Squire Errant, by Karl K. Gallagher

Pelanon, a village on the border of the Wild Lands, is plagued by a hideous beast able to quickly devour cattle and man alike! Can Squire Ward rally the beleaguered villagers to make a stand against the creature in the wake of his master’s death?!

Sir Yves rode up to the village headman’s house. I glanced back to make sure we were still a dignified parade behind him. The groom kept a tight hold on the warhorse’s lead. Good. I’d hate to see it kick a child.

Manfred and I flanked Sir Yves as he made his speech to the village elders. The whole village cheered as they gathered into the well-yard to hear. This beast scared them, whatever it was.

Pelanon looked as prosperous as a peasant village could. Clean houses, clothes without patches. The risk of living at the kingdom’s border with the Wild Lands had paid off for them until now.

The headman lamented the hundreds of cattle they’d lost. A hunter who’d seen the monster was brought forward to describe it. I listened carefully. Reading bestiaries had helped me pass some long winters. “Five times the height of a man and able to swallow a steer in three bites,” alas, did not let me narrow down what kind of monster we faced.

“How did you escape, my good man?” asked Sir Yves.

“Didn’t look like good eating, your lordship.”

I believed him. He looked made of gristle spit out on the plate.

When Sir Yves laughed the villagers did too. I noticed my knight again didn’t correct them for calling him a lord.

I looked back at the groom. He’d placed the pack horses on each side of the warhorse to keep the villagers away. In answer to his anxious look I said, “Good work, Hal.”

He smiled. “Thank ye, squire.”

I turned back to the conversation. We would be feasted and spend the night in the headman’s house. His children were scurried out the door clutching their dolls. I jumped down to take the bridle of his palfrey as Sir Yves dismounted.

They served us beef, of course. We’d seen several healthy herds riding in. The locals’ chatter revealed they’d been about to cull the herds for market until the monster did it for them.

The headman signaled the end of the feast with a toast. “Good people, I give you Sir Yves, our savior.”

“Hear! Hear!” shouted the villagers.

I filled Sir Yves’ mug after he drank. He stood. “I give you the cattle-eater’s head, mounted over your gate!”

They cheered for that even louder.

I laid out my knight’s blanket on the cleanest straw pile. Manfred slept on the one by the door. The man-at-arms amazed me with his gift for sleeping instantly. He claimed it came from too many night watches.

I stepped out of the house. “Sir, your bed is ready.”

“Thank you, Ward. I’ll be in soon.” Sir Yves turned back to his warhorse. “Tomorrow, Boulder, you shall have a charge worthy of a true destrier.” He kept currying the animal’s back. Boulder hardly needed it. He’d made the journey with no burden and the least of harnesses, but Sir Yves brushed him regardless.

I vow I will wed no woman unless I can give her as much love as Yves has for that horse.

In the morning we dressed for battle. I placed each piece of armor on Sir Yves, tying thongs and fastening buckles. When each went in place he stretched his arms and twisted his body, making sure all lay correct. I knew he meant no doubt in me. Sir Yves had fought man and monster enough times to learn the value of doing things properly.

The gristly hunter—Ed, he answered to—watched as we prepared. He might have slept in all but his bow.

I placed the helm on Sir Yves last. He bent his knees almost to a squat, then jumped in the air. The rattle and jingle of steel against steel turned all the villagers’ heads. Stretches and bends were next. I watched carefully. No skin showed except around his eyes. Where the plate gapped mail lay underneath.

Manfred tossed aside an apple core. “It lays well, sir.”

Hal led over Boulder. He’d put the full harness on the warhorse. We helped our master mount up. Then he said some inspiring words to the villagers while I donned my armor. It’s the best I can afford, which is to say not much. But it puts steel between beasts and the places they like most to bite.

When Manfred and I mounted up, Sir Yves waved for the gate to open. The village lads pulled it to as we trotted out. It was merely wood stakes roped together. Boulder could have gone through it without slowing.

