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Wednesday, 14 January 2009
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My Brother, My Killer
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Chapter Eight: The Last Duel

Agnés refused to belief him, to understand what Nicolas’ new allegiance made him capable of doing. Accepting after all would mean she’d have to accept that she had driven a stake into his heart a few months ago which completed his transformation. Deep down she knew the blame that lay at her feet and suffered all the more for it. She heard the king announce that Nicolas was a traitor of the land and ought to be hunted down without mercy and was appalled by the measure. In his investment as the duke of Couronne, he allotted Simon as temporary warden to the lands of the Pinsson. Agnés now looked distant and cool at the knight, blaming him for scheming for power. Simon could not afford the luxury of bliss and was immerged in the search for his old friend. Winter however made him lose track of him in the Pale Sisters and he returned empty-handed to Entrevilles. The cold and long nights were lonely and filled with guilt-ridden prayers and tears. The lady of the castle meanwhile kept her facade at large while inside she hurt even more than Simon but she was not ready to accept her part in this cruel game. 

As winter vanished from the land, it took all trace of Nicolas with it: the most which Simon could determine he had passed into the imperial realm towards an unknown destination. Later that year he received the blessing of the king to become the new lord of the Pinsson fief, an honour which he had dreaded. All sigils and banners bearing the heraldry of Nicolas were burnt in a bonfire as was custom in dealing with a traitor and were replaced by Simon’s own coat-of-arms which made him feel the betrayer instead. The former lady of the keep still did not speak to him but Simon was determined to let her slip away from him as well: every day he spent time with her which she dutiful underwent though her hard glance still betrayed her burning heart of stone.

Years passed and the slowly the wound closed but the scar remained. Common belief has it that Nicolas was dead forevermore to never trouble the lands anymore. Though Simon’s mind doubted this, in his mind he yearned for it and to receive a sign so he could end that miserable chapter of his life. Every year Simon paid his respect to his companions who were buried near the now desolate and nameless fort but though his tears had dried up, the hurt lingered. Agnés seemed to open up once more thanks to his persistent courtesy calls. Her mind and heart were still wounded but the bleeding had stopped to make way for bruises. She finally accepted her part in the downfall of Bretonnia’s greatest but never forgave herself. Which made two of them and slowly they found solace in each other’s arms once more. It stopped at solace for she did not long for anything more until Nicolas was unquestionably dead or returned to her. Her love for Simon was gradually restored but would never burn as strong as before.

The higher the star of a man rises on the firmament, the longer and the more crushing its fall, destroying all that surround him and pulling them with him as a sinking ship headed for the deep ends of the sea. The sea bears me towards familiar lands, the sea has betrayed my former land: the sea has brought me to the shores of home. The broken and swollen black lips of the man formerly known as Nicolas parted in a wicked grin to show the rotten and darkened crumbling teeth beneath. His longship struggled underneath his armoured feet against the surf like the hundreds of others now making landfall. Little dots of men fled their coastal villages for the coming storm of men which would scorch the very earth to better suit the lords of destruction. He would end their puny lives and bring the blessing of the four gods to these lands. Deceiving light would be replaced by truthful darkness.

The news of the defeat of the army of the duke of Lyonesse shocked the land and sent a shiver of fear through the hearts of every knight and man. Out of nowhere the corrupted men had arrived on the shores of the dukedom, their crude and primitive ships landing before the ducal fleet could react. A giant of a man in a body riddled by pest and disease led this tempest, parts of his body covered with crumbled Bretonnian armour. The hastily mustered army of the progeny of Thierulf had no chance against the enemies of order and was pushed back to the city where it now was besieged. The king had risen his banner, declaring a war of errantry, against the men of the north. Two armies would be rallied north and south of the forest of Arden to strike the hordes besieging the city from two sides. Simon called out to his loyal knights and serfs to prepare for war so they could meet the northern army led by the duke of L’Anguille at Grasgar Castle. Safe for his duty to lord and land, he had  a second reason to muster his army to meet the norse raiders in the fields of battle: the tales of their warlord had awakened old fears and he wanted to look upon the monstrosity himself. Lady Agnés had the same suspicions and insisted on coming to which Simon didn’t have the heart to refuse. So the two of them and the army of Pinsson marched to meet their former master.  

