The Pale Wood

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Waning Knight, Waxing Moon

Waning Knight, Waxing Moon

1

Sir Kendrick flexed fingers he no longer had. He held up his arm and looked to where his hand ought to be. He felt it, felt the dull ache, the slow throb. But he saw no hand, no fingers, no wrist. His left arm ended inches below his elbow. He looked at the puckered scar tissue where his arm ended and choked back a sob.

In the light of the moon he could almost see his hand. Almost, it was a ghost. And ghosts are best kept just out of sight.

Strong slender arms snaked around him, narrow fingers caressed his bare skin and one word escaped his contorted mouth. “Alia,” She kissed his neck and he turned in her arms and looked on her in the light of the moon. She was beautiful in ways only he saw, only he could understand. His fickle eyes transformed an unremarkable woman into an unparalleled beauty. It was not a physical blindness that made every flaw instead perfection, but instead the filter of time and bonds unspoken.

“Come to bed.” She told him.

As her fingers traced lazy circles on his back, his trailed her spine.

He looked over her head and up at the moon. It was a sliver, a sharp crescent blooming larger with each passing night. Waxing. In eleven days the moon would be full. In eleven days he must be in the city.

He left the drapes thrown wide and undressed his wife. He reached for her with his shortened arm, to caress with phantom fingers. Self-conscious he jerked away, but she pulled him close. His hand, his only hand glided from cheek to throat, throat to shoulder. Over small breasts heavy with milk, tender nipples brimming with life. His hand brushed her still swollen belly, savoring the curves, heedless of the stretch marks. She gasped as his fingertips brushed the mystery between her legs.

The mattress was stuffed with feathers, an extravagance well worth the silver. She lay back on it and he on her and they set about creating another child beneath the gleaming crescent moon that leered at them through the open window.

Their rhythm was slow and even, building towards that inexplicable, inexorable moment of complete unity.

Then he slept and she caressed his hair.

She held the babe, cradled in her arms and pressed close to suckle. He cradled her, her back to his chest. Gone was the moon, the sliver fell from the sky leaving only darkness broken by the pinprick stars.

The babe made to squall and Alia pressed her nipple into the small, searching mouth. The babe smacked thin lips half-heartedly and slept.

Sir Kendrick kissed her shoulder and began to speak in a whisper, and as he spoke he caressed her with his phantom hand; it ached and only he felt it.

“Once, the knights were great, they stood for something, something grand and, and honorable. I used to believe that. I did. Once. Now I wonder if ever it were true. If ever knights were more than we are now.

“I think sometimes, I was a fool to ever believe we were more than just men, that we were something greater. But we’re not, we’re scheming and petty…”

“Not you,” She whispered.

“I live out of spite. I am the son of spite.”

“Yes I know. I know. Your father saw a different future for you, something other than this.”

“I was a sacrifice to these damned gods.”

“But here you are. Not a priest. A family man. Husband, father, knight.”

“Knights are bastards. My worst enemies are knights.”

She smiled at the small lie. There were worse enemies and he knew it better than most.

“This house, the land, the peasants who work it, the income. These came my way for spite. They want me to fade. Then they demand that I die again and again. How many times must I give?”

“As many as it takes. Until they believe you are unkillable.”

“I know when I lost my faith, it was in the castle. Stitch was growling, barking, spitting like wild dog. He was foaming. At me. I felt the weight of it all, the pressure forcing me to my knees, to my belly. Or maybe it was Cavill. My friend, my squire. I’d have knighted him when we left, when we succeeded, or not. We would’ve been set. Even then, my motives were base. I wanted in the Wood. I wanted to storm Castle Thrace and claim the relic, return it to the priests. The truest knight I’ve known is the Poor Knight. The rest are cowards, hypocrites, liars.”

“The prince knows you’re true.” She told him. “And the Poor Knight is a flawed man. You give him too much.”

“He stayed so that I could leave.”

“Perhaps he feels he deserves to be there. Maybe he deserves to be there.”

He looked at the stump.

“It should be me.”

“No. It should be him.”

Moments passed. The darkness of night threatened to creep between them.

Foolish men encircle my life.” Her words began stern and slipped into laughter. She thought sometimes that a definition for fool was, Man.

He laughed quietly, without sound. He shook with silent laughter and no mirth, no joy.

“My prince is the worst of all. How many times has he tried to appease the priests or the sorcerers, both, by sacrificing me?” His voice was distant, far away and muffled as sleep beset him, but he continued.

“Half the priests thought the Forgotten Gods not so much forgotten as the stuff of myth, thinking they never existed. I gave them their faith. I drove the apathetic into their pews, I saw one of their gods, I told the truth and filled their coffers and they hate me for it. And the sorcerers. One of theirs betrays the quest and they act as if it was me, as if I betrayed that son of a bitch, Stitch.”

“Tell them no. Or tell them yes. Give them no conciliation of your character.” Her voice was so far away.

“Faith is belief without proof. I have no faith, only proof. Proof that they are liars and cheats”

Alia was asleep, her breathing a symphony in concert with the babe’s. And Sir Kendrick was out of words and even the stars disappeared behind his eyelids and sleep, sweet, merciful sleep overwhelmed him.

2

Sir Kendrick tucked his phantom hand into his tunic. Each day he walked the fields, the series of parcels farmed by the peasants who rented from him. He heard it said that his income was less than it should be, that he let the peasants keep too much. He didn’t care. He was, after all, not among them wielding a hoe or guiding the plough, digging in the muck.

They were all better for it.

His house was large. Two stories high with a large root cellar stocked with wine and provisions. Chickens strutted about the yard and goats challenged him. Children collected eggs and milked the goats while their parents pulled weeds and performed other chores. And he held a small mill.

He was a far cry from the impoverished knight he once was. And these peasants he indulged too much- so says the conventional wisdom- were happy and productive.

On his hip was a sword. Short with a broad blade in a shape very much like a leaf. The hilt was wrapped in leather tinged with pink; Sir Kendrick thought the leather might be the skin of a man. The sword, from tip to pommel was wood, Bone Wood, and the color of bone first bleached yellow by the sun, then stained copper by age. It was a sword both blessed and cursed. The runes and glyphs scrawled across the blade told him so. The conflict he felt whenever he touched told Sir Kendrick these truths. This sword thirsted for blood and hated to spill it. In his hands it was an instrument of slaughter that sought to stay his hand. Sir Kendrick felt his skin crawl and felt the fog of war begin to creep over him.

