Deserted Knights

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Betrayal and Redemption, Loss and Gain.

Submitted: August 01, 2014

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Submitted: August 01, 2014

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The Deserted Knights

 

The remanent of our army had stumbled through the deserts blasting heat for weeks; we may have gone in huge circles for all we knew. What had been a majestic army of mounted knights and light horse was just a broken rabble by then. Hollow shells of once proud men, walking to their deaths in that God forsaken desert. Those who didn’t die partly boiled in their plate-mail early on were dying of heats relentless hammer and thirst along the way. We had numbered some twelve thousands when we left Tor Lenan five months earlier; now we numbered less than a hundred. The snakes and scorpions out there got their fair share, too. Some scorpions grew as big as fifty feet from tail to pincers, giant terrors that would rise up out of the sands and impale men on their huge stings. Some snakes spat their poison from eighty or ninety yards off, barely visible through the rising waves of heat baking off the very sand we walked on. No death is pretty; a deserts death is a screaming nightmare of poisons and bone-cracking convulsions. We had had to endure hundreds of our comrades and brothers dying in the most horrific manners, thousands. Eyes bulging from their sockets, spines bending to snapping point and beyond, skin turning black or blue or red or grey. So many we were hardly human enough to care in their final moments save to note the screams stopping a couple of dunes behind, if that.

 

Did I mention the Thirst?

 

The Thirst becomes who and what you are, and its rise is insidious. It starts small, a want of a cup of cool water, a desire for a patch of shade to drink it in. Over the days this, this want becomes a dream: a dream of better times and far off places, idealistic and pristine. Over the weeks the sun pounds all thought out of you and you… you become the need for a drop of camels piss, a fly caught by chance, a pebble, anything to get spit in your mouth. Over the months you start to think… large thoughts: almost like your mind has expanded to the horizons to fill up the miles of lonely emptiness with anything to hand. You stagger and bake in the day, you stumble and shiver at night and the whole time the Thirst has you. You just don’t know it yet. You don’t know it until you hit that first stand of green after months of the worst privations know to man or dwarf or elf or fell creature. Then you cry, cry your precious tears because you see, at the first pool you come to, you see what the Thirst has done to you. And to die of it was the slowest death of dust and sand, devised by the Uncaring Gods and strewn in the paths of men. When the mind snaps and the corpse of an automaton plods on for miles before finally slumping into a pathetic huddle of dead flesh still hungering for just a lick of moisture that will never come.

 

My dreams are filled with dead men, did you know? Thousands of them, grisly and desiccated, they stare at me from their formations on a big grass field. I knew some of them, I’m sure of it. They accuse me with their hollow eyes and spit sand when they curse me. And each curses me for the sin of living; living while they died out there on the hard-pan miles of desolate wastes and broiling dunes. I don’t like to sleep much any more - does it show? I think my eye lids have big weights attached sometimes, then I’m pulled down into the field of their curses and wake screaming their names in a tumbling litany of painful death. No, I think I should sleep less and pray more, whip myself more often for my sins until they are expiated in blood and prayer. Wouldn’t you agree, Your Grace?

 

I remember Sir Warrents and Sir Blaine; both young and innocent of the ways of the world, both new to their spurs. The pride in them could have broken walls by itself, so strong and powerful were they. Sir Blaine died first, scythed in half by a scorpion the size of a fishing smack. It rose up out of the sands like a broaching whale and in a blur of black pincers clipped his torso off at the waist. I almost cried at the loss of his water bottle, carried off by the speeding insect along with his body and colours. I gave chase but my legs gave out before I’d gone a mile. Then I did cry; all that precious water, probably no more than a mouthful or two, lost to a bloody insect. After, I returned to the column and reported the loss of the bottle. Captain Harmmann punched me in the face, breaking my nose, and told me not to let it happen again.

 

I didn’t.

 

Sir Warrents died the next day. When we broke our march for the midday rest he wandered off a little way to…well, to reclaim his water shall we say? No more than twenty or thirty feet for the thin veil of privacy so he could urinate into a bottle. It seems stupid, really, but that twenty or thirty feet killed him. Fifteen, maybe twenty paces and the need to piss, that’s all it took. He lowered the flap of his armour and his fate was delivered by cobra bite. Faster than thought, whipping out of the sand under which it hid, a flash of obscene pink from it’s opened mouth. It took two minutes for Sir Warrents to scream himself to death and snap his spine and limbs in the process. I took his water bottle, afterwards.

