Sir Apropos of NothingPeter David
Table of Contents
As I stood there with the sword in my hand, the blade dripping blood on the floor, I couldn’t help but wonder if the blood belonged to my father.
The entire thing had happened so quickly that I wasn’t quite sure how to react. Part of me wanted to laugh, but most of me fairly cringed at what had just occurred. I didn’t do particularly well with blood. This tended to be something of a hardship for one endeavoring to become a knight, dedicated to serving good King Runcible of Isteria, a ruler who more often than not had his heart in the right place.
The recently slain knight also had his heart in the right place. This had turned out to be something of an inconvenience for him. After all, if his heart had been in the wrong place, then the sword wouldn’t have pierced it through, he wouldn’t be dead, and I wouldn’t have been in such a fix.
I stood there stupidly in the middle of Granitz’s chambers. Like much of the rest of the castle, it was somewhat chilly … all the more so because I was only partly dressed and the sweat on my bare skin was feeling unconscionably clammy. There were long, elegant candles illuminating the room, giving it a rosy glow, since thick drapes had been drawn over the large windows to keep out both daylight and prying eyes. From nearby on the large and damaged four-poster bed, my lover—and the knight’s wife (well, widow)—was letting out short gasps, trying to pull air into her lungs and only marginally succeeding. The tiled floor seemed to tilt under me for a moment, and I steadied myself as my mind raced, trying to determine what the hell I was going to do next.
The knight’s name had been Sir Granitz of the Ebony Swamps, although he was generally referred to as “Sir Granite.” The nickname had been well earned, for on the battlefield he had been indeed a sight to see. I had seen it myself, many a time … from a safe distance, of course, since my mother, God bless her, had not raised an idiot for a son. Understand: I did not, nor have I ever, shrunk from a fight when it was absolutely necessary. However, my definition of “absolutely necessary” wasn’t precisely in keeping with that of everyone else in my immediate sphere.
For people like Granite, “absolutely necessary” included times of war, matters of honor, and similar esoterica. For me, the term “absolutely necessary” meant “self-defense.” I considered war to be an utter waste of my time and energy, since most wars involved people I did not know arguing over matters I did not care about in pursuit of goals that would not have any direct impact upon me. As for honor, that was an ephemeral consideration. Honor did not feed, clothe, or protect me, and seemed to exist primarily to get otherwise inoffensive creatures into a world of trouble.
“Self-defense,” however, was a consideration that I could easily comprehend. Whether it be an envious knight attacking me on horseback, an enraged dragon belching plumes of flame, or a squadron of berserker trolls swarming over the ramparts of a castle, those were instances where my own neck was at stake and I would happily hack and slash as the situation required so that I might live to see another sunrise.
I liked sunrises. They made anything seem possible.
Now, Granite … he was the type who would fight anywhere, anytime, at the least provocation. That is precisely the kind of attitude that gets one killed at a young age if one is not a formidable fighter. To his credit, that certainly described Granite. Well over six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he often found it necessary to enter a room sideways, his shoulders being too broad to be accommodated by a standard doorframe.
Sir Granite had returned most unexpectedly, at a moment that could best be described as inopportune. For at that particular point in time, I had been in the middle of opportuning myself of his wife.
As burly, as brusque, as fearsome as Granite had been, the Lady Rosalie had been the opposite. Delicate and pale, Rosalie had cast an eye that clearly fancied me in my direction. Considering that, at the time she did it, I was mucking out the stables and up to my elbows in horse manure, she clearly saw something within me not readily apparent from my surface appearance. She and old Granite had just come in from a ride; he perched upon his white charger, and she riding daintily sideways on a brown mare. She winked at me and I hurriedly wiped my hands on the nearest cloth, aware of the disheveled and frankly tatty sight I must have presented. The Lady Rosalie chose that moment to try and dismount. But her foot snagged on the stirrup and she tumbled forward, only my quick intervention preventing her from hitting the straw-covered floor. I caught her, amazed by how light she was. I’d bounced soap bubbles off my fingertips that had more substance.
For the briefest of moments, Rosalie insinuated her body against mine, mashing her breasts against my stained tunic. They were round and felt surprisingly firm beneath her riding clothes. It was not the fall that had carried her against me in that manner; she had done it deliberately with a subtle arching of her back that only I detected. Then, after the ever-so-brief gesture, she stepped back and put her hand to her throat in a fluttery manner. “Thank you, squire,” she said, her voice having a most alluring musical lilt.
“Not … a problem, milady,” I replied.
Old Granite did not seem to be the least bit supportive of my chivalric endeavors. His thick red mustache bristled and he said contemptuously, “I give you lesson after lesson, Rosalie, and still you can’t so much as get off the damned horse. You shouldn’t have caught her, squire. A far greater favor you’d have done her if you’d let her fall flat on her ass. It’s the only way she’s going to learn anything about successful mounting.”
