The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom (3 page)

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
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2

 

‘Dalroth was ringed by high walls and a distant sea. Some said it lay beyond our world. It had been built during the Shadows, against the armies of the Dragons of Obscurity and Oblivion. It had survived the patient wear and tear of time, but the Dark remained a powerful force there, able to corrupt the bodies and souls and dreams of cursed men.’

Chronicles (The Book of Shadow)

 

A violent storm broke out that night.

An angry sea raged around an island towards which a solitary galleon was making its way. The beleaguered vessel struggled to maintain its course – pitching, plunging and then rising again – its prow sometimes standing straight up before crashing down upon the foaming crests. The rain-filled squalls caused the sails to flap noisily. Black waves exploded against the sides of its hull. The gale swept across it from end to end. Its masts and wooden frame creaked ominously but the ship sailed on, illuminated at intervals by great purple lightning bolts in the sky.

Surrounded by tall cliffs, the island seemed inaccessible. Nonetheless the galleon, bearing the banner of the High Kingdom, made landfall, finding refuge in a cove protected by a ruined tower standing at the end of a reef of jagged rocks. The ship docked at an old stone pier before lowering the gangway. The place was desolate, blasted by howling gusts of wind. Four soldiers disembarked and stood at attention despite the rain that spattered their helmets and inlaid breastplates. A young man joined them. He wore a sword at his side and fine clothing beneath a large cloak whose hood hid his face. Followed by his escort, he approached the cliff with a brisk step and, by means of a stairway carved into the rock face, began to climb towards the fortress at the island’s summit.

Its sinister ramparts prolonging the cliffs beset by thundering waves on all sides, Dalroth stood massive and menacing in the shrieking winds and drenching downpour, seeming to appear out of nowhere each time the lightning ripped a scarlet wound in the night sky.

The governor of Dalroth was sleeping fitfully when soldiers burst into his chamber, pushing past the servant at the door. They were soaked and their helmets and armour gleamed in the light from the lantern held by one of their number. The governor sat up in his bed with a dazed expression.

‘Wh— What’s going on?’ he stammered.

He saw the soldiers step aside to allow entry to a young man whose face was concealed by a hood dripping with rain. Without saying a word, the man handed the governor a scroll sealed in black wax. Through the half-opened curtains, bright flashes of lightning filled the room with a dazzle that froze the scene for a heartbeat.

The governor dithered for a moment.

Then he took the scroll with a trembling hand and unrolled it. The soldier with the lantern brought it close so that he could read what was written.

The order for the prisoner’s release was delivered to the captain of the garrison, who picked six able men and placed himself at their head. The storm continued to vent its fury upon Dalroth and he knew what that meant: if the Dark inflicted nothing more than nightmares and morbid ravings before morning, they would be fortunate. They’d best perform their duty quickly.

In these times, the fortress of Dalroth was a prison so terrible that, out of clemency, judges sometimes allowed condemned men to choose death rather than be sent there. No one had ever returned from it entirely sound of mind. Too much blood had been shed there, too much suffering and despair had been witnessed, too many lives sacrificed. And although the era of the Shadows was long over, the Dark remained a powerful force in the bowels of the fortress where the prisoners were held. Each of them, in their cells, experienced their own special hell. Hounded even in their dreams by macabre visions and abject terrors, afflicted by twisted obsessions, all of them succumbed to madness. At the mercy of the slow corruption of the Dark, even the strongest minds could only resist for a few years.

The captain and his men advanced with a determined step, accompanied by the rattle of weapons and chain mail. To reach the gaol, they had to walk along empty corridors, descend increasingly dark and sinister stairways and pass through a series of gates that were locked behind them. The air was dank, charged with humidity and anguish – it was an effort to breathe.

Leading the way, the captain wore a sombre expression. As for the soldiers, they were already being nagged by a vague sense of dread, which was only one of the first symptoms of the Dark. They were aware of the effect and struggled to retain their self-control, resisting the urge to invent figments in the shadows, to feel a breath down their necks, to imagine a creeping presence at their backs.

