Into the Woods – Marchwood

For weeks and months my wife and I had known the woods of Marchwood and the hearth generosity of Lord Benedict Karlennon. We had joined the festival of the last hunt and the beating of the bounds, and had seen the year turn full from golden autumn into cold grey winter. Save for a week at Grimmir Hall at the request of Rebecca’s cousin Robert Falcon, Marchwood had been our home and though remote and hard, the living to be found had been good, and Benedict had proved the best of friends through the most difficult of times.
But lately matters had changed in the forest; signs and portents had arisen to disquiet the dwellers within and without, life itself had fled away to the west with the turning of the season, and now the glades and bowers were silent in the absence of bird-calls and hunting yelps and howls of woodland predators. And days before a detachment of Marchwood rangers had found a litter of stillborn boar-pups, and villagers reported strange lights and shadows and wierdling signs of trouble thought vanished in the past. For Marchwood was no easy land of lazy plenty; here lurked dangers yet unseen by Albion, a heart of the shadows cast elsewhere, and a place of whispered legends and memorial to horrors gone before.
Yet Benedict knew this place for home, and his love of the land was infectious, and for all of the darkness and fear without, the hearth of Marchwood Keep was bright and joyous with the warmth of feast-companionship and friendship fresh and new.
And when Prince Cadarn named his desire that Marchwood might be free of the taint of shadows, Benedict was not slow to answer and pledge his life and faith to the quest, and we swore also, my wife and I, and with us swore Geoffrey Walker, and Aisla “cat-claw”, and Eburos of Caer Glas, and we marked well our debt to Benedict and his household and pledged repayment in staunch service and test of arms in the trials to come.
And yet we did not stand alone, for Albion sent her favourite sons and daughters to stand biding fate beside our line, and Marchwood Hall was filled with the laughter and boasts and brightling jests of fearless heroes old and new. And Benedict gazed in full-pride at the gathering of a handsome company of bold repute and yearning lust for dauntless warlike deeds and feats.
And from the north of Albion came the household of the Falcon, and Lord Robert commanding, and Sir Marcus de Bracey stood by his side, and with them came Duchess Katerina in the colours of House Grimmir and her Scathen servant close at hand.
And from the west of Albion came the Watchers, and Lord Alistair of Darkwood commanding, and heroes of the dragon marches close at hand and yearning for their portion of battle glory.
And from the south of Albion came the Host of the vale, and Earl Glycell commanding, and close in train the folk of Cornovii and Lady Leri von Alfeld, wise beyond understanding, and full beholden to the faith of their homelands.
And from the east of Albion came the men of the Company of Boar, and the levies of Winchester, and the far-flung sons of Karlennon, and the Knights and Spears of Lugh, all fair-dressed and laden with weapons and wargear of bounteous slaughter.
And these and more besides Benedict welcomed to his hall, and Marchwood was roused with hope at last for the coming fight.
Then Benedict rose to formal address, and spoke a time of Albion and her dream, and named his full intent to restore Marchwood to health and freedom from the shadows that had come to drive life and hope from the land. And in this Benedict knew well that though the winter had come with ice and freezing mist to sap strength from weary limbs, the pride in home and hearth might yet gird the hearts of those gathered against the elements, and his words were a fire to the heart, like fine Brandywine to the spirit of those he called to arms.
And then Benedict named his captains to command the struggle to come, and these were Lord Alistair of Darkwood, and Sir Sagramor of the Spears of Lugh, and Lord Robert of the Falcons, and I, Gwalchmai, of the line of Beomarise, that we gathered commanders might raise those forces required to confront the unknown perils to come. And of auxiliary troops, Master l’Ume of the beastmen and Finn Dracha of the Unseelie court were named chief scouts and interpreters of signs, and Lady Leri was named the Mistress of Healers, to ward the wounds to come, and Master Faramir of Warwick to muster charms arcane, and Earl Glycell to bind ritual workings to her will, and smiling Pelleas d’Vor to bring the favour of the ancestors upon the deeds to follow. And last Benedict asked Rafe Loriner of the Boar company to stand as adjutant and aid, and he was to write secrets to parchment and compose well his thoughts at the service of the company.
And then we drank to our success and sat a while at feast while kitchen arts were turned to sustenance and Marchwood brought its fare to feed the host of gathered champions there united and so pledged against the night.
During the proceedings an unexpected guest arrived in the form of Sir Percival de Gales, who had travelled far and endured hardship in a long overland march from Finmere. Welcomed by Benedict, Percival made greeting to those he counted friends and allies, and stood a while in conversation with his wife before turning an amused and somewhat baleful stare upon the impassive features of Edward Falcon, who in turn ignored the attention of the man to whom he had recently offered full and humble apology for spoken slights.
For a time conversation turned inward, as minds arrayed themselves in consideration of the deeds to come. But then amongst the host of friends and sworn allies I felt a sharp puncture wound to my body, and then another, and still a third … I tried to rise from my place at the table but more wounds came and as I struggled to draw my sword I fell unconscious and bleeding to the flagstones of the hall.
At my side in moments came healers and chirurgeons and masters of the mending of flesh and it was not long until thoughts returned to my head, and with them a rush of pain and return to bright fire of wakefulness. Questions came fast and I answered them as best I might. The wounds felt like bolts from crossbows and though there were no projectiles in evidence (and indeed some had come from behind though my back had been close to the stone wall) the pain and impact had been real enough. In confusion I ordered my feelings and spoke to Benedict of my recent recollections, mentioning in passing a dream I remembered of a crypt and running with moss and dark water, and of a night-time flight through woodland overgrown with thorn and bramble fronds.
Benedict, for himself, was unperturbed by this weird happenstance and merely ensured that all were best informed, before turning to receive fresh intelligence from a woman-guardsman of the Marchwood rangers new-returned from a scouting patrol in the company of a local woodsman. These two told a tale of strange adventure and spoke of the forest changed by the presence of unnatural magic and dark enchantment. The locations of places and things had altered, the ritual circle itself had been displaced, and the glades once familiar to the local guards had become dark and forbidding, so that the very feel of the forest itself was now deeply disturbing to a lifelong resident of the region.
This intelligence received, Benedict asked for two mission commanders to volunteer their services; the first, to conduct close patrols in the local forestry, the second to travel with the native woodsman to the new location of the displaced circle, to report on its situation and to send a message to Winchester that Albion might know the circumstances of our quest. Lord Robert and his falcons took up the first challenge, while I offered my service to the second, and choosing a strong company of valiant men and women I prepared to leave the comforts of Marchwood in pursuit of this goal.
