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White Knight

By Willa Shakespeare
Page 1 of 9

 

Blake's head ached. He couldn't remember what had happened but he had a feeling it was something bad. It was cold, bitterly cold; his breath fogged the air before him and froze in the curls of the shaggy beard he now had. He was wearing only a sort of padded undergarment of white wool and a pair of soft leather slippers. He was standing on the edge of a plowed, ice-rimed field. Across the field he could see his enemy, a man hidden behind a blank black shield. The man sat on a huge horse, a pale, ash-colored beast that stood as still as death.

He knew it was his enemy, although the man made no gesture and said nothing. He started forward, determined to destroy the evil that awaited him, but the gelid mud quickly turned his slippers into misshapen lumps, binding him to the earth. He cursed and struggled, but to no avail. He looked behind him. There were people, his followers; dim, shadowy figures that hesitated to follow. "Help me!" he cried, but the people wavered and cringed; flotsam on the tide, they could do nothing on their own. Like the black knight, they were silent. In all the field, he could only hear himself, and overhead the harsh calls of carrion crows, drawn to the field with the sly foreknowledge of their kind.

He shouted, "Help me, I must defeat him. Cowards, cowards!" but in his heart he knew they were not to blame. He had promised to lead them and it was his failing that jeopardized them all. He turned back. The black knight was moving now, ponderously approaching, the horse's immense feet sinking deep into the mud with each slow, measured stride, until it was coated in the reddish soil as if booted in blood. Blake's own feet were similarly marked.

"Please, someone, help me. I must defeat him. I must!"

"At any cost?" came a voice behind him.

Blake whirled, almost falling into the mud. There was another man there, not one of his own, and not one of the enemy. The man wore a thick brown cape with a heavy monk's cowl pulled forward to completely hide his face. His voice was thin and reedy, annoying, but impossible to ignore.

"Who are you?"

"I am one who can give you the victory. If you are willing to pay the price."

"Any price." Blake heard the heavy horse coming closer. "My life, all that I have, and am. Anything. Only so that my people will be rid of this evil."

The hooded man nodded. "You will have your desire. But you may decide it is not worth the cost."

Blake shook his head. "There is nothing I would not sacrifice to destroy that man and all he represents."

"But what if he represents something within you as well?"

"I am not like him!" Blake roared. "He is evil."

"And you are good." The monk lifted an arm and waved. For an instant the cloak shifted revealing the arm beneath. It was dead white, and thin, impossibly thin. It looked skeletal, but Blake refused that image. Why would Death deal with him?

"Come forward, then. Blake has need of you." The monk beckoned, and the crowd parted, letting five people come forward. They walked as if mesmerized, but for all of that, there was a vitality, a reality, to them that was lacking in Blake's other people.

"I can change them, mold them to your needs, to make you an irresistible force. If it is your wish."

"Do it." What were five people, six counting himself, against the multitudes now enslaved and suffering? These were his people; they had come to help, and they should be glad of the chance, as he was glad of his chance, to die for Freedom.

The monk's hand moved, and the largest of the five, a man with the broad face of a farmer and the calm eyes of a philosopher, shimmered and warped before Blake, transforming into a man of metal- no, not a man, a suit of white-steel armor. The armor disappeared, and Blake felt suddenly heavier, yet stronger. His vision was reduced to a series of slits. He realized he was now sheathed in the armor that had been that man. It felt good, like having a trusty friend beside him.

Again the monk gestured, and the beautiful golden-maned woman melted and reformed into a golden shield weighting down his left arm. He sensed the protective spirit within, and was well satisfied.

A third time that bony arm moved, and the other woman wavered, to return as a sword in Blake's right hand, mirror-bright metal etched with runic sayings. He studied the sword, knowing there was wisdom in the symbols, but he could not decipher them. No matter, it was a fine sword, that was enough for him.

There were only two men left. The taller, darker one shifted suddenly, trying to evade the monk. "No," he said, voice crystal clear, and just as brittle. "It is not right. No," the man said, protesting. Blake was annoyed. The battle was nearly upon them; he had no time to argue with anyone, least of all one who should help him.

The monk touched the dark-haired man. This transformation took longer, as if the man fought it. Even when it was complete Blake knew he had not achieved the unity with this man that he had with the others. What had been a defiant man was now an animal, a stallion as tall and heavy as the black knight's beast, but more graceful. It was jet black, gleaming in the dull winter sun, strong boned and lithe, with a man's soul still behind those deep-set, dark brown eyes. Blake stretched out his hand, and the horse shied, trembling, but did not move far, as if tethered to Blake by invisible bonds.

