Siege of the New Castle Part 6
As the emerald cantrip, detonated high above and slowly began to fade, Achilleus the Golden commanded the remaining Danagrim, accompanied by Heraclief, Myrddin, de Bois and Baron Umfraville to move out, plunging almost immediately into tight subterranean tunnels of ancient origin.
It was not long before Myrddin questioned the Holy Protector, wasting no time on pleasantries.
‘What is the plan Achilleus?’
Staring straight ahead, Myrddin at first thought that Achilleus had not heard his question and was about to repeat himself when the Holy Protector shrugged.
‘We will defend the lodestone, as our oath dictates.’
His staff, reverberating on the stone floor with each stride, Myrddin glanced back at Heraclief, the tall sorcerer raising an eye.
‘With all due respect Holy Protector, what is to be gained from this final stance? The bravery of the Danagrim cannot be questioned and the entire North is indebted to your resilience but we need you in the times to come. Not just you but Decius, Paulinas, Cole and any other veteran we can rescue from the New Castle.’
‘We swore a vow!’ retorted Achilleus. Not to one but two Emperors. Some of the Danagrim at this wall follow in the footsteps of their forefathers, from father to son down through the years. They gladly give their lives in defence of the sacred stone.’
For a moment, the two walked in silence, accompanied only by the sound of creaking armour and the clunk of Myrddin’s staff.
Finally, Myrddin responded.
‘Who were the two Emperor’s you swore allegiance too?’
‘Emperor Hadrian,’ stated Achilleus. ‘And Emperor Severus when we renewed those vows.’
‘Septimus Severus!’ exclaimed Myrddin. ‘Now that is a strange coincidence. Did you know that he was buried beneath the catacombs under York?
Achilleus. He is stirring from his long sleep!’
Achilleus stopped and turned to face the druid. His vibrant blue eyes boring into Myrddin as though attempting to divine the truth of the druid’s words.
‘It is true,’ confirmed Heraclief. ‘The Fellowship of Fate was in the very same catacombs not more than a few months ago. I sensed a great power.’
The Holy Protector looked from Myrddin to Heraclief.
‘I will think on what you have said but first we will do our best to defeat the enemy.’
The group made good progress through the extraordinary interior, whilst Heraclief noted Decius drop back to the very rear of the defenders, activating mechanisms, which triggered a series of magical barriers.
‘What are they?’ asked the curious Heraclief, as the third chromatic barrier was secured.
Decius, noticing Heraclief as though for the first time, said nothing until the two had once again set off behind the others.
‘The lodestone offers many protections. The White Queen will need to expend a great deal of energy just to reach us in the interior. The closer we draw to the source of power, the more ferocious the protections.’
‘Were they the same at Vindolanda? I remember the explosion when Ice and the dracolich detonated one.’
Decius turned to face Heraclief, now with genuine interest. ‘You witnessed this?’
‘Yes,’ responded the tall sorcerer. ‘With Myrddin and the other members of the Fellowship.’
‘Yes indeed, I fought with Storm, Sophia and Tector here at the New Castle not more than a few months ago, though I confess it feels like a lifetime. They fought with great bravery.’
There is a comfortable silence between the two as they catch the small group ahead.
‘I do not know.’ Decius turned once more to face Heraclief. ‘In answer to your question about the Vindolanda lodestone.’
The sorcerer nodded.
‘Each of the three lodestones was protected by a century of Danagrim and sworn to secrecy. The entire Vindolanda century was stationed below ground and according to the Holy Protector, none survived the impact of the dragons.’
A huge explosion sounded in the distance back the way the group had passed, shortly before. Almost immediately, ten Danagrim legionaries overtook Decius and Heraclief taking up a protective cordon. Shields interlinked they began to walk backwards keeping a watchful vigil on the tunnel ahead.
‘The pursuit,’ confirmed Decius. ‘We must hurry.’
Twice more in relatively close succession, the sound of detonations carried to the group ahead.
Finally, the survivors reached their destination. The tunnel simply ended with a single, gigantic polished obsidian boulder blocking the way ahead. Decius made his way to the front and whispered a single word in a powerful, ancient language.
The giant boulder began to move inexorably to the right, with walls on either side reduced to the floor and the boulder sliding perfectly into a circular space cut meticulously into the rock face and just able to accommodate the size.
