The Pale Wood

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Black Knight, Red Morning

Black Knight,

Red Morning

1

There is a point, a moment in the morning, a brief instant just before color returns, when the world, is gray and dead. It is a moment when even the most beautiful of things becomes a grotesque shadow of itself. It is in this moment when Prince Jasper feels most safe.

Prince Jasper leaned on the stone railing and looked across the city, beyond the walls, and to the army besieging him. Or more accurately, his city. The moment of gray came and went, and for this prince, that instant was both terrible and beautiful. Indeed, the moment was both cursed and blessed, a summation of his reign, his life, his ambition, and the women who ruled him as he ruled Byzantis. That thought produced a mirthless chuckle, an acquiescing to his growing cynicism. He ruled next to nothing. His power was a charade, a ceremony. It was the puppeteers show in the square and he was the puppet and try as he might, he couldn’t tilt his head to that precise angle needed to see who held his strings. Indeed, more than one puppeteer vied to control him… and they succeeded often as not.

He turned his thought from himself to the existential threat outside his city walls.

The army outside his walls outstripped any he could muster, so he watched the tents and the sentries on patrol, his gaze fell upon the large central pavilion that housed his wife and all six of his daughters. He remained unsure if they were hostages or conspirators or somewhere in between. What a mess he’d made of things.

Across his city, good folk and bad rose for the day ahead. He wondered how the siege affected them, were they anxious, did they fear the army lead by his father in law? Were they conspiring to throw the gates aside and let the invaders in?

He heard a soft moan from his bed. He looked back at Bethany as she rolled over, sheets tangled in her legs, her hair in disarray splashed across the silk sheets. He caught a flash of her plump breasts and the dark circles of her nipples.

He turned away.

The sun promised a beautiful day, unseasonably warm. Autumn, yet warm, the air crisp early, but the sun sweltered into late afternoon. Had he ever prayed for bitter cold? No. never before. But he did now.

Pillars of smoke danced up toward the promises of an azure sky.

The prince contemplated a sortie. Did he dare it? His hands trembled. Did he dare to stay within the walls?

Pain in his belly flowered and spread to a dull ache. Melancholy threatened to envelope him. He considered a leap from the balcony, but cowardice kept his feet rooted to the spot.

Would the Black Knight issue his challenge today? Yes. And he wanted to weep. Would anyone answer the call? The answer was most assuredly no. No man dared. The Black Knight was as immortal as a knight could be. No matter the face changed, no matter the armor changed as smiths became better and styles changed. None of that mattered, the name remained and it was death to those who took him on.

“Damn.” He muttered cursing the weather and choking back despair. Winter would arrive in a month or less. He needed it now. He needed the snows to fall and bury the besiegers beneath blinding white. He needed that bone-chill cold that made men long for the arms of their wives, or in some cases favored whores. He prayed for frost to bite them and ice to starve them.

And he got false summer instead. Blooms appeared on trees, the tentative signs of spring, yet the autumn equinox had come and gone.

His skin prickled and bunched into the flesh of a goose. Not from a chill, but at the thought of a mild winter and the doom that would spell for this city, his city, his principality. Truth be told, the siege was his doom, if it persisted, if the walls broke. If he broke.

Prince Jasper turned from the dawn as color flooded the landscape and watched as warmth and energy slithered across the barren granite to the wool rug and up onto the bed and the light danced over Bethany’s soft flesh, pink as roses.

Had he never pulled her into his bed the siege never would have been. Bethany his consort was of no consequence to Stephanie his wife, his princess. Bethany, mother of his son was a threat however. Princess Stephanie, ever dutiful, provided Prince Jasper with six daughters. All were happy, smart plump little things, but none was an heir, this was no mere tradition, but law dating back to after empires fall. Bethany, a court whore as some whispered loudly behind conspiratorial hands, gave Prince Jasper the one thing Stephanie had yet to offer- a son.

To the south and east was the Principality of Kaii and the prince of Kaii was Cornwell; father of Stephanie, who was the wife of Jasper, and as such the Princess of Byzantis.

Prince Cornwell of Kaii lay siege to the city of Byzantis and be they allies or hostages, Prince Jasper was unsure, but his wife and daughters were on the other side of the wall. And it was all over a bastard baby who at that moment began to squall in another room.

Prince Jasper wondered how long before the common folk inside his walls became fed up with the siege? How long until they stormed in and took the baby boy and flung him over the walls so that his fragile body burst on unforgiving ground? That was it, that was all. Kill the bastard boy and the army pulls up stakes and returns south to Kaii.

So, how long?

Not long. He risked war to save his boy. He risked the city and all in it for a bastard son. The folk of Byzantis would not wait much longer to topple him and save their own sons and daughters.

2

Prince Jasper read through the inventory list. The prince was thankful he read the list in broad strokes as opposed to the specific lists that catalogued everything in minute detail, that was a task for the accountants.

In the past hundred years a new profession was born, accountants, and these seemed to be the most hated of all professions save two; dentists and tax collectors. Accountants took some perverse pleasure in drafting lists that acted as a physical representation of the actual things listed. Anything and everything was listed. Even bastards. Prince Jasper thought it likely some accountant was even at that moment drawing up a report that tallied the number of times his bastard soiled his diaper in a day, a week, a month…

The prince set aside the droll list of grains held over for winter. He added it to the pile; lists of the number of dogs and cats- and estimated weights, salt, buckets, butter churns, tobacco, alcohol in its myriad variants, and even a list of whores separated into columns based upon age and affliction.

Prince Jasper dry washed his face and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He looked around the table where his counselors rifled through papers or waited for him to speak.

