The Knight of the White Fountain was originally written as a final short story for a writing course I took around 2008. This piece is about sacrifice and using the tools you’re given — no matter what they are.
The Knight of the White Fountain rode at the head of his personal guard, a company of the Infinite Legion following. They rode in silence for the most part. The clip-clop of their horses’ hooves on the path, the song of birds in the trees, the occasional barked command from the serjeant-at-arms were the only noises to accompany them. Normally the knight bristled at his guards’ silence, their indifference to him, but today he welcomed it. Today they rode to join the First Imperial Army where he would take charge of the third battalion. He dwelt on this, amongst other things, as they rode through the forest to the camp on the hills above.
When the reinforcements rode into the camp there was uproar. The men, women and children of the camp — soldiers, servants, wives — all of the camp, cheered their arrival. The standards of the different companies were unfurled proudly; the musicians of the camp — drummers, pipers, trumpeters — began to play in their honour. It was a cacophony, but no-one seemed to care.
It was an unusual sight.
No-one ever, ever, cheered for the Infinite Legion. The atrocities they performed in the name of the emperor were legend — the stuff they tell grown men to put the fear of God into them. But at their head rode a knight out of the other kind of stories.
He sat proud, resplendent in silver armour that gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. Siegfried swore the sun rose twice that day and the rumour spread quickly. He rode a silver dapple destrier, some eighteen hands, which forced its own path through the throng. A blue surcoat covered his armour with a white fountain emblazoned upon it. Nestor said he counted the Starlight Prince and the Swan Knight amongst his ancestors and that rumour spread like wildfire. He dismounted before the Council Pavilion, removed his helm and presented himself to the Lord High Constable. His shock of golden hair shone like his armour, he stood half a foot taller than the Constable and saluted. Carlo declared him the hero Errolan returned and that rumour followed the others. After presenting himself he lead his destrier through the crowds to the pavilion set aside for him. That’s when Geric spoke up.
“No, he’s none of those things. He’s our lord’s son.”
And at that the camp was silent.
Early the following morning, the Knight of the White Fountain walked through the camp to the training ground. He made his way amongst the clustered groups of people cleaning weapons, preparing breakfast, some still lying asleep by the small fires. He ignored the fevered conversation behind him, the furtive glances, the open mouthed awe. Lost in his own thoughts he followed the ring of metal on metal, metal on wood, toward the training ground. A small group of the Dragon’s Claw company were already fencing under the watchful gaze of a knight in worn black armour.
The knight in silver approached him.
“Father, I …”
“I am second in command of this army, you will address me as such.”
The sound of his father’s voice was coarse, hollow, as it echoed through the metal of his helm. He looked up into its depths, tried to see through the eye-slit, to discern the colour of his father’s eyes.
“My lord, I am Sir Caelin, Knight of the White Fountain. I come at the behest of the Dragon Emperor with the thirteenth company of the Infinite Legion to aid you in the war.”
Caelin rose, took a look around at the soldiers. The arhythmic clang of metal and wood still resounded, but some stood openly watching their brief exchange.
“Come, I have heard tell of your prowess with the sword. Let us put it to the test.”
“You wish me to prove myself fencing against the men-at-arms?”
The black knight watched as his son fought. The boy was light of foot, quick and strong. Almost worthy of the rumours flying around the camp. The hero Errolan returned? The black knight chuckled to himself. If only they knew the truth.
“Your foot work is sloppy and your ripostes are weak. You leave your left flank open when you lunge from the centre.”
“What? But I won six out of eight bouts.”
“Any loss would be death on the field, any weakness exploited by the enemy. You will train daily under the marshal-at-arms of the Dragon’s Claw company. You have a fortnight to improve.”
The black knight turned his back on the small group and strode away.
“Geric, see to his training,” he shouted over his shoulder as he departed.
Caelin kicked a clump of earth toward his father’s retreating back and thrust his sword into the ground. The soldiers of the Dragon’s Claw company resumed their sparring, ignoring him, like his personal guard. The stocky man with the flecks of grey in his beard walked over to Caelin and slapped him on the back heartily.
“Don’t worry, laddie, the old man’s hard on everyone. He thought you were good, though.”
The young knight pulled off his helm and brushed back the mail coif, the better to feel the breeze through his hair, against his face. He stared at the grinning older man – one of the two who had beaten him. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it quickly.
“Aye, he does, though you wouldn’t think it. I’ve known him a long time and he wouldn’t have me training you if he didn’t think you good enough.”
The young knight sighed deeply.
“I don’t know him at all.”
“Aye, well, you’ve a chance to get to know him. But come, your foot work is sloppy and your ripostes could do with some improving.”
