The Castle Guard

by

Jeff Palermo

 

You know why you've drawn wall-watch tonight. Each gust of the storm-pregnant northern wind reminds you that you should have let the Captain win his dice money back. Even though you know he likes to switch the dice when he's losing, you should have let him. If you had, you'd be home with Sarah and the baby tonight instead of pulling watch duty on the north wall. The mist is making your pike slick to handle, and you wipe your hands on your coarse cloak repeatedly to dry them, but it does no good.

There is no moon. The wind blows out of an invisible sky. Not a cloud can be seen, nor a distant light from the villages. You stride slowly back and forth on the stony parapet, gazing off into the blackness. This isn't your watch. You don't know the sounds, the normal creaks and moans of it. You haven't drawn night guard duty in over seven months. The perks of seniority. Night-guard is given to the younger men now. You've earned your place inside. But this is the Captain's way of letting you know who holds the power. It is the Captain's way of telling you that there are no rules between those with power and those without. It is absurd yet it cuts deeper than you let on. You think to yourself that when we forget that life is not fair, it never fails to remind us.

There was fresh gossip in the armory before you went on duty. Rumors concerning a Hero and his Companions. As the tale goes, many years ago the present King ousted a previous King by force. This previous King was the Hero's father. The new King, it is said, disgraced the Hero's mother and had her put to death. Now, after many years of hiding and fighting, this Hero is gaining friends and followers and disturbing the digestion of the present King. On this very night in this very castle several known associates of the Hero were taken to the dungeons deep within the inner keep to be fetched by the King's men on the morrow. Some had said that this new Hero has enlisted the aid of a Wizard and a Giant, and might possibly attempt an assault on the keep. This was something of a wild tale, you think, and although you do not doubt that magic is real, it is not something that one witnesses in a lifetime. Especially not your lifetime.

You grew up a serf on a lord's land. When the current King took power the lord fled into exile. The lord who took his place set the serfs free. Freedom, in this case, meant starving in the nearby city of Monmok. It took years, and the lives of your father and mother, before you and your brother found work. You, here in the castle and Seth, as a squire for a knight. Seth died along with his master years back, a casualty of a foreign war. He was one of those who "gave his life for his King." You don't really know what that means other than he did what he could to survive and died at the whim of a man who did not even know him.

You married Sarah, a scullion maid in the castle kitchens, because you fell in love with her over soup. You remember the sight of her serving the watchmen in the armory mess, and how the strands of her hair kept getting in her face (and your soup) no matter how hard she tried to keep them back. Then came the wedding, the baby, and the Plan. The Plan, as you and Sarah have come to call it, is your intention of purchasing a piece of farmland in the Spring for your family. You hope with the unrest caused by the Hero, that the lords will be happy to divest themselves of land in favor of portable wealth and will take lower prices for land than they could get in more stable times. With this land you plan to prosper as a farmer and hand down the land to your children, making them landowners as well. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the prospects for a happy life for you, your children and your grandchildren seem within your grasp.

The rain starts down heavy now, and you have yet to hear the one o'clock watch bell. It will be a long night. Suddenly, you hear the unmistakable scrape of steel on stone coming from the other end of the wall. You turn and grip your pike tightly in your wet hand; the swollen wood resists your attempt. You keep still, ears straining for any odd noise. There is nothing. You stride towards the place where you think you heard the sound and as you near the end of the parapet, you are struck dumb by a fantastic sight. A massive dark shape bobs up from behind the wall, and flows up and over until it comes to rest with a mighty thud on the parapet floor. The shape, as your eyes come to make out, is in fact a cloaked Giant standing nearly ten feet high and three abreast. There are several shapes clinging to the long hair of his hide and they begin to move downwards off of the Giant's hide. Your eyes dart towards a glint of steel. The scraping sound you heard moments ago was a grappling hook which had been cast over the wall upon which is fastened a rope. When the Giant and lesser shapes have all alit on the parapet, you can clearly see that they are no mere dark shapes, but human passengers. There is a tall dark man with an old gray cloak who by all rights must be a Wizard, another man wrapped in cloak, mail and sword who looks every inch a Hero, and a slight fellow in green raiment with a bow and quiver who can only be a Hero's Companion.

As you bring your pike to bear, the Giant lets out a roar and fear dashes your weapon to the stone. You watch in horror as the Wizard lifts his arm and points at bony finger at you. A pencil thin beam of light erupts from that finger which pierces the first the night, than your chest and lastly your heart. The thought that flashes through your mind as you fall is an odd one: Will blood flow from such a wound?

The intruders pay you no more mind as they stride by you towards the trap door that leads into the castle below. You think of what will happen to Sarah and the baby as life sneaks away from you sense by sense. She will end up on the streets, a whore with a baby, like so many others. You think that one day she will decide that the baby is no longer worth the effort.

You hear commotion from below, explosions and cries of fright and terror and then death takes you and you know no more.

 
 
About the Author
Jeff Palermo currently resides in New York City. He has been writing for several years and is presently at work on his first novel.

The Castle Guard © Jeff Palermo
 
 
About the Artist
Jason McLellan is an up-and-coming artist specializing in character pieces and Web site design. He maintains his own site at Headstatic.com, which features an extensive portfolio of his work as well as a Web log.

Artwork © Jason McLellan