We Are Knights
By Blake Gabriel
The quiet fell among them like an ashen snow. Beneath the breathing, the clink of mail, and the crunching of the white-dusted grass, there was no other sound. Through the silence, Ser Karlton spoke, his voice joyless and grim.
“They are not here.”
Around him, the green-cloaked soldiers turned over the bodies of the dead. Most of their faces were ruined and rimed with frost, their bodies leaving pink spots in the gray-flecked snow. The corpses bore the chained bear sigil on their coats, though whatever armor and weapons they bore had been looted.
“These are Dace armsmen,” Ser Henrik said, rubbing his fur-gloved hands together for warmth. “Surely these were Lord Thorys’ children among them.”
“They are not,” Karlton replied, “else these men would have fought harder. They died much too quickly.”
Henrik laughed, his breath misting in front of him.
“By the goddess, Karlton, we fell upon them like wolves among sheep. They didn’t stand a chance!”
As if to answer Karlton’s doubtful expression, the tall, lean-faced knight gestured to the burnt remains of a wagon by the roadside. More of their soldiers were picking over the wreck, pocketing whatever treasures they could find. Next to the wagon, laid out beside each other were two small bodies.
“Then who did Smelly Tim and Black Cottle put to the sword?” Henrik asked. “They were of the same age and look.”
“A peasant’s boy can be dressed in finery and play the part of a young lord,” Karlton said, striding over to the dead children. “These are not Lord Thorys’ whelps.”
His gaze slowed for a moment as it passed over the smaller of the two. The boy couldn’t have been more than ten, his pudgy face pale and blue and his throat a ragged, red gash.
“I’m sorry, Ser Karlton.”
The knight shook his head, blinking away the unbidden memory. Henrik was kneeling over the lads, his dagger sawing a ring off one of the boys’ fingers.
“This should fetch a pretty penny at the market,” Henrik muttered, slipping the ring off and examining it before quickly pocketing it. “If these aren’t the Dace children, then where can we find them?”
Karlton looked south, where the road wound down the mountain. Villages large enough to hide the runaways were few in the Snowfires, though the knight had an idea of where they might seek sanctuary.
“All of you mount up.”
“We are knights!” Henrik roared to be heard above the howling wind. “In service to Lord Hadrian, Duke of Calenar!”
Karlton pulled the cowl of his cloak tighter across his face as the bitter cold cut across his face, its edge sharper than any sword. He could barely make out the figure of the abbot atop the monastery walls; his torch alit and held aloft.
“The hour is late, good sers, and this storm makes it difficult to see for certain that you are who you claim to be,” the friar shouted back.
In answer, Henrik drew his sword, the pale blade glittering even in the dim torchlight. There was not a single person in Calenar who did not know that sword – Wintersteel, it was named by Henrik’s forebear and it was said that the weapon was bathed in the heart of a frost dragon long ago in the ages of myth.
“I am Ser Henrik Vasgar of Weather Watch,” he announced proudly. “And my companion is Ser Karlton Anguis of Stone Hill. You shall let us pass!”
The abbot did not speak though Karlton spied the man cocking his head, as if he was listening to an unseen speaker.
“By your honor and by the goddess’ virtue, you may enter,” he said as the monastery gates swung open, “but within these walls you may shed no blood.”
“We swear!” Henrik responded, sheathing Wintersteel.
The two knights led the weary band into the monastery, their arrival greeted by the monks and novices. Their horses were led into the stable where feed and fresh water were laid out. The men were welcomed into the warming house where a fire was lit and mulled wine poured.
One-Eared Pete helped himself to a meat pie a pink-faced novice brought out, freshly baked and still hot. The smell wafted over Karlton and he felt his stomach growl hungrily. The abbot entered the room, removing his heavy fur cloak and hanging it on the wall.
“I apologize, good sers, for the delay. These days not even the goddess’ servants have the luxury of blind trust,” he said, his jowls bouncing as he bowed his head.
