An Eddie LaCrosse story
“Would you look at that,” the queen said softly. “A white hart.”
I followed her gaze. Far across the clearing, at the edge of the thick forest, an immense snow–white stag stood stock–still, as if posing for a painter. Only its ears twitched, as if it heard the queen’s faint voice.
No one in the royal pavilion moved. The four knights in attendance exchanged looks, wondering which of them, if any, would be sent to bring the animal back as a trophy. But the queen merely sighed wistfully and sipped her wine. This was apparently enough for the stag, which bounded off into the forest.
“Once, when I was a young princess, a white hart actually ran through my father’s castle,” the queen said. “A brace of greyhounds followed, and behind them, a beautiful huntress.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He—my father, that is—sent three of his knights after her. One to bring back the hart, one to collect the greyhounds, and a third to arrest the huntress for disturbing his banquet.” She laughed. “None of them managed to quite do what they were told, but the stories they brought back were interesting, nonetheless.”
Queen Winifred shook her head at the memory and drank some more wine. She was older than me, but not by much, and as a princess had commanded the mercenary unit I fought for. We’d learned to respect each other then, so when she needed things done discreetly, such as finding out whether or not a minor official was embezzling from her (he was), she gave me the job. She got my discretion, I got her gratitude and some of her gold. Both of us were happy. Now I was enjoying some time off hanging out with her before I started back to Neceda.
“I have an idea,” she said loudly, which meant that it was more in the line of a decree. “Sir Eric, Sir Ulric, Sir Bryce! Attend me!”
Three knights jumped instantly to stand at attention before her. Two were middle–aged veterans, while the third was so young I wondered that he could even fill out his armor.
“Which of you three knights shall quest for me?” the queen asked jauntily.
“I will, Your Majesty,” the all said in unison.
“Then hear this. My friend and I just saw a white hart appear across the clearing. I want its head for my royal wall. Who shall achieve it for me?”
The two older men exchanged a look, which gave the younger one a chance to say, “Your Majesty, let me. I have yet to show my quality in your name.”
“Very well, Sir Bryce. You have my blessing.”
The young knight called for his squire and scurried off, clanking all the way. One of the two older knights said softly, “I assume that was your intent, Your Majesty?”
“Indeed. The boy needs something to do.”
The knights bowed and removed themselves. Winifred turned to me. “Want to take home some more of my gold?”
“Go with him. Keep him out of trouble.”
“He’s hunting a deer. How much trouble can he get into?”
“He’s my brother’s oldest boy. He’s very eager, often to the point of obstinateness. I’d feel better if you went along and kept an eye on him.” She smiled. “I’ll pay double your usual rate.”
“Then I’ll put in double the effort,” I said. “But what will young Sir Bryce say?”
“He’ll say nothing, or at least, he better not.”
I hoisted myself from the cushioned seat and went over to where Bryce’s squire was saddling his horse. “Quickly, fool,” Bryce said. “I’m on the queen’s business!”
“As it happens, so am I,” I said.
He looked me up and down. “Indeed,” he said with the contempt of an untried warrior.
I offered my hand. “We haven’t been introduced. I’m Eddie LaCrosse. Your Aunt Winnie asked me to tag along.”
“‘Aunt Winnie?’” he repeated.
“Queen Winifred. We’ve been friends for a long time.” And by using the queen’s private nickname, I hoped to establish at least a little of my bona fides.
Bryce, though, was too young or too dense to catch on. “I don’t need your help, commoner,” he said, and turned away.
I reached beneath his culet, grabbed a handful of his chain mail leggings, and twisted. He rose to his tiptoes and squeaked.
“If you don’t know enough not to turn your back on your elders, then I’d say you do need my help,” I said, then released him.
He turned as quickly as his armor allowed. “How dare you, sir!”
“Calm down. Your aunt asked me to go with you. I’m doing it because she’s my friend, and you’re doing it because she’s your queen.”
“Why does she think I need a nursemaid?”
“She doesn’t. And you probably don’t. She just doesn’t want you to need help and not have it handy.”
He looked me up and down. “And she considers you worthy of helping me?”