“Well … one of two ways,” I said in a low voice, just enough for her to hear. Her cheeks colored, but not in embarrassment because she put a hand to her mouth to stifle what clearly sounded like a giggle. I grinned at her. She did not return the smile with her mouth, but it was clearly reciprocated in her eyes.
Granite smoothly jumped off his horse and thudded to the ground like a boulder. “Come, madam,” he said, sticking out an elbow in a manner intended to be gallant but that instead simply appeared stiff and uncomfortable. This was not a man who was accustomed to the slightest gesture of gentility. She took his elbow and walked out with him, but glanced back at me just before they left.
From that moment, it was simply a matter of time.
I knew all about Granite. He was typical of Runcible’s knights, spouting words of chivalry and justice, but doing whatever he desired behind the king’s back. He made polite and politic noises to the king, but he could be as much of a brute as any common highwayman or any member of the Thugs’ Guild, and he also had a string of mistresses in various towns and villages. He frequented the whores’ tent, which was usually set up at the outskirts of an encampment during a campaign. More than one tart had supposedly come away from the amorous encounter with bruises to show for it when Granite was impatient with his own … performance. The mighty knight, you see, had a bit more trouble wielding his sword off the battle
field than on, if you catch my drift, and that difficulty translated to welts for those who couldn’t easily overcome his problems.
I, however, had no such difficulties.
The Lady Rosalie, “heeding” her husband’s suggestions to improve her riding abilities, took to the stables more and more frequently to get in practice time. Well … allegedly, that was the reason. But an intended hour of riding would end up an hour of conversing with me as I groomed and tended to the horses while she laughed and giggled and watched me perform my duties with a sort of doe-eyed fascination. I knew exactly where matters were taking us, and did absolutely nothing to deter them in their course.
One day she asked me to accompany her on a jaunt, since her husband had gone to deal with a minor uprising in the nearby city of Pell, and she was concerned lest bandits be wandering the roads. This, of course, wasn’t her major concern. We rode several miles away from the good king’s stables, chatting about trivialities, nonsense, and just about everything except for what really occupied our thoughts. By the lakeside, on a cool morning, nature took its course.
Let us just say that she did not ride exclusively sidesaddle.
I’m sure that I provided little more than an amusement to her, a dalliance. The obvious conclusion was that she was using me to get back at her husband, to make him jealous. But I doubt that was the case, because siccing the green-eyed monster upon Granite could only have fatal consequences. Rosalie may not have been the most polished apple to fall off the tree, but she was most definitely not suicidal. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy over our relationship heightened the likelihood of her keeping her pretty head on her shoulders. Besides, when you get down to it, isn’t it the very illicitness of an affair, the forbidden nature of it, which makes it so exciting? Even pedestrian sex can be elevated to new heights when one isn’t supposed to be having it.
That was probably what kept it going. Old Granite had made very clear to all and sundry that he thought very little of his wife’s mental prowess. He considered her something of a twit. But twit or not, she ably concealed the existence of her tawdry little escapades (and I say that with only the fondest of recollections and greatest esteem) from this great warrior who thought himself one of the most canny and discerning of men.
Consequently, when it all came crashing down, it landed with a most pronounced thud.
The Pell situation, which started as something rather inconsequential, began to spiral out of control. Granite made a tactical error, you see. There had been a hard core of individuals utterly opposed to pouring more tax money into the king’s coffers. I couldn’t blame them, really. Most of the money paid in taxes didn’t go into providing resources for public works, but instead either lined the pockets of key knights, or served to fund foreign wars that most of the peasants never heard of and didn’t care about.
The hard core of individuals were endeavoring to organize protests, even stonewall against further taxes. The other peasants were reluctant to join with them. This came as no surprise to me. Being a peasant, I know the mind-set. One becomes so used to being downtrodden that one starts to believe that it’s nature’s intent that one should inhabit a low rung in society. Lack of movement is a formidable force to overcome.
The rabble-rousers called themselves the Freedom Brigade and set themselves up as enemies of the king and his policies. But they weren’t enemies, really. An enemy is someone who has the capability to do you genuine harm. Calling this lot enemies was like referring to head lice as criminal masterminds. They had the ability to irritate, but they were no threat. Only one of the “Brigadiers” had any knack for rabble-rousing at all. I knew him from the old days. His name was Tacit, he was damned goodlooking, and the women tended to swoon when they saw him coming. But swoon-inducers aren’t necessarily great leaders of men, because men tend to mistrust other men who are that handsome. They start thinking that there’s some other agenda in force, such as seeking out leadership just to get the attention and favors of the women, and perhaps they’re not wrong to believe that.
Besides, Tacit wasn’t the leader of the Brigadiers anyway. I don’t even recall the name of the leader offhand; that’s how forgettable he was. He was simply stolid and determined to change things, and wasn’t particularly good at making that happen.
