It’s been a while since we heard from the Winchesters. We now return you to another thrilling adventure in Northumbria!
Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue have been in the region around Blackwater Lake for months now, searching for Sir Garrett’s lost ancestral estate, named Falconridge, which once lay somewhere near the shores of the lake. After several adventures and misadventures, the Winchester party is now split into several groups. Cousin Modrak, Maggie, and Myles the Minstrel have taken ship southwards to the bustling city of Yarrvik, where they will meet with Myles’ rather wealthy merchant family, perhaps to cement a business relationship between his family and House Winchester. Meanwhile, Brother Lambert remained at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Blackwater Keep to serve the curate of that shrine, Father Godfrey. In his spare time, he continued to browse through the small library there, looking for any old records on Falconridge. Master Magnus remained in the village, lodging at the Welcome Wench Inn and gathering any rumors that he could find on Falconridge. Yeoman Guilliman remained with him to keep the old man safe. The young elfin warrior-mage, Talvion Cormallen, was in the forest near the ruined Temple of Pholtus, which the party recently explored. Tal was waiting for the Winchesters’ impending return, keeping an eye on the temple complex and noting any enemy movements thereabouts. The Winchesters were confident that his elfin stealth would enable him to avoid detection and capture. The rest of the Winchesters and their new unlikely allies, about two-dozen pilgrims of Pholtus, were to advance on the abandoned temple in force. The Winchesters, after reuniting with Talvion, would serve as the advanced guard that would lie in wait, hoping to flank the evil forces that would certainly attack the pilgrims of Pholtus, who formed the main body.
From the DM
This encounter grew from the fact that I, as DM, was not fully prepared for the group to explore the temple further. Scrambling for time, I thought of a fun way to slow their progress—one that they would not mind. The previous session had been largely housekeeping so I thought to get started this time with combat. I also used the opportunity to introduce the PCs to the evil cult that has been operating behind the scenes. Thus far, they had only run into the goblyn hordes, controlled by the cult. To make the most of an otherwise routine trip, I also threw in a new NPC group that I wanted to introduce. That would allow them to role-play, and it would also eat time.
Cast of Characters
Sir Garrett of Winchester: Paladin, Head of House Winchester
Lady Alinachka: Magic-user, Garrett’s widowed sister-in-law
Booj: Alinachka’s faithful hound (a Frangian shepherd)
Brother Rolf: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, Garrett’s younger brother
Cousin Modrak: Thief, Garrett’s distant cousin
Odo: Fighter, Garrett’s friend, ward of the Winchester family
Maggie: Fighter, Odo’s sister, ward of the Winchester family
Master Magnus: Illusionist, Garrett’s butler/steward
Yeoman Guilliman: Ranger, longtime-servant of the family
Talvion Cormallen: Elfin Fighter-Magic User, friend to Sir Garrett and author of the Compendium
Master Gimlet: Fighter, dwarven friend to Sir Garrett
Brother Lambert: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, ally of Sir Garrett
Hugh Redoak: NPC ranger, hireling to the party
Myles the Minstrel: NPC bard, who is seeking stories to tell
Squire Dagis: Fighter, new squire to Sir Garrett
Dagis shifted his weight in the saddle, trying in vain to vanquish the ache in his back. He had just become accustomed to the new chain shirt and leggings that Lord Garrett had purchased for him, but riding on horseback in them for seven hours was still a challenge. Despite his discomfort, the young squire was excited. Never before had he been so well armed or armored. Only recently had he found acceptance and purpose with the small Winchester retinue. Yet now he felt as if he could actually contribute, rather than merely run errands and hold torches. He had spent the morning sharpening and oiling the longsword that now hung at his side. The chain shirt and the conical iron helmet atop his head gave him a sense of invincibility, while the steady gait and rippling muscles of his chestnut Sheffield made him feel like royalty. He knew that his steed was simply a riding horse, but for one that had never had a horse, the experience was regal.
The retinue wound its way northwards in single-file, following the overgrown path that locals called the ‘west road.’ According to Brother Lambert’s map, the road ran through the hills for the full length of Blackwater Lake. It had snowed for much of the morning, blanketing the dense forest in a thin layer of snow and ice. In subsequent hours, the distant sun had warmed the air a bit, causing the snow to start melting off the trees. Yet, the sun now sat low in the western sky, barely visible behind a shroud of gray clouds. Shadows lengthened as the distant hilltops began to block the fading rays of sunlight. The autumn air grew chill once again, and Dagis saw his own breath when he coughed. His mind raced, however, and kept his mind off of the cold. Looking to catch up to Odo, he spurred his horse lightly, causing it to jolt forward. Dagis grabbed the reins tightly to maintain his balance as he came beside Odo. The handsome, muscular warrior peered over at him, just as Dagis’ horse threw its head back and jerked at the reins.
“Having trouble, young one?” Odo asked with a smile.
Dagis struggled to keep his balance as he answered, “Somewhat. My back hurts and my legs are numb.”
Odo grinned broadly but then gave a reassuring smile, saying, “Keep your heels down when you ride—not too much, but flat. Doing otherwise throws off your balance and annoys the horse. Your legs will not hurt next time.”
Their horses split apart for a moment to sidestep a stout white birch, which still had a few orange and cherry-red leaves poking out from beneath the covering of snow. Dagis spurred his mount lightly again to rejoin Odo, asking, “Will we make camp soon?”
Odo guided his steed over several, thick, snow-covered pine branches, which must have fallen off during a recent storm. Now in front of the young squire, he called over his shoulder, “We shall soon see, it seems.”
