Chapter 3 - Heretics
Eleanor stepped into the light of the fayre. Candle lamps hung from twine run between trees, crisscrossing the eastern edge of the common. A large pyre burned brightly a little to her right where a few small children still cavorted despite an absence of music. She felt out of place, stepping forward shield held high, weapon in hand. She let her eyes accustom to the dim light and scanned the faces and stances of the townsfolk nearby. She sought desperately some insight, a hint of unease, a sign of fear or readiness for battle. Yet all she saw were happy people, celebrating.
She relaxed her stance and moved forward, mingling with the crowd. To her left she could see Knut, head and shoulders taller than all around him doing the same.
There was a sudden stir ahead of her. Beneath the canopy of a large tree an old man stood up to speak. He had short grey hair and a long full beard. His face was round and it seemed to Eleanor crossed with laughter lines. He smiled and called out, drawing a crowd around him with practiced ease. He wore a light blue cloak pinned with an ivory clasp at the neck over a long tunic of golden yellow and held a tall staff in his right hand.
With a simple flourish of one hand, he produced several leather pouches. "An indulgence good folk, if you please, a few coppers for an old man. Tarry a while with me this Autumn Eve for I have such a tale to tell! I'll tell of Gods and Daemons, of betrayal and lies!" He handed the pouches out and started his tale.
Eleanor smiled but turned away, seeking out her quarry once more.
"At the dawn of everything the Daemons emerged from the elemental chaos. Single minded elemental powers these beings were unfocused and without vision. Eons passed - little changed - great elemental powers rose and fell. Out of these struggles came great alliances - and from one such alliance came the Offspring - part Fire, part Earth, part Air, part Water."
Eleanor reached the pyre and walked slowly around it. Some of the children called out to her, recognising her from the temple. She smiled back but moved on, leaving them to their games.
"The Offspring was created strong - and grew stronger. Greater than the sum of his parts his powers increased. He was capable of moulding the elements. Controlling them he forged the first firmament - a place of wonder and awe. Shielded from the elemental chaos, bound by laws, the creation flourished."
Eleanor's attention switched suddenly back to the bard. His words were clear in her mind although she had not intended to listen. She looked up at him to find he was looking directly at her, and it seemed as though he spoke to her alone.
"The Offspring was proud of his creation, yet he remained unfulfilled. Some of the Daemons resented his control - his power, others envied him. Others sought his secrets and allied with him. And thus the Children of the Offspring were created. The Offspring created further firmaments but none were as beautiful or perfect as the first. And with each new creation his power waned and the resentment of the Daemons grew."
She moved back towards the tree, staring at the bard as she moved closer. With each word he spoke her unease grew.
"The Offspring became angry at his waning strength. His very rage shook all of creation. His children fled and hid. The Daemons rose up and waged war against him, an eon of envy, hated and fear fuelling their assault. The Offspring fought back - slaying one mighty Daemon after another. But in the end they threw him down - however unable to destroy him, they bound him within his first creation and banished him for all time."
She pushed through the crowd, gently at first but then more roughly as she sought desperately to reach the old man. Someone shoved something towards her as she passed. She grabbed it from their grasp and tucked it away.
"The Children of the One were shamed by their fear. Rising from their hiding places they sought out the remaining Daemons and one by one cast them down, until none stood against them. But they did not release the Offspring - some were afraid, others too shameful, some were free, others craved power. Instead they worked together with great spirits securing the Offspring's prison further. Then these Gods crafted many great creations and tried to forget their father."
"Heresy!" she shouted loudly, bursting to the front of the crowd. "How dare you malign the Gods!" A fierce anger gripped her.
"No," he responded calmly, smiling at her, "just a simple tale. Besides, I am not the one you seek." He pointed behind her.
She was unable to resist turning. Instantly she focused on a couple walking arm in arm. A young man wore simple clothes, with a woman leaning on him, one hand around his waist, the other cradling her swollen belly. And there behind them, was a cloaked figure, hooded, stalking them.
Eleanor charged straight towards them, covering the ground easily, folk melting away in front of her, clearing her path. She saw the reflected flash of light as steel was drawn, and a dagger was raised poised to strike.
"By Menauras' light! To me! To me!" she shouted. She swung her mace, a brutally downward strike, catching the assassin's arm with a satisfying crunch. Her enemy cried out in agony and the blade he wielded fell to the ground.
Her momentum carried her past the attacker who reacted with surprising speed. There were shouts and screams, but Eleanor could only focus on her opponent. He wielded another curved blade in his undamaged left hand and slashed at her. She brought her shield across and parried the attack but was unbalanced and unsighted. She desperately gave ground as he closed on her, striking and jabbing quickly and surely. A sharp sting on her right arm told her he'd hit home with a blow she'd not even seen.
