The Legend of Kelninor
It was still not quite midday when the little servant girl stumbled up the worn stone steps to the big front door with only half her errands completed. Her face was flushed an unhealthy shade of pink and her brown uncombed hair was clammy with sweat. When she slumped across the wide threshold, her mistress came and gave orders to carry her to her own bedchamber and, because she was young and tender-hearted, she herself ministered to the child with honey-sweetened water and local herbs and medicines.
Neither the girl nor the lady knew that a course of events had just begun.
The prisoner stirred in pain. Sleep was impossible, as was full wakefulness. By now he was rocking unsteadily between the worlds of night and day. He had been abandoned in a place where nothing would ever happen again. Yet in another place, somewhere inside his own head, the events of the past were still happening and people were still living there, who, he knew, should not be living at all.
He was no stranger to the dying of others and if challenged would not have denied his complicity in the fate of many. But dying is a process and death itself can be slow in coming; he could no longer tell how long he had lain there but he had not yet reached the limits of fear and despite his boldness in battle did not yet know that on the far side of fear lies exaltation.
They had not, of course, thrown away the great key to the prison, they had merely locked the heavy fortified door to his cell, and his whereabouts was certainly no secret. His disappearance from the world would not be unnoticed. He had friends – a wealthy warrior-knight such as he was never without supporters – and the king might yet relent. There was always hope. But he was many years beyond the arrogance of youth which thinks that when he is no longer in the world, the world itself will cease to exist. He knew the world would continue without him, yet lately he had begun to hope it might be a better place if he was allowed to remain in it a little longer. Such is the arrogance of age.
No outside noise or natural light had ever penetrated the walls of the prison. The only sounds came from inside: the rasping of each breath of fetid air forced in and out of his dry lungs through a throat swollen with thirst; the dull heavy clunk of the iron-chained band round his ankle as it shifted on the straw strewn roughly over the dank floor to soak up the emptied filth of his body.
But these seemed distant sounds. Closer and more familiar was the pitched resonance of the war-cries reverberating in his mind, rising ever higher with the singing air around his uplifted sun-struck sword – sounds that freed the adrenaline and enabled him to lead his men into battle. Closer too than his own breathing was the unearthly scream of a war-trained stallion caught up in a hell it could never have imagined in its wild free days. These were the sounds he had known for much of his youth and the events of those early years would be the source of many of the dark dreams of his dying days in the prison cell.
In the adjoining cell a lone candle sputtered in its bracket halfway up the wall threatening every moment to spill molten tallow on the floor.
“Remove his chains!” The guard rushed to obey.
“Stand up!” Sunudor was slower to obey. The flesh of his leg was torn by the shackles and his muscles weakened from inactivity. But, unlike his master, Sunudor had been given food and the thin sharp wine of the region, which had dulled both his senses and his pain.
The investigator grunted with annoyance but realising the futility of repeating the order, he threw back his hood and revealed his face to the prisoner.
“My lord!” Recognising the king, Sunudor finally forced himself to his feet but almost immediately lost his balance and fell down again. Spitting with exasperation, the king gave further orders without taking his eyes off the prisoner. The soiled straw was removed, fresh clean rushes were spread on the floor and two stools were brought.
“Sit!” The king perched opposite Sunudor, continuing to impale him with his eyes. “So, old man,” he went on, lowering his voice dangerously, “they tell me you have a daughter.”
The words pierced Sunudor’s befuddled mind. The implications were clear. There was no doubt a threat would work where bribery had so far failed.
Now the warrior-knight dreamed of how victory had come hard to them the time they had ridden south to rout the invaders from the foreign lands. Again and again as he drove forward into battle he imagined he heard bird song, cool and clear over the tumult, but knew he must have imagined it, for what small bird’s throat can quiver in a song louder than the clash of bright metal on metal and the cries of brave warriors as they fall? But when the battle was over, the birds sang above the graves of the soldiers who were buried where they fell, and this time he knew it was not imagination.
By the time he had secured the borders of the land and brought the remainder of his troops home, too much time had passed. The crack of distant thunder had foretold the downpour that was already threatening their arrival at the gates of the city. But this was a city they hardly recognised. The stormy weather alone was not reason enough to explain the absence of the welcoming crowds their victory gave them the right to expect. Then his own messenger, sent ahead by him as forerunner of their return, appeared just inside the ancient walls asking to speak privately to him.
When he had heard the messenger he turned to face his troops. He placed his helmet on his head to signify his status and then he spoke to his men, sitting upright on his proud black horse. Raindrops collected in the metal brim of his helmet as if it was a cup and when he had finished speaking he poured the water on the earth as a priest of an earlier time might have offered a libation to the spirits of the land. And there outside the city he disbanded the army and dismissed his soldiers each to his home to learn what news was simmering in wait for him on his own hearth.
And now he recalled how he had entered bare-headed into the city despite the storm that was dispelling the over-heated summer, and how he finally reached the big front door of his own house, carefully climbed the worn stone steps and crossed the familiar wide threshold. The servants were afraid to give the grievous news to him and had quarrelled among themselves as to who should do so. In the end it was his childhood companion, Sunudor, who found both the courage and the pity to tell him what he already knew – to tell him of the sweating sickness that had rampaged through the city streets while war rampaged further south and how it had taken the life of his young bride and the unborn child he had not even known she had conceived, so long had been the ride south, and the great battle, and the journey home.
