Siege of the New Castle Part 5
The resolve of the Norwegians is bolstered as an enormous figure steps through the shattered Keep doors. A full 15 feet in height, the giant has a blue tinge to his skin and carries an axe in his right hand, which is bigger than most men! An eerie blue light seaps from eyes held rigidly in a malevolent gaze toward the backtracking Danagrim ahead. Set into the giant’s skull, a hybrid crown of thorns taken perhaps as a grizzly memento of battle. Strapped to massive stretched straps of leather, bucklers and even a full shield taken from a fallen enemy have been added as additional protection. The creature’s blue skin is crisscrossed with white scars like cracking ice.
‘The Jarl’ bellows Achilleus. ‘Get into the aqueducts. He will be too big to follow.’
The Norwegians surge forward and meet the stiff resistance of a legionary wall in testudo formation, shields held overhead. With tremendous discipline the Danagrim are surefooted and precise in their retreat only one Vindolanda Ranger lost on the flank and immediately replaced by a colleague. As the Danagrim retreat further, Salinor activates a wooden lever barely discernible on the left-hand wall. A mini portcullis crashes to the ground simultaneously severing the left leg of an unfortunate Norwegian thrusting forward with his sword at precisely that moment. The defenders finally earn a brief respite although the ranks of the enemy quickly part, the Jarl rushing forward to smash the portcullis with a huge, ringing blow.
Manzio, further ahead with Heraclief can see the massive figure of Mars in the centre front of the testudo, Achilleus, Paulinas and Cole retreat through the ranks to take control from the front. Finally, the three battered Danagrim reach the leading group, which contains the remaining Knights alongside a few priests as well as Manzio and Heraclief.
‘Did you take out the trebuchet?’ demands Achilleus.
‘That is good’ commends Achilleus ’though I fear your feat will be for little gain as the Keep is fallen to us.
Will someone tell me what the hell happened at the Gatehouse? Treachery?’
It is the tall Richard Umfraville who responds, one arm still supporting his injured father.
‘Several of our knights, good men, suddenly turned upon us. They drove a wedge before the gates. Enough time for the gates to be opened from within. After that, the sheer weight of numbers led to an inevitable retreat, Holy Protector.’
‘Enchantments,’ confirms Achilleus, echoing the thoughts of both Manzio and Heraclief. ‘It seems the White Queen or one of her fell servants has entered the battle.’
Ahead, the sound of battle can be heard, followed by running feet. As Manzio powers forward he sees that the knights have broken the Norwegian incursion from the aqueducts. All told, about ten young Viking warriors lay dead in the scorched remnants of the doorway at which Achilleus bade farewell to Heraclief and Manzio only hours before.
‘The rune did a good job, Paulinas’ nods Achilleus. His arm is already heavily strapped against the arrow wound suffered earlier. Paulinas smiles, clearly pleased with the mischief caused by his handiwork.
Reaching the intersection of pipes in which the Troich attacked earlier, Achilleus calls a halt.
‘We need to divide and disorientate our pursuers. We know this underground network and the many traps therein. I propose three groups. I will lead the main Danagrim fighting force and will take the central trunk route. Baron Umfraville, de Bois, take your knights via the quicker southern pipes. Be careful, the aqueducts narrow in places but should accommodate your bulky armour. Finally, a small, fast quarry for the Norwegians. Cole, take a hand, circumnavigate the system and be on the lookout for Troich. Everyone, speed is of the essence. We rendezvous with Decius as soon as possible.’
Cole, Salinor and Gretna once again team up with Heraclief and Manzio. It is quickly evident that Salinor is in his element, checking for traps not so much to avoid but to make certain that any pursuit will trigger these hidden dangers whilst easily navigating the twisting underground network. There is no sign of the enemy although the group maintains a brisk pace, Gretna supporting Cole whenever the big Danagrim stumbles. His weariness after the battle in the Keep is evident but sheer determination and an iron constitution see him able to keep pace with the others.
The underground network is eerily quiet save for the trickle of water and splash of running, booted feet. Suddenly, Salinor calls a halt and it quickly becomes evident why as the team round a bend in the aqueduct. Dead bodies litter the space ahead with a familiar figure sat with his back propped against the brickwork behind. Scipio.
