The thundering hooves of the horses were all but drowned out by the raging storm above. If not for the flashes of lightning and the intimate knowledge of the riders of this country; their head long rush down the road would have been folly. Gusts of wind driven rain pelted the half dozen riders hampering their progress as they fought more to control their steeds than urge the nearly mad beast forward. All but one was incased in armor and the accouterments of war. If not for the lowered visors of their helms an observer would have seen the dire expression of uncertain men. Men, who though brave in every circumstance, were having their metal tested this grim night.
As for the unarmored rider, he wore his fright and misgivings clearly in the open. Flinching at every crack of thunder and flash of arcing lightning it was all that the others could do short of tying up the whimpering poltroon to keep him up with them. In fact during the journey one of the underlings of the lead noble horseman had to take hold of the palfreys’ reins to insure that the luckless rider would keep up
Coming around a bend in the road the group of riders came to a stop. Before them was a cadre of men at arms holding flickering torches awaiting the rival of this their Lord. As if a fan fare, the riders were greeted with a crack of thunder and lightning. Horses reared and bucked, while riders cursed to keep them under control.
The lead rider raised up his helm’s visor to address the sergeant who rushed up holding a flickering torch.
“Where is it Geoff? Where is this unholy split in the earth?”
The man had to raise his voice to a shout to be heard over the storm. “It’s around there m’Lord,” the sergeant said while pointing his non torch bearing hand. “I have good men surrounding it. But m’Lord I must warn you it reeks of evil…it’s bad.”
“Show me,” the mounted lord demanded.
The sergeant stomped off fighting the gusting winds. The other riders obediently followed with out being told to do so. Together as a group they rounded a bend in the trail and came to an amazing site that was announced with a crack of thunder and lightning illuminating the scene in dazzling brilliance. Even the dauntless lord flinched at the spectacular overhead display.
Before them in a barren plain it was as if some huge hand had peeled back a section of the Earth’s crust exposing a cavernous opening. From this unnatural portal an orange red glow dimly lit up the area before the riders. Spaced about the cave entrance were several men at arms. Foul sulfurous fumes seeped out in thin wisps causing some of the men to back away or forcing them to cover their face if they wanted to get a closer look.
The lord dismounted the skittish destrier and handed off the reins to one of the men. He then stepped closer to the tunnel entrance, the sergeant advancing with him. With the raging storm and the tendrils of acrid smoke the lord’s vision was not clear. He thought he could see shadows moving deep within the tunnel. Most alarming were the clearly audible groans and occasional shrieks emanating from deep within. Taking it all in even the steel nerves of the lord was being challenged.
“See m’Lord, it is as I warned, the bowels of Hell have been exposed to us,” the sergeant had to shout to be heard.
With an incredulous look the lord first looked at the sergeant disbelieving what was clearly before him. He then looked back at the group of men that had ridden with him to the place. He motioned them to bring the hapless man from the palfrey.
Two other men at arms helped the man in simple robes from the palfrey just as a crack of thunder exploded over head while a bolt of lightning split the darkness seemingly just over their heads. The palfrey bucked and the robed man fell sprawling to the ground. Even the lord flinched expecting to be struck down from the raging tempest.
“Pick up the padre and bring him here!” the lord shouted. “Christ damn this night!”
For the blasphemous remark, another arc of lightning flashed across the sky.
“My Lord?” the hapless priest stammered very much afraid.
Ignoring the priest’s fear, the lord grasped the whimpering man by his robes and jerked him to his feet so as to be face to face. “What is that?” the lord demanded pointing with his free hand.
The priest could barely look at the rent in the earth let alone bring his eyes up to face the indomitable warrior. “Priest, tell me, what are those cries from?” the lord gave the man of cloth a single shake with his one hand.
“I…I,” the priest stuttered in fright.
Losing patience, the lord more threw than let the priest go tossing him to the ground. One of his men made a slight gesture at perhaps helping the holy man before rethinking his actions seeing his lord’s mood.
The lord took several steps closer to look at the strange phenomenon that had suddenly interrupted his time and brought him out in this god forsaken night. This one holding of his was large but not so large that he did not know the general features of his land. In fact he had been flying his falcon the previous week in this very area and the fissure had not been here let alone any indications of it. Thus, when a villein came to the holdfast with the incredible claim of the ground split open he was all too curious, enough to send men out first to confirm the report.
Standing before the opening the lord peered into the gloom and wisp of smoke emanating from the opening. A couple of his men stood with him as they all tried to make sense of it all.
