Under the Cover of Darkness
It was Christmas Eve, 1179 when the young acolyte from York Minster arrived at the Knight’s Templar with a message for Manzio and Uther.
‘It is from the Archbishop,’ said Uther, surprise in his voice.
It had been a bitterly cold winter but the heavy snowfalls of the previous week had started to subside leaving a thick, brown slush in the main thoroughfare of York’s streets. It remained freezing cold.
Manzio was now under the patronage of Uther and subsequently, the teenager spent his days in the Knight’s Templar lodge in York, acting much like a squire including some brutally difficult sword training sessions which had left his hands and toes covered in callouses. As Christmas approached, the young Vesuvian had begun to gain confidence in his use of the short sword, impressing the older knight with his speed and dexterity.
Uther & Manzio made their way through the slush and filth left by passing carts before reaching the familiar confines of York Minster, just as the watery sun was setting. The two were shown into the same small, antechamber used when they had joined forces with Lady Sophia de Percy, her bodyguard, the huge Tector and the enigmatic dragonborn, Storm, only a week or so earlier.
A roaring fire kept the room warm and settling into a comfortable chair, padded with plump cushions, Manzio felt a sense of safety the like of which he had not experienced since leaving his homeland. Eventually, they were invited to follow an elderly priest and led into the chambers of the Archbishop. As they entered the two noticed another man, huge and wild looking, sat at the far end of the room. He nodded, a stern, dark look in his eye. The figure was a solemn, serious looking man with jet, black hair and dark brooding eyes to match, wearing thick, shaggy black robes as though made from wolfskin.
The Archbishop, glancing up from a half completed letter, replaced his quill and stood, whilst both Manzio and Uther kneeled in front of his thick mahogany desk.
‘May the Lord’s blessing be with you my son,’ he said, touching first Uther and then Manzio’s shoulder. ‘Stand, both of you and allow me to introduce the three of you.’
The wild looking man had also stood and he towered above all of the men in the room. He carried a staff of blackened wood, highly polished though showing dark red liquid as if stained by blood. The gnarled staff was carved at the hilt in the likeness of a gaping wolf’s jaw. He carried no other obvious weapon, although on his left hand he wore a blackened, unadorned ring. His brow seemed set in a permanent furrow as he stared out from behind thick, black eyebrows.
The Archbishop motioned for all three to sit.
“Uther, Manzio, I thank you for responding to my request at such short notice and especially on Christmas Eve. This powerful looking individual is the infamous Cullen Mckenzie…it is a name that carries great strength north of the border for he is a man of valour in battle. He has travelled north at the bequest of his King, William the Lion, King of Scotia whom I personally saw swear fealty to our own king, Henry II here in York cathedral in the year of our lord, 1175.
There are many in Scotia who foolishly see this as Scotia bending the knee to France and England and a revolt has broken out in the border lands of Galaway. Until now, this revolt has been small and contained but recently the threats have become a lot more serious to the King’s peace.
I would like you to board a sea vessel bound for Lindisfarne in the north. You can then cross into Scotia and travel by foot across into the West and Galloway. The ship is an old Viking longboat but refitted for trade and known as ‘The Hammer,’ named after the massive battering ram attached to the prow. Your Captain for the voyage is a loyal man of the church, Brother Mark Seaboard. Go now and may God’s blessing be with you.’
In the cold of night, Manzio, Uther and Cullen trudged through the light snows, their breath frosting in the cold. The three made their way down to the River Ouse, which in places had already frozen but as they approached the quayside, they could see that a narrow channel was still navigatable. Urged by the crew to hurry, they quickly boarded the old ship, The Hammer.
As they boarded the ship, an old, stooped figure with a lined, weathered face appeared. Uther noted and then saluted the Templar’s sigil on the man’s boiled leather jerkin, a white and red-cross clearly visible. The old mariner had grey stubble and a shaved head. Despite his stooped posture he still commanded physical respect, partly because of the wicked rapier at his waist.
