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The Knight Comes
Winter was a slow time for the village-folk of Millstand, and no one felt that slowness more than Bathmal Arined. Alone, he ran through whipping snowdrifts and over the tall snow mounds that rose along the village outskirts. Ice crystals sparkled on his heavy fleece cloak and gloves, crusted on his well-made homespun shirt and trousers. His thick boots—-made of durable boiled leather—were completely encased in frozen clumps as he crunched through the ankle-deep snow.
Frigid windblasts numbed his exposed face, turning his pale, smooth cheeks a blushing red, freezing the snot that ran from his nose so that it caked his bare upper lip.
Bathmal didn’t mind the cold or the snot.
Out here, with the single-story buildings of Millstand clustered far behind him, out of sight, he was completely alone in a blank world of snow and ice, free to use his imagination to paint his surroundings however he sought, his mind full of the fantastic stories he’d overheard Elder Lorebud telling the other children, while Bathmal himself sat outside in the cold, shivering by the inn’s hide-covered door.
During those nights, Bathmal would peek in during the climatic parts of each story, when Elder Lorebud’s voice would rise to a wild pitch, arms waving madly, the glow from the fire-pit casting flickering shadows on the captivated faces of the children, their parents watching fondly from the back wall, arms locked in loving embraces.
Bathmal relived those stories now, amid the tall snow mounds, lost on mysterious seas or within magical lands where he was the hero, or the explorer, or the villain, where he battled scores of monsters, or led pirate raids on unsuspecting cargo vessels, or saved the beautiful maiden from the grips of an evil tyrant. Out here, the tedious life of Millstand didn’t exist, and Bathmal liked that immensely.
He ran up a snowy rise, his breath misting before him, temporarily obscuring his vision. Atop the mound he scanned the white plains below. Snow gusts marched across the flat expanse like giant wraiths while the sky above was painted a pale aqua, the fiery white ball of the sun sinking fast towards the western horizon. It would be dark soon and the night’s chill would force him to return to the village.
But he still had some time left.
Knotting his brow and raising his imaginary sword high, he charged down slope, bellowing a fierce war cry as he went, prepared to rid the land of the fictitious snow beasts that haunted the plains below.
His heroic quest was suddenly interrupted when a quarter of the way down his boot caught on a rouge ice chunk that sent him sprawling face first into the snow, where then he slid ungracefully down the rest of the way. Powdery coldness invaded his nostrils and mouth, painfully chilling his teeth and gums.
Thoroughly aggravated, he stood, swallowing melted snow as a strong wind gust blew his cloak back, making his eyes water. He turned away from the gust to blink the blur from his eyes, feeling too tired, too cold, and too unmotivated all of a sudden. He decided to end his mock adventuring for the day and return to the village; dreaded as that reality was.
As he turned to head for Millstand, something to the north caught his eye. He had to squint through the glare to make out the two dark shapes advancing behind curtains of blowing snow. His heart leapt under his shirt as he half-feared that the fictitious snow beasts he’d been fighting had somehow been summoned to life. Or maybe he’d inadvertently woken some long slumbering devil from the buried mill ruins that lay close by, the ones most in Millstand believed to be haunted, even Elder Lorebud.
But as the shapes came ever closer, he was able to discern more details, though his heart didn’t race any less; in fact, he thought it might have sped up a notch or two.
Bathmal stood, frozen in place, trying to figure if his eyes were playing tricks, or if there really were riders out there. The truth became apparent as the riders grew larger the closer they came, and soon Bathmal could hear the horses’ hooves as they punched through the dense snow.
Who’d want to be traveling the northern plains in the middle of winter? he wondered. What reasons could anyone possibly have?
Fell reasons, Bathmal was sure.
The only people who ever came to Millstand were ore traders and petty merchants, and even then only during the summer months—and never on horses! Oxen and mules pulled wagons and wares, and in the decade and a half of Bathmal’s life, he’d never once seen anyone riding a horse, even during the handful of times he’d actually seen the animals; and those were owned by good-to-do farmers who used them only as cart horses.
