Within Half Shadow of Red – rewrite

The isle was heavy with death.  Blood stained the old cathedral lawns.  Once, years before the College had claimed it, the isle had been a holy place.  Not any more, science had taken all the holiness out of the place and all that remained of the gods were their headless vine covered statues.

Glump couldn’t walk ten yards without coming upon another body.  All the Doctors were dead.  That didn’t bother Glump.  He hated the bastards with their utter faith in Knowledge.  They didn’t know they’d die like this, he thought as he passed another a black smocked body.

It wasn’t just Doctors whose throats had been opened.  Every second body was a Halfborn.  He looked down at one, a naked boy of no more than nineteen.  The poor bastards.  Mute, loveless, enslaved and now dead.  He touched Blackheart’s pommel.  I shouldn’t make a habit of that, he thought, it’s just a sword, it won’t listen to my prayers.

When he reached the library his boots were red.

“Is he ready?” Glump asked his boy. The boy was pale, he had never seen death before.    Glump had been like the boy once. Runt was what Kylean had always called him and a runt is what he had been.  Skinny, sallow cheeked, not an ounce of muscle on him but even all those years ago when he truly was a runt he had killed a knight and saved Kylean’s life. The boy could never have done that. The boy wasn’t just a runt, he was a cowardly runt and no long hours of sword, shield and lance practice could change that. When Glump rode away from the Point of Time with Kylean as his lord and a promise that he would be a knight, he had expected it to be a simple thing, expected to be given a sword and some armour and made to bow and swear some oaths.  But it had been far from simple. Years of toil in the swordmaster’s yard with young men stronger than he could he ever dream of being lay at the end of the dune snaking roads beyond the Point of Time. Years of bruises, cuts and embarrassment, of the other boys calling him Squire Piggy until the day he almost killed Rowan Goulder.  Near knocked that fool’s head off. They hadn’t realised how strong he was getting or how much he was learning from his lord.  Kylean would make him join him in the library each night no matter how battered he was.  Within a year he was reading.  Within two he knew battle strategies, histories of all four realms and he could name all the great families and every Realm Knight there had ever been all the way back through the ones Kylean’s had murdered to the first six who ruled the Arqary from the Domenard of Walvale.  Then there was how Glump spoke. Kylean had never liked that.

“You speak like a pigsty boy, runt,” he had told him, “you need to learn to speak like a knight.”

That wasn’t so hard once he shook off the words his brothers had taught him, the hard words. Soon he was speaking like the rest of the little lordiess. Then came the day when Kylean had taken him to a Doctor of All and the Doctor had given him cup after cup of sleepberry so when Glump woke he wasn’t toothless anymore; two rows of perfect white teeth he was given and that meant even the girls didn’t could no longer laugh at him. He had changed in his years with Kylean but there was one thing Kylean hadn’t had to teach him; courage. Glump had always had that, too much of it sometimes.  Kylean had called him arrogant more than once and maybe that was it, maybe it was all just foolish arrogance but even when the other knightlings were battering him, even when every whore laughed at him, even when Kylean threatened to send him home he never regretted following Kylean down from the Point of Time; he always knew he would be a knight, he had seen it in his dreams after all. He just had to get there.  Follow the road, put up with the saddle sores.  The boy would never get there no matter what his father expected of Glump. The boy was a runt and a coward and would never change, could never change.  He would never make a knight like Squire Glump Branch, not even like Squire Piggy.

The Halfborn was drinking sweetened wine, his hand shaking.  Wine dribbled down the mute’s chin.  Glump studied him. The Doctors never say him, he corrected himself, they say it. The Halfborn was the image of his brothers.  Glump wondered if the Halfborn even remembered who he had been.  When the wine had calmed him, the Halfborn wrote a word on a piece of parchment.  His hand was still unsteady.  The boy didn’t recognise the word but it was the word Glump had expected.  It was why he had come here.  He needed confirmation.

“What’s one of them?” the boy asked. Glump ruffled the boy’s hair.  Kylean had never ruffled his hair but then he’d never given up calling him runt even when Glump stood a foot taller than him and could down three pints of Woldean ale to every one of his lord’s.  On their ride back across the bridge he told the boy not to think of the dead anymore.

