With hoarse cries of “Rape! Murder! Sacrilege!” Father Ifan raised the hue-and-cry in the village of Glannonford. “Derog and his band of miscreants have violated and killed the miller’s daughter and desecrated the high altar!”
The priest raced along the dirt lane that wound through his parish and called for all freemen to pursue the nefarious half-ogre and his criminal cohorts. However, few of Ifan’s timid flock dared join the chase. They were wary of confronting bullies who took pleasure in tormenting every villager and passing traveller who crossed their path. They especially feared the half-breed’s unnatural strength and propensity for violence.
Those appointed watchmen for the day advanced warily toward the ramshackle hovel wherein the brute’s maltreated mother resided. Their bravery failed them completely when Derog appeared in the cottage’s crooked doorway. Unafraid of the village watchmen and ready to challenge their authority, the half-ogre brandished a long-hafted axe and snarled an angry oath of bloody mayhem that sent the warders running.
Not content with simply scaring the cowards, Derog overtook the nearest warder and split the man’s skull from pate to jaw with one blow of his great axe. He then glared at Father Ifan. The priest’s face grew deathly pale. Derog chuckled. Something that resembled a smile slid across his bestial face.
“Now I think I will silence this goddamn priest,” Derog threatened. He raised his axe, but then his pricked ears picked up the sound of hoof beats to the north. He turned, and his black eyes caught sight of three horsemen riding swiftly down the lane from the lord’s crenellated manor house. The half-ogre shot the priest a final menacing look and then loped past his mother’s cot and across the grassy sward that lay between it and the river Glannon. Long, powerful legs carried the ruffian across the swollen stream and over the adjacent field of knee-high winter wheat. He disappeared into the wooded verge that marked the edge of the manor just as the riders reached the spot where Father Ifan stood, too shaken to move.
“After him!” The lead horseman barked to his fellow riders. “He may be seeking to rejoin his comrades. Follow and apprehend the lot! Take them alive if you can, dead if you must. I will find out what I can from Father Ifan.”
As his underlings drove their mounts toward the mill bridge, Blethin Abeynon, Lord of Glannonford and under-sheriff of Dolbrinshire, dismounted and placed a strong but comforting hand on Father Ifan’s quaking shoulder. Almost as tall and broad-shouldered as the ogre-spawn, Blethin was fair in features where Derog was foul. Renowned for his even-temper and equitable dispensation of justice as well as his martial skills, the Lord of Glannonford had earned the admiration and respect of both knightly peer and lowly cottar. Even though his bearded face displayed little emotion as he spoke to the parish priest, an inherent kindliness shone in his bright blue eyes.
“Tarrant the Blacksmith came knocking at my door to tell me you have accused Derog and his fellow rogues of rape, murder, and sacrilege” Blethin said. “Now I see Daykin lying dead, his brains spilled onto the road. Father, what has happened here?”
“M...m...my lord Abeynon, I saw a horrific sight when I entered the church this morn,” Father Ifan replied as tears ran down his colourless cheeks. “I found the front door battered down. Inside, I discovered the unclothed and beaten body of Addienna, the miller’s daughter, draped across the high altar like a debauched sacrifice to the evil one himself.” A sobbing fit interrupted the holy man’s tale.
“And what makes you believe Derog and his followers are responsible for this despicable act?” Blethin queried. His eyes now betrayed a hint of anger.
Father Ifan explained that bloody handprints besmirched the maid’s bruised flesh and the defiled altar. The extraordinary length and breadth of some of those marks left no doubt as to the culprit. Out of all the villagers, only the half-ogre possessed such large hands, a legacy of his inhuman sire.
“And is Derog responsible for Daykin’s death as well?” Blethin asked. Father Ifan nodded.
“I have allowed Derog’s evil to flourish when I should have stamped it out ere it had a chance to grow!” Blethin declared. “I have been lax in my duties here, too often drawn away from home by joust and war. Even so, until now, Derog’s crimes warranted little more than a week in the stocks or a month in lock-up, not that the stocks or lock-up ever held that scoundrel for long. Now he must pay with his life.”
Blethin leapt into the saddle, unbuckled his broad-bladed falchion from its scabbard, and held the weapon aloft. “Either by my sword, or by the hangman’s noose, Derog will pay for the lives he has taken!”
