ANDREW OF ARMAR
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.”
"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."
"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