Siege of the New Castle Part 4
With a wry grin on his black bearded face and a wince as blood soaks through the vicious scar running through his top lip, the battered Cole remains undeterred in reaching for his whisky flask.
‘Keep the cold at bay for a wee while longer, like.’
Staring out from the courtyard roof, another day survived, Manzio is sufficiently recovered to stand without fear of falling, the poison of Karaback thankfully leaving his system. With Cole and Heraclief at his side and the storm momentarily abated to a mere snowfall, the evening is almost beautiful until his eyes fall upon the camp fires of the enemy all now within the fort itself. The gaping hole and rubble of the western wall looks every bit the wound inflicted upon the cause of the beleaguered defenders of the New Castle.
The wights, led by the tall, powerful lich and his remaining retinue are situated off toward the abandoned training grounds and Manzio is initially confused as to the strategic positioning of such powerful adversaries.
Why not simply attack?
As though guessing the thoughts of the taciturn assassin, Cole points toward the wall.
’That’s as far as those lads’ll be gannon. The power of yon lodestone blocks them from coming any closer. Just as well like.’
Night has once again fallen with the enemy satisfied to have gained the sanctuary of the fort if not the castle…as yet. The remaining Danagrim survivors and knights of Baron Umfraville jostle for space within the Keep, cut off from the century of Decius at the Pons Aelius beyond the final vellum.
Within the castle perimeter a force of less than 200 remain, ranged against an army numbering in the thousands.
‘Before the hammer falls, I wanted to say, it was good of yooz to come back and fight with us. But this cannae be yooz end. Get out whilst yooz still can.’
With that, Cole strides off back to his remaining griffin century, now halved in strength, leaving Manzio and Heraclief together.
’I’ve been thinking,’ mentions Manzio. ‘We must find Ross in the battle to come. If we can.’
Heraclief nods. ‘Agreed. I’ve been thinking too. I have grown careless in my travels here in Brittania, Manzio. Your father would chastise me for my reckless approach but Karaback was the wakeup call I needed. Tuan is no longer at our side nor even Tector to absorb the blows of our enemies. We must look to the shadows my friend. The shadows.’
Later in the early hours of the morning, Manzio and Heraclief are amazed to see Matilda Umfraville back on her feet and helping attend to the sick within the infirmary.
‘Thanks to Brother Paul,’ responds Matilda to the questions of the Fellowship pairing. ‘I also thank you both for your bravery in facing the demon.’
‘A great shot my lady,’ observes Heraclief. ‘Though I think all three of us owe our lives to the strength of Valkranaus. May he rest in peace.’
Matilda nods, sadness reflected in the frown lines of her ashen face. ‘Amen.’
Brother Paul is also to be found in the Infirmary but dismisses the thanks of Manzio with a wave of his blood soaked hands.
‘You protect with your daggers and I with the blessing of the Lord. Each to his own. Though I confess that the poison was difficult to negate and has left me weakened. Yet, I suspect that my efforts will not go unrewarded. The name of your group is merited for your fate is as complex as the Bayeux Tapestry,’ he adds mysteriously.
Manzio is about to question the monk further when the alarm is sounded. Heraclief, Matilda and Manzio are quick to respond following the distinctive sound of legionary hob nailed boots rushing to take their positions.
Reaching the courtyard, Manzio notices that a huge chunk of masonry has exploded with dead horses and men at arms littered across the paving stones. The bellowing commands of the Baron can be held whilst Gerald de Bois encourages the castle staff to act as stretcher bearers, supporting priests to clear the area, carrying those still alive to the crowded infirmary. The bodies have only just been moved when a second massive rock strikes the edge of the courtyard gates, damaging the stone work attached to the iron hinges of the gate itself, the blow reverberating through both metal and wood.
‘The trebuchet,’ says Heraclief. ‘We need to get a better view.’
Ascending the staircases leading to the courtyard roof, Heraclief and Manzio are joined by the Holy Protector, his limp more pronounced than before and his cloak a ghoulish mix of bloodstains and dust. With him, he is accompanied by fifteen of the toughest, wildest Danagrim Manzio has ever seen.