Jenny Goodfellow was the name of the Karlennon ranger, and her companion-guide waited close to lead us away from the lights of Marchwood Keep towards the surrounding woodland. And to that warrior-maid I spoke a time, and learned that her family had ever served the Karlennon colours and that they loved their lord and the land they protected in close measure and neither tragedy nor foul misadventure could turn their hearts from the duty they had sworn. But I saw in the moonlight that her face was drawn and her eyes lowered at the mention of family, and I asked in turn what tragedy had come to bring sorrow to so lovely a face.
“My twin was slain in the woods some nights ago, and then her body was taken from the chapel before we could mourn the loss.”
I had no words to ease this injustice and I merely vowed as one warrior to another that the matter would not be forgotten.
On mustering my party I asked Sir Geoffrey Walker to deputise my command, and together with the estimable Aisla “cat-claw” he proved an able officer of the rearguard, full-able to defend our flanks and enduringly committed to the pursuit of our goal. I was joined also by scouts commanded by Sir Percival (including Master Scaffel and Isaac Trooper and Mat Luhn and Will Tanner), by the magicians Phoenix de Maggio and Faramir of Warwick, by the healers Branwen de Gales and Charlotte Grey and by the worthy Durenor Karlennon in all his fine overlapping plates of clashing armour, and by my wife Rebecca Beomarise and Eborus the bard to provide insight into matters wierd and unworldly.
Our mission was beset from the first with strangeness; the forest was silent of natural life and yet shapes moved in the gloom and fled from the approach our scouts. The journey was longer than predicted, and the local guide followed ever a map of meaningless symbols and our way twisted and turned and looped back and crosswise as the familiar signs of landscape and night sky blurred and became useless. Many times we drew up to defend a position as unknown shapes came close, and many times the threats receded to the range of vision and the temptation of our most primal fears.
But proceed we did, although slowly, and at last as we approached the apparent position of the ritual circle we marked well the increasing proximity of shadowed figures in the woods around us.
Then a body in the woods, in the heraldry of Karlennon, a circle guard by his insignia and garb, and he slain by wounds and rips most terrible, and rends of teeth and claws fresh-running with lifeblood spilled to the chilling soil of that unwholesome eve. And Branwen questioned the new-departed spirit and learned secrets from beyond the grave which told of massacre and murder, and the assault of a great beast of the forest, and a company scattered and bowshots wild in the night, and fear and horror and death.
Then in a rush the golden boars came, and the forest opened in fury as these monsters plunged into our midst with ripping tusks and violent fury and blood-maddened eyes and hard was the fight there made. No time for battle order and no use for shields and line; the power of the boars rendered mortal arms fragile and swordblades shattered on pelts as hard as iron, bones broke and veins were opened, and in the darkness a desperate struggle centred on Branwen of Caer Glas, for she was the object of this assault, and we strove as heroes of old to confound the intentions of the foe.
But we learned how to fight them, and though the teaching was hard we gained their measure and at last threw them back from our defensive circle and gained respite to treat our wounded. The boars were furious and powerful, but lacked the wisdom to flank their foes, so skirmish was effective in opposing their assault, but a warning for those who might fight them in the future … in death their frenzy lasts a time of brutal killing, and while raging against the onset of their doom they cannot be further harmed and must be avoided and contained till time takes final toll.
Then once again our scouts pushed on into the woods, and after a time returned in the company of an old women hermit who lived yet amongst the surrounding corruption and strange misadventure. When questioned, this resident of Marchwood was as bold as any youth, and told a tale of the circle guard slaughtered by a great beast, and of cultists and worshippers of weird ancestors seeking power in the darkness, and advantage yet over those dwellers in more seemly climes.
And now our scouts returned, and Will Tanner told of the approach of more golden boars, and Percival warned of sights unknown and sounds malign on the trail behind, and Trooper alone had glimpsed a sight of our objective, the circle before us, surrounded by the bodies of those slain Karlennon guardsmen and standing stark and gloomy in the half-light of that winter forest. It was then agreed that a small party should press on and deliver the message we carried for Winchester, and Faramir and Pheonix and Scaffel pressed on and were successful, and even as the boars returned to hunt our position and press advantage upon our weakened number, our comrades came back to us and I gave the order to retreat in the direction of Marchwood keep.
But in those times and in that place the way home was impossible to find, the pathways of the forest twisted with our perceptions, glamour brought delusion, and though we were led by the finest scouts and wayfarers of Albion our march was turned astray. Instead of the Keep we came at last to a large glade in the forest and in the centre of the glade a hunters lodge, a tavern with dim lights and muffled sounds of conversation, a place of sanctuary perhaps, but of enigma and confusion too, for our steps had led us false, and now our remaining senses laboured to make truth of the things we saw and the miracles we heard.
The innkeeper offered mead and spiced wine, and though some were tempted, caution spoke louder, and we took the opportunity to repair armour and tend to blunted weapons and damaged gear. I set a guard around the building, and sought the opinion of those wise in the ways of the forest and of strange adventure, and after a time we came into the presence of a one-handed man of ancient and knowledgeable aspect, but whose words were cloaked in weird occlusion and forbidding flights of meaning. This wanderer told us that we would never leave until the heart of darkness was ended, that Albion’s dreams would never be whole until the dark matter at their heart was cured. He looked into my eyes and smiling recognition, greeted me as one well known to him but spoke on of matters beyond my ken. I confess I showed him little kindness but no harm, for my mind was set on the return to Marchwood Keep, and I had no fondness for delay and those who appeared to wish us to remain where we wished not.
And after a time we gathered beyond the inn and prepared to assay the forest once again, this time I asked Will to lead us where we sought, for I had lost faith in the local guide and his map of twisted curves, and another wayfarer joined us, this one, a faerie spirit of the woods, who spoke of the strangeness of the realm and begged aid in the name of Benedict Karlennon and the trust between mortal and timeless folk.
And on we travelled, and though the way was difficult Will did not fail me, and his sense of direction was preternaturally sharp and acute, and well did I bless the fates for sending this man to the company I led. And at last we approached the Keep safely and left the forest verge behind and there encountered travellers heading back into the woods the way we had lately come.