She back peddled faster, not seeking to fight back, concentrating only on keeping his blade away from her. But he slashed again and again, pushing her, herding her, getting closer and closer.
There was a sickening crunch and a look of surprise and pain was etched upon the man's face. Freya stood behind him, axe buried in his back. As he sank to his knees she pulled it clear and struck him again between shoulder and neck. He fell to the floor and she struck him again. Freya stood back and gave voice to a deep throated roar, a shout that reverberated around the common.
Eleanor tried to focus but she still seemed to be in a dream. She saw Freya turn away and beyond her Knut, Gaines and Bordan were trading blows with two other cloaked figures. As Eleanor moved to join them she watched as one deftly avoided a strike by Bordan, before stepping round him and striking him in the back with one blade whilst slashing at Knut with the other.
Bordan dropped to his knees and dropped his guard. Knut swung wildly but forced his opponent to concentrate his attacks upon him, blocking each stroke with his enormous shield.
Gaines faced the other figure, but he too, was easily pushed back. Freya's attack was easily side stepped as she charged in and another knife blow struck Bordan across the chest.
A slashing strike warded Eleanor away, before the figure struck at Freya, catching her leg. He stepped back from a blow aimed by Gaines and spun to face Eleanor once more. He turned into her blow. She had aimed at his shoulder but the spin caught her by surprise and her mace connected with his face. She felt the solid connection through her wounded arm and wondered that she still held her weapon. The man's lower jaw hung loosely, smashed below his face held on only by skin and tendon. His eyes registered surprise and his weapons fell to the ground. Eleanor looked on in horror at what she had just done. A solid thrust from Gaines, saw the tip of his sword emerge from assassin's chest and the priestess saw the light disappear instantly from the man's eyes.
Freya and Gaines rushed to Knut. Eleanor briefly noted that he, too, was bleeding from a cut to his head but she dropped to her knees besides Bordan. She dropped her weapon and grasped Menauras' symbol tightly in one hand, placing the other on Bordan's bloody chest. She rapidly recited the chant and prayer and was gratified to feel it answered. Her God's strength flowed through her more strongly than she had felt it before. A rush of warmth and strength coursed along her arm and she was rewarded when Bordan sucked in a deep breath.
Eleanor was vaguely aware of blows being exchanged nearby, the clash of steel on board and then the sounds of blows striking home.
Bordan's eyes opened. Eleanor smiled with relief. The priestess grasped Bordan's hand in hers and breathed out. She looked up and saw the others stood still, the last of their enemies lying at their feet. She noted all carried wounds, but they had been victorious!
They were quiet for a moment, panting, but watchful. They stared out seeking other threats. Eleanor watched as a small child stood nearby, screaming, was picked up by a man and carried away.
Knut called out a great cry of triumph, Freya joined him and then too Eleanor found herself calling out, "By the strength of Menauras!" overcome by a sense of exultation.
A dog barked and snarled somewhere in the distance and a horse cantered through knocking over a stall.
Bordan shifted slightly, "Thank you, priestess." He coughed and Eleanor noted there was fresh blood on his lips.
"Rest, Bordan. Stay still, you are still gravely wounded."
A shout went up, calling for guards, urgent and desperate.
Eleanor stood up and shouted loudly, "In the name of the Vicomte d'Hannon stand and be still. I, Eleanor de Fresnes, Priestess of Menauras, lead the watch. The town has been attacked but we have been victorious!"
Her call was met with silence.
Slowly figures began to emerge, and she saw faces looking out from behind trees, tents and stalls.
The cry went up for guards again, but she ignored it.
She walked over to the others.
"Bordan?" asked Gaines.
"Badly wounded, yet he will live," Eleanor responded. "Are any of you badly hurt?"
"We live," Knut replied.
"You all fought well," Eleanor said simply.
"As did you priestess!" Freya answered waiting a moment before continuing. "But you carry that shield like a frightened child!"
Eleanor stared at her for a moment.
Freya mimicked Eleanor cowering, holding her shield high and far away from her body, and Eleanor found herself laughing along with her companions.
The moment of levity quickly passed.
Gaines walked over to Bordan and spoke quietly with him, whilst Eleanor checked their wounds. All had cuts but thankfully they seemed neither to be deep nor a major hindrance.
Freya and Knut started to look over the bodies. The townsfolk avoided them and most seemed to be leaving.
The bodies of the fallen produced several pouches with more golden coin as well as a vial containing a pale blue liquid. Eleanor was handed the vial and looked at it suspiciously. She unstoppered it and inhaled gingerly. The sweet smell of honey and rosehip greeted her and she smiled, a balm for wounds, a lucky find!
