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A MATTER OF THE HEART

by

Tom Olbert
 

 A shadow stirred in the moonlight.  Robert’s heart beat faster.  He drew his
sword and turned.  The gargoyle towered over him.  His heart froze, his knees
turning to putty.  The stone demon’s  eyes glowed like pale moongems out of
its slate-black face.  Its fanged maw opened in a slathering grimace as it lunged for him.
 Battle-trained reflexes took over.  He leapt aside, the monster’s massive
claws shattering a stone turret behind him.  He dropped and rolled clear as
shattered stone crashed to the flagstones of the castle’s battlements.  He sprang to his feet as the demon swung its massive arms around to attack him again.  Swinging his magically-enhanced sword with all his strength, Robert roared in pain as enchanted steel met demonically animated stone.  The gargoyle’s arm shattered and fell to the flagstones with a stony thud.   The creature roared with a fury that shook the castle towers.
 The monster lashed out with its remaining hand.  Robert dropped and rolled again, coming up on one knee and slashing from behind, shattering the
gargoyle’s leg at the knee joint.  The monster roared and went down on one
knee.  Robert rolled, rose, turned and swung, putting out the creature’s
eyes. 
Steaming black pitch bled from the gutted eye sockets, eating through the
flagstones like acid.  The devil beast shrieked and lashed out blindly.  As
Robert leapt backward,  the monster’s claw caught him by chance, ripping
through his chainmail like a knife through cloth.  He fell backwards, a
stabbing pain in his shoulder.  He groaned as his back struck stone.
 Struggling backward out of the gargoyle’s reach, he recovered himself, got to his feet and raised his sword.  He held its bright blade high in the moonlight, marshaling his faltering courage.  “For you, my love!” he cried, charging blindly at the beast.  He attacked like a madman, striking without quarter. He shattered the gargoyle’s stone claw, then its horned crown.  He screamed as he smashed the devil into a ruined pile of ebon masonry that no newcomer would take for the castle guard it had been only moments before.  Trembling and covered with sweat, he breathed deeply, his breath white steam on the frosty night air, his wound stinging in the breeze.
 He’d barely caught his breath when he heard the rough, leathery voices and
clattering armor of approaching goblins.  “Search the battlements, you lot,”
one of them growled.  “You two, guard the entrance.  Find this thief and bring
him to me alive!”  Looking quickly about, he saw the shadows of their helmeted heads and spear tips against the castle turrets in the flickering light of
their torches.  Raising the hood of his dark cloak to shield his fair hair and
skin in the moonlight, he retreated into the shadows, pausing a moment to
snatch up one of the gargoyle’s shattered fingers from the pile.
 “He’s killed the gargoyle,” one of the goblins shouted as Robert made his way
like a skulking shadow past the searchers, his breathing rapid, his heart
pounding.  He covered his mouth with the fold of his hood and prayed his
labored breathing would not give him away.  He paused in the shadow of a
turret near the entrance to the castle stairs.  The two guards stood there in his
path, their eyes like red-hot coals in the darkness.  Testing the weight of
the stone finger he held, he hurled it up and over the turret.  He heard the stone
digit clatter near the spot where he’d killed its former owner.
 “He’s here!” one of the goblins shouted.  Robert was elated as the two guards
blocking his escape took the bait and left their post, running to join the others.  He had only seconds.  Realizing this was his only chance, he sprang from hiding and bounded across the battlements to the open portal.  “Behind you, you fools!  Don’t let him escape!!”  Reaching the stairs, Robert swung the heavy, oak door on its massive, rusted hinges, his face hot with exertion as he forced the door onto the stone threshold.  He could hear the screams and clanking metal of the fast-approaching goblins as he struggled to lift the heavy oaken bolt across the door.  He prayed to God to grant him deliverance, even knowing the prayer might be in vain.
 The wooden beam fell into place with a dull thunk.  Robert  fell back against
the stone wall along the stairs, lowering his hood and crossing himself in
gratitude.  He heard the goblins on the other side of the door impotently
pounding against its iron shoddings and screaming for entry.  Breathing deeply
and shaking off his lingering numbness, he made his way carefully down the
torchlit stairs, sword in hand, to the jailer’s quarters below.  The pot-bellied, scaly little jailer goblin squealed in fear as Robert brought the edge of his sword against his throat.  “The keys to the tower room where theLady Miranda is held, you swine,” he said through clenched teeth.  “Or, add to
my collection of goblin heads!”  The jailer obeyed, lifting his iron ring of
keys from its hook and leading Robert through the torchlit passageway to an
iron door which he unlocked.  The door creaked as it was pushed aside.
