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A plague of imps

A sword, a sorceress, a swordsmith, a professor, a servant, a winged serpent, a child, a spy, soldiers, peasants, a plague of imps, and a nice cup of tea

By Raymond G. TaylorPublished about a year ago Updated 2 months ago 24 min read
From a work by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons

Stumbling along alone, the child struggles to make progress through a clearing in the forest, oblivious to the whump, whump, whump of great wings swopping down from behind him. He is almost relieved to feel the creature’s long talons close around his shoulders, the great strength of the beast lifting him up into the air. His only reaction is to glance around at the scaly head of the monster, momentarily connecting his gaze with that of the reptilian eyes of his captor. A barely perceptible mutual nod seals the understanding between them before the winged serpent curls its neck around and down to the child’s face, connecting its course mouth with the infant’s gentle lips. A mush of welcome nourishment is exchanged. Satisfied, the child returns his gaze to the ground receding beneath him.

Clang-tap, clang-tap, clang-tap, clang-tap... The monotonous rhythm of hammer striking hot blade was soothing to a man who had known nothing else his whole life. Quenching the half-made weapon in the tub to his side Abernathan cursed as, looking up, he saw the party approaching on horseback. “What the…” He did not complete the question, instead calling behind him “Mistress! Visitors!”

A figure appeared at the door of the rough cottage, regarding the approaching party with disdain. The procession was led by a lady astride a fine grey stallion, her robes flowing down around the horse’s flanks. It was clear from the rich fabrics she wore that the visitor was of the Cognoscenti. As the party approached the forge, Abernathan laid aside his tools and stepped away from the heat. The lady leading the party trotted up before him, dismounting with an easy grace. He now recognized the haughty demeanor and the imperious expression as that of the Chancellor and Professor from the University of Gharoweth, the Lady Mareeth. The two accompanying guards remained mounted, reigning in a few lengths behind. They each leant on their pommels, watchful and silent.

“You honor my forge with your presence, Chancellor,” he said when his visitor gave no indication that she would speak.

“The honor is mine, Forge Master,” she replied.

“Will you take tea?”

“I will.” The guards remained in their respective saddles, regarding the whole scene with military appraisal.

Two youths appeared from behind the cottage to the side. By the tight clothing they wore and their clumsy movements, it was evident that they were each approaching manhood. They were ignored until Abernathan, not sparing a look at them, ordered “see to it.” They both scurried away as their mother came forward.

“You must forgive me, Mistress,” said the Chancellor. “…for keeping you and your husband from your calling.”

“You are welcome at our forge and have no need of forgiveness, gracious lady,” said the mistress, gesturing towards one of the stools set around the bench table at the front of the cottage. She half bowed to her visitor as the lady approached and sat, before sitting opposite her guest on another stool, Abernathan sitting down on a third. In silence, they waited as one of the boys brought out the tea caddy, an ornately carved box made of the finest walnut. The other followed closely behind, bearing a tray with a jug of freshly boiled spring water and the beautifully wrought silver and glass samovar. The first boy placed the walnut box upon the bench with something of reverence, bowing as he stepped back, not to the lady but to the box of tea. Mistress Abernathan looked at her visitor, enquiringly.

“Please Mistress,” the lady said. “I know that you too are schooled in the art.” Mistress Abernathan nodded and the three dipped their heads as she incanted the prayer of herbs. As they each looked up, the other boy brought over the tray so that the Mistress could place the samovar on the table, before opening the box to spoon out a careful measure of the green-black leaves, closing it again with equal care. She then reached over and took the jug of hot water, adding water to leaves, before placing the lid on the receptacle and waiting patiently for the ordained time. Meanwhile the first boy took three earthenware cups from the tray held by the second boy, and placed them in front of his mother. The ceremony complete, the mistress poured three cups and handed one to the lady, another to her husband, before gently taking her own. The boys backed away to a respectful distance.

