The Nightmare of Kurl Keep
By Summer Howard
This short story was inspired by a scene in Godfrey's Crusade. It started out as just a rough scene but has grown so much. I hope you enjoy!
Gwen gasped, teetering on a large round rock. The stone wobbled beneath her. Heart racing, she waved her arms, attempting to keep balance while still clutching her shoes and stockings in her hands. The last thing she wanted was for them to get soaked. The stream burbled beneath her feet as if challenging her efforts to stay dry.
Splash! One of her bare feet slipped into the cold water. Squealing, she jumped onto the next rock. The flat surface stayed steady. Looking up, she saw that her best friend, Emma, was already across the water and was making her way to the field of flowers.
“Wait for me!” Gwen called as her feet finally reached the streamside.
“Hurry up.” Emma laughed. “The boys will be coming any minute!”
Sitting on a large rock farther on land, Gwen put on the dry stockings and shoes that she had carried across. The wool stockings warmed her cold aching toes as they dried them. Standing, she raced after Emma with her petticoats bunched in her hands so she did not trip. The soft ground made her feel like she was bouncing.
Gwen reached Emma as she settled in the shade of the lone tree in the field. The large tree’s craggy branches reached protectively around its trunk. Dropping her skirts, Gwen gasped for air as she sat down beside her friend.
Emma sat daintily between the roots of the tree. Her mahogany-colored hair flowed like silk down her back. Her friend began plucking a pile of common fleabanes. The yellow flower grew all over the marsh. Gwen picked some of the mild-smelling blossoms to add to the pile.
“A flower for your hair…” Emma began to sing.
“A joy beyond compare…” Gwen joined in the childhood ditty. “We’ll make sure he’ll be true, His only love is you.”
“Do you really think Ledger will like the crown?” Gwen said, self-consciously picking at a petal that had fallen on her lap.
“He will be enthralled by your beauty.” Emma pretended to swoon dramatically.
Gwen rolled her eyes, trying to hide her embarrassment. She picked up a couple of flowers and prepared them for the flower crowns.
Soon the two of them were plaiting together their crowns. Gwen grunted with frustration. She tried to make hers as neat as Emma’s, but her fingers kept messing up the knots.
“Let me help you.” Emma laughed, taking the sorry excuse of a flower braid from Gwen’s hands.
Gwen stared enviously for a moment as her friend expertly twisted the flower crown back into shape. Glancing down at her fingers, Gwen sighed. She had never been very nimble with her fingers. The long digits seemed to have a mind of their own.
“I wish I could weave the flowers like you,” Gwen bemoaned.
“Isa would have done better,” Emma said sadly as she stared off into the swamp just past the marshy shores. The trees loomed menacingly in the distance.
“Did they ever find out what happened to her?” Gwen asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
The two sat silently, each lost in her thoughts. When Emma finished, she handed Gwen the crown. Gwen frowned jealously as the yellow flower was placed against the deep brown of Emma’s hair. It contrasted beautifully against her dark hair and pale skin. Sighing, she placed the golden crown against her own straw-colored hair.
“Can you even see the flowers?” Gwen asked self-consciously. “Or do they just blend into my hair?”
“You look like a princess.” Emma giggled as she bowed.
“If only,” Gwen said wistfully. “Besides, we live in a small town. A prince would never choose me for a bride.”
“You are the daughter of the Lord of Harv,” Emma said, smiling at her friend.
“The clergy holds the real power,” Gwen said, looking down at her hands. “That is what Father says at least. A small town is nothing compared to a duchy.”
“Still, you will have your pick of the men in this area,” said Emma. “And two of the most eligible should be here soon!”
“It seems the matter will be taken out of my hands shortly.” Gwen smiled slyly.
“What do you mean?” Emma sat up straight.
“I heard Father talking to Sir Ledger the other night.” Gwen glanced at Emma through her lashes. “I think they might come to an agreement about a marriage soon.”
“What?” Emma squealed. “You and his son Ledger? The squire?”
“They say his master, Sir Mord, is going to give him a quest soon.” Gwen raised an eyebrow with a sly grin. “After that, he’ll be knighted.”
