Bleakbourne on Heath had the worst weather Leryn, the bard, had ever experienced. Even on a windless night the cold and damp seeped into the bones of those unfortunates whose business took them into the streets.
But that night the wind howled, icy and carrying a moldy scent. The corpses of last year’s leaves huddled against the sides of buildings and crowded into the gutters, as if seeking shelter. In the street, the ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer was the only sound to be heard above the wailing wind.
Leryn played his harp softly, seated in the corner of the public room at the Ploughman’s Inn. He’d been in Bleakbourne on Heath for nearly three weeks, collecting strange folk tales. While most of the tales he’d heard were merely peculiar in the minds of those who told them, he’d found a few that piqued his interest, and only two days before, he’d had a strange encounter of his own.
Perhaps due to the weather, business at the Ploughman’s Inn was terrible. Other than Old Scutter, the woodsman who claimed no other name, and Tom, the tailor, Leryn was playing to an empty room.
Leryn had nearly played himself to sleep when an argument between Scutter and Tom drew his attention. Both men had ensconced themselves by the fire. The innkeeper, Polcock, left off polishing the woodwork and came around the bar to break them up. “Here now—I won’t have you two disturbing the peace in my establishment. Be civil, or get out.”
Tom downed his ale and stood up. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving.” He said to Polcock, “I know you all consider me touched in the head, and that may be true. But I know some things, and I’m telling you, something is wrong in Bleakbourne tonight.” He turned to Leryn. “A crypt-wind is blowing. You can feel it when you pass by the smithy. Why is William Smith hammering metal at this time of the night, and with no apprentice to help him? And who is the black knight that watches so intently as William works?” Glaring one more time at Old Scutter, he wrapped his cloak about himself and stepped out into the night.
Old Scutter said, “What does Tom know? William makes weapons out of metal, and knights want ‘em. It’s winter—it always feels like a crypt-wind is blowing. Tom’s a fool, always jumping at shadows, seeing fairies and ghosts.” The old man lapsed into silence and Polcock returned to his bar. Leryn set down his harp and, laying a coin on the bar, he accepted a tankard of mulled cider. After a few more minutes, Scutter stood up and left.
After the old man had gone, Leryn said, “What do you think? Is Tom right? Is something afoot in Bleakbourne?”
Polcock shrugged. “It’s peculiar out tonight. The rule of three is in force.” At the bard’s raised eyebrow he said, “A stranger is in town, but hasn’t passed through this room. William is pounding metal in the night without his apprentice. And finally, a crypt-wind is blowing.”
“I’ve never heard this term, ‘crypt-wind.’” Leryn wished he’d thought to fetch his notebook and a quill. “What does that reference?”
Instead of answering right away, Polcock stared at the door. Then, “It means someone, or something, has passed from the netherworld to our town tonight.”
Leryn stared at the innkeeper. “Some thing?” He jumped as the door opened and a cold blast preceded the visitor.
“Yes,” was all the innkeeper said, staring at the giant of a man who walked deliberately toward the bar.
Eyes, black as soot, gazed from beneath lank, dark hair. Heavily armored in black, the stranger spoke. “I want a meal for myself and for my horse.” His voice, as dark and cold as his eyes, sent shivers down Leryn’s spine. “I’ll be leaving within the hour.”
“That will be three coppers for the horse.” Polcock’s demeanor was all business, as if he served black knights the size of giants every evening. Leryn suspected his landlord would do business with the devil if he walked in, and consider it just part of a day’s work.
“And food for me?”
“Two coppers for stew, three if you also want mulled cider.”
The knight placed six coppers on the bar. “Cider now, if you please.”
Polcock served the knight, saying, “Leryn, here, will see to your horse.”
“Does your bard always act as a stable boy, or only when a horse of interest may be tied at your rail?”
Polcock replied, “He does so when I am serving the horse’s master. I’m without a stable hand, as horses rarely require accommodations in this town. Since the disappearance of Lord Tenneriff and his court, donkeys and oxen pull the carts that bring most of my guests. They tend to their beasts themselves.”
The knight grunted. “Tenneriff….”
As if the knight hadn’t spoken, Polcock said, “I’ll get your food.” He looked pointedly at Leryn, and jerked his head toward the door.
Leryn went out to the rail, and taking the gigantic horse’s reins, he led it to the stable, his head buzzing with unanswered questions. The beast was as black as his master, as was all the tack and barding, making it difficult to see in the lantern’s weak light.
