Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sold Knight Coasters to a Knight (Maybe)

SOLD yesterday through my Azure Lion Productions Zazzle Store to a customer in Oxford, England:
one English Knight, Circa 1430, Sandstone Coaster,
one Crusader Knight, Early 13th C., Sandstone Coaster,
and one English Knight, Circa 1300, Sandstone Coaster.

I think these three knight coasters I sold yesterday to a customer in Oxford, England, might have been purchased by or are being shipped to an actual knight, since Zazzle lists the name of the person the items are being shipped to as "Sir". How cool is that? :)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Disaster

Well, this Christmas ended up being a disaster, in part because of my big mouth, my stubbornness, and my temper (plus a large does of tiredness to boot), but I REFUSE to carry the full burden of blame alone. It takes two to argue.

One thing I learned - it's probably not a good idea to argue gun control with a gun enthusiast while sitting at the dinner table during Christmas lunch. It could very well ruin Christmas. It ruined mine.

Right at this very moment, I feel as if all that work I put into Christmas lunch, especially all the work making pierogi, was for naught, since the after-meal conversation turned into an argument that effectively killed the whole Christmas spirit. Right at this very moment, I wonder why I bother.

I used to love Christmas. I used to enjoy the Christmas season. Right now, I hate it. Right now, it means nothing to me but lots of work, cooking and cleaning until I'm so exhausted that what little patience I have for people has been eroded away. Yes, I get tired doing all that work, Yes, when I'm tired, I get easily irritated. Yes, when irritated, I have little patience for stupid arguments at the dinner table.

Merry Christmas? Not this year! Christmas ended up being less than merry and now I absolutely do not feel like celebrating anything. I also feel rather hated at the moment.
One thing that puzzles me a bit is this: why am I expected to be the one to back down in an argument and drop the subject when the argument occurs in my own home and the person arguing with me just partook of a wonderful meal I spent two days preparing? Such is life, I guess.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Society6 HUGE Artist Promo: Use Promo Link, Get Free Shipping + $5 Off Everything

Over at Society6:
HUGE Artist Promo | Free shipping + $5 Off everything when you order from my Society6 Store using the promo link below:
https://society6.com/richardfay?promo=XYW2PH38J7R3
Promotion expires November 8, 2015 at Midnight Pacific Time. *Free Shipping offer excludes Framed Art Prints, Stretched Canvases, Wall Clocks and Rugs

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sliding Through Another Dimension: Was to be Published, but Hasn't Been Published Yet, Now Added to Society6

I added my weird sci-fi artwork "Sliding Through Another Dimension (Orange Background)" to Society6. This one comes in three different color schemes: full-color on an orange background, full-color on a blue background, and black and white. Here it is on orange:

Sliding Through Another Dimension (Orange Background)



"Sliding Through Another Dimension" is a work I did last year, one that I thought was going in appear in a couple of different publications. I sent both the black and white version and the orange version to an editor back on May 1st, 2014. The editor accepted both works on June 29th, 2014. He originally told me he was going to use the black and white version as interior art in an October 2014 issue of one publication and the color version as cover art on another publication, which publication and which issue of that publication to be determined at a later date. October 2014 came and went and my art remained unused. On November 3rd, 2014, I inquired about the publication status of my art. On November 4th, 2014, the editor told me it might be published as interior art in the January 2015 issue. January 2015 came and went, and my art still remained unpublished.

Now that it's almost the end of October 2015, I figured the time has come to say to heck with it and post the artwork to Society 6. Disappointments such as this one are among the many reasons why I've decided to take a hiatus from doing much unsolicited work for submission to publications and concentrate on adding my stuff to sites like Society6. Considering that this was a double acceptance, it's double the disappointment. When the gatekeepers prove so unreliable, I'll just bypass them completely and find my own way. Quite frankly, I'm sick of seeing acceptances that never pan out in the end.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Snorer Slurper

With all my complaining about Regal Stadium 18's screw-up when showing the TCM/Fathom double feature of Dracula/Spanish Dracula, I forgot to mention another annoyance during that film event - the snorer slurper. A guy all by himself situated a few seats down in the same row as us made verbal comments through a good part of the first half of the English version. However, he must have found the second half boring, since it seems he fell fast asleep. I heard him snoring! Then, at one point during the long break between films, the same guy let those around him know he was going to the men's room. He then purchased a drink, which he proceeded to suck down in a rather noisy slurping manner, complete with the occasional belch! Thankfully, snorer slurper decided not to wait for Regal Stadium 18 to get Spanish Dracula up and running. He left before they started the second film.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Dracula/Spanish Dracula Double Feature Disaster: Waited Over an Hour to See Spanish Dracula

What an awful experience! Michele and I went to Regal Stadium 18 in Crossgates Mall to see the TCM & Fathom Events presents Dracula (1931)/Spanish Dracula (1931) double feature. The experience started off okay, though it seems they skipped over the specially produced introduction by Ben Mankiewicz that was supposed to have been shown with the films (according to what it says in TCM's own advertising for this event). The English language version starring Bela Lugosi ran on time with no serious issues. Actually, it was cool to see it on the big screen. One could catch details you simply can't catch watching it on the small screen. Lugosi's face in close-up shots truly looked frightening projected onto the big screen. However, as soon as the first film ended, things took a turn for the worse.

The moment the English version ended, the screen went blank. At first, it seemed the break was merely an intermission, but that intermission kept getting longer, and longer, and longer. Apparently, those running the show at Regal Stadium 18 didn't realize that the event was a double feature.Oops! It took them over an hour to get the Spanish-language version up and running.

The theater was close to empty to begin with, and it got emptier as the wait got longer. Some people didn't wait the hour and left before Regal Stadium 18 got the Spanish language version up and running. There were only six people left in the theater when they finally got it to work.

Funny thing is, last time Michele and I went to a Fathom Event at Crossgates, when we went to go see THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR in the theater, there was a problem with getting the film up and running. We never did get to see the full intro, though the feature itaself played just fine.

Admittedly, Regal Stadium 18 did end up handing out readmission passes for waiting so long to see the second half of the double feature. Even so, I doubt I would consider going to another Fathom Event at the theaters in Crossgates.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cover-Art for October 2015 SPACEPORTS & SPIDERSILK

Hey, you out there! Yeah, I'm talking to you! Do you like monsters? Of course you do! Then make sure you check out the cover of the October 2015 issue of Spaceports & Spidersilk. It features my seasonally-appropriate scary-but-fun artwork "Monster in the Ruin".

