Gloria! Gloria in excelsis deo! (1)
Mertel endured the the Christ Mass with patience befitting an opportunist. Though his head was lowered in perceived reverence, his eyes, sharp as any merlin, darted from corner to alter, always assessing. No golden chalice or brocade finery entered his gaze, however. No matter what men would say of this man, he was no burglar. Instead his eyes moved with the trained vigilance of a warrior, even in the Pendragon’s city.
Let men scoff at my furtiveness, thought he. Not many of those gathered here have seen what I have, they have not seen how real the danger of today is.
Amen! Amen! Aahhhhmen!
The congregation rose as the Bishop presiding over the Mass held his hands above his head. The priest then grabbed the golden chalice on the alter, raised it, and said, “Simili modo, postquam cenatum est, accipiens et hunc,” (2)
“Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes. Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti” (3)
The priest drank deep of the wine, as Mertel suppressed a snicker that always came at this part of the ceremony.
Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum!
Et cum spiritu tuo! (4)
“Peace be to you,” the man near Mertel said. He looked at the outstretched hand of the man, a merchant, by all accord, and grunted. The merchant seemed taken aback by this, so Mertel took his hand and with all forced goodwill, shook and replied, “Peace, yes.”
“Peace would be welcome indeed.”
“Ah, Mertel, stay awhile,” said the Bishop, Urbanus. The warrior groaned.
“What is it now, Grace? You saw me in the congregation, you saw me pray, what more will you lecture me about?”
Urbanus seemed not to notice or mind Mertel’s attitude. He approached with care, however, but stood unafraid still. “You trouble me son,” he said finally. Mertel scoffed.
“I fear for your peace of mind these days, fear that you’ve turned your back even more fully on the Lord.”
“I turned my back on Him long ago, Grace.”
The older man sighed. “Yes.” Urbanus looked long at the flagstone causeway they stood upon. “The Lord favors you, even still this day, and He would have upheld you in your, uh, failures.” Mertel stiffened and the Bishop took his hands as a father would his son. “Mertel, to err, they say, is human, and the Good God is forgiving of all his children. You may have turned your back on his service, but He loves you still. You must know this, and in knowing that, you will be granted peace from your past.”
Mertel’s face could have been stone at that moment. “You may forgive, He may forgive me, and the whole realm and her people could forgive me, priest,” the last word was forced out like a curse, “but I will never forgive myself. That peace you speak of is not something I will ever know as I live.” He turned away to walk into the night.
Urbanus sighed. “You would have made such a fine Paladin, my son…”
Mertel looked long at the starry Camelot sky, then at the gravestone at his feet, and sighed, bitterly.
He entered the tavern and took in every face, every action all at once. Time seemed to slow down the more people that entered his sphere of awareness, as his fighting instincts begun to catalog all that was a potential threat. The drunk swaggering younglings at the bar. The shady Saracen in the long cloak in the corner with his pipe, searching for his next mark. The whores in a gaggle near the center of taproom eyeing him as if weighing his worth in good gold. Mertel nodded slightly to the Saracen as he walked to the bar. The bishops’ words rang like judgment in his mind, they pounded away at his soul and so he thought only to the bottle and its own brand of salvation. Salvation that he had never found as a man of God.
Mertel drank well that night and made his own company. No whore or companion came to his side, so deep was his scowl, nor were they welcomed. It was well past mid-night, however, when the braggart young ones approached his table. Highlanders all, complete in their clan tartan, swaggered with uncertainty and belligerence to the table where Mertel was all but passed out. The tallest of them leaned forward over the table, his red hair a riot of twisted braids and swept back locks.
“Ey, look at this wanker, boys. Brit can’t handle his bloody drink, eh?” The other two laughed rancorously. Mertel made no move. “I’m talkin’ to you, boy…” growled the redhead.
“Peace, lad. And let a drunk man be.”
“Peace?” The redhead leaned closer, his breath reeked of cheap scotch whiskey. “If you want peace tonight, it’ll be at the end of my blade, son of a whore!”
Mertel’s head whipped up. “Fine, whelp. Then try to deliver your peace and perhaps you’ll learn something by the night’s end!” An irrational, hot anger shot through him, the ale and scotch began to pump through his veins. The young Scotsman lunged for him, through table and chair alike, but where he lunged, only air greeted him. The unmistakable screech of steel on steel tore through the atmosphere of celebration, and all was silent at once. Mertel had shaken off his cloak and now stood no longer as one well drunk would, but with the deadly grace of a fighter. Arms coiled like springs, legs bent as if to dodge or thrust, his pose spoke of death. But nothing spoke higher of doom than what he had produced in his fists; two long and slender dirks of arcanium, dark and sullen in their power. An air of competence and of furious strength permeated from them, as if they too were alive and hungry, and as if only blood would satisfy their hunger. He held them low away from his target, in the manner of a practiced knife fighter. The Scotsman’s anger and belligerence had faded. Now only fear and desperation marked his face.