The companions rush forward to provide support but as Salinor reaches down to feel for a pulse, Scipio’s eyes widen and his arm thrusts upward, catching the scout in an iron like grip!
‘Die, Danagrim scum.’
Salinor is held rigid as Scipio pushes himself up with his left arm. Manzio, as ever is quickest to react, both elven daggers brandished in a blur of motion. His first strike misses by a whisker but the second exploits damage to Scipio’s chain mail at the elbow, stabbing deep into the muscle. The accuracy of the blow is enough to break the stranglehold and Salinor quickly backs off, rubbing his already bruised neck and relieved to be free.
Cole, slowest at first to react, eventually launches himself at the Iron Legion Danagrim, his two mithril battleaxes smashing Scipio backwards. Just as the tough, battle-scarred Scipio tries to strike back, a series of emerald fireworks blast into the possessed figure in quick succession. Finally, Gretna strikes, her gladius thrusting deep into the exposed neck, given that Scipio’s helm has been knocked to one side thanks to the strength of Cole’s blows. Arterial blood spurts into the air. Cole catches the bulky Danagrim and lowers him gently to the ground. In seconds, Scipio’s life ebbs away and Cole respectfully closes the Iron Legionaries’ eyes, kissing him on the forehead.
‘A terrible way for a great warrior to die. May God forgive us all.’
With the possessed Scipio finally defeated, Manzio can hear sounds of pursuit behind.
‘The battle must have alerted our pursuers,’ states Cole. ‘Run.’
The group accelerates, Salinor pushing everyone to their limits and constantly switching direction taking right and then left turns through the bewildering rabbit warren of choices available. Finally, a golden light can be seen ahead.
‘Quick, the protections of Decius’ shouts Cole. ‘Not far now.’
With a final sprint, the exhausted ‘hand’ reaches a set of steps, which lead up into golden light. Passing through this clearly magical barrier, Manzio and then Heraclief feel a surge of strength return to their tired bodies and emerge beneath a heavy iron grate. Danagrim guards, standing back to back and caked in blood are waiting, the grate quickly opened and the five, welcomed back above ground.
There is little time to acclimatise. The sounds of battle and screaming men cut through the blanket of snow filling the sky and turning, Manzio sees that the group has emerged directly in front of a reinforced riverbank protecting the Pons Aelius. The century of Decius is separated into quarters, shields at the ready facing their Norwegian attackers. Once again, a hidden vellum has extracted a heavy price from the enemy but the telltale ladders show where the enemy have crossed the killing fields, hundreds lay dead in the snow. The Danagrim enjoy a slight advantage given their superior position on higher ground but the quartet phalanx are already hard pressed by those having already gained the heights. Manzio also notes a peculiar multi coloured sphere in operation in front of the Danagrim century. Enemy arrows do occasionally come within range of the defenders but whatever the purpose of the sphere it offers no protection from the missiles fired from the Norwegian ranks, although the closed ranks of the Danagrim shields mean only a few have penetrated the robust defence formation.
‘Cole, where is Achilleus?’ bellows Decius.
‘We split up’ responds the still gasping Cole. ‘Three groups. I guess we are the first to arrive?’
Decius nods. ‘The five of you, get behind the protection of my century. Quickly!’
Cole and Salinor barrel their way past those unfortunate enough to stand in their way with Gretna and Heraclief protecting behind. Heraclief, his emerald fire emanating like condensation and ready to be unleashed, stands predatory at the heart of the five. Once safely positioned behind the Danagrim legionaries, Manzio and Heraclief are afforded a much better view of the advancing army.
‘They cannot hold for long unless the lodestone offers great power and protection,’ observes Heraclief. ‘I cannot understand the logic of this retreat! Particularly as Achilleus appears to have expected this from the start.’
Nearby, Cole is quickly recounting recent events including the use of enchantment by the enemy to enter the Keep. The stoic Decius simply nods as though unsurprised by this turn of events.
‘We make our final stance here,’ states Decius simply. ‘Fitting that the Pons Aelius will bear witness to our resilience.’
Vast numbers of the enemy, having now bridged the vellum is pouring in behind the vanguard with two of the Danagrim quarters gradually losing ground.
However, once again there is a flare of bright golden light as the remaining knights appear, led by a familiar Elven face.
‘Myrddin,’ rejoices Manzio, Heraclief close behind.