The rhythmic crunch of horses’ hooves on the icy ground soon stopped, for the retinue had halted up ahead, and Sir Garrett and Yeoman Ragnar were now poring over the rolled parchment of Brother Lambert’s map. Dagis nudged his horse as close as he could to the pair, eager to hear their plans. Many of the others took the opportunity to adjust their stirrups, to drink from their wineskins, or to pull a handful of raisins or cheese from their food sacks.
Dagis heard Sir Garrett’s voice first, saying, “I do not wish to make camp in this gloomy forest. Great evil lurks hereabouts and will no doubt descend on us as we sleep.”
Holding the map, Ragnar responded in his gruff voice, “The horses cannot push on for another four hours, which is how long it will take to get to the temple. It will be well past dark by then. Worse, the moon is new and the sky overcast so we shall have no light.”
Frustrated, Lord Winchester quipped, “We cannot be more than five miles away, perhaps four as the crow flies. As for light, we shall have some from the lesser moon, which is better than nothing.”
Lady Alinachka, usually reserved and quiet, spoke up suddenly, her flat voice grim and dour, saying, “Entropa is now gibbous, which bodes poorly for us. Her chaotic influence waxes strong. Foolish is all spell casting on this night.”
Brother Rolf muttered, “With respect, my lady, the dark moon does not hinder priests of the Saint. You must be wary, but His blessings remain with us.”
With no trace of emotion, Lady Winchester replied, “It is my beloved husband who watches over us, brother.”
Dagis’ eyes fell to the eerie staff upon which she leaned. Carved from a lightning-blasted oak bough, it was six feet in length, the top foot covered with pure silver. Resting atop the staff was the silver-covered human skull of her late husband, Sir Edward of Winchester, eldest sibling to Sir Garrett and Brother Rolf. The elegant eastern woman may indeed be crazy, as all suspect, thought Dagis, but she clearly believes in all that she does, especially that concerning her late husband. She firmly believes that he watches over us, speaking to her in dreams. It was his spirit that had commanded her to fashion that staff, or so she claims.
Dagis returned his attention to the debate. Ragnar, his green eyes always burning with an intense look, continued to press his case, saying, “As you well know, this ‘road’ is no road. We push through trackless forest on uneven, rocky ground. Worse, leaves and snow conceal all manner of pitfalls. You know this. The dark moon will not help us either. It is evil.”
At this, one of the two armored strangers that had recently joined them spoke up. He nudged his horse closer and addressed Lord Winchester, saying, “My Lord, just south of Fosters Ridge, there is a hollow in the hillside. It lies just before the gorge. It would make a fine camping spot, just off the road. My brothers have used it before.”
The frustration was plain on Sir Garrett’s face, but he finally muttered, “So be it. Make for the hollow.”
The group set off again, and Dagis spurred his horse into line just behind one of the strangers. Though all seemed as it should with the two armored sergeants, Dagis was slow to trust anyone. As they continued north, his mind recalled the encounter on the road just two hours earlier.
Yeoman Ragnar had called the column to a halt, having spotted strangers approaching on horseback down the tree-littered path, perhaps one hundred yards away. As the figures rounded a bend and slowly came into view, Dagis counted nine horsemen, all wearing chain and armed with a combination of swords, maces, and lances. His hand on the hilt of his sword, he thought to himself, Perhaps a Baronial patrol? No, the livery is missing. Brigands? No—too well armed.
Dagis saw that an elderly balding knight with a gray beard led the strangers. The two groups exchanged greetings on the road, and though none made a threatening move, Dagis noticed that every stranger had a hand on a weapon hilt, and each kept a shield in hand. He also noted the silence of the strangers, each waiting patiently as the old knight spoke. Eventually Brother Rolf spotted the equal-armed silver cross on several of the strangers’ cloaks. At that, Rolf urged his mount forward so that all could see the same cross adorning the left shoulder of his green woolen mantle. He spoke aloud to the group, saying, “Peace to you. I am Brother Rolf of House Winchester, priest of Saint Cuthbert and brother of the Crosier.”
The elderly knight nodded slowly with respect, followed by several of his companions, and said in return, “I am Sir Aubrey of Chalons, elected leader of this small band of Cuthbertine pilgrims. We have come from the region around Yarrvik. It was there that the great preacher, Father Bernard, charged us with forming a military-religious order to quest for the famed Mace of St. Cuthbert. Dozens of rumors and eyewitness reports suggest that the Saint has placed his sacred Mace near Blackwater Lake. If so, it must be for our use against the horde of evil that has overrun this region. We aim to find it.”
Unimpressed, Yeoman Ragnar asked simply, “Have you a name for your war band?”
The elderly knight hesitated, and then said, “We have not yet agreed on a name, though many have dubbed us the Iron Brothers of the Saint. Some of my fellows like the sound of that, though it matters not to me.”
Ragnar simply grunted, but Brother Rolf spurred his horse even closer and said, “A worthy cause indeed. How many are you? Is this your entire company?”
Sir Aubrey’s face fell somewhat as he answered, saying, “We were two-dozen when we left Yarrvik several weeks ago. However, we encountered throngs of brigands and goblyns on the road north, and we lost several brothers, including Father Bernard’s nephew, my talented chaplain. I fear that we nine are all that remain.”
Brother Rolf nodded, saying, “We have run into many such creatures ourselves. Have you a home in these parts?”
Sir Aubrey shook his head slowly, saying, “Father Bernard commanded us to find a clerical sponsor in this region to serve as guide and mentor. We first met Father Talbot in the temple at Lakesend, but he gave us a lukewarm reception. He seems more interested in a vendetta against the curate of the shrine at Blackwater Keep, Father Godfrey, than in our sacred quest. Father Godfrey was more supportive, however. He agreed to give formal recognition to our order, but only after our numbers grow to include one chaplain, three knights, and twelve sergeants, discounting squires. Few in Lakesend seemed interested, but I may be partly to blame for this. I am a poor speaker compared to our late chaplain. Lacking recruits, we did not stay long at the Keep. Instead, we spent the last two weeks exploring the road north of Lakesend, searching for the Mace.”
