A Knight Errant
The gardens of the Kingdom of Aravel were alive with chatter and music: lutenists strummed in hidden alcoves and flutes played high atop the walls, just out of sight and always within earshot. The occasional snatch of song or poetry floated above the sparkling laughter and the hum of courtly voices. The perfume of roses wafted through the air along with the bright scents of sweet wine and delicate, buttery sweets. Tiny lanterns lit the garden, imitating the flickering light of fireflies, along the winding stone paths. Walking amongst the flowers were the nobles of the Kingdom. The knights of Aravel wore their finest: brocaded tabards and swishing silken gowns. None wore weapons, though squires stood at the edges of the gardens, carrying them for their masters -- in case a point of honor called for a duel. The courtiers were even more finely bedecked in shimmering samite and with flower crowns perched atop their brushed and scented ears.
It was a splendid summer revel, and Lady Lyonette was miserable in the extreme.
The lady stood at the edge of the garden, feeling uncomfortably light without the weight of her sword on her hip. She was half hidden behind a gilded fountain and staring over an untouched cup of strawberry wine at Prince Evansdar. He wore a summery green coat and his glossy black fur gleamed under a crown of marigolds. He was the most beautiful mouse she’d ever seen.
He bent his velvety head to hear a remark from his father, the King, beside him. The Prince smiled at what he heard and it was the pleasantest, gentlest smile in all the Kingdoms.
Lady Lyonette sighed heavily. Send her a monster to fight, a knight to joust, or into the midst of the melee, and she was the bravest mouse in the kingdom. Everyone said so. But a conversation with Princes Evansdar? She could not do it.
“A good evening, my lady,” said a squeaking voice beside her.
She turned to find an ancient mouse speaking to her, leaning on an ornate walking stick. Despite the heat, he wore a cloak of surpassing beauty -- it seemed as though he’d cut a square of star-filled sky and hung it from his shoulders. His eyes were black in the lantern light and he wore a white beard nearly down to his waist.
She gave him a proper bow -- one that was respectful, without knowing exactly what his status was. He did not dress as either a knight or a courtier, and she did not recognize him.
“A good evening, my most venerable lord,” she replied gallantly. “And be welcome in the Kingdom of Aravel. I am the Lady Lyonette. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
His eyes twinkled, and she thought that he seemed amused. “I am called Naiv,” he said.
She blinked. No title. Yet he must be nobly born to be in the castle and to wear so fine a coat. Perhaps he was in disguise? She covered her surprise with another bow and looked about.
“You have nothing to drink,” she said, “May I get you something, honored Naiv?” she waved one of the servingmice over with a subtle gesture.
“Why thank you,” he said, and he was definitely laughing at her now. She refused to notice. It would not be proper to fight such an elder.
“Have you been in Aravel long?” she asked, once he was equipped with a goblet of wine.
“No,” said Naiv. “Nor shall I tarry long. I leave tonight.”
“Tonight!” she gasped. “But my-- my dear sir, you must remain and partake of our hospitality. Let it not be said that Aravel sends travellers to the road in dead of night! I beg you to take your ease with us this evening.”
A mysterious smile crossed the old mouse’s face and he said, “Ah, but you shall not sleep here tonight either, my lady.”
“I-- what ever do you mean, friend Naiv?”
“Let me show you,” he said, voice gone deep and sonorous. He turned towards the fountain, his star-strewn coat swirling.
At that moment, all of the lanterns’ flames became a bright and bloody red.
Cries of alarm filled the garden, calls for squires and swords filled the air. They faded as abruptly as they rose -- silenced by the sight of a spectral figure hovering over the gilded fountain. A ghostly mouse, clad head to toe in fine armor and with a helm that bore giant bull’s horns, faced the crowd. The air filled with tension and anticipation. The mice did not know what this specter protended, but all of them were eager for an adventure. The apparition raised its arms and addressed the assembled knights.
“Mice of the Kingdom of Aravel,” said the specter, its voice echoing from all corners of the garden. “Art thou brave of heart? Art thou courageous?”
The company hesitated, having trouble following the words. When they understood the questions, they cried out in the affirmative, Lady Lyonette’s voice loud among them.
“We shall see,” said the specter. “We shall see whose deeds can match their words. Seek thou, if you art brave, the Horn of Aurochs. Seek thou, and bring it back for the honor of your kingdom before a year and a day have passed. Seek thou the Horn of Aurochs, for the honor of Aravel.”
And with that voice resounding in all of their quivering ears, the vision vanished and the lanterns returned to their warm golden light.
All the knights exclaimed -- calling for their swords and their armor, for their mounts and supplies.
One knight dropped to his knee before the King of Aravel.
“I shall return with the Horn of Aurochs!” cried the knight. “In a year and a day, I shall do it!”
“Nay!” cried another knight, doing the same, “Your blessing, Your Majesty, and I shall be the one to find the Horn of Aurochs.”
