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The Pale Wood

By BentSinister17 All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Fantasy

Poor Knight of the Wood

Poor Knight

of the

Wood

1

Sir Kendrick pulled his horse up short of the gate.

His eyes walked up, to the right and to the left of the gate. He saw the wall for the first time. The wall of myth and fable, built to keep back the doom and condemn one poor man.

The wall rose a hundred feet up, weathered stone, gray and forbidding. The wall circled the wood, a quaint name for a forest that spanned a hundred square miles or more.

The gate was made of thick, steel strong planks of ancient bone wood, named as such for the color, that of sun bleached bone, yellowed by age, mottled with coppery veins. Iron bands held the gate together. Massive hinges of iron bolted it to the wall. Iron rings dangled black in the wan light of the dying day.

A squat house rested to the right of the gate and housed the squad of Gatekeepers. These men guarded the key that unlocked the gate and thus the entrance. The Poor Knight of the Wood guarded the inside. Gatekeepers kept the Poor Knight and everything else in.

Treetops rose above the wall. Gnarled branches, like fingers scrabbling at the gray sky, swayed in the lofty breeze. A few blood-red leaves clung to branches whose brown bark peeled revealing the bones beneath.

A rugged man in black iron armor waited for Sir Kendrick and his retinue of adventurers. Emblazoned on the rugged man’s coat of gray was a gold key. His halberd rested in the crook of his arm.

“Sir Knight, I’ll have your writ please.” Sir Kendrick drew the scroll of parchment from a bag slung across his saddle and handed it to the man. He marveled at the man’s strained courtesy. The Gatekeepers demeanor was not unexpected, but strange as the gate and the wall containing the wood inside was less than a day’s journey from the city. The words themselves offered no insult, but the way they were spoken suggested a barely contained wildness. Few followed the road to the gate, and those few were a rare sort, touched by madness or bound by duty, with occasional entrepreneur thrown in.

The Gatekeeper broke the wax seal with a jagged thumbnail black with dirt. He unrolled the parchment and read the words therein. His lips moved as he read. The Gatekeepers were an old order, guardians of the key, defenders of the realm, the third defense against the horrors imprisoned in the wood.

“Will you be entering today, or on the morrow?” The Gatekeeper asked.

Sir Kendrick looked at him and replied. “As soon as the gate opens, we enter. I would see the stars from inside tonight.”

The Gatekeeper nodded. “As you wish Sir Knight and so it will be done.”

Old words spoken in formal tones, exchanged in the traditions long established. That night would see Sir Kendrick within the walls, but of the stars, there could be no sign.

Other Gatekeepers appeared as he blew through a wooden whistle three times. All wore the black iron and the gold key. There were six. Two carried the bone wood cask containing the key. They strode to the gate.

“I am Ballard, Sir Knight.” The Gatekeeper said as he turned toward the gate. Ballard walked to the cask and produced a small black key. He turned the key in the lock and lifted the lid. The two who’d carried the cask lifted the gate key from within. The gate key was not golden, but black iron. The key was as long as a man’s arm from wrist to elbow. The duo pushed it into the lock and turned it, the grinding of the tumblers was an unnatural sound to the preternatural quiet of the area. The lock clicked, and two men grabbed one ring and began to pull the gate wide. Two for the key, two for each ring, and one to see them through; the seven Gatekeepers demanded by tradition.

“Sir Kendrick, is it wise to enter as night falls?” This was Cavill, Sir Kendrick’s squire and oldest friend.

Sir Kendrick looked to his friend and said:

“It is too late now.”

Sir Kendrick spurred his horse into the gloom waiting in the wood. He was followed by Cavill, his squire, Hugh, priest of the Forgotten Gods, Devlin, a thief saved from the noose by his aptitude with locks and fortuitous timing, Kos, man-at-arms, and the sorcerer Stitch.

When the last man passed through, the gates slammed shut and the grinding of the lock was once again heard.

Six men and seven horses looked with wary eyes into the swirling fog and gloom of the bone wood.

2

Summer, having fled, left falling leaves in her wake. The leaves lay scattered across the forest floor; a stubborn few remained on the trees, but these were lost in the unfathomable heights shrouded in the mist.

Sir Kendrick walked his horse towards a fire. The dancing, yellow flames issued the thinnest tendrils of smoke, wispy and iridescent, the smoke curled in upon itself, then it leapt to the sky above, mingling with its chill brethren, the fog. Blackened stone ringed the blaze.

A solitary man sat gazing into the fire as the haunch of some beast roasted above it. Sir Kendrick tried to measure the Poor Knight by his eyes, but shadows clung to his brow.

The Poor Knight wore a boiled leather cuirass, gray wool beneath, and a cloak made from the skin of wolves. Perched on his shoulder sat a raven who glared at the party with black eyes.

He remained seated and said no words, but he looked up and met Sir Kendrick’s gaze. His eyes were a cold gray. Sir Kendrick noted his brow and cheekbones were burned by weather and wind, but his chin and cheeks were pink and raw. He’d shaved as was custom to show he was still a man even if he was the poorest in all the realm.

Cavill spoke first. “Poor Knight, taking the Prince’s deer is a crime, even for you.” Cavill pointed at the meat roasting and sweating into the fire.

Cold eyes, devoid of emotion looked at the squire. “It is good then, that this is a wolf and not a deer, so you have no need to mete out the king’s justice on a poor soul such as mine own.” The words bit, a mere glance demonstrated that the roasting flesh was no deer.

Cavill flinched.

Kos slid from his mount and dragged the thief Devlin from his saddle after severing the ropes that bound him. Devlin staggered, he rubbed his wrists and stomped his feet to force blood into his numb hands and feet. Kos pushed him down hard.

“Sit dog or I’ll whip you where you stand.”

Kos was a hard man who took pleasure in demonstrating his superiority to all men in battle, drink, or between the sheets. Kos wore both a long sword and a whip. He gripped the handle of his whip and tugged it free. Devlin glowered at the man remembering the kiss of leather on his back.

“We are all prisoners here.” The Poor Knight stated in his measured tone. He looked at Kos with his cold eyes bearing neither malice nor love, only the calm potential for violence.

From her perch on the Poor Knights shoulder the raven ruffled her feathers and spoke with her forked tongue in a voice uncannily like that of the Poor Knight. “Only the foolish and the brave enter Castle Thrace, and I am not brave.”

“Hush Alia.” The Poor Knight cooed.

This Poor Knight- for many had come before him- was sentenced to the Bone Wood Purgatory for an act of cowardice. This act caused him to be stripped of all land, all titles, and his name leaving him with only that cursed moniker of the Poor Knight of the Wood.

Kos looked from Devlin to the raven to the Poor Knight. “Look at your champion thief, look at him well. His only friend, a damned bird.” Kos spat. “Look well and see a man held in lower regard than yourself.”