Sir Garrett’s horse ambled forward a few steps, and Lord Winchester sat proudly in the saddle. With a magnanimous gesture, he addressed the assembled company, “Brothers, I laud your quest and would join it, but at present, I, along with my retinue, am locked in mortal combat with a terrible evil that dwells in an abandoned temple nearby. I call upon your aid, and afterwards I will return the favor. Join me now, and I will likely join you later, for I will be settling in this region, and an armed brotherhood of St. Cuthbert is to my liking.”
The old knight’s face visibly brightened, as did those of many of his companions, but he answered, “It warms our hearts to hear that you may join us, but we must find the Mace before we do anything else. Also, my brothers are exhausted from the past two weeks, and we must return to the Keep for rest and resupply.”
At this remark, Odo could not contain himself and mumbled, “I smell fear in this lot. They would likely be of little use anyway.”
A few of the strangers seemed to hear him, but before they could respond, Sir Garrett spoke again, saying, “The evil in the temple is from another world, and surely you would not suffer it to live. Aid me now in my time of need, and I will help you search for the sacred Mace.”
Several of the strangers craned their necks to look at Sir Aubrey, who sighed and said, “I envy your enthusiasm, young lord, for I too once had it in my youth. Yet, the Mace must remain our priority. In fact, I urge you to join us, for, once the Mace lies in our possession, you would certainly be able to vanquish the evil in the temple.”
A surge of frustration welled up in the young knight, and he hastily replied, “I will not soon forget your failure to aid me! My need is real, and the lives of many likely hang on our success or failure. The terror in the temple tower threatens to consume this entire countryside! We cannot wait weeks or months to confront it!”
Odo, encouraged by his master’s temper, added, “At least we dare to face it. What use is a military order that will not fight?”
At this, Sir Aubrey’s face grew dark and his voice deeper. He leaned forward in the saddle, replying, “Make no hollow boasts to me, boy. I have seen more battles than you have winters. The scars on my body speak for my bravery, and several of companions can say the same. If the terror of which you speak is so horrible, then why have you failed to vanquish it before now? Have you even seen it?”
Brother Rolf began to speak, “Yes, some of our party beheld it, and we withdrew to find…”
Looking at Odo, Sir Aubrey spoke over the priest, his own ire rising, “You withdrew. You withdrew, and you accuse us of cowardice?” The old man visibly restrained himself as he continued. He looked back again at Sir Garrett and Brother Rolf, saying, “I have no doubt that you withdrew with good cause. If the creature is as terrible as you suggest, then I submit that no feeble weapons of ours will harm the creature. The rumors of the Mace must be true; there are too many for them all to be false. If the Saint truly set his Mace in these parts, it is for a divine purpose. Can you think of any more sensible than the defeat of that evil in the temple? You say that it threatens to overtake the entire countryside, and I doubt you not. Yet, it has not done so yet, and it has likely been lurking or growing unseen for countless centuries. Will another week or two matter? I urge you—help us to find the Mace. We would welcome your strength.”
Seeing the goodness in the old man, and recognizing his own impatience, Lord Winchester calmed himself and finally said, “Sir Aubrey, I salute your companions. I have great interest in your quest and may indeed decide to join you in the future. I have made myself vassal to Lord Balin Blackwater, and I will soon rule a portion of these lands. I could offer your group much, and I would have you as friends and allies. However wise your counsel, I cannot ignore the thing in the tower. I have pledged myself to its destruction. Be on your way with our blessings. If we do not perish in the coming days, we hope to break bread with you and to discuss an alliance.”
At this, Yeoman Ragnar unslung his large, richly engraved drinking horn and stepped forward, saying, “We shall toast our friendship by drinking from Kultdriker.” With that, the fiery Varangian passed his horn to the elderly knight, who nodded and took a sip. The strangers and the Winchesters passed around the horn, each taking a sip in turn. However, as the last few did so, some of Sir Aubrey’s companions began whispering to each other and to him. Ragnar finally retrieved his horn, and he then focused on the strangers, anxious to know what they were saying. Ragnar was confused, for several of the men were speaking in the Frangian High Tongue, the dialect known only to nobles of several generations. Odo too watched the strangers carefully, his hand on his sword hilt, just in case. Dagis, whose horse was next to Odo’s, followed suit.
The old knight then spoke aloud to all, saying, “As a sign of faith between us, we shall dispatch two of our brothers to aid you in your immediate quest. Sergeant Carloman and Sergeant Marcel shall join you, if you would have them. The rest of us shall retire to Blackwater Keep, for Father Godfrey agreed to house us temporarily in a tower by his shrine.”
This brought a spontaneous cheer from the assembled crowd. The two sergeants bade their companions a farewell. Dagis took the opportunity to get a careful look at the two strangers that would join them. Both were taller than he, perhaps six feet or more. Both had dirty blond hair, much like his. Each wore a chain shirt, chain leggings, and conical iron helmet with an iron nasal, much like his. Each rode a Sheffield palfrey, and each bore a heater shield, longsword, mace, and dagger. The similarities gave the young squire great pride, for these appeared to be accomplished warriors, and yet he was outfitted as well as they.
