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Authors: Becky York

Roland's castle

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Roland’s Castle

Becky York

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This original work remains thecopyright of the author in all jurisdictions and the author retainsthe right to be identified with the work, in whole or in part, onall occasions. This edition, distributed by Smashwords, iscurrently available free for a period of time. During that periodyou may, in the spirit of lending, make free, whole, copies foryour relatives and friends.

Please ask your local booksellerfor a print edition, and get those to whom you lend it to do thesame!

Chapter 1

The battle was lost.

The old enemy had returned, morepowerful, more cunning, more ruthless than ever before. They hadswarmed across the darkening sky, killing all in their way untilthe tower itself was at their mercy.

The sacred tower! The very cord oflife!

The young woman stood on the ledgebeside the breach. Her hands reached down as if to pick up thechild who slept far below, the child she would never holdagain.

“My poor boy!” she cried. Then sheleapt…

Roland’s father had promised hewould return "from the dawn”. Roland knew that it really meant fromthe east, but still he made sure that every day he watched at sunrise, hoping to see his father riding back across the meadows. Thebold knight had been gone for over a year now.Roland’s mother had died when he was a baby and he had no brothersand sisters. At just ten years of age he was left as master of hisown castle – or, at least, he wasmeantto be…

As usual, on a bright springmorning he leapt from his bed, dressed and quietly made his wayfrom his bedroom up the winding staircase to the top of the tower.For a while now his bedroom had been in the oldest and smallesttower in the castle. It was draughty and cold but he didn’t mind.It was supposed to be a punishment but really he was very thankfulthat he was a long way away from his aunt and uncle. The tower wasvery old, so old that no one remembered why the staircase endedabruptly, with only the broken promise of more storeys above andonly a steep drop beyond the topmost step. Whatever was meant to beup there had never been built, hence it was known as theUnfinished Tower.

From the top of the bit thathadbeen completed Roland could peer out into the mists ofthe dawn, as he did every morning.

He sighed as he stared out at thehills beyond the castle, then down at the castle itself. It hadonce been beautiful, its towers gleaming proudly before the dawn,but now it was wrecked, broken, smashed as if a hurricane hadpassed through it – or a madman in a rage armed with some monstroussiege weapon. The madman bit was probably right – or at least halfright – as Roland suspected that his uncle was half mad. Roofs hadbeen torn off to expose secret rooms that didn’t exist, walls hadbeen torn down to reveal secret passages that were no more real,the ground had been dug up to unearth secret chambers that hadnever been there in the first place.

Uncle Dagarth and Auntie Hildegrindhad arrived almost the moment after Roland’s father had gone – to“check Roland was alright,” they said – they would “only stay a fewdays.” Those few days turned into a month and that turned into yetmore months … Slowly, various members of their own retinue arrivedtogether with Roland's cousins, Dogwood and Dagwood. Dogwood andDagwood were slightly older and rather bigger than Roland was, andrather nasty too.

From the moment he arrived Dagarthhad begun to ask questions – actually only one question, but putmany times, in many different ways. At first he had been subtle, oras subtle as he could be, which wasn’t really very subtle at all.He had become even less subtle, and quite overbearing, as time hadgone on. The question was: “Where is the treasure?” or just “Whereis it? Well! Come on!”

When he didn’t get the reply hewanted he threw a tantrum. He waved his arms about and shouted: “Iknow there is treasure here! I was sent away from here as a childbefore I could learn its secret – to stop me learning its secret! Iwas deprived of it!I was a deprived child!”

He asked everyone; Roland, theservants, the men-at-arms — and Firebrace, of course.

Firebrace had been vassal toRoland’s father, and his father before that. He had fought side byside with both in many campaigns. The old man had been left to lookafter Roland whilst his father was away, but he could do nothing toprevent Roland’s uncle from taking over the castle. Dagarth was alord in his own right. Firebrace was a mere commoner. Firebrace hadwatched on as the usurper took over the castle as if it didn’treally matter and nothing important was happening. That infuriatedDagarth too, who got even more angry when he interrogated the oldman. “Where is it? Where is the treasure?”

“It is not hidden,” Firebracereplied.

“Well, why can’t I find it then?”Dagarth thundered.

“Because you can’t see it,”Firebrace had responded, and Roland had stifled a giggle.

“I know that you idiot! If I couldsee it I would have found it wouldn’t I! Now tell me where it is soIcansee it!”

“You could see it if you had eyes,”Firebrace said. “It is between the earth and the sky.”

