Narrative from the Library of the White Hart – Marchwood
(The account of Gwalchmai ap Maelduine)
“… I woke early and sobbing and struggled for breath, my dreams had been haunted and my chest was heavy and my heart beat fast like a trapped bird, or fox brought close to killing bounds. Rebecca came close and her eyes asked question, and I spoke then of a place in the forest where corruption rose and I bound there and dying slowly, my own heart wreathed in decaying forces, and my breath failing there as I looked to three beasts raised in the twilight to gaze without compassion upon my death. And these animals were a great Lion, and scythe-tusked Boar, and a Raven with wicked eyes.
And then later, even as I told these things to Benedict and spoke loud of the portent to the gathered heroes and captains of our host I felt my heart burning with dark poison and clutched my chest and fell to my knees, struggling to draw my sword and cry out. But even as I suffered a pain mirrored in the corruption of the white hart of the forest, Leri and Branwen came close and purged the disease and decay from my breast and searched my flesh for signs of any recurrence. Mercifully there was none, but Leri asked Benedict then that a healer should stay close at my side till the day and threat to Marchwood was done. Benedict agreed and asked Christian Walker to bind himself to the task, and further yet, that an amulet of sanctuary should be brought forth and hung from my neck the better to arrest the future onset of this ailment and reflected curse.
Then Benedict spoke aloud his intentions and orders for the coming day; first he declared that consultation with Earl Glycell had revealed a means of penetrating the glamour of the forest and finding a way to the dark heart, and to these ends a ritual was to be performed to enhance the sight and senses of certain scouts of Albion who would then be empowered to see truth behind illusion and free us to travel as we desired. Next Benedict named his intention to send a party to Winchester to gain aid and to re-power the Staff of the Magi and the Cup of Dreams which could be coaxed well to hold healing energy if bidden by prayers and spoken incantations. And last Benedict named his desire to confront the dark heart before the closing of day, and while daylight remained he wished to see an end in the corruption of the White Hart and thereby gain deliverance for the dwellers of Marchwood.
Again there was no demurral for Benedict was a man who planned by counsel and led by force of pragmatic resolve. Without incident the war companies formed up, and this time we were able to leave the glade of the lodge without being confused by the glamour. Eburos made loud the opinion that such things might only delude the minds of mortals during the darkness, and Benedict once more expressed his hard intention to confront the heart of corruption during the daylight hours.
Then forward scouts returned with news of a war party ahead, and these were familiar to the heroes of Albion, for they wore the colours and heraldry of the Story, and their arms were shining with possibility and their armour gleamed with the strength of imperfect recall. Silently the Story host drew up to block our path to the ritual circle, and one amongst their number approached with a smile and a jaunty wave of welcome and truce, peering theatrically from behind his helm as he sought our commander in the line.
“Why are you here?” Benedict asked, his own wave ordering the line to form to either side of his shield.
“I am a diplomat”, The Story warrior declared and looked a little uncertain of the words he had spoken.
“I’ll ask again, why are you here?” Benedict repeated, his eyes scanning the opposite shield line.
For a moment the “diplomat” hesitated then returned to his own lines to speak with tall warrior resplendent in wondrous plates of polished steel and silk-dressed war harness. The beautiful Story Knight beckoned our attention to the space between the hosts and there appeared the scarlet-bound book which had caused so much consternation and doubt in the past.
“Take it!” He shouted, angrily. “Take it … let the Raven Lady take the prize she has won!”
And then the book moved forwards propelled by invisible hands, approaching our line with small jumps and hops, to finally plunge past the foremost shields to hurtle into the hands of Lady Arianrhod, the chief bard of Albion.
“Now then,” declared the Story Knight,
“You will leave Marchwood and abandon this quest, you will leave your swords and items of magic and miscellaneous devices, you will go hence and never return, you have committed great crimes against my people with your falsehoods and lies and corruptions of our realm and lest you wish to pay the price for such malign deeds here and now you will fly away in fear and count yourselves lucky to have been spared!”
A moment of silence while the company of Albion digested the balance of this demand, and then Benedict held his hand for silence and replied formally to the offer,
“Can we have the diplomat back?”
There were no words for a time thereafter; hard battle was fought and the glorious Knights and heroes of the Story contended with the more weathered champions of Albion’s mortal reality. At first no quarter was asked or given, and simple fury drove paragons of chivalrous vision to strike with maddened fury at foeman written close in the pages of the book cradled against the breast of Lady Arianrhod. But then a change, for on either side of the lines lay mingled wounded of both hosts, and it appeared that the Story cared for their fallen as ever we did for our own. Shouting for notice in the fray Lady Leri agreed a truce between the combatants, and the now meaningless skirmishing ended with an exchange of wounded and dying prisoners, now to be saved at the touch of healers and physicians on both sides.
But though his fellows were saved from slaughter close and violent, the Story Knight was wrathful still, and declared in frightful vexation a curse upon our fates;
“This is not the end, you have spurned our words and you will pay a price for the harm you done my people and the despoilment of my country. Mark well my words Albion, the time will come when you grind your teeth for memory of the chance you had but threw back in our faces!”
But Benedict was unconcerned by this fresh boast, and ordering a temporary halt to repair armour and dress wounds fully, turned his thoughts to contingency and command, for in the fight he had fallen to wounds and the company had lacked for guidance. Naming Alistair of Darkwood his chosen deputy, and Robert Falcon his third, Benedict took the steps necessary to maintain integrity should his voice be silenced again in the fray.
Then onwards to the ritual circle, and though the environs were found free of foeman the terrain was scattered yet with the debris of the massacre the night before. And taking stock of the ground Benedict ordered a perimeter be established, with Robert Falcon providing scouting patrols deep into the forest around. I was asked to lead an exploration team to Winchester and together with Phoenix and Percival we travelled through the circle and established the safety of transit for a second team to re-power artefacts and pass the fresh news of our situation to the garrison at the capital.
