Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Norse & Viking, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
THE RANSOM KNIGHT
Once banished by his father, Mazael Cravenlock is now a knight in the service of Malden, Lord of Knightcastle. When Lord Malden sends Mazael to ransom a nobleman from a bandit of the hills, he suspects there is more at play than a simple kidnapping.
When dark magic stirs in the hills, Mazael will need all his wits and courage to escape an army of malevolent ghosts...
The Ransom Knight
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover image Carlos Caetano | Dreamstime.com & catiamadio | Dreamstime.com.
Ebook edition published December 2014.
All Rights Reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
Chapter 1: A Lord’s Task
“You’re going to deliver a ransom for me,” said Malden Roland, Lord of Knightcastle and liege lord of Knightreach.
Mazael Cravenlock grunted. “I am?”
He had known that something was happening. Every morning, Lord Malden Roland went for a walk around the walls of Knightcastle, starting with the outer curtain wall, ascending the tiers of the massive castle, and ending at the Arcade of Sorrows, the pillared walkway around the outer edge of the High Court itself. From here Mazael had a splendid view of the lower towers and walls of Knightcastle, the gleaming silver ribbon of the Riversteel, and the walls and houses of Castle Town a few miles away.
The view did not cheer him. Lord Malden only took his knights up here when he was displeased with them…or when he had a task in mind.
“You are,” said Malden. He was a tall man in his early fifties, with iron-gray hair tucked beneath a cap, an aquiline face, and pale blue eyes. He wore a mantle and cloak of the finest materials, his gleaming boots clicking against the polished stone of the floor. A pair of nervous young squires in blue tabards adorned with the silver greathelm sigil of the Rolands trailed after him, ready to answer his commands.
“There are couriers for hire in Castle Town,” said Mazael.
Someone behind him coughed, and Mazael glanced at his own squire. Gerald Roland was now thirteen and in the midst of a growth spurt, which left him looking awkward, though he had the same blue eyes and aquiline features as his father. Yet he attended to his clothes and boots with the same sober devotion which he brought to every aspect of his life. The boy would have made a good priest or monk, but Lord Malden wanted his youngest son to become a good knight, so Gerald had become Mazael’s squire. Mazael was neither pious nor particularly sober, but he was very good at fighting.
Which was why, he suspected, Lord Malden had a task for him.
“I could hire a courier,” said Lord Malden. “I could also visit the cheapest tavern in Castle Town and eat whatever they slop to serve as stew. I shall do neither, because I am the Lord of Knightcastle. Which is also why you are going to deliver the ransom for me.”
Mazael sighed. “Very well. Who has gotten himself captured?”
“Sir Edmund Redmane,” said Malden, “one of my vassals. He has a keep on the eastern edge of Knightreach, not far from the Stormvales.” Mazael had met the middle-aged Sir Edmund once or twice and had a vague recollection of him. “Recently he went on a hunting trip, and ranged far afield into the Stormvales themselves. One of the petty robber knights of the Stormvales, a man calling himself Sir Traeger Highstone, has abducted Sir Edmund and is holding him for ransom at Castle Highstone.”
Mazael snorted. “Someone dared to abduct one of your vassals? You ought to call out your knights, hang Sir Traeger from the highest tower of his castle, and then burn it down around him. That will let the other lords and knights of the realm know that you are not to be trifled with.”
“Alas,” said Malden, “while I appreciate your enthusiasm for mayhem, this requires a more delicate touch. Technically, Sir Edmund was trespassing upon Sir Traeger’s lands. Granted, the nobility of the Stormvales are a collection of brigands who occupy half-ruined castles and pretend to be noblemen, but the point still stands. Attacking Castle Highstone would draw the other knights and lords of the Stormvales as flies are drawn to rotten meat. The Dominiar Order is stirring to the south again, and if the eye of Knightcastle turns towards the Stormvales, then Grand Master Malleus might think to carve off some of my lands for himself. That I will not permit. So while burning Castle Highstone to the ground would please me greatly, a softer hand is required in this matter.”
“Fine,” said Mazael. “If you appreciate my enthusiasm for mayhem, and this matter requires a light touch…then why the devil are you sending me?”
Gerald blinked. No one ever spoke that bluntly to Lord Malden Roland. Yet Malden only threw back his head and laughed.
“I appreciate your knack for plain speech, Sir Mazael,” said Malden. “So I shall repay you with your own coin. I am sending someone else to handle the ransom. An emissary who has the necessary light touch. Your task is to escort this man and the ransom, and then see him and Sir Edmund back to Knightcastle safely. Should anyone attempt to inflict mayhem, shall we say, upon the emissary, you will answer them in kind.”