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Black Widow" Illustration and "Patient Black Widow" Horrorku


Here's something I did a few years back for an illustrated dark poetry collection that almost saw publication twice. However, in both instances, the publishers pulled out of publishing the collection. It did seem as if the collection was cursed. Anyway, this illustration was meant to go with a version of the following horrorku:

patient black widow
trapper waits in ragged web
straying men entrapped

Horrorku Copyright © 2011 Richard H. Fay

Though the illustration never saw publication, the horrorku did, in the twitter-zine microcosms, on October 23, 2011.
"Black Widow"

Friday, September 18, 2015

Zazzle Store zRank: I Don't Think I Like the Sound of This!

Apparently, Zazzle now has this zRank that has something to do with how well your store is optimized for their system. It's a ranking from 1-10, 1 being the least optimized, 10 being the most. Currently, my store is ranked at a measly 3. Though I would say I sell pretty well through my Richard Fay/Azure Lion Productions Zazzle Store (just this morning I sold a Late Medieval Sword Tie to a customer in Gothenburg, Sweden), it seems Zazzle's zRank algorithm considers more than mere sales. As a matter of fact, they say it is not a measurement of revenue. It looks to me as if they are pushing, among other things, creating and sharing "collections ".

Why is this important? Well, according to Zazzle:
"zRank is not currently factored into marketplace search results but will be in the near feature."
In other words, I take it to mean that products from lower ranked stores will appear lower down in marketplace search results, meaning stuff from lower-ranked stores might get lost in the crowd and never be seen by potential customers.

Good grief! It sounds like Zazzle is now playing Facebook-type algorithm games!

I hate to say it, but If Zazzle becomes too much of a time sink for me, if I have to do a lot more than design products to sell products featuring my art through Zazzle (and at this point, I DO sell through Zazzle), I might stop designing new products for my Zazzle store. There is always my Azure Lion Productions CafePress Shop. I already sell regularly through that shop, and I could start concentrating on that one instead of my Zazzle one. I've already gotten behind in adding new stuff to that shop, in part because I've been concentrating on my stores on other sites (like Zazzle).

I will see about creating and sharing some collections over on Zazzle, but I can't let it take up all of my time. Time is precious, and time wasted on creating collections is time lost creating new art and new products.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Alas, Too Many Americans Don't Understand Their Own Government

Three things have become clear to me recently:

1.) A number of Americans, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, do not understand about the different powers and responsibilities of the three branches of the U.S. Federal government (legislative, executive, and judicial). They seem particularly clueless about the whole concept of checks and balances.

2.) Too few Americans, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, have actually read the U. S. Constitution, and fewer still truly understand it.

3.) America desperately needs to improve American studies and civics education, since far too many Americans seem to lack a basic understanding of how their government actually works.


Recent events indicate that some Americans are in desperate need of civics lessons. They seem to believe that personal religious beliefs trump constitutional prohibitions against the government of the United States establishing a religion. They seem to believe that government employees in the United States may use their powers to impose their religious beliefs on others. Personally, I believe in the Constitution of the United States of America (i.e. the law of the land in the U.S. of A), specifically THIS:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."

I also believe in the incorporation doctrine, which says that, through the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, select provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to state governments as well as to the Federal government.

Additionally, it's not that hard to understand the part the Supreme Court plays in the whole system of checks and balances. It's so easy kids could learn it


From the Congress for Kids site:

"...the Supreme Court may check Congress by declaring a law unconstitutional."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Today's Horror Writers Don't Read Horror! Say What?

In a Facebook discussion about horror, someone had this to say about the horror writers of today:
"Today's horror writers haven't read any horror, only watched it."
I consider myself something of a writer of horror, both poetry and prose, and I've read quite a bit of horror fiction and poetry. I've read classics, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw", Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (one of my all-time favorite poems), John Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", and the English translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Der Erlk├Ânig", as well as more contemporary material such as Stephen King's It, Salem's Lot, Pet Sematary, and Cycle of the Werewolf. As an artist and illustrator, I've even had a smattering of exposure to current horror fiction those times I've illustrated the works of other horror writers.

To be perfectly honest, I've probably read more horror short stories than horror novels. Over the years, I've read a number of horror fiction anthologies. Some of the horror anthologies in my personal library include:
The Monster Book of Monsters: 50 Terrifying Tales, edited by Michael O'Shaughnessy,
The Book of the Dead: 13 Classic tales of the Supernatural, edited by Alan K. Russell,
100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin H. Greenberg,
Great Ghost Stories, selected and arranged by John Grafton,
and the Watermill Classic edition of Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories.

I'm particularly fond of the classic "weird tales", and have read a plethora of weird fiction. Though not all weird tales are dark, many are. My personal library includes copies of the anthologies Weird Vampire Tales (edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg, and Robert Weinberg), 100 Wild Little Weird Tales (edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Robert Weinberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz), and The Best of Weird Tales 1923 (edited by Marvin Kaye and John Gregory Betancourt). My personal library also contains just about every volume of Lovecraft's fiction printed by Del Ray/Ballantine Horror in the 1980s (the ones with the superbly creepy cover artworks by Michael Whelan), including The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.


A good number of the horror writers and poets I've encountered over the past few years appear to be well read. They seem to be able to carry on fairly informed discussions about many of the standards of horror literature. I can't say I know many horror writers who haven't read quite a bit of horror fiction.

What say you, fellow horror writers? Have you read much horror fiction, or do you prefer to watch horror rather than read it?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

I Fail at Networking

A Facebook friend shared a link to this article by Jeff Goins on Medium:
The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

As I was reading the article, I got thinking about my biggest failure as a creative. I am NOT a people person and I am NOT good at making meaningful and lasting connections with other people. I've actually burned a lot of bridges and cut off access to a number of so-called "gatekeepers". My failure at making more than a mere handful of meaningful and lasting connections with people in the writing/publications world is one of the reasons I've decided to take a hiatus from doing work for publications so I can concentrate on art for my stores. That way, I can bypass many of the publication world "gatekeepers" and sell items featuring my art through various online stores. The publications side of things just wasn't doing enough for me, and I know some of that was my own fault for not being able to make enough meaningful connections.

I can sell merchandise featuring my artworks and designs internationally through Zazzle, CafePress, and Redbubble. I do so on a regular basis. I have also seen a number of poems, stories, and articles published in a variety of small-press publications. I've even had some works in "best of" anthologies. And yet, I can't seem to take my writing to the next level. I have some stories up in the Kindle Store, but other than copies I bought for myself, I've sold all of one copy. The reader who purchased that copy did give the story a five-star rating and left a positive review, but I just can't seem to sell my stories like I sell stuff featuring my art. Why is that? It might be because I just don't have much of a network behind me, supporting me, promoting my works. I do think there is something to this idea that networks and connections are key to success as a creative. It certainly seems true in the realm of creative writing.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Reach for Your Heart"

Okay, everyone, what do you all think of my latest artwork, "Reach for Your Heart"?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Wrote First Draft of ANDREW OF ARMAR 30+ Yrs Ago

Recently, I realized that I wrote the very first, very rough, draft of my fantasy novel ANDREW OF ARMAR over thirty years ago. Written mostly for kicks when I was in high school (ninth or tenth grade?), that original version of the story was handwritten on sheets of loose leaf paper. Many of the basics have remained the same (the core of the story first formed out of childhood play-acting), but a lot has changed over the years through various rewrites, reworkings, and revisions. One thing I have done in subsequent versions is tone down some of the more outrageously graphic violence present in the first draft. I seem to recall describing lots of brains and guts falling out. Alas, I'm not sure that first version still exists. Maybe that's a good thing! (I still have plenty of notes of some of rewrites I did between then and now.)