Above the raging din of the tempest they could clearly hear shrieks and screams of multitudes in suffering pain. As with the occasional crack of thunderous booming from overhead they would hear the distinct screech of some poor soul. Even the lord was unnerved by such expression of pain.
“M’Lord,” his man Geoff called out, “What do we do?”
“We…we…pray,” the priest said groveling forward on the ground.
The lord turned back to the opening looking for answers. It was clear this was beyond all of his experiences or those he could ever recall. As he gazed into the opening he thought he saw movement. Peering ever closer he dismissed it as shadows dancing between all the various lighting. After a moment and yet another loud explosion of thunder in which even he flinched, the lord turned about.
“Whatever we end up doing here it sure as hell won’t be tonight. Geoff, post a couple of men here to warn us if something changes. We will return on the morrow when the storm breaks.” The lord started back towards where the horses were being more restrained than held.
Suddenly there was a shout from a sentry near the gaping hole. The lord turned around to look at the commotion. The man at arms was shouting and gesturing towards the opening. The lord went back to the opening with the sergeant at arms following closely; both of them had a hand at the hilt of their swords.
The lord approached the man at arms and looked into the cave opening where he was shouting trying to be heard and understood over the tempest. The lord looked and saw the wisps of smoke still obscuring his vision until he saw movement way down in the opening. He thought he was mistaken and shook his head. However there in the descending passageway he clearly saw movement of some dark form.
“M’Lord what is it?” Geoff asked also seeing the same thing as the lord.
“I don’t know,” the lord answered. “Did anyone go down there?”
“Not since we arrived, m’Lord,” Geoff replied. Then the sergeant pointed. “Look there’s another.”
There was the first man shape being scrambling up the cavernous passageway followed closely by another figured. The lord watched in curious fascination as the following being was suddenly pummeled by the lead figure when it caught up to the lead. It was clear that the fighting was vicious and unyielding by the two combatants. The lord watched as the lead figure was apparently successful in dispatching the following figure. The person, down below just as quickly resumed the climb, the brief sharp fight barely pausing his ascent.
“Look m’Lord, there’s more behind that one. What are they?”
The figures chasing after the lead man were dark as shadows where the man climbing as rapidly as possible was clearly discernible in the glow from the passageway. The man looked to be carrying a broken lance which he had stabbed at the first follower. Whatever he was clothed in was ragged and dirty and unrecognizable. His head was bare of cover than the stringy strands of dark hair.
The lord took action. “Make ready,” he shouted. “Geoff do we have bows?”
“No m’Lord. Do I go and get some?”
“No, there’s no time,” the lord shouted impatiently. “Everyone to me, do not let the dark ones past.”
The man, for that was clearly what he was, was now but a dozen yards below the lip of the opening. The man paused to look behind and then to look up before him. Seeing the several soldiers above him he flashed a smile. The lord was still baffled by the happenings of this strange night and seeing the man who was obviously trying to escape from the shadow creatures quickly gaining on him all but confirm the madness of the situation.
“You stand fast,” the lord bellowed at a man who took a step backwards. “Those things will be the least of your worries if you bolt.”
The young man swallowed the vomit that fear was causing to bubble up. He knew his lord’s wrath was beyond measure than the hellish dark figures clawing up the passageway. Now they too were closer and besides their red glowing eyes and dark scaly skin with clearly defined fangs and claws, it was their bold determination to catch up with the fleeing man that brought fear to the simple soldier.
The man reached the lip of the fissure and paused a moment to build up his strength for one last effort, hauling himself up and out of the hellish passage. The sergeant of arms reached down and held out his hand. The man saw the offered help and seized hold. Between the two men the man easily cleared the lip and rolled on to his back his chest heaving with the exertion of the climb.
Then suddenly a black demonic looking being broached the opening and lunged at the man. The man who was in the tattered remnants of a white surcoat over heavily rented chainmail grasped his only weapon in hand, a broken spear, and plunged it fully into the head of the evil looking monster. The demonic thing hollowed in pain at being so stabbed that it forgot its attack. The battered warrior kicked at the demon sending it back over the edge of the opening and down into the hole.
“There’s more coming,” the man said to the hovering sergeant. “You might want to run.”
“We will stand our ground like good Christian soldiers and send these bastards back where they come from,” the lord shouted.
Several men moved closer to the edge of the opening with spears held out. There was fear an apprehension on their faces; however, after seeing that the demonic things could be dispatch with seemingly regular arms their courage was bolstered. The lord held before him his great sword as he stood at the edge awaiting the emergence of more of the demons. The priest had slunk away back beyond the gathering of skittish horses waiting to see what evil would befall this bold company.
