the greatest crusader

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
the greatest warrior of the famed crusades, artois coquet, returns to action in this masterful short story of sex, kidnapping and revenge. while scrapping a living in the frozen border town of narva, artois begins a lurid, intense relationship with the local princess. but when barbarians besiege little narva, they are more interested in tributes of flesh than gold. their demands force artois to dredge up his warriors' soul and engage in one final, fantastical battle for the ages.

this short story was written as the final installment of mark butler's 'crusades' series, closing the book on one of the most fascinating era's in the history of mankind.

Submitted: January 16, 2016

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Submitted: January 16, 2016

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The Greatest Crusader

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Butler

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 Mark Butler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All rights reserved. This ebook may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part (beyond the copying permitted by US Copyright Law, Section 107, "fair use" in teaching or research, Section 108, certain library copying, or in published media by reviewers in limited excerpts), without written permission from the author.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author

 

 

Check out these fantastic novels by Mark Butler!

The Fourth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade

The Sixth Crusade

The Seventh Crusade

The Final Crusade

And more available at Mark Butler’s Amazon Author Page!

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Crusader

 

 

Chapter 1:  The Gem of Narva

Chapter 2:  Barbarians

Chapter 3:  Breaking Bread

Chapter 4:  Tribute

Chapter 5:  Bloodhounds

Chapter 6:  Ruins

Chapter 7:  Courage

Historical Note

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

“The Gem of Narva”

 

Princess Katherine did not know her own strength. Her muscular legs compressed Artois’s ribs, like some strange torture device that suffocates one in the throes of sex. One bejeweled hand held Artois’s head, the other dug into his back, scoring blood. Princess Katherine, also known as Kate, had rarely been checked by a man in her young life, and never, ever, in the bedroom.

Artois called upon every reserve of strength he had. His hips and buttocks burned with exertion, sweat stung his eyes, and Kate’s mouth suctioned his scarred chest, creating a welt that would last for weeks. He knew this damage was happening, but it was an adjacent numbness – not nearly severe enough to distract him from the task as hand, and Kate was the most pleasing task Artois had ever known. This was their third tryst since a chance meeting in the armorer’s shop, when Artois had been looking to get his longsword sharpened. Now, his blade was getting more work than the Imperial Executioner’s.

They finished simultaneously, filling the royal chambers with steam, groans and oleaginous smells. Artois pushed himself off of the Princess and sprawled on her sheets, lost in a trance that he prayed would never end.

“You’re like no man I’ve ever known,” Kate said, reaching to squeeze Artois’s bicep.

Artois sat up suddenly, and Kate’s hand fell short. “You know that I must be on my way. Your moans probably woke the archbishop down the road.”

Kate lifted herself upright and frowned. “I know you must go, but I wish it weren’t so.”

“Your father would decorate his royal gardens with my entrails if he were to see us now.”

“We could donate your pole to the fleet, too, as a spare mast,” Kate said, smiling and reaching for Artois’s rapidly-shriveling manhood. Artois angled away from her and stood, but he couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face. “You’re too generous.”

“I know what I like.”

“When will I see you again?” he asked. Kate wordlessly shrugged, got off the bed, and stretched her arms to the sky, granting Artois a full view of her naked body. She was beyond stunning, the kind of white goddess who is too pure for sex, but too potent for celibacy. Kate was fully aware of her effect on men, and every time Artois requested to see her again, a deep satisfaction surfaced on her porcelain face.

“I will contact you, love,” she said, beginning to gather her scattered garments.

“My lady,” Artois said, half-bowing and picking up his brown tunic off the stone floor. Rose thorns and green smudges on the tunic revealed that Artois had climbed the vined trellises outside of Kate’s window, and now he had to descend out of that same window, risking his life for a woman half his age. But for Kate’s touch, it was all worth it.

Insistent tapping broke the reverie of their redressing, and Artois lifted an eyebrow in Kate’s direction. She spoke softly, with a hint of annoyance, “Someone has let the woodpecker out of the royal zoo.”

Artois convulsed in a fit of humor, and then he stepped close to Kate’s half-dressed body. Even without touching, he felt waves of warmth emanate from her, like a well-tended furnace. “What?” 

“It’s one of my maids, probably trying to warn me that the King is about the palace, or perhaps it’s a nun, come to admonish me for enjoying life,” Kate said, adjusting her tawny chemise. 

“Then I must be leaving.”

“Princess! Princess!” a high-pitched voice carried through the door.

“So it’s old Mirenel, probably with an army of maid servants at her heels. Go, my lover, and I shall dream of you with all my senses,” Kate said, standing on her tiptoes to peck Artois on the cheek.

He accepted the formal farewell and reached to pinch her butt-cheek, then he recalled that she was a Princess, a lady of high learning and power. He smacked her rear instead. “If your father’s guards see me descending from this perch like a cat who just rifled a bird’s nest, I want my last good memory to be the sound of reddening your buttocks.”  

“Go.”

The cold airs of late November found Artois’s loose collar when he opened the window. That same coldness travelled all the way to his belly, embraced him, and Artois stepped onto the ledge, trying to remember to breathe. He had challenged this steep ledge once before, and the second time was only slightly less horrifying. A coppice of bushes huddled around the palace’s waist like a skirt, and Artois grabbed the wooden trellises tightly as he searched for footholds. If he fell into the bushes below, he might survive, though he wanted to do more than merely survive in life.

Thorns inevitably pierced his hands as he climbed down. Roving guards wouldn’t see him unless they deliberately looked up, and Artois descended quickly, not wanting to tempt fate. The old wooden framework held true, fortified by the climbing plants, and then Artois jumped down to the moist grass. Kate’s window slammed shut above him, and he stayed in the yard for a minute, waiting for the palace guards to react to the noise.

They never came. Leaving the palace grounds was a simple matter after that. Artois crossed the manicured yard, climbed over a small iron fence, and then he was back on public walkways. He hurried across the road to avoid suspicion, though no gawking citizens were out at that late hour.

The city of Narva was constructed to repel barbarian invaders from the Northern Kingdoms. Narrow alleys separated the bricks homes, with tall perimeter walls, an octagon of guard towers and a moat. Artois moved down the shadowed alleys hurriedly, on his way to the eastern gate. A brawny guard captain named Smite had granted him an enclosed space beneath the wall for slumber, if Artois took turns on the watch post. That’s where he went now, though his mind was still firmly entrenched in Princess Kate’s bedroom.

 

* * * * *

 

A powerful hand squeezed Artois’s shoulder, and his eyes snapped open in the same moment that he seized the offending hand. Dark rollers of light blurred his vision, emanations from a nearby wall-torch. After a moment, he was able to focus on the figure above him, the guard captain known as Smite.

“This isn’t some bloody cathedral, nor is it a homeless shelter,” Smite said, wrenching his arm out of Artois’s grasp.

“Has the rooster crowed?” Artois groaned.

“Twice. You’re on the post with Meleanus until high sun. Get up.”

Artois rolled onto his stomach and blinked. He felt like he could sleep for another day, at least, but Smite was right. He had to earn his keep, and watching the post was easier than many of the tasks he’d performed as a youth. Blood-spattered memories of crusading in Northern Africa and the eastern deserts usually robbed Artois of rest, though they had subsided since he’d started plowing Kate. “No need to stand there like a pregnant hen, Smite, I’m getting up,” Artois said, getting his legs under him.

Gold and lavender sunrays were beginning to illuminate the lower ramparts. Across the street, a stable boy was milking a cow, occasionally glancing at the grim men who manned Narva’s protective walls. A handmaiden rinsed a scrub board with a bucket of water, a mauve scarf wrapped around her neck. All around the frontier town, early risers were coming to, their own harsh realities unrelenting.

Artois did a brief series of stretches with Smite watching, his arms folded, the perennial scowl on his face deepening. After three minutes, Artois pronounced himself ready to man the high post.

“Bout’ time,” Smite said. “If you weren’t such an ox, I would have roused you with a pail of slop.”

“And I would have thrashed you until the Ameglites flooded the walls.”

“Exactly.”

 Artois clapped Smite on the back and bid him farewell. The old guard captain refused to smile, though he was a veteran like Artois, a gruff war-dog relegated to mercenary work and sentry duties. Even when a man has passed his prime, he still must work in order to eat. At forty years old, Artois was not quite a graybeard, although his joints ached from dawn to dusk.

He took the interior stairs two at a time until he reached the parapet. Meleanus, a fair-haired youth if there ever was one, smiled hugely when he saw Artois. He liked to jump around old men and laugh at their docility, proud of his youth and energy. Despite Meleanus’s inexperience and trusting nature, Artois liked the kid. He always seemed eager to fight, even if he still hadn’t known the horrors of true combat.

“I suppose I’ll be doing all the work today,” Meleanus said, poking Artois’s side with his finger.

“Ninety percent of warfare happens here,” Artois said, tapping his own temple.

“The gray stuff in your head can’t swing a sword, nor can it drag a fallen comrade to safety,” Meleanus answered. As if to demonstrate his point, he leaned forward and stood on his hands, making his tunic fall and revealing his tight, brown belly. With a powerful heave, he launched himself upward with only his arms, landed in a crouch and spun, whipping his sword out with a harsh ring of metal.

“Go do the morning rec with the other guards,” Artois said, ignoring the lad’s amazing display of athleticism. Meleanus nodded and bounded off, practically skipping in his sheer joy of being alive.

Artois turned his gaze eastwards. Beyond the walls were perhaps ten miles of flat plains, stretching north to Lake Mensan and south to the Korvatu badlands. Both of those places were lawless, though they weren’t as dangerous as the far eastern woods, where the brutish armies of Con Felder reigned supreme. None of the powerful European monarchs cared enough about the endless northern tracts to root out Con Felder, and so he built his power, launching occasional raids against border cities like Narva. Artois couldn’t see any of Con Felder’s bastards on that cold morning, but he knew they were out there, coveting and scheming.