“Everything is between the earthand the sky you old fool! You won’t have any eyes if you don’t tellme!”

And Dagarth tugged the end of theold man’s beard. In response Firebrace stared into his eyes with alook that made Dagarth stand back, fearful for a moment andmore.

“Throw the old fool in the moat!”Auntie Hildegrind said, spouting the words out around a chickendrumstick clamped between her teeth. “Clap hot irons on him!”

Dogwood and Dagwood, took up thesuggestion. “Yes! Clap hot irons on him! Set his beard on fire!We’ll do it! We’ll do it!”

They both ran to the roaring fire,pulled out burning sticks and ran around with them.

“I haven’t finished with you oldman!” Dagarth growled in the most sinister of ways. He turned hisback on Firebrace and walked back to his throne.

The throne was something thatpuzzled Roland. Why did Uncle Dagarth need one? Roland’s father hadnever had one –he had never found it necessary. He sat on theordinary chairs like everyone else. Now there was a grand throneand the living room had becomethethrone room, a cold andcheerless place where once there had been warmth and laughter.

After the questioning had failedthe demolition had started. men-at-arms had been ordered about withpick axes and shovels, rushing about like a scavenger hunt in fullarmour. It looked quite silly and Roland had laughed at it. Perhapsthat was the final straw that had got him sent to the tower. It hadbeen long coming, according to Auntie Hildegrind, as he was beingso stubborn and defiant by not letting his poor cousins have theirfairshare of the family fortune. “Shame on you!” She hadchided, “How selfish can you be? A few months in the UnfinishedTower might help you feel more charitable and giving…”

Roland had had a tough few months.As he continued to stare out from the top of the tower that springmorning he wondered why his father had left him to such a plight.How could his father have done this? Deciding not to dwell upon it,he went back to his room, washed and went to the hall for breakfastand the usual interrogation, with the usual question.

Roland was only allowed out of thetower for meals – and questioning, but on this day AuntieHildegrind had other plans for him. It was time to commenceknightly training – not his, but that of Dogwood and Dagwood. Afterbreakfast-stroke-interrogation he reported to the courtyard wherehis auntie and cousins were waiting impatiently.

“Where have you been Roland?”Auntie demanded.

“Usual breakfast grill,” Rolandreplied.

“Well, you should have answered thequestion truthfully by now, then you wouldn’t have had to keep uswaiting,” and she turned to her own sons. “Now boys, you mustn’ttease little Roland, just because you are strong and brave and heis the – almost certainly - illegitimate son of a proven, craven,coward who ran away and left him. Just because he is a littlescoundrel who won’t share the fortune that is secreted somewhere inthe walls of this castle – and won’t tell us where – it doesn’tmean that you have any right to be nasty to him…”

First Dogwood and Dagwood were tolearn swordplay, and were given bright new swords forged by thecastle’s blacksmith. Auntie Hildegrind handed them to her sons, andhad then turned to Roland. “Now Roland, because you are never goingto be any good at swordplay and you might hurt someone,” – and shelooked at her own sons – “I am only going to give you a pretendsword,” and she pretended to hand Roland a pretend sword. Rolandpretended to take it, and pretended to look at it.

“We must keephealth andsafetyin mind at all times,” Auntie Hildegrind said.

Dogwood and Dagwood also had shinynew suits of armour also specially forged by the blacksmith. Theylooked very smart too, despite the fact that they clanked everytime they moved.

“Roland,” Auntie Hildegrindinsisted, “must have some protection. After all, one day he mightbe willing to tell us where the treasure is,” and she gave himanother of her special issue inquiring glares.

An old chain mail tunic had beenfound for Roland. It was much too large for him, but he was glad ofit as it protected him right down to his knees. It also had a fewholes which he had had to darn for himself with some wire and apair of pliers.

“We must make sure that you aren’ttempted to move during the exercises so I am going to tie this beltaround your ankles,” Auntie Hildegrind said, making sure that itwas nice and tight and that Roland was totally immobile, as if hehad been glued to the spot.

“All we need now is a target,”Auntie Hildegrind said. She produced a round piece of cork withconcentric rings on it to fix to Roland’s chest. “Now boys,” shesaid to her sons, “you know what to aim at!”

Dogwood and Dagwood did their bestto miss the target and hit Roland instead. They took great pleasurein lunging and thrusting at his chest whilst he did his best toparry with his pretend sword. If they had been any good Rolandwould probably have been hurt, but even with an immobilised targettheir attempts to injure him were puny.

