The Mongrel and the Murderer #2

It was a boy who held the crossbow. “Lion or eagle?” he demanded. Lion or eagle. Father’s sigil or mine? The lad wants to know who I serve.

Lion or eagle?” The lad shrieked.

“We were hoping to try the capon.” Mordred heard his companions behind him. “Put down the crossbow, boy. Don’t be a coward.”

“This coward will put a bolt through your heart, sir.”

“Perhaps. But before you can wind it again the mongrel will put steel in your belly.”

“Don’t scare the kid,” Bedivere said. “We mean no harm. And we have coin to pay for food and drink.” He dug a silver piece from his pouch.

The boy eyed the coin, and then Mordred’s manacles. “Why’s this one fettered?”

“Got caught killing some crossbowmen,” said Mordred. “Do you have wine?”

“Yes.” The boy lowered the crossbow an inch. “Lay down your steel and mayhaps we’ll feed you.

Bedivere undid the clasp on both his belts and let them clatter to the floor.

A fat man, pale and round as though he’d been carved from dough ushered them inside. “We’ve got enough horsemeat for three.”

Horsemeat?” Bedivere echoed.

Mordred grinned. “I like an honest brigand. Most innkeeps don’t own up to serving shit.”

The man scowled. “I buried the innkeep out back.”

“Did you kill him?” Sir Bedivere asked.

“Would I tell you if I did?” The man spat. “Likely it was a few of the bastard’s men that done it. I found him dead.”

“The bastard?”

“The King’s son. Mordred’s men. Though his are no worse than any others’.”

“That’s the King’s peace for you,” Mordred muttered.

Bedivere rammed his elbow into his ribs, and the turned to the man. He tossed his coin to the innkeep who wasn’t an innkeep, who caught it in the air, bit it, and tucked it away.

“He’s got more,” the boy with the crossbow announced.

“Then go find them more food.”

The lad raised the crossbow over his shoulder and vanished into the cellar.

“Your son?” Bedivere asked.

“Just a boy I took in. I had two sons, but the King’s men killed one and the bastard’s the other.”

Mordred stirred at the man’s words. I will not be known as the bastard, he fumed, inwardly. I am the rightful heir! The clink of his chains accompanied his every movement. An irritating sound. Bedivere put his hand on Mordred’s wrist and held them down to the table. Before this is done, I’ll wrap these chains around the mongrel’s throat, see how he likes them then.

The three ate, and after a time, Bedivere told the man, “We need horses. I heard some in the stable.”

“Aye.” said the man, “Three of them, as it happens.”

The stables hadn’t been mucked out in a long while, from the smell of them. Dozens of fat black flies swarmed amongst the stable straw; buzzing and crawling over the mounds of horse dung that lay everywhere.

There were only the two horses to be seen: a lumbering brown plow horse, and ancient white gelding blind in one eye.

Mordred spied the bloodstains on the saddle. “Well, their owners won’t be coming to claim them anytime soon.” He examined their legs, counted their teeth. “Give him a gold piece for the palfrey, if he’ll include the saddle,” he advised Bedivere. “Though he ought to pay us for taking the gelding off his hands.”

“You speak ill or your horse.” The mongrel grinned, opened his purse and took out three golden coins. “A gold piece for each.”

“Two gold pieces?” the man asked.

“So much for an honest brigand,” Mordred muttered.

“I’ll want provisions too,” Bedivere told their host, ignoring Mordred. “Whatever you have that you can spare.”

The man scooped the gold pieces from his and jingled them in his fist. “You’ll be wanting to stay the night, too?”

“We have promises to keep,” Mordred stepped in, “and long leagues before us. We should ride on. But unless you mean to throw me over the back of that palfrey, someone had best do something about these irons. It’s difficult to ride with your ankles chained together.”

Sir Bedivere frowned at the chain. The innkeep rubbed his jaw. “There’s a smithy round back of the stable.”

“Show me,” Bedivere said, and when he did, he split the ankle chain in the center with a half-dozen sharp blows from a hammer and chisel.

The boy came out to watch them leave. He stood silent, his crossbow under his arm. “Take up the spear or halberd,” Mordred told him, “they’ll serve you better. Trust me.”

The boy stared at him distrustfully.

They were riding past a trampled wheatfield and a low stone wall when Mordred heard a soft thrum from behind, as if a dozen birds had taken flight. “Down!” he shouted, throwing himself against the neck of his horse. The gelding screamed and reared as an arrow took him in the rump. Other shafts went hissing past. He vaulted off the gelding as it crumpled and rolled with the impact.

He turned and saw Bedivere pull his sword and wheel in a circle. He was racing across the wheatfield, throwing up clouds of chaff.

