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George awoke to a kiss on his lips, pressed so gently that he barely stirred. He opened his eyes to see those amber gems staring down at him.
“I have to go, my sweet Knight…” she whispered.
Her hand grasped his, and he squeezed. She squeezed back with greater force.
“Stay with me a while,” he whispered, half asleep.
“N-no, I must go. It is morning, and I must reave…”
He reached up and felt at her face. She leaned in to his grasp, and shut her eyes with a deep sigh. He ran his thumb over her lips, and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, feeling the soft skin against him. The warmth and softness of her angelic face brought a smile to his own. He reached up and ran his fingers through her hair, feeling the gentle fibers and running his fingers between them.
She whimpered in pleasure, and then growled. She pinned him, her fingers interlocked with his. Her hands were much larger, and stronger, and her weight held him fast as her face leaned in. She grunted out a thick dark cloud, breathing hot air into his nostrils. The smoke filled his lungs, and he coughed a little, but the heat traveling into him made him feel as if she was hugging him from within.
She kissed him again, hard, on the face, then leaned down and licked him from his neck to his forehead with her forked tongue, leaving the wet trail of dragon saliva to rest on his neck and lips.
“Mmmm…” she intoned. “You taste so…succulent…” she said. “I could just lick you for hours like hardened sugar…”
She sighed, and stood. “But I must go,” she said. “I enjoyed our night together.”
“As did I,” George said. He licked his lips, and tasted her spit there, the salt and smoke filling his mouth. He felt his stomach flutter.
She turned, and the shadow looming over his bed retreated. She walked to his balcony, outstretched her wings, and took off into the early morning sky. She headed toward the pink horizon where the sun was rising.
George bathed, dressed, and took some more etiquette instruction. He made his prayers alone in the chapel, then went to call upon Eumaeus.
Eumaeus and Concita tended to meet in the mornings, at a cafe hewn into the stone in the grand concourse, and George found them both there, nestled together like lovebirds at a corner table. Eumaeus had his arm around her shoulder and her wing in his hand, and they were smiling. Their love had blossomed over the weeks, and George had enjoyed seeing it.
“Good morning, old friend,” George said, shaking the swineherd’s offered hand.
“We missed you yesterday for supper,” Eumaeus said.
“Yes, I was…atop the mountain,” George said.
Concita giggled. “I’ll bet!” She said
George frowned. “No, I was. In her cave at the mountain’s peak.”
“…oh. Well, you caused quite a stir,” Concita said. “Cleolinda’s fight against Charna was a really big deal. It could have escalated, because Cleolinda is not supposed to discipline soldiers in the army. BUT, the army isn’t supposed to touch her Hoard. Then there was Charna. The Salamander spent the afternoon dueling and crushing challengers to regain her honor.”
“Surely no one can expect her to beat Cleolinda,” George said.
“A loss is a loss, and Salamanders hate losing. Yielding is not something they do easily. I would guess she yielded because she saw the intensity of Cleolinda’s feelings for you, and realized her own were not so developed. It would be the same if she fancied my Eumaeus,” Concita said, cradling the swineherd’s arm. He turned red, and kissed her hair.
“I am happy that you two have found love,” George said as he watched them.
Concita smiled, and her face reddened as well. “A kind man is worth his weight in gold,” she said. She stared at Eumaeus with adoring eyes. “Honest men should be Lords.”
“I’ll be content to have a nice farm, if you will be there with me. We have made a pledge, also, My Lord,” Eumaeus said. “We did not feel it right to claim happiness before you, and so Concita and I have decided to marry after the recovery of the Grail.”
“Such a sacrifice is not necessary,” George said. “In truth, it distresses me that you will wait.”
“Waiting or not waiting, both distress me,” Concita said. “Eumaeus believes that not being a widow will make my pain lessen should he be tortured and killed…”
“Do not be so grim, my love,” Eumaeus said. “No one shall be tortured and killed.”
“It is in my nature to see problems,” Concita said. “My feathers ruffle easily, you know this.”
“I do, and I am aware that you need your feathers soothed. God will not let us fail in this quest,” Eumaeus said kindly. He put a gentle hand to her cheek.
Concita smiled, and shut her eyes as his hand touched her face. She took a deep breath. “You soothe me,” she said. “But if you are taken from me, I shall be grim beyond all reckoning.”
“If we fail, the world will be grim beyond all reckoning,” George said. ” Night will fall, and with it the Damned.”
“A fair point,” Concita said. “Though perhaps a stronger argument for enjoying the last few hours of daylight.”
“We shall not fail,” Eumaeus said in a bold voice, pressing Concita’s head against his chest.
They ate their meal, which George found to be tolerable. He realized that Cleolinda’s attempts to make his palette more sophisticated had worked. A steady diet of the very best ingredients prepared by the very best chefs had made this meal – which was by no means bad – less enjoyable than it might have been beforehand. He could taste the places where the sausage had lingered too long on the stove, the overabundance of salt, and the inferiority of the meat used in the sausage. He detected the clash of herbs.
George decided not to do much sparring or riding that day, but instead he visited with Deborah. They discussed details of their early lives, and George learned that he had six Aunts and twenty cousins, ten boys and ten Unicorns. George in turn spoke to Deborah of Father Edmund, and of his childhood in the village.
He and Deborah talked for hours in his room, then feasted on the balcony which looked out over the woods and the shimmering lake beyond. The meal was a fine meat pie of roasted pheasant meat, and George found it a savory delight.
The Black Dragon landed at about noon from her reaving, carrying large chests of gold in her huge claws. Almost immediately the gold was taken away by goblins, taken to be distributed to the ravaged delta of the River Acheron.
Cleolinda was soon in her DragonMaiden form, and flew onto the balcony where Deborah and George were sitting. He rose, and went to her, embracing her. His arms wrapped about her tightly, reveling in the curved strength of her waist, as her own arms wrapped over him and pulled him in near her heavenly chest and neck.
They spent the rest of the day together, gently talking about many matters and histories. George found himself both happier than he had ever been, and yet full of sorrow at their impending parting.
Evening came, and George shared a last meal with Deborah, Cleolinda, Concita and Eumaeus. Being a commoner with no instruction, Eumaeus was nervous to be in the presence of an ancient Dragon and a noble Unicorn. There was not a word of judgement or even a single thought of it, however, and Concita gently instructed him on proper etiquette as necessary. Soon he had relaxed, and was eating happily.
They ate an excellent meal of veal, served with mushrooms and wild rice. The food was delicious, and up to George’s new standard.
Cleolinda piled upon her gold for the night, and George went to his bed. They talked during the night of reaved villages and Malliard, of potential problems in the castle and means of contact. George could tell that Cleolinda was as nervous as he was, but for an exactly opposite reason. Both were worried about each other, and fearful of losing their lover.
He was unsure when precisely he fell asleep, but when George awoke, he found the Black Dragon in his bed, with himself firmly in her embrace. Cleolinda had apparently decided to hug him to her chest like a teddy bear, and he had somehow not awoken during her entry to his bed and seizure of his person.
As he stirred, she awoke. Her eyes opened, and the orange pools stared at him in the dark.
“Hello?” He said, surprised.
“You decided to join me in the bed?” George asked.
“Yes,” Cleolinda replied, pulling him against her. Her large, swaying breasts dominated his vision. “I grew tired of pretending that my treasure was the pile of gold in the corner.”
“Are we…are we married now?” George asked. “I mean, we have slept together.”
Cleolinda giggled. “Not just yet, my sweet Knight,” she said. “But if we do not get up soon, I fear we will be, for I shall work out four hundred years of lust on your pure little body in the next few minutes.”
Leaving Cleolinda’s arms was one of the hardest things George ever had to do – partly because she wouldn’t release him, despite her statement. It wasn’t until he had given her several kisses and professed his total allegiance to her that Cleolinda reluctantly let him go.
George rose and bathed. He had initially shut the door to the bathing chamber, but Cleolinda opened it and stood in the doorway with her arms resting on the arch, watching him with the same stare that the cats used to watch chickens in Silene.
George got dressed – again under Cleolinda’s eyes- and began to make preparations to leave.
“I shall miss you, terribly, George of Silene. I have three gifts for you, to help you on your quest,” Cleolinda said. “Go and see your companions to make ready; I must prepare the gifts for you.”
Cleolinda bathed and dressed also – an act which George found quite enjoyable to watch, as her body was finer art than any master could produce – and they exited his room and entered the concourse. The large chamber was quiet, but there was beginning to be the bustle of marketplace activity there. Reluctantly, they made their parting for the morning activities – Cleolinda went towards the forges, George went to find Eumaeus and Concita.
When George found his companions, it was near their quarters across the concourse. Concita was giving Eumaeus a long kiss, lifting her bird legs off the ground as she wrapped her wings around his neck. He seized her around the waist, and she trilled.
“Oh!” Eumaeus said, seeing George. “I am sorry, you shouldn’t have seen that. I promise we shall be more discreet…”
“It is alright,” George said. “I am glad that you two are happy. But I do appreciate that promise – I am fond of you, Eumaeus, but I do not need to see you at love with a pretty maiden.”
“I think it prudent in any sense, as it may jeopardize her disguise,” Eumaeus said.
“Oh! Speaking of which, I’ll go get changed for the trip,” Concita said. She gave Eumaeus another kiss, then disappeared into her room.
“I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea to send her north with us,” Eumaeus said with worry.
“I think it dangerous, also,” George said. “But I see little option. She is our means of quickly contacting Cleolinda.”
“I fear for her,” Eumaeus said. “Forgive me, Sir George, but while she is not as notorious as Cleolinda, neither is she as strong,” Eumaeus said with worry. “I dread something terrible happening to her, should her bravery overtake her good sense.”
“We shall have to keep an eye on her,” George said. “Make sure she does not take unnecessary risks.”
Eumaeus nodded. “I shall consider it easy to watch her, but hard to prevent her.”
When Concita returned, she was in a full black robe with a habit, the traveling garb of a lady of the church.
“Concita?” Eumaeus asked.
“Sister Concita,” Concita said with a bow. She permitted herself a smirk. “A very stern young nun from the Poor Sisters Convent at Tara Castle.”
“A standard disguise?” George asked.
“One rarely used. Nuns traveling alone are often accosted by various factions. Our cover is broken almost immediately,” Concita said. “But where I shall have two warrior gentlemen along with their horses, I should be fine.”
“And this disguise will discourage outward displays of affection, which is good,” Eumaeus said, though his tone indicated that he thought otherwise.
The companions made their preparations to leave, and by mid-morning they were ready to get underway and head down the mountain. George said his goodbyes to Deborah, then went to see Cleolinda.
