Read The Last Knight Online

Authors: Hilari Bell

Tags: #Humorous Stories, #Action & Adventure, #Royalty, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #General, #Knights and knighthood, #Fantasy, #Young adult fiction, #Historical, #Fiction

The Last Knight (10 page)

BOOK: The Last Knight
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The Savant went to lay a hand on Sir Michael’s shoulder. He had started to dig at the base of yet another bush; the frigid air made his breath visible in steamy puffs.

“Now,” the Savant told him, “dig a grave.”

Sir Michael dug, choosing a place not far from the boar’s body.

I tried to help him, but the Savant stopped me. Eventually I wrapped myself in a blanket, in addition to my cloak, though Sir Michael had thrown his cloak aside. He was working too hard to feel the cold.

The Creature Moon sank, slowly, and the bottom of the grave sank with it. It was soon so deep that Sir Michael had to crouch inside it, pitching out dark handfuls of earth. The boar’s tusk was black with dirt and blood, for Michael’s blisters had broken some time ago.

The moon was touching the horizon when the Savant said, “Enough.”

Sir Michael climbed out of the hole and rolled onto his back, gasping, staring up at the stars. His hands curled limply.

The Savant grabbed the boar’s heels, dragged it to the grave, and dropped the beast in, tossing the head in after with a casualness that astonished me. He picked up the accursed hide that had started the whole thing and stroked it, sighing, before laying it in the grave. The bloodstained tusk followed; then he turned to me.

“Fill it in.”

I shoved great mounds of loose dirt into the grave, making the boar’s corpse vanish as fast as I could—I’ve never been so glad to see the last of anything. The earth felt cool, almost silky, for my hands were whole, unlike Sir Michael’s.

My employer turned to watch. His ragged breathing had eased, though his face was white with weariness.

When the boar was buried and I had packed down the earth, the Savant gestured to Sir Michael, who came over to us. The Savant took his hands and uncurled them, which made him wince. Then the Savant took his wrists and held his palms flat on the grave, letting his blood soak into the soil.

A bird’s sleepy twitter broke the silence, and I realized that the sky in the east had turned a lighter shade of gray.

The Savant released Sir Michael’s wrists and stood. “The price is paid.” He turned to go.

“Wait!” Sir Michael came stiffly to his feet, and stumbled over to Chanticleer’s pack. He fumbled painfully with the buckles, pulled out his sword, and laid it aside. Then he refastened the pack, stood, and offered the pack to the Savant.

I bit down a howl of protest—I know it doesn’t do to be stingy with Savants, but half our gear was in there!

The Savant weighed it thoughtfully. Then he knelt and dug through the pack till he found a small jar of salve. He handed it to Sir Michael and smiled.

“You’ll need this.” He picked up the pack and walked into the forest without looking back.

C
HAPTER
8
 
Michael
 

F
isk made camp for us that morning, since my hands were too sore. Though
camp
might be too grand a word; the grassy nook, sheltered by an orchard wall, was barely big enough for the bedroll Fisk insisted on laying down for me. He cleaned, salved, and bandaged my hands and the cut on my calf. He also made cheese sandwiches, which is about the limit of his culinary skills.

I lay in the sun and watched him sort through the damaged contents of Tipple’s pack, for he insisted I needed to rest. In truth the thought of napping suited me, as I’d been up all night. But so had Fisk, fussing over me with an expression that would have made anyone think I was being tortured instead of digging holes. Which reminded me…

“How did they know?”

Coming from nowhere, this question deserved no answer beyond “Huh?” but Fisk replied, “The way rumor spreads around here, the whole western half of the realm’s probably heard the story. I’m more curious about who ‘they’ were—I’ll bet she didn’t put that hide in Tipple’s pack herself. Someone she hired?”

“Probably. We were still in Lord Dorian’s fiefdom at the inn…Root and branch! That’s when they planted it on us.”

Fisk took out my small sewing kit—a necessity when you’re living on your own, though I don’t manage a needle well. He chose one of the thickest needles, cut a length of double-strength thread, and after a bit of fumbling in the bottom of the pack, found a candle stub and ran the thread over it. The unburned candles, and the small lantern that sheltered them, had been in Chant’s pack and were with the Savant now.

“The real question,” Fisk said steadily, “is whether they were trying to kill us, or only delay us.” He spread his pack over his knees and began pulling the tear together with smooth, even stitches.

“Not really,” I said. “Why did you wax the thread?”

“Not really? Not
really
? Someone tried to kill us, but that’s not really important?”

I had to laugh. “I don’t think they were trying to kill us—or if they were, they chose a very…uncertain method. But Fisk, how did she know? Oh, not the general story, I’m sure that’s spread. How did she know where we were, and what we were doing? They found us in Willowere, and
we
didn’t even know we were going there until after we left Mistress Agnes’s house.”

“They could have figured it out pretty easily,” said Fisk. “Since we didn’t go back to Thorbury, Willowere’s the only direction we could have gone. And Mistress Agnes and her brother would gladly tell their sister’s agent all about us…or maybe
they
hired whoever it is, though that seems out of character for Mistress Agnes.”

