Part one of perhaps three.
Hawthorne, they call him. Old Hawthorne. Mad Hawthorne. Quiet Hawthorne.
Once, there was a man. Not a particularly tall man, and not a particularly handsome one, though he’d been told different occasionally – but strong, and willful, and changeable as the tides. Brown hair, brown eyes, the stature and the chainmail of a knight. Dragon-slayer, king-servant.
Hawthorne, they called him. Young Hawthorne. Strange Hawthorne. Brave Hawthorne.
He set out one day to kill a dragon, with a pack, a horse and two men at his side. Also a sword, though it stayed at his hip until he could find a use for it.
“Going to take down the lizard?” Arden had asked – Arden, a man who would have been a scoundrel had he not been a knight, all sharp tongue and wide smile, with hands that could pick a man’s pocket before he could exhale a breath. Tall, handsome and loquacious, Arden had met Hawthorne when they were both still young enough to sit on their mothers’ laps, and proceeded not to shut his mouth until adulthood; Hawthorne spent most of his time alternating between respecting the man greatly and fighting the urge to throttle him. Despite this, Arden’s considerable charm always allowed him to sneak into people’s hearts, homes and dragon-slayings – thus somehow, after the ale, the exchanges of bravado and impatience, Hawthorne had found himself stuck with a sly, chattering knight, a trail of footsteps appearing beside his own.
Then there was Leon, a broad, stocky Frenchman with a deep voice. A man of quiet thought who had first come to Britain speaking only French, he had seemed to soak up English without anyone noticing. Suddenly he had been conversing with them all in the language of pig farmers, boasting that he could outdrink every one of them. This was, of course, untrue, as it had been proven many times that Arden – the skinny weasel – had a surprising tolerance for alcohol, and could recite fine bardic epics even when unable to stand. Leon was often quiet, though Hawthorne was honestly unsure whether this was his natural disposition or whether the man was simply self-conscious about the errors in his spoken English.
Hawthorne had laid out his plans and his route at their drinking table, fingers running across the wood to mime his path, and Leon had expressed interest. Too much interest, Hawthorne thought himself, and he’d said as much.
“You French, you always want to steal the glory,” he’d muttered, taking a swig from his tankard.
Leon had looked up from watching the table, raised an eyebrow. “Calls me a thief, the man who stole Arden’s sword.”
“He was a fool. Whereas I was a fool anda squire. I could wave a blade at a man’s head without actually taking it off. I probably saved someone’s life.”
Conversation had turned back to the mission at hand, and the next morning, when Hawthorne had gone to saddle his horse, he had found a smug, cross-armed Frenchman – and the smug, cross-armed Frenchman’s horse – in the stables. “I suppose you’re coming, are you?”
Leon had nodded, and they hadn’t managed ten feet before Arden had nonchalantly slipped into step with them. Hawthorne – a man happy to fight dragons when bloodstained and barely able to stand – had been too tired and, though unwilling to admit it, perhaps too glad of the company to turn him away.
So now they were on the trail of a dragon, following Hawthorne’s route to a small village in the hills. It was two days’ ride away, and so after several hours they found themselves dismounting, taking their horse by the reins and searching for a place to sleep.
“Here,” Hawthorne said, gesturing to a large patch of land – the grass was thick enough to help him sleep, and was shaded by several trees. “It seems…”
“Too close to the main drag,” Arden interrupted him, with a furrowed brow and a shake of his head. “This route is where all the traders and the visitors come through. Sleep here and you’ll wake up with no sword, no food, and a man riding away from you very quickly indeed.”
“Hm,” was all Hawthorne gave by way of reply, but he turned to watch Arden take slow, loping steps around the area and further into the trees, stopping occasionally and all but sniffing the air to find a place that felt right.
The taller man stopped eventually. He dropped the reins of his horse to sink gently to the ground next to a tree, resting his head against its trunk. “Ah,” he sighed. “Yes, this is it.” He gave them a wide grin, then threw out a careless hand, waving it at the surrounding trees. “Go forth, fair maidens, and rest your pretty heads.” The grin stayed despite Hawthorne’s glare. Leon also seemed to be distinctly unimpressed. However, neither of them said anything, leading their horses to good ground, unwinding the reins and beginning to make preparations.