“They’re dead, that’s all,” Glump told him, “don’t let them live in your dreams.”

They were in Glump’s dreams that night. He was walking on the Cathedral lawns.  He wore no boots and his bare feet were wet with blood. The dead bodies rose, Doctors and Halfborn both.  Every one of them spoke the word as they closed in on him.

Red Hair and Hazel Eyes

The underknights butchered the prince just the same as Glump’s brothers had butchered his first pig.  With the young prince’s head gone and his body stripped of clothes he might have passed for a pig.

            Glump sat on the crumbled wall of the bakery and watched as the six underknights tossed the prince’s body parts onto the fire.  Again, that was the same as what his brothers had done. It had been a summer night like this one.  The only difference then was that his brother’s ate the pig and forced him to eat it too.  Now the six underknights just let the prince burn.

            “Which one was he?” Glump asked the big underknight. The big underknight had no nose and said his name was Rook, that he had served with the Maladrians in the north but Glump didn’t believe a word of it.  Each of the six had monosyllabic names that stank of a lack of imagination; big Rook, hook-handed Beck, sly eyed Gale, fat Hark, silent Yont and the drunk Long.  And then there was Glump.  Glump, he rolled his name around his mind. It was as flat as theirs and uglier too.  It was a bad name but then at least it was his.

            Rook shrugged and spat into the fire.  The prince had been fat for his age and Glump could hear all the layers of high born fat sizzling.

            “Makes no difference,” Rook said, “maybe he was Garren and maybe he was Surren.  Could have been Andren for all I care.  Another little shit dead, that’s all that matters.”

            “But you’re sure he was a Runehawk?” Glump asked and Rook shrugged.

            “Fucked if I know,” said the underknight, spitting again into the fire, “that’s what we was told.  When they gave us him he didn’t have no tongue but he looked princely enough to me. Fat little shit he were just like all little princes.”

            The fire burned down and the underknights drank some more ale.  Beck and Yont started to fight with the prince’s leg bones. They were only playing at fighting but Glump knew well enough that men like those would go from playing at fighting to slitting each other’s throats in the blink of an eye. He didn’t mean to be around when the blood was spilling.

            He rode Gunner away from Wednesdale.  Or what was left of Wednesdale.  The place had been a fine market town with two inns, three bakeries and a little castle up on the hill before Cryspin’s army came.  There were two bridges over the river, a good mill and a solid wall.  None of that remained.   All that was left in Wednesdale were the bones of a fat prince.

            The roads south to Walvale were deserted.  He saw a dead girl by the roadside just past Gormleyguard and a dead dog hanging from a tree somewhere between Ridley and Waltherall.  Even the bridge was empty of travellers.  It was only when he reached Walvale’s northern walls that he saw life.  The guards knew him and when they opened the gates for him he entered a different world. The streets buzzed with activity.  It was morning and the traders had set stalls all along the Black Road right up to the Black Arsenal.  Glump could smell spiced sausages grilling, flatbreads and beans, baked morning cakes, rose infused milk, peppered eggs and lastnight soup but none of those smells woke any huger in him. He was never hungry these days.  Most days he would forget to eat and when he remembered the most he could manage was usually a bit of hard cheese before he started on the ale.            

            He dismounted when he reached the Citadel and led Gunner past its white washed walls, following its curve until the cobbled street took him up past the windowless College and onto the Faden Rise.  He passed more underknights and a fair few Road Earls too with their copper breastplates and longbows. The silly bastards, thought Glump, how could they stand being called that; Road Earls, they were arrows for hire and not one of them would ever live long enough to buy a yard of land let alone have anyone bow before them, say thanks very much for all your road walking.  Most of the Road Earls were young men. He saw one who couldn’t have been older than fourteen, his breastplate too big and hanging slack.  Was I ever so young, Glump thought?  If he had been he had blocked the memory out. The only memory he kept from those days was what his brothers did to Trotter.  He loved that pig.

