The Gauntlet ( A Fantasy Novella)

BOOK: The Gauntlet ( A Fantasy Novella)
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The

Gauntlet

 

M.J. Diack

 

Copyright © 2015 Michael Diack

All rights reserved.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or persons or locales, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter One: The Temptress

The overhead sun reflected off Ash’s silver armour and bedazzled the spectators who had come to watch the latest, courageous knight to take on The Gauntlet. There was no higher honour in the kingdom of Harwell than taking on this fearsome challenge, but Ash was well aware of the doom residing within the narrow, menacing valley straight ahead of him. Scores of brave men and women had previously taken on The Gauntlet and Ash knew he’d be walking over their bones soon enough. No one who had entered The Gauntlet had ever returned.

Ash kissed his baby son on the forehead.

“I know you will take good care of him,” said Ash to his mother, Gritt.

Tears welled up in Gritt’s eyes and Ash hugged his mother.

“I will return, I swear it. I will walk out The Gauntlet victorious,” declared Ash.

Ash walked away from his son and his mother and closer towards the entrance of the dark valley, where Bayle, the High Priest, was waiting for him.

“Should you fail or succeed, know that your name will echo in the streets of Harwell for eternity,” said Bayle.

Ash wondered if the old man had said that to previous knights in his position and gave a wry smile back at Bayle.

Bayle continued: “You are a knight of the realm and your name has been selected. This is your duty. Once the evil within the valley is defeated our great city can claim the great treasures beyond the Clouded Mountains and prosper until the end of time. You have the queen’s blessing to proceed.”

“Unbelievable. I’ve spent twenty years in the service of an unfit, selfish queen who can’t even be bothered to come here today and wish me farewell. She knows nothing of sacrifice.”

“Under normal circumstances I’d warn you to hold your tongue, but what use is there in threatening a dead man?”

Ash laughed heartily, “Finally, old man, you’ve said something honest to me. Now, go back to your temple and preach to those who still give a damn.”

A strong, foul-smelling wind blew out of the valley causing some of the spectators to flee back to their city – they were too close for comfort. The High Priest hastily retreated too, having performed his part of the ceremony. Ash unsheathed his sword, a golden-edged blade nearly four feet long and turned to face his mother and son. Ash nodded at his mother and raised his sword. Gritt’s emotions overwhelmed her and she dropped to the ground on her knees, cradling her only grandchild in her arms.

My son isn’t crying, he doesn’t fear being so close to The Gauntlet
, thought Ash.
That’s my boy!

 

Ash paced forward with long, confident strides and soon entered the opening of The Gauntlet. The thin vale was the only accessible point through the Clouded Mountains, which had unassailable, unknown peaks that were permanently shrouded in mist.

The jagged, tight valley was no more than two metres wide along the opening hundred metres. It was humid and claustrophobic with only a fraction of sunlight penetrating down to the floor. There was a strange, unpleasant smell in the air and Ash noticed some of the rocks had a yellowy tinge to them. He knelt down and sniffed the pungent and powdery-yellow rocks, which stank like rotten eggs.

“Ugh, revolting.”

Ash continued and, fortunately for him, the yellow rocks disappeared and with them their terrible smell. After another five minutes Ash stopped at a dead willow tree which drooped sombrely and partially blocked the path in front of him. The trunk of the tree was marked by the names of the various knights before him, crudely etched into it by their knives. Ash got out his knife and contemplated scratching his own name but changed his mind.
I don’t want to deface the only thing in this valley which means me no harm
, he thought.

The peace and quiet was then disturbed by the cascading of small stones down the sides of the valley, whose noise echoed off the walls to a menacingly loud effect. Ash looked up, expecting an assault, but saw nothing amongst the background of grey and charcoal-coloured rocks. Whatever was up there was perfectly obscured by the numerous overhangs, caves and thin whisper of mist which permanently drifted through this rift between the Clouded Mountains. It was as if a giant had ripped the mountains in two. Ash could feel his heart pounding in his chest from the suspenseful atmosphere.

“Relax, damn you,” he told himself.

