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DARK KNIGHTS 1, CHAPTER

Dark Knights 1 - Chapter

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Dark Knights 1

May 7 1112

Anno Aquilae Nigrae (“of the Year of Black Eagle”)

 

1:17 a.m.

 

The sound was born in the distance, under the immense night sky and its myriad stars. The moon drifted high and full. The rumble increased to cover the wind's breath, the few hoots of owls, grew under the constellations, unexpected in the midst of the night: the fast approach of galloping horses, their hooves hammering the solid ground.

The moon poured its gleam over a cluster of wooded hills, a set of creases and wrinkles. A path cut through them halfway, winding on the slopes. The rumble of the gallops was approaching behind a fold. The latter was blanketed with trees over 20 meters high: tapered beeches, rounded oaks came down, brushed by the moonlight. All along the slope, the glow fell oblique, flecking the undergrowth beneath the leaves. The gallops swelled, firmer and nearer, heavier. Frightened birds took flight in turn in the night. The tall trees, outlined by the pale radiance, taller than houses, sometimes twisted and tangled, went lower and lower, to the bad track that cut through the forest. Then...

In a gust of wind, the dark mass of the man bent over the steed sped by like a missile in the night. His horse had lifted a cloud of dust. The specks rose high, unveiled like crystals by the blue beams of the moon.

Behind, the horses of the pursuers were trying to keep up in a deafening thunder. Their coats gleamed under the strain. Their necks swung in cadence, the beasts soaked with sweat. The riders bent in the saddle, swayed with the rhythm of the gallop.

They were seven and rode two abreast. They were chasing their target at breakneck speed. The track ran quickly behind them, with the cloud of dust lifted by their ride, that swirled and vanished away.

Even in full daylight, they would have surprised. Their whole outfits were darker than the night: from the cloaks fluttering and flapping, down to the coats of mail, the scabbards of the swords and the boots. Lying on the horses like seven shadows, they wore neither gloves nor helmets. Only their hands and faces stood out pale.

They narrowed their eyes to see through the cloud raised by the fugitive. The manes brushed their faces, agitated by the work of the necks. They were swallowing his dust, which irritated their eyes.

The dark shapes of the trees raced by uphill, to their left. Low branches whipped the air and were gone. The landscape ran away, changing fast. They kept their eyes on the rider ahead. Despite his slight lead, he probably cursed the milky glow that gave him away. They saw him gallop after the trees slanting over the trail and the bushes overflowing to the left. All in black too, he dangerously took the curves around the slopes.

At the slightest obstacle on the ground, anyone could go flying from the saddle and break his bones. These men relied only on the full moon to catch up with their target, and they were going fast, real fast. From time to time, their eyes went back to the track, trying to make out the rut that would hurl them forward, knowing that at such speed it would be too late to avoid it.

But sooner or later...

So as the hills went past, the riders clung to the harness, their muscles sore in the foreboding of the fall. At the second row, the rider with the pale beard shouted again:

— “Surt!...”

But only the rumble of the gallop replied. And like the others, he pursed his lips. The dark fugitive raced on in the night, and so did they behind him. Their black cloaks, blown by the wind, unveiled long and expensive coats of mail that started at the wrists. And the moonlight hinted that this mail — tiny iron rings riveted together — was varnished black. Over it, the riders wore a dark tunic with short sleeves, the armor below extending in a skirt of iron rings split front and back, its flaps tied to the thighs like knickers. Over their shins, thick leather guards showed the same pattern of interlacings, above the boots slid in the stirrups.

Nothing was mismatched among the seven men, evoking membership of the same military force, stern and disciplined.

They straightened up in the saddle to take a curve, and close to their hearts glittered small metal brooches, smaller than the palm of the hand. They were fibulas of the same size, pinned at the same spot on the black tunics.

Immediately, the seven pursuers bent down again on the necks. They had been chasing their target for more than an hour now.