These were his people.

He could feel the desire to kill in the sword. The sword plagued him with guilt for wanting to kill. Guilt within the fog of war was a problem.

These were his people.

He refused to kill them. He had to clear the fog and eschew regret or he would die. His arm was proof of that.

He let go of the hilt.

Soon he would leave again. Leave his wife, leave his children. Whenever he left it was always with fear as his companion. Not for himself as much as them. If he was not there, he couldn’t protect them.

Alia was anything but weak, anything but helpless. She wielded a sword as well as many men and better than most, but…

Sir Kendrick saw Jericho. The boy, he still thought of him as such though Jericho was a man, settled and married. Jericho laughed as he followed the ox pulling the plow. Jericho running the plow in a rocky field where weeds grew and goats fed, children played and little else. The plow dug uneven furrows that resembled straight lines as much as a dog resembles a cat.

Children chased him hurling clods of crumbling clay that exploded wherever they hit, and sometimes they hit him. He only laughed and chased the ox. Such a strange one, a kindly man until the haft of an axe caressed his palms.

Aemon was not far off. Small game hung from a loop on his belt and he leaned on his bow watching. Sir Kendrick wondered, and not for the first time, what Aemon had been like before the Drowned Castle. The boy never smiled, almost, but not quite. But he was no longer a boy either. No one seemed close to Aemon, he held them all at arm’s length, no closer, but no farther either.

That pair stayed on his land and protected all while he was gone. Neither was a squire, nor were they knights or men-at-arms. Jericho played at farmer, but seeing him hold an axe betrayed his true vocation. Aemon was a hunter; it was no game he played, not in the way Jericho played at farming, but Aemon was no mere woodsman. Aemon was a predator as was Jericho. Sir Kendrick knew knights who’d never killed a man. Aemon and Jericho had killed more than one man in a frantic night of craven slaughter. Sir Longworth had declared the fight within the Drowned Castle craven slaughter, unfit for a knight.

Sir Longworth was an ass; stupid and lazy. The man had raided a few villages in his day. Hacking peasants down and torching their homes. He presided or the rapes of women and the hanging of children. After all, if you kill the offending knight, you don’t get paid in the settlement following successful arbitration before the prince.

Knights astride horses are unstoppable for a group of peasants. On foot, they had some chance. Obstructions were constructed around the primary pavilion and amongst the fields. The most numerous were ankle breaking holes. A knight on his back was in trouble when a motivated peasant armed with an iron shod cudgel began bludgeoning him.

Sir Kendrick sighed. He must be in the city in eleven days, but he was leaving the next day. On a horse, the trip was a day. But, he had business with Mikel. The messenger sent by Prince Jasper was accompanied by a messenger from Mikel.

The knight looked to his house. The walls were thick stone, the windows small. The roof troubled him as it always had and always would. Piled on a frame of seasoned timber was a thick layer of straw thatch. The roof was why he’d ordered the construction of a massive paddock. Twenty foot walls of strong logs sharpened at the tips. It was a massive enclosure large enough for all who lived there and the livestock.

Some thought it madness, but the bandits grew bolder each day. The bandits and the knights, though the difference became less apparent as the days passed.

3

Sir Kendrick ate a thick porridge of peas and carrots with bits of ham mixed in. He wore sturdy leather studded with steel over thick wool. A hard leather loop dangled from the stump of his left arm. He used the loop to hold the reins of his horse.

Amongst the things he carried with him was a breast plate and a black steel helm with a single unbroken ram’s horn on the right side and a broken horn on the left. Since the loss of his arm a few inches below his elbow he carried no shield.

He’d been forced to learn how to fight again. His balance had been off for a while.

He gulped down a mug of milk, then ale before leaving the warmth of the kitchen and its scarred table. The kitchen was always warm and welcome. The furniture was worn and beaten; comfortable.

Few were up and about this early. Aemon waited with his patient eyes behind Alia. The children slept and Jericho as well. He kissed Alia and turned to Aemon and nodded.

Aemon nodded back and said, “My life for theirs,”

“Pray it never comes to that.” Sir Kendrick said finishing the ritualistic farewell he and Aemon always shared now. The pessimism in Aemon was pervasive.

Alia scoffed at the ritual, ever pragmatic. Aemon blushed and almost smiled. Sir Kendrick grinned, looked at his horse and all good humor faded away.

Sir Kendrick swung into his saddle. The good knight rode away from his home without looking back.

The sun hung low on the horizon only just beginning its arduous climb to the zenith on which it perched before falling again. Clouds twisted in the breeze and the road beckoned, saying come look at what I have to offer. Sir Kendrick knew what the road offered. The road promised Byzantis to the north and beyond that, the Pale Wood.

The horse knew her place and her way, so Sir Kendrick slipped the reins through the loop that was a poor substitute for a hand and let his mind wander.

He thought of Aemon first. He thought of his long association with the boy, though he was a man now, a young man, but still a man. He thought of the years spent… together, but not quite. In some ways Sir Kendrick felt a closeness to Aemon, but mostly he felt the boy was a mystery; that he knew him not at all. There was trust, trust based on action and history. They were not close. Sir Kendrick barely knew Aemon. Perhaps only Jericho knew him.

These thoughts drew him to Jericho. Jericho, whose face was riddled with scars. Jericho was a man who sang love songs to his axe. He sang as he sharpened the half moon blade. Jericho, who pretended at farming and ran and laughed with the children, as a child himself. On the hottest days he lured the children from their chores to that section of the stream he dammed, and splashed and played with them till teeth chattered and mothers scolded.

Sir Kendrick heard it said that Jericho’s voice was angelic and that his scars made him more handsome. He was a charmer. But what Sir Kendrick liked best was that he knew the man could wade into bloody work without loosing himself completely.

The wind gusted and the trees rustled and whispered and Sir Kendrick was for a moment free of his reverie.

His mind wandered again and it was Alia his inner eye alighted on. When he’d returned home missing his hand she’d lifted his stump to her lips and kissed the twisted nest of scars, that tight knot of hard skin puckered over the bone. She bore a strength that bolsteredhim, lifted him up when the weight of it all threatened to press him down. She kept him from becoming an embittered knight, cynical and angry, well, she kept these parts of him in check so they were not all he was.

