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Paladins II: Knight Moves

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Paladins II: Knight Moves

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Author: Joel Rosenberg
Publisher: Baen, 2006
Series: Mordred's Heirs: Book 2

1. Paladins
2. Paladins II: Knight Moves

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Every schoolboy knows the history: in the twelfth century, Mordred the Great defeated his father. King Arthur - known as "Arthur the Tyrant"--and founded the Pendragon Empire. Now, half a millenium later, the Empire's flag flies over much of Europe, Asia, and the New World, ably defended by the knights of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon, who carry swords, each containing the soul of someone of great power. These are no ordinary swords, for a single red sword can defeat an army or leave a city in flaming ruins.

But now, as if manipulated by some unseen masterminds, supernatural menaces are threatening the empire. This time, even the knights and their swords of power may not be enough to hold back the forces of darkness....

".... the seafaring action is convincing and detailed, the characters are appealing.... [Readers] should be well satisfied with the promise of more tales to come."


The Knights and the Night

At least his feet had started hurting again.

It could have been worse, Edward thought. No matter how bad things were, they could always get worse. That was a simple fact of life, and he should be used to that by now, particularly on this cold, horrid night.

Pain was certainly safer than the numbness that had overtaken them the last time that Fat Harold had called for a break. Cold was dangerous; numbness was the beginning of the end.

It shouldn't be very far, he thought, although every step seemed to last forever, from the moment when he lifted a boot to when he set it down again, and the long, frightening moment after, until when he was confident enough that his forward foot could support him to before he dared lift the one behind.

There was no such thing as secure footing on the frozen trail; steady enough would have to serve, even though that kept their pace maddeningly slow, as rushing would be lethal.

It was, he thought, the night as much as the cold, although the cold was bad enough.

Edward didn't care for nights, generally. And particularly not for this one.

Didn't like cold, either.

The exposed tip of his nose had only stopped being numb and started being painful again when he had taken off a glove for a few moments, and warmed it with his hand, and then shoved his freezing hand back into what little warmth was left in the glove, and flexed his fingers, hard, until the pain returned as the blood began to flow through them.

There was a storm coming; far to the north, the clouds glowed with the dimming light of the moon, as they massed to overcome it. Darkness would triumph over the weak light, yes, but only until morning.

That was reassuring, he decided. Saint Albert of Leeds had written that only the impious would doubt that darkness would eventually fall to the light, and Edward de Vigny flattered himself that whatever his limitations and failings, he was not an impious man.

But piety didn't make him one whit warmer.

Better to fall forward than falling over backward, when his swords were strapped to his pack--even if he didn't tumble down the path, with Fat Harold watching helplessly.

Behind him, Fat Harold grunted. "Hope we can find the shelter before it hits," he said. "I'm not that fond of the cold, either, Butcher."

Fat Harold kept complaining, and Edward would have ignored him, if he could.

But he couldn't. God, in his infinite mercy, had not given the ears lids in the way that he had protected the eyes.

Fat Harold went on, and on and on: it was too cold; it was too high an altitude; they should have waited in the village; there was more than a hundred miles left on this long patrol anyway, and while, yes, they might need to take a side trip, they could do it in the daylight.

Edward wished Harold would just keep quiet. For a knight of the Order, Fat Harold--more formally, Sir Harold O'Reilly, like Edward, a knight, and therefore a priest of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon--was far too much of a whiner.

He would have guessed that that was why Fat Harold had never been raised in estate to White or Red, but Sir Guy of Orkney--who, so Sir Guy apparently thought, was far too dignified to have a nickname--was a notorious whiner and complainer, something that Fat Harold was known to hold forth on at great length, on the rare occasions that Edward upbraided him, as though that was the key to such a raise in estate.

Edward thought it rather unlikely.

As to Edward, well, he would of course accept the honor if it was offered, but the live swords were rare and--at least until recently--thought to be utterly irreplaceable, and he would serve as best he could until and unless the Abbot and the Council decided that he was worthy.