Meleanus returned with a smile ten minutes later, noticed Artois’s dismal gaze, and stilled. “It’s been eight days since we’ve seen any of those barbarians – perhaps they were decimated by another tribe?” he said.

Artois scratched his beard, found a tick, and ate it. “They’re biding their time, waiting for us to think they’ve left.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s what I would do,” he answered, crunching the little bug between his molars. It was hard and bitter, matching Artois’s mood. He was a hero of the Crusades, one of the few warriors to return to civilization whole in body and mind. He had manned a hundred watch-posts, killed a thousand Arabs and partaken in the greatest military actions the world had ever known. He had won sacks of gold coins and chests of jewels, and he had wasted it all. And yet, he somehow still lived, spending his twilight years watching a frozen wilderness with a cocky youngster.

The sun rose inexorably, but it didn’t warm his flesh. Within the walls, Narva came alive like a wet torch, barely flickering as the morning brightened to midday. The eastern gate was opened to allow shepherds to herd their flocks towards Lake Mensan. Loud clashes of metal announced that the blacksmiths were moving about, and powerful yells came from the western neighborhoods, where meat vendors hawked their juicy merchandise. Artois sent Meleanus on two more perimeter circuits to make sure all was quiet. Each time, it was.

Just as Artois’s eyes began to slack and his lower back ached intolerably, Smite returned to the parapet with two young soldiers. Thank God, Artois thought, relief from this bleak post. After telling the soldiers that the only way to pass the time was to hurl loogies into the moat, Artois retired from the mind-numbing belvedere.

Between bouts of trouncing Kate, sleeping and watching Narva’s walls, Artois spent his spare moments at a decaying, barren well in the heart of Narva. The well was on a hill, lined by charred bricks barely high enough to sit on. From there, Artois could see over the brown and yellow roofs of Narva to the frozen wastelands and beyond. He sometimes lost his focus when he stared into the distance, his mind rehearsing a thousand finished battles, dead lovers, and his deceased father. Little kids sometimes came to the well and danced around, playing a running game with baggy trousers and a captive frog. Other adults were never at the old well, and Artois preferred it that way – let no judgmental eyes fall on his unsuccessful, squalid existence.

 

Chapter Two

“Barbarians”

 

Artois braced the hilt of his longsword against his thigh, and then he applied the whetstone down the length of the edge, over and over, until sweat poured down his brow. Fading red stains still speckled the blade, rusting the heart metal, weakening the weapon. Artois didn’t care – his longsword had claimed hundreds of lives, and if he never swung it in anger again, that was OK.

The old well was deserted that day, undoubtedly due to the near-freezing temperatures. Not even children were out running and jumping, and Artois sharpened his sword instinctively, absently gazing over the eastern gate. Heavy gray clouds hung overhead, swollen and threatening, and Artois knew his nook under the wall would flood quickly if it rained. Perhaps it was time to send a message to Princess Kate? Even if Artois didn’t land in her bedroom, she might spare him enough change to sleep in one of the inns.

Brown and green uniforms appeared on the eastern horizon, like grasshoppers lining up at the edge of a pond. The numbers multiplied before Artois’s eyes, and then he saw horses arrive, with more men, spears, and tattered, foreign flags. The army of Con Felder.

Men began running on Narva’s walls, no doubt circulating the sighting of the hostile forces. There were no cries of distress in the city – everyone with sense was indoors, and only Narva’s fighting men knew what was happening. Suddenly, a large figure appeared on the eastern gate, pointing into the wilderness and sending soldiers scurrying around on a dozen different errands.

Artois knew what Smite was ordering, even if he was nearly a mile away. Notify Narva’s civilian council. Bring the shepherds and supplies in the walls. Arm every able-bodied man and boy. Stage the catapults and hot tar. Artois briefly wondered how many men had sworn allegiance to Con Felder since he began gathering lesser tribes out of the freezing north. Four hundred, perhaps? Maybe as high as seven hundred, all savage wanderers with no qualms about ransacking a town like Narva, which had about seventy defenders. 

A loud, squeaking sound came from the western gate, and Artois spun around to see the massive gate opening, concurrently lowering the drawbridge. Two riders exploded out of the city, headed west, no doubt to petition Reilles, Van Gent and Mursk for reinforcements. Those cities were a day’s ride away, which meant reinforcement would arrive in two days at the earliest. That wouldn’t help – Con Felder’s army could be at Narva in an hour.

Artois found himself jogging for the eastern gate. The young defenders of Narva would draw strength and calmness from a veteran like Artois, even if he didn’t truly believe they could win this battle. Con Felder’s men were driven by the fear of the coming winter months, and they had been fighting for all of their lives against starvation, wild animals and other tribes. Narva’s warriors were well-armed and trained, but Artois knew that the victors in battle had fire in their bellies, murder on their minds. Men like Con Felder. Men like Artois.

Despite the cold, Smite was red-faced and sweating when Artois reached the parapet. When he saw his fellow veteran, a look of grim finality crossed his face. “Did you think that Narva would be where your days ended?” Smite asked.

“We draw breath still, Smite.”

The guard captain grunted. “We can hold those bastards off for a couple hours, but no more. Do you think they’re interested in tribute?”

“Does Narva’s treasury have enough gold to send them away?”

“That’s a question for Principio, the pompous bastard.”

Artois recalled what he knew of Kate’s father, the man known as the King of Narva, Principio. He had been a warrior as a younger man, but political maneuvering was his true calling. He negotiated trade agreements, adjudicated border disputes and arranged diplomatic marriages with the best of them. Artois had no doubt that Principio would do anything to safeguard Narva, but what treasure would satiate Con Felder’s savages, especially when they could take everything by force?

A solitary rider broke away from the green and brown mass. He rode well, steering his mount around irrigation trenches, pitfalls and depressions, adjusting to his horse’s movements like the two were one. He appeared unarmed, not even bearing a standard or a scroll. Could this be Con Felder, Artois wondered, the charismatic lord of the barbarians?

The rider drew his reigns up in front of the wall. If it really was Con Felder, he was a stupid bastard, Artois thought, because he could kill with a bow at that range, and Artois was no special marksman.

“Lords of this place! We must speak!” the man yelled in heavily accented French.

“What?” Smite responded, his voice booming across the countryside.

“We must speak!”

“State your business,” a stately voice said from behind Artois. He turned and saw that Principo himself had ascended the wall, his fine garments and jewelry worth more than all of Artois’s earthly possessions. Principio was tall, even taller than Artois, and he had jet-black hair that seemed to grant him some special authority; a man who expected answers.

“My Lord Con Felder does not wish to destroy this place!” the rider yelled.

“He doesn’t want to sacrifice a hundred men to take Narva, so he uses fear to get something for free,” Smite muttered.

“What are Con Felder’s terms?” Principio called down.

“He will meet you immediately, in front of your walls, with one escort warrior. My lord does not want unnecessary bloodshed, only his just dues.”

“Very well,” Principio called down without hesitation. Artois couldn’t blame Principio for the uncounseled response – he needed to exude confidence, especially in front of barbarians. Not to mention, confident negotiations were the only way any of those men would ever see the sun rise again. The young warrior rode away immediately, and he was quickly absorbed into the distant horde, leaving behind nothing but footprints in the soft dirt.

Artois had never been introduced to Principio. He was said to be a lover of gardens and an orator of divine blessing. A short military career gave him credence amongst most soldiers, but that would not be enough for barbarians. Con Felder was not a common man. To rise out of the backstabbing, ruined north, a leader had to be insanely tough, intelligent and driven. He would see Principio as a civilized, successful man, but not a true rival.

As though reading Artois’s tentative body language, Principio turned to Smite. “Is this a new recruit? He doesn’t look…young.”

“My King, this is the great Artois Coquet, warrior of three Crusades.”

Principio gave Artois a visual inspection, and then he raised his chin high, looking down at the two veterans over an aquiline nose. “A great warrior, you say?”

“Yes King, and if I may be presumptuous, he should be your escort when you meet Con Felder,” Smite said, surprising even Artois.

“Why?” Principio asked. Smite opened his mouth to respond, but the King rose a silencing hand, his face hard like a statue. “I want him to answer.”

Artois turned his head from side to side, stretching his neck. He took a small step towards Principio, taking care to examine the King of Narva. Principio was tall, but Artois had the bulk of a brown bear, and in face-to-face meetings, he never flinched. He never had, not even when he beat back a horde of French villagers mauling his Cathar-raised father before the Seventh Crusade.

“I understand men like Con Felder,” Artois said softly, the cold wind damping the steel in his voice, “barbarians respect violence and deceit – the true tools of authority.”

“I don’t think…” Principio began.

“He must be treated like an unleashed tiger, capable of robbing your life away without warning or hesitation,” Artois interrupted, raising his tone. “If Con Felder decides to throw off civility before you can reach an agreement, I will anticipate him, and you might yet live. No other man in your charge is more capable.”

“How can you be so certain?” Principio asked, slightly awed, but perhaps, still doubtful. 

“Every type of warrior uses a weapon, and I’ve seen them all. I’ll know their intentions and capabilities immediately. When Con Felder and his escort look at us, they need to see a seasoned, angry killer by your side. They need to see another barbarian. And, more importantly than anything, you need to radiate power and wealth, or Con Felder’s instincts will make him attack you. Can you do that?”

Principio nodded, glancing at Smite, who was staring at Artois in grim understanding. “Then you shall be my escort,” Principio announced, though it sounded like a concession. For a moment, Artois thought this was the ideal moment to confess to Principio that he was screwing Princess Kate on a near-regular basis, but then he thought better of it. Sometimes, it’s best not to push your confidence.