He joined the Salt Road just after noon and so stopped at the crossroads for a small meal of hard boiled eggs, cheese, and coarse black bread. He hobbled his horse near the stream, letting her graze and drink while he sat with his back against a tree and ate.

The tree at his back was old, the branches hung low and limp shading him from the sun. The road to his home was too small for naming and as such had none. The Salt Road was wide and rutted. Posts bearing plaques acted as mile markers stating just how far he was from the salt mines to the south, the mines that powered the economy of the principalities. Not just salt, but silver too.

In shadow, he heard the horses, felt them, long before he saw them. He heard the creak of wood and the crack of a whip and the shouted “Yah! Yah!” of the driver. Sir Kendrick rose and saw the carriage thundering up the road from the south, towards Byzantis.

The carriage rocked in the ruts, the wheels tall and slim nothing but a blur, bucking. Sir Kendrick saw the arrows bristling from the carriage. He saw a coachman being dragged from behind the carriage tangled in ropes. The body jumped and twisted. A child’s rag doll dragged through the dust.

Then, the carriage was gone leaving only the sound of panting horses being pushed, pushed, the thunder of the hooves, and clouds of dust.

The dust hung in the air when the riders flashed by flogging their horses with crops. Three of them. The glimpse Sir Kendrick got, convinced him the pursuit was malign, as if there had been any doubt.

The knight freed his horse. He slung himself into his saddle and kicked his mare to action.

Sir Kendrick rode hard. He rode in a thinning cloud of dust. The plumes of dust kicked up first by the panicked horses tethered by the carriage, agitated further by the spinning wheels of the carriage, and flung into absolute chaos by the jouncing, limp corpse being dragged behind.

The dust had almost no time to settle before the pursuing riders charged through kicking up more and swirling the existing clouds in updrafts.

Sir Kendrick chased dust clouds.

The grit burned his eyes. The dry, khaki dirt of the road flung up by those who came before caught in his throat and choked him.

He rode this way for one, two, three minutes that dragged into six, then seven minutes and all he caught was road grime, all the knight saw was the road and the thin dry layer of it that was catapulted up by the violent passage of wheel and hoof. So, he slowed his mare.

He followed at a more measured pace, at a walk.

Dust hung in the air like a ghostly trail and he followed. The lingering trail died as Sir Kendrick cleared the trees and saw Byzantis looming ahead.

Ahead the gate was open. The gate was huge, ten men abreast could walk through. It was set in the wall which rose fifty feet high and ten feet thick. The wall was manned by guardsmen. Carts and wagons and folks laden with heavy wicker baskets filled with stuff to sell and trade poured through the gate.

Sir Kendrick looked. Of the carriage, he saw nothing. Nor did he see the three riders. The day was not as advanced as expected; his pursuit of the carriage and riders brought him to the walls well ahead of expectations.

He approached the gate at a walk. Armed men entering the city were always scrutinized. Most were knights or caravan guards; knights were waved through when their coat of arms was catalogued. Caravan guards took longer as these men were sell-swords, men-at-arms, mercenaries, and often as not outlaws somewhere. An armed man alone, not immediately recognizable as a knight was a threat and a few guards moved to treat him as such. Sir Kendrick raised the stump of his left arm and was known by it more than the seven pointed star that was his sigil.

A younger guard turned to the sergeant in protest.

Sir Kendrick wore no coat of arms, only the brooch that fastened his cloak; the seven pointed star. But it was his arm, or lack of arm that made him recognizable.

The new guard acquiesced and Sir Kendrick rode to the sergeant.

“Sir Kendrick, how may I serve?” The sergeant asked and bowed his head in deference.

“Sergeant.” Sir Kendrick replied and looked around, still searching for the carriage.

Neither man spoke. The bustle of folks entering the city continued. The sergeant waited as patiently as he could. He’d never met Sir Kendrick, but knew of him. All folks in Byzantis knew of him. He was the not quite disgraced knight, the enemy of sorcerers- that was something the sergeant admired- and the priests, friend to the prince, and perhaps most important of all, a siege breaker. Sir Kendrick was known as a survivor and a killer, a man to be cautious with, a man not to be trifled with.

Rumors abounded about that arm, and how he lost it. Some said he saved the city, more than just the city, the principality, others that it was lost in a foiled plot of sorcerers and priests against the knight. There were those who claimed he sacrificed his arm to destroy the old tower that burned and toppled just a year or so back. The sergeant didn’t know truth from fiction, though the most outlandish story told was about an ancient demon the knight fought and the sergeant thought that pure nonsense.

One thing of which the sergeant had no doubt was that he feared this particular knight over all others. All men feared knights and princes, but this knight was the most fearsome. He’d seen the Black Knight torn to pieces by this man. He shivered.

They said, in every story about that arm, this one thread continued, his arm was taken, but the men who took it paid with every last bit of blood they had.

Sir Kendrick looked down at the sergeant unaware of the effect his stare had on the grizzled old veteran. The sergeant looked away.

“On the road,” Sir Kendrick pointed his stump behind him and saw the sergeant wince, “I saw a carriage. It moved fast, arrows peppered the wood and it dragged a dead man. Three riders chased it.”

“Sir Knight?” The sergeant asked puzzled.

“Did you see it? It was headed this way and I never saw it leave the road.”

“No, Sir. Never saw what you describe. Carriages come through. Ever’day they do. Today even, but none under threat or movin’ quick.”

Sir Kendrick nodded and rode away without another word, preoccupied. Another knight, and the sergeant would’ve thought him arrogant and pompous. But not with that knight, not with the Starlit Knight as they called him, best to not even think hard things of that one lest he turn his sword on you.

“Watch yourself ‘round that one boyo. Watch good lest he turn against you.”

“I thought he’d be different.”

“He’s defied the priests and the sorcerers and walks breathing to sneer at them. Fuck with that one and your guts’ll be steaming on the ground soon enough.”

4

The walls of Byzantis encircle the city and its population of nearly 200,000. A single thoroughfare runs along the interior wall, a wide street cobbled, and well used. The gates are aligned like a compass and four streets begin at the gates and terminate at the castle, or it could be said the four avenues radiate from the castle to the walls. These five streets, the one that circumnavigates the walls interior and the four that burst from the castle are the extent of planning with respect to roads within the walls.

