Hundreds of miles away, in the west, dawn was breaking over an empty countryside. The cold morning light shone through the skeletal trees and scattered across winter snow drifts and dead leaves. The still wilderness was undulating, with rolling hills and patches of woods springing up between boulders, frozen streams, and endless snow. Apart from the drip of melting ice and the rattle of wind in the finger-like branches, not a sound could be heard.
A broken castle rose from a tall mound, crowned by concentric rings of ruined walls and dilapidated stone ramparts. A round tower squatted in disrepair at the centre of the castle still sporting an empty flagpole. The massive stones of the walls were covered in brown moss and hanging icicles, the crenellations adorned with cuts and gashes made by the war engines of old.
Soon the pale morning was disturbed by the faint noise of a heavy-breathing newcomer. A hooded figure came from the south trudging through the deep snow towards the castle, his long brown cloak billowed behind him in the icy breeze. Hot breath escaped in smoky plumes from his mouth and the sound of his labouring was loud against the dripping silence. The man stopped and pulled his clothing around him. He took a minute to catch his breath. In the half light of the early morning his grey-green eyes could pick out a low arched door set deep into the thick outer wall.
‘Carn Breagh,’ muttered the stranger, lowering a plain red scarf from his face. Clearing his throat he checked the woods to the left and right with a wary glance, and then trudged on through the deep snow. Beneath his cloak the man wore light steel plate armour over his shoulders, chest, and thighs, which clanked together softly as he moved. A black and brown tunic lay underneath with a thick leather belt holding onto his supplies and an old sword encased in a dark red scabbard. Something gold and scarlet and metal peeked out from beneath the sleeves of his thick cloak. The man’s sturdy black boots wearily plunged into the pure white snow, making creaking noises with every step.
The stranger reached the old wall and the small stone archway and spread his hands over the thick oak door, feeling the splintered wood and the thick spikes that held the gate together. The man gave it a light push but nothing budged. It was locked tight from the inside. He shoved a shoulder against it in a futile attempt to move the ancient wood. But still nothing. He looked at the door quizzically. The planks were weathered from hundreds of years of wind and snow, yet for some reason they had not rotted away like the other wooden features of the ancient castle.
The hooded man stretched his back and neck and rolled up the sleeves of his cloak. Adorning his wrists and lower forearms were thick vambraces made of interwoven red and gold metal scales that glittered faintly in the dawn light. They clinked as he held them together. He closed his eyes briefly and then placed his palms on the door. All of a sudden a pulse rippled across the wood and there was a dull clang from the other side. The man gave it a little push and the door swung open with a creak.
He allowed himself a faint smile and pulled his cloak around him as he peered into the gloom. The man wrinkled his nose. It smelled like a thousand years of damp and there was the faint sound of dripping on stonework coming from somewhere in the darkness. Mould hid between the cracks in the walls. Without a sound the man ducked under the thick stone archway and stood in the dim corridor, listening. He made a fist. White light shivered around his fingers and suddenly the corridor was bathed in a pale moon-like glow.
Surrounded by his light the stranger began to investigate the old castle, poking around in holes and long-lost underground chambers. Cavernous halls and old rooms spread out like a warren left and right as the explorer went deeper and deeper into the castle. Everything was rotting and damp. Old curtains decayed where they had been thrown, chests and furniture had been smashed against walls and lay in dark heaps and broken postures. In old abandoned barracks benches and tables were pushed up against splintered doors. Rusty swords hid under the rubble.
For hours he searched the dank castle and found nothing except darkness and ruin. In a tiny room deep underground, the cloaked man carefully took a seat on one of the less broken chairs and rested his feet for a moment. He was beginning to get a little tired from keeping up his light spell, but he was sure there had to be something inside the old castle. Absently he picked up a small piece of rubble and toyed with it for a few moments before tossing it across the room in boredom. To his surprise the stone sailed straight through a frayed tapestry and disappeared, landing with a clang somewhere far behind it. The man clenched his fist again and a fresh wave of light penetrated the gloom. Eagerly he tore the tapestry from its rusted hangings and threw it on the dusty floor. Hidden behind it was a staircase that spiralled down into the dark shadows. Curiosity sparked in his mind he jogged down the steps, his footsteps echoing against the narrow walls.
All of a sudden the stairs came to a halt and a long hallway snaked around a corner. Sconces holding long torches poked out from recesses in the walls. The man moved to the nearest one and felt the oil-soaked wick between his finger and thumb. It was dry enough so the man clicked his fingers over the torch. Sparks flew from his fingers and sent flame curling up the wall.
