Sweat foamed on the coat of the black horse as it was driven harder and faster from the rolling hills out into the open canyonlands. Light danced over the fields, orange and yellow casting their hue over the green wheat. Flames tore through the tiny thatched cottages and wooden barns faster than the horse could gallop. His rider, balanced perfectly on the hand-crafted black leather saddle, leaned forward as they leapt over a low hedge, never breaking his gaze from the fire ripping through what remained of Red Springs. A hot wind poured over the valley and down toward the canyonlands, followed by a dark-winged beast, its screeching call chilling the hearts of any who had survived the blaze. The black rider pulled his horse to a stop and stared at the immense creature, a steady hand reaching for the double edged sword at his back.
Giving his mount the slightest of signals, they took off at breakneck speed to where the wyvern turned and now flew. It raged and cried into the hot air, spying movement at the border of light provided by the fire which now began to consume the driest parts of the fields. At its edge, a woman crawled and dragged another body away from the crumbling buildings. Nothing could be heard over the deafening howl of the flames. Hooves pounded into the hard soil, echoing up into the rider's large frame, but the sound was strangely absent. Wings beat into the scorching air, but no warning could reach the survivors who lay out in the open, grassy plain just beyond the remnants of their home.
The black rider swung his sword deftly in his right hand, his left at the saddle horn. His left foot was in the saddle next, bracing him in a crouch. Timing would be the dividing line between salvation and utter decimation. His breath held steady in his lungs, the rider watched the powerful wyvern lower his head and talons to strike. Their hunting method was simple. No prey could evade their grasp, and once caught, escape was impossible. The wyvern would climb high into the air, an inverted dive of sorts, until freezing, thin air would deprive its prey of strength. Turning, the tiny dragon would free-fall with its meal, devouring its helpless catch in a few ragged gulps. Floating on heat drafts and stealing the ocean currents, wyverns rarely touched the earth after they reached adulthood.
This was the only exception, and the black rider intended to use it to his benefit. As the four lower talons of the wyvern's feet brushed the dry grass in its low swoop to pick up the two injured bodies at the edge of the burning field, horse and rider jumped. Narrowly missing the muscular wings which beat low and hard, the powerful warhorse leapt over the creature's long neck as though it were a training hurdle. His rider pushed off sideways and tumbled over the slippery back of the beast, scrabbling to grab hold of a wing. Smooth, gray-green scales rolled the struggling man onto his own back as he slid. Hard earth rushed up at him, threatening to undo his expertly timed maneuver, though no amount of timing or planning could account for his current predicament.
Confused and thrown off balance, the wyvern whipped its head around to face its attacker, unwittingly angling its body and throwing the rider to the other side of its spiny back. A single gloved hand caught the last spine before the beast's tail. The animal screeched wildly and attempted to buck the rider off. With his free hand, the man shifted his grip on the sword and drove its tip straight through the thin film of skin which stretched over the bones of the wyvern's immense wing. It ripped like canvas, splitting down to the tail. Man and beast tumbled in the dirt, parting and then meeting face to face. Intelligent eyes blinked and turned, taking in the black figure of a man who crouched before it, the only such being to challenge the wyvern's appetite in memories dating back before mankind walked the hills and fed the bellies of its kin. Since the demise of true dragons, there had been few natural enemies to its kind, and no predator above it in all of nature.
Turning the flat of his sword to face the fires behind the creature, the man dressed in black blinded the raging animal with a trick of light, then lunged. His sword danced and turned, its tip lightly grazing the bare earth before it swung upwards, the thrust from behind sending its bulk up through the chin of the scaly monster until it cracked and burst through the top of the wyvern's skull. The animal tumbled forward over where its foe knelt, crushing him with its limp weight. Dust cascaded out from under them, covering the field with an unnatural cloud of orange and yellow.
Crying and rocking the dead body in her arms, Calla watched in horror as her savior was buried beneath the winged serpent. She gazed into the lifeless face of her mother and gently laid her in the grass, whispering small comforts as she would to a sleeping child. Wary of her surroundings, the burnt, injured woman made her way on hands and knees to the last stand of the black rider, where she saw a boot peeking from under a leathery wing. Her charred fingers felt over the foot, pulling lightly. He moved. Alive! her mind raced. The horse behind her nickered, a sound she found oddly encouraging. Kneeling at the side of the green creature, she placed her trembling hands on its scales and began to push with all her might. Tears coursed through the soot on her cheeks, her muscles strained and shook, but she pushed on. After her breath ran ragged and the shaking of her body grew nearly violent, a surge from below joined her effort and rolled the dead body just enough for the man to drag himself from beneath it.
