So there's this friend of mine - Mike Molter - who's gonna be a famous fantasy writer some day, okay? (I'm psychic, remember?) Anyway, here' are his first two published short stories "The Exhibit" and "The Challenge". If ya like fantasy, yer gonna love 'em. Read on and try to remember - they're only fiction... uh, I think.
(After ya read 'em, you can e-mail Mike here with yer comments. Be nice, Bucko - cause I know where ya live, and I might show up univited for an incredibly long and annoying visit. Ever heard a chicken snore?)
Sparks and shards of granite bit into the young knight's face as he narrowly avoided being struck by a heavy war axe. Before the large attacker could strike again, the young knight quickly rolled away and past his assailant. Quickly was an overstatement, nothing moved quickly in full dress battle armor. Fortunately, the other was equally slowed, unfortunately, a simple punch to the midsection wouldn't solve anything, and it forced the issue of using this unbelievably heavy two handed sword.
The young knight could see into the eyes of the large attacker. They were angry determined eyes, but there was something else in them. The young knight heaved the heavy sword up between them, desperately trying not to show that it was all he could do to lift the weapon. As soon as the attacker charged, he knew it would be over. He had no escape, the ladder going down was blocked by his attacker. His back was against a fortified gate tower wall. Jumping would be suicide. On one side was a thirty foot drop, punctuated by a hard stone courtyard, the other side dropped farther yet, only here, one would end up landing in the murky green water of the castle moat. Maybe if I wasn't wearing this steel body glove I might try for the moat, but not today. The young knight observed his opponent. Why hadn't he attacked yet?
Lord, how did I get myself into this mess? But he knew the answer to that. It all began less than six hours ago when he decided to get a first hand, private viewing of the exhibit a day before it actually went on display.
It was a dream come true, something he had wanted to see his entire young life. A miracle was what it was. Who could have foreseen that this small town could attract such an exhibit? Ever since Mark saw Stoneguard Castle standing proudly outside of their little town of 6,543 residents, he was hooked. Stoneguard Castle, a small stone keep by castle standards, with only a single donjon, reaching a grand height of forty feet. A bailey surrounded the main keep with turrets to each side of the entrance. It had no drawbridge, no moat, not even an iron portcullis to guard its sturdy foundation. It had only a small adjoining parking lot for the tourist that came to see the museum for which it was now. Its creator, long since passed away, had left the castle to the town half a century ago. And now the small castle museum had a real honest to goodness exhibit to display, if only for a week.
The remains of the Black Knight was going on display tomorrow along with many of his personal artifacts. For ten years, the Black Knight was one of the most fearsome barons to terrorize the countryside near the turn of the first millennium. The Black Knight intrigued Mark as did all the other heroes of the old world. Mark couldn't get enough. Who were these knights of old? What were they like? What kind of men were they? Mark read about all of them, Arthur, Tristan, Bertand du Guesclin, Thomas Beauchamp, and many others. And than, there was the Black Knight. Mark had read as much as he could about the terror knight of Briton, but very little was actually known of him. The only known facts came from his sure brutality amidst a backdrop of political instability. He was a baron of little wealth and much ambition. Some said his destiny lie in forcibly taking the crown from a disputed monarchy, however, his early death in battle would never reach that point. Mark didn't know how the curator of the museum did it, but he had somehow convinced someone with some power to exhibit the Black Knight in the town's very own museum, and he was going on display, tomorrow. Mark couldn't wait, he had to see him, tonight.
The museum would close around 6:00 pm, maybe earlier with such a big exhibit opening tomorrow. Final preparations to display the Black Knight would take another two hours, with another hour for cleanup. A museum guard had been hired specifically for the exhibit, but getting past him would be a cinch. The always hired Ben for the special exhibits. Ben was big and strong, but predicable. A 10:15, big Ben would take his first break, it was all Mark needed to scale the short bailey walls and sneak around the back to a secret little entrance he had found out about when he was just a kid of nine. Mark didn't know why the old castle builder left a secret back door to the castle, but he did. It was Mark's ticket in.