Not strangers these, but faces known, at least to some. The man had the appearance of Thomas Wychwood, that scion of an unchancy clan of dream-mages and courtly illusionists, and the woman his sister, her face bright and hair spiked in the fashion of woad-stiffened Caledonian zealots. And Thomas spoke to me and asked where I was bound, and when I warned him of the forest he laughed and bade me turn again lest we be lost for good. I smiled, but refused, for I was sworn to carry message and report to Benedict at the Keep, and in truth the ways of the Wychwoods bring me doubt, for though I be a spinner of tales, the boasts of Thomas and his kin strike yet an unchancy chord of weird mischance to my earthly ears. But Will spoke close to me then, and said that it would be best that someone look to the Wychwoods and their safety, and yet perchance knowledge might be gleaned by the most contorted of sources, and so volunteered to return to the lodge in their company. I reluctantly agreed, and bade Will go, for though I had great faith in his arts and talents I had conceived a great foreboding for the woods that eve.
And so we came at last to Marchwood Keep again and were brought close to the counsel of Lord Benedict and told of the things we had seen. Benedict in turn called a meeting of the war-captains and heroes gathered and we told openly of the way matters stood, and of the nature of the things in the wood. In addition our own knowledge we learned that a survivor of the massacre at the ritual circle had told of an attack from a monstrous beast of the forest, a creature with the appearance of a great white hart but with its form and flanks running with sores and corruption, and its eyes gleaming dark and scarlet with madness and pain. The guard had shot arrows and bolts in fear and had been slain in turn, and these events had occurred at the time I myself had felt wounds and punctures while ever we had sat at feast and planning. It was not difficult to conclude that my fate was now linked to this beast of the forest, for I was named the “knight of white hart” by strange destiny, and now the hart of Marchwood was afflicted with corruption and unholy rage.
At the last I commended the company I had led to Benedict and named my full satisfaction with their arts and skills and offered my full confidence in the way they had performed in difficult circumstances and the most trying of environments. Benedict in turn smiled thanks, and ensured that all were full-informed of the situations elsewhere.
And then after a time for rest and council the Lord of Marchwood announced his plan to lead all so gathered to the Hunters Lodge, that the mysteries there might be explored under the protection of a well-armed and ready warband complete. Benedict called his captains to provide security for the march, and named his intention to leave none behind to stand beyond the protection of the armed cordon, and in this there were no voices raised in complaint or contention.
Plans made the warband travelled hence in the woods again, but again the geography of Marchwood had shifted under our very gaze, and where we had struggled to find egress from the shadowed glades around the lodge, now we found the way easily, and swift was the march to the forest tavern, and short indeed the time we spent beneath the unfamiliar stars of that freezing night.
And again the innkeeper was welcoming, and again we sat beneath the eves of that ancient and lonely lodge, and as the evening progressed there were signs and portents in great number and rich array;
The one-handed hermit told of the Hunter and Consort and of the taint upon the balance of this most sacred of bonds. While I stood as mortal representative of the White Hart (the Hunter’s consort), it transpired that Lord Alistair of Darkwood was chosen as voice for the Hunter himself, and between us we were warned that on the morrow a messenger would come to take us to a place of dreams to resolve the corruption between Hart and Hunter lest we be slain ourselves in punishment for our abandonment of the cause we had sworn. Alistair and I looked with wry amusement at this echo of our recent disagreements in the realm of worldly politics, but drank dark wine and swore kinship and common cause in the name of this quest.
But elsewhere the scouts of Albion had found mischance and strange enchantment, and glamour had surrounded the glade of the lodge so that no man might walk beyond the close eaves of the forest that he was not turned invisibly, to return against his will to whence he had lately come.
And to this place came emissaries in fair number and amongst these were faerie messengers from the court of poison ivy, and these were ill-favoured though blessed with surface beauty, for their blood ran with venom, and their lips were damp with the dark taste of mortal fear. And to those of Beomarise and Caer Glas came these spirits and they claimed knowledge of Nudd ap Gwyn, and of the golden horn much sought by the boars who had presented threat in Norsca and Caer Llwyd and now in Marchwood itself. But conversation with the fey is never easy, and though these messengers claimed friendship and common cause they demanded favours and sacrifices and offered dark pacts and secret pangs of guilt and forbidden lust. And I myself was asked to cut away the memory of a childhood love in exchange for command over another’s heart, and though my conscience screamed in horror my lips moved silently without volition and with agony I turned my face away and wept bitter tears to the earth below.
But shouts and violence came then and I was spared, for Jac the brigand-lord who once had stood with Albion had come with cut-throats and traitors to bargain for a certain scabbard he treasured within the possession of Duchess Katerina Grimmir. But though words were bandied back and forth the end was never in doubt and when the ritual posturing had passed the old song of blade upon blade and iron to flesh rang out in the glade and hard killing chased the temptations of the fey from my thoughts. A clean fight this, and I enjoyed release and battle and hot passionate murder to the satisfaction of dark feelings pent within.
And when the fight was done Jac had fled and left a score of comrades slain, and whether he gained what he sought meant little to me, for then I was approached by Eborus and Branwen, who brought news of a new emissary, and this one a mad-eyed druid of Caer Glas named Hafgan, and a name we knew well, for his words had come upon the heels of Ceirwyn ap Nudd to our foreign hearth at Norsca at the Gathering of Nations. And Hafgan knew the greatest of fear for the visitors from the court of poison ivy, and he recoiled also from those of fey blood sworn to the service of Albion. His words were low and fast and he told of the danger to the mirrored isle, and to us all should the poison-fey gain full-possession and use of the golden horn of Beomarise. His mind was torn and tattered and his eyes were wild, yet he asked sanctuary and from our love of fallen kinsmen we could do nothing but grant the request and in return to told us many things of fact and burning fancy.
Then shouts anew from the forest and Benedict called out for warlike posture and ready violence. In answer we turned from our guests and made ready with raised shields and brandished arms, but when threat came it was from behind, and without a sound tragedy announced her bloody presence to that company in a deed of wanton terrible murder.
Reid the Fire Sprite of the Host had been slain by poison, her tiny body was unmarked with wounds of violence and her warmth was diminished and extinguished forever. Why she had been killed was a mystery and those closest to her body told only that they had witnessed the druid Hafgan rushing away as Reid had collapsed to the earth. Certainly Hafgan feared the fey with a terrible intensity but the deed made little sense. He sought our aid and could surely expect no kindness by murdering our companions in open slaughter?
Ah gentle Reid the waste of your death! I commend you to the ancestors little one, your nature was light and your voice was kind, I saw no evil in your essence and I believe your smile will be remembered in the Dream of Albion forever. I shall remember the words you confided to me though, and I shall tell the story of your hopes and the strange realms you whispered of in the moonlight.