‘My name is Brother Mark Seaboard.’ said the old Templar. ‘The devil has conspired against us to throw such evil weather in our path. I trust the two of you are capable of lending a hand?’
For a week, the three companions made their way slowly toward the East coast heading down the wide tributary, which opened out onto ocean. A crew of individuals imprisoned for petty crimes had been rounded up and promised their freedom at Lindisfarne serving Captain Seaboard with begrudging respect. Several times during the opening week of travel, the crew were forced to earn their board, as they navigated floating ice, bending their backs, rowing through highly treacherous waters, hands blue with cold and for some, close to frostbite. Only the healing power of the two Templars sustained the crew through the first backbreaking week.
The New Year passed quickly. Rum was served on deck and even the criminals were given a respite from the arduous work to toast the start of 1180. Unfortunately, disease was rife on board and as the journey continued, now in the open sea (though the boat kept in sight of land) several men were cast overboard. Uther did what he could but even his powers could not turn the tide for an unlucky few.
Several weeks had passed with the ship making slow progress up the eastern coast and with Lindisfarne only now days away. It was a bitterly cold evening on the boat with the crew entertained during dinner by an acrobatic routine performed by Manzio.
Later in the evening, whilst everyone was asleep, the crew was suddenly awoken by an ear splitting crash! A massive tail swooped out of the icy cold water. Sailors were screaming on the deck, obviously terrified and bewildered. It didn’t take long before the whole body had risen out of the icy water.
‘Protect yourselves!’ commanded Uther. ‘A sea serpent is upon us.’
The crew grabbed whatever they could as the creature circled the stricken vessel. Then, suddenly, it attacked. A huge tail emerged, splitting the aged vessel in half with a mighty blow, separating the crew into two halves. On one half of the boat were three prisoners accompanied by Manzio, Uther, Cullen and Brother Seaboard. The other half of the vessel contained the remaining prisoners, huddled together fearfully noting the motionless bodies floating in the dark waters of those less fortunate in the aftermath of the first attack.
Manzio took out his Blinding Strike, and as the creature rounded and then rose up in the ater for a second attack, blinded it with an accurate throw of the dangerous chemical compound. The giant, horned head screamed in agony, splashing around in the water. The exposed underside was then stabbed by Uther further adding to the creature’s injuries. As Cullen rushed along the deck to attack, something remarkable happened! The big Scotian transformed into a giant wolf, jumped onto the Sea Dragon and raked his giant taloned paws on the back of the creature. Retaliating, it lashed out at Cullen, catching him a massive blow as the wolf was thrown back onto the deck. It lashed it’s tail out at the men one last time, wounding both Manzio and Brother Seaboard before retreating back into the water and out of sight.
With decking now beginning to sink perilously low in the water, all hands gathered bits of splintered wood and the remaining oars to reach land. Those in the other half of the smashed longboat had been less lucky, as their makeshift vessel had been struck during the second attack, debris scattered in all directions and no signs of survivors.
Reaching dry land, those prisoners still remaining wasted no time on bolting for the woods.
“W-what was that?” Manzio gasped, his heart still pounding after the battle.
“That,” said Uther, “Was a baby Sea Dragon. I’ve heard tails of them. We were lucky it was only a child.”
“Only a baby!” Manzio exclaimed with shock.
“Yes.” Replied Uther. “Had it been a full size Sea Dragon, we would have been doomed. Thankfully God was with us.”
Cullen had returned to his normal state, his shoulder wounded, as he lay on the beach, unconscious after being smashed back down onto the deck. Uther gathered his body gently into his hands, which glowed momentarily with golden light, the big man instantly breathing more easily.
Brother Seaboard, gathered the remaining crew loyal to him and the provisions, which had survived the shipwreck and suggested that he would take word back to the Archbishop of all that had befallen them. The following morning after a scant breakfast, the survivors split into two groups with Uther leading his trio north and Captain Seabord heading south.