The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom (4 page)

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
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4

 

‘The Assembly of Ir’kans traditionally met in an ancient hall, where the Guardians attended either in person or in spirit.’

Chronicles (The Book of Secrets)

 

The table was a stone ring at the centre of which floated an ethereal sphere. A column of pale light fell upon this sphere and enshrouded it with a pearly halo, which only provided faint illumination. Spaced at regular intervals about the table, the armchairs in which the Guardians were seated remained in shadow. Of the Guardians themselves, only their heads and shoulders could be discerned. They were all wearing concealing grey hoods.

‘What is his name?’ asked the Third Guardian.

‘Lorn Askarian,’ the Seventh Guardian replied.

‘Is that his real name? The one he bears before the Dragon of Destiny?’

‘No,’ said the Second Guardian. ‘He is the Knight with the Sword.’

‘Do we know for certain? Who among us can vouch for this?’

‘I do,’ said the Seventh Guardian.

There was a moment of silence.

‘The star of the Knight with the Sword has reappeared in the firmament,’ said the Fourth Guardian. ‘And it stands in conjunction with that of the Prince.’

‘That proves nothing,’ protested the Third Guardian in a hostile tone.

‘Are you blind or have you gone mad?’ exclaimed the Seventh Guardian. ‘It is written that the Knight with the Sword would return from the Fortress of the Shadows.’

‘And that the Shadows would follow him.’

‘That’s true,’ confirmed the Ninth Guardian.

‘Then who is the blind one here?’ asked the Third Guardian. ‘Who has gone mad?’

The Seventh Guardian was about to reply, but the Third did not allow it, commenting to the others:

‘We have gambled with the path chosen by the Dragon of Destiny. And if it is true that the Knight with the Sword’s star now shines once again, it is also true that it does so with a dull glow. Perhaps we have made a mistake.’

The First Guardian now decided to intervene. He spoke in a firm, even tone. Beneath his hood there sparkled the stars of an immense nocturnal sky.

‘The Assembly has deliberated and made its choice. There can be no question of reversing that decision.’

‘Against my advice,’ the Third Guardian ventured to protest.

‘The judgement of the Assembly prevails!’

It sounded like a call to order.

The Third Guardian made no reply, but his silence was an ominous sign. He was powerful and proud. He had his followers. The First Guardian found it prudent to adopt a more conciliatory tone.

‘We must sometimes act to ensure that Destiny’s will is respected. It is both our right and our duty to do so, but only on very rare occasions, for we are all aware of the danger it entails. The extraordiary fate in store for the Knight with the Sword is certain, so we were obliged to permit his star to shine once again. But as the Third Guardian has said, it shines with a dull glow. That should worry us.’

‘This dull glow is perhaps due to the Fortress of the Shadows,’ stressed the Seventh Guardian. ‘If we allow him more time, his star may recover its full brilliance.’

‘No one can swear to that,’ objected the Third Guardian.

‘Nor to the contrary!’ the Seventh Guardian retorted. And turning to the First Guardian he added, ‘Are we going to give up? Turn our backs on the Knight with the Sword, now that we have recalled him? Think of all he is supposed to accomplish.’

Silence fell again.

Then the First Guardian said:

‘Let’s summon an emissary.’

‘Which one?’ asked the Fourth Guardian.

‘The one who served us so well with the High King. Let him meet this Lorn Askarian and determine how strong a hold the Dark has on him. If he is the Knight with the Sword, and if his star is forever tarnished, then we shall know what to do.’

5

 

‘It was an ever-raging sea, and even more so at night. It was born of the cataclysm that shook the world at the end of the Shadows. That explained its name. And its storms. And the evil dreams and tortured nights of Dalroth.’

Chronicles (The Book of Shadow)

 

The royal galleon sailed away from Dalroth and the storm. The waters of the Sea of Shadows remained agitated and treacherous, but less so than around the cursed fortress, where the forces of nature confronted the Dark without ever winning the battle. The winds abated. The swells diminished. The waves assaulted the vessel with a reduced fury.

A cabin had been reserved for Lorn.

There was a bunk that looked comfortable, but he asked for the wherewithal to wash first as he wanted to feel clean and decent. Despite his fatigue, he made a thorough job of it, requiring several ewers of water. He put on a fresh shirt and breeches. Gave away his prison clothing to be burned. Resolved to trim his beard rather than shave it off, out of fear of cutting himself due to the ship’s swaying and plunging into the dips between swells, but also because his hands were shaking. Alan assured him there was a ship’s boy among the crew who would be able to shave him, but Lorn would not hear of it.

