Grynnwald grabbed his son by his beaten breastplate and shook the hysterical young man, slamming him against a massive oak tree, nearly unleashing the chest-piece in the process.
“Haurik!” he screamed desperately trying to break through the panic. “Compose yourself!” It took a moment for Haurik to fall silent, save the hyperventilation and accompanying sobs, and Grynnwald could see him returning to the man he was…the man he raised him to be.
“Haurik?” He repeated, this time with a deserved compassion. The hell they had gone through was nothing he would have wished on any man, let alone his son; he was damn proud of the young knight. Haurik nodded, his breathing slowly returning to normal and Grynnwald embraced him causing their armour and chainmail to clank together.
“I’m sorry father,” Haurik whispered as they hugged. His father pulled him back while still holding his shoulders and locked himself into the younger man’s gaze. Those eyes…it was so hard sometimes to look into his eyes and not see the child that he used to bounce on his knees. At times like these, however, those thoughts had to be put as far from his mind as possible. Seeing his son like he was now, bloody and worn from battle, there needed to be a firm distinction between the two images and Grynnwald never quite found the balance. It was both a blessing and a burden to have his son fighting by his side.
“You have no call for apologies, my son. I need only to know that my lead knight has returned to me.” Haurik nodded emphatically and Grynnwald knew the young man was back with him. It was not as though the histrionics weren’t warranted. The quest bestowed by their king had become more perilous than any had imagined. With the five kingdoms on the verge of war, they had expected some light opposition, perhaps; but nothing along the lines of the Black Knight who had been pursuing them from day one.
The Black Knight was both a boogeyman tale to keep children in their beds at night as well as a reality so much worse than any parent could dream of. A ghastly specter in his black, onyx-line suit of armour, no one had ever seen his face…or lived to tell about it. Aligned with evil spirits and steeped in black-magic, he was known to travel with a variety of hideous, mutated creatures he called his “war-beasts”. There were the army of “hell-pigs” the Black Knight resurrected from the long extinct Entelodonts, the pre-historic version of which were mostly herbivores. These, however, were bred with a thirst for blood and were particularly useful when tracking over long distances.
They were only the start. The Black Knight used his demonic magic to create all number of mutated and previously nonexistent creatures from a type of “murder-monkey” with three inch fangs and razor-sharp claws which would swing through the trees above their victims and rain hell down upon them. The “hell-dogs” bore a closer resemblance to something from the Jurassic period than actual dogs. Probably most feared of them all would be the bats. It was unknown if the Black Knight had a clever name for them but they were definitely big and scary, often displaying wing spans of ten feet in length and known to fly off with prey as large as horses.
All in all, the Black Knight and his army were well known in all five kingdoms but rarely, if ever, actually seen. Grynnwald was certain his king would have never anticipated the myth coming to life over the course of the quest he had assigned. He had placed the container with the scroll in Grynnwald’s hands personally.
“Sir Knight,” the king had said, “This is of the utmost importance and that is why I’m sending you and your order of knights; I trust no one else to the task. The kingdoms are in turmoil and this will go a long way to effort our kingdom. Place it in King Wyndemere’s hands only. Do you understand?” Grynnwald had. Wyndemere had been a powerfully ally in the past and it only made sense to combine their efforts once again. That had to be what the king wanted but it might be even more important than that…as the pursuit made them believe.
Grynnwald and his knights were nine total, the Order of the Lance, and were in the king’s favor, generally considered the greatest fighters in the kingdom and the most frequently assigned to protect the king and queen themselves. Their abilities and bravado were unparalleled and before the quest began any one of them, with a pint of ale in their gut, would boast of the Black Knight not standing a chance in their presence…were he more than a fairy-tale, that was. If became fairly clear that wasn’t the case, however, and now the only two left living were firm believers.
The first two died in an ambush that came in the middle of the night as they made camp. Caught completely unawares, the vicious hell-pigs tore into the group as they slept, killing two immediately, and then another two who sacrificed themselves for the rest to escape. Had they not, the entire order would have been slaughtered. At one point, in an attempt to elude, Sir Latimore’s horse lost her balance on the side of a mountain plummeting them both to the distant ground and unfortunate graves.