‘My men and I owe the Druid our lives,’ confesses the Baron. ‘Those poisonous Troich took us unawares but unbeknown to us, the Druid had already rounded the attackers and struck from behind.’
‘It is good to see you all,’ says the reassuring voice of Myrddin. ‘But where is the Holy Protector?’
‘I am here,’ responds Achilleus, emerging from the invigorating healing powers of the lodestone. The remaining Danagrim extricate themselves from the tunnels before the increasingly lame Achilleus, is met by the others.
‘Myrddin, you appear when the work is all but done! Alas that I was waylaid by a Troich enchanter or food would have been readied but the threat and thankfully the stench are now eradicated. Well met.’
‘Well met indeed. Judging by the numbers arrayed against you Holy Protector, lunch will have to wait, quite possibly for a day or two. I am saddened to see that the Keep is lost,’ replies the Druid, his gaze simultaneously appraising the approaching threat of the Norwegian army.
‘Powerful enchantments led to betrayal at the gates. We had no choice but to retreat. The power of the lodestone is amplified when kept close to the Pons Aelius. Plus, we are not finished yet,’ smiles Achilleus mischievously. ’As you will see before this day is done.’
Several hundred Norwegians have now gained the embankment although the fresh impetus of the Knights and arrival of the Danagrim survivors from the Keep are able to temporarily stem the tide.
A handful of archers remain including Manzio who uses his crossbow, firing as best he can into the ever growing, swarming ranks of the enemy.
Suddenly, the battlefield is lit by a blinding white light. Peering out between his fingers-tips, Manzio senses the familiar feeling of dread accompanied by the arrival of a greater power. His nose tingling, as though about to bleed he makes out the silhouette of three figures enshrined in a blazing halo of light.
Before Manzio can react he sees an entire Danagrim quarter held back in reserve turn, some doing so slowly others at pace before throwing themselves, armour and all into the freezing waters of the Tyne. Salinor and Cole are able to reach two of the clearly bewitched Danagrim legionaries, wrestling both to the ground and saving their lives though both have to be physically restrained from following their comrades to a watery death.
Achilleus, Decius and Paulinas begin to make for the newcomers but are faced not by Norwegians but rather the second Danagrim quarter held back in reserve. They move forward to intercept the Holy Protector although not as a coordinated unit but rather as a disorientated and rather befuddled group.
‘Knights and the Fellowship of Fate, on me’ bellows Achilleus.
‘How can this be?’ shouts Decius. ‘Undead cannot penetrate the protections of the lodestone!’
As if in answer, a figure emerges from the blinding halo surrounding the attackers.
Standing no more than 100ft away, Manzio is once again confronted by the most beautiful woman he has ever seen dressed in regal, royal silk, spun in the purest form of white. She wears no jewelry or accessories to detract from the beauty on display, save for a black Crystal, much like a heartstone, which is situated on a Mithril choker around her alabaster white neck. She radiates with a vibrant, bright light and Manzio has to shield his eyes from the illumination cast. She speaks with a beautiful north eastern Scottish lilt and the words seem to wash over the young Vesuvian like a soothing tonic to banish the nightmares experienced earlier in the day.
‘There is a simple answer to that Decius ? Do not presume to think that I am a cut from the same cloth as my sisters.’
‘So reasonable, as ever.’ ponders Manzio.
Now, this must stop. I have no wish to kill you all but if you leave me with no choice, so be it! I have been merciful and offered you chances to retreat. Surrender the lodestone and you will be free to return to your families. Is this not a reasonable offer? It is your last chance.’
Manzio can sense the doubt in those around him. Indeed, as he considers the proposal it seems logical to accept.
‘Fight her enchantments,’ urges Myrddin emerging from behind Heraclief where he had remained hidden.
‘Hush my gentle Druid. Put aside your trials and tribulations as you did once before and let me help you. Sleep now my love.’
There is a sincerity to the tone of the Queen, which convinces Manzio of her authority. He is unconcerned as Myrddin falls to the ground in what he presumes is a deep sleep.
The battle has now ground to a standstill, adversaries eyeing one another nervously but as though suspended in animation, unable to turn away from the soothing words of the White Queen.
‘You evil bitch.’ screams Achilleus and charges toward his quarry.
The spell is broken. The battle resumes.
