artwork by Conor Burke
The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 6: Auburn and Sapphire
By Rock Kitaro
That night, a cheerful Morgan finally got a taste of what it was like to be her sister, Elaine. She was surrounded by ten, young, fearsome warriors who would sooner wreak havoc than let any harm come to her. The way they just so happened to run into Pellinore and his band of Black Bloods was nothing short of blind luck. Like the aligning stars, everything was working in her favor.
Seated around a campfire with lively banter, the party filled their stomachs with gamey meat and sterilized pond water. An exhausted Agravain and Gaheris kept nodding off as they leaned against each other. Meanwhile, Morgan continued to throw smirking glances at the strikingly handsome Pellinore as she mended a hole in Gaheris’s cape.
“All right, my prince. Out with it. How do you know this girl?” Kanish asked.
Pellinore smirked as he sharpened his claymore sword with a stone. “The first time I laid eyes on this one, she was but a spoiled little whelp. Mouthy and brash, no shred of discipline or respect.”
Gaheris and Agravain chuckled before Morgan quickly turned and poked their knees with her sewing needle. Gaheris fumed, ready to push her into the fire if Agravain hadn’t returned to resting his head on his shoulder.
“I was sixteen,” Pellinore continued. “Still running with Urien and the Knights of Gore. We were hunting a group of bandits. They attacked a small village and tried to get lost in the woods but once I sink my teeth in I don’t let go. This one was in the woods with Gawain doing God knows what but…I don’t know. There was something about the boy that I took a liking to.”
“Bullocks! You?” Jeremy jeered.
The Brood of Black Bloods expressed their disbelief but Pellinore raised his hands. “Don’t get the wrong idea, boys! I wasn’t all sunshine and warm milk at first. It’s just one of those moments where you have a feeling that there’s something different about a man. You can’t explain it. Some people have it. Others don’t. I tell you, there’s something special about Gawain. And when the boy took up the sword and ruined my flawless face, it was confirmed.”
Agravain suddenly perked up. “Gawain gave you that scar?!”
“He’s your big brother, is he? Well let me tell you, lads like him come in rare stock. At sixteen I was already a freak of nature. I even bested Tristan here in four out of ten matches. Everyone was afraid of me.”
“Still are!” Barxy laughed.
“That’s right! Haha! But your brother Gawain was different. Back then, I confess Morgan got under my skin and stamped on my honor.”
“She embarrassed you?” Gaheris asked.
“Yes, she embarrassed me,” Pellinore clarified. “You have to understand, if Tristan is the lion then I am the wolf. When I really get going, I can’t see straight. The blood under my skin feels like corrosive acid bubbling up like a bloody volcano. I need a release lest I explode and kill everything in sight!”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Tristan scoffed as he drank.
“What did I say, exactly? Do you remember?” Morgan asked.
“Aye, I remember. It was at a tournament. The people were booing me and I did not like that. Not one bit. So I called for an open challenge. I was ready to take on anyone dumb enough to come at me when all the sudden this little minx comes running onto the pitch. She says, and I quote, ‘my nephew Gawain can beat you, you big ugly ass!’” Pellinore recalled.
“Hear, hear!” Kanish shouted.
The Black Bloods and Morgan laughed out loud after Pellinore mimicked her childish voice. Even Tristan had to admit the sight of Pellinore’s lively reenactment was somewhat comical.
“Like it was yesterday, I remember. I can still see the boy half scared out of his mind. He was shaking, I tell you! Once I shouted, ‘ARE YOU OR ARE YOU NOT OF GORLOIS’S BLOOD!’ Oh it lit a fire in him! Twas like the fear melted away and in its place was the unflinching eyes of a hawk. That was Gawain. The boy had an exotic blade, foreign but deceptively sturdy. And I swear to you, I didn’t go easy on him. All of Tintagel was watching. They were laughing at me thanks to the girl. If crippling the boy was the price of their silence, I was ready to make pay!
