The knight passed the Baron’s pavilion and raised his lance in salute, his black plate armour shining like ebony in the glorious May sunshine. His black destrier snorted and whinnied, its eyes as red as the blood that stained its flanks. The Baron nodded in acknowledgement, and lifted his empty goblet to be refilled.
“See, Elaine,” he said, turning to his daughter beside him. “A worthy suitor for you! How many challengers has Garlon de Bracey unseated this morning? Not one has broken a lance against him, not one!”
His daughter said nothing. Elaine cast a quick glance at her father, saw his eyes burn with bloodlust at the thought of the melee to come. She almost pitied him, until she remembered that it was her hand in marriage – her life – that was being given away as prize for the winner of this tournament.
A tournament that would not follow the traditional rules. The prize was the Baron’s daughter’s hand in marriage, a rich one indeed; one that many a knight would risk his life for, for Elaine’s beauty was legendary. The price was high. No failed challenger would be allowed to leave the lists alive. And Garlon de Bracey had yet to be defeated in single combat.
The Baron looked upon Garlon de Bracey as not only his champion but also the son he never had. It was not just his lands and riches, accrued from his previous adventures in the Holy Land – it was his repute and legendary status as a warrior that so endeared him to the Baron. Unable to take the Cross himself because of the wasting disease, he lived his dreams and desires, his fantasies of war and bloodspill through Garlon de Bracey.
Elaine did not share her elderly father’s regard for the former Templar knight. She despised his arrogance and the lecherous way his eyes followed her every move. It was widely known that he was a heavy drinker and had a violent temper, as the scars on the faces of the countless whores he visited bore witness. Tales had filtered through to her of the violence he displayed on the battlefield, frightened whispers from the servants told of de Bracey’s cruel, inhumane treatment of his vanquished opponents. None survived to be ransomed.
It was not just on the battlefield. She had heard reports of de Bracey’s participation in the massacre of Muslims in Acre and Jerusalem, women and children put to the sword after their menfolk had surrendered. Slowly, tortuously, and then fire claimed their twitching, bleeding bodies. Fire wielded by de Bracey himself. Even the leaders of the armies to reclaim the Holy Land had turned white with terror at de Bracey’s actions. King Richard had been consulted over the Templar’s unholy acts of violence, but the royal response was rumoured to be one of indifference rather than concern. ‘Far better to have the Devil’s Champion with us than on the side of the cursed Saracen.’
And now, as the fifth challenger fell to the churned mud and blood-drenched sand of the lists in an ear-piercing crash of steel, the full extent of her hatred for the man known as the Devil’s Champion became clear to her. The fifth challenger had his helm cast aside, his gauntleted hands waving for mercy, mercy that was denied. Even through the mask of Garlon de Bracey’s black iron helm she knew he was grinning, laughing in triumph and anticipation of the bloodshed to come.
Her father’s eyes glinted in anticipation. His fat, greasy lips parted, a deep breath of pleasure expelled as de Bracey brought his mace crashing down on the challenger’s skull. Blood splattered across the black surcoat, soaking through to the steel of de Bracey’s breastplate.
The crowd was silent. A sense of resignation and despair was palpable in the air as the fifth challenger met the same fate as the last. Not content with one, fatal blow, de Bracey continued hammering the dead man’s head until nothing remained above the gorget but a shattered ruin of skull fragments and pinkish grey matter.
Elaine closed her eyes in horror, and felt herself swaying in her seat. The hammering of steel on defenceless flesh and bone followed her into the darkness, and she made a wish that she knew could damn her immortal soul. She wished Garlon de Bracey dead. She prayed that his life was taken – by angel or demon, it mattered not – and by whatever means necessary. Just as long as she would be spared a lifetime of misery married to such an evil man.
“Lord Jesu, forgive me,” she breathed. And something happened. The lists were no longer silent.
The stunned silence gave way to excited murmuring. A new challenger had entered the list. Clad in simple chainmail beneath a white surcoat, mounted upon a grey warmblood charger, his face was masked by a silver helm.