After the swordplay they moved onto jousting practice. This consisted of Roland running around withone of the boys on his back. Whichever one it was – Roland wasbeyond caring which – had a lance and the idea was that Rolandcarried them up to a target which they were supposed to hit withit. It wasn’t very successful as both of the boys took greatpleasure in digging their spurs into his sides, causing him towobble about.

“It really isn’tfair,”Auntie Hildegrind scolded. “Roland! How are my boys to have properpractise at jousting if youwill notrun in a straightline?”

After the knightly training wasover Auntie Hildegrind left the boys to play by themselves for awhile: “You boys play together nicely – and remember don’t teaselittle Roland, even if he is weaker than you and is never going tobe anything noble or glorious or even fit to look after yourhorses! I am off to consume a pig with a very large plate atruffles followed by several roast chickens…”

After Auntie Hildegrind had waddledoff Dogwood and Dagwood turned to Roland.

“Solittle cousin, why won’t you tell us where the treasure is?”Dogwood demanded.

“I don’t know where it is,” Rolandreplied, quite honestly.

“Our dad will get it out of you!”Dagwood said. “You’re weak and puny! I bet you fight like a girl -just like your dad! He ran off ‘cos he was too scared to defend thetreasure and thought he would be killed for it!”

“It’s not true!” Roland said, “Atleast my dad isn’t crazy, going around whining and shouting all thetime!”

Dogwood became angry and pushedRoland as Dagwood put out his foot to trip him. Roland fellbackward into the mud. Dogwood laughed and told Roland, “Your dadwet his pants and ran away, so he could wet his pants anotherday!”

Dagwood added: “And now his son haswet pants too! Suits them both!” and they both laughed.

From the edge of the courtyardFirebrace watched on, his face growing red with anger.

Back in his room, clothes changed,Roland collapsed on his bed. He was exhausted, depressed and angry,especially about whatDog-pooandDag-peehad saidabout his father. He clenched his fists but then tried torelax.

His eyes were tired, just like therest of him. Maybe that was why he thought he saw the roof beamsmoving, very slightly, as if the centre of the ceiling was swellingand reaching down towards him. The walls also appeared to bemoving. It seemed as if the whole tower was breathing. He thoughthe heard a voice, soft and faint, calling his name. Then he wasaware that someone came into the room. He raised his head slightlyto see Firebrace standing a short distance from the end of his bed.The old man’s face wore a fierce scowl. Roland’s first thought was;what have I done now? His second thought didn’t have time to enterhis head as Firebrace started shouting: “You are broken andhumiliated but you must not let your enemies conquer your pride oryour will! This is the time you must be on your guard the most!”and with that he drew a sword and threw it point first at thepillow beside Roland’s head. Roland quickly rolled off the bed ontothe floor in time to avoid it. He looked up to see the sword buriedin the pillow. But he didn’t have long to look at it as the old manwas rounding the bed, still rattling on about how Roland was brokenand humiliated but that this was the time he needed to fight.

“The strength is inside you andmust be brought out.” Firebrace yelled, and grabbed the sword fromthe pillow and started waving it about in a most alarming manner.He thrust it at Roland who was forced to get out of the way - andto keep on getting out of the way as Firebrace followed up withfurther lunges. Roland leapt up on the bed and off it again on theother side, but the old man simply leapt right over the – very wide– bed in one go and landed rock steady on his feet, within an armand a sword’s length of Roland. He had the most amazing strengthand balance for a man of his age. With a swift sweep of his armFirebrace tucked the point of the sword right beneath the tip ofRoland’s nose. Roland went cross-eyed as he looked down at it.

Jeepers!

As if Roland hadn’t been throughenough today already! Now his father’s oldest and most faithfulservant had gone berserk and was trying to kill him! He dodged andducked as Firebrace again thrust the sword at him and then put hishands up trying to plead for an end to it. “Health and safety!Health and safety! We must remember -Health and safety!”–he finished the sentence as he dived under a clothes chest to avoida particularly close swing that nearly cut his forelock off. Healthand safety was plainly not Firebrace's thing – it just wasn’t hisbag at all. He was an excellent fighter and Roland had thesuspicion that if he really was trying to kill him he would alreadybe dead. It was still terrifying though. Dog-poo and Dag-pee werequite pitiful compared to Firebrace. They hadn’t been able to hurthim much even when he was tied up like dinner on the spit. The oldman had him dodging and ducking in fear for his life.