Goulding, the master sorcerer glared at Cooke, the priest most high whose calm gaze returned no love. There was Higgins, the damned accountant who compiled all these damn lists, and finally Sir Longworth, so called Master of War. Too, Radburn was there in quiet contemplation. Radburn. If any man there could be trusted, it was Radburn. Goulding and Cooke vied with one another for power and influence while Sir Longworth proclaimed himself the protector of the city and second most important man in the city. And Higgins, the accountant, wielded his pen as a sword striking this or that from the lists he and his perverse staff generated day after day.

“Well?” Prince Jasper asked to no one in particular.

Higgins coughed politely into a handkerchief tucked up his sleeve and spoke. “Five years, seven months, and two days.”

“What?!” The prince looked at the man with incredulity.

Coughing again, Higgins spoke. “We can stretch our supplies that far barring unexpected plague amongst the animals. At that point our choices will be surrender or cannibalism.”

Sir Longworth rose to his feet. “We will defeat that rabble long before we must stoop to such abomination!” The knight sputtered. Invisible globules of spittle erupted from his mouth as he spoke, a fine mist destined to settle on anyone foolish enough to stand too near as he spoke. This spraying amidst excited utterances was the result of teeth damaged in some campaign or other.

Not for the first time, or the last, Prince Jasper thought the word buffoon.

While Sir Longworth was Master of War in name, in truth it was his second who made Sir Longworth look good. Sir Fforde was a narrow man with sparkling eyes and graying hair. He looked first at the standing Sir Longworth then at Prince Jasper and said, “There is the matter of the Black Knight, Your Highness.”

Prince Jasper glowered at his hands. “Risky,” was all the words the prince could muster.

Not even Sir Longworth was fool enough to make any bold declarations regarding the Black Knight. Prince Cornwall employed the massive knight as his champion who appeared each day in challenge wearing black lacquered plate armor that seemed to absorb all light into the dead black surface.

The challenge was simple; any knight who defeated the Black Knight would win the day for Prince Jasper and prove the worthiness of the prince to remain in Prince Cornwall’s trust. If the Black Knight fell, the siege was over. If Prince Jasper’s champion fell, the gates would open wide welcoming Prince Cornwall as the victor. Prince Jasper’s bastard son was the prize. The babe’s life hung in the balance.

Prince Jasper looked to his advisors. None met his eye. They all looked away. They wanted to send a man out to die beneath the Black Knights sword, after all, losing meant that only the knight and the bastard babe died. A fair price most thought. Had the babe been another’s, Prince Jasper would have already sent a man out to die.

“Send Kendrick.” Goulding said. Goulding and his coterie of sorcerers hated Sir Kendrick. The knight had once entered the Bone Wood on a quest. The quest failed and Sir Kendrick claimed the failure to be the work of the sorcerer call Stitch. Only Sir Kendrick left the Wood.

“Yes.” Stated Sir Longworth in rare agreement with Goulding.

The priest Cooke nodded his agreement. All three bore grievances against Sir Kendrick, Cooke also sent a man into the Wood Beyond the Wall with Sir Kendrick and also received disturbing news regarding the priest. Sir Longworth’s anger was more petty. Sir Kendrick took a castle with boys while Sir Longworth and a host of knights remained locked outside the walls and no amount of manipulation changed the perception that Sir Longworth was bested by Sir Kendrick and some boys.

Prince Jasper leaned back and drank his wine and considered his counselors advice.

3

Sir Fraser emerged from his tent armed and armored. The morning sun died on his helm and decayed on his breastplate. His squire carried his great sword in its scabbard of ebony leather, adorned with bits of black glass. Another squire held the reins of his warhorse, a black monster in barding that matched the knight’s armor.

Sir Fraser was lifted into his saddle; once seated he drew the great sword from its scabbard and raised it high. The forging of the blade left it a dull black abandoned by the sun. The sword was old and carried by every Black Knight of Kaii. The forging of the blade was accompanied by magic, the arcane writing etched into the blade bore the truth of it. Too, the blade was blessed by the priests of Kaii who called upon the gods whose names were lost.

The Black Knight was a large man, most of the Black Knights were, though this was not always the case. Once, the Black Knight was shorter than the sword, his exploits are no less celebrated, though all but a few honest historians have granted him extra inches. The current Black Knight of Kaii stood a head taller than most and was wider still. Those who knew him thought him a jovial fellow, slow to anger, and an easy conversationalist. He charmed ladies from twelve to sixty with apparent ease and treated them all with the chivalrous courtesy of the knights in the romantic tales in the books of old. He was even likened to that dead order of knights who were more than knights, the Paladins of old. In fact, Sir Fraser, rarely wore black at all preferring a wide range of colors; red leather boots, yellow tunic, blue trousers. But, donning the black armor changed him. He wore no smile in that armor and offered no quarter.

The apparent change in character added to his personal mystique, his own legend. This mystique also added to his marital prospects and he was quite astute at declining proposals without offense. He was certain that his success in the siege of Byzantis would thus plant him firmly in the good graces of Prince Cornwall and earn him the daughter of a prince.

The ram’s horns that adorned his helm were painted black. A ram was his sigil and a black ram pranced across his breastplate. The ram, his armorer painted with glossy black to differentiate it from the dull black surrounding it.

The Black Knight saluted his prince with his mighty sword, Prince Cornwall nodded and the Black Knight rode out.

He walked the horse and rested his great sword against his shoulder much as footmen did with spears. Two heralds, walking ahead of the warhorse, accompanied the Black Knight, they alternated shouting the challenge issued through cupped hands. Dust rose in clouds as they moved, and settled when they stopped. The dust turned the Black Knight brown. Two squires perched atop stools and bearing soft cloths wiped the armor clean and brushed the horse black.

The Black Knight waited.

4

Jericho twirled the axe, spinning the haft and grinning. Jericho’s grin contorted his face in terrible ways, the result of extensive scarring. He liked the scars. He liked the way his face twisted when he grinned, or rather the way others reacted to his face.

