Of the eldritch world will you hear, of famous bronze and unearthly fire,
how it was that a few companions went up against lawless breeds
and creeping peril, delivering all the broad lands from desolation.
They dared enter darkest caves, going into depths enchanted.
At last they found the worst obstacle, the horse-devouring,
man-devouring, horned terror, first-born of ancient Chaos.
By the son of Jarlath, fiercest among them, was it accomplished.
He pierced the artery of the beast with an ancestral blade, trusting
that the prayer of his companions had been heard.
Willed by the Allfather they were, some to heroic end, but others to return,
and see their work harvested upon the Plain of Gederon, that day
the great armies stood opposed. So they witnessed the hour of the Banelord’s doom.
They were a remnant crew, a few hireling footmen, all adopted sons of Ulthor,
land of the white shores. Nine warriors, survivors of bloody days,
who had weathered the Wars of the Spear, the long campaigns and endless marching.
It was the Prince of Yrbath himself who commanded the lances to distinction,
that day the war-omens proved true and the skull-standard sunk,
though the companions were not there, their own hands did not work the very deed
or know valour’s fame, only the shackles of the enemy. Those wars left the world
and the many years of soldier's toil ended, and there was had scant fruit of glory for it,
nor even much glittering gold which eases many burdens.
Nor did any foreign armies seek such men at arms.
And what was worse, peace had brought bitter rivalry between war-ranks
vying for honors, and winged rumor went round perching on the tongues of nobles,
how a disgruntled company spoke words ill-thought or under spell of wine.
The Prince of Yrbath grew wroth when he heard of how they were murmuring,
their overbold desires for lands, titles, and gold, and from his high seat in his castle
addressing his grand-knights he spoke.
“No more are they welcome to dine and drink down shining wine in my grandfather's halls. Was it not enough that I freed them from slavery, providing a priceless ransom
to the Nolghost? Where would they be now if not for this? -Labouring in some goblin mine, no doubt, beneath the towering stronghold Zabol, horrid monument of those devil-infested mountains. Why are they not content with humble service as guards or yeomen? And now they go about the towns vaunting aloud that they are heroical lords, deserving the best wine, as if by their own hands they pushed back the dark horde. And what is this report I hear, that they are to form an oathfold and even claim exemptions from their duties? Is not their flesh marked for service according to custom? No longer will they exalt themselves among my men, but they must taste of some correction. So then, if they find no honor in their life here, let them go upon the sea in hopes of fame and easy coin, or loot raided from the burial mound of some pagan king long-dead and forgotten. We shall not hinder them from such huge folly born of pride, let them go beyond the outer forest into unpatrolled realms, but they may not return until they have increased the sway of righteousness in the realms, for soon will they regret the error and beg return. No welcome words will offer restoration of their state, unless they show forth some great sign of penance and labour, a dragon’s head or crown of some heathen monarch, though I fear the dark powers may exact heavy payment for such a trophy. They will at least avoid a dishonourable end. In order that the iron rod fall not too heavily upon them, I will issue them some life-saving help, a well-taught physician to look after them. Send along the monk from Sippar, the one who knows how battle wounds heal. He is a monk so quiet and invisible, that no one even notices his presence unless he is called for."
So he commanded, so his word went forth,
and the courtly servants saw to it that his decree was published to all.
Thenceforth would the crew learn the cost of deeds boastfully famed. At least they reckoned well what weight a rightful throne commands. So made they preparations to sail off. "Where should we go forth?" they would ask each other:
"To what land sail in quest? To seek what bright trophy?"
Taking counsel they searched the annals of foreign lands but found no quest, and many a day passed. Soon they became like worried dogs that have been locked out of their master’s house, and they feared greater shame if the Prince would expel them perforce. Then one day old Gulathar, the wrinkly face, the oldest of the elf-ears among them,
took each aside and bid them come to meet at night, saying,
"Our ears have found a new hope, a tale from the land of Kargiwall, an account of a devious wizard who long ago built deep-rooted towers. The wizard's treachery was discovered. The peasants took up pitch forks to rid the land of the intrigue, so the wizard stole away into his terrible tower, he vanished with unimaginable loot into its deep-rooted lairs."
