OF THE DEMON
DARKNESS AT THE GATE
he break came when the dragon slayer belched from his inebriated state. One of the most agonizing jobs around a campfire was that of being a sentry. He brushed some imaginary dirt from his scabbard, and emptied his wine skin with a flourish. He belched again and walked a few steps forward, placing his hand on a tree for balance. At any other time this would be an easy kill, but time was not on her side at the moment. She slowly crept forward, within the bushes.
Thankfully the foliage of the branches formed a dense shield in front of her. There were two men. Both were dressed in black, a rather tall one with darker skin who was relying on support from the tree. And the other, a shorter and more diminutive man, was resting on the ground. ‘Dragon Slayers’ she thought. The bright yellow emblem of a dragon, fixed on their chest was unmistakable.
She froze in her place when a twig snapped, and for the moment that snapping twig might as well have been a roaring army. All chaos was released. The slayer by the tree was the first to draw his weapon, the tip of his sword flashing like a firefly in the early evening. His yelling alerted the other one that had been asleep on the ground and had now joined in, his sword swishing through the empty darkness. Katherine ducked low in the underbrush’s, ready to run if she needed to.
Both dragon slayers began ranting and raving, and more than one arrow whistled at every movement of a wind aided leaf. She suppressed a chuckle, but actually found little amusement in it. For although the bushes hid her quite well, she feared one would spot her. Whenever a dragon slayer approached to close, she would toss a stone in the opposite direction behind him, cleverly causing a divergence when it landed. The leader, a tall man, judging from his proud stance and fine clothes yelled “There!” pointing his finger toward the bushes.
All concentration was averted to the movement in the undergrowth, and suddenly a slew of arrows were spent in that direction. By the speed with which it had started, it was over in the same amount of time. The leader was yelling for order, not to expend so much energy and arrows. The smaller dragon slayer obeyed, with an occasional grunt. When silence had been restored, the captain paused with a quizzical look and calking his head to one side, listened closely.
“Do you hear that?” he mumbled.
All, which could be heard normally were the flickering and sparking of the campfire. But the captain’s pointed ears and heightened sense of detection picked up two breathing lungs. Katharine’s position had been lost. This time order had been restored, and unfortunately for Katherine when the dragon slayers glanced up. They both turned, only this time they looked at Katherine’s position. They both turned, only this time they looked in Katherine’s direction. She was already gone, and again their ranting and raving echoed through the empty air.
“Make every shot count,” barked the captain. “Don’t waste your time on foolish shadows,” but little heed was paid to his words. The diminutive dragon slayer swarmed into the bushes with wild abandon, letting loose with arrows time and again, and filling the empty blackness with their erstwhile doom.
Katherine raced from the clearing, weaving a zigzag path, never maintaining a definite position. Soon the yelling and screaming became faint, occasionally interrupted with an uncomfortable feeling, as a stray arrow would whistle by.
When the voices had quieted down to a certain degree, she was able to backtrack, but was ever more cautious. The dragon slayers were quite likely to be on their guard now.
She crept forward slowly, constantly on the alert. She halted quickly when the tall dragon slayer popped into view, and after thanking the heavy underbrush that blocked his view, Katherine turned back the other way. His silhouetted figure stood out in the night, and she found him intimidating to a certain degree. It was really done on purpose, though. Dragon slayers in their studies had found that when potential enemies had seen their figure outlined in the moonlight it gave the foe cause to panic.
Slowly Katherine started to creep away.
“Hey!” A voice came from above.
Shocked she looked up in time, only to see the stout shape of a dragon slayer drop down spread-eagled, the hilt of his sword already whipped out at the ready. There was an explosion of stars, and the night burst into a blast of pain.
Katherine awoke in the darkness sitting in a chair; blood was still oozing out of a ruptured wound in her head. She touched it, and flinched. The slight dampness and sticky proportion of blood reminded her of a trauma she would much like to forget. She gave out a groan and nearly fainted as she shifted to an upright position. She tore off a piece of her jerkin, and carefully wrapped it in tourniquet fashion around her head. Finally the blood flow was halted, and she slumped back against the chair. More than once, she nearly succumbed to the darkness that flitted in and out of her consciousness. The floor was almost level ground, because she could feel tiny pebbles crunching on her boots. There was no torch for light, but some light, (probably a campfire) managed to filter through. Her new found home, now her jail, had all the dampness of a simple hole in the ground. It was typical of dragon slayers. They rarely used any imagination. Torture was torture. It didn’t matter to them if it was in a densely wooded area, or in the open air. The results were always the same.