He found her waiting outside his room, holding her hands nervously. Seeing so mighty and powerful a dragon looking so vulnerable filled him with a desire to just hug her with all his might, but he resisted the urge. She carried with her a satchel, which while large to George, seemed small in her hands.
“Your gifts are ready,” she said. “Come, noble youth, let us go and get them for you.”
Cleolinda took him into the mountain, back to the forges she had taken him to on his first day on Mount Gothmog. They walked past rows of dwarven blacksmiths and goblin craftsmen, until they reached a set of gilded double doors, with iron rings dangling as handles.
“My first gift is to protect you. Your armor is venerable, but old. I had this fitted for you…” Cleolinda announced as she grasped one of the iron rings and pulled. The heavy door ground against the mountain dirt with a thunderous rumble.
Light poured into a dark room beyond the doors, and gleamed when it caught on a figure in the center. George thought at first that it was a warrior in thick and mighty plate, but he realized that the armor was empty. He gasped as he beheld it.
The platemail was gilded, resplendent and sparkling, a suit of full head to toe metal of atypical hue. It was ornate with sculpted tongues of fire, of the color of flames in darkness. To George’s eye it seemed ritualistic, even sacramental, as if it was worn by some guardian in an ancient cathedral.
“This is the Armor of Ultor. It was worn by Mars himself, they say, when he took up arms against the enemies of the Heavens. I…acquired it in my youth,” Cleolinda said, clearing her throat. “Its value is beyond calculation.”
George shook his head, vigorously “I am not worthy of such armor,” he said.
“Your worth is beyond the armor, I assure you. And even if you were not dearer to me than anything else, you would still deserve it. I have watched you train and spar. You are the finest knight I have seen, and the armor is every bit the skin that you deserve,” Cleolinda said.
“As dearly as I love this gift, and you for giving it. I will never be able to explain where I, a poor hedge knight, got it from,” George said.
“Do not worry about that,” Cleolinda said. She put her claw in his hair, styling it as she wished with a gentle hand. In general she was taking a more active role with his body, fixing his clothes or hair. “There is a dowager Countess Linde in Tara Castle to the west of here. You shall say the armor was a gift to you, for services in slaying a Warlock. No one ever questions the powerful.”
“Concita mentioned a convent at Tara Castle. Is there truly a Countess Linde there?” George asked.
Cleolinda smirked. “There is a woman who answers to that name. A very nice old lady, a fisherman’s widow. The most regal and gracious woman I ever met, she is in my employ and maintains the estate. I keep the castle for any dealings I need with the Kingdom of Men. Your cover shall be that you went south to meet Lady Linde, whom your mother was a servant of.”
“Lady Linde’s resources could not help in acquiring the Grail?” George asked.
“She gathered information for us. Her efforts are how we learned of some of the details of the attack upon the Delta. Beyond that, I would not bid her to take a more active role. I don’t want to expose her to too much, as that would put her at risk of being found out,” Cleolinda replied. “In most cases I prefer to leave her as a reclusive woman, but now I want you dressed in the finest armor, and shall use her as cover. So, try it on!”
Several male attendants approached from through the doorway, and swiftly fitted him into the resplendent armor. Despite its comprehensive size and weight, the armor felt light and comfortable, and George found it fit him like a skin. His motions barely minimal noise, and he moved with virtually no impedance.
Cleolinda stared at him with narrowed eyes, drinking him in.
“You are a fine knight,” Cleolinda said. “You deserve the very best. That is your first gift; protection to keep you safe, so long as you are not with me. I have others here.”
She reached into the satchel and produced a tiny, thimble-sized glass vial with a cork stopper. Inside was a clear liquid that glimmered as though bottled sun.
“This liquid came from a cordial belonging to a young Queen,” Cleolinda said. “It has the power to heal almost any affliction. Its value is infinite. Kings would go to war over it, for it can give an old man youth, or a stillborn babe the lungs to cry. This droplet is a second life. I am giving it to you, in the sincere hope it is never needed, but that if you do, you use it to save your life.”
George blinked, wide-eyed. He might have protested, but by the look in Cleolinda’s eyes he knew that would be futile. Instead he bowed and took this precious gift. The vial was warm to his touch. “So small…” he said.
“Small enough to be hidden,” Cleolinda said. “Keep it on your person. And when the moment comes, use it to keep yourself alive.”
George nodded. He placed it into the pouch on his belt.
“That is my second gift,” Cleolinda said. “The gift to make sure that you come home to me. I have one more. When we restore the Grail, I shall give it to you. But you must see it now.”
She reached into the satchel, and pulled out a coiled glimmering chain with a gold handle and a leather collar. George’s heart raced when he saw the it.
“You shall wear this around your neck, and you shall not take it off unless I remove it,” she whispered. She held up the leather. “The Hind leather can compel, but never harm. I can keep it around your neck forever, and you shall know its soft touch. This…” she started. “This is the gift that keeps you from leaving me ever again.”
“I shall await it,” George said, staring at the leash with a tinge of fear – but also with great curiosity and excitement. “I do have one request.”
Cleolinda blinked at him and tilted her head. “Make it,” she said.
“I-it is customary for a Knight to ask his Maiden for a Favor with which to joust,” George said, bashfully. “And as you are the most beautiful Maiden in the land, I would have your favor as I ride against other Knights.’
Cleolinda’s eyes widened, and she covered her opened mouth with her hand. “You are so sweet, George…” she said, putting her hand to his cheek. Her claws touched him gently.
She reached into her bosom, and drew out a black handkerchief, trimmed with gold. She handed it to him, and he found it to be smooth and light, almost as the air. It was still warm from its lodging between her breasts.
“Here,” she said. “Take it, and wear it as a sign of my love.”
George rubbed the silk cloth against his face, smelling a faint fragrance of smoke and flowers on it. He planted a reverential kiss. Cleolinda looked at him with thirst.
“I shall wear it with pride,” George said.
Cleolinda’s amber eyes sparkled. “Let’s put it on your arm,” she said excitedly.
The handkerchief was large, as it was for a tall Dragon woman, and Cleolinda took it back and tied it about his left arm. The black and gold silk dangled from his armored elbow.
“You look adorable,” she said with clasped hands. George smiled, but hoped he looked fearsome and impressive. She touched his armored chest, and the metal compressed slightly. “A Knight who fights for me.”
“I will win for you,” George said. “My sword is yours.”
“It makes my heart beat to hear it, but remember our primary goal; we seek the Grail. I shall await a signal from Concita,” Cleolinda said. “Find out where the grail is, and send me word. Once I know, I will strike the castle and recover it.”
“I shall,” George said. He stared at Cleolinda sadly. “I guess all that is left is saying goodbye.”
Cleolinda nodded, her face downcast. “Farewell, my Knight. And be safe.”
“And you as well, my Dragon,” George said.
He leaned in and planted a kiss upon her lips, which was electric. He turned and began to walk away, when he thought of one more thing which he should make sure that he said.
“There is one more thing…” George said. “I love you, Cleolinda.”
Cleolinda didn’t respond so much as leap into his arms. Being a very large and powerful DragonMaiden, she easily bowled him over. When his head cleared and the clanging in his ears subsided, he was aware that his lips were being kissed furiously.
“I love you George,” Cleolinda whispered. “You will know how much when you come back to me.”
They departed each other, and George felt a deep weight in his heart as he left her there. He gathered up all his gear and went to the stables to collect Ephialtes, then went to look for Concita and Eumaeus. He found them at the gate of the mountain with their animals, prepared to leave.
Concita had a pony, which she loaded up with her gear, and Eumaeus had been given a suit of plate armor as well, of a sheen to match George’s own. Concita wore her outfit of the Poor Sisters, her cloak hiding her feathers and her legs. Her backstory was that she was sent by Countess Linde to aid George and Eumaeus at the tournament. Propriety – and armored warriors – would keep her from being molested. They mounted up, and the portal was opened.
As George rode through the portal, he looked back at the mountain. He saw that Cleolinda was watching him from one of the balconies, unmistakable by her size and presence. She had dressed in a black gown with a veil, and but for her massive wings, tail, and tall form she might have looked like a grieving maiden. A beautiful, radiant maiden, to be sure, but a sad one. She would take to the skies herself very soon, he knew, and that both thrilled and terrified him.
They rode through the portal and arrived in the grove, then headed north to Dulsanny where they acquired a barge. The trip up the Phlegethon River was uneventful, except that even in the few weeks that George, Cochita, and Eumaeus had spent in Mount Gothmog, the countryside had changed. The villages along the river were all dark, many abandoned or partially burned. Castles near the water appeared full to capacity. The days were overcast, and The Damned were out in force, lurking among the shadows of the trees. They didn’t dare to venture to the water, but they stayed along the edge. And their forms made the hairs on George’s neck stand on end.
The coastal cities remained, but they looked smaller, with fortified houses and fearful locals. Several times The Damned appeared, and peasants were forced to engage and slay them. The barge slowly filled up with grim merchants at every stop, trading stories of The Damned ranging unopposed. The problem was getting worse, and the faces of the merchants and travelers were growing graver. Other Knights joined on the way as well, heading to the tournament, with similar stories and concerns.
After a day on the river they came into site of Salerno castle, looming in the distance on a high hill above the dense forest. The castle was lit and well apportioned, with the fluttering banners of the Kingdom, the sundered coin. Beneath them were colored banners from the many other noble houses in attendance. The vibrant colors of the castle clashed with the gray sky and sullen faces of the men who traveled.
Even the Knights on the barge stared upon the castle and the surrounding bleakness with sad eyes. Yet their jaws clenched. There was much said that was negative of these Knights, but in their stern faces George saw resolute determination. These men understood that the tournament would not be simple revelry and foolishness. It was a silly but necessary rite, needed to give a weak King a strong agent. It may mean the fate of the Kingdom
The barge arrived in Gulltown, the port near Salerno Castle, which seemed to be faring slightly better than the earlier ports on the journey. George and the others exited the barge behind a procession of Knights, Lords, and merchants, and led their animals from the river and to the castle. Concita walked between George and Eumaeus, and despite the two men’s misgivings she did not draw attention for much more than her pretty face.
The sun was out, flirting often with emerging from the clouds, but even so they could hear the groaning and shambling of The Damned in the woods. Royal Guards were stationed in towers along the road with crossbows out, a mixture of bored and frightened. George saw one of Malliard’s Scorpions, primed and ready, with a man standing at it, scanning the skies. He felt his blood go cold.
The castle grew larger in their sight, and viewing it George saw why Deborah was reluctant to send Cleolinda against it. Mighty as his DragonMaiden was, this bulwark of thick stone looked nigh on impregnable. As they passed over the drawbridge and under the portcullis of Salerno Castle, they entered into a different world. On the other side of the thick stone walls, the world seemed a picture of what it was before The Damned’s arrival. Close-cut grass stretched on before the large stone keep, immaculate in its upkeep and unperturbed by a single invader from below. In spite of this, guards stood on the walls, looking both outside the castle and within.
