The Pale Wood

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Starlit Knight in the City

Starlit Knight

in the

City

1

The horse walked through emptying streets.

Distant, in the west, the sun fell inexorably below the horizon. This was no new occurrence; it happened every day.

In the failing light of day, the very nature of the city changed. Peddlers packed up carts in the market, those with storefronts shuttered windows and barred doors, the Nightwatchmen rubbed sleep from eyes ringed in purple and donned half helms as they lit torches; these too were nothing new, but daily changes brought on by the setting sun and emerging stars.

The city at night was a different place, in many respects divorced from the day by the implacable barrier of darkness and the distinct change in personality and personage.

The horse, either recognizing the surrounding normality, or not, remained unperturbed. The man on her back acted the same.

Any who looked his way recognized him for the knight he was, both in name and deed. Becoming a knight often required little more than coin in the correct palm, or palms as the case may be. But this knight was one who earned his title. He wore a hard face, scarred hands, and the easy demeanor of a man who has fought, killed, and accepted these things as a part of his eternal soul. His was not an unkind face. He stopped to allow the very young and the very old to pass before continuing onward. His armor was simple boiled leather, stained and travel worn. A tarnished steel helm bobbed in front of his saddle. The sword at his hip hinted at much use, though the wrap was simple, the pommel a utilitarian spike. The clothes beneath his armor were of high quality, but simple and brown wool.

Sir Kendrick was home. Or nearly so.

For this he was glad. Home offered a warm bed next to his wife, the soft kisses of his daughters, and a cup of tea. Perhaps a splash of wine in his tea to warm his bones, his wife had no love for cold feet in their bed.

But as always, when he returned, home was the last place he went; first the prince, or his steward, or more often than not- both.

Since his defeat of the Black Knight at his hands, Prince Jasper had rewarded Sir Kendrick with land and coin. The prince also used Sir Kendrick almost as his personal knight wielding him as a knight wields a sword. Often, Sir Kendrick acted as a courier delivering important messages, or secret diplomatic pages to one city or another. At other times, Sir Kendrick was truly the prince’s sword.

Home was not in the city, but outside and not far off. Close enough should the city be besieged he could move his family inside, far enough to be away from the stench of daily chamber pots emptied over the cobbles from second story windows.

Home was far enough off that the lights of the city did not blot out the stars.

His horse carried him to the castle and the inner wall that ringed it. He looked upon the turrets and crenellations, the seams where stone stacked on stone, held together by mortar. Looking on this castle as he did, always made him think of Castle Thrace in the Bone Wood, so near and far away at once. Too, he thought of the Drowned Castle, but he was forged amidst the pale Wood of Bones and so that was foremost in his mind. He thought of his time there some four years past and the Poor Knights plight. Sir Kendrick thought of the Poor Knight as his truest friend, and the truest knight. What happened in that Wood was why he took no squire, though Aemon and Jericho followed him still. It was why he lived in a small estate outside the city with his common wife and his children. His common wife, a farcical thought, everything about her was extraordinary, nothing common about her, but that was how the high born looked at her. Sir Kendrick did not care.

He sighed and approached the gate into the castle.

The guards were common men, they nodded to him with some measure of actual respect, the knights among them however... Sir Howard sat on his charger bedecked in steel plate armor, man and horse matching. Sir Howard wore his sigil, a fist gripping a lightning bolt.

“The Knight of Stars,” Sir Howard sneered referring to the seven pointed star that was his sigil and adorned not only his shield, but the brooch that held his cloak. Among the more metropolitan knights, these men of public honor and private shame, Sir Kendrick was a cancer. Sir Howard was friends with Sir Longworth, but Sir Longworth it seemed was friends with all the knights, all but Sir Kendrick. Sir Kendrick didn’t care.

Sir Kendrick looked at Sir Howard resplendent in steel. Sir Kendrick looked at the jeweled pommel of Sir Howard’s sword, the fist on his shield; all pristine, never seeing battle and blood, all braggadocio and no deed to back it up. Sir Kendrick knew he should ignore the jibes and jeers, but it was something with which he struggled.

Sir Kendrick looked at the fist and the lightning. He stared at Sir Howard, he kept his face smooth and looked into the other knight’s eyes until Sir Howard looked away. Sir Howard spoke no more, only tugged on his reigns to move out of Sir Kendrick’s way.

Had I never entered the Wood, I would be him, Sir Kendrick thought, and shivered.

In the courtyard he slipped from the back of his horse and allowed a stable boy to take the reins knowing the simple beast would be fed and rubbed down. Sir Kendrick looked to the darkening sky and saw the expanse above him fading to the color of a bruise. Torches in the courtyard blotted out any emerging stars.

He entered the castle and the prince’s guard relieved him of his belt, from which his sword and dagger hung.

He walked these halls without fear of ghosts, but betrayal. It occurred to him that in Castle Thrace he’d expected ghosts, but saw only betrayal. For a moment he smiled thinking that a ghost may emerge from some passage. Perhaps the Black Knight, Sir Fraser. None did.

Prince Jasper received him in a small audience chamber lit with candles so numerous as to mimic day. The prince’s steward Radburn held a cup of wine, the prince’s sorcerer, Goulding, glowered at Sir Kendrick, and the High Priest, Cooke in alternating stares. Goulding hated the priests, but Sir Kendrick suspected that Goulding’s hate for him outstripped the priests collectively by a fair margin.

“My friend,” the prince said and embraced Sir Kendrick. Prince Jasper smiled to see Sir Kendrick. The prince grew older, more worn by the day. Time was unkind to him The prince saw Sir Kendrick whenever he looked upon his bastard son, Quisling.

“Your eminence.” Sir Kendrick replied.

Sir Kendrick took the proffered cup of wine and sat with the rest at a small table. He looked to the prince who said:

“I assume your presence as a demonstration of your success. I wish to hear the details, but, well, tell the tale later as, well… We have another matter.”