The remaining survivors, some evacuees of both Vindolanda and the New Castle entered the cave ahead. The sound of pursuit could be heard close at hand with booted feet fast approaching.
‘Quickly, into the cave’ urged Achilleus.
Waiting to see if the boots re those of Danagrim legionaries, Decius, Cole and Achilleus delay as long as possible before the huge figure of the Jarl comes into view.
With a single word, Decius commands the boulder to return into position, the great stone moving silently and seamlessly.
‘Behold, Ulmus Minor, the Black Elm. Once known as the Iceni Elm. A rare gift from our Elven cousins.’ proclaimed Achilleus with obvious pride in his voice.
The interior of the cave was warm and verdant with lush green grass underfoot. At the heart of this gargantuan, clearly inter-dimensional space was a huge tree. The Elm majestically rose up over 100ft into the air, though the only light source came from the very back of the cavern. On closer inspection, this light represented a bizarre mirror image but made from a window of liquid, rippling water, like a huge aquatic painting. The image of the Elm, like a great water colour reflected back as though just beyond the frame itself.
However, the survivors had little time to enjoy the idyll before another huge blow reverberated from the solid boulder behind them.
Without instruction, Paulinas began working an elaborate spell within the hinges at exactly the point at which the huge boulder connected with the hillside through which the survivors entered the cave. The legionaries formed up in orderly ranks behind, sharpening weapons, shields rested in the grass at their feet. Centre front of the phalanx, Mars and Cole stood chatting as though merely passing time on watch duty. From inside his armour, Cole took a long swig from an ornate hip flask and then passed it to Mars, the two muscular Danagrim smiling in appreciation as the fiery whisky settled.
Behind the legionaries, de Bois and Umfraville embraced in a bear like hug, before turning to face the polished, seemingly immovable obsidian portal.
Decius had retreated to the great Elm tree and with him Achilleus. At first, Myrddin and Heraclief simply observed the others as they prepared for the final battle but then, his curiosity clearly piqued, Myrddin turned to approach the two Danagrim leaders, Heraclief close behind. Unbelievably, the tree was situated behind a trapdoor fashioned seamlessly into the earth. Decius released the catch and was followed by the other three.
Descending a tight downward passage, with only the emerald light of Heraclief to illuminate the four, they descended via superbly crafted stone steps. Decius and Achilleus seemed completely at ease in the darkened, subterranean environment and barely needed the light as they strode confidently ahead. The twisting passage then cut back on itself in long, zig zag angles. The light from Heraclief and Myrddin reflected massive hieroglyphs brandished upon a perfectly smooth almost alien stone, possibly even metallic surface.
It was not long before they reached a flat passage and then a domed archway. Beyond, the four could see a small circular room. The air was stilted and a dust undisturbed, quite possibly in centuries provides a rustic ochre sheen to the chamber.
‘Is this a mausoleum?’ asked Heraclief.
A marble plinth was visible in the half light and rested upon it a figure, bearing what at first appeared to be a much smaller version of the polished jet-black stone blocking the enemy from entering.
Decius beckoned for the others to wait and walks forward.
‘The final guardian,’ said Decius in a barely audible voice. ’
The last of the three great lodestones’ echoed Achilleus, as though the two were reciting an ancient verse.
Achilleus turned and faced Myrddin. ’Do you recognise the last guardian Druid? There is a reason why this was always going to be the most difficult lodestone to fall. The reluctance of the White Queen is to some extent, understandable.
‘You may enter,’ commanded Decius.
A little uncertainly, the Druid advanced into the small, dusty circular chamber. He walked into the half-light and stood at the side of Decius. Looking down, he could see a bearded figure. The pale, spectral figure wore a silver helm, closely fitted to his head and in the silver light, inlaid with intricate matrices of Danagrim runes, much like those carved into the walls outside the chamber. The figure clutched a staff in his right hand, a circular globe in his left.
‘It is time!’ commanded Achilleus from the archway. ‘The enemy has penetrated our defenses. She comes.’
Indeed, the sound of explosive detonations could be heard above ground as the battle commenced.
Back in the chamber, Decius looked once again at Myrddin. He rested his hand on the lodestone, which flaresd revealing twin sources of inner heat, as though two beating hearts lay within the stone.
‘Look into the eyes of the dragon and despair!’
