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To Rule Them All: A Tale of Middle-earth and the Middle Ages.

Chapter Text

February 17, TA 3019/AD 1200



Dol Amroth

 

As the highest ranking of the southern fiefs of Gondor, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth had spent most of his life looking southwards towards the sea. He had to: Sauron waged all but open war on the greatest remaining Kingdom of Men, and he did so with the vile Corsairs of Umbar at his side. The descendents of the Black Numenoreans and those that had supported Castamir the Usurper during the Kin-Strife raided the southern coasts constantly, sacking small villages on the shore and burning whatever they could, whenever and wherever they were given half the chance to do so.

It was therefore the duty of the southern fiefs to make sure that these chances did not come often: with the majority of Gondor’s land forces committed to holding back the Black Tide of Mordor to the east, it was the responsibility of the shipwrights of Pelargir and Dol Amroth and other, smaller coastal cities to wage the naval war. In these days, the Gondorian Navy was perhaps a mere shadow of what it had been in the glory days of the distant past, when the whole coast as far as Umbar itself had been under Gondor’s rule, but the fleet was still a force to be reckoned with, more than capable accomplishing its designated tasks of both guarding the lands of Belfalas, Lebennin and Anfalas from raiders and keeping the Vales of the Anduin shut to Umbaran ships.

As the campaigns in Ithilien and the clashes in Osgiliath continued to grow ever more vicious, seemingly by the week, aid from the cities farther inland became smaller and less timely in arriving as the lords of the northern lands committed forces to the enemy that increasingly threatened to break down their gates. The same was true in reverse: the raids of the Corsairs increased in frequency and intensity with each passing month, the naval war off Gondor’s coasts escalating just as quickly as the land war on its eastern border-the southern fiefs had little strength to spare to send north, instead committing what strength that they had to protecting their own cities.

So it had been for several years, if not several decades: Imrahil had sailed up and down the shores of the Bay of Belfalas, trying to head of Corsair raiding parties before they could land, while his brother-in-law, Steward Denethor II, tried to fight off the Enemy’s overland incursions. Both took to their assigned duties with their whole hearts, and as time had gone by the Prince of Dol Amroth had become intimately familiar with the lays of the coasts that he had been tasked with protecting. Every skirmish and battle had slowly drilled intimate familiarity with these lands into his heart and mind. The shapes of the coastline were as well-known to him as the back of his own hand, as well as the sounds of the seashore, of the gulls and the lapping waves and the smell and taste of salt in the air: all of these and more had been etched into his memories, into his very being. Year after year after year after year of sailing past the same locations, of fighting before them, had imbued in him the exact lays of the lands that it was his sworn duty to protect.

Currently, all of these things served to amplify to Imrahil the fact that wherever he currently was not the southern coast of Gondor. Everything, every little detail of where he was currently standing, was just slightly different. The call of the gulls was the wrong pitch-the air tasted different, blander, the salt being much less potent-the winds blew from the wrong direction relative to the sun-the whole horizon was unrecognizable, the coastlines of Gondor replaced by an unfamiliar shore in one direction and a scattering of small islands in the other.

The beginnings of this...whatever it was had been simple enough: A storm had come up out of the sea, not a rare occurrence by any means, least of all in the ending days of January. There had been no sign beforehand that this one would be any different. But the storm that had come proved to be of a ferocity rarely, if ever, recorded in the annals of the Kingdom of Gondor. It hammering the whole coast without ceasing, thunder and wind roared like dragons in the sky, lightning and snow and hail tumbling from the pitch-black clouds. At some, uncertain point during the maelstrom the ground had begun to shake and tremble, slowly at first and then in ever increasing intensity, and then…

And then what? What had happened next was at best difficult to describe, at worst outright impossible. If pressed, Imrahil would have said that it somewhat similar to being in a dream, floating through a world that was somehow both very real and yet very much not. Everything seemed to freeze in that singular moment in time, a moment that lasted for what could have been the blink of an eye or several years: from the perspective of the Prince, the passage of time had become nearly impossible to determine, flowing as quickly as the Anduin to the sea at some times and at others as frozen as the Ice Bay of Forochel.

