Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Cliffs of Ardchreag

Colyne Stewart November A.S. XXXVI (2002)

Once there was a knight named Jean de Boustinette who traveled the lands of Ealdormere, protecting the populace from giants and monsters and performing great deeds.

One night on his travels he came across a castle and decided to ask for lodging under its roof. As he drew nearer to the castle be began to despair that no one dwelt within, for the stone was crumbling, and the yards were overgrown. There were, however, lights burning in the windows, and, as it was beginning to rain, he pressed forward.

His knocks were greeted by a bent, old castellan who gazed at him slackly for a time before waving him inside.

The interior of the castle was no better than the outside, with dust and cobwebs coating everything. The shuffling castellan led him to a library, home to countless worm-riddled books. Seated on an oaken chair by the fire was a tall, thin man wearing a coat of crimson and a golden coronet in his greying hair. His face was drawn and grey, his frowning mouth framed by a black beard.

This, Boustinette was told, was Duke Everton of Lyonelle. At the Duke’s feet slumped a dwarf in torn yellow and blue raiment, a shackle about his ankle. To the side, in the shadows, stood the Duke’s chamberlain.

Jean de Boustinette bowed and introduced himself.

The Duke said that he had heard of this valiant knight, and asked what he could do for so grand a guest.

The knight asked for lodging, which the Duke granted, giving him free reign of the castle. The only conditions being that Boustinette stay for at least a week, and regale the Duke with stories of his deeds. Also, he must never venture up the south tower. To all this Boustinette agreed, though he thought he saw the dwarf shake his head sadly at his acceptance.

The chamberlain stepped out of the shadows then, and led Boustinette up the north tower and helped him settle into his room, promising that his horse would be seen to as well. The knight was glad once the chamberlain was gone, for the man’s hands resembled the spindly legs of spiders, his skin as dry and peeling, and his body gave an offensive odour not unlike old cheese.

Before retiring to bed, Boustinette gazed out his window and looked over the countryside. To the one side he could see the famous high cliffs of Ardchreag. To the other he could see the forbidden south tower. He was about to turn and retire when he saw a light flare up behind the drawn shutters of the room on the south tower. Intrigued, he watched for several minutes, until the light went out again. He waited a few moments longer, then laid upon his bed. Just as he dropped off to sleep he thought he could hear the soft sound of singing coming from his window.

The next day he rose early and went on a hunt with the Duke who had a pack of sleek hunting dogs. Of all the things he had seen of the Duke’s possession, only the dogs seemed to be looked after with any skill. Their fur was brushed, their teeth clean, their claws trimmed, and they were most skilled at the hunt. When the party returned to the castle, they brought with them the bodies of two deer and a score of rabbits. Boustinette and the Duke sat in the library and drank mead while the knight told tales of his travels, the dwarf chained to his master’s chair and the chamberlain standing silently nearby. That night, when Boustinette retired to his room, he again saw a light go on briefly in the south tower, and again he heard singing as he fell asleep.

Upon rising the next morning, Boustinette decided that he had to discover the source of the light and the singing. However, before he could begin his search, the chamberlain came to fetch him and brought him to the Duke. The Duke took Boustinette hunting again, and they stayed out until very late. Upon returning, they barely had time to partake of dinner before it was time for sleep. However, Boustinette had resolved to discover the secret and stayed awake in his room, waiting for the rest of the castle to be silent. Once he was sure everyone else was asleep, he crept down to the main floor and made his way to the door of the south tower. He tried it, and was not surprised to find it locked. Luckily for Boustinette, he had spent time with certain rogues before being squired, and knew the ways around most locks. Within moments he had opened the door wand was creeping up the stairs.

At the top of the tower he was stopped by a grilled gateway, beyond which lay a small apartment. Furs covered the floors, unlit torches lined the walls, and a bed sat against one wall. Upon reaching the gateway, a figure had risen up from the bed, and now it made its way over to him. Boustinette gasped as he saw a most beautiful woman, cloaked in white, step from the shadows into a beam of moonlight that squeezed between the shutters.

Dropping to one knee he introduced himself and asked the lady for her name. She was, she said, Isobel of Lyonelle, the Duke’s only daughter. When Boustinette demanded to know why she was locked away within the tower she told him of her father’s great jealousy. Once he had been a king and had ruled a great country. He had been married to a lovely woman of a great family, and his lands were beautiful and bountiful. However, through poor political dealing, he lost his kingship and was forced to leave his country, finally settling in this castle. His temper began to rule him, and eventually his lady wife, Isobel’s mother, had fled from him. Eventually, most of his servants had departed as well; only those whom he had some hold over stayed. Fearful that she too would leave him, Duke Everton had locked Isobel into the tower, sending the chamberlain up once a day to feed her and take away her waste.

