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The Red Knight
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The Red Knight

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Author: Miles Cameron
Publisher: Orbit, 2013
Series: The Traitor Son Cycle: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Heroic Fantasy
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Synopsis

Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder. It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abby is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with.Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war. . .


Excerpt

Chapter One

Albinkirk--Ser John Crayford

The Captain of Albinkirk forced himself to stop staring out his narrow, glazed window and do some work.

He was jealous. Jealous of a boy a third of his age, commanding a pretty company of lances. Riding about. While he sat in a town so safe it was dull, growing old.

Don't be a fool, he told himself. All those deeds of arms make wonderful stories, but the doing is cold, wet and terrifying. Remember?

He sighed. His hands remembered everything--the blows, the nights on the ground, the freezing cold, the gauntlets that didn't quite fit. His hands pained him all the time, awake or asleep.

The Captain of Albinkirk, Ser John Crayford, had not started his life as a gentleman. It was a rank he'd achieved through pure talent.

For violence.

And as a reward, he sat in this rich town with a garrison a third the size that it was supposed to be on paper. A garrison of hirelings who bossed the weak, abused the women, and took money from the tradesmen. A garrison that had too much cash, because the posting came with the right to invest in fur caravans from the north. Albinkirk furs were the marvel of ten countries. All you had to do to get them was ride north or west into the Wild. And then come back alive.

The captain had a window that looked north-west.

He tore his eyes away from it. Again.

And put pen to paper. Carefully, laboriously, he wrote:

My Lord,

A Company of Adventure--well ordered, and bearing a pass signed by the constable--passed the bridge yesterday morning; near to forty lances, each lance composed of a knight, a squire, a valet and an archer. They were very well armed and armoured in the latest Eastern manner--steel everywhere. Their captain was polite but reserved; very young, refused to give his name; styled himself The Red Knight. His banner displayed three lacs d'amour in gold on a field sable. He declared that they were, for the most part, your Grace's subjects, lately come from the wars in Galle. As his pass was good, I saw no reason to keep him.

Ser John snorted, remembering the scene. No one had thought to warn him that a small army was coming his way from the east. He'd been summoned to the gate early in the morning. Dressed in a stained cote of fustian and old hose, he'd tried to face down the cocky young pup in his glorious scarlet and gold, mounted on a war horse the size of a barn. He hadn't enough real soldiers to arrest any of them. The damned boy had Great Noble written all over him, and the Captain of Albinkirk thanked God that the whelp had paid the toll with good grace and had good paper, as any incident between them would have gone badly. For him.

He realised he was looking at the mountains. He tore his eyes away. Again.

He also had a letter from the Abbess at Lissen Carak. She had sent to me last autumn for fifty good men, and I had to refuse her--your Grace knows I am short enough of men as it is. I suppose she has offered her contract to sell-swords in the absence of local men.

I am, as your Grace is aware, almost one hundred men under strength; I have but four proper men-at-arms, and many of my archers are not all they should be. I respectfully request that your Grace either replace me, or provide the necessary funds to increase the garrison to its proper place.

I am your Grace's humblest and most respectful servant, John Crayford

The Master of the Guild of Furriers had invited him to dinner. Ser John leaned back and decided to call it a day, leaving the letter lying on his desk.

Lissen Carak--The Red Knight

"Sweet Jesu," Michael called from the other side of the wall. It was as high as a man's shoulder, created by generations of peasants hauling stones out of fields. Built against the wall was a two-storey stone house with outbuild- ings--a rich manor farm. Michael stood in the yard, peering through the house's shattered main door. "Sweet Jesu," the squire said again. "They're all dead, Captain."

His war horse gave the captain the height to see over the wall to where his men were rolling the bodies over, stripping them of valuables as they sought for survivors. Their new employer would not approve, but the captain thought the looting might help her understand what she was choos- ing to employ. In his experience, it was usually best that the prospective employer understand what he--or she--was buying. From the first.

The captain's squire vaulted over the stone wall that separated the walled garden from the road and took a rag from Toby, the captain's page. Sticky mud, from the endless spring rain, covered his thigh-high buckled boots. He produced a rag from his purse to cover his agitation and began to clean his boots. Michael was fussy and dressed for fashion. His scarlet company surcoat was embroidered with gold stars; the heavy wool worth more than an archer's armour. He was well born and could afford it, so it was his business.

It was the captain's business that the lad's hands were shaking.

"When you feel ready to present yourself," the captain said lightly, but Michael froze at his words, then made himself finish his task with the rag before tossing it back to Toby.

"Apologies, m'lord," he said with a quick glance over his shoulder. "It was something out of the Wild, lord. Stake my soul on it."

"Not much of a stake," the captain said, holding Michael's eye. He winked, as much to amuse the onlookers of his household as to steady his squire, who was pale enough to write on. Then he looked around.