Devlin looked. He did so because to disobey was to feel the whip, but then he thought, not in this place. In the wood of bones where pale trees promised Armageddon, all men were equal. Those haunted trees ruled here and cared nothing for men. Devlin shivered wondering if he was any better off here than atop the gallows, hemp cinched around his throat, the apple bobbing as he gulped and waited for the floor to drop.

Sir Kendrick looked at Kos and saw him for the first time, and wondered if bringing him was wise, as if the choice had been his to make.

Hugh cleared his throat. “Are we to bed here this evening Poor Knight?”

The Poor Knight nodded to the priest. Hugh was a man of middle years, dark hair growing lighter for the gray. Hugh sighed. He gathered his cloak about him and sat by the fire.

The sorcerer, Stitch surveyed the shadows encircling them, pointed to the cloak of wolf fur on the Poor Knight’s shoulders and spoke in a rasp. “Will the wolves be joining us?”

The Poor Knight looked at the ragged face of a man losing a slow battle with time, accelerated by wine.

“No, the fire will keep them at bay.”

Stitch nodded and spread a blanket over the ground and sat.

Sir Kendrick sat as well while Cavill set about unsaddling and hobbling the horses, feeding and brushing them as well.

“How long to Castle Thrace?” Sir Kendrick asked of the Poor Knight.

“Two days.”

“Two days? Can it be so far?”

It was Hugh who answered. “Yes my good Knight, it can be. The Pale Wood is an old place.”

“I had not realized…” Sir Kendrick said, but most from the city kept well away from the tall walls standing sentinel against the trees and their threatening encroachment..

“A steady pace will take a week or more to walk around the wall.” Hugh said. “The Sacred Scrolls of the Fey tell us that if the Bone Wood trees should ever break free of the wall the world will die.”

Stitch barked a laugh.

“You doubt this?” Hugh asked.

“I doubt any scroll made by hands other than my own.”

“It is unwise to doubt in a place such as this. What say you Poor Knight?” Hugh looked to the Poor Knight as if a condemned man could be an authority on more than his coming death.

The Poor Knight drew a dirk and a stone from beneath his cloak. He began to sharpen the blade on the stone. The sound was unlike stone and steel, but stone and wood. Leather wrapped the hilt and the blade was black as coal save the edge, the edge glowed an eerie yellow. The edge looked like bone.

“This,” the Poor Knight said and paused from sharpening to look up and about and wave the dirk in a slow arc. “No place for men.”

Stitch sneered. “I am more than a man.”

The Poor Knight looked at Stitch and nodded. “So say we all. This place will tell the truth of it, doubt it to your detriment.”

Cavill handed Hugh his pack, then he offered Stitch his pack. Stitch bristled at the insult only he perceived.

Devlin scratched at the lice inhabiting his mangy scalp.

Light evaporated and night fell. There was no sunset, no gradual loss of day, but the quick murder of the day by night.

Before Cavill could sit, the Poor Knight asked after a kettle. Cavill produced one and the Poor Knight took it and walked into the gloom. They saw him to be tall and lean. His steps made little sound and the darkness swallowed him.

The Poor Knight returned and set the kettle full of water on the coals. “And tea, you brought tea?” He asked.

The water boiled, then was poured into cups where leaves steeped and darkened in the hot water. All six men watched the Poor Knight as he held his cup under his nose and closed his eyes. He inhaled the steam and held it. He did this for some time until he finally took a sip. The Poor Knight smiled. None of these men would see that sight again.

The Poor Knight drank tea while the others ate. A porridge was made and the wolf meat eaten. Devlin was given a dogs share of bone with tendon and ligament clinging. He broke open the bone to suck out the marrow and thought of stabbing Kos in the throat with the jagged edge, but lacked both courage and confidence.

The Poor Knight put more meat on to roast and gave Devlin the first share while he drank more tea. When the Poor Knight ate,he ate last and only those portions the others would eschew with the exception of Devlin. Devlin understood gut gnawing hunger. He picked a bone clean, but shared his tidbits with the raven.

Mist formed from every breath and the lot of them curled into blankets save Devlin who had none. The Poor Knight gave him his cloak.

As heavy eyes began to close and dreams crept out of the shadows to invade the minds of men, the Poor Knight spoke to Sir Kendrick.

“My lord, I will guide you to the castle, my sword is yours as the law demands, but all is lost if tomorrow we wake and you are not master.”

The raven, Alia, flung herself into the night cackling as she disappeared into the black.

Sir Kendrick closed his eyes and suppressed a shudder.

3

Sir Kendrick awoke to the crackle and pop of the fire and gray dawn light. He looked and saw an eagle and two rabbits roasting on a spit, the kettle, full and boiling, and a pile of hearts, livers, and other small organs sizzling on a flat stone. The raven feasted on all that was unfit for the consumption of men.

The Poor Knight sat and sharpened his dirk.

Kendrick marveled at the blade made from the bone trees of the wood. His eyes spied the sword made of the same. The Poor Knights fashioned their weapons from the trees as all metal was forbidden to them and Sir Kendrick marveled at the simple elegance of the Poor Knights arms. He couldn’t help but notice the brutal lethality of them.

This Poor Knight, his Poor Knight, carried dirk and sword, buckler and spear. The wood, once carved, then was held to the fire, and hardened. These blades were said to be stronger than steel. They were all black from the heat, the color of soot save for the sharpened edge that was white as sun baked bone. The sword was as long as a long sword, but carried only one edge. It was narrow near the hilt and fattened toward the tip; it looked vaguely like the belly of a pregnant woman. The edge shone white inside the curve of the blade. The buckler was round, made of wood the color of charred bone.

The Poor Knight seeing this scrutiny offered his dirk to Sir Kendrick hilt first. The knight held the simple blade, hefted it, thumbed the sharpened edge, and returned it. The touch of it made his skin crawl. Perhaps the legend of these woods was the culprit, perhaps not.

Devlin stirred and sat up clutching the cloak around his thin shoulders. His eyes darted around the fire avoiding the indistinct shapes of the mist shrouded wood.

Stitch lay on his back, and then he sat. None saw him rise, he lay, and then he sat as if no motion were involved.

Hugh rubbed his eyes as he rose.

Cavill was up, pulling oats and tea from his bags. The oats were mixed with water and beer. Cavill formed the mix into cakes between pressed palms and set them to cook on the stone with the hearts and livers.

The Poor Knight drank tea and ate a cake offered him by Cavill at Sir Kendrick’s direction. Kos took the lion’s share of the eagle while Stitch and Hugh shared a rabbit. Kos gave what remained of the bird to Devlin who ate greedily. Sir Kendrick and Cavill ate the remaining rabbit leaving only the hearts and livers for the Poor Knight. He ate these without complaint.