ANDREW OF ARMAR: CHAPTER THREE: ROYALTY REVEALED



ANDREW OF ARMAR

Chapter Three
Royalty Revealed

Andrew awoke at the crack of dawn. In the half-light of the grotto, he saw that Pandulf was already wide-awake and keen to leave. The Armarian noticed that his comrade paced back and forth in apparent anxiousness.

"Time to go!" Pandulf announced. The gruff forester did not give his companion a chance to respond before he clambered over the edge of the grotto and began the descent down the ridge.

"Right!" Andrew barked. He hurriedly kicked dirt over the smoldering embers of their campfire and then set off after his moody friend.

Andrew struggled to catch up to Pandulf as the forester marched across the snowy landscape. When Andrew drew near, Pandulf pulled away. Andrew soon gave up trying to match the taller man's lengthy stride and trailed after him. Whatever the reason, it became obvious that Pandulf wanted the Armarian to keep his distance.

Andrew observed that Pandulf carried something concealed beneath his cloak, but he could not get close enough to tell what that something was. Strangely enough, the more Andrew ruminated over this odd mystery, the more his mind turned toward the moon-devouring serpent from his nightmare. When he felt the same chill he had felt the night before, he decided to think about something else. Daydreaming about feasting upon capon pasties and bread puddings helped warm his soul, though it made him hungry. With Pandulf so eager to get back home, they had skipped breakfast and would probably skip lunch as well.

Pandulf never halted and never even slackened his gait until he once again found himself standing upon the threshold of his own front door. While Andrew still lagged several yards behind, the forester tramped inside and tossed his cloak and the weapon it concealed beneath his pallet. He then set to work preparing the grouse he had bagged two days ago.

"No sense in letting this go to waste," Pandulf stated as he readied the bird for roasting.

Once the forester left the fowl to cook nicely over a blazing fire, he busied himself in the collection of supplies for the arduous journey ahead. Since he did not wish to spend another night out in the cold unprepared, he rolled his bearskin blanket up tight and tied it to the straps of his haversack. He retrieved a plain leather sheath for the knife on his table and stuffed the sheathed blade into his pack. He then removed a well-worn book from the large wooden chest at the foot of his makeshift bed. He sat down, cracked open the crimson cover, and began to read from the tattered tome.

While Pandulf read from the aged manuscript, Andrew decided to examine his prize from the cave. He discovered that the scroll case contained a rolled up sheet of vellum. Andrew sat upon the dirt floor of Pandulf's hut and unfurled the document before him.

A chart drawn upon the cracked vellum sheet depicted the plan of a grand castle perched upon an island sited in the middle of a great river. The stronghold possessed two circuits of curtain walls fortified with numerous mural towers. An impressive barbican defended the main gate. A label written in faded black ink declared the fortress to be the Royal Castle of Rurikana on the River Neth. An arrow penned in fresher red ink pointed to a postern door on the south side of the castle, near the island's shore. Thin red lines showed the location of a small passage leading to the very heart of the inner ward. A small note in the map's upper margin read:
"Here may be found the secret way used by Sir Salintar during his daring mission."

Andrew scrutinized the artefact. He nodded and muttered unintelligibly to himself as he noted details pertinent to his quest. He saw what he was sure Socahr had intended him to see, a clandestine path into the demon's citadel, much too small to be of any use to an assaulting army, but large enough for a small party to enter by stealth.

"Cura nolat terra boi!" Pandulf recited a bizarre chant aloud, which interrupted Andrew's train of thought.

"What?" Andrew asked, puzzled by Pandulf's peculiar outburst. It seemed as if his comrade had suddenly started speaking in tongues!

"I am reading incantations," Pandulf snarled through clenched teeth. "Do not bother me!"

"What kind of incantations?" Andrew inquired, oblivious to Pandulf's obvious tetchiness.

"Magical incantations!" Pandulf snapped.

"Oh!" Andrew exclaimed, momentarily taken aback by his host’s ill temper. "You are a wizard, then?"

Pandulf sighed and closed the book.

"It is not something I normally proclaim from the rooftops, but I do dabble in the magic arts. Of course, I am not the only one full of secrets, Prince Andrew!"

At Pandulf's mention of the royal title, Andrew's body quivered. The blood rushed to the Armarian's cheeks in a flaming torrent. Then Andrew relaxed and shook his head. He cracked a half-hearted smile.

"I do not know what you are talking about," Andrew murmured. "Look at me! Am I dressed like a prince? No, I am just a simple knight errant, nothing more.”

Pandulf glared at the Armarian. Andrew refused to meet his host's gaze. The woodsman seemed to look right into his soul. Besides, Andrew’s expressive eyes always gave him away when he lied.

"You are a bad liar!" Pandulf rumbled. "Even if your garb lacks regal finery, your lie does not ring true. Why would Socahr the White send a mere knight errant on such a grave quest? Why should you accept such a perilous mission? Why were you able to use your sword to unlock the stone door leading to the way beneath Carrocktin? Why were you unharmed by the guardian who protected the chest containing the scroll? Finally, why do you carry the sword of the royal house of Armar?

"There may be a handful of truly magnificent weapons in this world, but only one shines in the dark with the light of a living spirit. Forged by the Fay, tempered by dragon's blood, imbued with life by mighty wizardry, there is only one Armargon. Bound by sorcery to the bloodline of kings, none but a true descendant of Aedan the First may wield that weapon, and you wield it well!"

The Armarian exhaled loudly and bowed his head. He realized that further deception was futile.

“I am the only son of King Andred the Third and heir to the throne of Armar," Andrew admitted. "I had hoped to keep my true identity secret, to travel without the added burden of my lineage. It appears that my hope was in vain."

"Armargon is legendary," Pandulf stated. “That token you wear at your side cries out to all 'Here is a Prince of Armar!' You might as well have a herald announce your approach. Why travel in obscurity?"

"Because I am a prince without a crown," Andrew explained. “I am an heir without an inheritance. The demon's attack upon my ancestral seat left ruin in its wake.

"Just before the demon's goblin army sacked Aedanton and besieged the castle, my father saw to it that my mother and I, accompanied by the queen's personal guard, fled out a sally port. When the foul folk breached the walls and overran the castle, my father died defending his birthright. Crown, throne, scepter, the demon gained hold over all but one of the symbols of Armarian royal power.