The distant peal of church bells snapped Dagis’ attention back to the present. Evening prayers in the village, he surmised. He stood in the stirrups and peered westward, trying to find any hint of the setting sun. A stand of old, vine-entangled elm trees, still sporting much of their golden foliage, despite the early blanket of snow, lined the ridge to the left of the path. The sun was nowhere in sight, and a cold breeze now blew from the north. A pale shroud of silver-gray clouds stretched across much of the sky, but a cluster of lead-gray clouds seemed poised atop of the western hills, looking much like an avalanche descending from the heavens. A gust of wind buffeted Dagis’ face, numbing it. A second gust sent icy, unseen tendrils down his neck, causing a shiver to run down his spine. Impatient, the young squire peered at the line of horsemen ahead, wondering how much further they had to ride. Together, they were ten palfreys and one packhorse, though he could see only two or three through the snow-covered bushes, rocky outcrops, and tangled pine branches.
Dagis spurred his mare lightly, trying to keep his heels level. He brought his palfrey beside that of Ragnar, hoping to get an idea of their location, but the yeoman ignored him, looking above him and to the left. As Dagis began to speak, Ragnar growled, “Silence,” and hastily unstrapped his longbow from his saddle. Dagis craned his neck and grabbed for his sword, ready for an ambush. As Ragnar readied an arrow and slid off the side of his mare, Dagis finally spotted the silhouette of a four-point buck, standing silently about twenty yards above them.
“Leave it be, woodsman,” came a voice from behind them. It was the tired voice of one of the sergeants, who rode behind Ragnar. Looking fatigued and bored, he continued, “We have no time to give chase or to skin the beast.”
Ragnar gave the sergeant a hot look, but the sergeant only added, “I doubt not your ability, but why kill it if not for the meat?”
“Target practice,” spat the Varangian with an edge in his voice, his eyes narrowing at the sergeant. Yet, he bounded back atop his mount and returned the arrow to his quiver.
With the sun lost behind the western hills and the daylight fading fast, the group quickly found the hollow beneath Foster’s Ridge and began making camp. Ragnar had a fire going in just a few minutes, and Hugh set out to gather firewood. Yet, Dagis shivered in the cold and wrapped his wool cloak about him, wishing that they had brought warmer clothing.
Lord Winchester had asked him to assist Odo, and together they began tying the horses to a rope line. Odo shivered audibly, muttering, “Damn, it grows cold! Winter comes early, it seems.”
“Would we have thought of that before setting out,” the squire grumbled, his numb fingers groping at the hempen rope. “We need furs,” he continued, “They sell for cheap enough in these parts. Maybe you could speak with Sir Garrett about that?”
“Lord Winchester to you, whelp,” spat Odo, his teeth still chattering. “When you have known him for as long as I, then you may call him… well… Lord Winchester.”
Dagis laughed as they secured the last of the horses. “Maybe, with the horses arranged as they are, they will break the wind and keep it off of us,” he offered.
Odo, finishing the last knot, replied curtly, “Or they will freeze to death in the night. That seems more likely.”
Within the hour, the group lay huddled close to a roaring campfire. Hugh had a sizable woodpile stacked up, and the horses were fed. The fire blazed, forcing the darkness to withdraw a few yards, but the wood popped and hissed, giving off a great deal of smoke, for all of the available wood was wet. Dagis had retrieved the backpacks filled with rations, and had brought to each member of the retinue a linen haversack, filled with some combination of hard yellow cheese, raisins, apples, thrice-baked bread, walnuts, and peppered sausage. Gimlet passed out skins of mead, while Ragnar drank his own honey mead from Kultdriker, and Gimlet sat down, quite content, with a mug and a small keg of apple brandy. The aroma of pine needles hung heavily in the air, mingling with the smell of burning wood and pinecones. Mercifully, the icy breeze died down after a time, and the forest grew uncannily quiet.
Huddled in his woolen cloak and using his backpack as a pillow, Dagis shivered, turned to Odo, and asked “Is it always this quiet in the forest?”
Pulling his cloak over his head as if to escape the squire, Odo replied, “Do you ever tire of questions? Go to sleep. You have next watch.”
Most of the others were already lying down, wrapped in their cloaks. Some were asleep. Lady Alinachka slept quietly, with her reliquary staff gripped tight in her hands and Booj curled up near her feet. Master Gimlet snored noisily in a brandy-induced slumber. The two sergeants lay quietly, their swords resting on their chests. Lord Winchester and Brother Rolf were on first watch.
Uncomfortable, Dagis sat up, fished around with numb fingers, and finally found a pinecone that had been lodged in his side. Tossing it toward the fire, he noticed that Ragnar was just laying his head down, only a few yards away. Dagis ventured a question, asking aloud, “Is the forest always this quiet, Master Ragnar?”
The man’s piercing green eyes fixed on the young squire, but he said nothing at first. He sat quietly for a moment, and then he answered in a rather gentle voice, saying, “The cold kills the insects that usually sing at night. The birds and other rodents that scurry about are sleeping in their dens. The heavy snow keeps the leaves from rustling in the wind. Go to sleep.”
The squire rolled over and drifted off to sleep, but Ragnar lay still, listening to the sounds of the night. He was correct, of course. Snow always brought an eerie stillness. Still, something bothered him. He peered up through the towering walnut trees and spruces, looking for patches of night sky. No starlight penetrated the pall of clouds, and without the greater moon, the night’s darkness was near total. Outside the flickering orange glow of the campfire, the forest was an ocean of blackness. Nothing is amiss, he told himself, as he gritted his teeth against the cold.
Lord Winchester, still in his plate harness and black woolen cloak, walked casually through the camp. The fire still blazed, and most of the retinue was abed. He saw that Ragnar sat awake against the trunk of an old walnut tree, sharpening his sword with a whetstone. The rhythmic grinding drew the young knight to the woodsman.
“Get some sleep,” ordered Lord Winchester, “for who knows when we shall have this luxury again.”
Ragnar pocketed the whetstone and sheathed his blade, but his fierce eyes then locked on those of the knight. “Listen,” he bade.
For a moment, the two waited in silence, one sitting and one standing. The fire popped and hissed, but all else was calm.