A few arrows sped harmlessly past; then the bowmen broke and ran. Bedivere reined up at the wall, dismounted.

By the time Mordred reached him, they had all melted into the wood twenty yards away. “Lost your taste for battle?”

“They were running.”

“That’s the best time to kill them—when they’ve no walls to hide behind.”

“You dishonor your father,” Bedivere said. “You dishonor the Knights of the Round Table! Is it any wonder such times have come? That Camelot is dying?”

“You all died with Lancelot,” Mordred said. “Your King could not take being cuckolded by his wife, so he left his kingdom for the sake of one man. There was no Round Table after that.”

“That King was your father—”

Not. Mine!” Mordred hissed. “Morgause and Lot raised me, whilst Arthur tried to kill me while I was a babe at the breast. You have the nerve to name him my father? I tried to rule in his stead. What right did he have to take the throne from me?”

“The only right. He was still King.”

“The King of a shattered order. A King who abandoned the country for the sake of his lady love. By what right have I been judged? I was a knight, same as you. I tried to rule when Arthur was too blind to notice the Table cracking around him—he wouldn’t listen! What is it I am guilty of, mongrel, aside from being a bastard?”

The Mongrel and the Murderer #1

The wind blew like fingers sifting through the prisoner’s hair. He could hear birds singing and feel the River Camel moving beneath the skiff as the two knights rowed him toward the pink dawn. I’m alive, he thought. The Battle of Camlann had ended—he’d killed Arthur and left Camelot in ruins.

But he was alive.

He had not planned for that. A smile spread, unbidden across his face and burst of laughter escaped his lips.

“Quiet,” Sir Bedivere grumbled, scowling. He grunted as he rowed. The prisoner had spent the whole night listening to his rhythmic grunting; and he showed no signs of tiring. This one will be trouble, he noted.

The prisoner wore iron manacles on his wrists and a matching pair about his ankles. He recalled only a fraction of the events that led to his fettering.

The Battle of Camlann had ended, and he was still shaking from the kinslaying when Arthur’s knights rushed him over a bridge, two miles south toward Tintagel. Sir Bedivere led the procession of survivors. He had worn two swordbelts. One to sheath his own, and the other for Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.

He did not remember arriving at Tintagel, nor being how long he was left in that. At some point he was bundled into a traveler’s cloak and shoved into the bottom of a skiff.

“Mongrel,” the prisoner said, presently, addressing Sir Bedivere, “if you’ll strike off these chains, I promise to spare you upon our arrival at Orkney.”

Bedivere scowled. “You’ll wear your chains to Orkney, murderer.”

“Do you plan to row us the whole way, mongrel?”

Bedivere fixed him with a stare. “My name is Sir Bedivere. Not mongrel.”

My name is Sir Mordred. Not murderer.”

“Do you deny that you killed King Arthur?”

“No. But you’re just as guilty as I am.” Mordred measured the look the mongrel gave him. He preferred to keep steel away from his throat. “Look at you, mongrel. You must be such a strong man to have rowed for so long. And with such strength do you deny that you could have saved Arthur? Or maybe that’s not it. Maybe you’re not as loyal as you seem.”

The mongrel’s oar shot up from the water, sudden as a volley of arrows. He reached for the dirk at his thigh, but, and then paused. He exhaled, releasing his grip and returning his hand to the oar. “We swore a vow to Arthur,” he said. “We promised on his life. We can’t kill him here.”

“Don’t kill him anywhere,” Mordred said.

They’d all done a great deal of vowing back in Tintagel. By the time they fetched him, he would’ve sworn any vow for the promise of water. It wasn’t a fair oath, Mordred thought. Then again, I’ve never heard of a fair oath anyway.

His mother, Morgause, had agreed to fealty upon the safe return of her son. Mordred had learned this as he stared down the point of Excalibur. He’d swore an oath staring down the point of Excalibur that he would hold his mother to her word.

Bedivere jerked back to his oar with such sudden fury that Mordred was driven from his own thoughts. He eyed the mongrel and his two swordbelts.

“You have a beautiful longsword,” Mordred said. “And Excalibur, besides. But can you use them? Come, give me Excalibur show me how worthy you truly were to your King.”

“My King commanded me to deliver you safe to your mother at Orkney, not to bandy words with you. Be silent.”

“I’ve had a bellyful of silence.”

“I have no words for monsters.”

Mordred hooted, twisting in his fetters. “Are there monsters hereabouts? I don’t see any. Are they hiding beneath the water, perhaps? Busy eating the Lady of the Lake? And to think—I’m without my sword!” He grinned. “I’ll need a sword, mongrel. Excalibur will do.”

“My name is Bedivere, not mongrel.”

“Why should you care what monsters call you?”