Later that same day, still doing their best to conceal themselves from the hellish army pursuing them, they lost Sir Vanyimir to, of all things, quick-sand. With no one even noticing, the brave knight sank stoically to his death without making a sound, not wanting to give away their hiding spot. The death was heart-breaking, there was no doubt, but it wasn’t nearly as emotionally devastating as that of Sir Gilliaunt’s. Claymore Gilliaunt was the same age as Haurik and the two young men had been nearly inseparable since they were old enough to run.
Clay’s only mistake was to touch an arrow. He literally did no more than pick up one of the Black Knight’s arrows from the ground and toss it aside. He had no way of knowing…none of them could have; but they knew now. There were rumors about the broad-sword the demon carried and now they knew that extended to the arrows as well. The recognizably black arrows were coated in a dried poison harvested from a million Vicca spiders, easily the strongest poison in all five kingdoms and such that it need only touch the skin to begin working.
In the two hours that followed that unfortunate incident Clay deteriorated to a state which saw him crying for relief. It was Haurik that provided that relief and his mental state had been skewered ever since. On occasion, there were certain things that true friendship dictated one must do…thing that one should never actually be made to do. What might seem to be a moment of mercy for one man could end up as a life-time of torment for the other. Grynnwald had hoped that wouldn’t be the case for his son.
The final loss before it was just the two of them was perhaps the biggest blow to the mission itself. Sir Brutinea Thiscane was lovingly referred to simply as “Brute” and Brute was, hands down, Grynnwald’s most valuable piece on the battlefield. An absolute mountain of a man, Brute’s weapon of choice was his unbelievably heavy battle-axe which could separate five men from their bodies with one swing; but that was no concession towards his abilities with other weapons. Brute was blessed with the ability to take life and he took many, many lives before forfeiting his own.
That happened only hours before and very close to the thick forest where they now took refuge. The three of them were approaching the wooded area with as much speed as their exhausted and malnourished steeds would carry them when they were set upon from both sides by the Black Knight’s cavalry. When it became apparent they would be unable to outrun the six riders closing the distance, Brute leapt from his horse, placing himself in their path.
With wordless acknowledgment, Grynnwald and Haurik hurried on. Brute would give them as much time as possible to escape, even at the cost of his own life…a cost he was made to pay. The first two riders to meet him were cleaved from their horses with two swings while the beasts scampered off. The next two were dispatched with relative ease as well, a small pile of body parts beginning to build around him before the fifth horseman arrived. Brute swung his axe at an angle which, while killing the rider, managed to become stuck in the horse’s spine. The beast squealed in pain as Brute struggled to pull the weapon free. He had just about gotten it out too when a blade slid through his neck, decapitating him.
Grynnwald and Haurik had gotten away and now, while their horses drank thirstily from the only stream they could find, they tried their best to gather themselves. Their armour, beaten and caked with blood and dirt, was really no more than shredded chainmail, breastplates and shin-guards anyway, both having lost their helmets and various plates along the way.
From just above the trees they could see the rising pillars of smoke that were emanating from the Castle Wyndemere pyres. They were so close now. All they had to do was get to the other side of this damnable forest and they would be close enough to the castle to signal for re-enforcements. Were the Black Knight himself to meet them on the other side it was highly unlikely that even he would want to tangle with the entire might of Wyndemere. They just had to get there.
Grynnwald could understand his son’s desire to lose himself to emotion. They had suffered so much loss. The Order of the Lance were more than just his men to command; they were his brothers to die for. In the last three days they had lost the closest family either of them would ever know, barring their own relationship and the losses hung heavy on their hearts. Falling to one’s knees and crying hysterically felt like the more appropriate response to what they were feeling but that wasn’t a luxury a knight of the royal army was afforded.
They had sworn blood oaths to the service of both the king and the kingdom. The message they were carrying and, in turn, the quest itself, was important to the king and therefore it was important to them. They owed their lives to the knighthood and its centuries of tradition and were they to die in battle…no more honorable death could have been asked. So they would push through; these were the moments that defined a man.
The horses, while still hungry, satiated their thirst and the iron-clad father and son made their way back to the trail. There was a legitimate fear that their beasts of burden would not make it all the way; they had been ridden, very nearly, to the point of death. The stretch of forest they needed to traverse, while not exactly accommodating, wasn’t too far…given the distance they had already traveled. The problem wasn’t how far they needed to go.