Hawthorne gazed up into the sky, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Night would come soon.
Sir Hawthorne, one of the king’s bravest and most loyal knights, hated the darkness.
He had once been half-asleep and alone in the woods, having gone to slay a siren who had lured several knights to their deaths, when he had heard a hiss – the hiss of something much, much greater in size than himself. The basilisk had used the darkness and his sleep to prey upon him, to find him without his knowledge. It had taken all of his will not to look into its baleful cockerel’s eyes, and unable to cut off its head, he had had to settle for plunging his sword through its heart instead.
Thus a legend had been born. Hawthorne, meanwhile, had been left with several venom scars running from his right shoulder down to his wrist and an instinctive wariness when confronted with a lack of light. It had not faded over the years. Leon was perfectly aware of this and not unkind about it – after all, he himself had many morbidly fascinating stories to tell about his experiences with water. Arden, for once in his life tactful, pretended not to know.
The three of them were all in the habit, even on their separate adventures, of creating a roaring fire before twilight. They knew enough to stick close to it.
Stick close to it they did, the three of them keeping an eye on the changing light as they talked of home. Well, Hawthorne and Arden talked – Leon rarely did, except to interject the odd word or interested question.
“Why are you here?” Hawthorne asked Arden, frowning at the other man. “I thought you’d settled.”
Arden gave a small, slightly rough laugh and lifted his water-skin to his lips, taking a swig. “I suppose you think I had the itch.” He said this with a half-smile that was crooked, graceless, and ever-so-slightly bitter. “That my hands were idle and my days were tedious, and oh! Woman and child and such a small house. However could I contain the boredom?”
Hawthorne turned his eyes to the sky, praying briefly for lightning to strike the self-satisfied, overly lyrical knight before him.
Arden, ever the storyteller, just widened his smile, cocking his head with a raise of his eyebrows. “In actuality, Catherine and I are very happy. It wasn’t I who was afraid of the itch, butshe. Perhaps she thought that I’d become rusty if I went too long without killing something? She said I should join the two of you, anyway. I would rather have been present for the birth, but…” He heaved a sigh.
“Well, I won’t be the first to thank her,” Hawthorne muttered, but the barb had no impact – this was routine by now, the steps of an old dance the three had shared since they had become friends.
“Hawthorne is here on the orders of the king, and you are here to impress your wife?” Leon translated.
Arden gave him another slightly rueful smile. “When you put it that way…”
“When you put it that way, his reasons are far nobler than mine,” Hawthorne finished, the words blunt and causing his mouth to twitch with his displeasure. “The king has his own agenda. He knighted me for my sword, not my mind, and makes that abundantly clear.”
There was a pause, and then Arden slapped his palm to the ground, disturbing dirt around his hand, with a triumphant, “Ah! A political move!”
“Aye.” Hawthorne’s reply was glum. “There have been rumours of discontent in the South. They need to owe him something, and to see the resources he has at his disposal.”
Full understanding dawned in Arden’s eyes. “Kill the dragon, get the glory, shut the mouths of the people.”
Hawthorne could do naught as an answer but nod. There was a long, discontented silence between the three men, only occasionally broken by the sound of Arden taking glugs from the water-skin.
It’ll be back to your regularly scheduled dose of noir detectives, magical angst, coffee and demons soon enough, but Melinda, List and Mary are getting a short rest while I brush up on some different writing skills.
Self-indulgent assessment (skip at will):
Someone mentioned that some of the dialogue here seemed a little stilted, as if the knights were all still being settled into their natural roles and didn’t quite fit yet (I’d agree – working on that).
Personally, my own biggest problem is the amount of character through telling, not showing, here. I don’t like my stories being exposition-laden – I like characters’ actions to define them.
“The plot seems a little generic.” That one’s actually covered and OK – this is a pastiche of and new eye on old fashioned knight tales, many of which were: “Set off armed with gallantry and a few weapons. Go through several trials. Kill big scary thing (that if you’re Arthurian is probably on the orders of Morgana La Faye anyway, so you’re definitely doing something against The Great Evil even if you behave like an utter imbecile) and get the girl.” Having done some research, it sometimes gets more (wonderfully) complicated than that, but the actual trial-by-monster epics have a definite structure and a load of expectations about the plot.