin, Muldar get the front gate open, my friend hungers. Go”. With nods of affirmation the men clambered out the window and started climbing the rough stonework of the walls. Reven turned toward the statuesque foursome that faced him once his men were clear, as one they came to life, taking a step toward him raising their massive blades. Reven rushed toward them, Bloodthirster held before him, a smile on his lips and battle singing in his heart.

Agrippa watched Kris and Bran continue the climb as he, Muldar and Orwin slipped inside the next window they came too. He waved them off and then concentrated on the task at hand. They had to get out to the battlements to raise the gate. Agrippa understood Reven’s logic. This looked as though it was going to be a bloody fight and the warhound Fang excelled in combat, a lump of muscle as tall as a horse and almost twice as wide.

 The three mercenaries made their way along the hallway they found themselves in. It was richly furnished with rugs, paintings and sculptures that dotted the floors and walls. They moved quickly down the corridor toward the front of the fort but the sound of approaching footsteps arrested their advance. Orwin tried the closest door, it was locked. He started racing down the corridor to the next door but the guards that were searching for them rounded the corner at the end of the hall and immediately formed up to advance on Muldar and Agrippa. The warriors drew their weapons and dropped into fighting stances as the men came on. Muldar shouted with glee as he launched himself into the fight. Agrippa was more economical with his movements and dropped a man with his first swing, shouting over his shoulder for Orwin to continue to the gate. The boy stood for a moment, hesitant, watching his comrades wade into battle. His hand played with the hilt of one of his throwing knives as he weighed his options. He watched the massive Muldar pulp another opponents head with his war hammer and without another thought, he pushed the door closest open and padded inside.

Kris and Bran emerged through the highest window they could reach. They both massaged their fingers to ease out the ache of the climb. The twins were armed in a similar fashion and both unslung their bows and nocked an arrow. It was quiet up here in the loftier sections of the castle and no expense had been spared here. Where bare rock was sported throughout the rest of the fort, here wooden floors had been laid and wooden panels lined the walls. The wood had a dark polish over it and the panels on the wall were adorned with masks of all shapes and sizes. The twins were a little unnerved by the sightless parodies of faces that stared out at them but they carried on regardless. Hugging the walls they made their way through the gloom of the corridors the first soul they came across was a servant that was hurrying down the hall they were travelling, carrying a silver tray in one gloved hand. They crouched low behind a cabinet and when he came into view Bran smashed the man in the side of the head with the pommel of his sword whilst Kris jumped out to catch the falling tray. Bran stopped the man from hitting the floor and the pair bound his hands and gagged him. They pushed his recumbent form underneath the cabinet and continued their advance heartened. Servants meant blue bloods, and the sooner the one they were after was dead the better.

Reven decapitated the last of his foes and watched the man's body drop away as gouts of arterial blood sprayed the walls a lively crimson. He had taken a battering over the past ten minutes. Fighting the four big bastards had been tiring and he had been opened up across the stomach and had taken a length of steel through the thigh. The group of guards that came after that had sliced through his cheek, ripped his ear and almost cost him a finger. He wondered to himself how many times over he would have been dead if it wasn't for the gifts bestowed upon him by his union with Fang. The resilience, superior healing, heightened senses, speed and strength of the warhound coursed through him. The wounds on his stomach and thigh had already crusted into cuts and were no longer painful. He wiped blood from his face using one of the fallen guards ripped tabards. He had to regroup with his men. A stairway lay ahead that spiralled up to the next floor. Reven bounded up it hoping to be reunited with Agrippa, Muldar and Orwin.

Agrippa and Muldar had been victorious against their hunters but they had both taken a beating and were breathing hard. They sheltered in a side room as guards continued to search for them. Muldar was wrapping some ripped table cloth around a deep gash on his upper arm, trying to stem the tide of blood. Agrippa was concerned, the next fight they might not walk away from. They were still supposed to be getting to the gates, as per their orders from Reven but the guards seemed almost endless and they fought with the fury of a man defending his home even though they appeared to be hired help. “We have to move” Agrippa said to the big man who was just finishing tying off his makeshift bandage. Muldar nodded his assent and picked himself up off the floor, “We should find the boy” he said as he limbered up with his war hammer. Agrippa moved past him patting one of his shoulders as he did so. He moved over to a door and listened for movement with his head pressed against its dark wood. Muldar was just behind him as they moved through the door and further into the fort.