Sir Kendrick sipped his wine and waited, offering no words in reply. There was nothing to say. He had interest in one quest only; a return to the Bone Wood. Beyond this, he only wished to return to his modest estate, to lay with his wife and kiss his children.

After his failure in the Bone Wood those four years past, followed by the horrors of the Drowned Castle and his duel with the Black Knight, a darkness fell upon Sir Kendrick. In this darkness, he sought battle, he dared fate to cut him down and fought recklessly without fear of death, a part of him welcoming it. Alia, his wife was all that lifted him free of the depression and self destruction that gripped him. His return from the Wood earned him disappointment and enemies. His prince had looked upon him with different eyes, measuring stares that found him lacking. The sorcerers who remained in the city viewed his testimony of betrayal by one of theirs as an affront on them all. The priests refused him their blessings. The ghost of his squire, Cavill haunted him. And exclusion and plotting sought to kill him.

Alia had been his salvation. She alone (or so it seemed) lifted him up, when all others sought to push him beneath the waters. To drown him in shame and retribution.

It was her name that first attracted him; a name she shared with a raven in the Bone Wood, companion to the Poor Knight. Sir Kendrick suspected that his wife bore some connection to the Poor Knight, but she would not, or could not say and the Poor Knight’s given name was stricken from the tongues of all. And perhaps it was all in his mind, a reason to speak to her. Once, Alia had been a seller of chickens and eggs in the market.

Sir Kendrick, hearing her name had found himself pulled to her, unable to stay away. He ate more eggs and chicken. He was drawn to her wit and beauty. It was her strength that allowed him to kill the Black Knight.

After a time, Sir Kendrick asked, “What would you have of me my Prince?”

The same prince who once looked on him with doubt, but now smiled a smile flush with confidence.

It was Radburn who spoke. “An enclave of warlocks have moved into the city, small to be sure, but…” He shrugged.

The prince’s sorcerer Goulding spoke, anger smoldering behind his glowering eyes. “Expel them.”

Sir Kendrick faced the sorcerer. Much as the sorcerers hated him, he hated them. After returning from the Wood he’d inquired in soft tones as to the nature of magic, looking to alleviate his doubts about Stitch who forced him down with some strange sorcery, or not. Sir Kendrick desperately needed to believe that magic had pressed him down, that it was an external force that laid him low and not his own weakness. The sorcerers shunned him, for his own words damned their brother Stitch. Sir Kendrick made peace with what happened, though doubt remained. Mutual disdain however lived on and on. The sorcerers threatened him time and again.

Sir Kendrick looked to his prince, eyes searching. Seeing that his prince had nothing to say, he turned to Goulding. He looked the sorcerer full in the face and suppressed the fear welling up.

“Expel them?” Sir Kendrick asked.

Goulding’s eyes flashed red and angry. “Yes! Expel them!” He rasped in that guttural voice those of his ilk liked to use so much.

“Do it yourself.” Sir Kendrick suggested, the fear leaving him as soon as he spoke. Whether the magic was real or imagined, it failed to sway him; it always did now. They tried their voices on him again and again. Each time dread bubbled in his guts. Each time, he responded counter to their commands. This test they threw at him, but he never faltered and the twisting in his belly dissipated.

“Do not mock me, sir knight. The things I can do to y-“

Sir Kendrick cut the sorcerer off. “Then you do not need me.”

Goulding’s mouth gawped like a fish out of water.

Cooke, the High Priest to those faceless forgotten gods of the Fey, spoke next. “Warlocks are by their very nature, evil. Knights, such as yourself, are sworn to combat evil wherever it may be found.”

Again, Sir Kendrick looked across the table to his silent prince. Radburn looked at his hands making Sir Kendrick wonder what was truly going on.

Cooke looked smug.

The prince, the High Priest, and the Supreme Sorcerer in league to rid this fair city of a few warlocks. And they choose a lowly knight, he thought. Sir Kendrick was not rich, not by any standard. He was not the greatest of swordsman, nor the smartest man. I am simple knight. No more, no less, he thought and recognized this as a lie in the moment. Self deception was hard to overcome. Easier to drive the tip of a sword through a man’s heart than to pierce one’s own delusions should too much time pass. No, he was not a simple knight, hadn’t been one for four years, not since emerging from the Wood. The Drowned Castle and the Black Knight only added to his mystique.

Three sets of eyes stared at him. Radburn refused to raise his eyes. Sir Kendrick tried to remember when these three had all agreed on anything. He could think of no such occurrence.

“Why me?” He asked any of them and all. He wondered that Sir Longworth was not here as well.

None answered.

“Very well. Seems to me that one magicker is much the same as another. Warlock or sorcerer. The more the merrier. By your leave your emminence.”

Sir Kendrick stood to leave. The sorcerer and the priest looked to Prince Jasper. The prince looked at Sir Kendrick as he rose and said, “Sit.”

Sir Kendrick looked at his prince, questions clear on his face. Sir Kendrick saw then just how many strings tugged on the most powerful man in Byzantis, un name if not in reality. This prince, looking old, looking weak, being pushed and pulled, was an eating, sleeping, farting puppet commanded by sorcerers, knights and clergy.

Prince Jasper broke first, his tone softened. “Sir Kendrick, please sit and I will tell you a story.” He said with a sigh.

Sir Kendrick sat knowing he would obey, that was his nature. Knowing too, that this quest was laid before him, so that he might die executing it.

2

The setting of the story was in another time and another place.

Ukkodia was the name of the city. It was a time before steel, before men moved north, across the Black Strait and encountered the Fey, when the forgotten gods were known by the Fey and men worshiped demons.

The demon of Ukkodia was named Khmalk, and he was controlled by a warlock named Purfid. Purfid called the demon by command of the emperor. The demon spat fire, sweated acid, pissed poison, and shat ice. It was a foul thing and the people bowed and scraped and worshipped Khmalk and the emperor.