At 10:16, Ben the guard took his first break, and Mark slipped over the bailey, dropped into the courtyard and scurried around the back toward the secret entrance. The current management had planted new bushes here, but the hidden latch was still obtainable, and Mark triggered it. With some effort, Mark pushed the hidden doorway back and slid inside, closing the door behind him. Flicking on his flashlight, he proceeded down the corridor and toward the only room he was sure they would place the Black Knight's body into. As usual, he guessed right. It was locked, but old locks were easy to pick, at least that is what Mark had thought. It took Mark more than twenty minutes to open the lock, twice he thought he heard big Ben's lumbering footsteps coming down the corridor. Twice he had hidden inside the castle's many alcoves. Twice he discovered that wind, not Ben, created the phantom footfalls.
Once inside, he closed to door, paying close attention to how he planned on getting out. He had to give the door the illusion of being locked when in fact it wasn't. As Mark contemplated how he was going to do this he heard big Ben coming down the hallway, and this time, it was no wind. If the big guard checked the door he was as good as caught. Quickly, Mark tripped the locking mechanism with his make-shift key. It clanked loudly in place, surely alerting big Ben. Mark frantically searched the room for cover, anything. In the shadows lie the burial vault of the Black Knight, and it was the only thing that gave him any cover. Within seconds, he heard the big guard shake the door to the room, within seconds, Mark became a shadow. With hope lying in the pit of his stomach, Mark waited.
Nothing, no guard, no breaking and entering, no police, no explanations to his parents, his fear came and went without realization. That was close, Mark thought. After his heart-rate came down, Mark flipped his flashlight back on. The room wasn't very large and the casket before him shrunk it even more. Its very presence made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. The room was creepy and exciting all at the same time. Several glass cases had some of the Black Knights artifacts in them. Did he dare turning on the display cabinet lights? Then Mark realized how silly he was. Why not, nobody was going to notice them in here, unless they could see under the door. But then there was big Ben. He doubted the big guard would come around for another hour, by then he would be long gone.
Let's see, what have we in case number one. With that, the first case lit up revealing some of the Black Knights weapons. Several dirk's of varying sizes, a short sword, a war-mace, some kind of spiked ball and chain weapon, and the infamous two-handed broadsword he used for slaying many enemies was in there. Mark wondered how many men died by that weapon. The sword was immaculate, nearly pristine, but how so? Mark had his doubts that it was the real sword at all. How could it be in such perfect shape after the use it supposedly had?
Case number two held a suit of armor made of blackened steel, its breast plate adorned with the double headed dragon the Black Knight was known for. Several shelves contained the various helms he had worn. But where was the Dragon winged helm that the Black Knight was famed for wearing. Mark still had a picture of it in his mind, had even seen an artist rendition of what it may have looked like, drawn beside a description of the Black Knight. Had they been wrong? Of course the picture was some artist version of the helm, but he was sure he had read about the helm somewhere.
Mark raced around to the next case, finding some fading black garments with silver trimmings, cracked leather boots and several sets of gloves. He zoomed around to the next case, eager to see what else the exhibit brought. As the light flickered on, he saw a kings ransom of jewelry, ill-gotten booty, from countless greedy raids. Below the jewelry , lie a silver dragon handled tankard, a pair of silver goblets and a set of fine silver gauntlets. What it must have been like to wear such jewelry, drink from such tankards and don the gauntlets, especially when all around you were hapless peasants. It was a sobering thought. Suddenly, Mark remembered one particular piece of jewelry that he had not seen, the Black Heart pendant. Where was it? He glanced at the final darkened cabinet with hope in his heart. Surely the best, was in the last cabinet. In three giant steps Mark was before the cabinet and turned the switch to on. The fluorescent lights flickered for several moments before they lit the case.
In that moment Mark realized there was no helm, or pendent. In the cabinet were mostly written accounts of the Black Knight's short life and one large black shield. The shield bore the double headed silver and black dragon the Black Knight used to create such fear throughout the countryside. As Mark read the accounts of the Black Knight on each and every article in the case he had the sneaking suspicion that the items he craved to see must lie in the only thing he hadn't examined yet, the burial vault. Turning he cast his flashlight on the imposing casket before him. He wanted to turn on the overhead light but decided that he wasn't that brazen, and the flashlight would have to do.