Orwin was crouching between some shelves in a storeroom just off the main courtyard. Stealth and brought him this far and now he hid between the various rolled tents and flagpoles that were stacked along the shelves, he found himself to be stuck. Guards were patrolling backwards and forwards on the inside of the gate that he needed to get open. He had waited for them to be relieved or move off but to no avail. If he didn’t act soon it may be too late and there were too many men out there for him to take alone. He would wait a bit longer before returning into the fort to locate his friends.

Kris and Bran were in trouble. They had found the lords lair but before they could burst in kill the old bastard they had been set upon by a score of heavily armoured troops that had been laying in wait for them. Now they were running for their lives, stopping occasionally to turn and fire arrows at the men that rushed after them. They had found some stairs and headed down them. Horn’s sounded behind them that echoed through the corridors of the fort warning of their presence. “Those bloody horn’s will bring every guard in the fort down on our heads” screamed Bran as they ran. The noise of clanking armour from below made them arrest their descent, forcing them onto another floor of the building. They ran into cover as more noise from along the corridor they were in spooked them. “We’re buggered” Kris said to his brother, Bran nodded his assent and pushed his fingers to his lips. They listened as the furtive footsteps came closer. Whoever they belonged to they were trying to be quiet, sneaking along the edge of the corridor. All was near silent until troops barrelled out of the stairway and into the flickering light of the lanterns that lit the hallway. They were shouting challenges down the corridor that seemed to be directed at somebody other than the twins. The curses that flew back were distinctive in their flamboyant use of language, “There’s only one person I know that swears like that” Kris smiled at his brother as they both rose from cover. Muldar was bellowing at the guards that were still filing into the hallway, “By the Great Bull’s dangly balls, you filth have no place amongst such warriors. Return to the dung pile you came fr….” He faltered as Kris and Bran stepped out of the shadows. “Hah” the big man screamed, “You’re doubly buggered now”. Agrippa was smiling as the twins approached and turned to face the foe. “Fight or flight Ag?” asked Kris as they bunched together, “Bit of both I’d say, pin the front ranks and let's get out of here” as the twins drew their bows more heavily armed troops rushed in at their backs. Agrippa sagged as he turned and saw them coming. No retreat against numbers too great for them to prevail against, hope was fading fast. The troops pressed in on all sides and a wizened old man stepped forward, “Drop your weapons scum” his voice boomed above the clamour of the troops, “Our Lord wishes to have words with you before he washes his alter with your blood”. The four mercenaries turned to regard the man, his voice so compelling that their grips loosened on their weapons at once. Agrippa was the first to resist the magical compulsion but too late. The guards were on them, bludgeoning them to the ground, knocking them senseless, the four warriors drifted out of consciousness almost as one.

Orwin was about to move off when the horns sounded. Most of the guards that had been milling around the courtyard on their patrol routes rushed into the fort in response, leaving only a handful of guards in their stead to watch over the gates. Orwin knew it was to be now or never. The horns meant things had escalated even further inside and they needed support. He drew two of his throwing knives and moved out of the storeroom into the open space of the courtyard. He immediately regretted his decision. The handful of troops he saw from his vantage point were mirrored on the other side of the gate by a force of equal size. The youngster was outmatched but driven by a devotion to his comrades and the duty bestowed on him he acted regardless. The first of his blades sang through the air and lodged itself in the flesh of the guard's neck, neatly landing between his body armour and helmet. The guard pulled the blade free as he dropped covering those nearest to him with a spray of bright red blood. The guard turned to face Orwin as another thrown knife thumped into the face or another dropping him without a sound. Both groups of guards rushed at him. Orwin threw once more but only managed to knock off a helmet. He hastily drew his sword and the knife sheathed at his hip and roared his defiance.

Orwin blocked a blow from the first guard to reach him but he saw a second man swinging a sword at his head that he knew he couldn't stop. Involuntarily he closed his eyes and waited for the blow to connect. It never did though, instead, he was pushed roughly to the ground as a whirlwind of death ripped into the onrushing guards. Reven was a fearsome sight to behold. As soon as his first stroke fell, beheading a guard, his sword started to drink hungrily. As Reven whirled and spun striking out at the guards he was surrounded by a rain of blood. The guards were cut down like wheat. They fell back under Reven’s assault. Blades shattered as they tried to match Bloodthirster, hands were taken off at the wrist, legs severed at the knee. Reven pushed on pausing only to point at the gate. Orwin struggled to move he was so mesmerised by his leader but he knew what needed doing.

