— 9 —
FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE ENTERING SCADIA, GORE HAD what he may have considered a chivalrous impulse. While still owning little love for Sir Bobaunce, he liked Duke Marrok far less, and was riled at the thought of the Wicked Duke striking down an unarmed injured man. These two feelings resulted in Gore’s sword crossing with the Duke’s several inches above Sir Bobaunce’s chest.
Unfortunately, the Wicked Duke was a far better swordsman than Gore as well.
A few thunderous blows smacked Gore’s sword until Gore felt as if his arm was about to shake out of its socket. The next blow smashed the blade out of Gore’s hand and sliced open the back of his hand in the process. Next a lightning kick to Gore’s chest sent him flying backwards.
The familiar red haze filled Gore’s vision and he did nothing to stop it. But still the Wicked Duke was faster—the next blow was the flat of the blade against the back of Gore’s skull, sending him down to the floor with both world and brain spinning.
He heard more clanging swords and another cry of pain from the next loser, not the Duke. By the time Gore was finally able to rally himself enough to sit up without the world yanking itself away from his vision, the Wicked Duke was shouting, “I challenge every knave in this room!” He pointed his sword at King Marhaus. “Aye, even you, my liege!”
An angry cry arose; Gore wondered if it was born from the challenge or the improper use of Scadian linguistics.
Sir Bobaunce was carried to his room after his wounds were tended. Likewise, Gore’s stinging hand was given a dark salve that made it sting even more, then bandaged. All night long the ceiling seemed to press down on his chest like a stone crushing a confession of witchcraft out of him.
If there was one thing able to remove women from Gore’s mind entirely, it was humiliation. Especially when he was taken down so easily.
The sword never left his bedside. For a while, deep into the night, Gore considered the idea of seeking out Duke Marrok’s room and slaying him in bed. But the smarter part of his brain not bathed in red reminded him that even if he could kill the Wicked Duke that easily, it was no doubt against Scadia’s rules. He must meet Marrok in combat.
Provided, of course, someone else didn’t beat him first. Sir Bobaunce, from the infirmary, informed Gore that the nobles had first crack at the scoundrel. If he beat them all then the fledgling knight was free to issue challenge.
The names of half-a-dozen challengers were placed beside Marrok’s name on the board about the Great Hall hearth at sunrise the next morning. By evening Gore wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or disturbed that the Wicked Duke had vanquished them all.
None perished, though many were sore hurt. But all were dukes themselves. Gore refused to consider the fate of a stableboy who dared challenge a Wicked Duke he’d shown up in the face of a dragon.
But first he had to wait for Alain’s challenge. Their skirmish was gratifyingly short, Alain obviously surprised by its conclusion. Doubly gratifying for Gore as he knew he would never have been able to tolerate Alain any further if Sir Bobaunce’s mouthy senior squire had been the victor.
“Bad business, this is,” Jack o’ Japes said, startling Gore. The bard had slipped up beside him silently.
When Gore didn’t reply, Jack continued, “I wit our nary-do-well Wicked Duke has his eye on the throne. If he defeats all challengers and then King Marhaus himself, then the Duke Marrok becomes King Marrok. Nobody should enjoy that, hence his being such a tremendous sword-target. ’Twould be a good time to get thee gone from Scadia, methinks.”
Gore reckoned a Federal agent would enjoy nothing more than getting Gore on the Outside. There, Gore was instantly arrestable. “I plan to challenge him myself,” he told the meddling minstrel.
“Zounds! After the thrashing, the rush-sweeping, the hindquarters pounding he smacked thee down with yesternight? Friend Will…”
Gore heard nothing more. He put his bandaged hand on his sword hilt to cry out his challenge.
He advanced as far as opening his mouth when another knight, dressed in blood red armor, slammed open the door and rode down the courtyard atop a red-armored roan horse. He bore a terrible-looking broadsword in his right hand, and mounted on his left arm was a triangular shield, almost as large as he, bearing the lion-bird creature called a gryphon ripping a knight in half with its oversized talons.
Everyone parted for him. The only sound was the clanking of the knight’s iron plating.
