The Ghostly Knight of Thessa

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Ghostly KnightI watched the road from my hiding place in the linden tree.  I had an advantage over the other scribes in town when it came to finding news, for I had a friend who could travel faster than the fastest stallion, and who could stand unnoticed in the midst of a crowd.  And she was flying towards me now, glowing dimly like a wilowisp.  Juniper’s glow had a touch more green than yellow, however, for she was a sprite.

For the past fortnight, we two had been tracking the whereabouts of the mysterious rider who was said to guard the roads in and out of Thessa, a major town in the southern region.  Rumors of this shadowy guardian had drawn me to the town.  The rumors were becoming a local legend.  Yet no one thus far had even verified that the rider existed.  He wore a suit of dark armor, it was said, and sometimes he growled so thunderingly that the flesh did quiver and the bones did tremble. 

Some said the knight swung a huge mace of poisoned spikes.

Some said that he had eyes of green flame and was sent by the faere folk to watch the crossroads.

Some said he was the ghost of a knight who once lived in the region and was killed in some faraway battle and was now trying to find his way home.

Some said he appeared from nowhere and vanished mid-stride in a veil of black mist and smoke.

Some said the magistrate and chief constable had dispatched the knight to scare bandits off the Thessan roads.  Now that last rumor, if true and if I could prove it, would give me the story I needed to earn the title of Master Scribe.

I wasn’t the only one who was searching.  The knight—whether reality or rumor—had become the talk of the town.  Some considered him heroic.  For others, he was a cause for concern.  Folk did not worry so much when their little boys wore soup cans on their heads and pretended to be the knight.  But they did worry when their nearly grown sons spoke of joining the king’s army to attain knighthood.  For the rumor had started that the ghostly knight was no lord or noble but a commoner who had attained knighthood by being so fearsome in battle.  And folk did not worry so much when their little girls wondered if the knight was good and handsome.  But those with daughters of marriageable age did worry when those daughters swooned over what might lie beneath the knight’s helmet, wondered whether he be bearded or not, raven-haired or sun-haired, and if he had some lady out there waiting for him, or if he was in search of a lady to inspire him, perhaps tame him.

That same magistrate whom some suspected of sending out the knight in the first place expressed concern that if the knight was real, he was flouting the law by taking it into his own hands, for vigilantism was forbidden in the region.  Until the past week, the chief constable and the magistrate had been busy with a far more pressing matter, the murder of a prominent lord by a most unusual method, a poison that turns the body to solid stone.  The story was so important that my superior, the chief scribe, assigned only himself to tell it.  And last week, the man responsible, another lord, had been arrested and jailed.  With Lord Stephen’s body and the mystery of his murder settled, the town’s law-keepers could turn back to other matters, including the matter of the ghostly knight.

The chief constable gathered men trained in arms from among the gentry and the peasantry, to help the constabulary find out if the rumors were true, and report back to the magistrate.  For he had few enough constables to guard the town and did not wish to spare too many hunting for a man who may not even exist.  The volunteers were broken up into groups each led by a constable. Each group was to watch the roads in shifts.  I was allowed to follow them, provided I did not get in their way.

And so I found myself perched in a tree in the middle of the night with a sprite zooming toward me.  Juniper landed on my right shoulder and whispered to me what she had seen.  A group of the night watchers had found the ghostly knight.  I descended from the tree, mounted my horse, and followed her toward the sounds of a fray.

And there I saw, mounted atop a black mare, a figure in beetle-black armor, swinging a mace at several watchers.  They were trying to box the knight in.  I did not see the constable who was assigned to this group of watchers, but it seemed they had found a leader in one of the young lords.

Lord Armand unsheathed his sword and rode forward, pushing aside a few of his companions, perhaps unwisely, for the ghostly knight now had an opening through which to ride away.   The ghostly knight too had drawn a sword.  Lord Armand, like the other lords and unlike the commoners among the watchers, also wore a suit of armor.  He lowered his visor now and bore toward the knight.  Their swords clashed and I could see that the knight was making toward the opening that Lord Armand had left for him even as they fought.  When he reached the opening, the ghostly knight drew back both sword and mace and steered his horse away.