Ed led us through the patchy woods. I liked the climate here. Back home a cow walked all day to find enough grass to eat its fill. Here one could eat for a week standing still. The hunter pointed out some bits left from the monster’s depredations. The beast was too lazy to eat a leg or head fallen from its maw.

I’d wondered at the herds remaining on the wilderness side of the fields. Then I realized people would want the beast to eat its fill before reaching their houses.

When we passed the last of the cattle Ed began moving from tree to tree, pausing to listen before crossing meadows. We followed patiently.

With the hoof beats and armor jingle and Sir Yves’ lance trailing a pennant twenty feet above the ground I felt sure Ed would not be noticed first. But if my knight was content with his guidance I’d say nothing.

Whatever the thing was, it was truly tall. I spotted broken branches. I held two spare lances for Sir Yves. I used one to reach a stub where a branch had snapped clean off. It was almost thirty feet up.

Ed led us toward the East. The trees were more battered here. He held up a hand. We halted our horses. The sound of breaking wood came clearly through the trees. Then some thumps.

“Splendid work, my man,” said Sir Yves. “Be off now. You don’t want to be between us.”

Ed vanished into the trees.

Sir Yves lowered his lance. Boulder walked faster, feeling his master’s eagerness. I followed, ready to hand over a new lance after he placed the first one. I glanced back at Manfred. He was looking about, taking care nothing would come up behind while Sir Yves focused on his prey.

Two trees stood close enough for their branches to weave together. I saw them surge toward us, part, then snap back to their places. The monster stood before us. Ed had not exaggerated.

It reared up, taller than I had feared. The dagger-toothed mouth opened. A cow would fit in there if it went head-first. It stood on two mighty legs. Bits of sun sneaking through the leaves gleamed on its scales. It lacked only wings to be a dragon.

“Roll, Boulder!” The warhorse needed no spurs to charge. Sir Yves canted his lance up to aim at the monster’s throat.

I pulled a lance from its rest, ready to hand over, as I watched them fly across the ground.

The monster ducked its head and roared. Boulder arrowed at it, dirt and roots flying from his hooves. Sir Yves lowered his lance, aiming for the shoulder.

Then it hopped to the side, more nimbly than I imagined something that size could move. Sir Yves followed, the lance entered the monster’s side. Before he could drive it in, a great three-clawed foot kicked out. Knight and horse catapulted through the air.

Boulder landed hard. The horse voiced its pain, a deeper scream than ever I’d heard on a battlefield. The scream ended as the monster’s jaws closed on Boulder’s neck.

I spurred my mount, dropping the lance. If I could grab Yves while it ate—it looked up at me and roared.

My mount reared, flinging me into a tree. I hit hard. Landing on the ground felt soft after the tree. Almost I screamed. That I didn’t was likely more shock than fortitude.

My horse galloped away but the monster’s legs were longer. The whole hindquarters fit in the gaping mouth. The beast rose to its full height to swallow. The front and legs fell to the ground as the jaws closed.

I saw Manfred turn his courser about and gallop off.

The rest of my mount went down its gullet in two bites. It disdained the legs. The monster stepped over to Boulder’s remnant. Small forelimbs—small on this monster being a man’s length—unfolded. It scooped up the carcass and walked back into the woods. Poor Yves, I thought. He’ll mourn Boulder forever.

I pulled myself up the tree trunk. A few minutes of standing let me walk again. Sir Yves was easy to find. His armor gleamed where the sun’s rays rested on it. He wasn’t in mourning. The monster had hit hard enough to cave in his breastplate. His face stared intently at nothing. He died not knowing he’d failed.

My knife made short work of some saplings. I dragged Yves’ body toward the village. Soon I was so exhausted I didn’t notice Ed until he started pulling on the frame with me.

Manfred waited by the first cattle herd. Like Ed he said nothing. The three of us placed Yves’ body on the back of the courser.

As the shock wore off I grew angry. Angry at the monster. Angry at Sir Yves for dying with the work undone. Angry at myself for not finding a way to prevent his death. I couldn’t undo that. But I could kill the monster. Somehow.

