Unchronicle II,

Part III


So we will honor these old Argonauts, and

Listen to their story as it stands, and we will

Try to be like them, each of us in our place;

For each of us has a Golden Fleece to seek,

And a wild sea to sail over, ere we reach it,

And dragons to fight ere it be ours.

Charles Kingsley

Who could have devised such a journey? Wally had no idea, surely, any of these things would happen to any of the heroes in the wargame he was personally guiding to the conclusion. Nor did he imagine all labyrinthian twists and turns in the Cyberworld as it spun its possibilities out before the gazes of those heroes.

Ero, on his flying mast-bot, proceeds from the cyberworld into the surrounding Vampire spirit-form hidden within the Carbuncle. He discovers the inland sea, the Sea of Doubt (which is more the size of an ocean than a sea). He encounters a palace set in the midst of the dark waters, and within the palace he flies through vast halls and pillars and finds a stranger scene, a fountain pouring blood into a big basin. Then he watches in growing horror as a bat flutters down from above and grows enormously, becoming the Great Vampire Spirit-Form that inhabits and directs the Carbuncle star-stone. This evil entity is not cyberspatial, it is real, but can affect Ero in a disastrous way if he is not careful. Yet the Vampire too is somewhat vulnerable, as Ero is not so tiny that he cannot inflict some damage himself. Attacking the Vampire, he finds the Vampire is so much greater in size that he only succeeds in penetrating its eye. Inside the Vampire's eye is a world unto itself, full of photo-files, like the billions and billions of galaxies that populate the universe. These photo-files each contain a world of its own, running along certain themes or people in them. He enters one photo-file and finds himself involved with the life and destiny of a 19th century small town paper's printer's devil who seeks his prospects in the big city of Chicago, and on it goes, event after event including the Great Chicago Fire, until the up and coming young man of society dies in the fire, and then it is on to other events and photo-files. Ero encounters such people as Eryk the fetler on a train in southern Atlantis II, and the free lance photographer, Damon Santiago Coxie, before he is given a twin, Ero II by Yeshua who has been closely tracking them in their progress through the photo-cell and various adventures. Damon is destined to be joined with Ero's twin, Ero II, as a knight of the Axes of Honor.

The hydrogen bombing of Poseidia, and the missiles carrying similar warheads to all the other major cities, are meant to annihilate both Eros and also Damon. Ero escapes through the portal first. Ero II and Damon fly out on the mast-bot from Poseidia before it goes up in a mushroom cloud, only with no where to go. Damon's world is doomed. If that isn't enough, the entire photo-cell is about to be deleted by the Vampire to make doubly certain the "anti-matter" of faith doesn't spread to the other photo-cells, thereby spreading and destroying the entire spirit-form and its star-stone.

But Yeshua intervenes and not only do the two champions, Ero II and Damon, escape through the portal, but they are returned to the original starting point for Ero, the nexus of the Union Train Station in the City of Destiny. The mast-bot is then retired, screwed back on the top of the copper dome. The trusty Kater's Compass from Charles Darwin's voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, which Wally had programed with wonderful guidance systems and very useful popups and helps, that too is retired, completely worn out in their travels.

At the Union Station, they are welcomed by a grand event already in progress, for their testing and then dubbing as knights-errant if they both pass the rigorous questioning by Lord Yeshua. Both prove successful, and they are dubbed knights by Lord Yeshua. Given their respective knight's equipment and gear, they sally forth on their way to Mount Defiance, which is a huge castle mount studded with many seemingly impregnable walls and fortifications and towers. On the way, a storm nearly sweeps them into the bay of the sea below the Mount, but Yeshua intervenes, and they are spared. They rescue a man who would have surely drowned or died of exposure at least on the road. His destiny becomes intertwined with theirs, as he enlists them for a trip to the the court of the king ruling the Mount. They will serve as his knight-retainers, with a page assigned to each. He will sing his epic poems to the lords and ladies and the king, and this will be his swansong, as he is at the end of a long and distinguished career of court minstrel. He hopes for the customary three bags of gold that is awarded the court minstrel on retirement. But, deep in his heart, he knows of a greater purpose than his own comfort when he can no longer earn his bread and butter. So he trains the young champions for the coming jousts he suspect the king will command, for the king is known for jousting tournaments to test the mettle of his knights against any visiting or challenging knights. The winner receives a special prize, of course, either a court lady's hand in marriage together with her entire dowry, or some grant of gold and jewels from the King's purse. The winner can also help himself to the vanquished knight's uniform, banner, horse, equippage, and money purse, of course, and anything else he may have to his name (winner, indeed, takes all!). As for his wife and family, if the loser has them, they become slaves and chattel to the victor.

Surely, the king, on espying the strength and youth of Ero and Damon, will not miss the opportunity to challenge them to jousting on on the field of contest, which is Cheney Field, an ancient baseball field that lies hard against the northern flanks of the Mount. With the two jewels the minstrel has reserved and hidden away for his old age, he buys the necessary mounts and equipment needed for his knights, so that they can make a splendid showing before the assembled court and the king. After some training sessions on Cheney Field, and the minstrel meanwhile seeing to all the necessary wardrobe for himself, his two knights, the two pages, and their mounts, they will set forth for the gates of the outer wall of the Mount to present themselves for the court's pleasure at the king's yearly birthday banquet and royal ball. This was his plan, but the best plans of mice and men can go awry, as the poet Robert Burns once said--particularly when something called a dragon inserted itself into the program.

The reunion of the mast with the newly materialized missing dome provided the complete "lid" for the top of the Union Train Station. It was screwed back on much to the surprise of the lone occupant, Crazy Dan, who was still playing solitaire at his table set below, and he dropped his cards for a few minutes just to stare at it. Eventually, when he couldn't figure it out, he went back to his cards, which was about the only thing he was good at these days since he retired from his car dealership. He was doing what he thought he always wanted to do: nothing! Absolutely nothing! This was his one consuming thought, while he was furiously working up a sweat every day coming up with new ways to draw in crowds of suckers to buy his cars. Now all that was over, he had his retirement atlast, and the millions he needed to enjoy peace and solitude, and more peace and solitude, thanks to his wildly entertaining, lunatic sales pitches. Is that all there was to it? Why not? For a man like this, with a mind, heart, and soul that entertained no higher expectations, it certainly was. Like an insect buzzing round and round at the bottom of a jam jar, he had grown accustomed to life within severely restricted perimeters, and didn't know or care he was trapped, especially now that his self-chosen fate was sealed.

Saved from the nuclear destruction that the Vampire, with considerable help from two of its star-stone siblings, had ignited to eradiate the growing germ of faith within its own eyeball, the two champions, feeling little like champions, looked around from their perch. Damon was not recovered from seeing his world destroyed, and he was not able to comprehend what he was seeing. Yet Ero had been there before, and he did his best to help Damon, and reassure him that things were going to get better, if they did not lose hope. As for his family, they did not know yet what had happened to them. Perhaps, they still could find out.

Comforted by that thought, Damon tried to deal with the present challenges of landing in such a strange city, the City of Destiny. What Destiny did it offer? He had seen his own destiny destroyed before his eys--was there a better one in return for the burning ashes of his own world?

As the mast did not seem like it was going anywhere soon, and the Kater's Compass did not respond to Ero's questions, they realized that they might have to explore the city on their own.

They soon decided they might as well climb down the dome and the building to street level and take a look around.

Ero had climbed up on the west side, but this time they climbed down the north side, which put them on a flat roof of the train depot's offices. Here they found a metal, roof-access ladder that let them get down to the ground.

They were right on time. A grand reception was waiting for them, though they could see no one present!

A gala platform of tented material, with heraldic banners, materialized. The banners were the most remarkable they had ever seen, of two main kinds. The first featured a magnificent golden rampant lion, crowned. The second kind showed two axes on a blood-red background.

The two candidates for knighthood, who did not know they had already served their apprenticeships and been approved, walked around looking at each item. What was this all for? they wondered, glancing back at each other.

Suddenly, they heard, rather than saw, a multitude of people around them, as if they were standing in a great pillared hall, with thousands of courtiers and knights taking their places for the entrance of the great Lord of the people and nation.

Then there silence, and the sound of footsteps. They could hear the footsteps and see the impression of them in the carpet as someone invisible walked by them toward the front, and sent to the pavilion and turned around and faced them.

A mighty roar erupted all around the two candidates, that almost knocked them off their feet. People were cheering and shouting a single name. "Yeshua?" wasn't it? both candidates thought. Yes, it was. There could be no mistaking it. Gradually, the calling of His name receded, and there was a thump, three times, of the lictor's standard on the ground, and again, dead silence. The hair on the back of the candidates' necks stood up, they could feel thousands of eyes turned to them. It seemed they were waiting for their response, but what should it be? The candidates had no idea.

Damon felt a nudge against his shoulder, looked, but Ero hadn't done it. He saw no one else could have done it. Again he felt his shoulder being nudged. Realizing that this was something bigger than he could see, he took a few steps forward, then continued until he stood at the base of the pavilion. A red cushion appeared at his feet, and he knew what it was for this time. Wasn't that the sort of thing the candidate for knighthood knelt on before he was dubbed a knight by the king or queen or the castle lord?

He felt a gentle pressure on his shoulders, as if two hands were being pressed there, and he realized it was what he thought! He knelt.

Damon's heart slowed. He could hardly draw a breath, and he felt as cold as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown suddenly in his face. He would have sweated, though cold as he was, if he could sweat in cyberspace, realizing then that a life and death choice of some kind was being set before him, a test of his character and life that would allow him no appeal if it went badly. And it was what he felt, he soon discovered--a test, the most serious one he had ever faced.

Would he pass the Trial of the Candidate? Unlike medieval candidates, he had not spent the whole night before the Test in solemn fasting and prayer, kneeling alone before the Cross and the altar in a chapel, but had been running for his life in a speedboat, Sasan at the wheel, chased by gangs of spies and government police down the canals of Poseidia!

What was that going to do for him now? His knees felt very weak, gone to water. Now he knew why the cushion was there and he was kneeling, because there was no way he or any other candidate could manage to stand up at such a moment! He felt it was all over with him.

For the first time he heard a voice! It had the tone of a commanding officer's too! A general, or a field marshal, would sound so authoritative, Damon knew. He had met and photographed several such in private sessions attended only by a few chosen aides, but this commander sounded even more impressive. His voice seemed to penetrate his whole being and then flood out into the world, causing the whole world to stand still and listen.

At the sound of that Voice, Damon felt like he was standing alone on the docket before the Supreme Judge of the Universe, not just a commander or even a commander-in-chief.

He wanted to flee, to bolt, to even spring up into a tree, but he had no strength to do it!

The Voice was speaking, in perfect Greek too, and Damon heard every word of what was the "Test of the Three Vows".

"Candidate, wilt thou vow Honesty, Courtesy, and Probity, and be always ready to deny yourself and defend the weak?"

What on earth was "probity", Damon wondered with consternation. He knew what the first two and the last entailed, but...there was no time to be consulting the dictionary, he had to answer, he felt, with a nudge at his shoulder to reinforce that impression.

"Candidate! Wilt thou vow...?" the lictor prompted.

"Yes!" Damon blurted out. "Yessir! I mean...ah--"

Again, he felt someone nudge his shoulder, a little sharply too, as if a sword was being used, since no one was asking him what he meant other than "Yes" or "No."

He had no time to think about it further. The second Test Question came, riveting his attention.

"Candidate, wilt thou pledge thyself to Lady Purity, and wilt thou defend her virtue and honor always?"

Damon relaxed a bit. This was easy! He thought of Natalia immediately. Was she all right? Would he ever see her again? He was a long way off, he knew, and that was all he knew about his whereabouts. How could he find his way back to her? No doubt she was waiting faithfully for him to return! He knew now, at this very moment, he loved her, and that there was no one else he could marry or devote himself to in marriage. And, yes, he wouldn't run after any other women--he would give that up for Natalia. She was more than worth it! It wouldn't be easy, but he was going to do it! Deny himself! Why had it taken him so long to get to this point. Was he so independent, he hated to give up his free-wheeling, self-indulgent lifestyle and all the willing, pretty women for anyone, even one such as Natalia? But now he had made his decision, and he was going to see it through!

Damon felt another nudge, this time on both shoulders. He remembered, with as start, where he was. But he had forgotten the question! What was the question? All he could see in his mind's eye was Natalia. She was beckoning to him, and he was holding back from her. But his heart said yes! yes!" Another voice sounded, not the same as the first, perhaps the Candidate Avocate who was present in Spirit, announcing: "The Candidate has pledged troth from the heart! He has vowed to remain pure for her hand, and throughout the time of his union with her he will remain faithful to her, loving only her as his wife and helpmeet. Let it be written in the record!"

Again the first Voice sounded. Damon felt relieved beyond words. Apparently, his unspoken vow had been heard and approved by higher authority.

It was now the time for the third question of the Test, the climatic one that decided whether Damon would pass and become a Knight or not. Two right answers so far would not win him knighthood. He had to answer all three perfectly.

As if the whole congregation present were well aware of the gravity of this very moment, the very air was rigid with suspense. Everything hinged on his handling it rightly. The whole scene was deathly still, and a preternatural silence it was, as if it were the dawn of the eight day, the day after the Week of Primal Creation, when all the Earth was reformed and given order and all the living species, with Man installed as the reigning Sovereign.

"Candidate, wilt thou vow to be faithful to thy vows even unto death?"

Damon's heart dropped down in his chest the moment he heard it. The flesh of his entire body was screaming and crawling, as if it wanted to leave his bones and muscles! This was, for Damon, the hardest question of all! The first wasn't so bad. The second was a piece of cake. But this one! This had put its finger on something he would admit to no one! He knew for sure he wasn't up to it. His heart sank even further. He had never, never been faithful to anyone or anything in his entire existence, had he? But there was one thing, he couldn't lie about it! He despised liars, and knowing how despicable liars were and anxious to save their wretched hides. But he knew he would have to live with himself knowing he was a cowardly liar, a cheat, an imposter. What kind of life would he have then, if he made himself a miserable liar? It would be like being chained in a deep, dark dungeon, with evil spirits calling him dirty names, day in, day out! So why should he try to fool anybody now? He couldn't bear to live like that--though many people he had known had chosen to, for the sake of sparing themselves some calamity or even a small inconvenience!

"I--I can't...!" he gasped out.

"It's impossible for me!"

At the moment he said that, there was a tremendous stir, as if the whole invisible host of nobles and knights of God present were struck aghast--as if no Candidate before him had ever dared say anything of the kind.

Damon felt he was finished! He had blown it utterly! He was disgraced. He was was disqualified. What now? Would they drag him out and throw him into a dungeon somewhere, to live out the remainder of his days in chains? But, still, he felt he had said the right thing, the only thing he could say honestly, even if it exposed him in all his weakness--something he had never revealed to anyone before--that for all his strength and bravado about being a man's man, he really couldn't say he could stand up to torture on, for example, a cross and still remain true to his vows. Every man had a breaking point, didn't he? He knew he would break too, if the pressure was great enough.

"Yes!" the Voice thundered, answering in Damon's stead. "For man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The Candidate has vowed these three times in solemn assembly, before the Father, the Son, and the Paraclete! Recorder, write it in the book!"

The congregation of witnesses exploded as the tribunal lictor thumped the base of his standard for order in the assembly. There was no other word for what had happened: it was "sensational".

Still gasping, Damon felt hands on him, holding him upright on the cushion. He felt so faint he was liable to pass out right where he was. When the rejoicing and congratulations for Damon died down, the ceremony concluded.

This was not altogether pleasant, either. It was not pleasant at all, in fact. Even with his head down, Damon could see the diamond sword being uplifted, as if his head might be severed in the next instant. Instead it was lowered slowly, and touched...not his head, not his shoulder, but his heart..

Damon felt a blazing warmth spread through his chest and through his entire frame from head to feet, making him feel as if he was going to explode with strength and power, and he also felt ...what? Joy? Yes, it was joy!

"I, Your Lord and God, will be your Strength and your Strong Tower, your Mighty Fortress, just as I have been in the past, so will I be to you in your coming battles. Be of good cheer, and rise! You are now a Knight of the Order, the Axes of Honor. Stand and receive your garments and weapons!"

Springing to his feet a true champion, Damon waited with great expectation. But the entire scene went instantly dark, and he was left standing seemingly alone in pitch darkness. Was this how it was going to be?--a lone warrior struggling against dark forces that were hiding somewhere in the night enfolding him? Perhaps so!

But he was deceived by appearances. He was not forsaken. He found himself instantly garbed head to foot in chain mail and a tunic, holding a spear with a standard and a shield, with a helmet and sword to complete his knightly equippage. It was wonderful gear, though somewhat antiquated, as he understood warfare. Nevertheless, he knew he could do some damage with it! Just give him some practice and the opportunity to prove his prowess, and he knew he could wield a sword with the best of them!

Yeshua again spoke, but this time it was a private audience. He awarded the hero a new name, inscribed on a white stone, which no one else would know or see. After several more words in from Lord Yeshua, Damon stepped aside to wait for the second Candidate to be interviewed.

Then the light flashed back on, and the awesome Knights Tribunal continued.

Ero II had watched Damon go through some sort of medieval age ceremony, without seeing who was performing it, and then the lights went out momentarily, it was completely black, but Damon stood there, highly visible, or was it someone else in his place? He was dressed completely different, with two axes set along side his head on a metal helmet, wearing a shining green and cobalt blue tunic over a chain mail body suit. He wore a sword, and in his right hand held a spear holding a standard emblazoned with the two axes on a red background. In his left hand he held a shield emblazoned with two axes on the same blood red background. What was going on? Ero marvelled. He tried to move from his spot, but something seemed to hold his feet fast where he stood, as if he were set in concrete!

