The Baron and Sir Kyle relaxing by the fire. The Archdukes outermost fort can be seen in the hazy distance.
“Sir Kyle, I am vexed. I know I don’t seem vexed, what with my decisive actions and muscular frame, but truly I am. Here we are, having fought these long two days. We have killed many scores of men together, and have launched a campaign the likes of which this land has never seen. Men and women alike speak in whispers of us. Some see us as saviours and others as banes, but they think they know us. And yet here we are, not knowing anything of each other.”
Sir Kyle stands in mildly shocked silence for a moment, having never heard such a lengthy sentence from his companion.
“This is not like you, Baron. Has the moonlight brought out these thoughts?”
“Perhaps, or the crackling fire. Or having seen the light of life leave so many eyes in the recent past. No matter. Tell me of yourself.”
Sir Kyle stands from his hunched position near the fire. He turns towards the darkness, away from the castle. “Not much to tell, good Baron. I was born a lowly serf in a large family. I made my way through childhood much as any serf does. Gathering manure, shoveling manure, sorting manure, spreading manure, that sort of thing. My father was a manure spreader, my mother was a baker who sorted manure on the side.”
“Salt of the earth,” the Baron grunts.
“Verily,” comes the response. “When I was a bit older, twelve summers, I began my service to the church. In payment for doing several chores for the monks I was taught my letters and numbers as well as the sword and some little science. Those were my formative years. I spent five years with the monks, and returned home to find my family had been torn apart.”
“I apologize if I was to blame,” the Baron adds, ripping off a hunk of chicken from a massive leg. “I likely was.”
Sir Kyle nods. “It’s true, you were. In your and the Archdukes headstrong youth you pillaged many a farm and town, I am sure I don’t need to remind you.”
A mighty laugh comes in response, though it quickly dissolves into equal parts choking and coughing. “Sir Kyle, I have consumed a greater amount of spirits then you can imagine, and it was also me who regrettably introduced the Archduchess to opium. I need to be reminded of everything.”
“Well this was a small farm, near a great wood.”
“It’s not ringing any bells.”
Sir Kyle begins pacing, his voice rising slightly. “It is not important. Suffice to say I returned to find my mother slain and my father most grievously injured. Two of my brothers were forced into service. And most injurious of all, six of my seven sisters were taken to be handmaidens. Handmaidens, Baron!”
“Steady, Sir Kyle, steady. The life of a handmaiden may seem hard, but do handmaidens not receive shelter from the cold? And food for when they are hungry?”
“Not usually, no.”
“You bat away my attempts to assuage your discomfort like I bat handmaidens down my great well.”
Sir Kyle stands in silence.
“…perhaps it wasn’t the best analogy. Continue, please.”
That is about it, Baron,” Sir Kyle says, the fire gone from his voice. “One day I was out gathering manure and a group of men approached me on noble steeds. I could tell by the shoulder-length hair the Archduke was among them. I averted my eyes, obviously, and hoped to avoid notice. But the Lord had a different plan. The Archduke’s retinue stopped alongside me on the roadway, and he addressed me personally. He posed a riddle to me and another manure gatherer, saying the one who answered correctly first would be rewarded. Luckily, my education provided me a distinct advantage. Before the night was out I was a Knight, astride a noble steed of my own.”
“A curious tale. And fortunate.”
“Other than the family part.”
“Well yes,” the Baron agreed. “That part left something to be desired. A bad taste in the mouth, I am sure.”
“It doesn’t end there, I am afraid. You see, the Archduke only elevated me. Not my father, who was still sharp of mind, though a bit paranoid. And not my beloved sister. Truly a peach. I miss her greatly. Dear Eva.”
BARON VON WARDSTEIN:
Wardstein noticed Sir Kyle relaxing nearby the fire. “Oh, right! There you are. I just beheaded – “
“I know, I could have stopped you. For unknown reasons you forgot I was here when you turned your head earlier. I thought I would see what became of your encounter with that servant over there.”
“Perhaps you could have spared me the trouble, and he his head?”
Sir Kyle shrugged expansively, reaching for more chicken himself. “We have many servants,” he waved dismissively. “Goodness, this chicken is so much tastier than the manure I remember from my youth.”
“Yes, you were saying,” Wardstein grunted, plopping into his portable throne beside the fire. “As long as we are getting to know each other – you know, after we’ve presumably done all kinds of outlandish stuff together lo these many weeks and somehow never had a conversation – I’ll give you the scroll’s notes on my own background.
“I come not from a family of manure. I come from a band of nomadic mercenaries who roam the countryside seeking a war to fight. For money, always for money. Our only homestead is our stormy oceanside cabin in the mountains of Tibet, to which we seek refuge periodically. It was there that I honed my craft.