Panting and still laying on his side, the black rider tested his limbs. Bruised but not broken, he surveyed his quarry and reached for the sword still lodged in the animal's head. A quick jerk freed it, and greenish blood oozed over its hilt and onto his gloved hand.
"Are you injured?" the woman behind him asked with a shaking voice. The reality of events had yet to sink into her mind, so she relied on her innate ability to care for others until she could cope with the pain and loss that would subdue her.
Reluctant to face her, the black rider lifted himself to his feet and rested against the body of his kill, his back still to the woman. He pulled a cloth from within his cloak and cleaned the sword, deftly slipping it back into its shoulder harness without need of visual guidance.
"Please," she tried again, "let me help you, or at least repay you for saving me." Calla's face fell as she realized everything had burnt to the ground around them. She could offer the stranger nothing more than her gratitude now.
Standing awkwardly, she limped over to him, resting a hand on his wide shoulder. Fatigue stole her footing as soon as she touched him, and she began to fall. The world spun and her eyes closed, and her mind braced for the impact her body could not compensate for. It never came, however, as the stranger caught her in his arms and lowered her gently to the ground. She blinked and tried to focus her eyes, but all she saw was blackness. Thinking her eyes unfit, she rubbed them and looked again. The face of the black rider was no face at all. Where eyes and nose and mouth should have been, only blackness could be seen. She stifled a scream, but its muffled sound still echoed in the silence that the flames had left, a strangled cry that wavered and trembled in her throat.
He looked away, the black hood around his head shifting slightly with the movement. Calla suddenly felt remorse for her reaction. Perhaps she could sense his pain at her cry, or perhaps it was imagined. Either way, the damage was done. He released his hold as delicately as he was able, backing away from the terrified woman. His full cape billowed as he bowed and turned, prepared to leave as quickly as he had come. Calla's eyes followed him as he motioned to the horse. Beneath the cloak she saw thick riding trousers secured in place with two leather belts that held various weapons and tools. His chest and arms were donned in heavily reinforced leather as well, every seam stitched and covered in heavy laces. Cape, cowl, boots, and armored clothing were all black as pitch. Nary a color could be seen, apart from that which reflected off the silver of his sword and the buckles of his horse's tack. The hollow light of dawn trickled through the smoke and haze. He mounted the broad-chested steed in one swift movement, allowing his arms to rest in his lap before he parted company with what remained of Red Springs.
Calla felt as though she should stand, but the strength was not in her. She sat and faced the black knight, suddenly recognizing him as the warrior he must be. She regarded him silently, and he returned her gaze, though his eyes were obscured. In a gesture she could only assume was out of respect for all that had been lost in the flames of the night before, the knight bowed his head to her. He left without ever saying a word.
"Tell me again," Merl whispered in the frail candlelight. He heard a heavy sigh on the other side of the room. "Can you not remember more detail?" He heard pacing. The floorboards creaked under the boots that wandered back to the window where they had rested a moment before.
"I have told you countless times, Merl. There is nothing more."
He cupped his chin in his hand, noting that he had not shaved in well over a day. "There must be more, Calla. There must."
She crossed the room and sat opposite him at the small wooden table. "Why do you seek answers to this puzzle?" Her skin was clean and healthy now. Years of healing had seen to that. Scars from the fires still covered her arms and parts of her legs, though she kept them well hidden from all eyes these days. Age aside, Calla had worn thin from her experiences. The beginnings of wrinkles graced her fine features, teasing at her eyes and mouth. Had they been from laughter and joy, she would have worn them proudly, but joy was a rare commodity in the Known Lands now. "Whoever he was, he never spoke." Her voice was firm and on the edge of angry. "You're looking for a hero, just like everyone else. I can't blame you. We need a hero. But that man..." her voice trailed off into the darkness of the room which the candle could not penetrate. "What hero hides behind a mask?" Merl could not answer. That very thought had plagued him as well. Calla shifted in her chair and leaned closer toward her friend. "The meeting starts in half an hour. Come with me?"
Silently, they walked back behind the bar Merl had polished for over twenty years of his life. The aging man bent down low and felt along the floorboards for the one which was loose. Under it rested a key. Holding it up to the faint light from the candle Calla held close to her chest, Merl grinned. His secrets had been kept under lock and key for so many years that he had forgotten how to live openly. Hiding things in his own home and business seemed perfectly normal to him now, though you could never have convinced him as a child that his life would turn out to be so full of mystery and adventure. Behind the bar was a storeroom lined with hand carved shelves. Each held perfectly organized collections of rum, whiskey, and well-aged sweet, a liquor pulled from the sap of trees along the north border of the kingdom. The barkeep's collection was second to none in the city, though the bottles now collected little but dust for him. A tall stack of wine casks obscured a second door built into the wall. To the untrained eye, the door would be impossible to locate. Merl slipped the key into the well-oiled lock and led Calla through.
