Siege of the New Castle Part 1

Manzio wakes with a violent start his entire body in agony as though some of his dream experiences have leeched into the waking world. He is rigid with fear unable to discern reality from dream his mind slowed as if by poison. Finally he is able to quell the panic attacks, which confront him like phantasmagoric assailants. His father dying in his arms. Sophia coming to his rescue. The Venetian Lady. The betrayal of Caledus. The Black Queen! 

He is unsure how long this takes but slowly the icy chamber in which he fell asleep comes back into sharp focus. He is aware of Heraclief across from him, sat ashen faced on the side of his ice bed, rubbing his goatee as though unable to comprehend what he has just experienced. Swirling around Heraclief’s feet- and as Manzio sits up he sees that around the room- misty dragon’s breath still drifts lazily through the space separating the friends. Clutched tightly in Manzio’s left hand is a figurine of shadow depicting an exact likeness of himself. Dream, shadow and reality become one. 

‘Am I still dreaming?’ voices Manzio.
 
Heraclief shakes his head clearly still struggling to rationalize Somnium. ‘We must find Tuan. I would speak with him of all that has transpired.’
 
The two friends slowly rise to their feet, still in a considerable amount of pain although the effects are quickly subsiding. Heraclief places a comforting arm around Manzio. ‘Congratulations Ajax, you are now one of us. Also your bravery in protecting Sophia, Tector and Storm was admirable. Although I suspect Morrigan will stop at nothing now to prevent the final Tuatha jewel from falling into our hands for her Hibernian powerbase faces a genuine threat for the first time in centuries.’ 

‘What of Caledus and Conal?’ voices Manzio uncertainly. 

Heraclief’s face becomes grim. ‘Caledus will stop at nothing now to avenge the betrayal. However, Conal has a powerful sponsor.’ Heraclief’s gaze narrows. ‘But also a temperamental sponsor too, likely to throw her allies into dangerous situations.’ Heraclief smiles. ‘Caledus will be waiting for just such an opportunity.’
 
Manzio and Heraclief venture out of their icy sleeping chamber and into the silent halls beyond. An eerie blue, half-light permeates the cavernous interior, the ceiling situated out of sight in the shadows high above their heads. Manzio cannot help but feel insignificant within the ancient and gargantuan halls of the realm described by Caledus as ‘the rift.’ Slowly he becomes aware of a pulsating power. A buzz of energy seems to imbue the ice and rock with a primordial strength and the Vesuvian is suddenly drifting. Not unpleasantly but his body simply seems to float as the pain from his encounters in Somnium slip away. He is vaguely aware that his colleague is being swept up alongside and lifted, weightlessly onto a cavern set much higher than before. A soft sound as though of glass shards gently stirring in the breeze can be heard and Manzio enters into a sleep of cold, numb abandonment.
 
The return to consciousness is sudden as a powerful voice slams through the icy void like lightning. 

‘Behold, one of the great caves of making found only in the spaces within which multiple realities touch. Perilous. It was within just such a space as this in Britannia that Morgause lured Merlin, stealing much of his power. It is also a chamber that I can use to disguise my form using the ancient rituals of the Tuatha de Dannan.’ 

Manzio finds that he is already stood, Heraclief at his side although he cannot remember standing. He feels fully recovered, strength returning to his limbs.
 
His eyes now fully open, he finds himself confronted by the Priest, Sæmundr. No. He finds himself looking at the physical presence of Sæmundr but really he is talking to the last great drake of the north, Ice. Behind the dragon priest is a cave of ice and crystal…a maze of shifting, reflected and in places translucent mirrors. Within, Manzio can see people, trapped, going about their lives unaware of the view afforded to others, invited to see their lives as though from an omniscient platform. 

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‘Where is Tuan,’ voices Heraclief, his keen emerald eyes ablaze with suspicion and an edge of fear in his voice. 

‘Tuan has done all he can and will now sleep for a cycle of the moon. Such acts of power come at a cost.’
 
Heraclief and Manzio look upon the Priest housing the dragon’s spirit, his physicality unaltered save for piercing, icy blue eyes like vast oceans of knowledge.
 
‘Come, we have work to do whilst Tuan sleeps. Look!’ commands Ice, his finger pointing toward the chambers of crystal within which, flickering images like paintings dancing on the icy chamber walls can be seen. ‘Much is afoot.’
 