Mist clung to the trees. The gray light diffused through the mist. The day was bright, but visibility was poor. Sound was muffled more than the previous day. Only the Poor Knight seemed unconcerned.

Devlin kept the wolf skin cloak.

After the horses were saddled, the Poor Knight doused the fire. He strode to the only horse without a rider. Six pairs of eyes followed him. He touched the nose of the mare. She was red with splashes of white on her nose and feet. The raven Alia settled on the Poor Knights shoulder and stayed there as he swung into the saddle.

The Poor Knight led the way deeper into the wood. After twenty feet, a look back revealed nothing but the mist and shadowy trees.

“Will the ghosts come?” Devlin asked in a trembling voice.

“No.” Replied the Poor Knight.

Hugh spoke up, “The Bone Wood is not haunted lad, though it feels that way.”

Devlin took furtive looks into the misty gloom and Hugh smiled. Devlin was just a boy and like all of them pressed into this quest by some outside force. The thief’s conscription was in many ways the most honest and simple. An irony not lost on Hugh.

“What do you know of the Wood, boy?” Hugh asked.

“The boy knows shit-all unless it involves slipping locks and slicing purses.” Kos offered and spat.

Devlin scowled at the man at arms. “Walled, and that’s all Ghosts howl sometimes.”

Hugh nodded in understanding. He was familiar with boys of this type. Often they were orphans, cast offs left to their own devices by a city teeming with coin and food, but none for them lest they take it. Boys like Devlin were human refuse. “The Bone Wood is said to be the remains of one of the Forgotten Gods. The trees his bones emerging from the earth.” Hugh looked to Devlin to be sure he listened. This was Hugh’s element sermonizing to the individual. “This god sleeps, neither living nor dead. When he awakes, then the world will lament his return, for it was men who cast him into slumber. The Fey men of Castle Thrace.”

“Hope he never wakes.” Devlin said, a slight tremble in his voice.

“Fear not boy, as long as the wall stands, the trees cannot expand to cover all the lands. This is how he will awaken, when he has roots in all the soil possessed by man or beast.” Hugh told him.

“Rubbish.” Stitch declared.

“You wish to debate theology with me?” Hugh asked.

They all stopped. The Poor Knight sat his horse and stared at them. His eyes were hard, shrouded in their own way like the massive trees around them. He was of the Wood in a way none of them could be.

“The Bone Wood is no place for banter and debate. If the trees are the bones of a god, then he is listening. If not, something just as terrible is listening. We are all being weighed. We will all of us be judged. Those who are found lacking will feed these trees with their blood and soul.” After this the Poor Knight would say no more.

They rode on in silence accompanied only by their thoughts.

3

The previous night, Devlin had feigned sleep. The plan in his mind was a simple one. This Poor Knight seemed not at all in tune with other men. Small wonder that this should be so, he was rarely in the company of men. Devlin waited for the Poor Knight to sleep. Devlin wanted the dirk. A sword, he had no use for. Likely a sword in his hand was more danger to his own body than any other, so he waited. He waited a long time, but the man never rolled over to let sleep overwhelm him. Instead, the Poor Knight rose from where he sat and wandered into the darkness.

Sleep took Devlin before the Poor Knight returned. It was in sleep that the Poor Knight came and whispered in his ear. Devlin could feel the chill that crept over him at the Poor Knights words. The wolf skin cloak was not nearly warm enough to chase that particular chill away. And yet, the words whispered were lost to him. He could not recall what had been said, but that something was said chilled him cold.

He was sure it was the Wood. As a boy he’d known of this place, the city was not so far away and everyone knew of it. Pilgrims came to the gates to stare at the trees that looked over the walls. Some walked around in the hopes of discovering a stray branch fallen over in a storm.

The wood was weird.

Bone wood elicited strange feelings and prickly thoughts. Some said that the trees with their pale wood were more than bones, but the ghosts of those who came before, trapped in the belly of the Forgotten God even as they destroyed him and scattered his bones.

Sorcerers paid good coin for the wood. The longer and heavier the branch, the greater the coin, and the greater the unease in just touching such.

The priest had told, and Devlin listened. Better to feign ignorance for ones such as these. They sat perched high up and wouldn’t favor him if he knocked them free by knowing the lessons they sought to teach.

Devlin looked up as the mist lifted to reveal patches of sky through reaching, skeletal branches. Castle Thrace remained shrouded in mist. The peak upon which the castle perched remained veiled night or day. Where even the smallest of children could point to it and say, there is Castle Thrace, none saw it, at least not all of it. The veil of mist twisted, moved, but never lifted. To catch a glimpse of tower, wall or rampart was considered the best of luck, so the gaze was often compelled to look. For Devlin this would not be his first time to see the castle. He knew of some who claimed to have seen it, but he knew all of them to be liars. They were much like himself, unlucky. Poor wretches, the dregs of an uncaring city. Had he seen the castle at the right time, just once, he knew he’d have scored big in some swindle; cut a purse filled with gold, tumbled the lock in a door that led to treasures… Or so he’d always believed.

He was unlucky. It is why he was there. He’d been caught. The gaol could not hold him. He’d escaped. Not for long as it turned out.

Then the sky broke as they took him back and he saw but the slimmest glimpse of the castle, the barest hint of stone that disappeared as quickly as it had come. It brought him no luck, or so he thought. Just as the gaolers were about to break his fingers to hamper his escaping again, he was saved from busted fingers and the noose, to be sent to this place of horrors. No luck at all.

A quest was called by the priesthood of the Forgotten Gods and as always, a thief was needed. Every seven years a quest was called. He would go to Castle Thrace and if, if he lived, he would be pardoned. Either way, the hangman and his noose would never see him lest he got caught thieving after a pardon.

Hugh smiled at Devlin. It was a reassuring smile and a nod. Hugh wanted to allay the slim boy’s fears. His hand had to be steady if they were to succeed within the castle.

The boy reminded Hugh of himself in a way that disturbed him. The thief’s face held awe and wonder and excitement as well as fear. These things plainly stated by the slack-jawed youth in his manner of speech and cock of the head; wide gaping eyes too. The boy believed in so much. And so much of his belief was false.

Hugh longed to proclaim the falsehood of his faith, to empower the boy with his conviction that the stories of the Forgotten Gods were just that, stories, but the boy would never believe. His kind never did. The poor and downtrodden clung to faith as a wounded knight clung to sword or spear. It was the lifeline that kept him afloat. It was not the boy’s fault, no. Hugh could see that Devlin was small and thin, dirty. An orphan cast onto streets rife with cruelty. The poor boy knew no letters and the only sums he knew were those rudiments for counting coin. Even so, those born to his caste were one and all deficient with respect to intellect and therefore forgiven for their failing. This was so in the eyes of Hugh if no one else. Many of his order felt the same as he. Whispers abounded the halls of Garavinga. Whispers that the priesthood was a mere fiction, an artifice for power.

