The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom (28 page)

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
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11

 

Their troubles started one morning when Sarne arrived late, halted the building work and asked to speak with Lorn alone.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Daril in alarm, seeing his father’s grave expression.

But Sarne did not explain and followed Lorn into the keep, where they shut themselves in.

‘Things will turn out fine, lad,’ Vahrd murmured to Daril.

All eyes were now turned towards the keep’s door, an odd silence falling over the Black Tower.

The interview did not last long.

The two men came back out. Lorn assembled his guards while Sarne went to explain to the bemused artisans and workmen that they would be paid for the week but should go home and were free to accept other contracts. Work on the tower would not resume until further notice.

‘Blast it, Lorn! What’s going on?’ Vahrd demanded to know impatiently as Sarne talked things over with his employees.

‘He was threatened,’ said Lorn. ‘Last night some men broke into his home and ordered him to abandon the building site. Three of his master artisans received the same visit.’

‘The bastards,’ Liam swore softly.

‘Andara?’ asked Yeras for form’s sake.

‘Definitely,’ said Lorn. ‘Although Sarne said he did not recognise the men who terrorised his wife and him.’ He turned to Daril. ‘Your mother’s all right, Daril. But no doubt she needs you by her side. Go to her.’

Looking very pale, the boy stammered his thanks and left. Vahrd then signalled Logan to follow him. The mercenary nodded and obeyed.

‘We need to stop these filthy swine!’ said Dwain.

‘Without proof of their crimes, there’s not much we can do,’ objected Liam.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ retorted Yeras. ‘We know full well the Redstone militia is behind this. We just have to corner a few one evening and have a little talk with them …’

‘Then we would be behaving just like them,’ protested Eriad.

Yeras turned towards the young man, looked him straight in the eye and, very calmly, asked:

‘So?’

Vahrd spoke up:

‘Sarne is perhaps lying when he says he didn’t recognise the men who threatened him. To avoid retaliation. If he agreed to testify—’

‘No,’ said Lorn. ‘He’s already done enough.’

They fell silent and turned towards the artisans and workmen who were putting away their things, packing up their tools and one by one leaving the site. Some of them addressed discreet but friendly farewells to the guards. Most of them left with a slow step and bowed heads, like a defeated garrison delivering a stronghold to the enemy.

‘They’re ashamed to be leaving,’ Liam remarked.

‘They know they were doing more than just rebuilding a tower,’ said Lorn.

It was, in some sense, a small victory.

‘Then don’t let them go,’ said Vahrd. ‘Detain them. Or at least, propose that they continue work on the project. Some of them will accept. Maybe others will come.’

‘Without a master builder?’

‘We’ll find another—’

‘Really? Where? And when?’ The blacksmith wanted to reply but Lorn did not give him time. ‘And even if we restarted the site? How long do you think it would be before Andara killed someone? They’re not messing about.’

‘And that’s precisely why we need to strike back hard! Believe me, Andara belongs to a race of men who only know one law: might makes right.’

Lorn looked round at his guards. All of them, except Liam, agreed with the Old Man and he felt their disappointment when he said:

‘I’ll find a solution. But for now, we do nothing.’

‘Damn it, Lorn!’ protested Vahrd. ‘You can’t—’

‘Yes, I can!’ snapped Lorn. ‘And I will! Do I have to remind you who commands here?’

Fuming, Vahrd balled his fists but succeeded in restraining himself.

‘I …’ he started to say. ‘I don’t understand how you can declare yourself defeated so quickly.’

‘Who says I’m declaring defeat?’

‘That’s what it looks like, at any rate.’

With those words, the blacksmith turned on his heels and walked off.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Lorn.

‘To have a drink,’ replied the other man without looking back.

He crossed the courtyard on the double and left the Black Tower muttering darkly.

Liam gave Lorn a questioning look.

‘Leave him,’ said Lorn. ‘He’ll be back once he’s calmed down.’

