Read The Crystal Chalice (Book 1) Online
Authors: R.J. Grieve
The Crystal Chalice
Book One of The
Legend of Erren-dar
R.J.Grieve 2013. All rights reserved.
The right of
R.J.Grieve to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted in
accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
The Monastery of the White
snow fell in huge feathery flakes that drifted lazily downwards from the leaden
sky. Gently they settled on every branch, every winter-black twig of every
tree. In their millions they joined their brethren on the ground, softening and
disguising every feature. The whole world was stark black and white. Even the
ice-rimmed river was the colour of pewter; its waters reflecting and darkening
the metallic sky. The peaks above the valley reared cold heads against the
clouds. Here and there the hard whiteness that armoured their flanks was broken
by dark patches representing some precipice too steep for snow to lie. In the
centre of the broad valley below, encircled by the metal band of the river,
rose a solitary hill like a fist thrust up suddenly from beneath the white quilt.
Its sides were steep, and in places jagged rocks like fangs were exposed,
iron-bare. On its summit reared the sheer, forbidding walls of a fortress built
by some primeval hand of the same dark-grey stone as the crag on which it
stood. Tall towers arose in a ring above its battlements, as if the hill wore a
cruel, dark diadem. There was something about the castle’s silence, its
blackness against the dazzling blue-white backdrop of snow, the dizzying
heights to which its walls rose, that inspired a sense of dread. Its silence
had not the passivity of stone; it was malevolent, watchful, sentient.
All at once, the muffled silence of the shrouded
valley was shattered by the sound of horses. The thudding of galloping hooves
echoed around the valley, seeming to bounce off the silent walls. Harsh, yet
oddly deadened by the snow. The source of the sound, a group of about thirty
horsemen, emerged from the concealment of the dark forest and halted at the
edge of the snow-laden trees, as if intimidated by the fortress brooding in the
distance before them.
Yet these men would have given even the most casual
observer the impression that they feared nothing. They were all powerful men,
armed with long, heavy swords hanging in leather scabbards against their thighs.
Some had bows or heavy war-axes slung over their shoulders. Some carried round
shields. All wore steel-studded leather cuirasses under their dark cloaks and
leather gauntlets against the cold. Most wore helmets with long nose and
cheek-guards which left little of their faces visible except hard, watchful
eyes and unshaven chins.
The horses stamped and snorted. Their hot flanks
steamed in the cold air and the snowflakes vanished as soon as they touched
their hides; evidence that they had been ridden hard.
The men’s breath misted in the still air, but
despite the all-pervading chill, they sat on their horses regarding the scene
before them as if awed into immobility.
Yet amongst all the sombre grey and black
cloaks one stood out. One cloak was of deep royal red. The slight figure in the
crimson cloak stiffened and stared at the castle through the veil of softly
falling flakes. Finally, as if it enabled her to see better, she put back her
hood to reveal a mass of red-gold hair, its fiery colour at curious odds with
the cloak. Her face was as pale as the snowflakes that settled all around her.
A shiver that might have been cold, or might have been apprehension,
involuntarily shook her.
Although, unlike the men, she had never seen the
castle before, she knew it by repute. Sadris-karn, it was called in
the old language, the Fortress of the Ravens. The men now called it Ravenshold.
The name was chillingly appropriate, she thought, for ravens feast on the dead
and the master of Sadris-karn rarely let them go hungry. Even from this
distance, she could see the tiny, jet-black dots of the birds circling the
tallest tower. Even through the gently falling curtain of snow, the brooding
presence of their destination struck dread into her.
As if sensing her apprehension, the leader of the
horsemen turned and stared chillingly at her for a moment, before signalling to
the others to continue the descent into the valley. Little of his face was
visible beneath his helmet except a pair of hard blue eyes and the bristle of
copper beard on his chin. She thought he was not going to speak but suddenly he
remarked with heavy irony: “No doubt you are as keen to arrive at
Ravenshold as Celedorn is to receive you.”
The prisoner, realising that a reply was not
expected, merely pulled her hood into place again and followed the troop of
horses down the snow-covered slope to the valley floor.
