In the face of grave treachery the knights did fall
Stalwart Valerians paid a grim toll
Funereal glory forgotten under darkest pall
Not least among them could rest their soul...
A bleak day broke over the mountain tops, as brightness without sunshine brought a bitter chilled mourning to the winter barren fields. Seasonal stillness gave the dawn a haunted quiet. Here and there small gusts stirred the branches of the wind break and creaked along the weather vanes, briefly troubling that which would remain idle. Yet as soon as a breeze came it was gone again, having fled to another field, another farm, another village besides.
Amidst the anxious daybreak, a lone figure emerged on the horizon, casting a long dark shadow ahead of him as he trudged forward into an unwanted day.
The man at the door was a dismal sight. Unkempt hair and days of sparse growth marred his branded face. Dull eyes seemed to wander leagues and centuries away from the present moment. His clothes were tattered and his armor streaked with mud and weather and worse. Cracked lips split from dry chill gave stuttered utterance to his soft spoken pleas for simple mercy. After some gentle prompting he finally spoke sense and gave name to his pitiable figure.
“Gavell Norrin. Soldier in the army of Knight Aveline.”
A fire was kindled and the lad given a blanket and water and a place to sit while spirits were fetched to restore him. Something delirious sparked in his eyes for a moment as the embers were stoked, before retreating quickly behind glassy simpleness. He took their kindness and their questions with one word answers: yes, no, lost, gone.
“Where are you hailing from, Master Norrin?”
“Monticulus? I reckon it must be mighty hard on folk up there. Haven’t seen traders headed there or back in nigh on three fortnights.”
“There are no traitors!” he barked, and fell stony and silent, tense before the flames. Looks were exchanged and they decided to send the little one to the village to bring the elders out to talk to the boy.
Gray-bearded Hob was the only one who could be roused, and by mid-morning the priest was beginning his interview with the young soldier.
“Goodman Noll here tells me you are one of those brave folks who came here and saved the village some weeks back.”
“We owe you a debt of thanks for that. Dusk provides, but sometimes a good sword arm is welcome. Our blessings, friend.”
The boy stared into the fire, oblivious of praise.
“When we saw you last, you were with quite a company, flying the king’s banner. Did you get separated?”
Old Hob sucked in a breath and braced himself. The lad had seen things; it was clear as morning dew. But it still hurt to ask and the answer was often worse.
“How’d it happen?”
The soldier blinked and was silent, lost in a labyrinth of wordlessness, desperately searching for the voice of his tale. When he returned, it was as if part of him remained behind, perhaps in memory or perhaps lost altogether.
“A thousand went up the mountain, into the city. It was empty, but not dead. Ix—the wizard… a trap. His great beast dashed dozens. They—we—Ser Aveline killed it but in death, the king… He… she killed him, too. And Lark and the stones, the walls, the city turned against us. They—we—I… fell. Fallen.”
He choked on the last syllable and seemed to swallow a lifetime. Regret, fear, anguish so intense it was almost palpable to Hob. The words made no sense but were understood nonetheless.
“Are you saying, lad, that the knight’s army is no more?”
He nodded, barely, as if the mechanics of agreement had separated from his person. A soul untethered, unhinged, flailed inside, detached from vacant eyes, only frothing to the surface for lunatic utterances.
“The black stones—his mad work! Fear the black stones!”
Norrin had Hob by the shirt sleeve, eyes wide with frenzy and a pleading look. He cast a glance to Noll and his wife, who came by and detached the lad from the priest, replacing a pint of mead in his grip where Hob’s arm had been in its stead. About then the little one began to bawl and amidst the wails it was plain that Gavell Norrin shook with his own keening.
“C’mon, lad. Let’s get you to the village. We’ll fix you up. You needn’t worry now, you’re safe.”
* * *
Bannack was a small village with a decent market day, its stalls and stables locked away in hibernation for the winter. Gavell was put up in the home of the farrier, whose spare rooms were rented out as living quarters during fair days. When he was first removed to the farrier’s place, the goodwives of Bannack made a clucking show of concern and indulgence, hoping to lift his spirits as they mended the body. Gavell Norrin’s sulking silence, however, prevailed. Soon they came to treat him with sad reverence, bringing him food and changing bandages wordlessly, coming and going with the flitting of ghosts in otherwise empty days.
At night things truly came to life. In restless sleep and tossing agonies, the true terrors of his soul revealed themselves. Monstrous beasts haunted him. Not just the wolves and boars and stags they had come to face, or even corrupted Aurleon himself, but other, darker creatures.
He saw townsfolk taken by shades and warped hideously into obsidian clad giants. Trees and fields wilted as they stalked their neighbors. High in a mountain city, blackened stalagmites prostrated themselves before a great void torn in the sky. Pulsing with strange energy, they opened the scar wider and drew form from it scores of hateful things, jealous spirits thirsty for conquest, angry specters with violent appetites. Faceless though they were, each possessed a countenance more twisted than the last, a secret visage from which Gavell could not turn.
