The Three Tasks Part 3
Glad to still be alive, after the encounter with Galax and Lady Calanna, the three companions take stock of the situation. Uther has suffered some slashes and cuts along his chest, whilst Manzio has some minor bruises on his left arm. Cullen, however has been more seriously hurt having thrown himself into the thick of the melee. Uther, uses his blessed, goblet of healing before concentrating his prayers inwardly, the familiar golden light surrounding his body for a few seconds before fading.
Cullen, now able to walk normally again thanks to Uther’s healing, begins to round up the four horses vacated by the attackers. With Cullen likely to shape-change, Uther and Manzio take one horse each and lead a second with provisions. Steeling themselves for the final and most important part of their quest, they set off east in search of the Earl in an attempt to end the rebellion.
About a day’s ride from the site of the battle, the two come upon a small village and ask directions. A passing troubadour takes an interest in the pair and buys Manzio a drink, Uther, as ever preferring water. He introduces himself as ‘Munro,’ and is dressed in darkened green and tan clothing, patched together in places and carrying a lute. He is in his mid 30s, with a full head of bouncing red curls. Manzio notes how the barmaids blush whenever Munro looks in their direction.
‘Let me explain gentlemen, I travel Scotia playing at taverns, castles etc for entertainment. I over heard you asking for directions, looking for the Earl himself. Given that at least one of you is a Templar, I’d guess that you two are no friends of Carrick and neither am I! In fact, I barely escaped with my life when I played in his cesspit. The man is without heart and corrupt to the core I’d wager! He can be found about four days further east and is based in a Norman castle, which he stormed and then ransacked about twenty years ago. He is nothing more than common thief,’ proclaims Munro.
‘One more over here. Keep em coming,’ says Munro, smiling mischievously. ‘I like you boy, but you’ve got to guard your tongue. If you continue to ask locals questions concerning the Earl, you could raise suspicions, maybe the Earl has spies in here,’ he says, tapping his nose. ’You need to be subtle like Munro here. You never know, so remember to guard your tongue!’. He then reassuringly winks at Manzio before giving him a friendly punch in the shoulder.
‘Well thank you for all your help, Munro. I believe God will be with us,’ says Uther, evidently in a hurry to leave. Uther and Manzio quickly exit, noting the sour faced bar tender who gives them a suspicious, sullen look. Cullen is waiting for them outside, having already prepared the horses and perhaps anticipating a quick departure.
The four days pass quickly and uneventfully. However, there is clear tension in the group. Cullen rarely spends time with Manzio and Uther, but does bring back the occasional kill for the evening campfire. As for the other two, they speak very little to each other. Each night during the evening meal, Uther sits glaring at Manzio across the campfire. Manzio concentrates on the mission at hand, although privately worries about the massively powerful entity sharing his conscious thoughts, whilst ignoring the gaze of his friend.
It’s dusk on the fourth day since setting out from the tavern when finally the silhouette of the castle comes into view. Already from a distance, the group can tell an incredibly difficult task lies ahead.
The castle itself sits at the heart of a moat and is typical of motte and bailey structures from the Norman period. Inside the moat stands a 12ft high wooden palisade This leads to a final perimeter fence and then another gate, before the bailey: an enclosed courtyard leading to the keep itself.
The group decides that they should keep their distance and wait whilst Manzio performs his now standard reconnaissance mission. Setting off under cover of darkness, the assassin decides to get up close and look over the side of the wooden fence around the outer perimeter. Although difficult to be sure, he sees a total of eight guards, spread strategically around the palisade. Peering inside having scrambled up the outer fence, Manzio sees, an inner village, housing about 30 wooden houses presumably for those men loyal to the Earl, although the dwellings are crammed closely together.
The keep itself is situated on top of a raised motte and inside a second perimeter fence, including a bridge leading up to the motte. By Manzio’s best guess when looking up toward the blazing braziers facing north, south, east and west, this inner defence is guarded by at least four men.
Returning to the campsite, Manzio reports back on all that he has seen. It is quickly obvious that the only viable plan is for Manzio to use his acrobatic abilities to scale the palisades and attempt to attack the Earl within, before fleeing back to the safety of the camp. Uther and Cullen agree to wait beneath the shadows of the inner palisade, to cover his escape.
Deciding to strike that very night, at least partly because of the growing presence of the entity in Manzio’s consciousness, which urges for him not to dally, the group sets out in the early hours of the morning under a dark, starless night. Manzio quickly crosses the moat and embankment before tackling the large outer palisade and carefully descending onto the walkway surrounding the outer defences. Remaining statuesque for a few seconds, the Vesuvian waits and is satisfied that the guards have yet to be alerted. Indeed, in the distance, he hears the soft snoring of a man, clearly asleep on duty.
Estimating the distance, Manzio makes use of his rope, which he ties to a wooden stake close at hand. He then lowers the rope down to Uther. The big knight, despite his best efforts, seems to make a huge amount of noise but does eventually scale the heights. The two then add their weight to the rope as the massive Cullen begins to ascend. The big man struggles and subsequently, both Uther and Manzio are forced to haul him up, one arm over the other. With a massive effort to remain as silent as possible, they do eventually manage to drag Cullen up onto the walkway.