And then, as quickly as it had started, the moment came to an end, and the Prince of Dol Amroth had been thrown into the true crisis. Now, Imrahil had long been preparing for catastrophe, but he had always thought that it would come in the form of war: Four years before he had been born, Sauron had declared himself openly to the world and began the rebuilding of Barad-Dur. The year of his conception, Mount Doom had burst into flame, and the last of the Gondorians that had inhabited Ithilien had fled over the Great River. Ever since, the shadow of Mordor had grown ever darker, the reach of the Dark Lord becoming longer and his grasp tighter by the year. The endless skirmishes along the coasts and in the region of Ithilien, and how such small battles continually were becoming larger and more frequent, proved that much. The disaster that Imrahil had feared was that of a catastrophic defeat, of the loss of Gondor’s navy and the Corsairs gaining a foothold along the shore from which they could not be dislodged.

But this...this was not something that he, or indeed anyone short of a Valar, could have possibly prepared for. What had happened was still terrifyingly unclear, but its results were apparent: the whole of his city, the fortress of Dol Amroth, had been plucked from where it stood guarding Cobas Haven and had been thrown into some unfamiliar land, the only recognizable thing being the fellow Gondorian city of Pelargir, which had been apparently swallowed by the same storm and had been spat out besides Dol Amroth in whatever this place was.

The walls and citadels of both cities were both thankfully still intact, but everything within them was a mess: much had been toppled by the storm and the quake, the less sturdy structures within the great walls proving far less resistant to whatever forces had been applied to the cities. Similarly, most of the ships of the Gondorian fleet were intact (or at least salvageable), but many of the vessels had had their rigging badly damaged or outright destroyed, and almost all were in need of some form of repair.

Fear and terror, of course, reigned supreme. In a small blessing, such feelings had manifested in the people mainly as frozen shock instead of rioting and looting, although how much longer the stunned silence that had fallen across the two cities would last was anyone’s guess. For his part, Imrahil had sprung into action, if only as a way to keep himself occupied. His orders were given quickly, and within a matter of hours every soldier and guard within both Dol Amroth and Pelargir were in the process of reporting to their posts; the gates to the cities had been closed and barred; what ships were ready to sail had been moved to guard the harbor entrances. In the face of whatever they were facing, the soldiers of the two cities needed little motivation to prepare to protect their homes. The Prince of Dol Amroth desperately hoped that such actions would prove unnecessary in the coming days, but recent events did little to hearten him to such idealistic thoughts.

With the city at least momentarily secured, Imrahil turned his thoughts to other tasks. His mind briefly touched on the question of what, exactly, had happened to his city, along with the question of how and why, but the Prince of Dol Amroth quickly moved on from such ruminations. It would be a wasted effort to think on such things: Imrahil and the men that he consulted with were by no means dullards, but the leader of the Swan Knights was well aware that such questions would be far beyond their capacity to answer. Better to focus his energy on facing the issues that he had the resources to face. The more that the Prince of Dol Amroth turned his thoughts to these seemingly lesser problems, though, the more that he realized just how badly things might turn out.

The first issue would be that of food. While it was true that both Dol Amroth and Pelargir had laid down food and drinkable water for fear of a Corsair siege, these stores were relatively small, having been depleted slowly through the winter in anticipation of the spring harvest, and what was left could be counted on to last perhaps a month at the longest. The sea, of course, could be harvested for fish, but Imrahil did not relish the idea of sending ships into alien waters, largely due to the issue that Imrahil was currently being directly faced with.

That issue was the one of the Gondorian’s new neighbors: A small city of them was now all but a stone’s throw from the walls, and many of its inhabitants had started to gather in the lands between Dol Amroth’s gates and their own homes, looking towards the cities of Gondor with what seemed to be curiosity, and perhaps apprehension. They were men it seemed, or at least they appeared to be, but were of no land that the Prince of Dol Amroth or indeed any among the Gondorians recognized, and their tongue was completely foreign to Imrahil’s ears.

It was apparent that things would soon be coming to a head with Gondor’s new neighbors. There seemed to be some kind of a commotion among them, and it did not take long for Imrahil to see what it was: a small crowd of them were now approaching the walls. In particular, they were an armed and armored crowd, the members of which held the clear postures of trained soldiers, albeit rather nervous ones. These men came forwards under a red banner emblazoned with two golden stripes that formed a cross over its center, the four corners each holding an identical symbol, also in gold. They also carried another banner, one of pure white, which Imrahil hoped held the same meaning as it did in Gondor-a call for a truce.