At the end of the afternoon, unable to concentrate, Lorn closed the heavy legal volume he was trying to read and called for Liam who arrived almost right away.

‘Yes?’

‘Has the Ol—’ Lorn caught himself. ‘Has Vahrd returned?’

‘No.’

Lorn sighed, beginning to feel a knot of worry. And as he put on his black armour, he said:

‘Go and find him. He shouldn’t be far. You’ll probably locate him in the first tavern you come across.’ Then, thinking it over, he added: ‘Or perhaps in that inn, where he usually goes …’

‘The Griffin?’

‘Yes, that’s the one. Start there.’ He put on the belt with his Skandish sword. ‘As for me, I’ll be at the Royal Archives for an hour or two.’

Liam nodded.

The Black Tower was now very calm and silent. Preoccupied and dissatisfied, Lorn welcomed seeing the bustling streets again and walked briskly to the Archives, crossing the Redstone district without worrying about who he might run into or – possibly – who might be following him.

When it came down to it, Vahrd was right. The Onyx Guard could not stand by and do nothing. They had to strike back at Andara, or else lose the small degree of credibility they had just started to gain with the local people. The Black Tower had given rebirth to a fragile hope among Redstone’s inhabitants, that royal authority and justice would be restored. But now that his building work was interrupted, it could become an unfulfilled promise and bolster the case of the cynics and the resigned, imprisoned in its scaffolding like a lame leg in its splint.

Sibellus gave Lorn a warm welcome and listened as the knight told him about the interruption of the building work and his quarrel with Vahrd. The master archivist confirmed that he was right not to confront Andara immediately, a misstep the militia leader was no doubt trying to provoke.

‘You are First Knight of the Realm. You know as well as I do that your title protects you. I would not be surprised to learn that the prefect Yorgast has forbidden Andara from attacking you. On the other hand, Andara probably believes he’s authorised to defend himself and no doubt he’s just waiting for you to strike the first blow. If you attack him, you must do so cleverly enough that he has no legitimate grounds to retaliate.’

‘Or else hard enough that he does not get back up off the ground.’

Worried by the determination he saw in Lorn’s eyes, Sibellus nodded glumly and conceded:

‘Of course, of course …’ Then, reconsidering, he said: ‘Wait, I want to show you something …’

The master archivist rose, leaving Lorn in his study, and came back with a very old notebook whose thick leather cover was worn, dog-eared, scratched and even burned in places.

‘Here, have a look at this.’

The notebook was open to a double page covered with a drawing representing a fortified gate. It was accompanied by spidery handwritten annotations.

‘It looks like a travel journal, but one that might have been written by a madman,’ explained Sibellus. ‘I came across it by accident and only the Grey Dragon knows how it found its way here. Some pages have been torn out. Some are indecipherable and others make no sense. But my attention was caught by this drawing, which seems to be a faithful rendering. Read the inscription on the pediment above the gate. It seems as though someone tried to erase it with a chisel, but the drawing is precise enough to allow you to recognise the coat of arms and make out a few of the words …’

Lorn squinted and indeed recognised the coat of arms. The head of a wolf or dog, and two crossed swords: it was certainly that of the Onyx Guard.

But as for the text …

‘It’s in Old Imelorian,’ said Lorn. ‘But this is the motto of the Onyx Guard, isn’t it?’

‘It says: “The High Kingdom we serve. The High Kingdom we defend.” ’

Lorn looked up.

A shiver of excitement had run through him, as if he’d discovered the first element in a mystery unknown to him until now, but whose importance he sensed.

‘Where was this drawing made?’ he asked. ‘What does it represent? What is that place?’

‘I don’t know. It’s said to be a desolate site the notebook’s author supposedly discovered after days and days of wandering … But that isn’t the main thing. This notebook is ancient and I surmise that the inscription copied by its author is even older. So this motto that certain parties wanted to erase was no doubt the Onyx Guard’s first …’

Lorn then thought about the inscription above the gate of the Black Tower and realised what the master archivist was driving at. There was only one word different between the Onyx Guard’s two successive mottoes, but it changed everything.

