Read The Grail War Online

Authors: Richard Monaco

Tags: #Fantasy

The Grail War (3 page)

BOOK: The Grail War
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“Hmm?”

“Did you not mention the name of Sir Lohengrin?”

“What of it, sirrah?”

“Was he not at the tournament in London?”

The lord nodded. He frowned, irritated. Then he turned back to the girl.

“I have heard he is a mighty knight, my lord,” Broaditch said.

“There are many mighty knights,” was the irritable response.

“Have you fought with him, my lord?” she asked. She brushed a wet lock from the corner of her eye. Even here under the trees the rain dribbled steadily onto all of them.

“I would have, had the jousts been run,” he said, a little too quickly, Broaditch thought, realizing he was afraid. He wasn’t looking at the girl at all now.

Broaditch pondered and made up his mind. It was his first clue in a long time. He’d follow the wet trail to London and speak to Lohengrin if he could. He’d been searching for months now. His family was in the mountains, where they were safe and relatively dry …
All right, first find Lohengrin and work from there …

And the next morning it was still pouring. The three of them were huddling in single file, chilled and drenched. Half the time they were wading through the slowly flooding valley. The upper Thames was like a gray, shallow lake under a sky of whitish-streaked beaten lead. Ducks and geese sailed among low huts and houses. Cattle, horses, sheep, and men struggled toward the hills. Some families crouched grimly on thatched rooftops. There was a haggard look of impending doom on every face.

Handler sloshed along in front of his son in Broaditch’s wake.

“How far must we go on?” Valit groaned from under the packs and sacks roped to his shoulders and back.

“Peace, boy,” Handler said. “Save breath.”

“We must reach higher ground,” Broaditch called behind, “or float off like kindling.”

“Where, then, are you bound?” Handler asked.

“To the coast. London.”

“Then our road runs the same way.”

“Road?” They were knee-deep at this point. “Road for boats.”

 

After a few days they tried again, except now there was more water than mud. Lohengrin’s groom told the story to his wife that night. They were in bed together, the straw mattress rustling in the still, dark room at their slightest motion. The spent coals were a vague purplish glow on the invisible hearth. The rain drummed quietly, endlessly on the roof.

“So,” he was saying, his voice amused and harsh and sad, too, “they lined them up again, only this time it were more like to swimmin’. Them fools.” There was a slight creaking of straw as he shook his head. “Ten at a time, bangin’ at one another out there, fallin’ into the water and drownin’ if they couldn’t get their feet under them fast. Three foot and more ov’ muck, an’ them in that armor.” He sighed. “Great knights die easy as any else.” His wife made a small sighing moan. “Yer back again?” he asked her.

“Aye,” she whispered.

“Should I rub it with oil, then?”

“No matter. With all this damp, there’s no relief in that.”

He went back into his memory of the day’s combats.

“The water was stained red, as when you slit a hare’s throat over the pot. An’ then on foot one noble lord took to his heels because he dropped his sword an’ couldn’t find it. Aye, there were a pretty fix! The other one with the ax chasin’ him. It was worth a laugh. Why, you could look away, you see, an’ turn back a minute later an’ you couldn’t tell they moved no more than flies on honey. They looked like they been carved on a church door, one lookin’ back, the other with that ax raised up, as if he believed any second he’d strike him low …” He chuckled. “Why, I went to piss behind the tent an’ come back an’ still there they was, though they’d moved just enough so you couldn’t be sure they was actually carved or not … I wit it were dead night, an’ still the one must chase the other.”

He sighed and chuckled again.

“What of the trial of the common men?” she asked.

“Aye, woman,” he muttered without amusement, “they did have their trial.”

This event Broaditch and Handler and the son arrived in time to see, soaked and saturated by the mud of days that should have been hours of travel. All the knights had come out to watch. The rain beat on Broaditch’s leather hood and beaded down his face. As he came closer he was surprised to see two commoners standing out in the tournament area (in the water, mud, blood, and horse droppings) facing one another with staves, both stripped to tunics.