With all three in position, Manzio now attempts the second, much steeper section of the motte. This time the going is more difficult and he has to stop several times, as his muscles begin to cramp. Finally, he steadies himself before then latching onto the inner palisade and dragging himself up the final wooden barrier, eventually flopping down onto the courtyard surrounding the Keep itself. He sits in the shadows, stretching his muscles and trying hard to silence his laboured breathing.
‘Who the hell is that?’ demands a gruff, masculine Scottish voice.
Manzio freezes in position.
‘Get the Earl, wee Alban. Run.’
Manzio hears the sound of running feet as burning torches approach his position. The face of a grizzled veteran is now visible not more than fifteen feet away.
‘Intruder!’ yells the guard.
More running feet can be heard from the walkway and with a growing sense of panic, Manzio fears that he will be quickly surrounded.
A tall woman appears from above emerging from the bretasche. She wears faded emerald robes and has jet-black hair and sharp, emerald eyes to match. Her skin is ashen and her hair swept back and clasped in a jewelled hairnet containing tiny flecks of diamond dust. She carries what appears to be a hair net that is buzzing and vibrating, whilst in the other hand a glinting, razor sharp dagger. The Lady of Carrick.
A few steps behind, a striking figure. Finally, Manzio sets eyes on the quarry he has been hunting for months. The Earl of Carrick is a sinewy, mean looking man with smoky grey eyes and a cruel, sadistic gaze. He has a shaven pate and wears black robes emblazoned with the insignia of a crown. At his belt is strapped a large, two-handed claymore. Also, strapped to his opposite hip is a bizarre item; what appears to be a giant’s finger encased in a metallic cylinder!
Finally, a construct! The metallic creature, perhaps once a Roman standard bearer is huge, with a massive shield held out to protect the Earl. From the helm, a grey horse hair mane and matching suit of armour dating from antiquity and of tarnished plate mail. It carries a vicious looking spear in a metal gauntlet with a belt of ghoulish, shrunken skulls.
The Earl, looking down from the balcony above has a smirk on his face.
‘What is this? An intruder? A thief perhaps? Well lads, we all know what we do to thieves eh?’ some laughing from the men below. Ten in total, Manzio notes. The sound of crossbows being levelled echo from the stone keep.
Suddenly, Manzio has a distinct feeling that time is somehow slowed as the familiar presence of the entity speaks within the recess of his mind.
‘A deal, boy. I lend you ancient powers capable of defeating these feeble opponents and in return you travel north when it is done.’
Considering his predicament, Manzio has little choice and is quick to acquiesce.
‘Good. A wise choice.’
A power surge so explosive that Manzio’s back is suddenly violently arched whilst his body is engorged with blood, flooding through the assassin’s veins. Unlike the attack on Farquar, this time, the consciousness takes over completely, much like a possession and Manzio’s own awareness is driven into a corner of his own mind. He feels a sense of bone numbing cold and then sleep.*********************
Feeling the pain of cuts, bruises and a horrible headache, Manzio is slow to rouse himself. He is laid on the stone floor of a castle. His muscles ache and his clothes are ripped, as though his entire body expanded and then contracted again.
‘Good. You’re awake then.’
Sitting up and ignoring the protests of his back, Manzio sees Uther, the Templar’s face ashen, eyes narrowed in doubt. In the same room, the Lady and Earl of Carrick, both slumped against the wall, chained and in the case of the sorceress, heavily gagged. Cullen is framed within a smashed doorway, a slight grin playing across his bruised face. A nod. Perhaps the most telling gesture yet from the big changeling.
Dead bodies are strewn across the banqueting hall in which the fighting was clearly at its most furious. Smashed, metallic shards like abandoned armour lay scattered over the vast table, which has collapsed on one side.
‘We need to talk,’ states Uther quietly.
‘What happened?’ replies Manzio, though suspecting the answer was unlikely to please the Templar.
‘Put simply, you fought like a man possessed.’ Manzio detected an accusatory tone in the intonation of his friend.
’However, whatever the cause, we need to take these usurpers south. Immediately. First, to the nearest Templar chapter house and then York to the Archbishop for trial.
Manzio is about to respond when he hears the presence once again in his head.
‘You would do well to remember your promise boy. You head North, to Old Ben in the Cairngorms. The wolf will accompany you. Let the Templar deal with the traitors.’
‘Well?’ Uther demands.
‘Uther, you need to trust me but something is happening to me. I have to head North with Cullen. I will explain everything eventually but please let me do this. You head South as you have said. Please trust me,’ implores Manzio.
‘What! Why head north? We’ve done everything we need to do here. What more could you possibly want Manzio?’
An uncomfortable silence ensues.
‘I sense there is much that you are not telling me, Manzio. It is madness to head North into the very heart of Morgana’s territory. But for what we have shared together since leaving York and because our quest is complete, I cannot force you to return.’
Standing, Uther begins shouldering his supplies and unceremoniously hauls the two captives to their feet.
‘But I will say this. Our friendship is not what it was. You speak with a forked tongue and for that, you have lost my trust. I bid you well.’
Manzio watches Uther leave, wondering when he’ll see his friend again, a terrible anxiety and confusion gnawing at the pit of his stomach. He turns around, only to see Cullen offering a piece of parchment. Opening the note and despite his misgivings, Manzio smiles.
‘Where to next?’.