His present status was hardly an indignity, after all, the present moment aside, which--as bloody uncomfortable as it was--was far more discomfort than indignity. He was, after all, a knight of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon--and that was quite a rise in estate for a son of a butcher, eh?

Nothing to be ashamed about, and in fact, the sin of pride was a temptation.

He didn't doubt for a moment that he had fully earned his swords, but many men in this life failed to get what they earned, after all.

Even most Order Knights who made it to retirement, and the Reserve List, never went Red or White. If Edward was a jealous sort of man, it would have bothered him that when most Englishmen thought of Order Knights, they thought of the Reds and Whites, and often seemed to assume that there was something lacking with the majority of Order Knights who were never entrusted--or burdened, depending on whom you listened to--with a live sword.

When was the last time you heard a ballad about an Order Knight who wasn't a Red or White? Well, yes, there were all the songs and stories and talkes of the Final Battle at Bedegraine, but that was in the old days, long before the Age of Crisis, long before the live swords.

Then again, some song about Sir Edward freezing his toes off in this godforsaken place probably wouldn't be all that interesting, anyway. He tried to imagine some ditty--"he froze, he froze, he froze, and then he froze"--but couldn't come up with anything but a light tune that didn't either warm him or fit the words.

But the oath wasn't "for glory," after all. It was: "Service, honor, faith, obedience. Justice tempered only by mercy; mercy tempered only by justice."

In the meantime, while the Reds and the Whites served on His Own, or were sent--as Gray had been--to have words with important nobility or on missions almost as glamorous, the likes of the Butcher and Fat Harold got to make the rounds in what wasn't quite the most godforsaken territory over which the Crown held domain.


But it was service, and obedience, and there was honor in that, and he would just have to have faith that he was being useful.

And he was, of course.

For one thing, it was a good thing for Crown subjects to see an Order Knight every now and then, and remember that whatever duke or earl or baron or headman or margrave that they mostly thought of themselves as serving, they were in reality His Majesty's subjects, and that the arm of the Pendragon King was long, and that the fist at the end of that arm every bit as lethal as necessary.

And, besides, with the Zone so close, and with rumors of more darklings south of Aba-Paluoja, it was important for them to walk the northern and eastern boundaries, and bless the ground. That was something that had to be done by a priest.

The country was rough enough that if the priest wasn't to be regularly expended, it had to be done by a priest who was also skilled with weapons, and all the better if the priest was an Order Knight, who would rarely find himself having to prove those skills to any sane man.

Darklings and other things from the Zone couldn't cross running water or hallowed ground--not without assistance, at least--and making sure that they never had a route to the south was as important to the Crown here as it was to the Empire, to the east.

Not enough rivers, and those too often frozen.

Yes, the blessings came from Him, but the unholy had their ways, too--defiling ground wasn't particularly difficult, if you didn't give a fig for your immortal soul.

It was a matter of intention--deconsecrating a church's sanctuary, so that it could, say, become a school, was a matter of proper intention every bit as much as the ritual, and would no more endanger your immortal soul than would building a school rather than a church on the same plot of land in the first place.

Defilement was another matter; the hezmoni used to rape Christian women with wine bottles--after, of course, raping them in other ways--then drink the wine and piss on the ground, which had seemed to serve.

There were, of course, other, less dramatic ways to accomplish the same effect.

The wind picked up, and off in the distance, a lone wolf howled his complaint over the cold, a complaint that Edward was sure that Fat Harold would have shared aloud, if he could have figured out a way to do so while puffing his way along behind Edward.

Edward had gotten awfully tired of Fat Harold's complaining, but even without that--even without having to trudge up the side of the mountain--he wouldn't have cared for this night in any case.

He had never liked the cold. Sir Edward de Vigny, despite his name, was no northerner. In fact, he was from Pinet in the south of Borbonaisse, a small village whose minimal fame was far overshadowed by that of nearby Mérifons. And, like Mérifons, Pinet was only a mile or so off the warm waters of the Bassin de Thau.

