The Trials Of Ashbarn ( Book 5)

BOOK: The Trials Of Ashbarn ( Book 5)
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub







The Trials of Ashbarn

Jeff Gunzel

Copyright 2014 Jeff Gunzel


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Chapter 1

The dark figures
stood around the circular room, backs pressed against the cold stone, hoods hung low to hide their faces. Not one looked to the man across from him, and certainly none were willing to expose their face or give a name. Men in brown cloaks with white silk belts all stood facing the floor and standing in complete silence. The drumming of heavy rain against the walls seemed to rattle the structure. The steady thumping was a welcome sound, just enough background noise to help ease the uneasy tension filling the room.

The occasional muffled cough
or a throat clearing sounded like thunder against the quiet calm, causing each man to flinch in a nervous twitch, as if breaking the silence were somehow punishable. Even the torch flame danced silently, dripping the occasional bit of liquid fire, which sizzled out against the cold stone floor.

The nameless
men waited patiently. Even though the tension was nearly enough to drive one mad, the shared task at hand was even more difficult to bear. Each of these men, sent in secret from different corners of the world, would be forced to combine their efforts this night. There was nothing to talk about, no reason to introduce themselves, or brag about why they in particular were chosen to represent their anonymous factions. None of that mattered now, and it was much too late for any of them to back out.

The crack of thunder sounded as the thick door
swung open sharply. The men all turned at once, peering into the poorly lit corridor. A short, thin man with thinning hair emerged from the darkness. His brown cloak and white silk belt matched the others. Cradling an infant in one arm, he looked around thoughtfully, running his fingers down a long, stringy beard. Nodding to himself, he looked down to the child wrapped in a blue wool blanket, sucking three fingers on one hand.

In a scratchy, high-pitched voice
, he said, “Gentlemen, the time is now and we can wait no longer. There will be no glory or recognition for what I ask of you this day. The history books will never speak your efforts, yet here you are anyway.” The ten anonymous men began to mutter and grumble, more to themselves than to each other. “You stand before me now, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for a world that will never remember any of you.” He began bouncing the infant lightly in his arms. The innocent boy looked up, his glistening brown eyes reflecting light from the torch’s flame. “That’s how it is, you know,” he whispered, eyes still on the infant. “For every king and queen who flaunts their lands and riches—spoils of war they’ve stolen without ever setting foot on a battle field,” he shook his head sadly, “there are thousands of young men and women rotting in unmarked graves. Their lives were given without hesitation or regret so their leaders, who will never even remember their names, can add more to their legacy. I’m sorry, little one, I’m afraid you will be forced to learn this lesson sooner than most.” He looked up to the men once more. “So it is to be a hero. No one will remember you, yet the world is doomed without your help.”

A dark figure moved to the small man’
s back. So swift and silent, no one even noticed it enter the room. The assassin was slight of build, and wrapped from head to toe in black clothing, with only green eyes exposed through a slit in the mask. He leaned in and began whispering to the back of the little man’s head.

The little man
stopped bouncing the infant and sighed. He turned pale, all the blood appearing to leave his face. “So they’ve found us already.” Shaking away the fear, he steeled his voice. “We have not even begun, yet have already run out of time. Follow me, quickly.” Holding the child close to his chest, he turned back through the doorway and marched briskly down the torchlit hall.

The my
sterious man in black motioned for the others to follow. Once they funneled through the doorway, he took up the rear, stalking backward with his hands resting on two short swords, each nestled in black leather sheaths. He loosened them with quick tug, breaking the thin wire securing the hilts. A few exposed inches of sharp steel glistened in the torchlight. Eyes darting about, the assassin even looked to be suspicious of the wall, glaring at each brick as he passed.

The small man le
d the group up a stone stairwell. They moved silently; the subdued steps of soft leather shoes on hard stone were no match for the rain driving against the rickety old tower. Water leaked through large cracks in the walls. It ran down the crumbling gray stone, then trickled down the steps. It did little to slow the people as they splashed on up the winding stairwell. With no rail on the side, a single misstep could send them tumbling to the floor below. However, this minor detail was the least of their concerns.