The figure opened his eyes, which were ablaze with an inner fire.
Myrddin screamed, clutching his head in pain.
‘What have you done to him,’ cried Heraclief, the emerald flame surrounding his body like a halo of retribution but Achilleus blocked the way.
‘Myrddin must face his past and become what he was, not what he is now.’
‘You speak in riddles,’ retorted Heraclief angrily.
Within the chamber, Myrddin was climbing to his feet, the figure resting on the plinth had been burnt to ash although the staff and helm remained. The stone was carefully cupped in the massive hands of Decius.
Uncertainly, Myrddin extended a hand and clasped the helm, slowly, inexorably placing it upon his head. Almost immediately, his eyes flared within an intense blood red.
‘The Helm of Taurus.’
Snatching his staff from the plinth, Myrddin made for the entrance. This twisted, gnarled staff was made from Elm wood and unremarkable save for two distinct features:
Atop, the wood was carved into a holding chamber, much like a talon, which housed a bright, glowing azure blue gemstone, shaped much like an egg. Also, the grip contained a set of Elven characters, which blazed with an emerald green light as Myrddin clutched the staff, one now in either hand.
Behind, Decius and Achilleus embraced.
‘You are the last guardian now, my old friend. Guard the lodestone well but if she makes it through, you know what to do.’
Led by Achilleus, with Heraclief still looking suspiciously at his radically altered friend, the three companions retraced their footsteps, the sound of battle heard clearly overhead. Bursting back above ground through the trap door entered earlier, they emerged just as a handful of legionaries made a heroic final stance. Dead bodies were scattered across blood stained grass. At the far side, the giant obsidian boulder had been smashed to pieces, with black rubble flung far and wide, further casting a stain on the pristine, lush grassland.
The terrifying apparition of Morgause, White Queen of Norway and Caithness, stood watching the melee with a resigned, almost melancholy expression. Next to her stood the half-elven archer, Ross Quilhaven. He calmly picked off Salinor cut off from the others with a jet-black arrow, which found its target powering through metal and flesh, a flash of white light visible as the clearly magical weapon stilled the defender.
Norwegian dead scattered the battlefield but clearly these were toughened veterans as the ratio was even. A handful remained on either side. The Jarl was surrounded by four. Two of the Nordic warriors were clearly twins, both fighting with twin axes and with exposed runes on chests. Both had short blonde hair and matching goatee beards although one had blue eyes, the other extremely unnerving black eyes. In the centre facing Cole and Paulinas, these two Norwegian Danagrim had clearly already exchanged several blows each, the blue eyed Northman bleeding heavily from a leg wound.
To the side, a Norse woman. Although sinewy and supple, she surprisingly favoured a double handed weapon, which was dripping with blood. Her murderous gaze was fixed on Mars.
Finally, a heavily armoured figure, his face a bizarre hybridization of elven and araken features. Fighting with a huge broadsword, his hair swept back in thick wiry dreadlocks, the muscular figure eyed the enemy warily considering his next move.
Cole and Paulinas remained resolute with Mars having dropped back behind, his face a barely recognizable bloody mess and his left arm sporting a debilitating injury, hanging uselessly at his side and barely still attached to his shoulder.
With the grim faced Danagrim, de Bois and Umfraville, ashen and battered, remained. De Bois was barely able to stand whilst the Baron seemed intent on attacking the Elven-Araken half-blood.
‘Rodel! I’ve waited many years to face you. A blood feud is not forgotten south of the border whilst you skulk and hide behind your Queen,’ shouted the Baron, pumping his old legs forward to engage in melee once again.
Back at the tree, Myrddin and Heraclief had only moments to take in the battlefield before the action resumed.
Paulinas was the quickest to react and despite his advancing years, successfully drove back the darker eyed twin with some deft placement of his gladius. However, the Viking was not slow to respond, a blackened tattoo flaring on his pectoral muscles before a coating of ice formed on the twin mithril axes with one and then a second finding their mark, punching great shards of ice into the tarnished and damaged armour worn by Paulinas.
Close at hand The Jarl bellowed in fury as Cole ducked and dived beneath the lethal ice axe of his giant opponent. Cole managed to step inside the giant’s huge blow and struck out with everything he still had remaining, opening a sizable cut in the Jarl’s exposed thigh.
