Edit: Updated, 3/24 11:50 PM.
This is a story I've worked on over the past few weeks. Though I've read PA for years, I came to the forums very recently (first post, yay); once I saw this forum, I considered my burning desire to have my work marked up and down with the proverbial red pen, and figured these fine internets would be the best place to do it.
That said, I know people may be willing to help a stranger once, but not as many care to give multiple critiques; thus I've thrown this at friends and family already in order to give you as solid of a reading experience as I can. It may not be perfect- it's for a contest, due Tuesday at noon PST, and as such it's not as though I feel like I've crafted this into the most perfect form of which I am capable. Maybe I did, but it would take several more read-throughs to feel comfortable on that point.
If you wish to simply partake and enjoy, I welcome you to do so. If you are a person who enjoys offering up critiques, either constructive or scathing, I welcome you to do so as well. Nitpick as much as you like; if you make a suggestion that I feel does not help, I can discard it much more easily than I can discern what good ideas you have that you're not saying.
The working title is "Knight in Shining Armor", which came about as I worked out the idea, but before I used those exact words to start the story. I'm torn as to whether it looks fitting or goofy that way. I will also gladly take suggestions on that front. Also, yes, the Arcadia reference is a PA shout-out.
Finally, as the thread title states, this is quite long- just shy of ten pages single-spaced in Word. But, with luck, you'll wish there were ten more. Have fun.
P.S. It looks better with proper, indented paragraphs and without being so spaced out. Ah well. Maybe someday HTML coding will be turned on.
The Day of a Knight
“Well, Armand,” said the knight in shining armor to his chestnut warhorse, one blond curl drifting in front of his eyes, “the sign did say, ‘Bandits, One Mile’. This must be the place.”
Armand snorted, his steady hooves pressing into a thick mud path. To their left, a cornfield stretched away to the very edge of the valley’s lowlands. Ahead, the path narrowed between the field and a mud-brick house; the abode had a roof of thatch, making it appear little more than an oversized hut. Beyond that a dark forest stood, allowing no light to shine upon its secrets.
Heavy brown chunks scattered as the hooves flicked back, step by step. Reaching the front of the house, the knight tugged back on the horse’s reins, bringing them to a halt. He grasped the horn of his saddle and pushed himself up, stretching his legs, standing as tall as he dared in the stirrups, fingertips on Armand’s head for balance. But the stalks of corn, tall but bent as though tipsy from an over-consumption of good soil, thwarted his vision; he saw no sign of life among the endless green and yellow rows.
Armand shook his flanks.
“Yes, it is very odd,” the knight said, dismounting. “I would expect to see farmers tilling their fields at the height of day. Perhaps the good peasants are ill in bed? Ah,” he continued, as the horse reared his head back, “I agree, these are somewhat… uncomfortable surroundings, and this neighboring forest forces upon me a lingering sense of caution. But if someone is here, they may tell us what bandits or other evils lurk within. And then we may find a way to make Father proud, hm?” He smiled, tight and thin.
Armand turned away, gnawing at the last three blades of grass within thirty feet. The knight took one last look at the field before lifting his armored hand and rapping on the door.
BANG BANG BANG
The sound echoed across the walls of the house and back out the open window to his left. He cut his knocks short in the wake of the cacophonous din he had created; anyone short of his death bed would be not just astir, but running to the door to discover the cause of such a horrid racket. So he waited.
“Well,” he said, pressing a thumb to his chin in thought, “it looks like we may see brilliant Nairyssa after all. The last innkeeper said it was a haven for adventure-seekers and do-gooders like us. Do you remember, Armand?”
The horse stamped his foot, twisting his head to peer at the knight.
“No, I suppose not, being in the stable and all. My apologies. And it did not seem as if he thought much of the idea of doing good, but that is our mission, yes? It would doubtless be a place to find a task suitable to our goals. And it is but another hundred and fifty miles!” He stared at the door, wiping one forearm plate under his nose. “Perhaps I shall try once more.”
He raised his hand and knocked again, louder. He did this twice; he may have considered knocking more had the door not begun to splinter beneath the weight of his fist.