Roland stuck his head out fromunder the chest in the vain hope that the coast was clear. Itwasn’t. Firebrace was still there, swinging his sword about,waiting for him to come out. The old man quickly lost his patienceand shoved the chest away with a mighty kick leaving Rolandexposed. Roland thought his time was up but instead the old mantook hold of him, not roughly but gently, in a kindly way, andstood him up.

“It is time for you to learn. Yourfather and I put this off too long so that you might enjoysomething of being a child. You must now learn to be a knight! Youwill make a fine knight!”

He guided Roland to the wall of thechamber where he pulled a tapestry aside and put his hand on astone in the wall. The stone, and others around it, slid aside toleave a doorway. Roland gasped and looked inside.

“Is this the treasure room?” Heasked.

“No,” Firebrace replied firmly, andstrode inside. He turned and gestured for Roland to follow.

Roland entered with trepidation. Hewas now sure that the old man didn’t really want to kill him andhadn’t really been trying. It was just his way to shake him up abit and put him on alert. It made sense, in a barmy kind ofmilitary way, Roland concluded. His heart was still pounding,though, and he was wary that more frightening surprises might lieahead.

The room was enormous - andpreposterous. Preposterous because Roland knew that the wall theyhad just passed through was an outside wall – they should bewalking in air beside the tower now. Instead they were inside ahuge chamber. If it was there – if it was always there – shouldn’tit be visible from outside? Roland knew it wasn’t. There was nosuch room visible from outside. There never had been, not today,not yesterday, not ever. There was no such room at all.

“This is your practice room,”Firebrace said.

The room was lit by torches asthere were no windows. It was mostly empty with stone walls hungwith tapestries. Yet even if there had been a carnival in progressRoland might well not have noticed. His attention was totally takenby just one thing. Before him, in the middle of the room, was thenastiest, most sinister looking suit of armour he had ever seen inhis life. It was dark – very dark indeed. The only light comingfrom it was the reflection of the torches from the sheen of itsmetal. The workmanship was beautiful, but despite that it justlooked plain nasty – evil, in fact.

As Roland looked at it he realisedit was swaying gently, as if it were in a breeze. But there was nobreeze. They were inside. The torches did not flicker. Then Rolandrealised – it was alive! He gasped, “Who is it?”

“Not who,what.” Firebracereplied. “It has no voice. It has no will of its own. It is yourpractice companion. It will follow your instructions as youpractise combat with it. It will match you – test you. Every timeyou succeed against it, it will judge your performance and move upto a new level.”

“Why does it have to look soawful?” Roland asked.

“It is made in the form of one ofour greatest enemies. Our enemies take many forms. Some of themseem foolish, but beware; they are not. Some expose their truecolours in their clothing, their weapons, their armour. The worstof our enemies have no need for subterfuge…”

Firebrace clapped his hands andbehind the Companion’s visor two eyes, up until now invisible,glowed and glowered. They were a grim, malevolent red. It advancedtowards them and stopped just a few paces away. Roland felt a tingeof fear but Firebrace put a comforting hand on his shoulder. TheCompanion’s arms were by its side and out of its right arm a swordemerged, as if it just flowed out like oozing treacle. The swordhardened and dropped into the metal gauntlet below.

There was a rack of swords to theirright. Firebrace took one and handed it to Roland. Roland took itcautiously. The Companion watched intently.

“It awaits your next move,”Firebrace said.

“I have to…?” Roland asked.

“Strike! Attack it!” Firebraceencouraged.

Roland did so. After all, fightingthis opponent could be no worse than ducking and diving Firebrace’ssword. As he attempted to strike at it the Companion successfullyavoided his attempts to land blows.

“Keep still!” Roland commanded. TheCompanion obeyed and Roland landed a blow on its chest which causeda dull, hollow clank.

Firebrace laughed. “That ischeating!” He commanded the Companion, “On guard!” and itimmediately struck a defensive pose. He lunged towards it, strikingout with a ferocious rain of blows. The Companion responded inequal measure and both were quickly involved in the fastest andmost furious swordfight Roland could ever have imagined. It lasteda few minutes until Firebrace finally had the better of theCompanion. He said to Roland, “Your turn.”

Roland braced himself and thencopied what Firebrace had done, lunging at the Companion with arain of blows. For him the Companion became an easier opponent, asFirebrace had said it would be, but it was still a proper test ofskill. Firebrace encouraged him onwards and he fought until hisarms finally grew tired. He was amazed at his own strength. He hadfelt exhausted after the session with Dogwood and Dagwood, but nowhe was fresh and strong again. Firebrace was right; he had greatstrength within him. It was only because he was feeling beaten thathe had felt tired. Now he felt like he could fight – and win!