And, at last, he lay down.

He was exhausted, stricken by a weariness that was as much mental as physical. Yet sleep eluded him. It was as if he had just awoken from a nightmare. Or an illness, a fever, a tortuous dream from which he was still struggling to extract himself. It was like a weight upon his soul that had lifted and left him naked.

Just before embarking, he had turned around and raised his eyes towards Dalroth to – so he hoped – look upon it one last time. Alan had waited until Lorn, his face splashed with rain, asked him in a hoarse voice:

‘What year is it?’

Alan hesitated.

‘Please,’ insisted Lorn. ‘I’ll find out eventually, won’t I?’

‘You really don’t know?’

‘No.’

‘The year is 1547,’ the prince revealed, in as gentle a voice as possible.

He could not help feeling ashamed.

Telling Lorn the year was the same as telling him how long he’d been imprisoned. But saying it obliged him to face the awful truth. Sometimes the harshness of a fact becomes unbearable when it was spoken aloud.

As his friend remained silent, the prince drew in a breath and added:

‘We are in the spring of 1547.’

There, all had been said.

Lorn took some time absorbing this information.

‘So it’s been … three years …’ he murmured.

‘Yes.’

Lorn had nodded slowly.

He had remained silent, but at that moment he had felt, for the first time in a very long while, an emotion that was neither fear nor dismay.

One of the most human emotions.

Anger.

Rocked by the strong swell, Lorn was drowsing when he heard a quiet knock upon his door. Amidst the creaking of the galleon, he doubted whether he had heard right and pricked up his ears.

The knocking came again.

‘Come in,’ he said in a voice that was still hoarse.

A white priest peeped in with a hesitant air. He was about fifty years old, with grey hair and a short, perfectly trimmed beard.

‘Forgive me, my son. Were you sleeping? I can come back …’

As Lorn made no reply, the priest entered. He was tall and solidly built. Upon seeing Lorn struggling to sit up, he hurriedly said:

‘No, no, my son. Don’t trouble yourself.’

Lorn contented himself with rolling onto his side and propping his head on one elbow. ‘May I?’ asked the priest, pointing to a stool.

Lorn having nodded his assent, the priest sat down.

‘I am Father Domnis, my son. Perhaps you remember me. We met three years ago when—’

‘I remember.’

‘As you might guess, Prince Alderan’s asked me to visit you.’

Wary, Lorn asked:

‘Are you worried about my soul?’

‘It is no secret that Dalroth tests the spirit as much as the body,’ said the priest in a conciliatory tone.

He was wearing the white robe of his order with a dragon’s head over the heart, barely distinguishable as it was also embroidered in white, although with shiny silk thread. He worshipped Eyral, the Dragon of Knowledge, who was also the protector of the High Kingdom. Of all the Divine Dragons who had once ruled over the world and men, Eyral remained one of the most respected.

Lorn lay on his back again. He laced his fingers behind his neck and stared up at the cabin ceiling.

‘I’m fine, father. I need peace and quiet. That’s all.’

The priest knew Lorn was lying to him.

But he also knew Lorn was lying as much to himself, as was often the case with those who had been through a hellish ordeal. His lie was helping him combat the horror of what he had endured, what he had done, and, perhaps, what he had become. But he would need to confront reality eventually.

‘I’m glad to hear that,’ said Father Domnis. ‘However, if you feel the need to confide …’ He left his sentence dangling. ‘Or if you have nightmares, visions that haunt you,’ he added.

Lorn did not reply, his eyes fixed on the beam that ran above his bunk. He was exhausted, but a dull anger continued to grip his belly. He had no trouble containing it, however. It was like a wild but sleeping animal curled up inside him.

After a moment of silence, Father Domnis proposed:

‘Shall we pray?’

‘I no longer have faith, father.’

The priest nodded gravely, like a man who believed he understood.

‘No doubt Dalroth has—’

‘No, father. I did not lose my faith at Dalroth. I should even have liked its comfort there, but …’

He did not finish.

‘In that case,’ said Father Domnis, ‘would you permit me to pray for you, my son?’

It had been a long time since anyone had worried about him. Nevertheless, Lorn did not feel the slightest twinge of gratitude, or reassurance. He wondered where this priest, and all the others, had been while he was screaming his lungs out, tormented by the spectres of the Dark.

‘Go ahead and pray for me, father. It’s what one does when there’s no hope left.’

A short while later, Father Domnis joined Alan on the poop deck. Gripping the rail, the prince watched Dalroth recede into the night. The sea was still heaving, but they had escaped from the storm, its deluge of rain and purple lightning. The noise of the thunder had diminished.