"Somehow, Socahr managed to evade the marauding horde and escape with the king's sword. He found me wandering the wilderness, frightened and alone after brigands ambushed the queen's party and murdered my mother and her escort. He told me of the castle's fall and my father's demise. He brought me to the safety of the Fair Folk Haven. He girt the sword of the Kings of Armar about my waist and set me upon my quest. He opened my eyes to the terrible truth; this evil plaguing the Seven Kingdoms of the Old Alliance must be purged from the land forever ere Armar rises again! Otherwise, the demon will continue to grow stronger and stronger until he conquers all."

"How will the items you seek aid you in this goal of purging the land of evil?" Pandulf asked.

"Look at this!" Andrew proclaimed as he held up the old map. "This shows a secret postern and passage into the demon's stronghold. If I enter there, I can pass beneath the demon's defenses unobserved, right into the royal apartments!"

"Another secret door," Pandulf grunted. "I wondered how you were going to reach the hell-spawn in his lair. An army of thousands would find it almost impossible to take that place by force. I half-suspected you might be foolish enough to march up to the main gate and announce your intentions as a formal challenge! You would be cut down before you spoke a single word. Stormlich cares little for matters of honor."

Andrew gasped at the mention of the demon's name. Few men dared speak that devil's accursed moniker aloud; many feared the consequences of its utterance.

"Take care!" Andrew asserted. "Legends say that a demon will appear to those who invoke it by name!"

"Other legends claim that speaking a demon's true name gives the speaker power over the one so named," Pandulf retorted. "Be that as it may, Stormlich is formidable, but not omnipotent. The Bane of Rurikana will not appear here in a plume of flame and a puff of smoke just because I spoke his name. However, make no mistake; it is unwise to underestimate his malice and strength. Many souls have, and they paid a dear price for their pride and ignorance."

"Are you trying to tell me that my quest is a hopeless one?" Andrew asked.

"Not at all," Pandulf replied. "Extraordinarily difficult, yes, but I suspect there is a glimmer of hope for its success. As with most things in life, we should take this quest one step at a time. We have taken our first step, wobbly and uncertain though it may have been, with the acquisition of this map. Let us hope we gain confidence and grace with each subsequent step. Which reminds me, what is our next step?

"Even after what happened beneath Carrocktin, you still wish to accompany me?" Andrew asked.

"Getting the wind knocked out of me by a blasted guardian spirit and almost having a crumbling cavern roof fall down upon my head is not enough to deter me from this quest," Pandulf replied. "I have suffered worse. Besides, the ravaging of my homeland must be avenged. Though I have dwelt in the Northland for several years now, my true home lies far south, in Rurikana. Plus, I think you could use a friend on the perilous road ahead.”

Andrew smiled.

"Yes, I could use a friend."

"It is settled, then!" Pandulf exclaimed. “What is our next destination?”

“Maelgorn Abbey," Andrew said. "Do you know it?"

"Know of it, yes," Pandulf responded. "A community of clerics who sought a simple religious life away from the temptations and corruption of society built a compound in the woods of Forvald. Over time, their establishment became famous for its well-stocked buttery as well as its scriptorium and library. It is an isolated place, far from the beaten path, and several days' journey south of here.

"Tell me, what could the cloistered monks of Maelgorn Abbey offer in the fight against the demon other than a tankard of fine ale or contemplative refuge from the evils of the world?"

"You said it yourself; they are well-known for their collection of books." Andrew explained. There is one tome in particular I must consult. The official scribe of Rurikana sought sanctuary at the abbey after the demon's massacre of Rurik’s court. The shock of the horrors he had witnessed unhinged his mind, but between bouts of madness he dictated a history of the events surrounding the demon's ascendancy. Socahr insisted that I find that book, although he was vague regarding the details."

"Of course," Pandulf snorted. "The great wizard revels in elusiveness."

"I guess we will just have to journey to the monastery library and read that book to find out why Socahr thinks it so important," Andrew said. "Tomorrow morn, we leave for the Duchy of Forvald and the Monastery of Maelgorn!"


***

Dawn’s first light filtered through the evergreen canopy and painted dappled patterns of gold upon the forest floor. Ice sparkled like diamond dust on the spruce boughs and snowy ground. Sunlight scintillated on the surface of the small brook that gurgled past Pandulf's turf-roofed hut. Neither bird nor beast stirred in the surrounding forest; only the soft voice of the stream and the slight murmur of a whispering wind disturbed daybreak's tranquil serenity.

Suddenly, the harsh clang of metal against metal shattered the morning's calm. Awake since the grey of predawn, Andrew decided to rouse his sleeping host by banging a spoon against the side of his cooking pot. The master of the cottage groaned and buried his head beneath the blankets. Undeterred, Andrew yanked the covers right off the bed.
"Rise and shine!" Andrew yelled.

"What are you doing?" Pandulf snarled.

"The sun is up," Andrew explained. "It is a bright and beautiful morn, a wonderful day!"

"There are no wonderful days in this land!" Pandulf grumbled.

"I think you dislike mornings," Andrew stated.

"I dislike being jarred awake by an infernal racket!" Pandulf shouted. Then he reigned in his ire and spoke in a less irate tone. "To be honest, I have always preferred dusk over dawn. While I do not enjoy facing the fresh labors a new day brings, I do enjoy sitting back and relaxing after the day is done. I prefer the majesty of the evening firmament over the drab blue of day. There is much more to learn in the stars. I find peace at night. I find comfort in the dark."

"I hate the dark," Andrew snapped. "It blinds, suffocates, and chills. I find no comfort in it at all!"

"I feel safe in the dark," Pandulf countered.

"Danger and evil lurk in the dark," Andrew affirmed. "I have never liked the dark, and I never will!"

"Are you afraid of the dark?" Pandulf asked with a snicker.

"Are we ready to depart?" Andrew growled. He was more than willing to redirect the conversation toward a more pragmatic subject.

"Almost," Pandulf replied. He removed the dark great sword, still swathed in his cloak, from beneath his bed and threw it upon his straw mattress. He then retrieved a black leather scabbard and sword belt from the same place and tossed sheath and belt next to the enwrapped weapon.

"Now I will also travel armed!" Pandulf proclaimed. He pulled back the folds of his mantle to uncover the uncanny blade.

Andrew shuddered as he stared at the strangely beautiful yet frightening weapon. The onyx set into its pommel seemed to stare like some gleaming black eye. The snakes engraved into its cross appeared to squirm in the firelight.

"I did not notice that before," Andrew said in a voice that sounded oddly hoarse and strained.

"There was no need for it before," Pandulf stated bluntly.

After that, the two men made their final preparations in uneasy silence. Pandulf became distant and reticent, while Andrew remained troubled by trepidation. When the time came to leave, both men departed Pandulf's hut in solemn moods.

