artwork by Wojtek Fus
Iron – “Rock Bottom”
In the dead of the night, the torches were doused. Calm had settled. With just the pale moon reflecting off of the wet stone walls, Morgan led the brothers Agravain and Gaheris through the slums of Tintagel. The strong stench of urine and ale was nauseating, but they expected no less from the plebs.
Drunken sailors were passed out on almost every corner. For some reason, a black crow kept following the trio as if it was keeping tabs on them. It made sure to perch on every business sign before releasing a piercing caw, stiffening the hairs on the back Gaheris’s neck. He was very much tempted to shoot it down.
Instead of riding their horses, they guided their steeds by the reins, walking them ever so slowly to mind the clacking of the hooves. All three were covered in dark wool hoods.
Morgan, the determined seventeen-year-old enchantress with her obedient horse, Vebby.
Agravain, the emboldened fourteen-year-old armed with two Roman broadswords sheathed under the round shield on his back.
And Gaheris, the annoyed fifteen-year-old archer who wasn’t entirely on board with Morgan’s plan. He felt it lacked sufficient details. Well…either it lacked details or Morgan was deliberately withholding them.
Leaving on a moment’s notice, Gaheris had no choice but to steal back the handcrafted bow he made for King Mark. His quiver was jam-packed with razor sharp arrows. A lightweight short sword was strapped to his waist. And as that gut-wrenching feeling began to churn in his stomach, he chuckled with a hopeless smirk.
“What’s that, Constantine? Oh it’s funny you should ask. I’m only about to sneak out of one of the most impregnable fortresses the world’s ever seen. Why, you ask? That’s funny too. You see, whenever someone promises the liberation of my brother, I’m almost bound by sacred oath to venture forth. Ogres, you say? Errant knights and elfish demons galore? Nah, I’m not scared of all that. It’s my brother, you see. He’d want this. He’d want me to venture forth and–”
“For crying out loud, Gaheris! Do you want get caught or don’t you?” Morgan snapped.
“You don’t get to talk to me like that. Just keep walking before I change my mind. And why such haste? I’d feel a lot better if we had more time to prepare,” Gaheris grumbled.
“It must be tonight. The rest of the lords will be returning home in the morning. It’ll be buzzing with activity so no one will think to look for us. This will give us enough time to make distance before they figure out we’re gone,” Morgan whispered.
“Well it’s a good thing we arrived when we did, isn’t it. Or did your foresee such events and expect it? Wait, am I under a spell right now? Go on. Tell me. I won’t get mad. I promise,” Gaheris sulked.
“Such spite and for what?” Morgan said, rolling her eyes.
“He still blames you for killing Merlin,” Agravain snickered.
Gaheris let out a harsh guttural growl.
Morgan sighed, “Honestly, Gaheris. That was years ago. Won’t you forgive me?”
When he didn’t respond, she glanced over. His frown made her spit with laughter.
Gaheris threw up his hands. “That’s it. I’m out!”
“Wait! Stop!” Morgan whispered as she tackled Gaheris and Agravain into a pile of hay.
Two patrol officers were passing by. It was odd. They heard the muffled noise of but completely overlooked the fact that they were three idle horses left unattended to. It was their duty to return them to the stables on the other side of the castle, but that must have been way too much trouble. The patrol continued on and pretended not to see them.
As soon as the patrol was out of sight, a disgruntled Gaheris emerged from the hay and began pulling straw from his hair. “All I’m saying is Merlin didn’t deserve to die. It was childish.”
“Well. In my defense, I was a child,” Morgan noted.
“No! You knew better!”
“It was just a stupid dog!” Agravain stressed.
“You’re on your own. Good luck!” Gaheris said with the snap of his fingers.
Agravain latched on to Gaheris’s shoulder and quickly realized Gaheris was serious by the way he yanked himself free. Morgan hurried over and stared up at Gaheris with remorse in her eyes. She pouted and released something of a whimper. Gaheris knew it was an act but appreciated that she was at least trying.
“I’m sorry, Gaheris. Truly, I am. Please come with us. We could use your strength, your cunning, your guile.”
“Tell me, why do you care so much? He’s not your brother. He’s barely a nephew.”
Morgan squinted as if she was prepared to slap him. “How can you possibly say that? I love your brother as I love you. We’re family. If you or Aggie were captured I’d make the same fuss. Honestly, I never knew you to be so heartless.”
