© July 1989
The Knight sat stride the tall stallion, hand raised to shield his eyes from the setting sun. The ochre light etched shadows deep into his craggy features. The black armour he wore seemed to glisten blood-red in the rays of the dying sun. His warhorse, vain and proud, stamped impatiently at the parched earth.
"Be still Briony, there will be time later." the Knight said, his words measured, like one used to conserving them. The horse twitched an ear but was still.
He continued his search, his eyes keep. Ahead, across the parched plain rose the harsh foothills of the Blood Mountains, a south-westerly spur of the mighty Kiril range, which dominated southern Mardona. There! The Knight's sharp eyes spotted the distant dust cloud announcing the presence of riders. Watching, he could see they were heading his way.
"Company." he said to Briony. The stallion snorted and shook his head, his armoured face-guard jangling. At his master's unspoken command, he started down the slope of the hillock they had paused atop, and headed in the general direction of the dust cloud. There was not much of the day left, so when darkness descended, the Knight halted Briony near an outcrop of rocks.
It was not long after he had made a small fire then watered and fed his horse, that his acute hearing caught the clump of hooves and the jingle of armour. Swiftly, he donned his helmet again, fastening the chin-strap but leaving the visor open. Then he saddled Briony and hurriedly strapped the horse-armour back on. When the four riders reached the outcrop, they found themselves facing a heavily armoured warhorse and knight, sword drawn, shield ready, visor lowered.
"Halt and declare thyselves." the Knight intoned, using the formal manner. Two of the riders moved forward. Both were encased in black armour, but with their visors open. Unlike the first knight, though, their horses were not protected by armour. One of the knights raised his sword hand palm outstretched.
"Hail Sir Knight, I greet thee in the name of the Goddess. I am Sir Crispin." he replied, his voice lyrical in its formality.
"And I am Sir Drachar." The second knight also raised his empty sword hand. "Hawkeye, what is the meaning of all this stiffness?" he added, removing his helmet to let a mass of dark hair fall down, almost covering his face. Drachar was very well built and tended to short-cut a great deal of the formality.
"Drachar, you have not allowed him to identify himself. How do we know this is Hawkeye?" Crispin thumped his thigh angrily.
"Because he is the only one still to use that clumsy and archaic
horse armour, and I know Briony of old - I can show you the teeth marks from when we were both younger."
Hawkeye sheathed his sword and raised his visor, smiling at Drachar, his one-time squire and now fully fledged knight these past nine years.
"But it might be someone who has stolen Hawkeye's horse and armour."
Crispin insisted on arguing the point, removing his helmet all the same to reveal his short blonde hair and aristocratic features. He was younger than the other two knights.
"Have YOU ever tried to ride Briony? Nobody, and I mean nobody, would even get near without being bitten if it weren't for Hawkeye." Drachar looked at Hawkeye and shook his head, raising his eyes heavenward. He spurred his horse forward and clasped Hawkeye's hand. Hawkeye nodded.
"Crispin is right, though." he said. "I might not be me."
"Oh look!" Drachar suddenly pointed up at the sky. "It's a Griffin! Ha, some chance!" Hawkeye could not help but laugh and thumped Drachar on the shoulder.
"Come, join me." He waved the others forward. Behind Crispin rode his young squire Rob. With him was a tall woman dressed in leather armour, carrying a wicked looking battle-axe on her saddle. Her long dark hair was bound up in a leather thong that crossed her forehead.
"Allow me to introduce Varoni, Warrior of the Black Rose." Crispin, proper as ever, offered to help her from her horse. She gave him an acidic look that would have withered any normal man, but which bounced harmlessly from Crispin's formal armour.
"Sister." Hawkeye greeted her with the customary left-hand shake.
"Hail Sir Camellard, Knight of the Black Rose" she replied.
Hawkeye winced. "Please, Hawkeye - my true name sounds more like a disease of livestock!"
Varoni smiled. "Sir Hawkeye it is."
"This is a pitiful bit of fire Hawkeye." Drachar complained, squatting beside it. The temperature was dropping quickly now that the sun had set.
"In that case you won't mind helping Rob gather firewood." Drachar stood sharply, his mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish.