Ignoring the
tickling strands of spiderweb clinging to his face, the small man stopped at the top of the steps. A single caged torch on the gray stone wall dimly lit the hall. He glanced at the dusty old table with a single drawer. There sat a white, three-pronged candle. It looked like it had not been used for some time, judging by the thick black cobwebs attached to its silver base. He turned left, heading straight into the darkness. Still close behind, the others followed the man through an open doorway and into a large chamber.

Spread across
wooden planks and makeshift shelves, thick white and red candles flickered all around the room, casting shadows across the gray carpet. At the front of the chamber stood a tall, black stand supporting a wicker basket. Inside was a small white pillow and folded blanket. He hurried up to the podium and gently placed the infant inside the basket. The dark-eyed boy cooed and gurgled, nestling into the soft pillow. “Come now. We must hurry,” the man said, motioning the others to come closer. The robed figures circled the infant. One at a time they reluctantly pulled back their hoods, eyeing one another suspiciously.

ir ethnic contrasts were nearly shocking, ranging from light-colored skin to dark; large, blue eyes to squinty brown. Some had straight blond hair, while others had thick, dark, heavy curls. These men were as different as water and fire, yet here they were, united together for a single purpose...

“How can you be
sure he is the one?” grunted a dark-skinned man, pointing down to the infant. “What if you are wrong and the child’s body rejects the process?”

“I agree,” said
a tall man with a square jaw and chiseled features. With his long blond hair and wide shoulders, the man looked more like a warrior than a prophet. “Even once this is over, we will all be hunted to the end of our days. Each of us has given up our life for a greater cause. How can we be assured our efforts were not in vain?” Several of the men shook their heads in agreement, while others just lowered their eyes to the floor.

The muffled grunts
of angry voices could now be heard outside, enraged shouts giving away their location. The first man spoke again, “You hear that? It’s likely none of us is going to see the light of day again, and you still haven’t answered this man’s question.” The shouts outside began to grow in intensity. “Answer me, Berkeni!”

The dark-
skinned man gasped and his eyes bulged with fright. He puffed out his chest, his head tilting straight back. With the unmistakable feel of cold steel pressed against his spine, the humbled man found himself staring at the ceiling. He felt the assassin’s other hand wiggle its way underneath his chin.

“Leave him be,” said Berkeni,
turning away while making a dismissive gesture. “He’s only saying what everyone here is thinking.” He glanced back towards the hall with a sad look on his face. The loud cracks of axe blades biting into the door below echoed through the hallway. “Every precious second you can buy us could be the difference between the world we know...and no world at all. Now go.”

The dark-
skinned man blew out a long breath when the sword point eased away from his spine, but when he looked back, no one was there. Like a shadow, the assassin had silently slipped from the room without a trace.

“The moment is now
, gentlemen,” said Berkeni, motioning for them to gather around. “I understand your doubts and fears, but you must trust me now. I wouldn’t have summoned you here unless I was sure. Nor would your factions have sent you unless there could be no doubt.” He glanced down at the little boy. Admiration, fear, and sadness all burned within his eyes. “Our fate lies on the shoulders of this innocent child.” He rolled his eyes upward, towards a large window in the ceiling. Jagged lightning crackled across the sky, illuminating the room for an instant. “Eric is the chosen one; cursed with the fate of the world.”

With faces
carved from stone and fresh resolve in their eyes, the men circled around the child. Heralded mystics from different corners of the world were all united in a single purpose. Together, they raised their hands to the sky. Berkeni moved back towards the wall. He reached down and ripped back the carpet, revealing three loose stones in the floor. He wiggled them free, then retrieved a large book from the hidden chamber.

hurried back and slammed down the thick, leather-backed tome. Thumbing through the worn, yellowed pages, the skilled spellcaster soon found the passage he was seeking. “My
will try and buy us as much time as possible,” he said, voice calm and focused. “Join me, my brothers. A new world begins today.”

