The medieval mercenary Valguard finds himself trapped in a world of undead. This Valguard story is the usual brutal action but with added horror.
RAISES AN ARMY OF THE DEAD
THAT THREATENS THE WORLD.
VALGUARD JOINS WITH A DRUID,
MONK, PALADIN, PRIEST & EVEN A
VAMPIRE IN AN UNLIKELY ALLIANCE
TO STOP HIM.
Recovering from his latest injuries at a druids’ retreat, Valguard witnesses the unprecedented collaboration of leaders from many different faiths all joining forces to oppose a greater threat of a powerful necromancer and his army of undead. Unexpectedly finding himself part of a very disparate team of elite soldiers, he journeys into a nightmare land, where the sun never rises, to stop the vengeful sorcerer. they soon become trapped and hunted far from home in a horrific, dark world of the dead...
A dark, wounded figure lurched out of a shadowy archway into a walled garden of the monastery. Struggling to breathe through burnt lungs, the figure wheezes and staggers unevenly over the wet paving, through the raised boxes of a regimented herb garden. Smoke rises from his charred robe that carelessly snags on brambles as he stumbles through the cloisters. His burnt hand reaches out and grabs the trunk of a pear tree, an act that makes him wince in more pain, a noise that is lost in the wind. As the broken silhouette steadies himself, he sees a young monk struggling to sweep up wet leaves as the wind swirls within the courtyard. He sets off again, his painful breath increasing to an inhuman moan as he raises a twisted arm out to grab the novice.
The shaven-headed monk was blissfully unaware of his watcher, his mind was solely concerned with scraping up the sticky brown leaves into a pile before the wind could disperse them again. Hearing an unnatural noise to his side, he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking up, the novice gasped. Eyes widening, he dropped the broom as his hand covered his mouth as he looked at a wretched figure, covered in blood and dirt and shambling towards him. The figure’s face was a mess of black and red – blood and burns that were punctuated with glimpses of bluey-white bone visible through ruptured skin. What little hair the novice had stood up in fright at the newcomer but despite being repulsed by the man he could not pull his eyes away and then, even more terrifying, was that he somehow recognised some features underneath.
‘Brother Stephen??’ he asked in disbelief, quietly breaking his vow of silence.
The figure said nothing but fell to one side, rolling over onto his back, his habit ballooning with the sudden fall.
‘HELP!!’ the terrified young man shouted at the top of his lungs in a croaky voice that hadn’t been used in years. ‘Somebody get the physician!’
Hearing the cries, the Abbot of the monastery, who had been working with other novices near the compost heap, dropped his basket of cabbages and ran toward the noise, picking up his hem so he didn’t trip. He had a bulbous nose and round features coupled with the smile of a favourite uncle. His knobbly head was shaved and a short beard curved around his chubby jaw leaving the rest of his face smooth. His robes were pale, almost white to denote his authority – novices wore darkest colours and as they attained purity their robes became paler.
Abbot Hollamby was a learned man and knew some medicine. Arriving before the other monks, he turned the motionless man over and whilst shocked by the state of him, he nevertheless checked the man’s wrist for signs of life. There was a pulse, but it was faint, the crispy flesh on the wrist not really helping. The smell of burnt flesh and seeping puss was overwhelming.
‘He’s barely alive,’ said the Abbot.
‘It’s Brother Stephen!’ shouted the novice.
‘Yes, I know,’ he said not bothered either by the identity or the fact the novice was speaking again.
‘What could have happened to him?’
‘I... I don’t know.’
He looked at the other monks who were stood sickened around the body.
‘Get him to the Infirmary.’
The monks, somewhat reluctantly, touched the figure and tried to lift him up as carefully as they could. As he was carried by his cloak, his burnt arm drops out and the Abbot notices something fall from the palm of his black hand, he hears it bounce twice on the path and stop amongst the leaves. Puzzled, he reaches down and picks up a perfectly round stone made up of two exact halves: one black, one white. At the sight of this unusual stone, the Abbot’s eyes widen more than they ever did at the sight of the charred man and a long forgotten ancient prophecy comes to mind. Without saying anything, he stuffs the ball into his habit and follows the patient inside.
The calm of the monastery’s infirmary was shattered when its door crashed open.
‘Easy, easy... careful...’ the monks said to each other on the best way to carry the prone, disfigured body that had once been Brother Stephen. He was laid down on the nearest of several beds.