As Manzio and Heraclief do as they are bid, they make out a massive, broad-shouldered figure with a strange shaved head and sharp black beard. His eyes are like a wolf and he wears great furs. His swarthy skin reddened in the cheeks. Other men emerge from odd looking circular tents and drop onto one knee, almost all holding an odd design of bow, short, shaggy horses, almost like donkeys herded together in the distance. Manzio can make no sense of the bizarre people and yet Ice is entranced by the vision captured in the crystals. 
‘I sense a warrior spirit in this one. The world will shake in fear one day when the vast blue sky beckons his horde westward.’ 

Looking elsewhere, Manzio gasps as he sees his friend Lady Sophia. Stepping out into a strangely sunlit meadow, Sophia sees a figure in the middle of the clearing, facing away from her. All around, mist-cloaked trees surround them.

Sophia and the figure are about the same height. The female is wearing a simple white dress. She has long golden hair and is wearing an elaborate circlet. She is clearly an elf. Sophia hesitates, as though suspicious of the elf. As she pauses, the figure turns toward her, revealing a beautiful green-eyed elf maid. Sophia immediately recognises the young elf-maid and begins to back away, fear etched across her face.

Facing Sophia, the elf maid smiles broadly and closes the gap. ‘Welcome Sophia,” she said warmly. ‘I have been waiting for you.’ She continued, holding out her hand in an offer of friendship, Sophia statuesque. ‘Come. Come with me, and learn the secrets of the mind.’
There is something about the young elf which disturbs Manzio but before he can respond or intervene, the arm of Sæmundr holds him back. ‘Look only.’

As Manzio turns back, the scene has changed within the crystal and he can see Tector stepping forward within a castle. He is in conversation with a young man, bearded and strong with a noble bearing, wearing a crown!

‘Tector, my friend, you have been a faithful servant to the Crown of England and to the Church. Will you now fulfil your destiny and vow, as I have, to join the Third Crusade to the Holy Land and rid Jerusalem of the infidel?’

‘Yes, my Lord,’ replies Tector.

The King smiled, grasping his hand firmly. ‘I knew you would not let me down, Tector.’

Manzio is about to ask Ice what on earth he is seeing when Heraclief points to a second crystal, his attention clearly diverted by the calling of sorcery. Within he sees Storm. Both Manzio and Heraclief gasp as they see a massive black figure overshadow the diminutive dragonborn, her massive wings stretching out like a black demon.

‘I made you! You are mine!” she rasped in her Hibernian brogue. “I demand your servitude. Submit to me or be destroyed!’

The Badb loomed over Storm and he took an involuntary step backwards, awed by the vast sorcerous power emanating from her. Gathering his wits, the dragonborn responded, feeling that he had no choice. “I submit,” he muttered.

Morrigan’s thin, bloodless lips twisted upward in a smile. “Good. A wise decision. Get on your knees,” she commanded
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Crying out, Heraclief begins to summon his emerald flames but once again, Ice is quick to intervene. ‘Take a moment sorcerer. What you see is just one of many pathways open to the young dragonborn. We are not necessarily invited to see such visons in real-time. Thankfully as Heraclief looks back, the crystal is empty before once again flickering to life. The pair begin to see the figure of Achilleus. He walks with a crippled left leg, his powerful biceps using makeshift splinters to propel him onto a battlement, the sweat pouring from his scarred face. Manzio notes Colinius, his saviour so many months before as he and Uther desperately sought to outpace the pursuing Araken warband. Other stout Danagrim Warriors stand close at hand, alongside some Knights. All are grim faced, clutching thick cloaks of wolfskin, horse mane and other fur pelts against the relentless winter snows, which drive in from the north. Beyond the battlements Manzio and Heraclief see an army not more than a mile from the wall. 

‘You witness the last surviving Danagrim guardians of Hadrian’s Wall. Less than 300 survived the retreat from Netherby and then Vindolanda. For over a millennium this last remaining outpost of the Roman Empire has survived. But soon the final hammer will fall. The White Queen has sent her Norwegian army south to take the wall. Many cold hearted veterans. From the West she calls upon the Danes. The Danagrim will fight to the very last. No surrender. A hopeless cause but one which transcends religion, politics and all else. The Prudhoe family and retinue of knights will stand with them in defending the North.