These goals achieved we rested for a time, while ever the ritualists under the guidance of Glycell prepared to work their enhancement upon the senses of those bound to lead our company deeper towards the dark heart of the wood. And while I rested I was visited again by pain and corruption and fell anew to the power wounding the white hart elsewhere in the forest. Clenching my teeth I made light of my predicament, and remarked to Leri that had we been elsewhere and in different circumstances I might rather blame such pangs on a rich breakfast taken after heavy ale the night before.
As before Leri treated the ailment and the corruption was banished but now I had doubts of my strength, and I knew well that as nightfall approached such episodes would likely grow worse and more frequent. I was concerned at the reserves of healing energy being employed, and also, if truth be told, growing wary of the threat that lurked at the heart of the wood to so endanger an ancient beast and the very consort of the Hunter.
And to this reverie came the smiling face of Finn Dracha, who enquired as to my health and then offered to share a drink to enhance my strength and arm me well for the trials ahead. I looked to Finn in some surprise for I remembered his anger of the night before, and yet I needed his help, and I had no wish to spurn the offered aid of a comrade in arms so I nodded, and accepted the goblet of fiery liquid he offered.
“Down it in a single swallow,” he warned.
I did as he said, and at once I felt my heart burning anew with strange strength and alien sensations, my vision blurred and then cleared, my muscles felt tight and then stronger yet, and for I time I was filled with gratitude, for it seemed Finn had meant this gift in fair heart and open generosity.
And then as I tried to reply to Leri’s question of my health I realised I could not speak words of meaning, my tongue was incapable of forming the shapes I had long relied on for language and discourse and I panicked, making strangling sounds of frustration and anger, and close by Finn Dracha smirked the superiority of the fey in the presence of those they consider mere foolish mortal victims to their immortal pranks and timeless jests of wanton and malicious meddling.
Even as Rebecca came close I could not speak and as she stood in concern and fear for my wits, I made the mewling sounds of demonkind and felt my humanity slipping further as I struggled to remember the names and tales and lore of my druidic tutelage, but it was all gone, vanished from my mind.
And then Aisla and Benedict tried to speak with me, and though I managed a few snatches of ancient Cymrijian that Aisla recognised, Benedict could make no sense of my language and merely looked to my eyes for signs that I at least understood his words. I creased my face in rage, I felt the demonblood raging in my chest and felt hatred close and unabated, and knew well that fury would overtake me before ever I could make sign or gesture with hands and fingers. Spitting half-audible phrases and words at Aisla I made her at least understand, for I could not command men while afflicted by this curse, and I asked her to take my place as a war-captain for Benedict until such time I might be recovered, if ever I was to be.
In despair I turned then from the worlds of man and crouched like a mournful beast at the verge of the ritual circle, abandoning my sword and shield and taking up a long-spear than I could wield easily in the powerful muscles tensing beneath my tunic and mail. I listened as best I could, but the thunderous beating of my own heart and the sound of rushing blood impelled like rapids within my veins, served ill to focus my senses on the soft and pointless words passing between the fragile mortal vessels around me.
From what I have since heard, the ritual working was successful in that it truly enhanced the senses of the trackers involved, but at the very moment of triumph came disaster too, and from an unexpected direction, and this from the presence of the fey albiones in the circle. For alas, to enhanced sight beyond glamour, the natural form of faerie seelie and unseelie is shining and dangerous to view and look upon, and this the fate of the scouts so enchanted. And blindness was the gift instead of clarity, and rather than aiding our cause overmuch, the ritual came close to crippling our chances thereafter, an unforeseen but tragic circumstance.
At the close of the ritual working Arianrhod fell ill, and a new story had been written into the red book she carried, and this the tale of a Witch who desired revenge for the death of her servant, and wrought ill and murder upon the fire fey who had burned down a castle. And it was written that the fate could only be averted if a man of honour would lose all his honour to regain it all by the end of the day.
It was decided then that Arianrhod should return to the guild house in Selby, and that in her stead Alister should carry the red book of enchanted stories.
Rebecca too was weakened by the ritual, but I had no words of comfort and could only take her hand and try as hard as I could to still the rage in my heart below corded muscles and the sibilant whispering of demonic speech close behind my eyes.
And then amidst the mood of gloom that had come upon the company, and with barely hours remaining to the day, a messenger came, a messenger promised by the Hunter perhaps, for Alistair recognised the authority of this man, and even I in my sorrow saw a sign of recognition and strove for long moments to remember the words of the prophet the night before. But in truth he was a messenger of the light, an Old One spoken close in legend and ancient tale, and a guide to those who sought the Dream of Albion.
And the emissary told us that the Hart and Heart of Albion was corrupt, and that as consort to the Hunter this flaw grew and threatened all we knew and all we yet hoped to be. He challenged us to follow into the Dream to contend with the matter of Albion and to make those choices yet required to heal the corruption spreading outwards from the flaw. I could barely understand these words, but many more did, and Benedict for his part was not slow to pledge his own heart to the quest, and even as my own humanity was darkened by the demonblood in my veins I rose like a figure from the cauldron and followed.
There were rules to the dreaming, some I remember; there was a path, a path which could only be left once before damnation might come, I laughed at this and thought twice-damned a small advance on my present state.
But there were trials also, and for a dream of Albion it was a cold one, and there was no warmth from the watery sun as it descended from sight in that strange realm. We were ourselves were a weird company against the bleached colours and shadowed glades of the dream; our pennants and symbols and cloaks bright and gay and stark against the surrounding land, the voices of those around me rang back like echoes, the frigid plumes of freezing breath gushing from the mouths of warriors marching on in triple column to the mysteries ahead.
And the path was not empty;
First we encountered militiamen loyal to Corvus, who cursed us as traitors as they died on our swords or were smashed and broken by the forceful blows I delivered. I saw Falcons torn then, for these were kinsmen, but Warwick’s loyalty to Albion made foes of onetime friends.
