Newcastle, Part One - Counsel
Flying due east until Tegan’s winds waned around 30 minutes later, the group landed and continued on foot. Myrddin hoped that this would throw Sealguire off their trail, as he felt the obvious routes would be north to the protection of the Wall or south to Hexham or Arianwen’s druid grove. The druid pushed the friends onwards, despite their exhaustion, explaining that they were far from safe, even in his company. After a hard day, they made cold camp and spent an all-too short night before continuing on again.
The morning dawned with an unseasonal chill, and they took to the sky again through Tegan’s sorcery. The north wind was bitterly cold and by the time they landed, sleet was driving in from the north. Myrddin remained in the form of a tawny owl and disappeared to the west while the group slogged on through the dismal weather. By the end of the day sleet had turned to snow and it was clear to them all that something unnatural was afoot.
Myrddin returned as they were making camp for the night, reporting that Sealguire had somehow found their trail but were many miles behind them. Worse, the druid had flown over the wall and seen several burned or deserted villages, and many groups of undead shambling steadily east. They discussed the unseasonal weather and Myrddin speculated that it could only have been caused by incredibly powerful magic. The group slept uneasily before waking early. Taking to the sky again, Storm decided to fly over the Wall to see for himself, and came across a burned-out village. As Myrddin had described, groups of undead lurched across the wilderness toward the east. When the dragonborn returned, the group pushed on through the cold wind and occasional flurry of snow.
They continued on with the Wall to their left and the river Tyne to their right. Towards the end of their third day they spotted a towering keep in the distance, surrounded by defensive walls. They stopped, and Myrddin suggested that the three friends continue on their own, while he and Tegan scouted north of the Wall.
Arriving at one of the gates, the friends were challenged by vigilant guards but quickly admitted when Sophia disclosed her identity to the gate sergeant. They were quickly greeted by Sir Gerald de Bois, the commander of the New Castle garrison, led to the great hall of the keep for refreshment, and given passable chambers in the keep.
As they recovered from the ordeals of the previous few days, they were surprised by a visit from Mary of Stamford. She was delighted to see them alive, having feared the worst when they did not return to Durham. The friends were even more surprised to learn that the Archbishop was in the castle. Mary reminded Tector of his potential as a Templar before leaving to inform the Archbishop of their arrival.
Later that day they received a summons, and attended the Archbishop in the Lord’s solar at the top of the keep. With Guillame de la Croix standing watchfully behind him as always, the priest greeted them warmly, praising God for their survival and commending their excellent work in preventing the Carricks’ escape from Durham. He asked them to give account of the events after they left Durham, which they recounted faithfully, save that they did not mention the involvement of Myrddin or the other elves in their escape.
Having listened intently to their tale, the Archbishop spoke at length about the events of the last month. He received word in York about the attempt on the Carricks in Durham, and as he was preparing to leave felt a huge surge of power in the north. Looking at Storm he asked whether the dragonborn had felt it too. The sorcerer nodded, and the Archbishop continued, telling the group of the release of Ice from Ben Nevis and the involvement of their friend and fellow Inquisitor, Manzio.
The friends were intrigued by the Archbishop’s knowledge but concerned that he might have learned of their involvement in Ice’s release. However, as the priest continued it seemed that he did not. He explained the events of the council of Vindolanda, where the Carricks were judged, having been brought north by the Archbishop’s party, including the revelations of Manzio regarding his contact with the Witches, his possession by Ice and his role in Ice’s release, together with a group including the elven druid Myrddin and a danagrim berserker known as Hakan.
The Archbishop concluded his account by summarising the punishment meted out to the Carricks. The earl was blinded in one eye as punishment for his sins, his wife and child to be held in York as hostages for one year and five years respectively. Two thousand pounds of silver was to be paid in compensation to various monasteries around Scotland, and 500 pounds of silver to the Archdiocese of York. The Earl was required to send two hundred bannermen to northern Scotland to aid King William in his campaign in Ross and Caithness. And finally, both the Earl and his wife were required to drink the blood of Christ in a holy ritual to purge any enchantments placed on them by the Witches and bind them to the Church. The old priest concluded by praising the group again for their role in ensuring that the traitors faced justice.
Turning to current events, the Archbishop told of troubling news from the north. Several towns, including Brancepeth, had fallen to large araken raids, and the steady stream of refugees arriving daily at Newcastle told horrible tales of undead roaming across the land. Storm corroborated this information, explaining how he had flown over the wall and seen a burned out village and undead shambling east.
The Archbishop explained that the local garrison was weak (only fifty men) but they had allies from various quarters, some unexpected. Baron Odinel Umfraville had arrived from Prudhoe with a dozen knights and fifty men at arms, spoiling for a fight with the araken. A century of danagrim legionaries marched along the Wall from Corstopitum, come to defend the Pons Aelius, the bridge over the Tyne which their cohort had been sworn to defend for hundreds of years. Finally, and most unexpectedly, the warriors of the danagrim Foehammer clan, three hundred strong, had arrived just the day before, telling of an unprecedented unity in the araken clans under a terrible sorceress by the name of Volodskya, and warning that her forces were moving south to Newcastle.
