Dodgy artwork by Derek Paterson

Copyright © 2002 by Derek Paterson
Published by AOIFE'S KISS Issue #3, December 2002 (print edition)
Lord Rychard ordered the Elf wizard put to death for his incompetence. Nurendiel pleaded with him just before the executioner's broadsword descended, urging him to have more faith, but Rychard didn't have time for faith.  The second Goblin army was gathering in the valley below and would attack at dawn.  Rychard needed the Ghost Knight to rise from the dead and lead them into battle against the hated enemy now.
His anger only partly assuaged by the Elf's demise, Rychard entered the torchlit cave and knelt before the Ghost Knight's unmoving body.  Trejoor had been laid to rest here two days ago in his golden armor, the sinister black arrow still protruding from his breast.  Rychard's captains had hacked the Goblin archer to pieces after Trejoor fell, but that was small compensation for the loss of the legendary Ghost Knight, who'd answered Nurendiel's summons when the Goblin invasion of the Southern lands had begun.
  How Rychard remembered that summoning! Billowing mists had sprung up out of nowhere at Nurendiel's command, and then, to Rychard's astonishment, Trejoor had appeared upon a white stallion, his sword drawn and held high.  The greatest hero of Southern legends, returned!
  And, by the gods, Trejoor had shown the Goblin scum the meaning of defeat! Taking command of Rychard's forces, he'd crushed the first Goblin horde and slain its king, Ulruk.  The very sight of the Ghost Knight's gleaming golden armor and flashing runesword had sent the bloodied survivors reeling in terror.
  But now the Ghost Knight lay dead, just when Rychard needed him most.  His scouts had reported that a second, even larger, Goblin horde was marching south, led by their new king, Grakmed, brother of Ulruk.  When morning came, Grakmed would throw his horde into battle.  Without the Ghost Knight to lead them, Rychard's outnumbered army would surely lose.
  "What am I to do, Trejoor?" he asked the corpse.  "What am I to do?"  Rychard shuddered, made cold and miserable by this unexpected turn of events.  This was all Nurendiel's fault for not warning them that the Ghost Knight could be slain by magick.  The black arrow that slew Trejoor must have been charged with foul sorcery.  Rychard was glad he'd ordered the Elf executed.  Nurendiel fully deserved his fate.
  A clattering came from the entrance and Gysward, Rychard's youngest son, entered the cave, banging his head on the low ceiling.  Rychard winced in sympathy.  His older brothers called Gysward "The Plank," with good reason.  Gysward served as Rychard's esquire, which allowed Rychard to keep a watchful eye on him.
  "Here you are, Father," Gysward said, rubbing his skull.  "Your captains are asking for you.  What shall I tell them?"
  Rychard shook his head.  "I don't know, lad. I just don't know."  Thus far only Rychard's senior captains and Gysward knew that Trejoor was dead.  He'd kept the news from spreading to the common men, knowing that this would result in widespread desertion.  His army was relying upon Trejoor leading them into battle tomorrow.  Without the Ghost Knight in the van, they'd turn and flee in terror from Grakmed's horde.  And who could blame them?  Certainly not Rychard.
  Gysward sighed heavily and knelt down beside him.  "I wish there was something I could do, Father, to help you in your hour of need."
  Rychard patted Gysward's shoulder.  The boy might be notoriously stupid, but he always meant well.  "I know, lad, I know.  The Fates have turned against us.  We must deal with the situation as best we can."
  He glanced at his son, and in the flickering torchlight saw something entirely unexpected.  Gysward's face, when viewed at the right angle, was not dissimilar to the Ghost Knight's.  Nor was his physical size much different.  Why, dress him in Trejoor's armor and one might easily think—
  Rychard stared at the dead Trejoor.  Dare he attempt such a bald deception?  Was it even possible?  He tried to think it through.  What if...?  What if he spread the word that Trejoor had merely retreated to the cave to gather his powers for the ultimate battle?  What if they dressed Gysward in the Ghost Knight's armor, and gave him his sword, and put him on his stallion?  Rychard's heart raced.  By the gods, yes!  It might work!
  And if it didn't?  They were facing certain defeat by the much larger Goblin horde anyway, weren't they?
  Rychard got up and quickly outlined his plan, watching as Gysward's dull face registered surprise, confusion, astonishment.  And then, finally, comprehension.  Rychard nearly sighed with relief.  He'd wondered whether the idea might be too complex for Gysward's limited reasoning.
  "Will you do it, lad?" he said.  "Will you become the Ghost Knight so that we might defeat Grakmed's horde?  They'll flee the field if they see Trejoor leading our knights in a charge.  Or most of them will, anyway.  Those unfamiliar with Trejoor's legend and his total mastery of warfare will stand and fight, but you'll be surrounded by our best men, who will willingly put their bodies between you and the enemy."
  Gysward stood, banging his head again.  Rychard groaned inwardly.  "Aye, Father, of course I'll do it," Gysward said.  "What matters the risk, when it is for the good of our people?"
  Rychard clapped him on the back, surprised yet pleased by his son's enthusiasm.  "Then stay here and prepare the Ghost Knight," he said, "while I summon my captains and explain the plan to them.  It will begin tonight, when Trejoor emerges from this cave and walks among our men, encouraging them to fight like demons on the morrow."
  "Trejoor, Father?"
  "You, Gysward, you! Wearing his armor."
  "Ah."  Gysward nodded understanding.  "Now I see."
  Glad that he did, Rychard hurried outside, calling his captains to conference.