The Lord of Glannonford then spurred his stallion into a hard gallop to follow the course his sergeant and bailiff had taken in pursuit of the murdering half-ogre. The trail of footprints and hoof prints led across the field, into the woods, and along a meandering footpath. Since he knew most of the highways and byways that cut through his manor and the surrounding lands, Blethin guessed where his quarry was headed.
“Derog is bound for the Carnlinton Way, but why?” Blethin muttered. “What madness has driven him in that direction?” Blethin suspected the worst, and drove his horse even harder. He wished he had donned brigandine and basinet prior to riding out, but he resigned himself to handling the situation armed as he was. Strong arm and cleaving blade would have to suffice to bring Derog to justice.
As Blethin neared the road, he heard shouts and the ringing clang of steel on steel. Once he rounded the last bend in the forest path and came within sight of the disused way, he saw Sergeant Badan Terfyst standing behind his fallen steed. The old soldier valiantly defended himself against three ruffians armed with wickedly long knives. Adaf Pengrek, Glannonford’s bailiff, lay lifeless upon the weedy track, his side pierced by a spear point. With bloodied spear in hand and gore-streaked axe hung from the saddle, Derog sat astride the dead man’s mount as if he were a depraved captain commanding a band of marauding mercenaries.
With a war-cry on his lips, Blethin burst from the tree line and rode down the knife-wielding rogues. In a short, sharp action one lost an arm, another lost his head and the third dropped his weapon and ran for his life. The under-sheriff of Dolbrinshire then turned his courser about to face the villainous half-ogre.
Angered but not daunted by the loss of his men, Derog charged with spear held high. Blethin deftly set the shaft aside with his sword and then swung at his foe. Derog jabbed his heels into the horse’s flanks. Blethin’s blade cut only air.
“You will never put a halter around my neck!” Derog cried as the maddened beast bolted down the road.
Ever concerned for the men in his service, Blethin forwent chasing headlong after the fleeing felon to see if there was anything he could do for the bailiff. The man’s glazed eyes and ashen cheeks left no doubt he was beyond all hope. Badan shuffled over, crossed himself, and breathed a quick prayer.
“Are you hurt?” Blethin asked. He saw that the old warrior clutched his left arm. A dark stain spread down his tunic sleeve.
“Only a sore backside when I tumbled off my dying horse, plus a few minor knife wounds” the grizzled veteran stated gruffly. “Tis nothing worse than I have suffered in the past. Those wretches lacked real skill with a blade.”
“Come on, you tough old boar,” Blethin smiled as he helped Badan climb up behind him. “If you can suffer riding upon Maelris’s rump, we best be after the head wretch. I hate to leave Adaf like this, fodder for the carrion birds, but duty demands I bring Derog to justice. That devil has a growing list of crimes to answer for.”
“You can add the killing of a damn fine rouncy and the theft of a decent hackney to that list,” Badan said. He always bemoaned the loss of a good horse.
“And the murder of Adaf,” Blethin added.
“Aye,” Badan nodded.
Mounted upon Blethin’s courser, the two men set off after the half-ogre. A trail of trampled grass and churned earth showed that Derog never wandered from the seldom-used road, but rode straight toward Carnlinton. Both men shuddered at the thought, for that long-abandoned city had a sinister reputation. It was said the restless dead assailed any and all living souls foolish enough to enter through Carnlinton’s tumbledown gates.
As the trees thinned, the riders spotted their quarry in the distance. Beyond the forest and the fleeing half-ogre, the ruin of Carnlinton sat in a low, broad vale situated between two gorsy ridgelines. A grey mist swirled about the town’s dilapidated structures and spilled over its crumbling walls. Only the tallest stone towers of cathedral and castle stretched completely above that obfuscating pall.
A vaulted entranceway passed through Carnlinton’s derelict gatehouse. Derog savagely drove his stolen horse down this passageway and was swallowed up by the murk. Blethin pursued the outlaw right up to the threshold, but his courser stopped short of the archway. The beast whinnied and pawed at the earth.
“Maelris has no desire to enter that accursed place,” Badan said. “To be quite honest, neither do I.”