“Coward!” Lord Armand cried and he thrust his sword toward the back of the knight’s left arm.  The ghostly knight twisted away.  But the silver blade slipped between the joints of his black armor.  He pulled free and dashed away.  Lord Armand extracted a dripping red blade.  The night watchers gasped.

“He’s mortal after all,” Armand said, flourishing the bloody sword.

I turned my horse and like a few others followed the ghostly knight.  Shadows sliced through the trees around me.  The knight dove into the forest and we with him.  I felt a whip of wind past my right cheek and saw a green glow dart past me.  I smiled.  Juniper would keep up with him.  And if he vanished into some cavern or tunnel, she alone may be able to follow him.  I would keep up as best I could, and hope none of the others would find the knight before I did.

The black mare was a champion indeed.  She outrode me and from the frustrated shouts of the other watchers in the forest, she must have lost them too.  I stopped and looked around and up.  Above and ahead, I saw a glow of light.  Trusting that was Juniper, I followed.  She was flying high, so she could see the knight and I could see her.  And she was flying fast.  I pushed my steed.  He was strong and young and he seemed exhilarated by the run.  Before long we caught up to Juniper, for she had slowed, and by that I gathered that the black mare and ghostly knight had slowed.

Soon, they were within sight again.  They were walking.  I dismounted and tied my horse to a sturdy tree branch.  I watched the ghostly knight slip off his saddle, pat the black mare, and let go of her reins.  She walked slowly away and I could have sworn that as she did, she glanced our way, even though Juniper had doused her spritely glow.  The knight’s walk was unsteady, likely from the wound and the hard ride of escape.

Into a thick cover of vines and bushes, he vanished.  Juniper followed and slowly so did I.  Behind the veil of vines was a tunnel cast in pitch night.  Were it not for Juniper’s glow, I would have lost my way, for the tunnel branched off a few times.  We followed the knight as quietly as we could.  Finally, we saw a light as of torches ahead.  The knight moved toward it and we followed.  I stopped at the edge of the cavern mouth and watched.  Beyond was a large chamber of stone that had been carved and hung with torches and candles and furnished with amenities so that it appeared to be not a cave, but a chamber in the house of a noble.  There were carved stone shelves containing books, a stone table set with plates and cutlery, even a chaise lounge of red velvet with golden pillows.

The knight staggered into the middle of the chamber and dropped to his knees.  Moans and shallow breaths echoed in his helmet.  He must have been wounded worse than I first thought.  I almost moved forward to help him, but then I stopped, for the knight was removing his helmet.  And as he did, shining red hair tumbled out and I saw the face within.

Nadina!  Lady Nadina, fair and tall.  She was the ghostly knight?  She?

*****

I met her a month past, at a dinner at the chief scribe’s home, during my first week in town….

“And the Lady Nadina,” the chief scribe said, bowing to the lady.  She was introduced last and therefore must have been the most important of the four ladies who stood in a circle, one assessing me, one ignoring me, and one irritated by me.  We had not interrupted their conversation for the introductions.  We had in fact been waved over by the Lady Nadina herself, who recognized my superior as the host of the dinner.  She towered over all of us, even me by half a head, and I am taller than many men.

She smiled warmly at both of us and when she widened her eyes, they caught the light of the candles and sparkled.  Her hair was red.  It was tied up and decorated so heavily I had not noticed at first.  Her family must have come from the north then.  We were introduced and she clasped my hands.

“Then you are the one who will be telling us more tales about this maddeningly mysterious knight,” she said in a voice that was at once deep and youthful.

One of the other ladies sighed.  “You are so crass, Nadi, to be pining over some commoner knight who chases after bandits.”