“No, it shall be me!” a chorus of boasts arose as all the knights swore and proclaimed that they should be the ones to find the Horn. Gravely, the King raised his noble paw and gave them each a sign of blessing.
Lady Lyonette gathered herself -- all the courage she could muster -- and she knelt instead to Prince Evansdar.
“Your Highness,” she said, her voice shaking with ardor. “Will you give me your blessing?”
Lyonette’s heart pounded in her ears, and she could not bare to look up at the prince. The moment stretched out before her, endless, as she wondered if he would laugh or dismiss her.
“Rise, my lady, with my blessing,” said Prince Evansdar — his voice even and kind. Praying she would not stumble, Lyonette obeyed, bashfully avoiding his eyes.
“Then I shall be the one to find the Horn of Aurochs!” she said. “I swear, my prince! I shall succeed!”
She backed away breathlessly, remaining in a crouched bow.
The Prince was somewhat bemused, watching her go, and then he was distracted by his father saying something to him.
“Well done,” said Naiv, behind Lyonette.
She turned to him, her heart ready to burst. She must remember every detail of this moment. This was the beginning of a mighty adventure, and she would be the hero of it.
“Thank you, prophet,” she said, remembering his words before the specter appeared to give them the quest. “I beg you most earnestly, if you have any wisdom to guide me in my quest, share it now — for I shall be gone within the hour!”
The black-eyed elder considered her. Then, he raised his stick and waved it in front of her, humming to himself thoughtfully. Nearby, the other mice looked askance at this oddness, but Lady Lyonette waited confidently for his words.
The old mouse, who called himself Naiv, leaned forward. He spoke softly, for Lyonette’s ears alone: “Ride for the mountains of the dwarvish folk, lady knight. Ride for the mountains, and when you’ve fought iron wings to save what requires no rescue -- then you will be close.”
Lyonette bounced on her toes. This would be the most miraculous adventure. Daringly, she kissed the elder on both cheeks. He laughed benevolently. “Go, Lady Lyonette. And my blessing with you as well.”
“Thank you, Magus Peregrin,” she said -- for she knew him now for who he was: the greatest wizard of the Walled Kingdoms. The mysterious mouse who had a place in all the best tales and songs, who gave good council and great quests. She should have known as soon as she saw his coat.
Before the old mouse could reply, Lady Lyonette went running to the castle, calling for her warhare to be readied, and for her bags to be packed, for she was going to find the Horn of Aurochs.
The sun smiled down on Lady Lyonette, and her noble hare, Dasher. The mountain air had the slight chill of autumn and the mountains were cloaked in burnished bronze and bright orange leaves. The day was as golden as it could be, and Lady Lyonette sang as she rode.
She’d spent months on her journey here and had many adventures along the way. She had freed a town from bandits, fought beastmen on their plains, and battled a giant. A week ago she reached the foothills of the mountains and now she was in sight of the high mountain passes. She wondered if she would meet any of the dwarven clans. There was little truck between the Walled Kingdoms and the clans, but there was no enmity there she was aware of. She imagined great stone halls and roaring fires. That would, indeed, be a great addition to her adventure.
Suddenly, she caught sight of a metallic flash on the path before her.
Eager to discover what it was, she clicked her tongue to Dasher, who hopped forward with aplomb. The sight that met her eyes was a fantastical one, and terrifying.
The earth was covered in dark scorch marks, blackened and burnt in a circle around a dwarven woman. The woman was lying prone on the ground, and above her was a dragon made of metal. The great beast was nosing the dwarf, clearly about to devour her.
Without a thought for herself, Lady Lyonette let out a war cry. She kicked Dasher to a trot and slammed her visor shut. She readied her lance, aiming it for the dragon.
The iron creature turned, snake fast, to face her. It’s mouth burned red, it’s eyes were malevolent pits of fire. It unleashed its deadly breath at Lyonette, who tugged her warhare sharply sideways. Dasher leapt forward and to the side, outrunning the flames and passing by the dragon entirely -- too far for Lyonette to get in a proper strike.
Dasher turned with hardly a sign from Lyonette, readying herself for another pass.
“Step back from the fair dwarven lady!” cried Lyonette. “You shall not have her!” She charged again. This time, Dasher leapt up over the fireball directed at them. Lyonette swung her sword -- the weapon clacked along the dragon’s metal scales.
The dragon’s claws swiped at Dasher and missed, but barely.
Darting sideways, Lyonette and Dasher turned for a third pass. Lyonette grinned behind her helmet. What a challenge! What a battle! Her blood was up and she would leave this monster as a pile of scrap! Nothing could stop her!
“Wait!” cried the lady dwarf, and Lyonette reigned in Dasher. The dragon’s attention snapped back to the dwarf… like a concerned pet. Astonished, Lyonette watched as the dwarf patted the dragon’s iron snout.
“I’m alright, Sunshine,” said the dwarf. “I’m alright. Just put a little too much powder in that one. That’ll teach me to listen to Salvo...”