One day, while rafting through Persia, my band came across a man making his way across the land in search of silk. A baron, he called himself. He had many camel-fuls of gold, and was seeking cloth with which to knit costumes for his handmaidens. It didn’t take me long to formulate a plan – to eliminate the Baron, and plunder his camels of gold, which I kept. My handmaidens need not silk after all! And then, using the Baron’s identity pouch, assumed his identity, made my way here, to this land. Where my guile and frankly outstanding physicality have contributed to many victories.” The Baron horked something green into the fire. “And yet, despite these manure-less conquests, I lack also for a woman in my life. No sister left behind, wot. Eva, such a lovely name.”
Sir Kyle knew enough of the Baron by now to stall this nascent advance. “She wouldn’t like you, Baron.”
“That never stopped me before.”
“Enough! Eva is off the table.”
“Easy, Knight-Rider. I joust with my wit as well as my lance.”
“That’s what she said.”
The Baron grew melancholy. “Sir Kyle, I have been a great benefactor of this land of plenty. Have you thought of seeking Eva again? Perhaps – perhaps I could be of assistance. Perhaps, I could redeem myself in such a quest, and perhaps you could once again know happiness.”
MYSELF, ARCHDUKE JAMES:
With each step through the great hall, Sir Kyle’s unornamented spurs chimed as they did when he walked amongst the fallen on the nearby battlefields, but curiously, again and again in an echoed chorus. The room was vast, and reminiscent of the great cathedrals he had once visited as a boy. He intuitively understood that this was no accident, for he had heard the Archduke say many times that because God himself had appointed him the ascendency at birth, any decisions he made were, consequently, divine.
The Knight secretly wondered whether God existed, for the carnage he had witnessed in recent weeks had cast a dark shadow across his faith. Baron Von Wardstein’s army, now reduced to mostly boy soldiers, lay stinking just outside the walls. He could smell the rank even now, but with it, the awful contrast of roasting venison, no doubt roasting on the spits in the kitchens below.
As he neared Archduke James, who sat in his throne with eyes closed as a buxom maiden brushed his locks, he thought it best to keep his musings on faith to himself, for speaking them aloud might cause some unwanted strife. Sir Kyle was keenly aware that his noble costume could be stripped from him as quickly as he had been dressed in it, and, as far as he was concerned, he was now looking upon the only man worth praying to. Beth sat beside James’s massive throne on a stool, which teetered beneath her as she swayed. Her lower jaw dangled, and her eyes, half closed, gave brief glimpses of pupils far too small to offer any indication that her retched opium had left much of her soul intact.
“Ah!” the Archduke exclaimed. “Sir Kyle! Welcome to my humble cottage. I trust then that you received my summons? Yes, I thought it best to observe the recent action from the front. Or rather, as close to the front as I care to tread! I can hardly bear the rank!”
Sir Kyle watched as the Archduke stood from his throne, so he bowed his head to show his respect. As he did, he heard a low note from a trumpet. His choirmasters had informed him years ago that he had ‘perfect pitch.’ It was a D.
Loud laughter echoed about them and Kyle looked upwards. Archduke James had aimed his arse at the Archduchess’s face and was now fanning the air with his hands. Beth, barely present, merely squinted and puckered.
“I came as quickly as I could, Your Grace!” said the Knight.
“Good! I realize this civil war of ours has been anything but; however, it serves a greater purpose! What news of my so-called distant ‘cousin,’ Baron Von Wardstein? Have you learned anything more of his family’s history?”
“Yes, Your Grace. Troubling things. Your suspicions were accurate, and, in a moment of candor by the fire, he confessed to me that his interests were mostly coin and carnage. I can’t speak to his exact family lineage, but suffice it to say that the same blood does not run in your veins.”
“—of COURSE my suspicions were accurate,” the Archduke began again. “Though please, do not betray the fact that you are my eyes on the ground!”
“I won’t, your Grace.”
“In other news, did I happen to mention in the letter the Scullery Maid-turned-messenger brought you that I chanced upon a most beautiful maiden during a recent scouting trip? The village isn’t very close, so I don’t expect you’ll know it, but this girl was quite splendid, I must say. I was not able to acquire her in the moment, but I do know her name at least. Now what was it again? Eustice? No. Enid? No, no, that’s not it. Ah! Eva!”
Sir Kyle didn’t mean to speak, but out it came, if only whisper.
“…what was that?”
“Oh, uh – I only said the Scullery Maid must not have been used to travelling barefoot, for she died seconds after handing me your message.”
“Well duhhhh, Sir Kyle!”