Saturday, October 12, 2019

Excerpt: The Knight (The Winter Garden and Other Stories)

And here's the second excerpt, this time from a short story that's part of my first fairy tale anthology. "The Knight" was inspired by the legend of St. George and the dragon and especially all the different versions of legends involving sacrificial characters and their saviors.

Here's the blurb of the original story when it was first published as a standalone:
A monster plagues the tiny kingdom ruled by King Awiergan. The dragon, left unchallenged by untrained warriors of a weak king, is pacified only through a monthly sacrifice of the kingdom’s young people. Prince Caedmon, though the heir to the throne, suffers in silence as friends and innocent subjects are chosen by lottery to be the dragon’s victims.

While it seems good luck has kept his name from coming up, things come to a head when his lover falls victim to the lottery, and Caedmon starts noticing strange conversations in the castle that hint at an act of betrayal. Blinded by grief and rage at what he discovers, Caedmon recklessly attempts to balance the scales through his own sacrifice -- until the unexpected appearance of a tired and soiled knight.

I didn’t receive the same displays of grief from my family. Nobility never allowed their emotions to show, after all. Whatever passions we felt were always subdued, suppressed into quieter, more dignified expressions of joy, anger, sadness, and terror. I turned to my mother and my sister and found them regarding me with perfectly controlled faces. For a brief moment I didn’t even know if they truly felt anything for me, and I must admit to feeling a touch of resentment toward them and jealousy toward my poorer counterparts and their spontaneous bursts of emotion.
I could only bow before them and allow myself to be escorted away by shocked and reluctant guards.
Like my deceased predecessors, I was led to the tower room, where I was cleaned and dipped in aromatic water before being dressed as a bridegroom. Then I was led away.
There must have been a crowd that lined the streets where I was escorted. I don’t remember now. Most likely. I honestly couldn’t say what it was I saw or heard or felt during those moments of preparation. Things seemed to drift before my eyes as though in a dream—images and sounds and tactile sensations seemed distant and so far removed from the moment that I began to wonder if I were imagining the entire thing. I know that I must have moved mechanically and without thought as I was ushered here and there. I do remember not speaking a single word.
I was led to the boulder, and there I was chained. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, as the monstrous piece of stone against which I was shackled leaned back a little so that I was almost resting against it, but the iron cuffs that were chained to the rock dangled above me so that I had my arms raised above my head, rendering me even more vulnerable to whatever might come my way. I couldn’t imagine those poor girls, who were slighter of build and shorter than I—how they must have suffered through the discomfort of hanging down by their wrists. All I could say was that I was grateful that their deaths came swiftly and surely.
My escorts abandoned me with quiet words of regret and grief, which I tried to assuage with as much dignity I could muster at that moment. I offered them some comfort, charging them to look after my mother and my sister before blessing them and their families.
I was soon alone. The rock faced the edge of the cliff, where I understood the dragon made its appearance at a precise time of the day. The monster must have lived somewhere near the bottom of the canyon—perhaps inside the cliff walls. Nobody ever managed to discover that. I tried to find out for myself several times, but my father’s patrols had caught me attempting to steal past the borders and brought me back to the castle, where I was admonished to keep to my place and where I spent the rest of the day being told what to do just to stay out of everyone’s way.
As I waited, I rested my eyes on the panorama before me.
Just beyond the cliff’s edge lay a vast expanse of land—untouched, rugged, majestic in its wildness. Distant mountains rose out of heavy mists as though to meet the sky, their jagged tips powdered with snow. Those rugged formations caught the sun’s rays and reflected them in flashes of blinding light. The clouds had broken, allowing light to pierce through the gloom that defined the land. I counted myself blessed enough to be witness to the grandeur before me. The mountains seemed to stretch on forever, no matter where I looked, providing me with an odd sense of comfort at the thought of finality and permanence and infinity.
My friends had seen all this. Their final moment alive was spent in quiet contemplation of the stark silhouettes that spread before them. Their hearts were calmed by the gentle silence of the world around them. I was grateful for at least that point.
So I lost myself in my environment, closing my eyes to rest while I waited. I have no idea how long I stayed that way. It must have been several minutes or even hours. All I knew, all I understood, was being gently roused from my sleep and almost crying out from the pain of cramped and stretched muscles.
I opened my eyes and found myself staring at a knight.
A young one who seemed to be twenty-five years old—surprisingly young for a knight, I thought, but it could very well be nothing more than a reflection of my limited knowledge. He looked as though he’d just been through a recent battle or at least had been wandering the lands for some time. He held his helm against himself with one hand and a tall spear in another, and I saw that his armor was stained and dulled, dented in a few places and muddy in others. His hair, which was a pale shade of gold, was dulled with dust from his travels. Some strands, being moistened with sweat, clung to his skin in little gold-brown patches. His face was smeared with dust streaked with sweat. His cloak, along with his surcoat, were torn, faded, and soiled with dried mud. An equally stained and dulled broadsword hung on his left hip. Several feet away, under the shade of a small thicket, stood his horse—a majestic gray animal that seemed to radiate raw power with every small movement and twitch of its muscular form—also heavily soiled and looking rather grateful for the respite.
I stared at him in some surprise for several seconds.
“Who put you here?” he finally asked in a voice that spoke to me of a mind more inclined to quieter pursuits. I found the contrast jarring but not objectionable. It was—oddly fitting.
“My people did,” I replied, shifting a little to ease the strain in my arms and listening to the chains clatter against the stone. “You can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous.”
“Why did your people put you here? Are you being punished?”
“No, I…”
I had to pause and reconsider, my mind suddenly unraveling. In truth, after all, I was being punished. I was punishing myself for my friends’ deaths. For my lover’s execution. For my father’s greed. So I simply stated a fact.
“I’m to be a sacrifice.”
“To what?”
“A plague—a dragon.”
He waited for a second or two, a picture of the utmost patience in spite of obvious signs of weariness. Looking down at me with eyes that defied his soiled features, he fixed me with a gaze of brilliant blue—reflecting a light of subdued curiosity and a hint of an older man’s expectation. It felt as though he knew what I was about to say—as though he were simply listening to me confirm his suspicions, a habit, I suppose, that was created and shaped by time spent on the road, wandering far and wide.
I saw an older man’s mind, heart, and spirit in a youth’s body.
Returning his look and feeling that growing gulf between us in terms of experience, I began to feel insubstantial and ineffectual. Suddenly my purpose seemed foolish, selfish, and downright laughable.
In fact, I almost burst out laughing in complete contempt of myself—the pampered, sheltered, helpless prince, who, even on the verge of completing an act of sacrifice, was still as na├»ve and foolish as before, in spite of all prior convictions of justice and honor.

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