All that remains of the Iron Legion.
Heraclief immediately goes onto one knee, Manzio following suit.
‘Holy Protector, we are sorry for your loss. We owe your brother our lives.’
Achilleus nods and points to the edge of the fort. ‘As you can see, the enemy has wheeled one of the trebuchet into the breach, shifting rubble to clear the path. If you would avenge the death of my brother, then follow me.’
Achilleus, the Iron Legion and the Fellowship pair descend beneath the Keep. Several locked, iron doors are opened by Danagrim sentries posted as guards before the sound of rushing water can be heard.
‘Aqueducts,’ confirms Achilleus. ‘Fed by hot springs which maintain our water supply and the River Tyne. Three of my Danagrim have volunteered to get you into position behind enemy lines using the aqueducts. Take out the trebuchet. Fast! Then return to me. No heroics.’
With that Achilleus and twelve of the Iron Legion turn and are quickly swallowed by the gloom of the under dark as they climb back toward the Keep. Heraclief and Manzio are left with three veterans. One steps forward, clad with intricately fashioned plate armour and a matching plate helm topped with a metallic plume and nose guard. His red beard is propped proudly on his breastplate whilst in his hand he carries a huge axe.
‘We have little time. I am Scipio. My two colleagues: the big one is Mars and the old scary looking one is Thorkell.’
Mars is an enormous figure and reminds Manzio of Hakan given the short tuft of hair swept up on his head and bald, shaved sides. The big Danagrim has a plaited beard and golden breastplate, whilst his left eye is damaged from a blow which must once have cut through his forehead, eye and upper cheek.
Thorkell has a wooden shield strapped to his muscular left hand and a peculiar multi-faceted mace in his right hand, which seems incongruously small given the size of the Danagrim warrior. His white beard contains a central portion clasped with a silver circlet. His thick, bushy white eyebrows give the Iron Legion veteran an imposing persona.
‘Follow us,’ says Scipio as the three Danagrim wade out into gushing, frothing water which gurgles its way via an immaculately built cylindrical tube.
Manzio and Heraclief are forced to duck and even crawl through the chilly water in order to navigate through the system but bit by bit they make their way through the network of pipes set beneath the fort.
Finally, Scipio reaches an iron door and reaches inside his belt for a large iron key. Unlocking the door, it swings soundlessly open, giving access to a narrow staircase leading up. The three Danagrim lead the way, walking as quietly as possible before reaching an iron grate set into the floor of a darkened interior above. Mars comes to the fore and uses his back to gradually lift the huge grate. It shifts slowly, the other two adding their own weight before finally providing enough space to exit.
The five find themselves in a cramped cellar beneath an abandoned tavern. Creeping into the main tap room, they see enemy troops lit by blazing torches moving beyond the broken windows. Also, periodically, the whirl of the trebuchet is heard.
‘Good, we are close,’ states Scipio.
As the five companions crouch out of sight in the shadows of the tavern, Scipio looks to Heraclief. ‘The Holy Protector thinks your sorcery can destroy the trebuchet.’
Heraclief nods in response.
‘Then it is your turn. We three will protect the escape route here in the tavern but you must be quick.’
Again, Heraclief nods and draws Manzio close. ‘We enter the shadows.’
The Fellowship pair wait until the coast is clear and then enter into the street outside. A dead Danagrim legionary, the griffin sigil evident on his battered shield lays in a pool of his own congealed blood, long since dead, not more than five yards from the tavern. Ignoring the stench of death, Manzio concentrates on his training reaching out with his senses for the darkness. Surprisingly, he enters the sub-dimensional space and sees Heraclief waiting for him, no more than twenty yards ahead.
The two men waste no time in following the course of the road, glimpsed as though through a shadowy veil. It is not long before they see their target. A team of eight works on the impressive siege weapon. Four gnomes operate the complex pullies and mechanical contraptions designed to winch the great chunks of rock into place. The muscle comes in the shape of four heavily armed Norwegian warriors.