His eyes bulged. He glanced left; nothing. To his right, Armand shook his head. The knight exhaled, turned around-
- and there he beheld a man nearing both ancient and decrepit status, draped in the ragged dress of a peasant farmer. A grumbling sneer displayed two teeth and gaps where at least two others should have been, and an epic stench accompanied him.
“Oh,” he repeated. “Hello,” he finally managed, coughing.
"Y'know, if you're looking for a farmer in the middle of the day, the house is the last place he'd be," the man said.
"I looked-“ The knight stopped himself. “I suppose you have a point."
The two stared at each other. The old man was a unique sight; unlike most specters of gloom, whose auras of horrible discomfort one could learn to tolerate in time, he became more terrible as the moments passed. A first inspection might reveal the wart on his right cheek, while the second turned up a missing left ring finger. Once the young knight realized the farmer’s hair descended from his head to a point, stopped, and then continued as a streak of hardened grease, he started, almost throwing himself to the ground.
If the old man noticed, he made no indication. His utter stillness brought any assumptions about his awareness, even of such a clear and obvious flailing, into question. Instead he said, with one (and only one) eye fixing itself upon his unexpected guest, “Alright then, who're you?"
A slight and shaky bow, as much as the heavy armor would allow. “I am a knight. My name is not important.”
“Haw!” The old man spat a lump of something best left uninspected. “You come to my farm uninvited, break a hole in my door, and expect me to agree that you’re too good to tell me your name?”
“It is not elitism, I am just-“
“Balls! I guess I’ll just have to call you Insufferable Prat, then.”
The knight inhaled; being downwind of the man, he found himself soon battling an upsurge of bile. “Jehosephat will suffice, good sir,” he gasped.
“Good sir now, is it?” retorted the farmer, oblivious also to the knight’s sudden greenish tinge and unsteady lurch. “I thought they got rid of you bloody idiots centuries ago. No one humble enough to call me ‘good sir’ and mean it has the nerve to stab a rat’s knickers off, much less be an evil-slaying hero to all.”
“A… a rat’s knickers, sir?” Jehosephat steadied himself, breathing through his mouth.
“Aye, a rat’s knickers.” The man’s other eye slinked up to mimic the first, staring at the young knight. “Come now, Jehosephat the Mighty, how’d you get to be a knight of Formidilosus without hearing the story of Sir Asusta and how he became oh-so-famous by catching the giant rat stealing off with the king’s knickers ‘round his waist? Why, he put his sword right through the arse of those things, and the rat got away of course, but the king was a wee drafty from then on-“
“Good sir,” interrupted Jehosephat, “I apologize for confusing you, but I am not of Formidilosus.”
"You’re not, eh? Bah! Youth today, trying to put the sack over an old man’s head.” The sneer rose, parting the farmer’s lips further, revealing an extension of the wide and gaping blackness in his face. “If you're not a hero of this land, then, what land are you a hero of?"
“I hail from wondrous Arcadia, far to the west.” The knight’s clean, strong chin rose as he spoke. He gazed off into the distance, as if the pride of home could do naught but make his heart swell with pleasant memories.
"Never heard of it."
Jehosephat blinked at the man, heart shrinking back to normal. “I… well…”
"Hmph. That’s something, isn’t it then? Stranger comes to your farm and talks down to you like he’s something special, and he’s not even Formidilosian.”
“I did no such-“
“If you’re such a great hero, what've you slayed?"
"I’m not a… and it's... it's slain, but..." Jehosephat slumped his shoulders, flummoxed. "Look,” he continued, pointing back at the road, “I saw a sign that said there were bandits about and-“
The old man guffawed. Opened wide, his mouth was a gaping cave of infinite dark, spotted with a couple of pinprick lights and the idea of a slathering, reddish-brown beast somewhere within. "Well, I'll be. I never did think anyone would get around to clearing those old whippersnappers out of the forest. But you might fit the bill, being a mighty hero and all."
