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In Which Sir Bertram Attempts to Rescue a Princess and Gravely Miscalculates




Sir Bertram took a branch to the face and swore.

He’d expected the quest to be difficult, of course, torturous, even.  But the trouble was supposed to come from tyrants, monsters, and witches.  He had not planned for the abysmal condition of the roads.

The roads to Itzak had been among the finest in the world, once.  But that had been centuries ago, when Itzak was still part of the Jehuda Empire.  For the past three hundred years or so, it had been but another tiny seaside kingdom gradually sliding into decline, and within the past five years, it had been cursed, conquered, plagued, or possibly all three, courtesy of one Nebelich the Transmogrifier.  Sir Bertram was not entirely sure which; news on the place was unreliable, due to nobody having come from Itzak in years.

Which, unfortunately for Sir Bertram, meant that the roads were near completely overgrown, more bramble-infested trail than road.  Though his horse was with him, he was forced to go on foot, hacking at underbrush while the mare picked her way through the tangle.  It was slow going; Bertram had never mastered the axe—something he now profoundly regretted.

All uphill too, of course.  At least that meant he was going in the right direction.  Though how far he had left to go, he could not say.  It was impossible to get his bearings in such poor conditions.

He paused, sniffing the air.  Mostly, the breeze held sea salt, but now it held a hint of something else.  Something foul.

He slashed at a branch, stamped down a thistle, and a clearing became visible.

“Oh, good,” he breathed with relief, and made the last push through.

Before them lay a stone ramp, leading to the outer kingdom wall and the gatehouse.  It would be easier from here on out.

Sir Bertram put up his axe, drew his sword, and led his horse up the ramp, keeping a sharp eye, but it proved unnecessary.  To his surprise, nobody manned the gate.  The gatehouses were abandoned, and the portcullis itself was… missing.  Not drawn up, not demolished, but gone entirely, leaving only an empty slot in the ceiling where it had once been.  The way lay open.

After hacking through what felt an eternity of underbrush, Sir Bertram felt he should be pleased at this turn of events, but instead, he felt uneasy.  Cursed kingdoms weren’t meant to be this easy to enter.

He recognized the smell now.  Carrion.

Sir Bertram’s flesh began to crawl, but he walked to his horse’s side, swung up into the saddle, and clicking his tongue, urged her through the gate.

Itzak had started as a military garrison, and it still looked the part.  Past the gate, Bertram could see the castle proper now, perched on the seaside cliff like a stout, sullen gargoyle.  The Jehuda Empire had been known more for its solid construction than its aesthetics.

He rode through the outer township, sword at hand, but no one attacked.  In fact, the entire kingdom seemed completely deserted.  Sir Bertram passed a kingdom’s worth of fields gone to ruin, unplowed and overgrown; a mill, silent and with the roof caved in.  Houses, crumbling and empty.  On many of the doors, he could see the remains of faint white X’s.  The entire kingdom was silent as the grave.  And always on the air, the faintest scent of rot.

At first, Sir Bertram didn’t see the bodies.  Five years of field and grass growth covered them.  But as his horse trotted through what had once been town square, he saw the collapsed figures lying in the streets, in doorways, in piles.  So many.  An entire kingdom’s worth, perhaps, lying unburied.  Adults.  Children.  The poor in rags and the wealthy in what had once been finery.

The back of Sir Bertram’s neck prickled.  He considered himself a brave man, but he found the silent ruination unnerving, worse than being attacked straightaway.  That, at least, would have been straightforward, with no suspense.

The smell of rot was only increasing.

Sir Bertram and his horse made their way up the hillside to the outer ward, towards the moat and the drawbridge.  Like the kingdom gate before it, it lay conveniently accessible, with the drawbridge down.

When they came close, his horse balked.

“Here, come on now,” he urged, clicking his tongue.  The horse resisted for a moment, tossing her head against the bridle, then reluctantly moved forward, ears back.

Bertram came to the drawbridge.  The reek of carrion was nigh palpable now, and he could hear the faint buzzing flies.  The prickling at the back of his neck redoubled.

