The Eastern Tunnels
The evacuees from New Castle said little as the group made slow progress during the first day since leaving behind The Holy Protector and fifty survivors ready to face the wrath of the White Queen. Some of the evacuees initially could barely walk but with the aid of healing provided by the two Umfravilles, a few potentially life threatening injuries were averted.
Manzio, for his part kept close to the back of the ragtag convoy aware that the group were far from safe. The tunnel was quite narrow in places but as a single escape route rather than the labyrinth of interconnecting pipes under the Keep, less potential openings for attack revealed themselves to the enemy.
After some time, Matilda dropped back to discuss the situation with Manzio.
‘I’m worried. We are making slow progress, which means the White Queen’s servants have time to catch us.’
Manzio nodded. ‘That has been on my mind too. Plus, even if we make the coast, what about the freezing cold? Where can we make toward for safety and shelter?’
Matilda considered Manzio’s words carefully. ‘Our own castle at Prudhoe is closest but taken by the enemy shortly after the fall of Vindolanda. There are three other strongholds in the north east that we can make for. Durham is closest, then Bamburgh and finally Berwick. My brother has little love for the Scots, so he will make for Durham.’
Manzio, considering his own options, counted the bodies ahead. Eighteen all told. The two surviving Templars and fifteen battered Danagrim legionaries, most operating on sheer will power and bloody mindedness and some with wounds likely to kill them if exposed to the harsh conditions beyond.
‘I cannot say that I have happy memories of my last meeting with the Bishop of Durham and even a short distance will be tough in these weather conditions but I agree this is the safest bet,’ replied Manzio.
The group continued to make slow progress throughout the day, or night, Manzio could no longer be sure within the timeless warrens beneath the earth. Stopping regularly, the survivors shared both the limited food still available and spare clothing to counter the incredible cold. Finally, several of the Danagrim could go no further and a makeshift camp was set up. Several, utterly exhausted, simply flopped down into a deep sleep where they had stopped marching and before long the caves were filled with snoring.
Splitting shifts between the three companies represented in the group, the Iron Relief went first. Three of the five surviving members of these tough legionaries were still relatively strong although all sporting a major injury of one form or another. Two were virtually debilitated with severe leg injuries but had managed to keep pace thanks to the support of the other more able bodied Danagrim.
Manzio also fell into a deep sleep glad to have avoided watch duties. He wasn’t sure how long his sleep had lasted when he was wakened with a sharp booted foot.
‘On your feet bonny lad, we’ve company and will be needin those fancy elven daggers, soon enough.’
For a moment, Manzio thought Cole had returned, so strong was the northeastern accent of the Danagrim speaking but was disappointed to see the weathered face of another Griffin legionary.
‘Remus, is that you?’ responded Manzio sleepily.
As Manzio sat up he could feel the cold plummet further and suddenly he was fully alert, the sound of his own heart racing.
‘We’ve got incoming,’ shouted a voice from one of the Iron Relief legionaries on watch. ‘The undead who attacked the Keep.’
The sound of weapons being readied, cold steel unsheathed echoed from the cold stone tunnel walls.
‘Legionaries, those of you unable to flee, make your stand in reserve now,’ came the command from the front.
Remus, quickly appraising the situation turned to the two Umfravilles and Manzio, ‘Let’s be gannin whilst we still can.’
A small group of legionaries, mainly from the more quick-footed Griffin unit of Cole, ushered the other three further down the tunnel. They had barely moved a few feet when a blazing flash of light detonated behind them. The screams of Danagrim were cut off and then silence.
‘Vindolanda Rangers, on me,’ screamed a voice from behind and then the clang of steel on steel.
As Manzio and the others fled, the sounds of battle faded but all the while, he could see the skeletons, led by the tall knight wearing archaic armour and his deadly black gemstone in his minds-eye. He was quickly leading the group, his boots taking him far in excess of the others, only the graceful, nimble-footed Matilda Umfraville anywhere near him.
‘Manzio, slow down, urged Matilda. The others are struggling to keep up.’
