And now it has a prologue!
The toll of the monastery bells rang out over sea and land. An harrowing clang which roused the people of the mainland from their beds. Nothing could be seen in the deep black of night. No fires burned on the Holy Island. All was dark and silent save for the ringing of the bells.
Six horsemen rode down onto the tidal flats, their horses’ hooves sending up showers of sand and spray. They were tall men, fierce men. Bundled in thick furs against the evening chill with broad shields on their backs, spears in hand and swords at their waists. Men ready to confront whatever demons had brought death to the island that night.
There was only one thing the bells could mean. Their noise rolled on and on without pause. Each booming clang was a word. The same word repeated over and over. With it came a command.
‘Death. Warriors of Christ, come to the aid of the faithful. Death stands at the doors of God’s house. Death.’
Their leader swung down from his mount and lifted his shield. Glanced back at the men behind and saw the fear in their eyes. He couldn’t blame them. Ahead stretched an endless rolling expanse of black before the grey hump of the Holy Island. They were God-fearing and Christ-loving men. But even a fanatic would shudder to cross the causeway by night. Sea and sand became one beneath the moonless sky.
‘It’s not safe,’ one of the men said, sounding for all the world like a coward. His leader knew better. He had seen each of them earn their scars. They were loyal men and brave. But even brave men feared to walk out into the unknown. ‘Whatever ails them can wait ’til morning.’
‘Stay then,’ the leader said, showing them his broad back. ‘I’ll go on.’
He left the skittish horses and frightened men, striding out onto the causeway with the alarm ringing in his ears.
‘Death. Men of Angland, save those who safeguard your immortal souls. Christ demands your service now. Death.’
Not ten paces before he heard the others jump down from their own mounts and follow him. They might fear being swept away in the sea’s cold, ink black grasp, but none was willing to let their leader walk into danger alone.
‘Is it sickness, do you think?’ the same man asked.
‘I pray it’s nothing more,’ he replied.
But I fear it’s a vain hope.
The terror of the monks was palpable in the sound of their alarm. As the bells grew quieter, their crashing rose in frequency. He imagined them hauling at the ropes in desperate fear. But fear of what?
Silence. The echo of the bells faded into the distance, leaving behind only the hiss of waves on either side. They were nearing the causeway’s end. In front of them the grey slope of the island rose up to where the monastery stood.
Or so the warrior hoped. A horrifying thought scratched at the back of his mind. What if they weren’t on the causeway at all? What if they had wandered out into the midst of the waves? They would be encircled when the tide rushed back in, cut off and drowned with no hope of reaching the shore. Their bodies would rot to nothing beneath the waves, food for fish and crabs.
The warrior’s attention snapped back to reality. Something rose to block their path to the island. A dark shape like a wall built across the causeway’s end. He moved along it, feeling the rough grain of the wood and barnacles stuck to its side.
He glances up at the shape jutting from its end. A long neck, scales, jagged teeth and flaring nostrils. A dragon.
A shadow moved above him and the warrior raised his shield above his head, instict driving his arm upwards. It shook and splintered with the force of the impact. His knees buckled and he staggered back, watching the shattered wood fall from his limp arm. Heard the demonic shout and crash of steel on oak only once he was standing back with his spear raised.
The monster had the shape of a man. In the faint light he could make out the lean, naked torso and tensed arms. Pale hair flowing down the nape of the demon’s neck and a long beard tied with a leather cord.
As his eyes landed on the long axe, it moved. The heavy blade arced towards his head and the warrior stepped back again, feeling a rush of air as it passed over his shoulder. He lunged forwards. The spear shot out towards the demon’s chest, too fast for his gaze to follow. At the last second, his opponent knocked the thrust aside with the handle of his axe and swung again.
Leave the spear. Better the sword.
They danced a deadly pattern over the wet sand. Water lapped around their ankles as they darted towards each other and leapt apart. The warrior’s sword sang in his hand, but its blade bit only air. The waves brushed his knees and sent a shiver up his spine.
‘Go back!’ he called to his companions. Ducked a crushing blow from the axe and pressed into the attack with a series of whirring cuts. ‘The tide’s coming in. Turn back.’
The warriors murmured behind him. They wanted to help, but there was no space to move past him. His last blow seemed to connect. Before he could draw back for a final thrust, the demon was inside his guard. The hard shaft of the axe rammed into his chest and sent him tumbling back into the chilling surf.
He splashed to his feet and pushed at his companions’ shields. ‘Go back now!’
Water swirled around his midriff, making his movements sluggish as he waded back towards the ragged outline of his opponent. How long had they fought? It didn’t matter. The warrior knew he couldn’t turn back. The island was close enough to hear the tortured screams and savage laughter from the monastery.
‘Death. Worse than death. The house of God will burn if you don’t succeed. Death.’
There was a series of splashes as his companions threw away their shields and furs. Dragging their legs through the shallows of the causeway as they fought towards land. The warrior was alone. Looking into the eyes of his opponent and seeing only blackness. Two empty caverns in the grey, sallow face.
What pit of Hell were you spawned in?
He threw the last of his strength into a desperate lunge. Saw an opening in the demon’s guard as his sword point drove towards his bare chest. Then the cold water caught him, bringing his sword up short as the waves held him back. The heavy steel blade of the demon’s axe cleaving down towards his face, splitting the heavens in two and scattering the stars overhead.
The sea closed over the warrior’s head. Cold water filled his mouth, surged into his lungs. He felt his body being dragged from the causeway. Sensed a splitting pain in his head. Watched the bright sword sink towards the dark mud.
Then only blackness as the waves swallowed him.