For his part Hafgan was recaptured swiftly, although in the pursuit Rebecca was hurt by unseen roots on the forest verge. The Druid swore his innocence and gestured helplessly in the direction of the emissaries from the Court of Poison Ivy, but they merely smiled and returned to conversation with Eburos and Branwen. Benedict was angry and bitterly announced that Hafgan would hang for the crime of murder on the morrow if investigation proved his guilt beyond question.
Then a last messenger to the glade, and this one the most troublesome of all for Benedict, for a faerie lord of Marchwood came with his guard to demand that the men of Albion depart and abandon their quest for the forest heart. Benedict asked why the friendship once forged should be set aside that night, but the faerie lord was enraged and would hear nothing of quiet sense and comradely allusion. The corruption was brought by Albion herself, he swore, and to purge the forest of evil all must be put to rout and ruin, and thus spoken, he called his forces forth from the eaves of the glade and made stern battle upon our company gathered there.
But Benedict was prepared, and even as the faerie host descended, reinforced by lumpen trollish auxiliaries and fell sprites of woodland malice, he called for battle order and triggered a clean ambush to divide the attacking lines betwixt a strong Albion centre, and reinforcements rushing from the rear. Spears went forward and the beastmen rushed into the breach to confound the faerie host with their many amulets and wards from harm, while more ordinarily-equipped heroes darted in and close to strike blows with iron and courage to win the fight from chaos. For a time matters turned and melee swirled in unknown balance, but then the faerie lord blew the horn of retreat and all save a sullen rearguard of trolls rushed away into the forest.
And as the fighting died to knots of minor skirmish, the Unseelie Lord Finn Dracha strode forward in a cloak of shaggy midnight hue and raised a great axe to the fray, and I confess I mistook him for the foe and struck blows against his armour and through to cleave him to the ground. In a moment I realised my error and Benedict and I brought him back to safety and Leri tended his wounds which were not serious, but on waking Finn cared nothing for my apology and raged in words of the price for striking a fey lord, and looked me in the eye with an expression which promised vengeance. I hoped then he would calm on the morrow, events would show otherwise.
At the last we made camp there in the glade and fortified the lodge as best we could against the perils of the night. The morning would bring hope but in winter the day is foreshortened, and our deeds would need fleet promise to outpace the dying of the light.
I pause in my telling and drink deeply from the chalice Rebecca offers me, around us the shadows have lengthened as the night grows old. Marchwood Keep is quiet, too quiet and laden with sadness beyond tears and further yet from mere mortal loss. Sometimes the powers of the ancient earth move on beneath our notice, and at times the wonders of the otherworld escape our note and gaze, but sometimes, some terrible times, we are witness to the making of legends and the casting of fates and the forging of the future quenched hot in the blood we love. Do not envy us these revelations those who stand without, blessed are you to go heedless of wonder, the ancestors are cruel – their tasks are beyond the endurance of most.
There is a further legend of my people of the voyage to the towers of the otherworld, a quest of bright heroes bound to seek knowledge and deliverance and poetic release. I do not know the truth of these things, the stories are too old and far beyond the memories of those who live today, but we have names and places and deeds and yes, we have sacrifices too. Before my wedding Rebecca and I cast augury upon days to come and much has since come true, and the last sign to fall was Prydwen, and that the name of a miraculous ship crewed by heroes and led by Arthur in quest, and though the tale of that journey is lost, some words remain and these haunt me still today…
“… and of those that made the quest on that ship, only seven returned.”
And by this we know the tale of Prydwen is of sacrifice and loss, and from the time we drew that sign from our betrothal casting we feared the meaning and knew well that sorrow would be the last guest to our feast, and that ever as long as music remained to our celebration, still yet did we listen close for the sound of loss and hard lamentation.
So now I shall tell you of the heart of darkness and the loss of those we loved well, for this was a journey and voyage into peril and though more than seven returned with us, the fact they did is owed solely to the sacrifice of those who did not.
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.
Silence reigned.
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.
I sit back from the words and my face clouds with mingled sorrow and anger, and beyond the walls of Marchwood Keep the forest sounds wild and living and the cruel eastern wind from coast brings the tang of sea-salt and spray, and for a time I forget my place and remember the hall of Beomarise so far distant now, but so close in the passionate pain coiled in my breast.
And Rebecca knows my look, and she too has heard the wind and gathers her cloak tighter despite the warm embers in the fire pit.
But there yet is a third part to this tale, and though the deaths of our friends marked the destruction of the dark heart in the wood, the wider world brought fresh misfortune, and here in Marchwood the past came to haunt our future, and we learned to our cost the nature of hope and faith and compromise.
And there is a last tale of those who returned on the ship Prydwen and of the desolation they found, and of the loss of all they knew, and of exile and of striving and of broken dreams anew. And Manawyddan ap Llyr and his oath companion Pryderi ap Pwyll returned to the seven cantrefs of the north and while they slept at hearth and home a great peal of thunder came and a lowering storm and a fall of mist so thick that neither man so woken could see the other, and in the morning their lands were despoiled and empty, and neither herd nor herdsman nor crofter nor knight nor lady nor commoner nor lord was left to dwell on the face of that realm.
And in the tale evil had been wrought by a sorcerer and the vanished domains were restored at last by justice and pragmatic cunning, but alas all things in stories are not so in the waking world, and for we of the blood of Beomarise and lost Caer Glas the mist remains and it hangs yet in wisps and swirls about all of our days and dreams.
And the old tale has another parallel in this recent telling, for while we slept at Marchwood the world turned and changed beyond our wildest thoughts and in the morning came news that would shape our future close-defined in the sorrowful loss we had suffered.
Oh lords and powers! I wish that like Manawyddan I might catch a mouse in the corn and put the world to right, but a fool’s hope this , and I gain no satisfaction from knowing my power is dim and my fate bound to the intrigues of bitter cunning foemen far-removed from story and sweet resolution.
And I give you now the last of this story, and its telling concerns the Golden Horn and the Mirrored Isle and the hard bargains which were made there.
Marchwood Keep rose late, and the winter sunlight streamed bright to vanquish the shadows of the night before, but even the gleaming white rays of morning could scarce bring smiles and relief to a company sore-assailed by tragedy and hard-vanished quest companions. Sorrow was palpable, and as a band of heroes we knew no leaders and none thought to replace Benedict, though in truth, few would have followed a voice rousing men to order spoken loud. The Household of the Falcon gathered close about Lord Robert and searched for the remains of their squire Aspen who had also been slain the night before, Alistair of Darkwood called his own men to attend his counsel, and elsewhere in the hall small groups gathered to debate signs and decide future actions.