Normally, the Dark only represented a danger at the very lowest levels of Dalroth. Elsewhere, it induced a sentiment of oppression and loss which one gradually became accustomed to, just another aspect of the prison’s grim atmosphere. But on these nights when the purple storms raged, the Dark rose like a miasma from the island’s entrails, aggravating fears and angers, reviving old resentments and suspicions, transforming sorrows into hopelessness. It could, in some individuals, provoke brief episodes of dementia. That night, moreover, the captain had not slept. He had been anxiously watching the storm from his window when the sergeant on watch had knocked at his door. He had expected the man to announce a suicide, a bloody brawl between soldiers, or some ominous unrest among the inmates. The arrival of a royal envoy had come as a surprise, but was hardly more reassuring.

The squad finally arrived at the last door separating it from the prisoners’ quarters. At the bottom of a spiral staircase, in a room with bare walls, the noise of the storm was reduced to a distant rumble. The double doors were made of black wood, the panels reinforced with fat square-headed nails. A heavy bar held them firmly shut.

Upon the captain’s order, a gaoler slid the bar aside before pushing open one of the panels. He strained, bracing himself, as if the fortress itself was resisting him. With a whisper of complaint, a breath of air slipped out through the narrow gap. The captain thought he saw a dark shape accompany this movement and immediately dissipate. From the corner of his eye, he watched for a reaction from his men, but they remained in orderly ranks and seemed to have noticed nothing amiss.

Had he imagined it?

The gaoler pushed again and the door opened onto a deep, dark, vaulted hallway.

A shiver ran down the spines of the captain and his men.

3

 

The light drove away the shadows as the door opened with a groan. The dungeon cell was divided in two by a cage. Damp straw was strewn on the grey flagstones. There was a pallet and a blanket lying behind the bars. Otherwise, the room was bare.

The prisoner was sitting on his bedding with his back to the rear wall, wrists on his raised knees, hands dangling and head bowed. He did not move when he heard the key turn in the lock, nor when the light reached him. He was wearing a shirt and a pair of breeches. There were scabs covering his forearms, his ankles and his dirty feet. His hair hung in long filthy locks before his face.

The captain stepped up to the bars.

‘Knight,’ he called.

As the prisoner did not react, the captain called again:

‘Knight. Knight, do you hear me?’

Having failed to elicit any response, the captain turned to the gaoler:

‘Is he still sane?’ he asked. ‘Does he even understand me?’

The gaoler merely grimaced in reply and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Open up,’ the captain ordered, trying to ignore the voices whispering in his ears.

Voices he normally heard only in his sleep …

The gaoler obeyed, unlocked the cage and drew back to allow two soldiers to pass. They seized hold of the prisoner beneath his armpits and lifted him up. The man made no effort to resist. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but his body had withered due to the rigors of prison life. He stank and seemed to lack any strength.

‘Knight?’ the captain tried again.

He still hoped to capture the prisoner’s attention.

Worried, he took hold of the man’s chin between his thumb and index finger, and gently forced him to lift his head. The hair parted to reveal a gaunt face with a blank gaze and drawn features. It was the face of a man who was still young, but who had undergone greater ordeals than any individual should bear. A dark stubble covered his hollowed cheeks and a scar marred his right eyebrow. His lips were dry.

The captain sought in vain for a gleam of recognition in the prisoner’s eyes.

‘Take him,’ he said.

He felt oppressed. Spied upon. Threatened by Dalroth’s shadows. Like his men, he had only one idea in mind: to flee this accursed place.

The prisoner was not so much marched as dragged along. He had difficulty remaining on his feet, stumbled often and struggled to keep up with the pace forced upon him by the soldiers. Several times, the captain asked those holding him upright not to mistreat the man, but like them, the officer was goaded along by a tremendous urge to leave the underground gaol cells.