The city is a warren of narrow streets and wide avenues, unexpected dead ends and alleys so narrow, amidst buildings so tall as to never see but a sliver of daylight and thus exist in a perpetual twilight. A growing population demanded more space, thus was space manufactured with reckless ingenuity.

To say that he knew his way around the city was an exaggeration. He knew how to get to the castle. He knew how to get to the barracks he once lived in. He knew how to get to Mikel. There were places he could find with ease. One such place was the now ruined Spice Tower.

Weakness; this was the price of ignorance. He knew it to be true, but found that he hated the city. He navigated using landmarks and so the illusion of familiarity was there, but he knew it to be illusion. He knew the way to the temple complex of the priests just as he knew the route to the sorcerer’s stronghold in the city. He knew enough to know it was not enough.

He hated the city. He hated the stone and the press of people. He hated the pots set out by dyers on street corners for men- only men- to piss in to set their dyes to fabric. He hated the easy familiarity of the city watch with the criminal element. He hated that greasing the right palm meant one criminal enterprise failed while another succeeded. Most of all he hated the priests and the sorcerers. He hated that he united their disparate organizations against him; an imperfect marriage, but there had yet to be a divorce. He hated that the institution of knighthood was corrupted and the priests, pious, self-righteous hypocrites that they were offered unstained benediction to any with enough coin to spare. But the sorcerers played their role as well, never doubt it; those bastards and their magic, their claims that they drew from the base materials of creation to influence mind and body, and to destroy.

He arrived at the barrack house he once called home. Gaining land well outside the city suited him, but he was loathe to see the place return to what it had been before he’d reclaimed it. So, he’d left it to Mikel to make the place something else and leave the knight with enough to sleep in and stable a horse.

Mikel had delivered. The barrack now served as a chapterhouse to Mikel’s particular brand of magic.

“Tricks, trickery, deception, and foolish pursuits. That my friend is magic.” Mikel once told him with a gleam in his eye.

Jugglers, tumblers, and- Sir Kendrick groaned- bards capered, strutted, and practiced in the yard used in the past for weapons training.

Sir Kendrick leapt from his horse and led her to the stable. A singularly foolish young man offered to teach him the mysteries of the harp. The knight brandished his shortened arm at the man. The harpist blanched realizing who he was and not a moment later so did they all.

The yard was quiet.

Boys leapt to take the horse assuring the good Sir Knight that they would take excellent care of his horse. He grunted and removed his meager bags and bundles and another boy bowed and asked if the good Sir Knight would follow and be shown his room. Whereas stables were more or less stationary, a pallet in a room was easily moved and each time Sir Kendrick opted to sleep in this place, his room moved.

He followed the boy and was led to a small room being swept by one boy while a pair wrestled a feather mattress inside.

They offered to bring him a copper tub for a bath and hot water. They never looked him in the eye, they looked fearful and almost awed.

Sir Kendrick dropped his belongings on the bed, said no to the bath, and left. He wanted to see Mikel right away. They asked if he would join them for supper. He looked at them all. Skinny boys and he saw girls, not overfed, but a long way from starving. He told them no. They presented him with a brass key on a leather thong, told him the room was locked and it was the key. He took it and left the yard. It was almost twenty minutes before the yard returned to music, backhand springs, and dancing balls.

Sir Kendrick walked with long familiarity a route ingrained in him to Mikel’s house. He never deviated, to do so risked getting lost. The night he’d lost his arm, he was amazed he found Mikel. He didn’t remember it at all.

5

Mikel sat across from him. Between them was an old battered table. The planks were scorched and pitted and rubbed smooth and shiny with oil. On the table between them was his arm.

Was his arm.

The night he’d lost it, it hadn’t quite been hacked off by that prick of a sell-sword in the tower. Mikel finished the job. Sir Kendrick knew the amputation was necessary.

He did.

Still, Sir Kendrick struggled with resentment.

Mikel saved the arm. He peeled the skin and cured it. He took the bones and reinforced them with Bone Wood same as the sword Sir Kendrick wore at his hip, remnants of a god forgotten and dead. The joints of each finger, his thumb, and wrist fully articulated using twine made from green Bone Wood- Sir Kendrick dared not ask where the magician got green Bone Wood. To fill out the false arm made from real bits of him, Mikal used sawdust, sawdust from Bone Wood.

It fitted over his stump with a heavy leather cuff studded with steel. Straps and buckles secured it above the elbow and up to his shoulder where straps would cross his chest.

“No.”

Mikal looked at the knight, a half smile seemed on the verge, the corners of his mouth twitched, but he said nothing.

“It is grotesque.”

Mikal shrugged and looked at his handy work. “It is your arm.”

Sir Kendrick shook his head. “It was.

Is my friend, is, I promise you that.”

Sir Kendrick said nothing. He looked at his arm, his dead arm he thought. The fingers could move and he could move them provided he did so with his other hand.

Mikal reached out and pushed the arm closer to Sir Kendrick.

“Very well.” The knight said.

It took a few minutes for Mikal to fit the arm. Sir Kendrick resolutely looked away and refused to watch.

It felt both familiar and strange.

Mikal opened the hand, palm up, fingers ever so slightly curled. He produced a needle from thin air it seemed. Sir Kendrick saw candlelight sparkle on the steel of the needle. What did he care, this arm was as useless as the arm previously occupying the space.

The needle flashed and dove into the open palm and deep. Mikal let go and the needle quivered.

“Well?” Mikal said.

“Well what?”

“Do you feel anything?”

Sir Kendrick started to say no, opened his mouth to voice the two letters combined to form a monosyllabic sound that felt as negative as it was. Few words are more perfect. The word “no” was appropriate as it formed, but before it became sound, it became a lie. Pain, deep resounding pain, flashed though his palm and up his arm and behind his eyes and he tried to jerk away, but Mikal held his wrist and grabbed the needle and yanked it out.

Sir Kendrick panted with the recession of the pain. He closed his fists. No, he closed his right fist. His left refused to obey him. He looked at his left hand and saw the small ragged hole close up. He willed his fingers to curl into a ball, but they refused.

He looked at Mikal who shrugged and said, “Progress.”

“This is why you sent for me.”

Mikal shook his head and retrieved a basket. From it he pulled out a thin book and a skull. The skull was yellow with age and scrawled over the surface were ancient glyphs in a ruddy brown. The book looked familiar to Sir Kendrick, looking at his hand, his left hand he understood. The book was bound in skin.