There was no talk over the tea. Though the Abernathans were curious to know what business brought the Chancellor to their forge, they did not show it and sipped at their tea respectfully and in silence. At length, the lady spoke.

“Your sons will soon be of age,” she said. The parents made no reply. After a pause she continued. “I have need of a personal servant. There is much work to be done at the University. I find my young men rather dull in the senses and I will not have the young women spending their time handling dusty scrolls. Are your boys able to de-cipher?”

“Yes, lady, I have taught them both their scrolls,” said the Mistress.

Nodding, the Chancellor looked up at the two youths. “Come to me,” she commanded, turning away from the bench and standing. The two approached, eyes cast down. “Closer.” Stepping further forward and either side, they kept their gaze to the ground. The Chancellor looked at each in turn, appraising them head to foot. They would have looked similar but for the color of their hair. One had locks that were as dark as his mother’s and father’s, the other had hair of a golden fairness that made him appear not of the same family. With his blue eyes, it seemed that this young man was of a stock that derived from the fabled land of ice and fire. Fathered by a lover, perhaps? thought Mareeth. No matter. “They are fine young men,” she said. “I will take the dark one.”

The Abernathans exchanged glances.

“He will complete his education with me. I can assure you that he will be instructed well,” said the lady, with a slight coloring of her cheeks.

“Your eminence is most kind,” said Mistress Abernathan with rigid formality.

“I will of course pay for the grant of your permission… if you will accept three knuckles.”

Neither of the Abernathans made to reply.

“Oh… very well. Four knuckles it is.”

At a signal from the Chancellor one of the guards, who could barely have been within earshot, dismounted and took a strip of dull grey metal from a satchel. Unsheathing his sword, he laid the strip upon a tree stump and hacked the fourth notch, severing the measure with practiced accuracy. Without a word he laid the four knuckles of silver on the bench and withdrew, remounting in silence. None gave any attention to the currency as it lay there.

“Bring him to me next moon and be sure he is bathed and suitably clothed.”

Abernathan held his tongue at the insinuation, for did they not each share a tub every quarter moon, dirty or clean?

“You will of course endow him with a sword of your own forge?”

“Lady!” Abernathan was taken aback by the command. “The lad is not yet of age. He is not fully prenticed.”

“He will benefit from the protection of a weapon blessed by its provenance. As will I.”

Abernathan stifled a further protest, recognizing the insistent tone of one used to command.

“As you will it, my lady.”

As the Chancellor turned to leave, there was a hissing from the forgotten forge and a broad flame rose high, dancing, incandescent, even against the brightness of the afternoon sun. All looked at the disturbance.

“It is nothing,” said Abernathan, unconvincingly. “Just a forge imp.”

“You may send for my virgins to cleanse the forge,” said Mareeth.

“We thank you, lady, but it will not be necessary,” said Abernathan, mentally reckoning the tribute he would have to pay for a virginal visit. “We will offer prayers this evening.”

“The forge is yours, master,” said Lady Mareeth. “It is for you to say.” With this she remounted the stallion and headed off. The two guards remained for a few moments longer, as they again looked around them, considering each of those present, before turning and following in their lady’s wake.

Later, as the sun dipped down towards the western horizon, Abernathan and the two boys ranged themselves at three points of the compass, kneeling before the now cooling forge at the semi-circle’s center, heads bowed, hands held up in supplication. From a planished copper bowl, the Mistress Abernathan scooped a spoonful of warm ash to shake over each of her men in turn, covering their heads and hands in the sacred remnants of spent fuel from the forge. She then stood to the west of the forge completing the protective circle, her back to the dying sun.

Tipping the remains of the bowl over her own head before laying it aside, she too knelt, before beginning the incantation, calling on the name of Thor and all the furies to visit their forge and banish the unclean spirits, speaking in tongues ancient and mysterious. There the magic circle remained until it was fully dark.

