Excerpt: To the Victor

Wolf Knight by C.C. Bridges

The sight of the pale yellow walls of the Monastery of the Golden Swan filled Renee with dread. The idea of being trapped inside and unable to leave once sworn made her shiver and her horse, Fleetfoot, reacted to her movement by speeding up the rocky path. She eased him with a gentle pat, her reliable warhorse, as sensitive to her moods as ever.

“What kind of woman shuts herself up in there? What is it about Elrica that inspires such devotion?”

Fleetfoot, being a horse, did not answer.

No, Renee much preferred her service to Isaura. Now there was a goddess who understood freedom. Her order of Knights roamed kingdoms, their loyalty only to the order and any service it had contracted out. Thus Renee had come here to escort some noblewoman to the capital for the great midsummer tourney. Renee’s own squire and armor had been sent ahead, since she planned on making a damn good showing. She had her rankings to protect.

The path ended before a great iron gate with the swan crest of Elrica decorating the center. The metal looked startlingly new, despite its age. The monastery was one of the relics of the old days, when magic was plentiful. No gate built now would last so long without a hint of rust.

“Hello the house,” she called, not seeing anyone in the gate tower attached to the curtain wall.

A face appeared in the open window, belonging to a very young nun wearing a novice’s veil. “Who comes?”

“Knight Renee Wyvern in the service of Isaura in the order of the Wolf.” She gave the title she’d earned, not the one she’d been born with. Though she loved her family, she was proud of her own accomplishments. “I am answering an invitation from your abbess.”

She had barely finished speaking when the girl nodded. There was the sound of gears grinding, and the great iron gates parted. Renee trotted inside the courtyard, taking its measure. There was a stable to the right, and she handed off Fleetfoot to the groom who came running to meet her. Renee didn’t know if she should throw the girl a coin or not. Those in the service of Elrica eschewed all forms of wealth.

The main building had a row of archways, and a young woman emerged out of the largest, crossing the courtyard. “Knight Wyvern?” Her pale cheeks appeared pink with the exertion. She had clear amber-colored eyes and full, pink lips. A white wimple and veil covered her hair, ears, and neck, leaving Renee wondering about the color of her hair.

Renee bowed, stirred by such loveliness. “At your service, my lady.”

“Welcome. The abbess bids me to escort you inside. I assure you that your horse will be well taken care of. Linea loves animals.”

The groom, apparently. Renee nodded. “Thank you.” She might as well ask. “Should I have tipped the girl?”

The little nun―who had still not given her name―chuckled. “If you feel so moved, give a donation before the statue of Elrica.”

Said statue stood in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by a low brick wall. Earth filled the area beneath the statue’s feet, and it appeared that flowers had sprung from her step. They’d chosen to depict Elrica in the flower of her youth, which surprised Renee a bit. She was used to seeing Elrica the Queen or Elrica the Mother. Not this Maiden.

Renee placed a coin in the box set up for that purpose. They must get many pilgrims here―the Monastery of the Golden Swan was well known throughout the land for their devotion. She bowed her head and murmured a prayer.

“You honor Elrica?” The nun seemed surprised that Renee knew the proper words to say.

“She might not be my goddess, lady, but I honor all of the twelve.” It would be foolish not to. You never could tell when you might meet a goddess on the road. Magic might be gone, but the gods still lived.

Perilous Knights by Charles Payseur

Energy crackled at the base of Lamorak’s skull, hot nearly to burning. He gritted his teeth and flexed, the suit coming to life around him, standing from its crouch. Images came in fits—a field; a figure twenty-feet tall, painted black and red, with green glowing eyes; a mechanical hand; a woman’s face, scarred and stern and frowning; a field, suddenly getting closer. He braced as the suit crashed to its knees, then its chest, the pain in his neck finally too much to bear as he cried out and hit the kill. Darkness.

“Lam?” a voice asked through one of the crystals surrounding his head. Close. Worried.

Lamorak wished the voice didn’t remind him of all the things he was running from. All the ways he was a failure, and unless by some miracle he could change his fortune, he’d be forced to swallow his pride and return home in defeat.

“Lam, are you okay?” the voice asked.

“Fine, Percy,” he said, despite wanting nothing more than to fill the tight confines of the suit with a litany of his best curses. “Can you get me out of here?”

“Hah,” Ruwena, his senior squire, barked. Hers was the face he had seen, and it sounded like she was wearing the same disapproving expression. “You collapsed on the hatch, so you’re stuck until we can get the mules over to flip you. Serves you right for trying to walk before you can crawl.”

“I don’t have time for this, Ru,” he said. “The tourney is tomorrow, and if I can’t earn enough, I’ll either have to sell the suit or my body to cover what I owe to Sir Breuse.”

“I’m not the one who decided to take money from that crook of a knight,” Ruwena said. “And I’m certainly not the one who decided to run away from home because of some silly fight with my father.”

“It wasn’t like that, Ruwena,” Percy said, his voice breaking as he spoke. “If Father had his way…”

“Enough, Percy,” Lamorak said, harsher than he’d intended. But he didn’t need to be defended by his little brother, and he really didn’t want to be reminded of why he had left the comforts of his father’s castle for the perils of the road.

“Whatever the case, you shouldn’t have pushed the interface,” Ruwena said, brushing away the familial drama about which she had never once asked. She was old for a squire, but she knew more about suits than anyone Lamorak had met, including his father’s chief squire, who had been through four campaigns in Hessia and a stint in the Royal Stable.

“There was too much feedback,” Lamorak said. Which was putting it lightly. More like the blasted thing had nearly melted his brain.

“Which I told you would happen without a properly calibrated ghost box,” Ruwena said.

Lamorak bit back an angry comment about how of course it would, but it had taken all he could afford even with the money he borrowed from Sir Breuse to get the salvaged ghost box they had. It wouldn’t help his case to piss off his senior squire even more. So he said nothing, not willing to concede by apologizing or admitting he was wrong.

“Look, I’ll take another swing at getting it more in line,” Ruwena said, “but we’re going to need a new cognition seal and we’re running low on coal.”

Lamorak closed his eyes. In the darkness of the suit, it hardly made a difference. Well, he had joked about it…

“Percy, has the Queen’s party arrived?” he asked, knowing he’d have an easier time with knights from Camelot.

For a moment, there was silence, and when Percy answered, it was a whisper. “Yeah,” he said. “About thirty knights that I saw, including Pelleas, Gaheris, Agravaine, Uwain, Dina—”

“Uwain?” Lamorak interrupted. This would be easier than he thought.

“I’m getting the mules,” Ruwena said.

Lamorak couldn’t even watch her walk away. His mind was already running through scenarios, plans. And then he remembered the images he had seen, the field and Ruwena’s face and… that figure.

“Percy, did you see a suit right before I fell?” he asked. “Black and red, with green glowing eyes.”

Another pause. Somehow Percy had gotten into his head that Lamorak needed protecting. Probably that was why he had insisting on following when Lamorak had left. He was far too mature for his age. But eventually he did speak.

“Yes,” Percy said. “It’s all people have been talking about since they arrived.” Which Lamorak would have known if he hadn’t been… busy. “They showed up yesterday and registered. As a knight perilous.”

Lamorak’s eyes shot back open, though again, it did little in the confines of the suit. A knight perilous. A knight without a name, without allegiance. A knight like Lamorak, out for money or fame or sport. Or a bigger name trying to hide their identity and reputation. It was like a riddle begging to be teased out. Lamorak licked his lips and waited for Ruwena to return with the mules, his mind tingling from more than just the residual energy feedback.

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