It was an optimistic little band that had marched out of the village at mid-morning on the Sabbath, accompanied as we went by a feisty tune the local musicians had put together just for the occasion. There was much luck-wishing and hugging and fond farewells amongst the married couples, while the bachelors of the group received such attention from the ladies that already they looked forward to their triumphant return, and the fleshly rewards that were hinted at by the damsels' fluttering eyes. Even later, as we stood in a loose circle on the banks of the outlet pool, listening earnestly to last-minute pieces of advice from Kel of the Red Brothers, the mood remained bright and carefree. All looked forward now to a battle that had been too long in the offing, and the prospect of taking a surprise strike to the heart of one of the vampire Lieutenants' clanlands was nigh on intoxicating. At Kel's command, I sought out the old-man tree I had noticed on my exit from Turel's home, and led the heartily-bantering men across the water to the narrow opening that would lead us to our goal.
There is nothing like sewage to dampen the spirits.
The ascent of the pipe was far more difficult than my precipitous descent had been, and we lost one man to the roaring onslaught of falling water before we had gone half-way. The cheery chitchat that had prevailed since we set out was replaced by a surly silence as each man fought for his grip and his air against the grey-brown sludge that poured endlessly through the waste pipe. Despite the hardship, the rest of us reached the cavern alive and intact – if a little on the insalubrious side.
It was then an almost suspiciously easy matter to ascend to the level of the throne room: as Farsight had intimated to Kel in their discussions, there were precious few of the undead around at this noonday hour. With anticipation surging through my veins like a fever, I accompanied the odd little band as they stole towards the throne room doors. My heart began to beat a little faster, and I will confess that it was less from fear than from the knowledge that soon I would see in reality the cloaked figure that had haunted my dreams so much of late. I clasped my hands to my chest as Kel and his fellow Brethren set their shoulders against the massive carven portals – although they had warned me to stay at the back when the fighting broke out, still it seemed to me that I would have the best view of this momentous battle. I was almost choking in my excitement.
As midday struck with the clanging of a great gong, the doors finally gave before the might of the Red Brothers, and swung slowly inwards to reveal the darkened throne room. From what I understood, the room had three other entrances, and Farsight had assigned each of the human forces he had gathered to a different door. All were to be opened simultaneously on the stroke of twelve. However, as our eyes became accustomed to the dim light within, it became apparent that something was amiss. The other three doors were sealed shut, and the centre of the room was occupied by a large band of Turelim guards, all of whom looked alert and very much awake, considering the time of day.
I could not understand it – where were the other human factions? Where the brothers of man who had supposedly rallied to one anothers' support in this time of strife?
More importantly, where the hell was Farsight?
I had no time to speculate further on the whereabouts of these people, as I heard Belfield and the Red Brothers refuse the Turelim's demand for their immediate surrender, and I watched in dismay as a bizarre sort of fight broke out.
I had never seen such a blatant game of cat-and-mouse in all my born days – and I assure you, I had seen prisoners goaded and tricked by the Priests times without number. The Red Brothers thundered forth with the animal ferocity for which they were renowned, their arced blades flashing in asynchronous harmony. Before long, their armour was coated in a fresh sheen of vampire blood, and I could easily see how they had earned their name. Meanwhile Belfield and his band of sobered scoundrels took an approach which, while slightly less cohesive, was not lacking in its own brand of aggression. They split off into two groups, one either side of the massive bartender. While one bombarded the defending undead with knives, arrows and colourful language, the other - slightly better armoured - waded in to the fray armed with an array of polished melee weapons, and an equal amount of expletives.
Still, I could not shake the feeling that something here was not right. In direct contrast to the obvious fervour that animated the attacking forces, the vampire guard seemed almost resigned. They met the thrusts and blows of their enemies with slow disinterest, and the more I watched, the more I became convinced that they were simply holding them off until someone told them otherwise.
