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Stories of ghosts and witchcraft to chill the nerves and intrigue the imagination…

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Tales from the Pit

2. An Epic Feat

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Revile the assassin was very drunk. This was obvious to anyone with half a brain who cared to glance in his direction. However, as the rest of the revellers were hard put to muster a serviceable brain between them, not one of them was aware of his condition. The tavern was packed with as many brigands as it could hold, and one more sozzled adventurer was hardly worthy of notice. Lewd singing and laughing filled the steamy chamber. Tankards of ale and pots of wine were constantly refilled only to disappear again into the merry drinkers.

    Revile was very drunk, slouching on his bench, and tried to focus his mind on his drink. This proved impossible as his mind was away on some business of its own. He concentrated again – but no matter how hard he tried he could not see his mug of ale. In desperation he leaned forward, flailing about the table in front of him. He discovered a tankard. His hands clasped it tightly and tested its weight. The tankard was full to brimming. Sighing with relief, Revile pulled the drink towards him.

    A massive hand clamped itself about his wrist.

    “That’s my drink, friend!” said a disembodied voice from somewhere far far away.

    Revile was very drunk. Yet he had a vague notion these words were addressed to him. Struggling uselessly against the vice-like grip, he heaved himself to his feet, staggering a bit.

    “Sit down, friend,” said the distant voice.

    Revile did not know what to say. He focused his bleary stare on the fist, then followed it to a thick forearm, passed a veined biceps, up to a massive shoulder, on to a bull neck, then finally arrived at a pair of unusually cold and violent eyes.

    Revile was very drunk – but considered his next move very carefully. The owner of the fist and the eyes was a massive Highlander from the mountainous North. Even seated, he was only inches smaller than Revile. The Highlander’s friends were sitting all around him. There could have been six of them, there could have been twelve, even twenty four. But they were definitely very big and very nasty. They were all staring at Revile. The situation called for a measure of prudence and tact. The assassin could not fight a legion of Highlanders.

    Revile paused, searching for some joke or play on words that might retrieve the situation.

    “Bugger off, you Gaelic woolly-back sheep-shagging git!” he said with a warm, winning smile.

 

Revile was never sure what happened next – something most likely hit him. When he regained consciousness, he was lying in thick mud, very smelly unpleasant thick mud – mud to be found in a cesspool.

 

The assassin rolled over and staggered to his feet, a little of the noisome mud seeping up and over the tops of his boots. Lights flickered and flashed before his eyes. Wading out of the stagnant pool, he struggled to firmer land. Revile turned and gazed back.

    He wondered how he had come to end up in the burgh’s cesspool.

    “Must have been something I said,” he concluded, then headed for the nearest tavern.

 

He wandered about for a long time, but never did find a tavern.

    The dark warren of closes which burrowed the burgh were all but deserted, the windows lightless, the dingy facades looming over the narrow streets.

    Revile dearly wanted a drink.

    The moon was full and cast dim pale fingers over the mounds of refuse, down the open sewers, disturbing a few rats.

    Revile felt ill.

    The closes would have been quiet but for the scrape of Revile’s boots on the cobbles, the drip of unclean water, Revile’s uneven breathing.

    Revile was violently sick all over his boots.

 

When he had finished emptying the dearly-bought contents of his stomach, he straightened up, still spitting the last of the bile from his mouth. He tried to wipe some of the mess from his fouled breeks.

    Then the assassin thought he heard voices. Recovering a little, he headed off in their direction with the hope of finding more drink.

    In the near distance three people appeared in the light of an uncovered lantern. The assassin hurried towards them, an eager fire burning in his eyes. But he tripped over a gutter and sprawled into shadows by the road. Lights appeared before his eyes, the world began to spin.

    “Listen,” said a gruff voice, unaware or uncaring that Revile could hear. “Listen good! You know the bargain. Either bring us the Bull of Heaven, or it will go ill for your sister. Constantine has spoken. He has sent us this last time. What do you say?”

    “I can’t do as you wish,” said a girl forlornly. “I don’t know where this Bull of Heaven is kept. It is hidden and I have never heard word of it. I’m a novice in the Order of the Cross – but even if I was a priest I couldn’t do this. You must understand!”

    “By Mithra! Your words are as nothing. You have no choice but to follow our orders. Either do as we command or suffer the consequences. And this last thing Constantine bade us say: There are many ways to die, Margaret of the Cross. Some are peaceful, some are painful, some are terrible torture. Disobey me in this and your sister will be familiar with every suffering of death. But she will not die. When we have broken her, she shall be returned to you, maimed and twisted. You shall know that you caused her destruction. Think on it. The choice is yours – if choice there be!”