Lady Nadina hooked my arm in hers and led me away from the others.  “Jared, my new friend, I would ask a favor of you.”

I was startled at her forwardness.  And charmed.

“I will grant any favor I am able to, my lady.”

“That’s wonderful.  What a sport you are!  Here.”  She slipped a kerchief from the pocket of her dress.  It was the color of evergreens and embroidered with gold and copper-colored thread to spell her initials.  “It would not be possible for me to tie my favor around the knight’s arm.  Would you give this to him should you see him?”

She laughed then and looked at me.  She had of course seen the shock on my face.  “I ask too much of you, don’t I?” she said.  “Don’t look so stricken.”  She slipped the kerchief into her pocket.  “But you’re right, we only just met.  We should become true friends before I start asking favors of you.  It’s just that I’ve read your first few stories and it seems to me that you…favor the knight.”

I frowned a little, for I endeavored, of course, to keep my personal thoughts and feelings out of the stories I wrote for the town’s main periodical, the Thessan Times.  But she was right.  Despite myself, I liked this make-believe knight whom I would likely never meet, and if I did, would likely turn out to be some kind of wretch.

Perhaps, I had thought, seeing the effect that stories and rumors could have on those who believed them, perhaps it was best if the knight remained a legend.

*****

She was the ghostly knight.  This must have been some ruse.  Perhaps she was in league with the knight and had served as a decoy for him.  Perhaps she found this armor and had donned it as a lark, a dangerous lark, but it would not be beyond the Lady Nadina to do such a bold and (forgive me) foolish thing.

There was another with her.  A small young woman dressed in healer’s garb, a white gown over her frock, her dark hair tied back and contained in a white cap.  She moved with efficient grace and sufficient force in making the lady lie down on the chaise lounge to be examined and treated.  She moved to a corner of the room and rolled over a wheeled table on which lay many instruments and bottles of the healer’s trade.

“I am in ill spirits, my friend,” Lady Nadina said.

“I am sorry to hear it, my lady.  Why ever for?”  The woman in white began to remove the black armor.

“I am to be wed.”

“Is that not a cause for celebration?”  There was much padding beneath.

“Not in this case.”  The padding beneath the right arm was soaked in blood.

“Do tell.  To whom are you to be wed?”

“To the man who drove a sword through my arm, who quite literally stabbed me in the back.”

The woman in white sighed.  “You are most forgiving.”

“Not at all.  The wedding is off.”  She paused.  “Ah, but it can’t be off, can it?  Not if other paths are blocked.”

“What will you do?”

Lady Nadina raised her unwounded left arm.  “I will do battle.”

“Oh dear.”

Lady Nadina raised herself up a bit.  “I think I can manage to remove the rest of my armor while you see to our guest, Maery.”

I felt a spike of fear in the pit of my stomach as the woman in white, Maery, looked toward the cavern opening where I stood like a fool, in full view.  Her eyes were wide with her own fear and also with readiness.  Her hand had somehow found a scalpel and was holding it out toward me.  I raised my hands and stepped into the light.

Lady Nadina beamed at me.  “Jared, you scoundrel.  Were you going to wait until she removed all my clothing?”

***

“The wound is not bleeding anymore, but I’ll have to stitch it,” Maery said.

“It hurts.”

“Chew this.”  Maery stuffed a handful of lullweed into the Lady’s mouth.

Contorting her mouth, Lady Nadina spit out the herbs and reached for the glass of water that was just a finger too far.  “What happened?  One little wound and I grow so careless that a man on a twenty-pence steed can find me?  I know it can’t be Midnight’s fault.  She was soaring as always.”

I slid the glass toward her and smiled.  “You were not careless, my lady.  I have a revelation of my own.  And as proof that I will keep your secret, I now reveal mine.”