‘Father William!’ cried Abbot Hollamby as he entered, followed by Michael, the novice who found him plus some other monks who had come to see what the very un-monklike commotion was.
The shocked physician raced over, disbelieving what he saw – surely the man was already dead? He leant in close to check if he was still breathing when suddenly there was a sharp gasp as the burnt patient started convulsing, his arms lash out and knock a flower jug and bowl off the wooden bedside table, pottery smashing on stone and water going up the walls.
An ill-looking monk in another bed on the other side of the room immediately jumped out of his bunk and backed away.
‘What... what happened to him?’ he asked but no-one had time to answer.
A tall man with a smooth head rushes into the room wearing the robes of the Order of Sentinels, the monk’s highly trained group of protectors. Unfazed he heads straight for the thrashing monk in the bed to help.
This was out of the Doctor’s remit who normally only dealt with fevers and upset stomachs. Abbot Hollamby instructed the monks as calmly as he could how to treat their wounded brother, despite his own hands shaking with fear. They frantically tried to clean wounds and stem the bleeding as a monk came in with more water and clean towels, but within seconds both were dark red. Another prepared several lengths of bandages while others tried to apply an emollient cream to the man’s burns but his violent convulsing made it almost impossible – It was like trying to shoe a horse on a ferry. This man would need more than just ointment. Over half his skin was charred into black plates and the few bits that weren’t burned were slashed and bleeding.
He should be dead.
‘Who did this to you, Stephen?’ asked Brother Michael.
Stephen was in no condition to respond coherently. He was babbling random words and was obviously in a great deal of pain, it was doubtful he was thinking clearly.
‘Tell us what you have seen?’ Michael pleaded hopelessly.
Brother Michael had once shared a dormitory with Stephen, having joined the monastery at about the same time. He had understood Stephen to have been away on a pilgrimage and could not comprehend how this could have happened to his friend or even how he was back in the monastery.
‘Everywhere!’ Stephen blurted. ‘Death everywhere!!’ he kept repeating before his speech deteriorated back into nonsensical tortured words. Whatever he had seen, it must have been horrific.
Brother Michael now stood completely still, traumatised by the horror, his hands and habit soaked through with blood and puss. They’d not seen anything like this before today and normally spend their days tending to plants, reading books or illustrating manuscripts by candlelight. The most excitement they would get in a typical day would be if they ran out of ink or a quill snapped. This was something they had never seen in their wildest elderberry wine-fuelled dreams.
One monk had the unenviable task of trying to get fluids into the patient, raising a small wooden bowl to carefully pour water onto Stephen’s lips.
He went wild, head thrashing from side to side, arms pulling free and lashing out, knocking another bowl into to the wall. All from just having a few drops of water trickled into his throat.
The noise and the smell were so awful that several novices had to run out of the infirmary to be sick, one didn’t make it and threw up over the doorframe.
‘We’re losing him,’ warned an attendant.
‘Please Stephen! Who did this?’ Michael pleaded again.
A statement which didn’t make sense.
‘He’s delusional,’ suggested a monk.
His throat must be burnt all the way down to his lungs and yet he was still fighting for is life, desperate to warn his friends of some unknown danger. Foul bile bubbled out his ruined mouth, as with immense effort he cried out.
‘Kalibarrr,’ he rasped as loudly as he could. ‘KAALIBARRRR!!’
Michael did not understand his crackling words, but in the corner of his eye, he sensed the Abbot recoil at the word. He put his hand to his friend’s brow and was jolted back like he had been punched inside his head. He saw a nightmare vision of hundreds of people on fire, all burning to death in the night.
Mercifully, his body buckled in a convulsion, then relaxed, his wide eyes stopped rolling and he lifelessly fell back into the stained bed sheets. The room was deafeningly silent for the first time in ten minutes. The monks stopped their frantic care and stood emotionally drained; one began to sob while others mouthed a silent prayer.
Abbot Hollamby had seen most things in his time but wore a look of panic on his face and Michael could see that the Abbot definitely knew more than he was saying. The Sentinel, a man named Rorqual, stood behind them silently waiting for an explanation.
‘Kalibar? What is that?’ Michael asked his superior.
The Abbot swallowed, tears appearing in his eyes.
‘A word I hoped I would never ever hear.’
A bloody sheet is pulled over the corpse, partly in respect, but mostly because the man looked so horrific. A kneeling monk kisses a small talisman and places it respectfully on his chest. The monks bowed their heads and closed their eyes before quietly reciting a solemn prayer for the dead man.