Katherine moaned and laid back to sleep, and would have kept on sleeping if not for the blinding light and the two dragon slayers, who opened the gate to her jail in the morning. The man in the front was the first to meet her. He grabbed her and roughly pulled her up, tying her hands back in the chair. She let out a groan, afraid of passing out and shuddered at the thought of what they might do to her.
“You spy, talk to us!” the man promised, and to emphasize his point he snapped her head forward, with a punishing uppercut. It crushed her nose, and she tasted the rustiness of her own blood as it slowly slipped in her mouth. The punch tipped her backwards but the chair and the bindings of the rope gripped her firmly, tearing into her flesh with every movement. She could only roll sideways on her face, as sparks of pain shot into her nose like needles.
“I know nothing,” she cried out. “I’m just a simple peasant’s wife.” Sprays of blood jettisoned from her lips whenever she tried to talk, but with an arrogant determination that no amount of torture would make her reveal any secrets she did not know. The two men were immediately at her side roughing her up, none too gently as they raised her chair again. Katherine lifted her bleeding lips, and gave them a beguiling smile. Two sharp blows quickly spilled her over again. She was propped up once more, but this time the punches had made her face a pulp of broken flesh and shattered teeth. Katherine moaned in exasperation, but realized that any agreement from her would be useless. So silently acknowledged in her mind, that further denial would be futile. Another quick blow along the side of her head, with a blunt object made her head spin. Stunned she just hung there like a rag-doll, and when the dragon slayer approached her again his sarcastic smile gave away his intentions. He hooked his gnarly finger into the tunic of her exposed breast, and shook it.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said, “if you ever talk at all.”
With the tone of his voice and the slight jiggle of her breast, terror had never gripped her like the nakedness she now felt. So when the darkness finally enveloped her, her nightmare had only started.
His boots made faint muffled echoing sounds on the wooden floor. He briefly stopped and listened to the low-level snoring of the sleeping figures. As he continued on, he stopped again near the base of the safe and turned the wheel. It gave a satisfying click, and he smiled in the darkness. A closed door and an opened lock were hardly a good disguise. With one stealthy movement, he opened the safe door and snuck his hand in and back out again all at the same time. There were some papers, a scroll and some odds and ends, but it was the pouch that he was after. The pouch gave a jingling noise, as he lifted it up to inspect it, freezing in place awaiting the detection from the sleeping figures. He gently put the things back and slowly gripped the pouch to mask any noise it might make slipping it into his pants pocket. His head quickly darted around as one of the figures grunted and rolled over, bringing another grunt from the even bigger figure. His wife.
He crouched back in the shadow, letting out a sigh of relief and silently giving a small prayer to Sebyr (the patron saint of thieves). When he was sure the bodies were motionless again, he gently closed the safe door and softly crept back out the window. Avoiding the windowsill that jutted out almost to the roof, he manipulated his way around it, sitting comfortably on the wide expanse of the sloping roof.
The fall breeze was warm enough, that most of the windows were kept open at night at this time of year. Now that it was a safer, he could inspect the purse’s contents more thoroughly and judging from its weight the townsman had, he had a good season. If any farmers or towns’ folk had any money, now was the time. They bought their animals in spring; and fattened them up through the summer, selling them in the fall season to make it through the winter months. And if on a cue, it jingled again. But cupping his hands around it, he managed to muffle much of the noise. There was usually a high activity of thieving, during the fall months, and with the stillness of the night many thieves had sharp ears, and the last thing he wanted was another thief getting a cut of the action. Movement out of the corner of his eye made him freeze again. He crouched low, and quickly slipped down and back inside the hollow of the windowsill again. Returning to the scene of the crime was not on his agenda, but if there was another thief on this roof, which was likely, then he didn’t want the moon’s radiance to give away his spot.
From his vantage point, he could see nothing. Whatever it was, was well hidden in the gloom. He stretched out to get a better look, and his foot slipped on the roofing tile. The clattering noise might as well have been a trumpet. The figure poked its head out of the darkness, and the last thing he remembered were two sharpened horns and two black talons still dripping with blood, its huge leathery wings, starting to wing their way toward him. Luck would have it that he lost his footing in his panic, and fell back in through the window landing with a hollow cracking noise on the wooden floor. Stars filled his head, and a moment later he awoke to the sound, of angry screaming voices. His vision cleared up, despite the aftermath of the thousand stars that still danced in his head.
“Wake up,” extracted the figure.
