The freed farmers went the way the woman was heading. Their pace was slow and tired. Occasionally, a few would rush into the waters to pluck seeds from the flooded fields. Some of their faces had cracked and discolored skin. They looked as though they had been marching for a day or two. They spoke to each other with hushed volume, but only away from the knight. His sensors detected the sounds, but they weren’t clear enough to comprehend. He walked beside the antlered beast, prodding it along with a thin naked branch. When the woman woke up, she found herself bound to the animal. It was a measure taken to ensure she wouldn’t fall off. She growled in hopeless anger, and the knight lifted his visor to send her a teasing wink.
It was early evening when the people’s spirits lifted. They had caught sight of friendly landmarks made of sheer, crumbling stone, and decorated with pale, faded hues. The clustered stones, scattered about the base of the walls, shared the colors. The knight had heard of these places, where once, so long ago, millions dwelt. Now the ruins were overgrown and forested, cold under the canopy. Other survivors emerged from hiding with baffled expressions. In whispers they communicated the events, and pointed to the knight, who offered casual salutes. They were not quick to trust despite his deeds, and weapons were prepped against him as he continued with the crowd. They were still marching after sunset when peculiar lights were seen through the leaves above. In his peripherals, he thought them to be stars, but when he brought his notice on them they were flickering orange. The fires danced within squared, stone skeletons, which loomed with weathered age. Shadows moved past the flames, telling of the inhabitants who awaited.
The travelers ascended a precarious hill, formed from the fragmented remains of a fallen fellow tower. Trees still rooted themselves in the crevices, where ever space would allow, but the branches had been cropped along a path. The trail came to three banded trunks, which were laid across a deepened drop. They bridged the rocky mound to a gated entrance, brimming with sharpened stakes, and metal scraps poised on strings. It was a crude defense by appearance, but the knight could judge the severity of the swinging shrapnel. To him, it posed no threat. To a man of bare flesh, one swipe could cleave and infect. He waited while the rest of the party patiently crossed the logs in single file. They moved with wide space between, yet the wood still creaked as if weak under the weight. Perhaps they had hallowed the trunks, to fault under an aggressive rush. When the last survivor was across, and the bridge was all his, he began to embark.
He had heard it, but he was sure he didn’t say it. Or did he. Had his intuition grown an actual voice?
Another word. From above. Tilting his head skyward, the knight found a silhouette of a cloaked figure, four stories away. The person was leaning out of the window, holding on to the frame as the wind pawed at the worn cloth. The knight lifted his visor and shouted over the rustling leaves. “Am I understood?”
The reply was voiced sweetly, quite in contrast to the content. “Yes, you are, knight. This way is not for you.”
“Is there another way?”
“Not for you.”
The knight pondered his next play, and looked back to the darkened forest. He thought of ignoring the refusal, but decided that warring against these people would be in poor taste. He was wanting something. Why did he come? He needed… What did he need? He had nothing on the surface. He needed company, someone to talk to. He needed to laugh and feel proud. He needed a purpose. He needed to eat. “I have helped your friends, and came a long way. I ask for food, not for trouble.”
“None asked you to come. There is food out there. You can not trouble us.”
His old blood wanted to test that last idea. His old blood was hungry, tired, and wanting respect. “I fought your enemies. I defeated them. I can help.”
“You fell from the sky. You are our enemy. You freed the prisoners, but you undermined our mother’s authority. You seek to be king like the other knights.”
Other knights… Other knights were banished before him. Years before him. Decades before he was born. He was the first to fall from grace, in the kingdom’s newest dispute. Yet here he stood, speaking to someone who spoke the kingdom’s words, talking of old knights. Kings? The old knights had made themselves kings? They had made the best of a bad situation. Should he pursue the same goal? He could jump the gap, and force the people to submit. They looked thin and untrained, at least the woman and the herd of captives did. As a king… he would be feared, and hated. He could only offer death. That’s all he had to give.
“I am a knight. You know what I can do. Send me some food, in payment for freeing your people, and I will go.” He had his honor too. He had taken that with him when he fell. The figure who spoke of ‘mother’s authority’ disappeared from sight. He waited, watching the window where the person was. He kept his eyes moving, looking for stones which might be loosed down upon him. Something flew from a window far above, and the knight braced his legs, ready to pounce away. It fluttered as rocks don’t, and fell through the tree tops as rocks don’t. He descended the mound looking for the package. A square cloth was folded around what must have been their food. Odd seeds of different sizes, squishy, juicy balls, brown strips, hard and flaky, and a white blob that retained the imprints of his gloves. He tested each morsel with his suit, and all of it seemed free of poison. He ate while he walked. His only direction was away. He wanted to be clear of the forest, for within its midst he had trouble reading the stars.
What was there for him? How would he spend his time? How much time did he have left? If he was to wander for years, he might suffer life more than love it. Stop trying to figure it out. His intuition knew the way. Go find the riders. Find the one who knocked you down. Combat was his affinity, and if he was going to do something down here, he was going to do what he knew best.
His returning trail was easy to track. The way was straight, and lined with stone walls, however along those walls gaps were numerous and held more mystique in the night. He felt there must be more sentinels in the shadows, but his suit detected no sounds. He kept braced for the worst, but nothing worse came. For a forest, it was surprisingly void of critters. The inhabitants must have hunted them to extinction, or why else would they venture so far for food? He listened to the clinks of his boots against the crack-ridden stone ground, and dazed away. His mind wandered to his last days in the kingdom, and his sacrifice. He had stayed at the choke point to hold off the counter surge. He knew he had bought them enough time. The knight had fought off the council’s knights for two full orbits. They kept coming into the choke, and he kept piling the bodies behind him. Brixon was a resourceful leader, and he knew she could make her followers safe. Would his friends remember his service? Was a memorial already built? Had they already maneuvered and taken the reigns of the kingdom? No. That was only wishful thinking. If they had, a shuttle would have tracked his suit, and the sky would be raining down armor.
The sight of the forest’s clearing woke him from his walking dream. He looked up, searching for that larger star, but the sky was still overcast. The lunar cluster must have been behind the cloudy veil, for a dim, blue hue outlined the terrain. This world was a sad shell, hollow and brutal. In his first day he had to spill blood to protect weaker souls. Why isn’t it better? What happened to the kingdoms of the old fallen knights? Surely they must have brought their ideas of honor with them. They had left some legacy. Their words were still known by at least one survivor, and more must be out there.
A calling came to the knight. A purpose. A plan for preparation. His virtues were stronger, reignited by reminiscing, and freed from self-pity. He would grow his power, and build a home. Not for himself and selfish pleasures, but for any others sent down. When the kingdom above was restored to peace, his kingdom below would exist to support it.
With those thoughts burning in his chest, the knight leaned into his steps, throwing himself faster along. His run became a sprint. His steps turned into leaps, and the day’s march became an hour’s dash. The flooded fields were now black sheets. All, but one, looked alike. The sole distinguishable field was marked with the subtle bumps of bloating bodies. He searched along the elevated bank, and found the other corpses. No rain had fallen to wash away the horses tracks, and the cratered mud proved easy to follow. The tracks met a deeper cluster, comprised of both foot and hoof impressions. With a reckless advance, he went the way they came, and the knight found them before the sun did.