Firebrace eventually called an endto the session and congratulated him on his progress. You havealready done better than your father in his first session – and hewas one of the best! One day you will even be able to defeatme!”

Roland somehow doubted it, but wascheered by the encouragement. But one thing troubled him, ofcourse. He asked. “Will I ever have to fight for real?”

“You are the rightful master ofthis castle. When the time comes you must take charge of itsdefence, in the name of your father and his father, and his fatherbefore him.”

Roland thought for a moment.

I don’t want to always be givingorders and shouting and upsetting people, like Uncle DogBreath.”

Firebrace very nearly laughed atthe nickname Roland had given his uncle. The old man did have asense of humour, it seemed. Roland was pleased to see it. The oldman said. “All that is really quite unnecessary for a person oftrue stature. You already have grace andmagnanimity.People will do as you say because they respect you and not becausethey fear you. Those are different things, but some people get themconfused!”

Then Roland asked a question he hadlong thought to ask. “Why didn’t Uncle Dagarth inherit this castleif he is older than my father? Why was he sent away?”

“Let us just say there wassomething wrong with the boy – something that still shows. You seethe way he behaves. A madman cannot be allowed to command thiscastle. It is more than a castle – more than a kingdom! You willunderstand. For now you must rest, so you can practise fightingagain!

Lying in bed Roland was glad thathis sinister new friend with the scary eyes – with the scaryeverything – was on the other side of a wall. He just hoped itdidn’t know how to use the door. For a moment he imagined it cominginto the room and standing at the end of his bed.

Aaaaarrrrrrrrgh!

He pulled the covers up and overhis face to hide, then, after a few moments, pulled them awayagain. It wasn’t there. He had fought it bravely earlier on but itwas still a bit frightening to think of. Why did they have to makea practice opponent so scary? Roland knew the answer – to make itas realistic as possible.

He rolled over onto his side andbegan to relax. Soon he was lightly asleep. As he dozed he thoughthe heard a woman sobbing – softly, but distinctly… Was he dreaming,or was it real? He woke and sat up in bed, listening intently. Helooked up at the ceiling and again it seemed to bow and bulge.Then, to his horror, it changed completely, as if it broke open andthe beams became a pair of arms, with hands, reaching down as if tograb him. He rolled out of bed, just like he had done earlier toavoid Firebrace’s sword. As he did so he thought he heard a woman’svoice – no! His mother’s voice! – call out his name in hushedtones. “Roland!”

Landing on the floor woke him upcompletely. Just a dream – it must have been, surely…

It really was time he relaxed a bitmore - got out a bit. They always say that being in the same roomtoo long makes you strange. Perhaps he had tower fever? It was timefor another adventure, with a real person. Tomorrow night, hepromised himself, and rolled over and fell asleep again.

Chapter2

Uncle Dagarth had been disappointed– probably ever since childhood – that there was no torture chamberin the castle. “Call this a castle!” he had raged. “There should bewall to wall screaming, night and day, seven days a week, no timeoff on Sundays, birthdays, Christmas orBank Holidays!”

He had set about putting this rightby ordering new torture equipment fromHorrids ofKnightsford. It included a gleaming new de-luxe rack with allthe optional extras - including automatic and fine control and aheight (stretch) measurer in both metric and imperial. There wasalso a shedload of the very best quality iron maidens - all sizesand shapes to ensure that everyone got a nice snug fit. There werealso absolutely tons of manacles, lots of chains, lots of horriblelong pointy things and also a long screw thing which nobodyunderstood how to use or dared to ask.

By the time it had all beendelivered the castle had been torn apart so there was nowheresuitable for a full-size torture chamber. Instead it had all beendumped out in the courtyard. Uncle Dagarth actually rather likedthis al fresco approach to torturing. “Leave it all on open displaytoterrifyeveryone,” he had chortled, walking about,admiring it all, relishing every nasty, craftsman designed feature,revelling in the purewickednessof every item. The awfulassortment had been placed at the base of the Unfinished Tower sothat it was the first thing Roland saw whenever he came out of it.He knew it was on purpose.

As he sneaked out of the tower thenext night the iron maidens looked like eerie spectators to hisnight-time escapade. They had neverreallyworried himbefore but after being chased around by Firebrace and battling withhis new found friend he really wasn’t bothered by them at all.

He was not supposed to leave thecastle on pain of very nasty things being done to him and to anyonewho let him, but as the men-at arms were hardly the brightest itwasn’t a problem. Roland usually had little trouble getting pastthem.

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