Hugh sought that power. His faith was in himself, in the surety of his decisions and in his ability to raise the peasantry up out of the muck and into something more… respectable.

Seeking power had its price. Why else would he be here, in this place? His mask nearly faltered as he thought of his enemies and their use of visions to plant him in the company of those around him. Few men returned from the castle. Hugh knew in his heart of hearts that the quest was no more than a political ploy to be rid of him; the use of tradition to purge the House of the Forgotten Gods of one who threatened the established order. He had enemies. Yes he did.

Stitch rode beside Hugh and saw his nods and smiles at the thief. He also saw the smile slip as some inward rumination exposed him. Stitch barked a laugh that earned him a puzzled look from all but the Poor Knight.

Few sorcerers lived in the city these days, driven off by the influence of the priests of the Forgotten Gods, but Stitch remained with others, their chapterhouse far from empty. The same priests who plied him with gifts and promises if he would but join the quest. Some old tome demanded a sorcerer accompany a priest, a knight, and the Poor Knight into Castle Thrace.

Stitch made them beg. He made them open up the library hidden beneath their halls to him. Stitch guessed that Hugh was never allowed to peruse the scrolls and grimoires, but he had. Stitch took some of those books too. Payment. He would also take bone wood from this place as well. He now owned the priests, they hated him and needed him and that made him the happiest man alive, or so he would say. His former master would choke on the words. The man bristled that his student succeeded where he’d failed.

The Poor Knight rode alone at the head of their column. The raven Alia perched on his shoulder. Behind him rode Sir Kendrick and Cavill side by side. Next came Hugh and Stitch. Devlin rode just ahead of Kos who seemed convinced the thief would bolt if given the chance.

The Poor Knight called a halt and slipped from his saddle. The ground was even and there was a fire pit ringed by blackened stone. A spit hovered above dead coals.

Sir Kendrick remained seated on his horse. “Unless I am mistaken, we have almost an hour of daylight yet.”

The Poor Knight nodded. “That is so.”

“Why then are we stopped?”

The Poor Knight, looked up at Sir Kendrick. “Night fall’s sudden Within the Wall, the day dies quick and violent. Best not to be caught in the dark.”

“”You seem at ease in the pitch black.” Cavill noted.

“I am, but the rest of you are not.” The Poor Knight replied.

Kos spoke with a sneer.”The coward seeks to name us all thus.”

The Poor Knight turned to the man-at-arms and pointed toward the peak veiled in mist. They could see the faint, shadowy outline of Castle Thrace through the mist. “We ride tomorrow whether we stop now, or when night descends. Here we have a camp. Elsewhere…” The Poor Knight shrugged before turning away. He gathered leaves and twigs and grass. These he piled in the pit before seeking heavier fair to feed the fire.

The Poor Knight rested his spear against a tree, and then laid his sword at the foot of the tree with his buckler before walking into the trees. He returned with an armful of wood and bark.

Again, he left this time plucking stones from the earth and dangling a sling from his hand.

Stitch lit the fire using his arcane talent; this took no less time than flint and steel. Cavill took care of the horses again while Devlin plotted and Hugh prayed. Kos grumbled and as night fell, the Poor Knight returned with a brace of birds at his belt.

4

Dreams in the Bone Wood were unlike dreams beyond the wall. It was as if the trees plotted to bring a man to madness, to drag him into the abyss.

The Poor Knight knew this and slept little. His dreams were plagued with pictures of all he lost. Awake, the city was a distant, an unremembered blur. The faces of his wife and children blank masks, but in sleep, all was sharp clarity. He saw his wife’s face sharp and true. Her tawny brown hair tangled in the morning sun, her clear blue eyes. He saw his daughters and his son. All the image of their mother. He saw the shame written on their faces. He saw the price of poverty. Hard enough to be poor from birth, was it worse to be stripped of affluence?

The Poor Knight dreamed of a whole world lost to him.

Sir Kendrick’s dreams were filled with wood and leather. He dreamt of taking the mantle of the Poor Knight. He dreamt of failure and banishment. He dreamt of a coward’s decision stripping him of all he held dear. Sir Kendrick was young, younger than the Poor Knight when he was exiled to the Wood. Sir Kendrick had no wife and no estate, no children and no bastards that he was aware of. His dreams reminded him that all he had to lose was the future.

Cavill saw his dreams of knighthood wash away in a torrent of fear and destruction. He felt the terrible weight of expectation crush him. Then he felt the press of ambition, an anvil on his chest making him gasp and cough. In the dream he fought for air, for life itself, and lost himself in the process.

Hugh saw the faces of the Forgotten Gods and was washed away in their terrible beauty. The certainty of existence crippled him. The falsity of his faith crippled mind and body.

Stitch labored over spells that failed and felt his intellect slip away, leaving him a drooling invalid so feeble in mind as to make his body useless. He smelt his own stink as it wafted up to him, his body stewing in its waste, his mind forgotten, less even than those Forgotten Gods.

Devlin hung. His neck refused to break, his pipes refused to close all the way. He hung and did not die even as the crows pecked and picked at his flesh. He hung, his trousers filled with shit and piss, the stench of his own decay filling his nose as he rotted in a half-death of interminable length.

Kos dreamed too. His dreams were those of conquest. He rose to lord and perpetrated his cruelties as he pleased, unflinching in his use of fiery brands and devices of torture.

Then his dreams shifted and he was cast down, betrayed. He found himself in the dungeons, he was beaten, and his skin was raw from the bite of leather. He was the one raped.

The trees affected them all. How could they not, these trees born of a Forgotten God’s bones.

5

As swift as the night fell, the day bloomed. The Poor Knight sat with a stone and a small section of wood. He rubbed the stone down the length creating a slim blade honed sharp and deadly. He pushed the blade into coals and waited.

Devlin watched as he ate cold roast wolf. Cavill readied the horses.

Dark circles ringed all eyes save for the Poor Knight.

Hugh looked at the thin wood blade smoldering in the glowing coals and asked, “How is it that some of the Bone Wood burns as while the Wood worked by your hands hardens to something akin to steel?”

The Poor Knight looked at Hugh, ate a chunk of meat, congealed blood like pudding. “I don’t know priest, intent?”

Hugh opened his mouth, but words and reason failed him.

Stitch guffawed at his discomfort.

As they readied themselves for the days ride, the Poor Knight pulled the new blade from the coals. The wood was black and blistered. He worked the stone across the surface smoothing away the blisters. Then he worked the edge and a thin razor edge emerged the color of bleached bone. He wrapped the hilt with a leather thong, pulling the thong tight before tying it off. He dipped the hilt into the boiling water and removed it. The leather dried and tightened as the hilt steamed over the fire.

