Read The Last Knight Online

Authors: Hilari Bell

Tags: #Humorous Stories, #Action & Adventure, #Royalty, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #General, #Knights and knighthood, #Fantasy, #Young adult fiction, #Historical, #Fiction

The Last Knight

BOOK: The Last Knight
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The Last Knight
 

A Knight and Rogue Novel

 
Hilari Bell
 

To Aunt Temple and Uncle Bill,
who’ve supported my books from the start

C
HAPTER
1
 
Fisk
 

T
o say it was a dark and stormy night would be a gross understatement. It was colder than a witch’s kiss, wetter than a spring swamp, and blacker than a tax collector’s heart. A sane man would have been curled up in front of a fire with a cup of mulled wine and a good boo—, ah, a willing wench. But not me. I was out in it. I’m squire to a hero.

At least the downpour that had drenched us all afternoon was now beginning to slacken. The Green Moon hadn’t risen, but the Creature Moon was high enough to glow dimly through the churning clouds, shedding just enough light for me to watch the damsel being lowered from the tower. Not that I could see her well, with the rain splattering into my eyes whenever I looked up; she was only a dim shape of swirling skirts and hair, dangling from a knotted rope.

Sir Michael, my employer, had tied those knots to make handholds for the climb down. He was inside the tower now, slowly releasing the rope. The woman bounced when the knots slid over the windowsill, but the lady had the sense to brace her feet against the tower. She was doing all right.

But if she slipped and set up a screech, or if anything alerted the guards, who were currently dicing on the tower’s ground floor, I was going to take Tipple and ride off as fast as I could. Tipple was the faster and sounder of the two horses I was “guarding,” and even she wouldn’t be able to move quickly in this much mud. I had seen enough of my employer, in the one week we’d known each other, to be certain he’d put up a good enough fight to delay them while I escaped.

I had suggested hiring a nice dry carriage…but even if he’d agreed, Sir Michael would have expected me to drive it.

When Sir Michael first told me he’d take me as his squire (this was after he’d told me he was a knight errant, and I’d asked if his keepers knew he was out), he said that all proper knights errant had trusty squires behind them.

Shaken as I was at the time, I still had the sense to refrain from saying that “behind him” was where I intended to stay. Looking after lunatics isn’t a job I fancy—but then, I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

This is the modern age. Knights errant have been extinct for over two hundred years, and even when they existed, errantry wasn’t what you’d call a practical profession. I’d outgrown that kind of romantic idiocy before I was ten, but looking at his calm face, I realized that Sir Michael—a full year older than my own seventeen—was perfectly serious.

He’d done a better job getting into the tower than I had expected—crazy people must have an advantage when it comes to doing crazy things. The rain-slick ruins of the keep provided a treacherous but manageable staircase that stopped just short of the third-floor window where Sir Michael had entered the tower. The only tricky part was climbing the last ten feet of sheer stone to the third floor. It took him four tries. A woman climbing down never could have done it.

The tower’s upper windows were dark, which meant there were probably no guards on the upper floors. The lady’s steward had warned us, several times, what would happen if the guards caught us.

But the lady was now only twenty feet from the ground and no alarm had sounded.

Who had bothered to maintain this old tower, and why? It had no use that I could see, except as a prison. Even if the noble who owned the manor at the foot of the hill was trying to wed a spectacularly Gifted young widow by force, he still wouldn’t need a prison often enough to make preserving the tower worthwhile.

Gifts may pass from a woman to her children of either sex, but no man, no matter how great his own Gifts, will pass them on to his descendants. Because of this, Gifted women are sometimes forced into marriage—though these days the force usually consists of gold roundels applied to the pockets of the woman’s male relations. But the ragged old man with the missing foot had sworn that he was steward to a lady who was being held prisoner in the tower, and here she was, coming down on the rope.

Sir Michael had worried that she might have been dosed with aquilas, which is frequently used to subdue abducted damsels. That could have slowed down our escape, but nothing had hindered matters so far.

She was less than ten feet from the ground now, so it was time for me to do something.

I checked Chanticleer’s and Tipple’s tethers—though being bright beasts they showed no sign of wanting to leave the shelter of the crumbling wall—and walked carefully through the slippery mud to the tower’s base.