After a short time, while Damon seemed to be talking and being talked to, he stepped backwards, bowed deeply, then moved to one side of the carpet and stood quietly and glancing back toward Ero.

It was Ero II next who felt like he was being propelled forward to the base of the Judge's pavilion. The concrete was gone, he could move his feet again. It felt like someone had given a push to his shoulder, as if a page were at his side who knew all the fine details of the ceremony and testing, giving him the nudges so he could perform the right moves according to the tribunal protocols.

He started forward and then paused at the base of the pavilion. The cushion, rich in plush red velvet, encrusted along the edges with what looked like diamonds, was still there waiting for him. He realized what it was for. He knelt on it.

Then as he waited, totally awed by what was happening, he saw Yeshua appearing before him, for he had been there all along, Ero knew, but was not visible to his eyes until then, for some reason he could not understand.

He dared not look up, but saw only the fringes of his robe, his hands up to his open holed, red nail-pierced wrists, and there was one thing more, a glittering white sword, an incredible weapon seemingly cut from a single diamond, blazing with light and fire in the right hand.

The sword was so blindingly bright that Ero couldn't look at it! What was he going to do? Cut off his head? Ero II wondered just as Damon had before him. He really didn't think that would happen, but he had never been knighted before, and it was too far back in Greek culture, hundreds of years in fact since Greeks were knighted at various courts in the medieval Byzantine times.

The candidature "ceremony" was brief and demanded sharp attention. There was nothing casual about it. It felt like he had been summoned to appear at a military event, a tribunal of the highest order-- in every detail, extremely solemn, perfect in execution, and almost frightening lest anything not be done not just right according to regulations, thereby bringing dishonor to the commanding officer, the Judge that presided over the Tribunal.

Ero was surprised when the same things did not happen to him as to Damon his brother-warrior. He was given no mail suit, tunic, spear and standard, and no sword! How was he going to fight the enemy? Presumably, that was what this ceremony was all about, to equip them for a coming battle or war of some kind. It wasn't just a ceremonial, he felt, considering how solemn it was being conducted. This was a matter of life and death, he knew for certain. He couldn't see, but he felt the presence of thousands of people, who sounded like all warriors and soldiers, by the sound they made. He could hear them, sense them, and so he knew he wasn't imagining there was a huge assembly gathered round about for an imminent war.

Wondering what role he could possibly play, Ero was even more surprised by the test questions. He was first asked,

"Candidate, wilt thou forswear all earthly, mortal shields and ramparts and trust in Me alone?"

That astounded Ero the Olympic Torch Bearer. What? No shields or protective mail suit? No anything?

But he thought again, "Warriors, even the best, still die with such things in their possession, they can still be conquered and slain, so really, such things do not save a man from a more powerful enemy. What then can I trust in?" Suddenly, it flashed upon him, how Yeshua had come through for him, time and again. It hadn't been his own bow or arrow that had saved it, it had been Yeshua. Surely, that would never change. Yeshua had been proven faithful, always. He had only one answer he could give: "Yes! to the question.

Then he waited, afraid he would be told he was wrong, that he was being ignorant, presumptious, without common sense, thinking he could go forth into battle without any normal gear.

The lictor thumped his standard, declaring: "The Candidate has answered rightly. For it is written: "His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day..."

The assembly erupted in rejoicing for the Candidate's success at Test Question 1. Ero took a deep breath.

The Judge's voice thundered again:

"Candidate, wilt thou tell the number of all who were saved in the ark Noah sailed?"

This question nearly knocked Ero off his cushion! It was so unexpected, as it had nothing to do with warfare--at least it seemed as far fetched as it could be! Bible was not his strong point, as he hadn't been raised in a home where the Bible was read more than one or twice a year, and usually it was by the priest at the church in Seriphos too. He had been told some of the events by his nurse as a child, so he knew some things. But details like this that Yeshua was asking?

What was he going to do? Guess? But a mistake would cost him the candidature? He would not be able to join and continue on with his warrior-brother, Damon. What would he do then? He knew he was utterly lost, for his destiny was tied up with Damon somehow, and he couldn't let them be parted now!

Fortunately, as he wracked his memory in the few seconds allotted him to answer, he recalled in sharp detail what the family's nursery maid had read from the old family Bible Storybook. There was Noah, of course. Then his wife. And he had some sons too. How many? Two at least! And weren't they married? There were at least six in the family. But what if there had been three sons, that would make eight altogether, right? Now which was it, six or eight? Six or eight?

He didn't know it, but he was so bothered, that he was mumbling, even speaking out loud, and it tumbled out "...eight? eight?"

There was an ominous silence. Ero thought he was a goner, he was flat wrong. Oh, if he had only opened his Bible more! He was so terribly ignorant of the Bible--how could that be justified before Yeshua?

In a daze, he heard the lictor thump the standard pole, making him shudder with a sense of doom, and then the lictor announced: "Candidate has answered rightly! Eight souls were saved from the waters of the Great Flood in the ark!"

What was that? He had answered right? Could he believe his own ears? His nurse had saved him, by reading those stories to him over and over, so that he never forgot them, though he had not thought about them for years.

Ero felt faint, and a hand steadied him as the assembly again voiced its joy for him. Gathering himself together, Ero squared his shoulders and prepared for the final and climactic question. It came, amd literally blew Ero's hair back.

"Candidate, Who is the ark by which men are saved from the Great Floods, the one by water, and the coming one by fire?"

Now Ero, like his people, was extremely quick-witted and clever, and loved words games and tongue twisters and hair-splitting in rapid fire verbal repartee practiced in towns and villages everywhere across his homeland, but this stumped him. An ark was a "who"? He knew an ark was a "what"! It was wood, so high, so long, so wide, filled with rooms for the animals on board, and quarters for Noah and his family, with storehouses for the food supplies. What on earth did Yeshua want?

How could a boat, or an ocean-going vessel such as the ark, made to float but not sail, be a "who"? That meant it was really a person! That was logically impossible, patently absurd!

"Oh, Lord!" he exclaimed, at a total loss. He finished now!

The lictor thumped his standard. "The Candidate for noble knighthood has answered rightly. The Lord is the Ark, by which all men are saved from the Great Floods!"

This time Ero, hardly able to stand, could hardly believe what he was hearing. What had he said? He had answered right? Didn't they know he--? But he could see the ceremony was not over, except for one thing. He was to be equipped for the coming battle, was he not?

Ero stood and watched an Olympic torch appear in Yeshua's hand. Yeshua held it out to Ero, and Ero took it with a trembling hand.

The Tribunal hall went instantly dark, and Ero stood there, with the torch glowing bright, while the lictor quoted from the Scriptures:

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

It was impressive, doubtless, Ero thought. But is this all? Is this all I have to defend myself with?

No body armor?

No sword?

Not even a helmet?

From the most ancient times, every Greek that went into battle had at least a spear and a shield, even he didn't have a stitch of clothing to keep off the cold at night. A lighted Olympic torch? He glanced down, however, at the stem, and saw an inscription. It was in Greek! What it said was his answer, he discovered as he read it. He knew he would not need anything more. He had everything he needed. It was more than he had expected, in fact.

Ero was given his new name, inscribed on a white stone, presented by Lord Yeshua, and, after Lord Yeshua dubbed Ero a knight of the Order, the Axes of Honor, the lictor gave a final three thumps, and the assembly was concluded.

Ero and Damon were left a moment later, free to go, but they lingered, looking over each other's equipment.

Ero was excited. He had followed Damon his newfound brother for a long time, and now he had a thousand questions he wanted to ask him. Here was his chance. To think he would be able to share Damon's adventures, no longer just an observer, but standing side by side with him through thick and thin! He hoped Damon felt the way he did--and from the looks of him and the way he acted, he thought he did.

They did not have a long time to get really acquainted. They both felt they must be on their way, as the pavilion was now disappearing, piece by piece, and even the Union Station was crumbling! Something like a leaf fluttered by Ero, and he grabbed at it. It was one half of the Kater's Compass--but it was shriveled up like an autum leaf, no longer any good. He let it drop, wondering how anything once so powerful and helpful could be nothing now, but turned back to Damon. Damon threw back his helmet and grinned.

"Let's go explore what there is here! This gear is meant to be used! Well?"

Together they set out, and discovered that in just a few moments the entire City of Destiny had crumbled away, or been transformed into something very different: a huge castle mount that filled the whole skyline with forts, walls, towers, and defensive gates.

Awestruck, the two brother-warriors now joined, stood taking it in. It was a glorious sight. But what were they going to do on this new, unexplained quest? They had no idea.

After gazing at the castled mount, they decided to go and find out if they could.

In high spirits they set out, feeling as though they were both homeward bound--as a minstrel at a shining court in a grand hall full of knights and nobles, holding a golden rose from the king's hand, once described it:

"I am homeward bound! But I cannot tell

How near may the haven be,

Or if many storms may be may beset my barque

Ere I gain the Crystal Sea?

But I know that my Pilot is near at hand,

And that is enough for me.

I am homeward bound!

And the sun sometimes shines

out of the golden west,

Till it almost seems like the gate of home

And I think I am near my rest;

But if long or short may the voyage be

Still my Pilot knoweth best.

And I know I shall reach the port at last--

The haven where I would be,

Where the storms of life shall distress no more

And there, by the Crystal Sea

The loved ones whose earthly voyage is o'er

Are waiting to welcome me.

I am homeward bound! 'Twill be 'Home Sweet Home'!

I shall see my Pilot's face;

Not a stranger there in a far off land--

I shall feel His blest embrace;

And shall know more fully than e'er before

All His sovereign love and grace."

Malevolence was always not far removed, and its eyes were keen to detect and watch the knights-errant approach the gates of its bastion, Mount Defiance. They were not going to enter them so easily, if it could be helped! Possibly, they might not even make it through alive.

A typhoon blew up against the coast, its roiling black clouds rapidly climbing the slopes above the northern shores of the sea that encircled the peninsula of the Mount. It happened so fast that the champions were taken by surprise. Even as they stood and looked at it, they realized in a few moments that they were in a struggle for their very lives.

The light went out, and then downpours that pounded them, along with chilling sleet, soon made the road vanish before their eyes. Water rushed around their ankle and legs as it ran to escape down to the bay. But they remembered their objective and plunged on into the darkness and flood.

It almost seemed that part of the world at least had liquified and was going to slide down as a mass into the bay and be drowned. If only they could reach higher ground! was their single thought in all their struggling.

Ero kept his torch held up, determined not to let it be swept away. As long as the light remained to light the path, he had hope they would make it to safety. Fear was his greatest enemy, he found. If he let it take any ground in him, he knew he was finished, he would slacken off his struggle and be swept away!

Ahead of him somewhere was Damon, who got separated from him, though he was just a few steps away. Damon too fought against the monster of fear. Just then Ero nearly fell headlong as he stumbled over somthing. The torch nearly flew out of his hand.

In the shrill roaring of the wind, which sounded like an asylum of maniacs all screaming for their blood, Ero thought he heard a groan or a cry. He wasn't sure where it was coming from. Yet was it that log he had stumbled over? Was it no log at all but some unfortunately human being?

Ero turned around and held out the torch, feeling more with his feet, trying to stay upright and not be knocked down as he searched. Then he found what he was seeking: a man, fallen on the ground, on the verge of being swept over the side and thence down the steep slopes that tumbled into the bay. Ero grabbed the man by the hand, holding him back as the streams pulled him downward, and then Damon too appeared, and he too helped get the man back on his feet. Together they pulled the man with them toward the slopes of the Mount where they stood more of a chance of finding shelter.

The man was now unconscious, and silent, but they would not let him drop, even if he was a dead weight.

Was he gone? They did not know. But perhaps there was some life in him, if only they could find shelter, and revive him there.

At that moment, when their hopes seemed vain and their fears were the victor, a greater light than the Torch flared into brilliance that almost knocked them flat. In the brilliant light their eyes were struck and dazzled to near blindness, but then they began to see there was Someone standing the light, and by degrees they made out colors too... royal purple, as of a king, predominated. Was this a great king? Could it be Lord Yeshua?

Ero and Damon were certain of it. Lord Yeshua was not going to let them die there, along with the poor old man in their arms. Yeshua was Master even of the greatest storms, which they discovered when it lost intensity and began withdrawing from them on both sides. The water stopped rushing over the roadway, and they were able to sink down on their knees, in relief as well as to pay homage.

The encounter was so brief, it was over before they could form any thoughts about it. But they knew it was Lord Yeshua who had raised his mighty sword and stilled the storm of fear. Its deadly assaults were quenched! They knew they could make it now to the village they had spied from afar, whose chimney fires even now were burning. The storm evidently had not reached to the village, covering only the roadway where they had been walking so blithely just a few minutes before they saw the first black clouds of the typhoon climbiing up toward them.

It did not take them long, even carrying the old man, to reach the Mount's village, which nestled on its outer wall, just beyond the first gate and towers that guarded the entrance and the road upwards to the Castle.

From a distance it looked idyllic and so peaceful they thought it must be a place of friendly, even kind souls.

"Not a drop of rain fell here!" remarked Damon to Ero. "There's not a single sign of any storm here, no damage from the weather!" Ero marvelled. "Will they believe us when we tell them about it? But strange as this is to see, Yeshua commanded us to warn them, nevertheless, of the burning Flood to come, the fire next time that will consume everything we see, this mountain will split wide open and the castles on it and the village beneath it will be swallowed by the fiery streams that boil out of the earth, killing all the people and their animals. They must all flee this place, seek refuge in the Ark of Yeshua, or be destroyed in the fires Yeshua said were coming soon. We must tell them before we travel on to other parts!"

As they entered the first lanes that wound down to the village square, they did not feel much of a friendly spirit, despite their first impression.

Eyes peered at them coldly in the windows or between cracked shutters in the windows, and no one came out to help them or ask what they might need. Not a drop of rain had struck the town, amazingly, wheras the knights were drenched, shivering, their hair wet, and the old man himself half-alive after being nearly drowned!

Looking everywhere for someone to ask directions from, Ero and Damon exchanged glances and then continued looking. The town seemed all the more hostile to them even as they approached the center. Wasn't anyone going to come out and at least say a word to them?

They could hear dogs snarling, leaping up against doors and gates, and Ero and Damon braced themselves for attacks, but none came out, as if the owners could see they might lose them if they were loosed.

Finally, the knights stood in the square, facing a single large building or house that might be an villager inn. As they started toward it, the old man in their hands groaned, opened his eyes, and as they paused, he recognized the place.

"Take me in there!" he croaked. "It will do for now. I know the place, and they know me well, from my stops to buy their forage for my horse. And sometimes in earlier days I hired the entire establishment, and celebrated there after leaving the king's castle with his gifts. But the place has grown more evil with the passing years, till I don't dare abide there overnight. And I haven't been able to return to the Mount lately until now, being too old, and the way up is so hard these days, and the queen prefers younger singers these days... but who are you, sirs?"

Then the man's eyes turned up, and he sank back in their hands. Hurrying, the knights carried the old man to the door, and it was flung open in their startled faces. A woman with a big cloth tied round her chair, and a floury apron wrapping her large middle, thrust her hard-boned face out, screaming something like "Who's causing trouble here at my door? Git thee--"

She eyed the knights up and down, but then saw what they were bringing. Her expression changed. It did not become kinder, but she jerked her thumb, thrusting open the door wide as she stood aside, wiping her mouth with her flour-caked and stained apron.

The knights looked in, saw many faces gaping at them, but there was a fire burning in a huge, smoke-blackened hearth, the clasthing sound of crockery and metal cups clanking on tabletops and many men dining with their assortment of womenfolk, all crammed elbow to elbow from one end to the other of the large public room, and it was clear what this place was: a public inn and taverna in full spate. Half the town must have been there! The smell of sweat from unwashed bodies and stale beer and cheap perfume, mingled with thick tobacco fumes and smells of rancid food kicked under tables a nd chair, it made the knights want to hold their noses. Was there none other? Ero and Damon did not like the looks and manner of the mistress of the establishment. She evidently did not like their looks either. Damon was dressed as a proper knight, to be sure, and Ero, well, he was a near naked slavey or serf acting as the knight's attendant--a common enough sight in the village, nothing remarkable about that. They had seen their share of lackeys treated worse than dogs, hardly fed, scantily clothed, and groveling at the heels of their masters worse than any dog!

Should they enter, or try some other place? But the village was not likely to have another place, or anything better, they realized. As for their burden, it was his interests they were seeking, not theirs, so they went in.

The moment they got him indoors and lay him down on a bench, the inn's mistress barked orders, and her servants rushed to get a room and bed ready for him upstairs, along with suitable quarters for the knight next to him, and a straw pallet thrown on the rush-strewn floor for the slave-page.

"But where, pray tell, are your horses and palfrey?" the woman screamed at them. "Have you come unhorsed to my stables? I never heard of such a thing! What has happened to the good man's mount? He always comes with fine apparel and an embroidered blanket on his horse, with plumes on its head, and ascends the mount and sings to the court of the high lords and ladies of the castle! So where are his good horse and jaunty equippage!"

Ero and Daman stared at each other. What was she talking about? All they had of the man's possessions was the troubadour's instrument, still covered with leather tightly corded, so it might not be ruined after all if it were laid out carefully to dry. As for a horse and whatever else it carried? Had it gone over the cliff?

They shook their heads. Damon spoke first, finding the language close enough to understand to what he had been spekaing in Poseidonia, even though their accents were so thick and coarse. "Madam, I have no knowledge of his horse or equipment. Was it lost in the storm perhaps, or was he robbed?"