“My name is Bedivere,” he repeated. You will not speak so roughly. We have far to go and should not quarrel amongst ourselves.”

“You haven’t seen me quarrel. I quarrel with steel. I’d love to do so, if you would be kind enough to free me of these fetters—”

Bedivere’s boot hit Mordred’s ribs, driving his breath from him. “One word, and I’ll kick you again.”

Mordred squinted downriver, over Bedivere’s shoulders. “Smoke.”

A thin grey finger crooked them on. It was rising from the south bank several miles on.

Mordred was the first to spy the inn. The main building hugged the south shore where the River Camel bent. “No lights in the windows,” he observed.

“There may still be people,” Bedivere suggested. “Or corpses.”

“Don’t tell me you’re frightened of corpses, mongrel. After Camlann—”

He glared at him. “My name is—”

“—Bedivere, yes. Wouldn’t you like to sleep in a bed, Bedivere? We’d be safer there, and it’d be honorable to find what’s happened here.”

He gave no answer, but after a moment he pushed at the tiller to angle the skiff in toward the weathered wooden dock.

Mordred rose in the skiff, his movements made awkward by his chains. He lunged for the dock and then struggled to swing his legs over the edge.

The mongrel sat in the boat, scowling at him.

“A little help?” Mordred asked, but the mongrel said nothing. He fought down the threats rising up in his throat and hauled himself onto the deck. He was welcomed by the smell of horse shit as the seawater scent faded.

He blinked the smoke-tears out of his eyes and glanced back at the mongrel, just now climbing up. Not yet, he told himself. Bide your time. Your chance will come.

Then he heard horses whinny. That would work, he thought. He stumbled to his feet. “Well, if there aren’t people in there, at least there’s food. Anyone hungry for horsemeat?” He japed, and then made a break for the door.

“Mordred, wait!” the mongrel shouted.

“What? Scared of innkeepers and horses? Is that what you call a knight’s bravery?” I will not have a chance like this again. He threw his shoulder against the door and it flew open—

—And Mordred was staring down a crossbow bolt. He braced himself against the door and sighed so heavily he felt he might deflate. God’s bones, he thought. Of all the blasted luck!  He fought back tears. It’s just the smoke, he told himself. It’s just the smoke, it’s just the smoke.

To Hellhounds and Back

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A quick tribute to the Hobbit

When Benjamin, being of the very respectable family of Coventree, was voted to prepare the arrangements for the Festival of Bell Time, the gossip abounded in Bailiwick.

Benjamin had once gained a brief notoriety among the citizens of Bailiwick three years ago. It was then that two Darkhounds came limping down from Belrush Mountain, which separates Bailiwick from the world, and straggled their way into his backyard.

He had disappeared during tea-time and returned three days later with two Darkhounds, big as ponies. Being the town doctor, it was not beyond reason that he could heal them up and domesticate them, but the idea of healing such vile creatures was unthinkable.

At the least, the people of Bailiwick marked it as a very odd event, for which the tale had never sat right with any of them. To the date, the people of Bailiwick had made it a habit to make Wednesdays a stay-home day, for that was when Benjamin took the two Darkhounds on walks.

Aside from his care for Darkhounds, Benjamin had returned more or less to his normal ways over the last three years. Though their confidence in the good doctor had never been fully restored, they had all made a silent agreement to look past his beasts.

And as Bell Time came closer, all eyes turned to the post office, and soon the invitations came pouring out. Upon the orders of Mister Benjamin Coventree, there could be seen postmen hauling bags of them into every province in Bailiwick. As they exchanged invitations it was soon discovered that no two letters were the same, for Benjamin had used so many polite variations of “thank you” on his signature that many believed Benjamin to be inventing gibberish, so as not to express his thanks the same way twice (which he almost certainly was).

And the day before Bell Time, the decorations began. The people of Bailiwick through up great tents and pavilions the size of the Eamon Field, which was just north of Benjamin’s house.

The day of the festival, Benjamin was waiting outside the pavilion so as to meet all his guests in person as was expected of the Bell Time arranger. He shook every man and woman’s hand with a “good tidings,” “Wonderful you could make it,” “Fantastic to see you again,” and the occasional, “Belashuthanasalus, al’grinsok!” for when he could think of no proper greeting in time for the handshake.

The guests were so numerous that soon Benjamin himself began to notice why they had elected him to organize it—for so many had been invited that he was forced to watch the others in their merrymaking revelry from the edge of Eamon Field, awaiting late arrivals as well as those who had not declined their invitation yet were not like to arrive at all.

Benjamin’s stomach grumbled as he watched the others feasts on honey-roasted chicken, roast onions dribbling with gravy and a seemingly endless supply of bread trenchers. He licked his lips as the sight and smell of some thick, sweet soup made with pumpkins and platters of ribs roasted in a crust of garlic and herbs.