“Finding that book was the key to understanding. We’ve forgotten a great deal more than just the gods.”

A strap held the book closed and Sir Kendrick untied the thongs. The thongs were old and kinked, tight, but he managed. He opened the book to find it inked in glyphs that mirrored the skull. Opposite the glyphs were writings done not on flesh like the glyphs, but paper, and these he could read. He looked at Mikal.

Mikal shrugged. “Not I. Neither of us would be breathing if I had to do that, take me too long. Wrong too.”

“Where did you find this?”

“Never mind that. I’ll give you the short version and you can take the book.”

“And the skull and tapestry?”

“Are mine. Call it payment and curiosity.”

Sir Kendrick was not surprised. Mikal had arrived in the city with little enough and amassed an impressive amount of things and wealth in a short amount of time. Sir Kendrick didn’t want to know how it was all accomplished, so he didn’t ask. No answer was forthcoming in any event. The book was a surprise, that Mikal would let him take it was confounding.

Seemingly reading his mind Mikal said. “The book belongs to you. I can’t explain it, but there it is. Put it away and listen for now.”

Sir Kendrick put the book in a pouch at his waist, opposite the sword.

Mikal began:

“As you well know the tapestry was coated in filth and grime.”

Yes, he knew it better than Mikal. He also knew that Mikal had spent years restoring it, cleaning the tapestry in painstaking fashion. Seemingly one thread at a time. Once clean, Mikal had begun the process of analysis.

“The tapestry depicts terrible things as you have seen, but not all was terrible. It also showed men taking Fey as their wives.” He tapped the skull. “Neither man nor Fey, but a mix. The sons and daughters produced from these pairings were outcasts as you might imagine,” and Sir Kendrick did. “The Fey fought men for thousands of years- so say the legends, I think hundreds is more likely- never quite defeating us and we only just survived them. But these half-breeds were shunned by all save one. A southern king, an ancient kingdom, he took them in one and all and they were his. They kept to themselves, breeding only within. They were the truest warriors of that kingdom.” Mikal laughed. “Knighthood was based on them.”

“What were they called?”

“They were called Paladins.”

Mikal expounded on the Paladins, and indicated that so much more could be gleaned from the book. After a time, Mikal sat and read and sir Kendrick did the same.

Sir Kendrick sipped his wine and thumbed through the book though it made his skin crawl and his guts twist, but he must admit to a kind of excitement within him, a sense of belonging, of a kindred spirit with these Paladins.

6

Sir Kendrick ate supper with Mikal. Eel baked in a thick pastry that was hard, burned black in places, but flaked away easily enough. The pastry was for cooking, not eating. The belly of the eel was full of onions, cheese, and spices. They ate and drank a heavy red wine that stained their teeth red and warmed the belly.

As they drank, Mikal explained that Paladins were lost to time. The endless wars between man and Fey had harmed men to a far greater degree, but even so, men learned from the Fey. Men worshiped the gods of the Fey, still did, though names were forgotten, rites were performed without clear understanding of why, and only fragments of the old dogma remained.

The Paladins were a strange lot. Their name served as both an ethnic title and their role. They protected the royals; freely exchanging their lives for those of the royals. All the quests were theirs to lead, and in war they fought harder than any. And because they were as much of the Fey as they were of men, they made rules to govern their darker nature.

The Paladins served their southern king faithfully, then his heirs, but as time passed, as generations rose and fell, the Paladin became less in the eyes of that ancient kingdom and were set free altogether. The whole of their people migrated with the fighting men and whatever wiped out the Fey, whatever great battle or cataclysm that befell them, befell the Paladins.

Mikal believed that the remnants of the Paladins mixed with the men of the principalities and infused their rites and beliefs into the population and this begot the knights.

“So,” Sir Kendrick asked. “What is the significance of the skull?”

Mikal shivered and smiled. “There are three skulls in total,that is inferred. One skull for each race; Fey, man, and half-breed. Three and seven,” Mikal indicated the star brooch. The seven points radiated from a triangular center. “seems to have been important to the Fey. The numbers are pervasive. Three is for this life, seven represents the next. I think.”

Mikal shrugged. “I’ve read about the Fey being obsessed with trios. There is a skull within the Wall. In Castle Thrace-“

“How do you know?”

“I’ve seen a list, an inventory of sorts. Very old. A list of artifacts and the order of retrieval from Castle Thrace.”

“The order?”

“I think it is nothing more than hubris. The priests know no more than I now.”

“So what are these skulls for?”

The purpose is unclear. We have one, the half-breed skull, deep within Castle Thrace is the Fey skull, the man skull. I’ve found only vague clues as to its whereabouts yet.”

Sir Kendrick felt the blood drain from him, the shiver that crawled up his spine. It was a painted skull he’d entered the Bone Wood to find.

The knight stayed at Mikal’s that evening rather than return to the barrack.

He read the book.

It was a hard task. Letters had never been his strength. Always the sword and shield called to him and so he learned to read as a useful tool, but the tool was dull from lack of use.

Many knights never learned to read at all.

The book confirmed all that Mikal said and more. More detail, individual acts of valor and faith. The Paladins were devoted to the Forgotten Gods and Sir Kendrick was certain they knew the names of their gods, but either the names were not translated or the author never wrote them down.

Weary from reading, he slept a fitful night. Dreams plagued him. Terrible dreams of the Fey returning, using their dark magic on men. He dreamt of the rape of his Alia. And who would protect the weak? The knights? No. Not in his dreams. In his dreams the knights were cowards, hypocrites, worse than the outlaws they were sworn to fight.

He slept beneath a waxing moon growing fatter with each night.

Morning found his hair matted with sweat and dark circles beneath hard eyes.

7

Sir Kendrick broke his fast on stale biscuits dipped in bubbling porridge. He drank dark beer as his porridge cooled. He then left Mikal to his studies. He wondered if his magician ever slept.

Nine days remained before he must present himself to Prince Jasper. When he left his home it felt like such a short time, like he had so much to do. Now he contemplated returning home, then returning to the city the day before the full moon.

He wore two gifts from Mikal; the arm and a vest of supple leather “the color of the night sky beneath a new moon,” was how he described it. Sir Kendrick thought it black, but out in the light he saw that it was in fact many colors, subtle variants of blue and purple and studded with tiny stones that sparkled in the light. A night sky under a new moon. A starlit night, for the Starlit Knight, Mikal intoned with poetic flair.