He reached the moat, saw into it, and gagged.

The moat was filled with more sad little bundles, the corpses of people long dead, slumped over each other, in a huge pile.  At the bottom, there remained shallow, scummy water, which served more as a haven to insects and stench than concealment.

Bertram’s horse took advantage of her master’s distraction to turn away, and Bertram didn’t resist.  Trying to calm his stomach, he held a gauntlet over his nose and mouth, inhaling the familiar scene of sweat and warm metal until the nausea left him.

What horrors had transpired here?  He had heard that Nebelich the Transmogrifier was a witch of immense power, capable of plagues matchless in their pestilence, but still, the number of bodies left him numb.  And why had some of their bodies been thrown into the moat, while others were left where they’d fallen?  Who had been there to take on such a massive undertaking?

When Sir Bertram had heard people calling Castle Itzak the cursed castle of death, he’d thought it poetic hyperbole.  Apparently not.

His stomach sank.  Were he interested in wealth and possessed of a stronger stomach, he might perhaps rifle the bodies for booty—even after many years, he could see that some of the bodies were dressed in brocade and furs.

But he was not on this quest for mere material goods.  He was on this quest for the princess.  Rumor had it that she was the lone survivor of the wretched royal family and kept in the castle, under guard—by a monster or by Nebelich the Transmogrifier himself, Sir Bertram was unsure which.  Hopefully not both.

Poor girl (if she did, in fact, still live).  Trapped in a wretched place like this.  Sir Bertram could imagine her, a young woman, frightened and alone, desperate to leave but unable to brave the forest alone.  So long-suffering.  The stuff of tragedies.

The stuff of legends.

Unfortunately, the drawbridge had not held up well over the years—or perhaps Nebelich the Transmogrifier had chosen to plague it as well.  The iron bands were rusted through, and much of the wood looked rotten.  Some of the planks had snapped, leaving a man-sized hole near the start, which only suggested that trying to take a horse over it would result in disaster.

Sir Bertram looked nervously at the carnage again and wondered how many were a result of the castle’s misfortunes, and how many were due to the planks snapping under them.

He dismounted with a sigh and turned her to graze; the mare immediately left the moat and its reek at a trot, as though relieved.  That done, he turned to the drawbridge again.  It looked no steadier than it had before, and when he tested the wood with his foot, the structure shuddered and shrieked, threatening to collapse.  He pulled back, looked down at the horrific pile in the moat, then up at the sky, taking deep breaths.

Then he began to strip off his armor.

Nebelich the Transmogrifier was said to be good with a sword, and in light of that and rumors of monsters, Sir Bertram had come heavily laden.  All together, it likely weighed as much as he did.  Helm, greaves, sollerets, gauntlets—all of it had to go.

He tested the drawbridge again.  It still screeched piteously.

Sir Bertram grimaced.  Then he shed his shield, axe, bow, quiver, and mail shirt.  He stood in his surcoat, under padding, and gloves, feeling oddly naked.

If every would-be rescuer had to enter without armor and most weaponry, just to cross the drawbridge, it was no wonder the monster (or Nebelich, whichever) had kept the princess so long.  Apparently Nebelich the Transmogrifier had a sense of humor and liked to play with his victims.

Finally, the drawbridge seemed willing to hold his weight; Sir Bertram had started to fear he would have to give up his sword and dash across naked.  Taking a deep breath and one last glance at the carcasses in the moat, he darted across the drawbridge.  It groaned and shook, and he had to jump over a few spots he was certain he’d put his foot through, but he made it across.

He released the breath he’d been holding, and looked to the castle.

To say the outer ward was open was inaccurate.  Like the kingdom walls before it, the gates were simply gone.  Missing.  But the way wasn’t entirely clear.

At the gate squatted a crude stone figure of a man, fist under chin, eyes closed, as though dozing.  Sir Bertram was no artisan, but even he could see the work was rough.  The statue’s features were grotesque and crude—heavy brows, thick lips, the nose but a weathered lump in the middle.  The unknown sculptor seemed to have given up at the feet and hands, leaving them half-done.