The last man moved closer to the horse, his face showing his fear. He was also afraid of Blake, afraid to fight, but without the defiance of the other. The horse permitted him near, keeping a watchful eye on Blake.

The monk waved a final time, and the timid man fell across the horse's back, arms reaching upward, to the animal's neck. He flowed like water, no, like quicksilver, faster than the eye could follow, becoming a silver- white battle harness, complete with bridle and saddle.

The horse shivered all over, then stood, head drooping slightly. Blake approached, regretting having broken the stallion's spirit, but it raised its head and bared its long teeth at him. It had given in to fate, but would not tamely accept it. Blake grinned behind his visor, and mounted the stallion, instinctively knowing how to control and guide this wild, untamed beast.

He made the horse rear, and it lashed out with its forefeet, screaming its rage at the world, turning its anger at Blake to hatred of the enemy. He kicked it forward into a run, shouting for his people to follow. In the helmet and armor he was safe, but he could not turn to see if they obeyed. He did not need them. He was complete now. He could save them all by himself.

The black knight met him in mid-field. The other had a lance, while Blake had only a sword. Blake raised his shield and the lance struck and shattered against the golden shield, denting and marring the perfection of its surface. He didn't notice. The shield was still strong, it still served him well. His sword flashed, seeking a weakness in the other's armor, but he could find none. His sword came against the blank shield and was blunted, and dulled, but Blake's arm was powerful enough that he had no need of the razor-keen edge it once possessed.

Behind the black knight appeared the shadows of others like it, inhuman and impersonal, but all afoot and unarmed, on even terms with Blake's followers. About the two knights the footmen swarmed, grappling and wrestling in deadly silence.

Blake's stallion fought of its own accord, while the black knight had to beat and spur his mount to gain obedience. Blake was sure he would win. He had right on his side, his gear was of the finest, and his horse was worth another knight all by itself. But the black knight never faltered, never reacted to any injury, and always had another weapon. When Blake beat down its sword, the black clad arm held a mace, when the mace was destroyed, it had a pike, when the pike shaft splintered, it produced a crossbow.

Blake's armor was battered and rent, but he was never wounded. His horse was a larger target, and somehow it always managed to be between Blake and whatever weapon the black knight wielded. Filled with righteous indignation, he felt no weariness, no fear, no pain. He knew he had only to defeat the black knight and all would be right with the world. He would be a hero, and everyone would love him. He would never be alone, never friendless and desperate again.

He struck with all his strength, and the black knight toppled from its high cantled saddle, landing with a strange hollow clang. Blake leapt off his stallion to make sure of the kill, sweeping off the helmet of the fallen warrior. There was nothing within, no face, no head. He picked up the armor, finding it light as dried leaves, and flung it away with a curse. Behind him, he heard horrid laughter, a many-toned scratching sound like millions of maggots slithering against each other as they jostled for position on a corpse. He looked up. The black knight's charger stood there, unmarked, and laughed at him, its long teeth dagger sharp, its eyes glowing red with hellfire. "A new knight," it called. And one of the black shadows solidified and marched forward to mount the ash-gray horse.

Blake had destroyed a meaningless shadow. He had to kill the horse. Now he saw that. He mounted his horse, ignoring the harsh sobbing breaths it took, and reached for his sword, but found a shattered hilt in his scabbard. His shield was split and useless, so he threw it at the enemy. The gray horse lifted a foot, to crush the gleaming remnant into the mud.

Suddenly wild beyond any reasoning, Blake kicked his horse forward. If only he could close with the enemy, he would destroy it with his bare hands. His stallion lurched forward, staggered, and as Blake kicked it once more, suddenly reared with a bone-chilling scream and flung him off to land in the bloody mud alongside the hollow armor. He looked up at his faithful companion, shocked by the betrayal, and saw agony and madness in its eyes. It had been shot many times by the cross-bow bolts, slashed, stabbed and beaten, and he had never noticed, never seen its pain. The horse staggered, whirling to bite at a bolt embedded deep within its side, and kicked Blake in the belly. He groaned, feeling suddenly as hollow and liquid inside as the empty armor, slowly filling with mud.


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