Battle changed any man, The slaughter in the Drowned Castle was more profound than a battle in the open with men killing men. The battle in the Drowned Castle if it could be called a battle, was the murder of sleeping men by boys. That battle was everything that chivalry rejected, so say the knights. But that battle saw the end of the Cult of the Crow and rescue of the boys who under the command of Sir Kendrick, initiated the slaughter.

Jericho was an affable man, pleasant in his way, though a close look into his eyes proved that he was odd. But in him existed something cruel, something dark and twisted that emerged whenever a fight broke out, whenever he practiced at fighting. This quirk of personality had always been there, but the Drowned Castle amplified it, gave it form, shaped it into something terrible.

Aemon never reacted to Jericho’s face, or the darkness therein. In the battle where Jericho earned his scars, Aemon came out unscathed on the surface. Once, they’d been squires. Once their rise to knighthood was assured by association and birth. Jericho refused his knighthood and Aemon was deemed too damaged, not that he aspired to knighthood after the drowned Castle. The truth was that both were tainted by Sir Kendrick, the lowest of all knights save the Poor Knight himself. Neither cared, they looked upon Sir Longworth as the fool he was and felt no great loss in losing knighthood.

Aemon darted forward and tapped the spinning haft. Not hard, just a light tap with his sword, but it was enough to throw the axe out of Jericho’s hands and before Jericho could recover the blunted tip of the sword was at his throat.

Jericho laughed.

Aemon frowned.

Jericho was sixteen, tall and strong. He bore his scars with pride and radiated a roughness and wildness. Aemon at thirteen was in many ways Jericho’s opposite. He was in a word, beautiful. He was stoic and lean. Bright. The pair complimented one another in every way, if the two were one that would make a formidable man without equal or weakness.

Aemon shook his head and lowered his sword. The boys turned as Sir Kendrick entered the small courtyard.

The courtyard was walled and abutted the small barracks the two boys shared with the lone knight. The barrack was little used and in ill repair. For Sir Kendrick, it was the home he must have, for the boys it was a choice. They chose to remain with Sir Kendrick after the events in the Drowned Castle.

Sir Kendrick himself was wary of them and their desire to stay close. Once, his squire, his most trusted friend betrayed him. Trust was hard won with the knight now.

The barrack was not large, but offered plenty of space for these three and they remained the only occupants even after the influx of refugees from the countryside as a result of the siege.

The knight approached the boys, and was about to speak when a messenger from the castle interrupted.

Sir Kendrick scowled at the boy. In spite of himself, Sir Kendrick felt irritation rise at the messenger’s lack of decorum. Sir Kendrick knew that other knights were not treated this way. He vowed to himself not to let it bother him, but it did bother him.

The messenger ignored Aemon and Jericho.

“Sir Kendrick, your prince summons you at once to the castle for an audience.” The messenger was a boy no older than ten, but Sir Kendrick knew he was born of high blood, no other would speak in such an imperious manner.

Sir Kendrick tossed an apple to each of the boys and tore a chunk from his own and chewed.

He knew it was spiteful and rude, but Sir Kendrick could not resist. With a mouthful of apple being pulverized by his teeth, he asked.

“Your name boy?”

“Langworth, son of Sir Longworth.” The tone was haughty and self important and Sir Kendrick saw the defiance in the boy’s eyes. Sir Longworth’s youngest whelp had his face and the line of his jaw.

Sir Kendrick, ashamed even as he did it spat apple from his mouth and tossed the remains from his hand. He strode to the boy in two quick steps and held the boy’s collar in a bunched up fist. He lifted the boy from his feet and snarled into his face. He held the boy so he could look into his eyes without craning his neck.

“Boy. You will speak to me with the respect I am due as a knight of the realm or you will feel the flat of my blade on the cheeks you sit on.” Sir Kendrick filled his voice with as much bile and menace as his conscience allowed before dropping the boy on his afore mentioned cheeks. It was ridiculous to do. Pointless as well. Do the thing or don’t, but talking about it just gave your foe a warning.

Langworth, son of Sir Longworth and messenger of Prince Jasper scrambled away from the glowering knight. He clambered to his feet on unsteady legs and wiped tears from hate filled eyes.

“Lead on.” Sir Kendrick barked.

The messenger bowed and left.

Sir Kendrick followed.

Aemon and Jericho made to tag along, but Sir Kendrick waved them off.

5

Prince Jasper looked at his only son. Quisling, Bethany named him. A strange name he knew, but… He watched as the tiny fingers scrabbled across her alabaster breast, as his thin pink lips worked the milk from her nipple. The boy had taken to the breast immediately. And why not? Bethany had been nursemaid to three of his daughters. His wife referred to Bethany as the royal cow. Princess Stephanie laughed when she first saw Prince Jasper “rutting away” as she put it, on top of Bethany.

It felt like a farewell, his looking down on the babe as he suckled. And Prince Jasper was jealous.

Tomorrow his champion would emerge from the gates and face the Black Knight. Two sacrifices; one to his wife and father-in-law, and one for the priests and the sorcerers, not to mention the knights of his principality, and what did he gain? What was it that the prince of Byzantis received for his sacrifices? Why to satisfy all parties concerned save himself. And Bethany. And Sir Kendrick. Though these two were afterthoughts.

He dry washed his face and felt the coarse stubble that peppered his cheeks. He avoided mirrors. Prince Jasper had no love for his face. Sallow skin, save for the dark pouches beneath his bloodshot eyes, all of it framed by permanent creases caused by worried frowns. He sloshed wine into a cup and drank to steady his trembling hands and calm his nerves. The wine served to deaden his mind as well.

