A short story by AD Bane
Drunken revelry had scorned the last, taught the sons of men to cower; and into their holes they ran, away from the smoke and ashes of a desolate life left behind. They’d built a mighty fortress, the pride of their fathers; but the keep had fallen. Deep into the cellars the men of that stronghold withdrew in fear to drink the dark. Where once they’d stood high on the ramparts to keep the walls against their enemies now, only the gentle covering of snow lay mixed with the ashes that filled the air. So long, so broken. The gate to the land lay smashed, the crops all burnt, homes destroyed, naught left to live for but the misery of their ruin. And so, within the very pits of their own dungeon, the lord, his knights, and all that remained of his warriors were hiding away with their mead and ale to drink the sorrow of their failure. Gear of war abandoned, helm cast off, sword and spear dull and worthless: and even when their cellars ran dry and their stomachs were empty they still did not venture forth to face their own fear.
They hid there until one day when at the gate the porter heard a lonely call. Across the barren waste and snow a rider rode with even haste. His stirrup was unguilded, his sword unadorned, his helm uncrested, and no cloak was upon his should to befit a knight of renown. He bore no standard nor mark of loyalty, yet he rode with spirit and desire and purpose. And so he came to the portcullis of the hold, and upon the threshold he cried, “For the lord of these lands: what treachery has befallen you that hast cast you into the pit of despair? Where once were honor and glory and feasting now there is but weeping. I say, what demon hast spawned?”
“These lands are plagued!” replied the porter. “Turn your way toward the south, or you too shall be slain into despair!”
But the rider would not be turned away, not for the fires of the Earth herself or the waking of the realms of Hades, or the crawling of the very serpent Himself from the foulest pits.
“What demon?” he demanded to know again.
“A foul fiend of smoke and fire and ash that hath descended to us from the mountain! and into the vale he came to slay the women and children, burn our homes and land and devour the bravest of our men. Our fields now lay in ash, our lord in fear, the battlements cold and empty, and no song to be heard of our sorrow, for even the king’s grief is greater still. His own flesh and blood, his only Heir, has been carried away!”
“By the fiend?”
“Indeed, it is so! There she resides at the crest of the mountain in the ancient Guardian Tower built long ago but long since abandoned, and none are so brave as to rescue her honor!”
“Run now, porter,” the rider replied. “Tell your master that one has come. Bid him stoke the fire and await my return!”
Away from that dungeon of misery and despair, into the night now so young, he turned away: but not to the south where his homeland lay. Over rock and hillock, sand and sea, through darkest forests and raging tempests he hadn’t ridden with all haste to find an end in the same defeat that had already claimed the hearts of so many other men. No, he turned instead to the east, to the heights of the mountains where lay the serpent who’d sewn fear in his foes. Through the forests where once had grown mighty trees of green and silver whose timber would gladly fall to serve the sons of men but now all that remained were the charred ghosts as tall sentries, all coated in ash and soot, he rode on through it all, always toward the rocky crags cracked with the fury of the mountains. There up he climbed till sulfur hung in the air and the heat would allow no snow to fall. Instead the ash rained down on his shoulders and helm. Over the last defenses of a once mightier fortress he crept, right to the threshold of the devil’s lair where lay the scattered remnants of those it had slain. And high overhead was the Guardian Tower of the vale below from whence could be seen any enemy at the gate – long had it lay in disuse, and while the men of the vale lay in peace, into their fortress had crept a worm and taken the high watchtower as its own.
There the serpent met him at the gate, and from the shadows its foul voice rose to greet him like the cloud of its own rot that clung heavily upon his brow; and in the dark the great rustle and clatter it made was like the waking of the dead.“Why have you come, son of man?” it inquired. “Do you not see the bones and ashes of those I have murdered?”
“Ashes and dust, and mourning and thirst, and I see weeping all around,” replied the man to the worm. “But I fear no fiend!”
“You will die like the rest,” it answered. “You have no weapon of war to match my fiery fury! The elements have opened their voices to me, and upon the wind have I commended my spirit, rising from the earth to rule over it. And into my breath they cast their fire, and into my bones the earth has become one, and under my wings the air has gathered itself to bear me aloft, and beneath me, though the waters are astir and atremble, they cannot assuage me or tear from me my fiery reign!”
“Though the elements fail, I shall not,” he said to the worm. “I have come to slay you!”
“Then your story will end and you will be forgot, Little Ash-man,” the serpent replied.
And they fell upon each other, he with the edge of his sword and it with the fire and earth bestowed upon it, such that the crenulations of the battlements were burned away and the stone was black as the night. But though its fires consumed, it could not catch the rider from the south, and long into the night they dueled until at last the rider struck down that mighty worm by piercing its heart with the tip of his sword as the inferno raged around. He cast it from the mountain into the crags from whence it had crept, and the elements abandoned it there.
Up into the tower the conqueror ventured, there to redeem the Heir of the Lord of the Vale. He found her there in chains, the fairest of the maidens, for in her veins was the blood of kings long forgot, a lineage passed down through the ages until it rested alone upon the shoulders of one daughter of the sons of men. He carried her away, out the window and down from the Guardian Tower to his steed, and then down the mountain, away from that accursed place, back to the vale where the ashes and sorrow mingled with grief in the dirt. Back to the portcullis of the fortress he rode.
“Is there any honor still to be found within the halls of what once was bright and glorious?” he inquired.
And the porter answered unto him, “My lord, there is none, for while you were away the Lord of the Vale has fallen into deep slumber, and it is doubtful that ever he should awake.”
“Let me pass and wake him I shall!” the dragon-slaying knight replied.
“My lord, I cannot let you pass, for upon his last breath the Lord instructed us that none should let this gate be opened: no trickery of the devil will creep into this hold!”
“My friend, I am no trickery!” cried the knight. “See here, I have slain your demon and cast him from his high place, and even now I ride to you with that which was stolen away, the Heir of this city!”
“And I say to you the gate shall not open!” the porter replied. “None could best the dragon, though many tried and failed, and now all they lay as ash and bone under our feet. Therefore, you surely have fallen into the vices of the demon! It shall not open, I say, it shall not!”
“Then go back to your Lord, and take up his grief, and sit you in the dungeon in his place, for there is no more honor in the sons of men and no glory to be found here. They are stale as the bread in the cellar and decayed as the crops in the field. Some day an enemy will arise and find no defense in the vale, and all will fall to the reign of some greater lord than that which now rots in the pits.”
And he turned away unto the south from whence he had come, away from the snow and ash, away from those putrid holes of drunken revelry, away from the cowardice of the sons of men.
This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author. © 2011 ADBane.com