I knew what he saw: a guy over thirty, with gray touching his hair and beard, and clothes that had seen better days. What he didn’t yet know was how to look beyond that, which was a skill that only came with time. If you were lucky. “She does.”
“Then I suppose you can accompany me. Fetch your mount and the hounds.”
His page had three dogs leashed and ready to go. I took the leads in one hand, the reins of my horse in the other, and followed Bryce on foot as he rode out into the field. He stopped halfway, turned to face the queen’s pavilion and raised his sword in salute.
Then he said, “Release the hounds.” I did.
“To quarry!” he shouted, spurred his horse and took off after them. I took my time mounting, then looked back at Winnie. The queen barely covered her laughter.
I knew what I’d find in the forest. Sure enough, Sir Bryce was tangled in the undergrowth, trying to force his far more sensible horse to push ahead. I stopped on the nearest game trail and said, “If you come back this way, you’ll find it a lot easier.”
“But the dogs went that way!” he whined, his voice cracking. How young was he?
“They’re two feet tall and not bogged down by a man in a can. Come on, kid, don’t be a jackass.”
“Do not call me ‘kid,’” Bryce said, but he turned his horse and made his way back to the trail.
The dogs barked in the distance. “They’re chasing a deer that uses these same trails,” I pointed out. “We’ll catch up.”
“Not if you keep talking, old man. Forward!”
If we were going to spend a lot of time together, we’d have to address this ‘old man’ talk, but for now I followed him as we trotted toward the baying hounds. I was completely unfamiliar with these woods, and drew my sword to mark trees whenever the trail forked. Bryce did not seem to notice.
After a bit, the trail widened enough that I could ride beside him. I said, “So this is your first quest?”
“Yes,” he said without looking at me.
“How long have you been a knight?”
“Ah. No battles or wars, then.”
“No. And no way for a knight to show his quality.”
“Have you ever seen an actual battle?”
“No,” he said with sincere disappointment.
“They’re not as much fun as they look.”
“And how many have you been in?”
He didn’t sound like he knew about the kingdom’s past, and about how Winnie’s father had to hire mercenaries because his own troops were not up to the challenge of defending their borders. It was probably one of those tales that had been revised in the official telling, which was okay with me. I had no stake in the war, and certainly none in the war stories.
“A few,” I answered. “Enough.”
“And now you sell your sword to the highest bidder?”
“No, that’s a mercenary. I’m a private sword jockey: I sell my expertise in finding solutions to problems. If I’m lucky, my sword never comes out of its scabbard.”
“Sounds like a tedious life.”
“Only on the good days,” I said honestly.
We continued, as the hounds announced their presence ahead of us, never getting noticeably closer or farther. Then we rode up a slight hill and found ourselves at the edge of a small clearing. A stone well rose from the center, and beside it was pitched another pavilion, smaller than the queen’s.
A large shield was propped outside it. The metal was jet black, with the figure of a red phoenix on it.
Before we could announce ourselves, the white hart bounded from the woods, the dogs on its heels. They caught it right in front of the pavilion, encircled it and quickly brought it down.
“Come on,” Bryce said excitedly. “They’ve got it!” He spurred his horse down toward the pavilion.
Before we reached it, though, a man strode from the tent. He wore his cuisse and greaves, jet–black like the shield, but no armor from the waist up, and carried a sword.
“Hey, hey!” he yelled at the dogs. “Get off that!” When the dogs didn’t respond, he swung his sword at them, and the yelps told us that at least a couple of them were struck.
“I say!” Bryce cried. “Those are my hounds! Hold your sword!”
The man swung a couple of more times, and killed the last of the dogs. The hart was down as well, mortally wounded but still alive.
The man looked at us, then down at the hart. “This white hart was a gift from my lady,” he said. “She wanted me to hunt it and bring back the head as a trophy. Now it’s ruined.”
Bryce reined up close to the dead animals. “You killed my dogs,” he said.
“Your dogs?” the man replied, then pointed his bloody sword straight at Bryce. “Then you’re the villain who killed my hart.”
“I am Sir Bryce, from the court of Queen Winifred,” he said, and drew his sword. “You killed hounds for doing what they were bred to do. If anyone is a villain, sir, it is you. You slew defenseless dogs; I challenge you to try the same with me!”
