AVENGING ANGEL by Dave Ludford
Talemann was late arriving that year; heavy autumn rains had already begun to flood the surrounding landscape before his tall, slightly crooked form scuttled clumsily into the centre of our town. The minstrel was not of this world we were all convinced; his face always had a faraway, otherworldly expression as if physically—yes—he was with us, but mentally he was somewhere else entirely. We often speculated as to where that place could possibly be, and those speculations often gave rise to many humorous remarks and comments. The whole village loved Tally, he had been our great friend for more years than I could recall.
“Tally, welcome back! But you are late! Where have you been, what has kept you from us?”
Brin, our Chief Councillor, was traditionally always the first to greet our wandering friend. Tally halted just a short distance away from those of us gathering to welcome him and began to jab repeatedly towards his mouth with one forefinger. There followed a series of harsh, ugly gurgling noises; it was quickly apparent to us what had happened. Tally’s tongue had been cut out. But that was not all. He removed his right hand from his jacket pocket but the wrist ended in a bloodied stump. No more songs and jokes from tally, no more playing his mandolin. The minstrel collapsed to the ground, sat cross-legged, and began to cry miserably. Brin and I, together with Ben, another Councillor, hurried forward towards the sad figure and helped him to his feet, then between us we guided him to Brin’s home.
“Tally, who has done this cruel thing to you?”
Never in my life have I seen Brin so upset. Tally put down the cup of water he’d been drinking and with his left hand mimed the action of writing. Brin’s wife found paper and pencil and placed them in the minstrel’s lap. Upon it he wrote the single word ‘Drake’. A palpable shiver ran through us all. Drake was the leader of a nasty gang of desperados and cutthroats who had thus far evaded capture. They had terrorised this and many surrounding lands for a good many years. Our best efforts to thwart those villains had availed nothing. A few we had managed to kill, but Drake soon recruited others from the poor and desperate, of whom there was always a ready supply, lured with promises of easy riches. But why they had done such a vile thing to Tally—a harmless, penniless minstrel—was beyond comprehension, low even by Drake’s standards. Brin turned to Ben and me.
“Gentleman, something must be done to avenge this. We must put an end to Drake and his villainous horde once and for all. His reign of terror has gone on for too long.”
Turning back to Tally, he continued:
“Until more suitable domestic arrangements can be made you must remain in my house. I have a spare room that is never used. Now you must rest, my friend.”
Tally managed a weak smile upon hearing these words and his eyes shone with gratitude. Brin swept from the room, Ben and me following, heading for the Council Chamber.
As the afternoon wore on our discussions and debates grew more voluble, in direct correlation to the amount of wine and ale being consumed. Brin had called a full Council session to discuss the issue of Drake; twenty-four men and women were gathered around a large oak table. The extraordinary session was brought to a sudden end around six o’clock with the sound of a discreet knock at the door and the subtle, dignified entrance of Darner, Brin’s head servant who also guarded the Chamber when the Council was meeting.
“Beg pardon sir, sorry to interrupt, but there’s something outside I think you should see.” Brin turned and glared at his servant, placed his mug of ale on the table, then looked around with a quizzical expression at those gathered. He indicated for me to accompany him and we followed Darner outside.
“What is it, Darner?” Brin roared. “You know I don’t like having important Council business interrupted.”
“Again my apologies, sir, and normally of course I wouldn’t, but…”
Darner pointed to a large leather bag on the ground a short distance from the Chamber steps. “Slung there by an unknown rider not five minutes ago, who then sped off as if the very devil were in pursuit of him. I heard a horse approach and depart but by the time I got out here they were away.”
Brin strode towards the bag, knelt down and untied the leather cords which secured it. He looked inside, then suddenly scrambled away backwards, a horrified expression on his face. Something rolled out of the bag: a human head. The head of Drake. The neck wound was a clean cut such as could be done with a heavy sword. Someone—presumably the unknown rider—had done our work for us.
The next day brought another shocking revelation. Mark, a young shepherd, had wandered into the nearby Kron valley in search of an errant sheep where he came upon a dreadful sight. He counted the bodies of approximately a hundred men lying slain across a wide expanse of ground, each with its head cleanly severed. Drake’s army, all slaughtered, identified by the letter ‘D’ tattooed on their forearms. Upon hearing this news Brin despatched two dozen men and several wagons to clear away the bodies. We were all in a state of stunned disbelief. Brin was obliged to visit our apothecary for a nerve restorative. Where was this army of avenging angels, we all wondered, and who exactly were they?