Holding a torch to the portal, Robert saw a beautiful young woman in green raiment in the cell beyond.  She sat up suddenly from the crude bed of straw on which she rested, her pretty green eyes squinting in the sudden light falling on her long, curling tresses of reddish blonde hair.  “Lady Miranda of  Tarclow, I presume,” he said with a slight bow.
 “The same,” she replied.  Robert struck the jailer goblin over his bristly
head with the hilt of his sword, knocking him senseless and pushing him into
the cell.  The Lady Miranda stood, straightening her clothing with the dignity her caste demanded.  She accepted Robert’s gentlemanly hand, stepping over the body of her former captor as she left her cell.  “And who have I the honor of addressing, Sir Knight?”
 “Sir Robert of Korbin, My Lady.  I am here to rescue you.”
 “The same Robert of Korbin my brother Darrin spoke of in his letters?”
 “The same, lady,” he said with some apprehension, not sure how she would
receive him.  “Your brother and I fought together under your father’s command
in the war against the dark mage Zakur.  But, come.  We must hurry.”
 “Did my father send you,” she asked as he led her down the passageway.
 “Nay, lady, he did not.  For, though it pains me to tell you this, my former
lord, your father, is now my mortal enemy.”  Miranda paused mid-stride,
tightening her slender but strong hand on Robert’s.  His heart sank as three more goblins appeared in the torchlight of the passageway ahead of them.  His fear turned quickly to anger.  He would not be beaten now.  “Stand behind me,
lady,” he cautioned as the largest of the three goblins, apparently a guard
captain, came to stand a few paces from him, sword drawn, his two lackeys
behind him, likewise armed.
 “What have we here,” the bloated ogre taunted.  “An amorous, heroic knight
come to rescue his lady fair?”  As he laughed, his forked tongue slathering
over his curved fangs, the iron ring in his piggish nose jangled a bit.  As Robert raised his sword, he felt something tug at the hilt of the dagger on his belt.  He glanced back to glimpse the Lady Miranda draw the dagger expertly
back and hurl it.  It flew past Robert and into one of the blazing red eyes of
the goblin captain.  The monster shrieked and collapsed as the dagger pierced his brain.
 Robert was shocked.  Acting on pure instinct, he climbed upon the fallen
goblin and launched himself at one of his two subordinates, who looked quite
agape.  The goblin parried Robert’s thrust, but Robert threw his weight
against him, knocking him crashing into his fellow, who staggered back off balance. 
The first goblin regained his footing and forced Robert backward.  As they
dueled, Robert could hear the other goblin coming up behind him, and for a
moment was sure he was doomed.
 The next he knew, the Lady Miranda had picked up the dead goblin’s sword and was guarding Robert’s back.  He and the woman stood back-to-back, parrying thesword thrusts of the two goblins.  Robert feigned to his left, then cut
sharply
right,  striking his enemy’s sword aside. Robert brought his sword hilt up
in a
sharp blow to the goblin’s jaw, lopped off his sword hand and then severed his
throat.  As the goblin fell dead, Robert turned quickly to help the Lady
Miranda.  He found her standing over her moribund opponent, bloodied sword in
hand, the goblin’s severed head lying at her feet.
 “You look surprised, Sir Robert,” she said haughtily, a bit winded but quite
calm, brushing a lock of  hair out of her eyes.  “You think it strange a woman
would know the use of a sword?  My father thought the same.  But, I found
willing tutors and practiced in secret throughout  my adolescence.”
 “My compliments on your skill, M’lady,” he said with a most sincerely
respectful bow.  “Now, please come.  My steed is tethered below.”
 “I am in your debt for your help, Sir Robert,” she said, following him down
the passageway to the stairs beyond.  “But, would it seem ungracious of me to
request an explanation for what you have done?  Why would you risk your life
for a woman you do not know?”
 The answer clenched on his heart with a dull, constricting pain.  “A matter of
the heart, dear lady,” he replied, fighting to keep his voice firm.  “Do you have any notion, Lady Miranda, what it is to love someone with all your being, only to have the entire world stand between you?”
 “Oh, indeed I do, Sir Knight,” she replied sympathetically.  “Indeed I do.”
 #
 “But, fair lady, I beseech you, do not enter the chapel!”  The aging castellan
of  Tarclow stammered, retreating feebly in Miranda’s path as she and Robert
forcefully advanced on the guarded doors of the castle chapel.