Hearing these words, Jean de Boustinette was filled with a great anger, and said that he would free her and take her father to the local magistrate for judging. Isobel warned him that he was not the first knight to find her locked away, and all of them had never returned after setting off to face her father. Nonetheless, Boustinette knew he must try, and set to work on the lock. After an hour he was forced to admit defeat. He pledged to Isobel that he would find the key to the lock, and free her, and they would leave her father and this horrid castle behind them forever. At these brave words Isobel smiled and the knight took her hand between the bars, placing a kiss on her white skin.

Early the next morning, the Duke took Boustinette hunting, once again keeping him out of the castle for as long as possible. Biting back his anger, Boustinette smiled and continued to tell the Duke the stories he longed to hear. That night he waited until the hour of midnight, then crept from his room to begin searching for the key to Isobel’s prison.

Upon searching the library he found the dwarf sleeping at the foot of the oak chair, his foot still chained to its thick leg. The dwarf sat up as he entered and gestured for him to come closer. Boustinette settled on his haunches at the dwarf’s side, and the little man told him that he had to flee. The Duke was a covetous man, he said, and once he took a liking to a thing he never let it go. If he continued to tell such entertaining stories, the Duke would try to keep him as a slave, just as he was a slave.

Deciding to press the dwarf, Bostinette asked if there were others being kept against their will in the castle. Nodding, the dwarf told him that most of the servants only stayed because the Duke had some hold over them, some of them fearing for their very lives. He even, said the dwarf, had his daughter locked away in a hidden room.

Boustineete looked at the dwarf’s face, at his large fleshy nose and tired, sad eyes and told him that he had already discovered Isobel’s whereabouts, but that he couldn’t open the lock. The dwarf nodded, saying that the Duke had hired a wizard to enchant many of the locks of his castle. He had hidden the key that would open them all somewhere on the grounds, and, if the knight promised to release him upon its retrieval, he would tell the knight where to find it. To this Boustinette readily agreed. The dwarf told him that the key was kept in a pot in the garden, a large one with a bull carved on it. But he had to beware, for the key was guarded by a basilisk.

Boustinette knew how to handle basilisks, and pulled a mirror off the wall and ventured out into the garden. The place was overgrown with weeds and bushes. Nocturnal animals moved all about him, rustling leaves and making it difficult for him to watch for the coming of the basilisk. Finally, he reached the pot, and as he went to reach inside, a serpent’s head twined out of its depths. Quickly, Boustinette pulled the mirror in front of his face and heard the basilisk shriek. Lashing out with his sword, Boustinette cut the creature in half, silencing its cry. He hastily grabbed the key and ran back into the castle, stopping to free the dwarf before rushing up the stairs to unlock the tower’s door.

Boustinette and Isobel raced to the stable, hearing sounds of life coming from inside. They could hear the chamberlain screaming for the Duke. He had heard the cry of the basilisk, and had seen them escape the tower. Throwing his saddle on his horse, Boustinette paused as he saw that his steed’s feet had been hobbled. He gave it one sad pat on the head, then he and Isobel ran into the woods.

Behind them they could hear sounds of pursuit, and chief among them the baying of the Duke’s hunting hounds. As they reached the edge of the cliffs, the hounds caught them. Boustinette fought the ferocious beasts, and managed to kill them all, but not before the Duke, chamberlain and three other servants had surrounded him. The Duke’s men fell on him then, and he managed to kill two of them, but not before the chamberlain had stabbed him in the back with a slender blade. The old man cackled until Isobel hit him on the side of the head with a tree branch, causing him to topple screaming over the edge of the cliff. The last servant fell to the wounded Boustinette’s sword, and the Duke found himself facing the mighty knight alone. However, the attacks of the dogs and the servants, especially the chamberlain’s cowardly strike, had greatly wounded Boustinette. Grinning broadly, the Duke pressed his attack, finally knocking Boustinette to the ground, his sword falling from his hand. Standing gleefully over the dying knight, the Duke prepared for the final thrust. He pulled back his arm and stabbed forward just as Isobel threw herself across Boustinette’s body. The sword pierced her under the shoulder, cutting through her and knight beneath her until the point was buried in the ground.

Shuddering in horror, the Duke pulled back, freeing the sword. A great crimson fountain flowed from his daughter’s back and chest as Boustinette took her in his arms. Falling to his knees, the Duke watched as the knight and his daughter somehow managed to gain their feet. Putting their hands behind each others heads, they kissed. Then they were gone over the edge of the cliffs.

An hour later, when the dwarf and the local magistrate’s men came upon the scene all they found were the bodies of slain hounds, servants, and the Duke, hanging from the tree with his belt about his neck.

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