Martha, Brin’s wife, visited me that evening.
“Brandon, I must speak with you urgently. I can’t trouble my husband with this, his nerves being in the state they are. Joyous news it may well be but you know how he suffers. As his second in command I have therefore come to you.”
“Sit, Martha; relax and tell me in your own time.”
She took a seat, and I the one opposite. After a few moments she continued.
“This afternoon I mentioned recent events to Tally in the hope and belief that it would bring him some small comfort. He got somewhat excited, reached for his pencil and paper, and scribbled a name. I have that paper here.”
I took the proffered sheet, unfolded it and read the name ‘Gwyneth’. Our local witch and one of Tally’s oldest friends.
“So it’s obvious he believes that Gwyneth is somehow involved with the slaughter of those villains. He was most insistent. Could she be? I can’t possibly see how.”
I agreed. Gwyneth was a renowned herbalist and fortune teller who was rumoured to have psychic powers. There had also been rumours over the years that she dabbled in the black arts, but rumours are all they have remained. But she was essentially harmless, leading a solitary existence in a dilapidated old cottage at the northern entrance to the Kron valley.
“Thanks for coming to me with this, Martha. Tomorrow I’ll pay Gwyneth a visit. If she is indeed involved in this business as Tally believes I’ll get to the bottom of it, rest assured. The Council will probably bestow the freedom of the town upon her if she is. For the purposes of the law and due process I’ll need to prepare a report for our Lord Guyan anyway, so any evidence will have to be heard. Guyan will accept nothing short of a full and accurate record of events.”
“Thank you, Brandon. I knew that coming to see you was the right thing to do.”
Mid-morning of the following day I set off on my short journey accompanied by Ben. Even though Drake and his men no longer posed a threat I felt better for having a companion: Ben was an expert swordsman and a deadly pistol shot.
“What do you think we’ll find at Gwyneth’s hovel, Bran? The old lady practising her swordsmanship?”
I laughed heartily. “I doubt she has the strength to lift a sword, let alone wield one!”
“Ah, but with those reputed dark powers perhaps she summoned up a demon to do her work!”
Ben’s words were uttered in jest, and once more I laughed, while wondering if they could contain an element of truth. Could it possibly be? Soon we would find out.
A half-hour passed in a companionable silence as we traversed the barren landscape, mountains rising and stretching to the heavens on both sides of us. We had reached our destination when torrential rain began to fall from a bruised sky; we turned our horses into the Kron valley as the ground quickly turned into a quagmire. A steadily increasing feeling of foreboding was welling up inside me as the horses slipped and slid, struggling to remain upright. We were forced therefore to dismount and walk the horses into the valley. The old woman’s dwelling soon came into sight.
As if somehow aware of our approach—perhaps she did indeed have psychic powers—the door opened as we neared and the diminutive figure of Gwyneth stood, arms folded, a playful expression on her face. When we were within earshot, she called out to us:
“The one you want’s in here, gentlemen. But be careful, she’s dangerous!”
I looked sideways at Ben. He returned my look of total bafflement, shrugging his shoulders.
“Gwyneth, I think there’s some misunderstanding. We have come here to seek information regarding the slaughter of Drake and his outlaws. We have Tally with us in town and he seems to believe that you may know something of what happened.”
“I do, and I’m giving you that information. I told you, she’s in here.”
Gwyneth stood aside; we tethered our horses to a ramshackle wooden fence then passed through into the cottage.
A candle flickering on an ancient pinewood table provided the single room’s only illumination, pathetic against the deep shadows and pervading atmosphere of gloom. Sitting at the table was a girl aged thirteen, perhaps fourteen, reading a dusty leather-bound volume. Our baffled expressions hadn’t left us as we strode further inside. She looked up suddenly and I was astonished by the intensity of her gaze; she had the clearest, purest sapphire blue eyes I had ever seen, and those eyes bore straight into mine such that I felt quite uncomfortable. Then a slight smile played upon her lips as she pulled back the hood of her cloak, allowing a tangled mass of blonde hair to tumble free.
“This is Laurel,” Gwyneth said by way of introduction. “Laurel, these gentlemen are Brandon and Ben from the town, they’ve come here…”
“I know why they have come here, Mother Gwyn,” the girl interrupted.