“For her brother, too.” The tear in the pack closed rapidly under Fisk’s agile fingers. The sun was warm in this sheltered place, and I yawned before going on. “Why hire someone when you can do it yourself? If he wanted us stopped, he’d just follow us and wallop me again.”

Fisk laid down the neatly mended pack and picked up one of his torn shirts. “It amazes me that you can yawn before saying something like that. Someone is trying to delay, perhaps kill us. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know how they found us, and we haven’t the least idea what they’re going to try next. Noble Sir, I don’t think we know enough.”

“Well, we’re new at this,” I said. Fisk chose another needle and waxed a length of white thread. Did he realize he’d said “we”? “We’ll probably get better, with practice. Why
do
you wax the thread?”

Fisk was mending the torn shirt, with even smaller, neater stitches than he’d used on the pack.

“Practice,” he said mournfully. “You intend to make a habit of this?” He was trying to look martyred, but the corners of his mouth twitched, and when he met my eyes he gave in and laughed. “You wax it to keep the thread from tangling. My mother was a seamstress.”

’Twas the first thing Fisk had told me about himself, and it accounted for the neat stitches, if nothing else.

“That’s useful,” I said sleepily. “That you can sew. I don’t suppose you’d consider giving Kathy lessons?”

“Would she pay me? Considering that you just gave away all your clothes, it’s a good thing I can sew.”

As Fisk went on grumbling, I wondered why watching me dig holes had turned “you and I” into “we,” and dropped off to sleep well pleased with my night’s work.

 

 

I woke to find Fisk lying with his head on Tipple’s pack, snoring. I hesitated to wake him, but judging by the position of the sun ‘twas midafternoon—time to move on.

Before we left camp Fisk returned my purse. He told me that while I slept he’d totaled up the coins—a thing I never bothered to do, for knights errant shouldn’t care about money—and the result is generally depressing. Then Fisk told me the total—and it depressed me. There wasn’t enough to replace the contents of Chant’s pack.

We stayed at an inn that night, since we now had only one bedroll between us and in late Appleon that isn’t enough. I was somewhat worried about the depleted state of my purse. Usually when I’m broke I work my way, but with sore hands and a sore leg I couldn’t earn my keep.

Thus hope mingled with concern when Fisk wandered over to the table where four well-dressed merchants were playing black dan, and bet them he could cut any card they chose out of the deck if he could sort it into piles four times.

The taproom was bright with lamplight, and the scent of roasting turkey was putting edges on the appetites of half a dozen fellow travelers, and a handful of locals who had decided to dine out.

The four merchants had just finished a hand and were shuffling for a rematch. They gazed at Fisk with astonishment, disapproval, or merriment, according to their natures—which is to say one stared, one scowled, and two of them laughed.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said one of the men who’d laughed. “We won’t be dealing you into our game—although most sharpers aren’t as willing to advertise their skills as you seem to be. Aren’t you a bit young for this?” His doublet, of a fine mulberry wool, stretched over his belly; his collar and sleeves were snowy white. His round face was good-natured but shrewd.

If Fisk got arrested for cardsharping, as an indebted man, I’d not be able to help him. In fact, if they arrested Fisk they might arrest me as his partner. I drifted over to the table.

“Fisk, may I speak to you for a moment?”

“It’s not sharping,” Fisk told Master Mulberry Wool. “It’s a wager on my skill—or lack thereof.”

Mulberry, still smiling, shook his head. “Sorry, but I know better. I saw a sharper working a tourney once who could cut any card out of the deck after one shuffle. I must admit, it was worth paying to see—but I’ve already seen it.”

“All right,” said Fisk. “I’ll give myself a handicap. I’ll cut the card you choose—and you don’t even have to tell me which card it is.”

“What?”


Squire
, may I speak to you?”

“Squire?” one of the other merchants asked.

“It’s a long story,” said Fisk.

The serving girl giggled and I saw that everyone was watching the confrontation between Fisk and the merchants. ’Twas too late to stop this thing, for even the scowling merchant was now interested. I only hoped Fisk knew what he was doing, and that, if he didn’t, we could escape without violence. My hands were in no shape for brawling…but I could run, if I was well motivated.

“Let me get this straight,” said Master Mulberry. “I pick a card, and I
don’t
tell you what it is?”

“That’s right,” said Fisk. “Write it down secretly, and don’t show anyone. Then I’ll sort the deck into three piles. You tell me which pile your card is in. We do that three more times—then I’ll cut the card out of the deck for you.”

“Ah,” said Mulberry. “But if you see the contents of the piles each time, you’d have a good chance of identifying a card that’s in all four piles I choose.”

“I won’t see what cards are in the piles,” Fisk told him. “I’ll lay them face down. You pick them up, look through them, put them down, and then tell me which pile it’s in.”

The merchant looked intrigued. “I know there’s a trick, but I’d like to see this. How much am I supposed to bet against your skill, young sir?”

