Updated: Apr 20, 2021
This short story is a part of my fantasy series the Griffin Legends. The first full length novel in the series, Godfrey's Crusade, is set to debut later in 2021.
The crowd screamed ecstatically as Karl rode atop his horse onto the tournament field. He waved to the commoners present in the stands before bowing his head to the nobles seated in a raised gallery in the center. Despite his fatigue, it was hard not to get carried away in the crowd’s euphoria.
Still, his hot breath washed back over his face as it hit the inside of his great helm. He blinked away droplets of sweat trickling down his brow as the late afternoon sun gleamed in his eyes. His body aching from the day’s earlier matches, a single thought persisted in his mind. Just one more.
He offered a silent prayer to Helios, Tyche, Yael, Othniel, and any of the other gods, demigods, and angels of the celestial realm that were inclined to listen. He needed strength, dexterity, clarity of mind, and a bit of luck to pull this off.
From the opposite end of the field, Karl’s opponent appeared. He was another knight weighed down by heavy chainmail whilst sitting atop his steed. His face, like Karl’s, was obscured by a flat-topped great helm. The knight’s heraldic tabard and shield were his only identifying marks, a black lion rampant emblazoned upon a white field distinguishing him from his peers. Karl immediately knew the man: Sir Melcho of Elgun. This would be a tough fight.
After the other knight paid his respects to the audience, he stopped just short of the wooden rail that bisected the tournament field. Sir Melcho waited on one side of the field while Karl waited at the other end with the rail in between the two combatants. A herald bustled to the center of the field and stood just to the side of the rail facing the audience. The herald was a portly man who walked with unusual precision and purpose for a man of his size. Gesturing for silence, the herald persuaded the audience to settle down, at least a bit.
“On this end of the field,” the herald bellowed, indicating Karl. “We have Karl the Hammer riding Epono, undefeated here on their native soil!”
More cheering erupted from the audience. Karl raised his lance in response. Even more cheering rang out from the crowd. They loved the spectacle. Sensing the tension in his horse’s muscles, Karl pulled back on the reins to prevent him from galloping off prematurely.
“Almost,” Karl whispered in Epono’s ear, rubbing the beast’s neck. “You know the signal.”
The herald waved again, and the excitement subsided. Turning to the other knight, the herald cocked his head as he indicated Karl’s opponent.
“And over here,” the herald pointed to Melcho. “We have Melcho of Elgun riding Morvach, hailing all the way from the Kingdom of Ogledd.”
If the audience’s response to Melcho’s raised shield was any less enthusiastic, it was only because Karl’s fame in Bastogne was greater. Karl estimated Melcho was just as, if not more, skilled at jousting than he was. Karl’s mind raced as he thought about how he would try to counter the tactics he had seen Melcho using throughout the competition.
“So the day’s tournament all comes down to this,” the herald continued in his bellowing voice. “More than a dozen knights have competed on this field today. And now we are down to these two champions. Karl the Hammer, Duke Ulric’s personal retainer, will face off against Melcho of Elgun, slayer of the cyclopean minotaur, Rodark. Who will come out victorious and claim today’s prize money? After three passes, we will find out!”
The herald raised a small flag with Duke Ulric’s heraldry: a white griffin set against a deep blue field. He stepped back from the rail several paces. Karl tensed. Gripping his lance and shield as tightly as he could, he nodded to himself as his plan of attack solidified in his mind.
The herald looked from one end of the field to the other. He waved the flag in a downward stroke, and both knights spurred their steeds across the field. The mounts thundered as galloping hooves churned the muddy earth. Lowering their lances, the knights closed the distance between them in just a few heartbeats. Hoping for a torso hit, Karl aimed his lance under Melcho’s shield, but was deflected by Melcho’s lance. Instead, Karl’s lance struck Melcho’s shield with a heavy thump before bouncing off while Melcho’s lance shattered as it struck Karl’s shoulder.
Grunting in discomfort, Karl was glad these lances were blunted. He slowed his horse down to a trot as he reached the end of the field. Tears welled in his eyes as the pain still throbbed throughout his entire left arm. It could have been worse.