Weeks later and Lyonesse still stood defiant on its rock to the forces of oblivion. Meanwhile the two armies had marched all the way to the beleaguered city. The enemies were even vaster a number then first expected, outnumbering the king’s forces a hefty ten to one. Their forces had stopped storming the walls when they arrived and now prepared just like them to meet them on the battlefield. The day before the battle Simon mostly prepared for the coming onslaught but every once in a while his gaze wandered over the endless mass of corrupted mortals. It surrounded a little hill which stood as an island in the sea of black. A tent made of rough leathered skins stood erected on the grassy knoll, signifying the presence of their warlord. Near the evening a figure emerged from the tent, too far out for Simon to make out but he seemed to be a giant mass of fat, partially covered by battered and rusted armour which looked Bretonnian in origin. The statuesque being wobbled over to an empty banner pole and hoisted a crude flag. The knight paled as he recognised the dirtied white and black divide and was angered to see the rose replaced by the eight-pointed star which entrapped the grail. In his mind he could see the corrupted mass of a man mocking him.  

“Mostly they are norsekin but several units of the warped armoured men have been sighted. For as far as we know their demon spawns aren’t on the battlefield which should be to an advantage to us.” The duke of L’Anguille so surmised the reports of the scouts at the war council. Simon was perched at the edge of the pavilion, his experience and title allowing him to be present but leaving him no options but to listen to his battle plans. “Their longboats are patrolling the coast line, harassing our fleet and occasionally moving men from one part of the island to another. They could be a threat to us if they move entire units from their besieging troops to the shore: we are outnumbered already and this’ll be a long stretch as it is.”
“Can’t we wait for reinforcements of the other races? Surely the Emperor’s army is just a few weeks away?” A baron whose name slipped from Simon’s mind interrupted.
“That they are but the duke has let us known that his position is strained by the continual assaults and won’t last much longer. We can’t let a fellow Bretonnian down now that we are here so we’ll hit them hard and fast. Our southern army is encamped over the hills here.” The general pointed at a place on the map. “They’ll commence the hostilities by charging their left flank, hopefully by surprise. When they have drawn most of the enemy’s attention, we’ll sweep in on their right and mop up what remains. Lady willing, the combined effort will unbalance our enemy and drive them back into the sea. Now unto the specific details.”
“Milord?” The entire tent looked up from the map to Simon Gastinois with surprised annoyance in their eyes.
“Castellan Gastinois, I tolerate your presence here but don’t interrupt again or I’ll have you removed.”
“But milord, I humbly beg your attention for I may have information vital to our success.”
“Don’t try my patience.” The voice of the duke grumbled.
“Please, sir, heed me. He’ll expect exactly such a plan.”
“I’ve identified whose heraldry their warlord is carrying, milord. He used to be my friend, Lady fend, he used to be our friend. Their warlord is nothing less but Nicolas Pinsson.”
“Pinsson? The traitor?”
“And an esteemed sword master and tactician. He’ll know we’ll focus on his flank for he knows our way of thinking better than we do. He’ll probably suspect as well that another army is beyond the hill line. Seeing the few numbers of our army and the absence of several dukedoms: he isn’t that stupid. If we’ll ride tomorrow as ordered, we’ll be feeding the crows by noon.”
The general hesitated but beckoned him closer. “What would you have us do, young knight?”
“Let the southern army do exactly what he expects on the morrow for it’ll give us a bigger chance. I’ll wager that his centre will be the weakest. We ought to charge there and make our way to their warlord. Defeat him and the serpent will loses its head. We’ve seen before what’ll happen then. They’ll scatter like roaches in the sun and return to their bitter land to fight with each other once again. It’ll be our only chance to emerge victorious tomorrow.” Simon chose not to mention that he was planning to challenge the warlord himself. I have to undo that what I’ve made.
“It’s a big gamble, sir, to leave our entire flank of our army open to their counterattack. We could risk certain defeat.”
“True, milord, but we’ll have a better chance of victory also.” Simon’s heart was made up: whatever his orders, he’d take his army into the centre of the bestial army and fight his way to Nicolas. Let it be my hand, oh revered Lady, to correct what my treacherous heart has made.
A silence ensued which no-one present seemed willing to interrupt: the general seemed to be in thoughts. Finally the duke of Artois spoke up. “Alderic? What’ll have us do?”
“Warn Guyonne that we’ll follow his plan, Hivern. Maybe he can keep a reserve force to back up our flank. I want our levies to follow up in pyramid formation to buy us as much time as needed, archers and stakes at the far most of the right flank, knights on the left. Gentlemen, pray to the lady our lances strike true and our swords can cleanse this land of this foul taint.” 

