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.
Seven days she had been Roland’s captive. She had been with a procession along a game trail outside Castle Morgad when Roland sprang from the woods on his black destrier. Gyneth was only twelve, making it an easy task for the large man to lift her from her saddle. The procession was too confused to do anything about it at first, and by the time the archers were ready, he was well out of range.
It seemed to Gyneth that he was not unused to kidnapping, for he took abandoned roads; and sometimes no roads at all. He seldom talked, and had been wholly silent on where he was taking her until now. He is sure his trail has been lost, else he would not tell me.
They reached the top of a ridge and saw the river. “What is this?” Gyneth asked.
“It’s the a river, and we need to cross it. Now shut your mouth. Any more questions and I’ll throw you in.”
He had not been much of a conversationalist, save for warnings. It was even the first thing he’d ever said to her.
The first night they made camp she’d waited until she thought he was asleep and found a big rock to smash his head in. She’d crept toward him, but she wasn’t quiet enough; or he hadn’t been asleep after all. His eyes snapped open and he seized her arm tight enough to bruise it. She kicked him, uselessly. “I’ll give you that,” he said. He took the rock and threw it in a tangle of foliage. “But if you try again, I’ll hurt you.”
“You won’t kill me.”
“No,” he’d said, as he rolled onto his side. “But you’ll wish you were dead.”
Gyneth never tried anything after that.
Presently, Roland urged his horse on. Gyneth held her tongue and sat stiff as he reined the destrier along the ridgeline, following the river downstream.
They rode beside the river for hours, splashing across two muddy streams. Castle Tolm was a dot, small as a star in the distance, when Roland yanked her hair. “Stay still,” he snarled. “Don’t fight. Calm down—I’m not going to slit your throat. I need you alive.”
She felt a sharp tug, and when he released her she felt as though a weight had been lifted from the top of her head, and she saw Roland toss chunks of her hair into the mud. The dirt stained it from red to brown.
“Hold tight,” he said. He booted the horse in the ribs, driving it through the stream. Its hoofbeats sent up sheets of water and Gyneth felt her captor’s vambraces dig into her chest.
The arrived on the other side moments later and in the space of three heartbeats, the hill overtook the horizon, as though the ground had up the river. Before long they were lost in the gloom of the trees, the river a dwindling roar behind them.
That night they sat on damp rocks beneath an oak tree as they ate a cold supper of hard bread and moldy cheese, Roland sliced the cheese with his dagger, and narrowed his eyes when he caught Gyneth looking at the knife. “Don’t.” His eyes fixed her to where she sat.
“I wasn’t going to,” she lied.
He snorted his derision, but handed her a share of cheese. “You won’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t want to hurt you…but I’ll beat you bloody if you give me cause. Stop trying to think up ways to kill me. It won’t do you any good.”
Gyneth said nothing. She ate her cheese and stared at him.
He offered her a chunk of bread on the point of his dagger. “You don’t know half as much as you think you do. You think your brother Loholt will marry Viven tomorrow? Tell me truly, do you think King Galehaut would hire me to bring a princess to the wedding?”
“I’m second in line to the throne. He would be wise to ransom me.”
Roland’s laugh was like a dog retching. “You think he plans to ransom you, girl?”
Gyneth squinted at him. “What do you mean?”
“I’m privy to my own secrets, girl. Wouldn’t want you telling the wrong people what I know. Needless to say, though, you’re in the path of some powerful men.”
“But why? Why would Galehaut make me a hostage?”
“My dear girl,” said Roland, “Whoever said anything about hostages?”
Her eyes widened at his implicit implications. “Liar!” She flung herself at him, but he smacked her aside and sent her sprawling into the mud.
Roland bit off a chunk of bread. “Get some sleep,” he muttered. “You’ll be a hostage tomorrow.”
They came upon Castle Tolm as the sun was setting the next day. The two crested a hill and the horse squished over mud and torn grass. The land beyond was gloomy to behold, especially in such darkness. It full of muddy bogs and wet, brown grass. Ahead loomed the gatehouse. Gyneth could see torches on the walls, their flames dancing in the wind. The light shone dully against the mail and helms of the castle guard of both Kings.
“The gates are open,” Gyneth said. Roland tightened a gauntleted hand around her wrist, digging into her flesh. The portcullis was being drawn upward and she heard a great boom-doom, boom-doom thundering along the drawbridge.
If she could just get inside the castle, she would be free.
Roland reined up so suddenly that she almost fell off his destrier. “God’s bloody bones,” he cursed. She turned in the saddle and caught him scowling.
“What is it? What—?”
“Get off my horse,” Roland growled. “Now!”
He slammed an open palm into her shoulder to knock her sideways. She landed as gracefully as a sack of stones, and came to her feet still dizzy from the impact. “Why did you do that?” she screamed.
Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom.
Gyneth turned and saw a rivulet of steel and fire pounding across the drawbridge. Men and mounts alike wore plate armor, and there were scattered torches. Many had axes, halberds and longswords.She stared, mutely as more and more riders were emerging from the castle, four abreast.