His face lashed by the spray, the prince kept his eyes fixed on the cursed fortress.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘Your friend is strong. I have good hope he will one day recover. But he is not the man he was, and he never will be again.’

‘The Dark?’

‘Yes, although I don’t know to what extent it has infected him. But even without that …’

The priest of Eyral hesitated.

‘I’m listening, father.’

Alan’s tone had remained courteous. But he was a prince, a son of the High King. He was accustomed to being obeyed and he knew, with a slight inflection of his voice, how to indicate when he was starting to grow impatient.

‘You know that war changes men,’ said Father Domnis.

He was concerned to find the right words, fearing that he would exasperate Alan by clumsily declaring a truth the prince didn’t want to hear.

‘It usually changes them for the worse,’ said the prince. ‘Some come back broken. Or mad. Incapable of settling down.’

‘Some come back dangerous.’

Alan turned to the white priest, who saw in the prince’s eye what he had feared most: a seething, indignant denial.

‘Are you telling me that Lorn has returned from a war?’

‘In a manner of speaking. A war against solitude. A war against madness. Against oblivion.’

‘Against the Dark?’

‘Yes, unhappily.’

‘And did he lose this war?’

‘I don’t know. But I sense in him a terrible anger that only—’

Alan lost his temper.

‘Lorn has been dishonoured, betrayed, abandoned by everyone! He lost the woman he loved! His life was stolen from him and he spent three infernal years at Dalroth despite his innocence. Who on earth, in his situation, would not be angry? Tell me! Who?’

Father Domnis had no reply.

Alan felt suddenly weary. He regained his calm, sighed, and leaned on the rail.

‘Forgive me, father.’

‘It’s nothing, my son. I understand.’

The priest knew that Alan was not angry with him. And he also knew, the prince having confided in him several times on the subject, that his anger was not only inspired by the terrible injustice done to Lorn; it was also the expression of a profound sense of guilt.

Alan felt Father Domnis place a hand upon his shoulder.

‘There’s no cause to reproach yourself, my son.’

‘Really? Then why do I have trouble looking my best friend in the eye?’ asked the prince.

He had a lump in his throat.

‘You wanted to rescue your friend. You blame yourself for not being there for him … But it’s not your fault.’

Staring out again at the turbulent horizon, Alan kept control of himself and nodded.

‘What can I do to help him, father?’

‘First of all, you must summon your patience. Pray. Wait and be there when he has need of you. Don’t pressure him. Don’t oblige him to do anything. Listen to him when he wants to speak, but don’t try to prise confidences out of him …’

‘On the ramparts, he was ready to throw himself over the edge. Is he still a danger to himself?’

‘No doubt.’

‘And to others?’

‘Yes.’

The frankness of the priest’s reply surprised Alan. He absorbed the news and, looking worried, straightened up.

His gaze lost itself in the distance.

‘Lorn is lucky to have a friend like you,’ said Father Domnis after a moment. ‘However …’

‘Yes?’

‘Be patient,’ advised the white priest. ‘But also be prudent.’

The prince mulled this over.

Patient, he believed he could be.

But prudent?

Born only a few months apart, Lorn and he had suckled at the breasts of the same nurses before being raised like brothers. When they were children, they had played the same games. Later, they had received their first swords together and, at the age of thirteen, lost their virginity in the same bed with two sisters renowned for their skills. The day when the king dubbed his son before the assembled knighthood of the High Kingdom, Lorn was the second in line. And after that, their friendship never weakened. On the contrary, it grew stronger over the years through thick and thin, joys and sorrows, hopes and regrets.

‘For me, Lorn is more than a brother,’ said Alan. ‘I have already let him down by leaving him to rot within Dalroth. I will not turn my back on him a second time. And you know what I owe him.’

‘The Dark is both powerful and insidious, my son.’

‘No, father!’ said the prince, clutching the rail as if he wanted to plant his fingers there. ‘I will not suspect Lorn of being someone else. What sort of friend would I be, distrusting him when he is in such need of help?’

‘I understand,’ replied the white priest as he turned towards Dalroth. ‘But don’t forget that the man you knew might have died in there.’

Lorn did not sleep.

Eyes wide open in the dim light, he stared at the ceiling above his bunk. He did not blink, he did not move and he barely breathed, trapped in a disturbing mineral stillness while the ship pitched, creaked and groaned around him.

There was a pale gleam in his fixed gaze.

BOOK: The Knight: A Tale from the High Kingdom
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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