 

They had almost caught up with him at the street-village. They had awoken the innkeeper. Three of them had pounded on his door, then forced it open, discovering his room empty, a window opened on the night. Then the four below had called, warning that a horse was slipping away in the darkness. The three others had rushed into the staircase, jostling the innkeeper. They had scrambled outside to jump back in the saddle. The full moon tinged silver-white the village and its lone street to the fields. At the end of it, the gallop of a mount faded away in the countryside. Out of the village, they had seen him. A rider outlined by the pale glow, pressing his horse between the dark vines, toward the forest beyond. The seven men from Eaglecross had dug their knees into the flanks of their mounts, breaking into a gallop. Fandon had shouted for him to wait, words that the fugitive did not hear or did not want to hear. Quickly, they had discarded their torches, whose flames were stretching under the wind, preventing them from seeing what little the moon displayed. The riders had raced past the vineyards, chasing the lone figure swallowed by the woods, toward the dominating hills beyond.

Then the game had started. They had stopped quickly in the forest to get their bearings and listen. In vain. He too had stopped, to let them pass. They had waited. After a long while, they had heard a horse sneaking away. They had trotted in his direction, but the distant pace had sped up, breaking into a gallop. Swearing, they had tried to follow him, relying solely on hearing.

And the cat and mouse game had gone on. They were stopping to listen, discovering that he too had stopped. They were remaining still among the dark trunks and the moon beams, resting their horses, listening with taut attention. Several times, they heard the walk or trot sneaking away in unexpected directions. They knew that they would probably never catch up with him in this hallucinating darkness, these thousands of misleading and confusing shapes. But each time, they had heard him, and sometimes even glimpsed him, through a gap between the trees. And each time, they had turned their mounts to rush after him.

But the lone rider was master of the game. He feinted deftly, turned aside, stopped to conceal himself in the woods. And they could not help but think that he was in command of the situation. Still, the highest authority of their Order had asked them to find that man at any cost. And the end of their long search was perhaps the most important event on the continent that night.

The horses were baulking, scratched by the undergrowth. But their heavy gallop had drummed on the ground behind the fugitive. Little by little, he had led them into the heights. They had climbed the slopes behind him.

 

Finally, the man had found this hillside track and started on it at full gallop. Since then, he had not slowed.

They were watching his shape hunched in the saddle. They frequently lost sight of him in the curves. He disappeared and reappeared. And the long slopes continued to move by under the indifferent stars, with the hooves pounding on the bad trail, and the wind whipping their faces.

Now 500 Kilos of mad beast were soaked wet beneath them. The horses shone with sweat, snorting dangerously in a concert of raucous breaths and the thunder of the ride. Still, they pressed them on after the dark rider.

The track went down gently toward some dim valleys. They had lost sight of him in a curve. He reappeared, trailing dust in his wake with a slight lead. And suddenly, he veered sharply into a fork, a dim gap between two hills. Tensely, the pursuers stepped up the pace, pushing their mounts to the limit. Getting closer, they realized that the path was very narrow, and without a word some of them pulled in. The mounted party tightened, forming in single file to turn without slowing. They arrived at the thin gap without knowing what lay behind, fearing to miscalculate and empty the saddle. They barely made out the trail, between the rough shapes of the trees. The seven riders straightened up slightly. The brooches sparkled on the chests.

They turned like a whirlwind, swinging their mounts inside the curve, digging their shins into their flanks to force them not to slow down.

The foliage hid the stars. They were galloping on a worse track, a dark tunnel among the branches. Moon beams shot by, highlighting the menacing vegetation so close.

The lead rider yelled “Branches!”. And the next ones dropped flat against the necks. They heard low branches whistling nearby. They hanged on, following the moonlight dots that fled on the ground, guessing the trail more than they saw it. They barely slowed. They clenched their teeth.

The masses of foliage, dangerously close, marched confusedly on the sides, between darkness and light beams.

There was a last turn. Ahead, a gap appeared with a slice of star-shot sky. A broad forlorn moor opened up before them.