And Branwen and Eburos were met by the emissaries of the court of poison ivy and chose to travel to the mirrored isle as guests of the unseelie powers there. And I ground my teeth that counsel was denied me, for these friends had taken a reckless chance in trusting the inhuman ancestors of the Isle that Rhydderch had tamed and Angharad had broken.
And still the druid Hafgan spoke of dancers and of danger close and terrible, and his eyes burned with hate and fear as he spoke of faerie, and his lips grew tight with lust and longing as he spoke of the golden horn of Beomarise and the wonders it could achieve.
And I listened as a mute, and watched the company gathered in hopeless debate, and many times I stalked from the hall in frustration as I felt unable to act and speak the words I knew might be required to avoid an ancestral curse brought to our blood by the deeds of those long dead.
Then a warning from the sentries and movement from the wood, and from the direction of the ritual circle came the sounds of an approaching troop, and there arrayed between the colours of Corvidae and Karlennon was the banner of Duke Cadarn, and he flanked by a retinue of house troops and there came the Protector of Albion to Marchwood without vanguard or herald.
And Leri rushed to greet him but fell sprawled with fatigue, and Percival and I raised her up and greeted the Duke and listened as he was told of Benedict’s death and of the deeds which had been done.
But Cadarn hid his surprise and sorrow at the loss, and spoke instead of matters beyond Marchwood, and told the gathering company that Albion herself was under full assault from the armies of Story, and that Winchester had fallen to a combined force of Story Knights and Fomor auxiliaries, and that even now the surviving armies of the crown were regrouping and engaging the enemy across a broad and shifting battlefront. Of the residents of Winchester he could say little but promised that some warning had been received and many civilian non-combatants would have doubtless escaped murder at the hands of Fomor cleavers and bill-pikes.
Cadarn looked tired and his address was clearly a distraction from vital matters of state, but even so he found the time to congratulate our company of Marchwood heroes at the deeds achieved in the matter of the dark heart, but there was, he said, another matter of immediate and pressing concern to the relief armies approaching Winchester;
“My generals have reported that misshapen creatures of the woods have attacked the baggage trains and outriders of several columns, the reports are confused but several have described golden boars amongst the raiders.”
Now Cadarn turned to Aisla,
“You my champion have knowledge of this threat. Make use of that knowledge to remove it.”
And Aisla in turn nodded, and swore her pledge.
As the Duke turned to depart he caught Leri’s eye;
“There will likely be a choice to be made, see you make it.”
And leaning close to Aisla he spoke with an edge of deadly steel,
“By any means you deem necessary.”
Cadarn then summoned his guardsmen and retinue to close order at his side and smiling confidence in those he left at Marchwood, departed with his troops for the return to the ritual circle and the wider peril of Albion.
So it was that the matter of Caer Glas and the mirrored isle and the golden boars collided with the needs of Albion. And what had been discussed quietly before was now an issue for the company as a whole. And Aisla called for opinions and discussion and asked those gathered of what was known of the emissaries of poison ivy and the promises they had made in return for the information they had claimed.
And as luck would have it, Eburos and Branwen returned then from their own journey to the hospitality of the broken kings, and speaking with scarcely contained excitement they babbled of miracles and revelation and how the slain thousands of our kinsmen slain by the dragon kings had gone past the bridge of swords to stand in conclave in the place of our ancestors.
But Aisla frowned and shook her head free of dreams and sweet illusions,
“Just tell me plain Eburos, is the golden horn on the mirrored isle and can we take it by force?”
Deflated but indulgent Eburos considered a moment and then nodded,
“Yes, from what I have seen I think it is what we are meant to do.”
And there resolved Aisla asked those remaining war-captains chosen by Benedict to gather and organise their companies to the task at hand. Branwen and Eburos stood close in counsel and with them Rebecca and Percival, and though many faces were tired and confused they had faith in the champion of Albion and in the command of their Duke. And so plans were made to take the host of Marchwood to the mirrored isle to remove the threat of the golden boars for ever.
And the crux of the matter was this;
In ages past the Kings of Beomarise had quested for the treasures of the Tyrch Trwyth who was a monstrous boar-spirit whose might was sufficient to ruin kingdoms and overthrow armies and drive the wealth of nations into the sea. And one King, Madog map Eiddon had succeeded in part, and his son had taken a golden horn from the Tyrch Trwyth and this thing had been an artefact of great power but malign influence, and the property of the horn was that if ever it be blown at a feast or hearth then never so fine or wondrous the taste of the meat and sweetness of the wine and the pleasure of voices in conversation and song experienced therein, but never again would such be known by those present unless they henceforth won the horn for themselves and therefore the cause of hard strife and bitter reproach. And for the time the horn had been the property of the Kings of Beomarise but during the fall of Caer Glas it was lost and thought vanished from the realms of men even as Dragon sorcerers wove their mist and destroyed the land we knew.
And there the cause of the current travail, for the Tyrch Trwyth recognised none but the line of Madog as fitting owners of the horn, and now our blood had lost the artefact the curse of the golden boars had fallen upon us, and now our homeland in exile and those companions we chose to stand by in war were close assailed by the brood of Tyrch Trwyth and that beast’s desire to reclaim its property.
And Eburos and Branwen had learned that the golden horn had been taken from the ruins of Beomarise by members of the court of poison ivy and they had taken it to the mirrored isle, which is place of sanctuary where the faerie spirits and elder powers of Caer Glas had been driven ages ago by the scourging conquest of our first ancestors to walk that once-favoured land.
And Hafgan the druid had confided a secret way to the mirrored isle, and told us yet of the threat posed by the court of poison ivy, and of the ill they intended to the race of man, and of their jealously directed at our blood, and of their spite, well-seasoned to the deadly hatred in the long years of their own exile.
So now at Cadarn’s command we were bound to travel to the isle of our ancestor’s dreams to recover a cursed horn of contention and ill-favour, that we might bargain with the brood of the golden boar for an end to their attacks, and perhaps a conclusion to the history of strife between mortal Beomarisian blood and our foes of faerie.
And should Albion care?
I will not judge, but I shall tell you what transpired on the mirrored isle and your must reach your own conclusions.
Our way was strange but hard, and the Hafgan’s secret allowed our company to summon spirits of the mirrored isle to open a circle from Marchwood to our destination, and the price of this aid was that mortals should dance and play music and sing bold songs to rouse the hearts of the dancers from their deathly slumber. And no hard price this for Lady Madalaine sang boldly and led a chorus of voices, and around the circle the weary heroes danced and I with Leri, and Robert Falcon with Charlotte Gray, and many more led their aid, until at last we were taken from the realm of man to the realm of faerie and the reflection of our fallen home.