‘ “The High Kingdom we serve. The High Kingdom we defend.” The High Kingdom, Lorn. Not the High King. Before becoming the High King’s protectors, the Onyx Guards were originally protectors of the High Kingdom …’

Lorn returned to the Black Tower at dusk.

As he made his way, he thought about the strange travel journal tucked inside his armour. According to Sibellus, nothing permitted one to guess who the author was, but various clues led one to believe that he or she had lived about a century before. Other questions, however, excited Lorn’s curiosity. What was this place the fortified gate defended? Had it really existed? And if it wasn’t born of the demented imagination of some lunatic, did it still exist? And where? Lorn hoped very much to decipher the pages filled with spidery writing that Sibellus had failed to read. The text, he’d seen, was often absurd. But perhaps it concealed a hidden meaning.

And then there was the mystery of the Onyx Guard’s motto.

Why had it changed? Was this modification as significant as Lorn surmised? Had it long preceded the disbanding of the Onyx Guard, during the reign of Erklant I? Were these two events linked in some manner or another?

Lost in his speculations, Lorn had almost forgotten about the rest. But reality came rushing back when he found the Black Tower in an uproar, with several dozen onlookers gathered before its drawbridge. He pushed his way through the crowd to enter and, in the courtyard, saw Liam and Logan keeping an eye on things.

‘I was about to send someone for you,’ said Liam.

‘What’s going on?’

‘We found Vahrd. He’s in the forge.’

Lorn hastened to the blacksmith’s workplace, where Yeras was guarding the door.

Inside, Vahrd was stretched out on his cot, with Dwain and Eriad keeping him company. The old blacksmith had received several blows to the face and a blood-stained bandage was wrapped around his right hand. Numbed by alcohol, his eyes glassy, he was mumbling and complaining to himself.

‘He fought with the militiamen,’ explained Eriad. ‘We arrived too late.’

‘His hand?’

‘They nailed it to a table before leaving. To make an example.’

Drawing Dwain aside, Lorn sat down at Vahrd’s bedside.

‘How are you?’ he asked with compassion.

The old blacksmith recognised him through the fog of drink and grumbled:

‘You’re not going to be pleased …’

‘Why don’t you tell me about it?’

Vahrd groaned.

‘As you wish. I was drinking. Peacefully … And then these … these blokes came in. Militiamen. They hadn’t seen me. They wanted money in exchange for their … protection. But the innkeeper couldn’t pay them so they started to … And there were five of them but I gave them a nasty thrashing before they overpowered me.’ Vahrd grew heated. ‘Bloody hell, Lorn! Would you have let them have their way, if you’d been there?’

‘No,’ Lorn acknowledged.

He stood up, looked at Vahrd from a moment, and then, his mind made up, he said with a smile:

‘You win, you old fool. We’re going to wage war against them. But we’ll do it my way.’

‘Glad to hear it. But be careful. Andara’s men may be cowards that only attack when they have the numbers, but above all they’re killers. Being First Knight won’t protect you from a well-aimed dagger thrust.’

‘He’s right,’ Dwain intervened. ‘You might have a bad run-in with someone. Have an unfortunate accident.’

‘And we’d find your body the next morning, stripped of that signet ring,’ said Vahrd. ‘Believe me, that worries Esteveris far more than it does scum like Andara …’

Dwain nodded.

Lorn shrugged but Vahrd seized him by the sleeve with his bandaged hand.

‘Promise me, Lorn. Look what they did to me.’

Lorn received an official summons to the Royal Palace the following morning.

12

 

‘In the middle of Oriale’s nine hills there was a tenth, taller and vaster than the rest. It was occupied by the Palace, which had once been that of the kings of Langre and before them, of the Great White Dragon of Knowledge and Light. Ringed by gates and ramparts raised with the help of magic against the powers and influences of the Dark, the Hill of the High Kings was like an island with a palace containing countless courtyards and terraces, temples and private residences, towers and gardens, orchards, a wood, a river, ponds, ancient ruins and a port bathed by the waters of the Eirdre. It was said that one could live an entire life there and it would not be enough to explore all of it.’