“I can do that,” said Mazael
“Additionally,” said Malden, “my son is your squire, and he needs to learn the knightly arts of war and battle. He may have a fief and a manor of his own someday, and he needs to study the lordly arts of ruling and negotiation. This is an excellent opportunity.”
Gerald bowed. “I will not fail you, Father.”
“Who is your emissary?” said Mazael.
“Brother Trocend,” said Malden.
“You disapprove, sir knight?” said Malden.
“Brother Trocend Castleson,” said Mazael, “is entirely too fond of the sound of his own voice. And of lecturing. And of obscure historical references…”
“A common failing among scholars,” said Malden. “Yet he is the best man for the task at hand.” Malden gestured at the courtyard far below. “Your horses and Brother Trocend are awaiting you below. I suggest you depart at once.”
Mazael nodded, bowed, and left the Arcade of Sorrows, Gerald trailing after him. The fingers of his left hand tapped against the steel pommel of his longsword. His mind churned through everything that Lord Malden had told him.
It did not add up.
“You…do not like Brother Trocend, sir?” said Gerald once they were out of earshot.
“No,” said Mazael.
“Out with it,” said Mazael. “I’m not your father. You don’t have to guard your speech with me.”
“Is it because he disapproves of your…revels?” said Gerald.
Mazael barked a laugh. “If he did, it wouldn’t matter. I doubt he cares. That man is no more a monk than I am.”
“He is a sworn brother of the Amaterian order,” said Gerald.
“Perhaps,” said Mazael. “He’s also your father’s master of spies. Did you know that?” Gerald shook his head, frowning. “Like every great lord, your father has informants and whisperers to bring him news. Trocend organizes and oversees them. I suspect he also helps troublesome people to disappear from time to time.”
“My father is an honorable man,” said Gerald. “He would never order an assassination.”
“Of course not,” said Mazael. “That’s why he has Trocend to do it for him. But you’re missing the main point.”
“Which is, sir?” said Gerald.
“Think it through,” said Mazael. If he was going to teach the boy to be a knight, he would also have to teach him to navigate the dangerous currents of intrigue that surrounded powerful lords like Malden Roland.
“If Brother Trocend is my father’s spymaster,” said Gerald, “then why is he coming along for a simple ransom?”
“Aye,” said Mazael. “There’s something more afoot here, and I don’t like it. Keep your wits about you. These sort of games can get bloody.” It reminded him of the intrigues his mother Lady Arissa had spun against his father Lord Adalon. Civil war had broken out in the Grim Marches, and it had not ended well for either Arissa or Adalon. Though Mazael found himself looking forward to the fighting. There was something in him that relished the thought of battle, of defeating foes in combat, and he suspected Lord Malden’s latest intrigue would involve bloodshed.
For that matter, bandits infested the Stormvales. They might have fighting even before reaching the gates of Castle Highstone.
Mazael and Gerald gathered their baggage and armor and sent it with the pages, and then descended to the outer courtyard. Their horses waited with two of Lord Malden’s armsmen. Mazael knew them both. Mulger was a veteran of Lord Malden’s service, grizzled and graying with a growing paunch, but the man was a vicious fighter. Tollard was whip-thin and a few years younger than Mazael, but Mazael suspected Tollard had been a poacher before swearing to Lord Malden’s service, and the young armsmen was a keen bowman.
“Sir Mazael!” said Tollard with a bow. “Seems we’re to accompany you to the Stormvales. I suspect we’ll be killing bandits. Can’t take two steps in the Stormvales without running into a damned bloody brigand.”
“Aye,” said Mulger. He did not talk much. Mazael thought it a virtue.
“We shall have to be vigilant,” said a dry voice.
Brother Trocend Castleson stepped out of the stables, his brown robes rustling against the ground. He was a gaunt, ascetic-looking man, with thinning gray hair and a lined, weary face, and his age could have been anywhere from forty to sixty. His brown robes swallowed his lean frame, and a number of pouches hung both from his belt and a leather baldric slung across his chest. He leaned upon a cane in his right hand, but Mazael suspected that was an affectation.
“Brother Trocend,” said Mazael.
“Sir Mazael,” said the monk. “It seems that Lord Malden has entrusted you with my protection during our little mission of mercy.”
“Do you have the ransom?” said Mazael.
Trocend tapped one of the pouches on his belt. “Fifty golden coins.”
“That’s all?” said Mazael.
Trocend offered one of his thin smiles. “It seems Sir Edmund does not warrant a higher ransom, alas. Sir Traeger Highstone, it appears, is a prudent man of business.”