“Have you had much trouble of late?” Henrik asked as he sniffed the goblet of wine.
“Every day, Ser Henrik, we have seen looters, bandits, deserters, and all the scum of the earth since the war began,” the abbot replied.
“It will be over soon, Father,” Henrik said, smiling. “What, with Calenar joining her men to Lord Willam’s banner, Lord Wystan will have to surrender.”
“Is that the news of it then? We had heard rumors of Lord Hadrian’s decision,”
“Aye, though some of the other highland lords have need of some convincing,” Henrik continued.
Karlton, who had been watching the abbot quietly, noted the holy man’s gaze flit to the window. The knight followed his gaze and saw the flash of a face of a chestnut-haired youth looking in from the outside.
“Do you speak of Lord Thorys Dace?” the abbot asked, his voice quavering ever so slightly.
“How perceptive of you, Father,” Henrik said.
“Word has it that the duke has marched on Whitefall with the intention of storming it,” the abbot said. “You must have been among his host. Has Whitefall been taken?”
Karlton rose from his seat at the table, pacing towards the window. He could feel the abbot’s nervous gaze upon him and his every movement.
“Not yet, Father, though Lord Hadrian has his hopes that Thorys will submit without further bloodshed. It would be a shame to suffer such an ignoble end.”
The window overlooked the monastery’s courtyard, where a statue of Saint Francis Demetrius knelt, his upraised shield bearing the icon of the goddess and, where Karlton saw a monk herding two children into another building.
“We can only pray that the goddess will grant us wisdom and mercy,” the abbot said.
Henrik also stood, still giving the abbot his widest grin. The other knight walked around the table, the eyes of their men following his every step.
“Tell us, Father, when you were planning on telling us that you were harboring our lord duke’s enemies?” he said, looming over the abbot.
“I – I have no idea what you are talking about!” the abbot stammered.
Karlton turned from the window. “Do not play us for fools.”
The abbot’s face turned white, the blood draining from it as he realized his ploy had failed.
“Did you think you could welcome us into your walls, stuff us with food and wine, and send us along our merry way with they remain unnoticed?” Henrik asked, a hand going to Wintersteel’s hilt.
“I thought – I thought.” The abbot struggled to form a coherent thought. “They are only children!”
“Aye,” Henrik said, nodding, “Lord Thorys’ children. They are his sons and heirs and because their father dared to rebel against his rightful liege lord, they must suffer the same fate as he.”
The abbot stumbled from his seat, falling on all fours and crawling away. They watched the holy man climb to his feet with his back to the door, blocking them from it. The green-cloaked armsmen, the white oak of House Cenarian sewn over their hearts, stood and drew their swords.
“This is the goddess’ sanctuary! You cannot shed blood here!” the abbot cried.
“Stand aside, Father,” Karlton demanded, stepping before the abbot. “Stand aside and you and your brothers shall not be harmed.”
“I cannot do that,” the abbot said, finding his strength at last.
“Why do you protect them, Father? They aren’t your sons,” Henrik said, the pale blade of Wintersteel in his hand.
“All children are dear to the goddess’ heart,” the abbot replied.
“It’s more than that, isn’t it, Father?” Henrik pressed, coming to stand beside Karlton. “My companion here figured it out. You see, I might be the charmer, but Karlton is the thinker. He remembers that not all of the late Lord Dace’s sons took up the sword to become knights.”
The abbot swallowed, his beady eyes darting between the two men standing foremost before him.
“While Thorys Dace learned the lance and the sword, his younger brother took up the shepherd’s crook and the holy book,” Henrik said. “Are we not accurate, Father – or rather, Borys Dace?”
“I am Borys Dace,” the abbot said, “though you were wrong to think that I do not know how to use a sword!”
From the folds of his habit, the abbot produced a sword, the blade glinting in the candlelight. He held it before him, challenging the two knights in front of him.