Next, a detachment of Tomorrow Court, fresh from their slaughter at Sherburn Keep, and Benedict laughed well to see these, and remembered the justice he had once brought to conjure a fresh memory to dream flesh with a weapon of bone and spells.
And then a death knight aped the might of Marin and boasted scornfully of prowess and tangled fate, yet even he could not turn aside the advance of our company, and smiling anew Finn Dracha hurled me his great axe of silver and watched as I broke the undead Knight to drybone lumps we later kicked from the path to oblivion. I almost lost myself in that fight, I saw reflection in the figure I slew, a once-living man returned via the cauldron’s blessing, better than ever before.
And last a being with a weakness at the knee; an echo of Mordred mayhap, whose armour knew that flaw, but a powerless shade, for it could barely stand against the rain of blows descending sharp and poignant in the last of the light.
And through these perils walked Phoenix Karlennon, and him carrying the book of dark dreams close against his skin, and an amulet of sanctuary close about his neck, and it thought that no dream might stand against its opposite, and so a symbol of our might.
Of tasks there were five;
And the first was to birth a child, and a virgin maid was found as surrogate to an unhappy ghost.
And the second was to administer the justice of the hunter, and Alistair of Darkwood oversaw the slaughter of villagers going heedless of ancient custom, though Will Tanner wept even as the swords descended to slash the veins and throats of children and babes.
And the third was the matter of Cornovii, and two Kings fought to a standstill with great battleblades of state until Leri shouted them both to silence and negotiated the sovereignty of the lesser realm as an independent but fealty-bound Kingdom.
And the fourth was the forging of Excalibur from the seven swords of waylund, and seven shades were overthrown that their dream-swords might be made as one in the image of Arthur’s blade.
And the last test was of the future, but no-one can remember what transpired there, save only figures spoke in the garb of Karlennon and Corvidae and matters passed between Katerina and Benedict and an end was reached.
But at last the Old One returned and spoke that the healing was almost done, and now the White Hart alone remained corrupt in the woods beyond and that in moments he would return us to the waking world to bring a cure to salve the consort or be slain in the attempt. Leri interrupted the ancient power in mid speech, and demanded time to prepare and make ready. Amused somewhat (if disconcerted) the emissary of the light granted the time that was asked.
When the gate between the realms was opened we were full prepared, and I stood flanked by many healers and incanters and as I walked forward into the twilight glade of my dream I marked the sight of the White Hart before me, and a terrible, full mournful sight she was, for like me, her blood ran with corruption and her flesh was distorted and decayed, and her eyes were suffering, and her cry was a rending wound to the heart, and I could not stand in the presence of such horror without giving comfort. I lowered my great spear and approached, my head bowed and eyes running with tears.
The White Hart raised her head and at last I met her eyes, and though demonblood pulsed in my body I felt I kind of peace and placed my arms around her neck, and lay my face against hers, and the violence trembling beneath her skin was stilled for a time, and that time was all that was required by Leri and Branwen and the healers of Albion, for they came forward and purged the corruption from the Hunter’s consort and stilled her wondrous spirit even as I turn to look to her eyes and whispered of my love in words unknown to any present. For long moments the Hart remained and seemed to beckon me further into the forest, but then she turned and bolted away, her passing like a ripple in the gloom, and in its wake the sound of game and natural forest calls returning beyond the sundered glamour.
We returned free of misdirection to the Keep of Marchwood and rested for a time considering the things we had seen and those lessons learned. For my part though I could not speak yet, the rage in the blood had stilled. The presence of White Hart had calmed my heart, but still I yearned for speech and listened well to talk ranging wide at the hearth, and I grew introspective.
At conclave the wisest champions of Albion of our company spoke on of the matter, and though the Hart had been cured, they reasoned yet that the dark heart of the wood remained, and since it had infected the Hunter’s consort once it could do so again, thus steps must well be taken to root out the contagion forever.
This conclusion was further supported when the Faerie Lord who had challenged and fought the company the night before approached the guards without and begged leave to parley. He spoke apologetically to Benedict, naming madness the cause of his people’s wild actions, and thanking all well enough that the actions of the day had freed his realm from the grip of the dark heart. In further proof of contrition the lord told the gathered war-council that a mortal man named Marlowe had gained power also from the heart, and was even now using that power to perform works of necromancy and corruption anew.
Benedict was not slow to see the opportunity, for if Marlowe could be taken alive then he could be made to lead the company to the heart itself, to end the darkness and corruption for ever. So taking the merest time in refreshment and fresh preparation, the company of Albion left full-intent of gaining the information they required in this penultimate fight against the evil in the wood.
The trail was not hard to follow, for the faerie dwellers of Marchwood had no desire to return to the influence of the dark heart and lent their aid to the passage, lighting hummocks and working small miracles of fox-fire and luminescence to ease the passage.
Until at last our strong company of men and fighting women came to the clearing where the necromancer Marlowe stood close to his wife returned from the embrace of death, and she crying out with confusion and horror and the dead flesh around her senses, and weeping dry tears from eyes unblinking in that horrid twilight. And this woman was known to us by the words of her sister and she was Karlennon-sworn, and in life was named Jessica Goodfellow, and she had been slain nights before in service to the land she loved, and in her turn her twin had spoken hard words of grief and bitter regret when she stood close in battle against the golden boars.
And Benedict approached his once-living soldier, and offered kind words and raised the gleaming edge of King Steven’s dagger, whispering,
“Step into the light and know rest, for it is deserved.”
And loyal beyond the veil of life the returned spirit of the warrior-maid looked to Benedict with trust and stepped forward to accept the touch of healing oblivion without fear and hesitation. And then, her soul released to the cycle of life once again, the returned corpse collapsed inert, mere dust and decayed flesh once again.
Now Marlowe stepped forward with fury and mingled anguish and demanded in his grief the reason why Benedict had slain his wife anew, and voices were raised to demand the necromancer’s death for the crime, but others, more moderate, reminded the company that the dark heart had seduced this man, and that if the power of that curse might turn the Hunter’s consort to madness and violence, how yet should a grieving mortal resist the evil Cadarn himself had bade us find and remove from the midst of these woods?