Boisterous laughter interrupted Gwen and Emma before they could continue. Squire Ledger and another young boy named Bruno were swinging sticks as they splashed carelessly through the stream. Swords, strapped to their hips, hung ready in case of any real danger.
“Here they are now!” Emma laughed, elbowing Gwen.
Gwen shushed her friend. She pointedly turned toward the thrashing boys. Gwen ignored the knowing smile on Emma’s face as they watched the boys come closer.
Ledger towered over Bruno. His broad chest rippled as he swung his stick. Onyx black hair was swept back and forth across his face as he struck at his opponent. His green eyes remained focused on Bruno.
Bruno was not bothered by Ledger’s height. Ducking under Ledger’s attacks, Bruno used his smaller size as an advantage. His pale face contrasted with the older boy’s tanned skin. His long nose was dotted with freckles. Muddy brown hair stuck out at odd angles on top of his head.
The two boys parried and thrust at each other with the sticks, moving ever closer to the girls. Out of the stream they splashed, and into the meadow. Around the field they whirled. Taunting each other as they moved, glancing ever so often at the girls sitting a few feet away now.
“I wonder how good they would be against a real foe,” Emma said loudly.
“They probably would not do nearly as well.” Gwen laughed.
“The fair maidens seem to doubt us,” Ledger said between grunts of exertion as he continued to spar with Bruno.
A loud crack sounded through the clearing. Bruno dropped the stick he had been waving.
“Ouch!” Bruno cried, rubbing his hand. “Watch where you swing that thing!”
“Well, would you be able to fight a real foe?” Emma laughed. “I also wonder whether you would turn tail if it happened to be a monster.”
“I would defend my dear ladies and my fellows to the death if need be,” Ledger said, making a grand bow toward the ladies. “I’m a squire. I’ve seen battle.”
“As would I,” Bruno said as he stumbled into a bow as well.
“What if the hydra came charging out of the marsh right now?” Gwen asked, looking nervously to the reeds nearby. “It is said to roam the marshlands and the swamp.”
“It would not harm a hair on your head while I was around,” Ledger replied.
As Gwen looked back at Ledger, his eyes locked with hers. Her cheeks began to burn and her heart jumped into her throat. Looking down at her hands, she realized that her skirts were covered in the leaves from the flowers. She calmed herself by focusing on brushing off the leaves.
“I bet you’d turn tail and run at the first sign of a monster.” Bruno laughed as he shoved Ledger aside. “Watching Sir Mord charge into a horde of orcs while you sit back at a safe distance with the rest of us squires is different than actually fighting in the battle itself.”
“At least I would see the monster,” Ledger growled. “I fought beside Sir Mord against brigands on the road to Roun. You haven’t killed any monsters at all yet. Are you ever going to do anything brave or do you just want to stay a squire forever?”
“I can do brave things,” Bruno muttered.
“I know how we can prove it.” Ledger smirked, poking Bruno in the chest with his finger.
“What do you mean?” Bruno crossed his arms warily.
“I dare you to stay outside the gates all night,” Ledger said.
“What about whatever is taking people?” Gwen gasped.
“That’s easy,” Bruno scoffed.
“Then let’s raise the stakes,” Ledger goaded. “Are you brave enough to stay in the swamp all night?”
“I would do it blindfolded.” Bruno’s voice began to shake.
“Then we test our bravery at Kurl Keep.” Ledger smirked. “We go there tonight after dark.”
“They say that anyone who enters that place never comes back!” Emma cried.
“And tonight is a full moon,” Gwen squeaked. “Evil magic is more powerful under a full moon. You never know what could be lurking!”
Gwen’s throat tightened as she thought of that place. Not much was known about it, just that a mad lord named Kurl had once built a castle in the middle of the swamp.
“I heard that Lord Kurl fell to the worship of the dark gods,” Emma continued melodramatically. “One night, he murdered his whole household and then killed himself. They say he wanders the swamp in search of new victims for his dark god still.”
“I-I could m-make it all night,” Bruno stammered.
“I could as well,” Ledger laughed. “Those are just ghost stories to keep us out of the ruin. Whoever can stay in the keep the longest, without begging to go home, wins. You girls would have to come with us to be the judges, of course. You can stay at the entrance.”