We come to the crux of the matter at hand. You seek the fourth and final Tuatha jewel. The cauldron will only show itself when those seeking it have proven themselves worthy. I cannot tell you when that time is but I have shown you that which the crystals would tell you. It is my belief that you should stand with the Danagrim to witness their final hour. Perhaps with such deeds of heroism you can earn the final jewel?’ 

Heraclief and Manzio move off together to one side and discuss this offer. At first Heraclief is unsure and certainly distrustful of the dragon but Manzio reminds him that he owes Cole his life.  

‘How would we reach the Danagrim?’ asks Heraclief.

Ice grins, his eyes like sapphires. ‘The rift is a gateway into many realms. It can be a bridge but also a prison. The crystals are fey. If you enter them, they may offer you safe passage but maybe not. It is a risk. You must decide if it is one you are willing to take.’ 

Their decision made, Heraclief and Manzio walk toward the crystal in which they spotted Achilleus earlier. As they do so, Manzio immediately begins to feel a disorientating change in the dimensions surrounding him. The cave stretches, the other crystals disappearing from view and shadows lengthen. The temperature plummets, the light fading and a biting northerly wind buffets the Vesuvian’s body. Slowly, as Manzio’s eyes adjust to the snow and darkness, he begins to sense that he has stepped out once again onto a solid, stone surface. Torches straining from the winds flicker ahead and peering into the gloom, Manzio notes the silhouette of a bridge ahead. 

He has little time to adjust as no sooner is the bridge visible than a challenge issued, the sound of crossbows hastily loaded ahead. 
‘Who goes there. Name yourselves?’ 

‘I am Heraclief and this is Manzio both members of the Fellowship of Fate. We fought together at Vindolanda and we have travelled by means of magical transportation to aid you in your hour of need.’
 
There is some discussion ahead, the stout, broad shouldered figures clearly Danagrim. 

‘Wait. Stay where you are.’ 

Manzio and Heraclief acquiesce, stood freezing in the cold. It is not long before two figures approach, one clearly human and dressed wearing a suit of armour, the second a Danagrim. They step forward onto the bridge carrying spluttering torches. As they come closer, Manzio makes out their faces and is relieved to see at least one familiar Danagrim. 

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‘Cole, I’ve never seen you clothed from the waist upward before’ jokes Manzio. 

The Danagrim smiles despite himself. ‘Ay Bonny lad, a canny chill and made worse by this metal blouse.’ 
The human at his side is clearly a knight, his haggard face relaxing a little as Cole and Manzio exchange banter. He wears superbly fitted plate mail armour of the highest quality, together with a sky blue cloak and half-surcoat. ‘Hmm. Good. I’m glad to see the report is accurate. The two of you are certainly a sight for sore eyes in these troubled times. For weeks we have been evacuating people out of the New Castle. You are our first and I suspect our last reinforcements before the hammer falls.

But listen to me! Where are my manners. I am Baron Odinel Umfraville. You must be freezing. Please follow me into the castle and we will arrange for hot food to be brought for you.’ 

As the Baron leads the companions from the bridge, Manzio notes that a number of Danagrim are strategically positioned either side of the structure. Noticing Manzio and Heraclief looking to their left and then right, the Baron gestures to the bridge itself. 

‘Welcome to the Pons Aelius gentleman, protected by a century of the toughest Danagrim you’re likely to encounter.’ 

‘Decius is not going to like this. It is worrying that Manzio and the sorcerer were able to simply penetrate through the magical protections supporting the keep,’ voices Cole. 

Baron Odinel nods his agreement, clearly disturbed by this thought too. ‘Colinius, I’m sure our guests can enlighten us but perhaps after I have called a war council. Achilleus and Decius will want to see these two immediately. I am curious to hear their council too.’ 

Manzio and Heraclief are brought a rather thin stew and have barely finished the meagre offering when Danagrim guards accompany the two up winding stone staircases and ultimately to the Lord’s solar at the very top of the keep. The doors are already flung wide open and within, the Baron accompanied by Cole and a second Danagrim warrior dressed in striking armour. ‘May I introduce Decius Augustus Pius’ says the Baron, ‘centurion of the Pons Aelius cohort.’

Decius is a short and stocky Danagrim with piercing blue eyes and a fair beard. He wears magnificent armour: burnished steel with blue and green enamel and golden details. A razor-sharp double-headed greataxe is perched close at hand, twinkling in the candlelight with a promise of violence. Decius stands and nods to both the newcomers. ‘I apologise for my warlike garb but in such times as this we must be ready to stand against the enemy. Would that we could offer the generosity of a great feast but our supplies are heavily rationed.’

