The Keep of the Black Crag

February 1, 2015 - Short Story

The Keep Of The Black Crag – A Short Fantasy Story By Kelly D. Tolman
“The horde is not mindless,” said my master abruptly. “Each creature within the writhing mass can think and act, and each bears deadly weapons. Like men, they have fears and desires. They can be manipulated as easily as the kings of your land.”
“I’ve never know a king,” I replied. Pasav chuckled to himself.
“Of course not.” He paused, looking amused as he walked. “I have known too many.” Again he laughed, “and each one a bigger fool than the first.”
Pasav delighted in confusing me. We were far from any land I had ever known before. Day after day we rode through forests and over hills. We rested some days, and some days we did not. “Why don’t we take the plain roads,” I once asked.
“Because there is nothing of interest for us there,” was the reply.

 

The old man spoke in riddles or spouted legends. But his food was plentiful and easy enough to cook. Despite his strange ways and lofty manner, I like the old man. He was as kind as he was mysterious, and his discipline came only when necessary.
Truly I did lose interest in the affairs of the villages we passed. My own home in Craverton faded into a distant memory, where my withered mother’s face looked out on the dusty streets, waiting for a change that would never come. Pasav taught me to hold my spear, and to ride tall in the saddle. When we camped, he handed me a practice sword, and bade me learn to use it properly. Aged though he was, Pasav moved faster than a cat, and I found myself gently bruised by his hard teaching.
“There is no softness in the blade,” he chuckled. Then he put his arm on my shoulder and held up my chin. “Pain is everywhere in the world. We all feel it. The sword is hard, but the healer’s hand is soft and strong, stronger than the mightiest steel.” Then he showed me how to tend the bruises with herbs found in the hills, and where to find blossoms that brought hope and comfort. Day after day the lessons continued, tirelessly. Each moment he opened my mind, and each moment I found that I knew less than I ever thought possible.
After three weeks’ journey, we reached the foothills of the Tarangorn Mountains, far to the north of my village. By now I rode comfortably in the saddle, and the practice sword felt as comfortable in my hand as the crumbs of bread I used to crave. The end of summer was upon us, and the weather turned each hour a little colder. Before me the peaks rose blue and then white. A chill wind crossed our path, and I shivered in the saddle.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Nuriath, the ancient north realm,” responded Pasav. “No one lives here now.”
I looked about the barren hillsides all around us, and confirmed his assertion. “Where are we going?”
“A long time ago King Eirionoth built a fortress on the very edge of the mountains. He called it the Keep of the Black Crag. After our fall, the Horde overran the keep, and the kingdom fell into ruin. Many foul things lurk in the lower halls of the keep, but the upper portions are still well maintained. We will dwell there for some months this winter. I have a large store of provisions waiting there, and it is better housing than this open land. The Horde will move again this winter, and we must be prepared to meet them.”
I held my peace, although many questions still lay heavy on my mind. In another two weeks we came to the first of the mountains. In a narrow pass, high on the eastern face of the cliffs overlooking the valley sat a black fortress. Its dark spires stabbed into the sky like black spears pointing angrily at the gods. A narrow road cut into the face of the mountain and worked its way to the edge of the pass. The sunlight seemed to disappear into the shadows of the fortress, and no sound came from its dark windows.
“Once the keep was a fair place, full of laughter and feasting. Eirionoth was a powerful wizard in his time.” Pasav seemed lost in his deep memories as he spoke. “In those days the mountains were not as cold as you see them now. We worked many wonders in our seclusion from men, and they treated us with proper respect. Freely we shared with the kings all that we knew, indeed, the very foundations of the Keep of the Black Crag are imbued with mystical powers; and kings ruled from here freely. No army could ever assail it. In later days, though, its power failed. My brethren failed.” My master looked suddenly sad, and he stopped his horse and stared blankly at the castle above us.
“What happened?” I asked. “Did the Horde finally break down your defenses?”
Pasav half smirked and half sighed. “The more powerful of our order were able to summon servants from other spheres or to imbue dead things with life, or alter existing creatures so that they could learn intelligence. These servants were employed to build the keep, as well as to discover many new secrets. The gods blessed us as long as we were kind and gentle, and did not attempt to bring evil into the world. Some were tempted for greater power. The strongest of us, Niersath, summoned demons that taught him how to twist and torment the flesh of men and beasts. Together with some followers who also sought power, they created the creatures of the Horde. In the end, all of our creations turned against us. Our power failed, and their wills were made their own. The creatures overran all of the mountains. Most of my brethren were destroyed. Those who remained were summoned by the power of the gods to the Oracle deep in the mountains. We were charged with undoing what we had done. ‘You shall remain in this realms until all are destroyed’ they said. So we began to walk the earth in search of the Horde, attempting to undo our wrong. As long as even one of the creatures remains, the wizards do not age. But many of my brethren have been destroyed. I am the last of our order to continue, unless the rebel Niersath still lives. The horde has a power that I do not understand to continue to thrive. Each year thousands are destroyed, and each year their power grows.”