 

* * * * *

 

The eastern gate opened slowly, bringing the icy, fresh air of the plains into Narva. Artois and Principio waited patiently while the windlass was cranked by three gatehouse guards. As the drawbridge lowered across the moat, Principio seemed to fade back into the city, like the strong winds would prevent him from even walking outside. One mile away, silhouetted against the brown horizon, two barbarian riders were rapidly approaching Narva.

“Are you ready, my lord?” Artois asked, placing a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder.

“How do we know these two riders aren’t assassins, and the real Con Felder is back with his army, waiting for Narva to be rendered leaderless?” Principo asked. Artois had no good answer for that question – Principio should have asked the barbarian emissary that question before agreeing to the parley.

“If Con Felder wants easy gold and supplies, he’ll come personally to negotiate. If he wants a war, he’ll send assassins,” Artois replied. “Now let’s go find out which it is.”

The drawbridge creaked under their weight, and the moat beneath was a frozen, muddy slush. Artois took a deep breath as they left the shadow of the walls, appreciating the wide view of the sky and plains. He felt like a caged dog just granted freedom, and, for a moment, Artois couldn’t remember why he had stayed in stuffy, little Narva for so many months. A flash of Kate’s ample bosom crossed Artois’s mind, and then he remembered.

The barbarians agilely dismounted while their horses were still trotting, at least twenty yards away. As they jogged up, Artois surmised that they were not assassins. One of them was ogrishly built, with blue and black tattoos adorning every inch of exposed skin. Two double-edged axes were slung on his back, and several gold ringlets hung from his scarred forearms. An accomplished killer, Artois thought.

The other barbarian had a blinding, white shock of hair, tanned skin and a strong, wiry build. His greaves were burnished to a bright luster, and a silver chest plate rested over a red undershirt. A bejeweled scabbard was on his hip, probably holding an even gaudier sword. This was Con Felder, Artois surmised, and he was garbed for talking, not fighting.  He was the shortest man on that cold patch of land, but his blue eyes blazed with ill-concealed wrath. Artois had seen eyes like those before, the fanatical, violent eyes of a man that could never be tamed by the trappings of civilization.

“Lords of Narva, I am Con Felder,” he said in perfect French, slightly offset by the high falsetto of his voice.

“I am King Principio.”

“Greetings King,” Con Felder replied, staring hard into his eyes. “This man next to me is called Viktor Blackblade, chief of my royal guard.”

“And this is Artois Coquet, famed Crusader and defender of Narva,” Principio responded, gesturing weakly at Artois.

“My lords, there are hundreds of men who are waiting for me, and they are hungry, cold and…stressed. So, with my men’s interest at heart, I will be brief. We have enough soldiers to overtake Narva in a day, two at the most. All of the men inside will be tortured and executed, the women will be enslaved and the children drowned in the moat. After we take everything of value, we will burn the entire city to the ground.”

Con Felder paused, letting his words sink in, gauging the reactions of Principio and Artois. For Artois’s part, he disinterestedly shrugged and gazed into the distance. He knew that this was how barbarians negotiated – they threatened, took hard stances and tried to get as much as they could without any effort. A civilized man like Principio wouldn’t understand their opening strategy. The evidence of that truth was in his blanched face and quivering jaw. If he didn’t answer soon, Artois realized, Con Felder might just attack immediately.

“My Lord,” Artois whispered.

“I…you…you don’t want that,” Principio managed.

“What?” Con Felder barked, seizing his perceived initiative.

“You would lose many lives by attacking us openly, and it has taken you years of hard work to build your army into what it is now,” Principio said, warming to the subject. “Instead of weakening your forces, why don’t you strengthen them? We can give you supplies, and you will be on your way.”

“How do you know I won’t take your supplies and attack anyway?” Con Felder responded, his hand going to the hilt of his sword. He had obviously been expecting an offer of tribute, and beside him, Viktor Blackblade bristled, raising his arms high, like he was either stretching or reaching for his axes. It was another cheap bargaining tactic that Artois recognized, a show of impatience, and he leaned over to Principio, who looked like he might collapse under the weight of his robes.

“Offer him a single wagon of food and gold,” Artois said.

“You can have one wagon of food and gold,” Principio declared, taking Artois’s counsel without a second thought.

Con Felder seemed to consider this, but then he shook his head no. “We always need more food, but gold cannot fill an empty belly. How about you give us two wagons? One will be stocked with your finest foods, the other with your finest women,” he growled that final word, and Viktor Blackblade grinned, revealing a jagged set of yellow chompers.

“Women?” Principio asked.

“My men grow tired of diseased old whores and young girls. They want city women. Give me ten of them, healthy and flowered, plus two wagons on food, and we will trouble you no longer, you have my word.”

Artois had always hated this part of warfare, but he also knew that men are simple animals. They need sex as badly as food, and if Con Felder brought his horde ten beauties, his stranglehold over the tribes would only tighten. Ten women wouldn’t satiate hundreds of men, obviously, but they would be seen walking through the camps, owned by senior warriors, and the young men’s loyalty and motivations for war would only grow.  

“Ten women and two wagons of food?” Principo asked, a little relieved. Girls couldn’t lift a sword or break a stallion, anyway. They were valued for cooking, cleaning and sexual release, and he only had to martyr ten for peace in Narva? This was the kind of equation that Principio could calculate in a heartbeat.

“That’s not actually all,” Con Felder said, “one of the women must be of royal lineage, because she will be my wife.”

“What?” Principio demanded, showing his first true anger since they had met Con Felder.

“My scouts captured a shepherd at Lake Mensan three nights ago, and he told us that you have a daughter of unmatched beauty, a princess named Katherine. With her firmly embedded as my wife, we would never dare attack the city of her father. If you want lasting peace in Narva, King Principio, then you must make a grand sacrifice. Do not worry, my lord, she will be treated like a queen at all times.”  

Principio looked to the sky, the horrifying realization of his situation settling in. Narva’s safety for his daughter’s virtue. The King and Princess had a tight bond, especially after her mother had been felled by the plague a decade earlier. But Princess Katherine was more than a fine thing to look at, as well. She had influence in Parisian society, skills with mathematics, and a keen understanding of her father’s politics. Losing Kate to Con Felder was unfathomable. 

Artois felt a strange duality over Con Felder’s proposition. Giving away ten women wouldn’t only embolden Con Felder’s hordes, but it would demoralize the men of Narva. They would feel emasculated, leading to desertions, further weakening the city. In a larger city, Con Felder’s proposal would be moot – ten women could be sacrificed for the greater good. But in a town with barely a thousand residents, the small proportion changed the equation.

Another urge erupted in Artois’s mind, and that was to murder the two barbarians straightaway, to lop off their heads and spike them on the walls of Narva. How dare they demand Princess Katherine?

“I must think on your terms,” Principio said. “You fear the coming winter, and we do not. I must consult with my counselors.”

“You must answer tonight or we will take everything,” Con Felder instantly countered. “Meet me and Viktor for an evening meal – halfway between our two forces. You may bring attendants with food, and we will provide the entertainment. We will break bread together, and with meat in our bellies, I’m sure a mutually beneficial agreement can be more easily attained.”

“At sunset, then. We will bring food.” Principio spun on his heel and stalked into the city, showing his back to the barbarians. Artois stayed rooted to where he was, letting them see his fierce visage. Con Felder gave Artois a perfunctory inspection, yawned, and departed on his horse. Viktor Blackblade waited a moment, clearly itching for a fight, and then drew his thumb across his neck slowly, never breaking eye-contact with the veteran of the Seventh Crusade.

 

 

Chapter Three

“Breaking Bread”

 

 

Preparations for dinner were frenzied, driven on by the red-faced commands of Principio. Eight oxen were slaughtered, quartered, and tied with twine, their brown juices discoloring the wagon’s cloth floor. Boxes of carrots, artichokes, cabbage and leeks were also added to the bounty, as well as a bin of rice. Upon seeing that pile of food that could feed five families for the entire winter, Principio demanded ten green pumpkins, an entire warren of rabbits and extra apples be included from his personal stores.

Under a cloudless, starry sky, the wagon convoy left the eastern gate of Narva, their wooden wheels freshly oiled to prevent sticking in the mud. Fearful that the barbarians would demand their steeds, Principio ordered the wagons be pulled by two young men. Smite chose Meleanus and a young Italian brute for the job, fit youngsters who could be multifariously useful. 

Artois and Principio rode behind the uncovered wagons on aging, chestnut mares that were native to Spain. They were inexpensive beasts, the type that Principio felt comfortable bargaining with, when the meal inevitably evolved into negotiations. No decision had been made by Principio regarding the ten women. Artois thought the King was hoping the food wagons would satiate the barbarians, buying him time to think, at the very least.

Their paltry caravan soon left the well-traveled roads around Narva, cutting into the eastern wilderness. Tall grass slowed the human mules, and Artois could hear Meleanus breathing heavily, finally showing a chink in his youthful armor. It didn’t matter – if Con Felder desired, the four of them could easily be killed in the open by barbarian cavalry. No amount of energy or high spirits can deflect an arrow, nor pause a thirsty blade.

Desiccated birches formed a tree line two miles from Narva’s walls, situated along a small crest. When they reached it, a bowl materialized below them, its ridge wreathed by Con Felder’s barbarians, who were looking into the depression with interest.

Artois raised his hand, “Whoa,” he said, stopping Meleanus and the Italian lad.

Principio approached the bowl’s rim slowly, inching close to the edge before nervously peering inside. Down there, the obvious figures of Con Felder and Viktor Blackblade stood and waited, and when they saw Principio, began to wave. A ring of mounted torches surrounded them, illuminating the place where they would eat and parley.

“You’re safe, come down,” Con Felder called, sounding like a concerned mother coaxing her toddler off a tall horse. 

“Should we?” Principio asked. “You’re the trouper.”

Artois thought it was a death trap, but they had gone too far already. If they turned around, abandoned the wagons and doubled-up on the horses, they still wouldn’t reach the walls of Narva before iron-tipped shafts pierced their backs. They were committed, and from this point on, would have to rely on their wits.