Ukkodia was a cruel place where slaves were treated worse than goats. Sacrifice to Khmalk was common, every festival, every day of import, every omen, on the full moon, and when the moon was new; all required a ritual sacrifice. Girls were kept in pens like cattle, pregnant in near perpetuity to birth the sacrificial fodder to the demon. At the center of it all was Purfid, the true power in Ukkodia.

Purfid led the demon into battle against all of Ukkodia’s foes. Some cities had demons of their own, but none as powerful as Khmalk, and no city had a warlock as powerful as Purfid.

Purfid is said to have conquered death…

Sir Kendrick interrupted. “What does an ancient demon of the desert have to do with us?”

Prince Jasper took a heavy breath. “The warlock who leads this coven is called Purfid.”

Sir Kendrick looked around the table. “And you all, all of you believe that the Purfid here is the same?”

“Yes.” Cooke said while wringing his soft hands.

“Yes.” Said Goulding in a snarl.

“Yes.” Prince Jasper said at last.

Radburn nodded and pursed his lips, but said nothing.

“You wish me to kill the man, is that it?”

“Drive them off, kill him, whatever.” Cooke said.

“Expel him!” Spat Goulding and the way he said it made Sir Kendrick think that he meant something more than tossing this warlock beyond the gates.

“Do what you must, but do it tonight.” Said the prince, who held up a hand, ending all talk, so that he might finish his story.

Purfid lost his demon in a slave revolt, the details of how that occurred are lost to history. His spells shattered, the demon crazed, Purfid fled. Men tried to kill the demon, they stabbed him with knives of bronze, smashed him with stone hammers, and shot him with arrows. None did him much harm, though the arrows bite was deepest.

The demon, Khmalk, rampaged through Ukkodia destroying the city. Few survived the horror. The story was inscribed on tablets by a warlock of Purfid’s who decried the practice thereafter. The demon fat on the blood and bone of Ukkodia slunk back to whichever hell it was pulled from.

“We believe this Purfid is here to call his demon forth again so that he can break the walls of the Wood.”

Sir Kendrick felt a headache coming on and wet his dry mouth with wine.

Radburn set a sword on the table and slid it to Sir Kendrick. The scabbard was simple leather lined with fur. The hilt and cross guard matched the scabbard in their simplicity. Sir Kendrick picked up the sword and felt a vague, distant dysphoria that was both familiar and strange. Drawing the blade, he saw that it was wood the color of ancient bone. It was a short sword with a leaf blade.

It was both like and so unlike the sword of his Poor Knight. In the wood, his Poor Knight’s blades were dull black, save the sharpened edges that were the color of bleached bone. This blade shone with a deep luster, the blade was a motley of colors ranging from bone yellow to almost copper. It was very sharp.

“I have blessed the blade… and you Sir Kendrick.” Cooke said.

“I have imbued it with all the enchantments at my command.” Offered Goulding.

“Wood seems to be Purfid’s weakness. This is the Bone Wood sword of a Poor Knight from many, many years past who presented it to my father upon his replacement. We believe it is the best, perhaps only weapon that can strike Purfid down. It needs but a man to wield it.”

“Why me?”

Goulding spoke first. “You resist magic well.”

“You survived a crisis of faith that destroyed a priest.”

“You are my best knight and I will grant you three boons should you survive.” Prince Jasper said.

“And you wish me dead.”

“What?” They all said at once, hearing, but not listening to Sir Kendrick’s accusation spoken in a low voice, only just above a whisper. He looked in turn at all three. And the trio looked away guilty and Sir Kendrick said nothing more on it. His point was made. Why else send as single knight to face this danger? Sir Kendrick was unsure if they truly believed that this Purfid was the same as the one in the legend. He was unsure himself.

Sir Kendrick nodded. He stood and took the sword. Radburn offered him a belt. He took it and threaded the belt through the loop on the scabbard and strapped the weapon around his waist.

3

Full dark was upon the city. The sky threatened rain and no stars could be seen for the thick layer of clouds.

Sir Kendrick touched the seven pointed star at his throat. The star was wrought of silver chased with gold; diamond chips glittered in the center. The star was his sigil and the only outward symbol of his knighthood beyond his demeanor. The brooch was a gift. He wore it despite its flashy appearance that was in contrast tp his demeanor.

Soft golden light filtered through leaded glass onto the street. Pools of light bobbed at irregular intervals as guardsmen walked bearing guttering torches.

The knight threw his hood up over his head. The cloak was heavy, gray wool. It was warm and a chill was in the air.

Sir Kendrick, known as the Starlit Knight, felt the hopelessness that came to him with every quest. That niggling fear that nipped his heels and tugged at his cloak, stalking him, yet unseen and unknown; a revenant to pull him back into the Wood.

Why send one man against a warlock and his demon? It was a question without a good answer. A question with every answer a terrible one, for Sir Kendrick at least. Perhaps this was the trap set for him by the sorcerers and there was no warlock. No, this was like the Black Knight where his success or failure was a boon to those wielding power. They won in either case.

He thought of the runes scrawled across the blade of his new sword. Perhaps Goulding cursed the blade with his enchantments. And he thought of Cooke and the priests blessings, thus turning his thoughts to another priest named Hugh who even now might be enthralled by the dark visage of a Forgotten God.

This was his way. Shackled by his past. No amount of success could wash away his failure in the castle at the center of the Bone Wood. But it was not his failure, not really, it was his indiscretion, his telling a version of the truth that condemned him. It was the lie within the truth.

He walked amongst the shadows, avoiding the guardsmen and their torches.

He turned corners like a man who knew where he was off to. This no doubt, is because he knew precisely the place he was headed and reached there in due time.

The hour remained early though darkness blanketed the whole of the city.

He rapped hard on a sturdy wooden door bound in iron chased with rust. The sound was dull and without echo. A brass knocker dangled over a brass plate, but he ignored this. Sir Kendrick loathed the racket. He waited to the count of fifty and pounded on the door again.