Fingers blinked his eyes, back to their alertness. Two burly guards stood over him, flanked by the two figures. One was still blinking away the throes of interrupted sleep, with a much bigger one, standing by his side.
“So you thought, you might steal from me, eh?” demanded the larger figure.
“What you say? - We go see, and try and make you more comfortable?” said one of the guards, in an ironic friendly sort of way. He was about to tell them about the dark shape, but his hindsight, knew it would make no difference. After all who would believe a thief? The two guards started to pat him down for weapons, but before they got to his pouch, the still sleeping figures’ wife ripped it off his belt with a quick motion.
“What devilment is this?” she screamed, and without warning slammed him hard in the stomach. Fingers doubled over with nauseated pain, and again stars started dancing in his head, as he collapsed to the floor. “You thieving little bastard,” spit the wife. “We worked hard for this money,” and with that she kicked in Fingers’ side. After the pouch had been taken away, the guards continued to search him.
“Aha!” exclaimed, one of the guards and he pulled out a rotting dagger from Fingers’ tunic. “What did you have planned with this measly sticker?” he laughed.
Fingers lamented falsely, he had planted it purposely as a decoy to avoid any further search, and like expected they never searched any more, so he could only grin as they dragged him away.
The jail cells of Hol’ mangar, were notorious for their damp and cold conditions. Very little relief was given to prisoners and even with a lesser degree to a thief. Fingers was alone, and he wondered why the guards in all their vigour had spared him a quick execution. They hadn’t disfigured his face with burning hot irons, chopped off his hands or ripped his flesh open with steel tipped whips. Which was customarily given to thieves before they were executed. An endless barrage of questions though had been followed by an equal amount of punches, artfully administered, so none caused any broken bones and yet despite his constant screaming inflicted a great amount of pain.
Fingers lay crumpled in the corner of his dank jail cell, with bitter spasms of pain washing over his tormented body. Soft thoughts of escape were already filtering in and out of his mind, wiping the sweat from his brow he slowly spread his thumb and fingers apart, followed by a mortified snap as the thumb joint separated. He nearly swooned from the pain and passed out, but slipping his hand through, it came clear of its restraint. Still grimacing, he found solace in the fact he was free. Reaching down he adjusted his thumb and fingers with another sickening snap, as the bones clicked back in place, managing to avoid another swoon of washing darkness that threatened to overwhelm him again. ‘And now this other hand,’ he thought pulling a metal sliver object from the heel of his boot, and inserting it into the keyhole of his shackle. There was a satisfying click and he was free, which just left his feet. A few moments later, and he was standing by the door.
The jail door was much harder to open; many years of misuse had rusted the mechanism and made it a much tougher nut to crack. After what seemed like an eternity Fingers cursed under his breath, “Sebyr’s Priests” he muttered, and the lock gave a faint clicking sound. He grinned with satisfaction, and stealing a quick glance down the corridor, slipped out into the empty hall. He had spent a lot of time in many dungeon keeps, and had memorized the location of most of their secrets. Most castle’s had what was called an under dungeon. Its entrance was oddly enough generally right near the door you came in through. Some had an obvious door. Some had an invisible door, and some were even warded by magic. This one was of the invisible types, but posed no problem. As he silently crept along he halted at the base of the wall, and ran his finger along its surface. He was excited when he felt the thin outline of the secret door and as he dug in, he heard the satisfied ‘snick’ as the door popped open.
In his anticipation he rushed in, and nearly lost his balance on the stone steps leading downwards. It was colder down here, and the dampness only added to his chattering teeth. With a sigh of relief, he finally reached the bottom stairway. The gate leading out to his freedom had a huge padlock hanging down from it. This one was easier to open, since it was as old as the door of the dungeon jail itself. With another gratified click, the doors creaked open into an even danker room. The floor was much smoother here, and he could briefly make out dead torches lining the walls. He stripped one off the wall and pulled a piece of flint from his pocket, something else the guards had missed in their searching. Now he could see, and notice that the walls were also smooth here. Green lichen covered most of it, with odd patches of darkened areas. He guessed it was dried blood, but also realized it could be anything.
As he neared the end of the cave, his breathing became more rapid, with short bursts of air. Over to the right was what looked like a tunnel opening, with a faint glow of light coming through it. He scooted over toward it, skimming his torch along the wall for signs of traps. He had taken about five steps when he heard a definite clicking sound. His first instinct was to duck down. A wishing sound occurred over his head, followed by a burning pain in his ear. He went to look up, but he winced in more pain as his head bumped forward into a wooden object coming out of the ground. He felt for his ear. The lobe and bits of flesh dangled down, in a haphazard way. Protruding from the floor of the dungeon was the device that was the cause of his discomfort in the shape of a long spear, its shaft still quivering in the air.