The riders were mere palms away and closing. Bathmal wanted to run, to flee, but his legs wouldn’t respond to his mind’s pleas to bolt. His breath puffed out in billowing gray clouds and his mouth went as dry as the famed Wherrta Desert, causing his throat to constrict so that he was unable to cry out for help; not that anyone could hear him this far out from the main village. There was little he could now but accept his fate, whatever it may be.
The horse in the lead was massive, a creature from legend, covered completely in copper-hued barding, the champron curving out from the horse’s forehead and lower jaw, making a half-moon. Copper bands marched down the huge neck, expanding to plates that covered chest, flanks, and hindquarters. The rider was dressed similarly so, in copper armor, half-moon helmet concealing the face, a long, inky robe with crimson lining blowing back from wide shoulders.
Horse and rider obscured Bathmal’s view of the other as both suddenly came to a skidding stop above him, the horse snorting angrily as it stomped its hooves, spraying Bathmal with fine snow dust.
Bathmal craned his neck as far as it would go in order to see the rider, who in turn studied him for short moments before reaching with a gauntleted hand to part the visor’s double doors, revealing a thick gray mustache and huge, bushy eyebrows set on a pink, wrinkled face. Piercing blue eyes stared down at Bathmal in annoyance.
“Ho! Boy!” the man bellowed, his breath punching the air with silver mist. “Dressed in those white furs, as you are, I didn’t see you until Mondock here almost plowed you with a hoof!” He paused for a moment, thick brows lowering. “Are you well, boy? Your face is paler that the surrounding snow!”
“You’re a Vorcikian Knight!” Bathmal blurted, ignoring the knight’s inquiries about his health in his excitement. He bowed awkwardly, not knowing the exact protocol when meeting a real knight, but it seemed the right thing to do since that’s what people always did in the stories.
The knight laughed and turned in his saddle towards his companion. “Do you see this, Nojo? We had to travel almost a thousand leagues before we found someone who remembers such antiquated practices as manners and respect! And a young, peasant boy at that!”
“Very interesting, Sir,” the one called Nojo said in a flat, uninterested tone.
Bathmal couldn’t see the speaker, who was still hidden behind the knight’s massive horse.
“What’s your name, boy?” the knight asked.
“Bathmal Arined, sir.”
“Well to meet you, Bathmal. My name is Sir Odon Wormor, Knight of the Order of Vorcikia—as you have already deduced—and this here,” the knight stepped his horse aside to reveal his companion, “is my loyal con-squire Nojo.”
Bathmal’s jaw dropped as he stared at the con-squire. He’d only heard of such things from stories: magical constructs that were brought to life by mysterious powers, ever protective of the knights they were sworn to serve. Like the knight and his horse, Nojo and its mount were garbed in the same copper armor, complete with half-moon helmet and champron, though theirs were much smaller than the knight’s and his warhorse.
Nojo nodded politely from the saddle.
“What brings a young lad out into the middle of this blasted tundra?” Sir Odon asked, finally breaking Bathmal’s attention away from the con-squire. “Are you a master scout? Tracking down a fugitive of the kingdom?”
Bathmal smiled at the jest. “I’m hardy that,” he said, lowering his head. “I’m just a village peasant and a bastard. I work the fields during the warm months.”
“Don’t hang your head, boy,” Sir Odon said, frowning through the open visor. “Bastard is a title you received through no merit of your own and is nothing to be ashamed of. Many a bastard have become knights, and many have become Great Knights. You earn your own titles, boy!”
Bathmal perked up a little at the mention of bastards becoming knights. His whole life he’d been told he would only be a peasant grain farmer, like his mother, nothing more—couldn’t be anything more.
“Yes, sir,” was all he could think to say.
“Is your village close, boy?” the knight asked. “It’s been leagues since I’ve had a warm meal and a bed. If I recall, there was a village not too far from here. Now, what was the name…”
“Millstand. It’s about a quarter league to the south, sir.”
“Yes! And does that little inn still stand in the village center?”
“It does,” Bathmal said. “I can take you there if you like?”
“I would be most grateful, boy!”