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Chapter One


The miserable day would shortly be drawing to a close – and Rispin still had a good walk left before his aching legs would finally lug him up to the great pointed hill’s summit. Those freshly decorated, ancient sculpted gateposts, scrubbed cobblestones and the scattered, vibrant flower petals that had greeted him at the foot of the slope were now a distant memory away. Currently, the only view going was that of a barely evident track and then masses of vicious looking hawthorns and brambles that the steep inclining route sporadically divided. He’d seen better sights.

  The wind picked up, coursing back and forth through the rippling, barbed channel that continued to catch and nick his scored hands, meanwhile a cloud laid its heavy shadow across the unwelcoming terrain; both helped turn the world just that little bit darker and colder. He sighed. Could a head hang lower? With one hand tugging a frayed rope that was attached to a rather frail looking pony, he continued to plod monotonously onwards. It started to rain.

  “Wonderful,” Rispin muttered to himself.

  He tripped on a protruding stone and stumbled, just catching his feet before landing on the thirsty, cracked ground. Pournelius the pony tugged on his reins and complained with a loud grumble. Rispin realised that was the first animally noise he’d heard in hours. Where was the bird song? Where were the usual croaks, grunts and squawks that invaded his ears when he’d been made to walk up some miserable, mountainous tor? Not seeing any creatures, that he could understand; there was plenty of scrub for them to hide in after all. Not being able to hear the local wildlife, though? That was somewhat troubling. He wished he hadn’t realised.

  The enormity of the situation appeared worryingly close now – death waited ahead, and, unhappily, below. Rispin was still quite shocked at how a cheerful, celebrating crowd could turn into an angry mob quicker than he could make a speedy departure – and he considered himself to be a bit of an expert at a hasty retreat. At least the end he would receive at the conclusion of the hike would be faster than being mercilessly beaten to death by a horde of livid villagers wielding their various rusting farming equipment, stale loaves and offal, he pondered. Not being the most popular member of the community – that was something he was used to. On the other hand, this level abhorrence was a new experience entirely. Rispin was certain he was catching Pournelius firing evil looks across at him every few yards or so – but then it was that sort of a day. His mind flooded with thoughts of the horror that lay in wait for him at the peak of the climb. He tried his best to focus and picture happier times in his mind, only the images quickly merged into disturbing, nightmarish visions; each one ending with two gruesome deaths: unfortunately, and most importantly, his own, and then far less importantly, Pournelius’. (Although, might there be a case for that one to be argued as a ‘casualty of war’?)

  The pony snorted loudly and Rispin jumped back into consciousness.

  “Pournelius!” he scolded, while his heart contemplated recovering. “Please… do not… do that.” Pournelius shook his head and threw him one of his looks. Rispin sighed, patted the animal on the nose and smiled forlornly.

  “I was… only joking,” he shrugged. Pony guilt, just what he needed on top of everything else. It shook its head again, licked its chops and continued to follow.

  The light shower passed, the wind dropped and warm early evening rays shone down, illuminating the delicate, watery cobwebs that were tangled in the spiky plants’ branches. Rispin ran his eyes far up the hazy, drying trail; it might take him another hour or so. The pair were in no rush, however setting up camp in the dark would probably not be a very good idea. He stopped for a moment and turned, then looked down into the valley – it was a beautiful view, enhanced by a rainbow in the distance, beaming its good fortune, regrettably, many miles away.

  Gazing down at the trees, the fields, the towns in the distance, the glistening river, and then the village, for what would likely be the last time, Rispin felt a terrible amount of guilt. What had he done? He shouldn’t be here, walking this pitiful track. He had no intention of hurting anything or anyone. How could events always go so wrong for him and so quickly? His good intentions would soon lead to the demise of both poor Pournelius the pony and himself, and no doubt many others later that evening. This is how he would always be remembered; the traitor who would end up costing so many innocent lives. His heart ached. He clenched his eyes in remorse and continued on the last stretch of the ascent.