The horseman rode his mount past the tilt barrier and through the blood-drenched arena and towards the Baron’s pavilion, liquid scarlet hoof trails painted in its wake.
Garlon de Bracey raised the visor of his helm in astonishment. His steel grey eyes flashed in anger and contempt beneath his heavy, protruding brow, his bared teeth grinding in fury.
The new challenger did not lift his helm. Through the air holes of the cold steel mask, he spoke two words that rang clear in the silent air above the slaughter yard.
Sharpened lances. Not the rebated, blunted ones that had been used all day.
“You wish to die quickly, sir,” de Bracey laughed. “Tell me your name.”
The challenger shook his head, his face remained hidden, but his words strangely clear, perfectly audible in spite of the cold steel mask.
“You will know my name when the Dark One welcomes your soul to Hell…the soul I will despatch now!”
“Waste no more words, sir!” de Bracey snapped, slamming shut the visor. His heels dug into the flanks of his destrier and he swung his steed around.
Elaine was aware of the blood draining from her face, butterflies in her stomach. Could her dark prayer have been answered so quickly?
The two horsemen faced each other at the opposing ends of the list. De Bracey’s destrier moved first, slower and heavier than the mysterious challenger’s charger, but with more momentum and power.
Their lances met above the tilt barrier. De Bracey’s shattered into pieces, splinters flying like a swarm of angry hornets. The challenger’s flew from his grasp and landed in the churned mud. Their mounts carried them past each other, steed and rider glaring at the other. They turned, headed back for their stations and picked fresh lances, and turned to battle once more.
This time there was no draw. The challenger’s lance struck true, through the tiny gap in de Bracey’s visor. The speed at which the blow was delivered was so great, the force so powerful, that the restraints on de Bracey’s saddle snapped, sending it and its rider to the ground. The noise was almost as loud as that made by the tip of the lance that punctured the back of de Bracey’s helm.
The force of the strike snapped the challenger’s lance in two, leaving two feet of sharpened wood in de Bracey’s head.
Its work was done. The challenger ambled his steed back to his station, flourishing his broken lance at the astonished crowd in victory.
Garlon de Bracey, the Devil’s Champion, was dead.
The snow fell heavily on the battlements of the Baron’s castle. A harsh, cold wind from the east sought entrance, finding its way through the various nooks and crannies in the walls and battlements. The Norman castle had withstood arrows, boulders and Greek fire from many armed assaults and had always stood firm, but it was no match for winter’s icy breath.
The candles in the banqueting hall flickered, casting dancing shadows on the rich tapestries that adorned the frowning grey stone walls. Music played, soft melodies from the minstrels to welcome the guests for the feast. The feast to celebrate the safe homecoming of Sir William.
The Baron chewed a piece of venison and mused on the events that had come to pass since that blood soaked tournament in May. His initial fury at de Bracey’s brutal death had quickly been replaced by astonishment when the victorious challenger removed his helm and revealed his identity. Sir William of Leicester, a crusader of great renown who had been presumed dead at the battle of the Horns of Hattin had quickly told his tale.
De Bracey’s evil had known no bounds. Not only had he instigated the massacre of the Muslim hostages after the Siege of Acre in 1191, he had betrayed Sir William’s father to a renegade group of Saracen outlaws in exchange for gold and a mysterious book of arcane secrets.
“I vowed never to rest until the man who betrayed my father lay dead at my feet.”
Messages from the Royal Court corroborated Sir William’s tale. The massacre at Acre had done King Richard no favours – Garlon de Bracey was out of control. The King had commissioned Sir William to track down and destroy Garlon de Bracey and then to find and destroy the book.
“The Saracens were only too pleased to be rid of it. The wise ones amongst them knew how dangerous it was, how it could make a man live after death, powered purely by the evil he had enslaved himself to.”
The Baron lowered his head, cursing himself for his blind foolishness. Sir William had told him, before he set off on his mission to find de Bracey’s book, not to feel ashamed. “De Bracey had learned to influence and bewitch men of power and influence long before he took possession of the book. Good King Richard still has yet to forgive himself…”
Then he had rode away, with a farewell smile to Elaine and the promise that he would return before Christmas. Elaine’s heart sank at his departure. Each glance between them during his brief stay in May told her that her prayer had been answered by Heaven. Sir William was no demon summoned from the pit by an evil request of hers. He was an instrument of divine justice. And she had started to fall in love with him.