His steward, Radburn, was at that moment negotiating terms of surrender. If- no when, a prince must after all be pragmatic- Sir Kendrick fell to the Black Knight, Prince Jasper would open his gates and welcome Prince Cornwall in as conqueror. Prince Jasper would pay Prince Cornwall’s army and relinquish his bastard. The babe would leave with Prince Cornwell and like as not develop a cough or a fever and die on the road, then be buried in an unmarked grave. A sad end to a dark business, but there it was and nothing to be done about it. Sir Kendrick after all was not a great man of great battlefield prowess, he was not known for his skill in one on one combat either. No, Sir Kendrick was best known as a suspected liar who failed in the Wood, and a leader of boys in a shameful, yet necessary, massacre. It was too much to hope such a man, knight or no, could prevail against the best Kaii had to offer.

Nonetheless, if Sir Kendrick should prevail, Prince Jasper almost laughed at the thought it was so ludicrous, such a fantastic and outlandish thought; the besieging army was to depart within three days. Princess Stephanie was to return to his side with his daughters. She must give him a son. His bastard would live, yes, but never rise to prominence, never be his heir. Prince Jasper envied his son that.

A knock interrupted his thoughts such as they were.

A page entered, bowed and announced that Sir Kendrick awaited his highnesses arrival with his highnesses advisors.

Prince Jasper took one last look at his son and left the room.

He kept a brisk pace, but took a circuitous route.

He entered the hall and his advisors inclined their heads and Sir Kendrick bent his knee, leather creaked as he did so. Prince Jasper’s eyes were caught by Sir Kendrick’s and he shuddered. Perhaps there was hope, this knight of his was a dangerous man with a fearsome appearance. He remembered seeing Sir Kendrick before the ill fated quest into the Wood, then the near broken man who emerged from that place of vague horrors, who had become this man before him. So different from his youthful optimism, to this hardened man who struck from darkness while men slept. Prince jasper quashed his hope, the Black Knight was a warrior of the highest order, a great warrior and Sir Kendrick was as untested today as when he entered the Wood.

Prince Jasper waved them all to a table. The prince sat at the head with Cooke to his right, followed by Higgins the accountant, then Goulding. To the prince’s left sat Sir Longworth and Sir Fforde.

Sir Kendrick stood at the foot of the table in paupers clothes of wool and leather. Unarmed the man still looked hard, though he was young still. Prince Jasper looked him over and hoped the man proved them all wrong and took the Black Knight’s head from his shoulders; and not for the last time, buried any such hope in the certainty of defeat and despair.

“Thank you for coming.” Prince Jasper said.

“As Your Highness commands, I obey.” Sir Kendrick spoke in a dry voice, matter of fact with little inflection and yet… disdain?

“You will guard your tongue, or I will have it!” Declared Sir Longworth.

Sir Kendrick made no move and spoke no word to acknowledge Sir Longworth.

“Byzantis needs you,” Prince Jasper began, Sir Kendrick remained silent, keeping his own council though he had deduced his role in the affairs of Byzantis. “I need you.”

“Wine for Sir Kendrick!” Prince Jasper called to a servant.

The servant brought Sir Kendrick a goblet of red. He sipped it and inclined his head toward Prince Jasper and looked in turn at each man at the table. Still, he refused to speak, let them say it. Let the prince command it.

“This siege cannot go on,” Prince Jasper said and recognizing that Sir Kendrick was not inclined to speak, he continued to talk in a rush. “We need a champion to defeat the Black Knight. I am told that man is you. I am told that you are among the greatest of my knights.”

Sir Kendrick sipped the wine, smiled, looked at Sir Longworth, Cooke, and Goulding and said, “Alright.” Then as an after thought, “Your Highness.”

“Do this and I will grant you land.”

“Alright.” Pause. “Your Highness.”

“You will do this then? You will fight the Black Knight as my champion?”

“I am yours to command, Highness.”

“This is not a command, but a request.” Prince Jasper found Sir Kendrick unnerving. The man showed no fear as if this place held nothing to fear and no man to best him. Only Sir Kendrick knew that he had seen worse, far worse. Sir Kendrick faced demons real and imagined in two castles haunted by a violent past that however briefly housed violent squatters.

Sir Kendrick looked each man at the table in the eyes. He drained his cup and wiped the red liquid from his chin with his open hand. He looked at the stain on his palm, then he nodded and said, “In the morning Your Highness the siege ends, one way or another.”

Seeking no dismissal, only assuming one, Sir Kendrick set his cup on the table, turned, and left the chamber.

6

Sir Kendrick walked with purpose and no conscious sense of direction down avenues and up streets where citizens of Byzantis mimicked regular life. His mind roiled as he walked. Single combat was not a new concept for the knight. He was a knight after all. His training focused on single combat, that up close exchange of blows. It was a personal kind of combat.

Intimate.

But never before had he fought in such a combat, in such a formal exchange. Training, yes, but never for real, never the truth of it, not like what he faced the very next morning. The closest he’d ever come to the real thing was with his brother and that had been the rivalry of brothers, and Cavill.

Sir Kendrick stopped and in the street cast his mind back to the days when he and Cavill sparred. To that time after Cavill became his squire and they used steel with dulled blades. Sir Kendrick looked upon that session with new eyes and could almost see the undercurrent in the exchange, the resentment and fury. Almost he saw it, but perhaps he wanted to, perhaps this was an invention to assuage his conscience.

Cursing aloud, he resumed walking. Those folks nearest him gave him wide berth and he noticed nothing.

He heard the sounds of a forge. He heard the clang of hammer on steel resounding through the air and his path became circular. He turned corner, slipped down allies shrouded in dusk even when the sun was at its highest letting his feet take him where they would. His feet took him to the castle armory.

The vaulted ceiling was coated in coal black soot, the sum of decades of bellows pumping into the forge. Fires burned and young men in leather aprons with cloths over mouth and nose scurried about checking the water barrels for depth and one tasted the water, checking the salt. They carried shovels laden with coal and worked bellows, wore thick gloves and held glowing steel in the fires. Sir Kendrick entered the store room.

