Wading in the mud of the melee, Danielle Longbow yelled encouragement to her troops. “Don’t stop now. We’re running out of time. It’s almost sunset. Make it through this and you’re on your way to a knighthood.”
“Can’t we just call it a day just a little early?” Anne Hyland asked, she raised her wooden sword to face Sir Danielle and parried slashes, taking a stab to the centre of her gambeson. Miss Hyland fell heavily into the muck and wheezed. Her brown eyes were red from frustration.
“Get up,” growled Sir Longbow, “almost there.” Moving on through the lethargic battle she kicked at other hopefuls, disarmed them with wild swings and knocked them to their backs.
Grey woollen gambesons were every shade of brown with splashes of red. Mud and blood covered the survivors of the elimination trial.
“This is the last day. I know one day between isn’t enough of a rest. That’s the point. We’ve challenged you to do the impossible. If you can make it to sunset, then nothing the world has should stop you.”
Elsewhere in the throng Lord Fabian Castel was urging on his own soldiers as he trounced them one by one. His elite force had taken the seven alternating days of combat with her Nameless Knights. Unlike hers, completing the challenge was a bonus, not mandatory.
Lord Fabian’s rich green gambeson didn’t have a drop of muck on it as she watched him sweeping combatants from their feet, one after the other. His golden-brown hair took on a hint of orange in the light from the dying sun.
“ALMOST THERE.” Danielle called. “IF YOU’RE ON YOUR FEET WHEN THE SUN IS GONE, YOU’VE MADE IT.” She shoved one of Fabian’s would-be knights into the dirt. One of hers swung at her desperately. With all the muck in the young woman’s hair Danielle took a moment to realise it was Nettle. “You’re still on your feet,” Sir Longbow couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice.
“Of course. I’m going to be a knight, like you.” Nettle stabbed at her mother’s chest. Danielle’s wooden sword caught her daughter’s and sent it down into the mud.
“You don’t have to be,” said the knight. “You could join the coven. You have magic enough.” It would be safer, she thought.
“NO!” Nettle held Danielle’s boot as the knight tried to kick her daughter into the mud. If she was down when darkness fell, that would have been enough.
Two hopefuls from Lord Fabian’s elites closed in on Danielle with their training swords raised. The men’s blonde hair and blue eyes marked them as immigrants from the north. Blue eyes were uncommon in the southern kingdoms of the continent. Yellow hair was rarer still. Silhouettes in the last rays of the sun, they swung together. Danielle took both downward cuts on the edge of her wooden sword. As they withdrew for another go, she clouted the man on the left in the ear. Blocking the other man’s stab she deflected his momentum and pushed him to the ground with her left hand.
“IT’S NIGHT. CEASE.” Lord Fabian’s roar cut through the cool breeze of the fresh air. Groans and sighs of relief sounded all around.
“Your last test is a bath in the river,” Danielle said to the soldiers around her. “Wash the mud off and dry out by the fire. Drink. Eat. Then sleep.”
All of them trudged in clothes heavy with muck and sweat. No one spoke. All their effort had been given to the day’s fighting.
A chorus of swearing rose as the first men and women waded into the river to wash off the filth of the day. Chilly black water took Sir Longbow’s breath away. Shock was replaced by the clean feeling they all needed. Cool water soothed her aching muscles.
“Why did the water just get warmer,” yelled Anne. “No pissing in here, louts. This isn’t your privy.” Some laughed, others voiced agreement depending on whether they were upstream or down.
Drinking in silence around a roaring fire, survivors of the Nameless Knights learned the faces of their new comrades. Tired faces nodded.
No one woke the next morning. At noon Danielle felt sunlight scratching at her eyelids. Her brown eyes saw the snoring mass of warriors who had completed her test. Next to her lay Nettle, purple with bruises.
Lord Castel sat on a bench outside the tents they were all sleeping in. His roguish smile as he saw her reminded Danielle of the young man she’d first met in Leonor years before. There were grey hairs in his mane, crow’s feet around his brown eyes. Boyish charm was undiminished by years and battles.
She sat heavily by his side.
“I’ve not been this sore for a long time,” he said. His scarred hand rested on the pommel of his sword. He looked enviously at the sword on her hip. “Can I see your blade?”
Careful not to cut either of them, she drew the sword and handed it to him. “It doesn’t look any different from when it was reforged.”
“Say the word,” he said, eager for the sight of magic. The glint in his eyes made him more a boy than ever.
“Solasaich,” said Sir Longbow. Her sword began to glow a soft green in Lord Fabian’s hands. “I wish I could say I haven’t been this sore recently. That would be a lie. That’s why I need them.” She nodded her head back to the tent. “I hope they’re not needed for a long time.”