“Let me go first, the barbarians need to see that I will put my body in danger before yours. Leave the wagons up here, and when Con Felder asks to see the contents, suggest he use his own men to bring them down. We don’t want to injure our lads, and I want to see how Con Felder handles taking orders.”

Artois descended the rocky slope with King Principio in tow. Thick, woolen rugs were piled in the center of the clearing, probably looted from desert settlements. Four black stools were arranged so the men could eat and talk over the rugs, and Principio whispered as they neared the barbarian leaders, “Tis a fine spread, perhaps these mongrels were expecting us to deliver the women tonight?”

“This is an attempt at peace by Con Felder,” Artois responded. “He thinks this is what city men deem hospitable. Be careful not to give offense, however crude their ways seem.”

Artois ducked under the mounted torches first, and Con Felder clasped his hand, smiling like they were long-lost brothers. “Welcome, warrior.”

“Honor to you, great leader.”

Viktor Blackblade stayed at the edge of the light, fingering the hilt of a dagger. He made no motion to acknowledge the men of Narva. Artois wondered if that was Con Felder’s orders, or if Blackblade was just disappointed that they had brought no soft flesh.

“Honor to the King, may he reign for a thousand years, crushing his enemies with blade and bow,” Con Felder announced, half-bowing to Principio.

“And the same to you,” the King of Narva said, accepting Con Felder’s handclasp.

In the bowl, the torches burned without wind contestation, creating an oppressive heat that lifted sweat to the men’s brows. Con Felder’s barbarians stayed up at the rim of the bowl, likely freezing, but watching the parley with interest. Con Felder had brought four jugs of wine, and he passed them out silently, completing the courtesies that were demanded of a barbarian leader. For him to say or do more would be seen as weak by his followers.

“We have brought your wagons of food,” Principio announced, settling onto a stool.

“They have been claimed,” Con Felder answered. Artois turned to see that a dozen, dark figures were manhandling the wagons into the bowl – Meleanus and the Italian lad were nowhere to be seen. 

“Our men are not to be hurt,” Artois said, bile rising in his gorge.

The blonde leader didn’t say anything, and the carts were brought up to the mounted torches, pulled by light-skinned tribesmen. A party of ten more came behind them, with the two Narvaean youngsters bound at the wrists. They appeared unhurt, and Artois immediately went to them, ignoring the hostile glares of the barbarians. He strode into the crowd and slashed their bonds, and then whispered urgently into each man’s ear. With Meleanus leading, they ran up the hill, out of the bowl, back to Narva. Con Felder watched all of this with a hint of irritation – probably because King Principio was being clearly overridden by his personal guardian.

A half-dozen barbarians, dressed in fine wools and less muscled than their counterparts, arrived at the dining place. They unpacked the wagons and set about cooking the meats, washing the vegetables and adding their own spices and flavors to the meal. Artois surmised that they were eunuchs, and he wondered how they survived in the wilderness without martial abilities – they were likely Con Felder’s personal coterie, tasked with jobs of delicacy, detail and intelligence. Artois made a mental note to remember them.

Midway through the feast, at full dark, Viktor Blackblade abruptly stood and stalked away from the rugs, gnawing on a ripe carrot.

“Where is he going?” Artois asked, again breaching customs by speaking without his lord’s pardon.

“He’ll be back in a moment,” Con Felder responded, “to provide entertainment.”

Blackblade returned not two minutes later, grinning wolfishly and holding a long leash, the type used for training geldings newly tamed. But this leash was not affixed to a horse’s bridle – a man was dragged along by it, his hands bound in front of him. He was blindfolded and naked above the waist, his torso revealing an ugly collage of black bruises. Ribs protruded from his sides like serrated armor was under his skin.

“What is the meaning of this?” Principio asked, rising.

“He raped a girl twelve winters old, and then stole a horse to flee my nation. We tracked him down two days ago,” Con Felder responded, simultaneously pointing at Blackblade and snapping his fingers.

The tattooed warrior threw the rapist to the hard ground, just beyond the stacked rugs, and then he extracted a curved dagger from his belt. With a smooth, practiced slice, he took the prisoner’s small finger from his left hand. The man cried in pain as his blood spurted onto the cold dirt. Blackblade lifted the severed digit, and the barbarians up at the rim of the bowl cheered throatily.

“In my home country, we do not torture men during the evening meal,” Artois grumbled. Principio nodded at that and dropped the oxtail he was working on. The mood of the meal shifted after that. Con Felder grew still, and his servants, plus the warriors above, mimicked his tension. Blackblade nonchalantly shrugged, his foot on the back of the squirming rapist, waiting for fresh orders.

“I said that we would provide the entertainment, but now you say that it is not civilisé,” Con Felder growled. The blond leader then jumped to his feet, and Artois matched his movement, though no one else flinched. Silence reigned over that frozen wilderness in that moment, broken only by the howls of distant wolves. “You do not like our entertainment, and we do not like your food!” Con Felder roared, kicking the pile of food in front of him. The vegetables and meat showered Artois and Principio, and the surrounding barbarians laughed, pleased with their wild king.

“If you kill us, Narva will harden like ice, and no amount of fire will melt it,” Principio said. “We have given you food,” he went on, “and shown bravery in the face of danger. You must respect that.”

Con Felder’s mouth hung open for a moment, halfway into a chuckle, but with quizzical eyes. Artois surmised that the barbarian leader’s esteem of Principio had rose a notch. “We want women! Women! Vrouwen!” He said the final word in the tongue of his people, and they roared with appreciation, captivated by their cutthroat master. Perhaps sensing the momentum of the moment, Con Felder’s sword suddenly rasped from its sheath. Artois matched him instantly, but Con Felder instead went over to the writhing rapist, and with two wet hacks, he severed the man’s head. “Will you fetch the women now?” he asked, hoping to shock them.

“No,” Principio answered, his voice deep like the hills.

“Seize them! Seize them now!”

Artois didn’t try to fight, nor did Principio. Rough barbarian hands ran over their bodies, taking hidden blades, jewelry and coins. They were unceremoniously dumped to the dirt, punched, kicked and spat on for what seemed like hours, but was probably two or three minutes. Artois covered the soft parts of his skull with his hands and tried to turn away from the hardest blows, but the strikes accumulated, and he began to lose consciousness. His final thoughts were of Princess Kate, and then, nothingness.

 

 

Chapter Four

“Tribute”

 

 

He felt saliva moving in and out of his mouth, crawling on his cheeks, inspecting his nose and ears. Blood pounded behind his eyes, his ribs and chest were tenderized, and coldness gripped his pate in a way he had never known. Without looking, Artois ran a hand over his scalp – he had been shaved by the barbarians, a grave disrespect in their ways, the same way a city man might be castrated. Artois was grateful that didn’t happen, and with a colossal effort, he forced his eyelids open. Light poured into his retinas like liquid pain, and Artois put his hand over his face, wondering where he was.

Saliva crawled on his hands. Artois risked another stab of light and opened his eyes. Ants were on him. Everywhere on him. He jumped to his feet in an ocean of pain and hysterically slapped them away, vaguely aware that Principio was unconscious on the ground next to him, and that they were in the shadow of Narva’s walls.

Shaking and weak, Artois noticed they had been left at the spot where the drawbridge’s tail rested, a dark, lively patch of earth next to the slushy moat. If the drawbridge were lowered, they would be crushed, but Artois threw that concern to the wind.

Ants were in him.

He jumped into the freezing moat, feeling the relief of a thousand fires simultaneously extinguished on his body. A moment later, his head emerged into the cold air, rapidly cooling his brain in a way that left him weak and dizzy. Wholly numbed, he lunged for the muddy bank, where a stumped human limb offered Artois a handhold. He grabbed it and pulled himself out, and then dropped the bloody forearm into the mud.

The barbarians had amputated Principio’s left arm at the elbow.

Angry shouts came from Narva’s gatehouse. The guards had finally noticed the two near-dead men sprawled on the ground in the morning light. More shouts were faintly picked up by Artois’s frozen ears, and then he pitched forward, landing on the other side of Principio. The King of Narva looked to be on the brink of death, his grasp on life one-handed.

Metal clanks, rhythmic and even, came from Narva’s belly. Artois knew the sound of a cranking windlass when he heard it. The drawbridge was lowering, and though Principio had thousands of ants on him, there was no time for a dip in the moat. With his last conscious effort, Artois pulled Principio away from the drawbridge’s landing spot. He got him away with mere seconds to spare, and then collapsed, exhaustion robbing him of consciousness.

 

*

Artois awoke in a warm place, with no wind or barbarians. The place smelled of old fires and dogs, and he risked opening his eyes. His vision was watery, but he sensed the timber rafters overhead, the clipped conversations of nearby men. Artois was in Narva’s barracks, where conscripted soldiers lodged and reported for duty.

“He’s awake, Doctor, he’s awake!”

Leathery hands turned Artois’s head left and right, and then a wizened, weary face blocked his view of the world. The old doctor tutted to himself, took something from a nearby table, and then a warm, wooden spoon was at Artois’s lips. He drank the bitter soup slowly, feeling the lentil and garlic return life to his body. “More,” Artois croaked, reaching weakly for the spoon. The doctor pushed his hand away firmly.

“A sip at a time, or you’ll pass out again. Your head is badly bruised, and your heart is beating slowly, one beat when there should be three.”

“Principio?” Artois asked.

“The King lives, and besides his missing hand, is in finer condition than you.”

Artois closed his eyes, uncaring if they ever opened again. He had done his duty. Principio was alive, Princess Kate was safe, and Con Felder had proven untrustworthy. If the barbarians were able to break into Narva, then Artois would endure a torturous death at their hands, but, for once, his own safety wasn’t in his control. With a deep exhalation, he drifted into a dreamless sleep. 