Hands on hips, Sir Kendrick looked at a row of helms on a shelf. Some gleamed in the flickering light, polished to a mirror gleam. Some of these were adorned with wings or horns, gilded filigree, and golden visors. Well made, one and all. Functional, but somehow false in a way Sir Kendrick could not explain. He continued to look and saw simpler helms, good steel padded with leather and linen. He chose one with no decoration, no polish on anything but the rivets. Sir Kendrick touched the nose guard, this made him think of the Poor Knight. It had steel bands and a bell shape. He placed the helm on his head and was satisfied until he saw another, nearly identical helm, save for the small spike jutting from the forehead of the helm. Sir Kendrick tried that helm on and found it to his liking. Next, Sir Kendrick selected a steel breast plate. It was sturdy and the straps adjusted with ease. It was light, but strong. He looked at the shields, steel banded hard wood, none so hard as the bone wood beyond the wall though. The shields were smaller than he preferred, shaped like a kite. Sir Kendrick turned away preferring his own shield though the wood was not as hard and the bronze soft by comparison, the shield was large and round and most important, trusted. The shield was a virtual twin to the one he’d lost in the Drowned Castle.

He selected a simple long sword with excellent balance and a matching dirk. He pulled on the breast plate and shrugged at the fit. But Aemon or Jericho would tighten the straps and take care of that. He slung the sword belt around his waist and cinched it tight. He tucked the helm beneath his arm and turned to leave.

“The hell’re you doing?” It was the master smith. His apron was blackened and stiff. Soot smeared his face and he clenched his hammer. The smith was a large man, taller than Sir Kendrick. The smith loomed large, his muscle frame backlit by the glowing fire. He smelled of sweat and smoke and his voice grated, his throat damaged by years of coarse smoke mingling with the air he sucked in.

Sir Kendrick looked at the man, this smith. The smith presented a dilemma. To dress the man down for addressing a knight in such a manner diminished him, though Sir Kendrick longed to lash out. He wanted to slap the man for speaking to him in a tone suitable for a scullery boy. To do so would make him the same as Sir Longworth, and once today he’d lashed out in anger. On a boy no less. A boy who knew only that which his father taught. He stared at the smith with unblinking eyes.

The smith shifted his feet. “Asked yer a question.” His voice no longer carried the strength it had before.

“Sir.”

“Wha’?” The smith asked.

“Address me as, Sir.” Sir Kendrick said unable to keep from some measure of redressing the insult. He kept his tone steady, cold, and emphatic.

The smith hung his head and refused to meet Sir Kendrick’s eyes.

“Fine work you’ve done. I am Sir Kendrick. Speak with the steward if you have any question as to my taking that which I need, or the prince if you have his ear.”

The smith nodded looking somehow afraid. Typically, a knight was a formidable enemy and the smith looked as if he’d made one and regretted it.

“Fear not my friend, tomorrow all grudges die when I face the Black Knight.”

The smith looked pained and relieved.

Sir Kendrick stepped by him, reached up and clapped him on the shoulder. He left the smith and the smithy feeling lighter.

7

The priesthood devoted to the Forgotten Gods both loved and hated Sir Kendrick. Secretly, he was near a saint, but in public, Sir Kendrick was a heretic. The knight’s experience in the Wood of Bones, the Wood Beyond the Wall, the Wood Within the Wall proved the gods existed, be their names remembered or not. That same experience called the priests and their faith into question, thus a public renunciation of Sir Kendrick.

The sorcerers were far less ambivalent. They hated Sir Kendrick for his testimony of the events that transpired in the Wood.

Thus, Sir Kendrick was a knight disgraced in practice, but not in truth. His failure within the Wood was not so grievous as his testimony of the events therein, and as the only one to return, undisputed and undisputable.

His testimony was a lie. His words a fiction based upon fact, but told so poorly as to be suspect. Couple his lack of skill in lying with the damning recounting of priest and sorcerer and his predicament is clear. The Wood. It all revolved around the Wood. The Wood, birthplace of hero and villain, home of the shamed, crucible for the weak, and graveyard of a god without name, made Sir Kendrick the man he’d become. It thrust poverty upon him. It made him a pariah, and thrust him into the role of Byzantis’ sacrificial Champion.

Sir Kendrick returned to the barrack to find Aemon and Jericho sparring still. They left off and looked to him for news. There were no words. Perhaps later, he thought. Later I will know what to say.

They saw his new gear and understood. At their age, Sir Kendrick displayed woeful naivety and ignorance of the hearts of princes, priests, sorcerers, and knights. These two saw horror too young for strident optimism to infect them.

Aemon helped him with the fit of the breast plate.

Once satisfied, he removed the armor and retired to the small cell he kept for his own. He barred the door and took out the dirk. He used it to pry up a set of warped boards.

Under the floor was a burlap bundle tied tight with hempen rope. He lifted out the bundle and unwrapped it. Inside was a large tapestry stained by age and filth; dried mud cracked all across the surface. He stared at the weave, at the images of ruthless Fey with cruel smiles as they slaughtered men and raped women. Flames danced around them, flames and trees. The trees he’d seen before, they were Bone Wood trees, wood from the bones of a dead god.

Sir Kendrick shuddered and lifted the skull he’d hidden within the tapestry. It was a strange skull. It was no man, no woman, and not quite Fey. Covering the skull were glyphs; dark brown on the yellowed bone. He stared into the empty sockets and wondered.

He looked at the skull and tapestry for a time, entranced by the promise of some dark secret to be plumbed. He waited for the mystery to reveal itself. He waited, in his darkest heart, for glow of pink, sickly, old, and somehow hypnotic to appear. It did not.