A half-moon and a night after that evening saw Abernathan and the chosen son prepared for their journey to the University. Blessed for the road by their mistress and mother, who had been schooled in the art by the Sorceress of Scandavearth, herself.

As the two men prepared to mount their steeds, the other son came up to Abernathan and, looking at him with a smile, said: “Father, do not worry, all will be well.” Abernathan visibly jumped at the sound of the voice, as did the others, for these were the first words that the boy had spoken since he had been brought to the Abernathan forge all those years ago. For a moment, they were all speechless, mouths open in wonder. For Abernathan’s true son Daffaath was but an infant taking his first steps when there came one evening the immense sound of a great beating of wings high above. Stepping outside their home, Abernathan picked up the axe by the door. What he saw in the failing light filled him with dread, as the huge serpentine creature came down to Earth, releasing from its claws what appeared to be a small child which half walked, half crawled toward Abernathan, apparently unharmed. The child had the most astonishing golden colored hair and a face that bore a haunting beauty. Behind him he could hear Mistress Abernathan reciting the spell of protection in a shaky voice. As the child stumbled forward to cling to Abernathan’s legs, so the reptilian creature settled its wings and fixed Abernathan with its fierce and fiery green eyes. Breathless, Abernathan had no will to look away, or to move to protect himself and his family from the awful monster towering over them.

The creature made a screech like an eagle on the wing which Abernathan heard within his head as words that were silent. The silent words were “Raise the child as your own or know my wrath.”

The creature remained a moment longer before breaking the stare and, with a great billowing out of two gargantuan wings, beat its way back up into the sky. Mistress Abernathan, still shaking with the emotion of the encounter, took the hand of the little one and led him into their home, to give him ground food and warm milk. From that moment he had remained with them as their son and as brother to Daffaath. They somehow knew the child’s name was Penithdrathoon.

That moment came back to Abernathan as he regarded his foster son still holding the embrace. “Do you speak boy?” asked Abernathan, holding Penithdrathoon at arm’s length, delighted to recall the first word as “father.” There was however no reply, other than a shy smile, before the two young men embraced fondly. “Look after our mother and our home, brother,” said Daffaath.” Penithdrathoon nodded and, again, smiled that benign smile they all knew so well. At first, the family had taken the smile to be that of a simpleton, but they each grow to learn that the boy had a hidden depth of wisdom. At the mention of mother, she came and embraced Daffaath, tears in her eyes, nodding at Abernathan. With that, the two travelers mounted their steeds and turned their horses towards the university and their fate.

The journey was uneventful, as they passed through village and encampment and the occasional isolated dwelling, though they noticed considerable upheaval in places. There were some barns cast down, chimneys standing crooked, a broken cart or two.

“Has there been a storm that passed us by?” Abernathan asked of a peasant as they passed a small clump of dwellings along the road.”

“No sir,” was the reply, from a man looking up from his work. “The weather has been calm this last moon.” This was Abernathan’s recollection and, looking quizzically at the damage to the man’s hovel, brought forth a further explanation.

“It is imps that have been abroad these many moons, sir. The university should look into it.”

“It is thence that we travel,” said Abernathan. “I will consult with the Chancellor when I arrive, if she will give me audience.”

“Blessings to you, sir, for your consideration.”

When Abernathan and son arrived at the great walls of the university, they were greeted by further scenes of damage that might have been a storm, had there been one, or might have been the work of imps, as the villager had supposed. It seemed that there was a plague of imps abroad that summer. They did not, however, have to ask for an audience. As they walked their mounts past the guards of the outer gate, they were accosted by a messenger who bade them visit the Chancellor in her chambers.