Ash climbed up the slope and around the willow tree, preferring not to bundle his way through its branches and risk damaging it with his armour. The flatter ground of the opening hundred metres soon changed into an uneven and ankle-twisting floor of scree, rocks and dead tree stumps which stuck up out of the ground like small swords. Green and black slime carpeted the larger boulders, while the foul stench of stagnant water from the numerous rock pools permeated the air. It was stiflingly muggy and Ash soon began to sweat under the weight of his heavy and clunky armour. He thought about removing it but kept it on after reminding himself where he was.

When his fate would come Ash could only guess – around the next bend? In a day? Or would he survive a whole week? There was no knowledge of what lay in The Gauntlet. Only a few knights had ever volunteered to enter, the draw decided the rest. A knight was given enough provisions to last a few days and, judging from the scarcity of food and water he’d seen so far, Ash wondered what he’d do once his rations were gone
. Stop thinking too much, you fool
, thought Ash.

Ash suddenly lost his footing on a loose rock and fell over, cursing himself for letting his mind drift and losing concentration – his mental strength was the one thing he had always prided himself on. Whilst sprawled out on the floor Ash couldn’t help but let out a hearty laugh, as he remembered all those years sparring upon the flat, marble floors of the Queen’s Palace with fellow knights. What use was that training now if a knight couldn’t even hold his balance outside combat? The environment was definitely not to his advantage.

Ash got back on his feet and noticed his hands were bleeding slightly from where he had used them to cushion his fall. The Gauntlet had taken less than an hour to extract his blood. Whatever beasts lurked ahead would certainly smell the faintest scent of his blood, if they hadn’t already caught a whiff of his strong, sweat-ridden body odour.

 

Around the next bend Ash came across a huge pile of rocks and, underneath them, lay the skeletal remains of a fellow knight. Only the lower legs, feet and arms were visible. There was no armour. Ash had no idea who it might have been, nor the gender of the knight. The lack of armour suggested to Ash that this knight was one of the first to enter The Gauntlet, hundreds of years ago and before the blacksmiths of Harwell had honed their skills and crafted ever more glorious and impressive blades and armour. Ash couldn’t help but think of another scenario too: that this was a more recent knight and something, someone, had removed what armour they could salvage. That’s what he would do, if he needed it. This was a life or death environment where only the strongest –and perhaps the most selfish – survived.
Please don’t let me die from a stupid rock falling on my head
.

Ash began to walk away and then stopped. Was that any way to respect the dead? That fallen knight had a name once too, along with the guts to step into The Gauntlet. Ash decided walking away wasn’t the right thing to do, but what other alternatives were there? Take the bones and bury them under more stones? What was the point in that? Ash turned and spoke out loud to the body: “If I survive I’ll come back for you, I promise. You’ll have a proper grave and the respect that is owed to you.”

Ash then swore to himself that he’d take every bone he came across back to Harwell once The Gauntlet was cleared.

After another twenty minutes of clambering across the awkward valley floor, the ‘V’-shaped chasm finally expanded out and became much wider and flatter. Ash could see ahead for at least two kilometres and was surprised by how much vegetation now filled the valley: trees in full bloom, berry bushes and colourful, exotic-looking flowers of all shapes and sizes, of which Ash recognised few species. It was a picturesque environment, a complete paradox to the barren and threatening entrance of The Gauntlet.

“Hello there,” said a sultry voice to Ash’s left.

Ash immediately unsheathed his sword and turned to meet the voice, taking a full defensive stance.

The voice belonged to a young, voluptuous and stunningly attractive woman. She was clothed in a dirty black dress torn below the hip to reveal her slender legs while her exposed bosom left little to the imagination. Locks of wildly dishevelled, golden blonde hair grew down to her shoulders and she had almost hypnotically alluring brown eyes.

“You look tired, handsome. Why don’t you come inside and relax for a little bit before you continue your journey?” she said, biting her lip. “It’s been a while since the last knight entered, I could use the company.”

Ash had been with several women back in Harwell. Looks-wise he knew he wasn’t an ogre but this was too good to be true. She was completely on another level to the women who usually made advances – and he had never paid for sex.