    There were the sounds of receding footsteps, then the anguished weeping of a young woman.

    Revile regained his unsteady feet. Weaving over to where the girl wept, he put a comforting but noisome arm about her trembling shoulders. She broke down in his embrace, unwisely burying her head in his fouled tunic.

    The assassin considered for a moment. “Have you any wine?” he asked her tenderly. “Or do you know of any taverns which are open at this hour?”

 

A little while later the two new-found companions were seated in Margaret’s small well-furnished apartments, not far from the Great Church, not all that much further from the cesspool. They sat at opposite sides of a table, an earthenware bottle of good wine and a foul smell between them. Revile had suggested that a goblet of wine might ease her distress, then companionably joined her.

    In truth, the young woman was too upset to refuse.

    Gradually Margaret regained her composure and took more than hesitating sips of her drink. And whether it was this – or the closeness of an apparently sympathetic human being – she unburdened her troubles, and told Revile her sorry tale.

    The girl was called Margaret, the daughter of a prosperous merchant. She had tired of a life of indolence and failed love affairs – and had sought a more satisfying vocation. Nothing suited and at last she despaired and joined the Order of the Cross: a small fanatical cult based at the Great Church. She had entered the Order as a novice, and progressed no further, no matter how hard she worked in the fields and gardens, and attended the teachings.

    Then this final calamity had struck. Her sister, her beloved sister whom she loved above all else, had been abducted by the wicked Constantine. He was the High Priest of an opposing cult, a secret religion which had once been popular in the South. The cult worshipped the bull.

    Constantine was always making trouble for the Order of the Cross, but had little support except amongst a dedicated few. He had devised the abduction so he might gain possession of a powerful talisman, the Bull of Heaven, an object so mysterious it had not been seen for a generation. Reputedly it was kept at the Great Church. However, Constantine had chosen the wrong target for his schemes: Margaret had no idea where – or even what – the Bull of Heaven might be.

    Finally the girl fell silent, and Revile the assassin was hard put to stifle a yawn. Margaret composed herself again, then said after a pause: “I am without hope, unless, well, a brave adventurer might steal the Bull of Heaven for me. Then this unhappy situation might be redeemed and my sister saved.”

    Revile had to admit that Margaret had a very fetching smile. “Very well,” he replied, “I will steal this Bull of Heaven for you. But I will need to know more about it.”

    Margaret quickly told him all she knew about the Great Church, which was not much, and then Revile decided to ask her one or two intelligent questions.

    “I’m sorry if I’m being slow,” he apologised, “but what does this Bull of Heaven look like and where is it kept?”

    “I don’t know,” admitted his companion. “As far as I’m aware only the head of our Order does. It has been hidden for a long time. I can’t even guess where it is kept. I’m sorry – that’s not much help, is it?”

    “No, it’s not much to go on.” The assassin thought for a moment. “Who is this Constantine? I’ve never heard of him. Is he a Southerner?”

    “His father was a Southron soldier, or so he claims, and his mother High Priestess of Mithra in some temple. Constantine is supposedly a wizard, but has few followers. Yet with this Bull of Heaven who knows? It is his last hope or the Cult of the Bull will become extinct in the North.”

    “I see,” said Revile, draining the last of the wine from the bottle. “That would be a terrible shame.”

 

A little later, the assassin left Margaret’s apartments and struggled down the steps to the street. He turned at the bottom of the stairs, gazing back at the young woman illuminated in the doorway.

    “My hopes go with you,” she said down to him.

    “Never fear,” he replied and waved back, nearly falling over. He stumbled off towards the shadowed buildings of the Great Church, Margaret’s promise clutched to his heart.

 

 

II

 

Margaret sat forlornly in her apartments with little hope of ever seeing her would-be saviour again. There was no grief in that itself, perhaps, but with the coming of the dawn her dear sister would be horribly tortured.

    Margaret’s heart was frozen by a frost of despair. Her sister, Matilda, was the only person for whom she had ever cared – and it only emphasised the futility of Margaret’s existence that she could do nothing herself to help. All her hopes rested with a strong-smelling drunken adventurer she had met searching for a tavern. The chances of him stealing the Bull of Heaven would be minimal. It was far more likely that he was lying in an inebriated stupor somewhere close by. And she had made her promise, and it would not be easy to fulfil.

    Gradually the eastern sky lightened, and a few shafts of light glimmered through the closed shutters. The new day was dawning, all the too soon, yet in great splendour. Margaret’s mood darkened. Her mission to save her sister had failed, and it would only be a short while before she met her final torment.

    And, as the sun rose out of the eastern hills, there was a pounding at her door. Margaret started then hurried to answer it. She flung the door back, her heart thumping in her chest.

    All hope withered.