“Why have The Damned not arisen within the Castle?” Eumaeus asked in a low voice. “They did back home at the Palisade of Lord Ignus.”
George shrugged. “Perhaps the castle was consecrated? Perhaps the King’s presence?”
“Or perhaps…” Concita said darkly. “No Drained Priest has breached the castle. Not yet.”
The three looked to each other for a moment. Ephialtes whinnied, and George tugged him onward. Up and to the left were the tournament grounds, where rows of multi-colored tents had been set up by the Knights who had arrived earlier. The Keep itself was like a tall stone block with nine towers which bulged from along its surface.
After registering with the Castle Steward, George, Eumaeus, and Concita were assigned one of the tents, along the back row near the walls.
George could hear the clanging of swords, the neighing of horses, the laughter of men, and the blaring of trumpets as they moved through the tents towards their site behind the line of other arriving Knights. The mood of the Knights was festive, and they hailed the newcoming Knights with cheer, recognizing them by armor and heraldry. George however, drew many eyes in his armor, as Knights looked to each other with confusion at who this well-armored newcomer could be.
As George walked amongst the multicolored tents, he came upon a familiar figure in dark armor, laboring with his squires over the upkeep of his armor and horses. Sir Griffid started as he saw him, and when George hailed him and removed his helm, the Knight raced over with a cry of elation.
“Sir George, and noble Eumaeus, it pleases me to see you both! But how come you by this armor, my friend?” Sir Griffid asked, his tone amazed. “This armor is beyond anything I have even heard of, like something from ancient myth!”
“I came by it in the service of Lady Linde of Tara Castle,” George said, repeating the lie which Cleolinda had given him.
“Yes…I see her colors on your arm,” Sir Griffid said, gesturing to Cleolinda’s Favor. “She is a powerful patroness. You must have impressed her greatly.”
“She had an dark sorcerer, which she named as a Warlock, that I slew,” George said, hoping he was convincing in his lie.
Griffid narrowed his eyes. “A Drained Priest?” He asked.
George nodded. “Indeed. Eumaeus and I slew him.”
“In her hedge maze,” Eumaeus added in a shaky voice.
Griffid smiled. “It is good when one of them is removed,” he said. He clapped his hand on George’s shoulder. “I am glad that you have come…” he reached and drew Eumaeus in as well. “…both of you. If we are to stop this chaos, we need every good sword that we can get.”
Sir Griffid looked past them at the demure little nun who stood with bowed head.
“And who is this?” He asked. “She reminds me of the girl that you escorted south.”
“That young woman has taken a position as a servant for my new patroness,” George said. “This is Sister Concita of the Poor Sisters. She came north to care for us.”
Concita curtsied. “Hello, Sir Griffin.”
“Griffid,” Eumaeus whispered.
“My apologies. Hello, Sir Griffid,” she said.
Sir Griffid bowed to her. “An honor, Sister,” he said. “You travel with heroes.”
Concita nodded. “I have seen their valor firsthand, my Knight, and Sir George has spoken well of you,” she said.
“That honors me. The past few weeks have gone badly,” Sir Griffid said somberly. “Men cannot deny the horror that they are seeing, although there are many doing their best to try. I have spoken at length to my patron Baron Roferato on these events. I hope to introduce you to him tonight, and have you pledge to him.”
“You trust this Baron?” George asked.
“With my life,” Sir Griffid said fiercely. “He remains skeptical of our theories regarding The Damned and the Drained Priests, but he is receptive, and at least he agrees The Damned are a larger problem than the Dragon or the mamono.”
George nodded. “Very well; I will joust for him,” he said.
Sir Griffid smiled. “There are twenty contenders, but only six are of any importance,” he said. “Of them, the two front runners are Argal Seine and my liege, the Baron Roferato,” he said. “I shall make an introduction. Perhaps together we can convince him of the danger.”
They paused a moment as several armored men walked through, a Knight with several men-at-arms, all in white. The Knight was a tall man, thin, in armor which was of a pale hue like sour milk. His skin was green as though from sickness, and his face thin and sallow. He had dark circles beneath his red eyes. This man looked not only sick and miserable, but also foreign and lethal. The Knights at other tents quieted as he passed, and he locked eyes with George for a moment.
In those red eyes George saw malice, and it might have cowed him but he steeled his nerve and stared right back, and the knight broke gaze. The sick knight’s lips curled, and he continued onward at a hurried pace. George was about to turn back to Sir Griffid when he saw the back of the Knight’s cloak. He started. The man bore the flag of Calormen, the bird-headed nightmare Tash. With a curse, George reached for his sword, but was stopped by Sir Griffid’s strong hand on his wrist.
“Stay your hand, noble Knight,” Sir Griffid said calmly yet firmly.
“Who is that?” George rasped. “Who dares wear that ugly sigil in the open, and while The Damned rage?”
“That is Sir Corsit Tashaban, the catspaw of the Vizier, Argal Seine,” Sir Griffid said. “He is less a man than some kind of construct. He speaks little, and only then in broken words and with a thick Calormene accent.”
“He does not look Calormene,” George said. “Though he wears their accursed flag on his back.”
“That is because he is not of them, not originally. He is a slave from one of their conquered lands, trained to fight as a gladiator,” Sir Griffid said. “Argal Seine claims to have purchased and freed him, yet the man shows him the deference he would show a master.”
“But…a Tash-worshipping Knight?” George asked. “Tash is the god of The Damned.”
“He claims the symbol of Tash is his heraldry, a sign of his past.”
“How do men stand for such a ludicrous claim?” George asked.
“Because Sir Corsit is as deadly ahorse as he is on foot,” Sir Griffid said. “Argal Seine has many catspaws and Knights in his employ, but Sir Corsit is his best. Everyone knows that the path to the King’s Valor shall ultimately come down to a fight against Corsit Tashaban.” Sir Griffid said. He clenched his teeth. “I mean to be the one to defeat him. “I shall ride him down, knock him from his damned horse, and Baron Roferato shall be the Kings Valor. Then, Roferato can banish that profane man and his master from the Kingdom.”
Ephialtes stirred impatiently, and with a smile Sir Griffid patted down the horse.
“Our chatter is upsetting this old warrior,” Sir Griffid said with a laugh. “Go, Sir George. Get this man some feed and rub him down. Your tent is down this way?”
“Aye, the corner tent, by the wall,” George said, pointing to one of the tall red, blue, and white tents.
Sir Griffid smiled. “Good. Get situated. I will talk to Baron Roferato about introducing you to him. The jousts start in two days, and I am eager to be ready.”
George and his companions bid Sir Griffid farewell, and headed onward. They reached their cloth tent, which was reasonably large and spacious, at least as far as tents would go. There was a spot to tie the animals, and Ephialtes and the others began to graze on the field of grass at their feet.
With the journey done and their accommodations reasonably safe, George decided to get out of his armor, as did Eumaeus. The two men went back to their clothes, though both continued to wear their Gambesons. Concita stayed with them, her cover being that she was their cook and caretaker.
They went over their alibi from Deborah and Cleolinda, which George considered a good one: George had gone south at the behest of Lady Linde, as his mother had been one of her servants. While there, he had slain a Warlock for her, and in so doing had earned her esteem. She sent him north to the Tournament, with Sister Concita from the nearby convent as a servant to aid him.
They established common details between the three of them, and quizzed each other on those details, until they were reasonably confident that all their stories were in agreement.
The three were about to prepare a meal from their provisions when they heard a ruckus from outside. A man was yelling something that they could not make out, and others were yelling back at him with equal lack of clarity.
“What is that?” Concita asked. “Is it The Damned attacking?”
“Not enough swords slicing, or screams,” George said. “It sounds like a yelling match.”
They gathered outside the tent to see the commotion. An older hedge-Knight was standing atop a wooden box before his tent, in the act of giving an impassioned speech. He had a busted down old draft horse, aged armor, and a tired frame. Yet despite his ragged body, his armor was polished, his uniform clean, his horse well-groomed. He stood, shouting at a group of gathered Knights, who stared at him with furrowed brows.
“…I am Sir Jerome, Knight of Sephoria, and I say to you that we prepare for the wrong war!” The old Knight shouted. “The mamono joined us on Crusade all those decades ago. There is no dishonor in them…”
“Mamono? But they attacked us!” A Knight interrupted.
“This old Knight speaks treason!” One of the warriors assembled shouted to the assent of the others.
“I am no Traitor!” Sir Jerome said. “I fought in the Crusade for our country and our faith. I knew the mamono, then…”
“Slept with them, too, no doubt!” One of the men shouted.
“Indeed I fell in love with one, with eyes like deep wells and hair as green as seaweed. She showed me kindness, but the war took her from me…”
“So if you are compromised by them, why by Hades’ Bident should we listen to you?” One Knight asked.
Sir Jerome opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
“A fine question,” A clear voice said. It had the traces of a foreign accent, yet the language and diction were understandable and refined. George turned to see the speaker, and narrowed his eyes.
A slight man dressed in finery approached. He was thin and wiry, and on first seeing him George thought he was a Drained Priest. He was young and pale, and his hair was dark. In his black robe he looked like a twisted small tree bereft of leaves. It was Argal Seine, the King’s dubious vizier.
Behind him, George saw Corsit Tashaban and the other men at arms and catspaws from earlier, along with a broad-shouldered man in black armor who stood with arms crossed behind Sir Corsit. The henchmen of the Vizier gathered about him like bees protecting a queen.
“You say you are no traitor, yet every word you speak is treason. Why should men listen to a broken down hedge knight?” Seine said to the old man.
“It is true that I am of low station,” Sir Jerome replied. “But I am still a Knight, and I know the Mamono from my days on Crusade…”
“You want reasonable men to follow you, despite being a drunken fool who amounted to nothing. You are a traitor. How long have you been conspiring against the Crown?” Seine asked.
“Conspiring?” Sir Jerome stammered. “I am loyal-“
“Clearly not; your own words have perjured you. You have conceded that you make congress with the monster women, perhaps even recently. When did you last fornicate with them? Was it within the last few days, or perhaps before they summoned the so-called damned?”
“I have not seen them for years, though I freely admit that is to my sorrow,” The old man shouted.
“So you are their toady and their advocate, with not even a pouch of gold in return. You sell your country and your dignity cheaply. This makes sense to me; the supporters of the monster women are men of low character, men for whom decent families upturn their noses and grimace. In bitterness, they seek to ally against their Kingdom,” Seine said to murmurs of assent from the Knights. “They join with spiderwomen, and horned women, and even women who change their shape and form in pornographic mockery of good Human women.”