One of the village boys kept lookout from a platform over their gate. The headman came out to meet us. No cheers this time. The villagers were shocked and silent.

We laid the body on a table left outside from the feast. We bowed our heads as the priest said a blessing. The crowd pressed in for a closer look.

I heard muttering. “Don’t stand a chance now.” “We’re doomed.” “Best flee while we can.” “My cousin has a farm near Rockhill, he might take us in.”

I pushed my way through the gawkers and stepped up on the bench. “Good people! With his last breath, Sir Yves charged me to defeat the monster. I cannot do so alone, but with your help we can kill it together. He wounded it. I saw the lance tear flesh. I saw red blood pour down the beast’s side, red as any wolf’s blood. We can kill it.”

They all listened. Some with hope, some with disbelief. Manfred’s face held contempt.

“What one spear can wound, many spears can kill. I’ve taught soldiers of His Majesty’s army how to wield the long pike. The men of this village, carrying pikes, can face the beast and destroy it. I can teach you. You can kill it.”

The young men loved the idea. The older ones were divided. Arguments broke out, fighting versus fleeing versus waiting for another knight-errant to save them. The headman silenced them. “The council will decide. Everyone else, back to work.”

The headman led us into the meeting hall. I wished I’d learned his name. Manfred followed after.

A chubby landowner seized the floor. “Simon, we must flee. That thing will eat our herds then us!”

“Flee to where?” said another. “There’s no land standing empty that will hold our cattle. We’d have to sell all we have. I’m too old to learn a new trade.”

“Enough!” Headman Simon banged a tankard on the table. “We’ve all heard this from you before. Squire Ward has something new for us. Explain your plan, sir, if you please.”

I stepped into the circle. “It is simple. I was a file-closer in the Second Pikes. I trained soft city boys to be hard soldiers. Your crafters can make the pikes—long spears, three times a man’s length. A week or two to practice with them and we can tear the monster apart.”

“What was a squire doing in the army?” asked one.

I chuckled as if I didn’t mind the question. “I’m a third son of a fifth son. My blood’s high but no money was left for me. So I took His Majesty’s shilling. Sir Yves wanted a squire who’d slept in tents, not manors. So he chose me.”

The carpenter and smith whispered to each other. The smith stood and asked, “How do we make those pikes?”

I explained what was needed. Heartwood from a straight tree, a sharp iron point, and a spike on the end to hold it still when braced on the ground.

“How many?”

“Thirty at least. Double that if you can.” They didn’t like that. “We can train with bare wood. Starting tomorrow.”

When no one else had a question Manfred stepped into the silence. “Good men, I’ll take my leave now. I’m bringing Sir Yves’ body to be buried at his brother’s manor.”

“I’ll help you with that,” I said.

Hal brought up the palfrey. She shifted uneasily as we heaved the corpse on and tied it in place.

“You don’t have to do this yet,” I said. “You have a lot you can teach them.”

Manfred mounted his courser. “I don’t think I’d change their fate.”

“Sir Yves wanted to protect these people. You can help protect them.”

He took the palfrey’s lead. “Yves was a winner. That’s why I took his shilling.”

“Stay, and win again.”

Manfred leaned down toward my face. “You’re no winner. You’re every noble-blooded commander who led his men to slaughter because his honor wouldn’t let him sound retreat.” He twitched his reins. His horse began to trot. The palfrey followed on the lead.

I took a drink from the well as I waited for the council to finish arguing. A tall lad, good pike material, came up to me.

“What were you talking to the horseman about?” he asked.

“I charged him with a message for my mother.”

Simon came out then. “Squire Ward. You shall have your pikes. And your men. May God have mercy on us all.”

My recruiting speech made two promises: the joy they’d take in spilling the monster’s blood and the brotherhood they’d feel forever with those they fought beside. I’d convinced the village’s prettiest girls to sit a bit to my side where the undecided could see them. Once a few young men stepped forward the rest followed. Some older men volunteered as well.

Half the volunteers couldn’t train yet. They were the pike-makers. I assured them they’d be able to catch up. The other half were put to bed in the meeting hall.