A volley of arrows whispered through the air and she heard scattered screams. Dark shapes moved in front of the flames. The fire made their armor look more orange than gray or silver.
A battle. There’s a battle. Why?
King Galehaut’s riders were struggling through mud and reeds about the castle, but three riders caught sight of Gyneth and Roland. They wheeled their horses toward the duo.
Roland ripped his longsword free of its scabbard and spurred his destrier forward.
There was a clash of steel as Roland turned a halberd aside. Gyneth noticed the second rider circle around him and felt an urge to cry out. His horse turned as he took the blow so that it rang a glancing blow. He is one against three. They’re like to kill him.
But the third rider was coming her way. Gyneth ducked behind a boulder. Drums and warhorns and destriers pounded through the night, interrupted by the shrieks of steel. But all that was distant. There was only the rider. His muddy surcoat displayed a lion rampant on a field of azure, surrounded by five-pointed stars. One of King Galehaut’s men.
She did not understand. Loholt was to marry Vivien. These were to be her father’s allies.
Gyneth did not remember picking up the rock, but she held it tight. It was slick and slimy. As the rider advanced she threw it at him, but in her panic her aim was off and the stone sailed sideways off his temple. It was enough to break his charge, but no more.
She retreated, leaping over a boulder and across muddy ground. The knight followed at a trot, a small dent in his halfhelm. “You can’t run for—”
A longsword caught him in the back of his head, cleaving his skull. Blood spurted from his skull, darkening the hair that splayed in cowlicks from the cloven helm. He jerked in his saddle; a final death twitch before he thudded to the ground. Behind him was Roland, still mounted on horseback. Blood ran down the fullers of his blade.
Gyneth looked to the field. One of the other riders lay trapped beneath his dying horse. He could not scream, for his horse had pinned him at the waist so that his head was submerged in the moat. She saw only his hands struggling, struggling, and then they fell.
The third man was sprawled on his back, unmoving, with a dirk jutting out from under his chin.
“We’re getting out of here,” Roland growled at her.
“Is dead!” he shouted “Do you think they’d slaughter his company and leave him alive? For Christ’s sake, look, you dumb bitch!”
The camp had become a butcher’s den. Bodies littered the ground and the earth was dark with drunken blood. Knight’s steel had been and stained red shining silver mail was sullied with dents and mud. Swords were screaming against steel and Gyneth saw two knights ride down a man running on foot.
“Come with me, princess,” Roland reached down. “We must away!” His horse’s nostrils flared. All about her men cursed and died. Gyneth had mud in her teeth and a sheen of sweat on her forehead. “We’re here,” she laughed. “Loholt is in there. My father is in there! The gate is open. They’re going to hang you, Roland. Come inside, they’re going to hang you!”
Roland studied her for a moment, forehead creased. “Stupid little bitch,” he said. There’s no coming out of that castle—for you or me. King Galehaut wants his revenge.”
“Let’s go inside,” she could not stop the shaking in her voice. “I’ll tell my father the whole story, and they can hang you for bastard you are!”
“Go inside if you must. I plan to live.” He rode toward her, crowding her back toward the boulder. “Stay or go, girl. Live or die. Your—”
Gyneth spun away from him and darted for the gate. The portcullis was coming down, slowly. She pushed herself on, but the ground was slippery and slowed her. The drawbridge had begun to lift, the water sluicing off, and the mud falling in heavy clots. Faster, she thought. I have to be faster.
She heard loud splashing and looked back to see Roland pounding after her, sending up sheets of water with every stride. She saw his longsword too, still stained with blood and brains.
But Gyneth ran. Not for her brother now, but for herself. She ran faster than she had ever run before, her head down and her feet churning up mud.
The flat of his sword took her in the back of the head.
They found the dying man two days later.
He sat against a dried up fountain in a ruin of a town. His surcoat displayed thirteen crowns on an argent field. Gyneth approached him. “You’re a man of Morgad?” Gyneth asked, and the dying man nodded. He told them he was the King’s Guard. His left shoulder was swollen and purple, and his arm hung uselessly at his side. He claimed to have taken a blow from a warhammer. His nose was twisted sideways and he was missing the greave on his left shin, along with most of the flesh beneath. Blood and pus and had stained his wounds. There was a stink to him too. He smells more a corpse than Roland.
“What happened in the castle?” Gyneth asked.
“I don’t suppose you have any water?” the man croaked. His smile displayed cracked teeth, rusted brown with dried blood. “Dying is thirsty work.”
Gyneth extended her arm toward Roland, wordlessly, who gave her a waterskin. She handed it to the man, who put it to his lips.
When he was done, he turned his attention back to Gyneth. “You had questions?”
“Did anyone survive?” Gyneth’s voice was strangled.
“Loholt was killed. All his knights–dead.” The King’s Guard choked. “The King is dead. The Queen is dead…” his voice trailed off. His eyes were fever bright
“What happened to Gyneth?” The princess asked.
“Dead. Ridden down on the field as she tried to escape Tolm.”
The man seized Gyneth with the last of his strength and pulled her close. The death stink choked her, but he did not seem to notice. “Galehaut wrought this treason, I know it. He rules Morgad by proxy, though the nobles will not like it. They will go to war with Galehaut. Mark my words. There will be war.”