Freya turned suddenly and looked toward the town. Eleanor heard a faint shout. Then, the shout was repeated, coming closer and closer.
Eleanor walked slowly towards the noise and then she heard it clearly, "Fire! Fire! Murder!"
The priestess was about to call the others to her when she noticed all save Bordan were already with her, faces grim, running towards the alarm. She shouted to Bordan, "Stay here, we will return directly!"
They rounded the pyre and saw an old man, looking frantic, bellowing loudly, "Fire!"
"Speak old man!" Eleanor ordered.
"Fire, in town," he panted, struggling for breath, "a crazy woman, a wizard, she blasts the town with fire."
"Not far, down yonder road," he pointed off behind him, "where the roads meet. She targets the Reeve's house!"
Eleanor knew the place, she'd visited once, and knew the Reeve to speak to. "We will resolve this, old man."
They ran. The green quickly gave way to road, a field to their left and the market place and mercantile section of the town away over on their right. Their made their way quickly downhill along the road, townsfolk scattering at their approach. As they cleared some trees they saw the fire.
Ahead of them were three main buildings located around a crossroads. One, the furthest away was partially aflame, its thatched roof on fire. A crowd had gathered, blocking the road and obscuring their view. They seemed agitated and there were confused shouts and calls rising from them. Eleanor couldn't understand why they weren't tackling the fire.
"In the name of the Vicomte make way!" shouted Eleanor as they neared the group. Several people turned but the crowd remained.
"MOVE!" bellowed Knut, and suddenly the gathering parted.
Beyond the crowd stood four warriors standing in line abreast, spears held ready and round shields locked together, barring the way forward. Behind them in the middle of the roadways was a tall woman, with long dark hair, dressed in red flowing robes. The woman had her back to Eleanor facing the building and as the priestess closed upon the warriors she saw the woman raise a staff and fling three small balls of flame into the roof of the burning house, laughing as she did so.
Knut and Freya led the assault. Knut crashed into the two left most warriors, his warhammer slamming into one, his momentum knocking the other back several feet and sending him sprawling onto the ground. Freya leapt at the third, bringing her axe down mid leap cleaving deeply into the man's skull.
Eleanor ignored the last of the warriors, assuming Gaines would take care of him. She followed Knut and Freya who closed now on the red robed woman. The wizard waited until they were almost upon her and then slammed her staff into the ground. There was a deafening thunderclap and the air pushed outwards from the woman like a wave, crashing over them. It knocked the breath out of Eleanor. Her chest felt as though it had been struck by a hammer. Her ears rang and her eyes struggled to focus. Knut and Freya were stopped in their tracks.
Eleanor pushed on and struck out at the woman with her mace. The priestess felt she was attacking through water, her actions seemed so agonisingly slow. The wizard laughed manically and easily blocked the blow with her staff.
The next few moments seemed confusing to Eleanor. She was hazily aware that Gaines ran past her and the wizard, heading for the doorway of the burning building. The wizard stepped back slightly and spoke something she couldn't really hear whilst raising an arm. With an outstretched hand and finger she pointed in turn at Knut, Freya and Gaines, unleashing an arc of dazzling white light that reached from her hand and struck Eleanor's companions. Cries of pain came from all three.
Worse followed as two men emerged from the gloom behind a building on her right, loosing arrows, one striking Knut in the shoulder, the other flew she knew not where.
Eleanor's senses were recovering though, her vision cleared and some hearing returned. She attacked again and again. She failed to strike home but she pushed the woman backwards, rapidly stepping away from the priestess, fending off the attacks with her staff.
Smoke swirled all around, stinging her eyes. The air smelt of burning wood and grass. Eleanor caught sight of Gaines entering the building and saw burning thatch was dropping inside already. She realised there must still be someone inside and felt a sudden hatred for the woman in front of her. The priestess feinted, leading with her shield before turning and striking backhandedly at the wizard's now unprotected left side and struck her a glancing blow to the chest. The smile and laughter disappeared instantly from the woman's face but the wizard struck back with her staff catching Eleanor's shin.
She'd briefly glimpsed Knut and Freya as she turned. They were now engaged behind the priestess exchanging blows with the newly emerged attackers. This battle she would fight alone.
Eleanor grimly fought on. She hit out and pushed forward and for a moment she looked upon the face of her opponent. The woman was maniacal, lost in the excess and exultant joy of destruction. Eleanor connected with a blow to the wizard's arm. For an instant the wizard's eyes widened with fear and Eleanor detected her sneering laugh seemed forced. They exchanged blows and strikes and to Eleanor's surprise she realised that she had the measure of her enemy.