The lady’s long, dark hair no longer swirled, but clung to her head in much the same way the bodice of her dress clung to her figure. An admirable figure, but it didn’t keep me from noticing that she had pulled back one dainty foot to kick me in the face. Her expression was a mixture of fear, determination, and misery, but determination came out on top.

I stopped, well out of range, and murmured, “It’s me, Fisk, his squire. So don’t kick me, all right?”

“His
what
?” she whispered. The rope jerked and she bounced downward. Her descent had looked smoother from a distance. Or perhaps Sir Michael was getting tired.

I stepped forward warily, and caught her in my arms as the rope slackened. “It’s a long story.”

Her amused, rain-wet face was attractive, if you like strong, even features better than soft prettiness. Me, I like both, but the willful glint in her eyes was enough to warn any sensible man.

I set her down and began untying the harness knotted around her waist and thighs.

She tried to help, but her hands were too cold. She was soaked to the skin, so offering my cloak—which was almost soaked through—would have been stupid, if chivalrous. I
was
going to offer her a blanket from our pack, but the moment the knots came loose, she grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the horses. “Come on! We’ve got to get out of here.”

Sheer surprise froze me in my tracks.
I
had been willing to desert Sir Michael at the first sign of trouble, but I hadn’t expected the damsel we were rescuing to share that attitude. Maybe she was too frightened to think clearly.

When I didn’t move, she dropped my arm and squished toward the horses by herself. I got there first.

“We have to wait for him,” I hissed.

She didn’t look frightened. She glared at me.

I glared back, glad that I was bigger and stronger than she was. Well, stronger anyway—she was a tallish woman and I am only of middle height. She certainly hadn’t been dosed with aquilas, or anything else. I was beginning to regret that.

She saw that I wasn’t backing down and turned away, folding her arms around herself. She was shivering. I didn’t offer her a blanket.

We both looked up.

Sir Michael was only a third of the way down. Like the lady, he used his feet against the tower, but then the wind caught his cloak and spun him into the wall with a smack that made me flinch. Dice games tend to be noisy, thank goodness, and the tower walls were thick, but even so…

Sir Michael wrapped his feet around the rope and stood on one of the knots. It occurred to me, as I watched him sway, that if he was hurt it was all over, because I was
not
going to try to climb that rope.

Maybe he was resting his arms. He had already climbed a tower wall and lowered a woman. Then his cloak swirled out, and I saw he had unfastened the clasp. He flung it away, and the wind carried it over the wall into darkness. It couldn’t have fallen far—if his cloak was as wet as mine it must weigh half a stone—but I wasn’t about to go after it.

Chanticleer looked up too, nostrils flaring as he caught his master’s scent. My heart lurched, for there was a reason Sir Michael had named his big gray gelding after a rooster. “A neigh that would rouse the dead” was how he phrased it. It would certainly rouse the tower guard.

The lady’s eyes widened in alarm, but she didn’t seem to have any bright ideas either. If it had been day I would have slapped the horse’s muzzle. Chant wasn’t magica—both the Green and the Furred Gods be thanked. But with the small, tan Creature Moon glinting through the clouds, striking any animal was a bad idea. Riding after dark, on a mud-slick road, all kinds of things could go wrong.

Instead, I wrapped the corner of my cloak around Chanticleer’s nose. I was only trying to muffle the sound, but my cloak distracted the beast from any thought of calling to his master as he tried to unwrap himself. By the time we finished wrestling, Sir Michael was halfway down the rope.

He descended slowly now, stopping to rest several times. He tried, once, to use his legs on the rope, but the wind thumped him against the wall so hard he almost lost his grip. So he had to go down hand over hand, and he almost made it. He was only twelve feet from the ground when his grip gave out, and he fell into the mud with a liquid splat.

Fortunately, the mud was quite deep. I picked my way over to him. “Are you all right, Noble Sir?”

Mud coated his shoulder-length, light brown hair and splattered his mildly handsome face. He blinked dazedly. Then sense returned to his eyes and with it a blazing excitement.

“Fi,” he gasped. “Um fi.” Sir Michael lifted a filthy hand and I hauled him to his feet. Grabbing my arm, he staggered toward the horses. About halfway there he quit leaning on me and his breathing steadied.

