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 (2 page)

BOOK: The Last Knight
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“My lady.” His voice held warm relief and an affection that couldn’t have been faked. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Hackle. Thanks to you.”

Hackle dropped his reins to take her hand, and laid his forehead against it in the old ceremonial gesture of fealty.

Sir Michael was visibly moved. Me, I felt some thanks were due to us—or at least to him. But if he had no complaints, who was I to quibble?

Hackle straightened and called for one of the men to lead up a spare horse—already wearing a sidesaddle. There was a bit of commotion about getting the lady from one horse to the other. To do her justice, she was perfectly willing to dismount into the mud and mount again, and Hackle, with his peg leg, could hardly assist her. It was Sir Michael who won the honor of stepping down and splashing around Chanticleer’s nose to lift the lady from one horse to the next—which was doubly absurd, since she was as muddy as he was. Well, almost as muddy.

“Where do you go now?” he asked, as she struggled to arrange her damp skirts.

She looked at Hackle, who replied, “To her brother. He’ll be able to keep her safe from that scoundrel, I promise you.”

The back of my neck prickled. “Where is this brother?” I asked. “Why didn’t
he
rescue her?”

“He was away on business,” Hackle said smoothly. “I feared it would take several days to track him down, and that the lady might be wed before he could reach her.”

It must have taken him several days to find us—knights errant don’t exactly litter the countryside—but Sir Michael accepted the story.

The lady thanked Sir Michael. He said it was his privilege. I wished they’d finish so we could leave.

Evidently Hackle felt the same. “My lady, we must go.”

“Do you want Fisk and me to accompany you?” Sir Michael asked helpfully.

“No!” The lady and Hackle spoke together. Only a split second of self-control kept me from joining in.

“You have done your part, Sir Michael,” the lady went on. “You have my gratitude.”

“May I also have your name?” Sir Michael asked.

Why hadn’t I wondered about that? Damsels in ballads weren’t required to give names, but really…I’d better get away from Sir Michael soon. All this chivalry was turning my brain to mush.

The lady knew her ballads too. “Perhaps. Someday.” She smiled mysteriously and rode off, her men following.

Sir Michael stood in the mud and watched them go, wearing the satisfied expression of someone who has fulfilled his knightly duty. I wished I could whack him.

“Can we go now?” I asked instead. “And find a dry place to spend what little is left of the night?”

“Certainly!” Sir Michael sprang into the saddle like the youth he was. Mind you, I was a youth too, but the shining enthusiasm on his face made me feel like a gaffer.

“I noticed a farmhouse back down the road,” he continued. “We’ll sleep in their barn. Most folks don’t mind, as long as you pay in the morning. So, Fisk, what do you think of your first adventure?”

In truth, it wasn’t my first adventure—not by any means. But it was my first good deed, so I thought about it. And what I thought was…

“It was too easy.”

“Too…You weren’t the one climbing that cursed rope!”

“I don’t mean that. It went off too well. Nothing went wrong. Nothing disrupted the plan. When a con goes that smoothly, it’s usually because someone is setting
you
up.”

Much too easy. I was beginning to get nervous.

Sir Michael laughed. “This isn’t a con, Fisk, ’tis an adventure! A glorious one.”

A glorious adventure. In other words, a disaster in the making.

“You’re the knight, Noble Sir.”

 

 

We slept in the barn loft, snuggled deep in piles of straw. The dogs had put up quite a racket, until Sir Michael made friends with them. I’ve noticed that a lot of nobles have the Gift of animal handling.

Getting warm relaxed me. When I heard footsteps and jingling metal in the barn below, I pulled my blanket over my head and went back to sleep—until rough hands grabbed my ankles and dragged me out of the straw.

I sleep on my stomach, so my chin hit the wooden floor with a painful thud. By the time I recovered, the hands had pinned my arms behind my back, holding me against the floor. Another set of hands ran along my sides, like someone was looking for a purse—or a weapon.

“We don’t have any money,” I muttered, twisting my head and blinking the straw out of my eyelashes. In truth we hadn’t much, but I’d have said the same no matter how much coin we carried.

The morning light, glowing dimly through the big hatch in the floor, was bright enough to show the triumph on the faces of five men-at-arms—with
matching
cloaks and armor.

They hauled Sir Michael to his feet. He wasn’t very impressive, with rumpled, straw-filled hair, and his shirt hanging loose over his britches. But the length of his hair identified him as noble—and therefore the boss. Two men were holding his arms.