Simon had taken up position alongside the other knights to overview the battle. The southern army had charged by early dawn to quickly become stuck in a quagmire of men. The bowmen had already taken up position and their volleys landed into the sea. Every once in a while some foul arcane emerged from their ranks to wreak havoc in the archers’ midst. A knight rode up to Simon Gastinois who was surprised as he recognised the heraldry: Jorge de Baille-Mal. Astounded he could not speak before Jorge did but his voice was not his: the soft, pleading voice of Agnés emerged from his helmet. “Simon, don’t say anything. I borrowed this armour from the storehouse so I can help you.”
“Help me? This is no adventure, Agnés!” The knight hissed at the armour of his friend of old. “People die here and I cannot lose you here as well. Please don’t do this.”
“I have to. For the same reason you have to. You know I’m a fair blade and my heart is made up: I shall see Nicolas again, even in his current state. I beg you: let me stay at your side. I need to know whether I’ve done everything I could before this day is over. I need to know, Simon, whether there is redemption for my love.” Her helmet dropped a few inches, betraying the tears she was silently shedding.
“Whatever happens, Agnés: stay close. If I fall, I want your promise to retreat immediately. Promise me!”
“I do, Simon Gastinois, I do.”  

Finally a cacophony of horns announced to coming charge. With one last look at Agnés in the armour of Jorge, Simon joined the big lance that followed the king’s banner to the centre, closely followed by the aspiring warrior maiden. The scores of knights passed their levies who were already marching towards the enemy and aimed for the centre of the enemy. The yards between the two was now quickly closing as the destriers plunged into full gallop. Every once in a while their foul instruments of war and their dweomercraft burned holes in the formation which were quickly filled up with other knights. The thunder of hooves blocked out any other sounds. Looking out of the corner of his helmet Simon could still see Agnés riding next to him. Before they knew it they were trampling the living and corpses who were pushed aground by the first ranks.  Their quick advance inevitably started to slacken and came to a standstill. Throwing away his unwieldy lance, he drew his sword, signalling Agnés to do the same. For a second he removed his helmet to get his bearings. The hammock was just a few yards away to their right but divided by hundreds of corrupted men. Pushing his trusty warhorse into a trot, Simon pushed his way past his own ranks until he passed their first line. He did not stop, ignoring the warning cries of other knights, but forced his warhorse on, all the while clearing a path with his deadly blade. In his trail she followed dutiful, nearly frozen in fear but determined to see this through to the end. Agnés bit her lip and gathered her resolve, thrusting her shortsword into a charging norse man. 

Reaching the hammock seemed to SImon as the perfect dream of a battle as he looked back on that day: every sword blow was true, shattering steel, leather and flesh, and the enemy never even managed to penetrate his armour. The Lady’s light shone on his enterprise with an approving smile and none of the barbarians could stand before his divine wrath. To the knight it seemed as they were slowed down, trying clumsily to mow down his horse, but he maintained his blessed speed. It wasn’t long before their bloodlust was twisted into fear for these otherworldly warriors. Not even their greatest and strongest were able to stand in their path of the faceless horsemen, light emanating from every groove of their strong and smooth armours. A war chief roared a deafening challenge and attacked but the horsemen deftly shifted his charger out of the way, the great waraxe cleaving nought but air. A backhanded swipe bursted the flesh of his back, blood welling up from the deep wound as he plunged headfirst in the trampled mud. The warrior behind him seemed smaller and less strong but her aim was lethal and her sword even faster than the first one. Not even the armoured anointed of their gods could prevent their march, their unholy plates crushed under fierce blows while their cursed blood trickled on the blood-soaked earth. None dared to defy them any longer and a wedge opened a path for the blessed warriors.