“We meet again, Forge Master,” said the Chancellor, stating the obvious. Within her own university, she was dressed in the rich robes of her office: gorgeous ermine and sable-trimmed satins and wools of the most dazzling colors. A heavy golden chain of office hung easily about her graceful shoulders. Abernathan sported his own robes of office, as befitted his status as guild-master, an impressive but sober worsted, trimmed with just a hint of glittering bullion. A heavy leather tabard hung across his chest, a mere symbolic gesture to his artisanal calling and the martial nature of his skill in the ancient mystery of the cutler. He congratulated himself on having the foresight to pack the robes for the journey, hastily donning the garb before entering the inner sanctum of this most venerable place.

Daffaath was dressed in a clean and modest jerkin and culottes. He stood at a respectful distance. When noticing him for the first time, the Chancellor ordered the boy to present himself to the chief footman for instruction. Neither she nor Abernathan spared the lad another glance as, bowing low, the new servant withdrew.

“Sir, I seek your counsel in a matter most delicate,” said the Chancellor, speaking at length.

“I am at your service, my lady.”

“Do you notice around the University there are many people of the Romano tribes from Italic Peninsula?”

“I do, my Lady, but this has always been so, surely, as we have great ties of commerce with the peoples of the middle sea?

“It is true that the Romano people are thought of as friends and partners in the great trade routes from the East. However….”

“Now you mention it, lady, there do seem to be more within these hallowed walls than I have seen on previous visits.”

“Yes… that is what people are saying. On which intelligence my Scribe of Knowledge sent out emissaries to our arcadian provinces to make enquiries,” said the Chancellor then, raising her hands in a sharp clap “Summon my Scribe!” The man scurried in and stood in silence to be instructed by the learned lady, who bade him tell what he knew.

“All around, there are encampments of the Romanos, sir,” said the scribe, addressing Abernathan. “From here to the coastal ports of La Manche, throughout our lands and more so those of the Cantiarchi.” The cleric paused for effect before continuing. “More than would seem necessary for the protection of their trading caravans.” Again a pause. “Nowhere more so than in the hills above the marshes of the great river Thamesis, and further downstream close by the eyot of Haken. They have even given their river encampment the name ‘Laudinium,’ and built a crossing to the marshes of Sutharken, which some say they plan to drain. By what magic they might achieve such a feat I could not say.

“Hardly the deeds of a friendly nation of commercial travellers,” added the Chancellor. Abernathan nodded in agreement, while contemplating the possibilities. With growing numbers of Romanos in the land, there must be thoughts of establishing a permanent presence, perhaps an invasion upon the coast of La Manche at Deevther, or Hashtheens, where the fortified stages would be just as efficacious in disgorging warriors as they were in landing goods.”

“It seems we may have a plague of Romanos upon us as well as a plague of imps, my lady.”

“Indeed, Forge Master. Though the imps we can deal with through blessings and incantations the Romanos, I fear, may require us to resort to force of arms.”

Abernathan gasped, incredulous. “In truth you say?” the lack of honorific proof positive of his surprise. “Will you summon a king, to give war?”

“We must hope that it does not come to that, Forge Master.”

“Then how may I serve you, my lady?” asked Abernathan, again remembering his manners.

“You are a master of the magic of metallurgy.” It was not a question. “Tell me this. How superior is our cutlery against that which you have seen from the Romanos?”

Abernathan was not swift to reply, for he did not readily speak of the mystery of metals to one who was not prenticed in the ancient art.

“Their swords are made of a fine metal, lady,” said Abernathan, after considerable time for reflection. “Bronze of the purest amalgam which is perfectly suited to the knife-like sword, or gladius, their warriors favor, though it is no match for the broad swords wrought at my forge and those of my brethren.”

“What is the secret of your metalwork, sir?”

“Madam, you know that it would be blasphemy to speak of it?”

“The name the gods have chosen for the metal is ‘steel’, is it not?”

“It is, lady, and I will say no more.”

“I would not ask it of you, Forge Master, but my emissaries tell me that the Centuriae of the Romanos have been asking questions. They desire to understand the sorcery that allows this steel of yours to be wrought from base and brittle iron.”