He smothered his torn ear and temporarily stemmed the blood flow, with a ripped piece of his jerkin. With a sweep of his torch, he could now see a faint outline of a crack on the surface of the floor. He pushed it again and heard the familiar clicking sound, only this time nothing happened. He kept a close vigil on the floor the rest of the way, although he had to spring another trap along the way, it was mostly uneventful.
The tunnel opened up near a tiny village with a dark coloured building looming up behind him, the jail cells of Hol’ mangar. Up ahead near the village hovels, he had kept caches of supplies if the opportunity ever presented itself. He had supplies of food hidden around in many places, never really needing them until now. Quickly searching about the land, he came across one. These caches were buried in periodic places in his travels, for times like this. Age and time had made all of the food go bad, and most of the people in this area were very poor, so he wasn’t surprised when he found most of it was missing. But the clothes regardless of their ragged shape were a welcome comfort to his damp skin despite their smell of dirt, so he found some solace in the dry texture, even though it reeked of the ground.
Late afternoon had turned the soil on the ground, into a baked terrain. Little rivulets of water that undoubtedly flowed into the Aelyvian Sea, escaped the baking sun caused by the shade of the bushy trees along its banks. Tree branches hung down, and kept catching at his hood along the path. About a a dash from the farming area he stopped, and studied the dense bushes.
Country farmers inhabited most of this area, or like he said when he was a child, ‘Tillers of the Soil’. So he was slightly startled, when a slight movement in the shade stopped him. A human figure emerged out in his path, with an angry sneer. He had heard about this type of burglary before, but just sighed because he already knew its outcome.
“You must go by me to continue,” said the figure menacingly. “Although a few copper pieces would make me look the other way,” and the figure continued his menacing grin, revealing a single silver tooth that shone brightly in the sunlight. Fingers made no movement when silver-tooth’s crooked smile, turned angry.
“Did you hear me?” He screamed, taking two steps forward he unsheathed his sword, and charged. Ten years at being a thief, and being in worse situations made Finger’s shift instinctively to the right into a roll. Silver-tooth’s sword lunged at the empty air, but he immediately wheeled around at him again when he felt nothing block his way. With the agility of a cornered cat, he flipped up out of his roll and avoided the lunging sword again. He brought his one hand under the man’s chin and with his other hand, grabbed his arm and jerked it awkwardly behind. The man dropped his sword, and looked down in fear at the hand around his chin.
“Ouch . . . you’re hurting me,” came Silver-tooth’s plea. “Please,” cried the man. ”I… I have a wife and kids.”
Fingers unsheathed his dagger, and a quick slit under his throat, ended his pleas. “Then you shouldn’t be here,” he whispered.
He walked a little further, and a woman out in the noonday sun took one look at him and drifted back into the shadows. It was no crime to be suspicious. He was a stranger after all. Although the guards were far behind him, it had been an exhausting run, and no doubt he looked dishevelled. A series of tiny streams with patches of bracken and dead end paths made him do more running than he would care to think of. He came to an empty clearing, whose plant life had been choked off by the small dying trees. The only thing which remained was ragged vegetation leaving the ground barely dressed. Huge mossy shore boulders flecked the clearing, and were so heavy in places, they made the ground sag. In exhaustion he collapsed, by the side of a tree. The last thing he remembered before entering the sacred realm of sleep, was hoping that the shade he was in didn’t shift.
Fingers eyes flicked open on awakening, and he stretched the knots out of his sinewy arms. Shaking the slumber from his vision, he groaned into a sitting position. Standing up, he slowly negotiated his way along the broken path leading out of the clearing. He slipped once when he ducked under a low-lying branch, and cursed at the faint cracking sound his back made when he hit the ground. Tired and fatigued, he would have remained there for a while if not for two whispers and the rattle of bushes when the two men emerged from some heavy foliage. Instantly he jumped up, and scooted around behind a nearby tree. Luck was as usual on his side. They hadn’t caught his movement.