The assassin slowed his pace, gradually allowing the surviving Danagrim ‘hand’ to catch up. Of the surviving five legionaries, all were Griffins, Manzio noted, taking in the familiar livery of the century, so passionately commanded by Cole. Alongside the Danagrim, Richard Umfraville was sweating profusely despite the extreme cold, given his heavy full plate armour.
‘We’re nearly through,’ shouted Remus from the back, his tough, aged skin also showing the signs of stress and weariness, the sweat pouring from his face. ‘Lead the way Bonny Lad. There is an underground lake up ahead or so Cole told me.’
Sure enough, the pathway was now climbing steeply and after a short ascent it did not take long before the group emerged together in a beautiful underground cave. It seemed ancient to Manzio and he marveled that stalactites and stalagmites, much like those he’d seen in Iceland had formed in what until recently was such a temperate climate.
There appeared no way to circumnavigate the chilly waters and reluctantly, Manzio plunged forward, the water chilling his calves but thankfully not too deep. The others followed, splashing and wading their way towards the pale, white light at the far side of the cave.
They had made it halfway across when suddenly, the temperature once again plummeted and risking a look over his shoulder, Manzio spotted the skeletal entourage, quickly dividing left and right, followed by the tall knight.
With the skeletons pausing, the tall, imposing figure steps into the chilly water of the cave. He is dressed in magnificent although archaic armour, a golden circle emblazoned on the dented and tarnished breast plate. A cold white energy emanates like ice from the warlord, the shard of iridescent black, hanging from a chain around his neck. He also wears a girdle of gold and emerald silk around his waist.
Extending his hand, the golden circle blazes to life as though burning through metal! Suddenly an enormous fireball erupts from the knight; a roaring conflagration of billowing, searing heat.
Manzio, dives head first into the freezing cold water to avoid the furnace but even the lightning fast reflexes of the assassin are not fast enough as he feels the flames scorch his exposed neck. Standing, his left arm clutching his neck, Manzio gasps as he takes in the carnage surrounding him. Four of the five Danagrim legionaries have been transformed into floating, blackened corpses. Remus and Richard both scream in agony, the skin singed from their skin, statuesque and debilitated in pain, whilst Matilda has lost all her hair, an angry reddened stain left on her bald head. Stunned, Matilda and Manzio exchange glances before Matilda rushes to the aid of her brother, healing energy coursing through her fingertips and lessening the Templar’s agonized screams, though his blackened face makes him barely recognisable. Now able to concentrate again, Richard uses his own healing, a bright white light surrounding his entire body and subsequently a semblance of pink is restored to his scorched and mottled face. Backing off, the two Umfravilles stumble through the water, towards the waiting Manzio, his twin eleven daggers hopelessly outmatched in the face of such terrifying power.
Just then, the freezing water below their feet begin to swirl and froth and two figures erupt in a spray of liquid.
‘Behold, the Lady of the Lake,’ gasps Manzio, choking on his words which are thick with relief and emotion.
Emerging as though coalescing from mist and spray, a transparent figure erupts from the depths, forming a physical entity, which shimmers as though of quicksilver. Like a living, standing fountain, her being seems to renew itself in a constant flow of water and silver; a bright light, stark against the midnight blue of the lake from which she is clearly connected. Through the spray and mist, it is just about discernible to see her beautiful face.
At her side, a second figure, also rising from the water. ‘Calais!’ cries Manzio in delight. The Scian’s eye is no longer the chromatic hybrid of colours that the Vesuvian remembered but instead, a vibrant, powerful aquamarine. Her head turns and for a split the second, the two share a gaze.
Have faith Manzio
Nimue, the Lady of the Lake opens her arms and a huge wall of ice divides the cave in two. The knight and his skeletal entourage are blocked behind the thick sheet of ice now spanning the entire width of the cave.
Calais, clearly not yet satisfied adds her own, slightly smaller ice barrier, as a second layer of protection.
Nimue turns to face the four survivors, her voice like a raging torrent. ‘Quickly, get behind us to the far side of the cave. This is a terrible adversary way beyond your powers.’
As though to emphasise the words of the Lady, an explosion of ice takes place from behind the first ice wall.