It was hugh, an effigy of the Black Knight was sculpted on the lid of the vault in bronze. Mark cast his flashlight over its surface, realizing that he was right. The effigy displayed the helm, the sword, even the Black Heart pendant, all cast in irrefutable bronze. Mark was justified, if only he could see the real things. A wicked grin spread across Mark's face as a new thought seeped into his mind. All he wanted to see was right here in this room. Certainly he would find what he desired, what he needed, what he deserved to see within the casket itself. All he had to do was find a way to open it.
The casket was hugh and heavy, the lid no less. Mark's face soured as he realized that opening this monstrosity was an impossible feat for one man, or was it.... With one thought in mind, Mark's deft fingers went searching around the casket. If there were secret openings in the castle, then maybe the casket.... As if the casket answered, he found it. It was small, an almost imperceptible indention underneath the lid. All he had to do was push it. Click.
Suddenly, the room was filled with a horrid grating sound as Mark realized the casket lid was sliding open. If big Ben was anywhere nearby, he surely would hear this. But either he was nowhere near or deaf. Either way, the loud grating noise ceased and the casket lie partially open. Mark felt like a tomb thief, although he had no intention of taking anything, he felt deep down, that this was wrong. Still, he had to at least look. Gritting his teeth, he flashed his light into the casket. There, in the casket lie the infamous Black Knight, or at least a very dead, skeletal version of him. His Dragon winged helm, still on his head, his hands clutching the two handed well-used sword. Then Mark saw it, the mystical Black Heart pendant lie around the former knight's neck. According to the articles pinned to the cabinet display, a legend claimed that the pendant was the Black Knight's source of power. Other articles refuted those legends, but maybe there was some truth to them. Legends were legends, even the existence of King Arthur has never been proven, and yet, many still believe in the mythical king.
The Black Heart pendant was flawless. Mark could almost sense its power, although he logically believed that power was a creation of his own mind, still. Another wicked thought entered his mind. What would it hurt if I tried this on? Mark always had so many inquisitive thoughts race through his mind, he didn't think anything about it. Had he questioned it.... Mark lifted the pendant from the Black Knight's neck, without regard to what he was doing, whether it was right, whether it was safe, whether he should be doing this at all. He unclasp it from the skeletal warrior's neck and slipped it around his own.
A swooning dizziness crept over him, and Mark grabbed for the edge of the casket to steady himself. Real or imagined, he felt dizzy. Something told him it had to do with this pendant.
"Twas about your years, lad, when I slain my first." Mark spun around and looked about. He couldn't see anyone. He was certain he couldn't have possibly heard a voice.
"How rude you are, lad. Quite disrespectful I think." Mark flashed his light around the room, wildly searching for that allusive voice. Where was it coming from and who was it? The voice was more gravelly than big Ben the guards.
"Can't see me yet, lad. Worry not, you will." Then Mark saw him, or at least a translucent version of someone. He was leaning casually against the doorway, leading into the room.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Mark asked, suddenly remembering the pendent and racing through the possibilities of what this nearly invisible thing was.
"You've already given me what I want, lad. You've given me a second chance, something I've been wanting for..., What date is this?" The question took Mark by surprise.
"Uh,1998, it's June of 1998" Mark was terrified. The translucent man before him was beginning to take on a more solid form.
"That long, eh. You know, lad, I've been waiting for someone like you for almost a thousand years."
"You've been waiting a thousand years for me? I doubt it ghost, or whatever you are." The apparition merely smiled, before it spoke.
"Believe it or not, lad, I have been waiting that long. Maybe not for you, but someone like you. And now that you have put on the pendant, you have freed me, to roam again, to once more take the crown of the Empire back for the Saxon's."
"I think that war is long over, whatever you are."
"I am the Black Baron, lad, or was, until you know, until I was killed by cowards. Always hated assassins, but that's their lot isn't it, lad?"
"You were the Black Baron? You mean Black Knight don't you?"
"The Black Knight was one of my titles, yes."
"Give me a break. You're some kind of holographic image of the Black Knight is all."
"It's a trick of cameras, and a poor trick of the Black Knight at that."
"I am not a trick, lad. I assure you that I was the Black Knight, but no more. Now I am you."