Bertram shook his head with disgust.  Truly Itzak was not a font of fine art.

He moved to walk on by, and the statue put out an arm to intercept him.

“Ach, you didn’t think you’d get in that easy, do you?” It asked.

Ah.  It seemed that the rumors of a monster were accurate.

Sir Bertram leapt back and drew his sword. “Stay back!  I’m warning you.”

The statue looked unimpressed. “Breathe, boy, I haven’t gotten up yet.”

Sir Bertram eyed him distrustfully and kept his sword at the ready.

“So, which are you here for?” The monster prompted after a moment. “The treasure or the princess?”

Sir Bertram wasn’t sure what to make of the question.  The monster still hadn’t stood up, didn’t seem eager to.  Finally, realizing that ignoring its question might make it angry, he said, “The princess.  I’m here to rescue the princess.”

The monster chuckled. “Are you now?”

Something about the monster’s tone irked Sir Bertram. “This is the Castle Itzak, isn’t it?  With the princess?”

“Oh aye, cursed castle of death, you’ve found it, all right.” The monster cocked its thumb over its shoulder at the inner ward. “That’s the castle.” It pointed at the moat. “There’s the death.  In case you missed it.”

It hadn’t answered his question, and Sir Bertram found its tone no less obnoxious.  That its accent was unmistakably common only bolstered his irritation. “Is there a princess here or not?” He demanded.

The monster lumbered to its feet. “Oh aye, she’s here.  Mucking about in the kitchen somewhere, I expect, alive and well.”

The monster certainly seemed complacent about all this, and Bertram wasn’t sure how to respond.  The ritual challenge phrases—“Stand and fight, fiend!” “Your weapon or your honor!”—seemed inappropriate in the face of such indifference.

Finally, he said, “Well, in that case, I’ll go and rescue her, shall I?” and moved to pass.

The monster put an arm out again, with more force this time. “No, you shan’t.”

Sir Bertram put up his sword. “Your weapon or your honor!”

The monster stared at him in unabashed shock for a moment.  Then it started to laugh, deep bass roars, shaking its head.

“Oh, you are precious. ‘Your weapon or your honor.’ Really—”

By this point, Sir Bertram had had enough.  He swung his sword at the monster’s neck.

He would’ve done better attacking the castle wall.  The blade bounced off harmlessly, the impact jolted up his arms painfully, and he nearly dropped his weapon.

The monster stood, jerked Sir Bertram’s sword from his hands, and cuffed him upside the head with one stone hand.  Colors burst behind Sir Bertram’s eyes and he staggered, where the monster caught him by the back of his surcoat and shook him like a kitten.  It was no longer laughing.

“Chivalry, chivalry!  Truly your reputation as men of honor is richly deserved.  Chosen by God.  Ach.” The monster rubbed its neck where Sir Bertram had attacked; the stone was chipped, but otherwise undamaged. “Attack the man of stone with a sword.  Real man of genius, you.”

Sir Bertram was rattled now.  He’d been prepared to face a witch, a serpent, perhaps even a dragon, but he couldn’t fathom how to destroy a stone golem.  If his sword had been useless, so would his fists.  He hung there limp, disoriented, and dazed.

The monster looked at him distastefully.  It gave Sir Bertram’s sword a once-over. “A northerner, I see.  All you knights seem to come from there.” It derisively tossed the sword into the moat with a splash.

“No!” Sir Bertram said, reaching helplessly after it.

“Don’t worry.  You can always go down there and get it back.”

Sir Bertram thought of the dead within and quailed.  Then, to his humiliation, the monster began patting him down.

To be defeated by a monster was one thing; to be searched like a child suspected of filching sweets was another altogether. “Release me, monster!” Sir Bertram shouted.  He thrashed and kicked, but only got another cuff for his trouble.  The monster seemed to put little effort into it, but it still knocked Sir Bertram’s silly.