“For a robber knight,” said Mazael.
“Indeed,” said Trocend.
“It is just a simple exchange,” said Mazael. “I wonder why Lord Malden wishes you to accompany us. Surely he has more urgent tasks that require your attention.”
Trocend’s thin smile never wavered. “I serve at his lordship’s pleasure. I go where I am bidden, and he has bidden me to attend this matter. Sir Edmund is a loyal vassal, and Lord Malden looks after his vassals.”
“Of course,” said Mazael.
“I suggest we depart,” said Trocend, heading towards his horse. “We can make ten miles yet before nightfall, and I hope to be within the Stormvales before the week is out.”
“Very well,” said Mazael. He was in command of this little caravan, but everyone knew that Trocend had Lord Malden’s confidence. Mazael disliked the thought of following the withered old monk’s suggestions. Still, Trocend was many things, but he wasn’t an idiot, and his commands would likely have merit. If Trocend proved too vexing…Mazael could simply ride away. He had spent six years wandering the realm before swearing to Lord Malden’s service, and he could just as easily return to the life of a wandering knight, fighting for whoever could pay him.
Yet something within him rebelled at the thought. Mazael had given his oath to Lord Malden, and while he did not think of himself as a virtuous man, he was certainly not an oath breaker. He had promised to train Gerald as a knight, and Mazael had to admit the boy had promise. For that matter, Lord Malden had done nothing to betray Mazael’s loyalty.
Trocend nodded, and Mazael wondered just how much of his thoughts the monk had guessed. “Lead on, Sir Mazael.”
Chapter 2: Phantoms
“High swing,” said Mazael.
Gerald grunted, stepped back, and got his shield up in time to block Mazael’s attack.
Six days had passed since they had departed Knightcastle, and now Mazael and Gerald fought in a valley on the western edge of the Stormvales. Rocky hills rose around the valley, mantled in a thick forest of pine trees. A dirt road wound its way through the valley, following the passage of a bubbling stream. The air smelled clean and crisp and sharp. The tranquility was an illusion, though. Countless battles had been fought over the Stormvales, and while a liege lord claimed to rule over land, in practice the lords and knights of the Stormvales did whatever they wanted, and what they usually wanted to do was to rob travelers and each other.
All the more reason, then, to keep up with Gerald’s sword training.
“Counter!” said Mazael. “Middle thrust!”
Gerald complied, his blade stabbing towards Mazael’s unguarded midsection. Mazael whipped his longsword into a middle block. Steel clanged on steel, and Mazael deflected the strike.
Mulger sat at the campfire, eating his breakfast. Trocend stood some distance away, rolling an odd lump of quartz crystal over his knuckles like a carnival magician doing a coin trick. It was an odd pastime, but at least it was quiet. Tollard had gone off into the woods to scout. He had grown up near the Stormvales, and had a thorough knowledge of its back roads and trails. So far they had avoided any bandits, but Mazael doubted their luck would continue.
“Side swing!” said Mazael, and he struck for Gerald’s hip. The boy stepped to the side, bringing his shield up to deflect Mazael’s blade.
Mulger grunted in approval. “Good, lad, good. Mind your footwork.” Trocend smirked briefly behind his cowl, and then turned his attention back to his crystal.
“High thrust!” said Mazael, and Gerald stepped back. Instead of thrusting high, Mazael reversed his momentum and swung, sweeping his sword down for Gerald’s knees. He expected Gerald to fall for the ruse, but the squire was already in motion, hopping away from the low swing and bringing his own sword around in the correct response. Mazael jerked back, barely avoiding a thrust that would have struck his chest.
Mulger snorted. “You told the lad you were going to do a high thrust.”
“That I did,” said Mazael.
“Footwork,” said Gerald. “He said he was going to do a high thrust, but his footing was all wrong for it.”
“An excellent lesson,” said Trocend in his dry voice. “An enemy often says he will do one thing and yet does another. Words may lie…but the observant man sees the truth beneath the lies.” He looked to the side. Mazael followed his gaze, and Tollard appeared out of the trees, moving with the silence of a ghost.
How the devil had Trocend noticed him?
“Anything?” said Mazael.
“The road’s empty, sir knight,” said Tollard. “No bandits, nothing.”
“We should reach Castle Highgate by noon today,” said Trocend, tucking the crystal away into a pouch. “If all goes well.”
“We will pay Sir Traeger the ransom, get Sir Edmund back, and then return to Knightcastle?” said Gerald.
“That is the plan,” said Trocend. “Everything will go smoothly.”
“Will it?” said Mazael.
Trocend raised a thin gray eyebrow. “Is there any reason it should not?”
