Tooth and Nail - Part One
Our tale begins in the Year of Our Lord 1179. It is thirty-five years since the throne of England passed to King Henry II.
The Archbishop gazed into the dancing flames of his blazing hearth, feeling their warmth battling the chill of winter in his old bones. On a snow-shrouded December day, a small group stood before him, assembled in his private chambers in York Minster. From the Castle, with boots still wet from the slushy streets, came the charismatic and confident noble Lady Sophia, daughter of Baron Henry de Percy, and her massive bull-helmed bodyguard Tector. They were joined by the brave and faithful Templar Knight, Uther van Hal, and the stealthy Pompeian scout Manzio, wrapped in his cloak against the unfamiliar cold. Finally, aloof from the others stood Storm, the tall, white-scaled dragonborn storm sorcerer who had lived his whole life in the shadow of the Minster.
The makeshift group eyed each other as the Archbishop addressed them in his refined, confident voice. “Thank you all for gathering here at such short notice. I have a grave and urgent task for you.” He inclined his head to Uther as he continued. “One of our brother Templars was carrying a great treasure from Canterbury to York, the tooth of our holy Saint, Thomas Becket. It is a holy relic of great value, sacred to our Lord and to the Church. This Knight, Brother Richard of Selby, was ambushed on the road this morning south of the city. He was killed and the tooth, in a small oak and silver casket, was stolen. Peasants on the road nearby, who saw the assault from a distance, reported that at least half a dozen men were involved in the attack. Brother Richard’s body bears terrible burns, and I fear sorcery was involved. His horse, sword, shield and armour were also stolen.”
The aging pontiff cast his gaze around the group. “The attackers fled to the north, and were witnessed passing to the east of the city but an hour ago. Baron Henry quickly assembled a small mounted force to give chase. I ask that you pursue these defilers and ensure that the relic is secured for the Church. It must be returned safe to the Minster where we have a reliquary prepared for it.”
“Storm, as the most sensitive to these things, find out whether this is a simple robbery or if darker forces are at work. Uther, recover Brother Richard’s armour and shield for the Templar order. May our Lord Jesus Christ protect you.”
The party readily obeyed the Archbishop’s command and made hasty preparations to depart. Stopping at York Castle for the mounts of Sophia and Tector, they encountered Sophia’s father, Baron Henry, in the courtyard. “I have received word of your mission from the Archbishop,” he said, addressing his daughter. “I would prefer that you do not pursue these adventures, Sophia, but if you must do so, keep yourself safe.”
Looking at Tector, he said, “As my daughter’s bodyguard, I command you to protect her from harm, though it may cost you your own life.”
The big warrior inclined his great bull-helm in assent. “Yes my Lord.”
The Baron turned to Manzio. “I am aware of your special talents. Make an example of these outlaws, so others may know the terrible fate that awaits those who commit crimes in my jurisdiction.”
“I will do what I can my Lord,” replied the Pompeian scout.
As Sophia checked the harness on her mount’s saddle, a middle-aged man approached her. Thin and wiry, his quality clothes marked him as a man of some means, perhaps an older knight. “My Lady, I beg your pardon,” he said, inclining his head is respect. “I am Sir Alfred of Selby, the father of Brother Richard. May it please milady, his sword is a family heirloom, worn by my great-grandfather a hundred years ago in the wars against the Scots. If it could be recovered, I would be eternally grateful.”
Sophia regarded the sad old man, clearly grieving for his dead son, for a moment. “I will do all I can to return your son’s sword to you,” she promised.
Having donned winter clothes against the weather, the party mounted their horses and set out to the north, along the main King’s road taken by their quarry a few hours earlier. After an hour, the group came to a small village, and called to a group of peasants labouring chopping wood nearby.
Questioning them, the companions learned that they had seen a small group of horsemen, perhaps half a dozen, moving along the road at pace earlier in the day. They were followed, perhaps an hour later, by a larger group of mounted soldiers bearing the livery of Baron Henry. Satisfied that they were still on the right path, the group continued on, pushing their horses to a canter.
As the afternoon wore on, the sharp-eyed Manzio spotted several figures on the road ahead. Slowing their horses, the companions approached the group, seeing that they were soldiers. The small company was in bad shape. All looked exhausted, but two had been badly wounded, with terrible acid burns marking their skin. Barely conscious, they were slung across the backs of horses while their companions trudged along beside.
Shocked, the group realised that these were Baron Henry’s men, sent in pursuit of the outlaws just a few hours earlier. Lady Sophia quickly took charge, channelling healing power with a glow of golden light and easing their wounds. Meanwhile, the rest of the companions questioned the soldiers, learning that they had caught up with the outlaws on the road to the north. Their quarry had turned to give battle, led by a man in robes whose skin was illuminated with glowing green patterns as he called up sorcery. A boulder by the road had exploded, killing three men and their mounts, and injuring several other horses. Others were hit by a blast of acid that killed several men and wounded the two now being tended by Sophia.