The Poor Knight held his stiletto up to the light and gazed at the shape. He looked with a keen eye at the edge and deemed it worthy if not excellent.

He handed it to Devlin hilt first.

“Are you mad!” Barked Kos, making more statement than question.

Devlin shrank back from the stiletto.

“You cannot give the thief the means to cut our throats while we sleep.”

The Poor Knight looked at Kos. Kos held long sword and whip and his face spoke of his willingness to use it.

“I wonder,” the Poor Knight said as he rose, “what your dreams are made of Kos.”

Kos glowered, cast his eyes away.

“Enough.” Sir Kendrick said. The knight’s face was hard set. “Kos put those away.”

Kos made to argue.

“Like it or not, we need both the Poor Knight and the thief if we are to succeed and leave this accursed forest.”

“Be that as it may. To arm a man sent to hang is foolish.” Kos quivered, dreams of being both the rapist and the raped pulling the blood from his face.

The Poor Knight held his strange sword. He spoke. “To do as he must, the thief must have tools, to survive he will need a weapon. Now he has both.”

“This is not done between us Poor Knight.” Kos sneered the last words and sheathed his sword. Before coiling his whip he set it to punish a tree, searing a strip of bark away to reveal the bone beneath.

“So eager to replace me, Kos?” The Poor Knight asked. Kos blanched. The penalty for killing a Poor Knight was becoming the next.

Devlin tucked the stiletto into his belt and smiled a thank you to the Poor Knight revealing his rotted and yellow teeth and bloody gums. Devlin was unsure of the Poor Knight. Kindness was something alien to him, but he found he wanted to believe in the Poor Knight, to believe that kindness and generosity were more than mere words.

‘The castle beckons.” Sir Kendrick stated and they each mounted their horse and following the Poor Knight left the camp with the thin trails of smoke faltering in a light breeze, rising and mixing with the ubiquitous and pervasive fog.

Alia, the raven alighted on the Poor Knight’s shoulder and counted the men.

She finished her count and asked the trees. “Seven to enter, how many to leave?”

The Poor Knight thought it a good question, but the trees offered no answer.

6

Castle Thrace loomed above them. Only the Poor Knight had been here before, so only he knew that the castle was not built on the mountain, but was built into and of the mountain.

Towers cut from bedrock soared in the mist. The castle was not built stone by stone, stacked and mortared, but carved from the hard granite thrust up from the earth. Moss clung to large swaths of the castle walls. The walls were at once rough stone carved by wind and rain, then shear plains of smooth, polished stone.

A narrow set of stairs rose from forest floor to a gatehouse hundreds of feet above them.

Bone Wood trees clung at odd angles. Skeletal branches could be seen over the walls and on them through the veil of mist. The trees were taking the castle and the legend of them covering the world smacked of reality.

“It is said that the stone cut from the mountain became a city and that city, once abandoned was stripped of that stone and used to build the wall. I’d thought it an exaggeration but…” Hugh gazed in wonder at Castle Thrace as his words trailed off.

He shivered.

The mist clung to them, a chill blanket impossible to throw off.

The Poor Knight slid from his saddle. He then looped the reins over a low branch and unsaddled his horse. Cavill waited for Sir Kendrick to dismount and did the same for the knight’s steed, then his own. In short order all the horses were hobbled and unsaddled.

“What if we have need of a fast escape?” Kos asked.

“In the Bone Wood, no such thing exists.” The Poor Knight told him. “We best get started. We’ve a long climb, unless you wish to wait Sir Kendrick. For the morning?”

“No.” Sir Kendrick said, a tremor in his voice. “No, better to be done.”

The Poor Knight checked that both sword and dirk were in easy reach and that his sword belt was in position. He strapped on his buckler and grabbed his spear. He walked to the first step and looked at it. He looked up and scowled. The first step was always the hardest. He hated this climb. The effect on his life had been long lasting. He stood where he was that day because once before, that first time, the climb defeated him. Not half way to the top he stopped and was unable to move forward. No amount of urging pushed him upward. Back when he had a name and a wife and children. Back when his courage was never in doubt. Back then he’d pressed himself against the wall and refused to move. It was not a question of will. Back then it could not be done. Much changed, but his fear of heights remained.

The Poor Knight took the first step, and the second and the others followed.

By the time his count reached two hundred and eighty-nine he was out of breath, but he pushed on keeping his eyes on the next step and the next step. The Poor Knight never looked down, never looked right or left, never looked back to insure his companions followed.

Up they went, the Poor Knight’s eyes moved only when the stairs switched back. There was no stopping, no resting on the stairs, though his companions asked, demanded, and finally plead for a rest. Up, up, and ever up they climbed.

The stairs ended in a courtyard.

A wide expanse of flat land walled on all sides, save for the arch leading deeper into Castle Thrace and the opposite arch to the stairs. There in the courtyard the Poor Knight stopped.

The seven men sat and ate dried beef and drank wine from skins. The misty air cooled their skin, the sweat on brows and trickling down backs chilled them, so the Poor Knight lit a fire.

Coarse grass grew from narrow cracks in the stone. Massive Bone Wood trees grew from dark crevasses. The trunks twisted and flung long branches in all directions. The trees looked frozen, as if in a dance, and mid-step. The Poor Knight saw them and thought the same thought he had whenever gazing on these ancient trees. To him, it looked as if the twists and turns came from these trees trying to turn towards the sun. Though not as large as the trees on the forest floor, he sensed these to be a great deal older.

Dusky bark peeled revealing wood the color of bone beneath. Late afternoon light glowed dully, but the Poor Knight couldn’t help but think this a dark place.

The fire cracked and popped.

“Tell us good Hugh, what have we come for?” Sir Kendrick asked as he warmed his hands. This was another tradition, that of waiting until the Castle was stormed to reveal the artifact that was the reason for the quest.

Hugh nodded. He withdrew a scroll from one sleeve and broke the wax seal. He read the unrolled page. His lips moved as he read, but little sound emerged from him. He mumbled.

“Read it aloud if you please.” Sir Kendrick said.

“We must seek the crypt. Long ago, a man of the cloth was interred here and on his skull is a spell, magic of the Fey, those who remembered the gods. The crypt. Ah, the crypt.” He spoke the last as a man without conviction would, a man without faith.

Stitch rubbed his hands together in a covetous dry wash as his mouth twisted into a smile that was both wicked and happy.

Kos looked at the sorcerer. “Can you wake the dead? Have you any value to the rest of us?”

Hugh spoke in a voice both distant and chiding. “Our group is as it must be. There is value in it.”