“Who goes there?” the Prince of Dol Amroth called down from the ramparts as the group drew near the gates. They stopped, a murmur too soft to hear erupting amongst the small party. There was a long moment as the foreign men took council among themselves before, finally, one of them stepped forwards from the rest, clearly the leader among them: He wore no armor and carried no weapon, dressed rather in fine clothes, presumably those of a noble court.

“Can you speak more greek than that lone phrase?” the man called up in a loud voice, “Or must I find an interpreter?”

“What is this ‘greek, and why should we be speaking it?’” responded Imrahil, brow creasing slightly in confusion. “You speak clear westron-it would be far simpler to continue in the language that we both know, rather than whatever this ‘greek’ is.”

“What do you mean, ‘what is greek?’” the man called back, raising his own brow. “You are speaking greek at this very moment! Do not tell me that you do not know the name of your own language!”

“No,” spoke Imrahil again, further confusion edging into his voice, “it is you who are speaking westron ! Unless it is called by the name of greek here-I suppose that such things are certainly possible, and in light of recent events I would not be overly doubtful of such a coincidence.”

The dialogue between the two would have continued, but at that moment both of them noticed something, or rather, something made itself known to them: floating above the other man’s head had suddenly ignited a flickering flame, like that of a candle. This only added to Imrahil’s confusion, who was stunned to look above himself and see a similar fire, but the other man seemed entirely taken aback, as did his entire company, most of which were now staring agape at the small flame.

Another long moment passed in near silence, interrupted only by the renewed whispers that had erupted below. Looking down, Imrahil saw that several of the men below were now bowing down below the man with the fire above his head, and others were furiously gesturing at the flame with their hands. Even more confused, the Prince of Dol Amroth decided to begin speaking again, reasoning that doing nothing would answer none of his questions, and hoping that the men below, who apparently knew more of this phenomena than he did, would share in their knowledge.

“I am Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth,” he called down from the ramparts, “and I do believe that whatever these flames are, they are related to the question that we both must share. I readily admit that I have no knowledge of how my city came to these lands-am I right in assuming that neither do you?”

“I am Michael Stryphnos, megas doux of the Roman Empire, governor of this land,” the man replied, his company starting to regain their composure. “And you are correct in your judgement, at least about that. I, too, cannot answer the question of how or why your lands entered into mine. It would be best, perhaps, if we explored that question together.”

“Yes,” Imrahil answered back, a ghost of a smile coming to his face. “Perhaps it would be.”



The Duchy of Burgundy, France

 

Odo III, Duke of Burgundy, had thought that he would have more time. Despite his relative proximity to the Alps, and thusly to the demons and monsters that were said to now reside within, Odo had been confident that his own lands were beyond the reach of the coming storm, at least for the moment. The County of Burgundy, his name-sharing eastern neighbor in the Holy Roman Empire, made a convenient shield between himself and the mountains, and even if they were completely overrun there were several natural barriers that guarded the Duke’s holdings from attacks from the east, ranging from dense forests to hill country to the Saone River. All of this, the Duke had thought, would allow him some breathing room.

This did not mean that Odo had tarried in preparing for the coming war, far from it. Indeed, the Duke of Burgundy had been among the very first to begin levying his men and preparing fortifications in anticipation for what was coming. He had heard the whispers that had come from Germany and had read the Holy Father’s warning for himself, and had found both sources to be rather credible ones. By the time that the orders to mobilize had come from his liege, King Philip, Odo had already raised several hundred men, with hundreds more expected within the next few days and weeks.

Many of those men he had sent to join up with the main French army that was now being assembled at Paris, fulfilling most of the Duke’s feudal obligation to his overlord. What remained on hand were second-line troops, the younger and older generations that required more time to raise, train and equip, but this fact was not one that made Odo overly worried. It was a reasonable assumption to make that the veteran troops were not needed in Burgundy for the moment: the closest monsters were easily a hundred miles distant, and in a direction from which they would have trouble attacking.