“What manner of combat is this?” he wanted to know.

The dour groom himself happened to be standing close at hand at the edge of the field.

“Those are merchants,” he said, “of great means and have come to trial in the matter of a debt of eleven coppers and a bolt of cloth.”

“What?”

“Aye. They would not be reconciled. There’s bitterness between them, though I think now that it’s too late they would repent themselves.”

“I have never seen such a thing in my time,” Handler put in.

“But it’s the law, in truth,” Broaditch said.

“What fools they must be,” Handler said, shaking his long head.

Across the field Broaditch could see a screen set up in the grandstand and wondered what it was for. He didn’t know that a great lord sat behind it peering through an eyehole so as not to be seen attending such a spectacle.

Broaditch could see the fear, however: the two pale faces, restless eyes, a lost and isolated look, and he knew their mouths were dry and hearts light and rapid; time seemed speeding past them. The shorter one was shivering in the chill downpour. A herald in the grandstand was reading a scroll. The wind cut up the sentences, so Broaditch caught very little of the matter.

“ … justice be proved … in God’s name … His mercy … truth be revealed for …”

One of them had to die. The terms were absolute. That was really the point, he reflected.

As a horn signaled, the shorter man kicked a glop of mud into his adversary’s face and swung a long-reaching blow at his head. He connected with a hollow thock that (Broaditch noted) did little hurt, as though he’d struck stone. He knew in that instant which one was about to die. He hardly had to watch.

“That rogue wants no helmet,” a knight called out with a laugh.

The sticks crashed on one another, crossing, scraping as they thrashed and wallowed, the slight man continually giving ground, slogging back, knee-deep, both already dripping black mud and blood. Then, in a sloshing flurry, the smaller one went down and began half-crawling, half-swimming to escape, but the other, with huge, bouncing strides, managed to get closer and aim full, sweeping blows so that the first was forced to twist and sink down to break the impact, covering his Own head with stick and torn forearms. Now his enemy began spearing him, poking him under the surface, straining all his weight into it until the little man howled and sputtered and rolled aside like a wounded whale, blowing bursting breaths. And then, somehow, the sticks were broken and lost, one left poking upright like (Broaditch thought) a pole in a river …

They’d worked their way closer to the onlookers. Covered with muck, eyes wide and white, they clawed and rolled and thrashed. It seemed to Broaditch as if he watched primal men newly raised from the wet clay of creation heaving up, struggling, falling back. He felt pity and sickness. The little man kept trying to scream now as the other rode his back and frantically rammed palmfuls of mud into his face, pressing it into his mouth and nostrils, cursing and puffing, too drained himself to even hold the desperate face under the surface long enough to suffocate him. The little man bit his hand as the other hooked and gouged feebly at his eyes … Then both went under and heaved out of the mire apart, blowing throats and noses clear, like great surfacing swamp creatures.

The little man cried out as he slogged away, crawling and wriggling: “Help me … O Holy Mother … help me, please, please help me …! ”

“He prays,” someone remarked.

“In season,” said another.

They fell and rose again and again, near collapse, until the big man finally caught up with the smaller, who simply lay on his side, chest heaving, spasming. One of his ears was bitten loose and flopped in its blood. His eyes were shut and his mouth gasped breathless words. His enemy hesitated and looked toward the crowd, standing a few yards away. His hollowed, searching look had a terrible, silent plea in it. He had learned something, was seeing something now, and had no way to say it except with his wild eyes — or so Broaditch believed. A massive warrior at the edge of the swampy field shook his somber head.

“You must slay him,” he pronounced, “or else die yourself.”

“See, see!” cried Valit with fear and excitement. “One rides the other!”

Broaditch turned away as the big man knelt himself upon the other’s head and finally forced the bloody face for good under the slimy muck. One great bubble popped up after a long space of silent time. And the crowd shortly began to break up and drift away. The spent, quivering victor remained, kneeling up to his waist over his now-invisible opponent as if, for some ascetic reason, he was praying alone in the reeking field …

Broaditch walked among the rain-beaten tents. He stopped beside a squire who was struggling with the soaked harness of a balky charger.