Furious, Morgause extends her arm and the Pons Aelius quarter under her control surge forward. Paulinas and Decius immediately create a shield of their own muscle alongside the Baron and his knights, providing Achilleus with the respite required to summon the Spear of Samson. With a single word, a vibrating shaft of golden energy appears in his right hand and with a mighty throw, he releases the artifact at dazzling speed toward the White Queen. The spear shimmers with golden energy before penetrating the sphere of light surrounding Morgause. She screams in pain, the halo of light imploding with an audible din, which reverberates across the battlefield. Staggering forward, her pure white silk showing the tell-tale drops of scarlet blood, Morgause is steadied by the Jarl, now fully visible with the halo dispelled. Next to the frost giant, a third figure has his bow notched, a single black arrow at the ready. Ross!
Elsewhere, the Danagrim line is now pushed to breaking through sheer weight of enemy numbers. A few of the invincible Iron Legion remain in the centre, Mars at the heart of the defensive retreat though splattered in blood and struggling to contain the Norwegians. Cole and Salinor add their weight to the eastern Pons Aelius quarter, which is in danger of being flanked. Gretna takes out a tall Norwegian with a well-placed swipe of her gladius, cutting through the left leg of her assailant as he tries to go around the narrow gap on the far left of the embankment.
Manzio, as though coming back to himself in a jolt, takes in the situation and notices the slumped body of Myrddin. He gasps, checking for a pulse and is relieved to find that Myrddin is simply sleeping.
‘Heraclief, help, me! Get Myrddin onto the safety of the Pons Aelius.’
The tall sorcerer looks stunned as though reeling from some hidden power. Manzio, not knowing what else to do, grabs Heraclief in one arm and cups his stronger left arm around Myrddin, dragging both toward the bridge. He has just reached the safety of the Pons Aelius when a Danagrim horn is sounded and a full retreat begins.
Desperately trying to avoid a rout, only the most skilled warriors now remain standing. The unstoppable Mars is a single figure in the centre of the line, Paulinas surging into the gap vacated by the legionary felled by an expert shot from Ross.
Slowly but surely, the defenders back off onto the bridge, Paulinas buying some time by detonating a rune, which strikes in the guise of an eagle. With less than half a century of Danagrim remaining alongside a handful of knights, Decius shouts a booming command.
Manzio and the still groggy Heraclief exchange surprised glances as a leather hoop connected to a metal chain is released from cunningly wrought seams barely discernible to the eye.
‘Take hold,’ commands Decius. ‘Now.’
Gripping the leather cord, Manzio feels the bridge begin to groan and protest as the angle changes, he holds Myrddin tight in his left hand and is thankful that the increasingly cognisant Heraclief grabs the druid’s right hand. The tip, closest to the enemy disappears much like the prow of a ship, quickly submerged in the depths of the frothing, bubbling River Tyne. Further back down the length of the Pons Aelius, the bridge is released from the far mooring and swings into the air like a giant see-saw. With the defenders holding on just to stop from falling, Manzio notes that previously hidden metallic clips seem to be holding his daggers rigid and with them his entire body is magnetically held in place.
Quickly the bridge begins to descend in a vertical fashion as though a sword plunging into the river. Despite a wave of enemy arrows, which ricochet harmlessly from the chromatic shield, now activated specifically in synergy with the Pons Aelius, which continues to sink beneath the river. At disorientating speed, Manzio is vaguely aware of Heraclief and the slumped figure of Myrddin, his staff held rigidly within his right fist. Water is swelling below before breaking the embankment in a vast rushing flood. The sight of Norwegians being carried off as though by a tide is momentary as just then, the bridge descends into darkness and the assassin is swallowed up into the inky depths below the Tyne, though remarkably without so much as a drop of water touching his skin.
As suddenly as the transformation began, the bridge comes to a halt, a metallic clang ringing through the under dark as though a great lock has just snapped into place. The magnetic grips descend once again beneath the cobbled surface of the bridge and Manzio is held only by the leather strap. However, close at hand he spots the metallic outline of a ladder positioned perpendicular to the now stationary, vertical bridge.
Given his agility and speed it takes the Vesuvian little time to extricate himself from the bridge, with Myrddin groaning whilst slung unceremoniously over Manzio’s left shoulder. Despite the extra weight, the assassin is able to descend swiftly into the cavern below.
