Part One of The Necromancer of Bern
It wouldn’t stop raining. For the past six days a steady downpour fell on the covered wagon Sir Reginald rode in. But the heavy canvas top was already soaked through. Cold rainwater dripped onto him – waking him when he occasionally managed to doze off. As it did now.
Reginald wrapped the thick cloak he wore tighter around his muscled frame. He forced himself to ignore the cold that permeated everything. He was still alone in the back of the horse-drawn wagon. His few belongings remained in the bag by his feet. Reginald looked out the back of the wagon and took in the terrain. Tall, snow capped mountains still dominated the landscape. It meant he still traveled along the pass running through the lands of Bern. It would be another week before they reached Dijon in southern France and hopefully without stopping for more passengers.
Two peasants had boarded the wagon earlier. Poor locals dressed in patchwork animal hides and worn boots. At first they didn’t pay him much attention. But as the wagon continued along the rutted pass, they became increasingly agitated. The two men continued to stare at him. Their eyes narrowed angrily and they began murmuring to one another. They clutched the long hunting knives they wore belted on their waists threateningly.
Reginald didn’t know what they had intended, but he let his mailed hand drift towards his sword. The two peasants caught sight of this and made a hasty departure. A man of Reginald’s size, clad in chain mail, and armed with a broadsword had that effect. Still their initial reaction puzzled him. He did nothing to provoke such intense disdain.
Hadn’t Ustus, the old man driving the wagon, acted the same way? Ustus agreed to take him as a passenger reluctantly. His gnarled figure had looked down at Reginald from his perch in the wagon’s seat with a fearful expression. Reginald didn’t give it much thought at the time. He had just wanted to return home. He wanted to get further away from the sand and senseless death.
The knight was jarred from his thoughts as the wagon came to an abrupt halt. He heard Ustus call for him nervously and Reginald wondered what could have caused the stoppage. His combat training kicked in. He scanned the area behind the wagon first, taking advantage of its cover before climbing down. Slowly he walked around to the front of the wagon. Reginald scanned the forest to his left and saw no enemies. On the other side of the wagon lay the edge of the narrow pass they rode on.
As Reginald rounded the front of the wagon he could see a lone warrior standing in the middle of the pass. The horses neighed nervously. Reginald clenched the leather wrapped hilt of the sword he wore on his hip. He waited impatiently for the lone figure to declare his intent.
“Hey – you there. Step aside! We need to be on our way before this rain turns to snow,” hailed Ustus anxiously.
The man at arms took no notice. He only continued to stand, slightly hunched over, in the middle of the road. Reginald looked closer and recognized the double-headed imperial eagle emblazed on the ragged surcoat the man wore. What was a soldier of the Holy Roman Empire doing here? King Barbarossa’s forces hadn’t been this way since the plague drove the imperial army out of Italy four years ago.
“What you suppose is the matter with him?” asked Ustus. The old man’s hand grasped the horse’s reigns nervously.
“I don’t know. But I really can’t wait for an explanation. I’m going to have a word with our friend,” Reginald replied grimly.
Reginald’s booted feet crossed the muddy distance in a steady march. The rain fell heavier now. As he got closer he could see the mail armor the man wore was encrusted with rust. The surcoat he wore was little more than a rag that swayed in the breeze. Something was wrong… just the way he stood there…
Suddenly the German soldier reached for his sword. It was a jerky motion and the blade barley cleared the scabbard. Reginald immediately stopped. He lifted his hands up in a none-threatening posture as the warrior staggered closer.
“Whoa, friend! I am no Italian. We’re just trying to reach…,” Reginald’s words trailed away to nothing.
He grew cold as he gazed upon the German’s face. The flesh was ragged with putrescence and lifeless eyes bore into his own. This soldier was dead – yet it walked towards him to do battle. What devilry was this?