I woke before dawn, used the privy and ate some cold beef I’d saved from last night. Then I walked into the meeting hall and began kicking ankles. “On your feet! Get started! Form two lines for the privies!” One fellow tried to swing at me. I knocked him onto another who hadn’t risen yet.

At the privy they learned proper spacing in line and standing at attention.

I led them to the village’s wall after. They flinched back as I drew my sword. Two swings cut the ropes holding the thin logs together. I yanked one log from the wall and tossed it at the lad in front. “We don’t have pikes yet so you’ll train with these. Come forward in turn to receive yours.”

Once we all held our sticks at the same angle we could march for real. The cattle gazed as we went by. “Never break formation! Put your foot in that cow patty! And the man behind you puts his foot in the same place! When the formation passes there should be one footprint in that cow patty!”

Turning and facing movements confused them. When one knocked his flanker in the head with his stick they found ways to make each other do better.

“Breakfast? Why would you want to eat before working up an appetite?” God bless Petty-Captain Eblen for teaching me an answer for anything a recruit might say.

I marched them back in for lunch. A couple couldn’t cut it. Some boys from other villages had come to join in. My formation grew.

The afternoon was more of the same. I let them have a heavy supper and sent them to the meeting hall. Complaints soon turned to snores.

Ed reported another pair of cattle lost. I took him aside. “Can you track the beast?”

“Track? Its footprint is as big as I am,” said Ed.

“I want you to find its lair. That’s where we’ll attack it. Find it, and guide us to it.”

“Dangerous work. I have a family to feed.”

Sir Yves entrusted me with his purse because he hated bargaining over fodder and rooms. I took a gold crown from it. “Give your wife this.”

“Aye, sir, that’ll feed them well and long.”

By the time the pikes were ready, the boys looked good on the march. I hadn’t taught them the maneuvers they’d need on a battlefield or a parade, just enough to win one fight. Two boys, Jerob and Bert, did well enough I gave them turns at calling the march.

Issuing the pikes became a ceremony. In single file they tossed their sticks onto a pile and received their weapon from my hands. The craftsmen followed them. Their sloppy walk contrasted sharply with the crisp march of my trainees. The older men tried to imitate the others. I smiled.

In the morning Jerob led the youngsters in practicing the basics while I introduced their uncles and older brothers to the same moves. I hid a smile at the precision the youngsters had when they wanted to impress someone. The new group hated being shown up. They worked hard and learned fast.

Three days and another monster raid later I set them marching together. Now we practiced attacks. The town wall became more battered as pikes thrust into it.

Once I felt they were ready to face the beast I took them on a long winding march through the pastures. By dusk half of the men were lost. I would have been if my hired boys hadn’t been popping out from behind trees to keep me on course.

As we entered a shady meadow one boy gave me the ready signal. I answered him in kind. We marched straight ahead.

Lights flickered in the trees. An inhuman bellow split the air. A dark shape emerged, trailing sparks, and charged us.

I commanded, “Lower pikes! Brace pikes!” As one my men dropped their pikes from vertical to pointing at eye level. Then they planted the butt spikes in the dirt and stomped hard to hold them there.

The screeching came closer. The shape reached the pikes. Four men fell as the impact shook the pikes from their grasp. The second rank held firm.

“Charge pikes and attack!” At my command the rear ranks lifted their weapons and thrust at the attacker. Front rankers who didn’t have something on their pikes joined in.

Jerob stabbed deep, then stepped back. “It’s a bleeding kine!”

Two of them, actually. Young black bulls roped together. Burning branches were tied to their tails. Well clear of the pikes stood the herd boys I’d hired to guide them into our formation.

“We’re feasting tonight, boys!” I shouted. “Fall out to gather firewood.”

My men were laughing and slapping each other on the back. The more serious ones looked at the dead bulls’ wounds. One braced pike had entered the chest and come out through the bull’s haunch. Thrusts by the rear-rankers went in two or three hands.

I paid off the herd-boys and sent them home. Tonight would be for the fighters.