Abernathan grimaced at the use by this eminent and learned person of the artisanal description of iron, the sole component of steel known to the uninitiated. Only Abernathan and the select few guild masters of cutlery understood the true mystery of steelmaking and how to use the magic black dust that turned iron into the hardest and toughest metal known to mortal. Only a sword forged by gods could be stronger and no living being had ever held one. To hold such a sword would make the holder a king of kings and chieftain of chieftains. Even a Chancellor, even a queen, would bow down to such a king. Yet to hold a sword of steel was enough to strike fear into the heart of a warrior armed with a mere gladius of bronze, unless there were many more bronze swords than steel. Perhaps, thought Abernathan, this was what the Romanos had in mind. If they could not discover the mystery of steel, they could simply put a great many warriors into the field such that no number of broadswords could defend against them. It was said that the great city of Romanantis boasted a thousand, thousand souls with thousands more in the city’s vassal states but Abernathan had always thought this a mere myth. For how could you feed so many mouths within a city where there were no fields to grow grain and graze the beasts.

“They will not learn it from me, lady.”

“I have no doubt….” said Lady Mareeth, before hesitating, conscious that her scribe, fidgeting, had something to say, damn his impudence.”

“Speak!” she commanded.

“My gracious and learned lady,” he stuttered, nervous of the exalted company he was in the presence of. “I have just been informed that a party of Romanos has headed off in the direction of the Forge Master’s home, and that they mean to steal the Master’s secrets.”

“They will learn nothing,” said Abernathan. Even his sorceress wife did not know the magical mystery of forging a sword of steel. He was nonetheless fearful for her safety and that of his foster son. “But I must go without delay… by your leave.” These last words added as a hasty afterthought.

“Of course, you may have my permission to depart immediately, and with the blessing of my office upon your name and your household.”

“I thank you humbly and heartily, eminent and learned lady,” said Abernathan, taking his leave and immediately hitting upon the road. The Chancellor gave Abernathan permission to take with him her new servant, Abernathan’s son, as long as he was returned within the moon.

“I have…. need of a young male servant… she said, her complexion again coloring.”

Unconcerned with the lady’s needs, the two Abernathans headed off soon after, crossing the gate of the University at a gallop.

As they arrived at the hill above the forge the next day, there was already a large number Romano warriors, under the charge of a Centuria, dressed for business rather than ceremony. The two men urged their steeds on, making liberal use of the crop.

“Ah!” said the officer, remaining in the saddle at the head of his column of four hands of foot soldier, as Abernathan and his son reigned in between the warriors and the forge. “You must be the man of this place.” Abernathan drew himself up in the saddle at the insult.

“I am Master of this forge, we engage no journeymen here.”

“Then as Master, it is you I seek. I command you in the name of the King of the Romaniscenti to show my chief of engineers how you make this metal you call steel.”

“I cannot. It is forbidden.”

The officer motioned to his men waiting nearby. A pair of soldiers strode purposefully over towards Mistress Abernathan, while two others approached the boy Penithdrathoon. Daffaath moved to spur his horse forward, but Abernathan grabbed the reins. He knew his wife could stand up for herself. And so she demonstrated, by throwing a handful of dark grains to the ground in front of her, which immediately exploded into a cloud of smoke and fire, raising a whoosh, startling the soldiers.

“What is this trickery?” snarled the officer. “Seize them both and restrain those two men,” indicating the still mounted Abernathan and Daffaath. Yet, as the soldiers stepped forward, so a great blood-curdling screech was heard above and a whump, whump, whump of wings so huge their span blotted out much of the daylight. All looked up in awe at the great beast approaching, its talons gripping an object that appeared to be a sword. The soldiers, filled with fear, started to back off.