And our eyes fell upon a land of vivid colours and luxuriant emerald, and sounds of distant music, and the heavy scent of ivy and the sensation of primal springtime ringing from the very trees. And for a time we kept the circle open with song while warriors and scouts passed deeper into the foliage, and on their return they told of a tumbled hall overgrown with moss and strange vegetation.
Aisla ordered an exploration of the buildings and then to my pleasure I discovered my memories of lore and faith returning, and with them my voice and knowledge of the language spoken in Albion. It is said that time passes differently in faerie and perhaps the transit from one realm to the next purged the demon-blood from my veins, I do not know, but I was greatly relieved to find myself able to speak again with my companions.
The investigations yielded little, but found a man who claimed to serve Nudd ap Gwyn, the last great king of Caer Glas and Branwen’s grandfather. A strange fellow this, by appearance entirely mundane and yet living in the midst of faerie and weird enchantment. But his temper was even and his manners were seemly, and he told us that we were expected and that in time a messenger would come to lead us to the hall of the broken kings.
But sooner would have been better than later, for we were found quickly by the court of poison ivy and their welcome was less kind than ever we might have hoped. Hard threat to our lives ensued, and these malicious spirits used venom on their blades and on their claws and on their teeth, and they spat poison in our faces as they cursed our lineage and birthright, and they coated small arrows with foulness and took aim from the undergrowth, laughing all the while at their tricks and deft deadly jesting.
Aisla was in no mood to laugh however, and calling orders from behind a shield raised in warding, she confronted these faerie tricksters with hard iron and war cunning besides, and it was not long until we routed the first waves and sent them giggling back to the forest depths. For my part I watched carefully for wounds caused by the weapons of these foemen and called swift attention when I saw blood and venom mingled in the flesh of comrades. And Leri and Branwen were quick to respond and so despite the desire for murder expressed in the mirth of the fey none of our number was slain there.
And while we had fought Finn Dracha had reclined at ease upon soft hummocks and conversed with his kinsmen, for he expressed fellow-feeling with the court of poison ivy and chose not to raise his axe or arm against those he considered close-allied in pursuit of his singular goals.
But Alistair of Darkwood was less comfortable in the presence of those who wished him slain, and he worked many feats of sharp rebuttal on the games of the fey, and he cursed them in turn as his men protected our interests well and fairly from the threat without.
And a relief it was when Nudd’s man reached us and beckoned welcome and greeted us in the tongue we shared, and promised us safe conduct to the hall of the broken kings where his master wished counsel with his descendants and their allies.
And fortunate that we had a guide for the geography of the mirrored isle was strange and much prone to whimsy and the paths were obscure and the hazards oft-unseen. But at last we came to the Hall of Nudd, where sat the thrones of broken kings, and there in power and threadbare majesty sat Nudd ap Gwyn, the son of the man who had taken the golden horn from Tyrch Trwyth.
And Nudd smiled widely and greeted Branwen and Eburos and I, and spoke for a time in the way of noblemen approaching a point. And then he asked what it was we sought;
“The golden horn of Beomarise,” said I.
“And why would you have it,” said Nudd.
“To set matters to rights and to raise the curse from our name,” said I.
“Ah,” said Nudd, “But what is that to me?”
And then we fell to bargaining, and Nudd, ever the most cunning of our ancestors, made clear his desire to see a broken king of faerie bound tight to the throne beside him, and his price for aid was that Percival and Finn Dracha should share the year a season apiece as durance to his desire. And then our eyes fell upon the form of the third broken King and this was Hadaig the father to rooks, and a terror to sour milk and startle children conjured to our sight. But no terrible form of dark horror and faerie grandeur remaining, but a raddled figure bent double and bound and gagged with chains of cold iron and slave entirely to Nudd’s will.
“A just outcome for past crimes it might be said,”
Nudd remarked with a twinkle of his eye.
And Percival and Finn dickered themselves for a time and asked of the nature of their service and the true duration and of the cost, and at last they were satisfied and agreed.
“And what does this bargain gain us grandfather?” Branwen asked.
“Three things child; and you will know them when you see them, and messengers will come with gifts and you must seek the lords of the poison ivy at their hearth and bring battle to them with weapons and arts most harmful to their essence.”
And Nudd smiled then, and as Owain the fat once wrote, it was a smile to make men leap from the hall and touch the hilts of their swords to avert mischance and ill-fortune.
And then we bade farewell to Nudd, and Percival and Finn swore to return and do their service as broken kings bound close to the creature Hadaig had become.
And for myself, I had small wonder that the mortal Nudd had overcome the powers of faerie in the mirrored isle, for Angharad’s blood yet ran powerful in the veins of Beomarise, and once she alone had wrought such things in the mortal world.
Nudd’s messenger then showed us a path in the forest and told us to remain true and not to turn our backs on the way ahead, and there he said, we would find the truth of his master’s promise along the way to the court of poison ivy.
And he spoke truth and though some of us doubted then, we all saw in recollection that Nudd had kept his bargain.
The first offer of aid was made by a terrible huntress with eyes of cold fire and a face of ashen beauty; and this was Angharad, or a shade of Angharad, for she had died a hundred years and more before. And she came forward from the forest with a promise that should one of our number aid her in trapping a Unicorn with a maiden’s blood, we would receive her aid in turn, and this the use of her spear and sword and bow for the battle to come.
And Aisla spoke with Leri and asked counsel of her comrades that a decision might be reached, and it was felt by many that to slay a Unicorn would be a foul act, and that such a bargain should not be made. And refusing Angharad’s offer, Aisla was scorned and derided in turn, and the huntress named “cat-claw” a weak and pathetic wastrel without the will to power.
The second offer of aid was made by an exiled lady of the court of poison ivy, and this the mother of Ceirwyn ap Nudd, and a lover of Nudd, and a mournful spirit of the wild places was she. And her name was Alarch “red-eyes”, and she watched our approach and followed, and then asked me of her son, and of his fate in the world of men.
“Your son is dead,” said I.
And Alarch screamed sorrow and ripped her hair and grew angry and spat curses upon the powers who wrought that fate.
“How did my son die?”
“He was driven mad by the power of the Dragon King and was then betrayed and murdered by the Demons of Taxation”, said I.
“Is this truth?”
“It is. But his memory and his tale are widely known and I told the tale of his death my Lady.”