The woman screwed her fat-pillowed neck and made big owl eyes round about her, and then threw her thick, big bellied body back in a laugh that rocked her whole frame, and set the entire company laughing with her at their expense. "'Was it lost in the storm perhaps?' she jeered, cocking her head and neck one way and the next, her hands on her hip and her elbows akimbo as if she were dancing. "This fine gentleman and noble knight saith, 'Was it lost in the storm perhaps?'"

The room exploded, and wine and beer flagons flew through the air, dashing their contents against the walls.

Damon's face flushed dangerously as he eyed the woman, but Ero did not make a move, and Damon resisted his own anger. How dare they insult him! He came from a noble family in Poseidia and bore a mighty sword, did he not? Yeshua had dubbed him a knight in full regalia. Yet he had to wait, as Ero touch his arm for caution.

The woman in the breadmaker's apron and cap sneered right in his face. "Methinks," and she jerked her head and indicated the whole watching group with her thought the same thing as she, "you, sire, are the robber of this good man!"

Damon stiffened, and even Ero's hand did not hold him back now. He was on his own.

"Methinks," she went on, her eyes gleaming, even as they glanced pointedly at his sword and his hand hovering over the hilt, "you are the dastard, the montebank, the dirty jackanapes that has dealt him a terrible loss this day, taking his horse and all he carried with him to the Castle yonder. What of that? How do you acquit yourself! Say!"

He looked at them with contempt, without a twinge of fear. He knew he could do them far more damage than they could do him and Ero, though whatever damage he inflicted on the men, he would not strike the fat old shrew of a woman, however offensive she was. But what about the man whose life they had come here to save? He had no chance of surviving if there erupted a deadly brawl.

It was terrific how he struggled in a brief moment to master his rage. But he conquered it evenso. He even bowed his head to her in deference.

"You do well, Madam, to seek the best interests of this unfortunate gentlemen. We found him lying close to death on the road, his head under water, unable to help himself. Of horse and possessions, we saw nothing. We carried him here immediately. Will you help him, and please accord us quarters too, or we will go and look elsewhere? But please do what good you can for this man, we beg of you. Then we will leave here in peace, when we see he is taken care of."

Mistress Follie, for that was her name, hearing his civil speech, seemed to be at a loss, her jaw dropped open.

"Why, I--" she began. "We all saw no storm hereabouts you claim did this, but there are some signs of wet on him, 'tis true..." Then, frowning, she turned upon the assembly, who were all standing with knives and swords drawn, ready for the moment to spring upon Ero and Damon.

Disgust and disappointment in her expression, she thrust herself through them, scattering some to either side, as she went toward her kitchen. Swearing, she sent her maids scurrying to do the work to get the three guests accommodated, and then vanished into the kitchen.

Relieved, as it had been a severe test indeed for Damon's self-control, Ero and Damon followed the porter, or whatever he was, that led them up the rickety wooden stairway into a narrow, badly lit hallway that in turn twisted and turned through the upper rooms. Some rooms were open, and scenes in them were things that both Ero and Damon glimpsed with disgust--as this was not just an inn, but a bawdy house in full progress.

The porter stopped before a door, then kicked it open, and they all went in. There the knights found a big, four poster bed with a tattered, moth-eaten canopy with faded heraldic patterns of some bygone dynasty and lay the old man out on it, and the maids quickly had him in thick wool blankets, and were then hurrying to get some hot coals in brass foot pans to put in with him to bring life back to his limbs.

Was the old man going to live? Ero and Damon watched, as they worked to revive the fellow, and finally they seemed satisfied and went for some food and drink from the kitchen when it seemed he would not die but live a while more.

Ero and Damon had no desire to remain in such a foul and unfriendly place, but they denied their own wishes and feelings to see that the rescued man would receive the help he needed to recover his strength. So they stayed close by him for the next few days, and it was an ordeal for them the entire time, as the inn carried on with all its ribald partying by drunken debauchees day and night. Crimes and thefts and follies and immoral acts that could not be described--none of it dared come in the door that Damon and Ero guarded like two fierce sheep dogs.

At last the man regained enough strength to speak to them and even move about the room with Damon or Ero holding his arm. He started telling them more about his life--how it had once been easy, with much gold flowing from his rich patrons into his money belt, but with advancing age, his voice had grown thin even as his beard lenthened, and the king's women particularly did not invite him up so often to sing of lovers' exploits and whatever else they thought might amuse them at their parties. As for all the noble songs and lays, the Song of Roland, El Cid, Arthur and the Round Table--they no longer wanted to hear them, much preferring the racier tunes and lyrics about adulteries and betrayals. If he had been able to find another line of work, he would have done it. But abject poverty stared him in the face, whenever he sickened of what he was singing about, and he could not stop for fear of it.

"I am feeling my strength increase apace in my bones again," he remarked to the knights, as a maid came with his dinner and set it down beside him on a small table.

He waved her away when she went to try to feed him as before, but though she went toward the door, she did not entirely quit the room and remained still listening to him as she stood in the shadows. Her name was Minnie Avannches. Her twin brothers were of the age now for pages, and she had high hopes of suggesting them to the knight or even to the old minstrel. The courtiers of the castle who traveled through the village, never stopped, as they beheld the village and its inhabitants with utter contempt. But her brothers would make fine squires someday, she thought. As for herself, well, she would be married off to some old man of some means, a cobbler perhaps or a baker, and that would be all the good fortune she could expect.

"Later, later perhaps! I'm not hungry at the moment--how they stuff a person around here! Pork with drippings, honied ham, quail and goose with breaded mushrooms, sauced lamb, breadstuffs, gravies, cheeses, blackbird pie, grog and malt beer and wines and ale and sack...! Now, perchance you gentlemen will be quitting this place, and I shall lose your good company! But I pray thee, abide with me a bit longer. I have something for you to consider-- will you do that? I cannot ask you to do anything more for me, but though I haven't the gold and silver for your just reward for saving me, I will yet do something for you, if you are willing?"

"We ask nothing of you, sir, but that you be of good health and prosper as you once did! We perceive you have a good heart, and wish you success, but we must be going as Our master has commanded that we go and tell the words he gave us to the whole mount."

The old minstrel was taken aback. He cocked an eye at the knights.

"Your lord commanded you what? What were his commands to thee? Pray, tell me--"

But they could have held back their words to him, for when they went to explain the Lord Yeshua's commandment--to warn the people they met to flee to the Lord's ark, lest they be all consumed in the coming fires--they found he had literally dropped asleep. He had slumped back down, sitting back on the bed, his head fallen down on his chest.


They heard someone clear her throat. Then:

"Sir?" Damon and Ero hadn't noticed the maid, they thought she had gone out, and were startled to see the speaker now creep out of the shadows. She bowed to them both.

"What is it, Missy?" said Damon. "Are you needing something?"

"No, not for myself sire. But I ask your great favor, sir, that you consider my two brothers for service."

"Oh? What could they do for me?"

"They are growing to be striplings, sir, and wanting some honest trade to enter. What future is there here in this small village? I don't want them working in this--this place! It would work great harm on them!"

All the time of her little speech she glanced fearfully toward the door, as if she might be overheard.

"Don't be afraid, you can tell us what it is on your heart, Missy. Please continue!"

"My two brothers require work and guidance. They are of age to be pages to a knight. They have no suits and equippage of their own, but could you still take them. My father was the blacksmith in the village, but he has died of black lung, and my mother is not well, so I work here so we may be provisioned. But my brothers--their appetites--well--"

Damon and Ero glanced at each other and laughed. "Yes, we understand what boys can eat! Bring them here at your convenience. We will speak with them first."

The little maid turned to go, but Damon remembered and stopped her. "And their names and ages?"

"Henri and Louis, and they are aged both twelve years, being twins."

"Splendid, just the age to start their training to be squires, so bring them here when you are able. Perhaps the gentleman here will look kindly on them and engage their services. He needs pages to run errands and look after his equipment."

The maid smiled profusely, bowing repeatedly, and backed out of the room, knocking against the doorframe and dropping her tray and utensils, but hastily gathering them sped away. A few moments later the knights heard a clatter of the same tray and utensils, and obviously she had dropped them again down the stairway!

The knights lay the old man gently on the bed, covering him with his blanket. Yet less than an hour later, he awoke, and his eyes were bright. He sat up, then moved to the edge off the bed, waving aside the dinner tray offered him but accepting a long overcoat to keep his body warm. "I had a most refreshing dream, my lads! I would tell thee the dream, but no matter! Some other time! First straightway to the signal business I have to broach with thee!"

Ero and Damon listened as the old man rose with dignity in his bearing, speaking as a court minstrel who remembered better days as he played his lute and sang the verses he had composed and amused countless castle audiences, not to mention the king and his court high up on the mount.

"Far and wide, they called me 'Tithonus the Golden Mouth,'" he mused. "I had a deep lusty voice back then in my youth and even into my prime I could draw a multitude to hear me sing. There was not a song of heroes I did not know and could not sing perfectly, without mislaying a single rhyme or line!"

His eyes glittering with his grand memories, he seemed to look afar and forget where he was for a few moments.

"I--I don't recall from whence I come, there has been so many changes hereabouts in latter days, but always find myself on the road approaching the village and the Mount at this precise time of the year, only the storm broke upon me this time..."

Then, with the memory of it still fresh on his mind, he returned to the reality of the scene at hand, seemed a little confused, then recovered his train of thought. He offered them a position with him in his entourage. He had a feeling this was his last venture of this sort, and he wanted to do the best he possibly could and perhaps win a stipend or income from the king! They would assist him at the court, and draw many a eye of the beautiful ladies, who would all the more gladly have him, an aged singer of lays and epics, when attended by such noble and handsomely appointed young knights.

If either or both sang, that would also help.

Did they sing? Did they compose and quoth courtly verses?

Damon shook his head, but Ero could not say he did not do such things. Being Greek and born and bred in the isles, he too was a born poet and a singer, and he listened to the minstrel describe his offer and the duties it entailed with growing interest.

The minstrel turned to Ero. Would he join him in his singing ballads and love lays at the castle? Maybe he could slip in a noble song or two of a grand hero of old--"Jason and the Golden Fleece," for one! Or, portions of the Iliad, for another.

He could also use Damon as a knight attendant to present a more stately impression. All they needed were some mounts suitably caparisoned and plumed to make a splendid showing at the castle. "But all my baggage of fine suits and velvet and brocade capes and plumed hats and gold-engraved sword--except for my lute, they were all lost, with my horse!" the old man suddenly lamented. "Alas, my lads, the cruel waters swept them all away!"

"Not all lost," Damon smiled. "While you rested we have been away for a few hours, and when we climbed down the cliffs, we found your finely crafted things. You are not to go without them. Go see for yourself, sire! We can take you to them at once.

"Is this true, lad? I can scarce believe it!"

Damon went on, as the old man seemed close to tears but anxious to hear how they fared. "Yes, your fine things are now drying on racks in Mistress Follie's kitchens, with an attendant I ordered stand and watch there to see the things were not stolen, and most seem to be all right, and you can see for yourself what can still be of use to you. Your horse too is in the stable, and will be mending from his bruises and cuts. I checked him over, sire, and he wasn't lame as you feared, just had a bruised forelock on the right leg, and should be recovered soon."

The old minstrel was delighted. He clapped his hands together. He must go at once, hanging on Damon and Ero's arms, to see for himself in Mistress Follie's kitchens.

The old minstrel was so overwhelmed, he was rendered speechless as he found it was just as Knight Damon described. He was so delighted and encouraged he gave orders for his things to be brought up to his rooms the moment they were dry, so that they could be distributed to the knights to add to their necessary equipment. These things he wanted to give them as a proper reward for all their service and kindness to him, including their greatest gift, saving his life from a certain drowning out on the high road.

Meanwhile, while Damon went to see to the minstrels' horse, Ero brought the lute that Tithonus called for. It had been carefully put out to dry in a soft, indirect light for days now, and had not cracked but slowly dried and was as good as new. After inspecting it and seeing it was not the worse for being doused in a stream, with only a leathern case to protect it, the old minstrel loosened a couple strings, and then moved a tuning peg or two, and a secret panel moved in the handle and two bright objects slipped out into the palm of his hand.

Smiling, he showed them to Ero, pointing to each gleaming stone.

"This carbuncle is the blue star they say that once lighted the Ark that Noah and his family sailed over the tumultous seas of the Great Flood. The topaz--it is the bright, golden sun that shone on them once they opened the Ark's door and ventured forth into the new world over which God stretched his wondrous Rainbow of promise. They will now light our way." His eyes softened with a wistful, faraway look.

"They were to be my retirement, my lad! I earned them as rewards in the days of my greatest success and renown as a singer, when the whole world was a ring on my finger! But I have better use for them now, as I feel I will not need the little cottage and a servant and cook I had planned to comfort my last days with. No, there seems to be a better use for them. I have been lying abed for hours, awake or asleep I do not know, and these curious ideas and scenes keep coming into my poor old head--"

He slipped the huge jems worth a king's ransom into Ero's hand for safe keeping, then lay back, sighed, and told Ero what he had been dreaming. "I perceive you are a holy knight, my lad, and you carry a special sword of your own, that blazing torch of yours. In my dream I saw you with a red cross emblazoned on your naked chest, driving back all the forces of darkness assaulting you, wielding that torch as your only weapon! It was a most wonderful sight! And your noble brother knight, he too will play a great part in the coming battle. He will, as I saw in my dream, ride a fine horse one of these two jewels will buy for him along with a great spear for jousting. Now all we require is two experienced, trustworthy, squires, one for each of you--yet where can we get them? This village has no such clean young men available--they are all wastrels and scroundrels and louts by the time they attain manhood! Pfau! I wouldn't even consider using one of them to dust my chimney! But maybe we can go look in some other place..."

"Not necessary, sir! A little, sweet faced serving wench has offered her two brothers, twins, who are of age to be pages at least. Would you be interested to see them? She seems a fine girl, so unlike the other wenches of this inn, so perhaps her brothers are suitable too."

The minstrel was surprised. "Here, say you? You think there may be suitable people here? I doubt it! Ha! I wager my entire worldly pelf they would just as soon strip me of all my clothes and purse and possessions as serve me! Why, without your constant presence, in my condition, I would not sally forth from here with a single nightshirt to cover my nakedness--beaten and robbed, that would be my certain fate, then turned out on the public road to starve and beg from passers-by, now that I am reduced to this woeful, feeble old age! I've seen it happen often enough to better, stronger men, how could I hope to escape?"

Ero did not question what the minstrel said. He had early on seen enough of the inn and its denizens to know that the minstrel was not misrepresenting it in the least. It was an evil place, indeed, and anyone at its mercy could not expect to leave without losing something dear. All sorts of nasty-smelling, knaves and cutthroats, their hair and clothes and under-linens unwashed, beards matted with dirt and hanging in ropes and filthy with lice, men who had the stealthy manner of footpads intent on skullduggery and the eye of murderers seeking helpless or unwary prey--they infested the place and vicinity, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Then the main body of inhabitants were lawless too. A drayman's wife drove her cart so fast and reckless of life and limb, that she dragged the dog behind it to its death. Fights broke out at any time among the gamblers who crowded the doorsteps and any least shelter along the streets. Knives flashed, with stabbings, and the assailant ran off, leaving his bloody deed unpunished by the constable, who was too deep in his cups at Follie Inn to go do his duty and chase down the murderer. As for the bailiff and beagle, they too kept to the inn and its amusements. Merchants plied their wares, but cheated the people with false weights. The customers cheated the merchants, too, whenever possible, their offspring stealing items while the mother or father distracted the merchant. Spoiled fruit and vegetables were laid beneath the goodly ones, then the lot sold. Buttons fell off clothing from poor thread, colors ran in the first washing, patterns dissolved. Shoddiness was made to look fine enough to fool the most sharp of eye. Children were kidnapped and sold for slavery, and locked away, never to see the light of day--made to work on endless mean jobs assigned them in windowless garrets or, worse, in foul, damp basements and cellars. The money lenders of Rotten Row foreclosed on the houses of widows, after greatly increasing the rates on loans so that they could not repay them. Pawnshops did a thriving trade too, giving a pittance for valuable things, then reselling them at a huge profit when the owners failed to return with the redemption money. Butchers sold tainted meat, and called meat any name they imagined would sell it, rather than name its true, detestable origin. Animals sick and infirm and even dead, were carved and sold as fresh, good meats. Furriers did the same--naming rat and dog and cat and mule and even skunk by other names. The potter's wares crumbled or leaked when water or wine or milk was poured in, they were not fired sufficiently. The baker's breads were full of millstone chips, sawdust, and mouse tails, and sometimes the dough was left moist in the half-baked goods, since he was niggardly with his wood supplies for the oven. In Blind Lane, an uncobbled track just behind the jail, the worst miseries ran like open sores , the lane so overhung with foliage it resembled a dark tunnel. Here witches brewed potions of every kind, casting spells for a fee, and herbalists and fortune tellers too eluded the law of the Mount that forbade them in principle (but taxed them for the king's revenue). So it went in the village aptly named Strangways.

All this the old minstrel knew from experience, and which Ero too could testify having witnessed after only a brief residence at the inn and while walking the lanes.

Just then the maid, Minnie O'Flaugherty (a daughter of a Mutiny on the Bounty sailor and a native island woman), came in with the daily dose of posset, hot, cream-rich milk in a pitcher that was curdled with ale. It was medicinal, reputed to revive the ailing body, even being attributed with raising those with one foot in the grave. Seeing her, Ero was reminded of their previous agreement, and turned to the minstrel, pointing the maiden out:

"She is the fair, young damsel, sire. Her young brothers are applying for service as pages. Will you see them?"