“But what if they’re not just stories?” Gwen’s voice quivered. “Bertha said that she heard there was a wight. And what about the orcs?”
“We would be there to protect you,” Ledger cajoled as he grasped Bruno around the shoulders. “I am a squire, and one day I will be a knight. I know each monster’s weakness.”
“It sounds scary.” Emma shivered, clutching harder on Gwen’s arm. “You have to promise that we will be safe.”
“I promise on my life,” Ledger said. “Will you join us?”
Gwen caught her breath as Emma was quick to agree. She noticed Bruno glancing with wide eyes over at her before he stammered his agreement as well.
Gwen felt her stomach flip-flop as Ledger cocked his eyebrow and smiled down at her. Would Ledger ever forgive her if she let him down?
“I don’t know,” Gwen said reluctantly.
“Come on,” Emma pressed. “It will be fun. Plus, who else could judge fairly between these two boys? We could give a kiss to whoever wins.”
“All right,” Gwen squeaked, her cheeks blazing.
“We will meet at the stable gate tonight then.” Ledger smiled triumphantly. “Don’t be late; we have to leave at sunset.”
Gwen’s stomach sank as she glanced up at the full moon. Ominously, it shone down on her and her friends. In the pale moonlight, the countryside looked more menacing.
The torch on Ledger’s back was being saved for when they reached the keep. Ledger led the way, while Bruno protected their back. Ledger’s hand rested on the hilt of his blade as he walked. Bruno had also brought his blade, so Gwen felt protected.
They had passed the marsh borders and were now traveling through the swamp. Gwen had never ventured this far beyond the city gates.
Gwen and Emma had placed themselves between Ledger and Bruno. Gwen tried to step where Ledger had stepped, but the pale light made it hard to see. In the dark, Gwen’s imagination ran wild, conjuring all sorts of frightening creatures just beyond what she could see. Each tree was an orc, or the hydra coming at them.
The wind rustled the tall grass around them, startling Gwen. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she looked to see if her friends had noticed. None had.
As they traveled, the rotten-egg stench of the swamp began to fill her nostrils.
“That’s disgusting!” Emma said, plugging her nose.
“It’s worse than cleaning the horse stables.” Bruno gagged.
“Let’s just keep going,” Ledger said.
Gwen sighed as they moved on. Her legs were beginning to ache from wading through the mire. She would pull one foot at a time out of the muck, only to have to repeat the process every step of the way. She cringed at the sucking sound they made as they pressed forward. The whole countryside would know they were there.
“Are you sure this is the way?” she asked tentatively as she peered into the darkness at yet another tree turned monster.
“Of course I am.” Ledger laughed, smiling back at her.
“We have been walking for hours,” Emma whined.
A soft chinking of metal against metal interrupted them.
“Shh!” Ledger said, looking around. He seemed to freeze for a moment then waved them to get down. Pulling out his sword, he joined them.
Gwen and her friends ducked into a patch of grass. Gwen felt Ledger lie to her right. He grasped his sword in front of them as he placed a protective arm over her. Emma was lying to her right in the tall grass, with Bruno on the other side of Emma, his sword still sheathed. Gwen held her breath as she strained her eyes and ears into the light of the full moon.
The night was eerily silent. The insects and nocturnal animals seemed to have gone into hiding or left abruptly. Then, Gwen heard the soft clanking metallic sound again. It was the only sound in the otherwise deathly still night. Gwen’s muscles clenched; her breathing sounded too loud in her ears. Water seeped through her dress, chilling her to the bone.
Gwen’s heart began to pound as a gaunt figure stalked slowly across the marshlands. The moonlight glinted off a tarnished crown that sat atop its withered head. The cadaverous monster strode forward, dark tattered robes flowing behind with each step. Rusty chainmail armor clanked together as the creature stalked through the night. The armor hung loosely from its shrunken body.
“That’s a wight,” Ledger hissed. “Bishop Clovis warned me about these.”
The wight paused. The creature’s head turned toward them. Though several yards distant and despite its eyes being long gone, Gwen felt as if it locked eyes with her. She froze. Beside her, she felt Ledger frantically feeling around in the muck.