“Who are you? What is your name? And what are you doing here of all places?” he sternly replied, unfazed by the mystery woman’s charm.

“All these questions…why don’t you come inside and I can tell you everything? It’s not safe out here, they like to eat at this time of the day.”

Ash looked around the valley, alerted by the words of the woman.

“I at least like to know the name of a woman before I enter her home.”

The mystery woman smiled. She was taken aback by the knight’s charm and smiled.

“You are a true gentlemen it seems. Alright. My name is Cassandra, I ran away from Harwell when I was a teenager because I killed my abusive father. My mother gave me some of her clothes and told me she’d take the blame. I have no regrets, he was a monster. Ironically it was this valley which was the safest place for me. I am a murderer after all, so what should I be afraid of? This valley is really not so bad, but then I’ve never been beyond this small area. It is safe here, but at night there are distant noises, roars and screeches and other strange things. Lots of knights have passed by over the years. We chat, we sometimes have a little fun, but then they always go on their way…and sadly, they never come back.”

It was a good story and Ash knew of people who often ran away from the city, but the knight didn’t drop his guard. Ash observed the cave in which Cassandra was standing. It was pitch black behind her and while certainly tempted by her beauty, Ash was no moron. It didn’t look like somewhere she had lived her adult life and made a home of. But how could you make a cave cosy?

“Remarkable story. Why don’t you come closer to me? You might have some hideous tail for all I know.”

Cassandra laughed and did a twirl, but didn’t exit the cave. There definitely wasn’t any tail and Ash couldn’t help noticing that the back was even better than the front…

“Come in already! We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but I’d love to catch up on the kingdom’s news. Is the queen as fat as ever?”

“The last knight to enter The Gauntlet was called Finn. That was almost fifty sun cycles ago. Do you remember him?”

“Yes, he had black hair and was a larger man than you. He came in, he stayed for a while and then he went on his way.”

“So you met him? I guess Finn always did like his women. And he never came back?”

“Like I said - they never do, unfortunately. Some stay longer but eventually, each is compelled to go on by their misguided sense of duty and honour as a knight of Harwell. It’s all a little foolish if you ask me. What compels you to leave me so quickly?”

“My son. All he has is my mother to look after him until I return.”

“Aww…how sweet. I just want to hug you.”

Cassandra gazed at him with her magnetic eyes, almost hypnotizing Ash into walking towards her and he couldn’t deny he was tempted. He wanted to find truth in her story; she had described Finn accurately enough. Ash’s heart was racing and he wanted her, there was no doubting that. One last conversation with a fellow human and perhaps something a little more playful. Where was the harm in that?

However, Ash couldn’t trust Cassandra, if that was even her real name. This wasn’t midnight in some bar in Harwell, where both man and woman were fuelled by the intoxications of alcohol and its inhibition-reducing properties – the circumstance of how his son had come about. This was late afternoon, in The Gauntlet, and both parties were sober and of sound mind. Ash strongly suspected many of the knights before him had succumbed to Cassandra’s charm and he questioned if perhaps he was paranoid, stupid even, for denying his natural instincts? There was nothing he’d encountered in The Gauntlet so far that suggested she couldn’t have entered and survived. All you needed was the courage to enter.

“I’m sorry, Cassandra, but I must decline your gracious offer. I can only ask that you wait for me and that upon my return, we can celebrate the cleansing of this accursed valley. Perhaps we may even return to Harwell and start afresh. My accomplishment will surely grant me the right to ask the queen to pardon you for your sins, even if you did the right thing… in my opinion.”

Cassandra stopped smiling. All of a sudden the huge cave behind her was illuminated with the light of a thousand candles. Within it were the naked bodies of a dozen men impaled upon spikes as far back as Ash could see. Ash was stupefied by the grizzly scene and horrified when he noticed that the men were all still alive! Several tubes were inserted into each of the men and out of it their crimson red blood flowed slowly, continuously draining their bodies, yet somehow never killing them. The pipes converged together at the roof of the cave and Ash saw what they were feeding: a hideous, black gelatinous monster with tentacles sprawling in every direction.

BOOK: The Gauntlet ( A Fantasy Novella)
8.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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