Before the Baron’s men could do anything more the outlaws had galloped off into Dalby Forest, heading in the direction of the old stone bridge over the river Rye at Riccal. Grateful for the information, and feeling confident that they were still on the right path, the companions bid the soldiers God speed to York and continued along the road.
After a short time, they came upon the site of the battle, with bloodied and burned bodies still lying in the snow, among the shards of the exploded boulder. Easily picking up the tracks of the outlaws, they followed the trail north.
A few hours later, having rested to water the horses only once, the group turned off the main northern turnpike and onto the smaller path through the woods leading to Riccal bridge. Manzio took a few moments to dismount and check the trail, easily finding tracks left by the small group of horsemen a few hours earlier.
As they rode through the wintry forest, all bare boughs and snow, night began to fall with typical winter alacrity. Uther, the most experienced traveller in the group, suggested that they must find a place to camp for the night. Fanning out to scout the area, they found a wooded hillock nearby and chose that as their campsite. They quickly divided up the tasks of collecting firewood, building a fire, cooking, pitching the tents and brushing down and feeding the horses. When all was done, they set watches and turned in for the night.
The watches of Uther and Manzio passed uneventfully, before Tector sat the final watch, in the darkest hours of the night. Not long after Manzio had returned to his tent, the big warrior heard a faint howling in the distance. The sound repeated over the next few minutes, gradually drawing closer, and Tector realised that a pack of hungry wolves was approaching, probably hunting the group’s horses for food given the harsh winter. The big warrior quickly woke his companions, who scrambled to get the horses into the centre of their camp. Readying missile weapons, and standing their ground around the campfire, the group saw shadows moving in the trees and firelight glinting off the eyes of the circling wolves.
Suddenly the wolves howled as one and dashed into the clearing towards the companions, trying to get at the horses. Tector and Manzio both loosed crossbow bolts, but their shots were hurried and flew high and wide. Storm conjured an orb of lightning to hurl at the wolves, but he lost control of his spell and shook with pain as the electricity coursed through his own body! Sophia managed to shoot one of the wolves with an arrow but it continued its rush into the clearing.
As the wolves dashed in, Uther slashed one with his longsword and it let out a deafening howl of pain. Manzio shinned up a tree to avoid the slavering jaws below, firing another bolt. He again missed his target but almost hit another of the wolves. Storm called up a whirlwind, trying to lift a wolf into the air and slam it into the trees, but it was too fast and evaded the twister, which dissipated harmlessly after a few moments.
The wolves were in among the companions now, biting with ferocious jaws and inflicting nasty wounds on Storm and Tector in particular. The big warrior responded by slashing with his greataxe, but the wolf was too fast and dodged away. Uther had better luck, catching his target with an overhand swing and dealing it a terrible cut across the back, causing it to flee in pain. As it did so, another wolf sprang at the Templar. He threw himself aside at the last moment and avoided its snapping jaws.
Seeing his chance, Manzio leaped from his vantage point in the tree, swooping down like a bird of prey and driving his hook blade deep into one of the wolves. Storm conjured three javelins of ice beneath his outstretched arm and launched them at the wolves. One struck home, while the others exploded, showing wolves with icy shrapnel.
Most of the companions had nasty bite wounds, and Tector and Storm were close to passing out from the pain. Roaring in anger, Tector unleashed a massive overhand blow with his greataxe, cleaving one of the wolves in twain. Sensing that she needed to act decisively to protect her friends, Sophia drew upon her most powerful magic and caused three of the wolves to fall asleep!
Uther fired his crossbow at a wounded wolf, skewering it through the heart, while Manzio slew another with his dagger, protecting Lady Sophia from its slavering jaws. Storm hurled a lightning orb at a third wolf, causing it to convulse before collapsing to the ground. Lady Sophia weaved a spell, projecting terror into the mind of a wolf and causing it to flee.
While Manzio finished off one of the wounded wolves with his dagger, a wounded and lame wolf that could not flee closed on Storm. He blasted it with a lightning orb, but that did not stop it leaping on him and delivering a terrible bite with its jaws. Seeing his friend in trouble, Tector grabbed his crossbow and fired a bolt, hitting the wolf in the side. As he did so, Uther charged it from the other side, skewering it with his sword.
Having killed the last of the wolves, the group quickly despatched the ones that Sophia had earlier sent to sleep. Taking stock, it was clear that Storm and Tector were badly hurt, each bearing multiple bite wounds. Sophia approached her bodyguard and laid her hands upon him, channelling a golden light which eased his pain. Uther did likewise with Storm, uttering a latin prayer to God as he did so.
Rebuilding their camp, which had been destroyed by the rampaging wolves, the group set double watches for the remainder of the night. Sophia, who had not been allocated a watch previously, told her friends that she had taken sufficient rest and volunteered to sit a watch as well. She spent the rest of the night squinting nervously into the darkness, but the hours passed uneventfully until the faint light of dawn began to play across the snow.
The story continues in Tooth and Nail, Part Two – Testing Times