 

* * * * *

 

Hundreds of voices, roaring at their greatest, woke the veteran. He was alone in the barracks, and there was a heavy pressure on his bladder. Artois lifted himself to his elbows, and then he swung his bare legs over the cot’s edge. His feet touched the cold floor, and a wave of vertigo washed over Artois, so that he was forced to sit there for a minute, regaining his equilibrium. When he felt confident enough to walk, he staggered out the back door, into the dark night, and relieved himself in an alley. The roaring voices were still deafening, and Artois realized they weren’t in his head - they were outside the walls.

Feeling lighter, Artois stole a set of baggy pants and black tunic from a soldier’s haversack. With a dry mouth and aching joints, he stepped out into the night and slogged towards the eastern gate, following the voices. He found Meleanus at the bottom of the ladder leading to the parapet, in a fetal position, shaking his head slowly.

“Meleanus?” Artois asked. The young man’s eyes widened in surprise when he saw Artois, but then they regained their darkness, and he looked down again. “Meleanus, what is happening?”

“In King Principio’s state of shock, Princess Katherine has taken control of Narva,” Meleanus replied, clearly disheartened.

A surge of pride overtook Artois. Princess Kate was as beautiful as a wildflower in spring, but as fierce as a tiger in the Roman colosseum. If anyone could handle Con Felder and his licentious barbarians, it was Princess Kate, maybe even more ably than her father.

“What does the Princess intend to do about the barbarians?” Artois asked.

Meleanus cuffed a tear from his cheek. “She will go out to them, to be Con Felder’s wife. She believes her sacrifice will save her people. She is braver and nobler than all of the lords of Europe.”

Artois stepped over Meleanus, found the ladder in the darkness, and began climbing, ignoring the nausea in his gut, the numbness in his fingers. He forced himself upward, his legs trembling from the effort, and then he was on top of the eastern gate. The open air tasted moist, thick from low-hanging clouds. The entire parapet was crowded with dozens of soldiers, all of them watching the spectacle in the field below.

Under the overcast, black sky, Princess Kate was walking with nine maidens directly into Con Felder’s embrace. For the first time, Artois could see the warlord’s entire army, and he was surprised by their poor condition. They were no more than two hundred men, many of them skin and bones, with ragged armor, rusted weapons. There were only twenty horses among them all, and no siege weapons, no trebuchets, no ladders.

Con Felder had bluffed them, and now he had the gem of Narva.

“Will they leave now?” a young man’s voice asked.

“Yes, those bastards will run. We can’t defeat them in the open field, and they can’t get over our walls. They’ll move onto another city, and swindle someone else out of some food and women,” Smite answered suddenly, standing at Artois’s shoulder. He hadn’t noticed the old guard captain at first. 

“Does the King know about this?” Artois asked, holding the brick parapet with a knuckle-whitening grip.

“The physicians say he lost too much blood, and may never regain his faculties. When he hears about this, the King might die of a broken heart,” Smite answered, his voice as gentle as Artois had ever heard.

“So who will reign in Narva, with the Princess gone and the King unfit?”

Smite stroked his short beard, watching the women being claimed by Con Felder’s senior warriors. They were briefly embraced, and then hustled onto the backs of horses, absorbed by the ranks of milling men. Only Con Felder remained in the open area in front of his men, with Kate already on his horse, her face hidden by a green hood. Artois imagined that she didn’t want to look upon her father’s city, to ease the pain of parting. 

Con Felder, his white hair wild and undone, made a show of walking close to Narva’s walls. He spread his arms wide, pointed at the men on the walls, and laughed. His army joined him in the humiliation, and then he reached into his pocket and extracted Principio’s shriveled, white hand. He threw it hard at the walls, but it fell short, making a small splash in the icy moat.

“You will live for a time, cowards of Narva!” he yelled, spinning on his heel and stalking back to his horse. He leapt into the saddle and reached behind him, pulling Kate close. With a swift kick to his horse’s ribs, the blonde leader led his army away, taking the road south. 

Artois and the men of Narva watched Con Felder’s army ride away confidently, their spirits raised by the free tribute. Artois figured they were heading south because of the coming winter, and because they hadn’t gotten inside Narva, needed to find a place of suitable lodging. If they went too far south, the barbarians would encounter the disciplined, organized armies of Italian and Greek generals. That meant they had a limited number of options to hunker during the cold season: Ancient ruins, outlier communities, cave systems, anywhere to reduce the sting of the cold.

“No one reigns in Narva,” Smite finally answered. “Until the electorate decides on an interim King, or Principio recovers, we are lawless.”

“I am going south,” Artois declared, “to rescue the Princess. I need men with weapons, and a thirst for blood, to join me.”

“I will follow you,” Meleanus said, ghosting up behind the veterans.

“And so will I,” Smite echoed, “after I borrow some weapons from the armory.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

“Bloodhounds”

 

 

The three horsemen rode into the wind, urging their destriers along with rump-slaps and rough kicks. The road south was made of wide, Roman stones, weathered brown and ruddy from decades of military traffic. Few souls were travelling in the first month of winter, which made tracking Con Felder’s horde as easy as following a bleeding stag.

The barbarians had no fear of being followed. They left burning cottages and blackened earth as they journeyed, taking whatever they had the strength to carry. Artois, Smite and Meleanus passed dozens of corpses on the road, with pink neck gashes or dark stomach wounds. Artois was not sure of the country they were in, but he knew the fearsome Mongolian horsemen had been pressing further west recently, sending European warlords fleeing from their longbows and appetite for violence. Artois had seen those murderers in action once, back when the Seventh Crusade had detoured east of Jerusalem. If Mongols were sighted, flight was their only option.

Smite was as good as his word, and the men were bedizened with form-fitting chest plates, greaves and heavy furs. Their swords were honed to razor’s edges, and their pouches overflowed with dried fish steaks, bread, olives and hardboiled goat’s milk. Their destriers were brothers, black and young, purchased with the last of Smite’s coin from an English horse trader. When Artois thought of Smite’s sacrifices for their rescue mission, he mused that the old warrior intended to die on their journey – for some men, sharp barbarian blades in their flesh would be a more merciful death than instructing daft recruits on the intricacies of guarding a wall.  

Their first night outside of the city was difficult for Artois. While he and Meleanus made a pyramid of tinder for a fire, distant screams, animal and pained, reached his ears. They echoed over the hills and trees, and Artois thought of Con Felder forcing himself onto Kate. It was inevitable. His one comfort was knowing that Kate would not be shared amongst the barbarians, not yet. But when Con Felder tired of her, in a week or a year, she would be sold into slavery.

Smite bagged two hares that evening, little, brown balls of fur that were scraggly enough to have been left alone. Still, the veterans expertly separated the meat from the skeleton, leaving two flimsy pelts that Meleanus happily stuffed into his pack. “I’m making a hat for my niece, back in Narva,” he explained to the amused older men.

“I’m never going back,” Smite said gruffly, spitting a chunk of gristle over the fire.

“Can’t pay for all this?” Artois asked, gesturing at their new weapons and gear.

“No, and I don’t intend to try. When King Principio comes to his senses, he’ll probably consolidate his soldiers and wealth, and move away from the city, too. The man has lost his wife, daughter, and his hand.”

Meleanus seemed to swallow those words, so that they weighed him down, haunted his eyes. Artois could see the despair in the young man – his own world had been upended by the Crusades when he was only twenty. It was a heady thing, to see the frailty of a world your childhood eyes believed to be stable. Meleanus would be OK, Artois thought, if he could survive the impending conflict with Con Felder.  

The hare meat was cooked until it sizzled and popped, spitting juice on the hard ground. Pale moonlight draped the countryside like a clean sheet, and the distant animal cries quieted, leaving the countryside silent. Artois and Meleanus were both in deep thought, their futures as murky as a swamp. But Smite had somehow found peace with his fate, and he was soon snoring, his head resting on a smooth rock.

“Will you go back to Narva?” Meleanus murmured, his words almost stolen by the gentle breeze.

“What?”

“Narva…is the city lost?”

Artois cheeked a ball of goat cheese, controlling the bitter flavor as it seeped through his mouth. He leaned back against a log and stretched his feet towards the flames, so that if jumping embers found him asleep, his toes would burn, not his hair. He exhaled deeply, and Meleanus snorted, not expecting an answer from the pensive veteran. As the young man began to arrange his wools for a cold night’s sleep, Artois broke the silence, choosing his words with care.

“The life you knew is over. Narva will become a wild place, and all of the oaths and pledges from the King’s knights will be consumed by the fires of change. Fathers will kill sons for food, brothers will rob sisters, mothers will abandon babies. Everyone will do what they must to survive, and you have to grow up, move on.”

“But my sister, my niece…”

“You can try to find them, if they haven’t already fled for a safer place. All of your boyhood dreams of being a hero, winning battles and conquering kingdoms are now realities – it is time to shed your boyhood, embrace your manhood. Saving Princess Kate is a great place to start.”

 

 

* * * * *

Dawn’s light came sharply, unhindered by clouds or brume. The three men awoke with full bladders and aching bellies, and once those debts were settled, they set off down the Roman road. Songbirds warbled from the sparse woodlands, bears skulked at the edges of the wild, and Con Felder’s tracks led ever southward to an unknown destination. Artois was surprised by the speed the barbarian horde travelled – did they know they were being pursued, or did their expedition have a premeditated terminus?  

Artois’s mood darkened as the sun rose higher in the sky, not warm enough to loosen his joints, but bright enough to cast reflections off their armor. Local vagabonds would be able to see their party from a great distance, and Artois knew when the time came to strike Con Felder, they needed to be fresh, with the element of surprise and a healthy dose of luck.