Gwyneth beckoned us towards a couple of rickety wooden chairs at the table then busied herself placing logs and twigs in the hearth.
“Laurel, is it yourself who has the information we seek? Perhaps you saw what happened while out walking? A horrible sight it must have been for one so young. Tell us if so, in your own time, it must have been very traumatic,” Ben ventured.
“It wasn’t horrible and it wasn’t traumatic, it was glorious retribution. I was responsible for the slaughter of all those men for what they did to Tally and I’m glad they’re dead,” the girl shot back to a shocked Ben, who turned to me, gently shaking his head in disbelief. Again my expression must have mirrored his own.
I then looked pleadingly at Gwyneth; surely the girl was fabricating some tall tale, as the young often do. Gwyneth burst into a cackling laughter.
“The looks on your faces, Councillors! A sight to behold indeed!”
I was starting to feel annoyed and I could sense that Ben was too, stirring uneasily in his seat.
“Look, Gwyneth—you too, Laurel—do not waste our time. We are here in our official capacity as Councillors to make a full report for His Lordship about what occurred in the valley. This is a very serious business. Now if either of you has any relevant information you are duty-bound to divulge it otherwise you face imprisonment. I’m giving you fair warning!”
The girl’s reaction was astonishing. She stood up slowly, turned and spat upon the floor. Her expression had transformed from serenity and passivity to outright fury.
“Gentlemen, I care that much for your laws and warnings. The injuries to Tally have been avenged, that is all that concerns me. And do not threaten me with prison; you have as much chance of keeping me in a cell as an elephant in the kennel of a dog!”
With these words, uttered with such vehemence, she stormed from the cottage. Ben and I were stunned into silence. Gwyneth recommenced her insane laughter, collapsing into a ruined old armchair.
“I warned you she was dangerous! Now do you believe me?”
After several minutes had elapsed I felt able to speak.
“Come, Ben, we have no business in this madhouse, occupied as it is by an insane old woman and a petulant, disrespectful child. Tally was surely mistaken, these two do not have the answers we seek.”
We both rose to take our leave. As we turned to go Gwyneth shot to her feet with an agility that belied her advanced age.
“Insane, am I? I’ll show you. Gentlemen, follow me. I know where Laurel will be. I’ll persuade the girl to demonstrate her powers, then you will doubt no more.”
She walked outside towards the orchard at the rear of the cottage; Ben and I reluctantly followed. What on earth was going on here?
We came upon the girl sitting beneath a mature apple tree, back to the trunk, despite the sodden, muddy ground. In her lap was a small rabbit which she was stroking lovingly, cooing and muttering words we could not here. Looking up on hearing our approach she let the rabbit go; it bounded away quite happily.
“Mother Gwyn! I see those two mutts are still here. Should I get rid of them? What a nuisance they are.”
“No, child, no! They are merely performing their duties. We must cease toying with them and give them what they need or much trouble may befall us!” the old woman replied.
The girl leaned to one side and spat once more. Had she been a sister or any relation of mine I would have happily slapped her for her insolence.
“Show them, child, show them! I beg you!”
Laurel answered with a contemptuous snort. Ben stepped forward, his face red with anger; I raised my arm to his chest to hold him back, though I could empathise with how he felt. But then, once more, the child slowly stood, albeit somewhat reluctantly. I had no idea what to expect; what sort of madness was this? How could a child have despatched those men? This was a ridiculous prank, surely. I resolved to drag her back to town and fling her in a cell for a few hours until she learned respect for her elders.
“Stand back. Well back. Over there.”
The girl pointed to a clump of trees roughly thirty feet away. Gwyneth looked imploringly at us, eager for us to comply. I shrugged my shoulders and walked towards where the girl had indicated, followed by Ben with the old woman at his side.
Whatever I had been expecting to happen it certainly was not what followed, a spectacle that will remain with me for the rest of my life, transforming my dreams into nightmares and chaotically overturning every belief and certainty I held.
The child was possessed. She was surely not of this world. I am not a coward, would never provoke a fight but would certainly never walk away from one. I have been commended for bravery on the field of battle. But what I witnessed that day absolutely and utterly terrified me, and caused one of us to lose their reason.