In times of war, though, assumptions can bring disaster, and so it was in the case of the Duchy of Burgundy. Another storm had come the previous night, some three weeks after the first, its winds howling as if it were still the depths of midwinter and not nearing the coming of spring. Thunder roared in the heavens, and then, hidden by all-encompassing sleet and blinding flashes of lightning, then came the monsters, suddenly appearing in the wilds from little more than thin air. They were like the nightmares and horror stories of the French and Germans come to life, the horrific legends of those two people all gathered together and brought to this single place to unleash hell upon the poor, underprepared people of Burgundy.

Within hours, the defenses that Odo had prepared along his eastern border were almost completely overrun, the men stationed there fleeing for their lives or slaughtered at their posts. By dawn the next day, the line of fortifications along the Saone had been pierced and the fell creatures were flooding outwards in all directions, pushing into both the Duchy and the County of Burgundy to the west or east or following the Saone north into Lorraine or south towards Auvergne, quickly overrunning what little resistance could be hastily thrown into their paths.

The monsters had struck like lightning, and now Odo found himself decidedly on the backfoot. The sheer suddenness of the attacks, coupled with the lack of readiness among what little local forces remained, wreaked havoc on the Duke’s desperate attempts to organize some kind of defense. Events were unfolding too quickly, the situation changing too rapidly for anyone to know what was actually happening at any given moment, making proper response almost impossible. The constant flood of information into Dijon, from where Odo desperately tried to establish some kind of plan, was incomplete and often contradictory. Reports came in that they were attacking Chalon-s-Saone-no, Chalon-S-Saone had been bypassed, Paray-le-Monial was where the threat was greatest-no, the largest push was in the south, towards, Macon-no…

Worse yet, no one seemed to know exactly what was attacking them. If the Burgundians didn’t have accurate information on what they were facing, their defenses would be all the worse for it, and they had no accurate information. The defenders were facing monsters, certainly, but as to what kind there was, again, endless contradiction and confusion: there were sightings of everything from trolls to oversized wolves to goblin-like creatures to river spirits to even a few scattered claims of seeing a damn dragon. All of these reports disagreed about the sizes of the monsters, of where they were and in what numbers: the trolls were simply oversized men-no, they were fat, hulking, grey-skinned monstrosities. The wolves simply had glowing eyes and sharper teeth-no, they could change their shape into those of men. And so on and so forth, the ever-present question being what the Duke of Burgundy was actually fighting against. Odo prayed that the correct answer to that question was not ‘All of the Above.’

What was known for sure was that Duke Odo was facing a catastrophe. The County of Burgundy to the east had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen to the onslaught, all but a few holdouts like Vesoul and Besancon said to be overrun. Riders had been sent out in all directions to beg for aid, but many had been ambushed and killed, their messages never reaching their destination, and those that got through arrived at locations that were already being attacked. In the Duchy itself, most of the remaining defenders had started to coalesce near or within Dijon, facing constant pestering attacks that drove them further and further back towards the city. Soon enough, Odo would be under siege.

In such a situation, the Duke would be able to hold out for some time, but he feared that it wouldn’t be for long enough. Odo didn’t have the men to dare risk attempting a breakout, but trying to hold out in Dijon was hardly a more appealing option. Once the siege started, there would be few that would be able to help him: the other local lords were facing the same crisis as him, if they had not already been overcome by it-they would not be able to send any aid. That left army gathering at Paris would be his best, if not only chance for salvation, but by the time it had finished assembling and was ready to march south, it would likely already be too late to save the Duchy of Burgundy.

There was, however, one other option, if a somewhat desperate one. A week or so before, Odo had received a missive from Count Thomas of Savoy, describing the latter man’s expedition into the new mountains that had formed in the Alps. Thomas reported meeting with a man who he said was called ‘Saruman of Many Colors,’ a wise man that had come to this world along with the new lands. The Count of Savoy claimed that the wisdom of this Saruman would be critical in the coming days, and had invited most of the lords that neighbored his lands to Savoy to meet with him.

The Duke of Burgundy had not paid much attention to the invitation at the time, instead focusing on preparing his forces to join with those of the King, but now, with an army of monsters running rampant through his territory, Odo saw Thomas’ offer as, perhaps, his one chance to save his lands. King Philip, the Duke knew, would come as soon as he could, but that time might well come too late for the Duchy of Burgundy: too much of his territory was already lost, too many defenders, and what remained was too little to hold out against any kind of sustained attack. Odo could not dare wait so long.

