He crossed the court without turning left or right and kneeled before the king. “I, Gregory of Northlee, ask a boon of King Hector, paramount ruler.”
“You shall have it,” uttered the king. “Only name the boon, good Gregory of Northlee.”
“I desire a bag of star seeds,” the stranger said, causing gasps and wondering looks through the court.
“Bring it forth,” commanded the open-handed king. “Noble Gregory, I grant you this boon freely. However, know it is a grave boon. I hope you return to this court someday to tell us what you did, though I do not demand it.”
“That I will do.” Gregory took the marvelous bag in both hands and left the hall.
Mountains marched to the north while forests marched south, and between them was the entrance to the clear-skied land of Northlee. Gregory secured his horse’s barding, girded himself with death-blunting armor, and took up his man-slaying arms before riding forward to the gap, where a fortress of looming stone shadowed the road.
The country between the trees and peaks was not wide, but there were cleared fields for the aid of the fortress. As Gregory passed, men and women there left off working and hurried up to him, worry in their eyes.
“My lord, for such you must be, turn aside! No one may cross into Northlee without leave from King Harold, which you must not have if you come armed as you are. Yet if you hope to win through by force, abandon such folly. Lord Wulfred guards this pass in the king’s name. He is hardier than the fortress he commands, sterner than the stones piled on one another, and has star-forged armor and a like sword given by King Harold himself along with this charge.”
“I know it,” spoke Gregory, “for I passed this way before. Even so, I must return. King Harold would never suffer my passing, Lord Wulfred’s arm is heavy, and I have lost before. Nevertheless, I must take this to the end.” He patted a bag tied to his horse, and none knew what it meant.
Gregory spurred his horse straight for the fortress gates. Reaching them, he waited for what must come. The gates rose, no longer barring the view of a rider whose massive steed, stamping the ground and snorting with impatient war-lust, was alone among horses fit to bear him. His armor was silver and radiated unearthly light. On his shield was a bear with blood-soaked fur.
“Leave, traveler,” Lord Wulfred commanded in a voice that carried across the fields. “Unless you have permission from King Harold, you may not pass into Northlee. I would not kill one who is not yet a criminal in this land. If you have deserved death elsewhere, seek it there.”
“I am a felon here, an exile. To return is death, but there are wrongs done in this land since then, and I must return.” Gregory banged his spear against his shield, calling for the clash of arms.
Two horses charged, and two shields turned to ward off death-dealing spears. The heroes circled each other, striking across their bodies and blocking everything. No thunderstorm ever crashed louder than their resounding blows, yet no flesh opened with red wounds.
The hard combat failed to weaken the lord of the pass. At last Wulfred drew back his powerful arm and thrust his spear straight at Gregory’s shield, and nothing could resist him. The shield cracked as Wulfred’s own spear splintered. “And next your life!” he roared as he drew his sword, his silver sword which split even the sun’s holy light.
Gregory backed his mount away to give his long spear space in which to play, but his foe charged to deny it. Even after he struck Wulfred’s elbow with his steel-tipped spear, the sword shrieked through the air. He leaned back and avoided death, but the sword swung down through his loyal horse’s flesh and took that beast’s life with one blow.
“Ah, after bearing me so far!” Gregory cried. He won free of the faithful corpse and, spear thrown aside, readied his metal-crushing mace.
“A pity, as all life is,” Lord Wulfred said. He dismounted and beat his sword against his shield to signal the two-footed battle.
Gregory was wary of his enemy’s great limbs, terrible blade, and dauntless courage, but there was no way forward but victory. He waited for the silver sword to rise again then rushed forward for the clinch. His mace did what it could, blow after blow, but Wulfred was stout. The foe dropped his shield and shoved away Gregory, who kept his footing firm and his right arm free. His mace made one firm swing before the sword could answer, smashing into the fortress-ruling champion’s helmet. The sword fell from stiff fingers.
Laid out on the ground, Lord Wulfred gasped out his last words. “You have killed me, but with your arms you cannot kill the king. Take my blade if you think it right. Take also my horse to bear you across the country, but I warn you: He will not carry you in battle. Only I could master him.”
“I will heed your words,” Gregory said. He waited till stubborn life drained from his foe, that hard-handed hero, before closing the man’s eyes, taking his sword, and mounting his horse.