Their hearts needed no more encouragement. In the year 414 of the Fourth Age they met, there in the dear homeland they knew, Ulthor rich in sea-haul. So let the tale begin there, at the tavern, bright with the glow of candles, when only a day remained before they sailed.
In a room apart they stood and there were they gathered, the oak doors closed and guarded. Assembled were they at the famous table of whitewood, the oath-room, there in The Golden Mermaid, the soldiers' mead-hall in Yrbath, city upon the splashing sea. Dedicated brethren and no strangers to hopeless risk, they determined with spoken oaths to go marauding the underworlds and thereby win heaping treasure. Nor did they fail to persuade skillful hands into their venture, individuals no dungeoneer would ever neglect to bring along,
for strange and unknown are the deeps below.
Who was it dared speak oaths of bloody daring? There were three reckless fighters, and a knowledgeable paladin too, a troll-wise geljin (they are elf kin, an old deep-born race of famous miners), and a mage steeped in strange verse, whose mother they say, had been elf kind. He it was who now first spake an oath, binding upon his head the silver-wale diadem of Nystol, embroidered with unspeakable runes. Never did he speak a solemn word without it.
"Hear ye this, good soldiers, you know me as Thalfin the dark-robe, but let me be called avenging onslaught instead, if ever I see my brothers in deadly straights. For by my bones and blood, I vow all fury and death-dealing magic in defense of the man in peril, whosoever he be and whatsoever the circumstance, be it against beast or nightmare, giant or highest sorcery, risking life and limb, everything for the one jeopardized, glory and loot come what may."
So made he grave utterance, and then stood forth the reckless barbarian, a hycman, Urius Crald of the long locks, whose hair was shaved on the sides, leaving a crest like a boar's mane. A savage look born of the cruel hills, brutish of stock, but a sure throw with the axe and one who could best unleash the deliberate sword-stroke.
He set his heirloom bronze sword on the table and spake:
“Life is brief and troubled, but there is much enjoyment for the bold. I honour that pledge and hold myself to the same, no well-woven magic to offer, nor high birth to claim, but rather the hazardous edge of my dooming bronze to send a gift of bloody victory."
So he vowed in turn, and then spake the high-standing lanceman Rohorst. Bald was he, nor hair had he about the face, his dark skin a banner of distant Mahanaxar,
his daedal cuirass adorned with leopards rampant and shining.
"I also gravely vow, and let my share of the booty go to the man who finds me hold back my spear or many-knotted club, unsure of my God-given strength, if ever a mass of enemies overwhelms us, for first shall I go down in heaps of the slain..."
So the fearesome-limbed Rohorst spake. Troll-wise Gulathar the gelgin was next, bred of an enchanted kind, his ears pointed, his limbs weirdly shaped, hunched, gangling, an old one. He it was who knew many things needed for rough adventure in brooding places, he who first offered the enterprise and had first known of rumoured gold.
“My vow retreats from no boldness of tongue, nor will you see me leave a man trapped at the bottom of some echoing cave, broken in the dark, abandoned in a sightless pit, groaning under inaccessible gloom. I will never leave his presence until he draws his last breath."
All nodded and thought themselves under happy stars, if not divinely favored. The remaining men, reckless soldiers, took oaths of the same calibre, Snorri Rulkson of Niruz, a gentle giant who stood a full head higher than common men, and so unnatural was the threat of his sinews and muscle, that his very presence could not help but cause concern. Handy with the ash spear and war-mallet, swore he his simple oath in guttural tone:
“By the honor of my grandfathers put to proof my word, for take heed, let only dreadful deeds spring from this hammer I hold. It will smash and confound beasts, enemies, and specters until they fear the very shadows in which they dwell..."
So frowning swore he, a great mass of devastation. Then came the sworn utterance of the paladin Norgonce, marshal of the order of Ammouri, ever-mindful of the Father in Heaven, and holding before them all the heavy basher Mithrohan, the shining holy war-relic, he spake.