The herald returned to the center of the field and consulted with two squires as Karl and Melcho assumed opposite starting positions for their second pass. Melcho’s squire handed his liege a fresh lance as Karl rolled his shoulder in an attempt to work out the pain. After a few deep breaths, Karl’s shoulder felt a bit better. Shake it off, Karl’s father used to tell him. The words rang in his mind after every injury he had received, even years after the old man’s death.
“Strike to the shield,” the herald announced after he finished with the squires. “One point for Karl. Strike to the shoulder. Two points for Melcho. Broken lance. One point from Melcho. Current score: one to one.”
The herald raised his flag again. Should Karl attempt a head strike? The head was a small target—easy to miss in the split-second Karl had to attempt his blow, and an easy strike for an opponent to deflect. Most knights would not even try it. But it was worth the most points.
Resuming his position out of harm’s way, the herald signaled the second pass. Breathing heavily as their horses raced towards each other, Karl aimed his lance for Melcho’s head. Melcho deflected Karl’s weapon with ease, sending the shaft flying out of his hand before hitting Karl’s collarbone.
Karl cried out at this blow. Epono whinnied sympathetically. Karl’s only comfort came in the knowledge his father was not alive to hear his cry. Silently cursing the old man, Karl shook his head. Even now, Karl could not escape the memory of his father’s rebukes.
The knights resumed their original starting positions as the herald consulted the squires once more in the center of the field. Grimacing, Karl nodded as a grizzled man-at-arms named Fulcher handed him his lance.
“A bad pass, my lord.” Fulcher frowned.
“Indeed,” Karl murmured, noting the displeasure on some of the damsels’ faces in the crowd.
Epono snorted as if sensing his master’s contempt.
“Strike to the torso,” the herald announced. “Five points for Melcho. Lost lance. One point from Karl. Current score: six to zero. Melcho leads.”
“Gods be with you, sire!” Fulcher withdrew several paces.
“Fortune favors the bold,” Karl muttered. “One more try, Epono.”
The herald raised his flag once more. Karl determined the exact motions he would make, and he repeated them over and over again in his mind. He was sure he would win this pass if he timed everything just right. Yet there was no room for mistakes.
The flag dropped one last time, and Karl and Melcho raced towards each other. Karl aimed for Melcho’s chest but raised his lance at the last possible second. Melcho’s lance failed to block Karl’s strike to the head. Splintering on impact, Karl’s lance sent Melcho reeling backwards off his horse. Melcho landed on his back with a hard thud.
“Karl the Hammer!” The herald gestured as if swinging an invisible mallet in both hands.
Standing, clapping, whistling, and screaming their approval, the audience completely drowned out the herald’s final score. No one needed to hear it. Karl won back all the points he needed and more with the head strike and de-horsing his opponent. Raising his shattered lance, Karl forgot his inner demons as he let the crowd’s praise carry him away.
Sitting in his tent, Karl counted out his prize money. The silver coins clinked against the table as he poured them out of the bag Duke Ulric had given him during the award ceremony. He scowled. It was still not enough.
“What troubles my gallant knight?” a red-haired maiden asked as she entered Karl’s tent.
“Dadin.” Karl smiled at the young woman.
“I slipped away from Auntie,” the maiden said. “I have just a few minutes.”
Dadin extended her hand, and Karl kissed it. Returning his smile, she sat in the chair next to Karl’s. For a moment the two just looked at each other. Then Karl’s gaze turned back to the coins piled on the table. Her smile faded as Karl gave a heavy sigh.
“For all the tournaments I’ve won, I’m afraid I still don’t have enough money,” he conceded.
“You’re the most popular knight in Bastogne’s tournament circuit,” Dadin countered. “Maybe the most popular in all of Lortharain. If that’s not enough to win father over, I don’t know what will be.”
“Any self-respecting lord would want to know I can provide a future for his daughter.” Karl pointed an accusing finger up in the air.