And there were the faces of the dead. They lingered worst of all in his nightmares. Calling for help. Crying out in pain. Moaning for death. Recalling his name in an infinitely echoing chamber. Huddled around a single piece of light in the vast dark, they faded away from him with angry recriminations and stinging disappointment.
“Norrin,” Col Ebbert called to him, “I didn’t realize before, but I knew you.”
His right arm hung lifeless at his side, clinging by threads to the shoulder that once carried it, perhaps held in place more by pauldron than sinew and flesh. Blood continued to flow from the grievous wound, leaving his side slick with dark crimson, a sickening velvet that spread across his body, unimpeded by death.
“I met you once, with your father. My pa and I had come to your keep to plead for protection from bandits. Your father turned us away. We had to take on mercenaries in your stead. Almost as bad as the first lot. Ate up our food and stole up our coin, so that when your father took our land with a false claim we hadn’t money to travel to the king’s court to appeal. Went from being freeholders to drifters. I wasn’t much of a warrior, you know, just took up arms on the promise that the survivors of Aveline’s army, or their inheritors, would get a parcel of land. Fool I was to think we’d win. Not only did I die, but there’s no king to honor the oath to the army.”
Col shook his head wryly, a thin veil of irony barely covering the seething rage of his spirit. The wounded arm dangled at his side precipitously.
“Of course, it’s just my bad luck that my family has to remain destitute in their final days. But I didn’t have to die. It was a Norrin that could have helped. A Norrin that stood by and watched as that thing ripped me apart. A Norrin who failed to uphold his oaths.
“So here I am, bleeding in your dream, in your head. Trapped by you. Trapped in you. You’re there being doted on hand and foot and I’m stuck with this blasted curse. But then again, so are you, mate. You got his mark. So I’m tied to you and you’re tied to him. You know what that means? No? Why don’t you wake up and find out.”
Gavell woke swimming in sweat pooled sheets. Startled, frenzied, and aching with unquenchable thirst, he found no relief in the retching bile of a broken night. Dawn was peaking over the mountain—a hollow light that started in Monticulus and flooded balefully down the mountain.
It was midday when the cries first erupted. The cobbler had spied a dark form ambling down the east road. Thinking it might be another survivor of Aveline’s ill-fated expedition, he stepped out of his shop to call out hullo to the wounded fellow. Only too late did he realize that it was no mere man who walked down that road, but a fell creature, wrapped in the dark obsidian of Ixiel’s taint. Such was his terror that he died before giving alarm to his neighbors, who found out only too soon how dire their predicament was.
Bannack was a village without warriors. The people of Valerius are a hearty lot—brave, occasionally pious, implacably determined to make their way in a land as inventive in hazard as it is plentiful in bounty. Its commoners have weathered the caprice of rain fall and miserly soils, but against demon corruption they were outmatched. Highway men can be run off with pitchforks and arrows. A marauding war party can be avoided by taking shelter in the forest.
The bear clad in glossy black stone suffered no resistance and offered no release.
Gavell could not determine for some time whether the screams he heard were merely a waking nightmare or the coeval intrusion of danger. It was only in the subsequent silence and futile pleas for mercy that he realized he was captive in the present. A strange mania took him and, rather than flee or hide from the fatal threat he knew all too well, Gavell burst from his lodgings into the Bannack’s market square.
The destruction was thorough and stark in the noontide sun. Breath fled Gavell in fogged pants as he confronted the carnage of steaming wounds and stilled bodies. A callous black shape, grotesque in form, pure malevolence in motion, went from victim to victim with a singular dedication to the macabre task of meticulous slaughter. Feeling a moment at hand, an opportunity for absolution, Gavell took up a sickle from a fallen hand and, with a valorous cry for the Forge-cast Paragons and fallen comrades, charged the degenerate creature.
With a petulant swat of its arm, the corrupted bear knocked Gavell flat on his back. Prone, accepting of fate, he lay with dazed anticipation of closure. The noble end promised at Monticulus--the one which he errantly fled--was at hand. With an exaggerated snarl, the obsidian demon stalked over towards him to deliver the finishing blow. As sightless eyes met the battled shocked vacancy of his own, it demurred with strange reluctance. It found a scent, a recognition, a sniff of disappointment, and refused Gavell’s recumbent surrender. Better prey waited in the west, unmarked, unbeknownst, and unprepared.
Gavell sobbed well after sundown, until sleep finally took him.
