Saturday, June 16, 2018

Theo Paxstone and The Witch-Queen: Prologue

Out of the grey haze of cascading rain rode a red knight. 

Lord Trent squinted down at the half-obscured figure before the castle gates. The armoured man was slumped forward atop a mighty warhorse. 

Just who was this fool? 

Water dribbled down into Trent’s bleary eyes; he wiped the drops away in annoyance. He’d been expecting his brother Edmund, whom he’d sent east to escort a caravan of gold from Glittercave Mine. Edmund was a gundygut and a drinker, but who else could Trent trust with such a task? Now, Edmund was late. Waylaid perhaps. Or drunk out of his mind on the floor of a tavern, thought Trent angrily. But even Edmund wouldn’t be that stupid, knowing the punishment that’d await him. No, it must be bandits. Thieving peasant scum making off with his gold, heading for the hills to live like kings on Trent’s coin! And in this rain, he’d have no chance of finding or intercepting them. Well, tomorrow he’d hire the best trackers and hunt them down, and have every last one of them put to the sword. 

He hadn’t been expecting a mysterious knight. 

Was it another sign? There’d been that murder of crows earlier. They’d sat on the battlements and stared at him for hours before he’d had his archers drive them off. They’d retired to the woods lining the road between castle and town and cawed endlessly. Perhaps they were still there, shrouded in the rain. At least he couldn’t hear them now. 

Tomorrow he’d let the hawks out.

“Oi, you there!” he shouted down at the figure. “State your name and intent. And be quick about it, or I’ll have my bowmen make a porcupine of you!” Trent’s voice was a deep baritone, harshened by years of barked battlefield orders.

The knight’s rain spattered helm titled up, but the shadow of the visor kept the man’s face cast in darkness. “I am Sir Kel of the road.” 

From Albion, thought Trent, by the accent. A local boy. 

“I got lost in the rain.”

Trent grunted. You could hardly see a few dozen feet ahead in this dowpour. “I am Margrave Trent, Warden of the South Wornspine. These are my lands you’re wandering, not that you can see them. This is Castle Sunderstone.”

The knight bowed forward. “An honor, your grace.” 

It was indeed, thought Trent smugly. An itinerant knight should show proper deference. Such men had no master, but also no resources. “Where you headed, Sir Kel?” 

“I am on a quest, my lord.”

Trent’s ears picked up. “A quest, eh?” Trent had not been on a quest since he was a young man, when he had to prove his own bonafides to become a Knight of Catros. It’d been the most exciting time of his life. “What sort of quest?”

The red knight was silent. Trent thought he might not have heard the question and was about to repeat himself, when the man finally said: “Revenge, your grace.”

Lord Trent chuckled. Thirst for revenge was something he understood! Perhaps this knight was a kindred spirit, driven to deliver punishment upon anyone who dared do him wrong. 

He peered more closely at the knight: he wore expensive, if eccentric, red armour with steam powered limb enhancements, and sat atop a powerfully built war charger. It, too, had a finely crafted exoskeleton. Gnomite workmanship, without a doubt. Only the best could afford that. Very unusual for a knight of the road. He could sell that suit for a real steam mech, a fully armoured war machine that the Knights of Catros typically piloted. The man must be a romantic. Or perhaps it was a family heirloom of some sort. But there were advantages to such an archaic suit: on a horse, he’d be faster, and more agile, than a steam mech, especially in rugged terrain. Like a bandit. Trent rubbed his beard and considered this. Perhaps he could put the man to use. “Come inside, Sir Kel. Fill your belly and stay the night. Tell me of your quest. I may have work for you.”

“Thank you, your grace,” replied the knight. “I shall indeed!”

The hair on the back of Trent’s neck prickled at the man’s tone for some reason; he shook the feeling off. In the distance there was a loud screech, like that of a bird of prey, but deeper, more resonate. The red knight heard it to, and shifted in his saddle. But he didn’t seem alarmed. It was not a dragon, thankfully; Trent knew their foul roar, and this was something else. A dread horror, perhaps, that’d awakened and wandered down from the mountains. Trent shrugged. Nothing to do about it now. Trent and his knights would hunt it down and slay it in due course, if it dared to stay and pilfer. 

He turned his burly gatekeeper: “Well? Raise the gate!” 

Once down below in the warm belly of the keep, Trent ordered his kitchen staff to heat up the evening’s stew. He received the knight in the resplendent great hall, by the roaring fire. Above were mounted the skulls of basilisks and other beasts Trent had slain over the years. His greatest prize was the stubby skull of a pug razorback dragon he’d lured out of the Wren mines a dozen years ago. 

As soon as the red knight sat down, he began to eat.