Ledger jostled her as he threw a rock off to their left. After a terrifying instant of silence, the rock plunked into a distant pool of murky water. The wight jerked its head toward the loud splash the rock had made, releasing Gwen from its stare. Once the wight had moved off in the direction of the splash, Ledger hauled Gwen upright. With his fingers to his lips, he gestured for his friends to follow him. They moved as silently as they could through the water, putting as much distance as possible between them and the creature. The angered shriek of the wight cut through the night, startling the friends. They froze in place.
“Run!” Bruno yelped as he shoved at the girls.
Gwen bolted, barely aware of her friends running next to her. Soon Gwen outpaced the others, the cries of the wight spurring her on. Her chest and throat throbbed in protest. Solitary shapes whipped by in the dark as she sprinted, each crooked and bent over. Their limbs reached out as if to grasp for her. She avoided them all. The sounds of the wight were far away, but still she ran. Then a gnarled appendage hooked her ankle and she started to fall.
Letting out a yelp, Gwen fell. Time slowed. She reached out in front of her, hoping to catch herself. Damp grass met her hands.
She lay gasping for a moment, waiting for the looming figure to descend. When no monster grabbed her, she dared peek around. It was just a tree. She rested her head on her hands for a moment as she lay where she had fallen. Her feet ached as the cold water lapped at them. Her body, on the other hand, lay on an island rising from the water.
She cried out again as she felt fingers wrap around her arm. She squirmed, trying to break free.
“It’s all right, Lady Gwen,” Ledger said softly as his hand tightened around her arm. “I am here to protect you.”
Ledger gently lifted her to her feet. She threw herself into his chest and sobbed. He sheathed his sword and encircled her in his arms. Soon, the other two stumbled beside them. Gwen clutched Ledger as the friends all stared behind them. By the light of the full moon, Gwen saw nothing but the tall grass and sparse trees of the swamp gently waving in the breeze.
“Come on,” Ledger grunted. “We need to find shelter.”
“What about the wight?” Gwen whimpered, shivering as she looked around anxiously. “What if it finds us? And what about the hydra? It is supposed to live in the swamp. And that’s not to mention the orcs!”
Gwen could not stop the words from flowing out of her mouth. She turned away from Ledger. Her breath came in short bursts. Tears clouded her eyes. The world closed in on her. She could not focus. Her fists clenched into balls and she could not open them. Gwen sat, trying to slow her breath. Ledger’s voice broke through the fog in her mind.
“Easy, Lady Gwen.” Ledger soothed softly, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We will be better off waiting until sunrise. I don’t know where we are, but I think we might have run the wrong way. In the daylight we will be able to find our way home.”
Slowly, Gwen’s breathing returned to normal and her fists loosened. Leaning back against the tree that she had tripped over, she stared at the island. At first she did not comprehend what she saw. Then she gasped as she realized what she was looking at.
“Look!” Gwen said, her voice unsteady.
On the island stood a keep surrounded by a crumbling wall. Gwen felt her heart drop at the sight of the ruined building. She huddled closer to her friends as they stared in dread at the edifice.
The wall surrounding the keep was mostly intact, with smaller holes here and there where stones had fallen out of place. There were also some larger holes, sections where the whole wall had fallen in.
“Kurl Keep,” Bruno breathed.
“We might as well go in,” Ledger said grimly.
“But what about the monsters?” Emma gasped. “Anything could be lurking in there."
“It will be safer in there than out here,” Ledger said. “With a roof over our head and walls around us, we will be better able to protect ourselves.”
Ledger’s words were punctuated by the wail of the wight in the distance. It was still
Gwen met her friends’ eyes. The fear in their eyes reflected hers. Ledger squared his shoulders and walked through a large gap in the wall. Bruno scrambled after him. Emma and Gwen followed hesitantly. Gwen looked up as they passed through the hole. She shuddered to think about what could have caused such a big hole when the rest of the wall stood mostly together.