Chronicles (The Book of Oriale)

 

Lorn passed through the Bronze Lions Gate and presented himself at the guard post. A palace usher was waiting for him. The functionary greeted Lorn with considerable respect and bade him to follow. The knight having nodded his assent, a small escort of halberdiers fell into step behind them.

Lorn grew tense.

The summons had arrived that very morning, brought by a royal messenger on horseback who did not go unnoticed in the Redstone district. He was trailed by several curious onlookers who had halted before the Black Tower while he crossed the drawbridge, which remained lowered, and entered the courtyard. Greatly impressed by the rider’s livery, Daril had hurried to find Lorn. The latter had descended from the scaffolding, in shirtsleeves and covered in perspiration, his hair full of dust.

‘What is it?’ Liam had enquired after the messenger left.

The Onyx Guards were continuing restoration work on the building as best they could in the absence of Sarme and his team of skilled artisans, when Lorn did not assign them other missions. That morning, only Yeras was absent. The others followed Lorn and Liam into the forge, where they now usually held their meetings, beyond earshot of any eavesdroppers.

‘I’ve been summoned to the Palace at noon,’ Lorn had announced after reading the message.

‘By whom?’ Dwain had asked.

‘It doesn’t say. But the seal on the bottom of the page is that of the High Kingdom.’

‘A royal summons,’ Liam had observed.

‘Beware,’ was Vahrd’s only comment, working the joints of his wounded hand.

Lorn thought about the blacksmith’s warning as he followed the usher through the Palace corridors, with six halberdiers at his back. How many arbitrary arrests had begun this way since Queen Celyane had been in power? How many had answered a summons before being imprisoned for a month, six months, a year? And how many had disappeared for good? It was difficult to separate rumour from fact. Because she was hated, the most far-fetched gossip circulated about the queen. But her cruelty and brutality, especially when she was angry, were by no means mere legend. As for Esteveris, he had waited for no one to start practising political assassination.

Lorn was convinced he would be meeting the minister, as was bound to happen eventually. He knew Esteveris had been keeping watch on him since his arrival in Oriale. Thanks to his spies, the minister had certainly been informed of his every deed and gesture. But the things Esteveris still did not know must intrigue him all the more. And perhaps even alarm him. What goal was Lorn really pursuing? Did he obey the king or himself? And to what end? Esteveris was too able a politician not to worry about the appearance of a new piece on the chessboard of the High Kingdom.

Lorn noticed that the usher was walking slower and taking more time than necessary to open certain doors. The man presented an expressionless face but his hands shook slightly, which aroused Lorn’s wariness fully. All his senses on alert, he made ready to draw his sword and paid particular attention to the movements of the halberdiers at his back. They did not pass many people in the corridors and were walking through a part of the Palace Lorn did not know well. He had not really worried about this at first, thinking that Esteveris wanted to receive him in complete privacy. But these almost deserted hallways were also perfect for an ambush: a dagger thrust; the assassin who escaped as easily as he struck and would never be caught; the halberdiers who chased him and came back empty-handed, but not before Lorn bled out his life.

Lorn felt vulnerable.

Had he been mistaken in refusing to allow Liam to accompany him? A witness was always embarrassing and two swords were always better than one …

The usher left him in a cloister where climbing roses decorated the columns and arches. The halberdiers remained, watchful and impassive sentinels.

Troubled, Lorn wondered again who had summoned him to the Palace. Esteveris? It had to be someone authorised to use the High Kingdom’s seal.

The queen? It was unlikely. And besides, why would she receive him here?

Prince Yrdel, then, the king’s elder son and first heir to the throne? But like everyone in Oriale, Lorn knew he was in Angborn, charged with making preparations for the queen’s arrival there.

Or else …

In the cloister’s garden, where the central lanes of yellow earth crossed among the flowerbeds, the shrubbery and arbours, Lorn saw a sword planted in the ground.