Gaheris turned to Agravain. “And you’re set on this, are you?”
“It’s been too long, brother. I know you feel the same. It’s time for Gawain to come back.”
Gaheris shook his head with a heavy sigh. Agravain was right. Gaheris indulged in girls and archery to keep his mind off of his abducted brother but there have been countless nights where he imagined Gawain suffering under the harshest conditions. They didn’t know if Gawain was being starved or beaten on a daily basis. And after fighting with the Romans in their war-torn empire, the brothers saw firsthand how badly slaves could be mistreated.
Saying nothing further, Gaheris extended his hand, encouraging the lady to take the lead. They crept through the back allies staying off of the main thoroughfares. They crossed high bridges over gushing waterways and squeezed through arcades under the noses of dutiful watchmen.
Tintagel consisted of five main wards that were known to locals by the symbols of their trade. The Southern Ward was where one could find the clergy, the monastery and chapels. The Eastern Ward was the primary hub of Tintagel’s military, the stables, the barracks, jousting lanes, and training halls.
The Western and Central Wards were the main centers for the many palaces, vast halls, and citadels. It was where the king held court, where residents congregated and socialized. Thus, it was heavily patrolled by the castellany, a strict order of guards who were supposed to take their jobs seriously. The Northern Ward was where one could find commerce. It was a shopping district full of shops, merchants, taverns, and brothels. It was also where the most commoners lived if they were within the castle walls.
The flow of traffic in and out of the city continued from sun up to sun down, at which point the drawbridge of the Northern Gate would close. After that, the only ways in and out were through smaller entrances around the castle. To try and sneak through without permission could earn someone a nasty night in the dungeons.
The trio was approaching a secluded viaduct in the northeast corner of the Northern Ward. It was a bridge that connected the edge of the castle to solid ground, passing over the crashing waves roaring fifty feet below. Here, they came to the Serapine Gate. There weren’t any guards protecting this access point because most guards didn’t know it existed.
The field outside of Serapine Gate was vast with tall grass and reeds reaching up to the knees. They headed east, away from the sea cliffs until they reached a clearing of flat dry land. It was here that they planned on mounting their steeds and galloping on their merry way. But alas, there was one remaining obstacle standing in their way.
Under the pale moonlight, Tristan was waiting for them with his hands resting on the cross hilt of his sword. He was barefoot and barely dressed, wearing only a tattered pair of grey slacks and a tan shirt over those bulging muscles. His eyes were red and groggy, half inebriated and half irritated that Kersey came and woke him up to reveal some disturbing news about his favorite little magician.
Already, Morgan started to whimper with defeat. That is, until the militant brothers came to stand by her side. Everyone knew Tristan was a man of might but the fearless poise of the brothers made Morgan proud. It emboldened her to follow through.
“You know, I expected as much from these two. But you, Gaheris? I thought you at least had some ounce of common sense,” Tristan mumbled.
Gaheris didn’t respond. He and Agravain remained hardened as if they were facing an enemy on the battlefield.
“Alright. Just come along. We’ll settle the horses and speak nothing more of it,” Tristan said as he turned for the castle.
“No,” Morgan told him.
“I’m in no mood. You will obey me,” Tristan said with a glare that could pierce through ice.
“You heard the lady,” Agravain growled.
“This is your last warning. Come!”
“No, Tristan. This is yours,” Morgan said as she stepped forward. “I’m only going to ask you to join us just once. You’re the Lion of Dumnonia. Your name alone will ward off…”
“You’re idiots! The whole lot of you! What do you think is gonna happen? Eh? You think we’ll just frolic off on this grand adventure full of fun and self-discovery? Kack! Not sure what they’ve been teaching you in Avalon but it clearly isn’t intelligence.”
“Watch your tongue!” Agravain snapped.
“Here you have two Lothian princes just ripe for the taking. They’ll show no quarter to you just cause you’re a girl. The forests are teeming with druids ready to sink their claws in and sacrifice you to their pagan gods! And the boys, they’ll cut up into tiny little pieces, sending them bit-by-bit until King Lot has sacrificed his entire kingdom to pay their ransom. You’re leading them straight to the slaughter! Open your eyes!”
“We’re wasting time,” Gaheris whispered,
Agravain drew his swords. “If you’re comparing use to a couple of lambs then you’ve clearly underestimated us, Tristan. I friggin hate that.”