“You’re one of the Duke’s retainers.” She shook her head. “There is a secure enough future in that. When are you going to ask father for my hand?”
Karl delayed his response for longer than he knew he should have. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. So much business had to pass through fathers.
“What about becoming a Royal Guard?” he asked at last. “The new King, Wilhelm, he is expanding the Royal Guard. If I were to join their ranks, your father would have to accept my marriage proposal. There’s no more prestigious position in all of Lortharain.”
“I suppose so.” Dadin’s eyes turned to her hands.
“Winning this tournament qualifies me to participate in the joust at Roun,” Karl said. “The grand prize is a position in the Royal Guard.”
“You’re unhappy with Duke Ulric?” she asked.
Karl stared at his shield resting against the table at which he sat. As a retainer in Ulric’s household, Karl’s shield and surcoat bore the same markings as the Duke’s. He furrowed his brow in contemplation.
“Is this really fair to him?” Dadin persisted. “You have vows of fealty to think about.”
“I’m not unhappy in the Duke’s service,” Karl replied. “We talked after the award ceremony. He gave me his blessing. He’ll allow me to compete at Roun. Besides, the Duke’s son will be coming of age in a few years. He’ll be able to fill my place. I have to think of me and of us. This is just the opportunity of a lifetime, and I think I stand a good chance at getting it.”
“I know you’ll get it.” The smile returned to Dadin’s face. “Just promise me you’ll speak to my father once you win your next joust.”
“I promise.” Karl kissed her hand.
“When are you leaving?” Dadin asked.
“Tonight,” he said, releasing her hand. “Roun is a long journey, and the joust is soon. If I delay, they will start without me, and there can be no late entries.”
She stood then put her hands on her hips. For a moment, Karl could not read her expression. He stroked his beard in uncertainty.
“Then let me wish you luck.” Dadin offered her hand.
Karl took it, and she pulled him into an embrace. The two shared a long, passionate kiss.
The road to Roun was little more than a muddy, cold trail in the woods. The scent of decaying leaves wafted through the crisp autumn air as Karl rode Epono down the path. Occasionally glancing to either side of the road, Karl kept an eye out for sudden movements. Orcs, trolls, wargs, and other, far worse monsters were known to ambush unsuspecting travelers. Yet even Karl’s keen warrior mind could not always remain alert to danger.
“I know she wants me,” Karl confessed to Epono. “But lots of women do. Is it fair to let this one tie me down while there are so many other opportunities?”
The soft clopping of hooves was the steed’s only reply.
“Of course you’re right.” He huffed. “An opportunity like Dadin is a rare one. But give me a year or two in the Royal Guard. Let me settle down into that, and then I can think about marriage and children.”
The horse snorted.
“I’m not making excuses.” Karl bit his lip. “And I’m not just trying to avoid talking to Dadin’s father. I just have to focus on getting to a higher station in life before I let a family drag me down.”
He looked about at the trees on either side of the road. The leaves had all changed colors and were beginning to fall. Karl swallowed hard.
“She’ll wait for me,” he reassured himself. “She’s waited this long.”
Epono made no reply.
“This isn’t about my father,” Karl insisted. “Oh, what do you know? You’re just a horse!”
The knight rode in silence for a long time. Epono would get over it. The horse knew his master. Karl need not apologize, he silently reasoned.
The Sun was beginning to set, and Karl shivered as a cold breeze rustled through the trees. Something moved in the forest up ahead. Unsure of what it was, Karl stopped Epono. He squinted in an effort to find what had caught his eye. The sound of soft footfalls approached from somewhere nearby. Tilting his head with a sudden jerk, he strained his ears in an effort to locate the source of the sound. He gripped his lance, ready to strike. Unlike his jousting lances, this weapon was not blunted but rather ended in a sharp, heavy spear-head.
A woman emerged from a fork in the road so suddenly Karl’s heart pounded in his chest at the sight. He took several deep breaths as he calmed himself. She was no threat.
She was old, frail, dressed in dark peasant garb, and a fresh cut across her forehead glistened with coagulating blood. Karl eyed her suspiciously.