The rain was light--just enough to weigh down the captain's heavy scar- let cloak without soaking it through. Beyond the walled steading stretched fields of dark, newly planted earth, as shining and black in the rain as the captain's horse. The upper fields toward the hills were rich with new greenery and dotted with sheep. Good earth and fertile soil promised rich crops, as far as the eye could see on both sides of the river. This land was tamed, covered in a neat geometric pattern of hedgerows and high stone walls separating tilled plots, or neatly scattered sheep and cattle, with the river to ship them down to the cities in the south. Crops and animals whose riches had paid for the fortress nunnery--Lissen Carak--that capped the high ridge to the south, visible from here as a crenelated line of pale stone. Grey, grey, grey from the sky to the ground. Pale grey, dark grey, black.

Beyond the sheep, to the north, rose the Adnacrags--two hundred leagues of dense mountains that lowered over the fields, their tops lost in the clouds.

The captain laughed at his own thoughts.

The dozen soldiers nearest him looked; every head turned, each wearing matching expressions of fear.

The captain rubbed the pointed beard at his chin, shaking off the water. "Jacques?" he asked his valet.

The older man sat quietly on a war horse. He was better armed than most of the valets; wearing his scarlet surcote with long, hanging sleeves over an Eastern breastplate, and with a fine sword four feet long to the tip. He, too, combed the water out of his pointed beard while he thought.

"M'lord?" he asked.

"How did the Wild make it here?" The captain asked. Even with a gloved hand keeping the water from his eyes, he couldn't see the edge of the Wild--there wasn't a stand of trees large enough to hide a deer within a mile. Two miles. Far off to the north, many leagues beyond the rainy horizon and the mountains, was the Wall. Past the Wall was the Wild. True, the Wall was breached in many places and the Wild ran right down into the country. The Adnacrags had never been cleared. But here--

Here, wealth and power held the Wild at bay. Should have held the Wild at bay.

"The usual way," Jacques said quietly. "Some fool must have invited them in."

The captain chuckled. "Well," he said, giving his valet a crooked smile, "I don't suppose they'd call us if they didn't have a problem. And we need the work."

"It ripped them apart," Michael said.

He was new to the trade and well-born, but the captain appreciated how quickly he had recovered his poise. At the same time, Michael needed to learn.

"Apart," Michael repeated, licking his lips. His eyes were elsewhere. "It ate her. Them."

Mostly recovered, the captain thought to himself. He nodded to his squire and gave his destrier, Grendel, a little rein so he backed a few steps and turned. The big horse could smell blood and something else he didn't like. He didn't like most things, even at the best of times, but this was spooking him and the captain could feel his mount's tension. Given that Grendel wore a chamfron over his face with a spike a foot long, the horse's annoyance could quickly translate into mayhem.

He motioned to Toby, who was now sitting well to the side and away from the isolated steading-house and eating, which is what Toby tended to do whenever left to himself. The captain turned to face his standard bearer and his two marshals where they sat their own fidgeting horses in the rain, waiting for his commands.

"I'll leave Sauce and Bad Tom. They'll stay on their guard until we send them a relief," he said. The discovery of the killings in the steading had interrupted their muddy trek to the fortress. They'd been riding since the second hour after midnight, after a cold camp and equally cold supper. No one looked happy.

"Go and get me the master of the hunt," he added, turning back to his squire. When he was answered only with silence, he looked around. "Michael?" he asked quietly.

"M'lord?" The young man was looking at the door to the steading. It was oak, bound in iron, and it had been broken in two places, the iron hinges inside the door had bent where they'd been forced off their pins. Trios of parallel grooves had ripped along the grain of the wood--in one spot, the talons had ripped through a decorative iron whorl, a clean cut.

"Do you need a minute, lad?" the captain asked. Jacques had seen to his own mount and was now standing at Grendel's big head, eyeing the spike warily.

"No--no, m'lord." His squire was still stunned, staring at the door and what lay beyond it.

"Then don't stand on ceremony, I beg." The captain dismounted, think- ing that he had used the term lad quite naturally. Despite the fact that he and Michael were less than five years apart.

"M'lord?" Michael asked, unclear what he'd just been told to do.

"Move your arse, boy. Get me the huntsman. Now." The captain handed his horse to the valet. Jacques was not really a valet. He was really the captain's man and, as such, he had his own servant--Toby. A recent addition. A scrawny thing with large eyes and quick hands, completely enveloped in his red wool cote, which was many sizes too big.

Toby took the horse and gazed at his captain with hero-worship, a big winter apple forgotten in his hand.

The captain liked a little hero-worship. "He's spooked. Don't give him any free rein or there'll be trouble," the captain said gruffly. He paused. "You might give him your apple core though," he said, and the boy smiled.

The captain went into the steading by the splintered door. Closer up, he could see that the darker brown was not a finish. It was blood.

Behind him, his destrier gave a snort that sounded remarkably like human derision--though whether it was for the page or his master was impossible to tell.