The warrior had managed to draw a knee beneath him propping him up. “My Lord,” he called out. “I’m sure your courage is without question but you need to back away.”
“I am a god fearing man of Christ and I will never yield to demons Sir,” the lord shouted back at the battered knight.
Just then a man to the side yelled a warning and stabbed down at the upper torso of another black scale encrusted fiend. The spear point was batted away and the thing cleared the opening. A second man of arms plunged his spear into the things blind side causing it to bellow out in pain. It waved its arms about and was then knocked back over the edge by the first soldier.
“My Lord, you and your men need to step back. You cannot defeat them”, the knight urged.
“We are making a good accounting of ourselves by my reckoning,” the lord answered having just lopped off the head of a demon that stuck its head above the opening. “If you’re spent, take a knee and we will deal with these fiends.”
There was a booming of thunder and a spectacular display of lightning that caused all to paused, even the demons trying to fight their way out of the hole. The knight stood in a crouch and edge back from the opening. The wind became more pronounced as it became more and more difficult to stand freely. The knight called out one last time unheard and unheeded by the lord and his men.
The tempest that night was as angry as weather can ever be by most accounts. The sound of thunder was so deafening many never fully recovered their hearing. Lightning split the sky in blinding flashes that made staring at the sun for a day or two harmless. And when the bolts struck the earth woe be to anyone remotely nearby as they were surely struck down never to rise again. The wind blew with such a gale force that boulders rolled about the ground. In the first days after the storm shock and dismay would mire the local populace with all of the destruction and death. All of that however paled to what happen next.
With the storm suddenly growing in ferocity, men and demons scrambled for shelter leaving the fight. The battered knight exhausted from his ordeal and escape pulled from his last remaining reserves and clawed his way from the opening. The lord was also forced to abandon his martial efforts and struggle to move away from the cave. A hapless soldier still fought with a demon having been overpowered. The storm hampered the hellish beings efforts to rip him to pieces.
All of a sudden there was a pause to the maelstrom. Thunder rumbled away in echoes, everything was plunged briefly into darkness as the lightning did not flash. There was even a brief pause in the wind as it somewhat slacken. The knight fearing the worst curled up into a ball upon the ground.
There was a terrific explosion and a beam of energy split the sky as it raced from above the heavens to the opening in the ground. A couple of men who had not retreated from the opening, including the one hapless soldier that was being bested by a demon were instantly incinerated along with those demonic beings that had reached the surface. Several of the men who had not been quick enough to shield their eyes beyond closing them would be blind for many days afterwards. Even though the knight prepared for what happen he was nevertheless knocked unconscious.
“I would not do that if I were you,” the knight said. He had been feigning unconsciousness ever since he was chained to a wall in some dungeon. He finally had to speak up when he saw the lord of this hold fast take out a dagger and start prying at a small box he had managed to hold on to during his escape.
“Why, what’s in it, some terrible magic that will destroy all of us?” the lord sneered in mockery.
“I don’t know what’s inside but it is such a finely crafted box that it would be a shame to ruin it,” the knight countered.
Setting the little box down the lord approached the naked knight chained to the wall. “Who are you? What was the place we found you?”
The knight stood more erect pulling on his chains to do so. He then stared at the lord and said, “It was a passageway from Hell.”
“My God,” exclaimed the exasperated priest who until now had sat quietly on the far side of the chamber
The knight continued to look at the lord whose facial expression was one of disbelief. The lord took a look at the priest and then turned back to the helpless knight. With a backhand slap he struck the knight full in the face.
“Do you think me a fool?” the lord barked. He then walked over to the bench where the knight’s belongings were laid out. The lord picked up the tattered remains of his surcoat.
“I don’t recognize your sigil.” the lord said holding up the white cloth. On it was a simple green papal cross. “Are you with some holy order?”
The knight said nothing.
“Damn it man,” the lord roared and rushed to the knight. “Who are you?”
The lord let his anger rage as he hit the chained knight several times to the head and body. The knight slumped in his chains with blood dribbling from his nose and mouth. The lord backed away and drank from a cup. His body heaved in anger and from the exertion.
“All right then. You don’t need to waste yourself beating me,” the knight said spitting blood from his mouth.
For the next couple of hours the lord and his men questioned the knight. Through repeated questioning and the threats of more beatings they learned that the knight had sought out a gypsy woman who claimed to know secrets best left unsaid. She told the knight how to open a passage way to Hell. The knight followed her instructions and performed the ritual that did in fact open a passageway. He was going to rescue his true love Isabelle. She had committed suicide rather than be forced by a sinful bishop. Her soul was sent to Hell. He came to the seventh circle of Hell where those who commit suicide reside. He did not find Isabelle and was forced to fight the Minotaur. He failed in his quest and escaped by reversing the ritual to open a passage way out of Hell.