 “Stand aside, old man,” Miranda barked.  “The Lady of Tarclow goes where she wills in her own manor!”
 “But, lady, your father the baron has ordered that no one be allowed into the
chapel until the ceremony is complete!  Your brother, Sir Darrin is as we
speak being married to her Ladyship Edwyna of Salston.”
 Robert’s blood burned with anger.  “Over my dead body!” he shouted, striking the two guards aside and hurling the oaken doors wide.  He strode into the
chapel even as the venerable abbot began to read the ceremonial text.  The
bride and groom stood before him.  A handsome knight with fine brown hair
and a maiden beautiful as a starry night, her long hair silken and black.  “Stop!!”
Robert shouted, his voice resounding through the crowded hall.  “I will not
permit this!”
 “What is the meaning of this intrusion?” the abbot demanded as all the finely
garbed nobles and courtiers looked up and muttered in dismay.
 The bride looked up, an expression of confusion on her lovely face soon
transforming into joy.  “My love!” she cried.  “You have come for me, as my
heart told me you would!”  The Lady Edwyna ran from her betrothed’s side,
toward Robert.  He had to scramble to get out of her way as she ran past him
and into the waiting arms of the Lady Miranda.  “My beloved,” she sobbed as
Miranda embraced her.  “I thought you lost to me.”  As they kissed, Robert
turned to the other knight, Darrin of Tarclow.
 “Robert,” he cried, teary-eyed as he ran towards him.  “My dearest Robert,
you have not forsaken me!”  Robert’s heart soared with joy as Darrin’s strong arms embraced him, their two hearts beating fiercely against each other as their lips pressed together.  For the first time in what seemed an eternity, he felt
alive again.
 “What is this outrage?!!” the Baron of Tarclow demanded in a bellowing tone. 
That familiar voice cracked through Robert’s spine, like the fear of his
father’s lash when he was a boy.  The tall, stern, gray-bearded man Robert
remembered so well from the battlefield strode toward the abbot.  “Ungodly
sodomy in my very home?!  What is my wayward daughter doing here, against my strict orders?  And you, Robert of  Korbin ... what is your role in this
blasphemy?”
 The fierce anger in those dark eyes still smote fear into Robert’s heart.  He
struggled to find his voice.
 “This so-called marriage is the only blasphemy here,” the Lady Edwyna cried, before Robert could utter a word.  “I could never be a true wife to Darrin of
Tarclow, as my heart  belongs only to his sister, the Lady Miranda.”  The
assembled guests collectively gasped.  “I consented to this travesty only because the Baron of Tarclow held my beloved hostage in a goblin garrison he had employed.”
 “The lady speaks the truth,” Darrin proclaimed.  “I would never have wed her of my own will, as my heart belongs only to Robert of Korbin.”  Those words
were like a ray of warmth in Robert’s heart, cold and empty for so long. 
“Robert, whose strong arms and sweet voice did sustain me through the cold
nights as we lay by the camp fires, and whose love fills me now.  Forgive me
this betrayal, sweet Robert,” he said, his strong hand softly caressing
Robert’s face.  “But, I could not let my sister die.”  Wiping the tears from
his own eyes, Robert embraced and kissed him.
 “Villain!” Miranda screamed at the baron, holding Edwyna close against her. 
“You knew mine was the one life neither Edwyna nor Darrin would risk.  You
knew likewise that this marriage would unite Tarclow with Salston and increase your wealth and power.  What monster are you in my father’s shape?!  You are not the man I remember!” she screamed with tears running down her cheeks, Edwyna’s arms around her.  “You are not the man my mother loved.  You are not my father!”
 “Blaspheming daughter of Lillith!” the baron roared.  “Better you had died in
that goblin fortress than shame this house with your vile perversions.  It was
you that corrupted your brother, this I know!  I was right to poison your
wicked shrew of a mother, for I know she had a hand in this as well!  I sought
to save all your souls, as any righteous man would!  But, if God cannot purge
this filth from my house, then I shall make my pact with one who can!”  The
abbot gaped and crossed himself as the baron produced a black-onyx talisman
from beneath his robes.
 Robert stared in horror as he recognized one of the demonic charms of the
black mage Zakur.  He’d  thought them all destroyed.  “No, father!”  Darrin
screamed, walking towards the baron.  But, it was too late.  The baron made
the hand gestures and spoke the unholy words that released the dark power of the talisman.  Swirling wraiths of hell-fire engulfed the baron, entering and
mutating him.  His body melted and reshaped itself like wax in fire, his arms
and legs becoming tentacles, his face warping into a leathery mask with
flaming red eyes, his head into a crown of horns.  Miranda screamed and the crowd trembled.  The hair on the back of Robert’s neck stood on end.
