THE CHALLENGER’S GARLAND



THE CHALLENGER’S GARLAND, by Schuyler Hernstrom:

Molok rose from his resting place in the damp earth. He mounted his black warhorse and rode through the gray mist, past broken tombs and stunted trees. Before a cliff’s edge he brought the mount to heel. Tendrils of fog coalesced in the heavy air, weaving themselves into a bridge of sorts, leading away into the void beyond the sky. Molok snapped the reigns and crossed over, entering the realm of his lord.

At that moment the realm appeared as a quaint coastal scene. Under low clouds dunes dotted with patches of grass gave way to a wide beach. The King of Death chose as his form a graceful sea-elf. His lithe body sat relaxed against a derelict boat half buried in sand. Nimble fingers guided a netting needle through lengths of rough line. Beside him on the sands a large crab sat watching the effort. Molok dismounted and bent the knee. The sea-elf waved his hand impatiently.

“Rise.”

Molok did as he was bade.

The sea-elf spoke again. “The dryads of Monnos imagine I collect souls in a giant net. I thought I would try my hand.” The King of Death raised the net for Molok’s inspection. The Black Knight said nothing.

The crab at the sea-elf’s feet spoke in a high voice, “Fine work, my lord.”

The sea-elf nodded. “Thank you, Locken.” He set the net down and reclined. His beautiful eyes, the color of sea foam, met the knight’s red gaze. “Molok, The Black Knight, my most beloved servant. What brings you to my court?”

“I dreamt.”

Locken made a chittering sound with his claws.

The sea-elf spoke, “Indeed? The deep sleep of Death is a gift bestowed upon all my servants. To dream is irregular.”

Molok’s otherworldly voice carried over the sound of crashing waves. “I dreamt of a white citadel.”

“A white citadel? Most interesting.”

“A castle of white stone, atop tall cliffs where wyvern nest and the sea meets the land. On the drawbridge a champion in white armor chased in gold stood waiting.”

Locken stroked his mandibles with a gnarled claw. “He speaks of the fortress of Azal, the seat of Triment, one of the kingdoms that still denies the inevitability of your rule, my lord.”

“I believe you are correct, dear brother.” The sea-elf stood to face Molok. “Well, Black Knight, I give you leave to seek out this fortress. Ride under my banner and wear the garland as champion and emissary. Slay the champion of Azal. Surely this is the meaning of your dream.”

Molok went to his knee again. The King of Death bent to kiss the ornate black helm. The audience was concluded. The knight led his horse along the beach. Locken sidled next to him.

“Tell me, sir knight, how many champions have you slain?”

“I could not say. I sleep. I rise to lead my lord’s armies. I slaughter all who oppose his will, as you know, trickster. I have never been defeated. The weeping of widows is my lullaby. The crows fat with the flesh of the slain are my companions.”

“Your existence certainly lacks ambiguity. Do you recall nothing else?”

“What else should I recall?”

The crab playfully nipped at Molok’s greaves. “Nothing, I suppose.”

Molok traveled back over the bridge and took the western road. On his lance fluttered the banner of the King of Death. His steed’s hooves made the sound of a heavy drum on the packed earth. The gray lands that bordered his lord’s receded in the distance.

The road became treacherous as the shadows of the Murkem Mountains loomed. The stunted craftsmen of the snow capped peaks fled behind their thick gates at his approach. Onward he rode, black armor encrusted with frost.

At the base of the mountains stretched the vast Azarzi. The black steed traveled tirelessly over the wind swept dunes and past nameless ruins. The nomads gave him a wide berth, chanting their prayers into the starry night to ward off the ill omens that trailed in the wake of the black rider.

In the Kinnivesse jungle the apes scattered from his shadow, scurrying up the massive trees in which stood their wondrous city. They peered down from latticed towers, unwilling to shower the lone horseman with missiles, as was their usual practice. The towering trees shrank as the jungle ended.

He entered a land of rolling hills and verdant pasture.

Molok dismounted, walking through a field of flowers. The grass was still fresh with dew. Ahead he saw the silhouette of a young woman. She turned upon hearing his heavy steps. Her face was round and healthy.