Her next strike missed but still she forced the wizard back, and then it hit Eleanor. She was actually going to have to kill this woman. For the first time she would need to take a life. The face of the man whose jaw she'd accidentally destroyed flashed into her mind. She struggled to control the horror she felt at the thought and she relented, pulling back from her onslaught.
The wizard needed no further invite and flung small balls of flame at Eleanor from her palm. The priestess countered two with her shield but was struck on the side of the neck by the third and yelped in pain as her flesh burned. Eleanor's survival instinct took over. Kill or be killed and she returned to the offensive driving the wizard backwards.
An arrow whipped past Eleanor and struck the wizard in her left side, its bloody head visible sticking out of the woman's back. "The chains will be broken!" the wizard cried. She turned and launched more balls of flame into the roof of the house.
Eleanor silently thanked Menauras that the arrow had missed her. She worried for Knut and Freya but pressed on with her attack. Her mace struck the wizard upon the shoulder and knocked her to the ground.
The wizard pushed herself up onto all fours, calling out, "You will all burn! The chains will be bro.."
Eleanor's mace struck the wizard on the back of her neck at the base of the skull. The woman slumped to the ground instantly, her body lifeless.
The priestess spun round and was surprised to see Knut and Freya still stood, and as she watched the last of their foe succumbed to a series of heavy blows.
Eleanor turned to the sound of the call and saw Bordan stood unsteadily some yards away, bow in hand.
A sudden sense of relief and understanding swept over her.
"Bordan!" she called back. "Once more I thank you." She moved towards him.
"Where is Gaines?" Bordan asked.
Eleanor whipped round. The building was burning brightly. The whole of the roof at the front was on fire. The section above the doorway gave way as she watched and she realised with horror that the interior was already ablaze.
She ran forward but could not reach the door the heat was so intense. She turned away and ran to her right trying to get to the buildings rear. Knut was ahead of her and easily vaulted a wooden fence behind the house and disappeared from view. Eleanor reached the fence placed her right foot upon a post and started to climb. Almost at once she slipped back down, her injured leg unable to take her weight.
She switched to her other leg and pulled herself up, before falling over onto the other side. The fire provided some measure of light, but the smoke here was thick and acrid causing tears to well in her eyes and she coughed repeatedly. Knut was advancing but there seemed to be another figure braced against the house further back.
Eleanor stumbled after him. As Knut closed on it the figure stood up and swung an axe at him forcing Knut backwards.
A door was flung open and something covered in a blanket or cloak fell or was thrown out, followed by Gaines, doubled up and coughing.
Knut was fought back but before he could recover his ground his enemy turned and struck at the blanketed bundle, "The chains will be broken!"
Knut's hammer crushed the man's skull and he toppled to the ground.
Eleanor scrambled hurriedly over. Gaines gasped desperately for breath. The intense heat of the fire blazed through the open doorway, stinging Eleanor's face. Knut dragged the dead man away, and underneath him, covered in a blanket was a limp body.
Eleanor pulled back the blanket and cried out in despair. It was the body of a woman, neck almost severed from the single blow Knut had been unable to prevent. The priestess kneeled and gasping Menauras' symbol she called out a prayer of healing. It was too late and she knew it. There was no spark of life left to be reignited, and her prayer went unanswered.
More of the roof fell in and a gout of flame flared out of the doorway above the priestess's head. She recoiled and scrambled backwards, tears streaming down her face. Knut stepped forward and lifted the woman's body up and carried her away from the house. The blanket tore as he moved her, trapped by something lying on the ground. Eleanor reached over and saw a small girl, no more than three or four summers, curled up, as if asleep. She reached out to her and at once felt the strength of Menauras flow through her arm and hand. The child gasped and coughed as Eleanor pulled the girl into her arms and turned away from the house. She shrugged off the shield as she crawled away from the flames.
Knut broke down a section of the fence and Eleanor followed him through onto the road. Gaines was retching, his face smoke blackened, his hair singed in places. Tears streaked down his cheek. Eleanor, reached out and rested her hand on his shoulder. Her looked at her briefly and smiled wanly when he noticed the child coughing in the priestess' arms.
Freya sat on the road, near the fallen bodies of their foes, with Bordan stood beside her. She had one hand clasped firmly to her side, blood seeping between her fingers. She stood up, slowly and awkwardly, a grimace on her face, "Victory?" she asked.
"At great cost," Knut responded, "the child lives, yet the mother does not."
Eleanor turned and looked the body borne by Knut, and then noticed for the first time, with a deepening horror that the woman had been heavily pregnant. The child clinging to her arms, opened her eyes, coughed again and then began to scream.