* * *
Wretched was the marked man, Goren Navall. Tattered as his rags and bent by his fate, he wandered for years as an outcast of ruinous portent. In the months after the massacre of Monticulus, he knew first pity, then derision, before the aversion of outright fear. Though his whiskers grew wild, there was a blighted spot on his left cheek, a blasted mark that permitted no follicle of hair nor weathering of sun. A pale stain bleached in his skin to embellish the mark it bore-- his seal, his heraldry, his curse.
Navall’s face was tattooed with a curious brand: a black crow swallowing the sun. It was the emblem of the dark magic of Tyrannus. It was the crest of a fallen army. It was the brand of the Coward of Monticulus.
No one knew his name--not his true one--though many monikers, most demeaning, followed in his journeys. It was said that he had been Aveline’s right hand in battle, but had failed to deliver Durendal before Ixiel brought forth the demons. Other legends held that he was the Blue Knight’s standard bearer, a cur who dropped his flag in the face of the enemy causing a great rout of the army. The Harbingers believed him a prophet. Kinder rumors asserted that he was no one special, just a soldier who wavered in the face of his murdered fellows. Most knew him as a spy. Or the traitor who killed Aveline, or Aurleon, or both. It was known that Ixiel’s demon bound aberrations followed closely at his heel, dogging him so that he knew no home, bringing death to those who offered him the mercy of their hearths.
Insofar as he would answer to those brazen enough to ask, the Coward simply preferred "Goren Navall," the nonsense patter of a caitiff who could not bear to bring shame to a family or crest.
So vaunted was his curse that he spawned the creation of bans and prohibitions. The face scarves of the Order of the Cowl were forbidden. Hooded men risked being beaten, even in downpours. As the villages and cities came to rely on Guardians to defend them from Ixiel’s depredations so too did they fear the outsider. Giving shelter to strangers was considered risky at best or betrayal at worst. Anyone, anything unknown became a threat until proven otherwise. The cities and villages of Valerius turned inward upon themselves. Without alliances or trust they were swallowed one by one in the dawning age of Ixiel’s darkness.
It would be kind to assume that in this time the Coward of Monticulus was killed ignominiously for his sins, real or imagined. While true that he suffered much violence at the hands of the people he had pledged to serve, their beatings never seemed to bring him serious harm. Rather, it was those vigilantes who sought to avenge Aveline’s fallen company that met brutal ends.
Opportunistic drunks became trapped in fatal delirium. Stone throwing crowds were beset by plague. Self-righteous hunters found themselves hunted in turn by black clouds that consumed their souls. It would be untrue to call him a favorite of Ixiel, but the dark wizard was a jealous torturer. It was he alone who was permitted to kick Navall across the land, and he preferred to do so indirectly, punishing him with the pain he must behold, forcing him to bear witness to the truth.
And truth? What fickle master that is for a man who no longer owns a name or honor.
A fugitive wandering through a condemned land has little purchase on the credulity of his fellows. A vagrant and a rat catcher, a cursed shadow of a valiant warrior, the dreg ends of courage that glory had failed to quaff, the Coward’s proximity to truth was that of a leper to his terminus—the closer he came, the more it fell apart.
Yet the world had not tilted so far from mercy that he was deprived of all kindness. There was always an audience to be had. Those who dared a comfort, no matter how trivial, endured his tale.
The Blue Knight killed the king. She led her army into a dead city and a great tear in the sky, to a black land within from whence there was no escape. Within she fed on the souls of the fallen, a revenant in her own right becoming fell and wicked in the hungry darkness. Whether the Coward knew this from memory or dream was unknown even to him. Rarely was this tale greeted with anything but dismissal, but curious was the reward for the listeners. While entire towns were slaughtered, it never failed that those who heard the tale were spared that fate, cursed in their own right to become heralds of the Archwizard’s awesome power.
So reduced was the Coward Goren Navall that he became inured to the consequence of his being. Covered in rubbish and spending the night in a burned out mill, he found that the anguished cries of a besieged city no longer deprived him of his sleep. The exhaustion of bearing the wizard’s mark had finally outweighed the suffering it brought. As a city burned under Ixiel’s scourge, the Coward dreamed of another life.
“Who are you?”
A stern faced man loomed over Navall. Wisps of blonde whiskers framed a freckled face, and despite the scowl that hid them, blue eyed kindness stared into his own hazel desperation.
“Where am I?”
“Who are you?” the phantom repeated. They were in a ruined temple of Dawn, one lately sacked in the Succession Wars. Around them lie many corpses from a new war, their armor so freshly smithed that it remained sterling in their annihilation.
“Is this Cord? I haven’t—It’s been… a decade?”
“Who are you?” the soldier demanded, taking a black ichor soaked sword and thrusting in the ground. From within his sundered plackart came an unstanchable flow of blood. Navall shuddered in recollection of an earlier nightmare. Would he ever be free of the echoes of his sins?