But then the corpse sat up, the sheet and talisman falling away, as he bit a chunk of throat out of the petrified monk next to him, shaking his head violently like a dog tearing at meat, until the limp screaming victim was hurled across the room, missing a shaking monk whose habit revealed an expanding dark oval patch of piss at the front. The monks dived at the body, pinning him down on the bed to stop him reaching out for his next victim. Skin split on his face and peeled off like tattered rags, what moments ago was barely recognisable Brother Stephen was now completely unrecognisable. It made inhumanly deep, guttural sounds as lifeless eyes rolled around the room.
Rorqual grabs a candlestick and with surprising force smashes it down into Stephen’s head, stopping its attack instantly and giving him his second death in as many minutes.
His acolytes were even more shocked at their ruthless protector than they were by the zombification of Brother Stephen, they had never even seen anyone so much as squash a fly before.
Satisfied Brother Stephen wasn’t getting up again, he walked towards where the throatless body of Brother Anthony had been thrown, kneeled down and stabbed him too in the head. The stunned monks, watching the Sentinel’s brutal actions with mouths open winced as the candlestick pierced the skull.
Standing up, he turned around to the shocked Abbot, his face splashed with blood.
‘Burn them straight away,’ Rorqual spoke for the first time.
Everyone looked at him. What about the appropriate rites and ceremony? they thought.
‘Now!’ he shouted, traumatised and shaking. The Abbot nodded his agreement to the Sentinel’s wishes and the novices began wrapping the bodies in their sheets and wiping up the pieces of skull and brain that looked like a dropped marrow, wiping the tiles to stop the blood spreading.
‘Are there any more of them?’ asked Rorqual.
Abbot Hollamby shook his head to the Sentinel and walked over to a trembling Michael who gazed into the distance.
‘Did you see something, Michael?’ he quizzed in his normal, reassuring timbre.
‘When I touched him, I saw an inferno of death. People burning, a sea of dead people,’ he tried to make sense of the imagery. ‘It was... A world on fire.’
The Abbot was a bald man but the hairs on the back of his neck all stood up. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve, which absorbed more blood than perspiration.
He looked at the impassive Rorqual who still held the dripping candlestick.
‘We need to summon The Council.’
© David N Humphrey 2019. All Rights Reserved. Updated 19.1.2020
Valguard screamed at the pain they were causing to his arm. He was helplessly gripped tightly by two bearded men with long hair, his face pressed into a table with his right arm presented to a third man who worked a crowbar against his wrist with gritted teeth. Straining against the grip, Valguard moved his position. The lead man with the jemmy barked to the other men, ‘I said hold him!’ and they consolidated their grip.
The leader’s muscles strained as he levered even more force against a horrific wooden cage device around his arm that looked like the sort of crate a vase would be packed into before shipping.
Finally, with all his strength, the nail came free and the wood box popped apart and Valguard quickly withdrew his arm.
‘Bastard!’ he said, rubbing his wrist as his captors all released him.
‘Sorry about that, that last one just wouldn’t come out!’ said the big man, wiping his forehead then turning to his accomplices, ‘Thank you for your help gentlemen.’
‘Anytime,’ said one of the other two men as they filtered out of the room, one even slapped Valguard’s back to show he meant well.
The wooden box method was how Valguard’s good friends, the Templeford Druids, fixed a broken arm – but it hurt like a bitch when they took it off.
His ordeal over, he gave a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his forehead that showed the telltale marks of other recent scars.
‘Thank you,’ he said, grateful he could now scratch his itchy arm for the first time in weeks and more importantly, give it a proper wash.
‘The bone will keep growing around the break and will be stronger than the other one. Exercise the muscles over the next few days and you should get back full flexibility. Have you got plenty of hutchberries?’
‘Yes,’ he said with some weariness, that was all they seemed to bloody eat around here.
Laganath the physician, gathered up his terrifying collection of tools and stood up. They wouldn’t look out of place in a carpenter’s workshop.
‘You might want to keep the arm in a sling for a bit so you don’t catch it. It will be sore for a while.’
‘No shit,’ said Valguard, after the ordeal of removing the box.
‘Phoebe has requested that you to remain here a bit longer until you have full strength, are you happy with that?’
‘Who am I to say no to the Head Druid,’ answered Valguard, trying not to show he was relieved.