The Knights in the assembly nodded. Many stared at the old Knight with clenched teeth, others with stern faces. George stared about with alarm. He might have spoken up, but he felt an arm rise and touch his chest. Or rather, a wing.
“Do not interfere!” Concita whispered. “Lest we be compromised.”
“I have not betrayed anyone! I am loyal. F-friends…” the Knight sputtered. “The true threat is beyond our walls at this very moment! The Damned…”
“Caught in his treason, the drunk babbles lies about ‘the damned’…” Seine said with an eyeroll. “What is a local problem of risen dead compared to an invasion by the trained and ruthless Monster women, or the Dragon which has lit the south on fire?”
“The Damned are everywhere!” The old man shouted, exasperated. “Our Kingdom is nearly paralyzed. All along the rivers and roads, the Damned wait in shadows for overcast skies or the fall of night.”
“You overstate what is a minor problem,” Seine answered with a hand wave. “If you are concerned, perhaps it is because you are just aged and infirm, or more likely you mean to distract men from the real problem of the demon women.”
“No, the monster women are your distraction against the true problem!” The Old Knight shouted. “You are a poisonous spider, Argal Seine, a foreigner who has convinced our King to engage in a senseless war!”
Seine shook his head and laughed smugly. “Reduced to name-calling – how typical of a traitor,” he said, shaking his head. He paced back and forth, his arms gesturing. “Men such as this – low men from the bottom rungs – seek to weaken the Kingdom of Men in order to advance themselves. There is no truth in his words, only personal attacks. I say there has been enough talk. If this man wants to fight The Damned, then let him fight The Damned – cast him out of the fortress!” Seine yelled.
Seine’s men moved upon the old Knight, and easily seized him, but Sir Griffid emerged from the crowd. Seeing him Corsit Tashaban’s hand snapped to his sword. Sir Griffid stepped forward and pointed his finger.
“Hold, Vizier!” Sir Griffid shouted. “There is no King’s Valor, and you are not even a Lord. You have no power to expel anyone.”
Seine smiled. “I merely exhort the crowd-” he started.
“We operate by Law in this Kingdom,” Sir Griffid said. “Let the King call for his expulsion, if anyone does.”
Seine’s eye twitched. “If you speak up for him, then perhaps you too harbor traitorous thoughts.”
“You question my honor?” Sir Griffid interrupted. “I will fight any man here and now who does so. I will cast out this man myself if the King commands it, or if my Baron does, or even if you command me, but only if you are King’s Valor. Power is conferred here by the tournament, and Knights must be expelled upon the tournament field.”
Seine looked furious, eager to send his large man to thrash him, except that the assembled Knights seemed swayed to Sir Griffid’s side. They nodded and murmured, content that this was just. Seine clenched his teeth.
“It is clear that Baron Roferato takes a lenient stance with treachery,” Seine said. “This matter must be settled on the jousting field, in the ancient way.”
“That will be welcome,” Sir Griffid said, staring at the massive Corsit Tashaban. “I look forward to it.”
“If that is all, then I suggest that men ignore this old drunk,” Seine hissed. “Who do you fight for, noble Knight?”
The Knight searched. “For myself,” he said, panting.
Seine laughed, and his men laughed with him, as well as a good portion of the crowd. “Well, that will go well, I’m sure. Alright, gentlemen, let us leave the brave mamono lover to his ‘spirits’…”
The crowd dispersed, leaving the old man standing, shoulders slumped.
“Are you alright, friend?” George asked.
The man nodded. “Words are not the most damaging thing in the world, although I wish I had used mine better,” he said. “He argues well.”
“He argues in circles,” George said. “And with the obvious goal of obfuscating and redirecting away from where he has no grounds at all.”
“He said that I am nothing but a broken down old drunk; I have never touched a drink in my life,” The Old Knight said, bitterly. He shook his head. “My words failed me…”
“The Vizier is adept at twisting them,” George said. “I would not feel bad.”
The man looked stricken. “How can I not feel bad?” The old Knight asked with wide eyes. “I am watching the Kingdom sink into black mud. I want to grasp every man by the ears and shout in his face that we are living in folly. And yet, when I tried, I only succeeded in getting myself nearly banished.”
“You were not,” Eumaeus said. “That has to count for something. You survived.”
“You will grow to loathe simply surviving when you reach my age, young man at arms,” the old Knight said. “I should have died on Dorinth Mountain…”
George frowned. “Dorinth Mountain, as in the battle?”
Sir Jerome nodded. “Indeed. I am Sir Jerome of Sephoria. I was one of one hundred men to charge down the hill at Dorinth Mountain…”
Concita gasped. “One of the Hundred Knights at Dorinth…”she said. “Can it be?”
Jerome reached in his pocket, and pulled out a small, flat silver piece shaped like an elephant.
“They gave all of us one of these,” Jerome said. “Flattened elephants, because we had beaten Haradrim.”
Eumaeus took the silver piece with wide eyes. “Amazing!” He said.
“Why didn’t you talk about that?” George asked. “When you talked to the Knights?”
Jerome smiled, but his eyes were sad. “When a man wants to make a mark on the world, sometimes he doesn’t want his old mark there,” he said. “I never used the flattened elephant to get myself so much as a cup of warm cider. I hoped the speaking of truths would be enough to convince men. Now I see that I should not have let humility impede my mission. We must defeat The Damned by any means necessary.”
“It is a problem that can be fixed,” Eumaeus said. “You can speak again, and show men this token. The Knights here will venerate you, I am certain of it.”
“I believe you are right,” Sir Jerome said. “I have not spoken of those days in many years. In truth, I feel some degree of shame to try to claim I did something spectacular there.”
George frowned. “Why should you feel shame?” He asked. “You took part in one of the bravest charges in history. It was spectacular.”
“I did nothing more than obey a command. Baron Raymond of Sephoria, my liege, was the truly brave man. He commanded the heavy cavalry at the battle of Dorinth Mountain,” Sir Jerome said. “One hundred men charged five thousand, downhill. We charged to our deaths. I knew it was hopeless. A last hurrah for the forces of Christendom,” Jerome said. “Raymond lifted his lance, cried out for the Lady of the Rosary, and galloped down the mountain. The sun shined off of him and made him look like a pillar of fire, of the like that scourged Sodom and Gomorrah. It was easy to follow him, as I had done times beyond counting.”
“We rode. I kicked my heels into my mare Bethany, and screamed at the top of my lungs, as my brothers did around me. Of all of my charges, this was the only one where I shattered no lance. The mere thunder of our horses and fierceness of our cries made the Enemy break, and I watched as the Eastern horde collapsed, and the Haradrim ran for their camp. We turned, and crashed into the main column. The battle turned into a rout. The Haradrim dropped their weapons and ran. The battle was won, and disaster averted. Men cheered, and we prayed, glorifying God. We felt that God was on our side, as if it was the beginning,” Jerome said. “It wasn’t, of course. It was the end.”
“The most important accomplishment of my life occurred when I was nineteen, and it was only to gallop down a hill and do less than I had at any other battle,” Jerome said. “All of us were Knighted that day. I’ve lived fifty-four years after that, and I lived by a Knightly vow. I guarded the chapel in Sephora until I was old, and I retired to a monastery to pray and await my end.”
“But then, I looked at the world and I saw it falling apart, turning slick and black with that awful stuff, so I came north to give a speech to convince Knights of what I knew. Our only hope is a King’s Valor who understands. Alas, it didn’t go as I had hoped,” Jerome said. His shoulders slumped.
“It is a hell of a thing, if you’ll pardon my cussing, to be a man of no importance,” Jerome continued. “To be small, and weak, and past your glory days. To see the ugliness that is coming, and be unable to stop it…”
“How would you stop it?” George asked.
“I’d talk to the mamono,” Jerome said. “Ask them why they are arming, and why the Black Dragon is ranging. Ask them what happened to provoke them…” Jerome cast his eyes about. “My suspicion is that they are active because of The Damned, not vice versa, and that this is about the queer wizards that men have spotted in the woods, who seem to control them,” he said.
“An interesting theory, sir,” Concita said. “You speak with such conviction I think it to be true.”
Sir Jerome looked at Concita a moment, then smiled and laughed a little. He knows, George thought. Somehow he can see through the disguise.
“Why did you leave?” Concita asked, clearing her throat and looking about.
“When my Aria died, I could not stay beneath the sea,” he said. “My family needed me, and so I returned home. I defended Sephoria from robbers and brigands. But my strength has waned, just when it was most needed.”
“I think you remain quite strong,” George said. “You are wise, Sir Jerome. Do not lose heart.”
“The truth is always hated. That is the promise of the Scriptures,” Eumaeus said.
Sir Jerome smiled. “What do you think…Sister?” He asked Concita.
“I think you speak well of the mamono, and accurately,” Concita said. “One could almost say not to lose heart, for they are working to help you.”
Sir Jerome exhaled, and he sounds relieved. “Thank you, my young friends. I think shall go to the Chapel to pray,” Sir Jerome said. “Yes…perhaps a quiet moment will give me the way forward.”
“Farewell, good Knight,” George said.
Sir Jerome walked off towards the chapel on the opposite end of the courtyard, his back straightened. George supposed that perhaps he would be the best man to be King’s Valor, but he had already promised Sir Griffid that he would help the Baron. Still, the man had every quality…
With the ruckus ended, they returned to setting up within the tent. Evening came, and George continued to ponder if perhaps Sir Jerome was a better fit. As the night darkened and The Damned moaned and wailed outside, George wrestled with the notion in his head. He would at least meet with Baron Roferato to take the man’s measure. His thoughts drifted to Cleolinda, and with a smile he fell asleep.
In his dream, he was in his room on Mount Gothmog, and Cleolinda was holding him, as she had held him on that morning before he had left her. She had pressed his face against her breasts and he was kissing them, as she fastened the collar around his neck.
He awoke with a swollen manhood as light crept through the tent’s opening. Eumaeus and Concita were gone, but he heard them outside, whispering feverishly.
George emerged from the tent, the light of morning harsh in his eyes. At least the sky was blue, for the first time in a few days, and the sun hung low in the sky on its rising. And yet, despite the first nice day in weeks, Concita looked sad, and Eumaeus was equally grim. Both were crouched near their campfire.
“What is it, friends? Is something wrong?” George asked. His sleep-struggling mind went to the worst place. “…Cleolinda?”
Eumaeus shook his head. “Sir Jerome is dead,” he said.
George started. He looked to Concita, who stared at the ground, sadly. “How?” He asked.