Caelin sighed again and put his helmet back on. He plucked his sword from the ground and prepared himself for combat.
“You are hard on him,” he heard his wife say as he walked away from the training ground.
He caught a glimpse of her from the corner of his eye. He could make out her favourite blue dress, the green sash of state and the gold circlet he’d given her as a betrothal gift. He dared not turn to face her, lest the apparition disappear.
“I know,” he whispered.
“You fear the prophecy?”
A large bowl of broth fell to the ground ahead of him, lumps of meat tumbled, liquid seeped into the mud. The serving woman who had carried it cowered on the ground in front of him, whimpering into the mud. A muttered curse drifted to him from amongst the surrounding people. He ignored them, as he always had.
“No. I welcome it.”
He stopped as a tear rolled down his cheek, hidden by his helm. He turned to look at his long dead wife, to see her beauty once more.
“I fear he may not be strong enough to play his part.”
The group of onlookers before him stared, frozen. He glared at them from beneath his mask before striding away.
The black knight was lifted, plucked from the board between silver gauntleted fingers, and placed on a white square. Its previous occupant – a white rook – was knocked aside with a deft flick. The figure stood exultant, its carved horse’s head glowering menacingly at the row of white pawns in front of it. Caelin rested his hand against the smooth line of his chin and stared at the board. He imagined himself the black knight and the pawns soldiers cowering before him.
His father removed the fallen rook from the board and placed it along the edge with the other fallen pieces. The sight of his father’s coarse, blackened gauntlet, scarred and dented, stopped his day-dreaming. He wasn’t the black knight. The men didn’t fear him.
“Geric tells me your training is complete. You have mastered the arts of war.”
The young man frowned, focussed his attention on the board. He could feel a bead of sweat forming at the nape of his neck, underneath his golden curls. He stared intently at the game playing out before them, tried to ignore the conversation.
“The marshal is generous.”
He watched as his father moved the white queen through the space where the black knight had stood moments before.
Of course, he had anticipated the move.
“I have learnt the use of the weapons of the field, I understand the forms of attack and defence. I have studied the battle fields of ages past: learnt tactics for the open field, the siege, the importance of choosing the correct location.”
He brought his own bishop back from the other side of the board and knocked the white queen aside. He tallied the remaining pieces with growing satisfaction: the black pieces far out-weighed the white. He looked up at his father’s helm and smiled. After two weeks at camp he had become accustomed to its faceless stare.
His father lifted a white knight from the board and knocked a defending pawn aside.
“You have learnt the arts of war but not of victory.”
With care he stood the knight in its place and rested his finger on top of it. The young knight gazed at the board, at the offending finger, his smile quickly vanishing. The wooden horse’s head stood proudly in a position previously guarded by his own bishop and now directly attacking his king. Crowded by his own defence, there was only one possible outcome.
If he had not been so rash in taking the queen!
“The art of victory is sacrifice,” said his father as he removed his finger from the head of the white knight.
Caelin rose stiffly and walked away, ignoring the bellowing laugh of his father behind him.
“You are hard on the boy,” said the Lord High Constable, taking the recently vacated seat.
With quick movements the black knight reset the pieces on the board and waited for the Constable to make the first move.
“You know, he asked me what you looked like.”
“It is of no consequence.”
“The question or the fact?”
“Both. We have a battle to prepare for.”
Caelin rode at the head of a column of lancers from the Dragon’s Claw company down a low hill toward the enemy army. Their horses cantered easily, champing at the bit to gallop. Geric rode at his side, dusty armour covered by a black surcoat emblazoned with a red dragon’s claw blowing in the wind.
“The men are glad to have you lead them, my lord.”
Caelin struggled to catch the words over the breeze and the noise of the hooves. For the first time he found his armour stifling.
“Are they? It is an honour.”
“An honour for them. They thought you a legend when you rode into the camp.”
“Really? I was so nervous. Leading the battalion and meeting my father. . .”
“Aye, they thought the Starlight Prince had come to lead them in battle. And, with you being the old man’s son. . .”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, you’re like a good luck charm, ain’t you? No way the old man would put you in danger on this little frolic.”
“They have met my father haven’t they?”
“Oh aye, and they think him a monster, but not that much of a monster.”
“He loves you, make no mistake. But he’s hardly going to let that get in the way of victory.”
As one the company levelled their lances, their horses broke into a gallop as they reached the plain. The sky darkened as archers loosed their arrows, a wall of pikes was quickly lowered in front of them as they charged the flank.
“He said,” shouted Geric, “if you don’t return neither should I.”
But his words were lost in the thunder of hooves.