The cavalcade bolted from the woods like a black arrow. They saw the vast firmament spread out, dotted with stars, and a spectacular sight that briefly caught their attention. They were riding on a huge grassy plain, littered with shrubs painted black and silver.

— “There!” shouted the lead man.

A trail of dust rose ahead. In a thunderous rumble, they urged the horses. The forest opened out like some prodigious arena. Far ahead, a horizon of hills rolled in the moonlight. Then they got a better sight of the runaway horse. Empty stirrups were beating its flanks. In the saddle, there was no figure, blotting out the stars.

— “He's gone!” yelled one of the first.

— “He fell?”

They spun, scanning the bushes and the moor that quickly raced past. Then Stilicho, the white-haired On Master, gave his orders:

— “Find him! Yazid, the horse! The others, find him!”

Before he had finished, four riders reined in: the last three turning gracefully on each side, one in front sending his horse in a wide lateral curve. The other three continued on their momentum. The four who had moved aside, raising dust, swung their foaming mounts around. They looked back, for a figure on the dark moor. They didn't like what they saw: the dark ground that could hide many things in its high grass and hollows, and the thick shadows that crept there. Their eyes swept the expanse in a flash, settling on the path through which they had come. One of them motioned to the others:

— “Over here!”

And he led his horse toward a clump of bushes, followed by the other three. Meanwhile, the lead rider was chasing the runaway horse at full gallop, taking insane risks. The two behind him slowed, then stopped, watching him in pursuit of the lone mount. Quickly, the white-haired man turned to see how the others were faring behind.

They had dismounted in the silver grass, hastily tying their horses to the shrubs. Instantly they started at a run toward the track. One of them called: “Fifteen paces! Fifteen paces!”, and they spread and spread out more without slowing down. They pulled their cloaks around them, to hide the glitter of the fibulas, put on the hoods to conceal their paler faces, unsheathed small recurve bows at their belts, took arrows from the quivers at their right hips. They put the shafts on the weapons, sliding the nocks onto the strings. And after a few seconds the four hunters were running armed and ready, like shadows under the moonlight.

Meanwhile, Yazid was galloping beside the loose horse. Catching up with it, he leaned and reached out, narrowly missing the swaying reins. In the distance, the white-haired man and the blond one watched. Yazid dug his shins into the flanks of his horse, leaned further out of the saddle, stretching out above the ground moving at breakneck speed. With a twirl of his hand, he snatched the reins. Shouting “Ho! Ho!”, he pulled them. His boots pressed in the stirrups. The branches of the bit bent the heads down. The necks rose, and the two horses stopped in a clatter of hooves, raising a cloud of dust and wisps that drifted for a moment on the landscape.

Behind, the white-haired and the blond man relaxed their shoulders. They saw the young man turn around and start carefully back to spare the mounts.

Farther back, one of the hunters said “Halt!” and the four stopped, now a dozen yards apart. The same told the others the tactical plan: “Two by two, right, in turns.”

At once, the first and the third man from the right started stealthily forward, scanning the dark moor. The other two dropped on one knee, disappearing almost to the neck in the high grass. The first two continued like cats on the prowl, weapons low, taking time to make out the shapes in the shadows. They kept their bows toward the ground, searching like cold-blooded killers. Their coats of mail tinkled very little, probably tied by thongs against the leather lining underneath.

Meanwhile, Stilicho the On Master had turned his mount to follow their search. The horses snorted, panting after the strain and the exertion. The rider with the blond beard was catching his breath, patting his beast. He had not yet turned around. His clear eyes studied the landscape ahead.

Behind Yazid, coming back with the captured mount, stretched a sea of rounded hills, like dunes or frozen waves under the moonlight. At their feet lay deep shadows. The blond man noticed the approaching storm in the East. A curtain of clouds barred the horizon, like moving mountains between heaven and earth. He let out a deep breath.

 

 

 

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