As the two men climbed out of the valley, the forester was first to break the silence, if not the solemnity, when he turned to look back at his modest home one last time and said:
"I shall never set eyes upon this place again."

"You do not know that," Andrew insisted. "You might see this place again someday."

"No," Pandulf muttered. "Whatever lies ahead, I will never return here." He then turned his back on that little turf-roofed abode snuggled in the sheltered dale and started on the long and dangerous journey south.

***

Andrew and Pandulf trudged through the trackless forest. Their footsteps crunched loudly in the thin cover of crusted snow. As they plunged deeper into the woods, the pervasive green gloom cast by the tall trees shaded their path and darkened their spirits. Shushed by the persistent soft scolding of the wind breathing through the needled branches, when the two travelers conversed at all, they did so in hushed tones.

Just before midday, Andrew and Pandulf rested beneath the limbs of a grand old spruce. Their small campfire and their plain but wholesome provisions cheered their souls a bit. They resumed their trek with lighter hearts and brighter dispositions under the stronger rays of the noonday sun.

As the two men climbed a rocky hillock within the woods, Andrew began to whistle a spontaneously composed tune. Carried away by the melody, Pandulf's mind wandered as he walked. Paying too little heed to where he was going, he caught the toe of his boot on a hidden stone. He tripped and fell forward. When he struggled back to his feet, his bewhiskered cheeks were covered in snow.

"Ha!" Andrew laughed. "Behold, the terrible snow monster of the north!"

Pandulf glowered as he brushed the snow from his beard.

"I am glad you can find mirth in another man's misery!" he roared.

Andrew just giggled, scooped up a handful of snow, and struck his compatriot in the face with a snowball. Pandulf glared, but then bent down and formed his own icy missile to lob at Andrew. They both guffawed heartily.

"You are a lunatic!" Pandulf declared.

"I must be a lunatic to be travelling with the likes of you!" Andrew retorted with a grin.

"Anyone who wanders these lands must be mad," Pandulf groaned.

"What about those who live here?" Andrew pointed out. "Might you say that they are especially crazed to live in such a place?"

"Circumstances forced me to take up residence in this land," Pandulf stated. "Now circumstances are drawing me back home."

"Drawing us both back home," Andrew added.

***

For several days, the two travelers journeyed slowly but steadily southward through the great expanse of the northern forest. Some days they lost their way and were forced to search out the sun's face through the shadowy boughs to regain their bearings. On other days they walked from dawn to dusk and only halted at noon for a meal and a brief rest. If they perceived signs of game nearby, Pandulf’s bow and dwindling supply of arrows provided them with wild fare to supplement their provisions. Each evening they constructed a simple lean-to shelter, built a small campfire to warm their weary limbs, ate a light supper, and then bundled up in their cloaks and bedrolls to sleep through the long cold night.

On the fifth day after they left Pandulf's hut, the two men reached the end of a disused roadway. Though overgrown and neglected, the sunken highway broke the dull monotony of the wooded landscape. It cut a fairly straight line southward through the trees.

"We are on the very edge of civilization!" Pandulf declared. "This must be the humble beginnings of the Great Northern Way. If we follow this path straight on for another five hundred and seventy leagues or so, we will reach the very gates of the royal castle of Rurikana itself."

"Only if our path led straight on," Andrew corrected. "It does not."

"Even so, you have reason to rejoice," Pandulf said. "We are now in the lands of the Duchy of Forvald, Northern Armar. You have returned home!"

"No," Andrew breathed with a shake of his head. "My home is the castle of the Kings of Armar. My rightful place is upon Aedan’s throne. The demon sacked the castle and captured the throne. I vowed that there would be no king in Armar while the demon's evil endures. I cannot truly return home until I complete my quest."

The weighty turn to the conversation sunk the two wayfarers into pensive sulkiness as they began plodding down the road. Each man’s thoughts turned inward toward his own personal plight. Neither man noted the peculiar repetition of bird calls as they passed beneath certain trees. They failed to hear the faint rustle of soft boots in the snow that signaled trouble ahead. They never caught sight of the bandits clad in forest green that followed their movement from within the timber until the ruffians darted out onto the highway where it joined a by-way headed west.

"Stand!" one of the villains shouted as a handful of his compatriots appeared behind the travelers to block their escape. Armed with sword and buckler, the leader levelled his weapon at his intended victims while his cohorts took aim with wooden crossbows.

"This 'ere be a toll road, though pickings ‘ave been poor o' late. Not many passersby to pay the toll, but now our fortune 'as changed. You can pay in silver or with your souls. So, which will it be, your money or your lives?"

The scoundrels’ plan went badly awry as the scene erupted into sudden chaos. Andrew leapt at the leader while screaming a string of curses. He sidestepped the stunned man's sword and went straight for the would-be robber's throat. Quarrels missed their swerving target; a few struck the crossbowmen’s own comrades instead!

Pandulf disappeared in a blinding flash of light. A huge brown bear stood in his stead. The animal reared up and loomed menacingly over the dumbfounded brigands. With one mighty swipe of its massive paw, the bruin slammed several against the nearest tree. All but one of the highwaymen left standing ran for their lives.

After he broke the head thief's neck, Andrew drew his sword and turned to face the lone remaining crossbowman. The stern-faced outlaw reloaded his weapon, aimed it at Andrew's chest, and pulled the tiller. The prince dove for the ground. The steel-headed quarrel struck Andrew in the right shoulder. It ripped through his fur-lined cloak, punched a hole through both his leathern cuirie and its integral padding, and tore into his tunic and flesh. The prince lay dazed and bloodied as his foe grinned and set another quarrel in place.

The malefactor never had a chance to shoot the bolt. His face screwed up into a shocked grimace, and then he crumpled to the ground. The hilt of a knife stuck out of his back, the blade buried between his ribs.

Through the crimson mist of pain, Andrew thought he spied a black-robed form slip off into the woods. He then saw a great bear shuffle over and sniff his face.

The animal plopped down on its haunches. Its outline grew fuzzy and distorted. Pandulf became himself once more.

"You are hurt," Pandulf said weakly. His baritone voice lacked its usual power and his green eyes seemed to have lost some of their luster.

"Pull it out!" Andrew cried as he sat up.

"Is that wise?" Pandulf asked. "You might bleed to death!"

"Pull it out!" Andrew insisted. "Yarrow, comfrey, and waybread will staunch the flow and help cleanse the wound. I should have enough! Just get the damned thing out!"

Pandulf pulled out the quarrel. It hadn't gone in too deeply; the shoulder of Andrew's cuirass had taken the brunt of the blow.

"You have a nice hole in your armor, but not much of one in you," Pandulf observed. "You are lucky. If the head of the bolt had been barbed, I would not have been able to remove it without doing serious damage. You are also lucky the crossbow was of the weaker variety used by rustic rogues. Had that been a hit from a heavy arbalest, it would have shattered your shoulder."

