Steve Johnson

1618 Caroline St.                                                                                            4200 Words

Fredericksburg, VA 22401                                   Copyright 1996 by Steve Johnson




                                                            Steve Johnson


            O listen, my best beloved, and I will tell you the tale of Ygraine and the Silent Knight.

            Ygraine was fifteen when she was married to His Grace the Duke of Roussilon, whose name was Robert. She did not marry the duke; she was married to him, by order of her family and his.         

            But though he was a soldier with many dead enemies on his conscience, the Duke in his middle years had become a gentle man, and was learning the courtly graces. She found him easy to like, and in time grew to love him, and take pride in her husband. Presently, she expected to bear his children, and raise them, and teach them all the things she knew.

            Then the Duke was thrown from his horse in the mountains while pursuing wolves.  Sore wounded, his back broken, he lived for a fortnight, trying to call for Ygraine. But not a word came from his wounded lips, only a strangled hiss, and before he could heal himself enough to speak her name, he died.

            At that time, the Pope in Rome and the Pope in Avignon were each claiming supremacy in Christendom. When a duke or prince died without issue, both popes would rush to name a successor, so as to enlarge their domains. Whichever papal heir reached the duchy first would seize the throne.

            Thus it came to pass that Sir Gunter of Wurttemburg rode into the town square of Roussilon one cold autumn noon. He wore armor of plate from cap to feet and rich clothes of white, black and gold. Behind him rode three knights in the same colors, whose names were never learned, but who were known to the common folk as the Wolf, the Bear and the Fox. One was very fierce, one was very strong, and one was devilishly clever.

            Sir Gunter was none of these, but he was strong and clean-favored in a thick-jowled, small-eyed, thoroughly German sort of way. He demanded to see the duke's survivors, if any, and when Ygraine arrived presented her with an illuminated writ from the Pope of Avignon, naming him the rightful Duke of Roussilon.

            "Why are you so happy to take responsibility for a poor province such as ours?" Ygraine asked him.

            "Because you are fair to behold. And as the new Duke, the Duchess is naturally my bride," Sir Gunter said, grinning.

            Ygraine's look of loathing cut Sir Gunter to the quick. He drew back his hand to strike her, but a low rumble thundered in the mountains, and he held his hand in superstitious fear.

            Again he raised his hand, and again the gray cliffs and jagged crags rolled with the sound of thunder.

            "I will deal with you in due course," he said. Then he bade his men ride ahead of him, and make the tower ready, and count the treasury of his new duchy.

            "I can tell you to the penny," said Ygraine. "We have no coin, no jewels or gold. We have some beautiful things, but nothing you could sell. You'll find no profit in ruling Roussilon, Sir Gunter."

            "You will pay me not in gold, but you'll pay me all the same," he swore, and rode off after the Wolf, the Bear and the Fox.

            Ygraine turned to the townspeople, but though they loved her and sided with her against the Germans, still they were farmers and peasants against knights with horses and armor and swords. All knew their courage could not prevail against their steel, for this was France and there had been enough wars to teach every generation the truths of the science of arms.

            But one man, a woodcutter, said if Ygraine would but knight him, he would face the Germans anyway, and though they killed him, he would die standing up and fighting back, with his axe or his knife or a billet of wood, if that was all he had. No knight ever born, he declared, was braver than Pierre du Bois.

            Ygraine was thrilled with Pierre's courage but not sure about his honor. She resolved to knight him if he once demonstrated his virtue and courage in the field of battle, and until then, to take him as her manservant in her travels.

            For Ygraine knew that in many parts of France there were knights whose liege lords had died, yet who refused to swear fealty to the new lords assigned them by the quarreling Popes. Lordless, often landless, they wandered the roads, looking for challenges and killing each other over trifles. Some of them, she hoped, would take pity on a countess driven from her home, and with the prospect of becoming knights of Roussilon if she were restored to the throne, would fight for her against Sir Gunter.

            She ran away that very night, accompanied only by Pierre. They fled Roussilon on fast horses, bound north along the road to Paris.