And Benedict chose to spare Marlowe then, and asking what else had been wrought, learned that three beasts had been raised and given flesh from heraldic fancy. And Marlowe told that he had bought living and dead and dream and twisted hope to the embrace of the dark heart to create flesh-gollem creatures to “defend” the land of Albion from her foes.
Appalled, Benedict called battle order, and forming a circle around Marlowe the Albion host turned outwards and watched in horror as these unnatural creations closed in on the clearing in the company of venomous ghouls and wicked ghasts and shuffling reek-riven wights.
I saw only one of these creatures close, and that was a Raven golem of swift movement and deadly touch, and for a time I fought close with Geoffey and Aisla to confront and overthrow this terrible foe. And as we circled and skirmished the clearing ran with the cries of living men and women touched by the dead, and many were paralysed and defiled, and hard was the task of healers to stem the flow of blood from tainted wounds.
I learned later that the other golems were in the form of Lion and Boar, and thus my dream came true in part, for though their forms were well foretold, the decay in my own heart had been cured, and as the White Hart ran in the glades of Marchwood life was yet returning.
But a victory we had there, though expansive, and though none were slain our reserves of power and the very faith of incantors was sorely tested, and fewer yet the wounds to be purged and the ill to be cured in short hours to come.
But yet we had learned the truth of Marchwood and the heart of darkness, and Marlowe told us well in tears and sorrow the ways of corruption, and how in the heart of the forest there was a certain well in the shape of a cauldron, and how only darkness and shadows could be found there, and how power and suggestion would flow outwards and cling like pestilence to the arts of mage and healer, to incantor and ritualist, and how seductive that corruption was, and how little might be done to confront the source of evil in the absence of light.
And thinking well on these matters we returned to the Keep, and biding a time in the warmth we laid our final plans, and Benedict took counsel and considered the hard task ahead.
And as the war captains conferred and as hot-spiced mead flowed to quell the chill of the freezing night beyond, there came two tellers of tales to speak words of portent and deep meaning to the circumstances of the this darkest day;
First Leri spoke, and she told a story without end and without beginning, and this to the confoundment of the Story host, and a clever tale it was to cast reflections on the deeds of immortal vainglory in mortal humour, and for time we listened well to the words as they curved and twisted back to their origins, and Leri, her smile bright against the shadows, ended where she began with a bow and a flourish and a gesture of challenge and bold impudent reproach to those who stood against the faith and will of Albion’s dream.
Then Isaac Trooper of the Boar Company spoke, and his the tale of a man who for love had lost all honour and become nothing in the eyes of his countrymen, but how in a moment of close degradation and self-hate, he had been spared by chance, and seizing well the opportunity for redemption had agreed to turn from the darkness to the true service of the land his love had died for. And through this telling the man Marlowe wept, and in his face was remembered the life and death of his wife, and at the conclusion of the story he swore himself in full-measure to the task ahead and the destruction of the dark heart, and Trooper, for his part, smiled triumph, for the story told in the Raven-book had been well concluded, and once more the challenge laid by Albion’s foes would be answered fairly.
And even as these words rang about the lodge the emissaries of the court of poison ivy came close and spoke their words of sweet venom once more, and this time Eborus and Branwen were snared, and learning that the poison-fey claimed allegiance to Nudd ap Gwyn, these exiles of a sundered land grew trusting and promised themselves to the kindness of unseelie whim. For my part I watched them carefully, and then marked the arrival of the druid Hafgan, who hunkered down at the verges of the company, full-distrustful of the fey lords present and unable to relax or cease the chattering of his teeth and mumbled charms of protective litany.
Hafgan murmured obsessively, speaking of dancers to take visitors to the mirrored isle, and naming Marchwood a close approach to the work we had left undone. He warned that the court of poison ivy were already in possession of the enchanted horn which drew the golden boars to wish us ill and harm, and that unless we were to seize control of the artefact, a great evil would descend upon all the line of Beomarise, past and future.
I confess I struggled then to see lines of connection and implication; but it was true that the golden boars had come to oppose us here, and that the court of poison ivy had ever been a force of corruption and whispered evil in the legends of my own kin. Oh that I might speak of these things to Benedict and his war company gathered but though I could make some words known to my fellow exiles, it was impossible to pass complex matters and issues of song and folk knowledge. This was I felt a test, a trial, a choice, for both the poison fey and the druid offered routes to the mirrored isle and the golden horn, but which to choose? And what implications where there to the choice? And was this even the time to consider, for in short time we would be travelling to the dark heart to purge Marchwood of an ancient corruption even so. In frustration I brooded darkly and though Rebecca came close and placed her face close to mine and wrapped her arms around me I felt alone and fragile and weak. I had already made poor choice in accepting the demon-drink that Finn Dracha offered, could that choice be undone or had it doomed me already?
And last that eave came news from scouts that Caliban had been seen in the woods, and these monsters were the bane of Trell and were unliving fiends from the sea and dank marshland, and though they breathed nothing of the fresh living air, they fed their dark appetites on the flesh of living men, and they were cannibals and wanton feasters on evil, and many men of Albion had gone screaming to oblivion gnawed horribly by their jaws and slashed open at throat and groin by distended talons and wicked incisors. And these the servants of the Witch Sygorax who had laired at Trell, and was wise in all the enchantments of dominion and wide delusion, and who was feared by some to manipulate the forces of Story, and to have set the ancient powers of tale and wonder upon the destruction of mortal Albion and the dream we strove to protect.
And now revelation came, and men of albion remembered well the words written into the Raven Book and wondered that the influence of Sygorax should spread to Marchwood, and that Reid of the host should have been slain by poison to extinguish the fire in reflection of the act described in narrative, and that now the corrupted dark heart of the wood should be defended by the minions and monsters of a foe standing ever at the verges of Albion’s nightmare.