Juniper

Juniper had been hiding in my coat collar.  She now emerged and walked onto my shoulder and glowed bright enough to outshine the torches and lanterns in the chamber.  Then she doused her light, flapped her gauzy wings, and bowed to both ladies.  She hopped off my shoulder and flew a circle around us.  I shook my head.  She was showing off for us flightless folk.

“A sprite,” the Lady whispered.  Even as her gaze followed Juniper, she waved her good arm at me.  “And you must call me Nadina.  Or Dina, or even Nadi, if you please.  Anything but ‘my lady,’ dear friend.  Anything but that.”

Juniper landed on my shoulder again and she whispered in my ear.

“She says I am rude to not have formally introduced you all.  Indeed, this is Juniper, a sprite of the western forests.  Juniper, this is Lady Nadina, though we shall respect her wishes to address her by her given name.  And this….”

“Maery,” the woman in white said, turning from the work of stitching.  She smiled at Juniper.  “It rhymes with ‘faery.’”

“You understand her language,” Nadina said.  “How?”

“To understand the language of the faere folk, my lady, all one need do is listen.”

“What a poet you are.  I’m sure it’s more involved than that.  But let’s get down to it, shall we?  I must tell you my story and beg you to keep it secret, even though I know that is not what you are here for.  You came to tell the story of the ghostly knight, not to hide it.”

“So, you are the knight.  You are not…well….”

“An imposter?  Why no.  I have been preparing a few years for this, building tunnels, building this cavern, hiring one of the best healers and alchemists in the region.”  She bowed her head to Maery.  “At the turn of the new year, when the bandits and thieves grew bolder and bolder, and I feared that they would start doing more than snatching purses of gold coins, I was ready to put my plan into action.”  She winced as Maery’s needle went into her arm.  Maery had smeared a salve on the shoulder to dull the pain.  I marveled that the Lady would allow me to see her bare shoulder even in the presence of a chaperone.  But I was a scribe.  And I must become accustomed to witnessing the outrageous and the extraordinary.

“Now, I am trained to fight,” Lady Nadina continued, “and I am stronger than the average woman, stronger perhaps than a few men, but I’m no fool.  It takes all my strength just to wear this armor, breathe in it, ride in it.  I swing a mace, because it is fearsome and I rarely have to use it.  I’ve used Maery’s talents as a healer and alchemist to create illusions that are easily seen through by those in their right minds, but just easily believed by those who are scared out of their wits.  Smoke from chemicals.  Reeds that produce a thundering growl.  I made sure only to ‘attack’ those bandits who would be the most scared, who would spread my legend.  Maery and I spread rumors through the town.  I wanted to create a legend of a protector that would serve to discourage the criminals that roamed our roads.  And I made sure to stay out of the town, so that the chief constable and magistrate would not have to officially do anything about me.  Once the legend was established, I planned to stop.  I didn’t really do much actual good.”

“Ha!” Maery said.  “The one time you should boldly proclaim your deeds you do not.  Of course she did much good.  She chased off a fair number of bandits and the last time she drew that sword, she disarmed that thuggish ogre that led the thieves at the north gate.”

“Come to think of it, he may have been an actual ogre.”

Maery laughed, then frowned and returned to concentrating on her work.

“My plans were to pack away the armor and perhaps only use it now and then to maintain the legend.  That changed after Lord Stephen was murdered.  I’m sure you know the story.  He was found in his bed, turned completely to stone.  It was thought a prank or joke perhaps.  Or perhaps the statue was left by kidnappers who would soon demand a ransom.  But the constable’s alchemists confirmed that the stone body was once flesh and blood, belonging to Lord Stephen.  He had no sons, no brothers, no family at all to speak of, and so he named his closest friend as the heir to his fortune and titles.  And do you know who that heir was?”

I did know, and I took a deep breath in the awkward knowledge.