A small door just below eye level opened. There was enough light to see the grizzled features of a man past his middle years. Part of a bulbous nose could be seen, pink with burst blood vessels and a single bloodshot eye that smiled at the hooded figure beyond. Sir Kendrick threw back his hood and the man inside laughed.

Sir Kendrick heard the bar lift on the other side and the door swung out on creaking hinges.

“Oh, my honor, a knight of the realm to see me.” The man said in a sing-song voice. He swept out his hand, gesturing Sir Kendrick enter and bowing all in one swift and mocking motion.

Sir Kendrick smiled. “Fuck you Mikel.”

4

Mikel sat on a bench, the cluttered table between himself and Sir Kendrick. Mikel poured wine into goblets crafted from the skulls of small men. Sir Kendrick asked once if these were from children and Mikel laughed saying, “No, I’m a different sort of monster than that.” Mikel claimed the skulls were Fey, perhaps Fey children. Mikel’d laughed at that. Sir Kendrick had his doubts, but the skulls bore passing resemblance to the strange skull he’d found beneath the Drowned Castle.

The men drank and Sir Kendrick marveled at how the strange man always managed to procure only fine wines for his consumption. In Sir Kendrick’s experience, degenerate drunks like Mikel were not so picky.

“So, what is it you want, you insufferable prick?” Mikel asked. The man insisted on never offering Sir Kendrick any honorific unless in public. It had become a shared joke, this insolence in private.

Sir Kendrick drew the sword from the Wood and explained how it became recently enchanted and blessed. Mikel took it and studied the blade his stubby finger tracing something only he saw with his squinted eyes. Mikel looked serious so seldom that when a look such as that passed over his face it made Sir Kendrick’s skin crawl.

“What? Have they got you doin’ now my friend?”

Sir Kendrick pursed his lips. Mikel was a hedge magician and the only man he knew who told true about magic. Mikel said most was for show, magic, true magic, was a terrible, hard thing. Mikel knew a “thimble full” of true magic and the rest was tricks. Most of his magic was in the writing of it on paper in painstaking fashion, so that he could read aloud what was written and see hours of work reduced to ash in mere seconds. He said the sorcerers knew the ways of more magic than he did, more expedient too, but they used tricks, never doubt it.

“See here.” Mikel said pointing to tiny scrawls across the blade. “Glyphs. Some good, some bad. Which be which is up for debate. Thing about glyphs like these is that intention alters meaning.”

“I don’t follow.” Sir Kendrick said.

Mikel never looked up, but scowled. “A dog. You can say the vilest things to a dog, but if you smile, if your voice sounds kind and you scrub the mutt’s ears. The tail wags and the dog is happy. Say a kind word as if you’re about to beat the mutt, well, he’ll tuck tail and cower. Where’d you get this?”

“Prince Jasper. It was blessed by Cooke, and enchanted by Goulding.”

Mikel shook his head. “The glyphs are the marks of sorcery. That lot is near enough to illiterate in the higher forms and stick to the old. The sequences are strange. The priest’s marks are far more ephemeral.”

“I think that they send me to die. Again.”

“Then yer fucked most like.” Mikel said. “See here,” he pointed to a row of glyphs. “These’ll keep a sharp edge, slice through steel and all a that, but there’s more here too. Can’t see the right’ve of it, but looks a curse of some kind perhaps. Hard to say what the intent underlying it is. Though, since it’s you and them, likely bad.” Mikel shook his head.

Mikel had run afoul of the sorcerers when he’d first come to the city. Hedge magicians were looked down on by most, seen as no more than charlatans. The sorcerers sought to have him hung and burned, but furthering that groups dislike of himself, Sir Kendrick had stopped them.

“A curse?” Sir Kendrick asked.

“So it would seem.”

Mikel continued his inspection of the sword and Sir Kendrick looked around. A hedge magician was an odd sort. Mikel perhaps the oddest. Mikel earned his coin dispensing wisdom and potions, song and salves. The table was covered in books and scrolls, glass vials and clay jugs. A drum teetered on a stack of books. Somewhere, Mikel had a banner proclaiming himself as the “Sagacious Mikel!”

“I can see the blessings as well, though only just, ephemeral as I said. Put there to… ah hell I don’t know, counter the curse, alter it.” Mikel scrunched his face and shrugged. Still peering at the sword he drank deeply from his goblet. Sir Kendrick enjoyed only sips. Tonight would be hard enough with all his wits.

“Why alter the curse. Cooke is no friend of mine.”

“A wonder you knights survive at all.”

“And that means what, Mikel?”

“The priests owe you, though like as not they’ll never admit it, your testimony of that priests end in that fucking castle, well it confirmed a great deal. More folk slipped into their pews and paid for godly favors see? The number of atheists converted to the faith jumped up a bit from round about none to what amounts to bucket fulls of coin in the coffers.”

Sir Kendrick nodded. Thinking of Hugh made his blood thicken and his heart slow. He couldn’t say if the man was dead or alive and suspected death was the mercy.

“This is quite a sword my fair knight. Kendrick what’re they doing to you? Against what do you ride?”

Sir Kendrick told of the warlock.

“So, you’ll save a wine sodden mage like meself, but ho-ho comes a warlock and you run to kill.”

“My prince commands me.”

“Who commands this prince’ve yours?”

Sir Kendrick refused to allow his thoughts to follow that road to its conclusion.

“Why here, why now?”

Mikel drank and gestured Sir Kendrick do the same. “Purfid is old.”

“So it is him?”

“Does it matter? If he can draw the demon back then we’re all screwed. As to why? Trade I’d guess. This is a strange city so close to Thrace. Weird shit happens. That Wood calls the weird wall or no. Thus drawing more weird shit here and so on. That old warlock had something what gave him sway over his pet demon. Bet it was lost. Now, it’s found. Here, or near enough.”