My suspicions were confirmed as, watching from a safe corner, I saw the horrific sight of the Turelim Lieutenant himself strolling onto his dais in a most unconcerned manner, and seating himself on his throne. Before I could warn my comrades, the tide turned in a wave of bloodshed the like of which I had never seen. As though animated by the arrival of their master, the Turelim guards began to deal lethal blows, their force sundering limbs and heads with the ease of those born to kill. Not even the fabled Red Brothers were able to stand against their tremendous retalliative assault, and in the space of a few short minutes, none remained alive but myself, Belfield, and Kel.
The two men were dragged forwards and forced to their knees before the throne, while another of the massive warriors extricated me from my hiding place and, with a shove, sent me down to join them.
A sickly, sulphurous light slowly pervaded the room, bringing into stark relief the lounging figure of the Turelim master. I lowered my head for fear that he should see my face and know me for who I was.
Turel considered us for a long moment, his silence more unnerving than any amount of abuse. At length, he spoke, his icy tones sending shivers of revulsion through my already trembling frame.
"Welcome to my house. I have been expecting you – although I did not foresee the exact hour of your arrival." His gaze swept us again, and I quickly averted my eyes. He cannot have seen my face, for he continued unperturbed.
"I have known of your little 'uprising' for some time; of your attempts to recruit the last of the Red Brothers and raise a human army to beleaguer me." He drummed the three massive talons of his left claw against the armrest of his throne. The ensuing sound was a tattoo of death.
"You almost caused me to lose men at one of my eastern outposts last week. Fortunately, they were more than a match for your pitiful band."
He looked down his long nose at the last of the Red Brothers, who was glaring at him with hatred scribed deeply all over his features.
"I hear they sent their heads back to their families in gaily wrapped boxes," he remarked conversationally.
Kel's struggles began afresh, and he almost succeeded in rising from the floor, the face of the hated Vampire Lord his ultimate target. He received a boot in the ribs for the attempt.
"But still I am troubled," Turel steepled his fingers before him, a frown on his lowered brow. "You humans have made various futile attempts at some sort of military coup over the years, and while you were kept apart in separate little pockets, you posed no real threat to our reign. Why now have you decided to attack such massive targets? Hm? And speaking of which, how did you get inside my 'impregnable' walls?" he narrowed his eyes, taking in each of the figures kneeling before him in turn. His voice dropped to a threatening whisper, akin to that of a night-time thief discovered in a lady's bedchamber.
"There is no way this rabble you call an army could have entered the castle unaided. Someone is helping you."
He rose from his throne with unnerving speed, a coiled rattlesnake sensing prey.
Belfield was the first to fall foul of Turel's brand of questioning, but to the inkeep's credit, he spoke not a single word during the entirety of the interrogation, apart from the whispered 'go to hell' that issued from between bleeding lips as the Vampire Lord stalked away. Kel was even more stoic, refusing to open his mouth, even when the callous beast broke every single joint in each of his fingers. Turel left him kneeling in agony, cradling his mangled hands while he turned to finish his questioning. My heart was in my throat by the time he reached me. He knew me instantly, of course, the recognition bringing a slow, cruel smile to his pallid features.
"And what have we here? The little viper who tried to wriggle her way into my bed?"
He leaned down and grabbed me by the remnants of my hair, wetting my face with the sibilants of his query.
"Who sent you? Tell me now and I might let you live. Continue to keep your peace and-" he let the threat trail off into empty air. The sly grin he aimed at one of his Elite guard was enough to assure me of my fate should I not respond.
I had already made my decision. I would not betray him, not in a million years. Sooner Traitor's Row or death by drowning than living in the knowledge that I had condemned Farsight.
Turel responded to my firm refusal with an aggravated growl.