“Stabbed, in the stomach,” Eumaeus replied bitterly. “He was found soaked in wine, and impaled upon his own dagger, between the stables and the blacksmith. Men say he despaired and ended his life”
“Perhaps he is dead of his own dagger, but not by his own hand, I say,” Concita said with narrowed eyes and clenched teeth.
“The man didn’t drink,” George agreed. “Someone has assassinated him.”
Eumaeus rubbed his face. “It must be. And yet there was no reason to,” the swineherd said in disbelief. “He was of no threat to anyone.”
“He spoke the truth,” Concita said. “That is loathsome to those who lie, motive enough to kill him. And we know who would do that.”
George stared at the ground, at a patch of grass that swayed a little in the breeze. “Poor Sir Jerome,” he said. “If only I had known he was in danger, I would have asked him to stay with us.”
“I know,” Concita said with regret. “This Kingdom is poorly named. It should be called Kingdom of the Vipers.”
“Or the Viper,” Eumaeus said.
“Indeed. I meant to reserve judgement on Seine until I saw him, but now that I have seen him, he feels strongly to me like one of the Drained Priests,” George said.
“I have the same feeling,” Eumaeus agreed.
“I think Seine is The Damned’s agent,” George said. “Sir Griffid has suspected as much as well.”
“Do you think we should tell him of our mission?” Eumaeus asked.
George shook his head. “Sir Griffid is an honorable man, but I believe him too committed to his oaths. As goes the Baron Roferato, so shall go Sir Griffid. I would reveal the truth to him, but not until I have met with his liege.”
“We must maintain secrecy at all costs,” Concita said. “Our greatest advantage is that we are unknown. The Enemy does not know that we are here, or what we seek to do. More important than the King’s Favor is our primary mission.”
“And with an assassin loose in the camp targeting men who speak of peace with mamono, we must be doubly quiet,” George said.
Eumaeus looked at Concita. “Perhaps you should fly out of here tonight,” he said.
“Perhaps you should keep quiet, my sweet man. Do not let my garb fool you; I am a soldier,” the Harpy ‘Nun’ said. “I will not abandon my mission, or you.”
“Yet show caution, Concita,” Eumaeus pleaded. “This place is dangerous.”
“Recall that I made my way to Dulsanny alone. I understand the dangers of this place,” she said. “I endeavor to continue with the plan I outlined to you. I will go and see what I can find out about the Castle while you boys play horsie with long sticks.”
“Is it safe for you to travel alone?” Eumaeus asked her.
George shrugged. “Her disguise is quite effective,” he said. “And our mission is to gather as much information as we can…”
Footsteps approached. All three hushed, and looked to the tent flap. George’s hand went to the floor, and grasped up a knife from his belt. One of Sir Griffid’s attendants entered, and the three of them exhaled. The young man was dressed in a black gambeson with an open faced steel helm, and was perhaps only a year or two younger than George.
“Hail, Sir George. I come from Sir Griffid,” the squire said. “He bids you to come see him this afternoon, so you may meet with Baron Roferato. He asks that you come arrayed in your armor.”
George nodded. “I shall come to him in the afternoon. Pass along my compliments to Sir Griffid.”
The squire nodded, then disappeared outside of the tent. “In the meantime, I could go do some riding and sparring,” George said after the squire had left.
Eumaeus sighed. “I will not be a Centaur or a Salamander, but I shall do my best,” he said. He looked at Concita. “And you-“
“Yes, I will be careful,” Concita snapped. Her face softened. “I know you care, darling Eumaeus, but remember what you said about God protecting us?”
Eumaeus sighed. “It is easier to have faith in God when it is my own life on the line, not yours,” he said.
She leaned in, and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Do you have faith in me?” She asked.
“Then do not worry,” she whispered. She gave him a peck on the lips, then left, her head bowed and ‘arms’ folded as if in prayer. She walked out of the tent flap.
With Eumaeus’ help, George suited up into his armor, and the two men got Ephialtes. George rode at the quintain, and put on such a show that a crowd began to gather. He rode upon it with lance, mace, and sword, drawing applause with each pass as he deftly struck the shield and evaded the following hit.
He fought Eumaeus on foot, and while he was not Charna, Eumaeus was a canny foe, one who knew George well, and he was able to hold his own effectively.
As the sun rose to its zenith, George and Eumaeus ate, and then departed from each other. George went to meet with Sir Griffid. He took his inspection of the castle and its grounds as he walked among the maze of tents. Salerno was considerably larger than the palisades and stone forts which George had been exposed to near Silene. Within this impressive fortification – lined as it was with Malliard’s Scorpions – it was no wonder that Diocletian felt safe, and saw The Damned as less of a threat than the Monster Women. After all, both must have seemed distant to the King, and with Argal Seine at his ear, was it any wonder he did not think much of The Damned?
“Hail, Sir George!” A cheery voice called out, interrupting his thoughts.
George turned, and despite the friendly and likeable man who approached, George felt dread to see his smiling face. “Malliard,” George said with a nod, “it is good to see you.”
“I must congratulate you on your new armor, friend,” he said, gesturing at his gleaming plate. “You have caused quite a stir with this. When I heard it was you, I thought you had an armor to match your valor.”
“I thank you. Yes; my new patroness has been most generous,” George said, especially eager not to tell the Dragon Hunter too much. “Do the days find you eager for the Tournament?”
Malliard cast his eyes skyward, at the dark clouds. “In truth, the clouds -and the muck zombies who favor them- have made me less eager,” he said. “This land is becoming truly dreadful. Unfortunately I have no skill at handling such things, and must endeavor against the Dragon.”
George felt a tinge of fear at Malliard’s words. He swallowed. “Where is she now?”
“She is raiding to the east,” Malliard said. “But I almost suspect that this is a subterfuge on her part; she was heading this way until a few weeks ago. Now she ranges in the South. It is curious. She must know this is the wealthiest target, with the tax monies accrued here for the war.”
“Perhaps she is aware of where you are,” George supposed.
“Perhaps, although to be honest Dragons are not very intimidated by men like me,” Malliard said with a smile. “It is one of my principle advantages.”
George wished that was wrong, but he was of the opinion that Cleolinda did not take this frightfully clever man as seriously as she should. “Supposing she comes, what shall you do?”
Malliard pointed along the castle walls, where the Scorpions were. “You see my Scorpions are there,” he said.
George saw the ballistae along the walls. The coverage was quite good, and he felt dread as he looked at them. Yet unlike at the tower on his approach, the ballistae stood with no guards near them. “They are unmanned?”
Malliard shrugged. “For now. I have scouts watching from all directions. If they see the Dragon in its approach, they send up an orange rocket. At that point, the troops will head out to their stations.”
“To shoot her down upon the approach?” George askes.
“Any man who manages such a feat would be a Kingly man indeed. Mostly it is to distract her, and make her wary of an assault. I do not expect anyone to hit her, not these visible Scorpions,” Malliard said. “The Dragon will target those that she sees, another reason to only man them as needed. Others have been hidden, to be fired at particular angles. These are set to strike the Dragon in the swoop, so her momentum adds to the momentum of the bolt coming at her.”
The thought made George nearly shudder, but he suppressed it. “Are these men up to the task?” He asked.
Malliard shrugged. “One cannot know until the moment comes, but I have trained them, and they practice. Hitting an object in the air with a Scorpion is nearly impossible, certainly when it can breathe fire at you. You need to shoot at those times when the Dragon is moving slowly; taking off, landing, or in a turn. Their toughness alone makes them hard to kill, but the speed is what makes them truly deadly. The fact that this one goes Humanoid gives us an advantage. She seems to favor that when she goes to loot,” he said. “Smaller target, but her humanform is not so ferocious, and will be easier to hit with a killing shot.”
George could not help from clutching his stomach at the thought of a ballista round going at Cleolinda. He cleared his throat. “You think she shall be easier to slay, then, than a non-Monster Woman Dragon?”
“I do not rightly know. I do not underestimate my opponents. It could be her intellect is great. But enough shop talk, or rather, enough talk about my shop. How are you feeling about the Tournament, and your competition?”
The question disarmed George. In truth, he had not given much thought to this aside from thinking of it as a diversion, or being eager to represent Cleolinda. “I go to speak with Baron Roferato, to see if I shall represent him,” George said.
“Argal Seine is who hired me, so I should be partial to him,” Malliard said. “But in my talks with Knights and Lords, he is not a popular man.”
“What do you think of him?” George asked.
Malliard was quiet for a moment. “He has paid me well to come here, and promises a large payout when the task is done,” he said.
“What do you make of his manner?” George pressed.
Malliard smiled. “One would think he was King, by the way he conducts himself. Typically I meet with the Sovereign of a country, but not here and not now,” he said. “I can understand the preference for one of your countrymen, like Roferato. What about the joust itself? Who do you see as your greatest competition?”
“It all depends,” George said. “If I joust against Roferato, probably Sir Griffid. If not, it shall be Corsit Tashaban.”
“I met Sir Griffid a few days ago. A decent man, though wary of me due to my employer, I think. Excellent in the joust, a man of true skill on horse, on foot, and with the bow too, I hear. Sir Corsit I have met, but I have no true assessment of the man. They say he is a mercenary, but he behaves more like the eunuch soldiers I saw in Calormene,” Malliard said. “Who would you support, if not Roferato?”
George shrugged. “I might have supported Sir Jerome, for the simple reason he viewed The Damned as the biggest threat. But he has been killed…”
Malliard frowned. “I heard the man killed himself while drunk,” he said.
George shook his head. “Maybe he did, but I spoke to the man, and he said he was not a drinker. That was a baseless claim by Argal Seine made against him.”
Malliard narrowed his eyes. “Why would someone kill him?” He asked. “Perhaps they thought he was a traitor?”
“Perhaps,” George said.
Malliard smiled, and cleared his throat. “You will need to excuse me, friend, but I must discontinue this talk. It does not do well for a DragonSlayer to mix too closely in local politics, you understand.”
George nodded. “Nor a Knight, it would seem,” he said.
Malliard laughed. “If it’s any comfort, it’s the same everywhere,” he said. “But in terms of the joust, do not discount Sir Vane. The man jousts for the Earl of Langford.
They discussed some of the finer points of jousting, and in the event Malliard gave information about other tournaments that he had been at, and the actions of the Knights at them, many of them would be at this tournament. Malliard had a keen eye, and George found his insights useful.
He bid the Dragon Slayer farewell, still feeling mixed and unsure about this nice man who was, in his ignorant zeal, working to slay his own beloved.
As he pondered this he came upon the tent of Sir Griffid, and saw the Knight standing there in his black armor, his helm off and in his hand. He hailed George with a salute.
“We’ll find him in his rooms in the Keep,” Sir Griffid said. “Come, we shall go to meet him.”