Grief can break the soul in ways no battle can and the multi-coloured world around him shed its brightness as a battle wound sheds its blood. A bitterly cold winter tamed the remnants of the fever, and the city and its surviving citizens started to hope again. But, in the struggle to rebuild the life of the city, the victory in the south and the frontier he and his soldiery had defended were forgotten. Seeing him broken by his loss, the king found it easy and expedient to withhold the rewards due to him for his valour and victory; for kings are fickle creatures and while demanding loyalty do not always reciprocate.
So he left the city again and taking only Sunudor with him for company, he wandered the diverse paths of the vast and inconstant world. They travelled west and learned of many new things. Caught between the eastern and western versions of the one true faith, he heard of the new cult of protestants which stirred the instinct of the protester lying deep within his heart. But, not wishing to commit himself even to protestation, he turned south and east again and travelled in a country where people have a different true faith. He found himself accepted there, for they recognised the valiant warrior who had driven them back from their incursions into his land and they honoured him even while knowing that his time among them would be short and that he would hold fast to his loyalty to his own people. He taught their sons how to play the sword with hand and wrist and how to make their opponent dance to the tune they played as he himself had been taught in the dusty echoing hall of his father’s castle in the years before he went to the city. For these services, they housed and fed him and his servant.
One warm southern spring day, came news that the faithless king of his city had been overthrown and a new king ruled there. Then his own world reasserted its claim on him and to Sunudor’s great joy they turned towards the homeward-bound road. Their hosts gave him jewels, pearl-coloured opals that store the milk of the earth within them, and swathes of fine silk and a sturdy pack-horse to carry their many rich gifts. So he returned to the city and offered his services to the new king promising to continue to bear his sword in defence of his own land. And because a new king who has taken his throne by force is a pragmatic creature, he was well received and his knowledge of the ways of the world brought him great renown.
Years passed and the world changed. A king who has sat for many years on his throne may become over-confident. When the warrior-knight pressed for an audience with him and told him of information he had received that the armies of the southern foreign lands were again planning to invade, the king did not believe him. Reluctant to gather together a sufficient defensive force, he refused to listen and did not make appropriate preparations in time. Soon the enemy took the opportunity to breach the frontier and started the long march towards the city itself.
It is not an unknown thing in the world that a king who has failed to recognise and deal with a threat to his kingdom will try to silence those who warned him about it. Thus it was that now the prisoner knight was stirring painfully in his cell, reeling between lesser and greater consciousness and sinking gradually into a deep deep place.
“This is the testimony that I, Sunudor, life-long servant to my master, the knight-at-arms Kelninor, render to my master’s overlord, King Truban. That when I travelled with my master in the southern foreign lands, he did teach and train and succour the son of the local governor to his own high standards of swordsmanship. And that he did this deliberately, knowing the boy was the enemy of our land and would exult in his skill and would one day use it against the kingdom of Truban. And I confirm that the commander of the enemy forces now approaching the walls of our city is this same boy, grown to manhood and now, as then, known as Mairain.”
And so Sunudor was released from the prison and went home.
Two pale blurred figures had come in and were leaning with their backs against the door of the cell. In his dire condition he might have thought them angels, but the last flicker of physical fear in his body told him that they were flesh and blood guards and that they were waiting to throw his body into the freshly crumbled earth of a grave that lay somewhere outside in a far distant world he had almost forgotten existed. Buried alive in his cell, he yet feared being buried alive in his grave, with the bird song rising cool and clear above him.
As he tried in vain to speak, to tell them there was still breath left in his body, the image of a sword with its point thrust downwards appeared in the distant reaches of his awareness. But as he turned his inner gaze towards it, he realised it was a cross, the symbol of a man crucified. Then he could no longer tell which it was, for the cross is the sword surrendered and even now he could not say whether he would ever fully surrender his sword, because it is always honourable to die on a field of battle, but there is no honour in a prison cell.
Then the darkness rolled in slowly from the outer edges of his consciousness until it reached the centre of his being; the core of his consciousness melded with the dark and he touched the far side of fear. And then he and the darkness were one. And then they were no more.
When Mairain heard the news of the death of the teacher who had made his sword sing and dance for him, his remorse at having wished to attack the city was so great that he turned his army round and went home.
Centuries passed, the world changed again and people began to remember the long history of the city and its people. They told their children the story of how a servant girl’s life was saved during the summer fever by her young mistress who as a consequence forfeited her own life and that of her unborn baby. They said this tragedy led many years later to the girl’s life being imperilled and spared again; that this happened when her own father was made to bear false witness from his prison cell against his master to appease a corrupt king who needed a scapegoat so badly he was prepared to threaten a pregnant woman to get what he wanted. And as a result of this the warrior-knight called Kelninor was condemned to die in prison and was laid in an unmarked grave with only a small wooden cross thrust upright into the soft earth to tell of the place. But they also say that it was a comfort to Sunudor in his old age that his daughter gave birth in safety to her youngest child, a son whom she named Kelninor, so that the memory should not be completely lost.
And the legend grew that because the lives of a knight and his lady were sacrificed for that of a servant girl, so in the seventh generation a direct-line descendant of her youngest son was born and was also given the name of Kelninor. In the prime of his manhood he became a great leader of his people and negotiated a peace treaty with the southern foreign lands, and brought freedom, justice and prosperity to all the people.
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