“I hear the step of an armored knight. Are you from the citadel?”

Molok looked into her eyes, two orbs of milky white without iris or pupil.

“No, child. I am the knight that serves the King of Death.”

The girl spoke sadly, “Then the armies of night have at last entered Azal.”

“No. I ride as champion, alone. I seek flowers for a garland to obey the ancient convention.”

Molok’s red eyes watched as the girl deftly plucked wildflowers from their stems. She worked without haste, weaving the stalks skillfully into an artful ring.

“Kneel, then, Black Knight.”

Upon his brow the blossoms withered. He mounted the warhorse and resumed his journey.

* * *

Lobon, Champion of Azal, woke from a dream. He lay a while, pondering the image of the black rider that haunted his sleep. For weeks the visions had come with increasing clarity. He could now remember glowing red eyes peering from the visor of the horned helm. The knight was mounted on an ebon destrier, wisps of smoke wafting from its nostrils. His wife, Mehvi, stirred.

“The dream again?”

“Yes.”

Lobon rose and threw water on his face from a basin. Through the narrow window he saw the sun peeking over the horizon, bathing the verdant fields of Azal in red and purple light. Mehvi slipped her arms around his trim waist and laid her face on his back. Her lips grazed a long scar, one of many. Lobon sighed.

“I was young once, and immortal. I was swifter and stronger than any of Azal’s foes. Now my temples are graying. My scars ache. And the black rider haunts my dreams.”

“You speak nonsense. You have never been defeated and you never shall. Peace will come eventually and we will grow old together.”

“To die in my sleep, racked with infirmity and unable to even recall the days when I stood as Azal’s chosen, knee deep in the corpses of my foes.”

Mehvi came to face him. “First you fear death in battle, then you fear to die of old age?”

Lobon snapped, “I fear nothing! It is a feeling I cannot describe. To face a man in combat, to cut him down, to watch the light dim as the soul slips its bonds, it is… I cannot put it into words. It is a heady wine. And I have been drunk for decades. To become sober, whether by death or retirement, I cannot imagine it. Now time catches up with this body and Azal’s foes still march. And the black rider…”

Mehvi gently led him back to bed. A knock disturbed them. A retainer stood outside with a message.

Molok, servant of the King of Death, was riding through Azal bearing the flower garland of a challenger and flying his master’s standard from his lance.

Lobon rose and began to prepare himself.

* * *

Molok sat mounted, awaiting the appearance of the Champion of Azal. Before him the white citadel gleamed bright in the noon sun. Ahead on the road his garland lay, thrown to the ground in a ritual gesture. Pedals from the desiccated blooms were carried aloft by a light wind. Spectators on ramparts cheered as Lobon rode over the drawbridge. He guided his white stallion to stand before Molok.

“Welcome to Azal, Black Knight. I am Lobon, the champion.”

Molok nodded in response. Lobon’s mount was agitated so close to the black warhorse. He worked the reigns, bringing the mount under control. He studied the black knight. The warrior’s ornate plate armor seemed ancient, the craft of centuries past. The helm was of an even older style. Wisps of floating ash slipped from places where the heavy plates joined. The red eyes stared straight at the white champion. Molok spoke, his voice resonating malice.

“A dream bade me come here. The Fates single you out for slaughter for reasons only they comprehend.”

Lobon laughed. “I have never been defeated, fell servant.”

“Nor have I.”

“Tell me, black knight. Were you once a man or are you purely of night and woe, a creature of the King of Death’s making?”

“It does not matter.”

Lobon shrugged. “Indeed, it does not.” The champion urged his mount back to the bridge. He saluted the black knight and both lowered lances. The steeds reacted swiftly to their masters’ commands, thundering violently toward each other, nostrils flaring and eyes glazed with animal fear. At the last moment the white stallion reared, throwing Lobon to the ground as Molok’s lance grazed the white champion’s shield. The stallion galloped off in terror. Lobon stood painfully, drawing his sword.

“Apologies. My mount could not find the courage.”