Gregory rode east through Northlee until the road turned north to King Harold’s court. At the road’s bend there was a fortress hanging over the ocean, for that was where the land ended. He passed by without secrecy, and a man rode toward him from the fortress. Gregory halted Lord Wulfred’s horse and dismounted in wait.
The man approached and jumped off his horse as nimbly as an acrobat. His armor was made of chain that repulsed the sun with its own light. His shield glowed too, and no device adorned its surface. He addressed Gregory. “Halt! If you are the intruder who overcame Lord Wulfred, say so. If you are someone else, tell me who you are.”
“I am the intruder,” Gregory said. “You know me, but who are you?”
The man, with strange emphases and slurring, responded. “I have heard you must be some lord, so I did not venture to say much. Since you asked, I will tell you.
“I am Jans, captain of a sailing ship from across the ocean. That ship sailed far and wide, finding novelties and wonders all over. There are dangers in the sea, but my ship was well-built, my crew was expert, and fortune favored us.
“That was until the Great Boar disappeared from the sky. Without that constellation, we drifted without guidance on the open sea until we sighted a sky-skewering tower and made for it. You must know it was King Harold who built that tower so high he was able to reach up and seize the stars. Any lost ships which came near his shores were boarded by his pitiless reavers.
“We were no different. His ships boarded us to take all we had. We fought hard against them, but sometimes I wish we had not. They beat us and chained us and dragged us to the king, who told me he would have my canny arm obey his orders. If not, he would kill my men. What could I do?
“He gave me these star-forged arms (since a poor sailor’s panoply is nothing impressive), a horse I can barely ride, and this fortress. Now he has ordered me to kill the lord who forced his way into Northlee. If your lordship has no more questions, prepare for the blood-drenched struggle I am bound to fight.”
Gregory unhooked his bone-breaking mace and stood ready, unwilling to advance without a shield. His foe, however, proved no more eager to close, so Gregory took the lead. He stepped forward and swung, but the seaman hopped back. Again he swung, and again his foe dodged.
Jans was nimble, but Gregory was confident in his wind and strength. The lord pressed the captain hard, trying to push him against the cliff to force a close contest, but it was no use. Blow after blow met neither flesh nor armor as the sun passed overhead, and swing after swing had no result while the shadows lengthened.
Gregory’s chest heaved, his arms burned, as he chased the seaman, who gave no sign of flagging. He kept swinging, knowing his wind was near its end, when a shock ran through his body. The mace hit more than air; Jans had lifted his shield. The shield fell from numb fingers while the mace broke into pieces, and the battle changed. Gregory drew Wulfred’s sky-ruling sword and rained down blows like a tempest on the sailor, whose once-spry legs could no longer dodge. Jans returned blow for blow, and deafening clangs filled the air.
More wind was in Gregory, and more strength, and doom. His blade slashed with fury Jans could not match, and the sword opened the foe’s belly. The combat over, Gregory stepped back.
Captain Jans looked down at his seeping guts and said, “But who will save my men?” He dropped his arms and fell to his knees. “I enjoin you: Take my shield, ride to Boarspear Tower, and do for King Hector as you have done for me.”
Gregory nodded. “I will do what you ask, for it is the king who is wrong.” He reached out his arms to guide the light-limbed champion to a posture fitter for a man to breathe out his life. Gregory, silver shield on arm, went on.
He rode up the coast past lordly lands, not turning to the left. His county was no longer his, but his dreadful hands and awful intent were left to him.
Boarspear Tower rose high and drew all eyes to it from far away. He rode daylong, and the lengthening nights saw him ride through them as well. At last he reached the base of the cloud-shaming tower and found at its base a solemn lord whose shield bore two gore-clawed lions guarding a palace. The sun was bright and illuminated all but the champion’s armor, which was of a silver far above gold.
“You should not be here,” Lord Steward Malcolm declared in dark tones some use in lamentation, others in threat. “Harold is king after his uncle. The lords who fought him are dead or exiled. You were exiled, so it is death to return.”
“I know it. It was wrong to fight him then, and it is wrong to return now. What he has done though is far worse. That is why I go against him.”
“What you say is true, but do not think to win entry. My duty, my skill, and my strength stand in your way.”
There was nothing left for words to do, and Gregory unsheathed Wulfred’s unearthly sword. Malcolm drew his sword, which was of the same temper, and raised his wooden shield against the silver-coated bulwark that guarded Captain Jans until fate came upon him.