Manzio and Heraclief are impressed with the dignified humility of the centurion, both nodding in understanding before their attention is diverted to the unmistakable charisma and power of the Danagrim sat at the head of the table, carefully assessing the two. The golden skinned, beardless Achilleus stands, the effort clearly causing a spasm of pain on the damaged leg sustained at Vindolana. ‘Manzio of Naples. You are most welcome in our company and known to us, thanks in part to your heroism as part of the infamous Fellowship of Fate at Vindolanda. Please sit.’ 

Achilleus turns his attention toward Heraclief. ‘As for you sorcerer, you are something of an enigmatic legend in these parts. You attacked the Witch of Death and lived to tell the tale…and can still walk,’ adds the Danagrim, an ironic tone to his voice. ‘What is your name enigma? Before you answer I must tell you that my auxiliaries have taken to the name Emerald Eyes.’ 

Heraclief smiles at the compliment. ‘I thank you for your kind words Achilleus the Golden. My name is Heraclief. My home is in Rome but I have am now one of the Fellowship, replacing the brave Uther in the aftermath of Vindolanda.’ 

‘You are welcome Heraclief of Rome. You have not been forgotten by the Danagrim and your inclusion at this council is deserved. Please sit.’ 

The council meeting stretches well into the early hours of the morning. Manzio and Heraclief provide an account of their evacuation from Vindolanda and subsequent adventures in Scotia and Hibernian. Only the experiences in Somnium are excluded, the politics of Frumentarii business avoided as well as the death of Christian of Whithorn. The Danagrim and Baron are astounded by the account. There are gasps at the description of Calais and her untimely death at the hands of the Shadow Wraith, wonder and then outrage as the journey north via Avalon’s waters is described and the subsequent capture by Morgause. The eyes of three listeners gleam as the tale of the Tuatha de Dannan jewels are told, particularly the remarkable crescendo in Iona, not to mention the sojourn to the York catacombs. They can only shake their heads as Heraclief completes the tale with descriptions of Hvannadalshnúkur, Ice and the agents of Morrigan.
 
The Baron is first to speak. ‘Your story gives us all hope although Morrigan’s lands are far from here. Would that the White Queen and her accursed sister the Death Witch faced such challenges to their own power bases. You were lucky Manzio to have the druid remove the cursed dagger.

Our situation is bleak. We were able to evacuate thousands by sea, as part of a coordinated effort with the King’s justiciar, Ranolf de Glanvill but the way is now cut off as the White Queen enlists the east coast Danes to blockade our escape route. We are all but isolated thanks to this accursed winter. Little is able to break through the army of undead to the south although some limited food arrived from Durham, a few weeks ago. The wall continues to provide a barrier to the lands of Scotia, as ever but a sizable army has used the breach at Vindolanda to march on us from the west. Our scouts tell us that this is a hybrid monster made up of the Badb’s forces in Caithness and the Highlands but also aided by the Norwegian crown. They cannot break through whilst the final lodestone remains but we are ever vigilant suspecting the enchantments and cowardly treachery of the White Queen will be used against us. This is the reason for your own rather lukewarm welcome…’

‘…if I may, Baron Odinel, I have been considering the unusual arrival of Heraclief and Manzio,’ interrupts Decius. ‘The crystal cave described must contain vast magical power to penetrate the protections afforded by the lodestone.’

‘What if Manzio and Heraclief are not considered to be a threat,’ offers Achilleus. ‘The lodestone is surely designed primarily with the Witch of Death and her undead horde in mind?’

‘True,’ nods Decius. ‘Nevertheless, we must be vigilant. The White Queen has access to ancient forms of magical power, which will surely probe any weakness in our defences.’

Achilleus turns his attention back to Heraclief and Manzio. ‘It seems to me that the two of you serve us best if offered a free hand. With the Baron’s permission, I suggest that you be granted the freedom of the castle, although you will perhaps serve us best as scouts for now. I ask only that you report directly to me.’

‘I will make it known that you have the freedom of the castle.’ says the Baron. ‘It will boost the spirit of the men to know we have two members of the Fellowship with us. I will also see to it that you are given a room although you will have to forgive me, as I cannot offer you the privacy of your own quarters but rather, I ask that you share given our cramped conditions. Our hospitality has waned of late.’

Siege of the New Castle Part 1

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