"That's a nice thing to do to a Knight!" he groaned. Rob turned away, hiding his grin. The boy was in his early teens and had been taken on a while before by Crispin as a favour to the boy's parents. His real name was Tallanabhrob, but most called him Rob.
While Drachar tended the fire, Rob brought from the two pack horses bed rolls and some bread, cheese and dried fruit for their supper. Crispin helped by fetching a joint of ham and slicing off five steaks.
"What brings you here, and why my summons?" Hawkeye asked them over supper. Varoni politely refused the ham steak offered her, claiming she never ate pork. Rob eagerly accepted it in her stead.
"Have you heard any of the rumours coming out of the mountains?" said Crispin, now out of his armour and relaxing in an azure surcoat.
"Demons?" Hawkeye cocked an eyebrow, popping individual raisins into his mouth.
"That is the easiest way to describe the phenomenon." Varoni said. "I've been stationed in this for over ten years now," Hawkeye cocked an eyebrow again - she was older than she looked. "I know pretty much what goes on hereabouts. That normally isn't much - it's so quiet that I've been able to start a family." her face softened momentarily. "Of late, though, strange things have been happening - visions, manifestation, disappearances. One story has it that one individual in a village not too far from here was eaten alive by invisible demons in the middle of the village in broad daylight! There were a number of witnesses."
"As soon as I heard about this," Drachar interrupted, "I knew you were the man for the job."
"Thank you Drachar." Hawkeye replied resignedly.
"It's a pleasure." he replied with a straight face.
"Anyway," Varoni scowled at the interruption, "I've tried to track down as many of the rumours that have tangible evidence or witnesses to try to identify some pattern."
"And what did you find..." Drachar prompted, waving his hand in a theatrical flourish.
"They all seemed to centre around one particular area." Varoni continued.
"TA RA!" Drachar added. Varoni glared at him.
"Must he?" she growled. Hawkeye shook his head.
"I spent years trying to calm him down - I don't think it did one bit of good." he sighed. "He's a fine knight though." he whispered. "Please continue, take no notice of him."
"This whole business reeked of magic, so I thought it best if I called for assistance. There was no one available from the Mages so I was only too glad when Sir Crispin and Sir Drachar answered my call. I fear I alone cannot do battle against the magic of Demons."
"No offence intended," Crispin, polite as always, said, "but we cannot assume we are dealing with Demons. From what you've said, there has not been anything that a human mage could not do. Don't forget, we are dealing with reports from people who are unused to magic, so their interpretation of events may be unreliable. For example this man `eaten in broad daylight'. Could they not mean he simply vanished?"
"Their descriptions are quite precise, even down to the sound of chewing and a loud belch at the end."
"Ah, I see." Crispin tapped his nose with a long slender finger.
The entrance to the cave was a dark gash in the pale limestone. It was partly hidden by some rough-looking bramble bushes. A winding path led up the side of the hill, a meandering way used mainly by the sheep and goats from the village they had passed through at the foot of the valley.
"So what led you here?" Crispin shifted uneasily in his hot armour. The sun beat down mercilessly on the three knights in black. Varoni had dispensed with her leather armour in the heat and wore a loose-fitting jerkin and loincloth.
"It was in that village the demons had lunch, and many of the villagers spoke of strange things going on up here. When I first came to investigate, I found myself up against a wall of fear. That was enough to warn me off and call for your help."
"And like the gallant knights we are, we came galloping to your aid." Drachar added. Hawkeye scowled at him and he shut up.
"What do you think Hawkeye? You're one of the few knights who have ever met a demon." Crispin was nervous. he had only been a knight for a couple of years, but although he was not inexperienced, he had yet to come to terms with those feelings which he felt were not proper for a knight, namely fear.
Hawkeye pursed his lips and sent out an inquiry with that part of his mind trained to recognise the supernatural. There, on the edges of his senses, there was something.
"I feel it." he said.
"Which `It' precisely?" Drachar tried to shrug out a kink in his mail shirt. Hawkeye shook his head.
"We go in." he replied.
"I knew it." Drachar groaned. "Crawling about in some dirty stinking hole!"
"From what I've heard from the other squires, I thought you were rather fond of doing that - Urswell wasn't it?" Rob suddenly piped up.
"Ah yes..." Drachar blushed. "A slight misunderstanding - the lady was married but forgot to mention it." he explained to Hawkeye's unspoken question. "The sewers were the most convenient way out when her husband tuned up!"