They realized almost immediately after getting back to the trail, the problem was going to be those damn murder-monkeys. The knights could hear their simian, “Ooohf, ooohf,” and see their black, shadowy forms swinging through the canopies above them. They urged their mounts with unprecedented urgency and the faithful stallions, Lancelot and Arthur, gave the men everything they had. Grynnwald knew the effort would probably kill the horses but there were things at stake greater than all their lives. The steeds ran like the devil was behind them, unfortunately, the devils were above them and their efforts just weren’t enough.
Rocks and sticks and things much worse than either began to rain down on them with painful intensity. Grynnwald could feel Lancelot’s muscles begin to weaken beneath his legs. The noble creature wanted to give him more…but there was no more to give and he began to slow. It wasn’t much, just a bit, but it was enough; a savage primate dropped onto Lancelot’s back behind him and began flailing at Grynnwald’s back and head. The majority of the blows struck iron back-plate before the knight could fling the miserable ape off the horse but one well-placed slice from the razor-blade claws managed to peel away a generous portion of scalp from the top of his head.
The hair and skin, still attached on one side, began flapping around in what could, at best, have been called…irritating. The adrenaline subsided any pain but the blood that began to flow down his forehead and into his eyes was becoming a real detriment. Still holding the reigns with one hand, Grynnwald tried to wipe away enough blood to see with the other…as well as mushing the patch of hair back down. That damn flapping!
They could just see the archway of light that represented the forest’s exit when a stone the size of an orange struck Lancelot in the side of the head, instantly killing the horse and sending Grynnwald flying forward through the air, flapping hair and all. Haurik caught the carnage in his periphery and spun Arthur back around to get his father. Grynnwald, with tactical instincts, tossed the scroll to the young knight. He was, after all, the only one with a horse and therefore the best chance for the quest’s success.
“Now go!” Grynnwald screamed, waving his son on from beneath a hail-storm of monkey missiles. Haurik went nowhere, however, and only waited with his arm extended to his father.
“Just go! Complete the quest.” Haurik had returned to his stoic demeanor and only waited patiently for the older man to realize he wasn’t going anywhere without him. It must have been plain in his eyes because Grynnwald, in a bad tactical decision, mounted Arthur behind his son and the two made way to the edge of the forest. The monkey’s got off a few extremely painful parting shots but the men were able to cross the threshold of green into the open meadow.
The horizon held Castle Wyndemere and both men breathed a small sigh of relief at the sight of it. The sensation, however, was short lived. Running parallel to the tree-line, a single rider was approaching them with unbridled speed. The silhouette was as distinctive as it was terrifying; it was the Black Knight. Black armour with a spiked helmet sitting upon the largest, black horse either of them had ever seen; it was like watching a nightmare come to life: the grim reaper himself.
Haurik spurred Arthur into as much speed as the poor animal could muster under the weight of two and the men knew it wasn’t nearly fast enough. At their current rate, the wraith would be upon them before they could get close enough to signal for help. A cloud of grass and dust gathered in the air from the small army of war-beasts that galloped behind the Black Knight, a frenzied assembly of blood-thirsty nightmares dotting the landscape. The distance between the two parties was closing quickly.
Grynnwald swung himself around, putting his back to Haurik’s, to face the oncoming horde, the movement causing Arthur to buckle for a moment and filling both men with the legitimate fear that the majestic steed had reached his end. The horse responded to the falter with a burst of increased speed. Arthur was going to give them everything he had left but, while they prayed it was enough, Grynnwald knew that it wouldn’t be.
Once the gap closed to a few yards, the commanding knight screamed to his son, “Complete the quest, Haurik! It’s the only thing that matters!” before flinging himself to the ground, sword in hand.
“NO!” Haurik shouted back, but it was too late. The additional weight removed, Arthur’s momentum increased and the distance between the father and son was nearly immediately unsurmountable. There was no way Haurik could have turned around to get him without sacrificing all their lives. For a brief second, the two knights met each other’s gaze and everything they both wanted to say was expressed in that wordless moment. It was goodbye for now; they would meet again in the halls of The Great Kingdom.
The Wyndemere Castle began to slowly rise before Haurik; first the ramparts and battlements, then the gate and draw-bridge and finally the mote. When he could see the glinting light of the lookout’s spyglass in the tower Haurik grabbed the white flag adorned with their kingdom’s coat of arms from Arthur’s pouch and held the flag over his head. He turned his head to look back at his pursuers and found that they had stopped and gathered around his father and the Black Knight who were locked in a rancorous battle.