Mikel pushed the sword to Sir Kendrick with revulsion. Sir Kendrick slid the sword into its sheath.

“One more thing. That sword, whatever the sorcerers did, however the priests enchanted it. That Bone Wood has power of it’s own and that is important to remember.”

Sir Kendrick nodded.

“Want to join me?”

Mikel tried to look thoughtful. Sir Kendrick knew the man thirsted for knowledge as much as wine, but he shook his head and emphasized with a quick, decisive, “No.”

“Any advice?”

Mikel scratched his head. “Steer clear of the demon. Uh, slay the warlock. Be quick with it too, cut his heart out and either eat it of find a crow or dog to swallow that poison. Trust no one inside the warlock’s domain and kill em’. Kill em’ dead even if they be children. And drink up. Yer blood’ll be cold enough, may as well warm yourself.”

Mikel drained his goblet and Sir Kendrick did the same.

In the night again, he watched a pale, fuzzy glow form on the horizon. The Moon rose beyond the clouds. The night, though no longer young, was not yet failing.

5

Purfid looked into the night. Clouds hung low, thick enough to blot out any stars, but too thin to obscure the moon. Rain fell in a steady drizzle. He hated this land, but the medallion in his hand travelled to this city over the course of many centuries.

The medallion turned in his slender fingers. The centuries eroded the finer details of the tarnished copper disc, but it was the medallion, he knew. It thrummed in his fingers with potential.

Once, despair had threatened to overcome him. In his sorrows he became convinced the medallion was destroyed, melted by some heathen who knew not it’s power and mixed it with tin to forge a sword that now could be no more than a useless relic of a time long past.

Behind him, on a slab lay a young woman. He’d told her how pretty she was, but that was lie. It was not that she was ugly, she was not. She was plain. Strong hips, heavy breasts, and a mind of no great strength made her perfect. She’d taken his seed readily enough, after his courtship. Her father, a poor farmer with numerous mouths to feed had balked at the idea of an outright sale of the girl. It seemed these northern men lacked the sense to employ that economic necessity of slavery. That was soon to change. When his demon was born, when he commanded this city he would create a stable of slaves whose existence would be justified by service to him.

So instead, he courted her and her father spending precious coin to ingratiate himself. The foolish man pushed and pushed for more coin, thinking Purfid unaware of the dowry custom. The warlock offered to buy the girl outright when custom demanded that a father pay a man to take a useless daughter off his hands.

No matter, Purfid recovered almost every copper coin. He never did complete the courtship, he grew weary of the arrangement and used his power to slaughter all but the heifer he desired.

And there she was, bloated and ready. Waiting for…

Midnight.

That hour could not come soon enough for him. He’d waited so long and yet as the hour drew near, his patience fled him.

He turned from the night and looked at the girl, the mother of a demon. Her belly was swollen, painfully so, hence the heavy gag in her mouth to stifle her screams. Stretch marks scarred her belly and he wondered if perhaps the child might just burst through the skin. It had been centuries since he’d birthed a demon.

Of his three apprentices, only two remained, the third having run away only days ago. Tomorrow, Purfid would deal with that betrayal.

Candles danced and guttered as the rain blew through the open window.

Yaro-Puhj watched the apprentices work. He was the future king of this watery realm. Yaro was a merchant with aspirations beyond his station. An excellent candidate for Purfid and his needs. The man had wealth and ambition, but no scruples.

Purfid slipped the leather thong over his head letting the medallion dangle from his slim neck. The weight of it pleased him and he shuddered in near orgasmic ecstacy.

6

Sir Kendrick rounded a bend in the cobbled street. Before him, just down the street on his left, rose the Tower of Spice. It was an old structure, as old as the city itself. Once, it had been a place of splendor. Coin and spice vied for space in the old tower, but that time was long ago; that time had come and gone. The bricks shifted and sank making the tower lean. Mortar was carried off as dust on a breeze.

The tower was a den of villainy and vice where men came to drink the turgid potions of mercenary alchemists and taste the vilest fruits the worst brothels had to offer.

The tower was home to the weak and the wicked, the witless who seared thought from their brains with caustic smoke inhaled to achieve oblivion.

Sir Kendrick would see the tower torn down, but others who whispered in the ear of Prince Jasper convinced him otherwise. The spices were gone, exchanged for other powders, deadly in consumption; but not the coin, the coin would never be chased away as long as the tower leaned into the sky. The coin flowing through the tower lined many a pocket in the city.

The knight considered his options as he watched. Golden light flickered in every window. He heard laughter and song. He heard shouts of victory from those whose dice rolled true and dismay from those forsaken by good fortune and the marked cards in their quivering hands. Other sounds issued from within; shrieks, groans of pain and shouts of ecstasy, cries.

Sir Kendrick looked on in dismay. Light danced from every window and the tower was crawling with folk of all kinds.

He looked up at the clouds no longer sodden with rain, they shifted and moved, thinning. Patches of sky peeked through torn clouds. And stars winked. Not many, but a few. Sir Kendrick touched his brooch, feeling all seven points. The star, his sigil. Other knights mocked him, saying he had stars in his eyes. They derided his sense of duty, his devotion to the ideals eschewed by others in practice despite honeyed words to the contrary. So, he took the star as his own, commissioned the making of a star with seven points, a point for each man who entered the Wood Beyond the Wall, that old forest of bones.

The derision worked a kind of magic on him. He no longer clung to optimism and honor, he left these for the fools who shouted for it, demanded it, then stomped on it as soon as it inconvenienced them.

Damn the prince, damn the sorcerers, and damn the priests and all they stood for. Damn the knights of the city and their jaded fatalism and thirst for power. Damn the city. Yes, and that would happen, and soon unless he made his way into that tower and killed both warlock and demon. But how?

And damn him for a fool too proud to say no to a weak prince whose only freedom came as he put a cup to his wine stained lips.