The minstrel thought about it, then nodded his head.

"Since you have spoken for them, I have changed my mind. I should not be too quick to judge all men by the ones I find here. Yes, tell her to bring them in here eftsoon, so I may see how they answer certain questions. If both give me fair enough reply for their tender age, for I shall not suffer fools of any age to attend me, I will engage their services and pay them well."

Hardly able to contain her excitement, the maid set the posset next to the minstrel on his little serving table, then hurried out on her errand (hoping she would not be reported to Mistress Follie and suffer a tongue lashing and a beating for leaving her work). A few minutes later, just as Damon returned from the stable, where he had seen that his instructions to the stableboy were carried out rightly, Minnie hurried back, breathless, with her two twin brothers in tow.

A year younger than herself, and shy because they had no father to give them boldness, they hung back, disappointing their guardian sister, but she made them go and kneel beside the bed where the minstrel lay during the day, propped up by big pillows and cushions.

The sister retreated toward the door with her serving tray, then paused and waited, her heart beating hard in her breast, so anxious she was that the interview go well. Without success and favor of a patron, these two decent but fatherless churls had no chance of making anything of their lives, their prospects were so wretched in the dirty, crime-infested village without parents who could protect and guide them rightly. But if they were employed to serve knights, only then did they have a real chance to get clean out of the village, which she herself as a lone commoner female without a dowry could not hope to escape. She herself was doomed, but they at least had a chance to make a better life, and that would be her one comfort in the coming days.

"You there, the one named Louis," the minstrel began, "what was your father's trade, and was it honest work he did?"

"Blacksmith," replied Louis in a tiny, soft voice.

"Speak up!" said the minstrel. "I want pages who will not strain my ears! So use your pipes like a man! Now try again."

"Blacksmith, sir!" growled the page. "That's better. But answer the question. Was he honest in his work?"

The boy looked uncertain, but as he thought, it was apparent he was searching his memories, and then he thought of something.

"Yessir! I remember he gave a woman back her money once when she said her horse was limping, though it warn't--I ran around to check on it, and it was standing just fine and dandy in the street. She was lying, sir, but my papa paid her back anyway, then she rode away and her horse did not limp once!"

"Fine story! Do you swear this is the truth? You did not make a word of it up?"

The boy cried, "My father would not cheat anyone, leastwise a woman!"

"That's enough, Louis my boy, I believe you. Now for your brother Henri, I set this question. If I command you to tell someone I am out, when I am in my chamber, will you obey?"

Henri darted a glance at his brother. "Remove yourself from the room, Louis. Your brother must answer for himself!"

Their sister hurried forward, snatched Louis by the arm and took him out. The minstrel turned back to Henri, who was very nervous by this time, and near to tears. "Calm yourself, my boy! Just answer truthfully, that is all I ask. Now again, would obey me if I commanded you to tell a visitor I am out, when actually I am in my chamber and wouldn't want to speak with him?"

The boy squirmed, and then glanced back where his sister and his twin had disappeared out the door. But suddenly he squared his shoulders. "No! I won't tell a lie for you!"

"Peppers and blackbird pies!" the minstrel cried. "You're both hired! I couldn't get better pages than you. Now, once you have your uniforms prepared, expect to be called to duty at any hour of the day. You are first to attend to me, run my errands, receive or turn away visitors--ah, truthfully, that is--and anything else a page must do. Will you do that, my boy?"

Before he could answer, the minstrel had the knights bring the other boy and his sister back in. There they received the good news. The sister's face almost flooded with joy, but she swept her apron up over her face as if to cover all her emotion, and left the room. The boys looked at each other, slowly realizing they had done well and would be embarking on a whole new life. They glanced back at the minstrel, and he smiled, and let Damon and Ero explain their first small duties to them, including where they would make their beds, and what their mealtimes would be.

Once that was finished, the minstrel spoke again. "Let them return now to their home, and take leave of their family, such as it is, and return tomorrow for service. If they require more time than that, let them have it. It wouldn't be easy, at their ages, to leave their homes and families and go to work for a stranger."

The new pages now returned home to spend some hours with their mother and sister and talk over the changes this service to the minstrel would entail. Then two days later they returned, without their sister, and and went and stood smartly before the minstrel, awaiting his instructions.

The minstrel eyed them for a moment, then looked very pleased. "I think they are going to both do very well," he later commented to Ero and Damon when the boys were gone on various errands. "I only had a problem telling them apart, so I thought of a way. From my stock of earrings, I had an earring put in Louis's right ear, and an earring in Henri's left ear. What could work better than that?" he laughed.

Daily feeling improvement and an increase of strength, the minstrel set to work. He began parting with his beautiful things that Damon and Ero had rescued from destruction or theft, apportioning them out to Ero and Damon, but mostly he had the pages in mind, as they were needed complete suits of clothes, head to foot. Some things had to be refitted, of course. He had seamstresses brought in, and then instructed them as to their duties. Patterns were cut out of paper, then the items of apparel he had to refit were conformed to their shapes and sizes.

The cobbler was summoned, and shoes were made on the spot, so that the minstrel could inspect the work and the leathers used, and get the quality he demanded before he paid for it.

Damon did not require much outfitting as he could wear his knight's fine costume, of course, when they ascended the Mount. Ero? Well, he wasn't sure what the handsome young fellow would accept from his wardrobe, and so decided to approach him later about his costume. The horses also required proper gear and decoration. But even before all these arrangements were concluded, Master Tithonus decided to make his mind known to the two knights. He had himself dressed in his costume, and the pages in theirs, and called the knights and the pages to attend him out on the Jousting Field, where they could speak privately.

His pages bearing the minstrel's long, velvet train to give them practice, he proceeded with the knights to the expanses of Cheney Field, where no little bird could overhear and fly and tell the crafty king of the Mount of what was being said.

Their benefactor Tithonus had spent the proceeds from sale of the topaz for all their expenses at the inn so far and the cost of the outfitting, and the carbuncle remained. The knights were concerned that he keep the carbuncle back, in case things did not go as he hoped. Ero brought this up, since it was uppermost on their minds.

The minstrel shook his grizzled head. "Nay! I will venture it too, if I must. We must present a most splendid appearance, for we will not go as poor beggars to the court but as peers of the realm. Now I know why I felt I had to load up and bring all my fine things on this journey to the Mount. They will see this at once when we are presented--that we are their equals. Then I shall sing the best piece I have in my bag of songs, and Ero? You shall join me if my voice should falter--for it may fail me. You will learn the verses and sing them for them, wherever I leave off. Will you agree to that?"

Ero nodded, for he loved to sing the epics of his homeland, and hoped that the minstrel would choose one of them.

That business concluded, the minstrel turned to the more pressing matter on his heart and mind. "I brought you all out here, for this purpose. After entertaining the king and his court, whether there is a reward or not that is won by us, we shall challenge the king to a jousting contest. You, Sir Damon, being my knight to engage the pick of his best knights. Will you agree to that? If you win the contest, three bags of gold at least will fall to you, and two of the three will be mine as your lord, but I will ask only one. Then all the fallen knight's possessions, equippage, and wealth, will be yours as well. I only ask the one bag of gold, it will be enough for me, since my remaining days will be few, whereas you are young and your road ahead is long. What do say, aye or nay?"

Damon looked uncertain, though it was not about the division of the treasure. He wasn't sure he could fare well at jousting.

"Sire, I will do anything you ask, but I have no training with that long spear, the lance of the knights, nor much time in the saddle either. Could I be trained? Is there time for that?"

The minstel smiled. "Yes, there's time enough. It will not take much time to learn. The lance is simple to employ, though heavy to bear, and your horse only requires a brave master who will ride straight at the opponent, who rides straight at you. Both of you will be armored head to foot. Whichever one emerges alive after that fatal convergence, and still mounted, while his opponent falls to the dust, will win. Unhorsed, you suffer disgrace, even if you bear no wound, for that is a black mark against you to lose your horse to the challenger. Even if your horse is injured and I provide a speedy replacement, he will not bear the same armorial blanket and plumes as the horse you lost, and your appearance will be spoiled. So you must keep your horse under you and never drop your lance or your shield. And do not worry about the training you lack. I have sent word to the Mount to engage a trainer. They have plenty such for hire. One I know by name returned word for you to appear here on the morrow, just after dawn. Will you do this? Have you the courage for the task?"

Damon nodded, though his face was rather pale.

The minstrel looked from one to the other of his champions, then motioned to his pages to bear his train and he started back toward Strangways. Then he paused and looked round at the knights, who were not following. To Damon he said: "See what thy brother wishes for his costume. I forgot to ask him, and now I am weary and must seek my bed. Will you do that, and then report to me what he requires. I will get the things made for him."

Damon glanced at Ero rather sheepishly after the minstrel and his pages were gone.

"Tell me one thing, brother, why do you wear so few clothes? You have done this since I first I met you."

Ero shrugged. "I feel no need of more, that's why. I am Greek, and we have a saying: 'Clothe a pig, he's no less pig; clothe a man, he's no more man.' That's why we Greeks have, since the earliest times, put no great stock in clothes. Clothes do not make the man. Whoever said that was a fool, and certainly not a Greek!"

"Really?" Damon laughed. "But don't you feel the cold sometimes? I know I do, even with all my clothes!"

"Yes, I do feel the cold sometimes. When I was flying high with the mast, it was cold at the high altitudes. But if I do feel cold, I just press my right wrist here." He showed Damon.

"When I do that, these buttons pop out. I can press the first two, to feel warmer, or even warmer. The third button will cool me if I am too warm. It works very well for me. Don't you have them too?"

"Not that I know," replied Damon, pressing his wrist and finding nothing of the sort.

Damon still had a question. "But people look at you, and it makes me uncomfortable at times, to see you go about with so little in all sorts of weather. They don't know or care you are a Greek runner. Isn't that reason enough to take the costume Sir Tithonus will want to give you?"

"I didn't know he intended one for me. I should be happy to wear it, only I don't feel strange as I am. It is all I need, my native Greek skin. All I really need is a pair of good running shoes. I can run better that way, without clothing to slow me down or get in the way."

Damon clapped Ero across the shoulders. "That's all right then with me, if you prefer your skin over a lot of clothes. Shall we go and tell the minstrel what you decided? He will then be spared the expense and trouble. He has enough work to do to make his horse and yours presentable to the court, I think!"

"Wait a moment," Ero said, almost as an afterthought. "I forgot something. I have something else to show you."

He reached down and pressed both ankles with his finger and immediately small wings popped out. Then he gripped his hands at both wrists, and shot upwards, astonishing Damen, who stared as Ero rose high up over the jousting field. He was still standing there awestruck as Ero lowered to the ground, laughing at Damon's expression.

"This might come in handy, brother!" Ero said. "I think we could both fly together, if you hold tight on to me. Want to try?"

Damon jumped at the chance. He gripped Ero round his middle, and then Ero's winged feet propelled them upwards once again, and he could, by leaning, go any direction he wanted. When he wanted to descend, he merely put his feet together.

This was a most amazing spectacle, and if anyone was alert on the battlements of the Castle Mount, they would have not believed what they were seeing. But there were clouds covering the Mount at this time of the afternoon, and so they might not have been spotted flying like two big herons or storks tied together.

Damon could not get over it. "That's wonderful, what you can do! Why didn't you show me that before? I would have loved to let you fly me anywhere you would take me!"

"But I didn't need to use it before," said Ero. "I had the flying dome, and then the mast. I have neither of them anymore to use, and when Yeshua told me at the dubbing ceremony that I had such powers, he said I may need to resort to my wings from now on, in a pinch that is. If anyone from Strangeways saw them, they would probably try to kill me to for them! So you see why I haven't been flaunting them."

"Wouldn't they now!" laughed Damon. "By the looks of most, they would just as soon cut off your feet rather than your head, if they thought they could strap them to their own feet and fly with them! Have you ever seen such degenerate people as these Strangwayans? If they are that wicked and shameless in the village, what will the people be like on the Mount?

It was meant to be amusing, but the moment that was out of Damon's mouth, they both realized it was no laughing matter. Sobered by it, they walked back to the inn in the village without another word.

Ero, however, paused at the door. "But brother, do you think you will be trained well enough to beat your opponent? The loser often dies in these jousting matches. Aren't you jumping into water that's too deep, when you're just a beginning swimmer? You can be trained, but your contenders will have been in a number of matches, and known every trick there is--whereas--"

Damon considered Ero's caution, but his eyes were steady as he faced his brother-knight. "Don't worry about me," Damon assured him. "Yeshua told me back at the pavilion that this would be coming, and gave me this word, 'For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.' I believe He's going to help me win the victory, so I am not afraid. He also said to me, "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord."

Ero smiled. "Well, if I see you are in bigger trouble than you can handle, I'll run and let you grab my ankles, and off we will fly out of danger!"

"Thanks," laughed Damon, as he pushed open the door, "but it won't be necessary. You'll see. If I do all I can, which is the possible, then Lord Yeshua will do the impossible. He promised me He would, and I believe his word."

Inside the crowded dining room, Ero and Damon found it was business as usual: assignations for fellow thieves for division of the night's spoil from various robberies and murders, men impoverished by gambling away their houses and flocks, seeking to pass the favors of their wives or their daughters to the highest bidder, gluttons and drunkards drinking and eating themselves to death, children in tattered, dirty clothes looking for lost fathers or lost mothers, whores selling themselves for a mug of ale or gin, a man bawling at the top of his lungs about his money bag being snatched while he dozed off in a puddle of spilt sack under the table, a woman dancing and screeching out a dirty song to the music of a harmonica, draymen and carters thumping their mugs for penny refills of the cheapest ale, a forgotten babe in a blanket wailing for its mother, an old man sitting sprawled on the filthy floor where he fell after being clubbed, his bloody head still bleeding, and no one paying him the slightest attention.

Observing them, Ero and Damon were struck with the feeling of imminent doom, a sense that had grown all the stronger as days passed since they climbed up to the road, after going to retrieve the minstrel's belongings. They had seen the steam and the fiery glows in the side of the cliff as they climbed--it was clear to them that what Yeshua said was going to happen, as the fires built up within the Mount, flooding up from deep within the earth. How long before the fire burst out, destroying everything and everyone in a vast explosion of fire and smoke and ash? It might happen in weeks, or mere days. But they sensed it would not be long in coming. How could they warn these people of the fiery wrath to come? Who among them would listen?

They knew they couldn't be heard amidst such din and confusion, so they started to pass through to see how the minstrel was proceeding with the instruction of the pages.

But this time through they were not going to pass quietly. A butcher who regularly passed dog meat as lamb and worse things too rose up, blocking their path, and a number of his cohorts at the cups also joined him.

"Not so fast, gentlemen knights! Here I am with my friends, enjoying a cup or two of cheer, and see you don't imbide. Join us! We needs fine fellows such as yourselves--you might have a goodly story or two to your names, exploits of knights and some such thing, and we are all ears to hear ye out! Sit ye down! Let us join company!"

Damon and Ero looked the speaker and his "friends" over, and decided it was not so friendly as the butcher made out. Ero nodded toward the stairs.

"Thank you, sirs, but we must decline your invitation, as we have to attend to our patron. Yes, we do have something very important to render you that you should hear. But--perhaps some other time is better."

The butcher turned to his cronies, aping Ero's remarks. "Hear ye that, my gay blades! He's attending to his patron, says he! Perhaps another time-- la la la! What a fine and fancy gentleman he is, and a noble knight besides, who can't dirty himself with the company of common lackeys such as we be! Is that to your liking, mates? Is it?" The men, at his call, rumbled and growled and cursed. "How dare he call us dirt! Let's show them a thing or two! These foreigners come in here with their dainty airs and think they can ride over us with their prancing white horses and we don't have a thing to say--it is our desserts, they think, and we ought to take the whippings of a dog. Well, we'll show 'em!"

Shoulder to shoulder they pushed forward, knocking over chairs and drawing their weapons at the same time.

Ero and Damon did not move, though Damon had his hand on his sword. Damon suddenly had a word for them: "The Lord says to you, Do not rob the poor because he is poor, nor oppress the afflicted at the gate. For the Lord will plead their cause, and plunder the soul of those who plunder them."

Anyone present could hear these men who heard this rebuke gnashing their teeth, and they were all the more furiously going to throw themselves upon Ero and Damon. At that moment a screeching voice rang out--and the butcher and his gang heard it and paused. Mistress Follie came storming out and confronted them. "Git ye back into your stinkin' kennels, or I will throw you out myself! You dare touch the retainers of my good, paying customer, do you?"

She raised the big wooden ladle and the men fell back, as if cowering before her, though all she had to thrash them with was a wooden spoon.

The entire room, which had grown deathly quiet, now began to get noisy again, and everyone turned back to whatever they were doing. The butcher and his troublemaking friends also turned and slumped back at their table, gazing up at Mistress Follie, who hurled a few choice curses at their heads, then departed.

Ero and Damon went first to check on the minstrel's fine belongings still drying in the warm kitchens near the ovens. As they saw that their guard was doing his job properly, they turned, but happened to noticed the street boys, most fatherless and abandoned, gathered in the merchants' delivery door.

He knew they were considered rubbish to be kicked around. No one had ever been kind to them, he knew, unless it was their mother when they were a baby at the breast, who was probably lost to them now, by the looks of their dirty rags half-covering their scarecrow limbs. Damon went over to them, and they scrambled to gather their knucklebones, as most men gave them a kick if he could as he passed, just to be mean to them. Shrinking back against the wall, as if he was going to cuff them, the boys eyed him warily.