He wrapped it all up and removed the bar from the door. He left the barrack carrying the burlap wrapped bundle. On his way out he saw Aemon and Jericho polishing the helm and the breast plate. He watched for a moment grimacing, and left.

He walked to Mikel’s.

Mikel was a magician of sorts; by his own admission his magic was weak and mostly trickery. The man had come to the city and run afoul of the sorcerers. Sir Kendrick came to his defense as much to antagonize the sorcerers as much as because as a knight he was sworn to protect those in need. And Mikel had been in need. Without Sir Kendrick, he might have been hung at worst, cast out of Byzantis at the least.

As he walked he pondered the skull with its glyphs. He’d taken the tapestry and the skull because it was a skull he had failed to retrieve from Castle Thrace within the Wood. Sir Kendrick told no one of what he’d found beneath the dungeons of the Drowned Castle.

The Drowned Castle, how he hated that place.

After the butcher’s work performed by himself and a gaggle of squires too young by far for what they’d done, the sorcerers with the prince’s blessing took over the place. They dug out the remainder of the castle with pick and shovel in the hands of condemned men given reprieve for that service.

Arriving at the magician’s home he balled up a fist and pounded on the door. A moment later the sound of metal against wood alerted him to the spy hole and the eyes gleaming through it.

“You.” A voice announced almost bored.

Sir Kendrick looked into the eyes, “I’ve decided to trust you.”

Eyebrows thick and bushy arched like a pair of cats hissing at one another. “Oh?” Mikel said his curiosity sparked.

“Open the damn door.” Sir Kendrick almost growled. The bundle made him nervous. On the walk to Mikel’s he looked over his shoulder with every few steps.

The door opened with a screech after the bolts were thrown.

Mikel beckoned the knight to enter and he did.

Sir Kendrick was ushered to a table made of rough stone and cluttered with too many odd bits and pieces to register. Mikel produced a flagon of wine and a pair of dented tin cups he filled.

They sat and looked at one another. Mikel toasted Sir Kendrick and they drank.

“The siege ends in the morning.” Sir Kendrick said.

“Good. I suppose.”

“I champion Byzantis.”

“Indeed.”

Sir Kendrick said nothing, but looked at his bundle.

“Best wishes then.”

Sir Kendrick scowled.

“On the off chance I fall tomorrow…” He realized he had no idea what to say or how to continue, so he unwrapped the bundle exposing portions of the tapestry and the skull.

“I can think of worse than you to possess these things.” Sir Kendrick said as Mikel lifted the skull and studied it.

“There are much worse than I.” The magician whispered through a wondering smile.

Sir Kendrick drank.

Mikel looked at the knight. “Assuming victory for Byzantis, perhaps you could leave these for me to… study.”

Sir Kendrick nodded.

Mikel held out his hand. “I have decided to trust you, sir knight.”

Sir Kendrick couldn’t help but smile. Something about the old man spoke of outward fragility masking deep inner strength and depths of wisdom as yet unseen.

“The boys, Aemon and Jericho.”

“What about them?” Mikel asked while peering over the crown of the skull at Sir Kendrick. His eyes flicked back to the skull.

“If tomorrow I am killed-“ Mikel frown and flapped a dismissive hand, it appeared one in the city thought Sir Kendrick the favorite in the coming contest. “If tomorrow I am killed?”

“Yes? Yes?”

“Will you look after them?”

“Those who have no past, cannot plan for the future.”

“What?” Sir Kendrick asked puzzled.

“Have you a past?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have a future.”

“It may be short.”

Mikel laughed. “Very well, if it eases your mind, I will look after them if you are dead come days end tomorrow.”

Sir Kendrick nodded, rose and left.

Mikel sighed and resumed his study of the skull.

8

On his way back to the barrack, Sir Kendrick stopped at one of the various markets. He approached a stall where a woman in her late teens offered both eggs and chickens.

Her hands were those of a woman who worked. Her hands were calloused and tanned. She saw him and offered a warm smile.

“Hello Sir Kendrick.”

“Alia, how are you?”

“Weary of the siege.”

He smiled. “Well, tomorrow it ends.”

She leaned closer, her smile conspiratorial as she said, “So I’ve heard. Rumor says some fool knight has volunteered to be champion.”

“Indeed.” He smiled with her. I know the fool knight.”

“Do you? No one you’ll miss I hope.”

“Only if I look in a mirror.” He countered and her smile faltered.

“I’m sorry if I offended.”

He raised a hand to stop her. She offered the apology only because he was a knight, however low he was, she was lower.

“Do not apologize, there is no need.”

She nodded.

“I came to ask a question.”

She looked expectant.

“If I prevail tomorrow, will you be my wife?”

She looked stunned, recovered and said, “That is a cruel thing you do.”

He nodded. “I am sorry.”

“You offer a future on the condition of surviving a fight.”

“Yes I do.”

“Then my answer is no.”

He closed his eyes and nodded.

“We marry today, or never.”

So, they married that day giving him even more future upon which to strive.

9

Dawn. An instant of gray washed over… everything. It was that singular moment just before color flooded the world. It was the singular moment when life overcame death and the world could breathe again. It was the moment when all the monsters slept. All the monsters that is, save for man himself, for humanity, the men and the women, are the most fearsome monsters of all.

Prince Jasper saw the moment and felt it. The moment when his heart skipped, followed by the wash of color and the rhythm was renewed.

Goulding saw it not, though he was awake. He stared at the deposit in his chamber pot and slowly rejected the contents and the use of those contents in magic. Powerful magic, yet vile and unseemly.

Cooke led his priests in a prayer for the champion, just the champion. He refused to acknowledge even to himself which champion he prayed for; therefore, his prayer would be answered, a champion was blessed. Deep within himself he asked, which one? And squashed the thought before it could bubble into his conscious thoughts and influence his prayer. He must, as the highest of the priests, be above reproach in thought and deed.