A mournful groan rose from the depths of the fortress when the gaoler finally shut the black door behind them, as if Dalroth regretted allowing even a single soul to escape. For their part, the captain and his men felt a great relief. Liberated, they breathed easier and found themselves smiling for no good reason, except that they were safe and sound. The captain thanked the gaoler, signalled his men to follow him and climbed the spiral staircase to return to Dalroth’s upper levels.

To the storm.

The storm had not abated. In fact, its fury seemed to have increased. Thunder shook the island like mighty blows of a battering ram. The lightning bolts ripped open dazzling slashes in the black, tormented sky. The rain fell in heavy sheets and the wind howled all around, whistling in the embrasures, rattling the windows, threatening to blow out the torches and rustling the drapes. Loaded with moisture, the air seemed so thick that one needed to keep one’s mouth half open in order not to suffocate.

They had almost reached their destination, but they still had to traverse a vast courtyard. The captain hesitated, but this was the shortest route. He beckoned his men to follow him before venturing outside.

It was the moment the prisoner had been waiting for.

Bent beneath the storm, the two soldiers supporting him thought only of crossing the courtyard as quickly as possible. Not anticipating trouble, they reacted slowly when the prisoner freed himself with a brusque movement of his shoulders. He did not lose a second, delivering an elbow blow to one soldier, then spinning round and striking the other with a knee to the groin. The man doubled over and collapsed to the ground with a moan. His companion was still reeling. With an incredible display of strength and agility, the prisoner lifted him over his shoulder and dumped him on his back. In the same movement, he stole the man’s sword from its scabbard and was about to pin him to the ground when the captain shouted:


NO!

The prisoner froze just when there was a flash of lightning. He turned wild eyes towards the officer.

‘No, knight. Don’t … I beg of you.’

Heedless of the rain slapping at his face, the prisoner stared at the captain, looking puzzled and uncertain, as if his words were somehow both foreign and strangely familiar. Then another flash of lightning tore open the night, splashing purple over the courtyard and the soldiers who stood silently with swords in their fists.

The prisoner bounded away from them.

‘Knight!’ the captain called out.

In vain.

The man was already escaping by a stairway.

The world was a nightmare. A haunted realm, filled with screams.

The prisoner was fleeing.

Blinded by the gale, disoriented by the thunder, he had no idea where he was going. Everything was strange and hostile. Scarlet chasms opened in the sky and threatened to swallow him. The wind carried the moans and laughter of damned souls to his ears. Lightning lashed at his heels.

Barefoot and soaked to the skin in his tattered clothing, he was oblivious to the chill. He could only think of escape, of fleeing at any cost from this maze of grey stone and from the men pursuing him. He did not know why they had come looking for him. He did not know what they wanted from him. But he knew that no one had ever left Dalroth and he preferred to die than return to the hell that lay within his prison cell.

The alarm had been raised. Shouts, orders and calls rang throughout the fortress, mixed with the din of the storm. At the top of an outer staircase, the prisoner halted when he saw three soldiers running towards him. They spotted him in turn and slowed, approaching cautiously.

He observed them.

Hanging back from his two comrades, the third man called out over his shoulder:


OVER HERE
!’

Voices answered him. Some of them came from close by.

The prisoner examined the three armed men. He was still hesitating when, suddenly, the lightning illuminated their faces glistening with rain.

He plunged forward.

He surprised the first soldier with a sword slash to the shoulder, then spun round and gutted the second with an upward thrust of his bloodied blade. The third attacked with a yell. But Lorn easily parried two cuts before planting his sword to the hilt in the belly of his adversary.

Other guards were now arriving.

The prisoner pulled his blade from the body and fled towards the heights of Dalroth. He thought he’d succeeded in eluding his pursuers when, emerging from an alley, he saw a patrol coming towards him. He immediately reversed course, although he risked running into those he had just left behind. Breathless, with soldiers at his heels, the fugitive turned off just as the others came into view.

The net was tightening around him.