My master stopped speaking, and urged his horse up the narrow path towards the castle. I followed quietly, and watched the valley floor grow steadily further away. The roadway was broad enough for the two horses to walk side by side, but I chose to ride behind, as close to the mountain as possible. The pavement was black, and polished as if it had been laid just the day before. No fence or wall had been made to protect the edge, and the stone of the cliff face had been polished smooth as glass to the height of several men above the road. A chill wind beat against us from the north as we reached the top, and I pulled my cloak over my face. In the sky overhead, thick gray clouds gathered.
Pasav rode straight up to the castle gate, and finding it open, passed inside. I followed cautiously, but found no danger inside. “Shut the gate, Kyven,” he said. I dismounted, and began to labor with the enormous metal doors Pasav continued up towards the castle entrance itself, and soon disappeared inside. I managed to close the gate, and let down the bar to lock it shut before going inside of the castle myself.
My master had lit torches and built a small fire in a small room near the entrance. “There are many inhabitants of the castle now,” he warned quietly. “Most of them will not trouble us until we trouble them. They know that I use the upper portions of the castle, and are afraid to disturb me. Do not go down to any of the stories below for any reason.”
I nodded that I understood, and began taking out provisions to prepare a meal at the fire. “How long will we stay here?” I asked.
“We will stay through the winter. There are only a few passes through the mountains, but from here we can watch them all. In the ancient days, we built two other fortresses, greater than this to watch the other ways. Ardinan Tower and Castle Tirimbil are both still held by living kings. The Horde does not challenge those paths often anymore, for the warriors there are valiant and cunning. When you are ready, perhaps you will got to Ardinan Tower and train with the king’s guard.”
“I do not wish to be a warrior,” I replied. “I would rather be a cook.”
Pasav laughed, as merrily as I had ever heard him laugh. “Then you had best practice a great deal more.” He gestured at the fire, and the meal I was preparing. Rarely did anything I cook taste very good. Suddenly his manner changed, “but I am glad to hear your words. There is wisdom in them. Choose always not to want to be a warrior, even when you must take up a sword.”
“I had no trade before, though I was apprentice blacksmith for a while. What trade will I learn from you?”
“I also have no trade,” replied Pasav. “I am a wizard, a scholar, a thinker of great things.” He laughed out loud, “and mostly now I am an old man. You will learn no useful trade from me. I will teach you to be a warrior because I do not want you to be killed by the Horde. But I require an assistant for a time. You will know when you have learned enough, and then you will find your own way in this world.”
“Then I will learn to cook,” I replied. I finished preparing the meal, and we ate together in comfort. The dark castle was the first roof I had felt in several weeks, and I was glad for it.
“In the morning, we will find more comfortable quarters,” said Pasav, “but we will probably have to relocate some of the current inhabitants of the castle. With luck, we will have a few more weeks before the Horde tries to move south for the winter.”
The morning found the castle courtyard covered in a light layer of snow. There was no sign of any other creature beside us outside, and no sounds came from within. Pasav showed me around the ancient rooms and halls. He carried a set of keys, with which he opened several doors and showed me where he had stored provisions. The throne room was barren except for the ancient throne, and a few other chairs. The bedrooms were also empty. In a far corner of the castle, he showed me a locked door.
“The stairs beyond go down,” he said sharply, “do not go down them.”
The tower stairs and ramparts were free and clear, and from the highest towers the entire valley below for many miles was visible and open. Pasav had me put our gear in the bedrooms, and showed me where the kitchen was. After a tour and another lesson with the practice sword, Pasav took me to the north wall.
“From here we will see the approach of the enemy. The snow has come early, so we may expect them very soon. I hope that there will not be so many because of the losses they suffered in the summer, but we must try to destroy them all in this one pass. If any escape, then we will have to hunt them throughout the south all winter long.”
“Don’t they know that the pass will be guarded?” I asked.