“Whoa, junior,” I said quietly. “You were sent to bring back the deer’s head. Just take it and let’s be on our way.”
“Listen to your squire,” the other knight said. “He has wisdom.”
He looked about my age, and moved with the easy grace of a man used to fighting. There were dozens of these stray, masterless knights wandering this part of the world, loyal to no lord or king and looking simply for fights to add to their reputation. Defeating a knight of Winifred’s court would give this guy an introduction to the queen, and hopefully a permanent position at court.
Unfortunately, my job was to keep that from happening.
“My squire,” Bryce said, “has no heart for combat. I do.” He leveled his sword, pointing it just as the other knight had done. “Answer my challenge, sir, or kneel before me.”
“I answer your challenge with defiance,” he said. “Allow me time to don my armor.”
“I will await you here.”
The knight went back into the tent. Bryce climbed from his horse and handed me the reins. I grabbed the back of his gorget and pulled him up short.
“This is not what you were told to do,” I said. “I know Winifred, and she wouldn’t approve of this.”
Bryce awkwardly turned and twisted away. “The challenge has been lawfully made and accepted. If you have no stomach for the fight, then withdraw to the forest until I’m done.”
“You don’t know anything about this guy, how good he is or—”
“I know that he is old,” he said, giving me an up–and–down glance that added, just like you.
“Did it occur to you that the reason he’s lived to be old is that he’s very good?”
“I fear no man,” Bryce said.
I released him, tied his horse to my saddle horn, then hopped down and went into the tent. A young woman in expensive clothes was helping the knight armor up in shiny black metal. “What message from your master?” the knight said.
“Look, I’m not his squire, I’m just along to keep him out of trouble.”
“I hope you bring greater skill to your other tasks.”
“Yeah, you got me there.”
“That’s why I’m here, too,” the woman said. “I’m Lady Signe, by the way.”
“Eddie LaCrosse,” I said.
“Unfortunately, show–off here won’t listen.” She pulled his plackart tight, which made him wince.
“Show care, woman. I fight for your honor.”
“You fight because you two can’t compare the sizes of your manhoods with those metal shorts on,” Signe said. “This is a pointless duel. Let it go.”
“She’s right,” I said. “He’s a kid, and he’s never been in a real fight in his life. He was sent to bring back that deer’s head as a kind of consolation quest, since Winifred isn’t at war with anyone right now.”
The knight’s eyes narrowed as Lady Signe continued her work. “So if I defeat him, there will be an opening in the queen’s court.”
“Assuming the queen doesn’t kill you for slaughtering her nephew.”
“Her nephew?” Lady Signe said.
“See?” She smacked the back of his head. “This is a mistake. Someone’s going to get killed.”
“I do not fear death,” the black knight said as he picked up his helmet.
“I do,” Lady Signe said seriously. “I don’t love you because you can defeat bare–chinned boys in single combat, you know. I love you because you’re honorable. I don’t see the honor in this.”
For a moment, I thought she’d gotten through to him, and allowed myself to relax. You’d think I’d know better by now.
“Whatever his age, he is a knight, and he has issued a lawful challenge, which I have accepted,” the black knight said. “My honor, which you claim to love, would not let me refuse now.” He turned to me. “Tell your master I await his pleasure.”
Well, that didn’t work out. I went back to Bryce, who swung his sword to limber up, and said, “Kid, you’re over your head here. If you get in trouble, throw down your sword. A honorable knight won’t kill an unarmed opponent, and this guy’s all about honor.”
“Withdraw, coward, while the true men settle this.”
I took both our horses to the edge of the clearing and tied them to a low branch. Then I returned, in time to see the two fully–armed opponents face each other in the space before the pavilion.
“You don’t have to do this,” Lady Signe said one last time. “It won’t impress me.”
The black knight ignored her and assumed a defensive stance.
She looked at me across the field. “I tried,” she called with a shrug, and walked away to watch.
“Me, too,” I said sadly.
“For my queen!” Bryce cried, then attacked.
