Authors: Richard Monaco
“Because more than one seeks your life. So much I feel free of oath to say.”
The older man had stopped in the courtyard.
“No,” he said, as if to a third party and startled Prang for a moment. “I won’t be drawn back into that.”
“Eh?” Prang grunted. “What’s that, then?”
“I won’t,” Parsival obscurely concluded and walked on through the inner walled yard, stepping carefully over and around the bodies, armored and unarmored. The raw blood stink was still in the air.
“It seems it were a good fight,” Prang observed quietly.
Parsival didn’t respond. They’d entered the main hall. He’d been expecting it since crossing the moat and now he finally faced it completely, let the pain and shock in to himself, and realized he would survive it. So it was that he said nothing after lighting a torch and looking at his wife and daughter sprawled together, hacked to bloody tatters. He said not a word. The sooty torch fire billowed around him, flipping his distorted shadow around the bare stone walls. Neither face was intact; his child’s was shredded. But the necklace he knew glinted around her neck. He bent and took it, gripped it in his powerful hands as Prang came up beside him.
“Good Jesus,” he said.
Parsival just stood there in the flame and dark, the golden chain swaying in his fingers.
“I won’t,” he whispered and shut his eyes against a terrible outcry he felt gathering within him. He stood there for a long time … And then he felt the movements before he actually heard the faint scrape of steel. He instantly threw the torch across the hall toward the open archway behind them. He moved Prang quietly aside as the arrow thummed past and clinked dully on the far wall. The flames showed an armored, shadowy figure standing there, with others at his back.
“So,” said Prang, drawing his blade.
“Wait,” Parsival said, trembling with suppressed energy.
The bowman and two or three other knights entered the chamber. Their faces seemed to fill and hollow out as the flames wavered.
“It were well we waited,” the leader said, “eh, Parsival?” He seemed philosophic. “You may as well stand still and take it like a man, you and your friend there. No sense in ducking about like a stricken goose.”
“Pick up one of these swords here, my lord,” Prang muttered aside, “and we’ll show them something.”
“No,” Parsival said. “Follow me. There are at least twenty more without.”
“How can you tell this?”
“I can tell.” As the men advanced across the floor in the sputtering light of the thrown torch, the chief knight nocked a shaft and half-drew his bowstring.
“Prepare yourselves,” he said.
“Follow me,” Parsival hissed. And he ducked back and to the side as the second arrow zipped by, stooped briefly to snatch up a sword and ax from the litter on the bloody stones, and hurled the ax (without breaking stride) at the lead knight, who deflected the terrific blow with his shield (staggered back) into the man on his right, who screamed and went down in a flash of sparks. “Christ,” murmured Prang, “what a recovery.”
“Lancelot,” Parsival called out, sure of it now.
The stocky knight threw aside his bow, stooped, and tossed the torch into the center of the chamber, where the fitful light outlined all of them.
“There is no escape,” he pointed out.
Parsival seemed quite at ease. Prang noted. His own heart was racing as if the whole space echoed with ii “Why?” Parsival wanted to know calmly.
“Because you’re surrounded.”
“Why is it necessary?”
“What does it matter?” Lancelot said, advancing. “Why bear yet another burden into hell?”
The stricken knight on the floor was sighing now, very rapidly. Prang could see him kicking sporadically in the wavering shadows. Several more men had entered the place and were keeping close along the far walls, gradually circling to cut them off.
Parsival was silent, unmoving, concentrating, trying now to touch Lancelot in the way he’d learned from the monks: to grip him invisibly with the hands of his soul, to throw off his timing. But he was solidly blocked. A wall of will held him away. He decided the man must have a talisman. His master had explained that a talisman collected power the way a cup held water, that the power could act as if the wizard himself were actually present to baffle spells and deflect attacks …
“Tell me, Lancelot!” he demanded.
“Now!” The legendary warrior signaled and he and several spearmen charged forward.
Parsival plucked at Prang’s arm and they retreated quickly toward the stair, though three armored men waited there with leveled spears. Prang was certain they’d be held up long enough for the others to fall upon their rear. He was grimly amused to think he was suddenly on the other side of the fight and about to die for no reward and in obscurity to boot at the hands of the most famous knight in the world.
Except, incredibly, the first attacker seemed to skid, as if on sheer ice, and fall even as he thrust so a way opened between the other two that Parsival smashed through, cutting one sweep over his head that sliced both spears short. Prang jumped over the strangely fallen man and followed his reluctant teacher. The man still struggled to gain his feet, as if he walked in grease. Prang had noticed nothing as he passed, he reflected, cutting one good blow on the upraised sword of the man at his heels …
Once on the landing above, they raced down a twisting series of passageways until Parsival lost the pursuit. Prang followed by sound and an occasional moonlit glimpse as they passed embrasures … They stopped in a high, dim hall. There were columns leading to a pair of raised thrones on a dais.
“I last looked upon my mother on this spot,” the older man said. “Sitting here … she bid me godspeed in the world … I was impatient to go. I thought I’d be back before too long …” He smiled faintly to himself and shook his head, then sighed.
“Sir,” said Prang, “for God’s sake, let’s be off.”
“There’s no hurry. I sealed the door behind us.”
“What? I didn’t see that. Is this magic?”
“There is no magic — only what you cannot understand at the moment.”
It was like praying: you couldn’t explain why, you couldn’t grasp the mechanism of the underlying intelligence and movement of all life, but you could learn to trust it. You could throw it out from yourself and simply trust it. Like walking in the dark with shut eyes, your body could see for you if you totally gave yourself up to it …
“Well?” Prang wanted to know.