 The baron reared up, a towering, serpentine apparition.  The monster’s long, leathery tentacles lashed out, one snatching up the Lady Miranda.  She
Screamed and flailed in mid-air, chopping at the monstrous limb with her sword. 
“Miranda, my love!” Edwyna screamed as the crowd panicked and ran for the
door.  Fighting off a momentary numbness, Robert drew his sword and charged the abomination.  Another of its tentacles coiled around his torso and crushed his ribs in its clammy, sucking embrace, lifting him high into the air.  Gasping for breath, he hacked furiously with his sword, black blood spurting from the tentacle.
 Suddenly, the monster’s eyes flared, its fanged mouth screaming in rage, and
its tentacle released its grip, letting Robert fall.  He landed on the stone
floor with a crash, his knees aching.  He looked up and saw that Darrin had
impaled the creature through the back with a spear left behind by a fleeing
guardsman.  As the Lady Edwyna pulled the fallen Miranda to safety, Robert
forced his aching legs to move, bounding across the room to the hook securing the  rope which held the chandelier aloft.  The monster caught the brave Darrin in its tentacles and began to crush him.  Crying out in fear and anger, Robert cut through the rope with one stroke of his sword, bringing the heavy
chandelier of burning candles crashing down on the demon.
 The monster roared, releasing Darrin.  The clever Lady Edwyna, seizing her
opportunity, picked up a flagon of wine from one of the tables and threw it at
the still-burning candles.  The monster shrieked as it was engulfed in fire,
its flaming tentacles whipping wildly about.  As Robert pulled Darrin to
safety, Edwyna and the now-recovered Miranda pulled a wide awning from the
wall of the chapel and flung it over the burning monster to quash the flames before they could spread to the timbers.  As Darrin regained his senses, he and
Robert seized weapons from their mountings on the walls, Darrin seizing a large mace, Robert a battle-ax.
 They pummeled the dying creature through the awning, striking savagely again and again and again, until the unholy thing that had been the Baron of Tarclow lay dead in a smoking, char-blackened heap.  Tossing their weapons aside, Robert and Darrin embraced as Miranda fell sobbing into Edwyna’s arms.
              #
 As the chapel was sealed and consecrated, holy water sprinkled upon the doors by exorcists, the shaken old abbot addressed the two knights and two ladies who stood before him.  “The church and his majesty the king are grateful to all of you for the lives you have saved and the evil you have driven from the realm this day.”
 “Thank you, your eminence,”  Robert said respectfully.
 “However, given the confessions of sodomy you have all made this day, in the presence of many witnesses ... you must all confess your sins before a priest
and vow never to repeat your sins by laying with each other again as you have
done.”
 A sudden coldness touched Robert’s heart.  He looked at Darrin.  His lover’s
calm, angelic blue eyes banished every trace of doubt.  “Never,” he said
softly to the abbot, taking Darrin’s hand in his own.  Miranda and Edwyna gave the same answer.
 The abbot sighed and shook his head slowly.  “Then, my children, it is my sad
duty to excommunicate all of you and banish you from all Christian lands
forever after, under pain of death.  May God forgive you.”
 Robert’s heart turned to stone.  He was numb as he turned from the abbot to
go.  “Perhaps it is meant to be, my love,” Darrin said softly, his arm comfortingly around Robert’s shoulders as they walked from the castle.
 “Perhaps,” Robert sighed.  “Nobility was always a bit stuffy for my taste,
anyway.”  As the sun rose over the mountains, his gloom was blasted away by the chill morning air, and he was struck by a bright bolt of inspiration.  “What say you, beloved ... Shall we two away to the forest of the White Wiccen,
where our love will not be scorned, and where there are yet demons to vanquish and monsters to destroy?”
 “Yes, my love!” Darrin shouted, taking him by the shoulders.  “And, what say
you, Miranda, my sister?  You are brave and skilled with a sword.  Will you and
your brave lady accompany us?”
 Miranda’s eyes sparkled.  She looked hopefully toward the Lady Edwyna.  “My heart is yours, dear Miranda,” Edwyna said with a smile.  “Where you go, I will follow.”  With that, the four of them mounted their steeds and rode into the wind.  Robert’s heart soared with what every warrior needed; the love of his life at his side and a quest for justice ahead.

- END -
 
 
 

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