Crick had patrolled these halls and passages ever since he was a young lad, with shoulders barely broad enough to fill out a mail shirt and arms barely strong enough to swing a sword. But you grew up fast and you learned faster or you came away from the training yard every day with more colourful welts and bruises to add to your collection. Glorious blues and reds and purples, royal as the Feathergale House flag.
Now the one flag left flying was a rag and Crick was a distant relative of that fast learner. There were no more lessons to be learned and he walked the halls with a bowed back and no bruises or chainmail. Only his trusty (rusty) sword and a round target shield on his left arm.
Beyond these essentials of soldiering, he was naked.
Naked. More naked than any man had a right to be. No clothes, no skin, no flesh, no muscle or sinew. Only bone, held together by magic. Magic and memories of a life lived. How his empty skull retained those memories, he had no idea. They should have poured from his eye sockets long ago. And yet that was where he sensed his soul resided. His skull was a house of spirits. Much like this ancient fortress.
Gloomy and hollow and cold.
The gusts whistled through the cracks in the walls and crept into his bones day by day. But the cold had been there in the moment he’d died and here it was still, a constant companion even after death. His thoughts shivered and his joints creaked.
Creaks echoed in every hallway as other soldiers, other guards tread the paths of their assigned patrols. The place sounded like a rotting wood commanded into a danse macabre by harsh winds. Nightly performances, forever and ever.
And there, in the chamber at the passage’s end, a sound that didn’t belong.
Something moved without creaking. Something alive.
Crick listened. And searched.
Sight was a miraculous and dreadful thing with eyeless sockets. It came, like all the senses, on the breezes.
Winds swept up the tower stairwells, scattering flocks of dust before them, carrying scents of all they had passed. Columns and carvings, decayed furniture and statuary graced the currents with contours and they blew in through his vacant sockets to eddy around in his skull like echoes in a bone cavern. They whispered shapes – phantoms of smell and sound and shadow and dust – in his mind.
This night, they described three trespassers. Three uninvited guests standing in the Banquet Hall. In scrawls of dark and light, motion and stillness, presence and absence, they sketched weapons in the intruders’ hands.
Crick tightened his skinless knuckles around the grip of his own sword. He lurched along the landing, knees and elbows creaking in concert with the floorboards.
His patrol covered the upper galleries and the broken turret known as the Half-Tower. But the guards below had failed and the rules were simple: in the event of trespass, everyone rallied to the Lord of the House.
Other upper-storey guards converged with Crick at the head of the stairs. They formed a line, spiralling all the way down the tower. Faster, faster, fleet of bony foot. When you were dead, cold persisted, but there was no fear of falling.
At the base of the tower, Crick led the charge over the collapsed door and through the Hall Of Veils where the lace tapestries hung like curtains of cobweb, as ragged as the Feathergale flag. He beat the flat of his blade on his shield and cracked wide his jaw to shriek. A hollow, haunting war cry forged of borrowed air, raked from the cavity where his brain used to reside and driven out by a single raging thought. Death! Death to all trespassers!
They burst into the Banquet Hall and the room answered, air returning to his skull with noise and images of a battle already begun.
“Look to the flanks!” cried a man. A loud shout, rich and grained with life. Foreign, offensive, declaring itself enemy with its flagrant possession of a throat.
The speaker had mass and bulk, muscle encased in steel plate. He moved swiftly, unencumbered by the armour and swinging more steel in two hands. Slicing left to right, high and low, right to left, scything through a field of bone. Up on the banquet table, another figure danced. Her scent was sweeter. She was slender, quick as flame with skin of coal, twice as alive as the knight. She severed skulls from spines with a flashing scimitar and kicked at rib cages and hurled lightning knives deep into dark sockets.
A third human walked alone. He smelled of youth and robes infused with incense. He marched through the melee unopposed. Parting a sea of skeletons, he advanced on the Lord, holding a weapon out before him that was no weapon but also the worst weapon of all. And he spoke in whispers, not unlike the gusts that blew constantly through Feathergale’s desolate halls, but rhythmic and powerful in their quiet. The chants were his shield, the symbol his sword and there was no mistaking a priest of Melchor.
Agents of Light had dared to break into the House.
There were but three. They should have brought an army.
Crick clacked his jaw, raised his sword high and leaped into the fray.
He and a hundred comrades rained their war cries on the invaders and pressed their attack.
Death! Death to trespassers!
And after, in time, a chance to enlist in the household guard.
If they were fortunate.
[To Be Continued…]