“You need not look so afraid,” he added. “You are a
valuable hostage. No doubt he will allow you to survive until he has no further
use for you.”
With those comforting words, he urged his horse to a
canter, forcing her to follow suit. He left her prey to unease. Clearly he had
no idea of the deception, but for how long would she be able to deceive
Celedorn? Time was of the essence. Every minute he believed in the charade was
a vital minute gained. Celedorn was said to be cruel, ruthless, arrogant,
capable of the most vicious acts of violence, but no one had ever yet called
him a fool - and a fool was exactly what she was proposing to make of him.
The moment that he discovered that he had been
deceived, scarcely bore thinking about, yet it was as inevitable as it was
terrifying. Another spasm of apprehension shook her, but it was now too late to
turn back. She had known the risks all along. Ignorance could not be pleaded as
an excuse. She had chosen to carry out the task before her, knowing full well
that discovery meant almost certain death. If only she could gain enough time.
If only she could deceive him for just long enough to fulfil her purpose.
As they came closer to the castle, it became
evident that its scale had been dwarfed by the mighty pinnacles of snow which
surrounded the valley. The sides of the hill now rose sheer above them,
ascending almost vertically from the valley floor. On top of the vertiginous
cliffs, the castle walls rose yet higher, their lofty heights rendering
minuscule the approaching band of riders. On one side of the crag, a narrow
road, cut into the living rock, snaked its way upwards to a tall, forbidding archway
guarded by a heavy steel portcullis.
As they began to ascend this roadway, fear, pure
undiluted terror such as she had never known, dug icy talons into her. The
portcullis rose, apparently of its own volition, its chains groaning and
rumbling as they took the strain. Passing beneath it felt like passing into the
jaws of some malicious demon, its teeth poised to bite.
The horsemen entered a large courtyard surrounded
on three sides by crenellated walls and on the fourth, by one of the
tall, bleak towers visible from the valley.
Still the snow softly fell, but this time with the
silence of secrecy, as if it knew it was an intruder.
The courtyard had been swept bare of drifts and the
horses’ hooves clattered noisily on the cobbles. The men dismounted and began
to lead the horses through another archway leading into the recesses of the
castle, to what, the captive assumed, must be living quarters or
stables - if such grim surroundings could boast anything so
The leader gave his horse to one of his men and
gestured to her to dismount.
A heavy wooden door, iron bound, was set into the
base of the tower. He grasped the handle and heaved it open, leading the way
into a cavernous, stone-flagged hall. The main feature of the hall was a broad,
ornately-carved staircase which rose in one graceful sweep before branching
right and left. A fireplace, designed to hold half a tree trunk, stood forlorn
and empty. The only item of furniture in the hall was a large oak table much
scored and battered by virtue of the fact that it was used as a repository for
weapons. Their footsteps echoed gloomily on the flags as they crossed the hall
and began to ascend the staircase. The man took the right-hand branch which led
to a long, vaulted corridor as bare and comfortless as the hall below. A torch
caused flickering shadows to dance in the gloom beside a smaller doorway.
Without hesitation, he pushed open the door and gestured her inside.
“Celedorn has been delayed but he should arrive
shortly,” he remarked curtly. “Wait in here.”
Without giving her the opportunity to reply, he
slammed the door shut and turned the key.
The room she found herself in had once, long ago,
been a handsome apartment. Its high ceiling was criss-crossed by great curved
beams of oak. The fireplace was carved out of once-beautiful cream stone, now
blackened by use. Its surround was decorated with intricate hunting scenes in
raised relief. In its depths, a log fire burnt with incongruous cheerfulness,
apparently immune to its surroundings. A long table took up the centre of the
room, flanked by tall-backed wooden chairs. A mighty carver, with its arms
fashioned like snarling wolves, stood at the head of the table. Some battered
leather armchairs sat by the fire and the tall, mullioned windows were flanked
by shabby crimson curtains that might once have been velvet.
Acting instinctively, she crossed to the windows to
discover that they overlooked the courtyard that she had just left. The day was
nearly over. The light was gradually retreating before the advance of darkness.
