Times Before Lockdown #3

One man in a thousand

An old French Knight lived in an octagonal tower up in the heats of Northern Spain. His frame could be seen through one of the upper windows. He was bent over a canvas that had been stretched out over a pair of stilts. His daily brushstrokes are almost finished for the day. So far, he’d painted a man with six fingers, flanked by a salamander on the left, a porcupine on the right, and he was just about to finish a quill when a gust of wind from the window sent the dust on the floor amuck. A curled piece of lost parchment, a poem of over one hundred lines, drifted out from beneath the furniture. The old knight tried to refocus his attention. Through the window and down below, a small man was working the ruinous land and doing what he could with the unirrigated. Near impossible to ignore him from the top of the tower, but hard enough to ignore him from anywhere else in the tower either given that the nicks had long ago turned into cracks to make for more window than wall. Not much of a citadel. The birds who breathed deep up in the credits at night knew it for what it was exactly - a place of retreat and safety, and nothing more than that - just a way to watch for the badger winds, a ‘castle in the air’, and a place where crossbows had never been cranked.

The large man working the land was a squire to the knight in the octagonal tower. He squatted down in the steppes as of now, and unsheathed his spade from his knapsack to probe at the stoney soil. In it went; out came a vegetable from the secret garden. The roots were for the kitchen table, where the large man made them appear as if by magic. The old Knight could not countenance such things. As he said, the career of the knight is of the black and not the brown. A knight’s post was up on the corroded lips of the battlements. Cultivation was for the brown, and so naturally the merger citadel was suited for two occupants; one the knight, the other the squire. No chance of two uncultivating knights. No sense in two cultivating squires. And no space to keep a third. The large man found that he had paused in his work, and caught himself staring blankly across the steppes towards the horse they kept on a rope so long it would take days to exhaust. More stumpter than steed, the animal was always eating the wrong things, but was well suited to the rocks. As he stared, he thought about all the ways he might one day have to kill the old Knight. He was middling in age. He had hopes of knighthood, and only one knight can make another. He needed to find a place in the world at last, somewhere beyond the dust where the roots had to fight for their share of light. 

The old Knight looked at himself in the mirror. His cloak was cut wide and long, and that pleased him, but each day that past made him more aware of the body beneath. He lifted up his mail and tunic and ran a hand down his chest, which had remained broad, down to where he pinched at his belly and felt its greasy shape. He held his breath and held it all in. He could still do it out front, but there was no hiding the new bulge of gluttonous sides. One man in a thousand can be created a Knight, thought the old Knight, as he strapped steel to his shins and stowed a dagger of two and a half palms in his boot. Then, fully armoured, he crossed the room and made his way down the spiralling wooden staircase. An ungentle knight. His shuffles and steps were nothing like the man as he was in the lists. Halfway down, he had to pause on the wooden landing where the door to the other bedroom was locked and bolted. Hand over hand he went, down and down, round and round, thinking of camels in Damascus, the naumachia in Italy, and the colossal stone-engines of England. The balustrade ended and the old knight stepped out at last onto the stone slabs of the high hallway. On the wall, a family shield had been blanched monochrome by the midday sun, and that selfsame sun blasted now through the gaping damaged entrance into the hallway. The old Knight bent to pick up his sword. Then he raised an arm to shield his eyes from the light and walked forwards, dragging his sword by the hilt, with its tip screaming along the floor behind him.

“Keep close watch on your tongue…” “… and do not lose your temper at the first sign of slight.” The old Knight grunted his approval; swung again, as strong as before. Sword bit the rocky ledge and a lightening bolt ran through his arm. “Give no cause…” Swung again; missed again, “for offence.” “Restraint,” replied the squire now, sweating coming through his leather but his breathing measured. “Name the three.” “Battle. Road. Luggage.” “No knight is equipped without them.” Sparks took as steel met steel. The squire leapt backwards and landed nimbly, leaving the old knight to take an unforeseen step. “You look like a cat,” the old knight said. “A hooked tipped pole would have me dead.” “Yes, it would. Come closer.” The squire stepped in and as he did the old knight lunged and grabbed the younger man by the collar. The squire found his cheek being pressed by the flat of the blade, and then, with a turn of the old Knight’s wrist, the cold of the blade pressed into his brow, pressed, pressed, and pressed, and then relief before the blood as the old Knight kicked the younger man’s legs from under him with his steel shins. Squire sprawled onto the rocks, bounced once, and, seemingly winded, sinks to his knees. The old Knight looked down at him. “What must you do now?” A pause. “Remain on my knees as long as I can endure.” “How many are made a knight?” “One man in a thousand is made a knight.”

The squire sat on trembling knees into the night. When time came he would receive his communion and wash his body clean of the dust and the shame and the sin, and in his new linen be forgiven for begging an old man’s keep. Then another would come to see. Immediately the next would ask for tutelage, and he would give it and, in time, would probably let younger squire come to abuse him, just like he did now… At some point, as per usual, the squire fell asleep on his broken-in knees. This piqued the interest of the mare, who skipped on over the rocky ridges to take a closer look at him.

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