Damon smiled, extending his hand. He had something for them, a coin, but they snatched it immediately, for they never had money, unless they could steal it. "This is your wage for something I want you to do for me. Get yourselves some sweets from Mistress Follie and share them equally, but be sure and guard this door well, we don't want anyone coming in here to take things!"

"Yes, Sir Knight!" they all cried in a chorus, and Damon had to hide his smile, as they looked so earnest and brave, after he had hired. Then Damon and Ero went up to see how the minstrel was faring. They found him anxious to give them instructions, and had a jousting trainer beside him, ready to meet them.

Even as this meeting was taking place, a courtier who kept his ear close to developments that could affect the king and his interests, was giving a word of caution to a Knight of Dishonor--strangers were in the castle village outside the gate, attached to a certain minstrel, and rumor was that they were going to be trained for jousting matches by an expert trainer the minstrel had found the money to hire.

Noblemen will come from all parts to contend for the prize. That was the usual thing with jousting matches. What did this business about the old minstrel and his friends matter to the Knight of Dishonor? Very little, of course, but the courtier, experienced in the behind the scene workings of the matches, thought otherwise. These strangers were not the usual sort, he said. He had seen them pass in the streets, observing how strong and intelligent looking they were, and had heard from a source he had at the inn how they had rescued the old minstrel when he was in dire straits on the high road, and then was retained by him to be trained as knights for the coming matches. That proved their cleverness, did it not? The minstrel was their means to gain access to the social circles of the Mount, including the matches. They must have taken advantage of his gratitude for saving him. But in return the minstrel had something to gain by their use--what was it? Yes! Why would he do this for them unless these young men were champions who stood a real chance of winning the grand prize--booty he would naturally share?

"Beware the dark horse!" the nobleman warned the knight, who was rather dark himself in costume, and he nodded, and went straightway to inform the other Knights.

Now there were other fine details that need not be mentioned by the worldly wise courtier. The Knight of the Axes need not discuss them with him, as they were well-known, accepted axioms in their society, particularly figuring in the arena of jousting.

What made the newcomers unpalatable was simply this: displaying a certain moral caliber as they did, whether feigned or real, a troubling question arose concerning their future performance in the joustings. Would they take a fall, as newcomers must, in order to play the game as it had been played for time beyond counting? The prize was rotated, from knight to knight, on the basis of seniority and noble rank--it would never be let go at the onset to a newcomer, a foreigner, a parvenu. And if these fellows would not play according to the rules and take a fall, then they would be eliminated--they would not ride away from the field! On the other hand, if they were wise enough to cooperate, the system would work well for them, in a given time. But they must know they couldn't just ride roughshod in, at the minstrel's invitation and under his banner, and seize the grand prize and carry it off!

The courtier glanced toward the inn, considering if now was the time to make his approach on the foreign knights. He rather wanted to intercept them on their walks, loathing the inn's company and the many watching eyes that were greedy to horn in on other people's business. But if they didn't come out, he could not stand there all day and draw attention to himself.

So the courtier waited for a few more minutes, then slipped away toward Blind Lane, as he had business there.

The vulture-lizard's emissary had no more quit the public square when Ero appeared at the inn door, descending the steps with a tray of food, the lunch the minstrel declared he had no taste and appetite for. "Might I give it away to one of the beggars?" Ero asked.

"As you wish!" the old man said. "But hurry back as soon as you've done. We have more to go over concerning the joustings. As your knight's squire, you need to know all his duties well, learned by heart, so that you can carry them off flawlessly. A single mistake will be fatal to your knight in this game. You'll see! But if you are careful, you will help him win the grand prize! Think of it! It is more money than I was awarded in all my years of minstrelsy! And I would have been rich if I hadn't spent and squandered almost all of it on fine robes and gewgaws and-- the charms of women! Ah! How foolish I was in my youth! But you, lad, are just the opposite, and your knight too--he isn't a bad sort either. How you two shine-in this dark and dirty pesthole of a village--"

A beggar was not long in coming. He was the same that crept about the floorboards of the inn, searching for dropped morsels of bread and bones with some meat or gristle on them that the diners threw down for the dogs. Sometimes a sot would drop a half-filled bottle of ale or stout, and then he would drink himself insensible. But that was rare--it usually poured out before he could catch it.

Ero slowly approached the beggar that came scraping and dragging his way slowly toward the inn. It was painful even to watch him. His useless legs and feet bent back and off the ground, all the wretched fellow could do was use his hands and arms to pull himself forward while his body dragged on the ground. No one would make him a a little sledge or cart to help him along--he was too poor to have one made too by a carpenter. So he had to make his way everywhere as a kind of foot crushed, wounded beetle might, that had lost the function of its lower limbs.

Even if he could do something for the village's poor, there was nothing he could do to bring law and order to the surroundings. The Mount had hundreds of knights and soldiers stationed in the various forts, but they never left their posts to police the country round about--the king being content to tax his subjects while relieving himself of the expense of providing them basic protection against highway robbers and murdering vagabonds. Poor mendicant friars, travelling about to beg alms for the poor they sheltered and fed, were even attacked on the high road, robbed and murdered for the little money they carried.

In this particular ambush, they got precious little for their efforts, even if they were rather small efforts, due to the fact that friars went about unarmed. That was why they killed the friars, they were so angry with them for being what they were, mendicants begging for other mendicants, poor friars helping their poor brothers and sisters in the lowest classes. When Ero found the friars, two were dead, one was dying, and one fled away. The dying friar was struggling to say something to him, his lips moving, and his eyes fastened on Ero with a gleaming urgency. "Lad, lad," he whispered. Ero couldn't make out what else he said, so he raised the man's head as gently as he could in his hands and bent close.

Then he heard, "There is a certain poor widow in the village, a washerwoman on Blind Street, her daughter is very ill with fever. I came with something for her Please take the feverfew in my bag. Give it to her. Please! By the mercy of God, do it! It is the medicine that will save--"

The man's eyes glazed over.

Ero bent closer and could feel no breath on his cheek. He laid the man's head down with care, then drew the cowl over his face.

He looked around. "Feverfew"? Did he hear right? The friar said something about it being a medicine for fever. Could he find it?

He searched the area, and then saw a bag with a cross stitched on it torn open, and around the bag was scattered a tufts of what looked like dried weed. Was that the Feverfew? He stuffed it into the bag, and then, because there was no time to lose, left the bodies of the poor friars undisturbed where they lay and went directly into the village.

He got some ugly looks from various passers-by and loungers in Blind Street, but he pressed on, glancing in at one hovel after another, asking anyone who would listen to him about the washerwoman. Finally, after being given some choice oaths and some thrown slop water from out a window, he was told where she lived. He came to the door, and it was partway open, so he looked in, then entered as he saw it was full of wash lines and laundry. This had to be the place!

He found the widow hard at work beside a big tub of soapy water, scrubbing out linens on a scrub board. She looked up and saw him and her hands froze on the scrub board. In the room was a little boy, clinging to the tub and staring at him, his eyes like saucers.

The boy too looked as though he had never seen such a sight before as Ero. Ero, wanting not to frighten them any more than he had, held out the friar's bag, and she seemed to recognize it, for she sprang up and then darted toward him, her eyes fixed on the bag.

Before he gave it to her, he explained. "It is the medicine the good friar gave me to help your daughter. He cannot come with it himself, for he was waylaid by vagabonds on the road and--your daughter, is that she?"

He glanced toward what looked like a wooden feed trough, and in it a little girl lay, her hair wet and tangled against the pillow.

The mother seized the bag and brought out the herb in her hand, her eyes widening.

"It is the medicine the friar sent me to take to her," Ero repeated. "He has been murdered, I regret to say. I found his body with the others of his order on the road--"

The washerwoman's eyes suddenly began to pour. She wiped her eyes with her apron, then hurried to the stove and dropped the herb into the hot water boiling there in a pot. Ero watched as she soon poured out some into a saucer, and she hurried over to the crib. After blowing on the tea, she got her daughter to accept a few sips of it.

She did not turn round, and continued to sit by the crib, crooning to her daughter as she urged her to drink more of the medicine.

Ero saw no reason to remain any longer and was showing himself out, when he found the widow darting out to stop him.

He turned back to her.

"Thank ye, sire! I have no money for ye, will you accept a fine coat I have for a gentleman knight?"

It would be unthinkably uncivil to refuse her now, Ero realized, so he too the sumptuous garment. The moment he looked on it he realized it was a royal prince's robe, and he was astonished. How could an impoverished washerwoman ever come into possession of such? Had she stolen it? She would be hauled up before the king's magistrate, sentenced and hung for that.

As if she divined his misgivings, the woman cried out, "Nay, sire! I didna' filch it! She's mine. I washed her up fine and ironed her for the fine knight, but he never showed--he forgat it, or he died. I never did hear which. So she's mine for the keeping, for the cost of the washing and pressing, and it's been years I kept it nice in a chest, just in case --with rosemary and thyme to keep out the moths. But it's been so long, he must have been kilt in the joustin's or such. Sire, you take it, wear it proud, for it is yours. I have no other way to repay ye!"

Ero's mouth dropped open. He didn't need to be repaid, and leastwise was he willing to deprive this poor woman of a princely garment she could sell and gain quite a living by. But there was nothing for it. What if he refused? Wouldn't she be crushed by his rejection of it?

Her question next interrupted his seeking a way out of this. "Where is the little father? I wish to thank him too. I know the medicine is working. My daughter is breathin' better already, she is! Her sweat is coming down too, she's dryin' out, she is!"

Ero was much relieved to hear that. But having to her the grim facts about the friars was very hard. But he did, and she wept right where she stood, her tears coursing down her cheeks while her red, scalded and scaled hands reached up to tear at her own cheeks.

Ero had to say something, to see if he could comfort her somehow.

"He wanted you to have the medicine. It was his last words, telling me who you were, and how your daughter was very ill with fever, and what I was to do to find you. They were his last words. But apparently they saved your daughter's life."

The widow stopped weeping and wringing her hands, gazing at him with red eyes, then a look he would never forget lit her features as she gazed away toward the road. Bending down, the widow vanished back into the hovel. When she returned, Ero held out the garment. "Madam, I really can't--" he began, but she paid him no heed and ran up the street, toward the high road. He watched her stop in a a couple doorways, and then several men came out and followed her toward the road. Ero understood that they would see to the friars' burial, so he left Blind Street and made his way back to the minstrel's apartments.

When he reached the inn, dinner was being served. But Ero took the pages and the dinner before they ate anything and went to see Damon. One of the pages carried the knight's robe that the widow had given him. When Damon saw the robe, he forgot about his dinner. "What is that?" he asked.

Ero told him everything he had seen. It was still so fresh, he had no appetite, and neither did Damon after he heard the whole story. Together they sat and were silent for a while as the pages consumed the dinner Damon handed to them.

Ero turned to his brother knight. "Should I sell it and give the money to her? You should see how meanly she lives with her children, and how hard she must work to support just the two of them! Her patrons must pay her next to nothing! It is a shame, since they could afford any price she named, since they can wear such clothes as she gave me."

Damon thought, then his face lightened. "I'll talk to the minstrel. Perhaps he has an idea. He might think of some more employment for her, something better than washing clothes for miserly lords and ladies."

Damon left the pages at the stable to keep watch on his horse, and took leave for the evening, to return to the inn with Ero. Together they presented the needy case of the widow to the minstrel.

He heard them out in silence, then nodded for a while, and finally he slapped his hand against his thigh. "Of course! Just the thing for her! It's a proper line of work, respectable for a widow to do. She'll be a cook for me, our private cook! I never met a woman yet who couldn't make a meal for a man, so why must I rely on Mistress Follie's fare--she will poison me yet, for a good enough sum! How do I know what all she slips in my sauces and stews? It might be a pox to carry me and you off, for all I could tell. So it's done. She's Cook! Send for her at once. I doubt she'll refuse."

Damon and Ero, very glad to hear of a solution, hurried off on their errand. In a short time after the friars had been given proper burial, the widow had gathered what few possessions she wanted to carry away from her cottage. Ero and Damon hoisted the widow's things on their strong backs, and the widow carrying her little daughter, her son tugging at her skirts, they made their way to the inn as every eye in the village seemed intent to watch them go.

It was amazing how quickly news spread among the poor and sick and elderly and oppressed of the village, that there was a man, undressed as a slave or a swineherd would be, and yet another dressed as a knight, full of love and compassion in their midst. That became apparent whenever Ero went out from the inn, and then he encountered these wretches, and did the best he could for each one. The minstrel paid Ero's wages promptly and generously, and Ero used them all for feeding and clothing and buying medicines for the people who waited hours in the streets for him to come by. Damon too helped all he could, whenever he was not practicing on the jousting field.

One time he was on Pacific Avenue and the fish-monger came by pushing his long box of fish. The stench was terrible, for the Mount's king and court always had first pick, then sent the rest back down to the village to take what was left, and by then the fishmonger's catch was half-spoiled and fly-covered. Yet the people still had to pay high prices, Ero noted. They had no choice but to pay them too, along with a stiff tax for the Crown. Actually helping to cover the smell, a fumerol had opened up nearby, and its fumes, though sulpherous and smelling like rotten eggs, at least counteracted the rotten fish odor.

But his training demanded many hours each day, which was necessary if he hoped to learn all the protocols of the contest of strength, endurance, courage, and prowess with the horse and lance. Of course, such things were not necessary in a rigged contest, but Damon did not even know he was training for a pre-arranged fall. The wicked idea never even entered his mind.

The feminine component was not far behind the masculine element in all this preparation for pitting horse against horse, man against man, lance against lance. Little birds seem to carry news to the highest towers of the Mount, for the ladies knew all about the two new contestants that had come on the scene--actually, a knight and his attending squire, and the two pages they had acquired as well. With the necessary equipment, there was no keeping them from challenging any warrior of the Mount and in the king's elite circle. It was clear they had come to do this, and the ladies, from the queen on down to the lowest chambermaid and scullery drab, were already manuevering to get more information, and if possible, a word or two from them.

Elizabeth the queen was not to be upstaged by her inferiors, and so she wasted no time and sent out her chief lady-in-waiting, Lady Margarethe, to take a close up view of Knight Damon on his training exercise field. As for the king, well, he had his mistresses, and so she felt free to engage in similar dalliance. In fact, she felt propelled to show everyone she was still attractive to men, even if her own royal spouse picked the blooms in other gardens than hers.

This was the queen's royal perogative as a monarch, to do as she pleased, and in this highly advanced era of sophisticated toleration, an age of courtly love and knights paying nightly visits to their lady loves who, more often than not, happened to be other men's wives or mistresses, nothing could be said against her use of it.

She herself could not condescend to go personally on such an spy's errand, but the countess's eyes were just as sharp and good as hers, she wagered. Lady Margo could answer all the questions she had about Damon, who cut a most dashing figure of a man to her imagination, and so allay some of the fascination she already harbored in her heart and which already disturbed the slumbers in her royal bower.

Calling some attendant knights and squires and pages to attend her messenger, she waiting impatiently after they departed for Cheney Field.

Lady Margarethe herself was impressed as she viewed the wonderful physique and agility and courageous pricking of the young knight being run through his paces by his trainer. Would he be the one to win the grand prize this year? she wondered. She thought he might have quite a good chance, having seen the knights of the mount perform in past matches. It had all bored her to watch the games, as everything seem so routine and without any real excitement. Bets were always laid on the contestants, but somehow everyone seemed to guess who was going to win, so the stakes were not very great and the gambling takes were lower year after year, as there were few dark horses and upsets, if any. But this newcomer seemed to her eyes to be different from the others. He had a vigor and beauty and presence the others lacked. There was a shining quality about him, unlike the others. Her blood ran quicker in her veins as she watched him dash first one way and then another, leveling his deadly lance at the leather targets set up at opposite ends of the jousting field.

Never once did he slacken his pace or swerve or make a misstep. His horse was obedient to everything he commanded too. Together, they were a magnificent sight to her eyes. She could hardly wait to tell the queen, "No one at the court tilts like him! And he wields the biggest lance you have ever seen!"

The Queen and Lady Margarethe were not the only ladies who were vying for Damon.

Crown Princess Egbertine also had her eye on the dark horse, the young knight in the service of the old minstrel, Tithonus. Like other aging beauties at court, she vied (with poisons for rivals if need be) to maintain her social position, by laying claim to the most handsome and dashing knights for her lovers. She would die before letting any other lady take what she laid claim to. She knew all about her mother the Queen's lady-in-waiting and her "secret" visit at Cheney Field, and fumed that the Queen had beat her to it. What could she do now? She would have to consider her options. Poison? No, that was risky, as there would be a scandal if the poison were traced to her apothecary, and he testified during torture of having sold the henbane to her. That is, if she didn't dispose of him first! What else could she do? It was a knotty question. She wanted an answer quickly, too, for the jousting was soon to be declared, and by then the Queen and also knight's chosen lady would be sitting in the royal viewing box, ready to throw the Queen's garter to the victor. She must be his chosen lady! It was unthinkable that the Crown Princess should be passed over for an inferior! She had not enjoyed that supreme honor for several jousting matches now, and was determined to regain her former glory, and the envy of all the younger ladies at court.

Her hairdressers standing back and a mirror set before her, Princess Egbertine paused to take a sidelong glance at her image.

