by James Page
Crofton’s Seat was built upon an ancient rock overlooking the fields below. The single wide tower was surrounded by a low wall into which a great pair of iron gates was set as a mouth. It seemed as old as the land itself, and as likely to be abandoned as sheltering a city from the unforgiving clouds above. The storm overhead stretched from horizon to horizon. Tendrils of light leapt and scattered above it so that it was never left in complete darkness. Only one path led up the great hill, jagged and now eroded, but it still appeared to be able to carry a horse and its rider safely. This was what Katherine saw as she approached the seat on the last day of her journey into the heartlands.
As she and her horse climbed the track, she pondered the last week of her life. The journey here had been arduous, but ultimately much less challenging than she had expected. She had experience enough to form some rudimentary traps, so found food easily enough. But she had met no-one on the road, and seen no-one in the settlements she had passed. An emptiness had infected the land.
The main challenge had been finding good shelter for the nights, and keeping the horse as warm and dry as she could. Lacking any mark on his bridle, her fellow traveller had remained nameless, and so she had decided to call him Peter – a good strong name. She was sure she would need such a rock in the days and nights to come.
At the top of the path, the iron gates stood open. Each flash from the skies above reflected off the wet metal, giving the effect the gates themselves were alight. Katherine and Peter crossed the courtyard cautiously. There were a few small buildings surrounding the great hall in the centre. She could feel the growing sense of danger.
There was a stable in the yard, and Katherine took a moment to dismount and tie up Peter here. Whatever lay beyond, in the hall where she felt she would find what she had come here for, this loyal animal did not deserve any part in its risks.
The doors of the hall were made of old, rusted metal. Katherine approached them tentatively. These were the first intact doors she had seen in some time; all wooden niceties had either been rotten or blown away by the storm. She pushed them, and they yielded. Only darkness lay beyond. Passing the ancient doors, she entered the pitch-black hall.
As her eyes adjusted, she could see there were some missing stones in the roof, letting in brief glimpses of light, almost enough to guide her way. The thunder sounded like the footfalls of some great spirit dancing on the roof. She took one of her few dry pieces of wood from her satchel and lit it. The floor was rock like the rest of the building, and completely bare once the rats had scurried away. Ahead, beyond the great hall, on the edges of her vision, there was a corridor, and several rooms on either side. This would take more than a day to search; she might have to stay here for the night. The prospect did not entirely appal her; it had been more than a week since she had rested under a man-made roof.
She looked down for a moment and saw something unexpected. The gem she was carrying around her neck was faintly glowing. She took it off and lifted it up. Perhaps this was connected to why the knight had entrusted it to her. Despite its beauty, Katherine started to wonder if carrying the stone all this way had been a good idea.
“Where is he?”
Katherine jumped, then turned. A shawled figure stood behind her. This was the first human she had heard or seen in some time. Once her shock had dissipated, her hopes sparked. The voice belonged to a woman. Could it be this easy?
“What have you done with him?”
“He’s safe, and out of the storm.” Katherine started to move toward her, arms outstretched, a torch in one hand, the softly glowing stone in the other. A flash of light swept through the room. “He sent me here to find you.” If she could just reach–
“And how exactly do I know anything you say is true?” Joanna had a wry smile. Another spark of white light, and from beneath the woman’s shawl Katherine could see the glint of a blade.
“How easily do you think he would have given me your name?” The response was instinctual, and she just hoped it was clever enough to work. Joanna seemed to falter and hesitate slightly. The blade moved back beneath her shawl.
“Whether you speak truth or not, it doesn’t matter. I’m bound here until my lord gives me leave. Doubly so now that my husband has chosen to flee.”
Katherine could hardly believe such suicidal madness; but then again, had she not just ridden into a storm that had stripped the kingdom bare?
“You can leave too,” Katherine tried to make her understand, “There’s nothing left to punish you beyond these walls.”
Joanna actually laughed. “You really don’t understand this, do you?” She pointed upwards, and another flash lit up the details of her face. She looked scared now. “It punishes disloyalty. It punishes desertion. Especially from my lord.”