Continuing to backtrack through the chilly waters, both Richard and Matilda Umfraville offer prayers whilst the power of Templar healing once again surrounds their bodies. Matilda then has just enough time to offer Remus healing, trapped steam rising from his armour and his badly charred skin forming thick, ugly scar tissue, whilst easing his pain.
A rectangle of ice explodes backward from the second wall of protection, providing just enough room for the tall knight to advance, followed by his skeletal warriors. In his right hand, a sword of burning white power, much like the artifact carried by Tuan Mac Cairill.
‘Gawain! How dare she send you here, into this sacred bastion of Avalon.’ demands Nimue.
Manzio gasps. Gawain, of King Arthur’s round table?
Momentarily, Gawain seems to hesitate.
Nimue points a single finger. ‘Freeze.’
An avalanche of ice is pulled from the very heights of the ceiling and from the ice walls, before converging on the knight. Like a sarcophagus, the ice forms a prison for the Death Knight and he is trapped behind a dense concentration of freezing ice, unable to move.
Manzio counts nine skeletal warriors. The Danagrim must have got one! The nine separate, two each attacking Nimue and Calais. One each takes a wider route, the first quickly crossing the distance to Remus and the other attacking Matilda and Richard. Three immediately begin hacking at the ice prison of their leader with greatswords of massive girth and size, smashing chunks of ice from the sarcophagus. Manzio remains aloof, closest to the white light of the doorway.
To the Vesuvian’s surprise, rather than facing the approaching skeleton, Remus bolts for the safety of the white light. However, the Danagrim stumbles and falls heavily into the freezing water of the lake. The skeleton attacks from behind, scoring a massive strike with its tarnished greatsword. Manzio, guessing that only a magical effect could have turned the stalwart Danagrim from the battle, rushes over to offer his support and immediately feels the chill terror of facing the Death Knight’s servant. As the burning eyes of the skeleton turn to face the advancing assassin, Manzio senses another power adding strength and conviction to his wavering courage.
I am with you Manzio. Do not fear.
With a bellow, Manzio throws himself uncharacteristically into face-to-face melee, feeling the energy of Calais fill his veins. With blistering speed, he attacks with his stronger left hand, discharging the power of the key simultaneously, lightning illuminating the cave momentarily and disorientating the skeleton. Pressing home his advantage, Manzio strikes with his right hand, the dagger attempting to smash directly into the face of his adversary. Once again, Manzio has the satisfaction of seeing his blow strike home. Emboldened by his success, he attacks again, left and then right, each time carving great chunks of bone from the dodging skeleton. Despite an unprecedented four successful strikes, Manzio has also overextended himself and is caught by a nasty backhanded blow from the massive weapon, which knocks him off his feet, tearing through his leather armour and biting deep into his flesh. Looking desperately for support, Manzio has a fleeting sight of Remus as he throws himself head first through the blinding white light at the far side of the cave and is gone.
Elsewhere, Matilda and Richard are being driven back by the skeleton attacking them. The creature ducks beneath successive blows before smashing the already seriously wounded Richard. In retaliation, the tall knight risks everything on a suicidal attack and successfully penetrates the defences of his attacker, his longsword flashing with a bright white light and blasting the knight a step back.
The four skeletons attacking the sisters of Avalon cannot get close as the shifting pair spin through the water at dazzling speed. Mesmerised, one is caught by Nimue as the Lady of the Lake calls five enormous stalactites to release from the icy cavern before each of these massive icy weapons smash into the skeleton, knocking him to the ground and then with the final shard, pulverising the head into a mass of broken bone.
Likewise, Calais also calls ice to do her bidding driving a skeleton back toward its brethren still desperately hacking at the tomb of Gawain.
Meanwhile, within the freezing depths of the ice, Gawain’s sword blazed with a sheer white intensity, although for now at least, he remained entombed.
Perhaps sensing that the odds would quickly swing back in favour of the Death Knight if he were to escape, Nimue transformed into a raging whirlpool. Accelerating forward, the whirlpool quickly ensnares one of the knights attempting to smash at the ice who is thrown up into the air before the heavy skeleton frame is smashed against the ceiling. All three surrounding Gawain are driven back or in the case of the skeleton sucked into the whirlpool and destroyed completely.