George and Sir Griffid walked through the rows of tents and past the fields of grass, and over to the thick doors of the keep, which were between two large towers and guarded by men wearing the purple cloaks of the King’s Guard. Sir Griffid hailed the Royal Guards, and they snapped to attention and opened the doors in earnest.
The castle was well lit by torches and lamps, with ornate red and gold rugs and multicolored tapestries and embroideries upon the walls depicting scenes of ancient wars. George stayed with Sir Griffid, making a mental map of the floorplan as best as he could.
The Treasury had not been particularly hard to find; the King did not keep large amounts of gold longer than was necessary (this being an inherent risk), and the cache was located in the front and west of the Keep, near the entrance, in one of the towers flanking the door. The tower was quite full of chests, owing to the collection of taxes. This was as good as he could have hoped.
And yet there were potential issues. The tower’s stone walls were thick, and a solid portcullis was lowered before the entrance to the treasury. Strong as Cleolinda was, could she get through it?
Two guards stood outside the shut portcullis, with several more peering out from the dark. As they became agitated by his mere presence, George decided to move along. He could only guess at what traps Malliard had planted in the darkness there.
He followed near Sir Griffid, who hailed the guards and addressed them by name. The King’s Castle had several large chambers, two large ballrooms, and the throneroom on the first floor, as well as storerooms and a small guard barracks. Purple soldiers patrolled the halls, as nobles walked towards the King’s Court, where festive music played.
“There is a ball?” George asked.
“Tonight. The musicians are preparing. There is almost always a ball,” Sir Griffid said. “The King enjoys them. Baron Roferato says that if revelry were battles, he would be Caesar or Alexander.”
George laughed. “Maybe he isn’t so bad after all.”
Sir Griffid was silent a moment. “He is the King, and it is not for us to question him,” he said at last.
They ascended the stone steps to the next level, passing flaming torches, and walked to an area with guards in dark garb similar to Sir Griffid’s. Looking about this level he saw soldiers in green armor, red armor, and brown armor, all staring at each other warily.
“These are not royal guards…” George said.
“No,” Sir Griffid replied. “These are the personal guards of each of the Peers of the Realm. Each has been given his own section of the Castle for the tournament, fed and tended to by his own servants.”
“There is that much mistrust among the peers?” George asked. “That they must have guards in the halls?”
Sir Griffid looked at him with a small smile. “What do you think?” He asked.
They continued down past Baron Roferato’s guards, and entered into one of his chambers. The room was arrayed like a war room, with several lords and guards gathered around a table with numerous papers spread out on it. The Baron Roferato was heavy-set, but yet also virile. He wore a metal breast plate with a three headed dog on his chest, with long gold hair and a pate that shined in the torchlight. His beard was full, yet trimmed.
“Young Knight of Silene,” the Baron said in a booming voice. “I am pleased you consider to represent me. Griffid esteems you, and says your skill is great.”
“Sir Griffid honors me, as do you, My Baron,” George said, bowing.
“He is not given to faint praise,” the Baron replied. “He has spoken of your zeal against The Damned, and has taken on a good amount of it himself. It is like a disease, and he seeks to communicate it to me as well. But as you see from the unfortunate drunkard Knight, it is a dangerous position to take.”
“Then you do not believe he killed himself?” George asked.
Roferato’s bearded face was grave. “No. There are powerful factions committed to telling the King that The Damned are of no concern. A poor Knight stood no chance against them. He had no protection, but I can protect you. Do you swear your fealty to me?” The Baron asked.
“I pledge my lance and sword to your cause, but my fealty lies with Lady Linde of Tara Castle,” George said, recalling his sweet and powerful Cleolinda.
The Baron tilted his head and stroked his beard. “Interesting…” he said. “I have not heard that name in many years. I did not even think to write to her seeking her support. Why does she stir now?”
“At my behest,” George said. “I dispatched a Warlock who menaced her lands, and as thanks for my service to her she has given me armor and funds, and supported my quest here to Salerno. I came at Sir Griffid’s behest.”
“I am honored. How…esteemed are you to the Lady of Tara Castle?” The Baron asked, stroking his beard.
George shifted, then cleared his throat. “She values my skill,” he said.
“Obviously she does, if she gifts you such extravagant armor. You are a shrewd young man; you understand a war costs money. If you could vouch for her to loan the crown some of her wealth, it would strengthen my position. The potential of a loan would also secure the King’s Favor, which I promise would make becoming Valor far easier, as he arranges the contests.”
“She would be receptive to any money used to fight The Damned,” George said.
“Indeed, and it would be helpful…” The Baron said. “But if she were to loan us funds for the army, it would allow us to secure our border against attack.”
“I know her mind well, and her concern is The Damned,” George reiterated.
“My liege,” Sir Griffid interjected. “As far as I am concerned, if there is an invasion, The Damned shall stymie them as well as our own armies could.”
“Then you believe the Mamono are not their allies?”
“As I have said before my Liege, I believe that the Damned are commanded by those bloodless priests,” Sir Griffid said. “I believe that Argal Seine-“
Roferato raised his hand. “Such talk is dangerous without proof, and in Salerno castle the stones themselves can be traitors,” he said. He looked at George and nodded. “I will consider what you have told me. At the very least, I agree that right now the Kingdom needs a man of quality and unquestionable loyalty to act as King’s Valor. I am that man. I accept your lance, and intend to use it.”
“We have the matter of Sir Manassen,” Sir Griffid said. “Several people saw him exiting the area where Sir Jerome was found. And one of my own squires saw Sir Manassen with Sir Jerome near the scene of his death.”
“He is one of Seine’s men,” Roferato said. “A man who is ruthlessly ambitious. Sir Griffid informs me that Seine wanted Sir Jerome removed from the Castle, and I find in impossible in light of this evidence that Sir Manassen is not involved.”
“Seine ordered his death,” Sir Griffid growled.
“Maybe, or perhaps his man was over-eager. Zeal can drive clients to do unspeakable things for their patrons,” Roferato said, rubbing his forehead. “At the very least, Seine would certainly claim that to be the case.”
“Sir Jerome was a hero, one of the One Hundred Horsemen at Dorinth,” George said angrily. “His death should be avenged. If this man is the cause, let us seize and try him.”
“We cannot try him – he is protected by Argal Seine,” the Baron said. “But I cannot stomach an Assassin here and operating with impunity while the King and the Peers are here. I intend to have Sir Manassen challenge you to a duel to the death.”
George blinked. “If you want me to challenge him-“
“I do not wish that. You must appear to be on the defense, not overeager. It should take little prompting. I shall arrange for you to joust Sir Manassen, George. I shall next have it circulated that you have stated your belief that Sir Manassen is Sir Jerome’s murderer,” Roferato said. “You will answer his charge in public before the joust, and state your belief he is the murderer. I will be honest with you, sir George: my belief is that Seine means to deprive me of Sir Griffid with Sir Manassen, and I intend to use you to protect him.”
“I am not afraid of Sir Manassen-” Sir Griffid began.
“No; but meaning no offense to the Knight of Silene, you are also the best bet to beat the Slave Knight, Corsit Tashaban. Manassen is in this tournament to maim and kill, not to win. I intend to drive him out the same way.”
Sir Griffid looked to George. “Then you shall have the honor. I have no doubt you shall visit a swift justice upon him,” he said.
George bowed his head. “I shall not fail in it,” he replied. “I accept.”
The Baron smiled, and clapped a strong hand on George’s shoulder. “Keep in mind that he shall be eager to kill you,” Roferato said. “I…know you have experience in this, from my own Sir Griffid.”
George nodded. “I am not afraid,” he said. “I shall endeavor to fare better this time.”
“You will slay him,” Sir Griffid said forcefully. “I am certain of it. Manassen is not your equal, but do not become overconfident. Take him as seriously as you would take me, and he shall die.”
Baron Roferato smiled. “Very well, my friends. I shall dismiss you – my council and I wish to discuss certain…details that it is better if you keep yourselves ignorant of,” he said. “Farewell. I am sorry you are tested with such a mission, Knight of Silene-“
“Do not be,” George said. “Sir Jerome was a noble man, and I gladly fight for his memory.”
The Baron Roferato smiled. “Good,” he said.
“We take our leave, my Liege,” Sir Griffid said with a bow.
“Thank you for your time, Baron,” George said.
Baron Roferato nodded, and George and Sir Griffid departed the room.
“That has gone well,” Sir Griffid said when they had shut the thick wooden door and entered the ball. “Sleep well tonight. Sir Manassen shall be no trivial foe. He is not the best lancer or rider, but he is a cold blooded killer.”
George looked down the corridor, towards troops in pale white clothes, the colors of Argal Seine. “It amazes me that your Baron and the Vizier share quarters so closely.”
“The Vizier is rarely here. Seine spends most of his time down in his study, preoccupied with that chest,” Sir Griffid said.
George stopped. “Chest?” George asked, a lump in his throat.
Sir Griffid frowned at him. “Something recovered by the Tax Collectors,” the Knight replied. “Is something wrong?”
George cleared his throat. “N-no…I for some reason thought…never mind…”
“Your interest in that chest matches half of the Kingdom’s, given the Vizier’s eagerness. Seine spends most of his waking time trying to get inside it. Apparently smashing it is out of the question, perhaps due to fear of damaging its contents, and so he labors at the lock.”
“The King allows him to work on it in some hidden space?” George asked. “How does he know he won’t take what is inside?”
Sir Griffid shrugged. “Seine is the Vizier. Mistake or no, the King trusts him, and the King wants to see what is in it. Argal Seine is well versed in the occult, and probably the best man to open it. Whatever it is, the Monster Women consider it valuable enough to place in an enchanted chest,” he said.
“Isn’t it vulnerable to being stolen outside the treasury?” George asked.
Sir Griffid laughed. “Seine’s study is in the dungeon. It is guarded by his own men, and Seine’s ‘servant’ Corsit Tashaban is quartered across from it. Most people do not wish to go near it, due to the rumors,” he said.
“Rumors of what?” George asked.
Sir Griffid shifted. “Of nefarious experiments, dark magic, even human sacrifice,” Sir Griffid said. He shifted uncomfortably. “I always preferred to think of those stories as peasant superstition, but I must admit after my recent encounter that I am filled with dark thoughts.”
“Precisely why it worries me to take a mysterious object there,” George said.
“Indeed, I would feel discomfort if Seine found a tarnished copper coin in the grass. Fortunately the chest itself seems to be providing a good bulwark against his grasping hands,” Sir Griffid said.
“That shall have to provide comfort,” George said, feeling no comfort. “Baron Roferato seems at least to be an honest man.”
Sir Griffid nodded with a broad smile. “When he is made King’s Valor, all shall be set right,” he said with conviction.