The excited shouting from Ustus shook Reginald from the trance of fear he’d fallen into. In a smooth, practiced motion he unsheathed his broadsword and drove its tip into the chest of the undead warrior. The hardened steel easily punctured the dead man’s weakened mail armor. An inhuman moan escaped its flayed lips.
In horror Reginald saw the dead man grasp the broad sword that impaled him. Witnessed the fiend tug on the blade, burying the steel further into its rotting chest to get closer. Its sword arm rose to strike Reginald down. But the knight retained enough presence of mind to step back with one foot and plant the other squarely into the dead German’s chest with a thunderous kick. Reginald wrenched free his sword from the undead man’s grasp as it collapsed onto the ground.
The sound of hooves striking the damp earth caused Reginald to turn. The terrified driver snapped the reins like a madman. The knight barely managed to tumble clear as the horse drawn wagon shot past him. Reginald pounded the mud he lay sprawled in furiously as the old man rode off.
“Coward! Why do you leave me? There is only one and he lies felled!” Reginald screamed as he rose to his feet.
But a quick look around revealed that was not the case. As he was distracted fighting, Reginald failed to notice more lifeless imperial soldiers had appeared. Their bodies were in varying states of decay as they lurched towards him. Haunting figures moving closer through the mist and sheets of rain. A groan by his feet alerted him to the German soldier he just defeated. It was trying to regain its feet, despite the gaping wound in its chest.
They cannot die, because they are already dead, Reginald told himself. No matter how many times they fell, they would eventually surround him. Rusted weapons and skeletal hands would tear away his flesh. He was going to die here…
Reginald roared defiantly. He roared to dispel the dread filling his heart. His war cry echoed loudly as he grasped his broadsword with both hands and swung the heavy blade in a rising arc. The attack took his enemies head clean off. The dead imperial’s body convulsed for a moment before it went still. Permanently.
A surge of hope filled Reginald. They could be killed…or at least destroyed. He turned as the detachment of undead warriors shambled closer, rusted weapons raised. The closest enemy’s mace came crashing down towards his head. Reginald deftly parried the blow aside, his back swing cut deep into the dead man’s neck. Bone snapped and sheared. A thin strip of rotting flesh was all that kept the decomposing head attached to its body. It stumbled in place a moment before its brethren pushed it aside.
Reginald back stepped. The rotting soldiers lashed out at him. Weapons hacked the air around him as he continued to dodge their clumsy blows. However, the knight quickly ran out of room as the undead imperial soldiers surrounded him. Attacks came at more angles and Reginald was forced to block. To his surprise his arms quickly began to ache after several heavy blows crashed against his blade.
They were strong. Somehow they retained the strength they possessed in life. In terms of agility – their movements were still uncoordinated and awkward with the stiffness of the grave. This was the only factor preventing them from easily cutting him down. He needed to thin their ranks if he was going to survive.
Summoning up the reserves of his strength, Reginald drove three of the monstrosities back with an overpowering swing of his sword. It hacked through decayed flesh and rusted mail. With the opening gained from his attack, he quickly struck at his unbalanced foes. His blade chopped through the shinbone of a nearby enemy. It toppled over in a heap.
Reginald hunched his shoulder and took a numbing blow on the arm, the spiked mace that hit him dug into his armor. He pivoted and slashed the top half of his attacker’s skull off. His broad sword easily cleaved through the great helm his adversary wore. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to cross over and block a strike from a fifth imperial.
Reginald locked swords with his enemy and was quickly driven to his knees by the dead warrior’s strength. Realizing he couldn’t overpower his enemy, he twisted to the side. At the same time he turned his sword over top his enemy’s blade and thrust upward. The broad sword burst through the maggot-infested face and straight out the back of the dead man’s head. Reginald twisted the sword. The weapon further grinded and cracked bone as it was yanked free.