They shuffled in the dark, the blond woman's candle barely sufficient in the cavernous corridor. It stretched before them well beyond their vision. Had they lit the ancient torches along its walls, a history unknown in the city would have been revealed. Decades of refugees and political insurgents had carved their stories and painted their exploits along its length, leaving their mark upon the world. Sadly for the sake of history, but to the benefit of Merl and Calla, only a handful of people in the Known Lands knew of the tunnels' existence. After a good twenty minutes of slow walking, they stopped at a wooden door.
Merl inserted the key once more and opened the door onto a new hall. Torches burned low along its length, leading them to a final room where the group of rebel insurgents met regularly. Thirteen others sat around a makeshift table of crates and boards, greeting one another warmly. "Good to see you, Merl," a young man approached, extending his hand. "Calla said you were bent on sulking, but I knew you'd come to bring us news of the Knight."
Merl held the boy's hand long after the moment to let go had passed. Silence brought his attention up to the eyes which faced him. "Oh, sorry, Cam," he muttered, still caught up in how young Caff's grandchildren were. Had he not warned her to keep them away from such illegal gatherings as this? The boy couldn't be a day past sixteen by the barkeep's measure. He'd be lucky to get a drink in my pub, the older man thought as he greeted the others one by one. Cam was the youngest by a year or two, but there were many others Merl thought far too young to risk their lives for a cause with little to no support.
"May the Ancients walk among us," a short man with a long beard stood and announced, starting the meeting. All fell silent and turned their attention his way. "Who brings news?"
Calla stood first, brushing her long hair from her face. "Vail and Red Springs will not rebuild." A sad sigh escaped the lips of several people at the table. "Those who returned said nothing was left to build on. The fields are damaged beyond repair, especially with the drought and heat, and the Queen's military have raided and pillaged what supplies and lumber remained. Our homes are lost." Her face was set in resolve, not in sorrow. After so many years of being without her mother, her friends, her true home, Calla no longer craved restoration. She wanted revenge. Her sentiment did not stand alone. "Our brethren will travel north and collect whomever they come across. Surely there are more who would support our cause," she finished.
A grey-haired woman at the far end of the table stood, her eyes warm and gentle as she stared at Calla. "They will find many. Even as we speak, others will find the path to us," she turned to address the crowd which continued to grow. Over thirty bodies now gathered around the scrap table, eager to hear any news, but all praying for good words and hope of victory. "Still, we must remain quiet and wait. Our time has not yet come."
"We cannot wait forever," Cam rose, youthful anger firing his cheeks red. "Our people are starving, Ulhetha. There is talk that the guard will shut down the bread lines soon." An angry murmur worked its way through the crowd.
She extended her arms to the boy. "Cam, you know as well as everyone here that we cannot fight the Royal Guard without weapons and armor. Our numbers are few. How do you propose we act?"
"I..." he sputtered, "We should..." The young woman beside him took his hand in hers and pleaded silently with him to sit and listen.
"Merl," the bearded man spoke up, "can you give us any news of the Black Knight? We must know if he is friend or foe to our cause."
Merl met his elder's eyes, internally wishing that he had more to offer. Staying in his chair, he answered, "He has been sighted heading north. Like always he appears to strike after the wyverns have burnt a village to the ground." Many pairs of eyes fell in despair. If ever they were to rise up against the Queen, they needed a strong leader, a champion, one in whom their trust could be placed with certainty that the freedom of the Drylands people would be the only true victory. "No one can confirm that they travel together. But," he breathed deeply, "none can deny that his deeds are outwardly suspicious."
"Then," the elder leveled with the barkeep, "you believe him to be in company with the guard?"
Merl shifted in his seat. "I did not say any such thing."
Several in the crowd muttered their relief. Merl was believed to be the foremost authority on the Black Knight, and they looked to him for final word as to whether or not this man could be the savior they had long awaited. An old story spoke of a champion from the south of the kingdom who would come to the people in disguise. Little else was known of the Legend of the Ancients. Any written copies of the story had long since been lost, but its legacy lived on in all who felt despair at the hands of the Queen and her followers.