Fabian nodded. Handing back her sword he looked at his sabatons, dressed in his beautiful armour he was the stuff of stories. “I fear that we are not so lucky. There are stories of dragons in the north. Whispers of destruction in the empire’s capital found their way to me this morning.”
Danielle sat forward, woken from her morning stupor. “I was told that the herald would scorch the land from border to border.”
“Perhaps the dragons did. It’s said the capital region is gone, not just the city but the whole province. Nothing spared.”
“But it’s just a rumour?” Asked Danielle, hopeful.
“It’s a lot of rumours. Too many that agree with each other.”
“Should we be happy at the death of our enemies? Or sad for every innocent caught in the carnage?” With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she knew which she felt.
“We should be ready, for whatever may come. Your knights might be as busy as mine in the battles to come. Ours is not a time of peace.” Fabian looked aside and wiped something away from his eye. “My mother said recently that my father was lucky to have died when he did. He never saw the slaughter of the knights at Worldworm’s Bridge. He never saw Leonor burn.
These are grim times we live in.”
Danielle placed a hand on Fabian’s. “Everything ends, the good times and the bad.” Seeing the pale green glow, she let the sword rest. “Solasaich.”
“What’s next for your warriors?” Fabian asked, removing his hand from hers.
“Reading and riding until they can take their place as knights. Studying monsters until they know everything there is to know about the beasts we might face. Training with any weapon that might keep them alive when the time comes.
What about your elites?”
Fabian’s smile curled at the corner of his mouth. He caught the first drops of rain on the fingertips of his left hand. His eyes reflected the line in the sky where grey clouds pushed back the clear blue sky.
“I’ll train them all until they’re knights worthy of the name. Knights my father would have respected in a duel and at a banquet.
The guns though, I hate the guns.” He pulled a pistol from his hip. The wooden handle on the weapon had the lord’s name carved into it. “These things are the death of honour. The death of chivalry.”
“As long as they’re not the death of us.” Danielle gave him a smile and stood. Stiff joints brought a groan from her throat.
Standing, Fabian gave his friend a warm hug. Heading in different directions, the two commanders left to rouse their soldiers.
While they recovered from their trial, remaining warriors of the Nameless Knights learned to read. When they were fit enough the days were split between different disciplines. First thing in the morning was a long run in full armour. After breakfast reading lessons continued. After lunch they rode horses, or fell off them continuously, until dinner. After dinner they practiced archery, gunplay, and swordplay with Fabian’s soldiers.
Eager to impress her mother, Nettle led the sixty Nameless Knights in every run. She fought harder. She was the first up in the morning, the last to bed.
“Why are we the Nameless Knights?” Danielle’s daughter asked as the soldiers ate a meal of fish caught in the Serpent’s Tail River.
“You’re not knighted yet. When you are, you’ll be the Nameless Knights because I never thought of a name for this force.” Sir Longbow picked bones from her meal and flung them into the fire.
“You should have called us Danielle’s Dragon Slayers,” said Anne, spitting a bone out.
“You’re not mine, and I hope to all the gods we never have to slay any dragons. I barely survived the first time, and only because it was asleep.”
Months later Sir Longbow realised they could all ride in armour at the gallop without falling. They could all read and write well enough to copy their oath in the knight’s register.
It was time.
Danielle’s soldiers wore their armour and their green Crann Kingdom tabards. They were a line stretching out of the door to the throne room. Each had a shield on their arms, awaiting crests they didn’t have. Whatever hair they had was groomed and tied back.
First was Anne. She copied the last oath from the page before in the old tome. She held it up in her hands and read her oath to the gathering with a smile of yellowed teeth. Queen Elspeth knighted Danielle’s best friend before the next soldier took their turn.
Last was Nettle.
“I swear that I, Nettle Longbow, will serve the Kingdom of Crann from this day until my dying day. I will obey the instructions of my Queen and her commanders. I will wield my sword in defence of my people, against any that would do them harm. I will obey and uphold the laws of the realm.
This is my oath as a knight of Crann.” The soon-to-be knight’s voice shook with rare nerves. When the sword lifted from Nettle’s shoulder the girl seemed to blossom with confidence in a heartbeat. A smile kicked a fretful frown from her face.
“Arise, Sir Longbow.”
“We live in strange times,” said the queen. Eyes that were brownish golden with flicks of emerald looked down at the new noble order. “For one thing, I was hoping for something more inspiring than the Nameless Knights.” Danielle bowed her head, blushing.
“You know of the chaos in the north. The empire we knew is gone, fractured into city states that bicker amongst themselves.
Much as the battles we faced drew the attention of monsters, the lands of the north are plagued now. Lands I had considered seizing by force have offered themselves as vassals in return for our protection.
You were brought together to face these threats. You were trained for it.
Slay the monsters.
Turn our enemies to allies.
Bring us peace.” Queen Elspeth bowed her head.
Sixty knights bowed lower to her. “Yes, my queen.”