It began innocuously enough. Laurel began by humming a low note as if testing her pitch before giving a recital. This she kept up for about a minute until the pitch slowly rose, then the speed of the humming increased, then faster still. Her jaw fell slack and her mouth gaped open. It could not have been her making the sound anymore but still it continued. The dreadful wailing music built to a terrible crescendo and the very air began to vibrate with the sound. Ben and I stumbled backwards with the sheer physical force of it; only Gwyneth stood unmoved, though utterly transfixed. Still the wailing continued and it was as if all the sorrow, agony and despair of everyone who had ever strode the earth was being unleashed. I held my hands clamped to my ears, Ben the same, but it made little difference. Laurel’s eyes had rolled completely back and her whole body had become rigid with the effort of performing this devil’s symphony. Then, suddenly, the wailing ceased and a beast appeared as if from nowhere, hovering
just a few feet above us.
I swear as God is my witness that what we beheld was the devil himself, if not then one of his filthy and corrupt cohorts. The creature hovered in the air, writhing and revelling in its obscene nakedness and bellowing out clouds of sulphurous breath that poisoned the atmosphere around us.
Then from behind its back it pulled out a large heavy sword which it slammed with astonishing strength into the trunk of an oak tree, burying it almost to the hilt. It repeated this action over and again until two dozen swords were embedded in the bark, a terrible torrent of fizzing metal. Having delivered the final weapon the creature simply vanished within its own clouded breath, and all was silent once more. Laurel collapsed heavily to the ground.
“My lamb, my poor, poor lamb. Hush now.”
Back once more inside the cottage a softly keening Laurel was lying across Gwyneth’s lap; the old woman was gently stroking the girl’s hair and slowly rocking back and forth. I’d had to carry Ben back inside, he being totally incapable of walking of his own volition. He was now lying on the floor in a foetal position, babbling in his insanity, occasionally writhing and wriggling and bursting into short bouts of insane laughter. The poor man had completely lost his reason and would never regain it; I was struggling to maintain my own and I don’t know to this day how I managed to do so. We had witnessed a dreadful visitation from hell itself which had taken its toll on both of us to a greater and lesser extent. Despite the fire which Gwyneth had now lit I was shaking uncontrollably like a leaf in a strong wind.
“Somehow I’ve been drugged, Gwyneth. Surely I did not witness that spectacle. Surely it was some kind of hallucinatory experience?” I ventured in a low, trembling voice.
“Not drugs, Brandon, nor any sort of poison. What you saw was real enough. Clever girl, this,” she replied. “Councillor, do you know who this one is? The one I now give comfort to?” she continued matter-of-factly, still stroking the girl’s hair.
I stared uncomprehendingly at her for some moments before replying. “No, I’ve no idea who the girl is, having never set eyes on her before.”
“Tally’s daughter she is. Tally’s little girl.” Pride shone in her voice.
An hour later I was riding back towards town having recovered sufficiently to make the journey. I’d had to leave Ben at the cottage to be collected later by someone I’d send across with a wagon as he was in no way capable of riding a horse. As I meandered back through the valley I thought back to the old woman’s last words to me. Of how Tally had a daughter of whom he rarely spoke, having never been forthcoming with details of his personal life. A daughter whose now deceased mother had been a practitioner of the black arts, powers the girl had inherited. A daughter he saw very little of given his nomadic lifestyle, but that had not stopped Laurel from loving her father.
I’d learned that just prior to being assaulted by Drake and his men Gwyneth had seen Tally as she was gathering herbs, thus in all likelihood the minstrel had believed that she was a witness to the attack. Gwyneth had also seen the minstrel, had waved, but unfortunately had turned in the opposite direction back towards her home so had seen nothing. It was only later when Tally had managed to reach the cottage and communicate what had happened in the best way he could that she learned of what had happened. Gwyneth had dressed the minstrel’s wounds and then summoned his daughter, who had wreaked a terrible revenge utilizing the sword-wielding demon. Drake and his men had stood no chance. I even began to feel a little sorry for them having observed what I had that day.
And Darner had assumed the rider who had dumped the bag containing Drake’s head had been a man, but that too had been the work of the enigmatic Laurel, the old lady had informed me. The young girl had certainly been swift as well as merciless in her actions. As I rode with my head bowed, pondering all of this and trying to get the story straight in my mind, to make sense of it all, one question was uppermost: how on earth was I to write up all I had witnessed into a report that His Lordship would give credence to?