Too late for Reid but now perhaps a timely warning for the remainder, for Will closed his eyes and breathed a prayer for the lost, and whispered then that he now believed that a creature owned by Sygorax had been present at the Hunter’s Lodge the night before, and had served us all wine and mead in the guise of a serving maid, and had watched and listened to our plans and then murdered Reid of the host to form another glowing thread in the web of evil cast about the fate of Albion. Is this truth? Did Sygorax slay gentle Reid, or was it another force and power yet?
“I fear for us all,” he whispered, the last words I remember hearing him say.
But now the clarion call of battle was sounded, and Benedict drew up the forces under his command, and though diminished by illness and death and departure to places unknown, the band of heroes was shining yet, and we were pledged to confront and destroy the dark heart while life and breath remained to our breast. But how strength of spirit can cloak yet the mournful state of arms and wargear? And how yet that so many pledged to Marchwood chose not to stand with Benedict at the end? I will not name the names I failed to see on that final journey into the woods, for to do so would not be fitting in a memorial for brave fallen heroes. But you gentle listener mark well those names you will hear, and let those who failed their comrades in that dark time choose as Marlowe did, to reclaim honour in times to come to see that future valour might expunge the memory of this dark time.
We passed from realms free of corruption and taint to those full close to the heart pulsing anew in shadow-decay and felt our very hopes sapped and our faith under siege from whispered inducements and unchancy movement and unnatural scent in Marchwood that night. Marlowe to his credit was resolved and his face was set, and he led us well and proved out the faith Benedict showed in him. For the rest of us, well, though we knew terror and our very souls ached with the urge to run and hide from this most terrible of confrontation, few did.
When we came to heart of darkness there was no need for warning; the glade was as cold as death, and a ring of dank ash trees stood dead and clammy to the touch, their bark etched with lines of shadows like veins beneath pale skin, and all around the forest floor was covered in fallen-decay and obscene fungus like warped flesh crept against tumbled cairns and low hummocks of roots twisted as if in pain. And the heart itself was a cauldron-shaped depression in a central rock, and from it came a gushing, stifling, poisonous sense of promise and seductive pervasive malice. I caught my breath and looked wildly around, and even as my senses struggled against the power of the heart, so much worse the suffering of those wielding yet the power of magic and healing and faith; Rebecca met my gaze and her face wan and marked with lines of pain, I took her hand, and together we turned away from shadows running in unnatural curves from the lip of that stygian cauldron in the rock.
Now Benedict ordered a cordon outwards and warriors linked shields and turned gladly away from the centre of that cursed glade. And I stood with Geoffrey and with Durenor and with Aisla and with Rafe Loriner and with Benedict himself, and we watched the darkness as behind us the wisest of our champions and Marlowe approached the heart and considered how it might be destroyed.
A long time passed in that cold and lonely place, and I watched the shadows and sang to myself of places gone forever, and friends gone across the bridge of swords, and of dawn beyond the night and yes, of the coronach for Caer Glas and I remembered Ceridwen whom I never met, and yet I dreamed her voice and smiled.
Then Glycell and Tig and Faramir and Phoenix and Rebecca and Marlowe had learned what secrets there were to the task we were sworn to. And in truth no great revelation this, but the words of prophesy learned from dark wager. And the weakness of darkness is light, and though the glade of the dark heart never knew the rays of the sun, there were close in the woods two sacred places which held gemstones burning yet with luminescence and vivid hue. And these gemstones to be placed in the cauldron of the heart, and then the speaking of certain words, and then most important of all, that none in the glade of the heart should retain power or faith or healing energies lest the shadowed presence escape destruction and flee as it had so many times before to hide itself within the evil darkness of a proud mortal heart.
And the dark heart was to be guarded while ever the light gems were sought, and Benedict ordered that Robert Falcon and Alistair of Darkwood should lead a first party to a glade, and they chose men of their own companies and faith, and amongst those who assayed the task were Marcus de Bracey and Martin Longbow, and Geoffrey Walker, for though that Knight had become estranged from his comrades and kin we were that night full-allied beyond politics and beyond the petty intrigues of court and whispered sleight. And while this party was gone my task like Benedict’s own, was to guard the glade of the heart and ensure that the first heroes would have a place to return when their quest was done.
A terrible struggle ensued; for the dark heart seemed to know well its peril, and from the woods around came waves of loathsome Caliban eager to taste our flesh, and behind these leaping fiends, glided bitter wraith-form ghosts of murderers bound close to the bones of their victims. And there I stood and fought with Pelleas and Aisla at the vanguard of the force remaining, and though the Caliban learned to fear the strength of the blows I rained, the wraiths came on without let or leave, for my weapon had no enchantment or enhancement, and while I ever I made sweep or lunge the tip of my spear passed harmlessly through their ghastly forms, while they in turn were full-able to reach past mundane armour to wound and corrupt the flesh below.
Aisla too knew frustration in this fight, for the sword of tears she wielded was inert and worthless also, and it seemed well likely that the witch Sygorax had rendered her minions proof against the blade she herself may have been instrumental in creating.
So we two fought with careful fury, and warded Pelleas as best we could, concentrating our angry strokes upon the hungry Caliban and choosing instead to confound the wraiths with sudden movements and feints while Pelleas found opening for small blows and cuts from King Steven’s dagger. And at last Pelleas brought more relief from our plight in the working of a small ritual to part-sanctify the earth around the glade, and indeed for a time the advance of the wraiths and their lesser comrades was stinted and delayed.
How faired the other parts of the circle I could not see, save only that I was never struck from behind or the flank, and by this I know that Benedict and our comrades elsewhere and close had not failed in their duty, and that together we performed our bound task with courage hail and true-proven valour.
And all this time we heard screams and shouts and the clashing of arms from elsewhere in the forest and we took faith from this, for silence would mean the worst.