A dark voice creeped into Artois’s mind. What if Princess Kate didn’t want to be rescued? She had sacrificed herself willingly, and perhaps she needed to escape the mind-numbing proprieties of a royal court, where she would be married off to one of her father’s wealthy business partners, or to a royal knight, whether she loved him or not. Was Artois wasting his time, and risking three lives, for nothing? His companions hadn’t voiced similar doubts, and in Smite’s mind, undoubtedly, there was no turning back. But Artois couldn’t deceive himself, he had to find out Kate’s fate – if he didn’t, animal screams in the night would haunt his remaining years.

After eating a brief lunch, the men reached a fork in the road. To the west, a moist tang was in the air, and a bowl rose out of the ground two miles off, likely enclosing a lake. The barbarian tracks, deep and chaotic, did not go in that direction.

Easterly, the path plunged off the far edge of a field. There was a massed grayness below that point, like a rock quarry, or some long-forgotten city, blighting the countryside. Artois led them towards that grayness, steering his horse around deep muck-holes created by Con Felder’s passage. The earth had softened deeply by the time they reached the overlook, and Artois’s destrier backed away from the unstable ground, snorting and shaking.

“What in the heavens is this?” Smite asked in wonder.

Soft beaches came to Artois’s mind, the kind his father took him and his brother to as children. On those French coasts, hermit crabs left their old shells in the surf, seeking better homes. The grayness was like those shells – empty ruins of some human civilization, driven away by war or disease, or simply abandoned in search of something better. Green forestry crowded the ruins, so that tree branches shot through doors and windows, pines had fallen onto roofs, birds nested on flue vents. It was a labyrinth of unimaginable danger, a city larger than Narva, with millions of ambush spots, unstable structures and unpredictable wildlife.

“Why would Con Felder go in there?” Meleanus wondered aloud.

“He’s been here before,” both veterans answered at once, causing a smile to break out amongst the men. Artois jumped out of his saddle, and he suddenly began to sink. He pulled his boots out of the muck, grimacing. Seeing his blunder, Smite and Meleanus found firmer ground to dismount on.

“I would wager hundreds of criminals hide here throughout the year, though only the most desperate would come in wintertime. Back at that fork in the road, there was a lake the other way, and it likely feeds this place through underground waterways. The water attracts animals, and men are able to hunt and eat. They even have some shelter,” Artois said, trying to think like a man living without nation, family or friend.

“You’re saying more than just Con Felder and his barbarians are down there?” Smite asked. “Why wouldn’t they set up a camp by the lake?”

“And become vulnerable to a mounted horse charge? Or a platoon of archers and infantry? Even an organized, gritty group of farmers with axes and flails could intimidate these type of men.”  Artois cast his arm over the dark ruins, trying to lend Meleanus and Smite confidence before they endangered their lives, “We could have killed these bastards back at Narva, and it would have been easy. We are doing this for a beautiful Princess who didn’t understand the mistake she made. We are doing this to kill evil men. Our enemy is down in that tangle of plants and stone. You’re going to tell your grandchildren about this one day, Meleanus.”

The young warrior seemed to still, the seriousness of the moment, of his manhood, settling in. He nodded at Artois’s words and set his jaw, tightening his grip on his horse’s reins.

“And what about me?” Smite asked.

“You will recount this tale in some smoky tavern, with a woman on your arm and strong wine in your cup. I’ll be there, too, describing how I saved your life.”

Smite laughed and slapped his thigh, “I suppose if we’ll be lying, it’s best to do it together.”

 

 

 

Chapter Six

“Ruins”

 

 

Crumbling stairs led to the first structure – a free-standing brick wall with arched windows. Bones decorated the base of the wall, and green ivy permeated the bricks, like a massive, aging tombstone in some forgotten graveyard. Behind the wall, the canopy of the forest had sunk low, creating a muddy, shadowed enclosure. The men tethered their horses in that hidden place and gave them handfuls of carrots, to keep them still and quiet.

They left their non-combat gear with the horses. Artois kept a short sword on his hip, a dagger in his belt, and his battle axe in hand. Smite only carried his longsword, confident in his armor and uninterested in lugging a shield through the precipitous ruins. Meleanus had a battle axe, but it was shorter than Artois’s, more accustomed to cramped, close combat. He also brought a bundle of throwing knives, which he claimed proficiency with, though Artois had never even seen the lad practice with one.

As they walked into the desolation, the easily discernible footprints of Con Felder’s horde were immediately lost in the muck. Buzzards picked at decaying corpses in alleyways, suggesting hunters had recently passed by. Clouds of insects hovered over puddles, creating a loud buzzing that the men hadn’t noticed from atop the hill. The city was now little more than a collection of skeletons, surrounded by piles of rubbish and burnt-out campsites. Artois led the group slowly, although they hadn’t seen a single soul yet. 

“Keep on your toes, boys,” Smite said quietly.

An arrow thumped into the ground next to Artois’s foot, and he threw himself to the side, rolling into a crouch next to an old well. Another arrow flew towards Smite and Meleanus, and the younger man confidently stepped into its path and raised his small, wooden shield. The arrow went through the shield and tore it from his arm, and two more shafts followed, flying from a smattering of buildings across the muddy expanse. Meleanus raised his hands in the universal sign for ‘surrender’, and a voice called across the ruins, deep and unmistakably French.

“Drop your weapons and leave! You will live! Drop your weapons and leave!”

Artois took stock of his surroundings. The old well he hid behind was in the middle of an ancient quadrangle, two dozen paces from any other structure. Overgrown trees penetrated the western side of the square, forming an awning that disappeared into the shadows. Artois rose and sprinted for the awning, the wet clap of his shoes drawing arrow fire away from his companions.

He reached the cover safely. The French bandit was no longer shouting commands, but Artois could discern men’s voices ahead, and he squeezed his axe, his heart beginning to speed up. He had endured the soft city life for too long. He had suffered hiding from palace guards, insults from barbarians, and the abduction of Kate. It was time to get angry.

The voices got stronger, and Artois ducked under a jutting branch, turned a corner, and found his enemies – three ugly men. He wasn’t sure if they were Con Felder’s men. Perhaps they were the rearguard – but that didn’t matter. They were ducking behind a putrefying wall, standing on a bulwark that granted them a panoramic view of the western ruins.

Artois watched as the men conversed, clearly unsure of what to do next. They hadn’t killed anyone with their arrows, and were likely debating if they should fight or flee. Their ragtag clothing and skeletal builds suggested that they weren’t part of the barbarian horde, who consumed everything in their path. No, this was a desperate trio of bandits, probably deserters from the French King’s service, or mercenaries fallen onto hard times. They had probably seen Con Felder’s horde and hid until they passed through the area.

Fifteen paces separated Artois and the bandits, and they were facing away from him. Silently, Artois stood and jogged straight at them, focusing on the unshaven jaw of the nearest bandit, his gold-hoop earrings, the mist that his breath made in the cold air. Artois didn’t raise his axe high until he was three paces away, and he still hadn’t made a sound, except the soft patter of his footsteps that were covered by the bandit’s own urgent whispering to each other.

The first bandit would never know what killed him. Artois put all of his force into his first downward swing, chopping into the flesh between the shoulder and neck, cleaving all the way to the man’s heart. Artois ripped the axe free in a fountain of blood, and he kicked the corpse over the wall, just as the second bandit turned, wide-eyed and unprepared.  

Artois jabbed him in the chest with the pointed end of his axe, and the man toppled over backwards, falling off the wall and landing on his former companion. There was no need for Artois to see that man’s death – Smite and Meleanus would be on him soon enough.

The final bandit dropped to his knees and clasped his hands together, his thin body shaking, though from fear, cold, or malnutrition, Artois couldn’t be sure. Probably a combination of all three. “Please, milord, please. Spare a coward, milord, I beg you.”

A powerful kick to the chest sent the bandit sprawling in the mud. He somehow managed to keep his hands clasped, and he bowed his head, unable to meet Artois’s murderous gaze.

“I’m just a coward, I want to live. Please, milord, please.”

“How long have you been here?” Artois asked.

The man’s eyes brightened, almost disbelieving that he wouldn’t be killed outright. “Two months, milord.”

“A large band passed through here recently, maybe just a couple hours ago. Did you see them?”

“Yes, yes! They were led by a mighty horsemen with golden hair, and he had a young lass on his saddle that would make the King of England weep for her beauty.”

“How long ago?”

The bandit slowly rose to his feet, and Artois stepped close, lowering his axe to his side. He didn’t detect any violence from the poor fool, and even unarmed, Artois knew he could kill the fellow without any special effort. A pained moan drifted to his ears from the base of the wall, and then it was cut off, replaced by the distinct gruffness of Smite’s voice. Artois couldn’t make out the exact words, but his friends would join him soon enough, after they rifled the dead men’s pockets.

“An hour, milord, no more. They were going towards the southeastern sector, where the ground is dry and a man might be comfortable all winter long, if he has the right company.”

An image of Kate being savaged by Con Felder crossed Artois’s mind, and when he spoke again, he couldn’t hide the contempt in his tone. If the bandit made Artois any angrier, he might kill the man, just or not. “Why are you living out here, stealing from unsuspecting travelers?”

The bandit stared at Artois for a minute, trying to determine the motive for such a personal question. “My battalion raped and burned a village in North Africa a year ago…I refused to participate and was ostracized.”

“And so now you rob innocents in this foul place?”

A cold smile crossed the man’s face. “No one who comes here is innocent.”

Artois stripped the man of his coins and weapons and sent him away. He might have taken the man’s clothes, but in the dawn of winter, that would be a death sentence. No – better that the robber discover a way to survive without using violence. If he was forced to find a better way to live, he might come to depend on it. Artois didn’t consider taking the man’s money to be robbery. He had tried to kill Artois, and the coins were payment for sparing his life.