He ran to the gate, straight for the mechanism that would raise the hefty portcullis that barred entry. He struggled with the release but using all his strength pulled it free. He repeated this on the lever on the other side of the gate and the massive web or iron slowly rose as the counterweights did their work. A low reverberating howl rumbled from nearby, rolling through the courtyard like thunder. It was met by Reven who also howled as the blood of his last opponent dripped down his face. The tide of blood was about to turn.

Agrippa, Muldar, Kris and Bran were bound at one end of a great hall. Hands tied to ankles and heads pulled back, necks bared. Huge Tapestries hung from the high walls depicting bloody rituals and sacrifices performed by goat-headed men. The hall was full of guards and servants from the fort. The elderly wizard had donned purple robes and uttered incantations over the mass of men that had gathered to watch the sacrifices. A hushed descended as a lone figure walked to the front of the room. He wore loose-fitting purple robes that barely covered his obese bulk and wore a stuffed goats head that covered his own face. He held a long curved blade in one hand and a censer in the other that billowed purple smoke in its wake. As he reached the chancel where the men were bound he turned to face the adoring crowd. “Let these sinners wash Heskor’s alter with their blood. Our Lord and Master bids us do his holy work so that we may endure”, the crowd responded in unison, “and endure we must”, “The blood is our life” the leader shouted, “and spill it we must” the crowd retorted. They chanted over and over ‘spill it we must’ as the leader turned to face the four men. The mass of worshippers swayed as they said the words led by the old wizard. Louder and louder they chanted as the goat-headed man raised his wicked blade. He smiled down at those he was about to slaughter, flexing the fingers of his hand that held the sword aloft, ready to strike.
Another voice entered the mercenaries dazed minds as they looked up at the purple-robed leaders smiling face. A whisper at first, it grew louder and they started to speak the words aloud as one. Lord Umpold couldn’t hear what they were saying properly under the cover of his mask but as their voices grew in strength the words became clear. “I am Their vessel, I give life to Their wrath, I am the bloody-handed reaper. I am ruin, I am death, Their collector of skulls” they repeated the words over and over confusing the big man. “Silence” he hissed at them. They continued and regained their composure as they repeated the words throwing off the dreamlike state the wizard's compulsion had left them in. Their voices rose and were joined by another that boomed through the hall drowning out the noise of the crowd. The masses chanting faded as the words reverberated around the room. Two guards who stood at the door at the far end of the hall to the chancel were flung through the air as the doors were flung wide. Reven sat astride Fang who slowly walked up the central isle of the hall. The old wizard was first to react using his booming voice to try and persuade Reven to turn about. As soon as the words left his mouth they were replaced with a well-thrown dagger. Orwin’s blade buried itself so that only the tip of the hilt could be seen protruding from the old man's mouth. As soon as the man fell it was as if a spell had been broken. The masses groaned and wailed as if waking from a nightmare and confusion reigned as people scattered in front of Fang’s bulk as if only truly seeing it now. Reven slipped out of the saddle and mounted the dais on which his men and Lord Umpold were.

Orwin had pushed the doors at the end of the hall shut and was preventing people from escaping. Some of the guards had started to regain their wits and were heading his way. Reven walked straight past the stunned Umpold and freed his men as the distraught Lord looked on. The now free mercenaries recovered their weapons and formed up at Reven’s back. With a flick of the wrist, Reven loosed Fang on the guards that were heading toward Orwin. The war hound tore into them with relish, scattering them all over as he barrelled through them to stand at Orwin’s side. Lord Umpold’s goat-head headwear had fallen off and tears streamed down his face. He fell to his knee’s grovelling at Reven’s boots for mercy. Reven had none. Agrippa, Muldar and the twins drew their blades knowing what was to come. Reven loosed Bloodthirster neatly severing Lord Umpold’s head from his body. Holding the head high he addressed the crowd, “We will not judge you heathens. You murders of men and twisters of fate. We will leave your fate to the gods. If you make it out of this room the gods smile on you and you shall live. The rest of you be damned”. With that he secured the lords head to his belt, trailing blood as he walked toward Fang and Orwin. The crowds parted to let Reven and his men pass. When they reached the doors Reven threw them wide and turned to face the crowd. He drew his sword and beckoned the mass of people forward. “Kill them all” he said under his breath as he gutted the first man that came within his reach.

The slaughter in the hall was immense. Not a single member of Umpold’s congregation made it out though their blood seeped through the doorway and into the hall beyond. The story of the bloodletting reached far throughout Orland and despite the viciousness of the act it was used as a cautionary tale for those who would turn their backs on the Gods.

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