And at last there were lights returning, and calls of recognition and then Robert Falcon and Alistair of Darkwood brought their party back, full-bloodied and bone weary and short of healing and all carrying wounds and the tattered remnants of broken armour and battered weapons and by their faces we saw that the task had not been easy. But there were signs of drained satisfaction in the looks we exchanged, and Christian Walker had seized the gemstones that had been sought, and even as hard battle had been exchanged and matters had reached perilous conclusion, these men and women knew the deed had been accomplished and their part at least was truly done. And Pheonix Karlennon who had claimed to be coward in his cups stood tall in that company, and had faced a trial few “brave” men would ever dare assay.
I clasped Sir Geoffrey’s hand in the darkness as Benedict gave the order for our own party to depart, I do not remember the words he spoke to me then but we shared a glance and looked to Rebecca and Aisla, and I swore silently to do whatever I might to return our friends and lovers to comfort of kinder times to come.
And then we marched away.
And of those who went on the second mission I remember; Benedict with the sword of his ancestors, proud in Karlennon colours, resolved, leading from the front, never considering weakness or distraction, a living symbol of the dream we stove then to protect, and Will Tanner scouting forward and moving quietly through the woods he loved, and Aisla carrying the shield of lover slain and the sword of tears, and her own face tight with focused fury and her mind as set as ever it was the first time I saw her at Moelwyn’s fortress at Twrcelyn Water, and Pelleas d’Vor, unafraid and eager to destroy the heart of corruption, his white robes flapping in the gloom, and Faramir his staff in hand and face set in uncompromising lines, like Pelleas a companion of summer, and Percival a proven ally and the lover of my oldest friend, a staunch warrior and keen of heart and temper both, and Durenor smiling yet, happy to serve his house and comrades, his armour clashing and grinding in the night, perhaps his way of warding death and driving away the spirits of cold malice, Rafe of the Boar Company, a studious man quiet and attentive, yet driven hard by needs close and terrible as we all were, and Eburos in Bratan’s cloak of green, a friend restored and friend regained, as brave as any armoured man of the wide heartlands, and Branwen in white with her fine skin gleaming pale in the shadows, her eyes wide and cautious, the tension showing well and close on lips pursed and ready to call power and favour from the ancestors, and Leri like Pelleas in robes of white and a shield of pearl and gold, her body wrapped in beautiful armoured diamonds of chain and leather and her raven hair blowing in the chill wind, a vision of purity and faith entwined, and Rebecca close to me, her child’s face marked with fatigue and framed by dark red waves and her tiny body shivering in the gloom, but strength there and passion, and none could deny her endurance and enduring faith, and Katerina walking with discomfort, her pregnancy her foremost concern, her own dreams clouded with wider fears, this quest to darkness a metaphor for those mortal hearts who wished her ill, and Skaffle in a jaunty hat and fine-tailored jerkin, an unlikely scout but full-proven bold and already a hero in the eyes of companions, and the Scathen Krud remained ever close and watchful to Katerina and skirted the darkness of our passing, his keen nose twitching and turning this way and that, and last Finn Dracha who as ever paid close attention to his own safety and let others go first to heroism, an ancient unseelie lord this, and content to watch with amused eyes the gambled risk of mortal hope.
Then the glade before us, and silent and the glowing light of gemstones in boles of Ash trees, and for a time there was nothing between us and our goal. And Benedict raised his arm to signal advance and we went forward, pressing through thorns and undergrowth and stumbling on uneven ground covered with rotted vegetation now-frozen and tinted with a dusting of chilling frost.
And then an ambush, and no challenge made by these foes!
From the sides of glade came the chattering cries of Caliban in great number, and these engaged our flanks at the bidding of their unseen masters. Benedict did not even break stride and raising his shield to ward blows from beside him continued to march into the glade and I went with him and no warrior could hesitate then in the presence of valour pure at a moment of defining clarity.
At once before us from the gloom came four wraiths and one of them possessed of terrible aspect, and the temperature already appalling, grew colder yet, and these embodiments of evil circled us to front and left and right and their void-laden visage invited us to flee and save our lives at the cost of our honour.
But Benedict would not flee, and nor would he hesitate and raising the sword of Karlennon he shouted a warrior-cry and attacked heedless of the odds and fearless of consequence and mortal regard.
Oh what a warrior and what a commander of hearts and dreams!
It shall be sung that Benedict in Marchwood was a hero returned of old, and well-close he sits now in the pantheon of Albion’s noble past;
Four wraiths it took to drag Benedict down,
One to trap his noble blade in a breast of shadows,
One to bind his left arm and break his love,
One to bind his right arm and break his dream,
And one to still his heart and kiss away his breath
And I saw the blow that killed him, and it fell between his neck and chest and full-measure the taint of corruption and poisoned venom the gift of that dire stroke. And Benedict fell with a single word on his lips and that word was a name, and a name we all would grow to love, and how yet my own heart would tremble that a friend and lord and warrior of finest esteem would cry out a sound in his dying that mirrored close the dreams I had for love forsaken.
And Benedict cried Leri’s name.
And I lived through chance and a war-trick, for though I struck a heavy circular blow upon the form of the greatest wraith it merely chuckled dryly and hissed,
“No wound of thine will slay me mortal fool!”
And the weapon which slew Benedict cut the air beside me and slashed against the scabbard of my sword which hung behind my hip. I turned and saw two more wraiths gliding in behind, and I gambled then and tumbled to the ground with a scream and lay still.
And long moments passed, and the wraiths waited above me, and through the eye slits of my helm I saw the corruption spreading across Benedict’s cooling body and I hoped, Oh how I hoped! I whispered prayers to my ancestors that the actions of others would draw the wraiths away that I might drag Benedict to safety or otherwise discover a way to turn this disaster to lighter hue.
But elsewhere the battle went poorly, and of those warriors who had followed us into the glade most were sore-wounded and close-pressed by the Caliban and no relief came and as time passed I heard sounds of monsters closing in, and cries of pain, and teeth tearing flesh and no hope at all. And through it all the wraiths remained above and around me, and one watched as Benedict slipped further yet from mortal artifice.