The Poor Knight looked to Kos. “The dead are restless enough in this place, no need to wake them.”

“How will we find this dead priest then? Hm? How? Are the crypts not many and vast?”

“So they are.” Hugh said.

“And you have a map.” The Poor Knight stated. He looked at the six and saw their fear. He resented them and pitied them at the same time. He saw Devlin cowering in the cloak made with his hands. A kindness offered to the skinny boy, a kindness taken for granted. The Poor Knight knew that cloak would never again grace his shoulders. Devlin would live and take it, or die and it would be his shroud. The damn cloak, the Poor Knight knew, was infested with lice now anyway. He turned to Sir Kendrick in his shining armored breastplate and cloak of fine wool and imagined white knuckles protected by gauntlets. Behind Sir Kendrick was Cavill dressed in armor not unlike his own, but Cavill carried steel. Stitch, naked ambition and greed cloaking his gut twisting fear, gazed into the fire and confronted both dream and nightmare. Hugh wrestled with a new crisis of faith, as his faith had long ago winked out and was now rekindling and that shook the man to his core. Finally, the Poor Knight looked to Kos. The man at arms disdained each and every one of them, himself most of all. Kos was a small man who lied to all about the man he was, lying most effectively to himself; and that was dangerous indeed.

The Poor Knight gazed at these men he was charged to lead through Castle Thrace and wondered if his predecessor had looked at him the same way.

A long time in these woods had shown him the truth of men, himself included. He thought, yes, my predecessor looked at me as I look at them.

Alia landed on his shoulder and he fed her a bit of dried beef. She snapped it up and looked at the six men and spoke:

“Only fools, none of the brave.” And she was off again.

7

Cracks like spider webs crawled across every wall and floor of the castle. Dust and dried leaves littered the corners and flapped in the gentle breezes that moved through the streets as ghosts. The pale stone, colored like the trees, almost glowed in the misty half light. The air was damp with the mist.

They walked along narrow streets that were more like alleys. The walls loomed and leaned inward revealing only narrow ribbons of sky shrouded by the mist. The Poor Knight led. He knew the way to the secrets. To the true entrance of the castle. This path was always the same.

Once in the bowels of Castle Thrace the map would again be unrolled and consulted. The streets were a maze, but the keep was a labyrinth of a higher order.

Dark doors gaped at them. Black mouths that beckoned them enter with whispers of treasure and knowledge.

The Poor Knight carried his spear in one hand and dirk in the other. His buckler paired with dirk. Sir Kendrick held his long sword, as did Cavill and Kos. Hugh clutched the map as other men clutched a knife. Stitch held a knife and Devlin his stiletto.

As the sky darkened, they reached the inner keep. It was a place of wonders. The walls carved by long dead hands displayed reliefs of a time all but forgotten; like the gods of this place. The reliefs depicted the Fey in a time when men were babes and the Fey ruled all. Castle Thrace was their place and the Fey were the men who cast down the god who begot the wood with his moldering bones.

Inside the great halls, they lit torches and continued.

Deep into Castle Thrace, Hugh noted the change in the reliefs. The change was subtle and ominous. The Fey adopted a casual cruelty; every smile etched into stone seemed sinister. Hugh realized that the reliefs had been changing as they walked. His mind cast back and he saw the subtle tortures depicted, the evolution towards something terrible in themselves.

The Poor Knight stopped in a small circular chamber. He turned amidst the dancing shadows his voice echoing softly, though he whispered.

“From here on my knowledge of the castle is,” he paused, “Incomplete. The castle changes. Doors once unlocked, lock without the hands of the living.”

“What good is the priests map then” Sir Kendrick asked.

The Poor Knight shrugged. “We follow the map and the halls conform to it, we do not and our path becomes clouded.”

Kos barked a laugh.

Stitch looked around the chamber studying the reliefs, seeing that which Hugh noticed, the change in the Fey.

“There is no door.” He stated in his voice that seemed to drip with arrogance.

“We have a thief.”

All eyes turned to Devlin who looked even smaller wrapped in the wolf skin cloak.

Hugh told him. “Find our way thief; it is why you still breathe.”

Devlin trembled. Cavill removed a pouch from his pack and tossed it to the thief. Devlin caught it in his free hand and slipped the knot with his other. Inside were picks, rods, and tiny bars. He blew out a breath. These were tools like the ones he’d lost, but of finer construction. And there was a skeleton key. That he’d never owned.

He walked to the wall with all eyes on him. Cavill followed with a torch held high. Devlin took a small bar from the pouch. It’s shape like that of a crowbar in miniature. He ran thin, dirty fingers over the relief and tapped every few inches. He pressed his ear to the stone and closed his eyes. Tap, tap, tap.

After what seemed like hours, he stopped. His tapping more insistent, his fingers splayed out seeking the truth of it. He grinned; it made his face look like a horse.

The bar pried at invisible seams and his fingers pressed on stone seeking release.

When it happened, it was sudden. A puff of dust belched from previously hidden seams and a section of the wall receded. The relief depicted a small group of the Fey slaughtering a village of men. The aftermath showed them stacking heads in a pyramid and outstretched fingers emerging from stewpots over blazing fires.

Hugh looked to the Poor Knight a question unspoken.

The Poor Knight answered. “I have never been the same way twice. My predecessor told me the same.”

The Poor Knight walked through the door.

The rest filed through and followed a long corridor that sloped upward.

The Poor Knight was first, followed by Sir Kendrick. Behind Sir Kendrick walked Hugh with Devlin at his side. Stitch, Cavill, and Kos brought up the rear.

At the first intersection they found, Sir Kendrick, Hugh and the Poor Knight studied the map.

The map was made from human skin, pink and rosy. The circular chamber where Devlin found their door showed seven doors from the room. The door they took led up. They were on a level of the castle where parties had been held, balls, and ceremonies.

Fingers traced lines to lead them down to the crypts. Hugh cursed. They couldn’t have gone through a worse door.

The map confounded him. Rich in detail, elaborate in scope, fascinating in its own right, and almost useless from a utilitarian standpoint.

The intersection was a Y. To the left led down, the right path led up. Though they needed to go down, the left hall went to kitchens and storerooms. That path offered no outlet and no way into the crypts. The right sloped up towards a great hall, a place of feasting and grandeur. From that hall there branched many rooms and corridors.

They took the right path and went up into the castle.

They found the door into the great hall locked. Devlin went to work, nimble fingers working his picks in the practiced manner of an unrepentant thief. Seconds passed, and the tumblers rolled and the door swung ajar. Devlin turned his horse grin on them.

“Well done, boy.” Hugh told him.

The Poor Knight pushed the door open with the butt of his spear. He held the torch in the room and took cautious steps inside.