"Pleasant thought!" Andrew moaned. With assistance from his friend, he removed his cloak, cuirass, and tunic, applied a salve to stop the bleeding, and then bandaged the wound.

“The herbs should help the wound heal," the prince stated. "I learned a few useful things during my time living amongst the Fair Folk.”

"Remarkable!" Pandulf exclaimed. "Nevertheless, it is a good thing you prefer to use your sinister hand. That shoulder will be sore for some time."

"I will survive," Andrew said. "Things could have been a lot worse if you had not managed to stab that bastard from behind."

"What?" Pandulf asked in genuine puzzlement. "I did no such thing. I was, well, indisposed at the time."

"Look!" Andrew called. He pointed to the knife lodged in the dead man's back.

Andrew removed the weapon from the body so he and Pandulf could examine it more closely. With its unadorned ash grip and simple steel blade, the knife looked to be the sort of rugged utensil used by poor woodsmen and hunters. It belonged to neither man, nor had they ever seen it before.

"We may have a mysterious ally," Andrew suggested.

"I despise such mysteries," Pandulf said. "I do not treasure the thought of assistance from a furtive lurker who strikes unexpectedly from behind."

"He did save my life,” Andrew stated. “I am grateful for that."

"I just hope your gratitude does not transform into regret," Pandulf remarked.

"Like you transformed into a bear?" Andrew grinned. "That was a lovely trick. It certainly sent those thieves running scared!"

"I was not sure you noticed," Pandulf mumbled.

"Yes, I noticed," Andrew said with a wink. Then the prince turned toward his fallen foes and began to rifle through their belongings. He started his grisly search with the leader. He pried the linden buckler, still clutched in the headman's hand, from the corpse's grasp and slung it over his own scabbard.

"Absolutely morbid!" Pandulf spat.

"Aha!" Andrew exclaimed as he dug through the deerskin pouch suspended from the man’s belt. "Poor pickings, eh? I think not! These could prove useful."

Andrew held up a palm full of silver groats, gold jewels, and precious gems for Pandulf to see. Pandulf's interest piqued at the sight of the valuables.

"Useful indeed," Pandulf agreed. "However, I believe ransacking the dead may be rather despicable behavior for a royal prince."

"I do what I need to do to survive," Andrew explained as he stuffed the money and trinkets into his own pouch. "These wretches have no further use for their stolen spoils. I suspect the true owners are buried in shallow graves somewhere nearby."

“I will tell you what else is nearby!" Pandulf declared. "Maelgorn Abbey! I thought I recognized the path west; it is the abbey road. Those rogues must have been waylaying travelers to and from the monastery. I wonder what their leader meant by poor pickings of late. Last I knew, as remote as it is, Maelgorn still receives fairly regular visits from pilgrims, patrons, merchants, and clergymen."

"It seems the pickings were fine enough," Andrew said as he slapped his hand against his scrip. "Perhaps he was a liar as well as a thief!"

"Perhaps he was," Pandulf admitted. "However, I still wonder. There may have been some truth to what he said. We do not know how long he had been in possession of those particular spoils."

Andrew shrugged.

"I think it is time we visited the monks of Maelgorn," he said.

"Are you up to it?" Pandulf asked.

"Of course," Andrew responded. "A mere flesh wound will not keep me from enjoying Maelgorn’s hospitality. Maelgorn brew is renowned far and wide, the finest north of the Falwor, or so they say. A tall mug of abbey ale would do wonders for me right about now!"

Copyright © 2015 Richard H. Fay

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My "Wyvern": An "Oldie-but-Goodie" (And Still Sellin')

Sold last night through my Richard Fay / Azure Lion Productions Zazzle Store: one Wyvern Keychain.

The "Wyvern" is one of my "oldies-but-goodies" It's a design dating back to when I sold framed art and bookmarks at the local medieval fair and a few other local arts and crafts fairs. I used to photocopy my original line drawings onto parchment paper and then hand-color the copied drawings using colored pencils. The "Wyvern" was part of my framed art collection. I know I sold at least one copy in 2000, at the local medieval fair. Now, thanks to modern computer technology and sites like Zazzle, I sell merchandise like keychains featuring a digitally colored version of that same design.

Created in 1999 (that's the date on the drawing itself). Sold in 2000. Still sellin' in 2015. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

ANDREW OF ARMAR: CHAPTER TWO: BENEATH CARROCKTIN

ANDREW OF ARMAR

CHAPTER TWO
BENEATH CARROCKTIN

Bright and early the next morn, before the questers embarked upon their inaugural expedition, Pandulf insisted they break their fast with a quick meal. Andrew, eager to leave, reluctantly agreed. After a breakfast of brown bread and hard cheese washed down with watery ale, the duo departed for the site where Carrocktin once stood.

Pandulf led Andrew to the edge of the evergreens. His course took them out of the quiet shelter of the woodland and onto the windswept waste beyond. The forester guided the Armarian past solitary boulders, through stands of wind-blown larches, and around thickets of undersized willows. All the while, he maintained a roughly northward route.

Low hills rose before the two men as the dark green line of the forest faded into the distance. When they reached a frozen rivulet, Pandulf turned and headed in the direction of the rising sun. Just as the sun reached its highest point in a cloudless sky, the travelers halted on the leeward side of a rocky outcrop. They rested and nibbled on some hard biscuits and stockfish which were among the various provisions Andrew carried in his overstuffed pack. They slaked their thirst with icy water from the nearby stream. Once sufficiently refreshed, the two men continued on their journey.

Andrew and Pandulf spoke few words to each other as they trudged through the snow. When they did converse, they talked only of the bleakness of the scenery or the austerity of life in the north. Each kept a wary eye on the other. Andrew smiled pleasantly, but his left hand went instinctively to the hilt of his sword whenever Pandulf paused to scan the countryside for familiar landmarks. Pandulf noted the mixed messages and made sure to keep a few paces ahead of his companion. The feelings of unease intensified as the two searchers came upon a surreal scene.

Amidst the rolling hills, a jagged scar cut across the face of the land. Monoliths thrust up toward the heavens in a vain attempt to regain their irrecoverable majesty. Innumerable stony fingers reached for lofty heights forever lost. Shattered boulders lay strewn about like pebbles in a brook. Craggy shapes cast eerie shadows in the late afternoon sun. An easterly wind murmured a melancholic melody as it blew through that sad monument to a mountain’s annihilation.

Andrew gaped in awe over the tragic sight. Pandulf saw the Armarian's emotional reaction and chuckled, which seemed an especially harsh sound in such a mournful place.

"Expect a mountain, did you?" Pandulf remarked.

"The tales told of Carrocktin's destruction, but I never expected this," Andrew replied. "What could have caused such devastation?"

