A Brother of the Radiant Order
Cold moonlight flooded the marble halls of the sanctuary, giving the place a ghostly aura. This place was far away from the bustle of Heaven’s Reach, the Radiant City -- away at the edge of the empire. It suited Sir Matteus’ mood -- the solitude and the quiet. Even the dim ethereal light, so different from the bright and revealing sunlight of the goddess Kassandra, seemed fitting.
He tried not to walk with a limp -- the effort to keep his steps even bringing sweat to his brow. The healers said that he was a month away from being ready to return to his duties. Where his body was concerned, at least.
Matteus walked the empty colonnade, alone with his memories.
Three brothers of the Radiant Order rode the great highway between Heaven’s Reach and Port Amity, knee to knee. The day was bright and sunny -- the breeze carrying a whiff of autumn but no hint of chill.
As they passed by a walled orchard, Sir Adrianus snagged a ripe apple from a branch that hung down over the road.
“Brother…” said Timotheus, a warning note in his voice, but Adrianus just laughed and took a bite from the apple.
“Surely, surely,” said Adrianus, as Timotheus continued to glare at him, “You will not ruin so lovely a day by admonishing me for taking an apple so clearly offered by Kassandra’s grace?”
Timotheus snorted. “Is it Kassandra’s grace that a thief sees a full purse in the market square? What grace is there in stealing?”
Adrianus rolled his eyes. “Have you no sense of proportionality, brother? Losing a full purse is a great burden to the victim. This farmer” -- he waved airly at the vast orchard they were still riding beside -- “has an abundance of apples! He will not miss one! He’ll not even notice. Indeed -- he may never have even seen this apple -- hanging over the wall and into the road as it was. I have saved him from waste. And when I am in need of apples, why, I shall remember this place. For this is delicious.”
Timotheus scowled, but Matteus laughed.
“Adrianus only makes such arguments to irk you, Brother Timotheus,” said Matteus. “All you must do to encourage him to hew more closely to our code is to ignore his antics.”
Timotheus snorted. “Or, that will merely drive him to more extraordinary pranks in his quest to irritate me.”
Adrianus grinned and then took another bite from his apple. “It’s a gamble,” he said.
Timotheus straightened in his saddle and said, “I will have to do neither, then. It is not fit for Knights of the Radiant Order to take part in such speculative games.”
The absurdity of that statement made all of them laugh as they continued on their way.
Matteus grimaced as the healer peeled away his old bandages -- revealing the angry red web of scars on his leg.
The healer clicked his tongue, impressed. “This is looking good, sir,” he said. “You’re healing quickly.”
Matteus nodded. He did not wish to seem ungrateful -- the healers had worked very hard to make him healthy once more. And yet. He could not help but resent it as well.
The healer looked downcast and asked, “When does your vow of silence end, friend?”
Matteus shrugged. He’d named no duration for his mourning vow -- he doubted that he would live long enough to feel it was right to speak again.
The battlefield was a churned mess of blood and mud and bodies. Screams of the dying and the cries of those lost in bloodlust mixed with the crash of swords to weave a song of violence.
As he hacked down one of the raiders, Matteus felt an evil premonition in his heart. Instinctively, his eyes found Adrianus in the fray and saw that his knightly brother was beset by six raiders, trying to drag him from his horse. Matteus wheeled Bolt around.
“Brother!” he cried, and rode to his aid -- sword flashing in the bright light of the sun.
He reached Adrianus and Bolt kicked one of the raiders while Matteus cut down another. When he turned to dispatch the other villains, Matteus found that Timotheus had arrived as well -- defending Adrianus from the other side.
“My thanks!” said Adrianus, breathless but unharmed. “How goes the battle?”
“Well,” said Timotheus -- always the most calm in the face of battle. “We shall prevail shortly, I think.”
Matteus looked around the field, eyes searching for where they were needed next. He caught sight of a mounted raider -- armored in a mismatched pieces, but rallying his fellows around him. The raider was forming a knot of resistance around himself.
“Here we go again,” said Adrianus, following Matteus’ gaze.
“What do you mean?” asked Matteus.
“You want us to ride into that morass,” said Timotheus, as though it was obvious. “Where the fighting is hottest.”
Behind his helm, Matteus grinned. “Are we not the bravest knights of our Order?”
“You are the bravest,” muttered Adrianus. “We’re just foolish enough to go with you.”
“Lead, brother,” said Timotheus, “and we will follow you anywhere.”
“Into the jaws of hell and back,” said Adrianus, with rare seriousness.
“I’ll hold you to that,” said Matteus. He raised his sword, and then spurred Bolt forward. “For the light!” he cried as he charged towards the raider’s leader. A breath behind him thundered Adrianus and Timotheus, joining in his war cry.
When Matteus returned to his monkish cell, he found a scroll waiting for him on the narrow desk. It was sealed with a medallion of golden wax showing the bright sun of the Radiant Order.
It would be his summons to join a company of brothers in the Order. Or perhaps some other assignment. It was his call back to the world of duty and battles and service to the empire. His call, but not his brothers’. Matteus still felt that -- at any moment -- he would turn a corner and see Timotheus and Adrianus. So it was strange to receive a single scroll. Only for him.
Matteus sat on his bed and stared at the whitewashed wall before him -- studying a familiar crack that ran from one corner into the middle of the wall. Was it merely a surface crack or a sign of something deeper?