He tucked his dead arm into the vest and began to walk.

He walked without considering his destination. It was an uncommon choice for the knight and a dangerous one making it likely he would become lost in the warrens of narrow streets and back alleys. His mind wandered and so did his feet and soon he was lost, though he had yet to realize it. Or care.

8

Saban looked at the prize. Other men saw a small child, a girl whose value at a southern slave market was dubious. Saban saw gold. For years he’d thieved and murdered, first for coppers, often shaved, then for silver, always shaved. It was his turn now. He wanted gold.

If only she were a plump little thing, a piglet say, instead of the fawn before him. She had huge liquid eyes that perhaps one day she would’ve grown into. That was unlikely now. Her hair hung limp. Her skin was pale except around those huge eyes where it was a livid pink.

She clung to a rag doll. It hung limp from the crook of her elbow. Her thumb was in her mouth. She looked at Saban with her monstrous eyes and whimpered.

Saban took a last look before closing the door. A manacle held tight to her ankle. A short chain snaked behind her to an iron ball filled with sand.

Satisfied he closed and barred the door.

He walked a short distance and climbed a ladder. At the top he flipped the trap door shut and dragged a rug over the top.

Saban turned to cold steel flashing across his eyes and settling heavy on his collar.

Sir Harris looked down the shimmering blade of his long sword at Saban. Saban gulped and tried to smile.

“Sir Harris, how may I serve?”

“The whelp. Tell me you got her.”

“Of course we got her.”

“Sir.”

“Wha’?”

“You will refer to me as sir. You forget your place. Do not forget again.” To emphasize the point, Sir Harris lifted his hand and pushed. The tip of the long sword dug into soft flesh, a bead of blood welled.

“Of course, Sir Harris. Forgive me please, uh Sir Harris?”

The knight nodded and pulled his sword back and sheathed it. He looked around.

“The little bitch is below?”

Saban glared at Sir Harris’ back and straightened his collar ignoring the thin trickle of blood. He wanted to kill the knight now, but, not yet. Best to wait, wait for the gold.

“She is locked up tight Sir Harris.”

“And the two you used?”

“Dead. I stuffed ‘em in the carriage with the fool driver… Sir Harris.”

Sir Harris turned a cold eye on Saban. The knight nodded.

“I ditched the carriage in an alley. The driver, well who cares if he’s known. The others I hired in Zyrqonium. They won’t be missed there, here, or anywhere,” Saban shrugged and seeing the look from across the room added, “Sir Harris.”

“You are certain her father will pay?”

“I chose him because he’ll pay. Other merchants with more gold, but some I was unsure and others I knew they’d sell their children to southern slavers if the price were just about right.” He paused. “Sir Harris.”

The knight nodded and asked, “How much?”

“Her weight in gold. Only gold. No silver or copper, just gold, Sir.”

Sir Harris left without another word. Saban watched him go and thought he liked the idea of planting a quarrel in that knights back, at the base of his spine. A wide tip he thought, so all feeling below the waist was lost. He hoped the knight would survive it. Saban wanted to watch him crawl in the gutter. He smiled at the thought. He smiled broader thinking of putting his boot on the back of Sir Harris’ head and pushing his smug face into the shit and piss in the gutter and watching the high and mighty drown in the shit with the rest of humanity.

9

Sir Harris emerged from the slum Saban called home onto the western avenue and headed for the castle.

It was a stroke of luck that Saban was delivered to him. The man was trash, but bold. This plan of his ought to set Sir Harris up for life and end Saban’s.

It was his duty to do so.

It was Sir Harris who summoned the merchant out of Byzantis. Perry couldn’t refuse. Now it would be Sir Harris who saved the wealthy merchant’s daughter and he intended to keep the ransom.

10

Sir Kendrick became aware that he was lost when he saw the carriage. No arrows jutted from it like quills from a porcupine. No horses pulled it, but he looked close and saw where someone snapped off the arrows. The wheels were worn and nicked. Loose. The wheels were on the verge of falling off the axles; which were in rough shape.

He looked inside and saw the bodies. Three of them. One wore livery and Sir Kendrick assumed it was the driver. The other two looked like bandits. Hard men. One still had a quarrel through his throat. His neck was crusted with blood. The other, Sir Kendrick sensed he’d seen it coming, though too late to stop it. His skull was caved in, bone splinters lay suspended in dried blood. Sir Kendrick had no doubt that this was the carriage he’d seen on the road.

He wondered where was the fourth man, the one being dragged and he wondered, where were the passengers.

Sir Kendrick found a boy with dirt on his face and thin features. He gave the boy a battered copper and sent him to find the guard and promised a silver coin when the boy returned with a guard in tow.

The sky darkened with gray clouds and began to rain. He pulled up the hood on his cloak and waited.

He looked up at a sliver of sky while he waited in a dank canyon made by the hands of men.

The boy returned with a guardsman, received his silver penny and scurried off.

The guardsman glowered at the corpses in the carriage. He left soon after. The guardsman returned not only with more guardsman, but a knight as well.

The knight wore a polished breastplate and a heavy cloak bearing his coat of arms. It was complicated embroidery with boars and roses, ivy and cups. Sir Kendrick didn’t know it. This knight’s face was a mask of haughty arrogance.

“Who are you?” The knight asked in an imperious voice that rankled Sir Kendrick.

Sir Kendrick pulled his crippled arm free as if to raise it, stopped remembering the false arm he wore and simply offered his name: “I am Sir Kendrick. You are?”

The other knight sneered. “Sir Kendrick is known to all. He is the crippled knight, but a knight nonetheless and I will have your tongue for lying-“ then he stopped. He looked at the hand, at the unmoving fingers and strange tone the skin bore. He looked at the brooch of a star, seven points radiating. He looked at the man before him and his face colored with embarrassment. “Your pardon, Sir Knight, I thought…”

Sir Kendrick said nothing. He put the false hand back in the vest.

“I am Sir Harris.” He said and offered his hand. They shook hands in that old gesture of friendship, the demonstration of an empty hand without weapon or malice. They turned toward the carriage.

“What Sir Harris, is your role in this?” Sir Kendrick gestured at the carriage.

“Self-evident Sir, I am a knight. It is my duty to protect the weak.”