Blethin sighed. He remembered the story of Carnlinton his grandsire used to tell on long winter nights. While storm winds howled outside, the old man would prop himself up in a well-cushioned inglenook placed before the hearth and recite the chronicle of the city’s sad history.
In defiance of warnings from local wise women and seers, Carnlinton’s founders located their town at the very feet of the Carn Hills, where ancient lords rested uneasily beneath their rocky burial mounds. To do so risked offending the elder spirits and falling under a dire curse, but the founders scoffed at such a notion and laid the foundations of a city where no mortal being should ever have settled.
Several years after Carnlinton was first founded a series of sieges and plagues ravaged the city. A baleful shadow then crept in and shrouded the ill-fated town’s streets in an eldritch haze. Those citizens who had survived the devastation of war and disease found no comfort behind the town’s battle-scarred ramparts, for dreadful revenants began to roam its sunless avenues and alleyways. The living fled and left Carnlinton to the dead.
Blethin feared no mortal man. Death did not frighten him; he had seen enough of it on campaign and in his capacity as under-sheriff of Dolbrinshire. However, fallen souls who refused to remain in their graves made his blood run cold. Tales of shimmering spectres and wailing phantoms prowling Carnlinton’s otherwise empty streets troubled him greatly, but duty and honour required that Blethin do what must be done, regardless of his fears.
“I may have little desire to enter Carnlinton, but enter it I must,” Blethin stated. He suppressed an involuntary shiver.
“There’s evil in there!” Badan declared.
“And Derog has brought evil to Glannonford,” Blethin pointed out. “His path leads into the town. Like it or not, that is the path I must follow.”
“I have followed you into battle, and I have followed you in the hunt of many a thief and murderer, but I cannot follow you into that place,” Badan groaned. He slipped off the back of Blethin’s horse. “My limbs go numb at the sight of it. Call me a coward, but my courage has finally failed me.”
“I would never call you a coward,” Blethin said. He understood Badan’s trepidations all too well. He also knew the sergeant’s worth as soldier and deputy. “If you cannot go any farther, guard the road. Make sure Derog does not leave Carnlinton by a different gate and head back to Glannonford.”
“Aye,” Badan grunted. “I will do as you command, but you had better come back from that place, do you hear? I have grown too old and grey to break in another untrained lord.” The grizzled sergeant then grudgingly walked away and left his friend and captain alone before the walls of Carnlinton.
“May duty and honour conquer my fear!” Blethin proclaimed, and then dug his spurs hard into Maelris’s sides to coerce the skittish horse through the gate and into the haunted
Daylight seemed to shun the forsaken ramparts and deserted domiciles of Carnlinton. The town was cloaked in perpetual twilight. Dim shapes drifted through the gloom, but always remained on the very edge of sight. Blethin’s mount sensed more than its rider could see, for every so often the beast snorted and neighed, disturbed by something unseen.
Clip! Clop! Clip! Clop!
Blethin heard the sound of iron-shod hooves striking cobblestone, as if another horse followed close behind. A pull on the reins brought Maelris to a halt. The clip-clopping stopped. Blethin looked over his shoulder, but he saw no one. A light kick got Maelris moving again. The strange hoof beats echoed once more. Blethin brought his horse to a halt a second time. This time, the uncanny sounds did not abate, but went right past horse and rider, accompanied by a frigid rush of air that alarmed the man and startled his mount.
“Whoa!” Blethin called as calmly as he could while he fought hard to control his jumpy courser. The last thing he wanted was to be upon a panicked horse as it hurtled wildly down Carnlinton’s dusky thoroughfare.
“Easy, boy, easy!”
Ahead of the Lord of Glannonford, where two broad byways crossed, the pervasive mist churned. It coalesced into the translucent figure of a spectral knight clad in the antiquated war-gear of an earlier age. An old-fashioned flat-topped helm sat upon his head. A voluminous surcoat covered his mailed body, reaching down to his knees. His pallid destrier lacked both caparison and bard. The ghostly champion tipped his pennoned lance in a mute challenge and then charged.
Maelris jumped and seemed ready to fly, but the familiar feel of Blethin’s legs pressing against his flanks in anticipation of imminent combat riled his hot-blood and turned his fear into aggression. The courser’s breeding, training, and experience in battle overrode his natural instinct to flee.
