by Graham B.
A knight and a nobleman flee disaster in the night.
|The flicking, yellow tongues of fire were barely visible, but still bright enough to silhouette the two men walking away from it, and the distant flapping of huge, leathery wings still churned through the darkness from the burning ruin of Kastonner.
Sir Beren kept walking under the starless sky, his hand firmly gripping the pommel of his sword. Behind him panted the rotund shape of Humphrie Bassonnet, trying to keep up with the knight's long strides and stubbing his richly shod feet against unseen rocks in the darkness.
"Perhaps you could slacken your pace, sir knight?" whined the minor noble. "I'm afraid my legs are not as robust as your splendid shanks, and I doubt I can keep up this tempo!"
Beren grunted - a contemptuous sound - but he slowed and allowed Humphrie to catch up. The golden tassels of his cape faintly reflected the light of the fires as they jiggled at his steps.
"Thank you, sir!" said Humphrie. "It would not do to leave me behind for the dragons. No! Not at all!"
"We have a long walk ahead of us, sir," said Beren. "The road will be treacherous. Can you use a sword?"
"My arts are in diplomacy and etiquette rather than war, I'm afraid," said the pudgy noble. "Even if I could, I have not a sword to swing! It seems that you are our protection for tonight!"
Humphrie's voice had turned a bit wheedling at that last. Beren grunted again but didn't reply.
"It seems fortunate that our flying interlopers are occupied with our former home and have shown no interest in us, wouldn't you say?" said Humphrie hopefully.
"There are bandits on the road between here and Wolfrend," said Beren. "They will come out and exploit the chaos."
If there had been light, Beren would have seen Humphrie blanch.
"B-but, you can protect us, can't you?"
"It depends on how many there are. Likely as not there will be more than even I can handle. Mind yourself."
The two men walked in silence for a few minutes. Then Humphrie, unable to tolerate silence for long spoke up.
"So... we are going to Wolfrend?"
"My ancestral home," said Beren. "There is a wizard named Ulrich Antolius who practices his art there. If anyone can destroy this dragon scourge, it is him."
"A capital idea, Sir Beren of Wolfrend!" said Humphrie. "A renown sorcerer, master of the dark arts that will drive our enemies into oblivion!"
"A master of his cups, more like," said Beren. "It is unlikely we will find him in a temperate state. But he has knowledge of the dark arts, as you say."
Beren quickened his pace once again, forcing Humphrie to trot until they crested a hill and the lurid light of the burning town faded away. Beren was rapidly considering the consequences of the night's disaster. Being a knight-errant with no ties to Kastonner, he was there solely to seek his fortune and make a name for himself. With luck, he could have won the king's favor along with titles and lands. But the king was dead, and all that remained of the court was the huffing and sweating lump of finery that scuttled in his wake. Wolfrend was not far, but Beren had no idea why the dragons had attacked Kastonner, or whether they would have any reason to continue to Wolfrend. He hoped Ulrich would be able to handle them if it came to that.
For his part, Humphrie was numb with shock. His whole life in Kastonner had ended abruptly with fire raining from the sky. He had watched Kastonner's finest families and friends of the court burned to a crisp. The stench of burning flesh still clung to his tunic. He knew no one outside Kastonner but some diplomats from far lands who had parlayed with the king. With disaster not far behind he could do naught but prattle on inanely with his grim partner.
"Have you travelled far? You must have many wonderous things. Spectacles for bards to write about!"
Beren cast Humphrie a glance the noble couldn't read in the clinging darkness.
"What of it?" he replied.
"It is a long walk to Wolfrend, my friend. Perhaps you could regale me with stories of your travels."
"I'm not a bard, here to sing for your amusement!"
"Of course! I merely make a bit of talk for the road, to pass the time. Perhaps you could tell me of your life in Wolfrend, and why you-"
"You will not ask me about Wolfrend!" growled Beren.
"My apologies, sir," gasped Humphrie when he regained his voice. "I meant no offense. Perhaps a change of subject..."
Beren grunted as they continued walking.
"But the places you've been," said Humphrie. "The things you have seen! I have never been away from Kastonner. Oh no! To go even as far as the coast would have been too much for my humors."
"I'm sure your duties in the king's court are important," said Beren. "Not everyone fights their battles with a sword."
"Yes, my duties! To hop from one cloak to another, rising through the ranks by tickling the ears of more consequential people to get close to the king. I was born into a life of sycophancy, good knight, playing the royal games with the best of them. I could tell you stories about the private lives of the courtiers, gossip to make a madame blush! It seems so inappropriate now, all of it gone. Gone! Lords and ladies of the court, friends of mine, all turned to ash! Yet I remain, with no deeds of my own for people to speak of years hence."
"We follow our strengths," said the knight.
"I think we are more alike than either of us would like to admit," said Humphrie.
Beren opened his mouth to object, then closed it and walked on in silence wondering how their conversation had become so intimate.