Trent snapped his fingers and servants rolled a shrouded metal cage over. They positioned it by the table and then pulled the shroud away with a flourish, revealing a miniature woman inside, about a foot and a half high, perfectly proportioned. She wore an exotic dress of silk, adorned with resplendent jewelry. Her tiny features were finely sculpted, like porcelain. A scrawny servant opened the cage, and she sprang onto the table. She bowed to Trent with an exaggerated flourish, then to the red knight. A music box in the cage clicked and began to play, and she danced to it. Her movements were so graceful as to be hypnotic. 

Trent watched the knight with sharp eyes, waiting for his reaction. Surely he’d never seen something so marvelous, so fine, so cultured before. The red knight didn’t look like he attended court much: the man had long, stringy black hair and a scruffy beard. His features were sharp and his eyes dark. There was something familiar about the man, but Trent couldn’t remember where he might have met him. At a tournament, perhaps. Had they jousted? Fought some foul beast together? The armour the knight wore was even finer than he’d thought on closer inspection, engraved all over with gnomite runes. Beneath the armour he wore faded but rich clothes, topped by a high collared frill around his neck. It looked uncomfortably tight.

The knight’s eyes were caught by the miniature dancer. “Remarkable,” he muttered, his mouth half-full of stew. She was casting her spell upon him, leaving him enraptured, as Trent knew she would. “That’s a minuret, yes?”

Trent nodded with satisfaction and ignored the man’s poor table manners. His pet was having the desired effect. “Yes, one of the finer creations of the God-Kings,” he said. The dreaded God-Kings had oppressed humankind for eons, and used their magic to twist humans into tailored servants, pets for specific tasks. “Her name is Safa.” He smiled and waited for the inevitable comment about how expensive she must be. Few lords in Adyron could have afforded such a prize, for her kind were almost extinct. It’d taken some effort to acquire her.

“I’ve never seen one before,” said Sir Kel, slurping stew. “Must have cost you.”

“Quite,” confirmed Trent, picking lint off his sleeve. “Even the queen herself only has a small troupe. Mine can sing, too. And recite poetry.” 

The man nodded absentmindedly, and focused on his stew. No comment on Safa’s marvelous dancing, no song request! Trent fought down building annoyance. The knight was on a quest for revenge, he reminded himself. That could make a man single-minded, even rude. But Trent would only tolerate so much disrespect.

“I saw that a lot of trees been cut down along Forest Cairn Road,” said the knight, hefting up his stein and taking a swig of beer. With his free hand, he pulled at his neck collar. 

Trent found the collar tugging oddly annoying: why didn’t the man open it up, or take it off? He switched his attention to Safa. He liked this part of her routine, for it was especially complex. She’d been born knowing it; it was as natural to her as breathing. 

The knight looked at Safa, then back at Trent. “Those were sacred trees. Sleeping arbors.”

“Eh? Oh, aye,” said Trent. “So say my druids. And by Sturn it annoys the faeries. Weve had some clashes, but can’t be helped. I’ve offered compensation and they’re not taking it.”

“You must need the wood.”

“They’re building ships in Osta. Big ones, and they’re paying enough to make it worth the trouble. You know this region then?”

“Thought I did. Changed since I was last here. The mill by Riverfork is gone.”

“Belgrain Mill?” asked Lord Trent, puzzled. He shifted in his seat. “That was torn down ages ago.” He looked closer at the man. They’d met, but where? When? The knight didn’t seem old enough to…

“And the peasants? I know this region has had problems.”

Trent sighed. The man knew the area indeed! “In the east, always. Youre a fellow noble, you know what theyre like."

The knight nodded, his eyes piercing and bright. "Ungrateful. Disobedient." 

"Aye!" said Trent, throwing out a hand to Sir Kel. "You understand, then! I give them more holidays, they want more pay. I give more pay, they want more holidays. Honestly, they should pick one, they arent getting both! Never satisfied! Even my generosity has limits. No end of grief, you've no idea what I've had to deal with. Weve been replacing them with Chateni stock.”

“Chateni?” The knight gave him a quizzical look with his piercing dark eyes.

“Chattel. Bred for field work. Imported from across the Midsea."

"Is that necessary? Sounds expensive." 

Trent grunted. "My fathers heart was broken by the peasant revolt of sixty. Never got over it. They killed my uncle, his favourite brother, and after all we'd given them. Like it meant nothing! A more generous family of lords Adyron has never seen, let me tell you. What does that say, eh? Well. Mostly Chateni around here now. No will of their own. Do what they’re told. Obedient kittens. Just not very good in a fight, other than as fodder. Not like us.”

Sir Kel let go of his spoon, which clattered into the metal stew bowl, and slumped back in his chair. It creaked under the weight of his armour. He adjusted his collar again. “No, not like us.”

“We’re warriors! Guardians bred to fight. Dominate. Pity our blood’s been diluted by peasant stock. What’s done is done, though. My sons, they’re half the man I am. Makes me weep, it does, but hard to find pure bloods. You know what its like. You have children?

