Monday, August 24, 2009

In Judgement

Galen strode across the rough, timber drawbridge, certain he was ready for whatever trap was about to spring. He leapt across the yawning outer gateway, mindful of the massive portcullis which might come crashing down at any moment, dashed past the arrow slits that lined the passage and threw himself into the courtyard across the inner opening, with its equally massive portcullis poised to fall . Even as he entered the courtyard his eyes scanned the towering walls for archers, but he could detect no threat. The castle's outer defences had been abandoned.

An un-hitched ox-cart with a broken wheel, lay lopsidedly near the gate, and next to it was a jumble of rotten barrel staves shoved into freshly woven baskets that had not yet been properly trimmed. All about the outer ward were the signs of sudden departure; upset stalls, storeroom doors still gently flapping, chests lying open amidst disgorged contents, and the scuffed signs of many feet pressed close together and funnelled through the great gate that now lay behind him. Just what had they been expecting? Surely not a single righteous man on a quest for justice.

He studied the gatehouse that bulwarked the inner ward. It's sloping roof was designed to channel rocks or boiling oil from above, but the very doorway this was designed to secure gaped wide to the world. The looming doors had been wedged open with lumps of wood.

Had the tyrant fled, or was he, even now, luring Galen into a deadly encounter on his own terms. Surely he didn't care enough for his cowed minions to send them to safety, or did the monster fear his population would turn on him when the true King's champion presented himself to them.

Regardless of his normally reckless bravery, Galen was cautious as he entered the gatehouse. This was a cramped and darkened maze of passages twisting back upon itself again and again before it reached the inner ward, the way lined with yet more arrow slits which could also be served with a thrusting spear. Only tight beams of light from the ominous murder holes dotting the ceiling granted any illumination in the suffocating darkness. And yet he passed through this treacherous tunnel without incident.

The inner ward consisted of a small yard, enclosed by high walls all about with empty platforms reserved for archers, and, of course, the great hall proper, whose door hung open, just as Galen had expected. He marched through this entrance, into his enemy's lair. Past empty rooms and echoing corridors he went, the way now lit by a few guttering torches, until he reached the great hall, and there upon his throne, on a stepped dais, at the back of the deserted chamber, his nemesis.

"Leroi Deguerre where are your lackeys?" Galen demanded. "For I know you are not so foolish as to face me alone."

The usurper king was still a young man but his handsome face had become hard, and old, before its time. "You know I will always face you man to man, Galen," he said. "But, please, Leroi is the name my people gave me. Call me by my true name. Let me hear you call me, 'Samuel'. Call me 'Uel', as you did when we were boys together."

"I will call you 'dog' and sink your decimated remains in a plague pit." Galen spat the words. "You have no name, and no heritage either. You are scum. Lying, cheating scum, and I will end you this day."

"You forget. I saved your life once, but I would save it anew," Leroi said. "Turn away, sweet Galen. Turn about and return to your petty province and your broken king. I will not harm you. You will be at peace for the rest of your days. I swear it will be so. Turn away. Please, turn away."

Galen drew his longsword. "You saved MY life? And how many times did this hand, and this sword, stay death from your own crooked neck? How many?"

Leroi smiled a sad smile. "Many times. When we fought side by-"

"Many times!" Galen exclaimed. "And if I was not so sure, so absolutely sure, that today I will cut you down and make you pay for your crimes, then I would hack off my own strong right hand, and then break this fine blade, rather than suffer the shame of owing you even so paltry a debt."

Leroi began, "Brother-"

"Brother?" Galen laughed. A harsh noise. "You are no kin to me, nor ever were you. I love your father, my king, as though he were my own flesh, but you were never worthy of him, and never worthy of me either."

"I will avow your final word, and discard the rest." Leroi said. "I had no choice but to correct the mistakes of my father. The mistakes of the heritage which I, like you, wish I could disown."

"I will listen to no more of your lies," Galen said. "Stay and be cut down where you sit, or come face me and die like a man."

Leroi reached for his helmet, which sat upon the broad arm of his throne, but he no more than touched it, than he thought better of it and left it where it was. He drew his own sword as he trudged step by reluctant step down the dais and to the centre of the hall.

Galen snatched his own helmet off his head and threw it far away to his side. "I will make this quick," he said, "and it will be certain."

Leroi barely murmured. "It was certain the moment you took your first step upon this foolish quest, my brother."

Galen screamed his war-cry and, sword held high, charged his target.

There was a ferocious clash of metal on metal, followed by the awkward rattle of a collapsing armoured figure. The ringing clatter of a sword sent skidding across tiles. And a heart-wrenching, keening wail that finally broke down into hard, body-wracking sobs. Honest despair, of which there was no single other soul present to witness.

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