* * *

“We know you’re in there,” shouted the large, grizzled man. “Cease this black magic and we may just spare your lives.” Laughter rose up behind him. With more spaces than teeth showing through his grimace, he buried his axe deep into the thick wood again. The hefty man swiped a hand across his bald head, removing the sweat and rainwater. He took a deep breath before bracing his foot against the door, then wiggling the axe free with a crackling sound. Muttering incoherent curses, he leaned heavily on the handle, trying to catch his breath.

“Is the reward higher if we bring th
em in alive?” grumbled the dark-haired man to his left, just before burying his own axe into the door. He raised a bushy black eyebrow. “Otherwise, we could just bring their heads as proof. Right?”

Stop this witchery at all costs
,” said the big man, running a large hand down his face, trying again to remove the moisture stinging his eyes. “Those were his exact words.” He rubbed his hand across his soaked shirt, as if this would somehow help dry it. Heavy rain continued to fall, stinging his exposed head, the winds picking up. “There are evil things going on in there. Dark magic that must be stopped.” He turned back to the group of leathers behind him. Torches flickered in their hands, the flames getting beat down by the driving rain. Clouds of steam formed then dissipated in front of their mouths as they breathed heavily. “Well, don’t just stand there, you fools. Help us break it down!”

arking dogs could be heard off in the distance. Two of the men moved up to the splintered door. “Why don’t we just wait for the others?” said a short man, his blue eyes wide with fear and suspicion. “They’ve obviously caught the trail and will be here shortly.” The sword for hire rubbed his hands nervously, eyes darting from side to side.

Because if we stop them first, we’ll be able to haggle over a larger cut of the purse. What’s the matter, Gren? Afraid of that superstitious lot, are you?” said the big man. Nervous chuckles echoed his jibe.

“Of course not,” Gren shrieked, his
voice cracking. “Give me that.” He snatched the big man’s axe before marching up to the splintered door. Eyeing an already weakened spot, he began chopping away at the damaged area. With just a few more swings, he managed to penetrate the door. He stopped chopping and glanced back with an unsure look. The big man pointed to the splintered hole with his chin. Confidence waning, yet his pride at stake, Gren pressed his ear to the door.

A moment ago, the sounds of splintering wood and angry calls had echoed in all directions.
Now, it had become eerily quiet, save for the sound of heavy rain drumming the stone wall. Hearing nothing, Gren cautiously slid his head up the side of the door and peeked through the newly made hole. “It’s too dark to see,” he mumbled, rolling his head from side to side. “I can’t see if anyone’s—” His head fluttered with a sudden vibration. With a high-pitched shriek that could have shattered crystal, he spun away from the door, a dagger embedded in his eye. He dropped to his knees, blood running freely from the socket. His hands lightly fingered the hilt as if it were hot, unsure whether or not to try and pull it free.

Ignoring their fallen comr
ade as he sat there in shock, the leathers charged the door. With renewed anger, their axes chopped away at the failing wood. Within seconds, the splintered door fell away, leaving them staring into the darkness. Axes clanged to the ground, the hiss of drawn swords filling the air. They had worked so hard to gain entrance, yet now none of them wanted to go first.

Had they rushed in, they might have overpowered the assassin hiding in the dark.
But like in any battle, seconds often meant the difference between life and death. Speeding arrows came zipping from the darkness. Two leathers grabbed at their chests, while a third gripped the black-feathered shaft embedded in his throat. They crumpled to the ground like old blankets.

“Fall back,” yelled the big man
, waving at the others to take cover. A few leathers fired back while hastily retreating—clumsy rushed shots that clacked off the stone border around the dark opening. Some leathers skittered around trees, pressing their backs to the thick trunks. Others dropped to the ground, scrambling along on hands and knees. They quickly made their way behind bushes and large shrubs.

BOOK: The Trials Of Ashbarn ( Book 5)
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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