The first fire was far too big for cooking. Jerob sent some wood gatherers aside to make a pair of smaller fires so we could eat. As more wood arrived he had them build a second bonfire on the other side of the dead bulls.

When the roughest butchering was done Bert took a few men to work the pikes out of the bodies. Seeing men get important things done without orders made me a happy commander.

Once everyone’s belly was full of beef I gathered them round for a talk. “You’re ready to kill a monster,” I said to cheers. “In a few days we’ll do it. The beast eats every few days. The next time it takes some cattle we’ll wait to the next day. Then Ed will lead us to its lair.”

The hunter nodded. He’d arrived in time for the feast.

“God willing it will be asleep with a full craw. We’ll just see it doesn’t wake up. I expect it will be awake. Then we’ll kill it the hard way.”

More cheers.

“We’ll keep training in the morning. You’ll have afternoons off until we start the hunt. Now let’s go to bed!”

Three days later we marched into the woods by dawn’s light. Ed brought three other hunters along. He trusted them to keep their head and use their bows well. I carried a pike along with my sword.

The route was winding. I’d asked Ed to avoid woods too thick for us to form up in. There were still places between meadows where we’d be almost helpless if the monster caught us.

The lair was on the far side of a clearing. The beast had knocked down three trees together to use their crowns as cushions. It lay curled up, tail past its nose.

I quietly ordered the pikes to level. We marched.

When we were halfway across the creature opened its eyes. It rolled out of the nest and stood. We kept marching.

It opened its dagger-toothed mouth. The roar was deafening. Some soldiers froze for a moment and had to skip to get back in step.

I ordered “Port pikes.” The points rose to even with the monster’s chest. We marched.

It scraped at the ground with one three-clawed foot. I was ready to shout “brace pikes” but it just stood there.

We tramped forward. A tall front-ranker jabbed at it. The beast batted the pike aside with a forelimb.

Some of the men shortened their strides. I shouted, “Two big steps then give him a thrust!”

Left. Right. Thrust.

Four pikes hit as one, leaving spots of red on its chest.

The monster gave an odd cough and pivoted on one huge foot. Pikes rattled as the giant tail shoved them aside. A quick rear-ranker caught the tail on his point, ripping a bloody gash as it swept by.

Dirt sprayed over us as the claws ripped the turf. The beast slipped into the woods. The last we saw was waving branches closing over the tail.

“Coward!” yelled Jerob. Then they all laughed and cheered.

I forced a smile on my face. “Well done, men, well done!”

I let them celebrate for a bit. Truly, that they’d held their ranks steady in the monster’s face was the greatest victory. I suppose it’s harder to be a coward in front of your relatives and neighbors than a bunch of strangers.

Ed led us after it. Anyone could have followed the trail for the first mile. Then the blood sign became scarcer. After the second mile Ed gave up. No blood drops. Ground too rough to follow footprints. No way to tell which broken branches were freshest.

The whole march back to the village I brooded. The monster was fast enough to catch my horse. We’d never be able to chase it on foot. Sneaking up on it had failed. I had to come up with a new plan.

Thinking kept me quiet through the village’s “victory” celebration. Not that it was of any use. When Headman Simon took me aside for a private chat I was relieved to be interrupted.

Simon began with stirring praise for how I’d built up the men and led them to victory. Then, “I am concerned by how long this is taking.”

“I’d hoped to kill the beast today,” I said.

“If its wounds fester, perhaps you did. Can you let the men return to their work? Roofs are leaking, cattle have strayed, fields sprout weeds. A fence broke, it let a herd eat the rye down to the roots. If they keep marching the village will be just as destroyed as if all the herds were eaten.”

At least he was polite enough to not complain about the cattle lost yesterday.

I promised to track the monster down soon, finishing with, “It’s easier to repair neglect than the horror of the creature ravaging the village.”

“Perhaps you should fix the hole you tore in the wall then,” said Simon.

“Why? It can step over the wall.”

He grunted and walked back to the feast.

I looked up at the stars. They had no answer for me.

“Your mug’s empty, Squire.”