Sir Kendrick watched Sir Harris from the corner of his eye. He watched the shade of a smile as the knight spoke of his purpose being “self-evident”, the subtle disdain at the words duty and weak. This knight was not all he seemed Sir Kendrick thought, much like the carriage. He heard it and saw it. Sir Harris was a man who saw himself always as the smartest man in any room, the best swordsman too.

Sir Kendrick understood that he would be the smartest and the best only in a world populated by himself and none others.

“And you, Kendrick? Why are you here?”

Sir Kendrick ignored the slight and spoke softly. “I saw this carriage being chased by three men. I have to wonder about the occupants as well. Where are they, what befell them? The third man, the bandit behind it all. I would see him pay for his crimes. As to why I am here, now, in this moment? An accident.”

Sir Harris nodded as if he heard much in Sir Kendrick’s words.

“Indeed.”

Sir Kendrick had no words.

Sir Harris looked puzzled, like a man expecting questions, but got none. Suspicion clouded his eyes. He began to talk as some men do when silence becomes unbearable.

“The carriage is owned by a merchant called Perry. He was in it only days ago with his daughter. A sickly thing by all accounts,” Sir Harris shrugged, “I trust no man whose only child is a bitch. Be that as it may. The carriage was driven off by outlaws, chased down with the girl in it. This morning, Perry received demands to pay ransom for the girl. Can you believe it, he intends to pay.” Sir Harris shook his head as if to say paying for a girl was unthinkable.

Again, Sir Kendrick could find no words adequate to his purpose.

Sir Harris continued in a rush. “The villains demand her weight in gold. As no one quite knows her weight, Perry is giving all his gold. A figure close to three hundred and fifty seven coins. Too much if only half.”

Sir Harris paused and inspected a bit of dirt beneath a fingernail, he set the tip of his dagger to clean it out, then he continued his s[eech.

“I will of course handle the exchange.”

And there it was, the role the knight played. Sir Kendrick listened as the knight bragged of his recognition of Perry’s distress upon returning to Byzantis, of his prowess at coaxing the details from the merchant, and his subsequent takeover of the whole affair.

At sunset, that very day, a chest filled with the gold was to be left in an alley. Tomorrow morning, the girl was to be released somewhere in the city.

Sir Harris intended to pay the ransom and follow the kidnapper to wherever the girl was held, retrieve the gold and save the girl.

Sir Kendrick was well aware that the knight seemed far more interested in gold than the girl. This was about glory and recognition and rewards.

Sir Kendrick hated Sir Harris after only a short time in his presence.

The words beyond his grasp a moment past fluttered across his mind. He held his tongue.

Words offered no solution here.

11

Sir Harris left with his squire, a dour looking man called Winn. Winn carried the chest on his shoulder.

Sir Kendrick was amazed. He was not a wealthy knight, never had been.

Never had he seen such a sum before. Three hundred and fifty seven pieces of gold. Each coin a hefty weight, just beyond an ounce, the emperor in profile on one side and his sigil, the winged fish on the other. The coins were counted by Perry under the watchful eye of Sir Harris. Sir Kendrick watched the watcher. Guardsmen milled about the foyer of the merchants house. Winn arrived with the chest, a small cask.

Too small thought Sir Kendrick, but in this he was quite wrong. Three hundred and fifty seven pieces of gold was an enormous amount of money in a very small space. It was an amount most would not earn over the course of a lifetime, Sir Kendrick doubted he could earn so much if he lived a hundred years.

The coins were loaded into the cask with room to spare. Sir Harris turned the key and locked the chest. Winn hefted it onto his shoulder and Sir Kendrick heard the coins rattle and shift, the tinkling sound of shifting gold, muffled by the dense wood of the cask. Winn juggled the cask on his shoulder as the coins settled.

Sir Harris tucked the key into his pouch.

Sir Kendrick was reminded of his own key.

Sir Harris thrust out his hand. “Farewell Sir Kendrick.” He said by way of dismissal. Sir Kendrick grasped the proffered hand in his own and nodded.

Sir Harris and Winn left the merchants house and Sir Kendrick left words unspoken between them. Words to be addressed later.

12

Sir Kendrick left his vest in the merchant’s house. He was glad to be rid of it at least for the moment. He knew where to find it if he desired.

He followed Sir Harris by not following him. The city was full of boys with empty bellies in need of coin. The boys followed Sir Harris. There were several of them, a gang Sir Kendrick suspected. Thieves he figured, cutpurses one and all. On that day at least they earned their silver.

Sir Kendrick bought a hot meat pie from a street vendor and ate the stuffed pastry as he followed a boy. When the boy changed, he would tell Sir Kendrick and Sir Kendrick gave him a silver coin. He gave out a great many silver coins before the day was done.

At dusk he saw Sir Harris duck through a door followed by Winn. The door was in an alley too narrow for two men to walk abreast.

The last of the boys led him to the door and he paid out the last silver of the day. Sundown in the alley was like night. The darkening sky was a narrow beacon, dying each and every second.

Sir Kendrick listened at the door.

He pressed an ear to the coarse wood and felt splinters dig into his cheek. He heard muffled voices, voices that grew in volume, seemed to be getting angrier and angrier though he could make out no words.

A scream. Pain, outrage, fear; all mingled in that loudest outburst.

The Starlit Knight drew his sword and kicked in the door. The wood was old and dry and as such splintered, cracked and burst apart after several hard kicks. Sir Kendrick stepped through the wreckage to see Winn gazing up at him with vacant eyes explained by the huge dent in his skull.

Sir Harris writhed in agony, horror etched on his face. The knight crawled toward the door. A quarrel lodged in his spine just above his waist looked like some kind of useless, rigid tail. His legs were limp and dragging. A trail of blood followed.

A third man held a crossbow and crank. The crank was drawing the string back, back, back. The man clenched a bolt between his teeth.

The chest rested on a table.

Sir Kendrick attacked.

He leapt at Saban. The cursed Bone Wood blade struck the raised crossbow. The bow snapped, the string, free from tension, flung the bolt away. Harmless.

Saban dropped the crossbow and hefted his cudgel.

The fight was quick and dirty. Saban spat at Sir Kendrick aiming for the knight’s eyes, but the wad of saliva fell well short and awakened shameful memories of blood and spittle, and sorcery.