He approached it.

The sword was a Sarmian rapier and something was hooked to its guard.

A mask in black leather.

Smiling, Lorn took off his doublet, rolled up his shirtsleeves, undid his belt, rid himself of his heavy Skandish weapon, removed his spectacles and put on the mask.

Then, he seized the rapier and looked carefully around him.

Two men soon appeared, each of them arriving from opposing points of the cloister. They too were in shirtsleeves. They too held rapiers identical to the one Lorn was holding.

And they were wearing masks.

One white. The other red.

They attacked Lorn together and combat was engaged. Rapid, skilful combat, but also joyful: the combat of three complicit fencers who knew one another perfectly.

The combat of three friends.

They fought one another two against one, but as the single fighter weakened, one of the two others immediately turned against his momentary ally. Through betrayal and turnaround, the combat was constantly switching assailants and defenders. Sometimes, each of the three fought only for himself and they attacked, parried and riposted in every direction. The steel rang, hissed and cleaved the air at the height of heads and bellies. Although no blood was shed, the fencers nevertheless did not spare one another. There were shoulder blows, elbow shoves and nasty trips. And with every feint, every ruse that worked, there came a burst of happy, mocking laughter.

At last, they could keep it up no longer.

Out of breath but delighted, they removed their fencing masks before falling into one another’s arms with great smiles filled with emotion;

As they had when they were adolescents and trained together, Alan wore the white mask and Enzio wore the red one.

As for Lorn, he had always preferred the black.

An hour later, without leaving the Palace, they ended up having lunch on the grass by a pond, in the shade of some weeping willows. They were full, a little tipsy and idly watching the carp stirring the surface of the clear water.

‘Hi have ha hoose hooth,’ said Enzio, pushing one of his molars with the tip of his tongue.

‘What’s that?’ asked Alan, whose cheekbone bore a handsome bruise.

‘Hi haid … I said I have a loose tooth.’

Lorn smiled.

‘It’s going to take a while before I feel sorry for you.’

In addition to a split lip, Lorn himself had taken a blow to the ribs that still ached. Despite that, he felt good and more relaxed than he had since his liberation from Dalroth. The wine certainly played a part. Along with the enchanting, peaceful setting, the radiant sun, the warm, perfumed air. But above all, he was reunited with his two friends.

Elenzio de Laurens was the son of the powerful Duke of Sarme and Vallence, in whose home Lorn and Alan had grown up. It was traditional for princes of the High Kingdom to be educated by their godfather. Ordinarily, the godfather of a prince was chosen among the high nobility of the realm, but for his third son, King Erklant had preferred to honour a foreign ruler who enjoyed his full esteem and trust. At the age of twelve, therefore, Alan was sent to Sarme. Lorn accompanied him there and they both benefited from the same excellent education as Enzio, with whom they soon formed a deep, sincere friendship that would prove lasting.

Enzio’s gaze was caught by Lorn’s signet ring.

‘First Knight of the Realm,’ he said. ‘Nothing less than that … Does that mean I must call you “sire”?’

Lorn chuckled.

‘You cretin. It would serve you right if I made you.’

Enzio eyes widened.

‘You could? Really?’

‘In principle, yes. Except in the presence of the High King.’

‘Oh?’

‘Stop pulling Enzio’s leg, sire. You don’t want me to start calling you “father”, do you?’ Alan asked ironically.

‘I find you’ve been leading a rather dissipated life, son.’

They burst out laughing.

Enzio picked up a bottle which passed from hand to hand, and then the prince said:

‘Tell us instead about your Onyx Guard, Lorn.’

‘It’s not
my
Onyx Guard: it’s
the
Onyx Guard. The king wanted me to re-establish it.’

‘To what end?’ asked Enzio.

‘That of restoring his authority over the High Kingdom.’

‘Do you have money?’ enquired Alan.

‘A little.’

‘Men?’

‘Some.’

‘That’s not much.’