"A great and terrible magic," Pandulf explained. "I doubt you will be able to find what you are looking for. I doubt anything survived."

"Socahr mentioned a tunnel leading down into caverns winding their way through the root of the mountain. He also said that arcane protections shield the chamber beyond and keep what it contains safe. It must still be there, beneath the ruin."

"So, where is the entrance to this alleged tunnel?"

"Hidden."

"If it is hidden, how do we find it? It will take a lifetime to search this labyrinth."

"Wait here!" Andrew drew his sword and then loped off amongst the stones. He carried the weapon before him like a divining rod. The sword's blade glimmered with an inner blue light, one that looked to be more than mere reflection of the azure sky.

"Have I cast my lot with the village idiot?" Pandulf wondered aloud. "Then again, perhaps not. Could it be?"

A shout from Andrew interrupted Pandulf's pondering.

"Found it!"

Pandulf sputtered a few mild oaths as he struggled over the rough terrain.

"Look!" Andrew pointed to an anomalous crack in the face of a low limestone crag. The fissure limned a circular form in the rock too regular to have been hewn by nature's hand.

"This must be a door!"

"If it is a door, where is the handle?” Pandulf asked. "How do we open it?"

"Like this!" Andrew proclaimed. He inserted the blade of his sword into a slit carved into the stone about where a door handle would be. As he did so, there was an audible click and the door swung open. An entryway led through the rock and into a subterranean passage.

"Perfect," the Armarian said as he sheathed his weapon.

Pandulf caught a closer glimpse of the blade before it slid back into its scabbard. Its polished steel surface shone with an eldritch luminescence. It was definitely no ordinary weapon.

Andrew lit a couple of torches, handed one to his fellow adventurer, and then started down the adit. Pandulf followed, more than willing to let the Armarian take the lead. For his part, Andrew showed more concern over what awaited ahead than who followed behind.

After several paces, the passageway sloped downward at a precariously steep grade. The two men advanced cautiously along a perilously slick path. To keep from losing their footing, each man inched forward with a hand braced against the tunnel wall. The persistent cold chilled to the bone as the icy stone grew slicker and slicker. Eventually, the inevitable misstep ensued. Pandulf felt his feet slip out from under him. His hand dropped from the wall as he tried in vain to regain his balance. He fell and knocked Andrew over in the process. Both men slid the rest of the way down the declivity.

"That was amusing," Pandulf quipped wryly as he rubbed his bruised backside. “What delight might we enjoy next? Perhaps we will bathe in the White Sea. I hear it is especially invigorating this time of year, if you can hack your way through several spans of solid ice!"

“At least the ground levels out from here," Andrew said. "And our torches rolled down with us. I would hate to be left in the dark. Too many nasty things lurk in the dark.”

Just beyond the descent the two men had tumbled down, the tunnel opened out into a large cavern. Flickering torchlight did little to expel the subterrane's pervading blackness. Its far reaches remained cloaked in profound obscurity.

“I think we have to make our way across,” Andrew said.

The two men trekked deeper into the stifling stillness of that Stygian hollow. They took each step with care, lest the sound of their footfalls disturb the brooding hush. Any words they may have uttered died upon their lips, quelled by a baleful oppressiveness. It was as if the darkness itself resented human intrusion into its subterrestrial domain.

A beastly bellow shattered the tense silence. It rolled like thunder through the cave and reverberated off icy walls veiled in shadow. The inhuman sound lingered in the men's ears long after the last echoes died away.

"What was that?" Andrew breathed.

"Something decidedly unpleasant," Pandulf stated.

In the hope of crossing the cavern before the source of that feral cry caught their scent, the two men quickened their pace. However, as they hurried to cross the indeterminate expanse, they realized with horror that they were not alone. Something lurked just beyond the circle of light. It sniffed, snorted, and shuffled toward them.

"A snowyn!" Pandulf cried as a hideous hybrid lumbered out of the dark.

A snarling ursine head sat atop the abomination's vaguely humanoid body. Beady black eyes set in the front of the brute's snouted skull fixed their predatory gaze upon potential prey. Fanged jaws opened wide as the monster let out a violent roar and charged.

With sword drawn, Andrew moved to fend off the attack. A strongly clawed hand flung the Armarian aside. The snowyn then turned toward Pandulf.
The stout forester stood his ground. He uttered a few magical words and mystical energy sparked from his fingertips.

"Armarischa!" the Armarian war cry of old rang out. Swift as lightning, a gleaming blue blade smote off the creature's head. Before the dying beast hit the ground, another blow cut its hirsute torso in twain.

Pandulf quickly doused the sparks that danced about his hand. Andrew grinned like the cat that ate the canary as he wiped the gore from his blade.
"Not a bad bit of swordplay," the Armarian bragged.

"Indeed," Pandulf agreed. "You carry a most useful and fascinating weapon."

Andrew shot his companion a wary glance.

"Yes, most useful," he mumbled as he returned his sword to its scabbard. He then kicked the monstrosity's mangled corpse.
"You called this thing a snowyn. What kind of thing was it?"

"Snowyn are the scourge of the north," Pandulf explained. "They are bloodthirsty fiends shaped by wicked sorcery; composite beasts created by combining men with great white bears. You are lucky this one did not rip you to shreds!"

"Lucky for this," Andrew said as he thumped his hand against his leathern breastplate. The cuirie had done its job; it had deflected the snowyn's claws. However, it now sported several deep gashes.

"And lucky for that marvelous sword of yours," Pandulf added.

Andrew ignored the comment.

"I do not believe the Snowyn followed us down the entryway, but if it did not, where did it come from?"

"Perhaps there is another way in," Pandulf suggested.

Andrew nodded in agreement. He picked up his torch, which he had dropped when the snowyn had swatted him across the cave, and explored the area behind where the beast had appeared out of the shadows. He spotted a rough tunnel that meandered up and out of the cave.

A cool draft drifted down the passageway and sent Andrew's torchlight fluttering. Fresh scuff marks and a prodigious pile of still-steaming droppings indicated an animal had passed that way quite recently.

"It looks like the snowyn entered here," Andrew said. "I think it leads outside. Unfortunately, our path leads the other way."

The Armarian proceeded to hunt for another passageway. After a thorough exploration along the perimeter of the huge cavern, he discovered a doorway, cut straight and square, which led out of that expansive hollow and into a corridor excavated through Carrocktin's stone foundation.

"This way!" Andrew called.

The two men made their way down the underground corridor and deeper into the root of the mountain. They could feel a growing pressure, as if the weight of the earth above bore down heavier and heavier upon their shoulders. The air grew terribly stale. Just when it seemed the tunnel would never end, it stopped before a stone doorsill. Protective runes festooned the threshold's upper horizontal member.