§


Brazen trumpets brayed, crude hammers thudded against drumskins, and the Goblin horde roared and stepped forward as one.
  Rychard, from his vantage point on the slope above, counted no less than ten thousand Goblins, each carrying a huge broadax forged from black iron.  Nearly a third of the enemy rode upon the backs of snarling mountain wolves.  By contrast, Rychard's thousand armored knights were mounted upon their much swifter horses, and his well-equipped infantry companies were armed with gleaming steel swords and spears.  The disciplined versus the undisciplined; the noble against the unspeakable.
  Despite being outnumbered three against one, Rychard felt confident.  He'd heard Gysward addressing the troops last night, lowering his voice so he sounded just like Trejoor.  And then again this morning, filling them with zeal and cold hatred for the enemy.  When Gysward had raised his sword and demanded every man sing the Southern anthem at the top of his voice so the goblins would think they were ten times their number, Rychard's throat had tightened.  He'd exchanged signals with the knights surrounding Gysward.  They knew their duty was to get his son down there and then get him back alive, in one piece.
  Gysward—no, this morning he was Trejoor, the Ghost Knight, saviour of the Southern lands, the great hero who'd returned from the mists of time to lead them to victory against the enemy!—guided his white stallion forward until he stood in front of the battle line.  Then, without warning, he turned and galloped up and down the line, shouting encouragement to knight and soldier alike, picking out individual men by name, making jokes, assuring them they'd all get their chance at glory, and would they kindly leave some Goblins for him to kill, please!
  Rychard smiled.  His son was playing his role well.  Perhaps wearing the Ghost Knight's armor and riding his white stallion had instilled some kind of magick into him?  Rychard admitted to himself that he'd not paid Gysward as much fatherly attention as he should have. A mistake on his part, since evidently The Plank possessed manly qualities of which Rychard should be proud.  He hoped Trejoor's magick would last long enough to break the Goblin army—prayed that the Fates who'd struck Trejoor down would this day smile upon Gysward and protect him from Goblin arrows and broadaxes.
  At last, Gysward—no, Trejoor!—resumed his position in the middle of the line.  Again he drew his sword, which caught the morning sunlight as he held it aloft. When he brought it down, a thousand knights spurred their horses forward.  The infantry followed, quick-marching in a tight-packed phalanx, shieldmen leading the way, spearmen and archers on the inside.
  Down, down the slope charged the knights, the cream of Southern manhood.  The enemy's front line became a mass of heavy leather shields.  The Goblin horde spread out on both flanks, forming the horns of a giant bull that would close upon the Southerners the instant they struck the shield wall.  But this age-old tactic—which the Goblins had stolen from the Dwarves, their mortal enemies—assumed that the shield wall would hold.  Already Rychard detected panic in the Goblin ranks.  Chaos took hold as those in front turned to flee but were denied by those behind.  The great bull's horns began to disintegrate.  Rychard grinned savagely.  Doubtless Grakmed's wizards had assured their king that the Ghost Knight was dead.  How wrong they were! Trejoor rode toward them, a dramatic figure at the head of a thousand seasoned knights who lusted for Goblin blood.
  "Kill them, lad," Rychard hissed softly.  "Kill them all."
  He became aware of a presence, and turned to look down in surprise at Gysward, who stood beside him.  No—not Gysward! The tall figure wore Gysward's clothing, but his face was paler and more angular, the dark eyes sunken and possessed of an inhuman and frightening intelligence.  Trejoor the Ghost Knight scowled up at Rychard, whose bowels threatened to loosen.
  "What is happening?" the Ghost Knight demanded.  "Who is it that rides my horse, and wears my armor, and bears my sword?"
  Rychard licked his suddenly-dry lips.  His captains stared, open-mouthed, unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes.  Rychard was having similar problems.
  "M-mighty Trejoor, we thought you were dead."
  "I was slain, but now I am restored again," Trejoor said matter-of-factly, as if they were discussing nothing more significant than the weather.
  "Restored?  But how?"
  "Have you not heard of sorcery, man?  Do you not know what my name means in the Old Tongue?  Three days! If I am slain in battle then I rise again in three days."  He looked around.  "Where is the wizard?  Where is Nurendiel?"
  Rychard chewed his lip.  "The Elf had, er, what you might call an unfortunate accident," he said, unnerved by Trejoor's baleful stare.  "He is no longer with us, alas."
  Trejoor's eyes narrowed with suspicion.  "I see.  So, let me guess what happened, my Lord Rychard.  You stripped me of my armor and sword and gave them to someone else.  That someone is now riding into battle, pretending to be me.  Am I correct?  Or have I made entirely the wrong assumption?"
  Rychard wished Nurendiel were still alive so he could order him roasted over a slow fire.  The Elf should have told him Trejoor would rise again!