I expected the fight to be short, and I was right. What I didn’t expect was that Bryce would quickly and efficiently kick the black knight’s shiny metal ass. His sword was a blur of attacking blows, and they forced his opponent first to his knees, and then to the ground. Bryce stood over him, blade at his throat beneath his helmet, and said, “Prepare to meet your gods.”
“I surrender,” the black knight said, and tossed his sword aside.
“I don’t accept,” Bryce said. “You killed my dogs!”
“I can make amends!” the black knight cried desperately.
Bryce stepped close, grabbed the black knight’s helmet and wrenched it off. The man was terrified, his eyes bright and his sweaty face pale. Bryce raised his visor and drew back his sword.
“No!” Lady Signe cried and threw herself atop her knight. “Please, sir, I beg you—!”
Bryce’s visor clanged shut. He’d already begun his stroke. An instant later he beheaded not the black knight, but Lady Signe.
Her head bounced across the clearing toward me.
“No!” the black knight screamed as blood surged from the stump of her neck and struck him in the face.
“What the fuck?” I cried.
Bryce stumbled back, dropped his sword and wrenched off his own helmet. He couldn’t believe what had happened.
The black knight held the headless corpse and wailed his pain. “No, no, my lady, no…”
Bryce looked at me, then at the knight. He croaked out, “Arise, sir knight. I give you your life.”
“My life?” the knight cried. “My life is worth nothing! You killed my lady!”
“What the fuck?” I said again, and grabbed Bryce by his metal shoulders.
“M–my visor fell,” he said. “I didn’t see her. Honestly, it was an accident!”
“You just… I mean, you… What the fuck?” I repeated again.
Bryce looked like he was about to cry. He resembled a little boy’s head somehow stuck on a giant metallic body. The other knight’s agonized sobs echoed off the trees.
My job was to take care of this moron, and the first thing I needed to do was get him out of this situation. “Get your horse,” I said. “You need to leave.”
“We’ve done enough damage doing things your way, kid!” I yelled. “Now it’s time for you to shut up and listen!”
He was about to talk back, but instead sniffled and nodded. He clanked off across the clearing.
I stood over the man and his dead lady. “It was an accident,” I said, hating myself for it. “He’s just a kid.” The knight did not react to my words.
Just when I was pretty certain things couldn’t get worse, another knight rode from the forest, in blue armor, carrying a shield with the same phoenix design as the black knight’s. When the visor went up, I saw that this knight was a woman. She demanded, “What has happened here?”
“An accident,” I said quickly.
“A murder!” the black knight wailed, his voice raw. “He killed my lady!”
The blue knight looked at me. “You?”
“No,” I said.
She looked at Bryce. “Then you. You have murdered Lady Signe, my brother’s paramour.”
Bryce stood beside his horse, unarmed and helmetless, with the same wide, terrified look the white hart sported before its death.
Oboy. I drew my sword and said, “Look, let’s talk about this. All that sword–swinging hasn’t done any good so far.”
“You dare draw steel against me, knave?” the blue knight said.
“He’s a kid, and I’m here to protect him.” I half–expected Bryce to take umbrage at this, but he finally had the sense to keep his mouth shut.
“Then prepare to fight for his life,” the blue knight said, drew her own sword and spurred her horse toward me.
Since I wasn’t in armor, I had speed and maneuverability on my side. I ducked under her swing and held my sword low and horizontal. It cut through the billet strap and, unfortunately, a bit of the horse. As she reined to a stop, the saddle twisted and the knight fell with a clanking thud to the ground. The horse whinnied in pain.
I rushed over, put the tip of my sword under the edge of the blue knight’s helmet, and said, “I don’t want to spill any more blood today, but if you make this a fight, I will. And it’ll be yours.”
“You are no knight, you scoundrel!”
“No, I’m the guy who’ll cut your throat. Calling me names doesn’t change that.”
“Justice!” the black knight cried. He’d gently laid out Signe’s headless corpse and got to his feet, his armor clattering with his rage. “I demand justice! A head for a head!”
I glanced back at Bryce. I’d gotten lucky with the blue knight, but I was in no shape to take on two fully armored, fully pissed opponents. I needed to think of something, and fast.