Heraclief, like a predator, reaches into his robes and levels the wand given to him by Storm. Stepping out onto the street and leaving behind the safety of the shadows, a blast of fire shoots out from the wand leaping the twenty yards separating Heraclief from the trebuchet team. The gnomes fall back in shock, two already ablaze. One of the four Norwegians is horribly scorched and screams out as his hair and sealskin furs ignite like wildfire. Thrashing about, the big man falls back onto the trebuchet, setting light to the wood. In a matter of seconds, the siege weapon is entirely ablaze, the fire spreading greedily along the wooden shafts via the oil used to ease the great wooden levers into place.
With the team only just starting to react, a second Norwegian warrior stripped to the waist and covered in sweat despite the cold, desperately unstraps a broadsword from his back. Heraclief blasts a second fire-charge from his wand, two more of the enemy blasted backward, including the figure clenching his broadsword and the trebuchet now hopelessly ablaze.
Looking up towards the wall, Manzio can see that guards are now running into position, bows and crossbows set.
‘Heraclief, we need to go. Now!’
Sprinting down the narrow street leading back to the tavern, at least four bows and crossbows twang, although luckily without a hit, perhaps because of the cover afforded by the shadows below. The two are about halfway to the corner of the street when two large Norwegian warriors round the bend, crouching low and armed with longswords.
Manzio reaches for his figurine, calling upon the power of the Venetian dracaena. Both men take the bait and attack, slashing out at thin air, as the illusion implodes. Meanwhile, the assassin has moved into position behind the confused enemy. Replacing the figurine for his lighting key, Manzio stabs out at first one and then both of his opponents. The first blow punches through the neck of the Norwegian, severing his spinal column. The man flops to his knees and is dead before he hits the ground. The second is stabbed heavily in the left shoulder and whirls around, screaming in pain as lighting crackles from the hidden key within Manzio’s grasp. Seconds later, a set of five emerald missiles blast into the unlucky warrior, the man dead long before the final missile finds its mark.
With the Norwegians quickly dispatched, Manzio and Heraclief are free to sprint the final 100 years separating them from the tavern. Meanwhile, the sounds of pursuit grow stronger as enemy soldiers converge from several of the side streets and arrows fall just short of their position.
Mars opens the door before the two reach it, Thorkell and Scipio within holding the grate open. The five waste no time in descending the staircase and reentering the aqueducts.
Scipio leads the group quickly through the network of interconnected underground pipes but it does not take long before the older Thorkell begins to flag. Unsheathing his archaic mace, the Iron legionary speaks a single word and the weapon flares to life, illuminating the underground setting in bright light. Held beneath Thorkell’s chin, the light provides a disconcerting shadow of the big Danagrim making him look even larger!
‘I hate running. You four go on whilst I hold these cow-sons off. Plenty to keep me going.’
Scipio and then Mars walk forward and butt heads with the old Danagrim warrior whilst Heraclief and Manzio’s ‘thanks’ is dismissed by the scowling Thorkell.
With the sounds of pursuit now dangerously close, Scipio accelerates as the four leave behind Thorkell. However, neither Scipio or Mars are able to maintain the pace given their heavy plate breastplates. Manzio is able to easily keep pace with the Danagrim leader whilst Heraclief slows down for Mars, the massive Danagrim warrior slowed to a trot rather than a run, arms on his waist and his breathing heavy.
The group enters into a cylindrical intersection of pipes, splashing through the water when they see movement to their left and are accosted by a terrible stench. Backing off Manzio sees eight bizarre looking creatures like giant humanoid moles with filthy claws and squat bodies. Behind them stand two distinctive, bald headed figures. The first has milky unseeing eyes and ashen skin, his skeletal arms childlike as though a cross between Danagrim and elf.
The second is wreathed in a sickly green light, his left hand reaching into a satchel held around his shoulder. He reveals a thin black whip and as all four of the group enter the intersection, the figure cracks his whip, which activates with a crackling electrical energy.
‘Troich’ says Mars with disgust before spitting a thick glob of phlegm onto the ground.