The offer of the Count of Savoy seemed the better bet. Thomas’ lands were a good deal closer than Paris was, and from what Odo knew the Count had already fully raised his armies, and indeed had launched a small expedition with them. The Duke reasoned that the Savoyards would be able to come to Odo’s aid long before the King could, and at the very least, going to Savoy would allow the Duke to beg whoever among his other southern neighbors came to the council for help.

He did not dare go himself: he would not entrust the defense of his keep to another, and he could not bring himself to abandon his people in their time of need (he was also more than a little fearful of being attacked by monsters along the road). A letter would have to suffice. Odo’s message was brief and simple, doing little more than begging the Count of Savoy for whatever aid he could sent. The Duke of Burgundy would have to place his trust in the other man, and pray that it was not misplaced.

And he would have to pray that this “Saruman the White” was indeed who Thomas said he was.



Burgos, Castile

 

For what seemed for all the world like an eternity, King Alfonso VIII of Castile had been able to do little more than languish in his castle, waiting for something to happen. Ever since the damn storm had come, heralding the appearance of the dark forest that had consumed roughly half of his Kingdom, the surviving son of King Sancho III had been on edge, desperately desiring to do something, anything, but constantly stymied as to what.

Alfonso was, first and foremost, a soldier. He had been fighting since he was all but a child: his father had died young, leaving Alfonso himself to be proclaimed as King of Castile at the tender of age of two. His childhood had been spent hiding and fleeing from the various noble houses that had hoped to gain control of his regency, with factions that ranged from the Houses of Lara and Castro within the Kingdom to his uncles Ferdinand II of Leon and Sancho VI of Navarre without, and more than once he had only escaped capture, or perhaps death, by only the thinnest of margins.

It had taken literal decades for Alfonso to consolidate his hold on the throne of Castile, but once he had, his reign had been all but unchallenged. For a time, at least, the King of Castile had had peace: The Navarreans had been subdued with the aid of his father-in-law, King Henry II of England; his nephew Alfonso IX of Leon had been similarly all-but vassalized, the peace between the two spanish Kings secured by the younger Alfonso’s marriage to the elder’s daughter Berengaria, a political match that had proved to be a stable romantic one as well. The one remaining threat to his rule was the Muslims to the south, a point that had been proved by the disastrous Battle of Alarcos five years earlier, but the Almohads seemed to be content with their own holdings, at least for the time being. Castile, and indeed all of Iberia, had seemed to have finally found stability.

And then the damn storm had come, and once more it seemed that the Kingdom of Castile was to be plunged into utter chaos. Toledo, the capital and largest city was simply gone, consumed by the roaring thunder, howling winds and cackling lightning, as had almost everything else south of Valladolid. Those lands, representing a terrifyingly large percentage of Castile’s population, wealth and arable land, had been buried by a dark and foreboding woodlands that very few dared to enter, even under Alfonso’s orders, and from where even less returned, the survivors telling horror stories of bloodthirsty monsters that consumed men alive. Terror reigned supreme, and the people begged that their King do something, anything to allay their fears.

But what could Alfonso do? He was a soldier, not a scholar or a magician. This was not an enemy that he could lead an army against, not the kind of war that he could fight. He could raise what levies he had remaining, fortify the villages nearest the forest, call on any and every ally that he could, but all those measures were only preventative, actions that anyone could see could only stop the catastrophe from becoming worse, not truly make things better. Whatever terrible thing had happened to the southern half of his country was not one that the King of Castile could undo.

And despite taking what preventative actions that he could, it seemed that the crisis was growing anyways. Reports from the lands at the edges of the forest trickled in, claiming attacks by twisted versions of boars and wolves, sightings of massive spiders the size of dogs and perhaps larger. Unrest was everywhere, reports of riots and looting thankfully rare, but still present, and (terrifyingly) growing more frequent by the day. The number of troops that had so far been raised was distressingly small, the army of Castile having been reduced to a fraction of its size mere weeks, those that would have filled out its numbers having vanished in the storm. There was very little good news to be found anywhere in the kingdom.