            They spent the next day riding slowly in the countryside, looking for a place to stop. Presently they found a farm that would shelter them in exchange for Ygraine's silver earrings. Though they were a gift from the Duke, still she parted with them, for they needed the room. The Duke would no doubt want his land liberated from the false lord, and approve of the use of his gift. At least, Ygraine hoped so.

            The next night they could not find a place to stay before dark, so they pressed on. But a man emerged from the dark at the side of the road, his hand glinting of steel.

            "What do you want?" Pierre said sternly.

            "Just your valuables, m'sieur," said the stranger.

            "We have none," said Pierre.

            "You're a bad liar, m'sieur. You are far from home, and traveling costs money, n'est-ce pas? Very unlikely you have relatives at every stop along the way. No, no, I think you are not perhaps a wealthy man, but you have a little something. And that something now belongs to me, Gaston."

            Pierre stepped forward, placing himself between Gaston and Ygraine.

            "Over my dead body," he said.

            Gaston grinned, shrugged, and came on with his sword.

            Pierre had a long boning knife. When Gaston was almost at arm's reach, he showed it. Gaston laughed.

            "Oh, m'seiur, Gaston is no chicken to be plucked by such a blade! I think you must put it down now, and I will leave you alive."

            Instead, Pierre raised the blade to his forehead in a salute.

            "You are a gentleman after all," Gaston said. "That being the case, it will be a pleasure to kill you, for I hate all gentlemen."

            Smiling ironically, he raised his own sword to return the salute. While Gaston's sword was in the air, Pierre sprang forward and buried the knife in Gaston's belly.

            Gaston dropped the sword, falling to his knees. Pierre used the sword to finish its owner.

            "Madame," he said to Ygraine, "I have taken this man's sword in honorable combat. Will you take it, and knight me with it?"

            "Hardly honorable combat, Pierre," she said. "You tricked him, yes?"

            "A ruse de guerre, nothing more. He'd have done the same."

            "I think a knight has to be above such things. That is what my husband said, at any rate."

            "Madame, he would have killed us both. Possibly worse. You can't expect me to risk death for me, for you, over quibbles of honor!"

            "You performed brilliantly, Pierre. You are brave, quick and clever. But you are not a knight. Not yet."

            Pierre forbore to mention that he was alone with her in the dark, with a knife and a sword, and yet she felt free to speak to him as though he were a child. If he were not an honorable man, would she feel so safe with him? But he said nothing of the matter, for to broach the topic would be to admit he was thinking about it, and he had enough mother wit to know that would hurt his chances even more.

            He quit sulking when they reached the chateau d'Evremond in the Lorraine. A banner of three lions on white flapped in the hearty breeze pouring over from Germany. Parallel fields were alive with grain, being worked by peasants with wooden flails.

            "There, but for the grace of God, go I," Pierre said.

            "You prefer the life of the woods, then?" said Ygraine.

            "I aspire to something better yet, Madame," Pierre said. "As you know."

            "Watch, then, and learn, from a knight born in the blood," she said.

            Sir Helior le Blanc, master of the chateau, made them welcome. He was larger and stronger than any man Ygraine had ever seen; he had to duck under the beams of the door of the chateau and could mount his horse without a footstool. He had never been beaten in tournament or battle.

            But where God had given with one hand, he had taken away with the other. Sir Helior was as bald as an egg, with the smooth face and high, clear voice of an innocent child. No wife had he, nor paramour, nor was he likely to have while he presented the aspect, not of a man, but a boy.

            But Sir Helior was not troubled by his condition, having learned to accept what he was in youth. He agreed to come with Ygraine, though as master of the chateau he had much to keep him, because he hated injustice as only the young of heart can. He wore his fine armor, and a great two-handed sword longer than Ygraine was tall, and he gave Pierre a shirt of chainmail. Pierre accepted with eagerness if not exactly gratitude.

            Ygraine next traveled to Paris, where many second and third sons were said to seek employment. No one troubled them on the road with a giant knight in armor to guard them. At night, Pierre built a fire from fallen wood, and Sir Helior sang sad songs in his fine, clear soprano.

            They were in Paris for six days. Paris was a city built on an island in the river Seine, and though it had grown far beyond the river's banks, still its heart was on the City Isle, as it was known. So there they met Sir Meliagrance, who was saturnine and long of limb, and quicker than a viper. His arms were a fist in gold on a field black.