"Wait here," Andrew said as he passed beneath the graven lintel and strode into a vast man-made chamber.

The hall's high domed ceiling disappeared into the darkness. A pedestal hewn out of living rock stood in the exact center of the chamber. Upon this dais sat a rusty strongbox bound with sturdy chains.

Andrew marched up to the chest. He tugged at the chains, to no avail. Undaunted, the Armarian shrugged and drew his sword. The blade, which emitted an ethereal glow in the subterranean gloom, sliced effortlessly through the metal links. Andrew pried open the coffer’s lid and discovered a silver-capped scroll case contained within. The Armarian sheathed his sword, set his torch upon the edge of the stone platform, and lifted the waxed leather tube out of its iron repository.

Curious, Pandulf entered the room for a closer look. As soon as he crossed the threshold, a brilliant beam of light shot up out of the open chest. Andrew stumbled backward. An unseen hand threw Pandulf across the chamber and pinned him against the wall.

A cloaked figure appeared within the radiant shaft that streamed up to the ceiling. The quivering apparition raised its arm and pointed an accusing finger at Pandulf. A searing bolt flashed from the phantom’s upraised digit. Pandulf screamed and then slumped down amidst tendrils of smoke.

Andrew lunged at the box and slammed the lid shut. The guardian spirit vanished. Andrew grabbed up his torch and then rushed over to his stricken comrade. He dragged Pandulf to his feet.

The man's cloak and hair were singed and he tottered a bit when he tried to walk, but he had not suffered mortal injury.

"You will be alright," Andrew stated.

"Thanks for the concern," Pandulf croaked. "I feel like I have been trampled by a herd of horses."

Andrew started to tell Pandulf that he was quite welcome when the earth began to tremble beneath their feet. Dust and shards of stone rained down upon their heads. The walls of the chamber quaked and split. Huge chunks plummeted to the floor.

"Run!" Andrew shouted.

The two men raced back up the tunnel and dodged tumbling boulders as they ran. They made their way to the snowyn's lair, but found the exit blocked by a rockfall.

"We are trapped!" Pandulf cried.

Just when it seemed likely that the adventurers would be buried alive, part of the cavern wall collapsed outward. A sliver of moonlight shone through the breach.

"Look! Andrew yelled. "A way out!" He hauled Pandulf through the rift.

The two men clawed their way over the rubble and onto a rocky ledge. Once safely outside, they dropped to their knees and eagerly sucked in the cold, fresh air.

The exhausted travelers found themselves in a shallow grotto on the side of a rocky ridge. Beneath the grotto, gnarled larches huddled at the base of the rugged rise. In the sky above, a waxing gibbous moon hung high over the eastern horizon while a waning blue glow lingered in the west. Across the undulating plain, near the distant line of the forest's edge, wolves howled in anticipation of the evening's chase.

"We must be at least four leagues northeast of my cabin," Pandulf said. "We cannot cross the wasteland at night. Wolves, snowyn, and worse roam the Northland countryside after dark."

"Yes," Andrew agreed. "We had better make camp here. There is shelter, and I might find usable wood amongst those trees below. I will climb down and see. You rest here.”

Andrew clambered down the ridge and gathered an armful of dead branches and twigs. When he returned, he removed his tinderbox from his bulging satchel. Pandulf marveled at the oversized pack’s contents. Besides tinderbox, rations, and a bundle of wooden torches, the satchel contained various odds and ends, such as a small iron pot, a couple of ceramic flasks, a coil of rope, a spoon, and a knife.

"I believe in travelling with a well-stocked pack," Andrew explained when he noticed Pandulf's expression of wonderment. "Doing so has saved me from certain death more than once!"

"Your recklessness has nearly cost you your life twice in two days!" Pandulf snapped. He still felt sore from his encounter with the guardian spirit. The pain in his muscles and joints soured his mood.

"I don't understand it," Andrew said. "I should have been able to open the chest without triggering the curse."

"Perhaps the poor soul charged with defending that damnable casket did not like the look of you," Pandulf sneered.

"No!" Andrew retorted. "I think it did not like the look of you. You got too close. I should have had no trouble retrieving the document."

"Why is that?" Pandulf questioned.

"Never mind!" Andrew spat, obviously flustered by the question. "At least we got what we came for."

"Enough!" Pandulf growled. "Let us try to get some rest, if rest is at all possible in this wretched place."

Settled beneath an overhang, with the grotto's rocky walls to their backs, the two men prepared to pass a cold and fitful night out on the Northland plain. Wrapped in their fur-lined cloaks, with their small campfire blazing bright between them, they did their best to keep out the cold and catch a bit of sleep. Even so, disquieting memories and terrible dreams disturbed their slumber.

***

A troubling feeling jarred Pandulf out of his restless sleep. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. Blood drummed in his ears. His heart pounded in his chest.

An oily voice bubbled inside the forester's head. It insisted that he leave camp. It demanded that he journey out into the benighted wilderness.
Pandulf leapt to his feet and cocked his head in an attempt to place the source of that spectral command. The only sounds that came to his ears were lupine wails. He realized that the voice seethed within his own skull! A peculiar sensation of power and recognition overtook him.

"I sense a presence that I have not sensed in years," he hissed.

The forester felt compelled to obey the voice inside his head, to draw nearer that odd presence. He crept away softly and stalked off into the darkness.
Overwhelming emotion steered Pandulf across the rolling landscape and toward a pair of tall rocks. When he reached those stone sentinels, he knelt down as if to pray before a strange altar. He clawed at the snow to uncover a small frozen pool. He waved his hands over the ice and it sizzled away to reveal an ebon-bladed great sword.

A long hilt and an ovoid pommel counterbalanced the large blade. Onyx cabochons adorned recesses forged into both faces of the pommel. Twisted silver wire spiraled around a grip wrapped in black leather. Serpentine engravings inlaid with niello writhed about a flared cross.

Pandulf grinned wildly and grasped the hilt in both hands. For a brief moment, the gems set into the sword's pommel glowed a deep red. As Pandulf brandished the blade, it seemed to swallow the starlight. He laughed harshly and then tucked the weapon beneath his cloak. With the sword hidden from view, he slunk back to the grotto.

***

Andrew awoke with a start, alarmed by a distressing dream. In his mind's eye, he had witnessed a great flame-eyed serpent devour the moon. The beast had then fixed its burning gaze upon him. Its taunting susurrations had cursed Andrew and proclaimed him a failure.

Even after the nocturnal visions faded, Andrew could not shake the cold from his limbs or the terror from his mind. A chill slithered down his spine. He tossed a few sticks onto the dying fire, wrapped himself more tightly in his cloak, and tried to get back to sleep. He noticed Pandulf's absence, but figured his companion merely needed to answer the call of nature. By the time Pandulf skulked back to camp, Andrew was dozing peacefully.

Copyright © 2015 Richard H. Fay