"What do you think we'll find?" Varoni was off her horse and was unselfconsciously stripping to change into her armour. Rob's eyes widened and he blushed as she revealed herself.
"I am not sure." Hawkeye glanced away from the woman. The Knights of the Black Rose were and all male order, unlike the Swords of the Black Rose, although some of knights were taking on female squires. Hawkeye was not sure he liked this new fashion, not that he had anything against women. On the contrary, he knew some very gifted women in both the Swords and Mages of the Black Rose. It was just the idea of the Knighthood seemed to imply a masculine order.
"We must take care." he added, dismounting. "Leave your shields - they will only get in the way." From his saddle-bags he took an evil-looking morning star,the handle of which he slipped through a loop on a belt around the waist of his armour. He swapped his visored helmet for one which had cheek and nose-guards, so he would be able to see better, and produced a lantern.
"Do we really need that?" Crispin looked at the lantern. "I can keep a Light spell going for over twelve hours."
"We should not waste our energies. We may need them later. This is simplest." he lit the lamp's wick with a spark from his finger. Without a word, Drachar took the lantern to leave Hawkeye with both hands free. Varoni tested the edge of her battle-axe, and satisfied all was well, hung it on a thong over her shoulder. "Ready?" Hawkeye glanced at them all. They nodded. Winking at Rob, Hawkeye took them up to the cave, leaving the horses in Rob's care.
They encountered the wall of fear about ten feet from the cave. Hawkeye nodded to Crispin who moved to the edge of the wall, closed his eyes and pulled his out-thrust hands apart as though drawing curtains aside. The movement was accompanied by the briefest of sounds, heard only at the back of their minds. They moved on into the cave itself.
Inside, they paused for a few minutes to allow their eyes to adapt to the darkness. As the dimness lightened, they could see the cave continued into the hill, opening out further on. Here, they entered a tall cavern, filled with the sounds of dripping water. It was populated by a multitude of grotesque but stunning columns as well as stallagtites and stallagmites, looking like the teeth of some gigantic monster.
"The teeth of Dragons." Crispin whispered in awe. His voice echoed back and forth. The knights and the warrior carefully picked their way across the uneven floor, the sound of the armour causing more echoes as they progressed.
"Silence?" Drachar suggested. Hawkeye nodded. Drachar drew his hand across the front of each of them, whispering the spell. When he had finished, they all moved in silence, with only their voices immune from the spell.
"Halt!" The voice rang with authority and they stopped in their tracks. Ahead of them stood a figure cloaked in shadow. "Why do you intrude in my domain?"
"Who are you?" Hawkeye demanded.
"I am the King of Shadows. Who are you?"
Hawkeye probed with his mind. "I do not bandy words with a shadow." and with a negligent flip of his hand he dismissed the figure, which promptly vanished.
"So whatever it is knows we're here." Drachar sighed. "So much for creeping up on it."
"We must be alert now - no telling what it might try." Hawkeye looked carefully at each of his companions: Drachar had that hungry eager look; Varoni seemed calm, only her continual gazing around gave away any hint of nerves; Crispin's face beneath his helm was pale, but he stood firm to overcome his fears. Hawkeye nodded and led them on. They fanned out around him, forming a wedge as they crossed the floor of the cavern.
"Up there!" Varoni cried,pointing up at an opening in the cavern's wall about twenty feet above them. "I saw something move."
"Are you sure it wasn't a shadow from the lamp?" Crispin said, his voice low. Varoni shook her head and looked to Hawkeye. With a nod, he wordlessly moved nearer, finding a rough, broken route up to the opening, clambering up and over boulders and scree.
An itchy feeling prompted him to draw his sword before they reached the top. Suddenly there came a deafening screech and a gigantic shape coalesced from the darkness and flew towards them. A rank odour of decay swirled around them as Hawkeye raised his sword to ward off the attack. The others threw themselves flat to avoid the creature, the light revealing it to be a giant bat, mouth agape to display cruel fangs.
Hawkeye braced himself for the collision, but the bat passed through his sword without hesitation.
"A trick!" he growled.
"Goddess!" Drachar breathed, picking himself up again.
