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SWC16 - The One-Eyed Knight

Arisia'16 Student Writing Contest - 1st Place Winner

The One-Eyed Knight

By Rowan Bagley

    The rain hadn't let up for nearly two days and Oz, Willow, and Thunder were all soaked to the bone. Oz wiped water out of her one good eye and grumbled miserably as Thunder snorted angrily beside her. He was a big black destrier who stood at seventeen hands and was about as fond of the rain as Oz was. His mane was plastered to his neck and his tail hung sodden and limp. Willow, the roanish palfrey, plodded along amiably under Oz with head bowed under the downpour.
    Ashbourne shouldn't be too far off, Oz thought to herself. She had lived at Ashbourne castle with Sir Hardwin for the first three years of her squireship. It was only a day's ride from Whitewash, the daub and wattle town with earthen roads and muddy sheepfolds that she had left the day before. The rain had been what had held her up. The roads had quickly become a slippery mess, the deep ruts that could break a horse's leg disguising themselves as shallow pools. Oz had slowed their pace to a crawl and nearly doubled their time, but at least she hadn't had to bury Willow or Thunder by the side of the road.
    The first of the houses that clung to the outskirts of Ashbourne town came into view, old houses of rough cut stone held together with crumbling mortar. Oz saw a woman pulling up turnips from a partially flooded garden, a naked child covered with mud tugging at her skirts, but other than that the townsfolk were shut up in their houses. She urged Willow up a short hill running with rivulets of dirty water and the wall surrounding Ashbourne castle come into view. The gate was closed when she reined up in front of it, the black iron unwielding. Oz banged on it with a stone until an old graybeard with a hauberk and dented pothelm appeared from the guardhouse. She didn't recognize him.
    "What do you want?" He asked gruffly.
    "I wish to take up service with Lord Ashton, sir. I heard in Whitewash that he was in need of good knights about him." Oz did not fail to note that the old man's mail was covered in flecks of rust and his surcoat was dark with wine stains. Broken veins covered his nose.
    "Sir? Bugger that, I'm just the guard. M'lord is looking for knights, aye, but you'll be begging my pardon if I say that you're no knight." He hawked and spat a glob of brown phlegm onto the ground.
    "My name is Dame Oswalda Colewood. I was knighted by Sir Hardwin Sutcliffe four years ago after the Battle of Northpass. Sir Hardwin served here for many years and I with him after he took me on as his squire. Perhaps you recall him."
Oz was used to having to prove her knighthood to people, but when she mentioned Sir Hardwin, most were of a mind to believe her. Sir Hardwin had been a bull of man who stood closer to seven feet than six, with a broad barrel chest and limbs the size of small trees. He had been excellent with a sword, better with a mace, and fabled with his warhammer, a veteran of half a hundred battles. His name was known from the southern shores to the northern evergreen forests. Thinking about him now made her sad.
"You were Sir Hardwin's squire? A girl? Had he taken leave of his senses when he picked you? I suppose I had best let you in and see what m'lord will make of you."
He raised the gate with a crank that sent him to puffing in moments. Oz would have offered to help, but she didn't take kindly to people who questioned her validity. She mounted up on Willow when the gate was raised enough for her to pass through and led Thunder along behind.
"Stable's over there. You'll find a boy or two to put up your horses, I have no doubt. M'lord is hosting the other knights in the Great Hall. M'lady." The old man said brusquely, waving a hand at a low stone building with a timbered roof.
Oz did not bother to correct him. She made her way through the drizzle to the stables, standing on the threshold as her eye adjusted to the gloom. The stable was not overly large, but inside only one in three horses was covered with a blanket bearing the arms of House Ashton, a red cardinal on an ash gray field, the rest belonged to knights whose sigils she didn't recognize. She found two empty stalls near the end of the building and stripped Willow and Thunder down to horse blankets, bundling the bedroll and backpack that had been strapped to Thunder onto her own back.
"Make sure they have oats and give them an apple a piece. I want them brushed down and watered as well," She said to a passing stableboy. "Where would I find Lord Ashton's steward Galot?"