And my gamble failed, for I was disturbed before an opportunity came – and a Caliban came to feast on me and I had to rise to slay it and made a great clamour in doing so. Now I rushed to Benedict’s side and tried to move him and immediately the wraiths turned and moved in to finish their work, I tried then to take up the sword in his hand that I might at least wound my killers but Benedict’s hand was tight-clasped around the hilt and I could not move his grip. I shouted then but no-one understood my cry and I cursed Finn once again for his gift and trick combined.
And I ran and dove through the gorse and tangled thorns surrounding the glade, and there I encountered more Caliban but the wraiths appeared unwilling to follow, and though I was pressed anew, my spear was well-capable of wounding these creatures and I smashed their bones and broke their bodies from frustration and hatred as I rushed to find whatever survivors might be found.
And a grim scene it was of confusion and dread. The Caliban had created carnage amongst our healers whilst the warriors had fallen to wraiths. I could not see Rebecca and no-one close could understand my speech even in merest snatches. Leri knew well that Benedict had fallen and her eyes ran with tears of loss even as she fought Caliban and tended the wounds of our comrades. Branwen too was labouring hard to save what lives she could, and elsewhere the Scathen Krud had risked his own life to bring warriors back from the cursed glade and for that I will always owe him thanks.
And my heart was broken; I turned and rushed back into the glade thinking death-in-fighting preferable to loosing Rebecca and Benedict both on this night and one thing saved me from concluding this bitter wish for self-destruction. And that thing was the inert body of Eborus who for some reason had seen fit to cover himself from head to foot in salt as a ward, which though admittedly had kept the Caliban away but had not protected him from the touch of wraiths and their master. I ran headlong and tripped and rolled painfully over the fallen Bard’s outstretched leg.
But I had a reason to live now and my madness was gone, and I turned to drag Eburos clear and was joined quickly in the task by Faramir who showed great courage in opposing those Caliban who sought to deflect our intention in rescue.
And now elsewhere matters were becoming clearer and mercifully so; Aisla and Pelleas were fighting hard on one flank and providing security for us to regroup, Percival had saved Rebecca and brought her safe from the glade and I wept tears of gratitude and relief, Durenor and Rafe were safe also, and now our scouts were making attempts to pass by the wraiths to seize the gemstones we needed. For our part, Faramir and I returned to the destruction of the remaining Caliban beyond the glade, and even as we moved closer in we saw the wraiths circling yet above Benedict’ body and we struck out again and again in angry despair to see our comrade so near yet beyond our aid. Katerina guarded the wounded and her face was etched with fear, and behind another line of trees Finn Dracha appeared to guard our retreat, and he certainly chose to remain the greatest distance away from the place our friends had fallen.
Then Will Tanner entered the glade to snatch up a gemstone and there he vanquished a lesser wraith with an inspired flourish of cuts from his witch-blade, and for moments following his victorious shout we dared hope, but then two more wraiths came behind brave Will, and he was plunged to the earth with dreadful wounds wrought hard upon his very soul.
And for those who remained the loss of Will was a final defeat, for try as we might we could not stand against the wraiths with the weapons we had left, and only King Steven’s dagger remained to us to wound these fiends, and still three wraiths remained and taunted us well with their proximity to the suffering of our companions.
Voices called out that we should flee, that the cause was hopeless, but still our remaining scouts strove to reach the gemstones. And Master Skaffel achieved a feat of speed and deftness, and evading the talons of the waiting foes, was able to snatch up one of the stones to bring it safely to where we were now regrouping. And then Aisla dared much to do the same, and coming to where Will Tanner lay dying she saw the second gem in his grip, and strove for long moments to move him to safety, but then the wraiths came close and she too wept and whispered farewell to that good man and took up the gemstone that his sacrifice would not be for nothing.
We waited there and continued to dare what approaches might be made to our fallen until it was all too obvious there was no hope remaining and then we left, Leri and I and Aisla and Rebecca and Pelleas and Eburos and Percival and Branwen and those others surviving, and we plunged into the surrounding wood and struggled as best we might to forget the sight of our comrades laying prone and dying and us unable to strike blows in vengeance against the fiends who slew them. That glade and that night will stay with stay with me forever, and I will never forget the things and deeds I saw there.
And at a point where the trail twisted anew I saw the shape of the White Hart ahead in the woods, and she turned once and gazed her sympathy upon our ragged company and I pointed the way to Aisla and Leri who were inclined to trust my instincts that night. But Lady Katerina was not, and raged that she was ill-inclined to risk her unborn child to my fancies and a foolish argument ensued, and at the last Master Skaffel ran ahead the way the Hart had told us and learned that she had spoken truth. But the delay had been sufficient to bring about a further tragedy and though Katerina could have known nothing of this, while we had wasted time in pointless debate (and I unable to speak), Sir Marcus de Bracey had died of his wounds a short distance ahead, for the party who remained at the dark heart had been assaulted with relentless horror, and without healing power of their own remaining their sole salvation had been our swift return.
I heard the tale later that Sir Geoffrey and Sir Marcus had fought together against an arch wraith come to claim back the heart of darkness and had shared terrible wounds in overthrowing the evil touch of the fiend. And Marcus had lain beyond reach, while Geoffrey had been closer to Madelaine Falcon, and a bitter thing for her to save a man with her last reserves of power and to know another doomed thereby. And later they had brought Marcus back and bound his injuries but the corruption to his soul and pattern could not be treated, and he lay dying before their eyes beyond reach of any there, slain in the company of friends to unravel his life in mute suffering.
Oh Marcus! That was not just… I saved you on Caer Glas and you in turn saved me, and we stood in the line against Eomear’s levies and though I knew you not I saw the nobility in your eyes and wondered who you were. This was no fit end Sir Red-Hair, I curse the fates that made it! To spare us both from madness and anarchy and to bring friendship and then tragedy in turn, the ancestors are cruel and their jests are bone-bitter cold.