            Sir Meliagrance agreed to come with Ygraine, but demanded a token as advance on his payment should they win. She gave him her golden brooch, which was a gift from the Duke, because the Duke would have wanted his land freed from the usurper, whatever the cost.

            At least, she hoped he would.

            They found no one else in Paris, and traveled back to Roussilon by way of the Vendee, along the Atlantic coast where Gascony and Toulouse meet. Sir Meliagrance suggested that he and Sir Helior dress in rags, hoping to attract the attention of a robber knight whom they could then recruit, but Sir Helior objected that a robber knight was not the sort of man they wanted along on a mission of justice. Ygraine agreed with Sir Helior, but Sir Meliagrance was not offended. He began at once to plan another scheme.

            It was in Marseilles, that great and brawling Mediterranean port, that they met Sir Loussarian the Armenian. Sir Loussarian was in exile from his native land, overrun by the Persians, and he hated all enemies of the Church with a passion that bordered on madness. He readily agreed to support Ygraine against Sir Gunter, for Sir Gunter's writ stemmed from the court of Avignon, and Sir Loussarian hated the false Pope as much as the Sultan of the Turks himself. He asked no reward but the blood of the infidel and was eager to make haste for Rousillon at once. Sir Helior admired Sir Loussarian's martial ardor, while Sir Meliagrance thought he could be useful to their plans. Pierre sulked in silence.

            So it came to pass that in the height of autumn, four horses bore four men into the duchy of Rousillon, with one woman riding at their head. Dry leaves skirled about them as they opened the gate onto the ducal grounds and rode up to the manor itself.

            Sir Gunter's pennant, gold, black and white, flew from a mast on the south tower. Sir Helior and Sir Meliagrance cut it down, and Sir Loussarian tore it to bits.

            Sir Gunter came out onto the balcony, dressed in one of the Duke's robes. He took in the scene without a word, then went back inside.

            Sir Loussarian took a step toward the door, but Sir Helior laid a hand on his shoulder.

            "No, my friend. Not yet," he said. "Would you slaughter a helpless man in his bed?"

            "Yes," said Sir Meliagrance and Sir Loussarian together.

            Pierre raised his eyebrows and was about to speak, but just then the doors of the manor swung wide. Sir Gunter and his three knights stood there, armored in chain and plate, girded about with their arms and colors, ready for battle.

            "Sir Gunter, I have brought three champions to defend my rights," Ygraine said. "I demand that you leave my house."

            "I have four knights to your three," Sir Gunter replied. "I see no reason to give up what's mine."

            Ygraine's lips thinned.

            "And if I had four?" she demanded.

            "That might be different," Sir Gunter said. "But as things are, it is I who am in a position to throw you off my land."

            Sir Loussarian drew his sword and stepped toward Sir Gunter.

            "You'll smile wider when I've cut that beard off you!" he said.

            "Come ahead, boy, and try it," Sir Gunter taunted.

            Sir Loussarian cocked his arm and ran toward Sir Gunter, but Sir Gunter stepped aside and waved a hand toward the Wolf, who blocked Sir Loussarian's path. Their swords skirled together in a clash of steel, each man slicing and chopping at his opponent's head, neck, and arm. Wherever Sir Loussarian's blade slashed, the Wolf's was there to block it.

            Finally Sir Loussarian drew close enough to strike the Wolf on the side of the head with his fist. The Wolf bared his teeth and bit Sir Loussarian on the wrist, sinking deep into his tendons. Sir Loussarian howled in pain, but his other hand was already coming around with the saber.

            Sir Loussarian laid the Wolf's scalp open to the bone at the same time that the Wolf's own sword pierced Sir Loussarian's chest.

            Both men fell back, the Wolf to lie face-down as if dead, Sir Loussarian to stagger in diminishing circles, clutching his chest. He fell face-first across the cobblestones and lay still.

            Sir Gunter smiled.       Quite a few of the townspeople had gathered around the manor square.

            Sir Helior stepped forward. He checked Sir Loussarian's body.

            "He is dead," Sir Helior said.