“Is this your cloak?” The fifth man, who had patrol leader written all over him, held out a dirty, dark brown cloak. The seven oaks with intertwined branches embroidered on the corners were clearly visible. But Sir Michael’s saddle, which had the same device embossed on the skirt, was down below with the horses. There was a chance, a bare chance—

“Yes, ’tis mine,” said my idiot employer. He was trying to stand straight and proud, which is hard when someone is twisting your arms behind your back. “What is the meaning of this?”

This was no time to call attention to myself. Maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t recognize me. Though if they didn’t, I was sure Sir Michael would truthfully remind them.

“If this is your cloak then you know what it means, you son of a mongrel cur,” said the patrol leader pleasantly. “You’re under arrest, on the authority of Lord Dorian.”

“On what charge?” Sir Michael demanded. I was curious myself, in a sick, stomach-knotted way.

“On the charge of helping a murderess escape the liege’s justice.”

“What!”
Sir Michael beat me to it, but not by much. Our shrieks blended perfectly.

The leader grinned. “Well played, scum. But this cloak, which matches the saddle down below, was found at the foot of Sorrowston Tower. And the rope that was hanging from the window of Ceciel Mallory’s cell matches the tether ropes in your pack, so playing innocent isn’t going to save you.”

I kept my mouth shut as they tied our hands and prepared to haul us off to jail—probably the same tower we’d just broken that lying, murderous bitch out of.

No matter what happened, I wanted a few words alone with my employer—but not yet. There wasn’t a wisecrack in the world that was worth the risk of hanging for it.

C
HAPTER
2
 
Michael
 

F
isk clanked into the cell and flashed a sharp look about. Seeing that I was the only other occupant, he stalked over and sat on the second small cot, arranging his manacled wrists in his lap. His expression was angry and sullen, as it had been since our arrest, but now there was strain around the edges. If the judicars had interrogated him as fiercely as they had me, ’twas no wonder.

The guard stepped into the cramped, stone-walled room to make certain that nothing was amiss. The late-afternoon light streaming through the high, barred window showed all there was to see, but they took no chances with the “daring villains” who had broken a murderess out of Sorrowston Tower. A final hard look assured the guard I was lying on my cot, staring gloomily up at the ceiling, so he departed.

The click of the lock still echoed when my squire spoke. “I thought you planned to
save
me from a life of crime. What does a knight errant do now, Noble Sir?”

I sighed. Fisk only calls me Noble Sir when he’s being sarcastic—a thing he thinks I haven’t noticed, though I’d have to be stone stupid to have missed it. I’ve invited him to call me Michael, for I know that the philosophers are right when they say a man’s birth rank is no measure of his worth. Fisk hasn’t yet called me anything but Sir, or Noble Sir. Mayhap he’ll come to it, someday. In the meantime, however, I should like it if he called me Noble Sir less frequently.

When I didn’t reply, Fisk went on bitterly, “Though knight
erring
would be more like it. Of all the stupid, lamebrained, half-assed stunts…”

It isn’t proper for a squire to scold a knight, but I saw no way to stop him. Besides, being in jail again must have brought back fearful memories of his last imprisonment, which was too recent to be easily forgotten.

When I first encountered Fisk, little more than a week ago, ’twas early in the month of Appleon and the road into Deepbend teemed with carts of apples being carried off to fruit cellars, cider mills, and the larger towns. We’d had several bright days, by the Green God’s grace, and the cart wheels raised a fine dust that coated my clothes and the inside of my mouth—but a few fracts tossed to a carter fetched me a crisp apple, which cleared the dusty taste wonderfully.

I was happy that day, as I’ve been, by and large, since I left my home. The life of a knight errant wasn’t quite what I had expected. In the old ballads, errantry entails heroic deeds, terrible risks, and the defeat of great evils. I’d spent more of the last year doing odd jobs than good deeds. But in that year of wandering, first north to the timberlands, then south down the Erran River, I’d had my share of adventure, become proficient at all sorts of tasks, and, yes, assisted a few good folk who were in need of an outstretched hand.

Finding myself only a few weeks’ travel from home, I thought I should visit my family and assure them of my well-being. When I made this decision it had seemed a good notion, but the closer to home I came, the more my anticipation of a lively argument weighed on my mind. I thought I’d spent the last year right worthily—but I knew my father would not agree. I rode into Deepbend trying to displace my worries with thoughts of a hot noon meal at an inn. Most of my wages from the barge master were still in my purse, and I felt quite rich.

The flowers in the window boxes had faded, but the ivy climbing the dark timbers was red as a cock’s wattle and the thatch shone like buffed gold.