There are times, when all seems lost, when despair has taken root so firmly in a person's heart that they think that hope will never again be able to gain entry. How quickly such feelings can be banished with the advent of good fortune! With a sound like shattering ice, the throne room doors burst open, forcing back the guards against them with irresistible power until they were pressed against the wall, arms and legs struggling wildly against the solid wooden barrier. A hooded figure strode into the hall, heedless of the fuss caused by his entrance, while the dim light picked out the patchworked sections of his swirling cloak. I caught my breath as recognition washed over me – Farsight had come! But where were the reinforcements he had promised? Could it be that they had met a like fate on their way to the throne room? I watched aghast as his confident stride brought him level with us - he could not risk himself like this! If we were to fall today, as seemed likely, then he at least must escape alive, to raise another army and try again - I had already come to think of us three as expendable in this battle. I shook my head at him, panicked, and he made a calming gesture.
Turel straightened from where he bent over me and returned to his throne, where he came to a halt with arms folded belligerently. Farsight faced him squarely, chin held aloft.
"So," growled Turel, "The traitor reveals himself."
I swallowed hard, wishing with all my might that my vampire friend would leave now while he still could – there was no sense in him sacrificing his life along with ours.
"He does." Replied Farsight. In a single, fluid motion, he threw back his hood to reveal sharp-cut black hair, lissom eyes and a scarred cheek.
My mouth dropped open in bewilderment as I recognised Turel's first-born.
The rebellion was being led from within the Turelim hierarchy itself! Surely now all was not lost? Even though our deaths were certain, Turel must suffer a heavy blow for this.
The Vampire Lord hissed a low command.
"Come here, Isaac."
He complied at once, striding fearlessly towards the throne, and what would surely be his untimely demise – unless he was foolhardy enough to risk an attempt on Turel's life himself?! I watched with bated breath as he halted before his Lord.
Turel raised his eyebrows expectantly before waving his arm in an imperious gesture.
Isaac inclined his head in subservience before ascending the steps to the throne and taking up his customary position at Turel's right hand.
My face must have been a picture, for Turel burst out laughing, and shortly, he was joined by a number of other voices. It took me a moment to realise that one of these was Turel's first-born himself. I looked across to see him chuckling scornfully at me, and even as he cast aside his cloak and took a seat at his Sire's side, my mind still refused to accept the truth. Surely any moment he must pluck out a dagger and stab it viciously into his oblivious master's heart? Surely he was lulling Turel into a false sense of security with this double-bluff? As the seconds ticked by and the scene remained unchanged, I was forced to rethink my opinion yet again.
Turel gave his child a warm, approving smile that was completely out of place on his harsh features, before he turned his acid gaze upon me. Interpreting my lost expression and evidently taking infinite delight therefrom, he offered an explanation which I was only too eager to hear.
"My first-born here is in the habit of providing amusement for me, from time to time."
He rested a massive claw on Isaac's shoulder and gave it an approbatory shake. He then descended the steps past his son, who wore an expression of exquisite smugness, and approached us with a swagger in his step.
"He knows how tiresome I find my duties from time to time: the unending and unvarying tasks of keeping you filthy humans downtrodden." He shot another fond grin at his child before continuing. "Sometimes he sends vengeful little humans to attack me in my sleep, sometimes outcast vampires with a grudge against me, and sometimes he stirs up the local peasantry into a revolt." he chuckled, shaking his head appreciatively, "But this! This is the most inventive deception so far – and has provided me with several long nights of amusement!"
I could hear the muffled curses from the two men beside me, both of whom had put their complete trust – not to mention their lives – in 'Farsight's word.
Meanwhile, Turel's first-born was fairly aglow with pride. I cursed the flagstones that stopped the earth from swallowing him up. To think I had held him in such high regard; to think I had held him tight against me, with naive desires clamouring to be released. How easily we are led astray by our foolish human hearts! It was then that a number of little niggling things started to fall into place: when I had embraced him on Traitor's row, he had indeed been trembling - not from desire, but from suppressed laughter at my naiveté; the strands of hair I had seen on his cloak - far too long to have come from my shorn head – must have attached themselves to him as he brushed against Turel when racing out of the throne room after me; and even his assumed name – had the Priest who had brought me here not mentioned Turel's 'far-seeing eye'? I closed my eyes as though in pain - how easily and completely I had blinded myself to the truth!