The people turned to prayer, but even in their faith they could find little comfort. The reason for this was simple: those Castilians that remained looked to the south, to the half of their nation that had been destroyed, and wondered how a kind and loving God could let such things befall his followers. If the Devil had done this, than why had God, who was said again and again and again to be stronger and wiser, not stopped him? And if it was an action of God Himself...then why inflict such a terrible thing upon His children? Surely, this could not be retribution for some sin: if Castile had offended God, than why did half of the Kingdom remain intact? If this was punishment for the defeat at Alcaros, then why wait so long to inflict it?

The answers that the clergymen gave were less than hopeful ones. Some of the priests were as lost as their flock was, fear and doubt dominating them as much as it did the common people. Most of the rest, it seemed, said that these were the end times, that names were being read from the Book of Life and that soon the whole world would be put through its final tribulations. This, such men said, was only the first test of many yet to come, and each one of the approaching trials would be more terrible than the last.

Some took courage at these notions, trying to redouble their faith in the face of Armageddon. King Alfonso VIII was not one of these men. His world, for all intents and purposes, had already ended, being destroyed when Toledo had been. He himself had only been spared by sheer, dumb luck, the King having journeyed to Burgos because of some minor political squabble that he couldn’t even remember the reason for now. But his entire court, his entire family... none had been so fortunate as he. A month before, Alfonso had had five children and a wife. Now he had one child and was a widower.

Eleanor, his wife of 26 years, who despite marrying to gain a military alliance he had come to dearly love...his daughters, Urraca, Blanche and Mafalda, all of them still very much children, but God, they would have grown into wonderful women...Ferdinand, his heir, the only one of his sons that had survived infancy, the pride and joy of his life...in a single moment, all of them had been taken from him, not by war or plague or famine, but by something that the King of Castile could hardly even begin to comprehend.

Anger and grief were the only two emotions remaining to Alfonso now. If he had had an enemy to fight, perhaps he could have lost himself in battle, could have buried himself working to avenge himself on whatever had taken his family form him. But no: besides the small groups of monsters that occasionally came out of from the dark trees, there was no enemy for him to face. What could Alfonso do against plants and animals that would bring comfort to his heart? That would allow him to channel his furious rage?  He could not wage war on a forest any more than he could on the wind or the seas or the stars. He could cut and chop and burn the trees for a thousand years without doing serious damage.

Never in his life had Alfonso felt so utterly helpless: all he could do, it seemed was to scream and cry and wail at the heavens. He cursed and spat at the forest in lieu of trying to single-handedly cutting down every last tree, ordering his men to try doing so anyways, without success: the thick bark of the ancient wood slowed any attempts at cutting down the forest, and the trees, dampened by snow and sleet and cold, dark rain refused to burn. The dark woods stood, all-but impervious to Alfonso’s pathetic attempts to destroy them, silently mocking the helplessness of King of Castile.

Rest refused to come to him. His nights passed without sleep, filled with tears and thrashing and anguished screams, and this one, three weeks since the storm had first come, was no different. The darkness outside had been dispelled by the rising of the sun some time before, but no light could banish the shadowy thoughts of the troubled King. The feeble glow of the february sun, obscured by the seemingly omnipresent grey clouds above, brought no warmth to Alfonso’s heart, or indeed to any part of his flesh, the chamber of the King of Castile feeling for all the world as if it were still the depths of midwinter, the bitter, stinging cold of loss robbing the room of any and all warmth.

In the deepest and darkest part of his mind, at the very heart of the despair and grief that had taken root within his heart, evil thoughts began to stir. His anger and rage had fueled his will for some time, but after three weeks of helplessness and grief such emotions had burned themselves out, replaced with only further misery or a simple, empty void that seemingly nothing could fill. The entirety of the King of Castile’s life began to feel more and more meaningless, more and more hollow and empty. What could he, could any man, do against the disaster that had unfolded, and was continuing to unfold, in the south?

There were whispers from the northeast, ones that offered a potential answer: he could die, and leave this disaster to those that remained. The people of Toulouse, the Albigensians, it was said, chose suicide in the face of this crisis, consumed by fear and despair. There was, Alfonso realized, a certain amount of appeal to such a choice. It would be so simple, perhaps, to bring an end to all of his suffering, to have the burden of facing this catastrophe pass out of his hands, to have no more grief or rage or helplessness...