“My father,” Nadina said, growing pale.  “And for that fact alone, he was deemed guilty of this murder.  No evidence was found.  No vial of stone poison in my father’s study.  No accounts of ill feelings or quarrels between my father and Lord Stephen.  Moreso, my father told me that Lord Stephen had revealed to him that he had a wasting sickness.  His healers had not given him more than a year or so to live.  My father has spent the last several months trying to find a healer, an apothecary, an alchemist, a magician, anyone who might help Lord Stephen.”

“But the chief scribe said there was something that was found—“

“A dagger.  My father’s dagger.  It was found in Lord Stephen’s chamber, with dried blood on the blade.  The blood could be anyone’s of course.  But the constable’s alchemist found traces of stone poison on the blade.  It is a rare and expensive poison.”

“Do you believe the real murderer left the blade there to fool the law-keepers?”

“I don’t believe.  I know.  I also suspect who the real murderer is and I’m certain the ghostly knight could…persuade him to confess.  Or I was certain, before today’s fiasco.  They’ve seen me bleed now.”

“You meant to scare him, the real murderer, into confessing?”

“One thing I learned about Armand when we were courting, he’s afraid of ghosts.”

So, she thought the Lord Armand was the murderer.  I remembered now, a detail of the story of Lord Stephen’s murder.

“The stone body, there was a smear of white at his neck.”

Lady Nadina nodded.  “The ward against ghosts.”

“I found it an odd detail.  I wondered what it meant.”

“The simplest conjecture is that it was meant to ward against ghosts.”

I frowned.

“Oh no!”  It was Maery.  She was staring at the wound on Nadina’s shoulders, her needle hovering.  “Oh no,” she said again.  She turned to her table and set the needle down.

“That’s not encouraging, Maery.  I am not encouraged.”

I rose and stepped toward them.  “What is it?”

Maery picked up a thin wooden shaft that looked like a matchstick, only there was a bulb of cotton at the end.  She swept the bulb over and around the wound on Nadina’s shoulder.

Nadina tried to turn.  “What are you doing?”

“I thought you were biased by your feelings toward him.  He’s a nasty one, but surely not a murderer,” Maery said as she placed the stick on a metal tray and lifted up another.  “But you were right.”  She began to mix some chemicals from the bottles on the table.

I looked at Nadina’s wound.  It had stopped bleeding.  Maery had not finished stitching the last inch or so of the gash, but the stitching and the wound and the flesh around the wound were all gray and slightly pitted and veined with small cracks.

“Oh no,” I said.

Nadina shifted.  “I feel I must begin to worry.”

Her face was so pale.  There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I thought of how I might tell her.

“You’ve been poisoned,” Maery said.  “Before I finished stitching, the flesh began hardening.”  She lifted the thread that she had not tied off.  She pulled and the part of it that had hardened to stone broke off.  Nadina took the thread and looked at it.

“The sword,” Nadina said, looking up at me, her eyes wide.  “The sword he used to wound me.  You must find it.  If you find it, we can prove he is Lord Stephen’s killer.  At the very least we can prove that he is my killer.”

“Not if I don’t let you die!” Maery said.

“Fine, my attacker then.”  She swallowed and winced.

“It would mean you would have to reveal yourself,” I said.

“So be it, let the magistrate throw me in jail.  Come a few days, I’ll be the newest piece of statuary in the jailhouse gardens.  We should put the armor back on me and paint it gray.  Better a gargoyle than a flower maiden.”

“Do not speak so!” Maery said.  She put her hands to her head and sighed heavily.  She took another deep breath and frowned at Nadina.  “Sit down,” she ordered.  “The poison is spreading in your blood.  The first thing I must do is slow its spread.”

“Are you saying you would rather be a flower maiden?”

“Stop talking, Nadina.”

The Lady obediently fell silent and lay down on the chaise lounge.  She looked terrified and Maery probably knew she needed to jest to keep herself from feeling afraid.  But Maery could not be distracted by jests.

“How long do we have to stop this?” I asked Maery.

“I don’t know.  Lord Stephen was alone for the better part of a day.  We may have a day, likely less.”