“Hold your ground cowards,” shouted the officer, looking around for a vantage point. “Javelins!” he ordered as one or two soldiers had already made to attack the approaching serpentine form. There was a ragged volley of weapons, a few finding their mark, but the bronze spearheads were no use against the impenetrable scales covering the flying monster. One of the spears was caught in the fearsome jaws of the beast and crushed into kindling. The creature was not heading for the soldiers, however, but Penithdrathoon, who looked up at the familiar flying gargantuan with something of love in his gaze. The boy mouthed some words as he held his hands up as if in supplication. The sound came out as a muffled, guttural, incomprehensible “ach, ach, ach…”

Whereupon the great talons released the object they held which was indeed a sword, a great broadsword sheathed in an ornate leather encrusted with jewels. The weapon tumbled through the air, turning end over end, and was then caught by the scabbard as Penithdrathoon reached above his head.

Having released itself of the burden, the monster turned on the soldiers, whipping round its spiked tail before it, cutting a swathe through the little group, as heads, guts, blood and limbs burst into the air in a shower of gore. The surviving troops scattered and tried to find cover by bushes or behind rocks. The monster held itself in the air above them, threatening and daring retaliation.

Digging his spurs in his mount’s flanks, the officer headed for the boy.

“Give me that…”

“No! Sir, I beg you do not touch it! Only the chosen may wield the blessed sword Albion. You must not…”

“Nobody tells me ‘must not’ wench!”

With this, the officer made to grab the hilt of the sword in his right hand, snatching it away from the boy who tumbled to the ground, then unsheathing and raising the weapon in a single deft movement. The faces of those nearest were bathed in a ghostly glow of shimmering blue, reflected from the blade.

“Behold the sword of kings, Albion, and know fear,” said Mistress Abernathan, sinking to her knees. Penithdrathoon raised himself up on his feet, again holding his arms up to the sky. The two Abernathan men dismounted, calming their horses and beholding the scene before them, not knowing what to do next.

The officer, still mounted, swung wildly and ineffectively at the serpent above him, which beat about mockingly before raising another blood curdling screech as his puny tormentor. At this unearthly sound the officer’s horse reared up, throwing its burden into the air. Yet instead of falling to the ground the officer continued to rise, inverted, hair and clothing dangling over his face. He began to gasp at the feeling of burning through the hilt of the sword, now fusing the skin of his hand.

“Ah, ah, ah, aaaaa…” the voice rising to a tortured scream, the unseen power that held his feet high not wavering, slowly transporting the man, upside down, towards the forge which began to smoke, the coals glowing their carmine glow, heating as if ready for work. Grisly work it was as the now wretched, inverted figure, breathing out its fearful agonies, was lowered down toward the now rising flames of the forge, the tip of the sword connecting with the base stone in an astonishing grinding of steel penetrating rock, half the length burying itself into the dense medium.

What was left of the officer was now pinned within the heat of the forge, drowning within the dancing flames, black, smoking, mottled, blistered, all pain gone, all humanity destroyed. A moment further and the blackened body burst asunder, its dried interior scattering to the wind, naught left but the sword, its blade half buried in stone, the hilt free of its unclean burden, the flames of the forge receding.

With a final screech, the winged guardian of Penithdrathoon, dipping its head to the boy, turned and, with a few mighty beats of its great wings, rose up into the heavens until it was gone from sight. Those who remained, along with the few soldiers who had not run or had their bodies torn apart, gathered around the cooling forge, facing the stone bound sword with disbelief.

“Albion!” gasped Mistress Abernathan. “We rejoice at your deliverance. You came to me in my dreams and now you come to me in life. You bring blessings to all your peoples.”

She turned to face the boy, smiling his benign smile, his beautiful dazzling blue eyes radiant in the failing light.

“Penithdrathoon, our son. Penithdrathoon – which means protected by the great winged serpent. You bring the sword of gods, of men, of queens and kings and king of kings. Sword of power, sword of light, sword of the world above, sword of all time. Albion.”

Then turning to address the others, she spoke the words brought to her by the blessed sword in her dreams.


* * * * *

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About the Creator

Raymond G. Taylor

Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

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