It seemed like the right time for a long shot, so I put away my sword and said, “You’re right. A head for a head is fair. Go ahead and take his. Just let me be the one to tell him.” I turned my back on the blue knight and walked over to Bryce.
“No tricks!” the black knight called after me.
“Well, you dumb shit,” I said quietly to Bryce, putting every bit of contempt I could muster into it, “you’ve dishonored me, your queen, and yourself. That was a decent woman who had more sense than all of us combined, and now she’s dead. I can’t wait to tell Winifred about this.”
The black knight stood. His sister handed him his fallen sword, and he strode toward Bryce. “Then let this be a warning to all of Queen Winifred’s knights that justice awaits them when they—”
Bryce was crying. No, not crying, that implied dignity. He was sobbing, the way a child who’d lost a parent might, the way the black knight himself had done moments earlier. Bryce’s face was red and wrenched, and both tears and snot poured down. He drew his own sword and tossed it aside, then fell to his knees and raised his chin.
“You may have my head, sir,” he blubbered.
The black knight glanced uncertainly back at his sister, who shrugged as much as a full suit of armor allowed. He took a deep breath and drew back his sword for a killing blow.
My hand went to the hilt of my own sword. I’d hoped Bryce’s breakdown would inspire mercy, but either way, I couldn’t let this just happen, even if it meant killing a man who was not only innocent but had every right to be angry.
Bryce continued to cry as he tilted his head, exposing his neck to the blow.
The sword started to swing. I started to draw my own sword to block it.
Then the black knight’s sword stopped.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered, lowered his blade, then said loudly, “Lady Signe would not have wanted more blood spilled on her behalf. I grant you mercy.”
I slid my sword back into its scabbard.
The black knight walked back to his sister. On the way, he swung hard at the deer’s carcass, severing its head.
“Go get the deer’s head,” I said quietly.
Bryce said thickly, “What?”
“Go get the goddamn deer’s head!” I snarled, and shoved him forward. He shambled like a sleepwalker to the carcass, picked up the head by the antlers and brought it back.
The black knight knelt beside Signe’s corpse and watched me drop my jacket over her severed head. “Get out of here,” his sister said. “Before my brother comes to his senses.”
“I will,” I said. “May I say whose mercy he was granted, so the queen may know?”
“No. We will leave this land and never return.”
“Do you need any help burying Lady Signe?”
“Not from you.”
I didn’t blame them for that. “Safe travels, then.” And with that, I got Bryce on his horse and headed back out of the woods as quickly as possible. By the time we reached the queen’s encampment, the boy had the blank, blasted look of someone who’d witnessed atrocities.
After he dismounted, he looked at me and said with no inflection, “I never even knew his name.”
I’d slapped him before I even realized it. He blinked back to the moment, and the glaze left his eyes.
“Her name was Signe,” I said through my teeth. “You better inscribe that on your goddamn brain, because if I ever hear that you’ve forgotten it, I’ll find you and carve it into your forehead.”
He said nothing. His page took him to his tent, where his quiet sobs could be heard until long after dark. I took the stag’s head from where he’d tied it to his saddle and went to deliver it to Winnie.
Finally, about midnight, I sat alone with the queen in her pavilion. She’d taken the news of the day’s debacle philosophically, but I suspected that was because she had an audience. Now, when it was just the two of us, she was more thoughtful.
“I’ve seen so much death,” she said, “it’s hard for me to remember what it was like to see it for the first time. Do you know what I mean?”
“I always suspected he wasn’t up to the challenge of being a knight, even one in peacetime. He’s got too much of my brother in him.”
“Not everyone is like us.”
She looked at me seriously. “No.”
“Don’t worry about paying me. I didn’t exactly earn my money.”
“He’d be dead without you.”
“Still…” I thought again about the beautiful and sensible Lady Signe, dead because a bunch of men got into a pissing contest. “It would feel weird.”
“Look, take your gold. I’ve got plenty.”
“What will you do to Bryce?”
“Nothing. It’s up to him. He either lives with it, or doesn’t.”
I listened past the popping torches. The sobs had stopped.
(Editors’ Note: Alex Bledsoe is interviewed by Julia Rios in Uncanny Magazine Issue Thirteen.)
© 2016 by Alex Bledsoe