“No. That is not the answer to any question.”

The voice shook the room, a booming sound somewhat like the beating of drums and blowing of trumpets. The weak sunlight that entered into the room suddenly multiplied by what seemed a thousand fold, flooding Alfonso’s chamber with a golden glow. After a moment, the light faded slightly, and Alfonso peeked out from under his covers, looking around the roome to dare and try to discern the source of the light and the voice.

He did not have to search for long: Standing before him, giving off radiant golden glow, was a man of ruddy complexion, his hair and beard like woven gold and his face ablaze like the sun. They were, in a word, gigantic: not in height, no, but rather in build, with muscles as thick as sailor’s ropes, wrapped around limbs that were like tree trunks. They continued to speak, their deep voice rumbling like thunder in the mountains.

“You would find no comfort in death’s embrace: The Judge of souls does not take kindly to many, least of all those who hurl themselves willingly into his halls. I tell you that the Houses of the Dead would be the last place the you would find the peace that you seek.”

“But enough of such morbid thoughts,” the figure said, straightening up and striding over towards where Alfonso lay. With a broad sweep of their arm, they grabbed a chair that had been sitting across the room, pulling it up besides the bed of the King of Castile and taking a seat. “There are other matters to attend to this day.”

The figure’s gaze bored through Alfonso, their golden eyes not simply at but rather into the king, looking there for something immaterial. The twin orbs glowed with a stunning intensity as they did so, both blazing like the noonday sun as they darted across the man before them. For a long moment this continued, the two staring at each other in silence, before finally the glowing figure nodded to themselves, reassured of something.

“I’ve gone mad.”

The words slipped from Alfonso’s mouth almost unbidden, a loose thought that had managed to escape from his mind before falling freely from his slack jaw. The figure simply shrugged in response, a small smile coming to their lips.

“Perhaps you have, they said with a half-chuckle, “but perhaps a small spark of madness is needed in days such as these. I doubt that any man has stayed wholly sane after all that has occurred.”

“Perhaps,” mumbled Alfonso, still unsure as to whether this was all in his head or not. Perhaps he had finally been broken by his grief, but then again, perhaps not. Certainly, stranger and more terrifying things had happened in the previous month. Trying to make sense of the sight before him, Alfonso asked the most basic question that he could think of:

“Who are you?”

“I am Tulkas the Valiant, but you would know me better by other names, none of which are overly important to this moment. What you must know is that I am here as a messenger of the Lord, and that I am here to help you save your Kingdom.”

“Save it?” Alfonso’s tone was one of utter bewilderment, the King of Castile throwing aside his covers and rising from his bed, standing before the golden figure. “Save it how? If you wish to save my Kingdom, than I am sorry to tell you that you are three weeks to late! Half my lands have been destroyed already, an-”

“And half of them yet remain to be defended,” the figure interjected, their eyebrow briefly creasing as they, too, stood up to their full, gigantic height. “Tens of thousands of your subjects are just as terrified and bereaved as you are, and are in desperate need of a light to lead them out of this darkness. When they look to you, their King, for that light, what will they find? This?”

Tulkas looked down at where Alfonso had fallen to the floor, cowering in terror. Watching the shuddering man, the giant continued.

“A broken shell of a man, contemplating taking his own life to escape these trials? If you fall, Alfonso of Castile, than know that your Kingdom, and all the other Kingdoms of Iberia, will fall with you. But if you rise...”

Tulkas stopped speaking then, simply looking down at the King, studying them. Then, after a long moment, they sighed, returning to their seat and gesturing for Alfonso to do the same. Slowly, still shuddering in fear, the King of Castile did so, taking a seat on the edge of his bed as the giant resumed speaking.

“I will not say do not grieve for what has happened, no: let your grief come out, let your tears fall, let your wails sound to the heavens. But know that nothing can be done for the past, no matter how much we wish it were so. A time must come to dry your tears, stand up and carry on, and I dare say that there is no time like the present to do so.”

“How?” whispered Alfonso, “how can I?”

“That is what I am here to tell you,” Tulkas boomed, “and you had best listen well: I cannot dare remain long, lest the eye of the Enemy fall upon you, so my time here must be brief.”