“No matter the cost, I shall pray for the companions when the sun rises and when it sets, and may the power of the Allfather work through this sacred mace, a weapon fated to pulverize the fiendish sculls of our enemy. And if they know not enough to stay in the dust, you shall hear me speak a holy word that will banish their foul spirits back to bottomless Hell."
So were the words the beardless paladin spoke, echoing power on high. Next came Parythio of Karyth the halfling, a nimble scout with hair shorn close, who recently ceased to mourn his wife, for she had passed into the land of the blessed.
"Even now I must stand on a chair to make my point, but though my size seems no great asset, judge not too soon, for the havoc of war holds many a surprise. You will never see me relinquish from death-dealing, no matter how mighty an enemy.
Down into the deep tracts of hell I'll go, into any hole or crevice, and tread lightly on sleeping behemoths, or dissemble any iron lock."
At last came the turn for the other halfling, Harpio, of Harpium, war-companion of Parythio. He did not come forth but stood there with his thoughts and upon some troubled concern,
so Thalfin of the dark robes addressed him.
“Speak, friend, tell us what troubles you,
and know that there is no shame in withdrawing from oaths."
¶Then Harpio looking up with hard gazes spake directly,
“At first, talk of glory and glittering spoils lured me to this chamber, and concern for my companion's safety, but I cannot abide by such an adventure, fellows, it is not within my power, for you speak of things dreadful, terrible, of places where men should not go. There are others who wish to see my own life last into future days. Let me breathe in the open air as long as it is given me, and my hope shall be with you."
So speaking he bowed and began to leave the room. The others offered conciliatory words and made his purpose seem the better for him, that he stay behind, live, and seek out good land, for the life of the adventurer who would sack the shadow-lands is short indeed.
So there were eight in all including the monk, and they titled themselves the Bladetongue, for the oaths spoken by their tongues were deadly, just as the blades of unsheathed swords.
¶Thus that night they uttered daring oaths, but not Damis and Odohir, men of long standing with the Company, archers trained in Ael Lot, land of the colossal firs. They were good men in a fight, but took no oath, accepting instead payment, and small share of the haul provided they go even to the end. Freedom from the death-risk was theirs, but no hero's portion. The young Phaethar heard oaths as well, son of a Rumilian noble,
one who had not yet whetted his sword with the blood of an enemy.
Then did those now bound turn to leave the oath-room. And as they were about to retire to last merriments in the smokey tavern, Norgonce, the grey-haired paladin,
raising his voice above their talk said,
"Now stay a spell and keep shut the door, hear some things of high import which must be revealed, for I have spoken with nobles and highly placed Knights, men in authority, and the Prince himself, royal scion of the good King of Ulthor,
who has come into full knowledge of these plans.
Not much earlier this day another assembly was held, and I was there, in the Castle of the Prince of Yrbath, at a meeting of the grand council. Know that it is not a good thing when other warriors see their fellow soldiers freely sail off to quest for gold while they themselves must keep duty of patrol, or the watch on castle walls, dull work indeed.
¶Ye all know what words the Prince spoke when he heard of your intentions, and, as for myself, I am Grand Paladin of the Knights of Ammouri, so you know me to be no common soldier, even though I ate rations beside you in the years of blood. Doubtless you wonder why I, unforeseen, have joined your expedition. So I will tell you. Yesterday, while the sun set in the west, I rose from my seat at the long table and addressed the high lord, saying,
“Great Prince, we have always held thy commands in utmost trust, and as of late division irreconcilable has troubled every fold, even some of my own knights are tempted to part from the ancient discipline. Many are the false reports made in wise to dislodge those who hold rank. These rowdy men-at-arms you speak of, the same are defenders of my own kin. I beg thee, forbid them to follow their own designs, their ill-starred and thoughtless quest, for if they sail forth to Ardeheim or some other bitter land they will surely die. But consider how their known loyalty may merit them a mere slap of your disciplinary glaive this once, and remember how they showed great thanks for your past sacrifices,
especially profound when thou freed them from the mines of Zabol.”