Gwen’s stomach clenched as she stared up at the keep in front of her. A set of stone stairs led up to an entrance in the tower, a black hole where a door had long ago rotted away. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Surely, only the bare bones of the keep would be left—nothing else would have survived the ravages of time. Gwen tried to convince herself of that fact, but the niggling doubt that something evil was there would not be silenced in the back of her head.
They made their way up the crumbling steps and paused at the mouth of the keep. Gwen looked over at her friends. Bruno stared into the keep warily. Emma’s face was pale and wide-eyed. Ledger’s jaw was set as he pulled out a torch from his pack and handed it to Bruno. Bruno clenched his fists around the torch, trying to hold it steady, his knuckles turning white with the effort. Ledger then pulled out a flint and steel. Striking the flint with the steel, he tried to bring the torch to life. It took several attempts before the torch began smoldering, giving off a faint light.
“Just until sunrise,” Ledger said reassuringly, glancing around as he unsheathed his sword.
Ledger and Bruno pressed forward through the entrance into the depths of the keep. Bruno walked as close as he could to Ledger.
“Let’s go,” Gwen said, nodding to Emma.
The two followed the boys and the torch like moths to the light. Gwen’s arm was beginning to go numb from Emma’s grasp.
Once they entered the keep, the moon’s light could no longer reach them. The darkness was held back only by their torch. Its light wavered in a wind that came in somewhat regular intervals, as if the keep were breathing. Gwen tried to shake the thought that it felt like the keep was alive, a menacing presence lurking in the shadows. Slowly they made their way through an alcove and into the keep’s hall.
A large dais filled the back of the hall. On it stood an empty throne, ragged and rotting.
They all stopped dead in their tracks and gaped at the long feasting tables. Sitting slouched across the tables were skeletons, as if they had fallen asleep and never woken. The skeletons wore little that could be considered clothes, any garments having fallen apart many years ago. Beneath their feet weapons lay, as if waiting to be picked up by their owners once more. Dust covered everything.
Shuddering in disgust, Gwen tore her eyes from the gruesome sight of the hall and started to edge back the way they had come. She glanced longingly toward the doorway that led outside.
Turning, Gwen watched with dread as Ledger squared his shoulders and walked across the room, past the table and its ghoulishly grinning guests. Reaching the corner, he looked down into the depths of a set of spiral stairs, and then upward at the stairs above. He beckoned his friends over.
Sighing, Gwen followed Emma and Bruno as they also crossed the room. Gwen and Emma clung to each other. Together they inched past the bones, with Emma gagging the whole way.
“There is too much death in this room,” Ledger said. “If we are to spend the night here, then I fear we must delve deeper into the keep. The stairs up are falling apart, but the steps down seem to be holding strong. I say we go down, find a more defendable location. What does my Lady Gwen think?”
Gwen glanced around the room, seeing all the death and decay.
“I think you might be right,” Gwen agreed reluctantly.
Gwen gestured for Emma and Ledger to lead the way, and then followed them. Bruno cleared his throat and followed her, nearly dropping his sword a few times as they made their descent.
On the ground floor, they came to a door. Gwen saw Ledger try shoving it aside. The door stood unmoved. It must have been locked from the other side. Sighing, Gwen signaled them to continue.
The four friends stopped at the final landing of the stairs and gawked into the room in front of them. Ledger’s torch gleamed off the white walls. Black candles stood starkly against the white on both tables adjacent to the walls, and atop the chandeliers.
A large wooden statue stood in the center of the room. It had the body of a man, but the head was that of a beast. The goat-like face seemed to leer down at them. The horns curled around the beast’s head, making the face appear all the more menacing. The muscled arms were outstretched, as if to encircle all its victims.
In front of the statue sat a wide altar. Across the altar, a shrouded figure lay covered by an embroidered cloth, blood-red, bearing symbols that Gwen did not recognize.
“That’s a body!” squeaked Emma.
“Don’t touch it!” Bruno said, his voice cracking.
“Perhaps there is another way out?” Ledger suggested in a strained voice.
The room made Gwen uneasy. Everything seemed to seethe with evil. She stayed in the doorway as her friends spread out in the sparse room to search for an exit, though all avoided the altar and its occupant.