“Footwork,” said Mazael. “You’re saying you’re about to deliver a high thrust…but your footing is saying something else.”
Trocend said nothing. A cool, pine-scented breeze blew through the clearing and set the flames of the campfire to dancing.
“Perhaps,” said Trocend, “you are cleverer than I thought.”
“Prepare to break camp,” said Mazael. “If we’re going to run into trouble, let’s get it over with.”
“Very well,” said Trocend, as Mulger and Tollard busied themselves with packing up the baggage. Mazael jerked his head at Gerald, and he went to help. Trocend walked past the campfire and stood next to Mazael, his robe rippling in the breeze.
“What sort of trouble do you expect?” said Mazael. “If I am cleverer than you thought, then the more I know, the cleverer I will be.”
“That,” said Trocend, “is a circular argument.”
“Is it wrong, though?” said Mazael.
Trocend sighed. “No. As for trouble…I am not sure. There is…”
The breeze became a wind, the pine trees rustling. The wind grew colder, almost icy.
“That wind, sir knight,” said Tollard. “Too cold for the season.”
“We’re in the hills,” said Mulger.
“Doesn’t get that cold up here at this time of year,” said Tollard.
“No,” said Trocend. “He’s right. Something is wrong. We…”
“Sir Mazael!” said Gerald.
A wall of gray mist rolled towards them, flowing down through the trees like an ocean of smoke. Mazael had never seen mist act like that before. It was hurling towards them with terrific speed, yet seemed to hang motionless in the air even as it did.
“That is devilry, sir,” said Mulger.
“It is,” said Trocend. “Prepare yourselves.”
Mazael drew his sword, and the others followed suit. The mist slowed and thinned, seeming to condense into individual pillars. The pillars hardened, and suddenly took the forms of ghostly warriors. Mazael saw knights in plate armor, armsmen in chain mail, archers clad in leather armor, spearmen with shields and spiked helmets. All of them were ghostly and immaterial, and Mazael saw the forest through their translucent forms.
“Are they ghosts?” said Tollard, his eyes wide.
“Defend yourselves!” said Trocend.
The ghostly warriors charged, raising their weapons.
Mazael lifted his shield, drew back his sword, and charged. The nearest phantom raised a mace and brought it hammering down. The weapon looked immaterial, but some instinct made Mazael raise his shield. The mace struck his shield with tremendous force, the shock shooting up his arm. He stepped back, his longsword sweeping before him, and felt the blade connect with the ghostly warrior. The translucent knight faded and unraveled into mist.
He spun and saw Tollard and Mulger fighting back to back with the efficient movements of veterans, their swords in hand. Gerald stood behind them, his shield upon his arm and his sword in his right fist. The armsmen were trying to protect him, but there were simply too many of the specters. A ghostly figure in leather lunged at Gerald with a club, and the squire got his shield up to deflect. The club bounced off the sturdy oak, and before the phantom recovered its balance, Gerald stabbed with his sword. The translucent figure dissolved into mist, and Gerald retreated at once into a defensive stance. Mazael felt a peculiar stab of pride. The boy had learned his lessons well.
Yet there were too many of the damned phantoms for Gerald to handle, and Mazael charged into the fray. One of the specters struck at his back with a sword. His chain mail stopped the edge, though the blow would leave a nasty bruise. He used the momentum from the strike to hurl himself forward, and he cut down one of the phantoms menacing Gerald. Tollard and Mulger shifted their stance, and Mazael, Gerald, and the two armsmen formed a ring facing outwards as the phantoms swirled around them.
“What the hell are these things?” said Tollard.
“Ghosts,” said Mulger.
“The hell if I know,” said Mazael, striking down a phantasmal knight. He didn’t think the ghostly warriors were undead creatures. He had never encountered an undead creature, but he had spoken with knights and wizards who had, and from what he understood only powerful magic could put the undead to rest. Their swords of steel had no trouble dispatching the ghostly warriors to mist. What were the creatures? Some sort of magical spell? Warriors who had been cloaked in magic?
A more pressing question came to the forefront of Mazael’s thoughts.
“Where the hell is the monk?” he snapped, parrying a sword strike and bashing his shield across the specter’s face. The phantom knight stumbled, and Mazael split it in two with a quick slash of his sword.
“I don’t know,” said Gerald. “I lost track of him when the ghosts appeared! I…” He fell silent, blocking a strike.