“Your devotion to your brother’s children is admirable,” Karlton said, easing his own sword from his scabbard, “but you cannot hope to win. We are knights.”
“Knights swear to protect the weak and the innocent!” the abbot cried. “Knights uphold the goddess’ virtues and honor their vows!”
The abbot lunged with the blade, trying to pierce Karlton’s throat, but the knight caught the blow with his own sword.
“You are not knights! You have no honor!”
From beneath his monk’s habit, Borys Dace mustered a sudden strength and ferocity that caught Karlton off-guard. His strokes were strong and fast and twice he had gotten past the knight’s guard, though Karlton’s mail saved him from the worst of it.
Then it ended as quickly as it began. A crimson flower of blood sprouted from the abbot’s chest as Wintersteel’s pale blade pierced his back. The abbot crumpled as Henrik kicked him off and spat on his body.
“Fool,” he muttered.
Karlton bent over the dying priest as Henrik and the others went out the door. There was shouting and the sounds of weapons clashing and men shouting and dying, but Karlton kept his eyes on the abbot. He shook violently as he died, blood pooling on the stone floor from the wound in his chest. The smell of shit filled the room when the abbot voided his bowels.
“You –,” he tried to say though it came out as a gurgling sound.
“Goddess greet you when you wake, Father,” Karlton said, placing his hand over the abbot’s eyes to close them.
Then, the abbot died.
“I am sorry, Ser Karlton.” The voice was that of the friar, Brother Jobal, his worn habit and his hands stained with blood. “I could not save them.”
“I could not save your wife and son.”
They fought bravely and valiantly, and they all died. Not a single friar within the monastery walls survived that night of battle. They had taken up all manner of weapons: staves, cudgels, pitchforks, and even crossbows, but the duke’s men killed them all. In the end, courage did not make as effective an aegis as mail.
Henrik wiped the blood from his face on a tapestry that depicted the ancient chiefs bending knee to the first High King and then tossed the bloodied rag onto the pile of bodies to be burnt. Wintersteel was strapped across his back while he surveyed the carnage.
Somewhere in the monastery a woman, one of the kitchen maids, screamed and the sound of anguish was followed by the hooting and laughter of soldiers taking their turns with her. Soon enough, her screaming stopped, though whether it was because the men had tired of her protesting and slit her throat or whether she had just given up, Henrik did not know. Nor did he care.
“Ser Karlton,” Henrik called when he spotted the other knight turn the corner, sword still in hand. “The monastery is ours, though the Dace children are still nowhere to be found.”
When Karlton came to stand beside him, Henrik saw that his blade was still bloody. “The deed is done.”
“You found them?” Henrik asked. “Where were they hiding?”
“The wine cellar.”
“Ah, well, I pray that they didn’t get into the vintage before you found them. There are enough casks under there to last the both of us until the summer,” Henrik said, grinning. “My lady wife will be quite happy.”
Henrik clapped his fellow knight on the shoulder and walked off, calling to the soldiers he could find to help him cart off the casks. Karlton lingered in the courtyard, by the watch of Saint Francis. A friar had died at the statue’s feet, a spear in his belly, his blood painting the gray stone.
“Heed my words, Ser Karlton. Death is not the end. Your wife and son are in the embrace of the goddess now.” Jobal had patted his arm, trying to comfort him, yet he did not feel it. All he could feel was emptiness inside.
The temple taught that the goddess’ touch was warm, but if that was true then why was death so cold? The Dace boys – they had faced him in the end, though their eyes betrayed their fear. Two boys whose numbered years together didn’t even pass twelve – in the end, both of them begged for mercy. The oldest even pissed his breeches.
No, Karlton knew death was cold, like the lifeless bodies of his beloved wife and child as they were lowered into Stone Hill’s crypt. Only blood was warm, just like the blood of Bryce and Willam Dace as they poured from their little bodies like wine from a cask.