            "While committing a criminal act," said Sir Gunter. "A fitting end for his kind. Will you join him in outlawry, sir knight? Recall that my writ is just, and my knights are many."

            "If your writ were just, you would not need your knights," Sir Helior replied. "You will not claim this woman's land while I live."

            Sir Gunter nodded.

            "So be it."

            He pointed to the Bear, who came forward holding a flail. It was a bar of iron a yard long, anchored at one end to three chains ending in three spiked iron balls as big as a fist. He swung the flail experimentally, then faster and faster as his arms caught the rhythm. He was a big man, but the chains were three yards long and whirled beyond even Sir Helior's reach.

            Sir Helior weaved from side to side, holding his two-handed sword in front of him. The Bear flicked his hands to the left, and the whirling chains shifted, striking Sir Helior on his helmet and the pauldrons protecting his shoulder. Sir Helior staggered and slashed at the chains, but the Bear yanked them back faster than Sir Helior could react.

            Sir Helior stepped in and swung a mighty blow that caught the Bear in his side, splintering his armor. The Bear jerked back, blood spreading on his tabard from the wound. But he also brought the flail down, over Sir Helior's head, and the three spiked balls struck him in the center of the back.

            Sir Helior gasped, the wind driven from him. The Bear hobbled to the side, away from Sir Helior's sword, and struck again. Sir Helior's helmet entangled the chains, and with a heave the Bear pulled the helmet off and sent it flying.

            Sir Helior stood, wheezing through his nose and mouth. The Bear baited him, flicking him with the flail. Then Sir Helior gave a long, wailing cry and charged the Bear, swinging the sword in an irresistable arc, and the Bear swung the iron handle up to defend himself.

            The handle and the sword snapped cleanly in two.

            Sir Helior collided with the Bear. They went down together, crashing into the cobblestones with a clatter of armor. The Bear held half an iron bar, with which he struck at Sir Helior's bare head again and again, until the giant stirred no more.

            The Bear tried to heave Sir Helior's bulk off him, but his strength was all but gone. He gave up, and shuddered, and lay still, as his life's blood pooled around him in a spreading stain.

            Now Sir Meliagrance stepped forward to threaten Sir Gunter, who was after all the root of Ygraine's problem. But the Fox barred his way, and Sir Meliagrance held up his sword, till the tip pointed directly at the Fox's eyes. Behind his back, Sir Meliagrance drew a hidden dagger from his belt with his other hand.

            "My steel for you, sir, if you stand between me and my enemy," Sir Meliagrance said.

            "My steel for you, sir, if you do not withdraw," the Fox replied. "And my master's silver for you, sir, if you join us."

            The Fox's free hand held, not a dagger, but a necklace of silver chain and rubies.

            "That is mine!" Ygraine said, shocked.

            "Not any more," the Fox said. "It is my master's and mine to dispose as we wish. And it is this knight's, if he will but forswear you, and go from this place with no further trouble."

            Sir Meliagrance saw the silver glitter in the sunlight. But he also saw the bodies of Sir Loussarian and Sir Helior stretched out dark against the pale cobblestones, and Ygraine small and lost, barred from her home. His dark face quirked in a self-mocking sneer.

            "Once I might have agreed," he said to the Fox. "But not this time. If your master would have me gone, he'll need steel, not gold."

            "Oh, I don't know," said the Fox, and flung the silver necklace in Sir Meliagrance's face. He struck twice while Sir Meliagrance was blinded, once on either side of the neck. Sir Meliagrance fell without a sound, and the Fox finished him with a thrust into the back.

            Pierre picked up Sir Loussarian's fallen saber. Sir Gunter shouted a warning to the Fox, but Pierre was already upon him, hacking at his head and neck. Like his victim, the Fox died without a chance to defend himself.

            Pierre cleaned the blade on the Fox's linen shirt.

            "What's this? A commoner kills a noble knight?" Sir Gunter said. "I'll have your head for this, you common rogue!"

            "Come and take it, pig's vomit," Pierre said.

            "Pierre!" Ygraine said. "Come here."

            Sir Gunter waited. Pierre came to Ygraine.

            "Madame, he's the last one. If I kill him, you're free," Pierre said.

