Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Knight

"The Last Knight" was written either in December 2005 or January 2006. I'm not entirely certain, because at the turn of the year I wrote eleven short stories in a week. Chances have it this was actually written in December, because I believe it was one of the first to be turned out that week. Obviously, this is an earlier work of mine: nearly four years old. Read this and then read "The Hermit's Week" and compare. My style has definitely changed in the last four years!



The Last Knight

The King was dying, and with him, the Kingdom. Wifeless and heirless, the boy King was growing weaker day by day, and the Heads of the Noble Houses were already preparing for the bloody fight they knew would follow his death, each planning on grabbing hold of the Throne and as much land as they could. The King had been wasting away gradually for months now, perhaps even years, and he would probably linger for months more, but nothing was certain. Nothing, that is, except the end of the centuries-long reign of the Osmond Kings.

The five Noble Houses: Ithel, Dumaka, Dorrel, Arlen, and Volker, were already gathering force. The dozens of Lesser Houses had already been forced to pledge fealty to one Noble House or another; mercenaries had been hired at great costs to fight for one side; many of the King’s Knights were either killed or forced into service of the Houses.

The Knights’ Wing of the castle was half-emptied. Only the Knights most loyal to the Crown remained, and even their small number now dwindled day by day as Knight after Knight was unable to avoid being killed by those who didn’t want them to defend the Crown. The boy King had no living relatives, even distant ones, but he knew his end was near and had named Tavor, a most loyal Knight and advisor, as the one to succeed him. Nearly all the remaining Knights had pledged fealty to him already. The commonfolk secretly hoped Tavor would become King; he was heroic, brave, some even said wise– all they could want in the next King. But he was not of Noble blood, and the Heads of the Noble Houses refused to think a man born of a farmer– no matter how heroic, brave, or wise– could rise above one of them and become King.

Tavor refused to lower himself to the level of the Noble Houses and plan the attack to take the Kingdom. He planned a defense: he was going to assure the castle, the symbol of the Crown and the great line of Osmond Kings, would not fall. Even if he died in the battle, he would not see the reminder of almost four centuries of great reign crumble.

Weeks passed, and the King’s health deteriorated. At age ten, the last of the Osmond Kings, Prewitt, died. Almost within the hour, war broke out in the Kingdom.

House Ithel, the smallest House, was the first to strike out, sending hordes of mercenaries to the castle walls. There were only a handful of Knight archers to defend the walls, but in an inexplicable feat, they managed to bring down one man after another, until those sent by Houses Dorrel and Arlen joined the attack. The outer wall was breached. Knight met mercenary in hand-to-hand combat, and Knight and mercenary fell, littering the castle courtyard with bodies and staining the ground with blood.

Tavor fought man after man, the sole man guarding the doorway that led to the inner courtyard and eventually to the castle proper. He already has taken half a dozen stab wounds to the arms, legs, and shoulder, and an arrow was jutting uncomfortably from his hip, but he continued to bring down man after man in defense of his King’s castle.

A moment of respite came to him, and he discarded his ruined shield, pulled the arrow from his side, and looked over the battle.

The bodies were piling high, and still the fight raged on top of the piles of corpses. There were less Knights wearing the golden circle crest of the Osmond Kings now, and more former Knights and soldiers wearing the blue, red, and purple circle crests of Ithel, Arlen, and Dorrel. There was still no sign of the green or silver crests of Volker or Dumaka. Where were the other Houses?

Another man came rushing at Tavor, pushing his curved blade deep into Tavor’s chest before he could react. In a last feat of desperation, Tavor lashed out with his sword, managing to slice through the man’s throat– he wore the red of Arlen, he noticed. But in doing so, he pushed the sword in him further across his own body, cutting deeply into much of his torso.

Tavor fell to his knees and only dimly noticed the door he was guarding was open. A small but strong hand reached down, pulled him into the inner courtyard and closed the door again. The same hand removed his helmet and probed the wound made by the blade still sticking out of him.

“Sir Tavor! You’ve... you’ve been stabbed!” The voice was Kayle’s, a squire’s.

“It was meant to be...” Tavor managed.

“No, Sir! You’re supposed to be the next King! This castle cannot fall!”

“Kayle, leave me... get out... three Houses... have scattered us... we... fall...”

With a sputter or blood and a violent shudder, Tavor was dead in the squire’s arms.

Kayle bowed over Tavor’s body and shed a single tear, then looked up at the door to the outer courtyard with dark eyes full of anger. Hours passed in the blink of an eye as the squire stared at the door. Even with Tavor defeated, no one had made it to the door yet... perhaps all five Houses were fighting with each other now. Kayle thought it must be so– the sounds of battle carried well over the walls, sending a deafening ring out of the castle and probably across the countryside.

Kayle stood and exchanged Tavor’s heavy helmet for the squire’s light one and took up Tavor’s bloodstained sword. It was little protection, as a simple cloth outfit and a small shirt of chainmail were all squires wore. The heavier helmet and the sword would make little difference, probably. Kayle didn’t care.

The pitched sounds of battle slowed to a stop. A heavy bang came at the door. Another. A third. Kayle waited.

The door broke, and the Heads of the Houses themselves rushed into the inner courtyard, racing to the Throne Room, each clamoring to be the first to sit. Each had a weapon of some sort– swords, mostly– and they slashed wildly at each other as they ran, hoping to delay or better yet kill one of their opponents. Mercenaries and commonfolk raced after them, armed and ready to defend or kill whoever sat on the Throne, depending on who it was.