When his companions joined him atop the wall, they could see that the eastern sector of the ruins really did look dry and well-kempt. Perhaps the nearby lake’s underpasses didn’t reach that far. Instead of mud and mossy overgrowths, Artois could see clean, straight roads with undamaged buildings lining the main thoroughfares. There were no people visible, presumably because the bandits had gone all the way to the edge of the town, to look out for hostile forces coming from the countryside. They would never suspect that their greatest threat was coming up behind them, with murder on his mind and bloody steel in his hand.

Incidentally, the ruins had been built by an extravagant-minded society. Instead of stacking buildings on top of each other to save space and concentrate commerce, the homes were arranged front-to-back, forcing them to overtake a large hill in the northern part of the city.  It was the kind of design that gave the old city majesty and comfort, but for military tacticians, the hill was an indefensible blunder. For Artois, Meleanus and Smite, the northern hill provided an ideal approach route for surprising Con Felder’s barbarians.

Night fell over the ruins suddenly, without the warnings of dusk or animal cries. Easily seen buildings and windows darkened to hazy shadows, trees and streets became phantoms, like the powers above had draped a blindfold over the sky. Artois had never seen bright daylight become fearful darkness so quickly, and he convinced Smite and Meleanus that they would be best served sleeping on the high wall from whence they were ambushed. There, he said, they would be inaccessible to slithering, creeping denizens of the gloom.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

“Courage”

 

 

The blindfold was ripped away. Dawn’s purple clouds, fair songbirds and frosty mists evaporated from the sun’s blazing rays, and the men rose without speaking, knowing they might not survive to see another day. Temperatures had plummeted during the night, and the companions took an extra twenty minutes to shake out numbed limbs, stomping their feet on the ground to incite circulation. When they were ready to move, the sun had already cast the world in a harsh glare, though the brightness was not accompanied by warmth.

Ascending the northern hill of the ruined city was a quiet affair. Artois took point, and he guided them down the middles of the roads, giving the dank alleys and empty buildings a wide berth. Sweat poured from the men as they labored up the hill, and Smite exhaled great puffs of air, his face as red as a tomato. Meleanus seemed unaffected by the frozen air, haunted ruins and impending doom of a violent battle – he marched without any sign of discomfort, his face the picture of serenity and poise.

They found a suitable overlook before high noon. Their perch was a former watchtower that was reduced to two levels of rotting brick, and from the second level, Artois could see dozens of miles in each direction. To the west, a lake lingered on the horizon, its blue waters reflecting sunbeams. In the east, the ocean of grass stretched forever, with only a dark, horizontal smudge to spoil the view. Artois had no idea what the blackness was, though he squinted his eyes and blinked repeatedly – the smudge appeared to be moving.

And then, for the first time in three days, Artois saw Con Felder and his barbarians. They looked like ants from where he was, swarming and infecting the eastern ruins, probably trying to winterize their camp. Collecting firewood, digging root cellars to store food, organizing sentry duty, mending damages to the buildings where they would hibernate. They would work hard for the next few days, which suited Artois perfectly. Better to attack the enemy when he is tired and hungry, and from the northern hill, they owned the element of surprise.

“What’s the plan?” Meleanus asked, settling to the ground and tearing into a green apple.

“We can’t kill them all,” Smite said, declaring the hard reality that Artois had been purposely overlooking. Three men could not kill over a hundred, no matter how tired or surprised they were. 

“What is that?” Artois wondered aloud, staring at the moving, black smudge on the horizon. It was getting closer, bringing a sense of dread that Artois had not known in years.

The smudge was horsemen. Hundreds of horsemen. They were charging across the yellow and brown fields, closing in on the ruined city like a tempest. Their horses’ hooves shook the ground, and Con Felder’s men began scurrying up the western walls and towers, pointing and gaping at the approaching army.

Even from ten miles away, Artois could see zero foot-soldiers, suggesting they were Mongols. Their armies were known for expert horseback archers, hardy ponies and equal-opportunity commanders, men who would slay a civilian caravan, or besiege a fortified town, with identical hostility. If those Mongols reached the ruins, Con Felder didn’t have a chance, which meant Kate would be a goner. She would be raped, enslaved and sold by the ruthless men of the steppes, along with the other nine maidens of Narva.

“Brilliant,” Smite said, hocking a glob of phlegm on the dusty bricks. “Those Mongols will do what we can’t, and in the chaos, perhaps there is a chance to save the Princess.”

“We must move now. By the time we get down there, the Mongols will already be at the walls,” Artois declared, hefting his axe. The bandits of the previous day had been a fine appetizer, but Artois was ready for his entrée.

“Wait,” Meleanus said, halting the two veterans as they began to descend the watchtower. “Is Con Felder actually going to fight, or will he retreat? He’s no fool, and he must know that this battle is not winnable.”

Artois immediately knew what Con Felder would do. He was a barbarian before anything else, loyal only to his own flesh. He would sacrifice his men to cover his own retreat, and he would take Kate with him, along with Blackblade and all the supplies they could carry. It was the only sane course of action, because, if all of the barbarians retreated, they would be hunted down one-by-one. Con Felder would initially make a show of defiance, trying to inspire his men, but when the moment was right, he would flee. “He will run,” Artois said. “We need to get closer and wait for the right moment to strike.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Hunting with bloodhounds had been the trade of Artois’s father, Raul Coquet, rest his soul. He taught the bloodhounds, with bait-and-reward training, to subdue their prey with pincer movements. Surround the prey, attack simultaneously, win almost every time. That was what Artois thought of as they ran down the winding path, trying to reach Con Felder’s position at the same time as the Mongols. He could see the horsemen in his peripheral, over the walls, whooping and boasting as they closed in. They were already firing arrows into the ruined city, releasing shafts at every glimpse of the defenders. Horrified screams began to fill the cold day, a testament to the Mongol’s inhuman accuracy.

A wide courtyard was directly behind the western walls, flanked by two guard towers and a dozen small buildings. Unlike Narva, this abandoned place had gaps in the walls, places where the bricks had collapsed, creating inlets that could not be defended. Con Felder had all of his men congregated in the courtyard, and he sent them in teams to the tops of the wall, trying to give the impression that he had control of their hopeless situation.

The trio stopped behind one of the small buildings, breathing heavily. They were fifty paces from Con Felder, and Kate was standing behind him, with the other women, huddling in a circle, crying and praying. The barbarians weren’t paying them much attention. Every few moments, one of their number would receive an arrow in the leg or throat, and Con Felder continued to roar orders, trying to get all of his men on the wall. Blackblade was next to his commander, enforcing the desperate orders with swift strikes of his hands and feet.

The thunder of the Mongol’s army had reached a crescendo, and the ruins began to shake and disintegrate. Ancient wooden planks dislodged from buildings, roofs creaked and collapsed, dust smothered everyone, everything. Artois had a final glimpse of Con Felder, with Blackblade and two other commanders, disappearing into a building with the women.

“Let’s go!” Artois shouted. Smite and Meleanus were up and running next to him immediately, cutting across the courtyard, keeping their heads low to avoid dust in their mouths and eyes.

They reached the point where Con Felder had been disbursing his followers. No one was there, and the screams of battle and death reached an even higher pitch as dust continued to rain on the companions. If the Mongols didn’t calm their charge, the ruins would become a pile of debris, unable to harbor anything larger than snakes and bugs.

Artois tried to run where he had seen Con Felder go…

…and smashed face-first into a Mongolian pony. Artois stumbled backwards just as the pony’s rider lashed out with a boot, barely missing Artois’s head. The man shouted angry commands in a language Artois didn’t understand, and as the dust around them settled, he could see that there were at least ten Mongols in the courtyard. Artois was shocked at how quickly they had broken through the barbarian defenders, and not for the first time, he wished that they had just battled Con Felder back at Narva.

Artois, Smite and Meleanus went back-to-back, their weapons held menacingly in front of them. Not all of the Mongols were watching them, others were still fighting pockets of barbarians, or staring in bewilderment at the ruins, wondering how they would extract anything of value from that dead place.

“Follow me,” Artois said, trying to move towards the empty doorway that Con Felder had fled through. The Mongolian rider shouted again, and his fellows turned their attention to the three warriors, undoubtedly thinking that they more of the light-skinned barbarians. In a heartbeat, arrows were nocked to strings, pointed at the companions’ hearts and heads.

“For the Princess!” Smite suddenly screamed, throwing himself at the Mongolian rider Artois had bumped into. The man hadn’t been expecting Smite’s suicidal charge, and the old guard captain knocked him clean off the pony. He grabbed the reins and swung the beast around, so that its body shielded Artois and Meleanus. “Run!” he roared at them.

Artois and Meleanus sprinted into the black doorway, leaving Smite to hold off the Mongolians. Artois risked one final glance at the man who had saved his life, and he knew that Smite was finding the ending that he truly wanted. The pony he had was already bulging with arrows like a pincushion, and when it fell over, Smite charged at the mass of Mongols, cleaving heads and bodies with his longsword. Artois lost sight of Smite as Meleanus pulled him deeper into the building, and he could still hear the veteran’s battle screams as they disappeared into the darkness. 

Artois followed the sound of Meleanus’s footsteps, trusting the younger man’s instincts to lead them through the halls. Unable to see anything, Artois intuitively slowed down, but that didn’t save him from stepping out onto a descending staircase. He went tumbling head over heel and hugged his sword, knowing an unlucky turn of momentum could impale him, and then he landed hard. Reeling from forty years of aches and pains, he barely drew a breath before Meleanus jerked him to his feet.

“Quiet,” the young man hissed.

After Artois’s eyes adjusted, he noticed they were in a large, humid cavern. Weak sunlight streamed through a hole across the cavern, illuminating pagan sculptures, wooden support beams and scattered rubble. The air was thick, and Artois remembered the distant battlefields of North Africa, where he first earned his bones. That heat had been different, dry and stinging. This was smothering, making each breath difficult, drawing buckets of sweat off the warriors.