Molok dismounted, drawing his axe from its sheath on his steed’s flank. He advanced. Lobon gave ground, drawing the black knight off the road. Molok tested his foe with a series of tentative swings, letting the weight of the axe’s broad head deliver much of the force. Lobon parried skillfully, moving his body to nullify the force of the strikes and preserve his shield. When Molok sensed Lobon had established a rhythm the black knight rushed forward, slamming his shoulder into the shield and throwing Lobon off balance. The white champion twisted desperately to avoid the killing blow. The axe whistled through empty air. Lobon raised his sword high. Molok was the veteran of a 1000 duels. He knew he could not get his shield around in time. Instead he lunged forward. The two crashed together like metal bulls, grasping and heaving, desperate to gain leverage. Lobon lost his footing and the two stumbled, still locked in each other’s arms.

The momentum carried them both rolling down the steep hill atop which the citadel sat. At the bottom the two stood. Molok’s eyes glared as he rained blows upon Lobon’s cracking shield. The champion countered, thrusting upwards, catching the edge of Molok’s helm and sending him backwards. Molok howled, enraged.

The two traded blows, increasingly desperate, all attention to form lost. The duel ranged over a field of wheat and into a marsh. At a safe distance Locken watched, now in the guise of a red fox. Mud and fetid water slowed the pair, grasping their feet. Lobon’s breath came in gasps. Molok’s axe thundered down, finally shattering the champion’s shield. Another blow rent the champion’s pauldron and bit deep. Warm blood coursed from the wound. With a yell Lobon closed the gap between the pair, grasping the black knight with his free hand and pushing him back. His arms felt leaden. His legs ached. Was this what his foes had felt before the killing blow fell? He tried to raise his sword but lost his balance and fell back into the muck. Molok raised his axe and came forward. Lobon lay his head back on a tussock of brown grass. Death was coming. He had heard men in similar circumstances, those that had miraculously survived, describe feelings of calm. But he felt only simmering anger.

“Tell me, Black Knight, I demand you tell me. Were you once a man? Grant me this knowledge at least.”

Molok paused. He lowered the axe and stood, staring at an invisible horizon. He saw the blind girl’s hands again, dexterous and alive. The black knight could vaguely recall the feeling of their flesh, warm and smooth. But he had not touched her, nor any others. The impressions floated like the notes of song distantly heard. More came, unmoored now from places deep within the mind. There was the warmth of the hearth. A child at his knee. The memories evaded capture.

During the reverie Lobon steeled himself, marshaling his waning strength. Molok returned to the present with a wail of mournful rage. The black knight brought the axe down with all his fell might. With great effort Lobon rolled away from the blow. The axe sunk deep into the mud. Molok tried desperately to free it, sinking himself even deeper. Lobon stood and raised his sword. The blade found the space between helm and gorget. The black knight’s severed head fell into the muck. A keening wail grew as trails of Molok’s black soul whipped free from the armor. Before Lobon’s eyes the armor disintegrated and the soul stuff was drawn back into the earth. Only the helm remained. Lobon collapsed, the loss of blood finally unknotting his soul from its earthly tether. Into the narrowing tunnel of his vision the fox appeared.

“Take the helm, champion, ‘tis your destiny and your right. Hurry now! Before the ghost leaves you!”

Lobon whispered. “I have never been defeated.”

“And never you shall! You are stronger than the last. Place the helm upon your head and glory in battle until the end of time!”

With difficulty Lobon sat up. He removed his helmet and took the black helm in his gauntleted hands, stained in blood and filth.

“Hurry!” Locken implored.

The helmet descended over his handsome face. The world fell away. His kingdom and family, the green land of Azal, the smell of baking bread and the taste of wine, the crisp autumn air the morning of the hunt, all were cast into black void. His white armor blackened, absorbing the shadows that hung heavy under the gnarled willows. His new eyes glowed red. He was a thing of anger and battle. He was proud. He would never be defeated. Suddenly at his side the black steed waited. He took the axe and mounted. The fox followed discretely behind, all the way to the gray lands.
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Schuyler Hernstrom lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA. You can read more of his work in the latest issue of LORE Magazine. He can be reached at hernstroms@gmail.com.

 


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