One of the tables close to the door caught Gwen’s eyes. On it stood an assortment of terracotta figurines. Their many shapes and forms ignited her curiosity. She had always loved such small images of the gods. The pit of her stomach hurt as she stepped into the room.
Gwen picked one of them up at random. It was a small heavy clay sculpture of a goddess whose head was that of a canine creature. Her long snout bore a toothy grin, and pointed ears stuck out from atop the head. In one hand, the goddess carried a lantern, and the other hand beckoned the viewer to follow.
“What are you looking at?” Ledger asked.
Gwen jumped. She had been so focused on the statuette that she did not notice Ledger coming up behind her. She swung around to face Ledger. The small but heavy idol slipped from her fingers. Realizing the goddess was falling, Ledger and Gwen both lunged to save the figurine. They fumbled over each other.
The idol shattered as it hit the floor with a loud crash. For a moment all was silent. Then an angry howl deafened Gwen.
On the altar, the shrouded figure sat up. The red-cloth covering slipped from its shoulders and fell to the floor. It lay there, resembling a pool of blood against the floor.
The figure was a beautiful young woman, perhaps about their age. Her auburn hair fell across her back. Pale skin as white as the moon shone without blemish in the torchlight. She wore a dress from an earlier age, its vibrant colors somehow preserved through time. Fangs poked out from behind her blood-red lips as she hissed with indignation.
Even Gwen knew what this creature was. Tales of these foul undead were used to scare small children into behaving. No one needed to utter the name vampire for Gwen to know how much danger they were in.
“How dare you desecrate this unholy sanctum of the almighty Belnor!” The vampire’s eyes flashed with hatred around the room at the four friends.
“Run!” Ledger bellowed.
Ledger ushered his friends before him back up the stairs. He took a gallant stand at the doorway to the staircase.
Gwen and Emma raced up the stairs, followed by Bruno. Ledger cried out in pain. Gwen turned to see Ledger make an attempt to hit the vampire. The creature avoided his swing easily and batted his sword away. His weapon clattered to the floor. Then the vampire was on him. She hissed at the friends as she fought to pin Ledger.
“Go!” Ledger yelled up to them.
Gwen sobbed as she ran behind Emma up the stairs. They burst back into the hall. Gwen ran into Emma as she stopped, crying out in horror. In the hall, the skeletons were awakening from their slumber. The walking bones began clicking towards them, weapons held high.
“Move!” Bruno sobbed, pushing past them.
He swung his sword wildly as he ran past the undead creatures. It slipped from his fingers and clattered across the room once again. He continued running, leaving his sword and the others behind. Gwen spared Emma a glance, then grabbed her friend and dragged her past the shambling creatures. Behind them, the shrill cries of agony from Ledger urged them on. Out into the swamp they ran, followed by the sound of his pain, but they did not look back. Then the cries went silent.
They ran off the island and toward home, they hoped. Bruno’s screams rang out in front of them. The wail of the wight answered, and then his shouts too were cut short. Gwen and Emma veered from that direction and ran on into the night.
Tears blurred Gwen’s vision as she ran. The fear had control again. She ran blindly through the marsh. Only after several minutes did she realize she had let go of Emma’s hand. Stopping in her tracks, she frantically turned her head in all directions in search of her friend. There was no sign of her. Gwen hoped she was heading the right way.
Emma shrieked behind her. Her blood-curdling wails spurred Gwen on again. Soon Emma’s voice was lost to the swamp as well. Gwen was alone.
Through the night she ran, stopping only momentarily to catch her breath. Finally, she saw the walls of Harv in the distance. She sobbed with relief. She was almost home. The moon was going down, but the dawn was still hours away.
Something hard hit Gwen in the back, pushing her to the ground. A clawed hand grasped her shoulder and roughly flipped her onto her back.
The vampire glared down at her in the moonlight.
“Did you think you had escaped me?” A wicked smile creased the creature’s face. “Now you face the wrath of Belnor like your friends before you!”
Gwen fought with all of her might, but it was to no avail. She wondered fleetingly if anyone would hear her cries; if her mother and father would know what had happened to her. But alas, she was too far away for help to come, and her dying screams went unheard as the vampire sank her fangs into Gwen’s neck.