“I’m of no use here,” I said.  “Juniper and I will do as you asked, Nadina.  We’ll find that sword and bring it back.”

“No, if you find it, lead the constable to it.  He was fool enough to use his own sword on me.  But I don’t want him claiming that you or someone else tampered with it.”

Maery turned to me, bottles in both hands.  “The good news is that the gentry became afraid after Lord Stephen’s death.  They paid for the manufacture of many an anti-petrum for the stone poison.”

“Do any of them work?”

Maery shook her head.  “I don’t know.  But I will have to leave her here so I can go into town and purchase some.”

“Don’t worry, you two.  If I die while you’re gone it won’t be your fault that I die alone.  Only bring me justice and bring my father freedom.”

Maery turned to me, a tear slipping from one eye, and she nodded.  Juniper flew to Nadina’s ear and whispered there.  Nadina closed her eyes and then she laughed gently.

***

It felt as if I had lived a few days in that cavern, so I was surprised to find that when Juniper and I carefully crept back out into the forest, less than an hour had passed.  My horse was still where I’d left him, and he wasn’t yet hungry or thirsty.  When we rode back toward the meeting place of the night watchers, there were still men wandering about the forest, watching.  I looked around for Lord Armand and soon saw him.  There was a sword at his hip.  But it was not the same sword.  The hilt was different.  I looked about at all the men.  He must have traded swords with someone loyal to him.  I wondered why he had risked using the stone poison in the first place.  He was reckless.  The way he had gone after the ghostly knight, after Nadina, breaking the barrier his men had made around her, giving her the opening she needed to escape, all so he could glory in wounding the knight.  He seemed to have some personal malice toward the knight.  It may have been nothing more than mere jealousy.  I had thought Nadina fancied the ghostly knight before I knew she was the knight.

It took me a few moments, but I realized that one of the night watchers was missing.  And it was one of Armand’s hangers-on.  Under the pretense of concern, I asked a few of the watchers who were not with Armand if they had seen the man.  I found out the man had headed further east.  Juniper silently slipped out of my coat collar and darted eastward.

It was a victory for Armand, I thought, as we rode back toward the town.  Dawn was coming.  He had wounded the ghostly knight and shown all the watchers that the knight could bleed.  Word would spread.  There was no need for Armand to prove the fact by showing the bloody sword.  He could be rid of it.  His enemy was surely turning to stone somewhere, and Armand was surely planning to find him.  All the way back to the town, he told the constable in charge of their group (whom I suspected Armand had paid to stay out of the fight) that they should hunt down the knight now that he was wounded, but he insisted they wait till nightfall.  That was as long as Nadina had to live.

***

Juniper found the man that Armand had sent off with his sword.  In certain less-traveled areas within the forest are bogs and marshes.  It was to such that Juniper followed the man.  She watched but could not stop him as he tossed the sword into a marsh.  She led me back to the marsh.  The crisp rays of the morning sun were dulled by the fog and the dark-leaved trees surrounding the marsh.  The air was humid and heavy.  And the marsh waters were not inviting.

Nevertheless, I sat down and started removing my boots, but Juniper flitted over the marsh and plunked into the opaque waters.  Before I could wonder if she were strong enough to lift up a sword or how long a sprite could hold her breath, she erupted from the marsh water with a tiny splash.  She shook herself off, and floated toward me, emitting a puff of sparkly dust.  The scent of fresh pine pierced through the stagnant marsh-smell.

The sword had already sunk too deep for me to retrieve it.  She had not seen it, but she had spoken to a marsh man who had.  My heart withered.  I looked over the still waters.  Marsh dwellers were faere folk, like sprites.  But I had heard some chilling tales about marsh dwellers who dragged people under the water for what seemed the lightest of offenses.  The marsh man told Juniper that the sword was poisoned and did not belong in the marsh.  Juniper told him that if he would fetch it for them, they would take it away and bring punishment upon those who had thrown it in the marsh.  I had doubts, but she seemed confident he would help us, and she entreated me to wait.