    On her doorstep stood the servants of Constantine.

    “We have come for the Bull of Heaven,” one said.

    Margaret staggered back as if she had been struck and they entered her apartments.

    “Where is the Bull, by Mithra!” cried the other one.

    “I don’t have it,” moaned Margaret. “I don’t have it.”

    The two men did not seem surprised by the news.

    “Then,” said one of them, “in time we will return to Constantine, and tell him of your disobedience. But first, since our master will have no more use for you, we will say good-bye properly, unbeliever!” He drew a dagger. “By Mithra! We’ll show you!”

    “Unhand her foul oaf!” cried a noble voice. “Or you will feel the bite of this troll’s bane!”

    Revile leapt through the doorway into the chamber, brandishing a shining sword. His old garb had been replaced by fine garments of dyed wool and a shining breast plate – which glinted in the morning sun and was only muddied by a few hand-prints. The assassin must have bathed for a disgusting smell did not follow him into the house. Indeed, he was quite impressive in his new attire, despite the fact he lurched slightly. “Unhand her, oaf!” he reiterated. “Or you will feel the bite of this wolf’s bane!”

    “Who are you? By Mithra!”

    “I am Dourhand, son of Felleyes,” replied Margaret’s redeemer proudly. “Also I am Deathshade the Cleaver, of the House of Assassins. Here is The Sword-that-was-Notched! Do you wish to test its razored edge against your innards? Be swift in answering! Or I will trim your finger nails to your sweaty armpits!”

    “We are disciples of Constantine,” they answered swiftly. “We are on an errand for our master. He is a mighty wizard, wise in all lore. Will you be foolish enough to hinder us? For if that is your purpose you will feel the sharpness of the Bull’s horns!”

    “Indeed?” laughed Dourhand, son of Felleyes, recklessly. “Do not make me scoff, you heathen scum! You are fortunate that it is not my purpose to hinder you – far from it indeed!” And he uncovered a shining silver bull, rearing on its hind legs. Its back was encrusted with glittering jewels, and its eyes were ruby and evil. “Where is this girl’s sister?” he went on. “For that was the bargain: her safe return. Bring her to the steps of the Great Church for there you could not risk treachery. There we shall trade this mysterious talisman for Matilda. Do you understand? Or are these orders too complex for your dull wits? Be gone and return swiftly! We will await you at the church.”

    The two servants hurried from the apartments, running down the stairs into the street.

    “But how?” asked Margaret in surprise. “How did you manage ...”

    “It is a long story,” interrupted Revile. “Too long for the telling here and now. And we must hurry to the Great Church.”

 

The huge daunting edifice of the Great Church of the Order of the Cross stood behind them. Its many walls and fortifications were etched against the blue sky; for the Church was not just a temple, but also a fortress and town for the acolytes, novices and priests. The roof of the Church shone gold in the sunlight, two tall spires reaching towards the heavens. It was quiet at this hour, and there was no sign of either priests or guards. The theft of the Bull of Heaven had not yet been discovered.

    Margaret gazed at the massive structure of the Great Church as if for the first time. She wondered how her companion might have breached the defences and stolen the Bull. There was apparently more to him than met the eye. She searched for some sign of bravery in his face, but found nothing noble or daring. Frowning slightly, Margaret realised Dourhand, son of Felleyes, was thoroughly enjoying himself.

    “What is your name?” she asked softly.

    He regarded her for a moment. “I am Dourhand, son of Felleyes,” he replied with a crooked smile. “I am also named Deathshead the Beaver ...”

    “No, I meant your real name.”

    “Is it important?”

    “Perhaps,” she replied. “I might have heard of you – such a brave fellow.”

    “I have many names ...”

    “So you’ve said!” she told him, becoming a little irritated. “I am being serious!”

    “So was I,” he said with a smile. “And you won’t have heard of me. And considering what I’ve just done, and am about to do, it’s better it remains that way.”

    “So what do you do when you’re not saving damsels in distress?”

    “Depends,” he replied, with an exaggerated flourish. “Sometimes I drink wine, and other times I earn money so I can drink wine.”

    “You’re hopeless,” she said. “Won’t you tell me anything about yourself?”

    “We noble heroes have to retain an air of mystery.”

    “I see,” she replied wearily.

    Their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of a small party of people entering the square between the burgh and the Great Church. Two men dragged a girl from one of the streets. Behind them walked a man of impressive girth and appearance. He was cloaked in a bull’s skin, and carried a staff fashioned from horn. The staff was shod with silver and carved with many mystical devices. The man’s beard was full and black, his eyes wild like a mad bull’s. This was Constantine as legend had reported him.

    Margaret could not help but be impressed.