Offering his blessings, the Archbishop dismissed the three friends, telling them that there would likely be a council over the next few days to decide how to respond to the northern threats, and that he may ask them to attend to share their story.
Taking their leave, the group spent a couple of days eating well and regaining their strength. On the second day, as they entered the great hall, they almost tripped over a little girl, who was running, giggling, from her mother. She stopped, looking up at the companions and smiling.
“Oh,” she said in a cheerful little voice, looking from one to the next. “The Lady! The Dragon Knight! The Dragon!”
She frowned slightly. “Three of the five, the Fellowship of Fate. A Hand to fight the Hands of evil.” Then her smile faded and her face fell. “But one will die before the year is out.” She looked at each in turn, shaking her head. “I’m very sorry,” she said as her mother finally caught up with her.
Apologizing, the lady introduced herself as Emma de Neville and her daughter as Isabel. She shook hands with each, showing her breeding by barely reacting when she shook Storm’s scaled hand (his face always being hidden in his heavy cowl). She was delighted to meet Sophia, and remembered that they had played together in York when Sophia was a little girl, Emma being a few years older and the daughter of the late Sir Betrand de Bulmer, Lord of Brancepeth and High Sherriff of Yorkshire.
As they spoke, Storm sensed sorcery in the woman, and huge magical potential in her daughter. He mentioned this to Lady Emma, who confirmed that she had some talent and that her daughter had an uncanny gift of foresight. They exchanged a few words about the compatibility of their powers with their Christian faith (which Emma seemed to be completely at ease with) before Emma and her daughter bid them farewell, leaving the friends exchanging concerned looks and speculating whether (and when, and how) one of them would die.
The weather continued to turn over the next few days, with snow falling regularly and a biting wind howling down from the north. The companions spent time walking the walls, looking out from the battlements of the keep, and training in the courtyard. Sophia boosted the morale of Sir Gerald’s men with her archery, while Tector sparred with Sir Richard Umfraville. They also saw dozens of danagrim: the immaculately turned-out legionaries of the Pons Aelius cohort, with their identical equipment and drill-square precision, and the rough-and-ready brawlers of Clan Foehammer.
The following day, the friends were summoned by the Archbishop. They were admitted to the solar and saw six figures around a table. The Archbishop, with de la Croix standing behind him as always, two danagrim who were introduced as Decius Augustus Pius and Grungni Foehammer to his right, and Baron Odinel Umfraville and Sir Gerald de Bois to his left. Finally, the group were amazed to see Myrddin seated opposite the Archbishop at the foot of the table.
The pontiff invited them to step forward and recount what they had seen on their journey east. Storm did so, describing the burned out village and the shambling undead with pale white skin and glowing blue eyes.
“Aye!” exclaimed Grungni in his lowland brogue, “and that’s not the half of it. As I’ve told ye, the araken clans have united under Volodskya and her coven. They have unprecedented numbers and discipline, and they are headed here! We must sally forth and give battle, don’t give them time to marshal their forces!”
Sir Gerald protested that the garrison did not have the strength to march into open battle with an army of araken and a legion of the dead. Grungni snorted in response and was about to say more when Decius addressed the council in a deep, commanding voice. “I am the centurion of the Pons Aelius cohort, and for a thousand years I and my forbears have been sworn to defend the crossing of the Tyne at this eastern end of Hadrian’s great wall. What I am about to tell you must not leave this room.”
As those gathered nodded their assent, Decius continued. “The Wall is an imposing physical barrier, but more importantly, it was imbued with powerful sorcery during its construction, sorcery that endures to this day and protects the land of Albion to our south. It prevents undead, demons and their evil magics from crossing the Wall and is a critical part of our defences against the Witches and the fell powers at their disposal we were discussing earlier.”
“That protective sorcery is anchored by three Elder Stones, artefacts of huge power buried deep beneath three of the key forts on the Wall. The western Elder Stone is at Netherby, the anchor Stone in the centre lies beneath the fort of Vindolanda, and the eastern Elder Stone lies deep beneath this keep, below our very feet.”
“My counsel is that we defend this stronghold. The walls are thick and the abjurations upon them are strong. Every legionary of my cohort is sworn to protect the Elder Stone and we will defend this keep to our last drop of blood.”
“Aye, hide in your holes,” muttered Grungi. “Why not give battle, like men!”
The Archbishop held out a hand. “Calm, if you will, Chieftain,” he said in a cool voice. “Recall the threat of the undead, and the protections these walls offer against them.” Looking at Myrddin, he continued, “I would hear the counsel of the elves.”
Myrddin looked at each member of the council in turn. “I would urge caution,” he said. “We do not know the strength of our enemy, but my scouts indicate that the lands between here and Berwick have been ravaged by the boldest araken raids in centuries. Thousands have died, and thousands more have taken refuge here and in Berwick, which still holds.”
“The black ships of the dark elves slip through the north sea. They land in secret, raiding the Yorkshire coast and our forest homelands in Northumbria. Clearly danger is afoot, and we do not know what other forces we may face in the battle to come.”
“Very well,” said the Archbishop. “I have heard enough. We shall stand firm and defend the castle. Let us now discuss the disposition of troops.” Turning to the group as Grungni muttered under his breath, the Archbishop thanked them for the counsel and dismissed them.