‘Very good. I have other duties I must see to now, but if you have any problems my ovates will look after you until then,’ he said nodding to his apprentices.
Valguard offered a shake of his good hand in thanks as he left, before rubbing his sore arm again.
* * *
After this procedure, Valguard spent the rest of the day walking and relaxing in the gardens of the druid retreat. Most of the temple was outside as the Druids lived and worked in a beautiful green sanctuary, full of a multitude of bushy flora of dazzling natural colours. He had been here for weeks and yet he still came across new glades and rivers.
Today he had watched deer graze, nuzzle and crack antlers off each other before finally bounding away. Yesterday he had been transfixed by the light glinting off the small water cascade that snaked through a coppiced park and the day before that he watched brightly coloured birds collect debris to build nests. A blue and orange kingfisher dived into the pool, making rings spread out on the flat surface, then flew off with its lunch.
Valguard wasn’t a farmer, he could grow basic food and a decent apple but that was about it. Most of the plants in the glade he couldn’t name let alone grow but he loved the tranquillity of the place, it was so calming compared to the rest of his life.
This place was making him soft and he was letting it.
And yet, within a couple of miles, outside the vine-covered walls of this sanctuary of calm, was the busy waterside town of Templeford. This was Valguard’s nearest settlement to his own home – an old, ruined watchtower on a hill overlooking the lake that brought much trade to the town at its end. A town which in turn had taken the first part of its name from the large Druid retreat it had grown up around.
Although it wasn’t summer anymore, the garden around him was thriving with life and he gained comfort from it. While he enjoyed the glade, he struggled to talk to any of the busy novices he passed. He was so different from them in almost every way – his profession; mercenary, his appearance; windswept, his attitude; determined. Yet they worked silently and with a gentle unhurried care, exhibiting the same patience as the slowly growing trees they tended. Neither had anything to say to each other so instead, they settled for a polite nod of the head or a smile. They must be wary of this incongruous stranger but didn’t show it, Valguard was a guest of his longtime friend Phoebe who was the Chief Druid here and that was all they needed to know.
Leaving the open glade, he walked along the grass corridor under fruit trees that formed a canopy that he plucked an orange from, small rabbits darted into bushes when they heard the branch twang and saw him approach.
Entering a shaded garden alcove, Valguard sat down on a simple stone bench at one end of the Arbour, that had a view of a glass-like pond before it. He flexed his fingers into a fist and watched his tendons moving in his recovering arm, impatiently repeating the exercise as he had been told. The injury to his arm was an occupational hazard of his mercenary activities in the brutal world beyond the Temple’s gates.
The bushes opposite rustled and some birds flew away as a large black shape, like a shadow of a huge dog emerged. But is wasn’t a big dog, it was a massive cat – a panther completely black from nose to tail. It stealthily crept towards him, its hypnotising orange eyes the only colour on its silhouette like shape.
Valguard doesn’t move as it approaches, the cat’s shoulders undulating with every step until it halts a couple of feet away. Valguard reaches out a hand, not quite touching the animal. The panther watches with steady eyes then pushes its tipped head into Valguard’s palm and lets him rub her itchy ear.
‘Hello Lila,’ he said. ‘Where’s your dad?’
The big cat was Phoebe’s docile pet who had the run of the grounds, from scrutinising Valguard from his first day to subsequently gaining his trust. Valguard thought she was beautiful and had never felt worried by her, always enjoying a tickle, especially on her furry black chin. After all her itches had been satisfied, she licked his hand and turned and sat down on the ground, her hind quarters lying on top of Valguard’s foot, her head majestically surveying the garden.
Valguard picked up his tangerine. Before he came here he’d never seen an orange, let alone eaten one. He began to awkwardly peel the skin with his left hand, its citrus immediately hit his nose pleasantly while simultaneously displeasing the panther. One by one, he peacefully started to eat the delicious segments as Lila’s long tail flicked.
When he was finished, he closed his eyes and, as there wasn’t a breath of wind, he enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his face
There was definitely something enthralling about this place as if he didn’t want to return to the outside world again. But he knew he must, he was a charlatan here, a guest they had politely turned a blind eye to. However long he did stay here, he would eventually go back to his shit life and the myriad of problems he had left behind. After all, there were a lot of angry soldiers looking for him.
Perhaps he would stay here just a little bit longer...