            At the top of the Faden Rise was the old Domenard.  Glump had read a book once, one Kylean had forced him to finish, that said the Domenard was older than any other building in the city.  It was where the first Realm Knights sat in their impartial governance of the whole of the Arqary.  No one Lord, no one Power.  Those had been the words that Walvale was founded on and for centuries they could be seen above the great arched entrance to the Domenard.  Not anymore, Cryspin had long since had them chipped away and replaced with his blood red phoenix.

            He lifted the leather bag from his fleetsteed’s saddle and ordered one of Cryspin’s men to take care of Gunner.  He made his way through familiar corridors denied of light, every window covered, until he came to Cryspin’s throne room.  The king shunned even candlelight.  That was only to be expected from someone with such a ruined face.  Light would only draw attention to the scars.  Cryspin maintained it was so any who might come to kill him wouldn’t be able to see the hidden guards skulking in alcoves and niches but Glump never bought that story. He had told the king so once. You’re talking shit, he’d told the king and every man in the room thought Glump would finally lose his head then.  Glump was never worried. Cryspin wouldn’t have dared.

            “Do you have it?” asked the king when Glump knelt before the throne.

            Glump didn’t look up at Cryspin’s face, he knew how much the king hated that and besides it would more than likely be covered.

            Glump opened the leather bag and emptied its contents onto the stone floor.  He couldn’t see the blood but he could feel it. The bag was soaking with blood and as the head rolled out onto the floor the young prince’s royal blood covered his hands too.   Glump didn’t mind that too much, he’d long since gotten used to having blood on his hands.

            “Is it one of them?” asked Glump. He still didn’t look up at Cryspin but he heard the king rising awkwardly from the throne. Somewhere in the shadows of the throne room a guard breathed.   How many are in here, thought Glump, how many knives does Cryspin hide in the shadows?

            Glump could feel the king studying the head.  He didn’t come down from the dais though.  He wouldn’t look that closely at death.  Glump looked at the head.  The boy had long red hair, the curliest hair Glump had ever seen.  That didn’t seem right somehow, the Runehawks were men of the east and men of the east were known for their black hair. It was the Lacks who bred them red, that was the saying anyway.         

            “It’s Garren,” said the king at last, “he was the youngest of them.”

            Prince Garren Runehawk’s lifeless hazel eyes looked up at Glump. It was almost like those eyes were begging Glump to help him, the mouth parted slightly in mute appeal.  It’s too late, Glump wanted to tell the dead boy, it’s much too late.

            “Is that the last of them?” Glump asked. “Are we done?”

            The king didn’t answer.  Glump heard Cryspin collapsing into his throne and then there was silence for a long time.

            “You best go,” said a voice from the shadows, “when he sleeps he don’t wake for days sometimes.”

            Glump left Cryspin to his sleep.  Soon enough, he thought as he rode Gunner back down to the Black Arsenal, the king would sleep and not wake and then the real trouble would begin.  As he neared the Black Arsenal he slowed Gunner to a trot.  He looked out over the city and beyond its walls to the bridge and the inland sea. Beyond those calm waters he could ride Gunner to the coast and find a ship. He had money enough. He could sail it to where they all said the Mist came from. If the Mist was there then he would sail into the Mist. If not he would find somewhere and he would rest.

            He didn’t ride on.  Instead he rode Gunner into the covered streets of the Black Arsenal.  He slept well that night and when he woke in the morning there was a Doctor waiting to speak with him. 

            “The King asks this one thing of you,” said the Doctor as he handed Glump the parchment. 

            Glump read the name and sighed.

            “I thought Garren was the last,” he said but he knew the Doctor had no idea who Garren was.  He was a boy, Glump wanted to say, a boy with red hair and hazel eyes.  Instead he said nothing.

A Summer Festival – a fantasy story with Glump

The trees were barren of leaves and the rain hadn’t let up for weeks.  The brightly coloured pavilions sagged with little lakes of water.  Some had even collapsed under the weight of water and that meant there were less pavilions for those who had travelled to Roseford to find shelter in.  That meant Glump had spent the last six nights sleeping with his back against a gravestone with only his cloak for a blanket.  Most nights he would stay awake until sleep would no longer wait and he would look through the constant rain at Roseford’s castle.  His Lord, Kylean Wroot was in there, nice and warm with a fat woman for a blanket.