“Thank you, Hal.” The groom poured beer from a pitcher. I drank. Poets found inspiration in wine. Maybe I’d find some in the homebrew.

“The lads say the monster ran away, like that hydra did from Sir Yves.”

“Aye. And there’s no box canyon here to trap it in.”

“Luring it into a trap could work, sir.”

“It could,” I said. “I don’t know what to use for a lure. It can find food anywhere the cattle graze.”

“We’d have to wave it under his nose. He likes the taste of horse. I could ride up,” he patted the sling in his belt, “thump his nose, and ride off. He’d chase me.”

“Chase, aye, and catch you belike.”

“I picked my horse well. She’s faster than you think. If the monster follows me to your pikes you can finish it.”

“Bravely said.”

“Now, I,” he swallowed. “I’d want a promise first.”

“Say on.”

“If you defeat the monster you’ll be knighted.”

“I might be.” It would be that or execute me for usurping a knight’s prerogatives. Maybe I should have thought more about that before starting this fight.

“Knights need squires.”

“Hal.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Squires must be of noble blood.”

He looked at his toes. “She wouldn’t tell me his name but Ma swore my father was noble.”

“Oh.” Which met the letter of the law. Though bards made mock of knights who had bastards as squires. I decided if mockery was the price of the beast’s head I’d pay it. I held out my hand. “If I am made knight you shall be my squire.”

Hal burst into a smile as he shook it. “Sir!”

“So ride fast or I won’t be able to keep that promise.”

We all headed out again in the morning. This time everyone wore a bedroll with some food bundled into it. I intended to not return without the monster’s head. Hal rode his horse. I looked closer at the mare than I had before. She was too light to bear an armored man or a saddle pack, but her legs were long and graceful.

We waited in a meadow while Ed and his fellow hunters searched. It was halfway to sunset when one returned with a sighting. The beast had moved on by the time we arrived at the spot. We camped for the night then, hopeful of seeing it on the morrow.

The hunters went out in pairs at first light. Ed returned before noon to guide us. “It’s wandering about nosing at stuff,” he said. “I think it’s looking for a nesting place.”

I prayed that we could kill it before it bred.

Another hunter met us on the way. “It’s moved north, not far.”

When we’d marched to a mile from it I chose a clearing for the battle site. Bedrolls went into a pile at its edge.

I liked Hal enough to want to give him a last chance to change his mind. But he was young enough to consider that an insult. I reached up to slap his shoulder. “Go bring us a monster.”

Hal waved and tensed his legs to put the mare into a trot. The troops, warned to be quiet, waved back.

Then all I had to do was keep my face calm. Harder work than shouting marching commands. The troops knelt in the tall grass, pikes laid flat. One soldier spat on the ground. My mouth was too dry to even try. The hunters stood at the edge of the woods, hiding behind trees, arrows nocked on their bows.

A distant angry bellow sounded. Hal had found it. We still waited.

Two younger soldiers lifted their heads. Their filemates yanked them back down. Looking around was my privilege right now. I kept my peeks to one a minute.

More bellows, sounding closer. Hoof beats. Hal still lived, if the mare hadn’t thrown him. The grating sound of the beast’s clawed feet. Breaking branches.

They burst into the clearing. The mare’s neck stretched out long. Hal lay flat against it. The beast let loose an angry roar close behind.

I looked up. My timing on the command must be perfect.

Hal rode through the aisle we left through the center of our formation. Dirt sprayed the pikemen.

“Raise pikes!” I commanded.

Each soldier had his heel on the butt of his pike. They lifted them together. A grove of deadly points appeared before the charging beast.

I’d been almost too early. The giant claws tore furrows in the ground as it pivoted and slowed. But not enough.

The monster’s flank pressed against the left side of the pike array. Points disappeared into its flesh, some reaching in three hands or more.

The dagger-lined mouth opened to unleash deafening noise. This time the monster bellowed in pain.

“Attack!” I yelled.

Jerob said, “Rear rank, follow me!” He led them to the left to attack the monster’s head.