The woman just inside the threshold had been a nun before she was ripped open from neck to cervix. Her long, dark hair, unbound from the confines of her wimple, framed the horror of her missing face. She lay in a broad pool of her own blood that ran down into the gaps between the boards. There were tooth marks on her skull--the skin just forward of one ear had been shredded, as if something had gnawed at her face for some time, flensing it from the bone. One arm had been ripped clear of her body, the skin and muscle neatly eaten away so that only shreds remained, bones and tendons still hanging together...and then it had been replaced by the corpse. The white hand with the silver IHS ring and the cross was untouched.

The captain looked at her for a long time.

Just beyond the red ruin of the nun was a single clear footprint in the blood and ordure, which was already brown and sticky in the moist, cool air. Some of the blood had begun to leech into the pine floor boards, smooth from years of bare feet walking them. The leeched blood blurred the edge of the print, but the outline was clear--it was the size of a war horse's hoof or bigger, with three toes.

The captain heard his huntsman come up and dismount outside. He didn't turn, absorbed in the parallel exercises of withholding the need to vomit and committing the scene to memory. There was a second, smudged print further into the room, where the creature had pivoted its weight to pass under the low arch to the main room beyond. It had dug a furrow in the pine with its talons. And a matching furrow in the base board that ran up into the wattle and plaster. A dew claw.

"Why'd this one die here when the rest died in the garden?" he asked.

Gelfred stepped carefully past the body. Like most gentlemen, he carried a short staff--really just a stick shod in silver, like a mountebank's wand. Or a wizard's. He used it first to point and then to pry something shiny out of the floorboards.

"Very good," said the captain.

"She died for them," Gelfred said. A silver cross set with pearls dangled from his stick. "She tried to stop it. She gave the others time to escape."

"If only it had worked," said the captain. He pointed at the prints.

Gelfred crouched by the nearer print, laid his stick along it, and made a clucking sound with his tongue.

"Well, well," he said. His nonchalance was a little too studied. And his face was pale.

The captain couldn't blame the man. In a brief lifetime replete with dead bodies, the captain had seldom seen one so horrible. Part of his conscious mind wandered off a little, wondering if her femininity, the beauty of her hair, contributed to the utter horror of her destruction. Was it like desecration? A deliberate sacrilege?

And another, harder part of his mind walked a different path. The monster had placed that arm just so. The tooth marks that framed the bloody sockets that had been her eyes. He could imagine, far too well.

It had been done to leave terror. It was almost artistic.

He tasted salt in his mouth and turned away. "Don't act tough on my account, Gelfred," he said. He spat on the floor, trying to get rid of the taste before he made a spectacle of himself.

"Never seen worse, and that's a fact," Gelfred said. He took a long, slow breath. "God shouldn't allow this!" he said bitterly.

"Gelfred," the captain said, with a bitter smile. "God doesn't give a fuck."

Their eyes met. Gelfred looked away. "I will know what there is to know," he said, looking grim. He didn't like the captain's blasphemy--his face said as much. Especially not when he was about to work with God's power.

Gelfred touched his stick to the middle of the print, and there was a moment of change, as if their eyes had adjusted to a new light source, or stronger sunlight.

"Pater noster qui es in caelus," Gelfred intoned in plainchant.

The captain left him to it.

In the garden, Ser Thomas's squire and half a dozen archers had stripped the bodies of valuables--and collected all the body parts strewn across the enclosure, reassembled as far as possible, and laid them out, wrapped in cloaks. The two men were almost green, and the smell of vomit almost covered the smell of blood and ordure. A third archer was wiping his hands on a linen shirt.

Ser Thomas--Bad Tom to every man in the company--was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brow and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross. He was watching his men attentively, an amulet out and in his hand. He turned at the rattle of the captain's hardened steel sabatons on the stone path and gave him a sketchy salute. "Reckon the young 'uns earned their pay today, Captain."

Since they weren't paid unless they had a contract, it wasn't saying much. The captain merely grunted. There were six corpses in the garden.

Bad Tom raised an eyebrow and passed something to him.

The captain looked at it, and pursed his lips. Tucked the chain into the purse at his waist, and slapped Bad Tom on his paulder-clad shoulder. "Stay here and stay awake," he said. "You can have Sauce and Gelding, too."

Bad Tom shrugged. He licked his lips. "Me an' Sauce don't always see eye to eye."

The captain smiled inwardly to see this giant of a man--feared through- out the company--admit that he and a woman didn't "see eye to eye."

She came over the wall to join them.

Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name. That said all that needed to be said.

"Tom fucked it up already?" she asked.

Tom glared.

The captain took a breath. "Play nicely, children. I need my best on guard here, frosty and awake."

"It won't come back," she said.

The captain shook his head. "Stay awake anyway. Just for me."

Bad Tom smiled and blew a kiss at Sauce. "Just for you," he said.

Her hand went to her riding sword and with a flick it was in her hand. The captain cleared his throat.