“I hear nothing,” said Lord Winchester.
“Something is not right. Evil is afoot. Mark my words,” muttered Ragnar.
“I shall keep a close watch. Rest now,” urged the knight.
Lord Winchester reached down and retrieved his steel bascinet, pulling it on and securing the chinstrap. The chain aventail fell about his shoulders with hardly a sound. His iron-rimmed, wooden, heater shield stood propped up near the fire, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice. Without a sound, Sir Garrett bent down and slid the shield onto his forearm. Standing up, he pulled at the handle of his ancient dwarven longsword, pulling it just an inch from the scabbard. Just in case, he thought. The ranger was seldom wrong.
The Frangian knight wound his way around the sleeping bodies of his companions, moving away from the snapping campfire so he could better see his brother. Rolf had earlier walked off to the south, but Sir Garrett’s eyes were still adjusting to the gloom. Only the snow-covered ground was easily visible outside the flickering firelight, and that only up to ten yards or so. In the darkness, the knight heard his fully armored brother ambling about. His steps, crunching through the crusty ice on the ground, were slow and steady. Nothing is amiss, the knight thought, but why does something feel wrong? He turned back toward the north and strode a few paces into the gloom, wondering if his eyes would adjust enough for him to see. About twenty paces beyond the fire, he halted and stared down at the snowy ground. No footprints marred the virgin snow. Slowly he looked up, allowing his eyes to acclimate to the blackness of the trees. Then he spotted a long, pale blob, or rather many small pale shapes, perhaps another twenty paces away. Thinking that his eyes deceived him, he waited patiently, but his grip on his sword tightened ever so slightly. Then the image became a touch clearer, and goose bumps ran down his neck and back. Uttering a grunt of surprise, Lord Winchester stumbled backwards on the icy ground, drawing his sword in the process. His mind raced to process what his eyes beheld.
The pale circles slowly became clear—they were human-sized faces that seemed to hover in the black forest. They seemed to be ghosts, staring at him from the darkness. His head whipped left and right, spying pale faces everywhere between the trees. There were a dozen—no, two dozen off to the left. Another dozen or two stood to the right. They encircled the northern half of the camp, standing just outside the weak light of the campfire. As he turned and found his voice, he noticed that the faces had bodies, or so it seemed, clad in dark voluminous robes and hoods.
“To arms! To arms! We are surrounded! Up, Winchester! To your feet!” he shouted assertively.
At the southern edge of the camp, Brother Rolf had just finished relieving himself behind a large moss-covered oak tree. Hearing his brother’s cries, he fumbled with his breeches and uttered a muffled curse beneath his breath. Grabbing for his mace, which lay in the crook of a tree, he spotted a ghostly-looking assembly of pale-faced figures, encircling the southern end of the camp. His mind racing, he whirled and turned to join his brother, but in his haste he slipped on the icy ground. He hit the ground hard but bounced up immediately and continued to plow through the snow-covered bushes towards the firelight. He found his voice after a few steps, yelling, “Garrett! To the south as well! There are many…” He knew not how to finish his warning, which trailed off in the darkness.
Lord Winchester’s cries finally caused the huddled figures on the ground to scurry like rats in a newly lighted room. Fortunately, the companions had gone to bed in full armor, partially to keep warm. Ragnar now sprang to his feet, grabbing his bow and quiver instinctively. Hugh rolled away from his blankets and came to his feet with a wickedly curved Frangian axe in each hand. Master Gimlet awoke with a start, grabbing for his hammer, but he tripped over the cask of apple-brandy and sprawled flat on his face. Dagis and Odo scrambled to their feet in haste, fumbling for their shields and swords. Lady Alinachka was the last to awaken, for she had been in a deep sleep. The words of her late husband still echoed faintly in her mind, but with each passing second they grew more distant. For a moment, she willed herself back to sleep and shut her eyes tight, but Booj’s growls forced her to abandon her effort.
Dagis stumbled to Sir Garrett’s side, with Hugh just behind him. Failing to keep his voice steady, the squire blurted, “What are they, m’ Lord? What do we do?”
At Dagis’ side, Hugh was first to address the ghostly assembly, shouting, “Who are you and what do you want?”
No answer came from the darkness. Dagis’ eyes darted left and right, trying desperately to discern what now faced them. The figures were eerily still and silent. The outlines of robes were there. In the poor light, it was impossible to be certain, but he swore that their bodies were real—not some spectral image. His hand flexed instinctively on the grip of his sword. Can this blade even harm them? he pondered anxiously.
Dagis looked frantically about, trying to spot the various members of the retinue. The two brother-sergeants were armed and ready for battle. Booj was growling fiercely, his ears flattened against his head. Lady Alinachka stood a few feet away… with her eyes closed, much to the squire’s astonishment. What in the Nine Hells is she about? What a time to nap! he thought with alarm.
“M’Lord! M’lord, what shall we do?” he shouted, eager for the knight to speak. Yet, Lord Winchester had bowed his head and stretched out his sword arm, concentrating on the blackness before him.
The horses began to stomp and to whinny loudly with fear. Then the menacing assembly, which seemed to ring the entire camp, crept forward toward the retinue, stepping thrice in perfect unison. The movement was so unnatural that it seemed impossible, and it made almost no noise. The sight was enough to set off Booj, who began barking incessantly, his ears still flat against his head.
Dagis felt his heartbeat pounding in his chest and in his temples, and he noticed his breath in the dim flickering light. His eyes were glued on his knight, who still stood with his gauntleted hand outstretched. The young squire could not stand the silence anymore. Turning to Hugh, his voice cracking, he whined, “For the love of the Saint, why does he wait?”