"Take care, the next one might be real." Hawkeye summoned them to follow him into the tunnel. The passage was uneven and sloped down sharply. Fissures in the walls allowed trickles of water to escape and it was not long before they were walking in a swiftly running subterranean stream.
"I hope this doesn't get any deeper, I hate swimming in my armour!" Drachar said, kicking disgustedly at a pebble.
The rocks before them moved suddenly, transforming into two large human-shaped figures with blank faces and club-like arms. Hawkeye quickly sheathed his sword and hefted the morning star. From the corner of his eye he saw Varoni crouching ready, her battle-axe reversed to present the sharp hook at the back of the axe blade. Bladed weapons were useless against stone and would only be damaged if used.
The first rock creature swung an arm at Hawkeye who ducked and lashed out with his weapon, wrapping the chain around his forearm. Holding the handle with both hands, he threw his whole weight to one side to drag it down. Instead, the arm came away,sending Hawkeye sprawling. Drachar leapt forward, ducking another swipe and retrieving the broken arm. He balanced himself and swung the makeshift club at the creatures leg. It connected and in an impressive explosion of rock fragments, both club and leg disintegrated. The creature tumbled over, crashing into the second creature which had already lost both arms to Varoni's battle-axe.
"Is everyone alright?" Hawkeye got to his feet again.
"I'm covered in rock dust!" Drachar complained, brushing ineffectually at the pale dust clinging to his armour.
The tunnel levelled out a little further on. "What's that noise?" Drachar held up his hand. In the distance they could hear a faint rumbling, hissing sound, getting louder as they progressed. The source soon became apparent. Ahead, the tunnel floor was split by a fissure over the stream gushed. Over the years, the water had eroded and widened the chasm until it was too far to comfortably jump.
"Well?" Crispin spoke quietly.
"Here, it's a rope." Varoni called from near the fissure on one side of the tunnel. Wedged into a cleft, an old frayed-looking rope hung down to just within their reach. Taking hold of it, she launched herself into the air and swung across the chasm.
"Oh joy!" Drachar groaned. "That rope does not look at all safe. Will it take the weight of our armour?"
"There's no way to reach it from this side." Varoni called over the noise of the waterfall. "I can't get back across!"
"We have missed something." Hawkeye stroked his chin. Stepping to the edge, he looked down into its depths. At his command, a small ball of incandescence jumped from his hand and floated down into the darkness. "Ah." he said, nodding.
"What is it, what did you see?" Crispin peered over he edge, booth light had gone out. Hawkeye was studying the wall near the rope. Reaching out, he pushed at a rock jutting out. It sank back into the wall with a grinding sound and from out of the darkness of the chasm rose a narrow stone platform to form a bridge across the fissure.
"Varoni look out!" Crispin called. Creeping up behind her were two ugly, squat creatures, both armed with swords. They seemed not to possess bodies - their legs and arms sprouting directly from the base of an oversize head. Varoni swung round in time to dodge one trust and parry the second with the shaft of her axe. Sinning on her heels, she swung the axe at arm's length and with a cry of triumph, sheared one of her attackers in two. In the meantime, Crispin had leapt across the bridge to deal with the second. It was only when Drachar brought the lantern across that they saw a hoard of similar creatures waiting for them further down the passage.
They all possessed large eyes, testifying to their subterranean existence. Hawkeye smiled coldly. He waved Drachar to his side and took the lantern from him.
"Shield yourselves." he said as Crispin dispatched the second creature. "Now!" he cried suddenly. The tunnel was lit by a fierce blinding light as Hawkeye used magic to magnify and concentrate the light from the lantern into the space before the creatures. There came a multitude of screams and cries as their sensitive eyes were blinded by the light.
"Hurry!" Hawkeye drew his sword and rushed them. Most were helpless, many were lying still, either unconscious or dead from shock. The knights and warrior chopped their way through the helpless creatures and came to another cavern, smaller then the one before and clear of stallagtites and columns. Leading off were five tunnels, each cloaked in darkness.
"Now where?" Crispin glanced back at the remaining creatures, still stumbling about, blind. Drachar moved to the nearest opening, letting the light into the tunnel. Hawkeye paused in the middle of the cavern.
Varoni, her battle-axe held before her, listened down the middle tunnel. "Listen:" she hissed. Far off, there came a rhythmic mumbling, the words lost in the echoes. She looked at Hawkeye. he shrugged.
