This story is by Stephen Brown and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On a sheer hill near the booming sea, sat a lonesome castle. The moon was a meager half crescent as it rose above the ruined turrets. Two figures huddled near the gateway of the old castle, turning their backs to the wind. One was an old man, wearing a fur robe and a rope belt. The other was a red-haired youth, beardless and ruddy cheeked. He gazed up at the castle with haughty green eyes. Very few things made him quail, but the sight of that castle, dark and full of silent menace, filled him with unease.
“Now is all set,” said the wizard, “a harvest crescent rises over the Castle Lorn. The dead king Cwyhad sits in state once more. Colm, the sword of kings is close at hand. Are you ready?”
Colm Cruch eyed the wizard, “If you’ve done your work well, Mannwinon. I am ready. Too long have I dreamed of shining Dannedulch to let this night go to waste.”
Mannwinon handed Colm a leather pouch, which he produced from within his robe.
“What’s this?” Colm asked, prodding the leather bag with a fingertip. It gave easily to his touch, making him think it was empty.
“Careful! It’s not a plaything, but a weapon. If what I know is true, there will be things in the castle which no mortal weapon can beat. If you encounter one, open this bag.”
Next, Mannwinon pulled a spool of golden twine out of his robe. The thread flashed as he handed it also to Colm.
“This,” said the wizard, “is your means through the castle. Unroll the twine and it will show you the way to the castle’s heart.”
Tucking the bag through his belt, Colm unwound the spool and tied the thread around his wrist. He nodded at the old man.
“Ready?” Mannwinon asked, a white eyebrow raised. “The night waxes full.”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, old man.”
Mannwinon let out a snort. Then he turned. At his touch, the old gates swung inward with a groan of stiff iron hinges. The sound echoed far down endless passages within. With a nod, Colm Cruch slipped inside. He was engulfed by shadow. As he padded down the dark hallways, whenever he reached a junction, he would let the thread unravel. Wherever its end fell, that was the path he took.
Lorn was a maze, an ancient slumbering maze of dusty stones and empty, black rooms. For a long time Colm Cruch wandered those darkened passageways, bound in their eternal night. The air was thick and heavy with the many decades through which this castle had slumbered. Despite the stillness in the air, it took a while for Cruch to realize he was being followed. His keen ears picked out the sound of padding feet coming from quite a far ways back. He could hear too the rasping breathing of the man—he presumed it was a man—who was stalking him. Colm picked up his pace. So did his unseen foe. Ducking into a shadowy alcove, Colm readied the leather bag. A figure came stalking into Colm’s dim view. It was a shadowy, hulking man, his features vague and indistinct. He seemed hunched over, shaggy hair spilling onto his broad shoulders. When he was a mere three feet away, Colm leapt form his hiding place while at the same time ripping open the pouch. A wind howled out of the bag. It hurled the shadowy man far down the hallway, where he landed with a crash. Colm Cruch dropped the now empty bag and ran. Behind him he heard a strange howl which sent his blood beating faster in his veins. He could hear heavy feet slapping the stones behind him. Colm barely had time to check the twine and see where he was going in his headlong flight.
He turned a corner and came upon a set of rotten oak doors held together by rusted iron bands. He didn’t stop but charged straight into the doors. His body smashed through them. The sound of pursuit was gone: Colm did not know how long ago he had lost his pursuer. He waited, listening as his hammering heart subsided. When he heard nothing, he got up and looked around.
He knew at once from the size that this dark place was once the great hall of the castle. But the magnificent hall was now a black, empty room. The only light came from the thin strands of moonlight which poured in through cracks in the roof high above. As Colm wandered deeper into the hall, he noticed movement in the rays of light. First a flutter, then a form of something larger. Before he knew what was happening, he saw with a cold shock that he was in the midst of a crowd of ghosts. They moved and swirled about silently, their cold blue forms sliding in and out of sight, like the moon sliding behind a cloud. Men and women were they, and they sang and laughed without making so much as a whisper.
So distracted was Colm by the apparitions that he stubbed his foot on the bottom step of a stone dais. Colm snarled, then seeing a great cauldron on top, he climbed up. A pale glow, like that from a dozen candles, came from within the cauldron. The light sent prickles down Colm’s back, though he didn’t know why. The cauldron was silver, deep-bellied, and sat on three legs. The outside was decorated with engraved scenes of strange characters and vague, primordial shapes. The silver was bruised black and blue by time. With the dry rattle of bones, a figure leaned into the dim light on the other side of the cauldron. Colm started back with a gasp, arms raised in defense. But then he saw that it was the figure of a king. A gold crown rested heavily on his withered head. Long gray hair cascaded down his shoulders in steel curls. A beard covered his chest. He wore a robe which was little better than rags but had once been magnificent scarlet. His face was that of a skull. The blank eye sockets gazed sightless at the cauldron. A withered hand came into view with a dry rustle. A bony finger pointed at the cauldron.
“You have come far. Look. Do not be afraid. Look into the cauldron, boy,” the specter said in a soft voice which wheezed out of a dry throat.
Colm gathered his courage and marched up the steps to the cauldron. He tried to avoid those black holes where eyes had been. Whatever was inside the cauldron was giving off the glow. Putting his hands on the lip of the great cauldron, Colm leaned over and peered into the murky contents. The liquid bubbled and swirled as if near a boil. A sweet-smelling vapor reached his nostrils whenever a bubble broke the surface. Out of the swirling liquid, bobbed up a metal ball. It was so sudden Colm lurched back, but then came close again. He realized that it was not a ball, but the pommel of a sword. He glanced up. The skeletal face was watching him impassively.
Colm grit his teeth. In a flash, his hand shot down, into the liquid. His skin immediately burned. Colm stifled a cry of pain. His fingers closed around the hilt and he wrenched the sword from the cauldron. The blade flashed like ice in the moonlight as Colm swung Dannedulch high into the air. He had it. He had the sword of King Cwyhad in his hand.
A howl split the silence, made Colm’s blood turn cold. Colm spun, facing the far end of the hall. The shadow man came flying through the open doors. He hurtled with increasing speed across the hall. The ghosts vanished as the shadow passed through them, like smoke being waved into oblivion by a hand. With a dry cackle, the desiccated corpse of Cwyhad leaned back into the shadows covering his throne and was seen no more. With a cry, Colm leapt from the dais. A huge arm came flying through the darkness at him. He ducked. The blade of Dannedulch came up with a white flash. The scintillating blade slashed deep into the flesh of the man, which proved to be solid enough beneath the razor edge. The shaggy head fell from the neck. Head and body tumbled to the ground, then vanished.
In a blink, Colm found himself standing on a grassy hill. The castle and all its ghostly occupants were gone. A wind, carrying the faint whiff of the sea rolled over him. He shivered. Looking down in a start, Colm was relieved to see Dannedulch had not vanished. Its blade flashed like polished silver in the moonlight. With a start, Colm looked around him.
But the wizard was nowhere in sight.