Sheep Among Wolves
The castle seemed to sprawl across the ground like a wet spider web. Corridors, turrets and balconies seemed to be everywhere, in various states of decomposition. Ivy and moss curled and stretched over most of the flat stone surfaces and small creatures hid in the dark crevices between the aging stones. A low, rolling fog obscured the most of the ground, and refracted red and orange torchlight. The muffled footsteps of fifteen or so leather-booted men at arms and the clicking of their light armor were the only noises save for the owls of the nearby wood.
Fear moved across each of the men’s faces as they glanced all around, underneath a yellow moon. Finally, they reached a portcullis, and the leader of the men slammed himself desperately against the metal bars.
“For God’s sake, have mercy upon us! Open your doors for me and my company, I beg of you.”
His words echoed ominously through the stone structure, seeming to come back to the armed men’s ears as a distorted whisper. A heavy, oppressive silence followed; broken after several seconds by a melancholy whine of an incredibly high pitch. Hands snapped forth and took hold of sword-handles. Pikemen took a defensive stance with a nervous look upon their faces, and crossbows were readied feverishly before they realized that the sound came from the rusted portcullis as it rose slowly.
Once this thought registered, relief crossed all the men’s faces, replaced in but a moment by returning apprehension. The tall, sword-wielding commander shared a dark look with the rest of his company before a low, drawling voice came from within the structure, dripping with a shadowy stateliness.
The men rushed forward upon the command, moving quickly beneath the portcullis in obvious fear. Many released a subconsciously held breath as they crossed the threshold and the portcullis slammed back to its resting place with an ominous finality. The commander of the company strutted forward importantly, addressing the dark-shrouded entrance hall as one, unable to see any definitive being.
“I am Jacob Gray, Baron and man-at-arms, at your service. My company is feared across Europe as the Dragons. You are the only men for counties unaffected by this dreadful plague, and we beg your assistance.”
“And you shall have it.” Drawled the same voice that bid them to enter. “But you shall soon find that your rank matters very little here. “
There were several impish sniggers from the room in which they stood. It was black as pitch, and one could tell even by that very darkness that it was an entrance hall of enormous proportions. The shadow was complete in such a way that it was obvious that there was no light for great lengths in every direction.
Without warning, a brazier flared to light right next to the bewildered company, and a small man clothed in black smirked viciously and leaned against the stone wall. For a moment, the company eyed the man, thinking he was the possessor of the full and stately voice that they had heard earlier, before they realized that there were a great throng of people standing around them. None of their features were distinguishable, for the light seemed to fade before it illuminated anything but their dark-colored attire; robes in most cases, dresses in a very few.
The fall of a heavy boot struck out upon the stone floor, and a man clad in a flowing black robe stepped forward. His face was clear and young, but his hair was shock-white and swept back. It fell roughly to his shoulders, stemming back from his high forehead, and his lips were twisted in a sinister smile, showing teeth as white as his hair. He was taller even than Gray, who stood a head above the whole of his men, and deathly thin, so that the black robe hung off of his fame like the clothes on a doll made of sticks.
“I am Drayven Dolor, master of these halls and head of this family. But within these walls, all men are equal.”
“You mean to say that I, a Baron of this country, am equal to you and your lot of…” Gray began.
“You would be wise to stay your tongue, friend.” Answered Drayven. “Surely, you and your men are hungry. Let us break your fast. Follow me.”
When Drayven turned and walked away with echoing steps, the company of men fully realized how many people were in the hall. They saw a great many shadow-draped figures fall into line behind Drayven, and as they walked more and more of the iron braziers burst alight, with the same man of small stature shrinking into the shadows after each was lighted.
A chorus of footfalls upon the stone floor was the only sound other than the flaring sound of the lighting flames that accompanied the large group into a dining hall that may well have been larger even than the entrance hall. There were many round tables within the hall, all illuminated by candelabras every few feet along them. Food was all ready in place, and the whole lot of them sat down to eat.
The Baron’s men were told to sit at a larger one of the round tables, where Drayven himself sat, but instead the stood around in groups, looking awkwardly and slightly confused at the great ha lull of round tables. Drayven observed their confusion and laughed slightly, a low, short and haunting sound that broke the otherwise perfect silence.
“I have told you; inside these walls al are equal. Did you doubt me?”
“No! I implore your apologies, Lord.” Gray said, seating himself.
Just as Gray and his men began to sit, Drayven burst to his feet with a swirl of ebon fabric, and his hand moved to rest upon a sword handle entwined with sable leather, and his grey eyes locked upon the blue hues of the Baron.
“Do NOT address me in such a manner. I am no Lord. No man has a Lord.”
Again the company exchanged a look of confusion, and it was the Baron’s turn to rise to his feet with fire in his eye.
“No Lord? And what of or nation’s king? And what of our GOD?”
Drayven’s stormy eyes narrowed by precisely the same margin as his smirk widened.
“For the second time, I beg you hold your tongue.”
“I will NOT!”
“I offer you a feast; I offer you shelter from this ‘plague’, and still you cannot keep your vile God off of your tongue!” Drayven drawled angrily.
“Do you have any idea whom you are addressing, Dolor?”
“It is you who is confused in that regard. I know precisely who you are. Do you, me?”
A silence grew thickly within the room as the Baron and Drayven stared at each other, a fire raging in Gray’s eyes, and a massive storm brewing within those orbs of Drayven’s.
“I will not stay in the debt of this infidel a second longer. Men! March!”
The Baron turned on his heel and his jaw dropped. He and his men stood alone on a desolate moor, though fog still rolled heavily over the ground. The faint remainder of what was once a mighty castle was vaguely visible around them, but what alarmed them most was what they were standing upon. They stood upon and around hundreds of charred skeletons, each bound by chain to a length of wood, forced into the ground. The Baron looked around in bewilderment.
“Pagans? The lot of them? And yet they sought to help us anyway…”
The Baron gazed at the crimson cross that adorned each coat of arms his men wore, shaking his head in bewilderment. Then he noticed the rats. They were everywhere, crawling over the charred corpses and over his men, biting, clawing, scratching. His men turned and fled, he did as well. Many drew their weapons and swung them fruitlessly at their bestial pursuers. It seemed they had carried on in this manner for an eternity, yet they still saw the former castle outline in the ground.
Finally, they halted, every one of them with bated breath. Gray turned to his left and saw one of his pikemen collapse. Gray rushed to his side, and the soldier began writhing in pain. He coughed, and began to vomit blood. His face was pocked with sores of crimson and black, and Gray looked from his infected companion to the swarm of rats that still pursued them, a look of unbearable terror and overwhelming comprehension crossing his face.
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R.D. Ward is a dark fantasy writer and poet residing in Denton, Texas.
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