"I get no sign from any one." he said. With Crispin bringing up the rear, they followed this new tunnel deeper into the mountains. The muttering grew nearer until the floor suddenly dropped away as they came to the end of the tunnel. It opened half way up the wall of another cavern, much like the first, with limestone columns rearing up into the blackness of a distant ceiling. Below, the floor was uneven and sloped away to their right. To their left, raised above the floor, stood an horrendous gargoyle, easily twice as tall as a man, covered with reddish scales between which grew tufts of coarse dark hair. Its large eyes were white and its gaping mouth was filled with row upon row of needle-like teeth. Its three fingered hands and feet were equipped with cruel claws.
"Demon!" Crispin gasped. The creature bellowed as it saw them, thrashing its arms in fury. Before it stood an ancient crone, thin stick-like arms raised in command, wild white hair matted and dirty. She was the source of the muttering, holding a glowing rock before her as she worshipped the demon. She stood on a wooden casket, bound with iron and locked by a large padlock.
"Woman cease your demon worship, banish this spawn of evil!" Hawkeye called out, his voice ringing with authority.
"Never!" the old hag screeched. "It will free me from this, my prison for all these years."
Hawkeye glance at Varoni. "There was some story of a Mage banishing one of his students some years ago. If I remember rightly, she stole some of his spells before she was ready and got herself into a lot of trouble. Could this be her?"
"Is there anything else you might have forgotten to tell us?" Drachar snapped.
"Why are you imprisoned here?" Hawkeye turned back to the old woman.
"The fear - He put the fear in the tunnel and the cavern, but that was before I found my little bauble." she lovingly stroked the glowing rock. "Hidden it was, deep down where none have been before, sitting on my box," she tapped her foot on the casket she stood on, "glowing to itself. It sang to me when I touched it and told me how it helped shape the world in the Beginning and how the Griffins abandoned it."
"The Agha Stone!" Hawkeye gasped, remembering the legends about the creation of Mardona.
"And then it sang to me and told me how to call my pets to help me escape." She turned around, the glow from the stone illuminating more of the cavern. There, row upon row of the squat creatures they met before waited, faces hungry and expectant.
"Goddess!" Varoni breathed. Hawkeye gripped his sword hilt, gazing steely-eye at the revolting army old woman had summoned.
"Now my children, out time has come - there is nothing to stop us!" she laughed maniacally.
"She is deranged: she does not realise the danger she is in. Should she release the Agha stone for a moment, her `pets' will be free and she'll be their first victim." Hawkeye whispered to the others. "Slamander! " he added suddenly, turning to his brother knights. Drachar nodded.
As one, they drew their swords and brought the tips together. Closing their eyes a pressure began to build up around them, growing denser until Hawkeye spoke one word in a language ancient when the world was young. A spear of fire burst from the sword tops, to lance down into the midst of the army. Screams of fear and agony were joined by the roar of the giant demon and the hiss of the creature summoned by the knights. There, burning, crushing and slaying the squat ugly creatures was a blazing Salamander - a fire elemental. The creatures shied away, blinded by the lizard's fire.
"No Varoni!" Hawkeye cried, but it was too late. Her aim was perfect and her dagger sank into the old woman's chest. With a scream of horror, she clutched at the hilt, dropping the Agha Stone.
The demon, released from the old woman's control, roared and thrashed its arms, bringing down some of the limestone pillars it its fury.
"Oh no!" Varoni gasped, realising what she had done.
"Quickly, we must destroy it before it escapes." Hawkeye moved out of the tunnel and onto the sloping ledge which led down into the cavern. The demon, its legs short in comparison with its body, waddled to meet him. The others followed, weapons drawn.
They reached the floor at the same time as Hawkeye met the demon, his sword singing through the air to parry the clawed hand swung at him. Varoni, making up for her earlier mistake drew first blood, her axe burying itself deep into the demon's left leg. The wide blade let her down though, as it stuck, dragging her within striking distance of the claws. Drachar was there though, and the clawed hand met with hard steel armour and a broadsword that cut deeply into the hand, almost shearing off a finger. The swing's momentum threw Drachar across the cavern to crash into a column, cracking it and bringing down a shower of rubble from the ceiling.