"He treats me like a whore. I am not." She held the sword steady at his face, and Bad Tom didn't move.

"Say you are sorry, Tom." The captain sounded as if it was all a jest.

"Didn't say one bad thing. Not one! Just a tease!" Tom said. Spittle flew from his lips.

"You meant to cause harm. She took it as harm. You know the rules, Tom." The captain's voice had changed, now. He spoke so softly that Tom had to lean forward to hear him.

"Sorry," Tom muttered like a schoolboy. "Bitch."

Sauce smiled. The tip of her riding sword pressed into the man's thick forehead just over an eye.

"Fuck you!" Tom growled.

The captain leaned forward. "Neither one of you wants this. It's clear you are both posturing. Climb down or take the consequences. Tom, Sauce wants to be treated as your peer. Sauce, Tom is top beast and you put his back up at every opportunity. If you want to be part of this company then you have to accept your place in it."

He raised his gloved hand. "On the count of three, you will both back away, Sauce will sheathe her weapon, Tom will bow to her and apologise, and Sauce will return his apology. Or you can both collect your kit, walk away and kill each other. But not as my people. Understand? Three. Two. One."

Sauce stepped back, saluted with her blade and sheathed it. Without looking or fumbling.

Tom let a moment go by. Pure insolence. But then something happened in his face, and he bowed--a good bow, so that his right knee touched the mud. "Humbly crave your pardon," he said in a loud, clear voice.

Sauce smiled. It wasn't a pretty smile, but it did transform her face, despite the missing teeth in the middle. "And I yours, ser knight," she replied. "I regret my... attitude."

She obviously shocked Tom. In the big man's world of dominance and submission, she was beyond him. The captain could read him like a book. And he thought Sauce deserves something for that. She's a good man.

Gelfred appeared at his elbow. Had probably been waiting for the drama to end.

The captain felt the wrongness of it before he saw what his huntsman carried. Like a housewife returning from pilgrimage and smelling something dead under her floor--it was like that, only stronger and wronger.

"I rolled her over. This was in her back," Gelfred said. He had the thing wrapped in his rosary.

The captain swallowed bile, again. I love this job, he reminded himself.

To the eye, it looked like a stick--two fingers thick at the butt, sharp- ened to a needlepoint now clotted with blood and dark. Thorns sprouted from the whole haft, but it was fletched. An arrow. Or rather, an obscene parody of an arrow, whittled from...

"Witch Bane," Gelfred said.

The captain made himself take it without flinching. There were some secrets he would pay the price to preserve. He flashed on the last Witch- Bane arrow he'd seen--and pushed past it.

He held it a moment. "So?" he said, with epic unconcern.

"She was shot in the back--with the Witch Bane--while she was alive." Gelfred's eyes narrowed. "And then the monster ripped her face off."

The captain nodded and handed his huntsman the shaft. The moment it left his hand he felt lighter, and the places where the thorns had pricked his chamois gloves felt like rashes of poison ivy on his thumb and fingers--if poison ivy caused an itchy numbness, a leaden pollution.

"Interesting," the captain said.

Sauce was watching him.

Damn women and their superior powers of observation, he thought.

Her smile forced him to smile in return. The squires and valets in the garden began to breathe again and the captain was sure they'd stay awake, now. Given that there was a murderer on the loose who had monster-allies in the Wild.

He got back to his horse. Jehannes, his marshal, came up on his bridle hand side and cleared his throat. "That woman's trouble," he said.

"Tom's trouble too," the captain replied.

"No other company would have had her." Jehannes spat.

The captain looked at his marshal. "Now Jehannes," he said. "Be serious. Who would have Tom? He's killed more of his own comrades than Judas Iscariot."

Jehannes looked away. "I don't trust her," he said.

The captain nodded. "I know. Let's get moving." He considered vaulting into the saddle and decided that he was too tired and the show would be wasted on Jehannes, anyway. "You dislike her because she's a woman," he said, and put his left foot into the stirrup.

Grendel was tall enough that he had to bend his left knee as far as the articulation in his leg harness would allow. The horse snorted again. Toby held onto the reins.

He leaped up, his right leg powering him into the saddle, pushing his six feet of height and fifty pounds of mail and plate. Got his knee over the high ridge of the war-saddle and was in his seat.

"Yes," Jehannes said, and backed his horse into his place in the column.

The captain saw Michael watching Jehannes go. The younger man turned and raised an eyebrow at the captain.

"Something to say, young Michael?" the captain asked.

"What was the stick? M'lord?" Michael was different from the rest--well born. Almost an apprentice, instead of a hireling. As the captain's squire, he had special privileges. He could ask questions, and all the rest of the company would sit very still and listen to the answer.

The captain looked at him for a moment. Considering. He shrugged--no mean feat in plate armour.

"Witch Bane," he said. "A Witch-Bane arrow. The nun had power." He made a face. "Until someone shot the Witch Bane into her back."