Bethany watched her prince as the morning light washed him first in a deathly gray, then in the full color of life. He still looked gray as he looked at her, the bags beneath his eyes were not black, but dark, dark gray. She watched as she clutched her son wondering if she would see the babe after this day.

Mikel, horse hair brush in hand swept away centuries of dirt revealing the image depicted on the tapestry. All night he’d worked. And all day he would work. The tapestry hung on a wall facing a window, facing east so the gray washed over each disturbing image before bursting to life with color that only deepened the depravity.

Aemon honed sword and dirk while a grinning Jericho polished the breast plate. Both were confident that the Black Knight would fall this day. Both knew that Sir Kendrick was an exemplary knight, perhaps more of a knight than any other in all the principalities; that is as long as they ignored how he fought. And they’d seen him fight; in the Drowned Castle, with bandits, and in the practice yard with dulled steel. Yes, they’d seen him fight and he fought not for honor, or style, but to win. To win at any cost.

Alia, just wed, hoped that she would end the day as a wife not a widow. Her husband was a gentle man in her arms, but she had no illusions about the kind of man he was. She knew the gossip and the stories, but had seen him exhibit a hardness that could not be faked.

“I am better because of you, my love.” He spoke these words to her as he rose and prepared to kill.

A thousand shades of gray burst into an infinite variety of color. The cocks crowed with the sun, the folk began their day in their trade and some smiled as they loaded carts and wagons to sell their fare beyond the high walls of the city to the high and mighty and the lowest of the low- provided the coins flowed like water from a spout.

The Starlit Knight.

So called because of the star on his shield, a seven pointed star on a field of blue. Sir Kendrick donned his studded leather armor, then his breast plate. It glittered in sun’s rays as did his helm. On his shield, Jericho had painted the seven pointed star that was his sigil afresh. Sir Kendrick marveled at how Jericho with his thick fingers and aptitude for death could paint with such gentle elegance. A white star, backed by blue on a gleaming bronze shield.

Sir Kendrick mounted his horse. She was old, better suited to drawing a plow than bearing a knight, but she was all he had. He left the barrack and the boys followed on foot.

Alia refused to watch.

10

The sky was blue streaked with thin white clouds.

The killing ground was encircled with benches protected by awnings. A light breeze rippled the silks of as many colors as are found in a rainbow. A pair of princes mingled with lords and ladies and drank wine and feasted and smiled- though Prince Jasper’s smile was strained. The well to do of Byzantis mingled and tittered with those of Kaii. They spoke of trade and the weather, of their relief that the siege ended with the combat that very day. The discussed odds on favorite and whispered behind hands that Prince Jasper’s choice was bound to lose. They said that he in fact intended for Sir Kendrick to lose, but without surrender, without cost to himself or his city. The prince saved face and the city and these high folk with their soft flesh and scented cloths perfumed with rose oil. This spectacle was for them, these people who lifted small silver boxes attached to delicate chains around their necks, they raised these boxes to noses that flared and inhaled the delicate dust of snuff.

Prince Cornwell and his ilk laughed heartily as they saw Sir Kendrick in his gleaming helm and breast plate over stained and worn leather ride from Byzantis on his aged nag. Prince Jasper could think of nothing more than how he sacrificed his only son, bastard or not. And he was embarrassed. Would that the day could end, that he could hand his son to Prince Cornwall and return to bed.

The contrasts were comic.

Each knight bowed to their prince before facing each other.

The crowd separated so that on one side was Prince Jasper and the elite of Byzantis, while across from that mob was Prince Cornwall and his coterie of generals and lords and ladies; all arrived to watch the Black Knight triumph, again.

Sunlight flashed off Sir Kendrick; his armor glittered.

Horns trumpeted. Prince Cornwall held a simple bronze goblet filled with wine of the highest quality and anything but simple. He stepped forward and raised the goblet to his son in law, Prince Jasper.

“Today, under skies of blue, before a multitude of witnesses, we settle our dispute. When one man stands of these two, when one man lives as the other dies, the war is done, and we settle our dispute as agreed upon, and once again, Kaii and Byzantis will be allies, Prince Jasper and I, Prince Cornwall, will be father” pause,” and son.”

Prince Cornwall drank and Prince Jasper followed suit to the cheers of hundreds around the circle where two men would fight till only one lived. Citizens of Byzantis atop the city walls cheered for the fight, and the princes.

Prince Jasper waited for the cheers to thin and raised his own ornate goblet. “To peace with you, my father.”

The cheers again erupted. Princess Stephanie caught her husband’s eye and smiled cruelly.

All those who would not fight fell back leaving only the knights facing one another across the dirt circle where one would soon die.

A flute, it’s melody thin and reedy began to play and was accompanied by the slow, steady beat of a drum a moment later.

The Black Knight raised his great sword and approached Sir Kendrick. Sir Kendrick hefted his shield and held it high so that all but his eyes were guarded and he circled away from the Black Knight. He watched as the light reflecting from his shield and armor danced over the dull black armor of his foe.

The morning sun blazed in the sky.

Sir Kendrick’s mouth was sour.

The Black Knight charged and his sword rose in a high arc and crashed down on Sir Kendrick’s shield with an earsplitting clang. Sir Kendrick swung his long sword at the Black Knight’s midsection cleaving only air as the knight danced away.

And the crowd cheered as one, they cheered not for one knight over another, but for the fight.

Sir Kendrick shook his arm to loosen his shoulder. Though he took the blow on his shield, he’d felt it through his arm, to his shoulder.

The fight started slow. The knights seeking some edge, some advantage to exploit.

They circled and clashed, darting in for a furious exchange, then dancing back.

Dust hung in the air.

