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The Shadow of A King

The Shadow of A King

Book excerpt

'No… please, do not move him. The King is not to be moved… I beg of you.' The nun stepped in front of the advancing warrior and pushed her hands against his chest, hindering his passage further into the dimly lit cell. 'There must be some mistake… the King is gravely ill.' She was flustered, almost beside herself in her wish to turn these intruders around and see them gone. 'The Abbess is not here, she sleeps now, but she left instructions that he cannot be disturbed… you may kill him.'

The warrior looked down at the small figure blocking his path. Her gown, as with all of these nuns, was a covering from head to foot of coarse black wool, stained and showing signs of many repairs. This nun was gazing up from beneath her cowl with a look of abject horror at his intrusion. Her pale white hands fluttered ineffectually against his stained and dented breastplate; then she glanced towards her charge, the lone figure that lay upon the cot within the damp, dark cell. Beside the cot, a single stub of candle was set upon a small table, its light reflecting from a thick torc of twisted gold, the dull metal gleaming in the candlelight; the candle guttered in the invasive draught sending shadows dancing along the rough, stone walls.

'Spirits preserve us, what a piss-hole,' the warrior whispered under his breath. Rats were moving close by, he could hear them, squeaking and rustling amongst the floor rushes in the darkness; the whole place reeked of vermin. This was a godforsaken place, even if it was an Abbey. Rank with the smell of rat piss, burning herbs and rotting flesh, but it was still an improvement on smells around the gathering of tribes he had so recently left. The Abbey was deathly cold, but at least it was out of the incessant, drizzling rain. The warrior raised a hand and rubbed absently at the knot of wires, shaped into the form of an intricate cross that hung between the ends of his own, somewhat thinner, gold torc at his throat. The cross was not a Christian emblem, but something far older, a connection to the ancient spirits of the land. For like many of his ilk, the warrior was still a follower of the old ways. He had not yet been won over by the honeyed words or threats of certain damnation delivered by the priests, should they not turn their backs upon their ancient Gods and follow the one nailed God. He didn't like nor trust them. Touching the cross had been an unconscious reflex to ward off the evil that he felt dwelt within the Abbey. He had not wanted to come here this night, but then fool's errand or not; he would do the Druid's work and so be it.

With a sigh, he removed his helm and brushed his fingers back through long, greying hair. It was thinning badly as the gesture rudely reminded him. He was tired, weary to the bone, truth be told, and his arms felt heavy from a clash with a Saxon raiding party during the dark hours of their riding to the Abbey.

They had met upon the wooded road, both groups startled to come upon the other, neither wishing to tarry yet both needing to pass the other. After a brief period of both parties shouting and taunting each other, each attempting to force the other to turn and run, they had fought, which of course had been inevitable. The clash had been brief and violent, but on this particular occasion, they had not taken any losses and sustained only one small wound to a member of their party. The Saxons, once past the Britons and heavy with raided goods, had fled towards their own border; it wasn't deemed prudent to pursue them considering the mission the Druid had tasked them with.

Drawing a deep breath, the warrior calmed himself. 'My name is Sir Ector, and I am sorry, lady, I surely am, but there is no mistake. My orders were spoken by the lips of the Druid Merlyn himself; our King must rise.' Turning, he threw his helm back into the hands of one of his men, gently brushed the sobbing nun to the side and approached the low sleeping pallet.

While he dropped to one knee beside his King, his two companions entered fully into the cell, bringing with them dampness and the sharp smell of the rainy dawn that had settled on the metal of their mail and armour.

'Sire.' In the inadequate light from the flickering candle, Uther Pendragon, High King of the Britons, appeared for all the world as if he may already be dead. Sir Ector studied the dying man and felt the small light of hope that he had been desperately holding onto, begin to dim, this surely could not be a man who within days would be leading a mass of warriors into battle. It would be some kind of Christian miracle if the King ever rose from this pallet again unless it was to be taken to his funeral pyre.

'Sire.' Sir Ector studied his King for some sign of life, some indication that he was hearing him. Yet there was nothing. The King's skin was white and mottled, hanging upon his bones as if it were made up of gossamer layers of autumn leaves, dry and yellow in the candlelight. The closed eyes of Uther Pendragon, eyes that were once so fierce and full of pride, were sunken back into their sockets, seemingly lost within the shadows of his soul.

'Uther, can you hear me, or is it that you are already walking in the Shadowland?' The room was silent as all within watched anxiously for something. Reaching out, the leather and metal of his armour creaking, Sir Ector placed the back of his hand close to Uther's mouth, holding it still for a few moments as he felt for breath. As he moved his hand up to the King's brow, the eyes fluttered open, and Sir Ector drew back sharply.

'Forgive me, Sire. I would not have disturbed you, but…'

The eyes blinked several times as the King returned from wherever it was that his soul had travelled, possibly to the gates of the Shadowland itself? Turning his head, he cast about the dim cell and finally found the features of the kneeling warrior. 'Ector?' The voice was weak, brittle, yet more than just the whisper Sir Ector had been hoping for, Uther Pendragon still lived.

'Sire, forgive me… the Druid has summoned you to the battlefield. He tells that the spirits have spoken to him, and it is time for you to lead us once more.' Sir Ector turned and gestured. One of his men stepped forward, and together they went about the task of gently raising the King to his feet.

It was a shock to find that Uther Pendragon weighed no more than a child. The King was pulled upright to hang limply between the two warriors. His head lolling down against his chest, the dirty white tunic he wore coming to just above bony knees, the heavy woollen leg wraps falling untucked about his ankles. Sir Ector began to wonder anew if these pitiful remains were just some hollow shell, an empty husk of the man who had once united the tribes of Britain, his former King, his friend. Had he witnessed life in the dying body, or had the King's soul merely turned back one last time before finally moving on? Despair returned to fill him once again, a fear that both the spirits and the old Druid might be wrong.

They dressed him quickly in warm woollen clothing and then placed a heavy cloak about his shoulders, then shuffled out of the cell with the nun's shrieking protests following them into the rush-strewn corridor.

More nuns arrived, drawn by the commotion, and it immediately became more difficult to manoeuvre with their charge as now several holy sisters began to wail and protest at seeing their King being moved.


Shadowland

Shadowland

The Flight of the Griffin

The Flight of the Griffin