The departure of the daylight left her feeling as if she was being deprived of
her last friend.
She wondered if the Prince had time to get his army
out of the trap; out through the passes that Celedorn has so cleverly used to
pin it down. As agreed, she had been handed over as hostage early that morning,
but had Celedorn kept his part of the bargain? Had he withdrawn his men from
the passes? It disturbed her that she had seen nothing of him that day. It was
not inconceivable that he was planning treachery. The Prince had not trusted
him, but in the circumstances, he had little choice.
At that moment, as if in response to her thoughts, a
large party of armed riders clattered into the courtyard. She saw her guard cross
the cobbles to greet their leader. A tall man in a black cloak and helmet
dismounted, listened briefly to what the guard had to say, and then strode
purposefully towards the door in the tower.
The captive backed hastily away from the window, her
heart thumping. She swung round, her eyes riveted to the door. Footsteps could
be heard in the corridor, low voices, the clink of weapons. The key turned in
the lock and the door was flung open.
The tall man strode into the room, followed by her
guard. He was dressed in black from head to foot. His cloak was flung back from
one shoulder to reveal a heavy sword in a long scabbard that swung by his side.
Without speaking, he removed his helmet and stared at her.
His appearance was such that she had barely sufficient
self-control to repress a gasp. The man before her was broad-shouldered and
powerful. His hair was as jet-black as his cloak, yet the eyes studying her
were of the palest, coldest grey she had ever seen. But what had caused her
reaction was his face. Three disfiguring parallel scars ran diagonally across
his cheek, from the outer edge of his cheekbone almost to the edge of his
mouth. The scars were raised and puckered, like ploughed furrows. Their
appearance became even more pronounced where they passed through the black
stubble of his beard, for no hair grew on them, rendering them as
conspicuous as tracks through a forest The middle scar was the longest and
reached almost to his lip, drawing its outer edge slightly upwards in a perpetual
Slowly he set his helmet down on the table and his
cold eyes resumed their silent, intimidating appraisal of her. Finally he said:
“You are Princess Illiana?”
She inclined her head in acknowledgement, not
trusting herself to speak.
He said nothing for a moment, then turned to the
guard. “You’re a fool, Hydar,” he remarked softly.
Then without warning, he spun on his heel and struck
the prisoner such a powerful, backhanded blow that it sent her flying across
the room to crash into the wall. She fell, half-stunned, to the floor. Before
she could rise, he strode over to her and catching hold of her red hair,
wrenched hard. The wig came away in his hand and her own brown hair, freed from
restraint, tumbled down onto her shoulders. She stared at him stricken, almost
forgetting the pain of the blow in her distress that her disguise had not
deceived him for an instant. He held the wig in his fist and thrust it at
Hydar, his countenance pale with anger, the scars standing out more lividly
“Were you really taken in by this pitiful trick?”
he snarled. “Are you really such a fool? Prince Andarion will have his forces
through the passes by now, and in return, instead of holding his sister
hostage, we are left with a worthless nobody.”
Hydar stared at him appalled, not daring to answer.
Celedorn glanced sharply towards the window. “It’s
nearly dark now but perhaps the snow will have slowed them down. There is a
remote possibility that we may yet catch them. For your sake, you had better
pray it is so.” He turned to cast an icy glance at the prisoner, still sitting
on the ground holding her injured cheek. “As for you,” he hissed, “I’ll deal
with you when I get back.”
With that, he caught up his helmet and strode from
Hydar crossed to her and jerked her roughly to her
“You played me false and I will shortly be made to
pay for that, but believe me, it is nothing to what you will pay. Not for all
the gold in the kingdom would I stand in your shoes.”
As he spoke, he dragged her out of the room and up several
flights of stairs until they arrived at a dusty, forsaken corridor. He pushed a
door open and shoved her through it with such force that he sent her sprawling
on the floor again. Before she could raise her head, the door was slammed shut
and locked. She could hear his retreating footsteps diminishing into the
distance, leaving her utterly alone.