When I saw the crowd in the market square, I hoped there might be a tourney in the offing. In centuries past, when knights brought the king’s justice to an unruly realm, the tourney was their training ground. Those who lost paid a high penalty, forfeiting their horse and the armor they fought in to the knight who defeated them. And back then, armor was very expensive to replace.

In these times, tourneys are little more than an excuse for a great fair. But a mock battle is still offered and Chant’s leg had been holding up well lately. Between us, we might have had a chance at the cash prize that has replaced the horse-and-armor ransom. ’Twould also serve as an excuse to delay my homecoming, but I didn’t dwell on that.

Riding farther into the square, I saw a long platform with three black-caped judicars seated at a table upon it, and remembered that in Lord Malcolm’s fiefdom the first Hornday of the month was judgment day. The size of the crowd spoke of some crime so terrible it called for redemption in blood. This chilled me, though Father would call me soft for it. I considered traveling on and making my noon meal of apples. But Lord Malcolm is neighbor to my father’s liege, and I knew I should stay long enough to discover what the crime had been.

Even as I made my decision, they led out the prisoners. There were three of them, and Chant’s high back gave me an excellent view over the crowd. The first was a pinch-faced woman, of middle age, whose cap and apron were so white they glowed in the sun. The next was a man, older, but still hard-muscled, wearing a farmer’s rough work shirt, with a black and purple swelling on one cheek. His lip was split as well, and he winced when the sun struck his eyes. As obvious a case of drunken brawling as ever I’ve seen, and recent enough that he was still hungover. He stumbled mounting the steps to the platform, and the last man in line thrust out a manacled hand to catch him.

The third prisoner was a young man, close to my own age. His short hair was trimmed more neatly than that of most commoners, and he wore a clean shirt and drab doublet, like those of a clerk, or a young merchant. He kept a hand under the older man’s elbow until they settled into place before the judicars. His expression was distant and still, and I saw that he had helped the man without thinking about it. His face was so honest that I wondered if the judicars might have erred. He was neither handsome nor homely, the kind of young man mothers pray will come courting their daughters and the daughters dismiss as too dull.

But his place, last in line, indicated that his crime was the most serious—and his pallor that the sentence was likely to be severe.

For someone whose face was green with terror, his composure was admirable.

A clerk read out charges against the woman. She and her husband were bakers, with a habit of sliding their thumbs onto the scales when they weighed the loaves. Their customers complained, and the deputies had caught her at it.

Her husband, who stood at the front of the crowd, obviously considered himself to be on trial with his wife. Judging by the comments I overheard, he deserved to be.

They defended themselves hotly—they had never been accused of such a thing! (The crowd laughed at this.) They couldn’t think who’d persecute them so maliciously. The deputies were blind, bought, acting out of spite, idiots…

Then the clerk read the sum of the damages claimed by their victims—nearly a hundred gold roundels. The baker and his wife shrieked with outrage.

This time the judicars silenced them. Or rather, the judicar who sat in the middle did. He had a narrow face, a gray-streaked beard, and a personality forceful enough to silence the bakers and the crowd.

He said that the amount claimed seemed excessive. In fact, his clerk estimated that if every man, woman, and child in town had eaten an entire loaf of bread every day for a year, they still couldn’t have been cheated out of half that sum.

The townsfolk laughed again, a little sheepishly. ’Tis known that when a criminal is caught, even folk with honest intent tend to imagine that more is owed them than they truly lost. And not everyone is honest.

The judicars conferred, then decreed the baker’s wife guilty. She could redeem herself if all the loaves
and
all the flour the couple owned were portioned out to all customers who had accounts at their shop, and that further, she must pay five gold roundels to reimburse the court.

The baker moaned that they were ruined, ruined, and his wife looked even more pinched. But in the opinion of the crowd it was a fair judgment.

The next case up was the older man with the bruised face. The tapster from the inn where the fight took place testified that the old man had indeed started it—this time.

A man of the same age and sort as the prisoner, standing to the right of the platform, said wait till next time and he’d do better. His speech was slurred by a badly swollen lip.

The old man on the platform shouted, “You and what other three men?” then winced as his headache punished him.

The crowd’s amusement told me this was an old feud that never caused great trouble. ’Twas the innkeeper who brought charges, and a bill for smashed furniture, a window, and the keg that had been hurled out the window.

The judicars found the damages, thirteen gold roundels and four fracts, reasonable. They added the usual ten percent charge for the nuisance of having to replace everything, and five gold roundels to the court.

The total made the old man flinch. When he protested that it would take him months to work that off, an embarrassed-looking woman in the front of the crowd told her “pa” that he’d no call to complain after the trouble and shame he’d caused his family.