Concentrating his efforts, the Jarl’s riposte was immediate, as a bolt of lightning slammed from above as though summoned by the giant from the unseen stratosphere, smashing even the indomitable Cole to the ground. On his knees, remarkably, he was able to then parry what must surely have been a killing blow from the ice axe of the Jarl.
Heraclief, his eyes on Ross, considers his next move carefully. Not wishing to kill his old friend but determined to counter his powerful ranged abilities, Heraclief summons a fireball, the swirling emerald globe flashing between the warriors in front and then carefully detonated just to the left of Ross and not far from the White Queen. Morgause simply stood to the side, whilst the flames failed to touch her and were snuffed out with no more effort than a doused candle. Ross however, was set on fire, his attack disrupted whilst in panic, he concentrated on extinguishing the burning hot emerald fire aflame on his leather armour.
No sooner had Heraclief launched his fireball than Achilleus once again summoned the white hot intensity of the Spear of Samson into his hand. With no more than a few strides run-up, he hurled the spear with superhuman strength toward the White Queen. The Queen’s slight smile changed to a look of horror as the weapon penetrated her defences for the second time in less than a day! Whilst not striking her directly, the white hot light seemed to seep inside her force-field, the Queen gasping in pain before stepping to the side her gaze intent on the Holy Protector. However before she could react, Myrddin pressed the slim advantage gained by Heraclief and Achilleus, summoning a blizzard of freezing cold ice and sleet, which blasted out toward the Queen and Ross. At first, the effect seemed to have been centred incorrectly but as the druid’s amulet flashed with a glint of vibrant green energy, Myrddin concentrated on re-positioning the howling, icy gale. Having only just recovered from the emerald flames, the antithetical ice based attack had a huge impact on the half-elven ranger, driving him back towards the smashed remains of the obsidian boulder. Morgause gritted her teeth against the freezing wind but was able to resist the worst of the impact before finally readying herself. In response, she simply disappeared…
Back in the melee, de Bois was finally overcome by the blue-eyed twin. The younger, stronger man channelled the energy of ice through his deadly, fast axes, a shard of ice deflecting from his blow and pinning the old Templar to the ground. In desperation he tried to parry the killing blow, successfully deflecting the first axe, but blindsided by the second, which smashed into his skull, a sickening rent of bones snapping before the knight was stilled.
Remarkably, given the debilitated state of Mars, the defenders were able to hold their own on the other flank, with Baron Umfraville and Rodel parrying blows and Mars refusing to yield ground to the female Viking warrior. The big Danagrim was covered in blood from his injured arm but still had enough strength to strike his blonde-haired assailant though the blow was unable to penetrate her breastplate.
Morgause reappeared, just as the Danagrim centre began to buckle. Not more than twenty feet from Myrddin and Morgause, she confidently began to stride forward her eyes never moving from Achilleus. With a single word, the Holy Protector suddenly seemed confused and slowly turned to begin walking back toward the tree entrance. Fearing the worst, Myrddin used his solstice staff, the blue gemstone suddenly vibrant with light, which was pointed toward the advancing Queen. For a split second, she hesitated as though in discomfort, touching her stomach but simply exhaled, expelling the druid’s spell, her breath sheer condensation despite the warm surroundings of the cave interior.
Behind Morgause, Heraclief uses his levitational powers, his left earring activated with a golden glint. Quickly he rose up into the air and summoned one, two, three, four, five emerald missiles which blasted outward toward the Queen but with a dismissive wave of her left hand, each detonated harmlessly on an unseen barrier surrounding her body.
The situation quickly deteriorated from bad to worse as both the Jarl and Black Eyes surged forward, the latter now free to flank his opponents. Only Paulinas and the Baron held the line. Seeing the desperate situation, Mars stepped inside the female Viking’s double handed blow, reaching out his left hand to grab hold of her hair. Shocked, the woman made a fatal error by hesitating, which gavs the big warrior just enough time to smash his axe upward, catching her unawares and ripping through her jugular nerve, blood spraying in an arc and catching the nearby Paulinas.
Cole, trying to stop the barreling run of the Jarl and still on one knee desperately slashed out at the giant’s bleeding leg and once again connected but a backhanded blow from the Jarl, caught him on the side of the head, metal and axe driving through his exposed flesh and killing him instantly. Mars threw himself in the Jarl’s path with a defiant grunt but the big warrior was spent and his clumsy blow was nonchalantly parried by the frost giant.