"Right, very well," said Jehosephat, looking to the forest. It seemed much less dark and dismal now. "I am a mighty, mighty hero, and I am come to wield my mighty blade against this vicious evil present in the depths of yon trees and such, so if-."
“You know, Joe,” the old farmer interjected, “I’m no scholar, but if you are a knight, I think it’s a bit unhumble to go around talking about how mighty you are, don’t you?”
“But you kept saying it when I told you it is not true! And my name is-”
“Ah, but there’s the rub, aye? Us peasantry have to kiss your insufferable prat arse just because you can afford shiny metal clothes and a sword that isn’t as old as my dusty granny’s bones, but you can’t go around acting like it’s true. It’s not proper. Bad enough you talk like a prat, you don’t need to act like one too.”
“I do apologize for the misunderstanding,” Jehosephat said, a metal edge to his voice, “but in Arcadia no one has ever ‘kissed my arse’.”
“Well, you’re not in Arcadia now, are you?”
Jehosephat closed his eyes, resting his palm on his forehead. “Good sir, if you would kindly tell me what these bandits look like and what they have stolen, I will work to smite these heretical evil-doers and retrieve your precious possessions.”
“Aye? So you’re finally going to get to work, then?” The old man scratched his scalp, befuddled. “Not used to seeing the nobility work.”
“Yes, well. Yes.” Jehosephat stopped. Every word took him away from his purpose; he could but hope no words would push him forward.
But the old man was in no rush to speak. He focused on his fingers, the ones with which he had just scratched his head. Jehosephat watched the farmer inspect the tips of his fingernails, the seconds of his life ticking away. After the seconds became innumerable, he began a light tap of his toes. The metallic boot bounced off the ground, rhythmic and audible, but instead of looking up, the old man brought his other hand alongside the first, comparing the two.
“Sir!” Jehosephat kept his teeth clenched, thwarting his desire to let a scream of frustration echo off the wall of nearby trees.
“Oh! Right, you’re still here.” The old man brought his fingers to his mouth, sucking down whatever was caught beneath his yellow nails with a quick swallow. “The bandits, right. I’ve never seen the bandits, mind you, so I can’t offer much help there.”
When Jehosephat spoke, his voice was weak. “Ah, yes, the way of knaves, I fear. Come in the dark and live with the shadows, yes.” His eyes glazed over, pointed just away from the man, and his words came from automatic phrases of memory while his consciousness locked onto the image of a greasy old farmer and his impromptu snack of rich lice. “So they have stolen, what, valuables, money-“
“Yes, several pounds of gold and myrrh, because that’s what corn farmers keep in their humble homes, aye? Look at the size of my house! You think I’d not have noticed if they came in?”
“Right, well.” The knight shook away his thoughts, frowning into focus on the present. “What did they steal, then? Corn? Horses, perhaps?”
“Nay, just fertilizer. But it was all my fertilizer!”
Jehosephat paused. “Fertilizer.”
“Aye. What? Maybe they’re farmers too. The Good Man Above knows we’ve got nothing else to steal. Or maybe that’s too dirty for even the thieves of your imagination to get their hands into?”
Jehosephat grit his teeth, but before he could speak, the old man’s filthy face softened in the places visible beneath mud and muck. "Ah, I don’t mean to give you such a hard time there, son, even if you are a useless noble.”
“It seems you do,” the knight said, failing to keep the tinge of bitterness out of his tone.
“Pshaw! I’ll prove my words, then. Since you're here to lend me a hand, I'll offer you the same. Some advice."
"Well,” Jehosephat said, his own expression easing, a blend of surprise and hope supplanting his suspicions, “that would be an appreciated gesture, good sir."
The old man sidled over to him, close enough to impact the poor hero's tears quicker than his most dire ideas of physical torture, and said, "Just remember this: you’ve proven your mighty heroness well enough so far, but a camp of bandits is probably going to be a little tougher than a chewed up old door." Then he slapped the young knight on the shoulder, left a streak of certainly-not-dirt, and staggered back into his fields.
Disturbed, disgusted, but not dissuaded, Jehosephat snatched up Armand’s reins and led him down the muddy path. With the old man’s cackles following them, the knight and his faithful steed ventured into the shadows of the forest.
