The Crimson Shield (published by Gollancz on the 11th July) is the story of Gallow, a warrior who came across the seas years ago with a host led by the dreaded Corvin Screambreaker, the Nightmare of the North. While most of his kin eventually returned home, Gallow stayed and settled, living a quiet life obscurity until. . . but that's another story, the story of the Crimson Shield itself. For those of you familiar with the fantasy genre, the Crimson Shield aims, for better or worse, to echo the likes of David Gemmell and Robert E Howard. For those of less familiar, imagine vikings and saxons with just a touch of the supernatural.
In this story, a much younger Gallow has been enticed to break into a holy temple to steal a look at the legendary Crimson Shield. Of the men with him, Medrin will one day be a prince of his people and as for Beyard . . . but that too is for another story.
For more stories of Gallow, the Crimson Shield and other characters in their pasts, feel welcome to visit the interactive story map at www.nathanhawke.com
4 – The Fateguard
Location – Palace of the Eyes of Time
Location – Palace of the Eyes of Time
The door shuddered again. “Open!”
Beyard turned. “Shall we take our punishment like men then?” But Medrin was already at the window. He vanished down the rope and that was that. Gone. Craven bastard.
“Open this door!” The roar from outside was furious this time. The other Lhosir, the blacksmith's lad Gallow, pushed an empty chest across the threshold and sat on it. Beyard sat beside him, wedging the door shut. “Open up! Beardless cowards!”
Beyard spat. He cast a grin at Gallow. “Shall we cast the runes together while we give our noble lord a minute to make good his escape. I dare say we can hold them here for hours if needs be, but another minute or so should do it.” He glanced over his shoulder as the door shook again. “My dead grandmother could push harder,” he yelled. “Go away and find some friends with some strength in their arms. I can give you my word we'll wait if that helps!”
A roar of rage answered. The door groaned as whoever was on the other side threw themselves at it. “Whoever you are in there, I know there's more than one of you. I'll strangle you with each others guts!”
“Only after I take out yours so I can teach you how to tie proper knots!” When everything fell quiet, Beyard pressed his ear to the door. There were footsteps and then more voices and he leaned away just in time before the the door shook hard. Two men now, and this time they forced it open a crack. An arm reached around. Beyard bit it and it withdrew with a howl. The shouts from outside gathered force, but then they fell silent. A low gravelly voice spoke instead. “Give me your axe.”
Fateguard, and for all his bravado, Beyard felt a chill. He gritted his teeth against the fear. “I reckon we've given him long enough now, don't you?”
Gallow nodded. “You go first. I'll hold them.”
Beyard looked at him. Not that either of them could see much in the dark, but they'd been friends for long enough that they didn't really need to see each others' faces any more. “Truth is, my friend, whoever goes last gets caught. You know this.”
“They won't catch me.” But they probably would. And if it came to a fight, well then they could both handle themselves well enough but that was hardly much use when you were challenged by an ironskin. He glared viciously at the window. Most likely whoever stayed would lose his hand for being a thief and spend the rest of his life wishing he'd been hanged.
“Yes they will.” The door shuddered and the axe struck its first blow. “My father will pay blood money if that's what it comes to. Yours can't. Go.”
Gallow hesitated. “Piss poor gang of thieves we turned out to be.”
Beyard chuckled. “Piss poor.”
Gallow nodded. He clasped Beyard's shoulder and squeezed and then pushed off from the door and bolted for the window, throwing himself through the space between them as fast as he could. He almost fell out head first and then he had the rope, catching himself, and that was the last Beyard saw of him.
“I will not forget,” he whispered to the moon and then he lunged
for window himself as the door burst open. Men sprawled in, lit by torches from behind, tumbling over the chest and all falling to the floor and he was half out of the window and so very close to being free when a hand clamped onto his ankle. His first kick didn't break him loose. Another hand grabbed him, and after that he stopped struggling. Maybe the other two would get away, maybe not.
They did. He slowly realised it when the Fateguard and the priests kept asking him over and over who else had come to steal their precious Crimson Shield. They didn't even know how many had been in Beyard's gang, but nothing he could say would make them believe that he and the others had only come for a look, merely to see the forbidden shield that even Corvin the Crow couldn't be allowed to carry. No, they'd come to steal it, the priests were certain and wouldn't be swayed because they'd seen the signs in the sky and omens in the entrails of dead pigs. There was a thief coming, and here he was, and so there would be consequences, and if Beyard's father ever offered to pay blood money to save his son then Beyard never heard of it.
The frost-wind of the frozen north howled over black stone crags draped and spattered with snow. It moaned and screamed like the ghosts of the ever-hungry dead and wailed like the widows they left behind. Birthed by ice-wraiths and abandoned it was a cruel wind, heartless and without mercy, a wind that flayed any thought of kindness. The sun hung low on the horizon, weak and pale and muted. Here at the far end of the world even a midsummer morning offered only ice and storms. Mountains as old as time grew in this place. Pitiless cliffs forged at the very beginning, hard as iron and bitter as juniper. No place for men, no place for life, no place for light, and yet etched somehow into this shattered landscape wound a road, steep and hostile and paved with ice. It wound among them, picking its way from the ice-choked sea as though stalking some unseen prey, hidden as best it could from that hate-filled wind; but here and there it had no choice but to break its cover to rise towards its destination. To their delight the snow and the wind found it, winkled it out of its hiding and lashed it without remorse. The air filled with their frenzy to bury it, this intruder made by men.
Along its whole length, one thing alone travelled this road. A heavy wagon of old weathered wood and fat sausage-fingers of rust pulled by creatures that might once have carried the idea of a unicorn at their heart, but had been birthed by a vision burned and blackened and twisted. They were not alive and their hoof-beats rang on the icy road like cold black iron, four horned nightmares driving ever onward, ever upward, eager now as the end approached. They threw their burden against the howling wind, rocking from side to side, groaning wood and creaking metal hurled against the tireless icy teeth of the storm. They devoured the remorseless road and defied the savage wind until they came to a place where the mountains had been sheered by some great hand and nothing remained but a cavernous void and falling snow; and there they stopped beside an iron gate that might have swallowed a ship, and waited. They stamped their feet but no steamy breath came with their snorts for they were dead things, and even the snow and the stone shivered at their cold. In this landscape, life stopped at the edge of the sea, at the ship that even now nudged its way away from the ice floes to the shore – stopped but for the single soul inside the wagon, a chained main, huddled and freezing, his life flickering and sputtering and close to its end.
A shadow shifted from the great iron gate to the wagon and crept inside. It spoke a word, and its whisper was like a snake across parched desert sand. It held out a crown of black iron. You didn't escape from monsters who could reach through time and space. Not once they knew who you were.
“Beyard,” it said, and put the iron crown forever over his head.
“I will not forget.” He clung to it and held it in his heart and spoke it out, over and over. “I will not forget.”
There were consequences for the others as well, not that Beyard heard of them until long years had passed. A lost coif – we were playing at fighting the Marroc father and it fell down the well – cost the smith's son an extra year of working in the forge before his father let him cross the sea to join the Screambreaker's war band conquering the Marroc. Medrin crossed sooner and almost died in his first battle, and when he came back half a year later, he was as weak as a newborn and it was years before he was strong again. The Crimson Shield itself left on the same ship that carried Beyard. It rested a while on the Fortress of the Fates on the island of Brek, but other thieves came before it had even had time to gather dust, the real thieves of all the omens. But whoever they were, these other thieves fell out before they even touched land and both they and the shield sank to the bottom of the sea.
And slowly both it and Beyard were forgotten.
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