So speaking I sat down and there came forth from the shadowy corner another knight, with a limping gait. At the very end of the table he presented himself to speak. He was one never much seen in the castle, indeed, his ornate cuirass, darkly shining raiment, and high stature marked him a formidable knight. Nor could one easily discern him, for the torches lit him but dimly, and about his face a black cloth and hood was wrapped, which all who saw supposed a cover for some battle-wound. So looking up he addressed me.
“Norgonce, you hold in this council the esteem of wise, and such I held you, but this request just made puts me in doubt. You say the troublesome crew gave thanks for the king’s deliverance them from chains. Is there a soldier who would not have been thankful for release from the pains in the hell-fortress Zabol? You would yourself, no doubt, and recompense hard chains for humble acts of gratitude. So they did nothing worthy of remark. I would know, being myself no stranger to such debts.
Recall how I rendered grateful acts unto our Prince, the time I found release from the pain of imprisoning that you once prepared for me. From that dungeon below us (where now we stand), the king summoned me. I could tell the meaning of fateful dreams. I was not always gifted with the sight, but in lieu of my brief services, exile was far preferable a penance.
Now in wisdom I have escaped the pains of exile to take my place again at the table of Grandmasters, a thing which by the All-law remains my right whenever a fourth harvest moon rises. But why look you so perplexed? Do you know me not? Ye knew me once before, no friend for thee, not to know me argues yourself unknown, or if you do know why stare with such amazed eyes?" So he spake and those were his very words, but then I, surprised but not taken, quickly rose and addressed him in turn.
¶"Think not, revolting knight, your look the same or of undiminished nobility as when you stood with the Ammouric fold, upright and pure. That glory departed from you, and you resemble now your offence and grim feifdom obscure and savage. Why is it that not all your rebel crew rode forth with you? Is their own shame of thralldom less pain? Less to be fled from? Less difficult to endure? Courageous knight, the first of rebels to flee from pain! But come, for thou must surely give account to the Prince who favors us all, since you have not appeared for many a tide in this assembly after your untimely release from that dark durance."
To whom that knight hiding his face under the dark hood made curt reply.
¶"Insulting knight, know that it is not because I less endure, or shrink from pain, since well thou knowest I stood as your fiercest opposer, when in battle the aid of the Ulthoran Crown himself seconded your otherwise not dreaded lance. Your own military inexperience is now shown to all, for how is it that a loyal war-chief like myself would risk his whole army to hazard a quest inside gates where ambushers like you thrive? I therefore, I alone first undertook to ride across the desolate waste, and spy this newly built castle, whereof, in my domain, its fame is not unheard. So I hoped to find better abode, and settle my afflicted knights just beyond Ulthor's bounds, even if it meant making contest anew against you and your men, whose easier task would rather be to serve your lord by flatteries and cowardly deference." To whom I with nearly boiling blood replied.
"To claim and next, straightway disclaim, pretending first that wisdom taught you to flee from a painful land, and next professing your intention was to spy? This argues no true leader, but a liar traced, and would you even add the word loyal? O sacred name of Loyalty profaned. Loyal to whom? To your rebellious crew? An army of fiendish robber-knights. So was this your version of martial obedience and loyalty, to dissolve allegiance to rightful authority supreme? And thou sly hypocrite, one who would now style himself patron of knighthood, who once fawned and cringed and knelt in service to our awe-inspiring Monarch, for what but in hope to dislodge him and yourself to reign? But mark what I advise you now, say your request and begone, ride back quickly to that baneful land from which you came, for if from this hour you appear again in these unbloodied castle halls, back through that wasteland I myself will ride, like before, dragging you on foot behind, bound hard in chains."
So I, wroth indeed, spake my threat. Next he retorts with contemptuous brow.