Dousing his light spell he continued down the corridor lighting each torch as he went, and it was not long before he came across a huge door set deep into the stonework, held by thick hinges and a massive bolt that seemed to be fused to the metal bracing it. Eyes closed, the man ran his hand over the wood, searching for the right spell to use, but when he threw a wave of magick at it the door didn’t even move an inch. Irritated, he tried again and the air hummed as he hit the wood with another spell. Nothing happened. He rubbed his stubbled chin and thought for a moment, adjusting the red scarf around his neck. All of a sudden a deep boom rang out somewhere below his feet and made the torches shiver in their sconces. The man slowly, and gently, drew his sword from its scabbard as a few specks of dust fell from the ceiling. He squinted at the torches as something caught his eye. The flames were shifting and leaning far out from the wall as if blown by a stiff breeze. He listened and watched, ready for anything. Nothing came, and all was silent again in the castle.
Bored, the stranger turned and sheathed his sword with a loud metallic ringing noise. He climbed the stairs, turning left, then right, then left again, up more stairs, retracing his steps. Abruptly he was out in the snow once more and the bright morning sun was stinging his eyes. He slammed the small door behind him and stepped out into the icy glare.
‘Hmm,’ mused the cloaked figure. He bent to pick up a handful of snow and rubbed it between his fingers to wipe off the dust from the castle. As he moved to pick up another handful a shadow passed over him without a sound, a flitting shape momentarily darkening the snow. The man sighed and stood up straight, throwing off his cloak and drawing his sword with a flourish. Spinning his blade in his right hand he surveyed the peaceful countryside calmly. Steel glinted in the sunlight.
‘It’s not even noon yet and a man has to deal with dragons,’ muttered the stranger to himself as he let his eyes rove over the horizon.
A huge screeching roar came from the skies above him and the man darted sideways with a running leap, narrowly missing a massive shape that plummeted into the snow behind him with a huge crash and a shower of snow. The man got to his feet and disdainfully brushed the white powder from his armour. He looked up. Out of the white haze there was a snarl and a creature reared its ugly blue head, shaking its horns with a rattling shiver and spreading stunted turquoise wings. A ridge of sharp brown spikes ran from its head to the tip of its serpentine tail. The monster’s claws dragged at the snow, razor sharp and curved like a cat’s, and its eyes were like black pools of jet. The wyrm let out a deafening hornlike scream and took one step forward, hissing at the man in the snow and rattling its aquamarine scales.
It had been a while since the man had seen such a large wild dragon, and even though it was a juvenile, no more than a wild wyrm, it still towered above him. The creature stank of old meat and a musky reptilian scent. The stranger began to circle the creature, holding his sword out straight towards it.
‘Leave now, or this will end badly for you,’ said the man in a measured tone, still treading sideways through the deep snow. The dragon snarled, obviously lacking the capacity to understand him, and stamped its enormous feet menacingly like an impatient bull. It roared an ear-splitting roar and foul spit flew into the man’s face.
The stranger grimaced and wiped the grotesque phlegm from his cheek and forehead, careful to keep his eyes on the snarling dragon. ‘I will take that as a no then, shall I?’ he replied, and before the words had left his mouth the beast charged with frightening speed. But the man was more than ready. Swiftly dropping to one knee he dug his blade into the snow with a rasping thud. A solid wall of magick tore through the snow like a rippling earthquake and knocked the terrifying reptile back with a low and somewhat disappointed whine. The man jumped up and swung his sword at the surprised beast. The blade cut a long path across its scaly back and blue blood splashed the snow.
Very suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, the beast’s whip-like tail lashed out and struck the stranger hard in the chest. He flew into a nearby snowdrift with a crunch of armour. A star or two swam before his eyes. The man winced and sat up, but before he had time to take a breath the hungry dragon ran at him again. It snarled and spat and it scratched and it dug, furiously lashing out at the snow and at the man with its razor-like claws. He wildly waved his sword in front of him in an effort to keep the claws at bay, but a stray talon scraped across his armour and found his soft pale skin underneath. With a pained expression he rolled sideways through the snow and somehow managed to escape the long claws. Red blood stained the dirty snow beneath him.
Getting swiftly to his feet, the man smacked his two vambraces together and a blast of flame shook the cold air. The fireball hit the wyrm in the chest and sent the creature reeling backwards. It roared with pain and frantically shook its rattling spikes, in an effort to fend off the stranger, but it was already too late for the hungry beast. The stranger sprinted forward, dodging another tail swipe. A light pulsed down his forearm and his blue-stained sword burst into flame. As he ran he hurled the glowing weapon with both hands and like a bolt of fiery lightning it buried itself hilt-deep in the dragon’s ribcage with a thud and a flash of scorching fire. The beast uttered a last mournful whistle and toppled over against a nearby tree with a crash and a bang and a shower of pine needles.
Breathing a little on the heavy side and wiping snow from his face, the man slowed himself to a calm walk and strode forward to wrench his blade from the ribs of the smoking reptile. He put a hand to his side and winced, feeling the wet blood seeping from the long cut. Retrieving his cold cloak, he sighed and slowly began to follow his footprints back in the direction he had come from.
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Genre – Epic Fantasy
Rating – PG-13