This story is by E. Young and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Vera scraped her boot against the stone parapets, trying to remove a stubborn clump of earth that hung from the bottom like a barnacle. Overhead, a murder of crows squawked like they were laughing at her expense.
Finally, it broke free and plummeted toward the dim-witted pikeman below. Vera held her breath as it hurdled downward, but it missed the guard and hit the mud with a soft thwack. He looked down at it, then up at Vera on the wall, sniffed and settled back into his same stupid gaze.
That was close.
“It’s an important day today!” Barked the guard captain.
Vera didn’t hear him, but the crows flew off in a noisy black cloud, stirred by his loud voice. The guard captain clapped her on the helmet with his pike to get Vera’s attention. She looked up, face flush like a peach.
“Been reading up on your history, girl?” He asked.
She managed a meek reply, “Uh, sorry, sir. I’ve been reading, but I don’t-“
He snapped at Vera’s father on the gate raise, “Siggurd! You’ve not schooled this girl enough, you will do better!”
“Y-yes, of course sir. I’ve been… busy, sir.” Said her father, reeling.
“If she is to live in my gatehouse, and eat the guild’s stores, she will be educated. I won’t have a weak girl, even worse, a dolt, among my ranks.”
Vera’s eyes lit up.
Among his ranks? Does he mean to train me for the guild?
The captain shot a gaze back to Vera, and said “Girl, you don’t know what today is?”
She didn’t know what to say, she had never seen him in this spirit. The captain barreled forward, “Today marks five and twenty turns since our Autarch’s coronation and the beginning of his reign! Coronation day celebration runs from sun-down to sun-up on the morrow, celebrating our Autarch’s prowess. It’s a most extravagant affair, food and merriment abundant!”
Oh, right, coronation day…
Vera remembered the contempt her father has for this day. He grumbled about mutineers amidst the city last night during his “barrelwine vacation” by the hearth.
“Right, sir! Coronation day, how could I forget?”, She managed.
“Good! Best ye try the sweetbread cakes at Meridian square!”
“That sounds lovely, sir!”
Vera’s father butt in, mumbling, “Mmm, back to the watch, Vera.”
She looked up at her father, looking a little wobbly from drink. She sighed.
I won’t be like that, the captain sees something in me. I’ll be a model of the guild.
She straightened up, clanked the butt of her pike on the floor as she had seen the captain do so many timesn and muttered the guild mantra to herself, “I will stand strong, I am a sentinel.”
Vera squinted. Far off, a snowy visage on the hill resolved into the shape of a gray old man with long white hair and an unkempt beard just as white as his mount, a sickly pale mare.
“A rider!” She blurted.
“Wot, girl?” Asked a brute down the line. Vera, suddenly aware she spoke aloud, hesitated a second, then spoke up. “Uh, ahem, there’s a rider… On the hill, just there.”
“Oh right…” He replied, “Some great lord?”
“Eh, dirty hedge knight, looks to be.” Scoffed the captain.
As the man approached, the captain spat his standard hail, uninvitingly, “Style, good sir.”
The man looked up, weary, “Sir Barrett Steele of-”, he coughed, and cut off. The knight’s mare shuffled her feet, and whinnied. He patted her on the neck, and continued, “Formerly of… Silver Hill. Forgive me, gatesman… as I’ve endured a long ride. The storm winds arrived early this wheel, just as I crossed the Ancient Fold. Two days ahorse with no provisions. My mare, I fear, is in dire need of food and watering, I would patronize your stables and tavern, please.”
“You were a knight of the Autarch’s court?” Pried the captain.
“Not for many turns, I’m afraid. But, yes, captain, I was.”
Vera squinted at the sigil on the man’s hauberk. It was caked with dried mud but she could just barely make it out. Scratched and faded paint bore an old drawing.
A white rosebush… Very pretty.
The knight suddenly noticed Vera staring at him and returned a noble smile. She blushed, then she noticed something sticking out from his hauberk, a single white rose. Fresh cut and sanguine.