The highlander had produced a light sword that had been strapped to his belt, and he held it firm but poorly out of place. This pose produced a laugh from Mertel, which only served to stoke the belligerence within the young Scot. He swung, a clumsy and well-telegraphed swing, which Mertel easily evaded. The next swing was a bit more true to its target, but was just as easily parried by the twin knives. Again and again the young Scotsman swung at his target, and every swing was met with blade or air.
Mertel smiled. Education had not been his plan, but it seemed that the teaching would come regardless. There must be some gain from this fight, he thought, and if this young whelp is going to be taught, then… then I can be entertained. He smiled even as he parried yet another blow. The fight had moved out into the dusty street and a crowd had gathered to watch the contest. Mertel was vaguely aware of the people watching and their rising interest and delight in his defensive display. He studied his opponent’s face, which, true to his highland roots, refused defeat even though his entire body screamed surrender. Mertel had no desire to kill or even hurt the young one, but he knew that the highlander would not stop until one of them lay dead.
Well, he thought, there’s more than one way to end a fight…
The Scot, now beaten through and through, had stopped swinging, and now stood, sword tightly gripped in both hands. He seemed to gather what was left of his strength, and with a loud cry, lifted the sword with both hands and delivered a overhead strike. Mertel raised his blades to meet the swing, and begun to buckle his knees even before the sound of steel rang out yet again. To the crowd, it looked as if the massive blow had worked, as if the force had driven the strength out of the Briton’s body, as he lay there in the dirt…
… and with speed so great it appeared to be instantaneous, Mertel spun himself around and picked himself up at, his right arm swinging around, a tight fist of anger…
A powder of dirt and chalk sprang forth from Mertel’s now spread fingers into the taller man’s eyes, and as the Scot made a sound like a dog’s dying cry, Mertel had spun around once more and picked up his knife from where it lay. Steel flashed in the starlit night and it was done. Two blades lay at the skin of the highlander, one at his unprotected throat and one at his left armpit, poised to enter his heart. Mertel could feel the fear and trembling of his opponent and he could feel his body’s instincts straining to finish the job.
“HOLD YOUR BLADES!”
Mertel took his knives away from the youngling, now soiled with his own fear and clawing at his eyes where the chalk had hit. He turned to face the newcomer and smiled.
“Damn boy, don’t you ever listen?” The one called Barlyic lashed out the young mercenary. “Come, lets go. I know a better place where we can drown ourselves in ale…”
“Gimme Ale!! NOW!!” The merc shouted at the barmaid. He was miffed at the slow response, he demaned good service.
“Dammit whore, gimme my ale now!!” He yelled again pounding his fists on the table knocking the plate of food onto the floor.
“Hey there! None of that or my men will teach you some manners!” A stocky old man firmly said to Barlyic, while branishing his sword. Beside him were three men, grundy, war torn looking. The looks and smell coming off them was as foul as the intentions they had for the mercenary.
“I mean no trouble, just some service, so sit you and your dogs down, before I teach you something… Sir” Barlyic scolfed at the men, throwing in a grin and turning his back on the men.. He knew what was coming..
The three men rushed Barlyic as soon as he turned his back, but being quicker and prepared, Barly had already jumped across the table and kicked a chair triping one of the men.
“That all you got? Slower then an old man you all are” He laughed again. He knew he had this won. He was prepared. The fight was a short one. The first man charged swinging wildly, easily parried, leaving himself exposed to be knocked out my the back of Barlyic’s blades. The second one showed some grace, but Barlyic was too quick, and was able to evade, moving behind the man and knocking him out.. The third man, well he ran. Barlyic smiled.
“Now you, Leave me alone or I won’t be as generous.” He pointed his blackened blade towards the Old man.
Suddenly two hands clasped Barlyic’s shoulders and shoved him down in a chair. Trying to squirm free he tried to kick himself free, to find himself surrounded.
“Nice work there, mind if we join you?” The red headed Highlander said while sitting down.
“Name is Wade, and these here are my friends. Care if we buy you a drink? No? Good, cause well, we have a proposition for you.”
“I know a better place where we can drown…”
Mertel staggered, the competence fading into belligerence and his deadly posture dropping into the stagger of a man too far gone with drink and exhaustion. “… I’m drowned already, Barly. Drowned in the blood of a thousand wheat stalks and grain. You know of blood, don’t you?”
The highlander mercenary coolly drew his swords.
If the crowd was treated before, then they were to be feasted on a orgy of attack and counter attack as Mertel reproduced his knives with a drunken grin and hiccup. Barlyic shook his head and approached the younger man. “Its time for another lesson to be learned, then, Mertel.”