"These rooms are all we have left to offer, Oswalda," Galot had been in Lord Ashton's service long before Sir Hardwin had taken her in and she had known him well during her time in Ashbourne. "The other knights have been here for several days and took the larger apartments. I fear that our food stores will run dry before all these extra mouths leave us. Lord Ashton wishes to serve all his guests at evenfall tonight to discuss his...ordeal. He will want to see you privately, of course."
"And I him. I'll need to tell him of my many adventures." Oz said with a rueful grin.
"It's good to see you again, Oswalda. I'll leave you to yourself, now, I must prepare." Galot replied before excusing himself.
The chamber was a small enough to resemble a closet. It was furnished with threadbare rugs coated in dust, a sagging bed with a straw mattress, and a table with a tarnished mirror. Oz washed her face in the basin and pitcher of water on the table. She caught her reflection in the mirror and peered at it through the cloudy silver.
Her eyepatch was what stood out the most. It was made of  dark blue leather and embossed with Sir Hardwin's falling star sigil, white on blue. Her good eye was a chip of onyx in her teak colored skin with her reddish black hair framing her face. Everyone told her she was some kind of foreigner, though she had no idea where she was from, as she had never met anyone else with skin as dark as her own.
She changed out of her travel stained garb into clothes befitting a true knight; a blue silk cloak lined with ermine that showed Harwin's falling star, a bodice of midnight blue with seed pearls sewn in over a white cotton shirt with dragged sleeves, black cotton leggings, and black leather boots. Her hair was bound in a loose braid. She belted on her sword, Windsong, and examined herself again in the mirror before making her way down to the Great Hall.
The air was filled with the smell of smoke and roasting meat that made her mouth water. Men were quaffing ale and devouring haunches of pork at the scarred wooden benches below the high table. Oz stabbed an onion floating in brown gravy on the point of her dagger and climbed the dais to the place where Lord Ashton sat alone at the table in the seat of his House.
Godfrey Ashton looked as he had years ago; the sharp beak of nose, thin mouth, and plain grey eyes that made him look more like a banker than a lord. His black hair was more salted with silver than the last time she had seen him, but apart from that he remained largely unchanged.
"Galot told me you were here, Oz," Ashton gestured to a seat next to him and Oz plopped down in it gladly. "I had hoped to see you before you got yourself killed on some fool's errand, but I did not think you would be back here. I see you've lost an eye since last I saw you."
"Oh, yes, I lost it in a blaze of glory. You should have seen it," She bit into her onion and felt gravy drip down her chin. "I heard you were in some kind of peril, my lord, I did not want to miss out on any of the spoils."
"You came back because you care for us, as you always have. If you came for spoils, you will be disappointed." Ashton still cut to the quick after all these years.
"Tis true, I would not leave you in need. This place is too dear to me, as it was to Sir Hardwin."
"I was saddened to hear of his passing. We need good men like him about us these days," Ashton said, looking furtively around the hall. "I must needs speak with you, Oz, but not here. These knights won't notice my absence, follow me."
He rose swiftly and opened a discreet door behind the high table with Oz following close to his heels. They climbed a narrow flight of servants stairs that lead to Ashton's solar where a fire had been lit, making the room comfortably warm.
"What has happened here, my lord? Galot was tight lipped when I saw him, something is amiss here. Where is your lady wife and your sons? Where is Corinna?" Oz asked, anxiety building in her. Thinking about Corinna gave her butterflies to this day.
She poured herself a cup of wine to steady her nerves.
"Corinna has been stolen," Ashton said bluntly. "My wife is staying with her family in Mosshill. She was too grief stricken to remain here, she believes Corinna is already dead. My sons are looking for her. They, at least, have not given up hope yet."
"Who has her? You must know, maidens do not just disappear without warning. There must have been someone here who spirited her away."
"Lord Howler's son was here not long before she went missing and he took a fancy to her, but I would never believe that he could be capable of that."
Oz felt a sharp pain in her belly as if someone had buried a knife in it.
"Which son?" She asked sharply.
She wanted to be sick.
"How could you be so blind? The stories that are told of him are not mere stories, the horrors that he has committed are as real as you and I. How could you let him take her knowing what he is?" Oz's voice was high and she felt her eye begin to sting.
"He is my liege lord's son, how could I refuse him entry to Ashbourne with no more proof than stories? He was chivalrous and kind to her, why do you suspect him so?"
"Because I have seen firsthand the things he is capable of." She hissed through gritted teeth.
"Enough," He said, silencing her. "Listen to me Oswalda, I do not trust the men who have gathered here, they are murderers and cutpurses and worse. I have not yet revealed to them as to why I gathered them here, so I will make up some story about wanting to replenish my household guard and none will be the wiser. You will go and bring my daughter back. Can you do that for me, for the love that you bear for me? For the love you bear for Corinna?"
Oz knew, as Ashton did, that she could never refuse anything for Corinna.
"I'll go," Oz said evenly. "I already know where she is."

