A Knightly Mission
by Dylan Birtolo
Chapter Three: A Dangerous Path
Marra sat back in the saddle and pulled on the reins, bringing her horse to a stop. She slid her hand forward to rest on the saddle in what she hoped looked like a natural movement. The truth was she wanted to get her hand closer to the sword.
She looked up and saw two men stepping out from under the tree line, both holding loaded crossbows. They were dressed in leather, distinguishable as high quality even from this distance, and each wore an emblem of the knights of Lastwall over the left breast. Marra swallowed, trying to slow her pounding heart and hoping her voice wouldn't tremor and give away her nervousness.
"Who are you and what's your business?"
Marra shifted in the saddle and saw both men tense at the motion. She didn't dare to lift her hand from the saddle for fear that it might start to shake.
"Marra Silvermoon, knight of Lastwall."
And that was it. The lie was told and she wouldn't be able to take it back. Her fingers dug into the front of her saddle as the words passed her lips and the silence afterward seemed to stretch on to eternity.
"And your business?"
"I was sent to catch up with the caravan and support them."
Another few seconds passed that felt like minutes to Marra. She heard her blood pounding in her ears and waited, reminding herself to breathe.
"Carry on." The man waved her forward.
The two scouts went back under the trees, disappearing as Marra watched. One moment, they were both there, and when she blinked, it was as if they had turned invisible. Not wanting to stay and push her luck, Marra nudged her horse and continued on the path. She resisted the urge to spur him to a gallop and tried to sit straight in the saddle while looking relaxed.
When she turned around a bend in the road, she let out a deep sigh and lifted her hand from the saddle. Wiping the sweat back from her brow, she reminded herself that she was committed to this course of action. The scouts knew her name—why hadn't she used a fake one?—and retreating now would be fatal. Of course, continuing on might prove fatal as well.
No, she couldn't think like that. She needed to be true to her convictions. The two scouts believed her without a second thought, so why wouldn't anyone else? Besides, it would get easier each time she had to tell the lie. Soon her heart would stop pounding. At least, she hoped so.
The sun was almost kissing the horizon when she saw the knights' encampment on the trail. Two wagons rested next to each other and took up most of the road. The knights had tethered their horses to the wagons and sat around a fire talking as they cooked some food. Their armor was piled up between the two wagons, away from the horses. From this distance, Marra couldn't make out the words, but she could smell the meat sizzling and cooking over the flames. Her stomach rumbled.
No one else stopped her as she made her way up to the camp, but all the knights stopped and looked up at her as she entered the circle of light thrown by their campfire. She didn't hesitate as she swung out of the saddle and walked her horse to an open spot against one of the wagons. She kept her back to the light, biting her lip and half-expecting someone to yell at her to stop. Before she even started tying the knot for her horse's lead, the voices started up again. She grinned. Apparently, it was as she had hoped—not all of the knights knew each other. She just might be able to pull this off.
As she went to go join the campfire and get some food, one of the young men came up to her. He wore a plain blue tunic with no markings or insignias. Marra noticed that almost half of the men and women around the fire were dressed like him. It occurred to her that this was the style of dress for the younger members of the group.
"This way. I'll help you shuck your armor."
For Palrion, being a squire means having the courage to take risks.
Marra didn't know what to say so she followed the boy as he led her around the back of the wagon. He turned around and stood, waiting for her to step close. He gestured out with his arms and Marra did as instructed, giving him access to the straps underneath. As he took her out of his armor he whispered so that she had to strain to hear him over the noise of the others at the fire.
"I know my lord's armor and you're not my lord. Did you really think adding a few birds to the leather would fool someone? What happened to him?"
Marra felt herself break into a sweat and she resisted the urge to squirm or run. She would never be able to escape at this point. She settled for shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Her arms trembled a little as she held them out, but if it was from nervousness or fatigue, even she couldn't say.
"I found him in the woods, dead from a wound in his side. Looked like he'd gotten lost. I buried him."
"Why are you here? You wanna be a knight?"
Marra shook her head. "No, I needed a way to talk to the knights so that they'd listen to me. I'm from here. We need help against the Molthuni, but Lastwall won't listen. I thought maybe..."
The squire shushed her with a quick hiss. One of the knights walked past the back of the wagons, nodding to the two standing there as she went to the far side and disappeared from their view. Marra waited for the squire to speak.
"You know how rough it'll be for you if they find out."
"All right, then. Well, you're gonna help me, and I'm gonna help you, nice and easy. You need a squire. Every knight has a squire. And since I don't have a knight, it's back to scrubbing and horse duty for me. And if what you said is true, I won't have a knight when we get back.