And Alarch smiled bitterly then and said she was bound to provide aid if we could meet her price. And the price of her aid was a tear from one, who could not cry, and a curse of spittle from a man betrayed, and a drop of blood from a mortal maiden. And Aisla and I and Charlotte Gray paid the price between us, and we received a paste of deadly poison proof against the nature of faerie manifestation. And Alarch wished us well and spat a curse of her own upon the lords of poison ivy she consider usurpers, for they had provided no welcome to her son at birth, and instead she had raised Ceirwyn in the wilderness far away from the comforts of court.
The last offer of aid was made by the man who had greeted us first in the mirrored isle, and his was a simple boon but of terrible significance. He offered the use of Hadaig’s wargear taken from that insane power by Nudd, and held away from the gaze of courtiers and minor powers lest the appearance of the swords and harness and cloak bring corruption and deadly avarice to disturb the balance of duty.
And this equipment was offered freely with a warning, for Hadaig would see and hear and might control some of the instincts of the man who donned weapon and harness and cloak.
And from the first this offer brought division to our company, for the blades were of ancient design, and one was cold steel and bane to faerie, and one was of demon-make and poisoned against the flesh of men. And Finn Dracha swore never to aid the company that made use of such weapons and to bring fine and charge against the commander that allowed such. And others agreed with Finn, although some now regretted the choice before to spare a Unicorn and lose an easier bargain.
But at last a compromise was stuck between Aisla and Leri, and it was agreed that we would use these weapons if a volunteer might be found and that Leri would swear herself to use the Cup of Souls to undo the curse-wounding inflicted by the cold iron sword upon the nature of the faerie lords so slain.
And Robert Falcon offered his service and donned the cloak and harness of Hadaig and gathered up the terrible swords once-wielded by that murderous power. And Robert’s eyes grew dark and shadowed, and his hands clenched like talons, and his voice was strange and his manner was full-fey and disturbing to those who knew him well.
And I spoke to Robert and whispered to him of his name and his place and of his family and I told him a secret truth of the nature of Hadaig and I believe he heard me and grew more confident in his control.
So three times we had been offered aid and twice we had accepted and now lay ahead the court of poison ivy and the lords there gathered to oppose our claim for the golden horn and the relief of Albion’s armies from ravagers set close upon the trail.
I admit I was uneasy for it is the way of such things that a boon refused will call a secret price and the nature of fey (like Story) is to write resolution in triads, a third element to the quest was thus missing, and in a short time the truth would come to haunt us well.
And Aisla then took steps to regain the confidence of the company which had been shaken by the audience with Nudd, and the approach of Angharad, and now with the wielding of Cold iron by Lord Robert Falcon. And she asked Martin Longbow and I to stand with her in battle as captains and to ensure that commands were repeated well and loud, and that should she fall the host would know direction and close regard. Martin and I agreed and promised that we ensure such things were done.
And then we marched to the stronghold of the court of poison ivy and presented ourselves in warlike array, while on the way we laid what plans we might to gain advantage in the fray. For my part I asked Rafe Loriner to coat his crossbow bolts with the venom-paste we had been gifted by Alarch, and Lady Straife agreed to ensure that the poison was applied safely and without risk to Rafe himself. And in the fight to come Rafe was to take whatever chances might arise to slay the lords of Poison Ivy and gain advantage for our company. Martin Longbow took command of the Falcons since Lord Robert was partially-possessed by an insane faerie power, and his commands were brutal but marked in stern pragmatism, and he ordered that the Falcon troops should spare no healers or physicians amongst the enemy, and that while Lord Robert was be to afforded the respect of Lord still, none should easily forget that his body currently knew all the tendencies of blood-crazed immortal villainy from the personality of the fiend in his body.
Aisla strove tirelessly to keep the spirits of our company high, but she faced an uphill struggle, for many amongst our number knew sympathy with Finn and considered the employment of cold iron weaponry a terrible crime. I laughed bitterly to hear such comment and wondered if all who spoke would be as assured as Finn himself of fine welcome and kindly regard from the poison ivy courtiers, for these were never the friends of my family, and were renowned in our folklore as cannibals and torturers and wicked killers of those who fell to their mercies.
Aisla for her part merely remembered Cadarn’s words, and comforted herself that truly the circumstances had demanded the broad remit she had been offered.
And then at last the court was before us, and a wide glade of open light and a circle of trees wrapped in dark green leaves and the pearl-white berries, and a circle of stones within the trees, and brackish stream murmuring a passage between raised hummocks wreathed in lurid moss. And beyond the glade the Lords of Poison Ivy, and their creatures and they gathered in conclave and their leader holding aloft the golden horn we sought.
Aisla raised her hand to signal the assault, but then from our right, a party of shadowed figures appeared and their nature was alien to this glade, and where they walked the ivy curled and died, and their faces were dead fallen flesh, and their master was a creature of Annwn, and he walked before our company and spoke a sibilant bargain of his own, an offer of aid for a price. The third of the quest to replace that we had already refused.
“You will be slain here lest you find aid, my lord’s price is simple; he would have the cup of souls in fair exchange.”
And Leri looked to Aisla and Martin Longbow and Geoffrey and I, and then asked the gathered company in a high voice whether Albion would seek the aid of the dead.
And the answer was no.
So battle was joined without the third bargain and immediately Robert Falcon hurled himself into the fray, cutting to the left and to the right and slaying the lesser servants of poison ivy with every stroke of the dire killing-blades he wielded. But so sudden was his attack at unseen urging of Hadaig, that we were scarcely able to keep abreast and guard his flanks, and worse yet, a sizable portion of our company chose not to engage and stood back instead with Finn Dracha as he watched with careless lassitude from a slight rise beyond the clearing.
And Eborus turned then and screamed abuse and derision at those sworn companions of Albion who stood away from this fight, and cunningly he employed the wit and barbed inducements of bardic satire, and few who heard the words he said were able to thereafter stand away from needs of their countrymen. And with pleasure I saw those men and women who first were hesitant now come rushing to the fight in earnest.
But a terrible revelation next, for Annwn’s messenger loosed his creatures on our right flank and wrought dreadful confusion with hard wounds and of corruption and decay, while on our left, the Faerie Lords of Poison Ivy had no compulsion of their own to avoid the employment of evil spells and weapons of soul-destruction, for they pressed in close and where they passed men fell with envenomed wounds and bodies reft apart with fatal weeping curse.