After several moments, something bubbled in the marsh, and the mucky hilt of a sword peeked over the surface near us.  I sloshed over to retrieve it, terrified that the marsh man would decide to punish me for the crime of my fellows and drag me down.  But I never saw him.  I felt someone or something release the sword even as I took hold of it.  I saw the sword was now washed of the blood.  I wrapped it in a rag and called out a thanks to the marsh dwellers.

***

We rode as fast as we could back to the lair of the ghostly knight.  And Juniper guided me through the dark tunnels.  I moved slowly, afraid of what I would find.  Nadina still lay on the chaise lounge.  Maery had dressed her in a white frock with no sleeves.

The left side of Nadina’s body was stone.  Granite crept up her neck.  Maery was on her knees beside the lounge, bent over the body of her friend.  Her shoulders and back moved up and down, as if with heaving cries.  I approached slowly, holding my breath.  She heard me and turned.  There were tears coursing down her cheeks, cheeks puffed up in a smile.  She was laughing.

“It’s working,” she said.

“You scared death into me,” I said, relieved.  “Are you sure?”

Maery nodded.  “She was worse when I arrived.  She stopped breathing.  She’s breathing now.  But when she wakes, I don’t know if she will be herself.”

“When she wakes, she’ll want to know that we freed her father.”  I pulled out the sword.  “I know it’s not what she instructed, but I couldn’t wait for the constable.  It was in a marsh.  The blood is all washed away.  I don’t know if the poison has been as well.”

“I can check, but the sword is useless to us now.  Armand can always say he lost it, and you found it and put the poison on it.  And furthermore, if you have the stone poison, perhaps you are the murderer.”

He could have said such things anyway.  He could have said someone stole his sword and used it against him.  Who among the dozen men who saw what really happened would speak against him.  I looked at the still-sleeping Nadina. The stone was fading far too slowly.  She was alive, but would she wake?

I turned to Maery.  “I have an idea,” I said.  “A diabolical one.”

Maery looked at Nadina.  “She would like that.”

***

I waited till the deep of night.  Nadina was still sleeping when I’d left the cavern.  The armor was extraordinary.  It was heavier than I thought it would be, and I marveled that Nadina could bear its weight.  But it made no creaks or rattles as I crept into the bedchamber.  There was a sheer cream curtain around his bed.  He was not on watch tonight.  There was a sword was by his side.  I tied a thin wire around the hilt and put it back in place.  He must have been deep in sleep to not notice me, even quiet as I was being.  I pulled the visor of the helmet down and positioned myself at the foot of his bed, as death does in the old dirges.  I raised his sword, still coated with a thin layer of stone poison.  When the tower bell rang for the midnight hour, I began dragging the blade across the iron railings of his bed.

Armand woke and bolted upright.

“Who’s there?” he said.

I didn’t see his features clearly past the curtain, but in my malice, I imagined terror on his face.

“Don’t you know me, murderer?”  I sounded like a bear speaking from the depths of a vaulted cavern.

Sweat formed on my temples.  How loud I sounded in the silence of deep night.  If I woke anyone else before I was finished….

Armand gave no answer.  For one mangled moment, I doubted my plan.  I imagined him realizing the ruse, taking up the sword by his side, and piercing me with it.  Was it too, covered in poison?

“Speak, murderer.”

“Wh…what, what do you want?”  His voice was breathless.

“Confession.”

He had enough wits about him to reach for his sword.  I raised my arm and hoped he did not see the thin wire connected to my wrist.  It pulled at the wire around the hilt of his sword, and the sword flew out of his weak grip.

I threw his sword, the poisoned one, at his feet.  “Here,” I said.  “Use this one.”

“You…who are you?”