The truth was, the Brigadiers really just wanted to be in the favorable position enjoyed by those they were opposing, which is usually the case of protesters. If Granite had given them just a taste of the good life, the Freedom Brigade would have melted like a virgin’s protests on her wedding night. One of the best ways to dispose of enemies—even perceived ones such as the Brigadiers—is to make them over into allies and friends. When someone is not truly in a position to hurt you, that is the time to approach him or her with an air of camaraderie. Respect. Bribery. The Freedom Brigade could easily have been bought off. Hell, I suspect they could have been retooled into a formidable squad of tax collectors that would have put the king’s own men to shame.
But not old Granite, oh no.
For Granite was a fighting man, you see. Put him on a field with a sword and buckler, give him a squadron behind him, point him in a direction—any direction—and say, “Kill,” and watch him go at it. As a slaughtering machine, he was a thing of beauty. There was a tendency to elevate him in positions of importance and rank as a consequence. It’s understandable, I suppose. Put yourself in the place of the king. You come riding up to a field after the battle is done, there are bodies strewn all over the place like clothes at a brothel, and there’s one man standing there, wavering slightly, wearing tattered armor, copious amounts of blood (none of it his), and a somewhat demented smile. You would tend to think that this fellow knows what he’s about. Such was the case with Granite.
Unfortunately, what the king did not realize is that just because one was skilled at one means of controlling an uprising—namely by whacking it until all of its internal organs are on the landscape—did not automatically translate into any sort of aptitude for handling other situations.
When Runcible learned of the situation in Pell, he sent Granite, convinced that he was dispatching one of his best men to attend to it. Were Pell in the midst of full-scale riot, Granite might indeed have been just the fellow for it. But matters were still controllable. Why wade in with a broadsword when a whispering dagger would do the job?
Well, Granite used a broadsword and a half. He and his men rode in like the great damned king’s own Ninth Army, stampeded through Pell, rounded up a dozen townspeople at random and threatened them with beheading if they didn’t produce the names of the Freedom Brigadiers. The citizenry, who were upset about their taxes but not that upset, coughed up the identities like phlegm. Better to live poor than die with a few extra coins in your pocket.
Granite then rounded up the Freedom Brigade. What a great bloody row. The noise, the screaming … it was horrific. They captured almost all of them, and—truth to tell—the Brigadiers didn’t exactly conduct themselves as heroes. Playing at being freedom fighters, criticizing the king from a distance, declaring that taxes would not be forthcoming and that the king should take his best shot at collecting them—these are all well and good in the abstract. Faced with a sword to your throat, however, your priorities tend to shift. Rhetoric takes a second chair to saving your own skin. My understanding is that they begged, pleaded for their lives. They wept, they entreated, they soiled their breeches … in short, they made godawful fools of themselves.
Once again, Granite could have gotten out of the entire Pell mess with a minimum of fuss and muss. Not old blockhead, no. The unmanly wailing of the Brigadiers offended Granite’s sensibilities. He felt that his valuable time had been wasted rounding up such clearly unworthy foes. This set his anger all a-bubbling, and he needed an outlet for his rage. As it turned out, the only available target was the Brigadiers.
So he put the stupid bastards to the sword, every one of them. Every one except Tacit. Tacit had not been captured with the rest. They tried to tak
e him, to be sure. But when Granite made his sweep, which dragged in the rest, Tacit had managed to fight his way through it, battling with the ferocity of a manticore when faced with death. His freedom had not come without a price. He lost half an ear and his right eye, poor bastard. He took refuge in the Elderwoods, his old stomping grounds, which he and I frequented as children. Once he’d reached there, he was a phantom. There he healed, and eventually returned to Pell with an eyepatch and a new and deadly resolve. Tossed capriciously in the crucible, he’d come through it forged into a cold and formidable enemy.
He rallied the people of Pell in a way that no others of the Brigade had managed, and he turned the entire town into an army. Every man, woman, and child rallied behind him, refusing to pay taxes and demanding the head and private parts of Granite.
Granite obliged. He brought his head, his private parts, and his sword arm—all still connected to the rest of his sculpted body—and he also brought along armored troops. They laid siege to the town, and within hours all of Pell was aflame and easily sixty percent of the populace was dead, and another twenty percent or so was dying.
Naturally this resulted in an eighty percent drop in taxes from Pell, which was what all of the to-do was about in the first place. Granite, however, had lost sight of that.
King Runcible had not.
He didn’t get truly angry—he rarely did. But he informed Granite that he was not happy, no, not happy at all with the situation. Granite hemmed, hawed, made apologies, and tried to defend the extreme actions he had taken. “We shall have to think on this,” Runcible said finally, which is what he always said when faced with something unpleasant. He then ordered Granite to patrol the outer borders of the kingdom.
I was present when the order was given, standing discreetly behind Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, the elderly knight whom it was my “fortune” to be squiring at the time. It was easy to remain out of sight behind Umbrage. He was such an uninteresting bastard that no one glanced in his direction. He would just stand there, long, skinny, white-haired, and jowly beneath his scraggly beard, leaning on his sword and nodding as if he were paying attention to what was going on.