“He tried to employ some bait and run tactic. I don’t know. It was silly. He was running all over the place like a damned jackrabbit. Extremely frustrating! I struck his armor, knocking him to the ground with each blow. I know it had to hurt like hell. The boy was only nine for craps sake. But somehow he managed to get back up. Then, it came to a point where we both extended for a full on straight-forward lunge. He didn’t have snowball’s chance in hell, but something happened! I can’t make this up. All the sudden my armor felt like it tripled in weight if just for an instance. I glanced down to see if my foot was caught on something and when I looked up, all I saw was the glint from Gawain’s sword slicing up my left eye.”
“OH!!!” The Black Bloods gushed in unison.
“Armor tripled in weight, huh,” Tristan said as he turned and cast his suspicion on Morgan.
Morgan bounced a single brow as if to say, “You’ve got no proof.”
“Anyway. After that, I learned not to underestimate the youth. Particularly the House of Gorlois. I always imagined Gawain would grow up to become king.”
Morgan was pleased to hear him say that.
“King of what?” Tristan asked.
“King of anything,” Pellinore answered. “In fact, if Gawain decided to take Cornwall, I might just help him do it.”
“You’re trying to goad me, Pellinore. I won’t fall for it.”
“What’s the matter, Tristan? Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be a knight by now? What’s the old man thinking? Doesn’t he trust you? I mean, you are the Champion of Cornwall. Whatever the hell that means.”
Tristan threw the rest of his water out into the fire causing a sizzle of steam that matched his brewing contempt. “You’re about to cross some lines, Pellinore. Don’t make me murder you in your sleep.”
“Wouldn’t be the first to try.”
“So, Kanish, is it?” Gaheris interrupted with an annoyed sigh. “What brought you to Pellinore’s employment?”
Kanish smirked, picking up on Gaheris’s diplomacy. “My prince Pellinore is not my employer. We are but six men who crave independence from this wretched world of betrayal and sunder.”
“Hear, hear!” Jeremy, Balto, Barxy, and Dantry all said in unison.
Kanish explained, “Two years ago some villains calling themselves knights entered my home, killed my wife, and raped her corpse. I caught them in the act and set the cabin ablaze with everyone inside. A mob was after my head when I ran into Balto and Pellinore. They helped me escape and I’ve been indebted to them ever since.”
“Why the Brood of Black Bloods? Who thought of such a horrid name?” Morgan asked.
“That’s a tragic story, Kanish. I’m sorry for causing you to remember,” Gaheris said as Morgan rolled her eyes.
“I came up with the name!” Pellinore said, answering Morgan’s question with pride. “It’s because metal runs through my veins turning my blood thick and black.”
“Yes. I love the significance, darling. It’s the name that’s ghastly. Why not simply, Black Bloods? Drop the ‘brood’ part. No one’s going to remember that. People will mock you behind your back,” Morgan predicted.
“And by ‘people’ she means just her,” Gaheris quipped, causing a round of laughter.
Oddly enough, Pellinore took Morgan’s criticism to heart. It hurt his feelings and the sadness was transparent. He caught Tristan staring and manned up quickly.
“When this is all over, you and me, we’ll settle the score,” Pellinore snarled.
“Challenge accepted,” Tristan grumbled.
“Alright, Spartans. We should get some rest. We’re close to the Picts and we’re bound to run into Gawain any day now,” Morgan said.
“And you’re certain of this?” Kanish asked.
Morgan smirked, “Don’t worry. A little bird told me.”
Agravain was already asleep in Gaheris’s lap.
The next morning, in the Pictish territory of Alba, negotiations were underway between Princess Isolde and King Drest.
The Picts were a confederation of tribes with fragile alliances. These were a people who resisted Rome’s sweeping efforts to bring the natives into a more orderly way of life. Instead, the Picts maintained their pagan traditions of painting themselves in a blue indigo powder made from woad. They continued the practice of human sacrifices and sculpting stone mediums to worship their Gaelic gods.
The Picts depended on trade and plunder to thrive in the frigid north. Their fur and animal fat were critical to surviving the harsh winters. They lived in dwellings called crannogs, circular huts with high cone shaped roofs constructed from a mixture of timber, drystone, and choice vegetation that the livestock didn’t eat. They were brown and sometimes over fifty meters wide. Like tiny islands, these crannogs floated on the brackish prehistoric lakes. A network of docks connected them to the banks.