The red knight frowned and dropped his gaze. “I did.”

“Ah,” said Trent slowly. “Shame. No man should outlive his children. He should die in battle, fighting for his kin, and have songs sung about his great deeds. Was it plague?”

“No,” said the red knight softly. “They were murdered.”

"Ah." Trent nodded in sympathy. If Trent’s own children had come to harm, he’d butcher the perpetrators, along with their wives and children and friends, for good measure. “Made them pay, I trust? The perpetrators?”

The red knight stared back into Trent’s eyes. “Not yet.”

“Ah,” said Trent. This, then, was the man’s quest. “I wish you success, Sir Kel, for every terrible crime deserves a suitably terrible punishment. Tell me, how’d your children die, if I may ask?” He wanted to know the details, what injustice fed his rage. Rage got a man up in the morning, gave purpose to his day. Trent raised his stein to take a swig.

“They were burned alive, before the gates of this very castle,” said Sir Kel evenly.

Trent almost choked on his beer. He slammed his beer down and scowled, displeased. Just what had this man meant by that? “The people we burn deserve it,” he snapped. And how dare this man suggest otherwise? His mind raced, trying to think of the last burning. Odd. He couldn’t remember. They hadn’t burned anyone in ages! Hanged and impaled, yes, a dozen last month, but not burned. When…

Sir Kel got to his feet, armour clattering as he stood. 

Alarmed, Trent pushed his chair back, getting clearance from the table so he could move in any direction, and quickly. He touched at his side, to assure himself his long sword was still there, in its sheath. It was a finely-honed blade, good enough to cut through armor, and heavy enough to bash the wearer about inside, if it couldn’t. He made eye contact with the guards stationed at the hall entrance. They were already looking concerned. Trent jerked his head at the red knight. They knew the signal and approached, drawing their swords.

The red knight’s head tilted slightly at the sound of blade scraping scabbard, but he kept his eyes fixed on Trent.

Safa was looking nervously at both the red knight and Trent and danced cautiously back towards her cage.

“I was there,” said Sir Kel. “At the peasant revolt of sixty. You tied my children to stakes and burnt them alive. As witches. And you made me watch.”

Trent swallowed hard. He tried to recall that night, but could only remember vague impressions. The strong fall wind, scented with sweat, manure and burnt wood. His mind conjured up red tinged flames, weary soldiers, and images of the half-naked prisoners huddling together for warmth. Their eyes were filled with fear. He remembered his father and brothers in their armour, glaring at the prisoners as they were brought before the castle gates. The druid-inquisitors haunting chant while they were tied to the stakesAnd he remembered white hot rage, too, being furious with the peasant's betrayal, for they not just killed dozens, but had sought help from witches. Witches were enemies of the earth, perverting reality with their foul magics. That hubris had destroyed the ancients, and the almost the world itself. It was even worse that a few rogue knights had thrown their lot in with them…

“I listened to them scream as you set their pyres alight. Mika. Chana. Belana. Ordren. You murdered my children.”

Safa stopped dancing and gaped at Lord Trent. 

“They were rebels and witches!” roared Trent, leaping to his feet in outrage. How dare this man impugn his honor! He had done no wrong; he’d put down witches and rebels. “And you? You’re a coward! You hide, sniveling, for decades, then enter my castle under false pretense, posing as friend, drinking my ale, eating my food! You have no honour! You betrayed your vows, the King, the land of Adyron! You're a disgrace, and you make me sick. I should have put you out of your misery back then. I should have…” Trent's voice caught in his throat. His eyes bulged at the red knight and horror washed over him. He slowly raised and pointed a finger at the Red Knight, finally recognizing the man. “I… did," he croaked. He felt sanity slipping away. “I cut off your head…” 

"…And put it on a pike,” finished the Red Knight. He yanked down his collar, exposing a ragged, lumpy scar that circled his pale throat. “Yes, I remember."

Trent’s blood ran cold. This was no man: this was necromancy!

"Your gold shipment will not be arriving,” said Sir Kel grimly, tossing his chair aside and sweeping out his sword. “But you may join your brother!”

Safa squealed and leapt off the table. She ran nimbly between the hall's tables and out of sight.

The castle's tower bell began to ring, over and over. 

That damned witch, cursed Trent. The one they’d never caught. This must be her work! Trent drew his sword and nodded at his men, who were well positioned behind the knight, to either side. “Smite this cur!”

Trent’s guards hefted their heavy swords and struck at the Red Knight. One blade embedded itself in the knight’s shoulder, but the knight barely flinched. The guard yanked at the blade desperately, trying to dislodge it. Red mist poured from the glowing wound.
                                                                    
“I have come for you, Lord Trent,” said the Red Knight, eyes aglow, his voice a ghastly echo. “And death itself cannot stop me!” 

Outside the great hall came faint cries of alarm, then screams, and the clash of steel. 

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