If he had been armed for the joust, Blethin would have met the knight lance to lance. Instead, at the last moment he veered his mount to one side to avoid his opponent’s lance-point, stood in his stirrups, and brought his falchion down in a mighty hewing blow. Blethin’s blade cleaved right through the apparition, which promptly vanished with a quavering howl.
Absolutely terrified by the shade’s departing ululation, no amount of breeding or training kept Maelris from galloping away in mad fright. Blethin struggled to stay in the saddle. When he was finally reined in his spooked steed, he found himself in the market square sited below the frowning façade of Carnlinton’s decaying cathedral.
The black cyclopean eye of the cathedral’s rose window, long devoid of its beautifully stained glass, gazed mournfully over the square. To either side of that cheerless opening, spireless bell towers reached toward the heavens, as if pleading for relief from the town’s tragic curse. Naked vaulting bent over the cathedral’s decrepit interior like the bare ribs of a fleshless carcass.
Faint silhouettes in the barest semblance of human form wandered the perimeter of the paved plaza that stretched out beneath the basilica’s weatherworn face. They wafted past vacant shop fronts and glided in and out of empty doorways. They murmured amongst themselves, their dusty words whispered too softly to be understood. When they caught sight of the mortal in their midst they gathered around the Lord of Glannonford in a nebulous throng. He could feel the pulsing beat of his heart quicken as the ghosts closed in.
“Away with you!” Blethin cried. “I am under-sheriff of Dolbrinshire, appointed by the Lord High Sheriff himself to keep the king’s peace in this corner of the realm. I have come here in pursuit of a vile breaker of that peace. Assail me not!"
Moved by Blethin’s noble manner, righteous authority, and unshaken bravery, the phantoms drew back. Indefinite shapes grew more distinct as the unearthly residents of Carnlinton lingered about the square. Each one took on the appearance they wore in life. Shade adopted the guise of merchant in fur-lined robe, craftsman in gaily-dyed tunic, housewife in long-skirted gown, or guardsman in stoutly padded gambeson.
Out of the phantasmal ranks arose one more sumptuously attired than the rest. A burgher garbed in richly embroidered vermilion velvet stood before Blethin and lifted his hand in greeting.
“I…was…mayor…here,” the apparition spoke falteringly, as if sepulchral dust choked its words. “You have sworn to uphold the king’s peace?”
“Then free us from the evil that lays unrightful claim to this town and disturbs our peace.”
“I have come here in pursuit of a murdering half-ogre, not to rid this place of whatever curse has befallen it!” Blethin declared.
“If you value peace and justice, free us from the evil,” the ghostly mayor insisted. His form wavered as his tone grew more demanding.
The apparition’s adjuration stirred Blethin’s sense of duty. Upon his appointment as undersheriff, Blethin had sworn to preserve order and enforce justice. He was a man of his word. As a noble knight and a guardian of the peace who never failed to answer a cry for help, he felt honour-bound to aid Carnlinton’s unquiet dead.
“Very well,” Blethin breathed. “I will try to banish the evil, if that is even possible. What must I do?”
“He whom you seek, and the evil that troubles us, are both within the walls of the Earl’s keep,” the apparition said as he pointed a bony finger up the cobbled street. Then he and his preternatural entourage melted back into the mist.
Blethin’s mount grew more and more nervous as he tromped nearer and nearer the northern edge of the haunted city. Suddenly, the stark ashlar-faced walls of the Earl’s keep loomed up out of the murk. A foul miasma wafted up from an unclean stream that wound around two sides of the rectangular edifice. The sickening miasma assaulted the nostrils of man and horse alike.
Blethin dismounted. He looked for a place to tie the reins to keep Maelris from straying, but a ghastly cry of hideous pleasure sounded from within the forsaken fortress and sent the horse flying.
“Maelris!” Blethin called, to no avail. His loyal courser was soon out of sight. Realising there was no sense in chasing after the fleeing beast, Blethin resolved to do what must be done. He held his falchion at the ready and climbed the stone stairs that lead to the keep’s first floor entranceway. He crossed other the threshold and stepped into a deep gloom.
