by Graham Thomas Wilcox
Issue #1, Summer 2022
They buried my father in our tombs of yore. A Mass was recited thereafter, and it did him little justice.
The priest preached. He knew his audience. Knights, and the children of knights. He stood at the altar, speaking blood and thunder. That altar was a relic of our house, wrought in silver and wood, stained dark by the ages. The work of Flanders, perhaps, or else those Italian cities that yet swear to the Imperial eagle. It was a grotesque of the old tradition, carved in the shape of flayed corpses, their backs bent beneath a tomb, their faces upturned and yearning.
The sermon spoke of Christ. His cross, his death, his love. Oh, how he adored war and warmakers. The blood of martyrs, the wine of heroes, so on and so forth. Christ as the knight-king of all Christendom, crowned in iron with a smoking sword.
I found I could picture only his tomb, empty as the Emperor’s throne but for the scent of hallowed blood. But for the earth, wet and churned.
My mind wandered. My eyes prickled with sights.
Corpses, bereft of skin, trudged beneath an errant moon. They dripped with thorns. Winged babes sang old marching songs, mouths slack, eyes vacant. I walked alongside them, weeping blood. We came to a keep, strong-walled and tall. Cages hung from its towers. They held age-browned bones in white surcoats, and they rattled in the breeze.
I knew this place. Grosz, the Poles called it. We knew it as Pfennig. A dollop of wood and stone on the Baltic coast, much lashed by wind and wave. I fought a single combat outside its gate two winters ago. It was daylight then, I recall, a rare day of high sun amid the snow. But now, I saw it as night. No stars salted the sky, but the moon burned near, so very near, silvering the seafoam with its glow.
We besieged the keep alongside the German Order. It could not hold. The occupants knew as much and would surrender. Honour alone delayed them.
The castellan was an old man, but chivalrous. He would have ridden out himself, lonesome but for a lance, had he not lost a leg three years past. His son came out in his stead, proud and high-helmed below the crescent moon.
Father led our banner. A dozen lances constituted the entire might of our house. I was no knight then, and so served Father in his lance. He owned a knight’s name, did Father, and would have sat this Polish sprat down hard. He petitioned the German Order, and their marshal granted us the right of single combat. Father in turn conferred that right to me.
I stood across from the Polish man-at-arms. Unknighted, as myself. Perhaps why Father deferred his death to me. But I thought not.
I did not look back at our lines. I knew what I would see. Chaplains swinging censers and monks chanting a dirge. Men, beards stiff with frosted snot, scourging themselves bloody and crying out to God. I did not look back.
But I knew Father watched. The last I saw him, the moon wrought eldritch angles of his face. His mouth and eyes were deep pits. Tombs.
He said he loved me as he clapped the sword into my hand. My harness was bright and clean. The rivets shone like eyes in the night.
The Pole. Mieszko was his name, I think. It shames me that I cannot remember it well. I remember his armour though. A new bascinet, with the long-snooted visor popular among the Franks and the Englishers. A coat-of-plates in his family’s colours: a quartered field of gules and argent, a bleeding stag their crest. Everything polished to the mirror. It was something from a chanson.
The ground was too soft for horses. We dismounted. We saluted. Trumpets blared over the chanting monks and we set upon one another, weapons held at half-swords.
Measure means less in armour. You will not die from a single stroke, most like, and so you may draw closer. This meant I could smell the wine and onions on his breath when he threw the first swing. A mordschlag, his sword gripped by the blade and hefted as a hammer. I caught it on my blade between my hands, wrenched it down, thrust up at his visor. He voided my thrust, returned his own.
Fast, fast. The devil’s own tongue, that blade of his. He screeched a furrow across my helm, and then another. I feinted high, then thrust low. He dipped, took the blow on his armour, swung another mordschlag. I parried, but it had been a feint. He stepped around me, sought an angle for his thrust, found it and let fly. I turned and staggered from this one, felt it ping off my spaulder like a dragon’s tail.
He was good. Better than I. I would die here, in front of God and Father and those cross-humping monk-knights. The injustice appalled me.
I advanced, beat his point with my own, switched grips smooth as you please and hewed a mordschlag to his knee. A favoured play of mine, much practised in the tiltyard. He swatted it aside all the same, bound my blade with his and walked me down.
Death, sang the waves. Death, laughed the moon.
He cleared my sword and thrust into my armpit, straight through maille and gambeson. A clean blow. A killing blow, more times than not. I felt his blade puncture my flesh, hot as nails in hell. It drove far, but not far enough. It stuck fast when he tried to withdraw. Caught on sundered rings and torn linen.
I heard Father then, clarion-clear.
“Kill him, boy! Kill him!”
Let no man claim I am not a dutiful son. Gripping my sword by hilt and blade, I got it behind the Pole’s helm, wrenched him forward, broke his posture, then ripped him to the ground. He landed facedown at my feet.
He almost struggled up on his elbows before my knee crushed him back down into the icy mud. I drew my dagger, groped for his visor, turned it to one side and dragged it open. I pried the dagger through his teeth into his mouth. Up, up, and up further still until it clicked against the top of his brainpan. His sword yet dangled under my arm and in my side, bouncing with every movement. He twitched and struggled, but I knew he was dead when I smelled shit.
Knights and monks surrounded me. Corpses, I saw, corpses all, dancing their victory at night by the sea.
“Deo volente,” they cheered. They brandished crosses, waved swords. Scourges whacked bones and musty flesh. Their brothers in the cages on the castle wall rose and jigged in sympathy.
I wept warm tears of blood and embraced my father. His face was flat and dim. His mouth yawed wide and wider, a great dark cavern. It looked wet. All the absent stars flowed forth.
About the Author
Graham Thomas Wilcox is an author and freelance editor. He lives near the Atlantic coast with his fiancée and their two dogs.
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