Fisk pulled out my purse, which I’d have sworn he returned to me earlier, and dumped the contents onto the table. A good-sized mound, but almost all fracts, and base fracts at that. “You bet two silver roundels, plus anyone else who wants to bet, up to fourteen people. I couldn’t pay off more than that.”

He
couldn’t pay off more than that? But the knowledge that only a small number would be allowed to bet—not to mention the clear implication that he might lose—soon had another small pile of coins stacked on the table. The merchants and the other bettors gathered around as Fisk took the deck, shuffled once, and fanned it with a single sweep of his hand.

“Choose a card,” he told Mulberry, “and write it down.”

The merchant was a careful man. His eyes passed slowly over the deck, lingering on several different cards. I thought I saw him eyeing the ten of daggers, or perhaps the dagger’s moon, though in his shoes I wouldn’t pick any of the moons or face cards, but would choose something ordinary.

“All right, I’ve chosen.”

“Write it down,” said Fisk.

While the merchant pulled a notebook from his doublet and made a few quick marks, Fisk picked up the deck, shuffled again, and dealt the cards into three piles. The green and gold of the suits decorated the backs of the cards as well, and they ran through his hands like a river of turning leaves.

Again, Mulberry was careful. He picked up all the piles, looked through them without pausing, and then pointed to the first. “It’s in that one.”

They repeated the process thrice. The room grew so still we could hear the crackle of the hearth fire and the dishes clattering in the kitchen.

Fisk stacked the piles and closed his eyes, as if feeling for some invisible sign. He cut the deck and held up the four of leaves.

Mulberry threw back his head and laughed—still laughing, he opened his notebook and showed the marks he’d made: a four and a leaf.

An explosion of comment bounced off the rafters. Some of the bettors slapped Fisk’s back and congratulated him. Some scowled and looked askance. All wanted to know how he’d done it. But then the cook came in, with a fat brown gobbler on a platter, and the company deserted cards for turkey without a second thought.

All but Mulberry, who stayed at the table, watching Fisk thoughtfully. “I understand how a sharper, a very skilled one, can pick a card out of the deck by feel. I don’t understand how you could cut a card with no way to know what it was.”

Fisk smiled. “Showing you the trick is one thing,
revealing
it is something else. That would cost two gold roundels.”

Mulberry sighed. “I won’t get a sound night’s sleep till I know.” Two gold coins clinked onto the pile—the much larger pile—that Fisk scooped into my purse.

“It’s not a matter of sharping,” Fisk told him. “So watching my hands, and all the other precautions you took, were wasted. It’s a matter of math.” Fisk shuffled and cut the deck, showing the lady of horns. Then he went on, suiting his actions to his words. “Fifty-four cards in the piles—eighteen cards per pile. I’m putting them face up this time, so you can see how this works. All I have to do is pick up the pile you showed me first—which is the most natural thing to do, anyway. Now I know that the card you gave me is going to be one of the top six cards of these next three piles….”

With the cards face up ’twas easy to see how the lady traveled first to the top of the piles, then to the bottom, but always nearer to one end or the other. After the fourth sorting she was the top card of the stack.

“So all I do now,” Fisk finished, “is stack the piles loosely enough that I can cut this card. If you count down, it’ll be the nineteenth card. Or you can take it off the top, but it’s more impressive to pull it out of the middle of the deck. You could do it with a little practice—but I warn you, most people figure it out about the third time they see it.”

“I suppose they do.” Mulberry looked amused. “But that won’t stop me from showing it off to my neighbors. I might even get back some of my money. Mathematical sharping. I like it.” He strolled off, chuckling, in pursuit of turkey.

I sat down beside my squire and eyed him critically.

“It’s not really sharping,” said Fisk, handing back my purse. “It’s an honest wager. Well, it’s mostly entertainment, like a traveling play.”

“Oh, I don’t have any moral objections—though I do call it sharping, mathematical or not. But suppose someone else calls it sharping? If any of those men had become angry, we could have found ourselves in a very ugly situation.”

“That’s why you choose respectable middle-aged men for your marks.” Fisk shuffled the cards and fanned them. “Pick a card.”

I pointed to the nine of horns.

“You also wager only a small sum, so no one really minds losing.” Fisk shuffled deftly. “And it helps if dinner, or some other pleasant distraction, is coming up soon.”

“I see,” I said, smiling at my squire’s forethought, which impressed me more than the flimflam with the cards. “As long as you don’t actually cheat anyone, I don’t mind. But you might warn me next time.”

“You’d have argued,” said Fisk simply. “And Sir Michael…”

“Yes?”

Fisk pulled the nine of horns out of the well-shuffled deck. “This is sharping.” He grinned, wickedly, at my astonishment.

 

 

Next morning before we set out, I purchased another bedroll, and enough trail food to replenish our supply. I don’t know why I bothered, for Fisk persuaded me to spend the next night at an inn, where he repeated his previous success.

The third night of the journey, the old weaver Fisk challenged had seen the trick before; Fisk laughed and bought the man an ale. Even with several small setbacks, we had replaced the gear I gave the Savant by the time we reached our destination.

BOOK: The Last Knight
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