“Sir knight!” she cried out, taking a few hurried steps toward him. “Thank the gods you’re here. Sir knight, help!”
“What is wrong, old woman?” Karl asked.
“Down there,” she gasped, pointing to the path she had come from. “About five miles from here, there’s a death knight. It’s blocking the road and killing anyone who won’t flee from it. You have to help!”
The words death knight sent a chill down Karl’s spine.
“Aren’t you a serf?” he asked. “Who gave you permission to leave the manor? How do you know it was a death knight?”
“I know it was a death knight.” Her eyes narrowed.
There was a certain weight of authority in the woman’s voice that made Karl momentarily recoil. This was not how a peasant should speak to a noble. Yet Karl thought better of mentioning this.
“How did you escape then?” Karl raised an eyebrow.
“I fell off the path,” the old woman said. “I went down into a ditch. The monster didn’t follow me.”
Karl nodded in understanding. He began to relax. There was no need to get involved here. He certainly did not need to throw his life away confronting a death knight for this old peasant.
“Well then you’re safe.” He shrugged. “Find another way home.”
“Find another way home?” she repeated, a stunned expression crossing her face. “You mean you’re going to let that undead monster go unchallenged?”
Sighing, Karl gritted his teeth. He did not have time for this. He owed this peasant nothing. This was not his fight. No sense in dying here.
“I’m in a hurry,” he spat, not caring what the old lady thought of him. “There is a joust at Roun. I have to be there.”
“A joust?” The peasant’s voice grew shrill. “A place to win accolades from fair maidens? Is that all you care about?”
Karl paused, once again taken aback by her boldness. That cut deeper than he would have thought.
“Winning this joust at Roun will earn me a place in the King’s Royal Guard,” he explained.
She gave a cold harsh laugh. It almost seemed unnatural. Shifting uncomfortably in his saddle, he grimaced as he began to see the irony of his words.
“If I make any delay they will start without me.” Karl’s excuses began to seem weak even to him. “I’m sorry. Another knight will have to help you.”
Karl spurred his mount forward, which moved only after neighing in protest, but the old woman blocked his path. She stuck her finger out at Karl’s shield, indicating the griffin rampant emblazoned upon it. Her face was cross. She reminded him so much of his father, always telling him what to do without any thought about his own desires. What about his plans? His needs?
“You are a knight of Duke Ulric,” she objected. “You have a duty to your lord and this realm. I may not be a fair damsel, but I am in distress. Roun and whatever prizes may be there can wait.”
He frowned. His horse snorted. Refusing to meet her gaze, Karl looked around in embarrassment. He stammered for something to say, but the words would not form. This was just like so many confrontations he had had with his father. He could still hear his father’s words about duty and honor ringing in his ear. How many times did he accuse Karl of hubris, vanity, or something similar?
Her eye finally caught his. The old woman’s gaze penetrated Karl’s very soul. Squirming in discomfort, Karl realized his father had been right all along. How could he have been so selfish?
“I was there.” Her expression softened. “I was there at Fuetoile Keep when you were dubbed a knight, Sir Karl. You were a different man then, not so vain or prideful.”
“I made an oath to the Duke that I would defend his realm.” Karl looked off at something distant as he remembered the day she spoke of. “How could I have forgotten?”
“If you face the death knight, the gods will smile on you for it,” she promised. “The gods will bless you for your sacrifice.”
“Who are you to speak in the name of the gods?” he asked.
“I’m just an old woman sent here to remind you of duty and loyalty,” she said.
Karl was about to call her a liar, but before he could respond, the old woman began walking down the road in the direction he had come from. He gaped at the sight. The audacity!
It was now just him, his horse, and a fork in the road. He looked longingly down the road to Roun. Setting his jaw, he turned away from what could have been.
“She’s lost her mind.” Karl shook his head, coming to himself. “Come on, Epono. Let’s go see what this is all about.”
He turned his horse and spurred him down the fork in the road. Grimacing, he pondered the life in the Royal Guard he was now turning his back on. There might not be a chance like that again. But duty called.