Unable to bear the stillness, Matteus left the room again, leaving the scroll sealed and unread.
Sir Matteus had lost his helm somewhere in the battle, along with his horse. He lay on his back, snow sticking to his face as it fluttered down from a grey sky. Around him were scattered a company of fallen brothers. Sorcery and treachery had brought them low. And wolves. Monstrous wolves.
With a groan, Sir Matteus struggled to roll over. His leg didn’t feel like a leg -- just a mass of blinding pain.
He didn’t look at it.
Matteus knew, somehow, that he was already too late -- but that did not keep the wounded knight dragged himself across the battlefield, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.
He found them together -- not far away. Adrianus’ eyes were wide in death -- his throat torn out by one of the great beasts. Timotheus was still breathing.
“Brother,” said Sir Matteus, “Brother, I’m here.”
“Matteus…” said Timotheus. He didn’t turn his head. “I’m cold, brother.”
Tears stung Matteus eyes. “I know, I know. All will be well. The Order will find us.” He didn’t believe it and he knew Timotheus did not believe it either.
Timotheus chuckled and then coughed. “Do not lie to me when I’m dying,” he said.
“You won’t die,” said Matteus, fierce.
“Matteus…” said Timotheus, admonishing him.
“I’m sorry,” said Matteus, voice cracking. “I should not have driven us forward. I should have waited for the main force. I should not have charged --”
“Ah, Matteus,” whispered Timotheus. “You always charge. And we could not have let you go alone.”
Timotheus’ breath stopped -- the life gone from his eyes like the sun disappearing behind a cloud.
Matteus thought he could hear the sound of horse’s hooves. Reinforcements from the Order arriving too late.
Matteus returned to the Sanctuary late, having walked the fields alone - thinking and praying and finding no answers. He was surprised to find the ordinarily calm hallways bustling with knights and healers. He saw one of the healers who knew him, and caught the man by the shoulder.
Flustered, the healer stopped -- and then saw the question in Matteus’ eyes.
“Ah,” he said. “There’s been an attack -- giants, a few hours from here. They’re putting together some brother knights to ride out tomorrow and hunt them down -- and bolstering our defenses here, in case the monsters get this far. Please excuse me, I’m needed elsewhere.”
Matteus let him go and watched the healer hurry away.
Then the knight went to retrieve his arms and armor, and left alone within the hour.
Tomorrow would be too late for someone.
“Do you ever wonder what your life might have been outside the Order?” asked Matteus, eyes closed and face turned up towards a wintery sun.
“No,” said Timotheus, direct as always.
Adrianus smiled. “I do,” the knight said. “But then I think of you two without me…”
“Of our peace and quiet?,” asked Timotheus.
“Of your boredom, brother,” Adrianus corrected him. “And when I do, I know I am exactly where I’m meant to be.”
The cloudy morning found Matteus alone on a grassy hilltop. His leg still hurt him, but he’d managed the ride from the sanctuary in good time. He looked down at three carefree giants -- though not much down. The monsters strode along the road like they owned it, each five times Matteus’ height. One of them had a dead cow slung across one shoulder and the others carried bags full of loot, and clubs as tall as huts. All of them were spattered with ash and blood.
There was a trick to fighting giants. Matteus would go in fast at their legs, slicing the muscles and tendons and bringing their vitals down where he could reach them. Fighting one giant alone, Matteus gave himself even odds. Fighting three at once, on his own... well.
It should be one for each of us, thought the knight. They were meant to be here. He could almost hear his fallen brothers’ voices -- Adrianus making a wry joke about the danger and Timotheus assessing the ground and terrain, looking for an advantage.
Away down the road, Matteus could see thin streams of smoke rising in the morning air. Cookfires for a nearby village. Behind him, he’d seen what giants had done to the last village -- he’d tracked them from there.
Matteus patted Bolt’s neck. The warhorse stamped the ground, impatient as Matteus always was. Despite himself, the knight smiled.
It was a good morning to die.
He sent a prayer to Kassandra, the Lady of Light, for her to guide his sword -- and help him to take down all three giants before he perished.
Then Matteus charged without a warcry down the side of the hill, Bolt’s hooves stamping through the tall grass, thudding into the earth.
Cool morning air rushed past the knight. Together, he and the horse flew down the hill. The giants heard him, of course, turning before he’d crossed half the distance.
The sun broke out of the clouds as Matteus charged. Spears of sunlight lancing down to the earth. In his ears, Matteus heard the sound of more horses: a thunder of hooves that did not come from Bolt alone. The others from the sanctuary could not have arrived so quickly though. He knew he was alone.
The giants dropped their stolen goods and hefted their clubs, smiling evilly at the knight charging them. One good hit from those weapons would send horse and rider flying into the air -- and end the battle.
On Matteus charged -- and then he saw a change in the giant’s faces. Surprise. Fear.
Bright and close and clear, Matteus heard Adrianus laughing.
The knight glanced back.
In the sudden sunlight, glittering gold, two ghostly knights rode behind Matteus -- one to either side, keeping pace with him. Helms or no, spirits or no, Matteus would have recognized them anywhere.
“Lead on!” cried Timotheus, waving his golden sword. “Lead on, brother -- and we will follow!”