"A nun?" Michael asked. "A nun who could work power?" He paused. "Who shot her? By Jesu, m'lord, you mean the Wild has allies?"

"All in a day's work, lad. It's all in a day's work." His visual memory, too well trained, ran through the items like the rooms in his memory palace--the splintered door, the faceless corpse, the arm, the Witch-Bane arrow. He examined the path from the garden door to the front door.

"Wait on me," he said.

He walked Grendel around the farmyard, following the stone wall to the garden. He stood in his stirrups to peer over the wall, and aligned the open garden door with the splintered front door. He looked over his shoulder several times.

"Wilful!" he called.

His archer appeared. "What now?" he muttered.

The captain pointed at the two doors. "How far away could you stand and still put an arrow into someone at the front door."

"What, shooting through the house?" asked Wilful Murder.

The captain nodded.

Wilful shook his head. "Not that far," he admitted. "Any loft at all and the shaft strikes the door jamb." He caught a louse on his collar and killed it between his nails. His eyes met the captain's. "He'd have to be close."

The captain nodded. "Gelfred?" he called.

The huntsman was outside the front door, casting with his wand over a large reptilian print in the road. "M'lord?"

"See if you and Wilful can find any tracks out the back. Wilful will show you where a bowman might have stood."

"It's always fucking me--get Long Paw to do it," Wilful muttered.

The captain's mild glance rested for a moment on his archer and the man cringed.

The captain turned his horse and sighed. "Catch us up as soon as you have the tracks," he said. He waved at Jehannes. "Let's go to the fortress and meet the lady Abbess." He touched his spurs ever so lightly to Grendel's sides, and the stallion snorted and deigned to move forward into the rain.

The rest of the ride along the banks of the Cohocton was uneventful, and the company halted by the fortified bridge overshadowed by the rock-girt ridge and the grey walls of the fortress convent atop it, high above them. Linen tents rose like dirty white flowers from the muddy field, and the officer's pavilions came off the wagons. Teams of archers dug cook pits and latrines, and valets and the many camp followers--craftsmen and sutlers, runaway serfs, prostitutes, servants, and free men and women desperate to gain a place--assembled the heavy wooden hoardings that served the camp as temporary walls and towers. The drovers, an essential part of any company, filled the gaps with the heavy wagons. Horse lines were staked out. Guards were set.

The Abbess's door ward had pointedly refused to allow the mercenaries through her gate. The mercenaries had expected nothing else, and even now hardened professionals were gauging the height of the walls and the likeli- hood of climbing them. Two veteran archers--Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating--stood by the camp's newly-constructed wooden gate and speculated on the likelihood of getting some in the nun's dormitory.

It made the captain smile as he rode by, collecting their salutes, on the steep gravel road that led up the ridge from the fortified town at the base, up along the switchbacks and finally up through the fortress gate-house into the courtyard beyond. Behind him, his banner bearer, marshals and six of his best lances dismounted to a quiet command and stood by their horses. His squire held his high-crested bassinet, and his valet bore his sword of war. It was an impressive show and it made good advertising--ideal, as he could see heads at every window and door that opened into the courtyard.

A tall nun in a slate-grey habit--the captain suppressed his reflexive flash on the corpse in the doorway of the steading--reached to take the reins of his horse. A second nun beckoned with her hand. Neither spoke.

The captain was pleased to see Michael dismount elegantly despite the rain, and take Grendel's head, without physically pushing the nun out of the way.

He smiled at the nuns and followed them across the courtyard towards the most ornate door, heavy with scroll-worked iron hinges and elaborate wooden panels. To the north, a dormitory building rose beyond a trio of low sheds that probably served as workshops--smithy, dye house and carding house, or so his nose told him. To the south stood a chapel--far too fragile and beautiful for this martial setting--and next to it, by cosmic irony, a long, low, slate-roofed stable.

Between the chapel's carved oak doors stood a man. He had a black habit with a silk rope around the waist, was tall and thin to the point of caricature, and his hands were covered in old scars.

The captain didn't like his eyes, which were blue and flat. The man was nervous, and wouldn't meet his eye--and he was clearly angry.

Flicking his eyes away from the priest, the captain reviewed the riches of the abbey with the eye of a money-lender sizing up a potential client. The abbey's income was shown in the cobbled courtyard, the neat flint and granite of the stables with a decorative stripe of glazed brick, the copper on the roof and the lead gutters gushing water into a cistern. The courtyard was thirty paces across--as big as that of any castle he'd lived in as a boy. The walls rose sheer--the outer curtain at his back, the central monastery before him, with towers at each corner, all wet stone and wet lead, rain slicked cobbles; the priest's faded black cassock, and the nun's undyed surcoat.