"Why me?" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. How arrogant I felt, asking the Vampire Gods why they had singled me out to play their games – surely the choice had been arbitrary – but with nothing left to lose, my curiosity must be appeased.
Isaac looked for his Lord's permission before he began to speak.
"My Sire has always had something of a weakness for fair-haired women – so much so, in fact, that there are scarcely any to be found alive in these parts."
Turel voiced a quiet chuckle as Isaac continued to enlighten us at last. "The village I sent you to once had an abundant stock of such wenches, and, as partial to the hair colour as he was, my Lord demanded they all be given to him as tithe – in return for the continued safety of their people.
"When the High Priest told me he had found another corn-haired female - in the slave pits of all places – I contrived to have you prepared as a concubine, while charging you with a ridiculous mission to provide my Lord with some distraction. 'For humanity'," he paused to laugh aloud. "Oh I could hardly keep a straight face when you fell for it! I thought you would have a good chance of seducing him, what with that ridiculous yellow hair of yours . . ." Isaac made his dislike of my natural colouring abundantly clear with the addition of a curled-lip snarl. I glanced across to see his female counterpart approach him with a sway in her hips and Isaac quickly locked an arm about her waist, holding her possessively against his side. She grinned at me with eyes like flame pits as she stroked his chest provocatively.
Only one question still burned. "The Red Brothers," I ventured, "Why did you send them to aid us?"
Isaac smiled faintly before replying: his attention had already wandered to the woman in his arms. "I intended to send them to my Lord as a further distraction, an amusing gift, if you like, but I had to thin their numbers before luring them into an attack – fun and games are one thing, but I would not want any real casualties on our side."
This last comment made me think again of the guards he had bested when 'saving my life' on Traitor's Row, and recalled with chagrin that he had used no weapon on either of them. I was such a fool not to have seen the deception!
"The Red Brothers' reputation was well earned," remarked Turel's first-born, "They were good in their day."
"But their day is past," interjected Turel, turning to his three prisoners. "As is yours." A shiver ran the length of my spine at the tone of his voice.
"Well, Isaac, you caught them – what do you wish to do with them?"
Turel's first-born ceased his casual teasing of the black-robed woman at his side and looked at his Lord in surprise. "You know how fond I am of my own invention, Sire!"
Turel nodded with a knowing grin and gave the final command for our execution.
'Farsight', engrossed in the attentions of his female friend, did not so much as look in our direction as they dragged us bodily from the room.
And that is my story.
It has helped me to recount it now, albeit in my own mind: my concentration must not fail, for the bar is already slick with blood, and most of my fingernails have broken off from the strain. I turn my head painfully and note that though Kel still perseveres, Belfield has already given up the fight. Strongarm he may be, but years of savouring his own casks has given him a prodigious counterweight to for which to compensate. His body rests in a most unusual position, the lower half held rigidly in place by the penetrating spike, while the upper portion slumps brokenly, arms raised to the sky. I do not want to die like that, but it seems at the last that the choice is not mine. I squeeze my eyes tight shut and offer a last prayer to gods I am almost certain do not exist - not for me, but for humanity.
The rain descends in a whirling dance, suffusing the air with a blurry haze - and I am glad. It means none of Turel's brood will be here to see me fall.
The rain, however, is mingling with the blood to form a sort of oily sheen that makes this post increasingly difficult to grip.
My fingers are slipping.
Oh, I do so love leading people up the garden path. OK, hands up. How many of you were taken in by Farsight/Isaac's 'hero-in-disguise' routine? Go on, own up, let's see those hands.
*shakes head and hands around a sheet of paper*
I think the whole lot of you had better sign up for my 'Nosgoth Survival 101' class. *wanders off muttering* ... wouldn't last two minutes out there. All it takes is a pretty face and a flash of heroics ....
P.S. This story was originally going to be a background story for a picture I posted on DeviantArt – and though it actually turned out very different from what I'd planned, I think the pic still suits the story somewhat. It's here if anyone wants a look: http://www.deviantart.com/deviation/3216552/