Roland spoke from behind her. “You’re sure of this?”
The King’s Guard nodded. “I’m sure.”
Roland knelt beside the dying man and inspected his wounds. “That’s not going to get better,” he said. “Do you need any help?”
“If you’d be so kind. Make it quick.”
Roland unsheathed his dirk and slit his throat. The sight drove Gyneth back as though she’d been struck.
Roland stood. “Morgad thinks you’re dead,” he said. “Looks like you have a choice to make. Where do you want to go?”
Gyneth blinked away tears. I won’t cry. Not in front of Roland. Her throat tightened. “Must I choose now?”
Roland knelt and laid a hand on her shoulder. It was the first gentle touch he had shown her. “No,” he said. “Don’t be hasty.”
Gyneth shied away from his touch. She expected him to smack her. Somehow, his kindness seemed to make her pain all the worse. I can’t leave Roland. I haven’t killed him yet. There’s nowhere to go, save forward.
She could feel the hurt in her belly whenever she woke—when she realized it wasn’t a dream. That one brother was dead and the other was a traitor. The hurt was a pain like hunger coiled in her belly that made her want to retch. Corpses. There were corpses. And Loholt…father…mother…
Some mornings Gyneth did not want to wake at all. She huddled beneath her cloak with her eyes squeezed shut waiting to go back to sleep. She could have, too, if Roland had only left her alone.
Roland no longer watched her as closely as he had. Sometimes he did not seem to care whether she stayed or went. One night I’ll kill him in his sleep, she told herself, but she never did. Where would she go after that? Her family was dead, and a traitor ruled. There was nowhere to go, save forward.
So she stayed with Roland. They rode every day and never stayed in the same place twice. Whenever she asked where they were going, he always said, “Away. That’s all you need know. You’re not worth shit for ransom, and I don’t want to listen to your whining. I should have let you run into Castle Tolm.”
“Why didn’t you? You could have had your money, and I’d be dead, or a hostage.”
That gave Roland pause. He looked at her, his face blank as a slab of stone. “I saw what Galehaut’s men did to those knights. And after that, I’m not sure what they’d do to you. I may not be a knight. I might not be chivalrous…but I don’t like to see big men hurting little girls.”
For ten heartbeats, there was silence. Neither dared speak. “Let’s mount the horse,” she said, “We’ve lingered here too long.”
Sometimes in their wanderings they glimpsed other people; farmers in their fields, a milkmaid tugging a cow along, a squire carrying a message.
They came through the Tolm and into Morgad, and rode through the woods when they came upon three men-at-arms a lion rampant and five-pointed stars sewn upon their breasts. King Galehaut’s men, Gyneth thought, and her stomach twisted.
“Sure, everyone talks about Loholt, but you should have seen his manservant. The way he tried to screech as they choked the life out of him. He sounded more pig than man.”
Gyneth’s palms were sweaty and her knuckles went white. As they passed, she heard one of them mutter, “The most difficult bit, though—getting Bastion’s son to lie still. They had him by the throat on the floor, but it took four of them to hold him down so I could slip the dagger between his ribs.”
Gyneth slipped through Roland’s arms like a wriggling fish and approached the three men by the campfire.
“You did that?” the second man asked.
“There’ll be a thousand men claiming the same thing.”
“It was me! Blood there was, everywhere.”
“Everyone knows that,” said the third man.
“His stomach was a bloody fountain, I’m telling you. It was me that did it!”
Their faces went blank when they saw Gyneth. “What do you want?” the third man said.
“Please, I must keep warm.”
“Fuck off,” another spat.
Tears welled, though not from their dismissal. “I’m hungry,” she said. It was not a lie.
The first man scrunched his forehead. “Does fuck off mean something else here in Morgad?”
“I—I’ve got money.”
The first man raised his eyebrows. “Do you, now?”
She held out a gold piece. She’d had it on her person when she left Castle Morgad. When the man saw it, she twisted the coin so that it glinted in the sunlight. She dropped it as soon as the man reached for it. And when he stooped she unsheathed the dirk off his hip and sheathed it in his flesh. Over and over she stabbed. The world became a blur. She was dimly aware that Roland had come to defend her, fighting off the other two.
But that didn’t matter. The world had shrunk to her and this man. This man that held her brother down as people she loved died all around her. She stabbed furiously so that his shirt was stained and dark. Blood welled between her fingers. He had long since stopped wailing. Not that it mattered. She stabbed until her sleeves were stained and clung to her arms, and the man’s death-stink was the only smell in the world.
And then someone caught her wrist. In her fury she turned and punched him, only to meet his breastplate. Gyneth looked her up and down as she shook the pain out of her hand. Tears came and wracked her body.
“Next time you plan on doing something like that, tell me.”
Gyneth nodded, for she had not the strength for words. She followed Roland back to his horse, and once they had both mounted, he said, “I think I know what side you’ve chosen.”
“I have,” she said. She shifted in the saddle and prepared herself for the bend in the road.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.