All shades of grey, he thought to himself, and smiled as he climbed the steps to the massive monastery door, which was opened by another silent nun. She led him down the hall--a great hall lit by stained glass windows high in the walls. The Abbess was enthroned like a queen in a great chair on a dais at the north end of the hall, in a gown whose grey had just enough colour to appear a pale, pale lavender in the multi-faceted light. She had the look of a woman who had once been very beautiful indeed--even in middle age her beauty was right there, resting in more than her face. Her wimple and the high collar of her gown revealed little enough of her. But her bearing was more than noble, or haughty. Her bearing was command- ing, confident in a way that only the great of the land were confident. The captain noted that her nuns obeyed her with an eagerness born of either fear or the pleasure of service.

The captain wondered which it was.

"You took long enough to reach us," she said, by way of greeting. Then she snapped her fingers and beckoned at a pair of servants to bring a tray. "We are servants of God here--don't you think you might have managed to strip your armour before you came to my hall?" the Abbess asked. She glanced around, caught a novice's eye, raised an eyebrow. "Fetch the captain a stool," she said. "Not a covered one. A solid one."

"I wear armour every day," the captain said. "It comes with my pro- fession." The great hall was as big as the courtyard outside, with high windows of stained glass set near the roof, and massive wooden beams so old that age and soot had turned them black. The walls were whitewashed over fine plaster, and held niches containing images of saints and two rich books--clearly on display to overawe visitors. Their voices echoed in the room, which was colder than the wet courtyard outside. There was no fire in the central hearth.

The Abbess's people brought her wine, and she sipped it as they placed a small table at the captain's elbow. He was three feet beneath her. "Perhaps your armour is unnecessary in a nunnery?" she asked.

He raised an eyebrow. "I see a fortress," he said. "It happens that there are nuns in it."

She nodded. "If I chose to order you taken by my men, would your armour save you?" she asked.

The novice who brought his stool was pretty and she was careful of him, moving with the deliberation of a swordsman or a dancer. He turned his head to catch her eye and felt the tug of her power, saw that she was not merely pretty. She set the heavy stool down against the back of his knees. Quite deliberately, the captain touched her arm gently and caused her to turn to him. He turned to face her, putting his back to the Abbess.

"Thank you," he said, looking her in the eye with a calculated smile. She was tall and young and graceful, with wide-set almond-shaped eyes and a long nose. Not pretty; she was arresting.

She blushed. The flush travelled like fire down her neck and into her heavy wool gown.

He turned back to the Abbess, his goal accomplished. Wondering why the Abbess had placed such a deserable novice within his reach, unless she meant to. "If I chose to storm your abbey, would your piety save you?" he asked.

She blazed with anger. "How dare you turn your back on me?" she asked. "And leave the room, Amicia. The captain has bitten you with his eyes."

He was smiling. He thought her anger feigned.

She met his eyes and narrowed her own--and then folded her hands together, almost as if she intended to pray.

"Honestly, Captain, I have prayed and prayed over what to do here. Bringing you to fight the Wild is like buying a wolf to shepherd sheep." She looked him in the eye. "I know what you are," she said.

"Do you really?" he asked. "All the better, lady Abbess. Shall we to business, then? Now the pleasantries are done?"

"But what shall I call you?" she asked. "You are a well-born man, for all your snide airs. My chamberlain--"

"Didn't have a nice name for me, did he, my lady Abbess?" He nodded. "You may call me Captain. It is all the name I need." He nodded graciously. "I do not like the name your chamberlain used. Bourc. I call myself the Red Knight."

"Many men are called bourc," she said. "To be born out of wedlock is--"

"To be cursed by God before you are born. Eh, lady Abbess?" He tried to stop the anger that rose on his cheeks like a blush. "So very fair. So just." She scowled at him for a moment, annoyed with him the way older people are often annoyed with the young, when the young posture toomuch.

He understood her in a glance.

"Too dark? Should I add a touch of heroism?" he asked with a certain air.

She eyed him. "If you wrap yourself in darkness," she said, "you risk merely appearing dull. But you have the wit to know it. There's hope for you, boy, if you know that. Now to business. I'm not rich--"

"I have never met anyone who would admit being rich," he agreed. "Or to getting enough sleep."

"More wine for the captain," snapped the Abbess to the sister who had guarded the door. "But I can pay you. We are afflicted by something from the Wild. It has destroyed two of my farms this year, and one last year. At first--at first, we all hoped that they were isolated incidents." She met his eye squarely. "It is not possible to believe that any more."

"Three farms this year," said the captain. He fished in his purse, hesitated over the chain with the leaf amulet, then fetched forth a cross inlaid with pearls instead.

"Oh, by the wounds of Christ!" swore the Abbess. "Oh, Blessed Virgin protect and cherish her. Sister Hawisia! Is she--"

"She is dead," the captain said. "And six more corpses in the garden. Your good sister died trying to protect them."

"Her faith was very strong," the Abbess said. She was dry eyed, but her voice trembled. "You needn't mock her."