The gloomy assembly of robed figures slid forth another three steps, again moving in lockstep. Yeoman Ragnar, standing to the south with Rolf, Odo, and Gimlet, could wait no longer. The ranger sprinted back to the crackling campfire, grabbing two torches from a backpack on the ground. He thrust them into the fire, and they blazed forth. Immediately, he turned and ran back to the south, tossing one hissing torch to his left and another to his right. They glowed in the darkness, each pushing back the gloom about ten yards. The area of firelight grew larger, and the black-robed company stood just at its edge.
Lady Alinachka’s eyes snapped open, as she stammered, “In his name… there will be light!” She pushed herself forward toward Sir Garrett, her gray woolen robe getting caught on gnarled branches as she passed. Her skull-topped reliquary staff gripped in both hands, she stood just behind Lord Winchester and shouted aloud, “In the name of Edward of Winchester, be away foul creatures of darkness!”
Dagis’s head snapped about to see if her words had any effect on the assembly, but the company only moved forward once again, three steps in unison, moving into the dancing firelight. Sir Garrett finally spoke, as he grabbed his sword once again, saying, “Whatever they are, they are evil! I sense it in my bones. Prepare for battle! Prepare for battle!” With that, he muttered a harsh guttural phrase, and his ancient dwarven blade erupted into flame.
To the south, Ragnar nocked an arrow and let it fly at a robed figure on the end of the approaching line. The dark figured topped backwards, but with nary a sound. The Varangian thought he heard a muffled grunt, but the shrieking of the horses and the staccato barking of the hound made it impossible to tell. Still, seeing the figure fall, he shouted, “They are flesh and blood! Arrows strike home!”
Dagis edged closer to his knight, who clapped his pig-face visor down and raised his sword and shield to guard position. The squire readied himself to pounce, shuffling his feet to find firm footing on the rocky, snow-dusted ground. Then, a strange phenomenon caused all in the retinue to pause and to gape about. It was subtle, but unmistakable. The night was already black, with little starlight or moonlight worth mentioning. Yet, the canopy above them grew even darker, and every trace of light from above blinked out, as if suddenly covered with a giant cloak. The only light remaining came from the campfire and the two sputtering torches on the ground to the south. The gnarled trees, which had been barely visible behind the robed figures, now melted into a virtual wall of blackness on all sides. Even the orange glow of the campfire seemed to fade, as did the torches and Sir Garrett’s sword. Visibility shrank to a mere ten feet.
At this, the horses went mad. Though Dagis could not see them, he could hear them shrieking and stomping, crazed with fear. Hugh, knocked sidewise by a terrified mare, cried aloud, “The horses shall trample us, m’Lord!”
Lord Winchester barked, “Cut them loose, Dagis! Cut them loose!”
Lady Alinachka, undeterred by her previous failure, raised her staff again in two hands, crying aloud, “Sir Edward of Winchester is present, pawns of evil! Know this and despair! I bring forth light in his name!”
A frenzied mare reared up and suddenly turned, seeming to appear out of nowhere, knocking Dagis to the ground like a sack of turnips. He covered his face with his shield, and the horses’ hooves pounded the ground just inches away. He cried out involuntarily. Just then, the robed company crept forward again, three steps in unison. Again, they moved just to the edge of the now-diminished firelight.
Seeing the slow retreat of the light, Lord Winchester called out in a very slow, deep voice, “To me, Winchester. Rally to me. Withdraw towards the fire.”
To the south, Brother Rolf sprang into action, raising his flanged mace high above his head and shouting, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined!”
Over the barking and the horses’ cries, Dagis barely heard the priest quoting Scripture, but the sudden burst of golden-white light that bathed the entire campsite nearly blinded him. All shielded their eyes for a moment, but Dagis scrambled to his feet and then gazed up immediately, looking for an effect on the approaching figures. “Please be gone. Please be gone,” he muttered to himself. The figures stood just within the light, their black robes now visible to all. They appeared to be men—pale-faced men in robes and hoods. They looked almost sickly, but it all transpired so quickly that Dagis had no time to register further detail. Most importantly, the figures moved no further.
“They have stopped!” cried Hugh.
“Be gone, demon spawn!” commanded Sir Garrett.
Brother Rolf cried triumphantly, “The Saint is not cowed by darkness! The dark moon has no power in his presence!”
The robed figures barely moved, but Dagis noticed that several gnarled clubs slipped from beneath their loose robes and into the hands of the figures. Bony fingers clasped them tight. Here they come, thought Dagis, feeling the adrenaline surge through his limbs.
Hugh, an axe in each hand, looked side to side nervously, asking in a low voice through his teeth, “They can be on us in a heartbeat. Why do they tarry?”
Sir Garrett answered confidently, “They are powerless in the light. They fear the light!”
Still exuberant, Brother Rolf cried, “They shall fear even more.” Waving his mace about his head, he quoted Scripture once again, yelling, “The Saint shall rain blessings upon our heads, and all the creatures of darkness on the earth and in the depths below it shall fear him!”
Dagis’ heart leaped, and confidence washed over him like a warm blanket. Daylight, cold steel, and the blessings of the Saint would vanquish these foes! Yet the light was almost blinding, and he looked away for a few seconds, fixing his gaze on one of the torches, which lay on the ground some twenty paces away. To his consternation, Dagis watched it slowly sputter and then extinguish. No one seemed to notice, for the golden-white radiance still bathed the area. His eyes shot to the other torch, also on the ground, but it too died just as he glanced at it. This is bad, he mused to himself, as a wave of fear rose in his chest. A few seconds passed, and then the golden-white light vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.
The campsite plunged into near darkness once again, seeming deeper this time because all eyes had just adjusted to the brightness.