Less than a fifth of the century under the command of Decius remain. Close at hand, a second slightly larger phalanx made up of the surviving Danagrim under the command of Achilleus. A small group of knights gather too, the men and women grinning, still scarcely believing their delivery from the jaws of death.
With Myrddin recovering, though his face an ashen sheen, Manzio and then Heraclief embrace the Druid. All three look up with disbelief to the vast shaft of watery light above and the Pons Aelius suspended like a gargantuan ladder: held in place by an elaborate locking mechanism.
‘Genius,’ commends the Druid. ‘Just when I think I have learnt all there is to know about the Danagrim, they surprise me again. True genius.’
‘Myrddin, it is good to see you’ says Heraclief.
‘And you, Emerald Eyes. I am sure your fire has been a bane to the Northmen.’
‘He took out a trebuchet,’ beams Manzio.
‘Did he indeed?’ smiles Myrddin. ‘I look forward to hearing all about your feats of bravery, although I fear this is not yet done.’
‘What of Storm, Tector and Sophia,’ presses Manzio. ‘Why have they not accompanied you?’
A worried look crosses the face of the Druid, like the sun eclipsed by shadow.
‘That is a long tale. Suffice to say that they are in peril, like you. The allied forces of the North are hard pushed. Stretched to the limit and everyone is making brave sacrifices. They seek the Staff of Winter and with it an end to this eternal winter. It is imperative that they succeed.’
Manzio and Heraclief exchange a worried look but have little time to consider this news before Achilleus addresses the survivors.
‘The Pons Aelius is safe, in keeping with the vow made by our people to Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD and again to Emperor Severus in 200 AD. The power of the final great lodestone rests beneath our feet within a sacred cave and is undisturbed in several centuries. I cannot ask for more from you brave people. Each and every one of you is a hero. But lest we forget, the White Queen will find a way to attack us, even here and will bring her very strongest. This will be a fight to the death but I offer an escape for those of you who would wish to leave. There are but two paths from this cavern. One is a hidden tunnel, which will lead you far from here and toward the sea. The other is to the lodestone itself and our final sacrifice. Choose quickly for we have little time.’
The Baron and de Bois choose to stay, dismissing the surviving knights including his son and daughter.
‘You must survive this day, both of you for one day you will return and reclaim all that is rightfully yours.’
For their part, the Fellowship also faces a parting of the ways.
‘We can escape by the shadows, suggests Heraclief.
’Whilst I also have a means of escape. It seems fate has delivered contingency tools. It is perhaps meant to be that we are witness to the final battle,’ responds the farsighted Myrddin.
‘I think it is suicidal to go on,’ blurts out Manzio. ‘I have been enchanted by the White Queen before and out there, on the battlefield, even when she wasn’t looking at me, I felt drawn back to her side. I know this to be wrong but fear her.’
Heraclief and Myrddin exchange glances before the sorcerer answers.
‘That is understandable Manzio. You have done so much in so little time and I forget that you are but a teenager. We are wrong to ask for such a commitment. Go with the others. They will need help and I will meet with you on the coast as soon as is possible.’
As Manzio embraces his two colleagues, followed by Salinor, Cole and Gretna, a sudden thought occurs to him. ‘Heraclief, take my ring of invisibility.’
Heraclief smiles but shakes his head, closing Manzio’s fist back over the ring. ‘A typically selfless gesture my friend but I fear your escape to the coast will not be easy. Keep it, my sense is that you will have need of the ring before this is done.’
Achilleus, walking with ever more difficulty shakes the hand of each and every individual departing for the coast. Finally, he stands in front of Manzio. ‘May God protect you Manzio. I thank you for your efforts and ask that you do not forget our sacrifice.’
‘I will not, Holy Protector, promises Manzio, blinking away the tears.
An emotional farewell also takes place between the surviving members of the Umfraville family, Richard and Matilda clearly distressed by the parting. Reluctantly and accompanied by a handful of exhausted and wounded Danagrim, some barely able to stand, let alone fight, as well as Manzio, the small company sets out toward the sea. Matilda and Richard turn and salute those remaining below in the cavern before ducking beneath a rocky precipice.
Back in the cavern, Heraclief releases an emerald cantrip, which cascades high into the stone above, illuminating the static, vertical Pons Aelius.
‘Until we meet again my Vesuvian friend. Until we meet again may the shadows hide you.’