I wonder how he kept that so clean…
“What be your business in the Citadel, Sir Barrett?”
“I only seek rest and food, captain.”, replied the knight. “However, it would please me to visit your church tower, if I may.”
“No church tower, sir. Collapsed during the sack many turns ago. It’s in ruins.”
“Then, it would please me to visit your church tower ruins, good captain.”
What could he want to go there for? It’s only a pile of rubble, and that tiny side the gatesmen don’t use anymore…
“Raise the port, the knight goes go through.” He shouted, and Vera’s father began cranking his end of the raise. “You’ll have to put up your weapons at the gatehouse.”
“Thank you, captain.”, wheezed the old knight. Vera kept eyes on him from the wall. He put up his weapons, as commanded, stabled his mare, exchanged a few words with the stable boy and tipped him, generously.
A silver for some tack and feed? He’s not poor…
The knight approached the old church tower ruins, pulled out the rose from his hauberk and kissed it.
He looked very regal, just then…
This man could very well be a knight of the autarch’s court, probably a lifetime ago…
Vera moved closer. Her muddy boot slipped, and she fell with a thud. The knight looked up at Vera on the wall, just as she ducked behind the battlements.
Did he see me?
After a long moment, when she felt brave enough to peek over, she found the knight had gone.
“What are you doing?” Came the sharp voice of her father, “It’s late, Vera. Put up your pike, go fetch our supper, and clean that boot!”
“Yes, father.” She squeaked, then looked down again, but the knight was gone.
That night, Pushing aside the cloth door of the tavern entrance, she stepped into a steamy world of mead and mess, but there was a commotion. She pushed through the forming crowd and leaned in to listen. A man stood, sword outstretched at an old man’s neck, aggressively shouting at him
Something about a sigil… What’s a turncoat?
She only half heard the words. The man looked dirty, but also somewhat regal.
Wait… could it be? The knight?
Vera shook her head. Yes, she was certain now, the knight was in trouble.
Oh, we took his sword, that’s not good…
Something escalated in the tumult and suddenly the blade flashed, catching the fire light for an instant before coming down swift, cutting the knight’s arm.
Vera had no time to think, her hand just moved. Gripping her dagger at the waist, she gazed at the knight, his eyes met hers. Down to the dagger, then back up. A quick nod. Vera felt strong now, she made a move. The man froze, and slowly turned his face, awash with confusion. Vera’s blade was buried, deep in the man’s lower back. A serving woman shrieked and dropped a kitchen pot with a clang, the crowd took this as a cue to shout and panic. The new corpse sank to the floor with barely a noise, twitching slightly. A guard’s horn sounded alarm.
“They’re coming, you have to leave!” Cried Vera.
She couldn’t move. Seeing this, the knight took action and deftly lifted her high above the panicked crowd. Vera threw her head back, exhausted and shivering at the thought of what she just did, but she soared now on a giant’s back.
He is a knight…
She suddenly remembered the ruins, and the door. She whispered in his ear, “…the church.”
Vera found herself by the door at the old ruins, she was shaking.
“I can’t believe-”, The knight caught her just as she looked to faint. “It’s ok, girl… You did nothing wrong, you’re a true sentinel.” He said, “Do you think you can stand?”
With a shaky voice, she croaked, “I will stand strong. I am a Sentinel…”
He gave her a sharp nod, and that noble smile again. “Take care of Rosie, she’s a good horse.” Vera smiled back, opened the door , and said “I will, sir.”
“Thank you, Vera.”, the knight muttered.
Her eyes went wide, she was still shaking. She choked out, “W-wait, how do you-” but he was already gone.
Vera scraped her boot, and gazed around at the piles of rubble, then spotted a nicely cleaned out corner amongst the wreck. There stood an old wooden grave marker. The knight’s single white rose laid on top. The paint was too faded to read a name, but etched into it was the knight’s sigil, the white rosebush.