In the right light, this aging beauty did not see the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. No chicken neck as yet to cover up with a high, jewel-studded choker! The light coming into the tower windows happened to be kind that day. She had never looked better, she thought. And with that giving her confidence, she was all the more determined to win the knight's favor and sit as his chosen next to her mother in the Queen's royal box at the joustings, the royal garter and rose in her hand ready to cast to the victor, her wonderful looking knight and lover--Sir Damon Santiago Coxie!

After a training session, Damon led his mount into the stables, and this time he did not find the stableboys, who usually ran forward to take his lathered horse and bring him water and rub and brush him down. His trainer too seemed to have made off. Without no one to help him, Damon knew what to do, and he set about making his horse comfortable. Then he saw he had a visitor, quietly observing him from where he sat on some straw, smoking a long-stemmed gentleman's pipe.

Annoyed that there was someone observing him like that, Damon let the horse go for the moment, and turned to see what the man wanted.

"Who are you?" Damon asked, his whip in hand.

"Where are the stableboys? Did you send them away?"

The stranger did not even look up, he just kept puffing at his pipe. Then he finally spoke. "Yes, I sent them away. Privacy is required for what I have to say to you. It is growing high time we came to a little understanding. I have been appointed to tell you about the deal we are willing to make with you. It is most generous. Will you listen carefully? I won't repeat it."

Damon was even more annoyed at the arrogant manner and speech of this cavalier, and the mention of a "deal" with him and his kind really put him on edge.

"What business do I have with you? I have no such thing with anyone like you. Who are you anyway?"

The man looked at Damon in the eyes for the first time, then put down the pipe. "Lord Ratchet, Thirteenth Earl of Ratchetbury, at your service! Now I will get straightway to the point of this interview. It is simply this. There is no way we will allow you to win the prize of the king, this first time of yours on the field. This cannot be allowed of a stranger and a commoner. You are new here, and so you must begin at the bottom of the list. But you can expect, if you prove obedient to our wishes, to gain favor and eventually be awarded the prize. We do not ask your compliance, we demand it. It is either this, or face expulsion from the field, or worse. Now this is what you do for when you give way to your antagonist on the field. Before the joust, simply strap a bladder full of pig's blood beneath your suit, and prick it with your knife as a suitable time after you pass his mount, and then go and salute the king and the queen while you are dripping blood. With such a grave wound, it will appear very gallant of you, and the people will cheer you off the field. Well?"

Damon's face flushed. His hands clenched, and the whip whished back and forth in his hand, as if he could barely control his urge to use it right then and there. "Get out!" he said in a an even more menacing voice.

The gentleman shrugged and slowly rose, knocking out his pipe's still glowing ashes on the straw-strewn floor, despite the hazards of fire.

"Did I hear you right?" Lord Rachet asked. "Do you dare address me like that?"

"Get out!" Damon repeated, and he took a step toward the man.

The visitor's face now colored, and he seemed to feel a great possibility of being bodily assaulted and thrown headfirst out of the stables if he lingered a moment longer.

Darting Damon a look of pure venom, the visitor turned to leave at once.

Stepping posthaste toward the exit, he must not have noticed the height of the doorstep in the frame, for his boot spur caught on it, and he was flung headfirst, right into a pile or two of fresh horse droppings.

Damon looked out as the nobleman moved, his breath knocked out of him momentarily from the hard fall.

Rising slowly, noticing that his clothes were covered with stinking filth, Lord Rachet got back on his feet, tried to brush it off, standing unsteadily, his features lit with fury. "You--you will pay for this indignity! I will not live another day if I allow the likes of you to humiliate a nobleman of the Mount like this!" Damon stepped out of the stable door, his whip raised, and the man thought better of taking vengeance now and bolted to his horse, which was tethered a short distance away, and galloped off toward the Mount.

Events were now racheting up. Damon was learning all he could from his hired trainer in the time remaining. The thickening traffic on the road to the Mount showed that it was drawing close to the time when the royal court convened with a ball, and all the nobles and knights and ladies would present themselves before the king and queen of the Kingdom of the Mount of Defiance.

Somehow all sorts of carnival workers go wind of a coming trade fair, to be held in conjunction with the jousting tournament. These now began flocking to the Mount, and not being invited up, made do with Cheney Field, where they hoped the trade fair would be held as it had been in past years. Damon was thus joined by every kind of acrobat, performer of tricks and sleight of hand, stilt walkers, and whatever else a carnival can boast. It was an interesting spectacle, to say the least, enlivening his long training sessions and even his nights spent guarding his precious fighting horse, Bucephalus.

Performers and venders of all kinds continued to come out to the field and begin to set up for the trade fair. The trade fair, whether scheduled or not, was taking place, for villagers were already coming out to see what was going on, and they stayed, joining the increasing number of suckers that the trade fair was thee to milk and bilk of their last coppers.

Damon entertained himself after training watching the various performers go through their acts. Damon watched while the Gypsy with the bear on a chain was putting it through its dance routine, while he beat a small drum. He had to keep a strict eye on his horse, however, for a moment's distraction could cost him everything, he knew.

Returning to the stable, he missed a Gypsy dancer called Perfidia going through her act, with a couple admirers as her audience, with her husband, a concertina artiste, furnishing music.

First, after the ball, if a jousting tournament was decreed by the king, all the knights of jousting caliber would reconvene at Cheney Field for the grand parade of knights and their equippage, attended by squires and pages. The entire court was also present in all their splendid finery, to lay bets and root for their favorites. In the upper stands, but in rough planked and dirty seats sections that no nobleman would think to enter, the king's commoner subjects sat. Only after that would the jousting contests begin at a sign from the king, at his command a dropped red silk banner from the topmost flagpole. The crowded stands, which had reserved galleries for the nobility and other sections for the commoners from the village and surrounding country, would erupt in cheers and the contests would commence, after lots were drawn for the order of contestants to ride forth and do battle, while last minute bets were laid with any of a hundred or so bookies. Huge fortunes often passed hands and men were dispoiled of their castles and everything they possessed if a favorite did not perform as desired. But that was the name of the game: the heavy risks involved. Each contesting knight rode three times at his opponent. Each had three chances to dismount his opponent. At the first try, a successful dismount would gain the full three points, which relieved him of having to ride again until the play-offs, when the top contenders all faced off for the grand prize. If all three tries failed, the two knights were disqualified from further participation in the jousting. No two could win it, of course, so the playoffs continued until only one champion remained in the running. A contestant was in some tournaments allowed a bodily injury, but not a dismounting. If he was dismounted, and had to take another horse, he lost considerable points and it was hardly worth his while to keep jousting. Rules changed from tournament to tournament. Sometimes an injury disqualified the knight completely from continuing--if it was a disreputable kind, such as a thrust of a lance through the intestines or privates or an arm or leg torn off. Othertimes, it did not disqualify him if he had himself tied and bound with rope to his horse in such a way he could still manage another joust. Other things that might disqualify was a flagrant lack of breeding shown--if the knight spit on another knight, or cursed a highborn lady calling him a coward or worse, or failed to display proper respect for the judges or arrived too drunken to keep to his horse with dignity, and other lapses of decorum, which occurred often, such as losing too much of his costume in the fray to cover him modestly. Fights that broke out between competing knight's squires and pages, those also disqualified him. With the king and queen present, vulgar melees of this sort were crushed immediately with the king's bodyguard riding with flailing whips into their midst. As for the rough mass of commoners, there was little to be done to maintain them in good behavior--and so drunkenness was tolerated, and as long as the disturbance did not reach the king's attention, also stabbings and robberies and assignations between lovers. But if they grew too riotous and threatened a revolt against the Crown, the king was not above a blood-letting, commanding his armed guard to charge the mob with swords and maces, to teach them a lesson.

The darker side of this whole enterprise had just been revealed to Damon, however. In the shadows behind the grand and glittering spectacle of lords and ladies in their finest robes and jousting costumes lurked a conspiracy, the ignoble cabal of a select few who decided beforehand just who was going to ride off with the grand prize. It disgusted Damon to think the whole affair was no more than a sham for gamblers, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He returned to Minstrel Tithonus and revealed what he had learned, but the minstrel, a man of the world, shrugged.

"I suspected as much," he said to Damon. "But you, my lad, don't have to play their nasty little game. You can do your best, which I suspect will carry off the grand prize despite all their cowardly, sneaking back-room strategems to keep you from it!"

The minstrel offered a caution. "Beware of anything out of the ordinary, that might trip you up. If such men were scheming to take you in their net, now that you have rejected their offer, they have become your bitter enemies and will do everything within their power to set snares and traps for you to fall into."

That was a sobering thought for Damon. He himself was not afraid of anything they could do to him. But he thought of something, and the minstrel smiled as he divined Damon's thought. "Yes, your horse, they will try to slip it something in its water or feed that will render it unsuitable on the day you ride. You won't have time to train another mount to do what this one will do for you without flinching. They know that, and will target your horse--that will take care of you without a fight! From now on you must guard your mount yourself, or risk whatever they will attempt. You can't even trust a stableboy who might be trustworthy in the past. They will threaten him with harm to his family to make him do anything they want, and pay him royally too. Money will usually make a thief of most any poor working man who has his family to support." Hearing that, Damon felt much better, and decided not to withdraw, and keep a strict watch himself on his horse, day and night.

Ero was out with the pages and a trainer one day hunting pheasant and grouse, to teach Henri and Louis skills in archery, and he noticed a strange sight--hundreds, even thousands of little waving tails in the grass, and it was a horde of rats, he found. Above them a cloud writhed of uncountable beating black wings--bats! The rats and bats, he saw with amazement, were not stupid creatures, they sensed approaching doom and were fleeing the Mount as fast as they could.

Had the fumerols opening and spewing black and smelly toxic fumes warned them along with tremblings in the earth? Were they first to recognize the peril of residing on the Mount? Surely, the Mount's inhabitants would take notice, he thought, and flee too. But the next day, there was no sign anyone saw or cared about what had driven all the rats and bats off the Mount. The villagers were not even concerned, though they lived at the base of the Mount, and should anything slide off or break away, they would be destroyed and swept away.

Another thing Ero noted. Instead of taking heed, the king himself was constantly heightening the towers on his walls and castle and fortresses and gates. His main castle was also being expanded, to accommodate important guests, who were coming in increasingly numbers.

Now that Damon was the talk of the Mount, among both lords and ladies (and particularly the ladies!), naturally male jealousy was stirred up, and not a little rage too against an upstart daring to challenge the knights of the Mount (and, especially galling and offensive, turn down what they thought a very generous offer tendered by Lord Rachet to the stranger). What to do? The Knights of Dishonor met in a conference and decided they would fight him and utterly destroy him. He had given them no other option, and his horse, guarded night and day by Damon, was beyong reach and not going to be of any use to them apparently. They could always try to hamstring the horse, by sending in somebody to do it, but nobody would volunteer his neck if Damon caught him at it.

The conference concluded with a consensus, that if Knight Damon refused to work with them, then they would have to eliminate him entirely. So the Mount's knights began showing up on the Field for conspicuous practice, which was not only to show the weaker sex on the Mount that the men still ruled but to let this parvenu from out of nowhere know he wasn't going to carry off the prize without inflicting real pain on himself.

The minstrel's quarters at the inn were beginning to look like a knights' dressing room with all the garments and accoutrements hung about, and the number was increasing, as Ero was outfitted, first with a mail suit, then with a proper shield (even if unfinished as yet in its emblems) and the other necessary items to give him a brave showing before the king and queen and the royal court.

The fitter put finishing touches on the new tunic too, using the light where the mica windows were the largest in the house.

Since the minstrel awaited a royal courier who could come any day and any hour to summon him and his retainers to the castle, furious work was going on by the minstrel's small army of seamstresses and craftsmen.

To see if the things fitted, Ero submitted to a grand rehearsal, in which he put on all the things so far gathered. After the mail suit, he was to wear the widow's tunic, which was now fitted perfectly to him. First on the list, the mail suit was no joy to him, however, being heavy chain covering every inch of his body, leaving only his face bare if he drew up the cap. But it was necessary to be in full uniform if he was to present himself as a knight, so he pulled on the mail suit, then stood in it to see if it was a close fit or not.

Whether he liked it or not, he decided to continue wearing it, as he had to become accustomed to it, as if it were his own skin if he were to function properly in his full armor.

In the night, Ero had a dream. He saw a strange emblem, unknown to him, with a sword and a book, and across the book was written something.

The next morning, Ero hurried to see Damon, taking along the shield. He had great news of a strange sort. Yeshua had appeared, or rather, had spoke to him, showing him a vision of a new emblem for his shield--a sword, and inscription, and a Book. Yeshua explained the Book was his own Word, which was eternal and imperishable and always victorious. As for the writing, the words "Spiritus Gladius" came from the emblem and shield of St. Paul and meant, "The Sword of the Spirit," so together the emblem meant, "The Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God." But what was most astonishing, Ero told Damon, was that when he arose with the dream still fresh in his mind, he went to get the shield and found it already embossed with the beautiful emblem, in two places!

He had immediately asked Tithonus, who was later in rising, but still very much awake, who had come and done it. But the minstrel stoutly declared no one, there had been no one in his rooms that night, as he had an ear for the slightest shrew creeping about for crumbs under the table and chairs, and so he would have known if there had been an intruder in the night. Besides, he added, a smithy was needed, a skilled craftsman too, to do such work!

As they spoke, suddenly words came to Ero and Damon simultaneously.

"When the enemy comes in like a flood the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a STANDARD against him."

So this was Lord Yeshua's chosen Standard for them! Now both Damon and Ero were very relieved, as they gazed at the shield, for it meant that Yeshua was still Commander-in-chief, and had set his own emblem on Ero's war shield. Would there be another?"

Ero noticed that Damon, despite the interest he showed in the shield and his story, was not quite himself. "Anything wrong here?" he said, peering intently into Damon's eyes. "You don't seem your old self. Is it the long training wearisome?"

"It's not this place or the training, brother, it's me."

"Let's go talk, where we can be more private," said Ero, and he told the pages to wait for them, and they were glad to stay in the stable and went to help the stable boy feed and water the horses.

Damon and Ero walked out into the pastures beyond the jousting field, where the grass was tall and waving in the cool morning breeze.

They sat for a few moments gazing up at the Mount, hearing roll calls of knights and retainers in the various courtyards of the castle and forts, but strangely no barking of dogs, as they had all run off by this time, and then Damon started talking.

"It isn't the training, nor this having to bide my time in a stable watching the horses," he repeated. "Rather, I am missing my own world, my own country. This place is strange to me beyond saying, even with you, my brother, close by. I understand that Lord Yeshua has me here, and you too, for his grand purpose, but what is it exactly? Am I just to joust with strangers and seek to throw them to the ground and win a prize for which I care nothing? That seems so pointless to me? I lost my whole world, for this? for some a man's spilt blood and a sack of gold florins and ducats?"

Ero didn't know how to respond for a while. He struggled to deal with his own feelings too, as they were much the same as Damon's. He too had lost his beloved country, Hellas, and his home island of Seriphos, where was it? Could he ever find his way back to it? Would Lord Yeshua give him leave to return home? Or would he wander forever on various quests, as he had been doing for some time now?

"I have lost my country too, brother," he replied. "My family, not to mention, my friends--I have no idea how they are faring, or if they are even living. But Lord Yeshua--he has taken me up as his knight in liege to him, and I am in his service for life, and I desire to be too. I cannot forget his face! Nor his words, which still burn in my heart! He is like no one else I ever met. For him I think I would endure anything--"

As they talked further, they came to no answer, but it was a great relief to see how similarly they felt and thought, and discover at the same time they were knights knit in heart, as well as in destiny--for both felt that there was a greater destiny yet to be revealed, beyond the coming appearance at court and the jousting match. What was it? Would they greet it with joy or dread and dismay? They had heard talk of dragons, being in earshot of conversations of patrons of Follie Inn, where there was much talk of strange beasts attacking villages such as Strangeways. Dragons were seen flying in the vicinity of the Mount, it was said, spewing out fire and smoke that consumed whole houses at a time. But what of the most important thing: warning the people of the coming conflagration? That was Lord Yeshua's solemn command to them, as Knights of the Order of the Axes of Honor. Surely, that would be more fearsome than any winged, fiery beast?

They were thinking the same thought, for they turned to each other, and read the thought in each other's eyes.

"We haven't fulfilled our mission," Ero said, "until we warn every soul who will hear us. So far, we haven't had our opportunity, but soon we may. We must wait for the right opening, which I believe will have to be an incident that scares the living daylights out of them! We must not quit now. Yeshua said this is our mission, did he not?"

Damon nodded. "Perhaps, when we present ourselves with Master Tithonus at the court before the king and queen, that will be our opportunity! Surely, they will hear it then. These simple villagers seem to care for nothing but carnival, food and cheap wine--when they aren't fighting and robbing one another! If there isn't mischief that hasn't ever been done, they will be sure to think of it first! Mind this, brother! What with all the gambling they are doing at the trade fair, they are desperate for money and valuables they can wager. I've seen some of them lose every stitch they have on, and get kicked out of the gaming house to spend the night lying in the cold grass, which is all they have to cover them! I've given away all the rags we keep to wipe down the horses, so they can get back to their homes with some shred of decency, but the next day they are back, gambling again, this time with their wives and their children's clothes torn off their backs! Keep your post, brother, at the Minstrel's door, or they will pick the place clean, and leave him shirtless in his own bed!"

Ero rose, laughing. "Isn't that so? Will they ever change their foolish, strange ways? I have to wonder! Yet they must be given the warning too, before it is too late, even if it falls on deaf ears. There might be a few at least who will take heed and flee from this wretched dungheap of Strangways!"