"I once fought a dragon, far away in Jakaliland," said Beren after a time. "It was terrorizing the locals, and they needed the problem solved."
"A hero slays the monster!" exclaimed Humphrie. "Hope rises from the ashes of Kastonner! Perhaps-"
"I could not slay it," muttered Beren.
"I fled. The dragon of Jakaliland was more than I could handle. Another lord brought a squad of knights and they slew the beast instead."
Humphrie said nothing.
"It is my only claim to fame," laughed Beren bitterly. "The disgraced knight who fled before his foe. My family disowned me, as they should."
"A dragon is a mighty foe to face alone," said Humphrie. "You might have perished in the battle."
"And my name would have lived on in songs."
"Indeed? And how many songs have you heard of knights who were sautéed by dragons?"
"None," he admitted. "But better obscurity than being remembered as a coward."
It was miles later and the darkness was still complete. Beren motioned to Humphrie to halt.
"What is it-"
"Quiet!" hissed Beren.
The knight tilted his head this way and that, trying to sense what his eyes couldn't see. The crunch of a boot on sand. The sour smell of bodies long unwashed. Almost too late, Beren reached for his sword, then the night exploded with whirling blades and shouting men. Hearing the whistle of a blade, Beren sidestepped and thrust his sword into the shadow it came from. The point met flesh, and Beren heard a gurgle as the bandit died.
"Help! Help, Sir Beren!"
Humphrie's voice receded as he screamed. Beren turned toward it, but another shadow came at him, this one with a shield as well as sword. Beren turned on the second man. Blades met in ringing chorus, throwing sparks in the darkness and illuminating in flashes a man with long braided hair and rotten teeth. But Beren was no novice. After a few passes he managed to thrust up beneath the man's shield, piercing the bandit's belly.
Humphrie's voice was suddenly muffled. Beren started toward the sound at a dead run, then slowed, listening. At first, he heard nothing. Then the sounds of struggle, a thump, and more sounds of dragging. He redoubled his pace.
He saw shadows ahead - three, and one on the ground. They drew their weapons. Shouting the ancient battle cry of Wolfrend, Beren charged.
He cut down the closest bandit with his first swing. The other two circled, trying to box him in. One of them was a foot taller than Beren, nearly a giant with arms like oaken branches and carrying a massive club. He swung the club at Beren. Beren parried, and nearly lost his sword in the blow. The man behind him thrust at him with a spear, and he barely managed to dodge away, swinging his sword at the giant's legs. The giant grunted and stumbled backward. Beren turned on the spearman and swung, trying to knock the spear away, but the man danced to the side. Footsteps behind and Beren ducked as the club whooshed overhead. He reversed his sword and thrust backward, and Beren smelled onions as the giant's final breath wooshed out. At the same time, the spearman leapt forward, and the point of his spear found a seam in his armor. Beren howled as cold steel slid between his ribs. He grabbed the spear's shaft, drew his dagger, and buried the point in the spearman's throat. The final bandit fell, coughing blood.
Beren dropped his dagger, put both hands on the spear, and gasped as he jerked the point from his torso. He felt the trickle of blood down his side. He retrieved his sword from the body of the giant and went to unconscious nobleman.
"Humphrie! Are you alive?"
Beren removed a gauntlet and gently slapped the nobleman's chubby cheeks until he stirred.
"What happened, sir knight? Have you vanquished our enemies?"
"All dead. Are you all right?"
Humphrie sat up and rubbed his head.
"A little clout on the head but none the worse for wear," he said. "I shall live, but I seem to have lost my cape."
The eastern sky paled, illuminating the scene - three dead bandits, one ruffled nobleman, and a knight with blood leaking from under his armor.
"You are wounded, sir!" said Humphrie.
"I will be fine," said Beren.
He climbed to his feet, staggered, then fell. Humphrie looked around and spotted a waterskin on the dead spearman. Retrieving it, he hurried to Beren and held the spout to his lips. Beren took a draught of water.
"Perhaps I won't be fine," said the knight. "It is a mortal wound, I think. I've seen such before."
"You cannot die, Sir Beren!" said Humphrie. "What will I do?"
"Wolfrend is only half a day's walk. You will use your silver tongue to convince the court there to mobilize against the dragon threat. Here, take this ring. It carries the sigil of my family, and they will recognize it."
Humphrie's eyes glistened in the faint gray light.
"All of Wolfrend will know of your deeds today, I swear it!" he said. "You will not have died in vain!"
“Perhaps,” sighed Beren. “But even so, I die with a friend. That is more than I could ask for.”
Beren looked into a sky, where a circling hawk had caught the light of a still-unrisen sun. He smiled, and though his face was the pallor of bleached linen, for the first time his face didn’t look so grim. The knight reached up and his bare hand grasped Humphrie’s tightly before falling finally to the earth.
Slowly, with Beren's ring in one hand and his sword in the other, Humphrie rose to face the dawn alone.
Word count: 1948