Mark shook his head in disbelief, not sure what this thing was, but he was sure it wasn't him. Mark decided that this must be some kind of interactive computer program.
"Okay, this isn't that funny anymore. You can cease this program anytime now. Having this Black Knight say it's me is ridiculous. How can it be me when I am me?"
"Wrong again, lad. You're wearing the Black Heart pendant, not I. You chose to put it on, and sealed your fate. Long ago, I stole the Black Heart pendant from a witch. It was supposed to grant its bearer eternal life. In a way, it did. I have been born into your body, lad, and you will get to live my life again, as the Black Knight." Mark's mind reeled, this was a twisted dream, wasn't it?
"You're insane, no one will believe you are me, nor will anyone believe I am you. We look nothing like each other." The Black Knight smiled.
"It's terrible to be wrong, lad. Nobody, but you, can see me for what I am, I suspect the same will be of you. Everyone, will think I'm you, and I will not let them think otherwise. You better hope that you do a better job with me than that, or my lieutenants will slay you outright, and claim my barony for their own." Mark gained his courage and charged the man in the doorway. The Black Knight heartily laughed as Mark's body passed through his own and found himself sprawled against the very door he had hastily locked.
"If you weren't a formless ghost, I would have leveled you to the ground."
"I don't think so, lad. It is you who is formless. Try to catch this." The Black Knight toppled a small glass vase off of its stand. Mark dove to catch the glass vase before it hit the floor. If it hit, the noise of it shattering would be great. Unfortunately, it did hit the ground as it passed through Mark's hands and smashed into a thousand tiny glass shards. Surely, big Ben would hear this. But, no footsteps came.
"I must be off, lad. I have another life to live. People to conquer, rape and pillage. There is one more piece of advice you must know, lad. I have many enemies back there. Killing me is only a matter of time. What you must do, above all things, is to protect the pendent. If someone steals it away from you, you shall never be reborn again, ever." The Black Knight's voice echoed loudly in Mark's ears as the Knight, the room and everything thing else began to fade into darkness. Suddenly, the darkness became intense light, and there was a large brutish man charging toward him with an axe. Mark realized that the man intended on killing him.
Mark, the young knight held the two handed sword before him. The angry man with the axe hadn't charged him again since he took a swing at him coming over the wall. In an instant, Mark understood the man's hesitation. He was the infamous Black Knight. But how could this be, he knew nothing about fighting with swords and axes. His knowledge was limited to books and museums. Mark saw it in his eyes. The enemy had regained his composure and lifted his war axe above his head. He screamed and charged, landing heavily, but harmlessly at Mark's feet. Mark's held the big sword as if it were frozen in midair.
"Sneaky, your lordship, usually you don't allow me to kill 'em. You have all the fun yourself." A knight, dressed much like he, crawled over the wall, and beamed a crooked smile. No, the smile wasn't crooked, it was the man's face, if you could call it that. The man's face had more scars than he could count. Mark could barely control the shaking in his legs as a puddle of blood was forming at his feet. This scar faced man had just saved his life, but he couldn't let this man know that. Think like the Black Knight, Mark thought.
"Finish them," Mark grated out. The man, still beaming that crooked smile, bolted off like a child that had been given a ice cream cone. He just killed a man and he loves it. Mark leaned back against the wall to gain support. The wall and the stiff suit of armor was all that kept him standing. He had to collect his thoughts. What was happening, was impossible. Mark quickly realized that if he went down there he would either be killed, at least maimed or worse. Several other's came over the wall and he sent them like the first man to finish it. He could at least pretend to be in charge of this horror or the Black Knight's lieutenants would kill him, whoever they were. He had no stomach for this... barbarianism.
Once the walls had been breached, the battle lasted for only an hour, to Mark it was an eternity. When the fighting seemed to find an end, Mark carefully climbed down the stone steps into the courtyard. That in itself, was a challenge. Suits of armor were cumbersome at best. Several of "his men" rushed up to Mark, as others carried the wounded and dying off. Four men, including the scar faced man, stood waiting, but for what? In his most authoritative voice Mark boomed.
"Well!" The four men jumped, but none offered anything more than that. Mark opened his hand as if for an explanation. Please, he thought, say something. The gesture worked.