The stout young man beside her paid the fine, remarking cheerfully that he was going to get some help building that fence, after all. The crowd chuckled, and the judicars reminded the man that since he had redeemed his father-in-law, he was responsible for the old man’s behavior until he paid his debt.

Then a deputy pushed the third prisoner, the young man, forward, and the crowd’s mood changed as if a cloud had swept over the sun.

The young man was identified as most often calling himself Fisk—and it appeared that he had good reason for using several names.

He had convinced a rug merchant in Meeton to invest in an undiscovered tin mine—which didn’t exist except in Fisk’s counterfeit samples. He had sold a woman who ran a dress shop a potion guaranteed to restore her lost youth and beauty. He had convinced a young spice merchant to finance an expedition to find the fabled cities of gold that belonged to the savages who dwelt in the desert. He had…

The young man denied none of the charges, though his lips clamped tighter and tighter.

Opinion in the crowd was mixed—there was little doubt of the man’s guilt, but his victims were not popular.

Indeed, when the elderly seamstress confessed her shame, a young woman in front of me muttered, “Serves her right, the nasty old hag.” She then told the man beside her that one of her cousins had sewed for the woman, who worked her girls hard, paid them little, and slapped them if a customer was displeased.

As the list went on and comments rumbled around me, I gathered that the spice merchant, who was rumored to drive a ruthless bargain, was the strong-willed judicar’s nephew.

I began to feel uneasy. The judicar had been admirably impartial so far, but men can act outside their natures when family is involved. The sums this young man had taken were large, but the people he’d gulled were rich—and though all were angry, none claimed to have been impoverished.

Fisk
did
protest some of the sums, but he, understandably, had kept no records.

The plump judicar seated on the left appeared to share my disquiet—his eyes were downcast, and his fingers drummed on the table.

The charges were finally finished. I’m not good with sums, but I knew the total would be large.

The leading judicar leaned forward and spoke: “There is no doubt of this man’s guilt. Nor can anyone doubt that he has befooled and robbed others. For their sakes, I am levying a nuisance charge of thirty percent on the total fine.”

The crowd gasped—ten percent was standard, twenty might be levied if the crime was unusually vicious, but thirty percent was unheard of. A sick feeling took possession of my stomach—this was injustice! It could be appealed to the liege, but unless the liege showed up in the next ten minutes, appeals would be too late to help Fisk.

Neither of the other judicars protested. The one in charge continued, “The addition of five gold roundels to pay the court raises the total fine to nine hundred and fifteen roundels. Master Fisk, can you pay this sum and redeem yourself?”

Fisk’s face was taut, but he answered boldly, “You know perfectly well I can’t. In fact, since I’m sure you know how much I have to the last brass fract, why don’t you tell me? How much am I short?”

A shocked murmur rippled through the crowd and the judicar turned an ugly shade of red, but he spoke coolly.

“The amount in your possession, Master Fisk, falls fifty-two gold roundels short of the court’s demand.”

Only fifty-two? He must be a very successful rogue! But short was short, and a fine not redeemed in gold must be redeemed in labor—or blood. In cases of non-violent crime judicars almost always ask for labor, but the sinking in my heart, and the ill-concealed fear on Fisk’s face, proclaimed that this judicar was going to demand blood. Fisk must have known it from the start.

“So, Master Fisk, since you can’t redeem yourself…”

Knowing he faced flogging, perhaps even maiming, Fisk had still helped the old man on the steps.

“…unless someone else puts forward the rest of the sum…”

Fifty-two gold roundels would buy a fat pig. The crowd might have some pity for the rogue, but no one can spare that much money for a stranger. A criminal stranger, for whom
they
would be responsible until he paid them back.

I had fifty gold roundels in my purse.

“…I must demand your restitution in…”

I don’t know who was more astonished when I called out that I would redeem him. The judicar was furious, but having set the terms himself, there was nothing he could do. Fisk’s expression was a treat. The speed with which his astonished relief changed to suspicion told me much about how the world had treated him thus far.

I had to make up the last few roundels in silver and brass, but a light purse doesn’t worry me. Though I did wonder, with some trepidation, what Father would think of him.

Fisk thought that I was crazy when I told him I was a knight errant—I have learned to say it straight out, and let folk laugh as they will. When I said I’d take him as my squire, and let him redeem himself in that capacity, he made no protest—until I refused to set a time limit on his service. I could have done so, but I was afraid that if I loosed him in the world he’d get into trouble again. And that would be a pity, for I believed there was a good man under his cynical manner.

BOOK: The Last Knight
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