The great hall spanned a hundred feet across and another two hundred in length. A massive table in the shape of a horseshoe dominated one side of the room. Benches lined the outside of the table except in the center where a single huge chair rested. In the chair sat a man who was not a man. The bones were wrong.

The Poor Knight led and the rest followed. He strode across the floor without sound. His feet avoided the objects strewn across the floor; brightly colored balls, the hat of a fool, broken glass, goblets, platters, knives and forks.

On the benches, on the table, and under it were the bones of the dead. Dead men who were nor men, but Fey; and women too.

The man who was not a man in sat in the chair and never moved. His skin was pulled taut against his elongated skull, his teeth bared in death, his lips gone. It was a terrible smile to behold.

Though he was long dead, his eyes glowed an eerie pink; dark and elusive; entrancing. The pink was so faint as to disappear in the torch light. The Poor Knight looked deep into the pink and turned away in revulsion and fear.

“What is it?” Hugh asked.

The Poor Knight shook his head and said. “The map.”

He walked away from the dead man who was not a man and swept the table clear of plates and the dusty bones of a meal finished long ago. Hugh looked at the dead man who was not a man and followed.

They clustered around the map on the table and the Poor Knight, Sir Kendrick and Hugh looked for their next destination. Fingers traced corridor, the twists and turns that led to the temple room. They agreed on the path and turned to leave.

Kos watched with a scowl as Stitch whispered in his ear, the sorcerers dry, pale lips moving rapidly, his hushed tones carried to their ears words in a tongue foreign to them all.

Devlin watched these two while hugging the wolf skin cloak tight around him.

Cavill watched as well; hand tight on the hilt of his long sword.

Stitch stopped and grinned at them as he pulled away, his grin seemed more like a sneer. Sir Kendrick walked toward the men, his face stern as he looked at the conspiratorial glances made by Stitch and the deepening scowl on Kos’ face.

“What’s this then?” Sir Kendrick asked.

“A private joke, sir knight. Just a private joke.” Stitch offered words and outstretched hands held palm up to ward off suspicion too late, for that flower bloomed already, soaking in the darkness and dear of this place.

The Poor Knight looked from Stitch to Kos and back. They all sensed that something was brewing, but what?

A low wail began. A soft keening that unnerved one and all save for Hugh. The wail issued from his throat.

They turned to see the priest on his knees arms out in supplication, eyes locked on the man who was not a man’s pink gaze. Tears streamed down the priests face and he mumbled words.

The pink glow in the dead man who was not a man’s eyes grew in intensity.

“Don’t look.” The Poor Knight said too late.

Hugh was lost in the pink. He saw terrible things. These terrible things made more so by his insistence they could not be real. His faith, or lack thereof, had been shaken by the Wood outside, then by the castle and the reliefs carved into stone depicting the Fey conquering the hearts, minds, and bodies of all who were not Fey. The reliefs showing their disdain for the gods only they named and remembered. The final blow was the pink. In the pink, under the influence of it, he saw terrible things. He saw the terrible faces of the terrible gods he both represented and secretly denied. He saw these faces and wept. He saw this face and felt the last vestiges of his sanity crumble and break. And he begged for their forgiveness. And from the pink they poured themselves into him.

Long had Hugh believed in the infallibility of his intellect, his wisdom. All of that was burned away by the pink. The forgotten god cast down by the Fey, whose bones erupted into macabre trees the color of bone beneath the thin, peeling bark; that god’s face loomed large in Hugh’s sight. It grew and grew, piercing eyes of pink, but not two, or three, but thousands upon thousands. A mouth that opened impossibly large with rows of tiny pointed teeth receding back into the throat swallowed Hugh whole.

For Sir Kendrick, Cavill, Devlin, Stitch, and Kos, these men saw the pink brighten; the color vibrant and sickly. The Poor Knight closed his eyes to see nothing at all and he was relieved. His hand found the map, rolled and tucked up Hugh’s sleeve. He drew it from m the sleeve and turned away from the light.

To Sir Kendrick he said, “We have to go. Now.”

Sir Kendrick looked at the Poor Knight with haunted eyes and nodded.

They raced out of the great hall leaving Hugh in supplication to the forgotten god he’d lost all faith in. The Poor Knight and Sir Kendrick ran side by side.

“What happened?” Sir Kendrick asked through clenched teeth.

“The castle awakens.” The Poor Knight responded.

They ran looking over their shoulders, waiting for something to come that never did. They turned corners, stopped at intersections and made turns; they passed by doors locked and silent. The silence felt unnatural.

They stopped before double doors of bronze that glittered without sign of age and the Poor Knight beckoned Devlin open it.

The thief dropped to his knees and steadied his hands with gulping breaths of stale air. Devlin unwrapped his tools and stared at the lock, but there was none.

“No lock.” He said and the Poor Knight looked at him and nodded. The thief drew his stiletto and slipped the slender blade into the seam between doors. He raised the blade slowly feeling for the bar on the other side. He lifted the bar and pushed. The doors opened on creaking hinges that shattered the previous silence.

The Poor Knight walked past him into a large vaulted room. Several corridors branched from the chamber. He held his torch high and looked at the walls. Aged bones glowed dully in the flickering light. Skulls, ribs, femurs, and vertebrae stacked in careful rows from floor to ceiling. Some bones littered the floor.

From his belt, the Poor Knight drew the map. He kneeled and spread it out. Sir Kendrick drew in close and looked as well.

The Poor Knight had yet to find their position when he heard the guttural words behind him. He picked up the map and thrust it back in his belt. The Poor Knight stood. Sir Kendrick rose beside him.

Devlin cowered against the far wall, stiletto in hand.

Stitch barked the strange words in a harsh tongue, to his right stood Kos, long sword in one hand and whip in the other. Cavill stood to his right holding sword and shield.

Stitch continued to bark the foreign words. He drew one long fingernail across his wrist drawing a shallow cut. He spat one last phrase and drank the blood welling from his wrist. He spat a wad of bloody phlegm into his hand and threw it at Sir Kendrick who asked in a tremulous voice. “What is this? Cavill?”

Stitch ignored the question and instead pointed a bloodstained finger at the knight and spoke.

“You are weak. Your sword, too heavy to lift.” Stitch’s voice sounded harsh and low; guttural. “You are no knight, but a babe, weak in flesh, weak in mind.”

Sir Kendrick drew his sword and it slipped from his fingers the weight of it too great. The sword clattered on hollow stone.

“Too weak to stand, too weak to fight.” Stitch continued, and then the sorcerer switched back to the strange tongue as he lowered his finger and with his finger, Sir Kendrick sank, a pained look on his face as he fell to his knees.

“Cavill? Why, Cavill?” Sir Kendrick whispered as he looked to his squire. Stitch continued his spell, barking words accompanied by spittle that soaked into his dry lips.