Crispin moved around to the back of the demon's short legs, hoping to hamstring it. The Demon's body was not built the same as a man's and the move did not succeed, except to hurt and enrage it more.
Varoni freed her axe and used it to good effect by removing one of the two remaining good fingers on the demon's left hand. Hawkeye thrust his sword into the demon's body, between its scales, releasing a stream of black ichor which splashed over his steel encased arms, stripping off the black to reveal bright steel underneath.
The Salamander was making short work of the ugly little creatures, gorging itself on their blood, revelling in its conquest over these spawn of darkness, another victory in the eternal battle between light and dark.
Screaming her battle cry, Varoni resumed her attack on the demon's leg, chopping at the same spot she had damaged before. Her blow was true and the demon bellowed again in fury and pain as she severed the leg, bringing it crashing down, rolling over in an attempt to crush her. Drachar gained his feet and joined them again, a few more dents in his armour.
Mercilessly, they chopped and hacked at the demon now helpless before them. It was less a fight, more butchery as the demon continued to attack them, even though it had lost a leg, an arm and most of the fingers of one hand. Finally though, Crispin's sword sank into the demon's head one last time and its struggles ceased.
"Is it dead?" Varoni's face had been burned by the demon's blood.
"A demon cannot be killed." Hawkeye leaned on a rock, catching his breath. "It has been driven out of this flesh."
"And this is what caused the problem?" Crispin picked up the still glowing stone.
"NO Crispin!" Hawkeye leapt to his feet, but it was to late, Crispin's cry of agony was cut short as the stone possessed him.
Hawkeye slid to a halt before his brother knight, but he face he saw bore little resemblance and held no friendship. With a clash of steel, their swords met,sending sparks into the darkness.
"Hawkeye..." Drachar cried.
"He is possessed." Hawkeye grunted as Crispin attacked again. Drachar was rooted to the spot, but Varoni was moving, her battle-axe swinging under Crispin's guard and into he joint of the breastplate and taces at his waist. Not even steel could halt the momentum of that blade and it sliced deeply, almost cutting his torso on two. Hawkeye cried out as his comrade fell, blood spurting from the gaping wound. The Agha Stone fell from his hand.
"Don't touch it!" Hawkeye warned the others. Crispin tried to rise, but life departed before he could move further and he sank back. Varoni knelt by his head and covered his unseeing eyes with her hand, closing them respectfully. The other two knights knelt either side and gave a silent prayer for their fallen comrade. Even the Salamander grew quiet as they mourned. A peppering of stones showered them.
Varoni glanced up into the darkness. "I don't think that ceiling will hold up much longer." she said.
"Good - it will bury that evil stone!" Drachar spat.
"We must get out first," Hawkeye reminded him, "and take Crispin with us." he glanced over at the locked casket by the old woman's body. As Varoni retrieved her dagger, he smashed the lock with the pommel of his sword. Inside was a scroll, bound by two red leather cords.
"Its blank." Varoni glanced over his shoulder at it.
"No, look, there are some characters here." He pointed without touching the scroll. She frowned at him.
"I can't see anything." she said. Hawkeye cocked an eyebrow. Closing the casket with the scroll still inside, he tucked it under his arm.
The Salamander roared as they lifted Crispin. "Wait, O Lord of Fire," said Hawkeye, "let us escape before you bring the roof down." The Salamander bowed its long neck, a crest of flame leaping down its back.
They scrambled up to the tunnel, carrying their fallen comrade. Safe in the tunnel, they heard the Salamander roar again, followed by the earth-shattering concussion as the roof of the cavern collapsed, the shock throwing them off their feet.
"May the goddess protect you always." Hawkeye placed the last stone over the grave mound they had built for Crispin, and wedged their companion's sword into it, standing as a monument in his honour.
Rob wiped away his tears and hung Crispin's favourite azure surcoat from the sword. Together, they returned to their horses, tethered a little further down the valley.
"Why did you bring along that bow?" Drachar asked, nodding at the wooden casket resting before Hawkeye on his saddle.
"I believe the Mages will be interested in it. I saw only part of a spell, yet neither of you could see anything on the scroll."
"Farewell Crispin." Varoni turned back, raising her fist in salute. They rode on, a silence falling between them.
Behind them, unseen, a shimmering translucent figure stood by the grave, a figure clad in black armour.
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