“You are well?” asked Lyonette, raising the visor of her helm. “Shall I rescue you from this beast?”
The metal dragon snapped petulantly.
“No,” said the dwarf, speaking to the dragon. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She waved a hand towards Lyonette. “Thank you, sir rabbit knight! I am well.”
What did she call me? Was Lyonette’s first thought, followed closely by Magus Peregrin’s words: When you’ve fought iron wings to save what requires no rescue -- then you will be close.
“Ah!” cried the knight, dismounting from Dasher and hurrying forward. “The Horn!” she cried, casting about with eager eyes. “My dear lady dwarf, where is the Horn? Have you seen it? A great bull’s horn. The Horn of Aurochs! It is my most dear quest to find it and I pray you will help me do so!”
The dwarf was consternated, but she said: “My name is Cinder, good… lady mouse? And I don’t think I understand.”
“Ah, forgive me, dear Cinder,” said Lyonette. “Let us sit and I shall tell you my story, and you must tell me yours.”
Still wary, the dwarf agreed and all of them -- including the dragon and the warhare, settled in the hear each other’s stories.
When it was done, Cinder seemed thoughtful. It was well after dark, and they were seated comfortably around a shared fire. Dasher and the dragon -- Sunshine -- were sleeping, snuggled together. Or rather, Dasher was sleeping, and Sunshine’s interior fire was banked low. The mechanical dragon was letting out a low, contented rumbling sound.
“I don’t know about a horn,” said Cinder. “But there is a statue of Aurochs at the top of this mountain. It’s not far. Perhaps that will give you a clue?”
“Ah!” said Lyonette. “That sounds most promising, my dearest Cinder. Will you, perchance, take me there upon the morrow?”
“Sure,” said Cinder, smiling at the mouse lady’s way of speaking.
“Then let us rest for the night,” said Lyonette, “And continue at first light!”
It was somewhat later than first light when they got underway. The mechanical dragon liked to take her time, preening any speck of rust from her scales before she was willing to move. Lady Lyonette did not hold it against the creature. Not for long, anyway. Soon, they were a merry company. Lady Lyonette sang songs of the tournaments and the banquet halls and Cinder returned the favor, sharing the melodies of the forge.
It was the merriness of their journey that meant they did not hear the beastmen before they saw them.
They came around a bend in the path, and before them was the mountaintop. Standing strong against the sky was a statue of Aurochs: a broad-chested human with a bull’s head -- and one horn missing. The grandeur of the setting, however, was marred by the group of cruel faced beastman. Their slavering jaws and wild eyes turned to the mismatched group of travelers.
Sunshine unhinged her jaw, ready to scorch them all when Cinder shouted at her to stop -- for Lady Lyonette had already charged.
Fiercely, the knight rode in among the beastmen, swinging with her sword -- left and right and left again!
“Begone, you monsters! Haunt not this holy place!” she cried, casting about her as Dasher leapt and turned for another pass. “Avaunt! Begone!”
A beastmen tried to snatch her from the saddle, but Lyonette laughed and ducked his great hands. She sliced open his palms with her sword and turned to the next enemy.
“Flee now, or I shall send you to the dirt!” she yelled and ducking and dodging, striking and blocking, the knight was everywhere and nowhere.
In confusion, the beastmen who could broke and fled before her, running past Cinder and Sunshine -- howling back down the mountain path. They left their fallen behind.
“I see Sunshine got off lightly,” said Cinder, picking her way between the bodies.
Sunshine snorted, but didn’t say anything.
Lyonette had already forgotten the beastmen. The mouse had seen other statues of Aurochs, but this one was somewhat different. One of the god’s horns was broken off, and he held it in his hand -- like an offering.
Reverently, Lyonette dismounted and removed her helmet. She walked carefully, gracefully, to the statue’s feet. With trembling paws, she reached up and plucked the horn from the statue. It was heavy.
“The Horn of Aurochs,” she murmured, peering at the horn in wonder.
Cinder came to stand at her shoulder, frowning at the horn.
“What does it do?” she asked, while Sunshine and Dasher crowded in behind for a look too.
Lyonette said, “It will bring honor to the Kingdom of Aravel, and favor to me in the eyes of the sweetest prince in all the Walled Kingdoms.”
“Uh-huh,” said Cinder. “I meant, does it have magical properties?”
“I have not the faintest idea,” said Lyonette, smiling. “I’d never heard about it before my quest.”
Cinder laughed. “Well, would you like to bring it with you and come visit the caverns of my clan? I can study it there, and perhaps tell you how it ought to be used.”
Lyonette looked up at the statue -- at the bright autumn sun and the mountains all around her. She smiled at the splendid morning. It was still a long time off from the promised ‘year and a day’ she was meant to be questing. An adventure in the halls of the dwarves sounded marvelous -- even if it meant delaying the sight of her gorgeous Prince Evandsdar.
“Lead on, Lady Cinder!” she said. “Lead on, and tell me more of this Brew. For I would dearly love to see your home and bide there awhile.”