ANDREW OF ARMAR
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?"
"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.
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