Gregory’s attack was fierce, and if the steward blocked his blows it was just as well, for he meant to break that shield. All the steward’s blade-turning skill was used in vain as slivers and chunks broke from the guarding wood and fell to the ground. Gregory had his way, forcing his foe to cast away his shield.
“And yet I fight on,” the lord steward spoke. He punched with his emptied left hand, his bone-grinding might stunning Gregory. A step forward and Malcolm grappled the exile; his hand was heavy and his grip was strong. Shoving, twisting, and turning did nothing but delay the steward’s life-stealing stroke.
Gregory knew his strength was less. Soon his foe would squeeze the wind and life from his lungs, grab his head and strike through his neck, or wrestle him to the ground and let him bleed out his last onto the hard ground through sword-struck wounds. He gave up width and strength to the steward but not height. Rearing back, he struck with his well-helmed head. There was a crack and a crunch and two rattled heroes, but Gregory’s pain was less. He gave another head-butt and won free of the iron-handed steward’s grip. The silver sword was not to be stopped by the dazed and shield-shorn champion, and blood flowed from the mortal gash.
“It is not strange to die here,” Lord Steward Malcolm said. “I perish doing my duty, with no regrets or hatreds.”
“I have many, for I have killed good men,” Gregory’s quiet voice said. “Yet I must go on.”
“That is only right.” The steward said that and nothing more. Gregory crossed the high-minded hero’s arms, closed his eyes, and entered the tower.
Inside the tower was a spiral staircase which wound around a central column. It was the only way up, so Gregory climbed it. Up floors and floors he went, meeting no servant, knight, or lord. He climbed amid silence at first till the sounds of birds waxed. He climbed amid calls and caws till the sounds of birds waned.
The tower walls gave way to clear sky, and Gregory saw the clouds below in the fading light. Even so the stairs continued around a sky-piercing spire. He climbed yet higher to the country of the stars. At last he reached the summit, and there at the tower’s crown was a king.
Not broad but tall, not dour but fearsome was King Harold. The rays of the stars joined the light of his arms, whose radiance filled a gap in the sky.
“To think I spared your life,” the king mused. “Is there a reward for mercy, or is it a virtue because it is hard and thankless?”
“Yes, you spared me when killing me was your right, but you have killed many you ought never to have fought. You even plundered the starry plains of the sky, which should not be,” Gregory said.
“Why not? Don’t answer. I see you are here with a purpose; let that suffice.”
The two paramount champions drew their star-forged swords and engaged each other in equal combat. For every blow Gregory’s sword made, Harold’s shield came up, while Gregory’s shield turned aside death each time Harold’s sword swung. No sea ever raged against the rocky cliffs to less effect, nor did two stags crash antler against antler with such evenness.
A hundred strokes passed between them, and Gregory knew the end was near. His body burned, his wind was short, and his shoulders could not long bear the weight. There was no space on that pillar’s peak to withdraw, only enough to kill and die. He cast his shield aside to rain down blows with two hands upon his enemy. King Harold blocked as he could while striking Gregory’s body, but even the silver-coated shield cracked under those fell-handed strokes. It cracked and splintered and fell apart, and there was nothing to stop the blade. Gregory’s strength was seeping from his body through king-given wounds, but there was enough left for the work. He raised his star-forged sword and brought it down through the king’s shoulder, down into the chest.
“After all that,” King Harold croaked as his end came upon him.
Gregory said nothing, for there was only one task left to him. He drew forth the bag, grabbed what was in it, and hurled upward with all his might. The seeds flew high, and there in the sky the Great Boar began to shine again.
The Feast of the Long Night was observed at King Hector’s court with the ancient usages. A choir filled the halls with solemn lays while lords and ladies mourned the lost. Great-hearted King Hector himself ate bread and drank water as he recalled and grieved.
In a pause between one dirge and another, a figure appeared in the court which struck everyone with chill. Its legs once guided raging warhorses, its broad shoulders once wore wound-shunning armor, and its hands once gripped swords and maces. It approached the king and kneeled before him.
The king groaned and said, “Miserable youth to have left this life so soon, who are you? Is there something you would ask of me?”
The figure raised its pale head and spoke. “I was Gregory of Northlee. Blessed king, you gave me a boon when I asked, and now I am here to tell you what I worked with it. This is the story…”
I set everything down just as he said it and watched him fade away.
©Andrew Moore 2012
Andrew Moore lives in Colorado with a Classics degree that only gets trotted out to inspire his writing.