I slid my visor up even as Juniper, who was in the helmet with me, brightened her glow.  I parted the diaphanous curtain.  Armand shrunk back.  I saw his face now.  Terror.  Juniper made my face look like green fire.  And from the joints of the armor came a black mist.  Armand flinched and his wide eyes bulged.  He made signs of warding, warding against ghosts.

“I am the unburied, the unmourned, and the unmarked,” I said.  I lifted my arm and touched my hand to my throat.

Armand understood the gesture.

“Confess, or I will haunt you every night until I tire of it.  And then I will strike you down.”

At this, I trusted my plan and Juniper.  I closed my eyes and raised my arms and threw out the little devices I had in each hand.  Through my shut eyes I sensed a brilliant flash of light erupt from the room.  Juniper guided me out of the room.

Armand began screaming.

***

Light bloomed in other windows.  And the barking of dogs joined the sound of screaming.  I had not expected such hysteria.   I scrambled into the hedges lining the front courtyard and watched.  Several minutes later, faces were peering out at the courtyard as a drowsy servant sent a rider off.  By the mid-hour, the constables appeared at the gate.  I stayed and watched, because I wondered if he would come to his senses, believe it was a dream, and send the constables off with apologies.  But that is not what happened.  The constables came out of the front doors, holding Armand, who first writhed then wilted in their grasp.  They placed him into their carriage, and after him, his sword.

It was not yet over.  Armand might yet change his mind or confess and then recant.  I was prepared to do what I had threatened to do.  It was not honest.  It was not just.  But if I had to, I would haunt him forevermore.  Or rather, the ghostly knight would.

***

Nadina was awake when I returned to the cavern with a nod to Maery.  And thank all good things in the world, the Lady was herself.  Her first words to Maery had been some half-garbled jest about how heaven looked very much like the cavern of the ghostly knight.  I told her what I had done.  And now that she was awake, I hoped she would not be angry, for she was such a self-sufficient woman.  But she looked taken aback at my story.  She held one of Maery’s hands and one of mine.

“I owe you more than my life, my friends.  And it is my honor to have been saved by you.”

I felt a feathery brush of warmth on my cheek.  I looked to my right and saw Juniper fly toward Maery’s cheek, then Nadina’s.  The kisses of a sprite were considered good luck.

Juniper zigzagged around Nadina’s face, her movement making the Lady’s eyes appear to sparkle.  She alighted on her shoulder near her ear.  She spoke to Nadina, and I couldn’t make out the whispery words.  Nadina raised her hand to her shoulder.  Juniper hopped onto it and perched on her first two fingers like a butterfly.

Later that morning, we went to the constabulary under pretense of another appeal to see Nadina’s father.  We were told that Armand was being questioned in the chief constable’s office.  We sat outside at a distance, lest Armand see her.  Nadina was still weak, and despite a night’s sleep, her head kept drooping onto my shoulder and then on Maery’s shoulder and then mine again.  When the door to the chief constable’s offices opened, Maery shook her gently to wake her.

The constables pulled out a shackled Armand, his face pale and his head lowered.  Nadina watched him and I watched her.  There was no malice, sadness, or judgment in her unblinking eyes.  Were her face a contortion of wrath and promised pain, it would have been less frightening.  I hoped, for Armand’s sake, that he would forget her and her family and never trouble them again.  The constables dragged him away in the direction of the jails.

The chief constable himself approached us then.  And Nadina stood on shaky legs that were solid stone just the day before.  Maery supported her on one side; I on the other.  Juniper was in Nadina’s collar.  As the chief constable spoke, as he gave life to her dream, as he fulfilled her wish, Nadina wept and smiled.

The news spread that day.  At the inn, in the tavern, on the streets, the townsfolk chattered about the exciting events that had befallen the town in the past few weeks.  Only one household refrained.  Around their table I sat, and Maery sat next to me.  And Nadina sat next to her father.  This household, In thanks for the return of a lost member, spoke not of yesterday or today, but only of tomorrow.

As for the ghostly knight, some say he yet protects the roads to and from Thessa.

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel

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