"Uh, your lordship, the castle is taken."
"Is that all." Puzzled looks were exchange by all four.
"Do you have anything else to tell me."
"Uh, your lordship, the prisoners are being rounded up for practice sir."
"Practice?" Again the puzzled looks.
"Uh yeah, your lordship, your rules of take no prisoners. We rounds them up then practices our bow shooting.." Mark almost winced, the Black Knight was more horrible than he thought. Than it got worse. Several soldiers brought forth a cadre of woman, many teenagers, like himself, or like he used to be.
"What?" Mark bellowed, still pretending. The solder shoved one woman forward.
"Please your lordship, take me. Take me, but spare my daughter, please."
"Take you?" The woman's face became blank, as if she didn't know what to say. Suddenly, Mark knew what she meant. The scar faced man came up to Mark and quietly asked him that if his lordship didn't want the young one, he did. Mark was furious, how could this be.
"Take the men prisoners and put them in the dungeon. Take all the women and lock them in one of the palace rooms and guard it. Nobody in or out." He could see this irritated the men immediately, but he had to sit down and think. Then Mark remembered the lieutenants and what the real Black Knight said.
"Except that one, bring me that one." Mark pointed to the daughter the scar faced man had wanted. The ploy worked, but for how long, and what would he do with her. He had never been with anyone before, and now was not the time. It grew dark, and Mark took refuge in the former baron's room with his consort. He allowed her to cower in the corner while he contemplated his next move. Unfortunately, sleep overtook Mark, and when he woke, the girl and his pendant were gone.
Now he was trapped here in this barbaric world, a world he knew next to nothing about. He had no friends, and probably a great number of enemies, although not a clue who they may be. He couldn't even raise a weapon to defend himself. He simply guessed that the four dumbfounded knights were his lieutenants, but could he trust any of them. He doubted it. Mark had no choice, he had to get the pendant back and get back to his world. But how?
Mark called for Scarface. As luck would have it, that was his name. He told him to gather the other lieutenants and find the girl. He immediately regretted having involved Scarface because of his interest in the girl. If killing a man gave him that much pleasure, he was certain rape would be a bonus for him.
"Bring the wench back to me. Untouched." Mark could see this disappointed Scarface greatly. Searching the castle became a formidable task. It was ten times the size of the small castle museum Mark was familiar with. This one had so many corridor's, rooms, alcoves and niches, they would never find her. They weren't even sure that somehow the girl hadn't escaped the castle itself. If this were so, Mark knew his fate was sealed. Why had he decided to open the casket anyway? Just for a look, or was it vanity? The men searched all night and late into the afternoon of the following day. Finally, Scarface timidly approached Mark. His eyes were downcast and fear writhed in the failure he was forced to deliver.
The Black Knight's men were beat. To Mark's discovery, they had been fighting for over a week now, and were exhausted beyond measure. Scarface handed his own dagger into Mark's hands, offering his life for the failure. Mark couldn't kill this man, but failing this would show weakness before the others. In a blur of movement, Mark spun the knife around and sliced through Scarface's ear, angrily tossing the knife to the ground.
"You will never fail me again. By nightfall, after you rest your pitiful body, you will resume that search, or I will do more than slice through your maggoty ear." Mark hated every word, and had he been anywhere else, he would be rushing this poor man to a hospital for stitches.
"Now get out of my face." Scarface turned a crooked smile toward Mark, grabbed his ear and ran down the corridor. He was overjoyed. Mark couldn't believe it. The man should be furious with him for cutting a chunk from his ear. Mark turned and stormed back into his chambers. The facade could only last so long. He had to find the girl.
Mark realized he had been wearing this armor since it all began, and now he couldn't remain in it one more second. But if he took it off, would they see the Black Knight, or Mark. The real Black Knight told him that only he could see through the illusion, but could the others? Mark found a mirror and glanced at his face through the visor, all he could see was himself. But he was too far into the game to worry about that now. The Dragon winged helmet came off with some effort, the rest would present a bigger challenge. Little by little he removed the armor, pieces he had only read about in books. He started with hands, removing each gauntlet, and flexing the cramped muscles in each hand. Mark could almost feel his legs float upward as he removed the thick heavy greaves attached to his shins. Fortunately, full plate armor hadn't been completely developed until the fourteenth century.