Manzio backs off into the shadows and levels his crossbow, shooting a round into the first of the giant moles. The bolt catches the creature full in the stomach as it quickly closes the ground between it and Heraclief. The sorcerer in turn makes use of his wand once again, clearly holding his major powers back after attempting to ascertain the seriousness of the threat first. A second giant mole is seriously injured as the flames quickly spread across the creature’s oily fur.
Just then the sightless apparition in the corridor opens it’s ghastly, bone dry, parched and cracking lips. A billowing cloud of smoke quickly begins to fill the room and carrying with it a smell so horrid and noxious as to make all four jump for cover. Heraclief and Mars take the worst of the attack, both gasping for air and backing off toward the fresh air of alternative pipes.
Scipio ignores the smell and with a furious swipe of his battle axe cuts down the injured mole struck by Manzio, cutting through an entire arm, arterial blood spraying the wall as the creature fell to the ground its lifeblood quickly slowing and with it, death.
The Troich, seeing the power wielded by their adversaries begin to back off, the remaining seven moles providing a protective cordon for the two leaders.
Heraclief now with a clear path to the enemy unleashes his emerald flames, a billowing fireball exploding at the heart of the group. The 4 moles closest to the epicenter are blasted backward, the flames causing terrible damage. Mars follows up with Scipio close behind making sure that all four are dead with two decapitated.
The two Troich and final 3 mole protectors reach the entrance to a pipe, the sightless leader once again spewing noxious smoke in his wake.
‘Retreat, you must warn Achilleus of the Troich infestation. There will be more of these vermin for sure. I will track them. Go now!’ screams Scipio.
Obeying the command of the brave Danagrim veteran and rushing into an adjacent aqueduct the three remaining companions can once again hear the sounds of pursuit from behind but are luckily not far from the Keep. Both Mars and Heraclief visibly suffer the symptoms of the Troich attack and can only walk the final section. Manzio, remembering the route and knowing the locked door under the Keep is not far ahead, increases his speed, urging the guard to open the door and be ready. The Danagrim beyond is quick to respond and has the door locked once again as soon as the exhausted Mars and Heraclief reach safety.
Visibly suffering, Heraclief takes his golden key, calling upon the healing within. The familiar golden energy spreads across his body, shimmering particles entering his nostrils and mouth and easing the internal pain suffered.
The Danagrim guard urges the three to make haste, whilst holding his right hand to his neck and speaking a word of arcane command. A tattoo illuminates his neck in the darkness, light spilling through his fingers. An identical rune appears on the door.
‘Tell the Holy Protector not to come this way if he retreats. I will seal this exit.’
Manzio nods, skipping up the staircase taking the steps three at a time and quickly catching and passing the massive, struggling Mars. As the three make it back onto the ground floor of the Keep, carnage has ensued. A battered ragtag group of survivors including about half a century of Danagrim and a few bloodied knights are retreating at pace through the castle, pursued by a grizzly, bloodthirsty mass of Norwegian warriors.
Suddenly, combatants on either side hesitate as smashing through massive wooden double doors from the banqueting hall, the Invictus Inferno stumbles backward, going down onto one knee before pointing the metallic fist ahead, the entire gauntlet propelled forward in the blink of an eye by some unseen arcane power. The metallic armour is wrecked and yet rather than the creature collapsing, instead emerging from the wreckage of the outer carapace, a very different inner core construct awaits. Wreathed in burning hot white light, which shimmers like the interior of a furnace, the metallic quicksilver underneath seems to be liquid metal. Still a huge ten feet, and towering over the muscular, limping Achilleus who emerges from the banqueting hall armed with a mithril shield and shortsword, the creature has human features, which shift and writhe as though permanence is not quite possible. The shimmering inner core suddenly forms into a broadsword, the left into a quicksilver shield. A heat haze shimmers from both.
Behind Achilleus, both Cole and Paulinas flank their leader, Cole armed with the spear of the Holy Protector, Paulinas extending his arms, tattoos activated on his forearms as though operating an unseen force field. Sure enough, the Construct appears to be pushed back, step by step against its will.