  The thorns, thistles, foxgloves and heather had become sparser and only grasses, which had avoided peat fires, grew in their short, spiky, abstract patches. There was no remaining path, but it was quite obvious to Rispin where he was heading. The fell’s famous peak didn’t look quite so sharp anymore and there was clearly an overhanging, giant stone ledge below the tip – this was fenced by a semicircle of large, well-spaced menhirs that might possibly give him some shelter and protection.

  “Better than nothing,” he supposed. His eyes darted nervously across the narrowing horizon; all was still, except for a breeze through the grass. It wouldn’t be long; soon the small mountain would claim his life.

  Rispin gasped for breath, nervously. He could now see where he would meet his end. How many brave men had marched this route? How many champions? They would have wanted to be here; fearful, probably, but full of determination and courage as they strode purposefully towards victory or eternity. Rispin was the type of young man who preferred to be aware of questions (and more importantly, to have the answers to said questions) long before an examiner had decided a test would be set. Rispin knew full well who the ruler of this particular hill was, and right now, such information was not something that he enjoyed possessing, whatsoever.

  The last of the day’s sun sparkled brightly as it found the quartz, housed inside grey, weather-beaten boulders which jutted from the hillside. Thankfully, the blinding flashes were eclipsed occasionally by the long shadows streaking in front of Rispin and his scruffy, four legged companion, giving moments of blissful relief. Some of the rocks ahead however, looked unusual and out of place; they were a dark, speckled brown colour, not particularly large and some appeared almost twisted and dented. They didn’t glimmer, but there was something familiar about them. Rispin started to feel nervous and he glanced at Pournelius for support (who unhelpfully looked twitchy himself). Rispin noticed the sheathed sword, strapped to the pony’s side. He pictured drawing the blade and holding it for reassurance. His hands were shaking. Maybe it would be best if he left the weapon where it was – he should concentrate on making a start setting up camp; they would soon have nowhere left to walk, after all.

  The strange brown rocks seemed to be grouped in little clusters, Rispin noted. There were quite a few clumped around the overhang, some to the side in the open and some on the approach. There were some to his left and, even though he knew he should make his way straight to the relative safety of the concave wall and the impressively carved, pointed stones around it, his curiosity needed answering. He diverted his course slightly, and cautiously approached.

  One rock looked long and thin and rather like it was disintegrating into small desiccated flakes. Curious. Several close by looked as if grass was growing through holes in them. Holes in rocks? By the time he’d finished thinking of the question, his brain had already provided the answer that he didn’t want to hear.

  Rispin stopped dead in his tracks and gawped. In front of him lay the remains of a slain warrior. Clasped, putrefied, skeletal fingers were merging with a rusting sword handle. Grass grew through a shattered, earthy chest plate. Fragments of skull rested inside what was once a helmet – which lay a frightening distance away from where the hero’s broken body had decomposed to almost nothing. Whoever it was, he’d been pulverised.

  Time passed; Rispin didn’t move, his brain was blank, processing no thoughts other than the sights of the battered cadaver entering his transfixed eyes. Pournelius tugged on the rope and started to walk off, dragging Rispin along with him. Rispin stumbled, clutching onto the animal for support, his eyes wandering onto the other ‘brown rocks’. How many had been killed on this hilltop? How many deaths? These fighters had been training all their lives to battle here. They had helmets and armour and a hunger for action. Heroes from far and wide wanted to come here. They desired to come; to fight and to slay. For the first time in his life, Rispin no longer saw these blood thirsty muscle men as half-witted fools. Their bravado, their ego, it was all equipment to get them up the mountain. They willingly gambled with their lives to protect the village and all he had ever done was roll his eyes at them for their stupidity.

  Here Rispin was, standing in the same footprints as the fallen champions of old – not however, in their shoes though, for he had no desire to be anywhere near this awful place. Could he make his way down the hill at night and escape without anyone knowing? Rispin remembered what lay in store for his old friends later that evening; the destruction and death. He wasn’t a particularly brave man, but he wasn’t spineless either. He had only one choice, as much as he hated to acknowledge it. Choking for air, he made the final steps towards the shadow of the overhang.



Copyright 2012 Andrew Thornway, all rights reserved


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