“Right flank, forward!” Bert got them moving just as the tail swept him off his feet.

The monster kicked out with its near leg. Two pikes came loose from its flesh. A man looked at the empty place where his entrails had been and fell over.

The leg had just moved for an instant before returning to hold the heavy monster up. That was my chance. I drew my sword and ran to behind the leg.

The lead man on the left thrust his pike into the open mouth. “No,” shouted Jerob, “aim for the neck!”

The monster closed its mouth, snapping the pike. Its wielder dropped the remainder. The head dipped down, bit, and lifted up. The left-behind legs fell over. The beast spit out the body.

Arrows stuck in the flesh around its eye. Others bounced off the skull.

I’d seen tendons moving under the skin of the knee. I hacked with all my strength. When I cut one I shifted my grip to hit the other side.

Hal charged with a pike he’d found and struck the monster’s belly. Blood sprayed on me.

Three swings and the other tendon gave way. The knee bent. I backed away as the monster leaned into the pikes in its side. Some bent under the weight. Others forced their way in deeper. Blood spurted from the wounds.

I ran to a man struggling with a bent pike. “Thrust with it!” I said, adding my hands to his.

The monster let loose a scream, telling the forest of its pain and fear.

I pushed harder on the pike. It snapped.

I remember it feeling like when my horse threw me into a tree. I don’t remember landing on the ground.

 

I woke screaming.

“Easy, Squire,” said Ed. “We’ve drawn the leg straight. Hold still while we tie the splints on.”

I held my jaw tight as they worked. I hurt everywhere. Only the leg was worth complaining about. Ed seemed to know the business better than some leeches I’d known in the army.

When they were done I asked, “How many?”

“Four dead, a dozen we’ll have to carry,” said Ed. “I’ve seen boar hunts with such loss and not bring down near as much meat.”

I pushed myself up with an elbow, ignoring the complaint from my sore head. Men were all busy or being tended. The monster lay flat and still. One pike had pushed through without breaking. Someone had tied a banner to the bloody shaft. “I’ll leave you to it,” I said.

“Rest, Squire. All’s well.”

 

“All’s well” was still the most deaths Pelanon village had seen at once in its history. But the villagers no longer feared for their existence. I attended the funerals in a chair.

The herb woman declared I needed rest and sun. The chair held me through long days of watching the villagers bring their lives back to normal. I faced toward the gate. It let me see if the boy on sentry watch stayed awake.

Today’s was alert. He called out, “Horsemen! Many horsemen! In armor!”

Simon bustled out of his workshop. “What colors?”

“Different colors. The front knight is green and white,” said the boy.

The local count’s arms. Simon set his people to fetching beer and meat for the guests.

The hoofbeats came to a halt outside the gate. None of us were surprised. The monster head mounted above the gate was worth stopping to look at.

The cavalcade ambled in through the gate. Simon and his elders bowed to their count. The three knights were followed by their squires, men at arms, and servants.

A tall knight dismounted and walked across the well yard to me. I recognized him as Sir Yves’ brother.

“Well met, Squire Ward.”

“My Lord Francis, I beg your forgiveness for not rising. I share your sorrow on the death of your brother. We have slain his killer.”

Lord Francis bowed to me. “No forgiveness is needed. You have avenged my brother. My gratitude to you is eternal.”

“More gratitude is due to the men of this village than to me, my lord. Four died in the effort.”

He led me on to tell the tale. There was only one interruption. “Did you teach them to fight men?” asked Lord Francis.

“No, my lord. Only to fight the monster.” Forming a militia without their overlord’s permission would be treason for every member.

At the end of it he said, “Splendidly done. By the head it was a fearsome beast. I think my brother would be proud.”

From behind me a voice said, “Aye, he would.”

I twisted to look. Manfred, Sir Yves’ man at arms, stood there. I hadn’t noticed him come up as I talked.

Manfred stepped forward to beside my chair. He held out his hand.

I shook it.

Karl Gallagher is an aerospace engineer and former military officer. His novel Torchship is a working-class hard science fiction adventure.