The Norwegians now rally around their Construct, a tall scarred warrior giving the orders, a throwing axe in hand and several more strapped to his back. His wooden shield is slung over his left shoulder and his sealskin tunic and leather armour slippery with blood.
Achilleus, Paulinas and Cole are separated from their fellow defenders. A crossbow bolt is activated from amidst the Norwegian ranks, the metallic head burrowing deep into the exposed soft tissue of Paulinas in his right arm just above the blazing tattoos. The Danagrim’s concentration is broken and immediately the Invictus rushes forward, an aura of mesmeric shifting, prismatic colours activated. Achilleus shakes his head as though momentarily confused and barely parries a huge blow from the Construct’s flaming, quicksilver broadsword. The creature spins and attacks the utterly bewildered Cole. The Danagrim scout is held rigid, his gaze hopelessly mesmerized by the prismatic enchantments. Without defending himself, the Invictus batters Cole from his feet with a huge, barreling blow from its shield. Cole is badly injured, his head hitting the floor hard and yet the tough veteran is still able to roll sideways narrowly avoiding the death blow aimed by the Construct.
The helpless Manzio, Heraclief and Mars are unable to force past the backtracking ranks of the Keep’s defenders to help the three powerful Danagrim leaders. Richard Umfraville stumbles backward half supporting his injured father. Matilda stands back to back with her brother, Gerald de Bois close at hand but looking ashen from a nasty blow to the head, blood pouring into his left eye. His remaining squire, a young boy no older than Manzio grits his teeth, defending the garrison commander with his life as a huge Norwegian warrior cuts him down.
Achilleus and the quicksilver Construct are locked together whilst the Norwegians close in from both sides, their tall leader commanding two offensive movements. Only the power of Paulinas holds the surging Norseman at bay, his arms fully extended, blood dripping steadily from the injury to his arm. Cole is only now regaining his feet, whilst many more Norse soldiers surge toward the defenders. The remaining Danagrim, with a handful of Iron Legion positioned in the centre of the defensive cordon, slow the offensive of the Vikings but cannot hold for much longer, given the sheer force of numbers set against them.
Heraclief pushes himself to the far left hand side of the stone hallway, climbing some steps leading away from the battle. Summoning his emerald flames, he channels the flame into a roaring furnace, which surges over the heads of the Danagrim, exploding into the attacking ranks of the enemy. The fire spreads quickly given the furs favoured by the Norwegians and several of the younger men begin to panic.
The quicksilver Construct is bit by bit, driving the Holy Protector backward. In desperation, Cole steps in to distract the quicksilver assassin, throwing the spear to Achilleus. Once in his grasp, Achilleus suddenly glows golden and seems to grow in size. A cheer is voiced by the Iron Legion and even Manzio and Heraclief feel their morale lifted.
‘I call upon the power of Samson, to vanquish this evil from the world, my Lord.’
Achilleus drives the spear forward, which is bathed in golden light. The weapon is like anathema to the Construct, golden light cutting through the shifting prismatic protections and and pinning the creature against a splintered wooden door. For a second, the Invictus changes shape…once, twice, taking Danagrim form as though a mockery of those killed during the battle. Finally, the quicksilver light coalesces and then explodes in a boiling hot liquid spray, though it is several of the Norwegians unfortunate.enough to be caught by the molten liquid, their screams horrible to hear, even within the tumult of death represented by the battle.
Seeing their champion destroyed and with fire and molten liquid having created chaos in their ranks, the Norwegians back off toward the shattered doors of the Keep. The Iron Legion surrounded by Danagrim have a chance to reach Achilleus, Paulinas and Cole, the Holy Protector still a blaze of golden energy. Slowly his form returns to normal, his exhaustion and injuries now evident but once again safe within the ranks of the defending force. Mars forces his way through and quickly tells Achilleus of the Troich incursion. The Holy Protector nods and points to the spiral staircase set towards the back of the hallway.
‘Then the Troich will die!’