It took some time, but finally the infamous double dragon breast plate of the Black Knight came off. Mark was ecstatic with his new found freedom, until the odor wafted into his nose. "Whoa, I stink, I need a shower, but I don't suppose this castle has ever been graced by a shower. I guess this bucket of water will have to do." Mark started to slip off his tunic and trousers when he heard a rustle from behind the tapestry.
If there was one weapon Mark thought he could master, it would be the dirk, much like a large knife, but more for stabbing than cutting. As quietly as he could, Mark slipped the Dirk from its scabbard and silently moved toward the hugh tapestry where he heard the noise. Stealth was one of Mark's strong suits, as the one behind the tapestry quickly discovered. She had never left the room. With lightning quickness he snatched the pendant from her neck. "Do you know how much trouble you've caused me?" The girl glowered at Mark, anger seething from every pore. Mark frowned, but he couldn't be mad at her, and if things were different...
"You can come away from the wall. I'm not going to hurt you. If I were, I would have done it by now."
"You're not?" She looked puzzled
"Of course not. Why do you think I brought you here? I did it for your protection."
"I don't understand?"
"You're not the only one. Now please, relax and let me think." For just a moment, Mark took his eyes away to fasten the pendant about his neck. A moment was all that was needed for the girl to bring her hidden dirk out and bury it into Mark's chest. The force of the dirk knocked Mark over the valet and onto his back. Pain delved deep into Mark's consciousness, pain unlike anything he had ever experienced. Mark had been stabbed and knew he was going to die.
"Why? I wasn't going to hurt you," Mark cried out, raising his hands to defend the girls next attack.
"That's for the killing of my father and brother and for all the other families your despicable horde has killed. Die Black Knight, die like the coward you truly are." The girl slashed at Mark again and again, yet no more pain came. Mark saw the image of the angry girl fade away, and wondered if this is what it was like to die.
Consciousness came sharply to Mark. Jill, his girlfriend was flailing away at Mark with her balled fist. All Mark could do was cover up. Hitting a woman was not his style. What had happened to her?
"You bastard, I never want to see you again!" Jill slapped Mark across the face and stormed off. After Mark gathered his bearings, he realized he was lying on the ground in the park, his and Jill's favorite make-out spot. How did he get here. Mark reached for the Black Heart pendant and found it missing. This must have been a bad dream. Tomorrow he would seek out Jill and make up. But first, he had to go back to the museum, this time during regular hours.
The next morning, Mark made his way to the museum. The turnout for the exhibit was small. Mark dropped a two dollar donation into the museum coffer and went inside. He walked down the corridor and into the room he had been into the night before. The first thing he noticed was the stand the Black Knight had knocked over. The vase was missing. Surely, what happened last night was a dream. His chest was bruised and still hurt, but Jill must have done that to him. The burial vault of the Black Knight seemed smaller in the daylight. Must be and illusion of light, he thought, but even the bronze effigy looked of lesser quality then last night.
Mark did a double take as he glanced at the first case, some of the weapons were missing. In rapid succession he checked all of the other cases and found all of them lighter of artifacts. Finally, he looked into the case of articles and there next to the articles was the famed Black Heart pendant. He reached up and felt his chest in memory. The jewel was shattered. Did the dirk do that? Mark gathered himself to take a closer look at the Black Knight's burial tomb and overheard the curator and another quietly talking about the Black Knight.
"Yeah, the Black Knight is a good exhibit, but I would have liked it better if we could have gotten the Knight of the Split-Ear.
"You mean Scarface?"
"Yes, you know, the one who killed the Black Knight? It would have been a bigger draw."
"I'll agree with you about drawing a bigger crowd, but some scholars think that a woman, Scarface's forced wife is really who killed the Black Knight."
"Who knows, back then historical records were not always accurate."
Mark's head was spinning and his chest really hurt. Lord, if he had such an impact on the Black Knight's life, then what things did the vile knight do in his own world. Mark didn't care to speculate, his stomach was already turning itself inside out. What possessed him to put on that pendant? Why couldn't he wait to see the exhibit like all the rest of the people? After all, it was only an exhibit.