The monster finished its inspection. “Ah good, that was all you had.  Can you read Tzadik?”

Sir Bertram blinked. “What?”

The monster shook him again. “You’re a bloody knight, aren’t you?  You get lessons, don’t you?  Can you read?”

Sir Bertram cried, “Yes!  Yes, I can read, Lay and Tzadik, why?”

Immediately, the monster stopped shaking him.  It expression abruptly changed from annoyance to thoughtfulness.

“You’re here to rescue the princess, you said?”

Sir Bertram nodded.  He was too bewildered and battered to understand what the monster was after, only sure that he did not want to be cuffed or shaken again.

The monster set him down and tugged his surcoat back into place—an overly familiar gesture Bertram didn’t care for.

“Well, here’s your chance to meet her.  Would you like to?” When Sir Bertram looked apprehensive, the monster added, “You can’t kidnap her, of course, nor touch her.  But if you behave, you can look and speak to her all you like.”

Sir Bertram turned to take off running into the inner ward, and the monster caught the back of his surcoat and yanked him off his feet.

“I’ll take that to mean you do.” The monster then bellowed, “Princess!  We have a guest!”

And he lumbered into the inner ward, dragging Sir Bertram behind him like a rag doll.

At first, Sir Bertram flailed to get free, but the monster didn’t seem to notice, and it only got him knocked into a few walls.  Finally, he stopped struggling and the journey went smoother.  His under padding, meant to protect his skin from his armor, absorbed most of the bumps, though the collar of his surcoat still dug into his throat.

The monster was strong, but slow moving.  It gave Sir Bertram ample time to note the surroundings he was dragged through.  He saw a grassy courtyard and a rather woebegone garden with straggly tomatoes.  Next, a bump over a threshold, and the cold stone floors of a great hall.  Tapestries had been torn down, and furniture was missing, but at least the place looked clean, though empty.  Then a kitchen, where a fire burned and the smell of baking bread saturated the air.  No corpses lying about and no smell of rot.

Sir Bertram turned his attention to the monster.  It moved with an oddly stiff gait, and bumped into a couple things—perhaps the cause of the missing furniture.  At one point, it stumbled, cursed, and kicked something out of the way, muttering, “Told her to stop doing that…”

As he was dragged by, Sir Bertram saw that ‘that’ was a wooden toy soldier, like the kind he himself had played with as a child.

The monster re-entered the courtyard, looked back and forth with exasperation, and raised its voice again.

“Princess!  Where are you?  You left your bloody soldiers out inanimate again.”

Sir Bertram heard a girl’s voice, once well bred but now sporting a bit of the monster’s dregs accent.  Coming from a distance, he made out the word, “Library.”

“Well, come down, will you?  I can’t drag this bloody knight up a flight of stairs, and I’d rather not carry him.”

Sir Bertram cringed.  He didn’t relish the prospect of being dragged up stone steps himself—or carried either, for that matter.

The girl’s voice said, “Coming, Cate.”

Sir Bertram looked up at the monster. “Cate?” He asked. “Your name is Cate?”

The monster gave him a look of withering disdain. “It’s Gate, god among men.  Gate Monster.  At her service.”

He heard footsteps pattering on the grass, and the girl’s voice asked, “How’s the bread?”

“Well, it wasn’t smoking, so I expect it’s all right.  Might want to check it yourself, though.” Gate said.  Its face split in a wide grin, and it hauled Sir Bertram up as though he were a new toy. “Look princess!  I’ve found you another suitor!”

Gate tossed Sir Bertram forward onto the ground.  Sir Bertram narrowly avoided plowing his face into the dirt, and when he struggled to stand, Gate planted a foot on the knight’s rump as though showing off a hunting trophy.

Sir Bertram looked up and saw a pair of dirty bare feet.  The feet were connected to bony ankles, which were attached to what had once been a scarlet Itzak lady-in-waiting’s dress, but was now frayed and dirty.  The girl wearing it looked fourteen, at most, with a wild cloud of dark hair, a beaky nose, and one heavy brow across her face.