“I lost several good men because of you,” the lord said sneering at the knight.
“My apologies,” the knight said. The dungeon was dark and damp. Through caked blood in his nose he could easily smell the filth from the nearby cesspit. He was hanging from chains that would not let him fully sit upon the floor.
“You apologize!” the lord roared and then he punched the knight again in the face with a gloved hand.
The knight rolled with the punch as best as he could but it still knocked him senseless. The lord backed away to a table and pulled a stool closer to sit. He reached for a pitcher and poured more wine into a simple cup.
“What was that place that you crawled from?” the lord asked quietly while taking a drink.
“Hell,” the knight said. He had answered the same question a dozen times the same way.
“Yes, we’ve been over that several times,” the lord said taking another long pull from the cup before filling it again. “You expect me to believe that you were in Hell and escaped.”
The knight looked up, “I don’t care what you believe it’s true .”
The lord looked across at the defiant knight. “By your own admission you consorted with a gypsy witch; you used sorcery to open a gateway to Hell; where you sought to free your lover who had committed suicide.”
“You should burn for the heretic that you are,” the priest screeched while crossing him self interrupting the lord in his interrogation.
The lord slowly set the cup down and turned to the priest, “Shut your hole or so help me God above couldn’t help you.”
The priest slinked back to be less conspicuous.
“M’Lord,” cautiously interrupted one of his men. The man had been rifling through what was left of his armor and clothing. He now held up what appeared to be a coin. The lord held out his hand and the man brought the coin to him.
The lord flipped it over a couple of times looking closely at the markings on each side. As he did so he noticed a look upon the knight and smiled.
“You thought you lost this?” the lord said smugly. “I recognize the papal seal on this side but this side only has a ‘P’ impressed upon it. This isn’t a coin. What is it?”
“Let me go and the Bishop of Toulouse will answer for me,” the knight said.
“Toulouse you say? You are truly a mystery to me,” the lord said flipping the coin over and over. “What do I do with you? What do I do with a heretic knight who won’t answer my questions?”
With all brevity and servile set aside the knight stood up straight with the most imposing dignity and said, “Write a letter or send a messenger to the Bishop of Toulouse. He will vouch for me. And who knows, he may even reward you.”
The knight awoke with a start. His arms were still chained to the wall above his head. He had been allowed to sit on a stool but he was all but physically spent from this ordeal of captivity. A servant came to him a couple of times a day with bread and water. His shackles allowed enough movement where he could hold the cup and bread in each hand and only be able to either eat or drink, and only if he stood. Otherwise as he sat on the stool the chains kept his arms raised and they soon were numb of feeling.
The sound of the door latch being lifted awoke him. He was immediately blinded as several torches were brought into the dungeon of the holdfast. This was not feeding time the knight surmised there were too many people. Through blurry vision he did not recognize anyone.
A man in a simple brown traveling cloak came forward towards the Knight. He held a torch before him so that his features were obscured from the light. The man looked closely at the Knight for some time. The torch was withdrawn some.
“My god, release this man,” the cloaked man demanded. “You will clean and feed him as an honored guest.”
“Yes your Grace,” the familiar voice of the lord now cowed into a subservient manner.
The knight stood and held forth his chained arms to the lord. With a smile he said, “If you would be so kind to remove these.”
The holdfast’s hall was not all that roomy for the number of people gathered. The Bishop of Toulouse had brought a small armed contingent and they all gathered about the hall. The lords own men tried to look imposing to the bishop’s own, mostly failing.
At a table near the main hearth sat the knight, the bishop and the lord. The bishop stood up, “That is a remarkable tale Sir. The only reason I do not order you burned at the stake is that coin you bore. I assure you I will be writing to Rome and if the Holy See won’t substantiate your claim then I’m sure Lord Woodmere will be more than please to see to your heresies.”
The knight pursed his lips after hearing the threat. He shook his head and dug something out of the folds of his borrowed clothing. In his hand he held the little metal box of bronze. He deftly pressed two places of the box and a circle lid rose slightly. He then swung the lid to the right and then to the left. He was then able to lift the true lid of the little box open. He shook out an object and held it up to the bishop.
“Here include this. Hell is short a prince.”
“What is this,” the bishop bobbled the ring tossed to him by the knight.
“That there is the nose ring of the Minotaur. You might want to get it to Rome before some great evil befalls you or the bearer.” the knight chided.