They were both pale and scrawny looking, but he recalled an old saying of his grandfathers, “Never judge a perfume by its scent”. Both men were clad in black clothes, and the taller man wore a headdress of horns with rheumatic eyes. Black slayers, thought Fingers. Black slayers were only seen when there was evil to be done, so he wondered what brought them to such a wretched part of the land. The other figure was shorter, and had a stoop. He didn’t wear any noticeable headgear, but Fingers saw in his sallow cheeks he had been afflicted by a disease at one point in his life. What fascinated Fingers the most, was their conversation.
“Did you leave her alone?” the tall one asked soberly. “Give her some time alone, and she’ll talk!”
“Do you really think so?” squeaked the smaller man.
Could there be a prisoner nearby?, thought Fingers. Immediately he started gliding from tree to tree, edging ever closer to the black slayers so he could better listen in on their conversation. They kept talking, but they both paid little heed to the landscape, and never once did they see his movements. Occasionally they would glance out at the surrounding trees, but he was quick to find cover, and with stealth he managed to slip in behind the very tree they were under. He was close enough that he could hear their breathing, and their talk was much more intelligible now.
“Do you think she’s had time to think?” cackled the stout man.
“She’s probably barely alive,” retorted the reply.
That was all Fingers’ needed to hear. So like an assassin, he turned and shimmed up the tree, pushing against the tree limb with his leg. He pulled out his dagger and dropped down in their midst.
With one hand he grabbed the hair of the smaller one, and lanced his dagger forward with his other hand. He heard the initial gasp, before the dragon slayer slumped, as Fingers held him up like a shield. The taller one quickly uncased his sword, and lunged forward. Fingers had loosened the grip on his dagger and had easily dodged to the side, but in doing so had dropped it. His own man ran through the small man. The tall black slayer just gaggled out a groaning reply, and flashed a derisive grin. The ghastly sight of his fallen comrade only incited him into a frenzy. As he threw the body aside, the black slayer followed him, snapping off a series of thrusts. Luck would have it that the sword slashes were more wild than accurate. With a feral jump, Fingers lashed out with a spinning kick, followed by the pleasant sound of a crunching nose. The man was momentarily stunned, and Fingers drove another viscous kick into his mid-section. He gasped for air, and he dropped his sword. Now without a weapon, the dragon slayer was on him, grabbing at his throat. He watched his world become darker and darker, as the dragon slayer squeezed harder and harder. Fingers tried feverishly to peal the restricting grip away, while the mounting darkness crept into his eyesight.
As he flailed wildly his loose hand came across his fallen dagger and with a desperate and rabid accuracy, he lunged multiple times at the black slayer, his final stab scoring a deep cut across the man’s face. The black slayer’s blood started pouring freely from his body, and in exhaustion he just went still and collapsed on top of Fingers. After a brief rest he dragged himself from under the prone body into an upright position. Bruised and no worse for wear, he scanned the area for others and let out a sigh of relief when he found none. If there were more about, they were well hidden.
Katherine awoke, with a stark terror ripping at her conscience. The darkness of her jail wrapped around her like a hollow void, broken by the slashes of daylight that wrestled their way through her prison’s gate. Was it now the daytime?, she thought. She saw nothing, and smelled even less in the musty clamminess of the exposed roots surrounding her. Her only sense of awareness was the binding of the ropes, as they dug into her flesh. Muscles like ropy cords bulged from her neck, as she fought the restrictions of her chair. Waves of pain washed over her, and she fainted, only this time it was from exhaustion. Katherine was probably the most beautiful creature in the land. Many deaths had been fought in her honour, but no one had ever been able to tame her wildness. Her blonde coloured hair seemed to highlight every proportion of her body. Her girth was independent of her stride, and every movement she made was like the stealth of a tiger. Through her foggy delirium, she heard the soft tread of boots coming toward her and thinking it was the returning black slayers, welcomed the deliverance of pain when the darkness engulfed her once again.
Fingers gave Katherine a gentle nudge. “Hello” he said, his voice climbing through her darkened conscience. Reaching out, she drew energy from the heartening voice, and the walls of darkness started to melt away. “Hello” he said again, only this time there was a slight urgency in his voice. As her vision became clearer, a wiry figure started forming through the gloom. At first she had thought the men had come back and she wanted to lash out, but the restricting ropes bit into her skin, halting any attack. Fingers brushed the matted hairs hanging in her face away, and began to free her from her confines. He urged again “hello,” getting louder and louder each time. Muttering at his impatience, he stroked his goatee and felt the surrounding unshaven sparseness of a thinly new grown beard. Realizing what he must look like, he tried to look dignified and spoke again.
“Hel . . . ” he started again, only this time there was recognition, and an answer …
Story written by Winlok