The air was damp and cool. His breath, ghostly clouds before his face shifted. He walked. He followed street and alley circling that decaying tower. Eyes ever upward seeking some place of ingress.

Whores, aged streetwalkers unfit for the warmth of the brothels due to age and disease offered him a wide berth. Something about him made them shy away. Cutpurses too slunk away from the Starlit Knight.

The clouds overhead broke apart in a harsh wind until the wide sky was laid bare. The moon hung cold and silent in the dark ebon sky. Pinpricks of light, a few strong stars dotted the black with white.

It was at the back of the tower, if it could be called as such. A narrow alley slipped by the stony tower. From the alley, Sir Kendrick looked up. High above, fifty feet or more was a window dark, a yawning mouth.

Sir Kendrick grabbed the stone, he peeled off his gloves and dug his fingers into the gaps from one stone to the next. Gritty mortar failing with age gave way like sandy mud. It caked his fingers, creeping under the nails. He stabbed the toe of his boot between the seams and hoisted himself up.

Sir Kendrick began to climb.

7

When Sir Kendrick went through the window he fell to the floor with a thump. The warped oak beneath him creaked with his weight and he slid a few feet across the canted floor.

A bed of rotting straw moldered in a corner. A man riding a pox faced whore looked up. The look on Sir Kendrick’s face cost the man his three coppers without him having spent his seed.

Calm, Sir Kendrick unclasped his brooch and slipped it into his pouch. His cloak he draped over a wicker chair that lacked a seat. He left the room without a word, sword in hand.

He climbed wooden steps that groaned and squealed with every step.

A small antechamber was at the top of the stairs. A pair of sullen looking sell-swords awaited the knight. The stairs screamed like a howling cat all the way up, so the knight was not surprised to see the pair waiting with weapons drawn.

These two were not so dim as to let him achieve the room without a challenge. They stood side-by-side holding the high ground.

“I’ll pass and you’ll live. Or you’ll die and I’ll pass in any case. Pick one.” Sir Kendrick commanded. He infused each syllable with the certainty of his words.

The two men made no move to step aside.

Sizing up the pair, Sir Kendrick saw them clear. Grizzled and worn by long days of campaign and long nights in the cold, these two were no zealots. They were working men, no more. They did dark work, because such darkness could be purchased.

Sir Kendrick dipped his hand into his pouch and drew out two gold coins. On one side the skeletal fingers of a bone wood tree stretched for the edges. On the other side, a prince of old. He tossed a coin to each man. The taller of the two men bit his coin, stuffed it into a pocket and backed away. The other man followed suit.

When the pair retreated a sufficient distance, Sir Kendrick climbed again. He topped the stairs and watched the two men. Sir Kendrick circled right. The sell-swords followed his example. A moment later the pair was retreating down the stairs thinking themselves quite rich and without question, alive. It was a good night for them.

Sir Kendrick breathed and shook his arms. He was tired. The climb sapped strength, clinging to the side of the tower with crooked fingers.

A single door barred his way. Beyond it he could hear muffled screams. The door opened.

A man, another sell-sword, stood looking at Sir Kendrick. The sell-sword drew a long sword and advanced. No, not a sell-sword, but a true believer with fevered eyes.

Beyond the swordsman was a man kneeling before a table. A circle of salt surrounded him. Within the circle were markings made by charcoal; ancient runes or glyphs, Sir Kendrick didn’t know which. On the table was a girl. Her belly was swollen with child, her legs spread as the monster inside her clawed its way out. The screams were hers, muffled by a gag.

The room was bathed in the light of candles and lamps.

Sir Kendrick and the zealot circled in the wide chamber just outside the birthing room. The creak and groan of wood straining against the warp of time mingled with that of the moaning girl.

Sir Kendrick knew this one would not be bought with gold by the way the man glowered at him. The zealot hefted a round shield with a spike in the center and Sir Kendrick lamented his lack of foresight in leaving both shield and helm with his horse at the castle.

The sell-sword leapt forward, shield high, long sword slashing down. Sir Kendrick dodged the sword, but caught the edge of the shield on his shoulder.

Sir Kendrick heard the warlock chanting and for a moment his blood chilled, but the magic was aimed at the grotesque thing emerging from between the girl’s legs. He caught a glimpse of the thing in a flash of movement. Slick, oily skin pebbled by pustules the color of infected flesh pushing out from between the girls legs accompanied the smell of sulfur and decay.

Sir Kendrick turned a sword thrust and countered with a slash that while blocked, tore a huge gouge from the shield. The knight shuffled back as the zealot recovered and swung his sword. It flashed in the flickering light of torch and candle. The steel flashed past him, striking the moaning boards where Sir Kendrick had been, then a booted foot shot out and tripped the knight.

On his knees, Sir Kendrick saw the long sword flash down and reflexively raised his shield. He did so without thought expecting to feel the diffused thud rattle his shoulder, elbow, and wrist.

But he had no shield, only a heavy, leather brace studded with steel and it parted beneath the steel of the sword as did the padding beneath, the skin, muscle and finally catching in the bone.

Sir Kendrick howled in agony, then his pain receded and he stood driving the tip of his sword past shield and into the throat of the zealot. His blade sliced through bone and he wrenched it free of the man’s neck in a spray of blood.

As the zealot’s body fell, his grip on his sword slipped and the blade pulled Sir Kendrick’s arm down. The hilt of the sword struck the floor, jarring the blade free of the knight’s arm. The zealot’s head, freed from his body rolled and toppled down the stairs, bouncing like a child’s ball splattering stair and stone with blood.

Sir Kendrick looked at his arm, between his elbow and wrist and saw chewed bone beneath the ravaged skin and muscle. He tore at the sell-swords cloak and wrapped strips around his arm. Useless fingers on his left hand twitched as blood made his coarse bandage sodden. Sir Kendrick kneeled and hacked the headless zealot’s belt free. He wrapped the leather around his arm, above the cut, and cinched it tight with his teeth. Frantic, clumsy fingers tied off the leather.