 

Last night I ate a moth. It was about the size of my thumb in the body of it. It seemed lost, batting against the lantern out in the hall, lost and lonely. I kept it’s wings, it’s colours, I can show you if you’d like to see? No? Some other time then. I like a good moth every now and then, have you tried them? Delicious, absolutely delicious. They taste like chicken, sort of. You’d be amazed at how much does taste like chicken if you just pop it in your mouth and chew.

 

Really amazed…

 

Take snake to start with, ever had snake? No? You should, wonderful, does your very soul good to eat a portion snake now and again. We kept their colours, too. Filthy spitting bastards in a fight, but good eating on you average desert snake. Any smaller than twenty feet are too tough to chew, but bigger than that and it’s snake steaks for a week. Ha-ha!

 

Sir Ambar used to sing, you know, beautiful tenor he was. Knew all the old arias and courtly songs you could wish to hear. Sir Tremaintly used to accompany him in alto with his violin or lute. I hear Sir Ambar still, is he down the hall? Did he really live too? Or am I just dreaming his voice and beautiful spirit in my ears? The desert affected my mind I know that, but even so, does he live? I need to know, Your Grace, it would help me heal in some small way, perhaps rest easier. When I do rest, that is. He does? Oh…oh thank you, thank you Your Grace. You have no idea what it means that his beautiful voice is real. I think I love him a little, just a little mark you. He is the voice of the Angels to a dying man and worthy of my adoration. Forgive my tears, Your Grace, this news is a glory to me and I thank you for sharing it.

 

There were more horrors than snakes and scorpions, though, many more. The Storms of Dust and Wind would spring from a clear sky and hit with enough force to strip the flesh from your bones and scour your armour to a high polish in seconds. Then just… vanish, like fog in the sun or ice in boiling water. Death and madness I say, every damnable inch of it. The natives would, if out-numbered, be just as polite and pleasant as you could wish. Guides and water we bartered for from these groups, steel armour and horse meat we traded in return. If they out-numbered us then the story was different, vastly different in one memorable case. A tribe or clan, or whatever the Hells they called themselves, attacked one night when they out-numbered us eight-to-one. Bloody good thing they aren’t much better than rabble, consistent and in waves of two hundred or so. Blood coated us thickly enough to allow us to pluck the flies out of it when they became stuck. They had half a ton of fresh water with their baggage and we took the lot.

 

We were betrayed, of course. That’s what you want to know about, isn’t it? How and why and how do I know, yes? Then I suppose I shall pay for my recent…episode. Very well, so be it. Listen well, Your Grace, for you won’t get another chance once the story is out and events take their course.

 

Captain Harmmann was part of a small group selected for their incompetence at investigation and militia work. He was asked by King Jerreck to solve the problem of workers and homeless going missing and not turning up dead somewhere. When the Captain pointed out that he had no skill in the area of policing he was told to learn. One cannot disobey the King and live, so he set about finding some answers to the puzzle he had been set. Hiring, out of his own purse, a woman skilled in the ways of the under-world thief gangs and a man I only know as Banlong Juuk, he started chasing any rumour of kidnapping. After some months of chasing his tail and finding only grieving families of commoners gone, he discovered he was looking in the wrong places and at the wrong people.

 

Can you guess, Your Grace, what happens next?

 

Yes, he found Anderhar Smaile, Anderhar and his offer to guide the good Captain to a site of immense interest and strange happenings. A site that Smaile had a vested interest in seeing swept away, to protect the thieves that owed him fealty, maybe to protect everyone-who knows? That night the captain watched Royal Guardsmen load workers onto carts bound for Barhalva, The Halls of The Necromancer King. That night he saw the Kings own men send slaves to a foreign power of evil and death, men and women of our soil and kin mark you, good and honest and kindly in their own ways. Each Guardsman was dressed down, no royal insignia or winged helmets, but plain woollen cloaks and robes over chain. When the task was done they went their separate ways, so the Captain stopped and subdued one. In the man’s pockets he found letters of pardon for previous slavery charges and murder, all signed by the King. He found orders in the King’s hand to take a hundred homeless and workers a month for the Necromancer’s “service”, all to be fit and healthy lest offence be given. He found the man’s rank insignia and medallion in a pouch on his belt. Proof enough for any court of the King’s role in the slavery trade and black ties to Fell powers.