“The Enemy?” the King of Castile asked: the way that the giant had spoken sounded as if that had been a specific name. “Are they the one responsible for this disaster!?”

“Indirectly, yes,” Tulkas spoke, nodding. “There are two others responsible for bringing their world to yours, but without the Enemy, they never would have had reason, or even the chance, to do so.”

“So how do I fight this enemy!? How do I avenge my children!?” Alfonso roared, standing once again, rage reigniting within him.

The giant laughed in response, smiling broadly as he did so, standing tall once again. After a long moment, Tulkas looked down at Alfonso with a wide grin upon his face.

“It is good to see that your fighting spirit remains, Alfonso of Castile,” he chuckled, sitting back down, “you will need such a fire within you, and soon. As for how to fight the enemy, I will tell you what I can.”

“Now,” the giant continued, once he was sure that he had Alfonso’s full attention, “My time before the Enemy turns his eye upon me is short: too short to tell you all that you will need to know. Therefore another will have to do so: there is a certain man coming to your court, a priest from the village of Osma by the name of Dominic. When he arrives, you must listen to every word that he has to say: he will tell you much of what you need to know to face this darkness: the enemies that you will face, the allies that will stand by your side. But before he arrives, go to the Abbey of San Pedro de Cardena. There you will find the blades of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, Tizona and Colada. Take them up. You will need them to face the coming shadow.”

Tulkas paused then, waiting to see that the King of Castile had heard and understood what he had been told. Alfonso waited for him to continue, and when he did not, the King frowned deeply.

“Is that all?” Alfonso said, a slight moan in his voice. “Is that all that you can give me: two old swords and visit from a priest? What am I to do with so little against so much?”

“I wish that I could do more for you,” spoke Tulkas, bowing his head somewhat, “but even now my time draws short. The eye of the Enemy draws nearer this very moment. I must take my leave, and soon.”

To illustrate that point, the giant once again stood to their full height, starting to move to leave. Over their shoulder, Tulkas spoke once more:

“The fate of all of Iberia, and perhaps beyond, lies with you, Alfonso of Castile. This war has only just begun, and the road ahead of you will be long and gruelling. But you must walk it regardless, for if you fall, than your Kingdom will fall with you. You must rise above this shadow, before it consumes you and all that remains of your realm and your family. Remember what I have said: take up Tizona and Colada. Dominic of Osma will bring you further news, as well as a small part of the comfort that you seek."

Tulkas began fading from view then, his light slowly beginning to diminish. As he left, his final words echoed through the small room: "I do not envy the task that you have been assigned. But I know that it must be done. You cannot back down. Do not shrink from this task: soon enough, you will see that you do not walk alone."

And then the giant was gone, and the light that he had brought with him disappeared. King Alfonso VIII of Castile was once again left alone in the dark, the shadow around and within him his only company. His thoughts remained somewhat shrouded. Tulkas, as the giant had called himself, seemed to have given him very little indeed, doing little more than telling him to recover a pair of swords that were both more than a century old, and then to await the arrival of this Dominic of Osma. The King of Castile very much doubted that such things would be anywhere close to enough in the face of the disaster he faced.

News that there was a force behind what had laid his country low, and enemy (‘The’ Enemy) to face, was better to his ears. Tulkas had left before giving him details, apparently relying on this ‘Dominic’ to tell him what he needed to know. It was some comfort, at least, to know that he could fight back against this disaster, but he wished that he had been given more to work with than what the giant had given him.

But the giant had given him something, Alfonso did have to admit that much, and from what information he had the King did not overly bemoan that he had not given more: the ‘Eye of the Enemy’ metaphorical or not, was clearly not something that he wanted to have upon him. Tulkas had given him tiny, seemingly insignificant things, yes, but after such a long time of absolutely nothing there seemed to be little choice but to accept that this meager offering was all that Alfonso would receive, at least for the moment.

And who knew? These meager offerings might yet prove to be like pebbles that started an avalanche, the first tiny steps towards something far greater, towards avenging his wife, his children and his whole Kingdom. That might be an overly optimistic view, but Alfonso was more than ready for an interruption to the endless stream of malevolent thoughts that had dominated his mind for three weeks. Tulkas had lit a fire within him, however small that it was. Two swords and a priest, and an enemy to fight.

It was not much, no, but at least it was something.