            Ygraine's eyes were full of tears.

            "Give me your sword," she said.

            "It's him or you! Madame, there's no more time to --"

            "Your sword," she said. "Please."

            He handed it over.

            "Now kneel, Pierre du Bois."

            He did.

            "Do you acknowledge that my husband is your true and rightful lord?"

            "I do, Madame. But what --"

            "And do you swear to uphold the laws of God and of the Duke, whoever he shall be, against all enemies whatsoever?"

            "I do."

            She touched the sword to his forehead, then each shoulder in turn.

            "Then by the power vested in me as Duchess of Roussilon, I give you the power to bear arms, to mete high and low justice, and enforce the Duke's will as a knight of the realm. Arise, Sir Pierre."

            Pierre stood. His bearing glowed with pride, with confidence.

            "Defend your Duchess' honor, Sir Pierre," she told him. And he agreed.

            But as he stepped into the manor square where Sir Gunter stood waiting, she knew he had no more chance than the Fox had had. For Sir Gunter's armor was plate of proof, while Pierre's was a chain shirt. Sir Gunter was tanned and muscular, whereas Pierre was whipcord-lean from a diet of bread and wine and only occasional meat. And Sir Gunter had the flinty look of a man who has fought in the wars, who has seen enemies expire in agony beneath his blade. But where the Duke had renounced the sins of his youth, Sir Gunter was still young, and clearly reveled in them.

            Since Pierre was going to fight him anyway, she was glad she had knighted him before he died.

            Then a cold wind blew down from the mountains, clearing the scent of dust and blood from the air. And something stirred in the wind, something red and black, flapping in the trees just beyond the edge of town.

            Out of the trees came a knight in armor. He wore a full helm that concealed his head, and that helm was all of red metal with wings like a bat's on the sides. He wore a coat of mail that concealed his body, and that mail was scorched and blackened as though roasted in a fire for days. He carried a sword, and that sword glinted red as though it were wet with fresh blood.

            The knight strode across the fields and between the houses, looking neither left nor right. And when he came to the square where Sir Helior and Sir Meliagrant and Sir Rousillon lay dead, the silent knight stopped a pace beyond Sir Pierre, raised an arm, and pointed his sword directly at Sir Gunter's heart.

            Pierre recoiled from the silent knight, his face white with fear.

            When the silent knight moved, ashes fell from his armor. Close up, Ygraine could see the shimmer of heat around him, the marks of branding irons against his leather boots, and upon his armorless flanks, where his skin  was an unearthly gray.

            Sir Gunter shook his head.

            "You've come too late, whoever you are. I've won. Do you hear? I've won! Before God and the Pope and in their names, I order you to depart at once, do you hear? For I am master here!"

            The silent knight said nothing in reply. Ygraine thought she heard a strangled hiss from within the bat-winged helmet.

            Then Sir Gunter took out the scroll from the Pope and held it up. The silent knight cut it in half, smearing the edges with fresh blood.

            Sir Gunter fell back and drew his sword. The silent knight advanced on him, slowly enough that Sir Gunter could pick up his shield.

            Then Sir Gunter threw himself at the silent knight with a roar of rage. His sword sparked on the bleeding blade and slid to lie against the crossbar. The silent knight and Sir Gunter strained against each other, but inexorably Sir Gunter's arm was forced down.

            Sir Gunter plucked the knife from his belt and sank it into the silent knight's shoulder. But the silent knight ignored the wound, and finished forcing Sir Gunter's sword down, until he dropped it. And once Sir Gunter had no sword, the silent knight chopped upward from the ground and Sir Gunter's head spilled onto the cobblestones.

            The silent knight turned, facing every person in the square that day. Beneath his helmet his eyes smoldered the exact color of coals. For the first time, Ygraine smelled the distinct odor of scorched iron, and ashes, and death upon him.

            He turned to Ygraine last of all, and offered her a deep bow on one knee. Ygraine reached to place her hand on his head, to say something, but he stood at once, smoldering eyes fogged with smoke.

            He turned on his heel and returned to the trees. Lightning struck, a tree toppled, and fire began which consumed the orchard.

            Ygraine stood watching, heedless of the rain which lashed her, until the fire went out.