Of the many brackish lakes in the land of Alba, there was one of mystical and historic significance called Loch Tay. There were hundreds of fishing boats and crannogs dotted out over the lake. There were even a few docile sea monsters that kept to the depths, only emerging when the surface was disturbed by some petty skirmish or greed from overfishing. A pilgrimage of Picts came to Loch Tay seasonally to pray to their many Gods. Thus, Alba was a strategic capital of sorts and home to the great King Drest, son of Talorgan.
King Drest’s enormous crannog was large enough to house over a hundred oxen. The interior was lined with silver and innovative slits for ventilation. Embossed artwork depicting the history of Drest’s ancestors adorned the ceilings and walls like a tapestry. The designs were exquisite. If one stared long enough, it induced the optical illusion that the ceiling was moving, that the warriors were swinging, that the women were swaying.
The Princess Isolde was sitting at King Drest’s great table. She couldn’t help but admire the walls. Drest, on the other hand, felt insulted that the great nation of Hibernia would send a woman of little acclaim to sit at his table and broker some kind of deal.
The hardened king was nearing forty, of a large build, with a long brown beard and a horned ceremonial helmet. The silver armor over his massive shoulders was lined by fur from a black bear. In his lap was a heavy sword, hidden just under the table, his thumb rubbing the flat steel as he eyed the seemingly ditsy young blonde.
Behind Drest were five of his most trusted warriors. Each of them was painted in powdery blue and bare-chested with rippling muscles and battle-axes.
Sitting next to Isolde was Sir Ewangish. As brave as he was, the five giant Picts were a daunting sight. Even more unsettling was the fact that Isolde appeared unfazed in the slightest. She kept drinking her mead and staring off at the designs. Drest wasn’t amused nor did he find her cute.
Their table was isolated in the center of the wide open space. Over a hundred community leaders watched in silence, staying close to the walls. Other than the five blue warriors and the negotiating party, no one was allowed within fifty paces of the table. No one.
Gawain was present. He and three Hibernian knights stood ready to charge should the king raise a hand to the princess. The tension was fierce. He could see the Picts staring at him with hungry eyes. It made Gawain testy.
“If we’ve come to terms, we’re ready to receive payment and be on our way,” Ewangish said in a shaky voice.
“We’ve not come to terms. We asked for iron. To harden our shields and defend our borders. Where is our iron? I see no iron. What I see is a lost little girl pretending to play king,” Drest growled.
Isolde batted her lashes and smirked off the insult.
“Do you know of a man named Cholmain?” she asked him.
Drest ground his teeth with an ugly snarl. He was ready to bite.
Isolde continued, “Sir Cholmain of Derry led the last voyage to these lands. It was six months ago. No one’s seen hide or hair from him ever since.”
“You test my patience!” Drest warned.
“It so happens Cholmain was favored by my mother, the queen. They were lovers, you see. I’ll not deny it. He was kind to me. Welded this bracelet for me when I was seven. Can you imagine how angry my mother will be when I bring back his head in a basket?”
“So, there is no iron then. Is that it?” Drest concluded.
“Oh, I brought it. Then I saw Cholmain’s head perched on a rock. That’s what I’m getting at, you see. The man who used to smile at me and bring me flowers had crows picking at his skull. I saw that and ordered my men to stay on the ship. ‘Stay back!’ I said.” Isolde explained with an eerie smile that lacked any sense of pleasure.
“You’re in danger, girl. Do you realize this?” Drest said as he slowly rose brandishing his ten-foot sword.
“My king! You’re making me blush. Here I am, just a lost little girl, but clearly enough to make you bring out a sword twice my size. My mother will hear of this and send Morholt. I’m afraid, even I can’t contain Morholt. Your candle is out. You are now king of absolutely nothing. Your people will blame you for their misfortune. They will erase you from the scrolls. They will melt down these walls and create a mountain by heaping stones upon your corpse. Of course, that is only after I’ve removed your head and sent it to Cholmain’s family.”