And I fought back to back with Geoffrey Walker and saw Aisla and Pelleas pressed most sorely, and I saw Branwen fall to a terrible blow and Percival reach her side to bring her back to safety, and I saw our foe come full circle around our position so that Finn Dracha’s place of safety was hidden from my sight, and we moved closer to Leri and watched as she employed power and reckless bravado to ward our wounded from final butchery. And then Robert Falcon fell and the protections of Hadaig had failed him and though he had struck hard with the weapons of cold iron and mortal bane it seemed the enemy knew more yet of evil and of twisted bitter joy.
In truth we were as good as slain, our hopes were gone and our gambled bargain had come to nothing. Even Rafe had failed to find an opening and now crouched at bay behind inward pressing shields as he waited the inevitable blows to come. How ridiculous to survive the Dark Heart and yet to fall in the country of childhood dreams? But hard and real was the peril; and I believed Cadarn knew the truth when he bade us go. Not the boars perhaps the root of the matter, but these lords of twisted venom in league with the forces of the dead, and not a curse for Caer Glas and Beomarise alone, but a bane upon Albion herself, for should the Cup of Souls fall close to Annwn’s stead then bondage cold would be the fate of all fair Albion’s honoured dead.
And then I heard Leri speaking urgently, demanding, imploring, scolding perhaps, and the words she spoke were for the ears of Annwn’s emissary, and she offered to stake the Cup of Souls in a gamble in the year to come, and laughing dryly the emissary asked what might she stake in turn? And wide-eyed and stumbling as she raised her shield to ward a poisoned blow, Leri offered her soul in addition to the cup at risk should we live through the coming moments.
The answer was immediate and the returned dead fell upon the creatures of the ivy court, and Annwn’s emissary walked this way and that with murder at his touch and brought a surfeit of weeping where ever the poison fey had laughed in times before. And into the gap which was made Lord Robert’s men plunged and brought his body away and saw it was living still. And now Lady Straife primed bolts of poison for Rafe Loriner and he fired three shots with unerring accuracy at the hearts of the lords of poison ivy. And though two were blocked against an interposing shield of dark bronze brought up by a retreating fey lord, the third stuck hard and deep into the breast of the greatest lord who carried the golden horn and he fell slain to the poison of a woman-scorned and might perhaps have regretted in last moments the past unkindness to a red-eyed mother and a half-breed child.
The rest was a rout, and the lesser servants of the court were slain out of hand, and though many of our number were struck hard-venomed cuts and blows, our suspicion of all such wounds was the salvation of all, and none so harmed was allowed to continue untreated lest the corruption be purged from the body by enchantment and summoned power. For their part the dead served as long as foe remained, and then fell to dust and decay even as their emissary departed to return to his master’s side.
And though two faerie lords escaped us, the foremost was slain, and he the possessor of the golden horn and so our pledged task was nearly done. Alister of Darkwood was first to take up the horn and he placed it safely in his pouch, signalling his desire to leave swiftly lest the courtiers of ivy return with reinforcements.
As for Lord Robert Falcon; when he was roused with healing arts we found the presence of Hadaig was strong yet in his mind and in truth we had little time or preference for subtle unwinding of influence, and Pheonix and Faramir rendered that lord senseless with sleeping enchantments while I clattered his helm with the blunt edge of my sword. Then stripping away the wargear and cloak of the Lord of Rooks we left the items in a bundle for Nudd to collect when the urge might come upon him to reclaim his possessions.
Aisla herself was in no mood to remain overlong and without delay the company gathered within the circle of stones and called upon the power of the dancers of Caer Glas in voice and music and song, and as the energy gathered and as we wearily paced around the singers, the glade shifted before us and when our vision cleared the colours were dull and muted and the air was cold and pure and from somewhere distant on the wind we smelt the sea.
Finn Dracha chose to remain then in the mirrored isle and did not return.
Now Marchwood was around us, but a figure awaited, and he a golden man with the tusks of boar, and ‘twas he who had sought Branwen in Caer Llwyd and Brighthelm Stane, and he who spoke for the brood of the golden boar.
“I will have what belongs to my father now,” he announced.
And Branwen and I came to stand before him.
“Will this be an end?” Branwen asked.
“Aye,” said the golden man, “For now.”
“And if we gave the horn in trade for the comb and sheers between your father’s ears?” I asked.
And the golden man gave a half smile. “That can only be taken in quest, are you a warrior bold to speak like a merchant?”
And I looked to Branwen and she nodded.
“Then let there be an end, may we see your father to know the truth your words?”
But the golden man shook his head,
“My father would not come hither unless to bring destruction and quest, but I would take you to him if you wish (though not I’ll vouchsafe your journey back)”
I thought long moments at that challenge but regretfully smiled refusal.
“Bring me the horn now and I will bring my brothers home”, the golden man urged, “my time here is short.”
And I went then to find Alister and to ask that he relinquish the golden horn to bring the threat to abeyance.
But when I asked him his eyes grew narrow and his lips clenched and his hand went to the hilt of his sword.
“I have had time to reconsider,” he said, “And I will be keeping it for myself.”
For a moment I was perplexed, but only for a moment and then I stepped forward shouting out that Alister had fallen to the influence of the golden horn. For in the stories of the isle it is difficult thing indeed to seize possession of the horn and to then pass it one to another without death and violence fast occurring.
And Alister ran headlong into the woods and made great speed, but he was matched by many who had heard my shout and at last he was brought down with magic and rebated blows, and as his men guarded his body close, we called Branwen to fetch the horn from Alister’s pouch, for if any present could touch that thing without ill-effects and compulsion it would be the granddaughter of Nudd ap Gwyn. And in truth our faith was proved out, and Branwen took up the Horn and carried it to the where the golden man waited.
“Bound and done”, the golden man swore, and took the Horn from Branwen, and then he walked into the forest and passed from our view thereafter.
And then we returned to the Keep at Marchwood, and our task was done. But still our spirits were bittersweet and though we had confronted and vanquished two hard threats to Albion’s dream there remained a legacy of sorrow and many matters yet unresolved. For Leri had pledged her soul in gamble with Annwn, and Robert Falcon had opened his heart to the influence of Hadaig, and two lords of the poison ivy had escaped in the fighting, and yes, we had chosen to wield cold iron in the service of the crown, and Aisla had scorned Angharad’s gift, and I been offered a challenge by the child of Tyrch Trwyth, and Percival was bound to sit on the throne of a broken king, and Finn Dracha? Well, now he sits between a mortal lord of Caer Glas and the feeble-minded wreck of Hadaig the father to rooks, and behind them both is a blade of vile fae-bane steel.
And that is the end of the tale.