The wan greyness that passed for daylight in the haunted city barely penetrated through the narrow loopholes of the donjon’s forebuilding. Though the wooden upper floor and timbered roof had long since rotted away, the structure’s imposing walls held shards of midnight captive within its fusty interior. And yet, a dim yellow gleam glimmered in the darkness.
Blethin crept carefully toward the light. He found himself standing in the columned archway that led to the keep’s great hall. Across the hall’s colonnaded expanse, Blethin witnessed a scene that chilled him to the marrow.
Surrounded by burning rushlights, a marble throne stood upon the dais where the earl once held court. Upon this lordly perch sat a dwarfish abomination that most resembled a cathedral grotesquery. Derog knelt before the diminutive devil and placed his huge left mitt between both of the creature’s taloned hands. They performed a twisted mockery of the rite of homage and oath of fealty.
“Lord Iskilis”, the half-ogre addressed the devil like an underling would a nobleman. “On your command, I have raped, killed, and defiled holy ground. I now wish to become your man completely.”
“You have proven you could be a worthy vassal indeed,” Iskilis replied with a repugnant grin. “Here where I followed in the wake of disease and despair, here where my power holds sway over the restive dead, here where my rule reigns, I accept you as my man.” He produced a large tome bound in ebon leather. “Now swear to spread wickedness and disorder, to enforce the rule of darkness and malevolence. Swear your faith to me and my dark master.”
“I promise to be faithful to my Lord Iskilis and never cease to lie, to oppress, and to injure others in his name,” the half-ogre recited after he placed his hand on the black book. Then, while still on his knees, he embraced his liege and they exchanged a vulgar kiss.
Derog swore fealty to a devil! A devil! Blethin wondered if strong arm and cleaving blade would be enough to defeat such a foe. He thought it a matter for a priest and his prayers, not a knight and his sword. However, the task of opposing this terror had fallen to him, and he knew he must confront it, whatever the cost. If he were to die, at least he would die with honour. He took a deep breath to screw up his courage, mumbled a plea for divine assistance, and strode toward the half-ogre and his demonic lord.
“Derog!” The valorous Lord of Glannonford bellowed in a voice that reverberated in the lofty gloom. “Your campaign of evil stops here and now! You and your damnable lord cannot escape the sword of justice!”
“Kill him!” Iskilis screeched and then dove behind the throne. The dwarfish devil lacked true bravery when faced with a living adversary who wielded cold steel.
Derog grabbed his long-hafted axe off the flagstone where it had lain next to him and leapt to his feet. With axe raised high, he moved to meet Blethin, but the Lord of Glannonford struck first. One blow from Blethin’s stout-bladed falchion cleaved clean through Derog’s left shin. The return stroke took off his head.
Cold sweat dripped down Blethin’s brow as he stepped around Derog’s body and came face-to-face with the fallen half-ogre’s lord and master. Blethin hesitated; his legs had turned to stone. He lowered his weapon.
Iskilis sneered. He sensed Blethin’s courage falter. He lifted his clawed hands and unleashed a dark spell. Lightning flashed from his fingertips.
The searing blast knocked Blethin off his feet and slammed him against the south wall, right below an empty window. He slumped to the floor. Ringlets of smoke rose from his smouldering chest. He still breathed, but his strength had left him.
Glittering orbs darted through the embrasure above Blethin’s head. They fluttered down to the flagstone and transformed into luminous spirits whose brilliance rivalled the light of the sun on a bright summer’s day. Their radiance burned Iskilis, who shielded his eyes and whimpered in pain.
Blethin heard bittersweet singing and saw the faces of the innocents killed in the devil’s name. Healing hands lifted him off the floor, and he felt a strange energy course through his veins. With revitalised vigour and renewed determination, Blethin marched toward Iskilis as the shining spirits sailed back out the window.
Iskilis again loosed lightning from his fingertips. This time, Blethin caught the searing bolt on the flat of his blade. Sparks flew from the steel, but Blethin continued to advance. With his magic defeated by iron and brave heart, Iskilis turned tail and scurried toward the winding stairway that led to the battlements. Blethin raced after him.
Once at the top of the spiral stairs, Iskilis ran to the nearest crenel and climbed the low parapet between two merlons. He spread his leathery wings, but before he could take flight, the Lord of Glannonford was upon him.