A low, male voice rang out into the room, stopping the debate dead. From the corridor a tall, disheveled frame had emerged, draped in old purple robes, his face covered in bleak white hair. He had stopped beneath a hole in the roof, allowing the rain to patter down onto his unprotected scalp.
“You brought it to me. Good girl.”
“Who are you?” Another instinctual response.
“I am your lord. Crofton’s Seat is mine. You are in my home. Now give me what is mine.”
Katherine felt a thrill of defiance. “Why should I–“
“Joanne,” a harsher voice now, dark and commanding, “get me the stone.”
Joanna visibly hesitated. Katherine took a step back. She only had her torch to defend herself with. On the other side of the hall, Crofton reached out his hand.
“Give me the stone and I will release you from my service.”
Before Katherine had even processed the words, the gem was gone from her hand and a blade pointed at her.
“This is for our own good,” Joanna pleaded even as she backed away towards her lord. As she crossed the hall, Katherine cursed herself for her weak reflexes, and for her rashness in coming here. Had her compassion managed to lead her to her own death?
As soon as Joanna laid the stone in his hand, laughing softly to himself, she ran back across the room to Katherine. A draft flew through the room, and Katherine’s torch died.
“Let’s go. Now,” Joanna pleaded.
Crofton produced an object from beneath his robes. At first it appeared to be a simple smooth ball, but then there was another pulse of light from above, and Katherine saw it glow. The orb itself was made of gems like the one she had been given.
“What is that?” Katherine’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
“Why we need to go.”
“At last,” the old man was almost cackling now, “after all these years, after that blasted knight stole the last piece, I have your heart.” He held the orb aloft, looking up at the clouds above, “What say you now, you unforgiving spirits?” He moved Katherine’s stone towards the orb. Another wave of light swept across his face. He seemed some evil wizard from a fireside tale. There was no fire left now.
“Please.” Joanna was now dragging on Katherine’s arm, but Joanna no longer existed. All she could see was the old man, and her gem being placed into the orb, fitting perfectly into the only defect in its structure.
And suddenly there was light.
The Orb was visibly glowing now, but that was hardly noticeable. A shaft of daylight had opened above the laughing figure. The two women had to shield their eyes, such was the brightness and their surprise. Somewhere, distant in her own mind, Katherine noted that despite the daylight the booms of thunder had increased.
“Who’s weak now, father? Who is my judge now, mother?” The triumph he spoke with was almost comical, getting louder and louder, “This is my land, this is my kingdom, and I will not have it taken from me by any base magic or spirits. I am the ruler of my–“
A shaft of lightning darted down into the hall from the hole above. The room was filled with sudden light and noise, and just as quickly was left dark and barren once more. Crofton was gone, the daylight was gone. All that was left was the glowing orb.
That broke Katherine’s trance. She squeezed Joanna’s hand and they ran from the hall together. Behind them, they could feel the force building. As they sprinted through the doors, Katherine made for Peter and the stable, pulling Joanna behind her. There was wind now, pulling them back towards the hall. Katherine grabbed Peter’s reins, pulled him downwards, he complied. They all hid behind the wall of the stable, lying on the ground, as the loudest burst of thunder Katherine could imagine rang out behind them, and the world momentarily became white.
The wall shook several times, beaten by huge fists, but held. When the silence had lasted for more than a minute, Katherine dared to look up.
Where the hall had been, there was now empty space. The rocks that had made it lay strewn across the courtyard. One rested by the stable wall. Katherine reached out to touch it, but her hand was pushed back, repelled. A new layer of fear struck her. She turned round to Peter, who was already standing, with Joanna climbing onto him. She quickly joined her and shook the reins, spurring Peter on, back down the rock, back to the cave where they had slept safe the previous night.
They rode away from that place as fast as they could, away from the heart of the storm, and the orb of stones still softly glowing in the rubble.
To be concluded ‘Ab Extremis’…