            The fat woman was called Lady Rosechild and Glump had killed her husband on his first day in Roseford.  That day should have been the first day of the Flower Festival, that was why the pavilions had been raised, but the flowers were all dead now, trampled beneath the boots of Kylean’s army.

            “You have no authority here,” Lord Rosechild had screamed at Kylean. His guards had made to come at them then but they were dead before they’d taken a step; crossbow bolts deep in their throats.  Rosechild died next. 

            “We bow to the Runehawks here,” Rosechild had said.

            What a fucking fool, Glump had thought. He didn’t wait for Kylean to give him the order.  He simply drew his blade and sent Rosechild’s head flying into a bed of red roses.  There had been roses everywhere in the village but now that one bed was perhaps the only bed of flowers left in all the Realms. 

            Lady Rosechild chose to live like only a clever woman could; on her back.  Kylean hadn’t been the same since Todwyn’s death.  The old Kylean would never have bedded such a sow as Lady Rosechild but this Kylean, the Kylean that had marched out of Boterial and ravaged all the lands from the Walverian Sea to the Slaywaters, was a shadow of that man.

Shadows, Glump had been dreaming about shadows again lately.  When he told Kylean about his dreams the Realm Knight would not look at him.

“I’m not scared of what’s coming,” was all Kylean said.

“You should be,” Glump told him but Kylean only rode ahead, away from Glump’s words, away from his dreams.

 

Glump closed his eyes, the gravestone hard against his back and the rain falling heavier and heavier.  Sleep wasn’t ready to help him yet.  He would suffer waking a little longer tonight.  When he opened his eyes he could see a candle flickering within a window of the castle and wondered if that was where his Lord was giving it to Lady Rosechild. 

“She won’t satisfy you, Lordy,” Glump said to the rain.

“Who will satisfy him?” whispered a voice.

Glump didn’t reach for his sword or leap to see who whispered at him in the night.  He knew the voice. It was the Warlock.

“You know who,” Glump answered.

The Warlock was standing behind the gravestone. He could feel his presence but he knew better than to turn towards him. Turn and the Warlock would vanish into the night. It had happened before.

“Aye,” said the Warlock, “but she is dead and only the Mist can bring them together.”

The Warlocks words sounded like they were part of the rain. Maybe his words were only that; rain falling on gravestones. Maybe the Warlock wasn’t truly there. Glump had often thought that.  Once, the Warlock came to him in his dreams and this now seemed as real or unreal as that.

“Is that why you’re here?” asked Glump.  “Is the Mist coming?”

“Aye,” answered the rain or the Warlock, “it will be here by morning.  Go to him, he is sleeping now.  Carry him to his horse and leave this place.”

“What about the men?” asked Glump though he already knew the Warlock’s answer.

 “The Mist must feed.  Let it feed.”

Glump listened to the rain falling on the gravestones and wondered if the men and women buried beneath those stones had ever seen their futures.  He hoped they hadn’t. It was a terrible thing to see your future. 

“Where shall we go?” asked Glump but no answer came.  Only the rain.

He saddled the fleetsteeds and found a good cheese and some cured ham in the castle’s kitchens. He took two jugs of wine and filled his sack with goat’s milk.

Kylean didn’t wake when Glump dragged him from Lady Rosechild’s bed.  Nor did the sow. Both of them stank of wine and sex. It took Glump some effort to get Kylean onto his fleetsteed but Gunner was a patient horse as used to Glump’s voice now as he ever was to Kylean’s.  Eventually they were riding out of Roseford as their men slept beneath pavilions and under trees.  In the morning Kylean slept on.  The road took them into the hills to the west of Roseford as the sun came up and the rain finally stopped.  Glump looked back.  A green mist was creeping towards the village. It moved as Glump watched, stole through the woods and across a field of dead wildflowers. It stalked the village like a hungry beast.