  "Mighty Trejoor, you are correct," he admitted at last.  "You must understand, I had no way of knowing—"  He stopped, swallowed hard and started again.  "I thought you were gone forever."
  "Had I been vanquished, Lord Rychard, my corpse would have been reclaimed by the mists of time, along with my horse, my armor and my sword.  The fact they are still here should have told you something!"
  Rychard said, "I know it's bad manners to speak ill of the dead, mighty Trejoor, but I really must blame all this upon Nurendiel.  The Elf was old, and plainly forgetful.  He did not share with us the meaning of your name, or the extent of your powers."
  Rychard watched Trejoor closely for any signs of disbelief, and to his relief found none.  Instead the Ghost Knight looked down the slope, and slowly shook his head.  "A great pity," he said.  "It would have been glorious."  With this, he turned and walked back toward the cave.  Seized by sudden panic, Rychard dismounted and ran after him.  He grabbed Trejoor by the arm, turning him around.  The Ghost Knight looked down at Rychard's hand, then looked at Rychard, who quickly let go.
  "Mighty Trejoor, forgive me.  I admit to foolish ignorance.  I should have demanded that Nurendiel tell me everything.  But ask yourself, is my foolishness reason enough for you to abandon your people in the hour of their greatest need?"  He glanced back over his shoulder.  The charge continued.  Within a matter of seconds his knights would be smashing through the enemy's weakened shield wall, hacking and slashing at the exposed Goblin king.  Grakmed would be unable to maneuver, unable to retreat.  When his grinning skull banner fell to signal his death, the entire Goblin army would flee the field.  They'd not stop running until they reached their frosty homeland, far to the north—those who managed to escape the butchery Rychard had ordered.
  Trejoor indicated the cave mouth.  White mist filled the opening and Rychard shivered, aware that the temperature around them had fallen markedly.
  "What does this mean, mighty Trejoor?" he asked.
  "I have no choice in this, Lord Rychard.  You slew the Elf wizard.  I know this; you need not deny it.  But Nurendiel was my link with this place, you see.  Now that he is gone, the sorcery he wove that summoned me here is dissipating.  I am being recalled to limbo, where I must sleep until the next spell of awakening is cast.  Assuming, of course...."  He looked beyond Rychard, to the place where the two armies were about to come together.  "Assuming that there is a next time.  I am unable to see such a future, which worries me more than slightly.  But, as I have said," he shrugged eloquently, "I have no choice in this."
  Rychard, enraged, shook his fist in Trejoor's face.
  "Damn you man, you would desert us, would you?  Then, to hell with you, I say! Go back to sleep, or whatever it is you do.  You have soiled your own legend.  I'll see every storybook and scroll in the land is changed so your name is struck out.  When I'm finished, you'll be less than a dim memory, mark my words."
  Trejoor nodded slowly.  "That is always the way with legends," he said.  "One comes to an end and is forgotten, while another rises to take its place."
  To Rychard's irritation, the Ghost Knight did not elaborate.  Instead he left Rychard standing there fuming with anger, and entered the cave.  The white mists swirled as if blown by an unfelt wind, and retreated into the cave after the Ghost Knight.
  Rychard ran back to where his captains waited.  He didn't need Trejoor! His army could defeat Grakmed's army without the Ghost Knight's help.  As long as the enemy continued to think Gysward was Trejoor, the battle was as good as won!
  Confident all would be well, Rychard remounted his horse and looked to where the battle raged.
  He swallowed hard, and signed for a servant to bring him a bottle of wine.  He snatched it from the man's hand, took the cork between his teeth, spit it out and raised the bottle to his lips, drinking with such haste that wine spilled down his mustache and beard, staining his surcoat red.
  Below, amid a swirling sea of dying men and horses, Gysward knelt upon the hoof-churned ground, his head bowed and his thin shoulders heaving uncontrollably as he wept.  His white horse, his golden armor and his gleaming runesword had vanished with Trejoor's passing.  The charge had failed.  The Goblin shield wall had held and Grakmed had counterattacked.
  Rychard wept also, for the knowledge of certain doom is a terrible thing, especially when that doom might have been so easily avoided.  The Ghost Knight had been right—a new legend was a-borning this day, one that would be told around campfires for centuries to come.  The legend of Lord Rychard the Arrogant, Rychard the Ambitious, Rychard the Fool, who'd brought disaster upon his people.
  The wine tasted sour.  Rychard threw the bottle away, drew his dagger from its sheath and did the only honorable thing.

The End

published by AOIFE'S KISS
Issue #3, December 2002 (print edition)
Tyree Campbell, editor
Fiction by: Jay Lake, Tyree Campbell, Eric S. Brown, J. Alan Erwine, Beverly Bonnie O'Neill,
C. A. Merrick, Angeline Hawke-Craig, Derek Paterson
Poetry by: L. A. Story Houry, Sarah Guidry, Erin Donahoe, Christina Sng,
Julia Shiel, Lisa Bradley, Erin Donahoe, Cathy Buburuz
Reviews by: Cathy Buburuz, Kelly Adey

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