Within the room, the monster being birthed reached out with glistening claws.

The knight took his sword and rose on unsteady feet. The tilted tower swayed under his feet. Blinking away sweat and tears, Sir Kendrick staggered into the room, left arm pressed to his chest..

He was saved by weakness and fear, clumsy fingers and a dull point. The dagger meant for his kidneys was turned by his hard leather armor. The knight turned on his attacker sword swinging in a deadly arc. Yaro, being no more than a wealthy merchant, dropped his dagger as he watched the sword circle toward him. He brought both arms up to keep his hands clean. Those hands were soft and fleshy and ringed with gold and gems. Yaro was a short man, but had he been taller, the blow would surely have shortened him by a head, instead, the sword sliced through jewel encrusted fingers and upraised palm, then caught him on his temple and ruined his face and ended his life and all aspirations to nobility.

The girl on the table spat the cloth from her mouth and screamed as the writhing limbs of her unnatural child flailed inside her. Cruel talons shredded her insides and coils of intestine burst through rents in her skin.

Her screams died in her throat as her heart ceased pumping as the demon inside her thrashed and ate.

Swaying, seeing the black encroach on the edges of sight, Sir Kendrick turned to the kneeling warlock who held his hands up to receive the demonic babe.

On the verge of panic, Purfid beckoned the demon to come, come now. The warlock dare not look away from the demon, to do so meant death. He needed it to land in his outstretched hands, he needed to speak the words that bound it to his command. He needed for his hirelings to stop the knight who attacked!

The knight scattered salt as he entered the circle; the warlock turned in time to see the sword coming down. His blood mixed with that of the demon’s dead mother.

The warlock slumped. Sir Kendrick made no move to catch the demon babe as it kicked loose of the womb with a sick plop. It fell the few feet to the floor with a splat. Misshapen skull became more so, twisted limbs snapped as it hit the floor writhing.

Sir Kendrick knelt to look at it, to see it for true. With a sickened heart he stared at the mottled skin covered in angry boils. He gazed on joint-less limbs and that coiled and twisted like snakes. Barbed and hooked talons scrabbled to pull it up. Mouths lined with teeth opened begging for sustenance.

Sir Kendrick vomited.

He began to stab the thing. Stab and hack. He sank to his knees to complete the dark task of slaying a demon. Work done, he rose on trembling legs.

He sheathed his sword. He staggered out the door.

Sir Kendrick found a cloak draped over a chair. He lay it on the floor and flung the demonic carcass on it, then wrapped the quivering thing in the cloak and turned to leave.

On his way out he kicked over a small table bearing a lamp. The lamp burst and spilled oil over the dry wood floor. The warped and gray planks soaked up the oil like a glutton at a feast. The oil soaked floor welcomed the flame and in moments the uppermost room of the tower was ablaze.

Sir Kendrick careened down the steps. Each stair shrieked as he descended.

His face was ashen. Slung over his shoulder hung the seeping carcass of the demon. He held his sword low as he stumbled down the steps leaning against the wall as he descended. The rasp of leather on stone was lost to the protests of the stairs and the growing roar of flames above.

Smoke tinged the air with its acrid stink.

Sir Kendrick sweat. Anyone who stepped in his path was threatened. One man, too slow to retreat was cut down by the feverish night.

He staggered into the street and fled the tower, never looking back.

Soon, the tower blazed like a giant candle, a beacon to the stars blotted out by firelight and smoke.

8

Sir Kendrick awoke.

Wan sunlight filtered through a threadbare tapestry hanging limp over a window. The tapestry depicted a unicorn in a wood by a stream. Birds fluttered on the tapestry as a breeze rippled the heavy fabric.

He rubbed his eyes and wondered for a moment where he was, but Mikel appeared with a steaming mug.

Sir Kendrick went to sit up and discovered the stump of his left arm. Plaster coated his arm from elbow to midway down his forearm. Beyond the plaster was… nothing.

The knight looked at the magician.

“Too far gone when you got here to save. Like as not, too far gone when that blade bit into your arm.” Mikel said and helped him sit up.

Sir Kendrick felt weak. His body ached.

“How long?” Sir Kendrick croaked the words, his tongue thick and dry, his lips cracked.

“Three weeks since you stumbled to my door.” Mikel told him.

Sir Kendrick drank the broth in the mug. Mikel sat in a chair by the bed and took Sir Kendrick’s plastered left arm in hand. Mikel cracked the plaster with a small tool unfamiliar to Sir Kendrick. He peeled off the plaster with gentle hands and dropped the debris in a bucket. He peered at his handiwork and appeared satisfied with the result.

“Three weeks,” muttered Sir Kendrick.

“Indeed. Three long weeks. You are dead. Or so they say.”

“Who says?”

“They.” He waved an arm in an expansive gesture. “Your prince for one, his sorcerers, those pious men of the Forgotten Gods. They, the priests to a man, lead by the High Priest, talk of making a saint of you. Death makes any villain a hero.” Mikel shrugged and smiled.

“You should’ve sent word.”

Mikel shook his head no. “Not my place.”

“Do it now then.”

“Kendrick, you are a friend. You saved me and now I return that particular favor. Those men what sent you to die meant for you to perish. So long as you are too weak to stand and fight. We’ll not disabuse them of their trumped up notion of your demise.”

Sir Kendrick drank the mug empty and slept again.

“My wife…”

“Her I sent word. She has seen you. As have Aemon and Jericho. Such an odd pair. Aemon should study with me.”

Sir Kendrick grunted. He drank the broth in sips and soon was ready to sleep again.

Mikel wrapped the stump of his arm as he lay in bed. Eyes closed, he saw the demon. He saw the diseased skin. His mind conjured the tangled limbs tipped with talons. Sir Kendrick, try as he might, was unable to push the images away and replace them with the face of Alia.