Ero's shield still held two empty panels, and as if in anticipation they were seen to glow incandescently at night. And Ero was right! Yeshua had some things in mind for them after all! The sign of Noah, the captain of the Ark of old, came to mind in the dreams of the night. The shield already bore two oars, or paddles, which stood for the Ark as well as the ARGO. But now two references to Noah, which could speak of only one thing: the dread imminence of the world-destroying Flood. Only with this difference, it would not be a Deluge of water, it would be a destruction by fire.

Obedient to the will of Yeshua, Ero rose in the morning and spoke of his dream to Tithonus, who nodded in agreement with it, saying that he felt such a thing was truly imminent, and an extra warning on his shield would be well to place there. Calling in an artisan good with paints, the artisan no sooner appeared at the door with his brush and little paint pots in his wooden carrying case, when the emblems appeared on their own, without the artistry of a human hand! Tithonus was spared the expense of the man's labor, but he paid him anyway, he was so pleased with the work he had not done!

They all--Tithonus, Ero, the pages, and the artisan, stared at the shield, for on it appeared the Ark triumphant upon the Flood that destroyed the wicked world of Noah's time, while above glowed a bow of shining colors. Yet that was on one panel, the other held something different. It was unmistakable, a shofar of warning and proclamation--warning that the sin-ruined old world was going to pass away in fire, and proclaiming at the same time the beginning of an unspoiled, righteous, happy new world, the Millennial Kingdom of Yeshua!

Later that same day, while out training the pages in running and Damon was making sorties on Bucephalous with his single-toothed dragon-biter, a storm sweeps up, engulfing the Mount with dark clouds and flashing lightning. The earth trembles, with the force of the tempest. And then Ero, shielding the pages with his arm, looks back over his shoulder and sees something fearsome and huge, a black, manlike shape in the roiling clouds, wielding a huge sword.

The warrior-like figure seemed to be waving it back and forth as before a charging beast, while moving forward to push it back into its pen or cave. He thought he saw a long, lizard like tail whipping about in the mist--but it appeared and vanished from sight so quickly, he could not be certain what he actually saw.

The storm passes, and they return to Strangways to find the village in an uproar, not over the big wind that shook the whole area but the latest sighting of the vulture lizard they called the dragon.

Apparently, someone had gotten a much better look from higher up on the Mount and relayed the information down to the village, and news traveled quickly, indeed, shouted from tower to wall, and fort to gate, then to the village huddling in the shadows below. The report was that the dragon was observed headed this time straight for the village to rip it apart with that great, snapping beak and huge talons when the storm cloud overtook it and it disappeared in the black, tumbling clouds. Then when the clouds blew away a short time later, the wind blew the sky completely clear again, and no dragonbird was to be seen! The sea tempest and the churning funnel cloud had delivered them! Or so they thought! Just the same, most people of the village were craning their necks, trying to see if the dragonbird had really flown away, or maybe was coming back to attack them once the storm had blown itself back out to sea.

Everyone was vastly relieved, but Ero could still tell from their ashen faces and braggadocio they had received a very bad fright and wanted to deny or cover it up as quick as they could. All the patrons of the Follie Inn were in the street too, tipsy and stumbling about, but some were bragging they were bitterly disappointed in the dragon's sudden retreat, as they would have taught it a thing or two if it had dared to fight them face to face! These boasting oafs were greeted with jeers, and then some fighting broke out by the offended champions. Was this the opening they so desired--would these people be willing to hear the warning Yeshua had given? He had to take a chance and not let the moment pass, so he spoke out, addressing them all. Heads jerked his way, and for a few moments there was silence as his words rang out over the entire group, with many others listening in from unshuttered windows and doorways.

He told them a great fire was going to break out in their midst, and consume not only the village but the entire mount! It was time for them to flee, and take only what they could comfortably carry, as they need to flee in haste and not be overly burdened down! When would this great fiery judgment fall? He knew only it would be very soon, and every passing day brought it closer. Best not risk being caught in the flames! Leave this place now, before it is too late. Flee the Mount of destruction--for it had defied God, and now its defiance would bring its due reward. If they care for their children, their wives, their friends and the old ones, take them away now to safety! he urged the men. "What say you, people of Strangways"?

Response? There passed a few more moments of silence as the people looked round at each other, then with one voice and mind laughter and jeers erupted from the whole village. The Strangwayan children were even guffawing and making funny faces at Ero and the pages. One buffoon who fancied himself the village wit grabbed his woman and together they spun around in a mockery of a ballroom dance, each partner parroting Ero's "What say you?" in high and low voices as the crowd clapped and roared back with "What say I?"

The bad scare the dragon had given them all was completely forgotten. They had already paid no attention to the cracks in the Mount and fire and smoke issuing from them day and night--portentous signs of great fiery wratch boiling up from beneath the mount, were they not?

Shaking his head, Ero gave up trying any more words on them, and he and the pages went to to see how the Minstrel was doing and attend to any needs he had.

He had gotten together from somewhere several benches and low tables, had them set up with slate writing boards, and they looked like a kind of school was about to commence in his quarters. They soon were apprised of that very fact, indeed.

"Henri and Louis, you are going to learn your letters, starting today!" Tithonus announced. "And Ero my lad, you are their tutor. I can't have my pages ignorant as uncouth stableboys who can't even scribe their own name! Besides letters, they will learn music, art, good manners and gentlemen's deportment, along with the usual archery, swordsmanship, hunting, riding, and such, as they progress--if they work hard and progress--into squirehood. Well! Might as well get started, time is a'wasting!"

The pages were busy learning their letters, and had just completed the alphabet when a royal herald banged his staff on the door of the Follie Inn, demanding Tithonus present himself. Tithonus was not about to answer such an arrogant summons, as he had known greater kings than the one presently reigning on the Mount, and so he sent word, declining an appearance due to his delicate health. Furious, the herald could do nothing but stamp about, hurling threats at the gray, old head of Tithonus, who was quietly observing the rumpus below his window. Throwing down the royal letter of summons, the herald leaped on his horse and sped off back to the Mount, not willing to risk the fleas and lice of the inn.

Later, reading the summons, Tithonus sighed. He turned to face his knights and pages. "Well, our time of play is over, it is now to work, I see! We must present ourselves, fully equipped and garbed, ready for service, either at the ball or at some other event of the king's choosing, on the morrow. I had meant to teach Knight Ero some of my songs. I am sorry to say, we must go as we are, without that! I had hope for a little more time here. But the king would never allow a choice, he doesn't bear with choices by his subjects--all must do what he commands, you see, or lose his head! So--be prepared. We depart early, as soon as we have a good breakfast, that is! It is hard to say if we will have a good meal after that--you never can tell with this king, whether he will treat you royally or meanly. It all depends on whether we please him, and that is impossible if he is not first in a mood to be pleased."

He paused, then eyed them sharply. "Ah, I see the real reason for this impertinence. The herald looked a bit rattled and affrighted to me! What has put him off his heels? It has to be the dragon! The king was at his wits' end, and still is, regarding it. All his crossbows and fighting men, yet he knows the dragon is not his match! Perhaps he wants everybody on board, so that he can be emboldened to go against the beastly fowl and expect to win, or at the least teach it a lesson and drive it off. Yes, it has to be the dragon! That is what engages the mind of the king--it cannot be a mere ball or jousting. Formerly, he was so pleasure-loving, but now he has changed. He has no doubt quite forgotten such trivialities, now that his very castle mount is in danger of being laid desolate by this flying monster! As for the village, it is a wretched place and it can burn, far as he is concerned, but his castle? No, he must risk us all to save it! What a brute this king is! He cares nothing but for his own skin! Thus, the royal summons!

The next morning the inn was up early, for the whole village was stirring, having heard of big things happening on the Mount. The breakfast was brought up to the Minstrel as before, though the toast was burnt, the eggs were not cooked properly with the sauce the Minstrel preferred, the milk and flour porridge was missing its honey and butter and some of the sausages had to be sent back for more grilling. As for the kidney pie and tripe--he dared not touch them, not willing to risk his stomach any further.

They hurried to get their equipment and proper dress, and went down to the street, finding people milling about in the inn's parlours, all talking at once, and found the same thing outdoors. Many carnival people were in the crowd, too. The trade fair--had it been called off?

But no, the Tithonus was told, when he asked a carter for his charges to carry his trunk and other things to the Mount's main castle. "That dragon's done dampered it," the carter cried. "How can they do a merry job of it when any moment that thang can drop on 'em and carry someone off! They be lookin' all the time up to see if he's comin,' and how can they do their business then, prithee, tell me that, sire?"

At the gatehouse before they entered the Assassins' Walk, Tithonus stopped his knights and pages, for words of counsel.

"Our lives were cast in the king's deceitful scales the moment we enter here. It is hard to say how we will fare with him. It cannot be good entirely. I knew his father, but I hear he is locked up, blinded with burning hot tongs, languishing like some chained animal in some dungeon or tower cell, his throne taken by the son who did not care to wait until his scion's death. I doubt there will be much singing of heroes and battles of yore, as the whole Mount is consumed with this matter of the dragonbird's appearance. But if he does call me to sing away his cares, I will do my best. I doubt it will please a man who tortures his old father in order to sit on his throne, as my voice has grown so thin these days, and my grey hairs and reedy legs turn away the women's admiration to younger men. You, Knight Ero, may then sing your own people's fine heroic tales of Jason and the Golden Fleece, or others as you choose them, and see if they will please them better. But as I say, I think the king is anxious to inspect our arms and prowess with the sword and spear for use against the dragon, rather than be entertained by our courtly verses and charming voices.

Let us continue, but beware the next steps down the long walk that leads to the stepped road to the Castle! Many have started out there and not reached the Castle, waylaid by armed men positioned in the shadows. Whether the king sends them, or they are rivals to us, who will know? There is one guard, at the start of it, but he is only there to give word of any bodies to be pulled out by horse and rope. Well? Do you still wish to continue with me? If not, I will go alone. My life is not worthy of longer life. I might as well die doing what I was destined to do."

Tithonus turned to them for their responses, but they answered by not moving.

Ero, however, drew Tithonus aside privately. "We will attend you to the end, sir! Is there anything we might do to find this poor, old father of the king and set him free? Surely, we can, if we only know where they have hidden him."

"A brave heart you have! But that is not publicly known," Tithonus whispered. "Anyone who tells the place will be drawn and quartered. And there are hundreds of caves and tunnels under this Mount, many of them locked and guarded, so it is impossible to reach him by stealth or cunning or force, even if we can find out where they keep him. I might find out something, if I ask the subordinates, such as the scullions in the kitchens, who hate their superiors and might risk telling us for a sum of money. They are probably sent with whatever food the king wishes his father to have, so they might well know his location. What you ask is impossible to carry out, however, unless--"

Thinking of something, he paused, then turned back to Ero, "--unless you dress as a scullion and go with them when the guards come for the old king's rations. Would you dare to do that? It might be the only way to reach the old king. But you would have to fight your way out from there. Are you equal to that? And then afterwards--what will we do once the king finds out? Wouldn't he send his entire force after us?"

Ero went to say something to Damon, who listened, then nodded. Together, faced him. "We are both agreed. I will go with the food to the king if it can be arranged for me to carry it. And Damon will follow at a distance, or proceed as far as he can. I will unwind a ball of thread, so that I will be able to find my way out once I take care of my guards in the passageway. I will bring the old king with me. Damon will be guarding our rear, and together we will return with him to the kitchens, then together we will lead you out as if nothing has happened, the old king disguised as a sick scullion who needs care in the village immediately. Surely, the king will not know of it, and we will be allowed to pass."

The old minstrel could not disagree with the plan, but he still had misgivings. "This is most bold, to attempt to take the old king out of his cell. How will you break him out of his chains? The lock for the chain must have only one key, and that was probably thrown away by his son!"

"We don't know how that can be done, but we must try anyway. I will take my strong sword, and Damon has his, and I will cut the chain if I must."

So with this agreed upon, they continued on after Tithonus, who led as they passed into the gate under the deadly spear-ends of the portcullis that had been drawn up, while bowmen eyed them through slits in the stonework above them on both sides. After submitting the writ of royal summons, a beadle or bailiff of the Mount examined the writ and the royal seal, then motioned for Tithonus and his party to proceed. The guards swung the grated gate open, and they entered the Assassins' walk. At that point, they were on their own.

No one attacked them on the way, perhaps because they were vigilant and ready to rebuff any assailants, and they reached the far end of the colonnade and stepped out into the courtyard. There they found out they had been fully expected. They were immediately confronted by men running to close their exit and surround them.

The royal bailiff stood forth and charged them with treason.

"I arrest you foul plotters and assassins in the king's name. Every word of your treacherous plot was overheard, while you stood on that grate before entering the gate!" he shouted at them. "For this crime you will all be hung, or drawn and quartered, when the kings hears about it! He has commanded we take you to him, and he will hear of this plot and then decide your fate. Now march!"

King or no king, the Knights of Honor were not going peaceably to their deaths, however, if they could help it. With drawn swords they meant to fight to the death if necessary. But the minstrel commanded them to stop. "It is no use! No use fighting the whole force of the Mount. Let me speak to the King! I will tell him that you are but foolish youth, and did not know what you were doing, having no knowledge of the old king and his madness. Surely, he will not punish us all, and will let you go free if I insist on taking responsibility. Let him kill me in your stead. If that doesn't divert him, perhaps money will speak more kindly in our behalf. I can pay him something handsome to provoke his royal mercy!"

They could only guess what the king had heard about the incident as things did not go as they expected. They were not hustled and thrown into a dungeon, to await the royal summons and then be sentenced to their respective fates. Instead, the troops took them directly to a tower in the ramparts, which looked on most of the castle.

Shown in to the tower chamber by the king's bodyguard, they were left standing in the shadows, until finally they saw dimly lit figure was seated in the thronelike chair in the room. "Come forward so I can see you better!" a voice commanded.

They moved closer, until the man in the chair spoke again. "Stop! That is close enough. I have something to put to you all. You can fight for me, if you are wise, or fight me, which will be your certain death. Which do you choose? Say now! I do not suffer delay or many words!"

"But why should we fight for you, Majestic One, when you have plenteous knights in your charge?" Tithonus responded, for he knew the man had to be the king, by the sound of his voice. "What do you propose will be our wages?"

"Ha! I knew you had a price in mind! Well, you will have most generous livings granted you, for your lifetime that is, not your descendants, such as a castle apiece, with servants, and a handsome stipend of gold to keep your wants amply supplied? Any pretty women you like, wenches or ladies--well, they are free for your asking. What say you to that? My daughter's hand, well, she is for the victor too!"

Tithonus did not have to think about it. The king's daughter was cream that had aged beyond its prime and turned rancid. Who would want her now? As for the castles, how long would they be permitted to enjoy them? Surely, not long, with so many envious knights on the same mount, knights they had shamed in winning the king's contest over them. As for the wenches and ladies, he knew his knights. They would take women as chattel, as the king and his knights did. But he knew that to decline the king's offer was to invite soon and swift assassination.

"We would request one thing first, Your Majesty."

"What be that?" the king barked. "I've offered you far more than you deserve for your services, in this, ah, emergency."

"What would be the specific object of our service?"

The king rose and walked over to an arched window. "Oh, don't you know? I can hardly believe that! But come here! Take a look then."

The king stood aside as Tithonus and his knights looked out the window. There they saw on a number of the defensive towers recently outfitted with trebuchets against the dragonbird.

It was clear to them what the king's anxiety was centered on. He did not care about joustings and the usual pleasures--one thing was uppermost in his mind. He feared the dragonbird's return, imminently. That awful event must have robbed him of his sleep and spoiled all his usual pleasures, in fact. But could the dragonbird-haunted king be influenced to gain some advantage for the poor wretched father of the king? Tithonus, recalling Damon's urgent proposal back at the castle gate, thought so, and begged leave of the king for a few moments to consider the king's offer privately with his knights.

"All right then! But be quick about it! I will return here in a few minutes, and you had best have your reply ready!"

The king swept out of the room, and they were left alone, or so it seemed.

Tithonus drew his knights close. "If you still entertain ideas of setting the poor old king free of his shackles, here is my plan. I will suggest to him that we are not all the knights he has to challenge the monster. Let the king's justice be prevailed upon, and the other knights be entered fairly as equal contestants, and may the best man win! That man would win the king's rewards, including his daughter's hand, and none other. Surely, the king will do this, as we will refuse any other course of action, risking our lives to do so."

The king returned as soon as he said, and then the lights were lit, as attendants stepped up with flaming torches to every sconced taper in the tower chamber. Now they could see the king in all his finery.

The king sat down and the knights and Tithonus went forward at his command to give their reply.

Bowing, Tithonus began. "Thy rule of justice, O great one, demands that fairness be exacted among all thy subjects, does it not? Whoever sits on a throne and is truly great must show no partiality, particularly among noble knights who are all gentlemen of great honor and courage. Thus it is that I humbly propose this, Your Majesty--"

The moment Tithonus was through speaking, the king erupted, stamping his foot and furious.

"I'll have your heads for that! And there is more to your treachery! I know all about plot, and--"

Then a chief counsellor hurried to the king's ear and whispered something.

A sly look crept over the king's features, and he spoke again, only more guardedly.

"We have been too hasty perhaps. Surely, there is some sense in what you propose, Most Honorable Tithonus! I must have your knights in my defense of the castle, but on your terms I can still have them. Only let the other knights already under my banner now compete with yours. Let all things be done fairly, with no, er, partiality! Let the best man win the royal largess! But how do you propose to gain the dragonbird's compliance with your plan? Surely, you have not parleyed with the flying beast?"

