Authors: J. K. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Historical, #Fantasy
a novel of the Forest Knights
J. K. Swift
Published by UE Publishing Co.
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Copyright© 2011 by J. K. Swift
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Chris Ryan, collecula
Edited by Vincent Hillier
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission from the author.
Many people made my trips to Switzerland and Austria a true pleasure, but I would especially like to thank Peter and Akiko Huber for their kind hospitality. Also to Maya Huber and Thomas Hildebrand, thank you for dragging me through the hills of the Bernese Alps and sharing so many wonderful dinners together. And to Alex Jarosch and Lina Hedinsdottir, thank you for opening up your home to us. Some day I promise to write something where the Austrians are not the bad guys.
For Phyllis and Roy: a mother who read to me every night, and a father never too busy to cut a piece of wood or plastic pipe into whatever I could imagine. Some children never have a chance, but a few have it all.
And for Sonja, my muse, who saves me from myself everyday.
Be it known to everyone, that the people of the Dale of Uri, the Community of Schwyz, as also the men of the mountains of Unterwald, in consideration of evil times, have full confidently bound themselves, and sworn to help each other with all their power and might, against all who shall do violence to one or any of them.
That is our Ancient Bond.
Excerpt from the
Pact of the Eidgenossen
(Oathbound), August 1291
Signed somewhere deep in the forests of modern day Switzerland
HAT WILL you do with all this coin?” Foulques de Villaret, Knight Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John asked as he dropped two large bags on the slab-carved table worn smooth from years of use.
The village hall in Schwyz was small, but had a peaked roofline and thick post and beam framework that slotted into itself seamlessly. Although simple, it gave off an aura of permanence. The builders had left the interior walls plain and unadorned, yet so much care had gone into selecting the best natural materials from the surrounding forest that only the finest of tapestries could have improved the simple décor.
The room could accommodate fifty villagers standing shoulder to shoulder, but today it held only five. One woman and three men sat behind the long trestle table at the front of the hall. The villagers were all younger than forty, but those years had not been kind. Their clothing of worn, homespun wool and brown callused hands marked them as farmers, while their knobby limbs and sunken eyes hinted at a hard existence in a densely forested land too mountainous to be tamed by ploughs.
The woman did not look at the heavy bags in front of her. She stared at the young knight, her hard eyes searching his face, daring him to judge her or the men who sat at her side.
“We mean to buy animals for our people. Sheep, goats, pigs. Maybe a few oxen. We hope it will give us enough to breed more stock,” she said.
Foulques de Villaret shook his head. He was a powerfully built man wearing a black surcoat with a large white cross on his chest; a thigh-length chainmail hauberk glistened beneath. As the white cross contrasted against his black clothing, so too did his ice-blue eyes jump out against a mass of wild hair and a full beard of darkness.
“You could buy much more than a few beasts with that gold. Perhaps you should count it and make sure the sum.”
The woman’s husband, a gangly man, shifted on his hard stool and exhaled. He stroked the ridge of his brow with his thumbs as he fixed an unfocused gaze on the bags of coin.
“There is no need,” he said. “You are a Hospitaller Knight and our people are poor. Your Order’s oath to care for the poor and sick is the very reason we chose your brethren over the other orders fighting in the Holy Lands. We believe you mean to honor that oath and treat with us fairly. Did you know, Sir Foulques, the Templar Knights offered half again the number of coins before us?”
De Villaret nodded and corrected him. “
Foulques. I relinquished my title and possessions when I joined the Order.”
Just as the Templars kept an ever-watchful eye on their rivals the Hospitallers, there was not much the Knights of Saint John did not know about the Templars’ activities. In the war against the Saracen infidels in Outremer, a world away across the Mid-Earth Sea, de Villaret had been witness to more suffering and cruelty than most sane men could bear. But flesh and blood enemies were not to blame for the pain etched in these villagers’ faces.
Yes, the Austrian ruling family, the Habsburgs, taxed these lands to help support their armies scattered throughout Europe, but the land was so poor it contributed no more than a pittance to the treasury. The real hardships came from the land itself. Carving farmland out of the forested mountain slopes only resulted in stunted crops that struggled through the long winters and short growing season to a single harvest, if any.
De Villaret felt the woman’s eyes on him, searching, assessing. Attempting by force of will alone to draw out and reveal his innermost flaws, picking at them like a loose thread to see if he would unravel. Was he a man to be trusted? He shifted his weight, his black hair bunching about his shoulders, and addressed the villagers seated before him, making a conscious effort to look at the woman as he spoke.
“It is not a simple thing you do, but rest assured you have chosen wisely in putting your faith in my order, and in God.”
The woman stood so quickly her chair shot out behind her and toppled to the floor, causing everyone to jump, including the young knight.
“Desperation is not faith,” she said, leveling a thin finger at de Villaret. “We put no faith in you or your kind—only in our own people.” She jerked her head towards the door, her eyes never leaving his face. “Go now, before we come to our senses.”
Upon becoming a Knight of the Order of Saint John, besides taking vows of chastity and poverty, de Villaret had sworn to accept the poor as his Lords. But being born into a noble French family, he was unaccustomed to being dismissed by a peasant, nevertheless a woman. He hesitated and looked to the other men. Their downward cast eyes told him who held sway in these lands.
He willed his clenched hands to unfold.
It mattered not. He had what he wanted. He bowed his head, ever so slightly, and without a word strode to the exit, his chainmail making a metallic rustle. He threw open the door and stepped out into the summer’s early morning light.
The quiet was disconcerting, unnatural, for it should have been deafening.
Spread before him, overflowing the town square, were five hundred children lined up in flawless marching formation. They varied in age from five to thirteen-years-old. All orphans or second sons sold by their families or villages. Fifteen of de Villaret’s fellow Hospitallers, knights clad in the same black surcoats and cloaks, and grizzled sergeant men-at-arms dressed in brown, all with white crosses displayed on the chest, were interspersed amongst the orderly group. The few men stood out like giants as they were head and shoulders above even their tallest charges.
Without a backwards glance into the village hall, de Villaret strode to take his place at the front of the column, next to a knight leading a string of pack mules, aware with every step that the woman’s eyes were still locked upon him. Burning, boring deep into his being.
The column began its long winding journey toward Saint Gotthard’s Pass. It was the fastest route de Villaret could take to cross the treacherous Alps, jagged abominations the Devil himself had placed in the middle of Europe in his continuous efforts to divide faithful Christians. Eventually, God willing, they would descend into northern Italia, and make their way to Genoa and the shores of the Mid-Earth Sea. There, he would load his new charges onto ships and set sail for the Holy Land.
He glanced over his shoulder and took in his army of children stretched along the narrow road as far as the eye could see. These were no common slaves he had purchased. Every child was dressed in a new cloak and laden with the best traveling gear their families or villages could afford. Although, in most cases, that accounted for little more than an eating knife and a walking stick, perhaps new shoes for some. The children were still fresh and bore the difficulties of the road well. But that would change soon enough.
May the Good Lord protect us all.
IKE SHEPHERDS FROM HELL, the demons drove their flock of evil spirits and twisted minions over the Alps far into the valleys below, spreading disease, insanity, and chaos. The only warning of their approach was the
, a warm, dry wind that preceded the horde’s arrival. It was not superstition or myth to the locals, but simply an event that occurred a scattering of times every year, and the föhn in the late winter of 1314 was longer and warmer than any could remember.