She looked profoundly unimpressed.

“Princess Judith Monster of Itzak, may I present—who are you, by the way?”

“Sir Bertram of New Ivorson,” Sir Bertram said coldly.

“Sir Ass’s Ears of New Ivorson.”

Sir Bertram looked up at the princess, and his heart sank.  He was willing to accept a homely princess, even one dressed in rags.  But this one was glaring at him.

“Did he give you any trouble?” she asked Gate.

“Not really.  Tried to behead me, so I tossed his sword in the moat.  Far as I know, that’s all he’s got.”

“Good on you.”

Sir Bertram felt neither heroic nor welcomed, but he tried anyway. “Princess Judith,” he said, struggling to stand, “I’ve come to rescue you from this monster, and this cursed kingdom of death!”

The princess’s brow raised.  One side of her mouth turned up incredulously.  She looked at Gate questioningly.

Sir Bertram looked over his shoulder to see Gate grinning and nodding, as though sharing a private joke.

The princess crossed his arms. “I don’t appreciate invaders, for this ‘cursed kingdom of death’ is mine,” she said, “and ‘this monster’ is my brother.”

“Your—what?” Sir Bertram succeeded in getting to his feet, but Gate took hold of his surcoat again to keep him from going anywhere.

“What, don’t you see the family resemblance?” Gate asked.

Sir Bertram turned on him, reaching for his sword before he remembered it was in the moat. “You’ve bewitched her, you fiend!  What other horrible, depraved acts have you committed—”

“Every one of them, and on your horse as well,” Gate replied, and added to the princess, “Precious, isn’t he?”

“Tell me he can read,” Princess Judith said, unamused.

The monster’s voice was abruptly stripped of humor. “Aye, he can read.  Tzadik and Lay, he told me.”

The princess looked at Sir Bertram. “Is that true?”

“Yes!  Yes, I can read Tzadik and Lay, I can read whatever you want!” Sir Bertram cried. “Why does it matter?”

Princess Judith and Gate Monster exchanged glances.  Princess Judith’s expression turned thoughtful; Gate Monster looked pleased with itself.

“A shame he’s not after the treasure,” she said.  She looked at Sir Bertram. “Are you?”

Taken aback, Sir Bertram said, “No, it’s only glory I seek, of good deeds done.  I am no common thief, looting cursed kingdoms.”

“That’s a shame,” the princess said. “I can offer you a lot.”

Sir Bertram paused.  Finally, he said coldly, “No, thank you.  I have no need for material wealth.  You can not simply bribe me to leave you to this wretched place, and that monstrous thing.”

The princess looked to Gate. “What have you told him?”

“Nothing.”

“Good.” She turned to Sir Bertram. “Gate isn’t my captor, he is not a thing, and he has not bewitched me.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as I’m sure you know.”

“I’m sure I don’t,” Sir Bertram said, but he avoided her eyes.

The princess squinted at him. “No need to be coy.  You’ve heard the rumors, I’m sure.”

“Knights look down on gossip.”

Sir Bertram heard a rattle and a jingle.  He turned his head to see a pair of Jaakov’s Bells, the sort made for small children, roll across the grass.  A doll walked across the garden, and the wooden soldier Gate had stumbled on earlier limped to Princess Judith’s side, dragging a broken leg behind it.  She picked it up, looking at Gate disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry,” Gate said. “I didn’t see it.”

“It’s partly my fault; I shouldn’t have left it out.”

“It’s true then,” Sir Bertram interrupted, swallowing. “You’re a vivifier.”

“Aye, the witch princess of Itzak, that’s me.  Of course you’ve heard of me.” She looked up from examining the soldier. “And you don’t want to rescue me.”

Sir Bertram was silent for a moment, watching the doll walk to the garden where it began to pull weeds, while the Jaakov’s Bells rolled off on other errands.  Finally he asked, “What do you want with me then?”

“I want you to read the qabal for me,” she said.
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