He did, however, have his solace. The organizer of Bell Time was allowed the traditional post-dinner speech. And he had a dog whistle in his pocket for just this occasion.

He soon noticed that his time was coming near, and began to pay close attention, listening for some to call for a speech.

Here was Sybil Berelain, who made a show of daintily sipping her tea while a young man next to her floundered to get her attention. Sybil cast glances out of the corner of her eye at her husband Henry, who was passed out in a wicker chair, draped as lazily about it as a jacket thrown over an armrest.

Mary Garland was spilling wine with her wild gesticulations, only half pretending to listen to the Mayor’s endless droll about the idea he had for new book that he swore he would be finishing this time.

There were three young men in smoking suits handing out tea-cakes and kisses to pretty ladies who passed them by. It was those young men who began the scattered shouts of “Speech! Speech!”

The wine had dulled most of the worried the citizens of Bailiwick had for just this occasion.

Benjamin dashed forward and leapt upon a table in the center of the pavilion with a flourish of his traveling-cloak. Many thought this odd, for those in Bailiwick positively loathed travel and all that it implies. Travels were dangerous, and could lead to quite unexpected places and were as such much frowned upon.

“My dear Bailiwickians!” Benjamin began, “I would like to offer you a very, very late welcome to our annual Bell Time festival!” There were scattered cheers and shouts of drunken revelry. Benjamin smiled at this and fiddled with the dog whistle in his pocket. “I do hope you’ve enjoyed yourself this night as much as I have.”

More cheers, and some were growing hopeful. This was the last kind of speech for one such as Benjamin Coventree. It seemed short, and utterly uncontroversial.

His next statement amended such hopes.

“I know I’ve become something of a public embarrassment, of late.” There were no cheers this time. “I know you felt it necessary to keep me locked on the outskirts of our fine festival, so I shall not keep you long. But I must have my say.” A few of the townsfolk stirred at this. “I regret to announce that this is the end.” All stared in muted shock as he withdrew his whistle and blew on it, yet not a sound came out.

He pocketed it once more and clasped his hands behind his back. There came a boom like a single roll of continuous thunder, coming closer and closer. “I am leaving now. Goodbye.”

Benjamin Coventree’s table upturned by some force that was at first unseen amidst the darkness, save for a pair of dim red eyes. Yet as Benjamin fell back, he landed astride some beast that, as it moved into the lantern-light, seemed to the citizens of Bailiwick to be a gargantuan hound. Its fur was black and shining against the torchlight in the pavilion, save for the empty patches that marked where it had been scarred.

As Benjamin and the hound trampled over the pavilion and set the guests to flight, there came up behind him a second Darkhound, red eyes dim in the night.

“Have a wonderful life, my fellow Bailiwickians!” he called as his Darkhounds carried him off toward Belrush Mountain.

 

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An Exercise in Genre: From Myth to History to Fantasy

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As genre becomes more acknowledged in the wider writing sphere, it also becomes less important.

Let me explain.

Many people before me have stipulated that genre is nothing more than window dressing: that you can tell the same story you’re telling in one genre in any other genre. This is because the elements of genre are all different pieces of furniture and the reader is looking in through the window. So when you rearrange the furniture, the reader sees a different room, but you see all the same stuff that was there before.

To demonstrate this, I’ve taken a story I published a few weeks ago, The Lyre, a vignette about Achilles and his lover Patroclus, and made it into two different stories, all while it remains largely unchanged: what follows is its Crusader version, Lutes and Liars, as well as its fantasy version, also called The Lyre.

Continue reading “An Exercise in Genre: From Myth to History to Fantasy”

Ransom

The Cure (6)

The man’s armor smelled of corpses with a stench so bad that the princess of Morgad was like to choke on it.

The legend went that years ago her captor had looted armor off dead men in the wake of battle and called himself a knight.

His name was Roland, and he sold his services to kings, working with the rest of the knights and men-at-arms under their command. And when they had no further use for him they paid him and sent him on his way.

“Who hired you, Roland?” the princess asked. “Drago? Gane?”

Roland gripped his horse’s reins tighter and his vambraces dug into her chest. “Your father has refused to swear fealty to King Galehaut of Tolm,” Roland said. “He now holds retribution close to his heart. He won’t kill you, but the second in line to the throne of Morgad still fetches a high ransom. Wouldn’t you say, Gyneth?”

Gyneth’s smile was thin enough to crack marble. “I’m afraid you have been tricked, Roland. You will be hanged when we arrive at Castle Tolm—my brother Loholt is betrothed to of Vivien of Tolm.”

She could feel Roland smiling at her back. “I know.”

Two words, and her breath caught in her throat.

Continue reading “Ransom”