The path was gone.
Had he not noticed it end at the edge of the farm? No, it had continued, he was certain of that. Stepping into the forest, they had crossed a threshold of shadow, a place darkened even where there were no trees to block them from the sun’s gaze. He recalled the sense of unwelcoming from the entire wood, and how some small cluster of trees maintained a constant presence around them. But the path had always run deeper into the forest, out of sight.
He recalled the sense of the wood pressing in closer, forcing him to walk ahead of Armand in order to navigate the narrow passages open to them. From beneath his feet had come the constant crack of brittle twigs and the squish of his greaves stepping into piles of leafy rot. He had checked the path every so often to assure himself of its presence, looking back to witness its retreat into the dull sunshine beyond the woodland border, until he began, without reason he could recall, to navigate the forest’s winds and bends before all other concerns. And now, before him, lay a trackless mass of green and black amongst the dense wood.
“Hm,” he said. “I believe we have lost our way. Come, Armand, let us step back to the path- easy now- here we go-“ The knight scraped his way between horse and tree- a tree which he had not thought to be quite as close as it was. Once free of that confine, he sought the passage which had led them astray, and by which they might return to the marked path and resume their search for the foul bandits.
But the trees rose behind them, high and tight, with no gap between that might permit a man to pass beyond, much less a horse.
Jehosephat tapped his foot.
“Forward, then,” he muttered.
He trained his eyes upon the ground after that, looking up just enough to guide them through what makeshift paths he could find. At certain moments he felt a pull on his senses, telling him to go left or right. But with a consistency that shifted, after a time, to inevitability, the forest would not permit such lateral movements, and opened no trails but those that led straight ahead into its endlessness.
“I wonder if we shall feel the fresh heat of the sun upon us again,” Jehosephat said after the first mile, or the second, or the third. He closed his eyes, breathed in the deep scent of nature, and sighed. He stepped forward-
-and then, the trees were gone.
In fact, they had receded into the background, not vanished; but though no longer under the weight of their shadow, Jehosephat found himself not at all reassured. The uncanny clearing in which he stood smelled of foreign strangeness, even compared to the woods that surrounded him moments before. How had he arrived? How far had he walked, empty of mind and blind of sense, that he could be ambushed by a meadow and not realize it until he stood fully at its center?
As the shock of his new surroundings ebbed, the knight unstrapped and removed one gauntlet, packing it into an empty saddlebag. He smoothed back his curls, craning his neck to gaze at the endless lengths of the trees (which he could now see in full), whose highest fruits might escape the reach of the grandest giants. The closest branches were just within his sight, and even then they bent upward, as though stretching for the concealed sun- or away from him.
Bandits. There were supposed to be bandits here. Somewhere. Where? He turned his ear to the swirling breeze; but it met nothing save the sound of the wind.
“I do not trust this place, Armand,” he said. “We are far from Arcadia, and I fear- I do not fear- I am concerned of witchcrafts and unnatural strangeness for which we were not prepared. But we have a task to complete. Let us be done with it in the shortest order.”
Choosing a direction at random (for all directions were the same in this place), the knight marched forward, the grass reaching out to him as he passed; but through the thickness of his armor he felt nothing.
Reaching the perimeter, he held his hand out towards the monstrous thickness of the tree before him, but refrained from touching it. Squinting into the darkness of the forest beyond, he discerned the next thick ring of trees, packed as close together as peasant graves. Past that, however, were vague tree shapes amid an otherwise stark emptiness into which he dared not tread.
A slow walk around the circle of trees, now. His hand extended to each, but still he would not come into contact with them. He focused on each, one by one, as if the power of his momentary stare would coerce the trees into giving up their secrets.
Then a flash!-
“I touched nothing!” he screamed, recoiling towards the center of the clearing.
But when he opened his eyes, he discovered nothing in the trees, or with him. Rather, an arc of glimmering light beckoned the knight’s attention mere yards from Armand’s nose, where the horse plunged his face into the welcoming grass.