“Of course, but they must chance it. Their numbers increase so rapidly that some of them must leave sometimes. In the winter, food is scarce for them, so they come south. We will stop them here. Come with me.”
I followed Pasav to the back of the castle, where the rampart met the mountain. A small path wound its way up the mountain, and eventually into the snow. The snow and ice grew deeper and more dangerous as we went, and several times I slipped. Eventually we reached a point where the path disappeared entirely. Pasav turned, and pointed to the valley below.
“I have more than food stored in the castle. When the Horde comes, we will let fall the snow into the valley, and they will be stopped. We will take turns watching. Your job will be to run up the path as quickly as possible, and wait for my signal. I will show you how to let the snowfall. Then you must hurry back to the castle. Whatever else happens, when the Horde comes, do not leave the ramparts, or go back inside the castle until I come for you.”
I was not sure that I understood everything the wizard wanted to explain, but I nodded my head. “I will let the snow fall, and wait for you on the ramparts. What will happen if the Horde gets into the castle?”
Pasav laughed openly. “That will not happen. But some creatures may come up from below, or out of the mountains when they hear the noise. Carry your spear, you should be able to protect yourself well enough while I am gone.”
We walked back down the mountain, and Pasav began to show me where his magical devices were stored, and how to use them. Each morning before any of my other duties, he made me run to the top of the path with a torch to light the fire that would let the snowfall. Again, before every meal, and sometimes during the day for no apparent reason Pasav would have me make the run. When I was not running up the mountain, I walked the ramparts, watching the valley and carrying my spear. Pasav spent nearly all of his time on the mountain with his boxes and barrels. Many times I carried supplies up for him, and still each day he made me practice with the sword.
After three weeks, the valley floor was also covered with a layer of snow, and the mountain path had become a trench through the ice. Finally, in the afternoon, I saw a black mass appear far north in the narrow valley. “Pasav,” I yelled, “Master, they are coming.”
The wizard joined me quickly on the rampart, and looked at what I saw. “Get your torch, and be off. Remember, do not light the fire until you get the signal.”
I had run the path so many times now that I needed no further instructions. I carried the torch quickly and without difficulty, and stood at the end of the path waiting. I couldn’t see much in the valley below, only a distant mass growing steadily larger. Eventually the mass disappeared beneath the shadows of the mountains, and I waited for the signal. My heart pounded, and I gripped the torch and my spear impatiently. After many minutes, a little ball of fire shot up into the sky, Pasav’s signal. I knelt, and used the torch to light the fire. When it began to burn steadily, I turned and made my way quickly down the path.
I reached the ramparts of the castle, and Pasav had already left. Below us, in the valley, the Horde approached. The mass of dark, beastly bodies moved quickly, yet quietly over the snow-laden ground, kicking up gusts of white powder as it went. High above, in the mountain, nothing stirred for a long time. I began to fear that the fire had gone out, when suddenly a resounding explosion shook the mountain and the castle. Almost instantly, the Horde stopped moving forward. Several animalistic voices cried out as the mountain began to drop vast amounts of snow over them. Across the valley, the echo shook the other mountain, and it too began to cast its wrath down upon the Horde. I fell to the ground, covering my ears, and hoped beyond hope that the castle would remain on its perch on the cliff.
After several minutes of rumbling and terror, the mountain stopped moving. I picked myself up, and ran down the rampart into the courtyard, “Pasav,” I called, “Master, where are you?” No one answered. I reached the castle entrance, when his words of warning returned to my mind, but too late. A large creature, like a dog, though slavering and covered with hard scales leaped out of the darkness. I raised my spear, and tried to jump out of the way. The beast knocked me over, and I crashed to the ground. Before I could react, it was on top of me. With the shaft of the spear I was able to protect myself from its angry fangs, but my strength was no match for its fierce wrath.
Suddenly the beast faltered. It turned its head, and I saw Pasav bring down his great sword. The beast died and I rolled from beneath the corpse. “To the rampart,” he said in a stern, commanding voice. I did not hesitate, but flew to the top of the stairs. In the courtyard below, I heard the sounds of battle as Pasav faced the creatures that were fleeing the castle.
I looked out over the castle wall, and for as far as I could see; the valley was filled with deep snow, and the twisted bodies of dead creatures. Black and broken, they littered the horizon. My arms and face were cut where I had been attacked, but I did not feel the sting. Suddenly a hand was on my shoulder, and I heard Pasav’s voice, “we have stopped them again, for a time, but our work is not yet done. Help me clear the courtyard, and then we can rest.”
THE END

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