The combatants panted from heat and exertion. The Black Knight offered the occasional roar. It was a fearsome sound that set Sir Kendrick on edge, but it did not diminish him as intended. This man was the Black Knight, not Stitch. The Black Knight was only a man, no stink of decaying pink issue from beneath his visor.

Sir Kendrick’s bronze shield was soon dented, the polish lost in places, his sword nicked. Both knights gasped for breath.

Seconds, then minutes passed as the two crashed into each other, parted, circled, catching their wind and smashing against each other again. Dust marred the perfect, dull black armor.

Sir Kendrick gritted his teeth. The sword he carried was notched and dull. This was expected. What he had not anticipated was the loose rattle of the blade in the hilt. Soon, the sword would break.

He bashed with his shield and stabbed with the sword. The Black Knight parried and knocked the sword away, the blade spun away and landed in a puff of dust.

Prince Cornwell smiled when he saw Sir Kendrick cast away the hilt of his sword. Prince Jasper felt the blood drain away from his face as any hope harbored deep within him died.

The Black Knight charged and was met with an upraised shield. His blow was strong and had it hit flesh, would surely have torn the life from it. As it happened it rent deep into the shield and stuck.

Sir Kendrick reached out and grabbed the left ram’s horn on the Black Knights helm and pulled. The Black Knight wrenched at his sword and it loosened, but he was pulled close to Sir Kendrick who began smashing his head against the Black Knight’s. The spike on the front of his helm was the hammer against which the Black Knights head was the anvil. Divots bloomed in the black helm and with effort, the Black Knight wrenched away. He took his sword, freeing it from the shield and left the now broken horn in Sir Kendricks hand.

Motes of light danced across Sir Kendricks eyes. The Black Knight shook his head and planted his feet as nausea threatened to topple him.

The Black Knight staggered back. His vision blurred and his helm was askew.

Those watchers of the carnage roared their approval. Here was a fight for the legends. Here was a combat to be reminisced about for the ages.

While spectators drank mead, wine, and ale, while they ate hot cakes stuffed with meat and gravy, while they pointed out the obvious bone rattling blows to one another, the two men circled in dust and blinked stinging sweat from squinted eyes.

Thinking of his new bride, Sir Kendrick cast about for some advantage. Some part of him, the part that expected to die, the part of himself that felt he deserved death as a consequence of his failures both within the Wood and outside it’s imposing walls did die. Fatigue began to recede as determination flooded him. He spat through gritted teeth coarse with dust.

His left arm was battered and tired, tired of holding the shield and tired of blocking the monster sword. Sir Kendrick was tired. He was tired of always blocking, defending, of waiting for the next blow to fall so he could react.

It was time to act.

He barked a guttural war cry and Sir Kendrick drew his dirk and charged.

The Black Knight took an involuntary step back.

Kicking up dust as he ran, Sir Kendrick swung his shield like a scythe, aiming for the narrow gap between the Black Knights helm and his gorget.

He missed. The shields edge skittered by the upraised great sword.

The edge of his shield caught the Black Knight across the nose forcing black steel into flesh. The great sword fell to the dust and the Black Knight to his knees. Blood streamed from beneath the helm, red on black. Red so dark as to be black. The black Knight gripped his helm, the visor smashed into his face. He was screaming.

There was no sound from the crowd once the collective gasp faded, save for the ragged breathing of the knights. Sir Kendrick tried to shrug his shield off his arm, but the damage forced him to cut the straps and pry it off with his dirk. Shield in the dust, he sheathed his dirk.

The Black Knight wrestled with his helm while on his knees. With every attempt to pull the helm from his head came an accompanying scream and a fresh stream blood.

Shocked silence held sway over the spectators the Black Knight slumped and seemed to give up. His arms hung limp at his sides and a reedy whimper whistled through the ruined visor.

Dust settled on him. He blinked behind his helm, trying to snap out of the fugue that gripped him, trying to see clearly, to raise his arms and tear the useless helm from his head, to grab his sword and kill the Sir Kendrick. He could not.

Sir Kendrick took the massive sword from where it lay. He hefted the sword, tested the grip and his ability to sing it. It was a beautiful sword in a terrible way. The balance was perfect, the weight just right.

“Mercy.” Prince Cornwall said in a pleading voice, soft and breathless, yet all could hear, even those on the wall and those would couldn’t hear heard the word repeated. The word was a shock, it’s use a hypocrisy uttered by a man who laid siege to a city in order to murder a babe. Mercy. The word rippled along the wall and among the common folk as a bitter reproach.

Sir Kendrick discarded his helm and looked at his prince. Prince Jasper looked haggard and petrified; punch drunk. He gave the slightest nod and Sir Kendrick found he hated them all in that moment. Everyone one of them had seen him as a sacrifice to assuage their egos. He was a sacrifice for honor as much as the babe who for the crime of being born started this sham of a war.

Cooke, High Priest of the Forgotten Gods offered his wisdom, “Mercy for this defeated man.” Goulding nodded even as he sneered. Sir Longworth simply looked incredulous and unbelieving on the unfolding tableau.

Sir Kendrick looked at the great black blade in his hands and considered.

“No.”

He took the great sword and swung it over his head and brought it down with an elegant arc that hacked off the Black Knights head.

The crowd cried out in shock as the helmeted head spun into the dust and the body crumpled into darkening dust. Blood pumped onto the dust as a morbid afterthought.

Sir Kendrick picked up the severed head and strode to his prince. He tossed first the head, then the sword at Prince Jasper’s feet. Sir Kendrick kneeled before his prince and spoke:

“Congratulations my prince, you’ve won.” Hearing his words ring through the morning air, the folk of Byzantis roared their approval.

Prince Jasper looked at the severed head and black blade slick with blood and could think of nothing to say. Nothing at all.

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