Seeing it so close was to lose every last hope for redemption for Nicolas. Agnés and he removed their helmets to gaze upon the barbaric monstrosity. The leather skins used as a canvas were humans, their limbs clear to see and faces hollow. The structure was humungous, hundreds of men and women having been slain to be stitched in a pavilion the size of a small house. For minutes the two stared horror-struck at the gruesome tent in the eye of the storm while all around the fighting intensified. The armies of the king had linked up and where pushing for the sea, battling a desperate and zealous enemy. The levies were now being crushed underneath the full brunt of the enemy’s left flank, their positions untenable but still they held their ground for their lords and king.  

A voice as broken as his body greeted Simon as he walked into the sickening tent. “Brother, how nice for you to visit. And look, there is my love too. I wonder if she’ll love me more now.” The great hulking mass of fat and puss turned towards them. A stranger had addressed them, there was nothing familiar about the corrupted body of bile, sweat and puss-ridden boils. Unhealthy fat had doubled his size, black puss from even more revolting and stinking masses of boils covering most of it as a layer of clothes. Scars and festering wounds adorned his body as token of great pride in their unhallowed nature. His face was the most disfigured: one eye had been overgrown by a layer of green ooze, the other looked at him with great hatred, its bloodshot and speckled pupil holding no resemblance to those clear eyes of yore, his hair had grown faint and long, hanging as last remnants of his failing humanity from foul patches of scabbed flesh, his lips were now bursted black and swollen which were still unable to hide its rotten and brown teeth underneath. It seemed to grin at the moment, every last detail a mockery of a human smile.
“Nicolas?” Through her tears she tried to plead to him once more. “Oh Nicolas. Please return to us. Don’t be lost to us. To me.” All will and attempt to persuade him in her voice was gone as she had understood there was no return for him, not in this lifetime, anymore.
“Nicolas?” The memory seemed to anger it. “Nicolas died on that bed years ago. A coup de grace of whispered betrayal, milady.”
“Focus on me, fiend. She is not to blame.”
“Oh, but she is, little Simon, she is. But she was not alone in that bed, was she? All those years you’d been my only pupil, my only confidant. As the madness devoured me, it made me see how you played my naive nature all this time with your lies and false loyalty. Chivalry is nothing more but a game for you, a challenge to win, a farce to hide the ugly inside of you, one who doesn’t refrain from driving daggers in the back of those who would call him friend.  At least I wear my true nature on the outside now, thanks to the gods of truth and wisdom who opened my eyes to the world and who showed what a horrible place mortals have made it to be with their petty wishes and desire. My beauty lies deep down where no foul, lying mortal can find and hurt it. The powers have told me more truths then a lifetime of serving a false idol. Their goals are simple but earnest. Never have they deceived me. They whispered these things to me, just like they foresaw your foolish attempt to come here. As they heralded this moment, I could revel in the fact that my revenge would be complete. It’s what brought me here, to this shore. I shall kill your love right before eyes, just like you did mine, and you’ll be helpless to resist, just like I was. Her last breath will be the last thing you see as darkness takes you to serve me as my witless slave. Without that corrupt mind, you might be for once be a loyal servant to me. Together we shall bring truth to this land.”
“You’ll have to beat me first.”
“Oh, I was so hoping you would say that.” 