¶“Then, when comes the day that I am thy captive, talk of chains, proud exalted page-boy, until then, far heavier load expect to feel from my prevailing sword, though the King of Ulthor guard you with his adamant shield, and you and your underlings, accustomed to the servile pampering of noble privilege, try with huge loss to assail my domain..."
So did he offer boast and insulting challenge. But before that repellant knight could renew his lowly words, the Prince, seated in his oaken throne, with echoing voice addressed him,
"O loss of one so resplendent in glory and nobility, ill-starred Parazius of former name, now titled only Baleful lord, Sinostochs, one whom none have matched in excellence ever since thou fell, thou the royal-born knight whom folly overthrew. Why do you now return to us again from thy outlander thane-fort? Seeking what advantage have you escaped from your merciful punishment? With presumption do you still suppose that my clemency might gain thee some licence? But before you answer, know that although in my heart you are still held dear, the All-law is greater than any power. I can grant no more than the narrow passage and fruitless lands you already possess. But tell us why you come again to this assembly, preferring an exchange of hard words to the undisturbed resignation of remote lordship?"
¶So did the Prince command answer, and the fell knight therefore replied.
"New knowledge found of events past has driven me here, risking life and limb so that undeniable facts may be published to all. Did not my Prince hold it unnatural that a deeply trusted knight like me was so suddenly painted traitor, held as one rife with ambition and conspiracy, where before only blind obedience and simple discipline was found? Nor could the judges convict me with surety, and so no true punishment could be exacted,
but only this dishonor which was a mercy.
And know that bold conspiracy did indeed flourish, but not in my heart, rather it festered in the breast of my own trusted associate, one who used my good will and pure intention against me, and was first to accuse me, first to render judgment of condemnation. Nor was his evil plan without precision executed, though for sure he did not dare to hope that I would provide seeming evidence against myself. In my youthful temper I did not look to the laws, but resorted to the contest of arms, mustering fury against your false vassals, so great was my desire to protect you, my Lord and Prince, against one false paladin so skilled in disemblance. So they scattered my knights across the gory plain. Long in the depths I sat in chains, until your clemency prevailed against my long imprisonment below and won me happy exile, away from such intriguing courts. I now dare appear and provide you sure counsel
against that serpent who lay in your bosom.”
“Who is this among us that you accuse, rogue knight?” Demanded the great lord.
“Norgonce, grandmaster of the Ammouric Knights, who doubtless bides his time waiting for the best moment to strike."
So he made awful insinuation, pointing, and my frame convulsed, half-amazed, half-mad, ready to make a quick end of the villain. Then did the red-caped phalanx of hall-guards hem us all round with spears poised, as impassable as a thicket of thorn pines,
seeking to protect our Prince.
"Foul falsity, My Prince!" I cried, unable to offer quick rebuttal, but then, what effected even greater dismay was that the Prince gave no signal for his guards
to oust the liar but instead made reply.
"Grave are your sayings, Sinistochs, a high crime described against one highly placed, and it seems that you must now offer some irrefutable proof of such a grim plot, or if ye cannot do so, know that the very penalty the accused would have endured, will become your own."
So warned the noble Prince, and then the thane of nameless wastes,
unmoved, replied with this embellishment.
¶"Proof sure and without error I do have. But first, let Norgonce, high traitor of utmost design, now have moment to consider, a moment never afforded to myself when I accused stood, whether to knell down before me in fear seeking asylum and repenting, or shameless, to make contest against the remarkable proof I possess."
So in arrogance unsurpassed did he presume to offer me clemency, but the Prince, the virtuous lord, straightway admonished him.
"My knight remains where he stands and seeks not to avoid my judgment or offer repentance to one not his lord, nor may full knowledge of high crime be left unpublished. So now say directly what proof you hold whilst you are still allowed, or you will not even have a moment to escape the fury of my guardsmen."
end of fragment
This word did not fail to come to my ears while I was camped at the limits of my distant domain. I executed my duty and went with armed men to investigate the place of the crime and hunt down the evil doers. When we arrived there we found unburied bodies, knights and robbers both fallen in strife.