Mazael snarled a furious curse. No doubt Trocend had run off when danger appeared. Those specters would have surrounded and killed him. Which also seemed like a likely fate for Mazael and the others. Dozens of the ghostly forms moved out of the trees, and Mazael and the others could not overcome them all…
Blue light flashed, and Mazael spotted Trocend. The monk walked forward, his right hand extended, a pale blue crystal clutched in his fist. The light from the crystal sheathed him in a pale corona, and the phantoms recoiled from the light. Trocend raised his left hand, and volleys of blue sparks burst from his palm. The sparks ripped through the phantoms, and even the touch of a single spark was enough to unravel a phantom. Within moments the sparks had shattered the phantoms, and then the mist itself vanished.
They stood in silence, staring at the monk.
“How…did you do that?” said Gerald.
“The gods are with him,” said Tollard, his voice awed. “They must have sent their divine power to drive away the ghosts.”
“The gods might be with him,” said Mazael, and Trocend’s pale eyes shifted towards him, “but that wasn’t divine favor. That was a magical spell. You’re a wizard, aren’t you?”
“A wizard?” said Gerald, astonished. “But the lords of Knightreach do not keep court wizards. They…”
“A polite fiction,” said Trocend, tucking the crystal into one of his pouches. “Maintaining order is a difficult task, and the abilities of the Brotherhood of wizards are a vital tool. The Justiciar Order, of course, frowns upon all magic, and the Order is one of your father’s closest allies. So to show respect to the Grand Master of the Justiciars, your father does not keep a court wizard.”
“Instead he has a monk,” said Mazael. “One who also happens to be a wizard.”
“Alas,” said Trocend with his thin smile. “I never claimed to be a monk. I am uncertain how people keep coming to this incorrect conclusion.”
“This is a dishonorable deception,” said Gerald, “to masquerade as a monk…”
“We have more immediate problems,” said Mazael. He sheathed his sword and pointed at Trocend. “You knew we would encounter something like this. That’s why Lord Malden sent you, isn’t it?”
Trocend said nothing.
Mazael snapped his fingers. “Wait. When Tollard came back, you said we would reach Castle Highstone by noon. You’ve been there before, haven’t you?”
“I have,” said Trocend.
“I suggest, master wizard,” said Mazael, “that you tell me what is going on. It’s more than a simple ransom, isn’t it?”
Trocend stared at him for a long moment, and Mazael felt a prickle of alarm. His instincts screamed for him to cut down the old monk before he could cast a spell. Physically, Trocend would be no match for Mazael, but if the wizard brought his magic to bear…
“Very well,” said Trocend. “But you shall keep my secrets, sir knight.” He pointed at Gerald. “You have to learn the truth of me sooner or later, squire.” His pointing finger shifted to Mulger and Tollard. “You men, as well, by risking your lives have earned the right to know the truth. But you shall keep this truth a secret. Breathe a word of it to anyone, even your own wives, and you shall suffer a mysterious and accidental death soon after. Am I understood?”
Both armsmen agreed quickly. No one in their right mind wanted to cross a wizard.
“Now that we have the threats out of the way,” said Mazael, “perhaps you can tell us what is happening.”
“I am not entirely sure, not yet,” said Trocend. “Suffice it to say, Sir Edmund blundered into a situation far more dangerous than a simple abduction. Castle Highstone is…old, quite old. Older than Knightcastle, even.”
“A Roland has ruled in Knightcastle for almost three thousand years,” said Gerald.
“You see that I do not overstate the matter,” said Trocend. “It has changed hands and been destroyed and rebuilt a score of times over the centuries. Sir Traeger Highstone is merely the latest tenant to occupy the castle. It is my belief that Sir Traeger found a relic of magic within the ruins and attempted to use it.”
“And this relic…conjured those spirits?” said Mazael. Trocend nodded.
“What manner of creatures were they, begging your pardon?” said Mulger. “A man needs to know what a creature is to kill it properly.”
“There is wisdom in that,” said Trocend. “They were not human, if that puts your mind to rest.”
“It doesn’t,” said Tollard. “Sir.”
“They were minor entities of the spirit world,” said Trocend. “Dangerous, but only in the way wild dogs are dangerous to the weak and the unprepared. They took the forms of armored men in mimicry of us. Had they been more powerful spirits, weapons of steel would not have harmed them, and we would likely have all been killed.”
“Can Sir Traeger summon these more powerful spirits?” said Mazael.
“I do not know,” said Trocend. “I suggest we press on before he learns how to do so.”
Mazael stared hard at the wizard, who met his gaze without flinching. There was more that Trocend was not telling him, he was sure of it. He was tempted to tell Trocend to go to hell and to return to Knightcastle with Gerald. Yet he could not leave without Sir Edmund, or at least without learning of his fate.
“Let’s go,” said Mazael.