Heart of the Castle

The cold night air parted with a snarl, dragging cold claws across the face of the rider.  He grimaced and squinted harder against the freezing rush of wind, ducking his head so the brim of his hat would deflect the worst of it.  Soon the gatehouse would come into view and he would be safe from the cold of night, and what lay behind.  Remembering what lay behind him chilled him more than the wind, and he urged his horse on, seeking desperately the safety and solace of the gate.

A howl lifted above the woods behind him and drifted downwards to his ear.  Then another rose, and another, until the whole night was a chorus of lupine calls.  The rider pushed on, fast as his horse could safely go over the frost-rimed path, shining faintly in the light of the full moon.  Though stung with cold and misted with tears, he kept a sharp eye for holes or stones that would end his horse, his journey, himself.  Around a bend in the forest path he turned and glanced up, hoping again that he would spy his goal at last.  There!  Atop the hill it was, stony and implacable, but from the tiny windows and above the walls could be seen the warm glow of the Yule fire.

He broke from the treeline and allowed his horse to slow just a hair as they climbed the hill.  He reached inside his cloak and drew out the medallion he had been given, so long ago, and waved it above his head as he rode for the gate leading into the castle.  One of the tiny windows went dark for a moment as a body crossed in front of it, and hope grew in the rider’s chest.  Soon, soon he would be safe and warm, and at last, welcomed.

The rider pulled up his horse outside the gate, peering at the backlit head that showed in the opening.  He could see no expression on the face, but heard only the voice of its owner. “Name and purpose, traveler,” it grunted.

“I am Edmunt of Warsheim, seeking shelter from the cold and the night. I have ridden from Standton and bring grave news of the doings there.”

“What’s this you’ve got in your hand, eh?”

Edmunt held it forth for the guard to see.  “It is the sign of my lord that those loyal to him may grant me hospitality upon my quest.  Please, sir, let me in that I may rest and sup and bring the news to the master of this castle.”  As the medallion caught the light the eyes of the guard widened and he quickly shut the peep hole.  Soon the sound of timbers shifting could be heard and the huge door swung slowly outward.  Edmunt trotted his horse into the opening and slowly rode down the dimly lit tunnel that ran under the keep.  At the far end he dismounted, handed the reigns to the boy standing there and turned toward the stairs leading to the great hall after a quick, sweeping glance around the courtyard.

There, the bonfire in the yard jumped and crackled, throwing yellow light on the stables to the left and on the kitchen tower to the right.  Above it all, on the curtain wall that surrounded the courtyard the guards posted on watch paced back and forth, eyes to the encroaching dark, still vigilant even on such a cold night, though with steaming mugs that belied their partiality to the merriment that happened inside their protection.  On the ground near the fire there were gathered the men and women who tended the animals and the stores, though on duty they warmed themselves by the flames and their own steaming mugs, filled from a pot near the fire.

All this Edmunt took in as he swept over the cold cobbles towards the grand staircase to his right.  It ascended to the large door of the castle, set into the space where the kitchen tower joined the keep.  The broad stair narrowed as it rose, until it was merely wide enough for two men to stand abreast in front of the solid oaken door.  This he pulled open and entered the guardroom between the kitchens and the hall, while the guards rose to their feet at the sight of the stranger.  Then their eyes fell upon the medallion he bore, and fell back once again, staring after him as he pushed open the door into the great hall.

Music and laughter tumbled out of the door as it opened, and the light from the fire in the center of the hall framed him briefly in the doorway as he made his way through.  He strode forward purposefully, straight to the head table at the far end of the hall.  He glared through servants carrying jugs and pitchers, through the aisle formed by the tables running the length of the hall.  The musicians played still over the revel and feasting, though the laughter and chatter that had filled the vaulted hall dwindled as he marched on, as though his cloak and medal had upon them a silencing enchantment the trailed in his wake.

The Baron Dunstan himself stood as his sudden guest made his way to the head table, and all those who were seated at his side did likewise, and then those at the trestle tables down the hall followed their lord’s example.  He spoke, and with his voice the music finally died while the hall was filled with his booming greeting. “By the blood of the saints and Christ himself, what news, Warsheim?  I did not expect to see you here for a month yet!”

“My news is for your ears alone, Dunstan, and I must be heard quickly.”  At this the Baron glowered, but waved his hand at the assembly.

“Play on, feast on, I shall soon return!”  Then he turned and stalked toward the door behind him, beckoning Edmunt on.  They passed through a smaller hall, no less wide but half the length, and with a tiled floor and panelled walls.  There was a small fire on the hearth in this room, though with no one in attendance then it was quite a lot colder than the main hall.  “What is it then, Edmunt?” the baron asked, his voice full of worry. “Are we discovered?”

“I’m not sure what the Duke knows, though he certainly has suspicions.  I was with Gravyuri negotiating supplies for the spring.  We had almost come to an accord with Braxton, but on the last day, yesterday…”  Edmunt trailed off.  Breathing deeply, he sat heavily in the window bay built into the wall, fixing a dully fearful expression on the Baron.  “Yesterday I was awoken by my squire at three bells past midnight.  The town was burning and both Gravyuri and Braxton were dead.  They had been hurled from the battlements into the court of the manor, bodies rent and half-eaten.  Terrible howls and roars filled the air.  Some beast had been sent into that town to kill all of us, I only escaped because I was awake to defend myself long enough to flee.  It was huge, gray and black, with evil eyes.  It walked on two legs, though it had the head of an enormous wolf and claws like a bear’s.  Alvred wounded it enough to allow my escape, though he gave his life to ensure I would make it here to warn you.  I believe they have lost me for the moment, but I do not know how long the trail will be left cold.”

“Well, they are certain to follow you, however fast you rode.  Wolves sniff and bears wait, but the Duke is certainly behind these fell doings.  Damn the king leaving him unchecked!  We’ll have to move quickly if his villainy is to be stopped.  I’ll send word to the others at first light.  We will have him by the throat by the end of three weeks, though we will sure pay dearly for it moving against him now.  Though these beasts of his leave us no…” The baron trailed off as a keening wail erupted from the far side of the hall, pouring through the windows overlooking the courtyard.  It started quietly, but quickly grew in pitch and volume until the very stones of the floor began to tremble from the torrent of sound.  Then, as it reached a crescendo the warm light from the bonfire was obliterated by a piercing blue ray that swallowed up the natural lights in the hall.  The baron Dunstan stumbled over to the window to see what it was, then cried out and fell onto the tiles below the window, weeping.  Edmunt knew what it was.  The duke had found them out, had found them all out, and had sent his mages to wipe them off the table like spilled wine.  Glass shattered behind him, and before he could turn he was crushed to the floor beneath a reeking, steaming mass of bone and sinew and claws and fur.  He heard one final howl before the blood pounding behind his ears stopped flowing and the blue magelight from the courtyard faded into black.

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