“We wait!” Con Felder’s unmistakably high voice echoed off the cavern walls. “If those things want to fight, they’ll have to climb off their horses and put down their bows.”

“But how long…?” a female voice asked.

A low, slapping sound reached Artois’s ears, and then a woman’s pained moan. Artois wasn’t surprised that Con Felder beat women who challenged him – he probably killed men for lesser offenses. The slapping sound came from near the light source, and Artois sensed they were a sizable crowd. Male and female breaths became apparent, as the northerners all huffed and puffed in the tropical cavern.

The strange language of the Mongols emanated from the upper floor. Artois didn’t think those efficient warriors would abandon their battle advantages in the open air, risking death to explore the bowels of the ruined city. Perhaps they weren’t going all the way in? Maybe they just wanted to ensure that the barbarian horde’s threat was neutralized, and then they would return to their specialties. But if Artois was wrong, and the Mongols wanted to scour every inch of the ruins, this was their only opportunity to save the Princess.

“I think they have four men,” Artois whispered. “We rush them and kill as many as we can, as fast as we can.”

That’s your brilliant plan? We just rush them?” Meleanus asked.

“Have you a better one?”

Meleanus loosened the straps on his belt that held his throwing knives in place. “If we can get the men away from the women, I can throw these.”

Artois calculated quickly. “I’ll attack them and retreat immediately, try and lure them to one of the dark corners of this place. The women will stay by the light, if we’re lucky.”

The Mongol voices overhead got louder, angrier. “Time to go,” Meleanus said.

Artois moved across the cavern in a half-crouch, holding his axe in a wide grip for better control. He stepped on something wet and mushy and kept going. All he could see were the silhouettes of his enemies in front of him, huddling around the exit, waiting for Con Felder’s orders. They were standing in a half-circle, and Artois raised his axe to brain the nearest man, blood on his mind.

“Look out!” Con Felder shouted a fraction too late.

Artois’s axe took the man behind the ear, dropping him like he’d been struck by lightning. He wrenched his weapon free just as Blackblade and the other barbarians started their attacks, swinging axes and blades at Artois’s face. The Seventh Crusade veteran didn’t panic, he just shuffled his feet backwards, to avoid tripping, and let the two men come after him. Con Felder stayed near the women, content to let his underlings handle the dirty work.

Artois’s back hit a wall, and then Meleanus let his throwing knives go, whipping them across the musty cavern with quiet lethality. Blackblade, his ogrish build apparent in the gloom, was using both his axes to weave a cascade of death in front of Artois’s face. He swung the heavy axes like they were weightless, whipping the points out like a snake, deceptively fast and dangerous. One of Meleanus’s knives stuck in Blackblade’s thigh, but the tattooed monster kept going, his ugly sneer morphed into a mask of hatred. Artois wondered if the man remembered him from the parley in Narva, or if he thought he was fighting a Mongol.

The other barbarian, undoubtedly one of Con Felder’s top lieutenants, tried flanking Artois from the side. He took a low stance and thrust with the point of his sword, but one of Meleanus’s knives found the man’s back, and he pitched forward at the same moment Blackblade was whipping his axes through the air. Blackblade decapitated his fellow barbarian without even a pause, letting the warm blood wash over both combatants. Artois was distantly aware that the women with Con Felder were screaming and crying, and he hoped they weren’t going to attract the Mongols’ attention.

Blackblade was a veteran, no doubt about that. He stayed out of Artois’s reach, perhaps four feet from the wall, taking safe, fast swings at Artois’s arms and legs. Blackblade wasn’t going to risk his own life by rushing in and clinching with Artois, and they quickly reached a tense impasse, where Blackblade couldn’t penetrate Artois’s defenses, and Artois couldn’t get his back off the wall and launch any offense.

The ugly barbarian tried an old trick on Artois. In the middle of a flurry, he pitched one of his axes at Artois, letting the weapon go. Artois instinctively avoided the sharp blade flying towards his groin, and Blackblade took the opportunity to execute a perfect downward swing, intending to sever Artois’s spine. Panicked, Artois went limp, knowing that to absorb the full force of the blow would instantly kill him. He fell to the ground and the attack lost its momentum, but the axe still connected, burying into Artois’s ribs, crushing his organs.

Blackblade tried to pull his weapon free, but Artois bit back the pain grabbed the handle, yanking Blackblade into him. The two huge men became entangled on the floor, and Artois slipped his hand into his waistband and extracted his dagger. He felt Blackblade grab his hair, trying to lift his chin so he could head-butt him, and Artois went limp again, upsetting Blackblade’s violent tug and causing the barbarian to lose his grip.

Artois plunged his dagger into Blackblade’s exposed throat, feeling his tendons snap and pop as his life blood poured all over the dusty cavern. He turned the dagger sideways and sawed through the side of Blackblade’s neck, partially beheading him. Artois pushed his dead foe off him and tried to stand, but his legs refused, and he immediately knew that Blackblade’s axe had severely, maybe mortally, wounded him.

Meleanus did not wait for Artois. He charged at Con Felder alone, screaming like a demon summoned from the abyss. But Con Felder was experienced in combat, and still in his prime, and he met Meleanus’s sloppy, reckless attack with the same calmness that had seen him meld the tribes of the north into a serviceable army.

Meleanus chopped downward. Con Felder sidestepped the attack and punched Meleanus in the nose. The youth thrust his blade forward, and Con Felder took the blow on his armor and returned a hard slash down Meleanus’s upper arm. With his youthful foe losing confidence quickly, Con Felder pressed an attack, swinging the same backhand strike over and over, trying to gauge Meleanus’s reaction. When the time was right, he would use the backhand strike to mask a stab to the body, and the fight would be over. After that, it would be a small matter to finish off the badly-injured Artois and flee with the women.

Princess Kate had been beaten, raped, and perhaps worst of all, dismissed. Con Felder thought she was a woman, unfit for anything more than the bedroom, and Kate took that moment to prove him wrong. Just as he was preparing to stab Meleanus’s body, Kate rushed forward and plowed into Con Felder, sending the blonde leader pitching forward. Con Felder slipped on a stone in the darkness, and his nose slammed into the ground, shattering upon impact. That was about to be the least of his problems.

Meleanus brought his sword down, point first, into the hardest blow he’d ever delivered. The blade went cleanly through Con Felder’s exposed back, and into his heart, killing him. Not content to celebrate for even a moment, the youth rushed over to Artois, and, with the help of two women, dragged him towards the sunny exit.

 

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

“You came to rescue me,” Princess Kate said, staring at Artois with equal parts adoration and shock.

The veteran blinked his eyes. He was outside. The stifling air of the cavern, with its bloody decorations, and foul odors, was behind him. Cool sunlight was on his face, the air was fresh, the day still young.

He saw Meleanus holding Princess Kate around the waist in an all-too-familiar grip. She was leaning into the younger man, too, watching Artois carefully. He had seen that look in people’s eyes before.

“I’m dying,” he croaked, lifting his palm and turning it over. His skin was waxy and pale, the result of too much blood loss. Even if Blackblade’s vicious assault did not kill Artois instantly, that didn’t mean the hideous wound in his side wouldn’t do the job. It would just take a little longer, that was all.

“I’ll get the horses and you’ll be fine,” Meleanus said. “We’ll take you to the healers in Narva, or perhaps west, towards Paris.”

“How many women are there?” Artois asked.

“Eight. Those bastard barbarians killed two before we reached them.”

“Go west and take our three tethered horses, Smite and I won’t need them. You will have enough horses to carry all of you away from these accursed ruins. Those damn Mongolian warriors are still around, so you better leave quickly.”

Princess Kate’s face blanched, and when she next spoke, her jaw quivered. “We’re not leaving you.”

“Don’t be a fool! You don’t have enough horses to carry me and everyone else, too. Leave me here. I’ll be dead by day’s end, whether I’m here or somewhere else.”

No more words were necessary. Princess Kate pecked Artois on the cheek and walked away. Meleanus made sure the veteran had his sword in his hand before he left him to die in the grass. Within minutes they were all gone, the final maidens drifting from Artois’s view like angels departing on a cloud.

Artois’s heart was still bounding hard, which he found strange. He looked to the hideous wound in his side, and was relieved to see that the bleeding had stopped, although he felt extremely cold. Maybe that was just the fresh air, after having fought and bled in the humid cavern under the ruins. No matter – Artois pushed himself to a sitting position and leaned against the wall, watching a flock of birds dive and dodge through the sky. Above them, lacy clouds crisscrossed over the heavens, and somewhere nearby, he could hear horses neighing. Artois hoped that Meleanus and Princess Kate found the horses and escaped intact. With that final hope, the Seventh Crusade veteran closed his eyes, letting the darkness settle over his mind once more.

 

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Note

 

Narva is a real city, located in present-day Estonia, at the far western border of Russia. Narva’s geographical location is where I intended my fictionalized version to take place, but the characters, French rule and invading barbarian hordes were all dramatized for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, the city was an important trade waypoint in the Middle Ages, and was subjugated by Sweden, Russia, and finally Estonia throughout its history.

Readers of my Seventh Crusade and Final Crusade novels will already be familiar with Artois Coquet. This short-story was intended to resolve his final days, although I’m not sure if he survived Viktor Blackblade’s violent assault or not.

It is true that the Mongolian hordes under Genghis Khan, and later Kublai Khan, pressed into Eastern Europe and the Middle East during the Medieval Ages. Poland, Hungary and Croatia were all attacked at some point by the Mongolians, who were following in the footsteps of their predecessors, the Huns. Perhaps the most effected people were the Muslims, who lost Baghdad and a healthy portion of their history to the ruthless archers of the steppes.

If you enjoyed this short story, please be sure to check out my other novels available on Amazon.com, and if you really love me, leave a review J

You can also follow me @MarkBWrites on Twitter, or visit my ‘Mark Butler Author Page’ on Facebook.

 

 

 

 


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