9

Days passed and Sir Kendrick healed. Mikel filled him with potions and applied poultices to his stump and whenever Sir Kendrick made any comment regarding the magicians extraordinary powers of healing, the man said, “I am but a simple magician.” And would say no more.

Sir Kendrick learned that the Tower of Spices had burned bright as day, a massive candle that lit the night. When the tower collapsed it took several buildings with it. It was assumed that Sir Kendrick was among those who’d perished on that great pyre. His was the only name mourned, the rest were whores, thieves, and gamblers and as such all that was mourned regarding them was the cessation of bribes.

Sir Kendrick worried most for his wife and children. It had been too long, far too long.

When Sir Kendrick was well enough to stand, Mikel gave him a hand.

In truth, the hand was his own. Mikel had peeled the skin from Sir Kendrick’s ruined hand and arm, tanned it and set it aside, a macabre glove for a missing hand. The magician fed the muscle to the crows and boiled the bones clean. He welded bone to Bone Wood twigs, thus building up the mass of the hand before slipping the sewn skin of the hand over the strange new hand made from ruined parts. Tattooed across the forearm inside and out were spellings in some alien tongue incomprehensible to Sir Kendrick. Straps secured the new arm to the old. The frozen fingers curled around nothing. A new hand made from leather and steel, wood and glue, bone and skin, skill and magic.

Mikel helped Sir Kendrick don the new hand where the old one had once been. Mikel sighed and Sir Kendrick looked at his new inert hand and still felt the ghost of the old one.

“Off.” He growled and Mikel loosened the straps.

Once free of it Sir Kendrick struggled to dress.

“My magic is not strong enough it would seem.” Mikel mused as he helped Sir Kendrick dress. The knight’s clothes were stained and burned as was the boiled leather armor.

Last, came the sword belt with the blessed and cursed short sword from the Bone Wood beyond the wall to the north.

Sir Kendrick clasped Mikel’s hand. ”Thank you my friend.”

Mikel nodded. “Perhaps one day the hand will wiggle it’s fingers for you.” Mikel said, “Perhaps my magic will be enough. If you believe, if the circumstances are right and the need is strong.”

Sir Kendrick left the house with his crippled arm behind his back, hidden under his cloak. Within a purse was the skull of the demonic baby he’d killed.

10

The castle loomed in the gray twilight.

Sir Kendrick leaned against a wall. It had taken too long to get here. His time convalescing with Mikel had sapped his strength. Too long away from home.

Minutes ticked away in his head and his wind returned to him and his heart beat slowed. He pushed away from the wall and strode to the gatehouse.

The guards offered him no resistance when they saw the seven pointed star that clasped his cloak. One guard barred his way demanding his sword, but Sir Kendrick looked at the man with newly hardened eyes and muttered threats that convinced the guard to lower his spear.

Word must have spread of his return. An honor guard appeared to escort him to the prince. Sir Kendrick doubted the honor was his.

He was made to wait for his prince. Once admitted he knew he’d been made to wait for Cooke and Goulding.

Prince Jasper sat on his throne while Goulding and Cooke stood to either side of him seven steps down.

“Sir Kendrick, I am pleased to see you live. I feared the worst, the tower, the fire.”

Sir Kendrick looked at the sorcerer and the priest, recognizing their combined disappointment at his survival. He looked then to his prince whose indifference to his survival was writ plain on his face though it was mingled with curiosity.

“I am sorry to disappoint.” Sir Kendrick said and anger flashed across the prince’s face.

“What do you hide behind your back?” Cooke asked.

“Nothing.”

The guardsmen around the chamber shifted nervously.

“You wear a sword. You act as my equal. And hide your hand. Tell me my Starlit Knight. Where have you been and what is under your cloak.” Prince Jasper’s voice was cold, harsh with command.

Sir Kendrick looked his prince in the eyes and waited for his liege to blink and turn his head.

Prince Jasper turned away. Sir Kendrick was disgusted. If the man on the throne was so easily cowed it was no wonder his rule was in name only.

Sir Kendrick pushed away speculation as to the actual ruler, or rulers of Byzantis as it was surely not Cooke and Goulding or that buffoon Sir Longworth.

He drew his shortened left arm from beneath his cloak and held the stump aloft and said. “See, it is nothing. Not even a hand. As to why I have been so slow to present myself. My hand speaks for itself, lacking as it is.”

None said a word. Sir Kendrick drew the skull from his purse. He held it in his palm and sneered at the misshapen bone, the ghastly rows of teeth that ringed the mouths, and the strange beginnings of a crown of some sort. To call it a skull was an imperfect description. It was a kind of skull, and a head of sorts suspended in a jar, in vinegar. The knight hefted it and tossed it to his prince. Prince Jasper caught the jar and fumbled it, almost dropping it. Sir Kendrick offered a grim smile to the thought of Prince Jasper dropping the jar, glass shattering, and the grotesque thing within sliding across pristine marble.

“Your prize my prince. It cost me dear, so cherish it. I spent weeks lost in fever dreams, trapped in that tower fighting and seeing what was coming. I saw the buzzards circling this city my prince, circling this castle. You feared me dead? I fear the worst is yet to come.”

Prince Jasper looked from the thing in the jar to the knight, his face pale and drawn.

Sir Kendrick drew the sword and looked at it. “A blade both blessed and cursed. I will keep it.” He sheathed the sword and looked at High Priest and Supreme Sorcerer. Both flinched.

The knight raised his left arm in salute.

The weariness that dogged him as he walked to this audience through the streets of the city fled him. He felt strong again if not whole.

Turning on his heel the Starlit Knight left his prince, the castle and finally the city.

Sir Kendrick returned home the following morning with the light of a new day at his back.

He kissed his wife, nuzzled her neck and before sobs overwrought him, whispered, “I love you.”

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