Two new Scotti knights pushed their way through the crowd to stand in the ring that had been made, but made no move to break up the fight. Barly nodded to both them, to either, Mertel made no move or notice.
And it was off. Mertel attacked with blades and forearms, blocking the highlander’s heavier swords with precision and dexterity. Barlyic in turn used the larger jambiyas he wielded to easily parry Mertel’s drunken rage. The highlander swept with a clean right handed uppercut which Mertel barely dodged, and followed with a vicious cross slash of the left that sent the Briton reeling back. Mertel reeled only for a moment, however, feinting a clumsy charge then spinning on his front heel, searing a knife thrust where Barly’s head was a moment earlier, his trailing left hand sweeping Barly off his balance. Seeing his right hand far over extended, inviting attack, Barlyic took opportunity and flicked out with his two swords in a strike obviously meant to decapitate. However, he saw only almost too late Mertel’s right hand spinning far behind him and then lashing out as a cobra would towards a victim. The highlander was nearly impaled on the thrust but used his momentum to deftly leap away as Mertel finished his spinning attack.
Mertel had scored a nicking blow, but it was clear that the edge, however slight, belonged to the older, more experienced, and more sober Barlyic. Sensing this, Mertel resituated himself in a more defensive posture, hoping to invite another opportunity. Barly remained fast, however, Mertel was forced to once again take the offensive, lasing blows to either side, but scoring none. The onslaught became faster, until his hands became an absolute flurry of flashing dark steel in the moonlight as his knives spun and chopped at Barlyic’s upraised blades, the din of steel on steel was dreadful in the dusty streets and everyone present save the fighters and the two knights, now forgotten, covered their ears.
Mertel could not sustain the attack, however, and his arms and entire body came crashing down to his knees, knives dropping to the ground.
His voice was a whisper. “Finish it, Barlyic. If you were ever a friend, then just end my pain now.”
And darkness claimed him.
It was the two highlander knights, their dark green plate mail making them look every part a pair of summoned golems or perhaps helpers from another world, that dragged Mertel out of the spectacle that he had created and into the Defenders of Albion.
Barlyic walked before them, his face a study in showing no outward emotion as he gestured to a tub of warm water. “Toss him in there, guys.” He looked once more to his fallen friend and sighed. The two knights gently dropped him in the water, leaning his head back over the tub.
Another entered the room, a Scotswoman, and harried to Mertel’s unconscious form. Her red hair was a matted mess on her purple gown. “Ya could have woke me ‘arlier, Barly,” was all she said before she absorbed her full attention to the Britton in the bath.
Barly grunted as the two knights removed their helmets. Both wore the braids of their clan, one had hair of the darkest night, the other’s was bright red. The raven haired highlander spoke. “My apologies, m’lady. Our mission to retrieve young Mertel after his annual revelry was detained by a few mishaps, however, let me hasten to assure before fear doth creep into thine heart for our safety that Sir Cunningham and I wert more than a match for the faceless mob that beset us, even as our revered leader Barlyic handled the subdual of our, more boisterous companion-in-arms. Doubtless, rumor, which spreads like the yelping of mongrel dogs at night in alarm, has spread the deeds of the night through fair Camelot, and our friend’s celebration and battle with our leader will be well known before midday on the morrow, or, as it were, today, since day hath passed into morrow already.”
The red-headed knight, Wade, rolled his eyes. “We’d have sent word darlin’, but Barly had to crack a little more sense into ‘Tel this year. And Gaelis, please, I’ve asked you don’t call me ‘Sir’.”
Gaelis managed to look shamefaced. “Forgive me, brother, for my lapse of tongue, I swear to thee it shalt not happen again until that time I forget once again your aversion to title.”
Phantasee looked at the pair of mismatched knights and laughed. “Then leave me, the three of ya, and I will do what I can do… to at least ease his physical suffering,” she added with a grin. Her grin faded. “Please, I need spend tonight in prayer for ‘Tel here, his wounding grows deeper each year, it seems.”
Barlyic yawned. “You’re right. Besides, we all need our sleep. Need I remind you all that the Christ Mass is celebrated world wide, and even now our dear friends to the north and to the west prepare their annual revelry. Already we’ve seen ships north of the Wall.” He shrugged. “However,” he added with another yawn, “that’s for tomorrow.”
True to her word, the cleric Phantasee spent the night at Mertel’s side, praying for him.
In the vaults of his mind, he heard her litany like a hammer, felt the work of God in him, but he shut his mind to the divine presence he once felt. Soft female hands rose from memory to embrace him and drag him deeper into his misery. Her face screamed to him in the night, as it had every year.
“I will always love you, my Knight.”
to be continued…
(1) “Glory to God in the Highest”
(2) “After supper was ended, he took the cup and said,”
(3) “Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
(4) “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” “And also with you”