Parsival started walking again. They left the chamber. He remembered his mother’s face for a moment: pale, glowing, wordless, beseeching … wordless …
Well, he knew he’d have to have blood now. The part of his awareness that was free saw it as absurd, that pain would lead only to pain and resolve nothing … But he had to have it now … the chains of custom …
He stopped in a narrow cell. An iron-bound door was bolted shut and locked. A dim ray of moonlight fell there.
“A way out?” Prang wondered.
“Have you the key?”
“There is none. My mother had my father’s weapons sealed here forty years ago.”
“What? Was she mad?”
“Some said so. But she was not.”
Her subtle form floated between his eyes and the glaring world … blurred, dimmed its reality.
“Cannot we be off?” Prang said, impatient. “For all we can tell, they may have surrounded the castle.”
“I don’t think they have,” Parsival said, staring at the door. “You will have to stand up to Lancelot while I deal with the others.”
“What? What are you saying to me?" Prang was incredulous.
“Don’t try to win against him. Just stay alive for a few minutes. Turn and defend, keep turning and defending. If he finds you still he'll beat you flat.”
Parsival reached and gripped the lock in his hands. He began to twist it. His body was relaxed, Prang noted, and his face peaceful, as if he prayed — and yet the metal began to bend, and then, after an interminable moment in which Prang’s heart pounded, iron and wood parted and the incredible warrior pulled the door open. He lit a torch with flint and they wound their way down a spiral stone staircase in a whisper of fine dust.
Even well below ground level the stones were still smooth and dry. At the bottom they entered a passageway and then a low chamber, where the smoky flames gleamed and glimmered on a wall, hung with old, in-wrought armor and massive weapons.
Parsival stood there a long, silent moment. Prang was testing the heft of a mace.
“Your father must have been a strong man,” he observed with appreciation.
Parsival was binding on a suit of red and gold chain mail. It mainly protected his torso and thighs. He tied his ragged robes closed over the steel.
“This mace pleases me,” Prang said.
“I recommend you throw it at Lancelot ere you come to grips,” the older knight advised. “I tell you, dance like a juggler for as long as you can.”
Prang looked interested. A flame light hollowed his eye sockets and cheeks.
“There may be fifty men out there,” he remarked, raising an eyebrow.
Parsival buckled on the mesh sword belt and took up his father’s red-and-black-enameled helmet. The visor was missing, torn away. He remembered the story Broaditch had told him. They had just come back from the village together. The common man had found him hiding in a barn. He must have been twelve years old … He’d been watching a peasant festival day. His mother had forbidden it … He remembered standing on the hillside looking over the bright green valley. He remembered it had been spring but no longer recalled Broaditch’s name. He didn’t try to bring it back. “Your father fell in a joust,” Broaditch had said.
“A joust?” young Parsival had wondered.
“A noble sport, young sir. Not as light as a dance or as easy as sleeping in hay … A lance tip in the face is uncomfortable.”
Parsival had made little of those remarks. “My father,” he’d said, looking off into the blue-green shimmer of horizon, “loved my mother — as I do.”
“A lance tip in the face,” Parsival whispered, unconsciously, setting the helmet on his head. The cowl of his robe fit over it fairly well. His father’s name, Gahmuret, was worked in gold across the dome.
They went out through the far end of the narrow chamber, Parsival holding the sputtering torch. They stooped through a low tunnel, mossy stones slippery under their steel-shod feet.
“One death may be as good as another,” Prang said. “Why don’t we fly and take revenge when time and numbers favor us?”
They came out beyond the moat. The moon was low, the night cool and misty. Still …
“Why not?” Prang whispered, watching his teacher moving quietly along the grassy slope, parallel to the walls and a long, low growth of pines that-stood like a screen beside them.
“I have to bury them,” was the quiet answer.
Suddenly there were torches all around. About a dozen shadowy men came up the slope and through the trees, running, weapons glinting.
Prang saw Parsival move: a blur, a flying shadow, a flashing of steel, spangs, crunchings, screams, sighs, sobs, curses, men scattering and falling like, he thought, rats before a striking cat. Before he could close with anyone, those who weren’t down were ducking and running and Parsival stood alone in the guttering light from the dropped torches, sheathing his sword. Prang’s heartbeat was rapid. The idea that he had sought to slay this man seemed humorous … The famous knight moved like a phantom and his every blow sheared plate, mail, and flesh. He’d never seen such work. Why would someone with such skill and power throw his sword away? What more could any knight have wished for?
“My lord,” he said, a little breathless, “that was magnificent, my lord.” He stepped over a faintly moaning man-at-arms who still convulsively clutched his shattered spear in the tangle of his shadows.
Parsival was walking again. His mail clinked softly. Prang followed with the long mace over his shoulder. Lancelot and the others were just coming out of the castle on horseback. Prang estimated fifty or more men, though he knew his fear was prodding his imagination. This was the end. He accepted it. A small army of mounted men with lance and ax … Life seemed very sweet suddenly. He found himself thinking how pleasant it had been a week or so ago eating pork pie, swilling ale, and talking with his comrades, lying and stretching points, describing old jousts and loves …
Broaditch stood listening in the black street. He held his unsheathed dagger. He leaned on a tilted plank fence and strained to see what seemed to move up ahead … After a few moments he went on cautiously. He’d realized he had to get out of there fast and was picking his way back to the house. The streets were quiet: a few voices, distant shouts, and cries here and there …
His legs were smeared to the knee with muck by the time he reached the door. River mist and fog were closing in. He sheathed his blade and tapped on the timber.
The door opened a little on the latch and the wife said, “What now?”
“Eh? I want to enter, woman.” He saw the dim firelight and smelled the musky warmth of the room. He wanted nothing more than to lie down, stretch out his bones, and sleep by the hot stones like a dozing cat …