The doors to the Throne Room flew open and hit the walls with a heavy thud. The Heads of the Houses raced the length of the Throne Room, only to come to a sudden halt ten feet from the Throne itself. In the seat was Tavor... but he was already dead. His body had been seen in the inner courtyard when they‘d raced by. It was an imposter: someone in Tavor’s crested helmet and bearing his heavy sword.

“What petty people!” The Tavor-imposter said in a voice that was nether man’s nor boy’s. “You would destroy a great and prosperous Kingdom and kill hundreds– thousands!– of people just to further your own selves?”

The imposter stood and threw Tavor’s heavy sword to the feet of the five Heads of Houses.

“A great tragedy has happened today. Two, in fact. Good King Prewitt is dead, yes, and that is a tragedy, but it is small compared to your own small-minded actions. You have killed a great man, the man who should have been King, and you’ve probably trampled his body to pieces in your ridiculous race to the Throne. What is this Throne? A chair! Simple wood! Yes, there is gold inlay and silk cushioning, but it is a chair! You’ve been fighting over a chair!

“The other great tragedy is the massacre of so many people who want nothing but to live in peace! These people,” the imposter waved a hand over the growing crowd of commoners that were filling the great Throne Room, “are the Kingdom. The Osmond line was great because they did not rule over the people. They ruled for the people. I have lived in the castle. I am young, but I have seen how King Prewitt’s father and even King Prewitt made decisions. Everything was decided by the question, ‘Is this what’s best for the commonfolk?’ Not for the Nobles, not for the King, for the commonfolk. And here you are, killing the commonfolk over the right to sit in a chair!

“You House Heads... or should I say House Asses, since that’s what you’re acting like... seem to have forgotten what made you Nobles! But I know history, and I will remind you.

“This great Kingdom began as a simple village. It grew and grew until it became a township and then a city. It was ruled by a Village Council, even when it grew so large that the Council contained almost fifty people. And it was still reliant on the produce of the farms, as we still are now.

“A crisis came upon the city: a violent Lord from another land wanted to steal our resources and destroy us. Our humble city was becoming a threat. From somewhere in our community of farmers came boys who picked up pitchforks and hatchets, kitchen knives and hammers, and defended our homeland from the Lord. Six survived.

“Those six boys grew into men, all of them brave and smart, since they wandered away for a time to find a better way to keep our community alive. When they returned, it was with one plan: they would turn our little city into a Kingdom, a small one, and rule it together. One King, and five Houses to support him. All the people saw the wisdom of the plan and agreed to it. But who would become the King, and who would become the first Heads of the Houses?

“The six friends, all now Knights, drew straws, and the first Osmond King was crowned. His throne was a haystack, and his crown was a plain cloth hat. His robe was a farmer’s jacket, and his scepter was his sword. His name was Wheaton, for he was a the humble son of a wheat farmer, but when he became the first King, he took the name Osmond. Divine Protector.

“His five friends became the founders of the five Noble Houses, but like Wheaton, they had simple farmer’s names. To always remind themselves of their duties to the people of our Kingdom, they took on different names.”

The Tavor-imposter stepped down from the throne and approached Ingram of House Arlen.

“Ingram Arlen, your name means ‘pledge’. Your ancestor, a simple cattleherd, pledged himself to the people. What have you pledged yourself to?

“Ali Dumaka. Your miller ancestor named himself the ‘helping hand’. How many of these people have you helped? Ever?

“Haroun Volker, descendant of the ‘people’s guard’. I saw you icily kill a half-crippled old man on your way to this room. You are quite a guard.

“Camilo Dorrel. You came from a farmhand, not even a landowner! Your farmhand ancestor named himself the ‘King’s doorkeeper’. Were you not the one who broke it down?

“Mehtar Ithel, you are descended of the ‘generous lord’. Have you ever wondered why your House is so small and lacks the vast wealth of the others? Much of your family’s earnings went back to the people: those who needed it.”

The imposter returned to the Throne. “I did not deserve to sit in this chair that has seated so many great men who never lost sight of what was most important. I am nowhere near their goodness. But for any of you to sit in it would be a crime. You do not deserve to be called Noble. Now kill me if you still want this chair. It would fit in with the other wrongs you’ve been doing.”

The Throne Room was silent for a long time. In the back of the room, someone broke the silence. “What is your name?”

“I am Kayle. I was a squire to the King.”

The voice returned. “King Kayle!”

The people kneeled one by one. It rippled from the back of the Throne Room to the front along with whispers of “King Kayle” and “The new King”. When finally the Heads of the Houses were the only ones left standing, they too knelt. Camile Dorrel pressed his head to the floor, and the others followed suit. It was a shepherd who was the first to rise. He picked up the discarded sword of Tavor and presented it to Kayle.

“My King. I can only beg you will rule as the Osmond line did.”

“I cannot be your King.” The squire’s voice had been lost, but it seemed to find its way back at just that moment. Kayle removed the helmet. Walnut-colored hair tumbled down to her shoulders.

The Heads of Houses and the commonfolk remained kneeling. The shepherd was the first to find his voice. “Then be our Queen.”

“I can do that.”

No comments:

Post a Comment