To the south, unable to see, Ragnar spat, “Demon dogs!” Dropping his bow and quiver, he ran backwards three paces and grabbed his bastard sword, which leaned against a thick tree. Without stopping, he doubled back again, heading straight for the robed figure on the end of the approaching line. He brought his blade upward in a deadly arc, striking the figure in the side of the neck and dropping it.
With that, the robed figures rushed at the retinue, streaming through the trees and bushes like black waves. Suddenly, they were everywhere. Dagis felt clubs raining down upon him, striking his helmet, his shoulders, his chest, and his hip. Worse, pale bony hands clawed at his torso and arms, trying to pull him down to the ground. The squire threw himself backwards to evade their onrush. He tripped, landed hard on the ground, and then scrambled to regain his feet. The frenzied horses finally broke loose. Dagis screamed as large black shapes thundered all about him, churning up the icy ground. He tried to rise, but something knocked him flat, and then a horse’s hoof came down like hammer on his chest, knocking the wind from him. Pain shot through his chest, and his lungs ached as he gasped for air.
Sir Garrett was awash in robed figures, his right hand held high, gripping his fiery sword. He brought the ancient dwarven blade down like a trip hammer, crushing figures right and left. Yet, still they came, showering him with blows. His plate harness deflected them all, but countless hands threatened to pull him to the icy ground.
Just feet away, Hugh let out a cry as rearing horses knocked him down. He crashed into the pile of firewood that he had stacked up earlier, sending boughs flying.
The two brother-sergeants, standing side by side near Lord Winchester, hacked at the figures before them. The force of the onrush lifted the sergeants off the ground and hurled them back, but they kept their feet, slashing savagely at the dark figures.
Lord Winchester thrashed about, trying to cast off the many hands that pulled at his legs, knees, arms, and shield. Thrown off balance, he stumbled backwards into the fire, kicking aside burning logs and sending a cascade of embers into the air. Thereafter, the darkness continued to grow, and even the campfire seemed dim. Shadows lengthened, seeming to emerge from the forest, threatening to engulf them all. Visibility was all but gone. Sound and feel were all that remained.
Individual voices were lost in a cacophony of thundering hooves, shrieking horses, Booj’s barking, muffled cries, and angry shouts. Dagis was throttled, bumped, and struck on all sides. Air was just returning to his lungs, but he was wholly defensive. Many hands grasped at him in the blackness, and he tried in vain to scream.
Then, amidst the chaos, the squire heard a shrill female voice, either anguished or angry. From the darkness, Lady Alinachka cried, “In the name of Sir Edward of Winchester, let there be light!” At that, two pale blue-white beams of light blazed forth from the eye sockets of the silvered skull atop her strange staff. The beams cut through the darkness like twin beacons, though they illuminated only that on which the beams fell. The eerie sight struck fear in the young squire, who instinctively wanted to shut his eyes. Yet, the fear of being trampled overrode the shudder that rippled down his spine, and he tried again to rise.
To the south, Odo felt the onrushing wave of bodies more than he saw it. Clubs struck him from all directions, and tangled limbs threatened to drag him to the earth. He had always excelled at wrestling though, and he put his instincts to good use, throwing himself unexpectedly in one direction and then another. A few clubs struck home, but Odo broke from the countless hands that clawed at him. Nearby in the blackness, he heard Rolf cry out in anguish. Odo thought he heard Gimlet as well, also off to his left, though the dwarf’s cries seemed to come from the ground. One at a time. Get to Rolf! he thought.
Odo yelled for the priest and lunged toward him, but a wall of bodies stood in the way. Again, pale hands grabbed hold of his limbs, but this time Odo lunged sideways towards the shadowy form of a rearing mare. Grabbing its neck, he threw his leg over its back and held on. The mare bolted, carrying Odo away from the writhing tangle of bodies. The horse trampled two of the dark-robed figures, but then a stray tree branch struck Odo in the face, throwing snow in his eyes. His face grew numb, and his eyes blurry, but, gritting his teeth, Odo managed to slide down from the steed’s back, looking for a new path to get to Rolf or Gimlet.
Alinachka stood behind Lord Winchester, her staff held high, directing its blue-white beams into the pale faces of those figures facing Garrett. Three such figures noticeably hesitated and even drew back a few feet. Sir Garrett, still struck every few seconds by clubs from the blackness, cut down one figure after another, his flaming blade whirling about in the dark. Beside him, the two brother-sergeants still fought with fury, unwilling to leave him. Off to his right, the knight heard Hugh go down, crying out in frustration and terror. Sir Garrett did not hesitate, barking, “Make for Hugh! Stay with me, sister! Make for Hugh! Dagis, where are you?”
To the south, Ragnar lay about himself with wild abandon, hacking at anything that drew near him. He yelled in anger and frustration as he whirled his blade about, hoping that no friend would mistakenly walk into his sword. He heard Gimlet’s muffled cries far off to his left, and he heard Rolf crying out as well. Ragnar tried to rally his fellows, shouting into the darkness, “Get to Gimlet! Odo, Rolf… Get to Gimlet! To my side! Get to Gimlet!”
Odo heard his calls and rushed towards the sound. Yet he ran into three pale-faced figures, and unseen clubs pounded him anew. One finally struck a bare spot on his left arm, rather lightly, but the pain and tingling sensation that shot through his limbs made him convulse in agony. A few seconds later, he realized that he was on his knees. His sword was still in hand, but it took all of his willpower to close his hand. His left arm was numb, and his shield hung limply, pulling down his arm as if it were a ship’s anchor.