Elaine now stared at the logs in the fire, burning like the Muslim women and children at Acre, and she shuddered. A messenger had arrived this morning, informing her that Sir William had been successful, the book had been found and returned to the Royal Court for destruction and he was heading back to the Baron’s demesne for the feast tonight. Then he would ask for her hand…
She should have been overjoyed by the news. But something was wrong. She could feel it.
The burning log split in two with a thunderous crack, and she jumped, startled. Then the huge doors to the Hall opened and Sir William entered.
The haunch of venison fell from the Baron’s trembling fingers. His jaw dropped, half chewed meat and fat sliding from his gaping mouth.
Sir William was mounted on his Arabian mare, the horse’s flanks steaming with sweat, streams of vapour snorted from its nostrils in rapid bursts. Its rider had obviously ridden it hard.
He looked down at Elaine, resplendent in the magnificent black plate armour that he had taken from de Bracey. The helm reflected the light from the cressets and candles, glowing as if burning from an inner fire.
He spurred the horse towards the Baron’s table, reached a gauntleted hand down and grabbed Elaine by the waist. He effortlessly hauled her up, placed her behind him on the saddle, and turned his steed back to the open doorway.
Elaine was too shocked to say anything, to protest at this discourteous entrance, this…taking. She clutched at the polished cuirass of his armour, holding on for dear life as the horse thundered out of the courtyard, through the barbican and across the drawbridge. Her fingers fell down onto the bundle tied to the saddle and she cried in horror.
The destrier gathered speed, galloping furiously through the nocturnal winter landscape. A full moon rose from a bank of low lying clouds, infusing the snow covered fields and trees with a chilling silver luminescence. Bare boned trees raced past them, their dead branches clutching at the riders like grasping claws hungry for warm meat on this cold, dread night.
Onwards they rode, for what felt like hours, the sound of pursuit from the Baron’s men far behind them. Her father would never see her again, she knew this now.
Wrapped in black sackcloth, tied to the saddle, was the book Sir William had searched for.
They came to the crossroads where Garlon de Bracey had been buried in unhallowed earth to refuse his soul entry to heaven. She knew the light emanating from the armour wasn’t reflected moonlight. In the Hall it hadn’t been reflected candlelight. It was the fires of hell.
The horse kicked at the ground, sending small pebbles and clods of freshly dug earth back into the freshly dug grave.
Onto the dead, vacant eyes of Sir William of Leicester. The gaping hole in his chest swallowed the clods of earth greedily.
The rider turned in the saddle to face her, the silver light burning fiercely through the grate of the visor. With trembling fingers she reached for the visor and pushed it upwards.
The flesh on Garlon de Bracey’s face had long since rotted away, save for a few green, putrid scraps that clung possessively to his jawbone. His mouth was a skeletal sneer of hatred, and the empty eye sockets burned with the unearthly silver fire that penetrated her very soul.
“You were betrothed to me…and yet you prayed for my death!” The words were a terrifying whisper, an accusation from Hell itself. “Your wish killed me just as much as Sir William’s lance did. But he is not the only one who keeps his vows…”
He pointed to the open grave. Elaine followed his undead gaze and saw the edges of the pit crumble and give way, huge chunks of earth falling onto the body of Sir William, the grave growing larger. As the sides of the pit fell away, the bottom sank down, deeper, deeper…
“The Dark One did indeed welcome my soul. He rewards his servants well…and granted his champion one last, earthly boon.”
The open pit began to glow from within, a hidden fire like that emanating from de Bracey’s armour. The sackcloth covering of the book fell away.
“The opportunity to reclaim the prize that was rightfully mine…my betrothed. Come, meet my new patron…”
He spurred the horse’s flanks and it stepped forward. The book opened. Elaine’s screams of despair merged with de Bracey’s mocking laughter as they tumbled into the pit.