“Okay,” Tristan whispered, mainly to himself as he yanked up his sword. He caught the sword in midair and discarded the sheath with a single jerk.
Agravain lowered himself into a run-stance squat, ready to pounce before Morgan whispered, “Save your strength.”
With two fingers, Morgan snagged one of the glowing vials from the sleeves over her chest. Just as Tristan charged in a full sprint, Morgan dished the vial forward. The glass hit the ground and splashed a purple concoction between his legs. At once, the ground liquefied like wet cement. Tristan sank knee-deep in mud as hundreds of thick sinewy strings spewed up from the puddle and latched onto him like web from a spider. It pulled him down and crawled all over his arms and shoulders.
Gaheris and Agravain stood queasy at the sight of Tristan struggling like a wild beast caught in a net. He thrashed and whipped about, breaking free several times until the webs intensified with thicker veins like octopus tentacles wrapping around his brawny neck. Tristan was finally brought down to his hands and knees but still putting up a fight. It was then that Gaheris and Agravain realized they just avoided a great deal of pain. Tristan was indeed a lion. He roared and snarled with spit flying from every slur.
“Mount your horses. Quickly!” Morgan said as she threw herself across Vebby’s back.
The brothers did as they were told.
“MORGAN! You’ll pay for this. I’ll skin you alive! Mark my words! YOU’RE DEAD!” Tristan yelled.
It was such a racket. The objective of stealth was now rendered pointless. Morgan, Gaheris, and Agravain rode out in full gallop northbound amidst the tents of visiting ambassadors. They didn’t slow down until they disappeared into Chadwyck Forest.
After three minutes of wrangling, the liquefied soil hardened. Tristan was encased in an earthen eggshell but that didn’t stop him from trying to break free. Thirty minutes would pass before Tristan finally punched through solid clay like a behemoth emerging from the depths of hell. He erupted with a thunderous roar. His fearsome eyes, maddened with rage, darted north towards the tree line of the dark forest. With just the tattered clothes on his back, a barefoot Tristan set off in a full sprint to hunt down the greatest game.
Two days later…
Over 200 miles north in the cold dense woodlands of Dal Riata, an emissary of soldiers were traveling on a road where a fog blanketed the beaten path. Green moss and ferns covered almost everything in sight, the rocks, the stumps, even the cave entrances where the bears and badgers kept their distance. Tall skinny trees towered over them with a thick emerald canopy that allowed only the purest of golden rays to penetrate through.
Nearby, there was a small oasis of water. A herd of magnificent deer had stopped for a quick drink. The largest male was an eight point stag of awesome horns almost twice the size of its body. It heard the convoy coming and reared its head to assess for danger.
The leader of this convoy saw the stag’s unnerved gaze and smirked, the kind of smirk in which you never really knew whether she was impressed or just mocking you. Her tan skin glistened in the sun and her braided blonde hair had the color of honey. She had the crystal clear blue eyes of topaz gems, yet they didn’t glimmer or shine.
In the presence of men, she had a habit of keeping her gaze low, only raising her sights if directly spoken to. It looked like she wasn’t paying attention but it was only a ruse. She wanted stupid men to underestimate her. She didn’t care if her enemies doubted her promise or potential. After her father died long ago, the only person she cared about impressing was her mother.
This was the twenty-one year old Princess Isolde, heiress the kingdom of Hibernia and daughter to the infamous Queen Iseult. Instead of a crown or tiara, Princess Isolde wore a silver ring on her right thumb bearing the crest of her family, specifically the clan of the Hertians, the inhabitants of Oherth Castle.
Isolde wasn’t dressed in a dainty white dress, but wore the utilitarian attire befitting a soldier on the battlefield. At present, her brown boots, green pants, and heavy tunic were devoid of any dirt, sweat, or blood. She was hooded, but the prominent long braids draped over her shoulder and made her stand out like a gold medallion in a field of dark soil.
To Isolde’s left was a trusted fifty-year-old knight named Sir Ewangish. He was the queen’s personal secretary and a skilled negotiator. Ewangish had a long beard and was impressive in stature. Although when it came to “imposing” he wasn’t nearly as scary as the ogre riding to the princess’s right side.