Moving along galleries and climbing stairs, the prisoner continued to ascend towards Dalroth’s summit. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched for the distorted shadows of the soldiers projected on the damp walls by each flash of lightning. It was a hunt in which he was the prey and the pack of hounds was growing steadily nearer.

At the end of his strength, he climbed a last flight of steps and reached the ramparts. A gust of wind took him by surprise, almost bowling him over. Here, the wind was deafening and the rain came hurtling down with force. The boiling sky seemed close enough to touch with an upraised arm.

The prisoner instinctively hunched his head between his shoulders and sought a way out. Soldiers were approaching from both directions along the rampart walk. Others were coming up the stairs he had just climbed. Behind him lay empty air, and at the end of a dizzying fall, the rocks dashed by the furious waves of the Sea of Shadows.

The soldiers deployed themselves carefully.

He was trapped. His eyes rolled like those of a hunted beast and anxious panting made his chest heave beneath the soaked shirt. His fists tightened around the sword’s grip.

The circle closed in on him.

When a soldier advanced, the prisoner prepared to charge him. The man immediately retreated and he did likewise, keeping his back against the parapet to avoid being completely surrounded.

He waited.

When the captain finally joined his men, he tried to say something, but the prisoner could not understand his words. He knew that flight was impossible and that he could not overcome these opponents. But he would not let himself be recaptured. He had difficulty ordering his thoughts, as though he was drunk, but a sense of desperation even stronger than fear burned within him. One way or another, tonight he would escape from Dalroth.

At the slightest gesture by the soldiers, he retreated further.

Towards the parapet, thin air, and death below.

‘Lorn!’ a voice shouted. ‘Lorn, I beg you! Don’t do this!’

The royal envoy passed through the row of soldiers. Alone and bareheaded, he advanced with slow deliberate steps. Keeping his gaze fixed upon the prisoner, he stretched out his hand.

‘Lorn, it’s me. It’s me, Alan.’

He was slender, attractive young man with blond hair, who spoke in a calm and even voice.

‘You there, don’t move a muscle,’ he said to the soldiers. ‘If you make him jump, I’ll have all of you executed. Understood?’

The soldiers nodded. Some had noted the royal signet ring he wore on his finger, or even knew his identity. The captain signalled to his men they should obey and the order from Prince Alderan, the High King’s younger son, was relayed through the ranks.

The prince addressed the prisoner again. His eyes did not leave Lorn’s for even an instant. The poor wretch stared at him, his gaze betraying doubt and suspicion.

‘It’s me, Alan. You recognise me, don’t you?’

The prisoner nodded very slowly, without conviction. He still had his back to empty space, his hair whipping in the wind. With each flash of lightning, his outline stood out against a backdrop of tormented sky.

‘I’ve come for you,’ explained Alan, taking another step forward. ‘I’ve come to fetch you. You’ve been declared innocent, Lorn. My father ordered a second trial that absolved you.’

Lorn frowned and seemed to lower his guard slightly.

Memories started to come back to him.

Lorn. Lorn Askarian.

That was his name.

He was slowly emerging from the twisted fog of an endless nightmare. But thinking remained a struggle. The wind and the rain harassed him. The lightning stung his eyes. His head ached and the thunder hammered at his temples.

With the hand that he had not held out, Alan undid the buckle of his belt and let his sword fall to the ground. The soldiers exchanged anxious glances with their captain.

‘You see? I have no weapon. I’m your friend, Lorn. You have nothing to fear. Not any more. I’m your friend and I’ve come to take you away from here. Far away, Lorn, never to return.’

‘A— Alan?’ the prisoner stammered.

‘Yes, Lorn,’ replied Alan with a smile. ‘It’s me. It’s Alan.’

He drew closer and saw a change come over the other man. The fear and doubt disappeared from the prisoner’s eyes, replaced by an immense weariness.

The sword slipped from his hands.

His knees gave way.

Exhausted, Lorn burst into sobs before collapsing into the prince’s arms.

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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