“No regrets,” he told his mount, setting his eyes on the road ahead.
As Karl went farther down the road, he found the earth increasingly covered in frost. The air was much too cold even for autumn. Epono’s breath came out of his nostrils in steamy gusts. Karl gripped his lance tightly. His mouth was dry, and his heart raced. He knew what lay ahead.
The horse stopped in his tracks in front of some dense undergrowth. The image of a shadow reaching out in malice entered Karl’s mind. The old woman was there too, laughing over the broken forms of Epono and him.
Whinnying with bulging eyes, Epono reared. Gripping the reins tightly, Karl narrowly avoided falling from the saddle. Adjusting himself in the stirrups, Karl patted his steed.
“No more evil thoughts,” Karl attempted to soothe his horse as his own voice still shook. “It’s okay. We’ll do it together. You don’t have to worry.”
After passing a patch of obscuring brush, Karl’s heart jumped in his throat as he saw the creature. The old woman was right. It was a death knight.
It was a skeletal figure with withered skin clothed in tarnished chainmail and a battered spangenhelm, sitting atop an undead horse. The undead steed was likewise little more than bone and dried flesh with a stained black caparison as its covering. The death knight’s torn black tabard was too filthy and worn for Karl to make out any heraldry that might suggest the creature’s former allegiance. Now it served the dark gods, and that was all that mattered. It must be vanquished.
Time itself slowed as the monster’s pin-prick glowing eyes made contact with Karl’s. No words were exchanged as they stared each other down. There was no need. Each knew the other’s intent.
The death knight readied its lance. Karl readied his. There would be no spare lances, only one pass, and one of the two would be destroyed in the end. Karl knew that much.
With a yell, Karl spurred his horse toward the death knight as it silently mirrored Karl’s actions. He had just a few heartbeats to decide where to aim. His heart pounded so loudly in his chest, Karl could hear nothing else.
This was it. Time stopped altogether. The image of Dadin’s face flashed in Karl’s mind. There would be no wedding now after this final joust. Instead, he would sacrifice whatever future he had in the name of duty to the Duchy of Bastogne and Kingdom of Lortharain. It would be a good death; worthy of bards’ songs.
Karl aimed for the creature’s chest, and it moved its lance to block his strike. Then Karl tilted his lance up towards the death knight’s head at the last second, just as he had in his final pass against Melcho. The monster’s skull shattered, and its spangenhelm went flying, but the sharp kiss of cold steel bit into Karl’s gut as its spear cut into him. Karl fell out of his saddle as the death knight and its steed collapsed in a heap of bone, dried flesh, and rust-stained armor. Unholy ethereal fumes hissed from the inert pile before going silent forever.
Clutching his side, Karl lay sprawled on the ground for a long moment. Blood began to gush from the wound. His toes and fingers grew numb. He was dying.
His vision blurring, Karl barely recognized the old woman standing over him. His thoughts grew muddy and confused. He blinked, unsure if his eyes deceived him.
“What?” Karl managed to gurgle.
The old woman said nothing but pressed her hand over Karl’s wound. Warmth flashed through Karl’s innards, and the taste of blood disappeared from his mouth. His vision was clear.
It was no longer a peasant with a sagging wrinkled face standing over him, but a glorious winged angel in brilliant white robes. Her dark lustrous hair cascaded over her statuesque head and shoulders. The celestial creature’s eyes remained old and wise, but the fresh cut to the angel’s forehead was now a thin scar.
“Yael!” Karl cried in recognition. “Guardian of the Golden Tree?”
“I heard your prayer at the last joust.” The angel nodded curtly. “The gods love you and have greater works for you to accomplish still.”
He heaved himself up into a sitting position as he looked over the gut wound that was no more. Standing, he surveyed the ruined form of the destroyed undead. Already the air was beginning to warm. He knelt before the angel, Yael.
“Rise.” She gestured with one hand while handing him Epono’s reins with the other. “And never forget a joust’s true purpose.”