The domesticated ogre Gorcus was trotting on a barded black bull that had three sharp horns protruding from its chamfrain. Gorcus’s nine-foot 580lb frame was covered in black chainmail to conceal the freakish pink pigment of his scaly flesh. In his hand was a massive ax capable of pulverizing boulders in a single blow.
Fifteen more soldiers rode in Isolde’s convoy. And riding on a horse directly behind Isolde was the only man not wearing battle armor like the others. All he had for protection were leather boots, dark moldy pants, and a tan tunic, all held together by a thick black belt around his waist. A patch of yellow mustard had been brushed across his chest but he wore it with pride.
Gawain was seventeen. His wrists were cuffed. While everyone else had their pick of impressive swords, pikes, and shields, Gawain was content with only one sword holstered to his waist. It was a foreign blade called a katana, a gift given to him by Duke Gorlois when he was just nine-years-old.
Morgan hadn’t seen him in over four years, and during that time, Gawain grew to become a solid six-footer. He had broad shoulders and a lean athletic build. Similar to Gaheris, Gawain’s hair was long and curly like that of sheep’s wool. And similar to Agravain, Gawain’s jade colored eyes were sharp and defiant like a hawk constantly in search of prey.
At present, Gawain was melancholy to the sight of the forest. It reminded him of Chadwyck where he and Morgan frolicked like cubs in the good old days. The memories were still fresh, so sacred, so special.
It was Gawain’s first time in Britannia since his abduction. Part of him wanted to make a dash for it. However, he knew he was being tested. To betray the Hibernians now would mean certain death. Gorcus would see to that.
“Gawain! Did you hear me? I asked about the abbey on St. Michael’s Mount.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Gawain said, snapping out of his daze.
Isolde smirked. “Don’t get the wrong idea. I put my arse on the line to bring you out here. Try to run and I’ll put three arrows in you myself.”
“Yes, milady. I have no doubt,” Gawain said with a timid smile.
“St. Michael’s Mount?” Isolde reminded.
“Ah. Yes. Well, I’ve only seen it once as a child when I was first brought to Dumnonia. It’s kind of scary looking if you’re on a vessel in the middle of the night, like a black iceberg protruding from the sea. There is an abbey on it, a convent of nuns I think. They say it’s a holy mountain protected by angels, which is why it’s never been conquered by any of the clans. I also heard it served as a sanctuary for women seeking asylum.”
“What kind of women?” Isolde asked.
“The kind with sins only God can forgive.”
Isolde nodded. “Tell me about these lands. I don’t want to spook the men but I could’ve sworn I just saw a gnome dashing about.”
“That wouldn’t be surprising, milady, but gnomes are harmless. They harvest the earth and forge tools for digging. The real threat are the Picts. Growing up, I heard rumors about them rallying around a single banner in Alba. But for nearly a century they’ve done nothing but fight each other. I find it difficult to believe they’re the one tribe in Britannia that’s managed to put aside their differences for the sake of prosperity. Not to mention it’s rumored that the Fortriu hold an unbreakable covenant with the blue sprites.”
“Blue sprites?” Sir Ewangish asked.
“Yes, sir. Mythical fairies said to inhabit these lands. It’s said that they turn bright blue before making themselves completely invisible. They’re known to toy with the weak-minded and sway them to suicide just for their own personal amusement.”
“He lies. How would a bastard know of such things?” Gorcus grumbled in a voice that naturally sounded as if was gargling on rocks.
A smirking Isolde glanced over her shoulder. “He has a point, you know.”
Gawain smiled, “I once knew a girl who was obsessed with all things enchanted.”
“Is it she who whisks you away to your dreamland?” Isolde asked.
Gawain tightened his lips. “The same way Sir Baramere whisked you away when he won the tournament of Ten Rebels?”
“Hahaha!” Isolde laughed. “Well, he was something admirable and quite handsome until Gorcus split open his head. I tell you, there isn’t a single man good enough for me if he can’t get past my pet.”
“Which worries me, my princess. Gorcus gets stronger with each passing day. I fear you’ll be alone forever,” Ewangish joked.
“That’s suits me just fine, Sir Ewangish.” Isolde said before throwing a wink Gorcus’s way. “You won’t let me down. Will you.”
“Any man who stands before my ax will fall,” Gorcus declared, glowering at Gawain.
Gawain shook his head with a submissive smile. So badly he wanted to say, “Yeah. We’ll just see about that. Won’t we.”
Click to continue to Chapter 5: Companions
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