George and Sir Griffid bid each other farewell at the tournament grounds, and George made his way back to his tent. He entered to see Concita and Eumaeus mending at a torn cloak. Despite the awkwardness of her wings she was doing a decent job of handling the needle and thread.
“Concita, Eumaeus,” George said. “It is good to see you both at needlework. I trust things went well?”
“Hello, Good Knight. Yes; Ephialtes is all ready for you tomorrow,” Eumaeus said.
“And I was able to see the Chapel today. There are many fascinating passages and hidden tunnels in it. One I believe goes into the keep, but I did not get to explore it. I may return tomorrow. Were you able to find the treasure room?” Concita asked.
George nodded. “That was not hard to find. Unfortunately, the chest is not there. Argal Seine has moved it to his own study,” he said.
Concita shuddered. Eumaeus clenched his jaw and balled his fist. “The Demon himself has the Chest…” he said.
“Where is this Study?” Concita asked. “The top floors?”
“No; in the dungeon,” George said. “Guarded by his own men.”
“It is guarded?” Eumaeus asked with alarm.
George nodded. “The good news is he cannot open it, and the frustration distracts him.”
“We must hope the lock holds,” Concita said. “How difficult is it to get into the dungeon?”
“My guess is that it is easier to accomplish than getting out,” George said. “It is beneath the tower opposite the treasury, but beyond that I don’t know its layout.”
“It might be time to call in Cleolinda,” Concita said. “This gives her a place to strike, at least, and the chest is in danger of being compromised.”
George shook his head vigorously. “No. We don’t know enough about what is down there,” he said. “We must get more information.”
“Cleolinda has fought armies before,” Concita said. “She defeated ten thousand men at Carthago.”
“It is not armies which concern me; it is Malliard,” George said. “The castle walls are lined with his Scorpions. I spoke to him today, and he has told me of the warning system to alert the castle to her approach, and of his creative placement of hidden Scorpions to ambush her.”
“Perhaps we should…” Concita shifted uncomfortably. “Eliminate him.”
George rubbed his face. “I have…considered it. It distresses me to think of killing him, but-” he began.
“I do not think we would be able to complete our quest through the cold blooded murder of an innocent man,” Eumaeus said. “We cannot forget what we seek, whose blood it caught.”
Concita looked downcast. “You must think me awful, Eumaeus,” she said.
Eumaeus hugged her to his chest and kissed her on her habit. “I think you earnest,” he said. “Your heart is never in the wrong place, my love. But I fear our minds hear the whispers of wicked council.”
“In any case, his traps are set, his work is done. His presence no doubt would add to their lethality, but even without there is danger enough. Malliard knows she would go for the treasury,” George said. “He must have one of those damned Scorpions primed to hit her in the Keel.”
“But he wouldn’t have anything in the dungeon…” Eumaeus said.
“I think he wouldn’t, but if Malliard suspects that chest is valuable, he might have something there,” George replied. “In any case, I want to know more about the dungeon before we send her down there.”
“We should probably map the location of every Scorpion,” Concita said. “I will work to the task of it. If there are some hidden, I will find them, and we can warn her Ladyship of them. You two will go to the tournament tomorrow and behave as a Knight and his man at arms.”
“Speaking of which, how fared your audience with the Baron?” Eumaeus asked.
“We did not speak for long, but I think he is honorable. Tomorrow the jousting begins,” George said. “I am to face Sir Manassen, one of Argal Seine’s men. Baron Roferato and Sir Griffid believe he murdered Sir Jerome, and he endeavors to have our joust become a duel.”
“And do you think he is guilty?” Eumaeus asked.
George nodded. “Men saw him leaving the spot, and Sir Griffid’s own squire saw him with Sir Jerome before the old Knight was killed. I think it likely that he was involved,” George said.
“Baron Roferato seems to see you as disposable,” Concita said with narrowed eyes.
“He believes that Sir Manassen is going to try to eliminate Sir Griffid, and I gladly go to fight for my friend. This duel will mean Sir Manassen’s end, or mine,” George replied. “The Baron was honest about that.”
“Cleolinda would not be pleased that you were in such a duel,” Concita said.
George shifted. “She knew there would be risks on this mission,” he said.
“At the very least, I think you shall prevail,” Eumaeus said. “You have jousted against Centaurs, a man is nothing compared to them.”
“Just, be careful,” Concita said. “Cleolinda’s wrath would be terrible should you be harmed. She would truly ravage the countryside then.”
George sighed. “No less than what I shall do to it, if Malliard succeeds. Now enough of this talk, for now. I seek a supper before my match.
The three went outside and prepared a meal from their rations, consuming some roasted water fowl with boiled carrots and onions. The meal reminded George of the one he had with Cleolinda, and the thoughts of her gave him joy. With full bellies, they settled in to sleep.
Eumaeus and Concita started the nights on opposite sides of the tent, but inched closer to each other as the night wore on. As Eumaeus wrapped his arms around Concita, George decided to sleep outside beneath the stars. The inner courtyard was cleared of The Damned, and George slept outside the tent. He was aware of the brief sounds of gasping and the smacking of lips from within.
For George, the night beneath the stars passed with apprehension. He would ride to kill a man tomorrow. He should have felt some degree of fear, or nervousness, but he felt nothing of the sort. He wondered if that was a sign of hubris, if it meant he would overestimate his foe. It was only after several hours without sleep that he realized he was in fact nervous, or at least most eager to get this contest on.
The faint noises within the tent made him think of his DragonMaiden, and in the cool breeze he found himself wishing he were atop her mountain in her private cave, or again in the lake. In either case, he wished he were in her embrace again, and she in his. He could see her eyes when he shut his own, the amber lights which reached inside of him.
When finally he slept, it was to a dream of her attaching the leash around his neck, and her laughter as her dragon hand led him in a zig zag down an endless hallway towards some distant destination. She would stop and smile at him as she walked, then tug on him to keep him going down the eternal hallway. He so wanted to get to the end, but he reveled in the thrill of being pulled.
He awoke early in the morning, and readied himself for the tournament. Eumaeus and Concita emerged, very prim and proper, both red-faced.
“Have a good night?” George asked with a smirk.
“We only kissed and embraced,” Eumaeus said. “Concita’s virtue remains intact.”
George smiled. He didn’t know precisely what else there was, but by their blushing faces he wasn’t entirely convinced that Eumaeus and Concita had remained chaste.
The three ate breakfast, and then Eumaeus and George got Ephialtes from the stables, and began preparations, such as suiting up in armor.
Concita would go to scout the exterior and map Scorpions, confident she could find these hidden emplacements and catalogue them. She would also inspect the Keep, for it had many open windows, and Concita wanted to see if she could ‘hop’ into one to explore the interior.
Neither George nor Ephialtes were thrilled by Concita’s plan, but the harpy promised to consult with then before she attempted to infiltrate the Keep. She left them with head bowed and hands folded, looking so convincingly like an innocent Sister that George half believed it himself.
After he had gotten ready, the sun had risen well in the sky, and the tournament grounds began to bustle and sound with people. The fairgrounds were filled with the colorful garb of nobles, chattering and laughing amidst the sounds of flutes, trumpets, and stringed instrument. The smell of hay and horses missed with cooking meets and sweet breads. Fire-eaters, jugglers, and men on stilts walked amidst the vendor stands, as eager nobles and others sampled food and eagerly made their way to the stands.
George found the Castellan, a somewhat disheveled, a gaunt old man with a busy gray moustache. He directed them to where they would await the announcement of the Lists, then took off frantically to another approaching Knight and his retinue.
George, Eumaeus, and Ephialtes waited near a group of other Knights, among them Sir Griffid. Across the way were the opponents, and there George saw the black armor of Sir Manassen. He felt a rush of energy to seem him, of the numbness before a battle. He paced eagerly, and Ephialtes stamped his feet impatiently.
From his spot, George could see the King’s box, and he glanced at it every so often with excitement. He had never before seen the King, and while he guessed he was nowhere near as regal or majestic as Cleolinda, he wondered at what such a man might look like. It was with eager eyes that he looked when the trumpets blared and announced the King’s arrival, and watched the thin figure emerge from behind a curtain and take the seat of honor.
Diocletian seemed a smaller man than George had supposed he would be. His clothes seemed to big for him, with massive shoulders and black and navy colors. His large clothes combined with his young unhappy face made him look like a petulant youth, though he was a few years older than George. His lips were closed and his teeth were clenched, as if angry, and his dark eyes shined in the early morning light.
King Diocletian sat in the high-armed throne, which only further served to make him look sunken in and small. Argal Seine sat at his right hand on a chair which, though lower, seemed above the King by virtue of its smaller size.
Baron Roferato was in the King’s stand, but removed from him, sitting with other nobles at a bench behind and to the King’s right. He sat with tired eyes, staring forward, as if his night had been late. On occasion he would look to the King and Seine with a sideways glance, but he looked mostly forward, eager to begin the joust.
Twenty other peers, each of whom were vying for the positon of King’s Valor, were in the box as well. Men like Earl Langford, Earl Brae, Duke Bentley, and Duke Zito.
The stands were attended by various Lords and Ladies, and so there was a sizeable crowd of people in the stands. George saw Malliard in a prominent spot at the front. In contrast to the man’s normal reservation he watched the day with parted lips in a grin, and an eager gleam in his eyes.
George awaited on the sides with the other Knights and their squires, as men went over their equipment and sat. Mostly the men were relaxed, or they appeared to be. Despite the gravity of his mission and the seriousness of what was coming, he found himself similarly numb, just eager.
George noted that Seine was near the King’s ear and whispering feverishly, and that the King did not appear to be reacting, just staring forward. For a moment he recalled old stories of wicked magicians speaking poison in through the ear and into the mind.
As the sun shone down upon them and rose in sky, King Diocletian raised his hands, and trumpets sounded.
The King’s Castellan appeared, now wearing a colorful tabard of many colors.
“Lords, Ladies, and Valiant Knights of the Kingdom of Men, King Diocletian welcomes you all,” The Castellan said in a voice which echoed. “This contest shall determine the King’s Valor, to help our valiant Sovereign in the prosecution of his upcoming war against the horrid Demon women. Forty Knights shall compete in the tilting of the lists, and the Champion shall put forth his patron to be the King’s Valor.”
The crowds cheered, and trumpets sounded again. The first match was announced, and quickly Knights of yellow and blue prepared to face off against each other, riding to their spots at a trot that was both impressive and provocative. The joust began shortly after they arrived, as the two Knights set up to charge on their mighty chargers. The first, in dark blue, was Sir Dorner Vane. He squared off against Agar of Dunland, in canary yellow. The match went long, and in the end Sir Vane took the joust with two shattered lances to Agar’s one.