* * *
After his simple evening meal of chunky soup and crusty bread, plenty of hutchberries and several goblets of a curious wine, Valguard returned to his guest quarters. His druid friend wasn’t at the meal again – urgent business he was told – so he made his excuses and left early. Sat in the empty room in the druid’s hayloft, he read a book he had borrowed on carpentry. With an uneasy feeling in his guts distracting him, he read and reread the same page over and over several times, before deciding to give it up for the night and despite it being only early evening, he fell asleep with his head slumped on his chest.
Valguard woke suddenly when his good arm jerked out and banged the wall. He was sweating and out of breath. He suffered from frequent visions and had nightmares most nights. It was exactly the same vision again, the one where he witnesses his own death.
He hated sleeping.
Taking off the soaked hessian undershirt the druids had given him, he wiped his forehead and patted the beads of moisture on his chest then threw it across the room. As he lay shirtless on his bunk catching his breath and trying to suppress the terrors he had seen in his head, he became aware he could hear the sound of metal horse shoes approaching slowly on cobbles outside. He found that odd as druid horses were rarely shod and his curiosity made him go to the dormer window and peer out to the courtyard below.
A procession of half a dozen monks, three on horseback, three escorting them on foot, entered the cobbled path into the glade. They looked like Westwick monks judging by their robes, a spiritual sect that believed in karma and zen teachings. They did not seem in any way hostile, they were courteous more than anything, but a couple of their number were Sentinels – their highly disciplined soldier order and were armed with poles. What were they doing here? he wondered. He assumed there must be a diplomatic meeting of sorts, although no one had mentioned it to him.
He glanced back over at his candle which had only burned down an hour since he started reading so he guessed it wasn’t midnight yet but it seemed late in the night for such a gathering. As he watched the new guests, the physician who had fixed his arm today, Laganath, came forward and welcomed them warmly, much as he himself had been. He strained to hear what they were saying, but couldn’t make anything out from this distance.
The monk’s body language was measured and minimal. They were hard fellows to read at the best of times with their mask-like expressions as they greeted each other’s opposite numbers respectfully, if not affably. The lead dignitary handed a gift of a very old looking book to Laganath which seemed to go down well and after brief pleasantries, horses were stabled and they were escorted into the gardens.
Druid business then and nothing to do with him.
As the noise faded, Valguard returned to his bunk when he heard more horses approaching from the main gate. This time a contingent of Priests from the New Church rode in with their opulent robes and pointy hats on show. Now, this was odd. The Monks was fair enough, he could understand they would have certain points of belief in common with Druids, but Clerics? Publicly they had never got on and represented opposing points on the faith spectrum. Yet here they stood and were also greeted warmly by another senior druid who exchanged gifts of wine. Again they were led away by some of the Druid initiates while others remained waiting in the courtyard. Valguard thought he would wait too.
Who could be next? he thought, but soon he got his answer. The deeper clanking of heavier warhorse hooves and the tinnier noise of highly polished plate mail armour was heard as a slightly menacing troop of knights with lances and banners arrived.
‘Paladins!’ he muttered in disbelief as his heart skipped a beat. They were the last people he thought would ever be allowed into the calm sanctuary of the Druid’s gardens. As he stared in disbelief, one knight turned his head surveying his surroundings and looked in the direction of Valguard’s window. Instinctively he recoiled back into the shadows, sure he wasn’t seen. They marched slowly with visors up and swords sheathed, holding banners and lances upright in a ceremonial procession. Their horses were of bigger stock and in excellent condition as they approached the welcoming party. The druids again respectfully nodded as they, in turn, saluted, dismounted and their herald shook hands and presented a gift of a scroll of some sort. Their snorting horses were handed to the Druids who seemed to instantly calm them and lead them to the stables with the others.
The Paladins removed their helms and were led into the glade and Valguard watched them be ushered inside the very heart of the druid’s home.
This was not good he thought.
Intrigued, Valguard decided to go for a look. He put on a clean black vest, grabbed his long coat and roughly threw it on, its collar still turned up. He blew out the candle and made his way down the stairs. Only now was he reminded that all his weapons had of course been handed into the Druids weeks ago when he arrived, a condition of his treatment and one he was always happy to abide with. After all, why would he need to protect himself here, in this haven of peace and tranquillity? Of course, that was before all those bastard Paladins had waltzed in. And most annoyingly, these secret visitors had all been allowed to carry their weapons.
He crossed the empty courtyard without a sound and followed the direction the guests had all headed.
© David N Humphrey 2019. All Rights Reserved. Updated 19.1.2020