‘No. But it’s a start.’

Enzio intervened:

‘Is that why the High King made you First Knight?’

‘I believe so.’

‘You deserve it, Lorn. You’ve always deserved it,’ said the Sarmian heir, patting his friend’s shoulder.

‘Thank you.

‘I second that,’ said Alan, lifting the bottle. ‘To the First Knight of the Realm!’

And each of them drank another gulp of wine.

‘All the same,’ the prince continued. ‘You might have told us when you returned to Oriale. Or even before.’

‘I didn’t know you were at the Palace.’

‘Did you even bother to find out?’

‘No, that’s true. But I had a lot to do.’

‘And why don’t you take up residence here in the Palace? With Enzio here, it would be like the good old times.’

‘The Black Tower is almost rebuilt. I’m better off there.’

‘So that everyone understands that you have nothing to do with the powers-that-be, is that it?’ Enzio suggested.

Lorn turned to him.

‘Yes. Something like that.’

Elenzio de Laurens had always been the most able and the most wily of the three of them. He had inherited it. A talent for intrigue and a taste for plotting ran in the de Laurens family.

Enzio knew the impact of symbols in politics.

‘There’s much talk of you here in the Palace,’ said Alan.

‘And what do people say?’

‘They’re wondering about you, mostly. And it appears you’ve been making life difficult for Redstone’s militia. Yorgast must be unhappy.’

‘Who’s Yorgast?’

‘The prefect of the Redstone district,’ explained Lorn. ‘The militia there is in his pocket. He’s ambitious and venal. Corrupt.’

‘And Esteveris’s nephew!’ Alan added.

‘That’s right,’ acknowledged Lorn. ‘And Esteveris’s nephew.’

That detail was of some importance and Enzio understood it. He looked Lorn in the eye with a faint knowing smile. His friend had definitely not chosen the Redstone district by accident.

‘But tell me, what brings you to Oriale?’ asked Lorn, pulling a plate of cheese closer.

‘An ambassadorial mission,’ replied Enzio. ‘My father has charged me with representing him for the cession of Angborn.’

Lorn greeted this news with an appreciative expression.

It was a handsome honour that Enzio’s father had bestowed on him. But it also meant that the duke, the High King’s old friend and companion in arms, did not wish to witness in person the triumph of a policy that he condemned. But nor did he want to risk provoking a diplomatic crisis with the High Kingdom. The duke having fallen ill to a highly opportune fever, the duchies of Sarme and Vallence would be represented officially and with dignity by the eldest son in place of the father.

‘The royal cortege leaves in two weeks,’ said Alan.

‘Are you going?’

‘Everyone is! My mother, my brother, Esteveris. Me. And all the ambassadors and foreign representatives in attendance here at the Palace.’

‘But before we leave, I’m giving a dinner,’ announced Enzio. ‘You’re invited, of course.’

Lorn grimaced.

‘Liss will be there,’ Enzio informed him.

Lorn fell silent and his face slightly paled.

‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea …’

‘I believe she would love to see you again. You could talk to one another.’

‘I’ll think about it.’

‘That’s all I ask of you, Lorn. But I can assure you that she’s missed you. My sister hasn’t forgotten you.’

A little later, Alan showed Lorn the way out of the Palace.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked. ‘I saw the mention of Alissia shook you just now. You still love her, don’t you?’

‘I don’t know. I really don’t know.’

‘And other than that. How are you?’

‘I’m fine. The High King has given me a purpose. That helps to keep me upright.’

‘There’s no shame in leaning on a friend’s shoulder sometimes.’

They had arrived in the last courtyard of the royal apartments, where it was agreed Lorn would leave Alan.

They exchanged a hug.

‘It would be good if you could send news without forcing me send you another summons,’ said the prince.

‘I promise.’

‘Do you need anything at all? For your tower, for your guard, for yourself? If it’s in my power, you only need to ask.’

Lorn thought about it and said:

‘Horses. Good ones.’

‘Done.’

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
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