“Young sir,” he said, “have you seen the knight Lohengrin this day?”

The boy glanced up.

“Old sir,” he said, “I have not.”

“Well, then, would any here know his whereabouts?”

“Yes.”

The boy waited, expressionless, sly.

A pause.

“All right,” Broaditch said, “do you?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“In his tent.” The boy showed nothing.

He
takes
me
for
a
bumpkin
or
a
fool
, Broaditch concluded.

“Which tent?” he asked patiently. He was looking across the gusty field at the line of them, the fog whipping and twisting. He noticed half a dozen knights in full mail gathered around a tall red tent with black trim. For some reason he understood that was the one. It seemed strange that they’d be guards, he decided. Stranger still was the fact that they stood, axes, spears, and swords poised, facing in on all sides. Broaditch started walking, spongy earth splashing under his feet as he braced into the wind. As the leader (in green-silver armor) signaled, the men sliced and jabbed through the tent fabric, long spears poking from wall to wall, and then, ropes cut, the whole slashed structure sagged down and someone was screaming in agony inside, and he thought with dread and pity how the man must be ignominiously caught under the material like a netted boar. However, a moment later a helmetless, though otherwise armored, knight rolled out from under one edge and stood up, swordless in red and black gear. Lohengrin, son of Parsival. His wiry, dark hair made him seem like an avenging devil, Broaditch thought. At the same moment, from among the tatters, struggling away from the swords and spears, a half-nude woman emerged, one arm partly severed, pumping blood. She staggered a little way and dropped, clutching at herself. The first swordsman to reach Lohengrin swiped at his head and he pivoted in under the stroke, skidding close with astonishing speed, catching the levering arm and tossing the fully armored knight over his back like a wheat sack, his right hand jerking the sword away as the man came down at the end of the arc head first, sticking that way, upside down in the muck, kicking his legs, drowning. And (before the next man arrived) Lohengrin cut once, savagely, between the legs, splitting him like a hare, Broaditch thought, heart pounding with excitement and fear. Now a spearman thrust and the blade deflected the shaft and Lohengrin hit the helmeted head so hard with the steel hilt that blood sprayed from the eye slits and the ruined man stumbled in a circle in the sucking ooze, mailed hands holding his faceplate, rain washing the gore in thinning rivulets down the armor, until dropping near the hurt woman.

The others kept a respectful distance now. The massive leader, in emerald-green and silver plate, moved in with sword upraised, moved as if strolling forward to a friendly bout. A squire was near Broaditch and others were gathering around.

“There’s Lancelot,” one said with awe.

Broaditch’s eyes widened. Legends still lived, it seemed. Lancelot of the Lake, the knight of the cart … Incredible! An aged legend and still one of the most dangerous men on earth. It was said he was almost defeated once. Once. He was stocky, bull-like in his armor, short, not even quick. He closed with the curly haired warrior with a minimum of wasted motion, deflecting the first cut almost offhandedly, like brushing (Broaditch later said) a fly away, then chopping a quick, neat blow that traveled a bare two feet, which Lohengrin barely managed to catch on his blade and was staggered, slipping backward in the mud. What terrible power! Then Lohengrin came back and flurried so fast that the old champion could only defend with casual shield and edge, planted there, relaxed and almost still. Broaditch felt the thrill of this, the unmoved defense against an attack that would have chopped most men to shreds. One of the other knights had circled behind him now and rushed in as suddenly as the splashing muck would allow: ax zipped down and Lohengrin demonstrated the difference between himself and any ordinary man by simply timing a step back under the arc of the blow, and the fellow leaned past into space, nearly severing his torso with a backhanded sweep that burst into armor and flesh like a muffled explosion. Blood sprayed into the rainy air as the knight shrieked and blew bubbling wind …

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