The knight barely managed to sidestep a spear strike meant to impale his leg. Its tip still clipped his thigh, busting a large section of mail and wounding him. Reginald staggered backward, but his attack was focused. He hacked the spear shaft in two. His wounded leg threatened to buckle as he raised his sword overhead. He brought the weapon down. His battered arm throbbed in agony as a tremor from the impact of his strike reverberated down its length. His blade would have normally split the dead German’s head in two. Instead it lay wedged within the undead warrior’s skull.
With a final tug – he pulled his sword free and attacked with another overhead chop. This time the skull burst into a pile of bone fragments and fetid brain matter. Wounded, exhausted, and chilled by the freezing rain that still fell on him – Reginald finished off the disabled undead. When the last blow fell he leaned wearily on his sword, using the tall weapon to prop himself up.
At first Reginald only took ragged breaths in an attempt to steady himself. As the adrenaline wore off, he began to comprehend what happened. The impossibility of it tested his sanity. Had a detachment of undead imperial soldiers really attacked him? And why?
“Because your presence summoned them here, Reginald, will summon creatures like them wherever you go,” a melodic voice answered.
Reginald turned around. Before him stood a woman the likes of which he’d never seen. The stranger was surprising tall for her gender. She wore a white dress and cloak. In stark contrast, long vibrant red hair spilled down her back. There was no visible weapon at her side. But her knowing exactly what he was thinking came off threatening to him. He stared hard into her eyes to determine if this was some new foe.
Strong, piercing blue eyes met his squarely. Reginald felt them looking right through him. Somehow he knew this strange woman who appeared from nowhere already understood everything there was to know about him. It was irrational. And after the battle he just fought – he wanted to know whether or not this woman was responsible for what happened.
“The responsibility lies with you,” she answered plainly.
“What are you? Some witch? And how am I responsible for all this?” Reginald demanded angrily. He turned in place gesturing to the fallen undead Germans littering the muddy pass.
The strange woman’s face formed a scowl, “I am no servant of the adversary, tainted one. I am God’s messenger. My task in coming here is to pronounce judgment on you.”
Reginald grew quiet. He looked down to the sword propping him up. The pommel of the blade displayed the crusader’s cross. He closed his eyes. Admitting to himself he already knew what crime he was being judged for. It was too much. Reginald tried to will the woman away. Tried to convince himself that she was just an apparition of his guilt. However, when he looked up, she still stood there in the rain. Her gaze was unrelenting and condemning.
Reginald growled angrily, “Why? I smack a clergyman over the head with the flat of my sword and I’m called murderer? It was not my hand that slew Becket. How is it fair that 14 years of my life are forfeit! No one should have to stay in that God forsaken place. The holyland? Hah. Deserts filled with revenge obsessed Saracens and religious fanatics. Happily murdering each other because ‘God wills it’ – I am condemned for leaving that?”
“No. You are condemned for the slaying of someone who would have brought great and needed change to the world of man. Though Becket still served our Lord as a martyr – this is poor recompense for what he would have accomplished had he lived. If you hadn’t lead your brethren to murder him,” the woman stated coldly.
Reginald cried out emphatically, “No! I cannot be judged for what they did. They murdered him. Their blades cut into his flesh, not my own. How is this fair?”
“Your actions lead to the death of a great servant of God and then you abandoned the penance which was assigned to you. For these reasons – you are damned. For 14 years you will know no peace. Neither man nor woman will tolerate your presence. And those forces of darkness which haunt this world will be drawn to you until you’ve made amends,” God’s messenger declared. Her hand pointed to him as his judgment was passed.
“What right have you!” Reginald screamed as he stormed forward.
Light flared brightly around the messenger. Through the gaps of his fingers Reginald swore he saw the outline of wings. When the light finally diminished, he stood alone. The strange woman was gone.
Reginald let his head sag down in defeat. He didn’t want to move. The weight of his sentence was already heavy on his soul. But night would be falling soon and he would freeze to death if he didn’t find shelter. Haunted by the words of the messenger and the thought of further encounters with the dead, he started walking.