The captain frowned. "I never mock courage, lady Abbess. To face such a thing without weapons--"

"Her faith was a weapon against evil, Captain." The Abbess leaned forward.

"Strong enough to stop a creature from the Wild? No, it was not," said the captain quietly. "I won't comment on evil."

The Abbess stood sharply. "You are some sort of atheist, are you, Captain?"

The captain frowned again. "There is nothing productive for us in theological debate, my lady Abbess. Your lands have attracted a malignant entity--an enemy of Man. They seldom hunt alone, especially not this far from the Wild. You wish me to rid you of them. I can. And I will. In exchange, you will pay me. That is all that matters between us."

The Abbess sat again, her movements violent, angry. The captain sensed that she was off balance--that the death of the nun had struck her person- ally. She was, after all, the commander of a company of nuns.

"I am not convinced that engaging you is the right decision," she said.

The captain nodded. "It may not be, lady Abbess. But you sent for me, and I am here." Without intending to, he had lowered his voice, and spoke softly.

"Is that a threat?" she asked.

Instead of answering, the captain reached into his purse again and withdrew the broken chain holding a small leaf made of green enamel on bronze.

The Abbess recoiled as if from a snake.

"My men found this," he said.

The Abbess turned her head away.

"You have a traitor," he said. And rose. "Sister Hawisia had an arrow in her back. While she faced something terrible, something very, very terrible." He nodded. "I will go to walk the walls. You need time to think if you want us. Or not."

"You will poison us," she said. "You and your kind do not bring peace."

He nodded. "We bring you no peace, but a company of swords, my lady." He grinned at his own misquote of scripture. "We don't make the violence. We merely deal with it as it comes to us."

"The devil can quote scripture," she said.

"No doubt he had his hand in writing it," the captain shot back.

She bit back a counter--he watched her face change as she decided not to rise to his provocation. And he felt a vague twinge of remorse for goading her, an ache like the pain in his wrist from making too many practice cuts the day before. And, like the pain in his wrist, he was unaccustomed to remorse.

"I could say it is a little late to think of peace now." He sneered briefly and then put his sneer away. "My men are here, and they haven't had a good meal or a paid job in some weeks. I offer this, not as a threat, but as a useful piece of data as you reason through the puzzle. I also think that the creature you have to deal with is far worse than you have imagined. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's far worse than I had imagined. It is big, powerful, and angry, and very intelligent. And more likely two than one."

She winced.

"Allow me a few minutes to think," she said.

He nodded, bowed, set his riding sword at his waist, and walked back into the courtyard.

His men stood like statues, their scarlet surcoats livid against their grey surroundings. The horses fretted--but only a little--and the men less.

"Be easy," he said.

They all took breath together. Stretched arms tired from bearing armour, or hips bruised from mail and cuirass.

Michael was the boldest. "Are we in?" he asked.

The captain didn't meet his eye because he'd noticed an open window across the courtyard, and seen the face framed in it. "Not yet, my honey. We are not in yet." He blew a kiss at the window.

The face vanished.

Ser Milus, his primus pilus and standard bearer, grunted. "Bad for busi- ness," he said. And then, as an afterthought, "m'lord."

The captain flicked him a glance and looked back to the dormitory windows.

"There's more virgins watching us right now," Michael opined, "Then have parted their legs for me in all my life."

Jehannes, the senior marshal, nodded seriously. "Does that mean one, young Michael? Or two?"

Guillaume Longsword, the junior marshal, barked his odd laugh, like the seals of the northern bays. "The second one said she was a virgin," he mock-whined. "At least, that's what she told me!"

Coming through the visor of his helmet, his voice took on an ethereal quality that hung in the air for a moment. Men do not look on horror and forget it. They merely put it away. Memories of the steading were still too close to the surface, and the junior marshal's voice had summoned them, somehow.

No one laughed. Or rather, most of them laughed, and all of it was forced.

The captain shrugged. "I have chosen to give our prospective employer some time to consider her situation," he said.

Milus barked a laugh. "Stewing in her juice to raise the price, is that it?" he asked. He nodded at the door of the chapel. "Yon has no liking for us."

The priest continued to stand in his doorway.

"Think he's a dimwit? Or is he the pimp?" Ser Milus asked. And stared at the priest. "Be my guest, cully. Stare all ye like."

The soldiers chuckled, and the priest went into the chapel.

Michael flinched at the cruelty in the standard bearer's tone, then stepped forward. "What is your will, m'lord?"

"Oh," the captain said, "I'm off hunting." He stepped away quickly, with a wry smile, walked a few steps toward the smithy, concentrated...and vanished.

Michael looked confused. "Where is he?" he asked.

Milus shrugged, shifting the weight of his hauberk. "How does he do that?" he asked Jehannes.

Twenty paces away, the captain walked into the dormitory wing as if it was his right to do so. Michael leaned as if to call out but Jehannes put his gauntleted hand over Michael's mouth.