The knight stooped and stared. What was it? Had it been present all along? Or was this mad place the home of mischievous sprites that placed it there to tease his mind to distraction, as so much else about this empty space of forest did? And the light- this object was not the source, he realized, but a reflection- but what light did it reflect, in a place where the sun but hinted at its own existence beyond the canopy above?
He moved forward. His steps were soft and deliberate, as if the power of the forest clearing would recognize his approach at the last and steal away this mysterious treasure. But no; he stood over it, and with no slight amazement, recognized the object as a warrior’s helmet.
“Father,” he said with hushed voice, “do you see? For all its eerie wonder, man has touched this place. I doubt not the bandits left this behind. We are on the trail, Father, and will soon bring them true Arcadian justice! Once we escape this place-“
The young knight sucked down a breath. Blowing it out, he paced away from the helm. “Armand, do you not see?” he exclaimed, arms askew and swinging as he stomped about the clearing. “This is a sign, this is a sign! It is a clue!” His eyes scanned the ground, focused and careful. “There must be a trail here, there must! Do you see anything, Armand?”
Armand lifted his head, eyeing the knight’s gyrations with bland curiosity, for all the seconds he could manage before the sweet, sweet meadow called to him once more.
“Yes, that was a silly question, I suppose,” said Jehosephat. “But I will solve this! Now, if the bandits left but one piece of equipment behind, it was an oversight, yes? It must have been. And I see no sign of a campfire, though I cannot imagine anyone would willingly rest in this place. No, knaves are forever fighting amongst themselves. It was likely detached, perhaps even along with the owner’s head, as they marched.
“If they are masters of the forest, as any group of rogues must be to survive, they will know the best methods for covering their tracks. Horses? No, they could not make do with horses in this place. No offense, Armand,” he added, as the horse chewed up another tuft without comment. “But to traverse such dense wood regularly must require lightness of movement. And they are doubtless armed with bows and daggers, light swords and spears, made for cowardly stealth attacks amongst the thickness of the forest. We are disadvantaged in all ways, I say! It will be a glorious battle, just as Father would hope!”
Jehosephat flicked his hand against his leg armor, letting his own words reach his ears. “Or, perhaps it would be wiser to lure them beyond the boundaries of this haven. Even with weight of arms, armor, and goodness on his side, one is foolish to engage his enemy on poor tactical footing such as this. Especially when there may be several… or many… or dozens of them. No, it would not do to fight several many dozens of bandits amongst the dreadfulness of this forest. Doubtless better to do it in the middle of an open plain, yes? Especially,” he added, “if they are fertilizer-stealing farmer bandits.” The knight looked back at the helmet. “Perhaps the helm itself will hold some clue,” he said, exhaling.
One step, then two; he lowered himself to a knee, reaching his bare hand out to the headpiece. He stroked the crest that ran front to back, then let his fingertips graze the perfect roundness of the sides, feeling out the grooves of etchings encircling the helm. He leaned closer; the etchings depicted a simplistic grove of trees, all straight lines and bushy tops. It appeared not the proud work of a master artisan, but rather something for the artisan’s child to practice on.
“What an odd sort of heraldry,” he said. “But, as wisdom states I must not seek out the bandits without gathering more information, I shall take it with me and show it to that unhelpful old man. Perhaps if he becomes bored of teasing my honorable nature, he will offer some insight as to its source. Now, Armand, let us be away from this place.” He grasped the helmet and stood.
And just as he stood, a hidden crease of rust beneath the crest crumbled without the support of the earth to maintain it.
[insert][insert]it fractured and fell, half of the helmet tumbling into the grass with a dull, echoless sound.[/insert][/insert]
Jehosephat opened his mouth, but before a sound could escape, another jagged seam of rust undid the shard in his hand. Both of those halves crashed into the first with a single ring of metal on metal; and then it was over. What had been his lone clue to the whereabouts of some heinous cadre of knaves was, instead, a scarred and (now) shattered remnant of ancient and forgotten men.
Or, perhaps, a twisted joke of this ancient and forgotten pasture.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard a twitter, faint and fey.