Corsit Tashaban jousted next, against Sir Derek of Trakiya. The slave warrior rode down on Sir Derek on his thundering large Calormene war mount, shaking the ground as he rode. Tashaban’s aim was true, and he shattered his lance against Sir Derek’s helm. George winced from the hit, and the Knight fell to the ground with a loud thud and lay unmoving. Men raced out to the fallen Knight from all directions, and began to remove his armor. He was, as near as George could tell, still alive, but he appeared badly injured. He was carried from the field on a stretcher, groaning and insensate.
Shortly thereafter Sir Griffid jousted against Sir Alois of Narbo. Sir Griffid proved the better rider and jouster, and shattered three lances against Alois without the young Knight responding in kind. The Black-armored Knight was easily declared the victor.
The Castellan stepped up yet again after Sir Griffid completed his victory lap.
“Up next: Sir Manassen of Adropoor against Sir George of Silene!”
George began to get ready to mount when he saw the dark armored Manassen step forward. Sir Manassen held his helm in his arms, and his long hair was as dark as his armor. His face was pointed.
“Young Knight,” Manassen shouted across at him. “I hear you claim a grievous calumny against me.”
“No calumny,” George replied, as Roferato had instructed him. “I have levied no public accusation, for there is no strong evidence to condemn you.”
“But you speak in whispers and schemes behind my back, coward,” Manassen shouted, to gasps from the crowd.
“I do not fear you, ‘Sir’ Manassen,” George replied. “Men saw you leave from the alley where good Sir Jerome was slain. I believe that you murdered him.”
“You dare to repeat this falsehood? You will retract your false lie now, sir, or I shall demand satisfaction!” Manassen growled.
“You asked my opinion and I have made it known,” George shot back. He narrowed his eyes and clenched his teeth. “You murdered Sir Jerome. You know it, and I know it. I shall never retract it.”
“Then I demand Trial by Combat!” Manassen said. “I have a right to face my accuser in battle.”
“Such a match may only occur by the say-so of the King,” the Castellan announced.
All faces turned to Diocletian, whose eyes shined. He was clearly pleased by this, and he clapped together his hands and rubbed them. He nodded with a small smile. Near him, Argal Seine’s eyes flashed.
“Let us fight with true lances, and fight to the death. Let God show who honest,” Manassen said.
“He shall,” George replied. “I accept the duel. I shall represent myself, and submit myself to the scrutiny of combat.”
“You shall lose again, as you did against Sir Griffid,” Sir Manassen snarled. “But this time, I shall not let you live.”
The dark-armored knight disappeared, and George went to mount Ephialtes. The old charger whinnied, eager to ride at the joust and hear the shatter of lances.
When George returned atop Ephialtes. He saw Sir Manassen riding his gray horse, the steed trotting forward with thick white hairy legs. It was a powerful beast, but inferior to Ephialtes in George’s eyes.
George secured his helm. His armor was easily the most impressive in the field, his lances pristine, his shield and sword immaculate. His opponent did not seem too intimidated by this, however. George was, after all, mostly an unknown quantity. He had only one joust, but Sir Griffid was a mighty warrior, but it had been a single joust which he had lost. The day before he had impressed at the quintain, but that was just a practice, after all
He patted Ephialtes with his gauntleted hand, then lowered his visor. Despite the snugness of the helm, his field of vision was quiet good, a testament to the excellent quality and fitting of the ancient armor.
New lances were called for, not the tournament lances with their flanged ends, but the sharpened lances of a war. George had several of these for his purposes, and Eumaeus had taken them here for this duel. The swineherd handed George one of the war lances with a somber look, and through his visor they exchanged a gaze. His old friend’s eyes delivered a stern warning, and George understood it.
The trumpets sounded, and the two horses thundered towards each other. Ephialtes rose and fell in a thunderous thrust forward, his mane fluttering in the breeze. Sir Manassen approached on his charger, lowering his lance and its sharpened tip slowly.
George’s lance struck Sir Manassen in the gorget and shattered, nearly knocking the Knight out of his saddle. Sir Manassen’s lance went wide, and George caught it in his shield. George gasped from the hit, which was greater even than he anticipated. His arm ached, and looking down at his shield it had been punctured.
The thick armor of Mars from had stopped the point at it surface of the armor, yet the raw shock of the hit traveled all the way up his arm.
George reeled, checking at his arm. The pointed spear tip lay lodged inside his shield. He tugged it free, and tossed it aside, and both he and Manassen collected new lances.
They set up for another pass. The hit had stung George’s arm, but his own had dented Manassen’s gorget, and the knight struggled at the dent with discomfort, clearly reeling from the hit. He was a competent jouster, but Sir Griffid had been better, and the centaurs better still. George readied for a second round.
The horses again charged, and George heard his own breathing as he lowered his lance. He pointed as though aiming for the Knight’s gorget again, and Manassen moved his shield to cover his center while he angled to hit George’s face with his own lance. His strike missed, glancing off the side of George’s helm with a reverberating clang that still assaulted George’s ears with a merciless pain. At the last second before an impact, George angled his lance upward, putting the tip into the Knight’s visor.
Manassen’s scream echoed through the crowd, as the point made contact through the eyeslit and the momentum of charging Ephialtes widened the hole. The lance shattered, the Knight’s head tilted upward with a sprinkle of blood. The husk that was Manassen rode forward atop a slowing horse, and then slumped off to the ground with a resounding crash. The cascade of metal shook the earth, and even Ephialtes seemed to quake a little.
Manassen did not move or stir, and the crowd was deathly quiet. Surgeons and squires raced over to the fallen man, but everyone already knew the outcome. George dismounted and approached, swallowing. A man was dead. An awful man, to be sure, but still a man. He recalled the last men he had killed, with Eumaeus. He swallowed, and recalled the crimes of this wicked man, of Sir Jerome. It is just, he told himself.
The crowd was largely silent as George returned to his tent to remove his armor. But as he began to unlace his armor he heard trumpets, and the fanfare of the next joust. He had removed his armor and was preparing to lay down to rest when a royal servant in red garb approached him. He was summoned into the King’s box.
On his approach, he could hear that the crowd was back to cheering and groaning. On aching legs, George walked behind the grandstands. Men had gathered with various fried meats and tankards of water and ale, shouting loudly about their wares as nobles and commoners gathered to purchase refreshment and succor.
He entered the box, swallowing. The kikimora had taught him the etiquette for addressing a King, and now he was glad that they had. He stood before the King and slowly bowed, remembering the advice not to look at the King directly in the eyes, but to avert gaze when he looked at you.
“We enjoyed the show you made of Sir Manassen,” King Diocletian said in a flat tone, his eyes staring past George and taking in the jousting beyond.
“I live to serve, my King,” George said.
“It was well served. We need strong men in my Kingdom, strong Knights, for the war to come. We would like for you to sit in our box for the rest of today,” the King replied.
George nodded. “I thank you for this Honor, Your Highness ,” he said.
Diocletian narrowed his eyes and nodded slightly. “Go and find a place to sit, then,” he said. He made a brushing motion with his hand. “Off you go. I wish to watch these matches. I have wagered with my Vizier on their outcome…” he smiled. “You have won me a tidy sum…”
George bowed, and stepped away, heading for the back bench where lesser lords and Knights were sitting. He was just about to sit when the Vizier at the King’s left hand turned back to face him.
“Young Knight of Silene, I would like to speak a moment,” Argal Seine said at the last minute before George had sat down.
Taking a deep breath, George returned, and approached the Vizier. He sat in a relaxed pose, his robe flowing over his chair.
Argal Seine clenched his jaw and stared at him a moment, more like a cutpurse in an alley than a dignified member of the King’s Court. George began to feel an urge to draw his sword. “That was impressive work,” Seine said in a tone that sounded accusatory. “Congratulations on your victory. You made a skilled Knight look like a squire. I confess I advised the King to arrest you for murder, but he is fond of these barbaric throwbacks to romantic notions of might determining right.”
“Sir Manassen challenged me, Vizier,” George replied.
“And that is to be expected. You did accuse him of being involved in the death of that traitor, Sir Jerome,” Seine said.
“Are you justifying his actions in his murder?” George asked.
“That is still not established-“
“I won the contest. He is guilty by law,” George said. “Do you defend him.”
Seine recoiled, and it almost appeared genuine. “How dare you?” He asked. “It would not surprise me if this abrasiveness is not why you are so frequently challenged to duels!” He looked to Roferato. “Control your man, Baron! This reflects very poorly on you.”
“The Young Knight of Silene has pledged his lance to me, but not his fealty,” the Baron said from his seat in a disinterested voice. “I can only accept his service.”
“And then to whom does this Knight pledge his fealty? Do we have a rogue Knight, a man who hungers to be a Peer himself?” Seine said.
“I am pledged to Lady Linde,” George said fiercely, unable to think of her as separate from his fair Cleolinda as he spoke. “And if I should reflect poorly on her, how does Manassen reflect on you?”
“That sounds perilously like an accusation, boy,” Seine snarled. “I warn you that you will not like having me as an enemy.”
“Certainly not. I see the wages paid to Sir Jerome,” George said. “And you see those paid to Sir Manassen.”
“I see no reason to continue this discussion,” Seine said with a dismissive hand wave. “Begone.”
George stared at the Vizier for a moment, into his dark eyes. He wished to see if he could assess the man, see some glimpse of him but there was nothing. Whether practiced or sincere, he saw only a hollowness, a dullness, as if Argal Seine stared at the world and did not truly see. This man, this schemer, had the vacant stare of a half starved predator. There was no greater flame of intellect in the man himself, just the dull hunger of a territorial beast. And for a split second, the dull gaze disappeared, and George gasped.
For the briefest of moments the eyes had flashed, and a presence had made itself known. There was something in this dull man’s mind, some other force, something from outside him, which gave to him his plans and plots. This other force was as intelligent as Seine was clumsy, eloquent as he was artless. And every bit as terrifying as its dim host.
“There is no reason to speak, I agree,” George said, recognizing both the futility and danger. Seine was a creature that, should he draw his sword and run it through the man’s scrawny center, he would stand before God’s judgement justified, for he would slay him and the force which inhabited him. Only the thought of Cleolinda, and her anguish at his death, kept him from doing so now.
He turned and went back to the bench with clenched teeth, as behind him he heard the mocking laughter of the Vizier. Or rather, he heard laughter from the Vizier’s lips. He was certain it was not the Vizier’s laugh, not truly, but the laugh of that otherworldly force which made him so fearsome. A chill went up George’s spine.
That dark presence, that force, had the Grail, and in that moment, George was certain that it was aware of what it had. It knew, and it wanted it.