Lord Howler's seat of Wolf's Den was three days ride from Ashbourne and unlike Ashbourne, was a proper city with cobbled streets, inns, brothels, and houses with two or three stories that were stone below and timber above. It was a prosperous trade city that sat on the edge of Sapphire Lake. Oz didn't stop there, even for a night. She refused to swell the coffers of Howler or any of his vile kin.
She passed through Wolf's Den without incident and made her way north to the Creywell highlands, turning off the main road after the fourth day and following a game trail up the steady incline and then down again into a dark glade. The evergreens there were so tall and thick that they blotted out the sun, their carpet of discarded needles muffling the sound of her horses' hooves. The tall spire of the Weeping Tower came into view when Oz climbed a gentle rise. The Tower was one of the worst kept secrets this side of the realm and wasn't hard to find if you knew where to look. It was where Felir kept his trophies.
The Tower was fifty feet tall and made all of black stones. One window was visible at the very top of the tower, but there were no stairs that lead to it. And no guards, Oz observed, but there hadn't been any when she had been here last, either. It had been only half a year since Sir Hardwin had died that she had let herself be taken to the Tower, lured there with honey-sweet lies. She shook her head, not wanting to think about it.
She swung the grapnel she had taken from Ashton's armory in rapid circles, releasing when it had gained enough momentum. It scraped along the sill of the window before finding purchase on the stone. Oz began the climb. It was slow going; her plate, mail, and winged greathelm weighing her down, but she wouldn't have climbed the Tower without it, she felt too vulnerable.
When she reached the window, she was breathing heavily and her fingers hurt despite the gauntlets she wore. She pulled herself into the single chamber behind the window.
"Are you here to steal my little bird away?" A bored voice asked from the shadows.
He was lounging on the bed in the corner, lacing up his boots. He wore no plate or even a mail shirt, but his long sword, Blood Bane, hung from the belt at his hips. His black hair was disheveled and his shirt open to the naval. Corinna was asleep next to him, naked but for a coverlet.
"I can't say that you're the first to try. Her valiant brother tried before and died for his efforts. I pulled out his entrails and hung them from a tree for the crows," He yawned into his hand. "Do you wish to share his fate, sir?"
He takes me for a man, Oz realized, my armor makes me look bigger than when he last saw me. She drew Windsong.
"Is that how it shall be? Death it is, then." He laughed.
He swung at her lazily with a slash she parried, swinging back at him with a cut aimed for his legs. He side stepped and she overreached, nearly stumbling as her balance was thrown off. He laughed again. She corrected herself and pivoted on her heel to face him just as he brought down a savage cut that would have sliced her shoulder where her armor was thinnest. She blocked the cut before it fell, her blade catching his mid-swing. He ripped his sword free and slashed at her knee wildly, angry that he hadn't won already. Oz parried again, knocking his blade from his hand and slicing his thigh open with one fluid motion. He yelped in pain, his blue eyes welling with rage as he watched the blood ooze from the wound.
He caught her off guard when he pounced cat-like at her, shrieking obscenities. She didn't have time to move before he collided with her, sending both of them to the ground with a crash. Her sword flew from her hand and skittered across the floor. Somewhere she could hear Corinna screaming, but her helm narrowed her vision to Felir's face. His fingers found their way under her helm and around her neck, squeezing so hard that spots appeared in her vision. She couldn't think, couldn't move, it was just like before when he had left her powerless. No, she thought, I won't let him do that again.
She slammed a mailed fist into the side of his head, knocking him backward. She leapt up before he could throw himself at her again.
"Who are you," He asked in a peevish voice. "Who do you think you are to be permitted to strike me? My father will hang you for this!"
She paused for a moment, towering over him as he cowered on the floor, before removing her helm and letting her hair spill free.
"You? I dumped you in the woods, you should have died!" He shrieked.
"You made the mistake of leaving me with my sword." Oz replied calmly.
When he tried to rise, she smashed him across the face with her helm, sending him sprawling. She smashed her helm into his face again and again until his head was nothing but a mushy pulp of red and green. She felt someone pulling at her.
"Please stop, he's dead! Please! Oz!" They cried.
Only when she heard her name did she realize she was crying. She rose as if in a daze and turned to face her little lady. The coverlet Corinna had wrapped around herself was flecked with gore. Oz felt her mouth go dry at the sight of Corinna's big doe eyes, the same way it had when they were children. She threw herself at the younger girl, burying her face in her soft brown hair and wrapping her arms around her.
"It's okay," Corinna soothed. "He can't hurt you anymore."
"Don't worry about me, what about you?" Oz broke away from her, taking her chin in her mailed hand.
"It's too late for me," Corinna said as her eyes went flat. "I'm pregnant."