Eyes bright with vengeance, the noble knight drew his sword and dashed around the meadow. How did one slay a tree? He did not know, but as he hacked and slashed through solid bark and cut into the moist wood beneath, he hoped they bled their drizzling sap forever. And, were he lucky, the forest spirits that taunted and mocked him now would bleed for just as long.
Meanwhile, snuffling deep in the soft green grass, Armand continued to eat.
As the sun took its bow, Jehosephat the mighty knight hero rode out of the forest's embrace. The old farmer worked in front of his little house, wiping assorted farm byproducts off his hands and dumping them into the mud. As the sound of clapping hooves approached, his eyes turned towards Jehosephat, almost in unison.
"Good farmer," the proud knight said, "your bandit problem is solved."
"It is, eh?" The old man sniffed, sounding at least a little impressed.
"Quite, though I regret I was unable to retrieve any of your pilfered possessions. They had discarded of them… somehow."
“Bah, don’t worry about all that. I have plenty.”
“What? I thought you said the bandits stole it all.”
The old farmer snorted something onto the side of his house. “It’s fertilizer, son, and I live on a farm. You think I could ever not have any? They did me a favor.”
“If you did not mind, why is there a sign warning of bandits up the road?”
“For a laugh. Didn’t think anyone would be fool enough to stop by and ask. Or, if they did, the smell wouldn’t be worth finding out the story.”
“Indeed,” the knight said, biting his lower lip.
“Now, now, enough of that. Do tell how you managed your wondrous feat of mighty valor.”
“Well,” and now Jehosephat managed to let a humble smile shine forth, “it was not as difficult as I had imagined. Not to suggest that is due to my own abilities, of course! With but a few slain, their numbers were halved and the remainder frightened into escape. They were remarkably noisy, however, leaving but a simple task in chasing down the rest.”
“Is that right?”
“And you didn’t get any on you?”
“I, well. I cleaned up. There was not much, thankfully, outside of my blade. Cannot allow blood to rust one’s equipment, you know.”
“Eh?” Jehosephat peered down at the old man, who in turn leveled a thoughtful gaze at the mounted knight’s knee.
"It's ironic, I tell you."
Jehosephat frowned. "What is ironic?"
"Well, I assumed the bandits were human, or at least something like it. Didn’t you? But it was the trees that had been robbing us!" the old man exclaimed.
“Hm.” Jehosephat chewed his lower lip again.
"You look puzzled, O sir knight."
"I must confess a mild confusion, good sir."
"Oh, I’m not surprised. You can’t know how well sound carries out here, can you? I’ve chopped a tree or two in my day, son, and if there's any sound I know well, it's sharp metal chipping away at the bark of those old buggers." The old man glanced long at Jehosephat's sheathed sword. "And that certainly is what I was hearing today, once your victorious battle cries had stopped ringing through the forest and out to my poor old ears. Why, I could barely stand such volume! And how did you figure out the mystery of the bandits' identities?"
"Yes, well, about that."
The old man stood silent, eyebrows high with expectation.
"I should be going."
"Oh, no, stay! I insist you spend the evening in this humble abode as a token of my gratitude."
"No, no, I simply could not.“
“You would deny the hospitality of a meager farmer who deigns to give you and your horse shelter in exchange for saving his farm from the evil tree bandits?”
“That is not it at all, sir!”
“Pshaw! Then unpack your things and stay!”
“But we must be moving on tonight, and-“
“Bah, bad enough you’re so bloody irritating, but you force a debt upon a poor old man of the country as well? Let me do something for you, right? Perhaps a sack of fertilizer for the road? Sells well in the city, I hear."
"No! No, good farmer, for your benefit do I live, and I insist that the service is its own reward."
"Can't eat service."
"I can’t eat fertilizer, either."
"You'd be surprised."
Jehosephat kicked his heels into Armand’s brown flanks, spurring the horse down the mud path at the fastest trot propriety would allow. Once on the road, he pushed the horse into a full gallop, racing out of the valley. But no matter how the pounding of hooves filled his ears, he could not avoid hearing an echo of laughter out of the old mud hut to his back.