With the net closing fast, Myrddin summoned nature itself to come to the aid of the beleaguered group. A thick entanglement of foliage and roots erupted from the ground scattering soil in a thick cloud of dust. Whilst unsuccessfully holding the White Queen in place, it did however slow her advance. Achilleus remained statuesque, stood just outside the trap, dazed and confused.
Heraclief, his fury at seeing Cole’s death directed toward the frost giant, unsheathed his wand of fire, firing a blazing, red hot bolt downward and into the exposed back of the Jarl. With a howl of pain and rage a blackened scorch mark appeared before the giant caught the backtracking Mars with an enormous two handed blow, his axe flaring with a renewed double edge of ice. Unable to move his left arm, the blow severed the arm of Mars completely, the huge Danagrim finally crashing to the ground, his lifeblood spilled into the broken soil. However, the Jarl, off balance, was caught in the twisting, network of vines and enraged to find himself held rigid and vulnerable to attack.
The White Queen was now stood no more than 10 feet of Myrddin. Beside her, the muscular Achilleus stared into space a look of confusion still evident on his golden face.
‘So, you wear the Helm of Taurus once again. Merlin.’ The softly spoken Morgause had the trace of a north eastern Scottish brogue, a slight smile on her astonishingly beautiful and radiant face.
Myrddin, refusing to be engaged in conversation simply ignored the enchantress and instead concentrated solely on summoning his next spell.
‘Wait!’ commanded Morgause. ‘Enough bloodshed. I presume Decius now carries the lodestone? It is clear that you will fight to the very last and I recognise great bravery when I see it. I will call off the attack. You will tend to the dead bodies of your fallen brethren as will I.’
At first, there was stunned silence, Heraclief and Myrddin exchanging a glance of hope whilst the survivors on both sides, eye one another suspicioulsy.
‘Very well,’ nodded Myrddin, seizing the olive branch offered. ‘Then release the Holy Protector.’
The dead bodies of the fallen were quickly retrieved, Morgause and her group gathered in the doorway amidst the rubble of the shattered obsidian boulder.
Then as requested, with a snap of her fingers, the glazed look of Achilleus was gone, his eyes once again alert.
Likewise, Myrddin released the Jarl, with a wave of his hand the thick vegetation crumbling to dust.
‘What the hell happened?’ demanded the Danagrim leader.
As if in answer, the White Queen could not resist a parting shot.
‘Know that I chose to spare you. I am not like my sisters and have decency though you may not believe me. After all, Achilleus, you were at my mercy.’
Morgause then turned to face the druid, a slight smile radiating from her beautiful face. ‘It is good to have you back in the game Merlin. Your role as Dienwe’s pawn was not becoming for one of your stature. It was always more fun when you were a key player.’
With a word, the group vanished, leaving Achilleus to look on with disbelief.
Myrddin quickly called Heraclief and Achilleus together. ‘I have an idea for getting us out of here. I plan to use my solstice stone whilst calling upon the stone carried by Heraclief. The power of my stone is primarily devoted to summoning but I may well be capable of reversing the power. I think it is worth a try.’
Slowly, the battered and ragged group of survivors finished saying their goodbyes to the fallen whilst Achilleus went to find Decius. Gerald de Bois, Cole and Mars were laid under the great elm, the other dead figures respectfully, alongside.
Later, with Decius now returned to the group, the survivors of the New Castle stood together looking toward Myrddin.
‘All of you grasp my staff.’
Extending the staff in his right hand, Myrddin allowed the group to make contact with the twisted wood before concentrating his powers. Heraclief, stood to his left, did likewise attempting to channel energy capable of supporting the teleportation process.
At first nothing happened as Myrddin reached out his senses via the solstice stone seeking to find the Ley lines capable of transporting the group through space. Then, slowly, a vortex of energy began to rise up, gradually pulling each member of the group into a spinning centrifuge of chromatic light.
The last to enter Myrddin and Heraclief could feel the inevitable gravitational pull of the spell but at the last second both sensed a shift in their direction. For an instant, the Druid and sorcerer looked toward each other in shock and horror before they too were flung like pebbles into a roaring torrent of teleportive energy.