 

But what court need a King face? What power is higher than their own in this world? Where could a King be taken for Judgement and Punishment that he would recognise? Or not buy outright? What King would submit for such an ordeal, when he can simply order the offending accuser out to his death in combat? Or out in the desert where the Court Mages sent us “by accident”? Exactly to whom does a King answer? Not the people, obviously. Not the souls he pretends to care for, who have sworn fealty on adulthood to serve in return for his protection. Not the rabble that provides his lands with workers and his coffers with taxes, that much was certain. So who could act on what was known? Who would act in the best interests of the people in doing what needed to be done?

 

Out there, the answer came to me in the glory of a sunrise, in the passage of the sun from rim to deep azure rim, in the falling of the long cold night. Out there, all is simplified. Out there, the laws of man are meaningless and the dunes have no memory. Out there, deep in the desert, could a King be tried and found wanting. Not by the laws of man, not by the petty hatreds bred of nations or peoples, but by the highest laws of all. The laws of nature: the laws of the desert. Judge and Jury, Hoodsman and Executioner, don’t you see? It was perfect. None would sit who could be bought, none who could be threatened or bullied or killed. What need has a desert of riches? What need to fear for its life, or those of its family? Perfect.

 

The Tribesman out there have a saying: The desert is truth, within and without.

 

The Truth, I was told, is pure and delicate and to be striven for and given when asked. The Truth, I was told, is the rarest gift and not to be kept by one man for longer than needs be. The Truth, I was told, was the be all and end all of existence and once found the End of Days would be rung in by the Angels of Judgement and Light. The Truth, I was told, was the Kings right and due in all things and his to protect.

 

The Truth, when found, is both ugly and unremarkable, only startling for its simplicity and location. It is what we see every day and ignore as being the difficulties of life. The Truth is hidden behind every proclamation and word of rulers in the game of one-upmanship in which they allow us to live. Can’t you see it, Your Grace? They would sell us all without thought if they could profit, or thought they could profit. To them Sir Warrents, Sir Blaine, all the rest, were a small price to pay for the continuance of their wealth and the protection and privilege it buys. To the King, they stood in the way of, what was the term he used…ah yes. They stood in the way of the effective governance of the Kingdom. Them? Knights of Lake - Knights of the Kings Hall, Gods damn him, sworn liegemen all, reduced to mere impediments to the wheels of state. The Truth hides it face from us, in shame and in tears it hides.

 

Sir Mannellen and I were accepted the same year, we kept the same pace in the course of our lives and we made the same oaths as other knights of other times, all the way back to Matherenwaal and Kurimann. Impediments indeed! We swore blood-oath to protect the King and Throne and the Fold of Nations-lives to the wind if that was needed! Stood in the way?! I think not! Not standing by, that caused their deaths, not turning the closed eye to the rot of the core! Sir Mannellen curses me first, every time I am on the field. His dried flesh flaps in the breeze as he spits his sand and throws his curses. A snake killed him, too, spat right through his visor on the fourth day of our journey. I miss our talks and our games of chess, the nights of mead and falling queens. The King took them from me, from Sir Mannellen.

 

We never truly know what we hold dear until it leaves us and only the pale memory remains. Pale memories are cold companions, Your Grace. Colder than a desert wind and just as unforgiving.

 

The King told me he was surprised to see anyone return - to my face he told me. He said I should have died with the rest and that Banlong Juuk and the woman had been caught and slain by his wife. He told me of the slaughter houses that awaited our folk and the servitude of undeath, ever-lasting and soul tormenting. All this and more he was happy to tell me, because he thought me in his power. He thought me weak and cowed by the desert, far too weak to resist him and his pretty men in their winged helms. He confessed to the whole sorry tale of woe and deception and murder and slavery. Unashamed he spoke of all this - indeed, there was pride at what he had achieved right under our noses. A grotesque, twisted pride but pride none the less. He revelled in his black pursuits and spared me no description of the horrors awaiting me and my fellow survivors. The tortures he would devise to keep us screaming for weeks.

 

So you see, Your Grace? I really had no choice but to raise my knife and take the Kingdom…


© Copyright 2020 Jon Callum. All rights reserved.

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