"There goes our contract," Hugo said. His dark eyes crossed with the standard bearer's, and he shrugged, despite the weight of the maille on his shoulders. "I told you he was too young."

Jehannes eased his hand off the squire's face. "He has his little ways, the Bourc." He gave the other men a minute shake of his head. "Let him be. If he lands us this contract--"

Hugo snorted, and looked up at the window.

The captain reached into the palace in his head.

A vaulted room, twelve sided, with high, arched, stained glass windows, each one bearing a different image set at even intervals between columns of aged marble that supported a groined roof. Under each window was a sign of the zodiac, painted in brilliant blue on gold leaf, and then a band of beaten bronze as wide as a man's arm, and finally, at eye level, a series of niches between the columns, each holding a statue; eleven statues of white marble, and one iron-bound door under the sign of Ares.

In the exact centre of the room stood a twelfth statue--Prudentia, his child- hood tutor. Despite her solid white marble skin, she smiled warmly as he approached her.

"Clementia, Pisces, Eustachios," he said in the palace of his memory, and his tutor's veined white hands moved to point at one sign and then another.

And the room moved.

The windows rotated silently above the signs of the zodiac, and the statues below the band of bronze rotated in the opposite direction until his three chosen signs were aligned opposite to the iron-bound door. And he smiled at Prudentia, walked across the tiles of the twelve-sided room and unlatched the door.

He opened it on a verdant garden of rich summer green--the dream memory of the perfect summer day. It was not always thus, on the far side of the door. A rich breeze blew in. It was not always this strong, his green power, and he deflected some with the power of his will, batting it into a ball and shoving it like a handful of summer leaves into a hempen bag he imagined into being and hung from Prudentia's outstretched arm. Against a rainy day. The insistent green breeze stirred through his hair and then reached the aligned signs on the opposite wall and--

He moved away from the horses without urgency, secure in the knowl- edge that Michael would be distracted as he moved--and so would the watcher in the window.

The captain's favourite phantasms depended on misdirection more than aethereal force. He preferred to add to their efficacy with physical efficiency--he walked quietly, and didn't allow his cloak to flap.

At the door to the dormitory he reached into his memory palace and

leaned into the vaulted room. "Same again, Pru," he said.

Again the sigils moved as the marble statue pointed to the signs, already aligned above the door. He opened it again, allowed the green breeze to power his working, and let the door close.

He walked into the dormitory building. There were a dozen nuns, all big, capable women, sitting in the good light of the clerestory windows, and most of them were sewing.

He walked past them without a swirl of his scarlet cloak, his whole will focused on his belief that his presence there was perfectly normal and started up the stairs. No heads turned, but one older nun stopped peering at her embroidery and glanced at the stairwell, raised an eyebrow, and then went back to her work. He heard a murmur from behind him.

Not entirely fooled then, he thought. Who are these women?

His sabatons made too much noise and he had to walk carefully, because power--at least, the sort of power he liked to wield--was of limited use. The stairs wound their way up and up, turning as tightly as they would in any other fortress, to foul his sword arm if he was an attacker.

Which I am, of a sort, he thought. The gallery was immediately above the hall. Even on a day this grey, it was full of light. Three grey-clad novices leaned on the casemates of the windows, watching the men in the yard. Giggling.

At the edge of his power, he was surprised to find traces of their power.

He stepped into the gallery, and his sabaton made a distinct metallic scratch against the wooden floor--a clarion sound in a world of barefoot women. He didn't try to strain credulity by willing himself to seem normal, here.

The three heads snapped around. Two of the girls turned and ran. The third novice hesitated for a fatal moment--looking. Wondering.

He had her hand. "Amicia?" he said into her eyes, and then put his mouth over hers. Put an armoured leg inside her thighs and trapped her--turned her over his thigh as easily as throwing a child in a wrestling match, and she was in his arms. He rested his back plate against the ledge of the cloister and held her. Gently. Firmly.

She wriggled, catching her falling sleeve against the flange that protected his elbow. But her eyes were locked on his--and huge. She opened her lips. More there than simple fear or refusal. He licked her teeth. Ran a finger under her chin.

Her mouth opened under his--delicious.

He kissed her, or perhaps she kissed him. It was not brief. She relaxed into him--itself a pleasing warmth, even through the hardened steel of his arm harness and breastplate.

Kisses end.

"Don't take the vows," he said. "You do not belong here." He meant to sound teasing, but even in his own head his voice dripped with unintended mockery.

He stood straight and set her on the ground, to show that he was no rapist. She blushed red from her chin to her forehead, again. Even the backs of her hands were red. She cast her eyes down, and then shifted her weight--he watched such things. She leaned forward--

And slammed a hand into his right ear. Taking him completely by surprise. He reeled, his back hit the wall with a metallic thud, and he caught himself--

--and turned to chase her down.

Copyright © 2013 by Miles Cameron


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The Red Knight

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