    If Dourhand was similarly minded he gave no indication.

    “Hail and well met,” greeted the son of Felleyes, “I am Sourhand, don of Feelies ...”

    “Yes, I know,” replied Constantine as he approached. His voice was deep and booming. “Have you the Bull of Heaven?”

    “Of course,” replied Dourhand, uncovering the talisman. “This,” he continued proudly, “is the fabled Bull of Heaven as engraven in the hidden temple of Mithra. Many wise men have guessed as to its likeness, but no one has seen it for a generation. Is that not true, my noble wizard? Few can imagine its secrets. And, yet, I have risked the most deadly peril – the Seven Secret Watchers of Hanuman – to steal it for you. I alone have walked those entrapped and fatal roads and returned to tell the tale. I hope the pain and fear I endured have not been in vain – for then you will know my wrath! Is this woman Matilda?”

    “Yes,” breathed Margaret.

    “Give the Bull of Heaven to me!” demanded Constantine. “Give it to me!”

    “In a moment,” replied Dourhand, son of Felleyes. “First release Matilda!”

    “Very well,” said Constantine. “Let her go, my disciples.”

    Matilda was freed and fell into the arms of her sister. The two young women embraced tightly.

    “Are you all right?” asked Margaret. “Did they harm you?”

    “No,” sobbed Matilda, through tears of relief. “I was treated tolerably well. At least, so I’d guess. I’m so dazed. You stole the Bull of Heaven from the Great Church? I had not thought such a thing possible! I didn’t dare hope you would save me.”

    “Now the Bull!” said Constantine. “Give it to me!”

    “Very well,” said Dourhand calmly. He handed the talisman to the priest, then his hand strayed to the hilt of his sword. “Guard the Bull well,” he advised. “For if I could steal it from the very fortress then others may seek to wrest it from you. And this last caution I would give: the uses of the talisman are many and subtle – and its possession can be deadly! Use it wisely lest it destroy you!”

    But Constantine hardly heard the warning. He was simply overjoyed to possess the Bull of Heaven. Clasping it tightly to his chest, he no longer took heed of friends or foes. Now he had the talisman, now he had the thing for which he had always wanted – and with it power and glory. In a moment, he turned from Revile and hurried out of the square, followed by his two disciples.

    And that was the last Dourhand, son of Felleyes, ever saw of Constantine. Which was perhaps as well under the circumstances.

 

The three companions returned to Margaret’s apartments, and were soon seated around the table. Revile opened a new bottle of wine, then lounged back on his stool, stretching out his legs before him. The two women eyed him intently, with some little awe, but he was content to grin inanely, supping his drink.

    “How can I ever thank you?” asked Margaret at last. “Words are not sufficient to express our gratitude.”

    “Have you forgotten our bargain?” replied Dourhand, son of Felleyes.

    “Of course not,” she grinned, “but what use will you find for a hundred casks of wine?”

    Revile grinned back, a dreamy look on his face: “I’m thinking of having a party.”

    “I must ask,” said the girl after another pause. “How did you steal the Bull of Heaven? I had not thought it possible.”

    Dourhand, son of Felleyes, also named Deathshade the Cleaver of the House of Assassins, began a lengthy and embellished tale of heroic content. He had fought sorcerous priests and envenomed serpents, walked devious corridors of fire and deadly traps, solved intricate puzzles and esoteric questions, had finally come to a maze, a maze inhabited by some monster which was half-man, half-bull. And – at last – escaped through fear and peril, emerging alive and unscathed with the Bull of Heaven in his possession.

    Revile was very drunk. His story was rambling and entirely inconsistent. But, nevertheless, the two women believed every word. They looked on him with admiration and gratitude, showering him with praise.

 

It was some time later when the truth of the matter emerged – by then Dourhand the brave adventurer was long gone.

    Constantine raised a small army and marched on the Great Church of the Order of the Cross. He brought with him the Bull of Heaven and with the talisman, he thought, victory. Constantine’s army was soundly defeated by the Church garrison. Constantine was captured. In his possession was found the Bull of Heaven. Only it was not the mysterious talisman Constantine thought it was. It was a rather expensive piece of costume jewellery, which had been stolen from a local tavern called the Rearing Bull. There had been several robberies that night, and two violent attacks on rich burgesses. It was not clear why Constantine had taken the bejewelled bull – although there was considerable amusement in the burgh.

    And it was rumoured the famous wizard, the last priest of Mithra in the North, took his own life because of the humiliation.

 

Revile did not learn of his death for some weeks after the event. In truth, the assassin was not aware of much. It took several weeks to finish the wine – and several months to recover from the hangover.

    And so, Revile achieved an epic feat: an epic feat of drinking.

 

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