"I don't have the information you want, Hale. None of us will until that black devil comes into the city and shows us his loyalties in person." Merl stood and paced the room between men and women who gathered in defiance of the royal orders declaring any such assembly treason. "I want to know just as badly as you all do, but I will not hazard a guess on something so important."
"Then we send an envoy," Cam sprang from his seat, a wild look in his eye. A hush grabbed the crowd and held it aloft in the stream of time while every mind considered his words. "Let us seek him out."
"And you are certain he will be there?" the Queen plucked lightly at the potted plant on her private balcony.
Admiral Tens nodded. "Yes, Majesty. We have no reason to believe he will break from his pattern now."
"And you are also certain that this... Black Knight," the words felt ridiculous in her mouth. Who would call themselves by such a ghastly name? "...has demonstrated the ability to kill a wyvern?"
The Admiral cleared his throat and looked out over the fine orchards. No water had been spared on the castle's crops this season, despite the lack of it in every other field within the kingdom. "My best captain saw him with his very own eyes. This Black Knight handled his sword with the practice of a true warrior, felling the mighty beast in barely two strokes. He apparently went on to kill four more in that village." The Queen turned her eyes to him, unable to believe his words. "I think, Majesty, it is fair to assume he poses a threat to your.... plan."
She turned her eyes back to the prized flowering miniature rose at her fingertips. "Then we simply must have him over for dinner."
Willow spent the following weeks learning everything about the castle from the Princess, who insisted she never be referred to with her formal title unless in court or near her mother. The former was rare, the latter even more so. "She wanted a son," River mused idly one lazy afternoon. "I was a tremendous disappointment," she grinned and beamed at her new friend. A bond had formed between them within days of their first meeting. River recognized immediately that Willow was not truly a lady of the court, nor was she accustomed to living amongst royalty. Although cryptic about her origins, Willow had slowly begun to open up and relax in the Princess' presence. They spent long hours talking and reading to one another. River had taken it upon herself to educate her new companion in the duties and rights of royal life, though her own irreverent ways were infamous.
Willow smiled back, but something in her warned not to push for fear that the Princess did feel pain at the rejection her mother showed. "Who would want a boy?" She stole a strawberry from the plate between them. Their backs were warm in the late morning sun as they lay on thick blankets out in the Princess' private garden. "You can dress a girl in pretty things and teach her all the finery of court. Boys are nothing but trouble."
River stared blankly at the hand-maiden for a moment, and then both broke into riotous laughter. "Did you," she gasped between fits of giggles, "Did you actually mean to suggest I would be capable of learning the... What was it you said?" The grin on her face was scrunched into a mock serious pose as she imitated Willow, "... all the finery of court.'" Rolling onto her back to hold her aching stomach, the princess gazed adoringly at her companion. "I'm so glad you don't take me seriously, Willow."
The red-haired maiden rolled over as well, willing her eyes to adjust to the bright blue of the late summer sky. For once, she felt content. Reveling in the moment, she missed the Princess' next question entirely.
"Oh," the young woman turned her head, "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked if you've ever been in love?" River inquired casually. Willow was silent. "You're not like Mara or the other hand-maidens I've had before. None of them were pretty. Surely you don't lack for suitors?"
Willow turned her head and felt the soft skin of a protective arm gently cradling her head as she lay in the warm sun. Soft, blonde hair brushed and tickled her forehead, but her eyes were satisfied to rest behind heavy lids. Tara's body was curled around her, skin pressed against skin fighting the clothing which prevented their heartbeats and breath from becoming one. Soft lips deposited tiny kisses on her forehead. The Southlander's warm breath feathering the redhead's eyebrows. Willow shifted onto her hip just slightly, causing the girl entwined with her to gather her in again in those same strong arms Willow craved day and night, but a feeling altogether out of place forced her eyes open. Tara's chest rose and sank slowly where the gypsy's gaze first fell, and the sun glinted off a simple metal coin resting in the hollow of the warrior woman's throat. Willow closed her eyes tightly, trying with all her might to chase away the pain that throbbed in her head, but it ran down her neck and into her chest and shoulder, where it reached such a horrible climax it stole the air from her lungs and kept her from crying out into the peaceful courtyard. She drew back suddenly and looked down at the bodice of her dress. The fabric over her chest was drenched in blood and stuck to the broken arrow piercing her shoulder. Willow fought to inhale, then looked up into the innocent eyes of the one she had taken comfort in only moments before. Tara returned the gaze without a trace of concern on her face.
"No," her voice came low and calm. "Love is a fairytale, River. But it makes a delightful story." She smiled at the girl as they lay in the grass together, alone in the private garden.