The Red Knight dismounted and bowed to King Marhaus.
“Knight of the Red Gauntlet,” the king said, “are thou privy to the challenges issued by Duke Marrok?”
The mysterious knight nodded once.
“Would thou wish to issue challenge thyself?” Another single nod.
King Marhaus opened his hands in granted blessing.
The Red Knight wheeled around and swung his sword at the Wicked Duke even as Marrok unsheathed his own blade.
The fight was as intense and brief as a summer thunderstorm. The Wicked Duke never gained ground nor landed any square blows against the Red Knight, and indeed was backed nearly into the crowd, who laughingly pushed him forward again. At last the Duke was reduced to holding his sword in a defensive vertical simply in order to keep his head from being sliced off his shoulders; at last the blade itself was cleaved neatly in two, and the Wicked Duke kneeled with the Red Knight’s blade at his neck.
“Thou art bested, Duke Marrok,” King Marhaus bellowed in a battlefield voice that rang throughout the courtyard. “Thou must needs swear to get thou gone from fair Camelot, on pain of thy life if thy vow is forsaken.”
The Wicked Duke rose and bowed, but his smoldering gaze lanced the king—and then, strangely, hurled a spear at Gore.
“I vow to leave Camelot and ne’er return,” Marrok finally told the royal couple.
A whirlwind of activity followed that nearly left Gore dizzy again. The Duke and his own Progress made a great show of exiting, a business consuming the lion’s share of an hour. When they were finally away, the Red Knight himself left, as taciturn as when he arrived.
The royal couple called for a wine-saturated dance-feast in which Jack o’ Japes was only one of dozens of performers. At length, dinner was served amid the relieved laughter of men and women who sounded as if they’d been given a stay of execution in sight of the chopping block.
Gore drank and ate, but he did not dance and his mind wended its way back to Castle Dolorous. Marrok had gotten off lightly, he fumed. He still had no intention of letting his humiliation go unpunished.
In his anger he failed to notice that the Lady Melisounde was missing until Sir Bobaunce was able to come down to dinner and asked if anyone had seen her.
No one had. Gore was the first to guess the truth: the Wicked Duke had carried out another abduction.
He leaped at his chance, grabbing the sword he still wore at his waist and kneeling before Sir Bobaunce.
“Sire! Grant me leave to chase down the villain myself. At a word from my lord, I will kill the rogue and rescue the Lady Melisounde.” He looked directly into Sir Bobaunce’s tired eyes. “The honor of High Tower will be restored.”
“Sir Bobaunce,” the king said, “does thou accept this offer of quest?”
Gore knew the knight could not refuse; he owed Gore his life.
Sir Bobaunce let out a long groan which Gore was certain was only audible to him. “I so accept, my liege. And hear you well, Will Son of
Gore. Should you accomplish this perilous journey set before you, I shall ask our gracious liege lord to bestow upon thee the rights and services of knighthood.
“But take you heed, squire. Two great obstacles lay before thee in your quest: the Perilous Woods are all about the road, and you shall pass through the horrid land of Agravaine, home of the Evil Witch. There may be many other unforeseen perils awaiting which will challenge your mettle and moxie and determine if you are worthy to be called a knight.”
Gore bowed to hide his smile. He had found his way to smash two birds with one catapult: to bag him both a Wicked Duke into a shallow grave and the Lady Melisounde into a sturdy bed.
He faced the royal couple. “At thy will, I shall take my leave of the court and rest myself for the challenges spread before me.”
“Ah, no, Squire William,” the king said. “Betake you hence to Sir Odoacer for a proper arming, and then to the Chapel. There will you spend a night in prayer and contemplation, in humble confession and begging divine favor and mercy, in preparation for your errand.”
In full armor, complete with a new broadsword, Gore was led into the castle chapel where yon door smacked shut behind him. A single Gothic window of stained glass aimed a shaft of rainbow light down upon the altar.
Gore removed his sword, which he placed betwixt himself and the altar, lowered himself to his knees, bowed his head, and promptly fell asleep.