The Poor Knight cast his torch away. Light danced across the uneven walls of the dead. The Poor Knight transferred his spear to his buckler hand before drawing his sword and circling away from Sir Kendrick who slumped lower to the floor at the command of Stitch.

Kos and Cavill moved with the Poor Knight, and then split. Two against one almost demanded they take his flanks, attack from the side. The Poor Knight knew this as well as these two.

Kos cracked his whip and Devlin screamed at the sound. Cavill’s face looked drawn, empty and without true emotion, but Kos beamed.

The Poor Knight lunged at Kos with his spear and Kos leapt back. Cavill leapt in as the Poor Knight rebounded. The Poor Knight parried sword thrust and felt the whip sing past his ear and entangle his spear. The Poor Knight leapt at Kos and hacked at the whip. The whip fell from his spear limp and unmoving and the Poor Knight again circled away.

Sir Kendrick lay on his back, knees bent, feet trapped under his bent legs. The sorcerer stood over him shaking his finger. Blood splattered Sir Kendrick as it oozed from the sorcerers wrist.

The Poor Knight blocked a swing from Cavill with his buckler. A narrow gouge appeared on the bucklers face. The Poor Knight countered with a backhand swing of his sword catching the teardrop shield held by Cavill.

Kos leapt in to attack with his sword. The Poor Knight turned to meet the man at arms and drove his shoulder into Kos’ chest.

Kos staggered back and tripped on Devlin. He sneered at the thief and said. “I’ll gut you next boy, I’ll split you open and let you run with yer guts spilling out’ve you.”

The Poor Knight stabbed with his spear and drove it into Kos’ thigh, missing the artery.

Cavill offered something between a shout and a wail and charged the Poor Knight.

The Poor Knight fell back and felt his nose split as the tip of the blade cut into him. The Poor Knight, jaw slack and gasping for air struck Cavill in the leg with a desperate swing. Cavill staggered past the Poor Knight who drove his sword into the squire’s neck. A spray of blood, the crunch of bone and a stifled sob preceded Cavill collapsing to the floor.

A recovered Kos limped forward. The Poor Knight threw his spear at Kos. The head caught the man in the belly and clattered to the floor, rebounding off Kos’ armor. Kos grunted and the Poor Knight was on him. The battle was a furious one where no man was greater than the other. Though he was hobbled, Kos defended himself well.

Bone Wood and steel clashed, the sound hollow, empty. The steel of Kos’ sword notched with a staggering blow that pushed him back.

Sweat poured from their faces and they labored to breathe.

Sir Kendrick dragged himself to the corpse of his squire Cavill and wept. Stitch turned his malevolent gaze on the Poor Knight and began his chant anew.

The Poor Knight ignored the bloody snot as it struck him on the cheek mingling with his own blood and splattering into his open mouth. The Poor Knight spat.

Kos and the Poor Knight clashed again. Sword struck sword as they danced against a backdrop of manic shadows.

The guttural chant of sorcery ended in an abrupt gurgle as Devlin drove his stiletto into Stitch’s back. His thrusts were low, but angled high. Beneath ribs and up into heart and lungs, Striking kidney and liver with the razor sharp blade of the wood.

Stitch coughed spraying blood and fell forward. The sorcerer’s face struck the stone floor with a crunch.

The Poor Knight kicked a torch up and at Kos. Kos shielded himself with his arms, and as his arms fell, the Poor Knight’s sword drove deep under his arm. Kos felt the blade sink deep, only wool protected him there and it was not up to the task of blocking the strange wooden sword. The blade thrust deep and the Poor Knight twisted the blade. Kos’ eyes showed confusion. The Poor Knight yanked his sword out and chopped at the neck.

Kos’ body hit the floor only an instant after his head.

Sir Kendrick continued to weep for his friend.

“The quest is failed.” The Poor Knight announced in a tired voice.

8

Sir Kendrick rode his horse through the gates. Trailing him were six horses saddled, but without rider. He looked back to the Poor Knight and the previous night’s conversation came unbidden.

Sir Kendrick sat at the fire with Devlin and the Poor Knight. The gloom of the wood surrounded them. Alia, the raven sat with the Poor Knight mercifully silent.

“I am the Poor Knight now.” Sir Kendrick said, his words bitter and defeated.

“No.” Said the Poor Knight.

“I’ve failed. It must be so.” Stated Sir Kendrick.

“Treachery does not a Poor Knight make.”

“The sorcerer’s magic. It never affected you.” Kendrick accused. “Was it even real?”

“Did it feel real?”

“How else did he get Cavill to turn against me?” The bitterest words of all.

“Then it was magic.”

“I’m not so sure.” Sir Kendrick growled.

The Poor Knight nodded.

“So I will take your place.”

The Poor Knight shook his head. “No. Outside this wood, beyond the wall, there is nothing for me but ghosts. I’ve been here too long to leave.”

Kendrick was speechless.

Devlin spoke up. “I want to stay.”

The Poor Knight looked puzzled for the first time. “This is no place for a man, a worse place for a boy.”

Devlin looked sad and smiled. “Better than the city for me. It’s quiet here. I’m not hungry, nobody tryin’ ta kill me, or steal from me, or sell me. It’s quiet.”

Devlin looked at his stiletto and pulled the wolf skin cloak tighter. “You’ve been kind to me. I never said thank you and you still are kind.” The boy shrugged. “I feel safe here.”

“Poor Squire of the Wood.” Sir Kendrick said bitterness threatening to overcome him.

The Poor Knight looked at the earnest thief and nodded. Devlin smiled.

The Poor Knight looked to Sir Kendrick. “You’re a better man today, a better knight than when you came here.”

Sir Kendrick looked into the dancing flames, shame in his eyes, despair on his face.

“Return in seven years, come to quest again. Take a wife, give her sons and daughters. Help boys like the thief. When you come back, if you still feel you must take the mantle of Poor Knight, I won’t argue.”

Those were his last words on the subject.

Morning dawned and the thief Devlin hid as the two knights walked to the gate. At noon on the seventh day, the gate opened. This was so, because it had ever been this was the way for quests into the Bone Wood.

The two knights clasped hands and Sir Kendrick looked at the Poor Knight and said. “I’ve never ridden with a finer knight.”

The Poor Knight smiled.

Sir Kendrick took to his saddle and flicked his reins. He held a tether that strung back to the six unmanned horses.

Sir Kendrick rode through the gates. Seven guards waited for the horses to walk through and they began closing the gate.

He looked back and saw the lone man standing in the gloom, surrounded by shadows, surrounded by pale wood. The Poor Knight leaned on his spear. His ruined face deep in shadow. Sir Kendrick raised his hand in salute and the gates closed on the Poor Knight of the Wood.

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