But we were reunited with those we had left, and in close measure, and our tears had frozen upon our faces, and we mutely took our places in the ragged line of defending warriors. Leri and Branwen aided those they could, and in choking breaths they told that Benedict and Will were dead. Percival held Phoenix for long moments I saw that man’s wish for death grow acute and then pass, and then anger came to cloud his features and I knew then that Phoenix would live. But there was little time for emotion and another wave of Caliban rose from the surrounding forest and moved in to reclaim the heart we sought to destroy; and before ever the spoken plans of many could be resolved we were fighting a desperate action to hold our position and buy time for Marlowe and Glycell to work the words and rituals required.
I stood between Sagramor and Pelleas then, and we fought desperately, and I was forced to ward away incursions with wide sweeps and careless lunges. In truth our lives were all now resting in the hands of the ritual working behind us, and time was the only aid we could provide. Sagramor saw a momentary advantage and signalled an advance but I held him back, shaking my head and pointing at more Caliban on the flanks. Pelleas looked close to collapse and fought on like a drunkard with jerky movements and sudden staggering cuts, and then to our left we saw a falcon knight pulled out into the darkness only to be rescued by the intervention of Faramir and Aisla and pure stubborn resolve. We would not last much longer, but then Glycell’s voice rose in a crescendo of chanting and a giddy wave of power rolled outwards from the dark heart and those ritual workers surrounding it.
Then confusion; I saw lights and then heard a dozen voices screaming at once and energies twisting away into the night, and then a gust of clear cold living wind, and something was washed from the glade, and I felt refreshed and washed clean, my throat choking from the icy purity of the night air. I stumbled against Sagramor and then caught his triumphant glance; before us the Caliban were tumbling to the earth unmoving, slain by the destruction of the heart, annihilated alongside the power of their mistress and the legacy of this terrible place.
And then confusion, for those companions wise in the arts of magic and incantation and the channelling of healing energies had been thrown likewise to the earth, and lay there dazed and stunned, and quickly we warriors who remained turned our attention to bringing conscious thought to those robbed of sense. And Alister of Darkwood now gave voice to commands, and his men were quick to form a column to return to the keep, and some of these were too eager in their desire to leave and one man spoke hard words to Rafe Loriner who was guarding my wife in her daze. And Rafe in turn was scornful, and a sword was levelled, and I stood beside the crossbowman in cause for he spoke truth and no-one would be left behind while I lived.
But this mere tension of grief and no true malice and at last Rebecca was roused and we joined the weary company in return. And scouts went back to the glade of lights where Benedict and Will had fallen and their bodies were brought back in sombre stately procession, and Marcus too was honoured for his sacrifice, and these three bodies went before our notice to the great hall at Marchwood.
And there we gathered, bone-weary and drained of life and all the fruits of wild reckless joy, for though we had been successful and met Cadarn’s desire with full resolution we had paid a terrible price, and the knowledge of the what we had lost was ever closer than the hopes of what we might have gained. And men drank silently and spoke quiet words to the bodies of the fallen, and women wept and sang sad songs and gathered close to the valiant heroes our land had lost. And I was yet mute and my eyes burned that I could not say words to commemorate my friends and still I circled like a ghost myself on the verge of that company, a revenant warrior with no language in common with those who grieved.
And Alister of Darkwood called attention then and proposed a toast and chorus of “Albion Forever”, and told us we should not weep and should not think of the sacrifice but celebrate itself the wonder we had achieved. But those words must have seemed dry once spoken, for he looked around the chamber and then sat silently thereafter, and conversation remained mute and sad.
And for my part I cursed the weakness that had sent the finest swordsmen and women of Albion into stern battle with only an enchanted knife for armament. And I cursed the memory of those who had pledged faith with us at Marchwood the night before, but had failed their host by absence at the dark heart of the wood, and most of all I cursed myself for drinking the demon brew that I could not speak in aid and repayment of the trust Benedict had placed upon my shoulders. And in truth a night has not yet passed for me since Benedict’s death, that I have not woken in the darkness and remembered the glade and what happened there, and by all the ancestors and powers of this realm I wish I might return and set matters to right by whatever means such goal might be achieved.
Ah Benedict! Brighter times we had once and how cruel and short our friendship was. Mayhap in time I will remember you and I and Aisla and Pelleas at Hugo’s tourney, united in pleasure at sport and martial prowess, a fair memory. But for now I can only hear the last word you spoke and remember the grip of your hand upon the hilt of your family sword and wonder at the resolve to maintain honour beyond the veil of life and of the secrets you have carried away from his now impoverished land.
Benedict, you were the best of Albion, the finest Lord and the bravest warrior of this land. This winter we will not starve, and neither will we fail the flag and oath we swore to the Pendragon throne, but will we rejoice in our deeds and know stern example in our comrades and captains and generals? Only time will tell.
And at the close of that terrible night the one-handed man came from the forest and entered our company and sat close to the board and place of the fallen Lord. And though his dress and was tattered and of vagabond hue, his voice was now full-noble and resonant with harnessed power. And he spoke for a time of the miracle we had achieved, and of the healing of the dream and of the balance between Hunter and Hart, and of the bright wars yet to come and of duty and of faith and of custom true and land restored. And those of us who wept for Benedict wept again in the hope that truly his passing might achieve the dream denied in life and striving.
And then he offered a boon in the name of Albion, and for a time the flames of the hall burned brighter and we felt the blessings of the land and ancestors close at hand, and though bitter yet our despair, the one-handed man asked us all to choose a thing in recognition of our deeds and accomplishments that darkest day.
And he waited a time while some spoke and discussed the future, and others merely dreamed and stared into the flames and wondered at the times to come.
And at last an answer we gave and in response a mighty enchantment was woven about the land and dominions of gentle Albion, but what was it was we asked I can never say, and in truth, I have not been able to turn thought or consideration to the secret from that day since.”