"So you'll be my knight and I'll be your squire. You need me, or else they're gonna figure you out. And once we get back to Lastwall, before you go away, you'll tell the commander how helpful I was so I can get a new assignment. Do we have a deal?"
Marra nodded without thinking about the terms of this arrangement. She had not even been here for five minutes before someone had detected her ruse. Luckily, it was someone who offered to help, and she would need help if she was going to survive.
"What's your name?"
"Right, Dame Marra. I'm Palrion, your new squire."
He finished taking off the breastplate and laid it in a pile with the rest of the armor. He gestured for her to bend over, so she did and he pulled off her suit of chainmail. When she stood back up, he reached out and grabbed both of her shoulders with his hands.
"Now listen to me, Dame Marra. You're a lesser knight serving under Sir Tarl. That was my knight, the one you found in the woods. That'll explain why you've got his symbols etched on your armor, but with your own personal touch. It'll also explain why I know you and can squire for you. Got it?"
She nodded, feeling an immediate sense of relief that eased the tension from her body. After making sure they had the story straight, the two of them walked back to join the campfire. Palrion walked behind her but stepped in front once they got to the circle of light. He waited for a lull in the conversation before speaking.
"This is Dame Marra, one of Sir Tarl's knights. I told you Sir Tarl didn't abandon us."
Marra nodded to the other men and women at the campfire and they returned the gesture. One of the other squires spat into the flames.
"Guess you got lucky, barely missing out on scrub duty."
Laughter infected the group and Marra took a seat next to one of the other knights. She took some food that was offered to her: a plate of meat still sizzling in its own juices and heavy with spice. As she dug into it she listened to the conversation, not wanting to miss any details.
"Why do we even need to be here? Can't the locals train themselves or something?"
"I heard we're here to fight orcs."
"No one said orcs. Bandits."
"We're not here to fight anyone. We're supposed to train some people in Tamran so they can train their people to defend themselves. Gesture of good faith and all."
So they weren't here to deal with the bandits. Marra's heart sank and she began to tune out the conversation. As she thought about it though, she realized that changed her plan very little. She still would need to convince the knights that the bandits were a threat, and they were Molthuni, not random vagrants. Once she did that, Lastwall would send support.
∗ ∗ ∗
The next two days were slow and uneventful as the knights neared the southern tip of the Fangwood. Their commander, Sir Adarrius, had them turn east into the forest along a seldom-used trail. Marra knew of the trail, but she kept that information to herself. It would save them several days' travel so that they didn't need to go all the way around the forest, but it would also expose them to some of the dangers of the Fangwood.
As they journeyed on, the forest became eerily quiet. Birds no longer burst from the trees above them. Marra's skin crawled at the base of her neck and she strained to look around her, but she saw nothing besides the trees. The sound of their party moving through the forest blocked out any other noise she might have heard. She reached out and grabbed the sword, drumming her fingers along the hilt as she tried to discover what put her on edge. Palrion lifted an eyebrow when he saw the motion.
A horse screamed from the front of their party followed by a stream of curses from one of the knights. Marra drew her sword, lifting it high and trying to maneuver around the wagons to see what had happened. As she drew close to the edge of the path, one of the large green mounds of undergrowth surged to life, rising up and towering over her and her horse. The animal panicked and reared, dumping Marra out of the saddle.
She hit the ground and the sword bounced from her grip, coming to rest in the dirt just out of reach. The hulking mound took a step forward on rootlike legs, reaching out with a cluster of vines and batting the panicking horse to the side. Marra heard a crunch over the clamor of the ambush and her horse made no more noise.
Recovering from the fall, Marra scrambled over and curled her hands around the hilt of the blade. She staggered to her feet and held the sword out in front of her in both hands, pointed at the creature advancing toward her. It was even bigger than legends said it was. The mound raised one large arm high above a headlike mass of vegetation and brought it down, trying to squash her into the dirt.
Marra dove to the side to get out of the way, but the armor slowed her movements. The blow clipped her shoulder and slammed her into the ground. This time, she managed to hold on to her weapon, but all the breath was knocked out of her. She rolled over and hacked with the sword, trying to hit the creature's leg. The weapon bounced off of its thick skin. It brought its arm down in a second strike, slamming Marra in the center of the chest.
There was a brief flash as she felt like her chest exploded, and then forgiving darkness closed in around her.
Coming Soon: A knight's mettle in Chapter Four of Dylan Birtolo's "A Knightly Mission."
Dylan Birtolo is the author of the Sheynan fantasy trilogy, as well as numerous short stories in anthologies such as Time Traveled Tales and Human for a Day. Find him online at dylanbirtolo.com.
Illustration by Jacob Walker.