It drew a jagged and dark sword the size of a double-hander with one hand and mockingly saluted the knight as before a duel between knights. It laughed, a deep and rasping rumble, as it easily parried the angered blow of Simon. For a creature that size and weight it was surprisingly nimble on its grotesque feet. “See, my friend? The true gods never betray their chosen. They show who we truly are: flawed and ugly. But I wield that strength, bearing that knowledge. Corruption is not more but nature’s strength: mutation to better oneself.”
The knight merely saved his breath, knowing that words might exhaust him. A counterattack hammered his sword towards Simon which sent him several feet back as he blocked it with his shield. It wields that blade with the speed of a longsword and the strength of a bull. Simon stepped just in time to his right to evade a sharp jab of the sword, feeling the air being cleaved in his face. He lunged for the sword and knocked it out of balance. Using this to his advantage he took several steps forwards and landed a blow in his side. The cut wasn’t deep but dark purple blood still welled up. Good: what bleeds can also die.
The hulk merely laughed at the pathetic wound. “Wounds are new ways for the grandfather to bless his champion.” His sword he slung back and hit Simon square in the back. His plate held the blade from shattering it but the force made him tumble forward and roll painfully over the floor. Even before he could react the giant had slashed once again, luckily misjudging the distance, but still shattering his shield as his sword drilled through the wood and steel plate into the ground. Simon unleashed his straps and let the useless thing lying on the floor. Agnés meanwhile looked at the two men fighting, her knees weak from fear and her eyes wet from sadness. Now that she had seen what he had become, she had no will nor force anymore to face the thing and help Simon in his struggle. Paralysed she stood as the two lives fought for their lives. It doesn’t matter who wins: today I die.
The subsequent powerful sweeps of the greatsword had forced Simon with his back to the wall, facing the thing with its wicked evil smile. “End of the ride, my friend, I hope you’re ready to embrace your new life.” It took the knight all his power to ward off the finishing blow but it glanced off his blade into the structure of the tent. The sword ripped through the horrific canvas and broke several supports. As a part of the pavilion collapsed on top of the monstrosity, Simon ran to its back and ran his sword with all his might through the fat. It soon became stuck into the sickening mass but it did not seem to hurt the corrupted creature. The knight lost his grip on his sword as it twirled and freed himself from the leathered skins. Unarmed he watched the behemoth threateningly step closer. There was no other option but to move back.
Agnés saw Simon driving his sword into the unguarded back of the beast and prayed to the Lady to end this battle. Spare him some grace and let him pass from this world. Save your wayward son and guide his soul to your open arms. To no avail: it mildly irritated the being and it began to drive the unarmed knight back.  For a split second the paralysis was lifted and she threw her shortsword in the direction of her love. It landed next to him and he managed to pick it up before the following blow.Even more at an disadvantage, Simon knew he could not win this battle this way. Sure he drew blood but the creature seemed to endure those flesh wounds easily. He needed to find a way to expose its weak spots: its heart -Lady knows where that is hidden that carcass-, its mind or its windpipe. His mind was racing while he tried to keep evading its unceasing and unyielding blows. His eyes caught his saviour of before and a plan –desperate but his only hope- formed in his mind. Timing the subsequent blows.
Suddenly he sprang forward thrusting his small sword forward with both hands. As a reflex the greatsword swept to unbalance the blow. Simon expected this parry as he had learnt it from the same man whose corrupt shell he was fighting now. Now to surprise him with something he never taught me.  The knight sliced his sword by the edge of the longer sword upwards with a devastating speed. Its sharp edge drove itself deep in the wrist of the creature, severing muscle and bone. It roared as he lost all feeling in its gnarled fist and dropped the hilt. Using the momentum he had bought, he drove himself forward, using all his weight of his body and armour to drive his elbow deep in the foul gut of the creature. It reeled backwards, tripping over a crudely made table, unto the ground. Safe for the distant sounds of battle outside and the heavy breathing of the combatants, silence dominated the tent. The small sword was now pressed against the bulging mass of its neck, its tip already drawn blood. Simon found he could not finish it.
“Go ahead, finish it! End my wretched existence of pain and misery!” His grating and deep voice boomed through the sickening tent of bloody human hides.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 31 January 2009 )
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