Knute, my squire, was out of humor, as was his wont. We were leading our steeds on foot through the forest, the paths being too steep and narrow, and the overhanging boughs too low, for riding.
“Jesu, my feet are killing me.”
“Do not take the name of the Lord in vain, young sinner,” I reprimanded. “He was, remember, nailed to the rood for thy sake.”
“Well, they are!”
“If you wish to be a knight, Knute, you must learn to endure hardship and suffering with little complaint. Honor and valor are the two feet upon which you should walk.”
“Yes yes, all right. I’ve heard the lecture before…”
He proceeded to sulk, while I, alone with my thoughts, felt the shadows of the drear forest weigh against my spirit. A widow of Clun had, seeing the intrepid nobility of my character, imposed so far as to request a vial of holy water from the well of Tambrai, the hermit saint of Laquivikist. The path thence led through a wood of legendary enchantment.
“That might be a woodcutter’s hut over there,” Knute pointed hopefully at a thatched hovel of wattle and daub. “We could stop for a pint of ale…”
“’Tis not yet midday, you layabout. We will not think of stopping until nones.”
Then I added, to placate him: “It is as likely a witch’s lair as a woodcutter’s, lad, in this forest of glamour.”
“Or perhaps it imprisons a damsel in distress.” He grew excited. “To hear the minstrels tell it, being a knight is nothing but rescuing fair maidens. Yet I have seen not one since entering your service, Sir Edmund.”
“There was the girl you helped draw water from the well.”
“The shepherdess? With the pockmarks on her cheek?”
“We do not travel the land for amusement, knave. Noblesse oblige.”
“I’d trade all your noblesse oblige for a sip of ale,” the buffoon asserted, but these discussions were interrupted by a loud clang and banging noise emanating from the glade into which we were now descending. It had the ring of metal and something more – the horrid belch of magic.
“Draw swords,” I commanded, leading on into the tenebrious shadows of crooked oaks. My squire and I both donned on our bascinets and, the path widening somewhat as we reached level ground, mounted horse.
I halted among the shades of the greenwood, just short of where it was pierced by twin ruts, grass-grown – the very road we had been seeking. At some little distance along it an enormous wagon of brown metal had been turned on its side.
It would have taken a team of perhaps a dozen dray horses to pull this outlandish vehicle, but they were nowhere in evidence. Though I was never trained in clerkish ways, the three characters painted in yellow on the side of the wagon are forever seared in my memory – the first like an upside down archway, the next a vertical line with a half circle at the top right, and the third a snake-like squiggle. Nearby the coachman, in brown uniform matching his conveyance, lay motionless and bleeding. A collection of boxes had been removed from within the metal hold – they were of all sizes, but each had the same brown paper-like wrapping. A company of bandits roved at large, slitting open boxes with daggers and generally looting.
“A measured retreat, Sir Edmund, would be most prudent,” my squire whispered, and I could hear his sword rattle against his chain mail.
I ignored the coward and drew my longbow, which I had brought in case a hunt presented itself. Now that my eyes tracked them, I noted the eccentric dress and manners of the outlaw band. Though some – escaped villeins, no doubt – wore simple tunic and hose, others were decked out in cloaks and feathered hats of courtiers, while a few dressed in crisp white shirts with colorful scarves knotted tightly about the neck. They were united only in their disappointment of the ambush.
“Goddamned Amazon!” one yelled cryptically, casting a pair of ladies’ shoes, dyed red and fit to adorn a princess, into a bed of ferns.
“Vacuum cleaner bags!” another shouted with disgust. “And … what the – birdseed?”
Many of the boxes, nonetheless, appeared quite valuable, for they held books. But these the cutthroats mostly threw or kicked aside, though one or two, unaccountably able to read, paged through a codex with lackadaisical interest.
“What’s a ‘zebra’?” questioned one of the rogues, as he smoked something aromatic from a wood pipe.
Another, with a comically-flat straw hat, recited from the back of a thick volume. “Listen to this blurb: ‘… a crowning masterpiece of adventurous postmodernism … which just might be considered the great American novel, arrived at last.’ Yeah, right!”
I soundlessly knocked an arrow to my bow, hoping to startle the robbers to flight – but this proved to be needless, as the company, after pocketing a few strange metal objects, quickly fled the scene.
I dismounted near the carriage, and my first care was, of course, for the unfortunate coachman – but his corpse was already grown cold. His soul I commended to heaven, and his body I draped over my steed. I picked up the strange book he of the straw hat had been reading. The cover was fantastical, picturing a scene such as our master limners would work in vain to equal. Inside the lettering was small and precise – not even the finest monastic scribe could have accomplished such perfection. Surely this was a valuable relic, recounting, perhaps, the life of some wondrous but unknown saint.
I had just picked up a small square case that looked to be made of strange glass, when a ghastly cacophony erupted from the front of the overturned carriage. Knute bolted out from the coachman’s box, where he had doubtlessly disturbed some sleeping monster or necromancy resting therein.
“Sir Edmund! I was just trying to … there was a key that I wiggled … and then it started!” he screamed, bolting into the underbrush.
I drew my lance, ready for the beast should it emerge. But as it did not seem able to escape from its metal prison, only rage there, emitting noxious vapors, I left things as they were, and took to the road at a gallop. My ne’er-do-well squire made his appearance, hangdog, at the forest’s edge, and in three day’s time we were at the Cluniac monastery in Wenlock. The prior, an acquaintance of mine, accepted the book somewhat dubiously. “Many strange things come out of the forest of Anachronie, Sir Edmund … we shall see.”
Knute and I repasted ourselves with wine and a leg of mutton in the refectory, and it was in a merry mood we greeted our host when he returned.
“It is not the life of a saint, my good knight,” he announced, looking rather pained.
“Then … the Evil One?” I choked, remembering with sudden dismay the black carriage and its foul beast.
“Not that neither,” the monk assured me. “It is a story, a roman if you will, taking place in some strange realm. Though fantastical it is, at the same time, quite … dreadfully boring.” He touched my shoulder gently. “We will use it as a palimpsest, however,” he assured me, “for a new gospel or psalmody. In the meantime – Lady Gertrude complains of some cattle raids. I’m sure any knight who could apprehend the banditti would be most welcome in her bower…”
It needed only modest threats to extricate Knute from his cups. And so we departed. The glass case I kept with me, for inside it I had discovered a marvelously light silver disc, with a hole in the middle, the purpose of which is a deep mystery to me. I carry it always, and use it as a mirror of sorts, for neatness of person and dress is appreciated by all ladies of gentle breeding.
Joel Van Valin is the author of the fantasy novel The Flower of Clear Burning and the publisher of the literary journal Whistling Shade. His sci-fi/fantasy stories have appeared in journals such as Silverthought and Fifth-Di.