“DIE!!!” Drest shouted.
Drest launched onto the table with bloodshot eyes. He raised his massive sword high and brought it sweeping down with all his might, kicking up a gust with a piercing metallic chime.
The king had every intention of splattering Isolde’s head in a straight line of chunky red. To his shock, a seventeen-year-old swordsman with muscular forearms was holding up a katana to stop his sword in a cross block. Gawain’s cheeks twitched as he felt the strength of Drest’s blow vibrate down his back and into his calves like a streak of lightning. With their swords crossed, Isolde drew a dagger and reached over the table to slice behind Drest’s left knee.
“ACK!!!” Drest screeched, collapsing in pain.
Isolde was about to stab into the king’s ear before Gawain pulled her by the shoulder. It was a smart move. The five blue warriors were already pouncing forward. Ewangish slapped goblets of meads in their faces, but the distraction was brief. Isolde, Gawain, and Ewangish ran for the exit where their knights were fighting to clear a path.
“KILL THEM! LET NO ONE ESCAPE!” Drest screamed with spit flying from his lips.
The Picts were already swarming. The knights fought bravely but they were severely outnumbered. One knight was stabbed in the back. Another had his throat slit. The last one made it to the door only to have two of the king’s wives hack him to death with hatchets.
Gawain and Ewangish rallied around Isolde. The three put up a good fight, defeating as many as ten men before the five blue warriors came shoving through the crowd. Fearing their wrath, the Picts stepped back to give the warriors some space.
Gawain, Ewangish, and Isolde panted in sweat as they stood ready with their backs joined in a triangle formation. And as perilous as the situation seemed, the eager princess bounced with anticipation. Impulsively, she dashed and rolled under a swinging axe. Hearing the whistle of it narrowly grazing her neck, she countered by slashing under the warrior’s armpits.
Stunned by her boldness, the remaining blue warriors roared with fury. A loud explosion overlapped their battle cry. Gorcus the Ogre came crashing through the walls, bellowing like a titan that just broke free from the bowels of hell. He snatched the two men and hurled them like tomatoes against the ceiling. Isolde, Gawain, and Ewangish raced for the new exit Gorcus just created. The blue warriors gave chase.
Gorcus let his princess pass before unleashing deafening howl that shook the very foundation of the crannog. It didn’t put any fear in the heart of the blue warriors. Tales of fighting monsters have been handed down from generation to generation. They looked at Gorcus and saw nothing but an opportunity.
Swinging his axe like a cropper wielding a sickle, Gorcus kept the Picts at bay while Isolde, Gawain, and Ewangish sprinted across the docks slaying everyone who tried to stop them. Six more Hibernian knights were fighting on the dry land. A volley of arrows overcame two of them and the situation seemed dire for the remaining four. Once Isolde mounted her horse, she whipped around and screamed Gorcus’s name.
At once, Gorcus came charging out of the crannog. He was bleeding, having taken whacks to his ribs, but the sound of Isolde’s voice restored his spirit. The giant splashed into the cold waters of Loch Tay and thrashed his way back to shore.
Three Picts grabbed Isolde by her cape and tried to drag her off her horse. Gawain hustled over and kicked one of them down before slaying the other two with blinding speed. His katana merely showed flashes of light with each swing and there was a delay in reaction before the two men realized that they were split open.
The first man Gawain kicked down got back up and tried to tackle him. Gawain elbowed the man’s nose and lopped off his arm in a dazzling diagonal slice.
“Woo! Let’s go!” Isolde cheered from her rearing horse.
She waited till Gawain was saddled and rode with Sir Ewangish and two knights behind them. Gorcus had just reached dry land as his black bull came trampling over everything in route. Two Picts tried to lunge at him but Gorcus caught their spears by the shafts and sent the men flying into the lake.
Gorcus then turned to see where Isolde was headed. They were riding south. Isolde, Gawain, Ewangish and two Hibernian knights were riding directly for the dense haunted woodlands of the Trossachs. A loud, disorganized army of angry Picts was right behind them.