The woman had untethered both beasts, but she had waited for us instead of mounting and galloping off, as I’d half expected. It hadn’t worried me—I’d figured she’d take Chanticleer, who was bigger and better-looking than Tipple, and we’d catch her easily when he came up lame.

As it was, no one went galloping off. Sir Michael, after a glance at the quiet tower, took the time to drag a couple of blankets out of our packs—one for her, one for him. I winced when the blanket fell over his filthy shoulders, since the job of washing it would no doubt fall to me.

He mounted Chanticleer, and I assisted the lady into the saddle in front of him with an inelegant, but effective, boost to the buttocks. Then I mounted Tipple and we set off at a brisk walk, which was the fastest pace practical in the dark and mud.

The rain had stopped, but the skittering breeze found every gap in my damp clothing, making me grateful for Tipple’s neck, where I warmed first one hand and then the other.

The grayish globe of the Green Moon had now risen and we could see the road well enough to avoid the rocks, though some of the potholes still surprised us. Sir Michael might have been right not to rent a carriage, but the sharp wind was sufficiently annoying to keep me from admitting it.

He was explaining to the lady that we couldn’t go faster because Chanticleer had a bad leg.

“…not truly bad, but he’ll come up lame if I ride him too hard. And with the Creature Moon showing that wouldn’t be advisable, would it?”

If I read him right, Sir Michael wouldn’t override a horse even if the Furred God had never existed.

The lady frowned. “Why ride such a poor beast at all?”

“He wishes it,” Sir Michael told her. “He’d been put out to pasture and was pining to go. Every time another horse went out he’d neigh most pathetically. So when I set off on my errantry I took him, and he’s been a true and faithful companion.”

“I’d have thought a…a knight errant would have a magic horse.” The lady spoke cautiously, like someone humoring a lunatic.

Sir Michael was sane enough to understand how crazy he appeared to others. He grinned and replied practically, “If I’d taken one of the magica, my father would have taken it back. Don’t worry, Chant will get us there.”

“And where is ‘there’?” the lady asked. “I’m grateful for my rescue, but I’d like to know where we’re going.” She was trying to sound soft and damsel-like, but there was a distinct edge in her voice.

“We’re taking you to your steward,” Sir Michael told her. “He’s the one who told us of your plight.”

Every muscle in the lady’s body relaxed. “Hackle.” She was smiling—the first genuine smile I’d seen on her face.

“Hackle?” asked Sir Michael.

“My steward. And a true friend. Just as your squire”—her lips twitched—“must be to you.”

Sir Michael glanced at me, and I tried to look loyal and true. It’s not an expression with which I’ve had much practice.

“Perhaps. Someday,” he murmured.

Over my corpse.
I might be trapped in this mess now, but I planned to take my leave of this mad “knight errant”—at the first moment I could manage it without getting every sheriff in the realm on my tail.

Sir Michael and the lady had gone on to talk about horses. I’ve noticed that nobles use the topic of horses the way farmers use weather or townsmen taxes—an instant common interest.

Having no interest in the subject myself, I concentrated on finding the shallower stretches of mud. Tipple may be spotted like a jester’s britches, but she’s a sensible beast and was happy to cooperate. Sir Michael had rescued her from a drunken carter, who was beating her for putting him into a ditch. She was drunk too at the time, a habit Sir Michael blames on the carter. Having known the little mare a week, I believe she has a natural inclination toward the vice. She’s fine as long as you keep her away from beer. Sir Michael was using her as a packhorse until he needed a mount for me.

As we neared the Halloway River the woods gave way to fallow fields, so it was surprising when a quiet voice hailed us from a thicket beside the road.

The lady started, but relaxed again when her steward rode out of the brush.

Eight hard-faced men followed him. Their cloaks didn’t match, which was odd for men in the same service. If they were trying to disguise themselves, they were doing a good job of it—their armor didn’t match either. Most men-at-arms wore breastplates, bracers, light helms, and maybe some chain mail over their joints. These men all had helms, but some wore plain leather bracers, while some were studded with metal, and their breastplates had the same random look about them. What’s the difference between a bandit and a man-at-arms? Men-at-arms get paid on Skinday—bandits get paid every day.

Under his cloak, the steward wore the same ragged doublet in which he’d first approached us.

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