The only thing he had in common with the northern, noble Hautmont family of the same name was the name, and that was of dubious origin, and the one winter he had spent near Hautmont had been far too cold for his taste, colder than English winters, although not nearly as wet and damp.

This was worse.

Spring, pfah.

He would have spit if he hadn't thought that the spittle would likely freeze and shatter on the rocks.

What passed as a pitiful excuse for a spring night near Hostikka was no spring at all, and not just because it was more than six hundred miles to the north and east of the warm waters and gentle winds of the Mediterranean. Blame it on the cold waters of the sea to south, or the one to the west, or, if you liked, you could blame it on the Zone.

But blame on whatever cause, there was one thing certain: it was just too damned cold.

At least the fur leggings and long bearskin coat he wore over his Order robes kept the worst of it out, although whenever the wind picked up, the sleeves of the coat seemed to act like funnels for the wind, and would have chilled him to the bone if his pack's straps hadn't been so tight about his shoulders, preventing it from piercing him quite to the core.

For the moment. He didn't worry about his extremities, as long as they hurt--but his core was awfully cold as it was, and his testicles were trying to retreat up into his body.

He allowed himself a quick look behind, past where Fat Harold was huffing and puffing.

Half a mile below and miles further than that back, the lights in the village burned invitingly, promising warmth and food, and warmth. Their reception had been more than acceptable, which was just as well for all concerned, despite some apparent nervousness about the presence of two Order knights, and constant glances at their swords, with the unvoiced question never quite asked, and never answered at all.

The talk of the town was, of course, as it was all across the region, that the Blue Skolt Same were very late in their spring migration through, and should have been through sometime in York--a month which the locals irritating still called "Huhtikuu," although they spoke English well enough, albeit a formal, Church English--and here it was Marsey, already, or "Toukokuu," as they had it.

In spring, the locals would be trading with the Skolts for the leather and bone goods that the Skolts made during the winter; in the fall, it would be fattened reindeer. A good pair of Skolt Same boots were highly prized, and some thought that there was perhaps a little magic in their construction, rather than just careful sewing of the reindeer hide.

But there was no sign of the Skolt Same.

In a more civilized country, the local barons or earls would have already sent out search parties, but the Duke of Suomaland could barely be bothered to send taxmen out in the fall of the year, and he kept his subordinate earls--really minor court barons, in all but titles--close to him in Helsinki, as though afraid of revolt, although it passed human understanding as to why anybody would want to seize control of this misbegotten frozen wasteland.

So, unsurprisingly, the task fell to Order Knights. It was part of what their patrol was, more or less.

Most likely, the Blue Skolts had simply taken an alternate route to the south. Yes, they lived near enough the Zone as it was, but...

Well, they'd see.

"I still think we should have waited until morning," Fat Harold wheezed.

Yes, they could have waited until morning, and instead of climbing in the dark to the old shack at the top of the ridge, they would have been climbing in the light--through the storm--and reached the shack after dark.

At least, this way, they might have a chance for a distant view from the top in the morning, maybe even before the storm broke.

It shouldn't be much longer, and--


He had been told by the village headman that it would be impossible to miss the cabin, and for once, a local had spoken truthfully, if only by accident.

The twisted pine that marked the crest of the hill really did look like the letter zed, even against the dark sky, and shelter was now just minutes away.

Whatever you could say ill about Fat Harold--and there was much that you could--he was a fast hand with a fire kit, and even if the headman had lied about the shack being faithfully restocked with wood in what passed for summer hereabouts, the hillside was littered with trees that had literally exploded during the worst of winter, and Fat Harold could make a good fire out of even frozen, wet wood, if necessary using a splash of the lamp oil to get it started.

