Winter II - Steeple Langford
Mid-December closes in, and the scope of daily life at Richard's estate of Steeple Langford is ever-more-narrow, though fortunately Rupert's presence offers some companionship. One day, a messenger comes to the keep with dreadful news: a phantom has been seen roaming over the fields on the outskirts of the estate. The apparition was sighted twice, at twilight. Richard and Rupert ride out with the priest, Father Augustan, and look around but find no sign of the phantom. The next day, another peasant brings word of another sighting, and reports that the ghost howled terribly and called Richard's name. Richard remains calm. Rupert speaks with his mother, who was once kidnapped by the Faerie and has some fey abilities of her own, and stays up all night to see if the ghost appears, but it does not. The next day it is reported to have been seen in the village itself. The priest, formerly skeptical, is now worried. The two knights hear a Mass (just in case) and await the ghost in Richard's chambers the next night.
It appears on cue, howling as it walks the halls of the keep. Richard and Rupert go down to the main hall to meet it. The ghost identifies itself as Ewan Mac Nar, a distant ancestor, and tells Richard that his bones are no longer buried, and that unless a druid reburies them before the Darkest Day, he will be doomed to walk the earth forever. The ghost is puzzled by Rupert's references to Christianity, and repeats his demand.
Solstice is five days away. Although somewhat bothered by the pagan-ness of it all, Richard vows to comply with his ghostly ancestor's request, and sends out messages summoning his friends from their estates with all due speed; do they happen to know any druids? They arrive quickly, druidless. One of the pages at Steeple Langford turns up a man named Dauir, who claims he can provide the necessary services. Rupert's mother sacrifices a goat and performs a divination suggesting that the bones lie to the north-northwest direction. Beyond the estate in that direction there is only endless, uninhabited forest.
They search in a cold, extremely unpleasant rain and find nothing the first day other than the fact that Dauir is incredibly irritating, with a penchant for singing (badly). They have no choice other than to put up with him, however. Aeron encounters a bald man with a permanent grimace who appears opposed to the group's errand, and disappears, and Ewan reappears to encourage them on their quest and urge haste.
After more searching, they find a stream where a tree has been uprooted by a recent storm; the water has washed around and down into the hole it left, which does appear to be the upper part of an ancient burial shaft, and which seems to go down considerably farther than one might expect, perhaps washed out by the sudden flow of water. Elffin volunteers to explore, and is lowered on a rope through the cold, wet, muddy, and often uncomfortably tight channel. By the time they run out of rope, he has emerged into a large, high cavern; water from the stream has run down through the hole, and into the cave. He cannot see the floor very well. The knights haul him back up and send a squire for more rope and some strong men to help, and then begin looking around for another way into the cave.
They find an opening about a mile away from the cave itself and decide to split up; two knights will wait to see if the rope arrives, and go back through the grave channel when it does, and two will explore this new cave and see if it leads to the same one. Elffin, who is determined that no matter what, he's not going to be lowered through that shaft again, volunteers for the cave, as does Rupert. A squire stays there to wait for them to return, and the others wait by the grave shaft.
After some time has passed, Richard and Aeron hear a commotion from the cave, what sounds like Rupert yelling, and a fight. They pelt back toward the cave opening and find Rupert staggeringo out, barely conscious, with a sack of bones and grave goods in his arms, which Richard and Dauir bury as fast as humanly possible while Aeron enters the cave to help Elffin. As soon as it is done, Ewan appears and gives his thanks, and Aeron and Elffin, the latter also injured, rejoin then. The cave was the lair of another ghost (the grimacing man), a sorcerer who had hated Ewan and had caused the uprooted tree in order to torment him. The two brave knights who had retrieved the bones had done so only through a horrible guantlet of foes, including skeletons which had danced with Elffin while they tore at him, rats that gnawed at Rupert's living flesh, and a throng of magical snakes.
Christmas passes and spring arrives once more; Pentecost and the adventuring season approach, and the knights prepare joyously, only to receive an unexpected visitor. Isaac and Miriam, with an escort of two knights, appear at each estate in turn, with a message for the knights who rescued them.
Arthur is sending a mission to explore a half-legendary land to the west, across the sea, he tells them, a place hinted at in old writings now deciphered. This mission is completely secret; they will take ship at Bath, before which time not even their squires may know the truth of their journey. After gathering to discuss the idea, at which meeting Elffin discloses his forest experience to the others, the knights are agreed that they will go. They do not trust voices in the night that will not identify themselves, and they have no reason to distrust Isaac, who bears the king's seal.
The greatest adventure of all surely lies ahead!
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© 1999 David Twiddy