Looking forward again, Haurik could see the drawbridge lowering and what appeared to be at least a hundred Wyndemere cavalry riders emerging, fully armored for battle: reinforcements. It was reassuring enough that Haurik brought Arthur to a stop and considered going back for Grynnwald with the Wyndemere soldiers. He spun the horse around, but it was too late to do anything as he turned at the exact moment the Black Knight’s broadsword penetrated his father’s heart, sliding through his breastplate and back-plate both as though they didn’t exist.
Haurik let loose a cry of utter anguish which brought the attention of the Black Knight and his minions but they didn’t make a move in his direction. Haurik could hear the galloping soldiers coming from behind him and could only imagine his adversary was smart enough to realize that it would be a battle he might not want to undertake. Already outnumbered, the tactician that he was knew that a battle next to the strongest military castle in all five kingdoms would be at best…unwise.
Haurik watched as the Black Knight unsheathed an arrow and placed it in his bow. There’s no way he could shoot this far, Haurik thought. He was wrong. The arrow flew further than any arrow Haurik had ever seen and came within inches of striking Arthur…probably would have had they not reacted so quickly. The Black Knight loaded another arrow and Haurik set the steed in motion to the castle, desperate to increase the distance. With a high-pitched whistle the arrow flew past his face. Haurik didn’t look back and didn’t slow down.
The soldiers had stopped about fifty yards away from them, no doubt seeing the insane distance the Black Knight was achieving with his shots. Forty yards…thirty yards…twenty…this had to be far enough. Haurik had nearly given way to relief as he had reached the safety of numbers when there came another whistle. Reflexively, he turned his head towards the noise just in time to see the black blur glide by his face, grazing him on the cheek. The cut was paper thin with only the smallest line of red to indicate any form of contact, but the stinging was immediate.
By the time he was being escorted across the drawbridge, Haurik began to lose control of his muscles and he fell from his horse to the wooden bridge, nearly tumbling into the mote in the process. The closest men jumped from their horses to help him up but were wary to touch him; the veins in his face becoming black and necrotic around the small cut. The effects of the sorcerer’s poison were becoming obvious. They wanted to retrieve the scroll then, knowing that the knight would not live long and afraid of contamination but Haurik was not having it, his father’s voice echoing in his head, “Complete the quest! It’s the only thing that matters!” There was no way he would betray his father and his king in the closing moments of his life.
After a few moments of deliberation, the knight was rushed to King Wyndemere’s viewing chambers. By the time he was face to face with the king Haurik was unable to stand on his own and barely had the energy to reach into his pouch and hand the scroll to him. The pain was immense and overwhelming and Haurik knew it would only be a matter of minutes now…apparently, they all knew. The king read the note gravely and then turned his attention to Haurik’s dying gaze.
“My dear knight,” the king’s voice was soft with compassion, “You have completed your quest with great honor. The deeds of you and your order will be recorded in our annals. Is there anything, most noble man, which I can do for you before you…leave us?” Haurik nodded his head; there was one thing. There was one thing that he knew would help him to pass peacefully to Valhalla: he wanted to know what great cause would come about from the deaths of his brothers, his father and himself.
“The message,” he whispered hoarsely, barely able to produce the words. “What was the message from our king?” King Wyndemere looked at the scroll in his hands, then back at Haurik, then back to the scroll.
“Are you sure, Sir Knight? I’m not certain that will help…”
“Please?” Haurik cut him off. The king nodded somberly and proceeded to read the scroll aloud, just finishing the message as Haurik took his last, pain-filled breath.
“My Dearest King Wyndemere, given the state of political unrest in the five kingdoms my advisors have informed me that travel between our two kingdoms could be extremely hazardous for the time being. For that reason, and with great apologies, that I regret to inform that we will be unable to attend the celebration for your daughter’s fifteenth birthday in two weeks’ time. We will, of course, send a lovely present with an assembly of knights, perhaps the Veritas Order, in the near future so please look forward to that. Thank you so much for the invitation and we look forward to visiting in the future. Sincerely, King Claudius Protorius. P.S. The queen requests the recipe for the lovely cake we had during our last visit.”
Credit: Shannon Higdon
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