Ragnar had the sense that time was slipping away somehow. He could not see Rolf or Gimlet, and he no longer heard the dwarf’s cries. He did see a tangle of robed bodies near Rolf, or at least near where he had last stood. Ragnar threw caution to the wind and charged, lowering his shoulder and bowling into the mass of bodies. Any lingering doubts about their physicality vanished, for he plowed over a few of them and brought a whole group to the ground. In the process, he fell face forward onto the icy ground, his legs still up in the air behind him, atop tangled bodies. He cried out to both Gimlet and Rolf. Only feet away, he heard the priest respond. Ragnar struggled to get to his feet. Clubs struck him in the side, but he ignored the pain. In the darkness, he saw a vague form of at least one robed figure before him. He plunged his blade upward into the torso, and the figure fell backwards, but three others jumped on top of him, and he could move no closer to Rolf.
Dagis finally regained his feet. His fingers were numb from thrashing about on the snowy ground, and it now hurt to breathe. The cold air seemed to burn, but, gasping, he sucked it in anyway. His head was throbbing, and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. Yet twin beams in the darkness served as a beacon, and he forced himself to move. Sir Garrett cut down another figure just as Dagis came to his side.
“I am… with you,” the squire gasped.
“Where are the sergeants?” shouted Sir Garrett.
“Here!” came a weak voice from a few paces away. Lord Winchester turned to see a jumble of black shapes atop one of the sergeants, whose legs stuck out from a large bush. The knight cleaved one of the robed figures, and the rest scattered. The brother-sergeant grabbed his sword and began to rise.
“Hugh! Where is Hugh?” the knight shouted.
Dagis and Garrett together struck down a pale-faced figure, which crumpled and then scurried backward toward the trees. The knight dragged the limp ranger to his feet, while Dagis yelled for the others. Meanwhile, Alinachka kept redirecting the blue-white beams into the faces of the robed figures. Booj, still barking incessantly, stood at her side, ready to pounce but oddly hesitant to do so.
Just then, the dark-robed figures silently withdrew, almost as quickly as they had appeared. Like apparitions in the night, dozens of figures slipped back into the blackness that surrounded the camp. Dagis heard no yells, no shouts, and no cries of anguish. What manner of men are these, he wondered, if they are in fact men?
Sir Garrett took a few steps to give chase, but then he looked around for his companions. No one was in any shape to pursue, and visibility was still almost non-existent. A few paces away, Ragnar found Rolf and helped him to his feet. Garrett, Dagis, and Hugh were at their side in no time. Odo soon joined them, after dodging a horse that cut back through the camp. Then the utter blackness began to fade. It remained dark, for certain, but the pall of blackness seemed to lift. The squire saw no stars, but peering overhead it seemed that the faintest bits of moonlight were visible once again, and the black silhouettes of the treetops were once again discernible.
“Where is the dwarf?” asked Ragnar.
“Where is Brother Marcel?” added Sergeant Carloman.
Hugh, Odo, and Carloman immediately began looking about. Sir Garrett, dropping to one knee in exhaustion, raised the visor of his pig-faced bascinet as he panted for air. “Find them,” he croaked.
Dagis paused for a moment by his knight, seeing him breathing hard, but then he obeyed. He looked around trees and under low bushes.
Odo cried out, “Gimlet was over here when I heard him last.”
Brother Rolf agreed, adding, “I heard his muffled cries near here, low to the ground.”
Hugh moved closer, asking, “Did they tackle him? Clawed hands were trying to pull me to the ground.”
Ragnar appeared with a torch, which he had lit from the campfire. He held up one arm, saying, “Stand back. Let me look for tracks.”
His voice laced with concern, Odo blurted, “We trampled this whole area. What tracks could you possibly see?”
In a gruff voice, Ragnar snapped, “Keep your tongue between your teeth and do something useful. Gather the horses for one.”
Exasperated, Odo threw up his hands, but Lord Winchester looked at him and motioned with his head. Odo simply grunted in resignation and walked off to get a torch.
“Dagis. Hugh. Help him,” muttered Sir Garrett.
The squire and the woodsman hurried off after Odo, but at the campfire the squire had a thought, and he grabbed Odo by the shoulder.
Odo pulled away, complaining, “What? I have no idea how we shall…”
Dagis cut him off mid-sentence, saying, “Where are the bodies? Where are those we killed?”
Hugh froze in his tracks and looked about. The snow had been knocked off most of the nearby bushes, and the snow-dusted ground was thoroughly churned up, now mixed with mud. Yet no telltale figures lay still or writhing on the ground. In fact, he saw little to no blood spatter either. The hairs on the back of the woodsman’s neck stood up, and he made a sign against the evil eye.
Odo, trying hard to put some iron in his voice, gave the ranger a hard look and said, “Do not get all weird on us. Perhaps they dragged them off.”
“That quickly?” asked Dagis. “These were no hulking brutes,” he continued, “and you saw how fast they vanished.”
“Perhaps we only wounded them,” Odo suggested, hoping that he sounded more certain than he felt.
“Do you see any blood?” asked Dagis.
“I do,” muttered Hugh, “but who can tell if it is ours or theirs? It seems that there should be more though, I agree.”
To the south, Ragnar finally found what he sought. “Here,” he cried, holding the hissing torch close to the ground. As the others bent closer, he continued, “Those are heel marks. Someone was dragged. The tracks go off in that direction.”
“Gimlet,” muttered Rolf, making the sign of the cross.
Just then, Odo, Dagis and Sergeant Carloman returned, all speaking at once.
“Be silent, fools!” snipped Lord Winchester. “Odo! What is it?” he asked.
Odo quickly responded, “Hugh thinks that Marcel was dragged off. Tracks lead away from a thicket of bushes.”
Sir Garrett wasted no time. Sheathing his long sword, he yelled, “Prepare to move! Gather anything that you can in two minutes—horses, food, torches. We follow immediately. We shall not abandon the dwarf and the good sergeant to death or worse. By the Saint, I swear that these accursed people, whoever they may be, shall come to fear the name of Winchester! Now move!”