The answer lay in the fixed gazed of the dead man. Raising himself up, the Coward grabbed the hilt of the sword.
“I am a soldier. I was your comrade.”
“And who am I?”
“Hann, son of Hannick. Young Lion of Brendunin.”
“Aye, you promised you would never forget that, my friend.”
A rueful smile twisted Navall’s lips as a deeper melancholy clouded his face. Unable to bear this recollection, he cast his gaze downward upon the sword his hand grasped.
“Look at me,” Hann commanded. The Coward obeyed out of fear, despite fear, “You promised you’d never forget. That was more than promising not to forget a name or a place or a battle won. It was promising to remember the deeds that made your friends; that made you. It was promising to remember yourself. Your oath hasn’t forgotten you, Gavell Norrin. Have you forgotten it?”
The Coward nearly choked at the invocation of a dead name, of a lost man.
“A warrior is what he does. Not a reputation, not a misfortune, most certainly not excuses. In all the days I knew ye, you were a warrior. And you promised you would not forget.”
Tears pooled at the corners of his eyes. He began to shake, to whimper, to loathe once more the wretched thing that he would wake to. Blue eyes of sympathy remained level with his and a firm hand put a grip over his own.
The dawn of a new day was upon the Coward as he woke in the ruined mill. Removing the refuse and rubble under which he had hidden himself, he crossed the river into the smoldering ruins of the once and former city. Ixiel’s destruction of the town was far from complete. Though it was ruined by his beasts, there remained no few survivors, moaning with distress and lamenting their misfortune. Wordlessly, he walked among them, giving water to the thirsty and bandaging the hurt.
By noon the Coward had made it to the western end of town, whereupon he met a man who stood before the burnt out remains of his home. As he had done before, he offered the man his water skin. It was refused petulantly, and greeted with a curse and a spit on the ground.
“Is there nothing that will stop him? Is there no end to his hunger, his cruelty? So many call themselves valiant, recall the tales of provings and battles won, heroes forged, and yet where are the brave souls when you need them?”
The coward looked at the man, at his house, at the vast horizon of homes and shops looted and lost in the fevered madness of demonic cruelty. Taking a sip of his own water, he spoke for the first time since he had awoken.
“There's no one left to rescue us. We must save ourselves.”
The man blinked and looked at him, finally seeing the brand.
“Yes,” the Coward nodded. “I’ve known his curse. Worse than most. I’ve seen brave man rally in the face of his danger and the weak cower before his might. I know where I’d rather stand.”
Navall clapped the stranger on his shoulder and offered wishes for good days to come. So it was that the Coward departed the ruined city.
* * *
She found him in the wilderness not long after. He had walked for days without need of roads or worry for shelter. Having seen how Ixiel would remake the world in his image, she was not entirely shocked by the Coward's state, though he seemed more haggard than most. Yet how could she judge, her own robes soiled with travel and her eyes dulled by the visions of so many souls in turmoil
“Hail,” he said by way of hollow greeting, offering her some water from a skin.
“Well met, traveler. How fare thee?”
The man shrugged. It was as good an answer as anyone could offer.
“I see. And the city of Winnavon?”
The man shook his head, “Not much left, I’m afraid.”
“And the people?”
“There are survivors. There’s hope.”
She looked at the strange man and wondered, “Then why are you leaving?”
He shrugged again.
“I’m not much luck for others. Better to take my chances in the woods and the hills, keep others from getting hurt instead of seeking to hide behind their coattails.”
His green eyes betrayed more than simple desire for hermitage. Grabbing his bearded face with her hand, she pulled back the cloak from his shoulders.
“Let me see your face.”
And there it was, clear as day. A word of binding etched into his face, masked as the horrible seal of the one called Ixiel. She knew at once his troubles, his ill luck, and the hold that dark magicks had over him. She released him from her grasp and looked again into the pained eyes that watched her.
“You poor, wretched creature. Your suffering must be great to bear. My name is Delia. I can help.”
Breathing in deeply, Delia called upon the spirits to guide her hands. Placing her fingers over the mark, she soothed the ache of its curse with a cool touch. The word faded, the skin warmed, and again color filled the stained mien of the reviled wanderer. Exhaling the power she had absorbed from him, she offered a kindly smile.
“I have concealed you from his reach. It won’t last forever. Perhaps a decade or two at most, maybe more if his power diminishes… one can never say exactly. What is your name?”
“Gavell Norrin, soldier of the Knight Aveline. Survivor of Monticulus.”
His chest seemed to ease with the admission of those words, as he once more reclaimed the true name of his self.
“Well then, Gavell. I release you of this curse. May you use the days afforded to you well, and use wisely this second chance.”
Sweeping down onto one knee, the former soldier Norrin bowed his head before her.
“I swear, my lady, that I will not disappoint again.”