Though the warhorse allowed him to lead him to the barn, the bard sensed he was not a safe creature by any means, and was wary of how he handled him. Knowing the knight intended to leave, he didn’t attempt to remove the horse’s tack. After filling the water trough and the feed bucket, he closed the stable, locking the door, though he doubted anyone would dare to steal anything belonging to that dreadful knight, or that the steed would allow himself to be stolen.
When Leryn reentered the inn, the knight was seated near the fire, eating. The bard went to his corner, and picked up his harp, but stopped when the knight said, “Don’t.”
“You don’t wish for music, my lord?”
“No. Music disturbs the magic. But you can give me a tale. Come here and tell me what you know of Tenneriff.”
Unable to think of a graceful way to refuse, Leryn complied. Seated opposite the knight, he told his tale, ending with, “So you see, I know little, save he is neither dead nor alive, and he is not here in this world.”
“Show me the symbols you saw engraved on the wall. Draw them on this.” From within his cloak the knight produced a folded piece of parchment. On it was a perfect drawing of Tenneriff’s castle, as Leryn had seen it. He handed Leryn a charcoal pencil.
The bard stared at the parchment, trying to picture the symbols.
“Draw them exactly as you saw them.”
“I will try sir. I only saw them briefly.” Laboriously, he tried to write them as he’d seen them, though they were in a language he was unfamiliar with.
The knight grinned, and Leryn’s bowels turned to water. His yellowed teeth had been filed to points.
Pointing to first one rune and then another, the knight said, “Obsession and madness. Rape. Imprisonment. Warning.” He pointed to the largest. “The wrath of God.” The low, grating chuckle was gleeful. “This was Merlin’s handiwork. The old man should never have touched the wizard’s daughter. Five runes means five score years.” The knight’s eyes gleamed red momentarily. “And then he is mine.”
The front door opened once again. This time, William Smith stood framed, holding a long, heavily padded object that seemed to weigh a great deal. From the shape of the bundle, Leryn suspected that beneath the wrappings was an immense sword for an equally immense knight. The smith’s grimace was a rictus of terror, but he hurried over. “Your blade sir.” Bowing, he offered it to the knight.
Taking the bundle, the knight turned to Leryn. “Bring my horse, stable-bard.” As Leryn went out the door, he saw the knight reach into his cape and withdraw a purse, which he tossed at the smith. William caught it, and mumbled his thanks, eyes lowered to the floor, not looking at the knight.
Leryn led the stallion back to the hitching rail, and the waiting knight. He held the bridle, waiting for the rider to mount, but the knight paused, holding the wrapped blade up in one hand, as if he was examining it. He spoke a word and the wrappings fell off. As they fluttered to the cobbles, the blade burst into flame, lighting the demon knight’s unholy features.
Grinning at Leryn’s obvious horror, he slid the flaming blade into his sheath, took the reins from the bard’s numb hands, and mounted his horse. “Bard.”
“Sir?” Leryn could hardly utter the word.
“I have a message for Merlin.”
Chattering teeth made Leryn’s blurted response nearly unintelligible. “S-s-surely he’s long d-dead.”
The knight laughed, harsh and cold as death. “Tell him, Bard. Tell him I will face him one day. Tell him to be ready.”
“Who are you, sir?”
“I am Mordred, whom he banished to Hell.” The demon knight’s eyes flashed the red of burning coals. “That, little bard, was the wizard’s greatest mistake.”
Stricken dumb, Leryn watched as the knight and his mount rode into the darkness, the evil wind whipping the black cloak. Suddenly, the knight vanished, as if through a gate. The wind died away, and a light snow began to fall.
“You got off lucky, lad.” William Smith stood trembling in the doorway, with Polcock behind him. “Merlin has no reason to set foot in Bleakbourne, if he even lives.”
Feeling the cold, Leryn went inside. “Many things in this place have no reason. My luck has turned sour since I came here.” Shivering before the fire, he said, “I should have stayed at my mother’s hearth.”
Polcock said, “Merlin lives, and he will come. When he’ll make his appearance is another story, but if Mordred came here demanding to see those runes, Merlin will surely follow, and he’ll have questions about that sword.”
William looked ill. “Surely…surely the wizard will understand. My family…the demon knows where I live. I couldn’t go against him.”
“No, you couldn’t.” Leryn knew it firsthand. “I don’t know many who could. Surely the old wizard will be reasonable.”
“Perhaps.” Polcock shrugged, and began closing up for the night. Letting William out the door he said, “Maybe you should ask Lord Tenneriff who it might be worse to thwart, the demon or Merlin.”
Casting a look of horror at Polcock, the smith turned and ran toward his home.
“You’re a cruel man, Polcock.” Leryn shook his head. “I’d like to know about the sword too, but I won’t ask. Ever.”
© 2015 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, all rights reserved
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.