The cudgel rose and fell. Sir Kendrick caught the shaft in his dead hand. Dead fingers curled around iron shod wood. And it hurt. Pain spiked through him and his teeth ground against each other. It was in a way glorious. Phantom fingers given form again.

The sword that was cursed and blessed. The Bone Wood sword that craved blood and seemed loathe to draw it stabbed into Saban’s belly and twisted. The blade twisted and turned slicing open Saban from just below the belly button up to his sternum where the blade met resistance. With added pressure the bone gave way to the razor edge of the Bone Wood sword and split open.

The Pale Wood blade kicked in his hand. Like a beating heart. Exultant and repulsed. Not so different from killing with steal. The blessings and curses on his sword intensified his guilt and his lust.

Hot guts spilled from the long gash and slapped to the floor.

The rest of Saban followed a moment later.

It took the better part of an hour to find the trapdoor. From there it was easy.

The girl never spoke, only nodded yes or no.

She knew her way home. She led Sir Kendrick by the hand. He felt her tiny, soft fingers through his dead ones, but try as he might there was no moving those dead fingers. With his other hand, Sir Kendrick steadied the cask on his shoulder.

They left Sir Harris to his fate.

It was not shock or blood loss that killed him. It was thieves. They saw the spill of light into the ally and took everything and one of them took the life of Sir Harris.

By dawn the shabby rooms of Saban’s apartment were stripped as bare as the three corpses within.

Sir Kendrick returned both girl and gold home.

13

Sir Kendrick spent a week and a day in the barrack with the tumblers, jugglers, and bards.

He read the book given him by Mikal and the vest became clear. The Paladin of old wore similar vests. He was glad then to have retrieved it when he returned the girl. And the gold.

The book intrigued him. He found it fascinating that so many men should value ideals over power and gold. The ideals were often as not strange to him, but the underlying devotion to principal, intrigued.

In the book were stories, often harsh. Fables were told that illustrated the strangeness of men and the corrupting influences men so often rationalized away.

And he learned the city streets when not entranced by the book. Not all of the streets, but he was able to grasp the odd logic of the streets and their layout. It was an easy proposition in the end; he hired a boy to teach him.

He bathed and allowed a bard to shave him. Payment required listening to many tales and answering pointed questions as to the bard’s skill in telling the various tales as he expounded on the delicacies of comedy and tragedy.

In all that time his dead fingers never moved, nor his dead thumb, or dead wrist. The ghost hand ached, the dead hand was useless.

The full moon was to rise over the city and Sir Kendrick knew it was time to enter the castle and face his prince.

14

The table was full. Each seat taken save for one at the foot of the table, a place of honor, but Sir Kendrick thought it looked under the circumstances, very much like a gallows. He sat.

At the head of the table sat his prince, Jasper, to his right sat Cooke the priest and his left Goulding the sorcerer. Next to Goulding sat a man Sir Kendrick didn’t know, but assumed was another sorcerer and across from the second sorcerer sat a second priest unknown to Sir Kendrick.

The space next to the sorcerer was void of chair or man, an empty space, a gap, a barrier between sorcerer and Sir Longworth who was once the Master of War and was now just a knight. To Sir Longworth’s right sat another knight, young, but cut from the same cloth and Sir Kendrick thought him to be one of Sir Longworth’s sons. A knight sat to his right as well. He was unknown to Sir Kendrick as well. Sir Alfred sat to the right of the mystery priest, Sir Alfred was the current Master of War and three knights sat to his left. Sir Kendrick knew none of them. These were city knights and he was a country knight. All wore their best, but Sir Kendrick was clearly an outsider.

“There will be a quest into the Wood soon.” Prince Jasper announced.

Sir Kendrick looked at his prince down the length of the table without blinking. The prince looked away.

“The quest shall be led by Sir Longworth. He shall be accompanied by Sir Longwell, Sir Howard, the priest Roland, and the sorcerer Martin.”

Sir Kendrick could almost clench his left fist, but the dust that substituted muscle offered not even a twitch, he ground his teeth and glared at his prince. It was a promise broken. A promise from Prince Jasper to Sir Kendrick that he could return to the Wood Beyond the Wall and complete the quest upon which he’d embarked those many years past. Prince Jasper flushed with shame.

“The company shall retrieve a skull painted with a spell. They shall enter Castle Thrace and navigate it’s horrors to retrieve the relic.”

Sir Longworth spoke. He wore a smile poorly obscured by his huge mustache. “We have determined that a crippled knight is unfit to lead such a quest.”

Sir Kendrick said nothing.

“Therefore you will return the sword his Highness entrusted you with, so that it can be carried by Sir Longwell.”

Sir Kendrick sneered. He stood and drew the sword he wore. In this too, he was different. None of the others was armed. Only the Prince’s Guard and Sir Kendrick were allowed arms so near the prince.

He held the sword in the light of the candles and pointed it at Sir Longworth.

“This sword? You want this sword for your son, Longworth?”

Sir Longworth looked outraged and went to stand, but sank back at a barked command of “Sit down and shut up!” from Sir Kendrick.

Sir Kendrick’s voice was the sound of stone grinding on stone. “Take it boy. Take this sword from my hand. Know that it was carved, never forged. Carved by a knight exiled within the wall for some failure with only two ways out. Death or the failure of another knight. Know, boy, that this sword was cursed by magic, by Goulding and his kin,” Goulding’s mouth snapped shut. His face looked pale and asked the question to any who dared answer, how did he know? Sir Kendrick turned on Cooke whose eyes seemed to beg, no damn you, no, but the knight continued. “And cursed by you as well Cooke. Cursed and blessed.” Goulding looked at Cooke, shock and suspicion plain on his face.

“So take it if you can, but I’ll not give it freely. This sword is mine. I paid for it with blood and honor. It is a promise my prince will keep.”

Prince Jasper refused to meet Sir Kendrick’s gaze, but nodded.

In a voice above a whisper, Sir Kendrick turned to Sir Longworth. “I am a knight no more. I’ll no longer associate myself with the likes of you,” he turned to Sir Alfred, “or you.” Sword sheathed; he tore the brooch of a seven pointed star from his throat and his cloak fell into his seat. He tossed the brooch onto the table and they all watched it skitter across the surface and stop midway between Kendrick and Prince Jasper.

Kendrick bowed, turned and left his prince to the men who pulled his strings.

Prince Jasper watched the door close. He wanted to call Kendrick back, but the words eluded him.

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