And then there was the flask of good Scots whiskey in Edward's pack, wrapped with every bit as much care as the lantern, and for much the same reason. Once they had a fire going, it would warm him inside as much, or more than the fire would his outside.

He forced himself not to quicken his pace. It was always best to approach such things slowly, and not just because it would be a sad irony if, just as he was about to reach his goal, he tumbled back down the mountainside. It was, after all, not impossible that the shack would be occupied.

Not that a sane man would consider wintering up here, but Sir Edward had found hermits in crazier places, if not much crazier.

And there was always a chance that a bear had decided to make the shack his den for the winter, and that the bear would have sense enough to sleep through what the locals lightheartedly thought of as spring.

But, no. In the harsh moonlight, the drifted snow in front of the cabin was unbroken and unmarked, and both the door and the roof appeared to be intact. If there was anybody inside, they had been inside since the last snowfall, and with the lack of fire, that would mean Edward and Fat Harold would find either vacancy and shelter, or frozen bodies... and shelter, too.

One thing you could say for building by laying stone upon stone is that it didn't rot--not that much of anything would rot in this horrid climate, not when it could just freeze solid instead.

The door, of course, was frozen shut, but it only took a couple of kicks for Fat Harold to break the ice loose, and knock it down--thankfully, without breaking the wood, which would have meant that they'd have had to fix the door in the morning.

"Turn around for a moment," Fat Harold said. For such a normally sluggardly man, he was preposterously quick in getting the lantern out of Edward's pack, and he knelt in the lee of the side of the hut with his fire kit, lighting it. Fat Harold was not quite as clumsy as he looked; he managed to manipulate the fire kit even with his gloves on, something that Edward couldn't have done.

"Give me ten minutes, Butcher," he said, his fat face grinning in the light of the lantern, "just ten bloody minutes, and I'll have a good fire going that will warm you, from toe to head, until you complain of the heat, and--"

His breath caught in his throat, and dropped the lantern to the ground, careless of the way that it shattered, sending flaming oil scattering about.

Silently, without even a whisper where their robes dragged upon the snow and dirt, two dark shapes glided slowly out of the hut.

The priest had promised. He had sworn that he had said the appropriate blessings at not only the four corners of the village, but had renewed the blessings from one end of the county to the other, including making the pilgrimage up here. Prayer could not kill such as these, but they couldn't cross water, or hallowed ground, not without help.

But they were here. Darklings, they were called. Were they really demons from Hell? Edward didn't know. What he knew about them was bad enough.

Here, so close to the Zone, they didn't even have weapons--they were themselves the weapon. Their touch would burn both body and soul, and while a live sword could kill them, there was little else in the world that could, not here. And certainly not the mundane swords that the two knights carried.

Fat Harold didn't even try to draw his swords from where they were strapped to his back; there was no time for that. Say what you would about him, Fat Harold was neither a fool nor a coward; they would be upon him before he could so much as turn and take a step.

He leaped at the darklings, his only words a shouted "Run, Butcher, for the love of God, run--" and his strangled screams were awful in the night.

It was Edward's only chance. An exorcism, this close to the Zone, couldn't kill them--but it could repel them.

All he had to do was run down the trail, run away, while the darklings finished with Fat Harold, and try the exorcism.

He could, at the least, flee--it wouldn't be cowardice; this should be reported.


He was, after all, a knight of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon; an emissary of light, not dark. The light was supposed to triumph over the dark, but there were no guarantees in this world.

Save one: what he would do was in his own hands, and those were the hands of an Order Knight, who would not abandon his companion.

How it would turn out would be in the Hands of God. He drew his swords and tossed his scabbards aside. He would make the sign of the Cross with his swords... and they had other uses, as well.

"I exorcise thee, thou foul and unclean spirit, in the name of God the Father Almighty, and in the name--"

Edward de Vigney died, his exorcism turned to screams in his own throat.

He never did see the plain beyond, where the bones of the Blue Skolt and their reindeer herd lay, still frozen on the hard ground.

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Rosenberg


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