Blethin swung. Iskilis tried to side-step the slashing stroke, but moved too slowly to avoid the blow. Blethin’s blade hewed through Iskilis’s right wing. The maimed fiend howled a foul malediction and lashed out.
Burning talons ripped into Blethin’s sword arm. His falchion flew from his grasp and clattered across the allure flagstones. Before his diabolic opponent had a chance to release a sinister spell of destruction, the Lord of Glannonford tackled Iskilis and flung the undersized demon over the parapet.
A fiery pit opened up beneath Iskilis ere he hit the ground. The flailing devil screamed as he plummeted down that flaming chasm. A blazing gale blew upward as the hellish maw snapped shut. Tossed into the air, Blethin landed in a heap upon the battlement walkway. All went black.
“Get up, my Lord Abeynon. Come on, lad, on your feet.”
Blethin opened his eyes to see his faithful sergeant standing over him.
“Am I alive, or are heavenly angels not as beautiful as churchly sculpture would lead us to believe?” Blethin murmured.
“You still live,” Badan replied. “Though ’twas a close thing. It looks like you were a hand’s breadth away from falling over the edge. Lucky you did not plunge to your death.”
Blethin peered over the inner edge of the allure. With the roof and upper floor gone, it was a two-storey drop to the great hall.
“Lucky indeed,” Blethin breathed.
“Now on your feet,” Badan grunted. “There is no way I am carrying you all the way home.”
With the sergeant’s help, Blethin got to his feet. His sinews ached and his head throbbed, but he was very much alive.
“I thought I ordered you to guard the road,” Blethin said. “I thought you were too frightened to enter Carnlinton.”
“Aye, you did order me to watch the road.” Badan admitted. “Though being here makes my knees tremble, the vision of you meeting your death in this forsaken place helped me overcome my fear. When I spied Maelris wandering the field outside the city wall, I suspected you might require aid.”
“How did you find me?” Blethin wondered.
“’Twas the dead,” Badan responded in a hushed whisper. “As soon as I passed through the gate, tattered phantoms gathered about me. They beckoned me to follow as they floated through the roiling mist. They led me right up to castle doorway and motioned that I should enter. Not knowing what else to do, I did just that.”
“Are you no longer afraid of the restless dead?” Blethin asked.
“I think it wise to let the dead rest in peace,” Badan replied. “However, the poor souls haunting this place do not terrify me quite as much as they once did.”
Blethin gripped the grizzled soldier’s shoulder and shot him an affable grin. The Lord of Glannonford shared his sergeant’s change of heart. He realised the dead of Carnlinton should be pitied rather than feared.
“Shall we rejoin the realm of the living?” Blethin said.
“Aye,” Badan nodded.
With Badan’s assistance, Blethin hobbled down the stone stairs, across the length of the great hall, and through the forebuilding antechamber. As the two men reached the keep’s entranceway, they were greeted by the golden rays of the setting sun breaking through the murk. The mist rolled back from avenue and byway and dissipated like wisps of smoke carried off by a spring zephyr.
“The fog may finally be lifting,” Badan stated.
“Along with the curse, perhaps?” Blethin suggested.
As the mist vanished from Carnlinton, so too did the town’s revenant shades. Hazy forms of merchants, artisans, housewives, and guardsmen vanished in the sunlight. Pleasant warmth drove away the dank chill that had clung for so long to Carnlinton’s cobbled streets.
Blethin smiled when he sighted Maelris grazing on fresh grass just outside the city gate. With Badan’s help, he climbed into the saddle. Badan clambered up behind him, and knight and sergeant rode double all the way back to Glannonford.
In dusk’s half-light, as Maelris carried the two men up to the manor house threshold, Blethin gazed pensively up at the stonework above the entryway. He stared at his father’s arms, which had been carved there a generation ago. He felt something was missing.
“You know, Badan, it is time I adopt a motto,” the Lord of Glannonford said. “My threshold looks dolefully plain adorned with just a blazon. I propose to have ‘may duty and honour conquer my fear’ engraved above the shield. How does that sound to you?”
“That sounds fine indeed,” the old sergeant grinned.
(Originally published in Sorcerous Signals, Feb - Apr '14 Issue, February 2014.)
Copyright © 2014 Richard H. Fay