Calais perhaps inspired by her powerful elder sister, once again summons the huge stalactites and projects four of these deadly shards of ice toward the injured skeleton attacking her. Despite the attempts of the skeleton to avoid the projectiles, each one unerringly finds its target, the final shard driving through metal and bone to pin the creature against the smashed ice wall of Nimue.
At the far side of the cave, Manzio is now warily circling his adversary. He is considering his next strategy when suddenly some small, mischievous elfin creatures appear behind the skeleton. Rising up from the chilly water, Manzio notes that these small Fairies have wings!
Suddenly, they attack! A cloud of stabbing, biting, gnawing teeth and claws completely disorientate the skeleton who swings his great sword in wide, clumsy arcs. On one such attack, he over stretches, the blade smashing deep into the water. The Faeries latch onto the blade en masse and in the blink of an eye, loosen the skeleton’s grip on the weapon, which drops harmlessly into the lake with nothing more than a sinister hiss. Manzio breathes a sigh of relief and uses the respite to summon the healing warmth of his daggers into his burnt and bleeding body.
As Manzio feels news strength enter his exhausted body, Richard Umfraville is struck another near fatal blow, the skeleton warrior connecting with a viscous two handed riposte, which knocks the bulky knight to his knees, blood pouring from multiple wounds. Matilda blocks what in all likelihood would have been a death blow with her shortsword, the metal clang vibrating through the cave and driving her weapon to within inches of her face.
Calais and Manzio, seeing the two Umfravilles struggle simultaneously attempt to defend the pair. Calais extends her hand and powerful icy arms like alabaster rise up from the water, two of the four successfully griping hold of the skeleton. Meanwhile, Manzio charges through the water but stumbles on one of the charred, Danagrim corpses, nearly dropping one of his eleven daggers. Nevertheless, the skeleton is pinned back, giving Matilda the chance to drag her brother to partial safety.
With one skeleton weaponless and another incapacitated, Manzio’s focus returns to Nimue and Calais. Nimue, still at the heart of a powerful whirlpool is just circling in the water for another attack on the two skeletons attempting to reach Gawain when the ice encasing their leader suddenly shatters, shards blasted in all directions. One of the skeletons takes a considerable battering as the full force of the explosion catches the creature in the face.
Stepping out from the ice, his eyes burning with malice is Gawain. He focuses his hatred squarely on Nimue and extends his right arm, the sword pointed directly at the Lady. It blazes with a blinding intensity.
For an instant, Manzio is transported back to Vindolanda and the death of his friend Uther at the hands of Moganna. A terrible, explosive power rips through the cave, much like a ripple in the fabric of reality. Blood trickles from both the assassin’s nose and ears and through his distressed state, he is vaguely aware of Richard’s limp body falling forward, his body immersed in the cold lake before Matilda drags him up again, preventing her brother from drowning.
Barely daring to look, Manzio is horrified to hear a terrible scream of anguish from the Lady of the Lake before her whirlpool is sucked down into the frothing water and is gone.
For a second, there is stunned silence. Calais, clearly sobbing with grief even through her multi layered protections, steps forward blocking Gawain from reaching the others.
‘Run!’ she implores.
Manzio grabs the shoulder of Richard, the badly injured Matilda dragging her brother by his other arm, gritting her teeth against the pain.
The three stumble past the swarm of faeries who still manage to disorientate and largely avoid the attempts by the skeleton to break free.
The skeleton being held by the icy, alabaster white arms emerging from the freezing water of the lake are savagely severed before the creature is finally able to face the three fleeing figures of Manzio, Richard and Matilda but too late as they have already reached the light at the end of the cave.
Manzio, the last to leave turns and has a sickening sight of Gawain smashing through the defences of Calais before the gushing spray implodes, sinking into the lake. Suddenly alone and with the skeleton bearing down on him, Manzio has no choice but to follow the others. He steps into the light, although his heart is dark with hatred.