The bodyguards were even snickering at this point, as the king's humor and scorn was obvious. Shown to be fools? Tithonus did not even blink an eye. He bowed stiffly, and with cool voice informed the king that should the dragonbird return, all they had to do was lure it away from the castle to the jousting fields with carved up mutton or cattle, and then challenge it there.

The king has not thought of this obviously, for when the counsellor returned to his side, he was waved away with a few choice oaths. "Of course, I thought of that before you did, minstrel! Let the carrion be set out on the fields, a large quantity of it to draw the monster thence! And let summons to all my knighthood be published immediately by the herald, and all convene on the jousting fields when the dragonbird has flown to devour the meat!"

A trumpet was blown as the king rose and departed, adjourning the private conference and leaving Tithonus, his knights and pages to show themselves out apparently.

Damon turned to Tithonus, catching his sleeve. "But sire, you did not even mention the shackled prisoner, the old king! What of him? How shall he be set free?"

The minstrel smiled. "Yes, I did think upon him in this venture. When you are victorious, as God grant you victory, you shall stand before the assembled queen and all the nobility and the commoners as the victor, and say this: "One thing only I will have from the King's hand as my reward. Not his daugher, and not his gold. And keep the fine castle for another, but give me only the shackles of the king's sire!" Trust my understanding of these people. That word, which lets the king's cat out of the bag, will cause such an uproar, even the beginning of a riot, that he will be unable to refuse you, which would be unthinkable before such a crowd, most of whom hate and fear him in equal quantities and need only a spark to ignite in a fury against him. He will grant your request with a splendid show of magnanimity, and we will have to be very careful of our backs as we go to see that the shackles are indeed removed and the old man is set free. Then we must take him away from this place altogether, lest we all die from all the assassins that inhabit this mount. Will you do this feat? We are depending on you to be a man of courage, if you really are determined to set the old king free."

Damon and Ero moved away a few steps, conferred, then they returned to Tithonus and the pages. "Yea to all you propose." Damon said simply. "With Yeshua my Lord, and Ero my brother-knight, I will attempt it, for I cannot bear to think of this old man being left at the king's mercy. It is an outrage to treat the old ones this way."

Tithonus nodded. After all, he thought, mercy is what knights are about, when they are true knights.

The plans were as good as they could be, but the dragonbird, as it turned out, paid their plans little respect. After being driven off by the violent tempest, all the more ravenous and lusting for a fight, it returned. Sighted by the tower guards, the warning hornblasts brought the entire force of soldiers and guards and knights running to their stations.

Many of the knights were too drunk to get properly attired in their mails suits and armor and came in their sleeping gowns, if not half naked. But though the guards were much better prepared, it did not go well with them, and the soldiers were soon fighting for their lives too, as the monster landed on this and that tower and picked off the men defending it with his talons and beak as armed men were mere ants.

Finishing off some of the towers and trebuchets this way, which the dragonbird outmaneuvered by circling out of reach of their fired stone balls and then diving down to attack the men, it tired of the game and went for the main castle buildings. Landing on the roofs, he tore them to shreds with its huge beak, while clawing them open at the same time, then beating its gigantic wings to blow the rafters far and wide. Fires started as the chimneys were destroyed, and then began to sweep through sections of the castle.

Not like the heat and fire much, the dragonbird moved to the other fortresses and guard posts, to level them too.

After much devastation, the dragonbird must have smelled the fresh carrion already carted out to Cheney's Jousting Fields, and immediately it had to go and investigate the wonderful fragrance of blood that wafted up to it.

Seeing the destroyer fly off toward the bait, the defenders of the king's castles crawled out of the ruins, or tried to put out the flames as best they could, and saw to the wounded and the dying.

The king was safe, having fled deep into the castle mount, where he had secret chambers set up and provisioned for such an exigency, but he returned to the surface to find his domain half in ruins and the other half threatened with fire.

Yet he couldn't attend only to his castle, as the dragonbird might decide to return at any moment. The monster had to be challenged at once. But who would go?

Commands did not go well with the knights at this point, they were all so terrified, but the king's threats grew even more violent, and they realized they had to do something, at least put on a show of force for their lives' sake.

Riding out of the mount and toward the dragonbird, they did manage to make a good show, as the king watched them, following from a safe distance with his personal bodyguard.

As for Tithonus and his knights, they were no where in sight. Where were they? But the king did not have opportunity as yet to send spies or listen to intelligence, as his entire aim was to challenge and destroy the dragonbird now before it did him any more harm.

Waiting back at the stands, he peered through his telescope, and watched as his knights rode within challenging distance of the dragonbird which crouched above the pile of cow carcasses on a low ridge.

Suddenly, it seemed to him that the whole knighthood broke in panic and disorder, each man fleeing to save his own life, some even on foot.

Enraged and badly frightened himself, the king called for his reserve, the only one he had: Tithonus's knights. They obeyed and came and bowed before him, with Tithonus standing back a few paces to observe what the king would do.

"Will you now challenge the monster?" the king cried. "It must be stopped! If you kill it or at least drive it off, I will give you what you ask, plus the grand prize for the jousting matches. As for my daughter--"

As he hestitated, Tithonus stepped forward. He bowed. "I beg a word with the king!"

The king nodded. "Say then, Tithonus!"

"I beg to speak for my knights. They seek no woman of thy court, nor even the hand of thy fair daughter. They are common men. They do not presume to such privileges and noble honors of thine, Majesty. Rather let them do this great feat you ask, and release the old man that is in the dungeon, that only is their request. You know of whom I speak. But ask the knights themselves, they can speak now."

The king turned to the knights, and they both said, "Yes, O king, that is our request. Release the old one, and we will be rewarded. You can keep the king's prize of treasure, except that we would like it to go to Tithonus, our wise master who is not asking for himself anything. Give it to him instead!"

"Done! I accept your terms! But now go and challenge the monster! If you are triumphant, only then will you receive all what you asked."

Tithonus conferred with his knights, and then they all turned, bowed, and retired from the king's presence.

Within minutes Damon was riding out against the dragonbird. When he came within bowshot distance, it paid him scant attention as it gorged upon the cow carcasses.

But as the raven of the monster slackened and his belly bulged more and more, it began to lose interest in the meat and bloody gibbets and notice the annoying little fly of a man that was buzzing about.

Damon drove his mount forward, shouting, then halted, wheeled around and rode away as if in flight. He repeated this maneuver again and again, and the dragonbird grew even more annoyed and wanting to swat the fly-man.

Finally, the dragonbird was angry enough to leave his unfinished meal to kill the fly. It moved down from the rocky ridge toward Damon, who now had the creature where he could be reached with his long killing lance.

Praying for Yeshua's strength and that his lance tip would find and pierce the monster's wicked heart to the quick, Damon charged.

But this was only a feint on Damon's part. He had to get the monster out further, and low enough too with his neck and head furthest out, and somewhat to the side of him, where he might be able to reach its neck's main artery with his dragon-biter without being reached first by that bloody beak and those grasping talons. How did he know how to do this? Yeshua had just whispered the instruction into his mind, the very moment he needed it.

The dragonbird followed him, though it flew upwards and circled him first. Finally, it was coming for him again, and Damon once again charged. Was this going to be the deciding moment of convergence? He would soon find out!

Damon was praying as he charged, and he literally felt the prayer burst from his heart and shoot right at the dragonbird. The next instant he knew he must throw his lance or wheel about, if he didn't want to end up in the monster's talons and be torn apart by its beak.

It seemed right, so he threw with all his might, and pulled up so sharply, Buchephalus nearly fell back and threw him.

But as the horse scrambled to get its footing, Damon caught a glimpse of the shaft of the lance speeding toward the dragonbird's head.

Was it possible, what he was seeing? It shot like an arrow from a crossbow, with a tremendous velocity he couldn't possibly have given it with human strength. And the monster turned its neck just then, just as he had hoped and prayed, and the lance skewered it, exactly piercing the main artery!

Shaking its head, the dragonbird crashed, hopping about, squawking in high-pitched screams, and tried to fly off with the dragon-biter dragging from its neck, but it couldn't seem to get aloft despite much beating of its enormous wings. He watched it grow rapidly weaker and weaker, both in wingbeats and squawkings, as its own blood gushed over its breast and feet and bathed the ground wherever it tumbled and thrashed about.

It was death throes he was watching, and then Damon heard a roar going up, the watching crowd had seen the victory from a safe distance and were now running toward him, to celebrate his great victory and their deliverance.

The first fellows who reached him grabbed him and slung him aloft on their shoulders, while Buchephalus was covered with garlands. Cheering him at every step, they bore him to the stands where the king and his court awaited the champion.

The king stood, with the victory crowns for the champions, but beside him stood a vengeful Lord Rachet, a disappointed Queen, and a jilted princess who felt slighted before the whole court--not a very welcoming sight, particularly as they were flanked by dozens of humiliated courtiers who had fled from the dragonbird.

When the crowds quieted at the behest of the lictors, the king spoke.

"Your terms of our agreement are now being carried out at my command. Our royal dungeon releases the one you spoke of, and the grand prize goes to your master, Sir Tithonus. At my command it shall be done!"

The crowd cheered, while the king and his court and courtiers and royal bodyguard remained icily silent.

A chest of treasure was brought forth for Tithonus, borne on a wagon, it was so full of golden things.

Bowing to the royals, the old minstrel accepted it graciously.

"Speak, speak!" the crowd cried.

The king was reluctant, but he motioned to the minstrel, who in turn deferred to his knights to say whatever was on their minds at such a moment as this.

Damon, with Ero standing by his side with the two pages, spoke for them.

"O People of Strangways and all you nobles of the Mount, we thank Yeshua, who is Lord of all, for this victory, that He has seen fit to deliver you from the flying monster. It was not by my might, but by His spirit, that the dragonbird was slain. But that is not what I am to tell you, for a greater danger is looming over your heads and beneath your very feet. You have seen signs of it for some days and weeks now, and they are true signs of doom and destruction. Flee this place now while you still can! Forsake wickedness, and choose life! Why should you be destroyed when the fires burst forth from beneath this Mount, and consume you all with it? What say you? Take your families, but do not try to rescue your belongings, there is so little time you must all leave now. What say you? Will you take this warning and go now, or will you disregard it and take your chances in a place marked for destruction?"

This was hardly the victory boast they had been expecting to hear. Few understood what he was saying. Leave Strangways? Whatever for? What was a little smoke and fire issuing from the Mountain, high and low anyway? They could live with that! And this talk about wickedness--well, everybody did whatever they pleased, and that was how they liked it. Who was he to tell them how to live anyway, even if he had slain the dragonbird! No! They wouldn't even consider leaving Strangways!"

Hearing crowd muttering, and the general rejection of his plea to them, Damon glanced at Ero, who shook his head, and both looked to Tithonus, but he was standing with downcast eyes.

Suddenly, at the king's signal, all the king's trumpeteers blew a blast, and that told everyone the king was going to say or do something.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the wretched, mad, old, deposed king was still chained up at his place in a dungeon, with added guards to make sure he would stay there forever.

Waiting upon the king's command, an executioner in the guardroom received a royal messenger who had sped just then from Cheney Field. Throwing off his cloak and tunic, the executioner went into the cell of the king's father with an axe and a bag to carry the head away for the son's inspection.

The king declined to address the crowd and now turned to go, and everyone moved back so he and his queen and the court could exit the fields. A royal carriage took the royals, with his bodyguard riding before and after him, back to the Castle Mount. Tithonus was told that he and his knights were to ride just behind the bodyguard, with the king's knights following them.

But Tithonus frowned when he saw the arrangement. It did not ring true to him.

He stayed the knights, and took them aside. "No, I sense something is wrong. I fear the old king is dead by this time, but now we are next in gravest danger. We must not go with them. I will go, but you must not go! I will tell them you will follow as soon as you see to Bucephalus's care in the stables. But the moment we have left the field, you must turn and make speed out of here! Do it--it is your only chance to escape. And don't worry about me-- I am too old for the king to care about--and too famous to kill in the sight of everybody. He will let me go, for it is you he wants to capture and kill, not this old baggage!"

Both the Knights of Honor were loath to obey, as they feared for Tithonus. As for the old king, they were sadly disappointed, that they had not succeeded in their earlier plans to rescue him. As for Tithonus-- surely, they could not leave him now and expect to see him again alive!

"But I am right, he won't kill me alone, for there is little satisfaction in that for him and his knights to smash a mere bug! No, he will let me go, just to get rid of the sight of me. I will be safe enough, even if he divests me of the treasure he gave me! Even then, I have outwitted him, for here are some jewels you may keep for me on my return. And if I should not return-- take them as your own, for you truly earned every one, not I!"

Slipping a bag of gold and jewels into their hands, Tithonus turned and joined the king's entourage, after speaking to Lord Rachet, who scowled, but gestured for the knights to go and attend to Bucephalus but detailed some guards to remain to see that the knights did not run off the field.

Yet the warning Damon had given was not entirely lost on Strangways. His word reached a widow and her son, and they began at once to join the knights. Only they could not go very fast, as a crippled man was also one who wished to escape the Mount of Destruction.

Damon and Ero were well aware of the guards posted to see that they did not run off, but they slipped out of the stables and came jumping upon them suddenly from out of a window, and it was such a surprise they dropped their swords and spears and ran off toward the Mount, forgetting their horses.

Laughing, the knights proceeded out of the area and retraced their steps to the road.

When they reached the far end, they halted and waited, wondering if Tithonus would join them.

But to their horror the whole Mount suddenly exploded, fire and ash shooting upwards, consuming the very rocks! They could hear the cries of doomed Strangways, and higher up, even above the roaring and the explosions of the volcanic eruption, the piteous screams of those caught in the garrisons, and towers and gates and the castle itself, realizing it was too late to save themselves by running.

Smoke and fire swept over the roadway, all the way toward the knights, who wondered if they shouldn't leave at once or be swept away themselves.

Yet what were those struggling forms on the road? They peered into the smoke, and then it cleared a bit, and they could see a woman, clutching a a baby and leading a small boy, and beside them was something low on the ground also wriggling as fast as it could--a crippled beggar!

Seeing them, the knights forgot Tithonus in his peril at that moment, and rushed down to the refugees, and helped them up the road as fast as possible.

As soon as they reached ground that was not shaking or shooting forth flames and smoke, they paused to rest with the washerwoman and her children and the crippled beggar, while hoping and praying for Tithonus, that somehow he had escaped the Mount's destruction.

But there was no rejoicing. Still no Tithonus! And where was Missy, the widow's daughter, sister to their pages? Ero and Damon scanned the roadway back of them constantly to see if perhaps they had made it out, but, no, they had not. Their hearts sank, losing all hope for Tithonus and Missy. It looked impossible now for anyone to have survived the cataclysm, as it grew worse with each passing moment, not less. Jetting fires and smoke flew to the heavens with a roar that was deafening. They had to keep moving ahead, or be consumed in the falling of burning rocks and ash.

Still they could not help glancing over their shoulders for the old minstrel as they hurriedly helped the refugees along, carrying the children and crippled beggar too as fast they could in their arms and across their shoulders.

Glancing back again, they were suddenly transfixed by the sight of more refugees appearing from a wall of smoke and flame that was fast approaching them.

Who were they? What were they? They had huge tusks, many of them, strange heads that looked more animal or insect like than human. Some were hooved likie cattle, but had serpent tails. Others had monkey bodies and tails but crocodile heads. More horrible shapes than these followed that could not even be described.

Bellowing, squeeking, shrieking, wailing, defecating, farting, these monsters fled up the road, directly toward Ero and Damon and the refugees. Damon and Ero realized they had to stand there and fight them off, or they would all be killed, for these things were not real beasts but something else--horrors! the demons of the Mount-- who had no living, wicked human hearts to reside in now that the Mount had exploded into flames and jetting molten rock.

The champions looked at each other with the same thought passing between them, unspoken. What were they going to do now? These were not creatures of flesh and blood that swords could pierce!

Suddenly, it flashed into the minds of both Damon and Ero at the same time:

"He who wielded the sword of righteousness against the flying dragon, let him stand and defend the helpless, and he who bears the torch of truth, let him rise up now and put the enemy to rout. I have made them both Repairers of the Breech, Bridge Builders, with the spiritual weapons to do the work of the Cross!"

The Olympic torch shone instantly in Ero's hand, a blinding spiritual version of it, and Damon had already whipped Dragon-biter out and stood with his shield in front of the helpless woman, children, and the crippled beggar, not realizing that it too was a spiritual weapon, no longer consisting of burnished steel but something infinitely stronger than even titanium. Sio equipped, they were ready to do battle!

The first demons leading the pack were demons of lust, and big and bad enough to confront, but others followed close on hooves and claws, even more fierce.

What are all those wriggling shapes that look like long worms or snakes? Maggots? The panicky swarms were trying to keep ahead of the flames at their backs. Ero instinctively held up the torch.

The next thing that happened was just as breathtaking.

It was an inexplicable thing, except for Yeshua's last comment. Ero was again wearing only his Olympic running togs, and then across his chest and torso shone a blood-red cross. The mail suit is no longer needed, the Red Cross alone will be his protection. This Cross is the emblem of ultimate sacrifice and signifies true, unstained Holiness, something to which every noble knight of the way of truth should aspire. In the acts of both knights, Holiness has done battle with Dishonor, and Truth with Falsehood. And now though all the demons of the Mount have appeared to do battle with the knights, they are equipped by Yeshua to not only fend them off but to destroy them.

At that moment he held up the torch and the Red Cross appeared as his standard, the maggoty namblas, which swarmed in the darkness of wicked acts and loved only to defile what was innocent, stopped in their tracks, petrified with terror by the mere sight of truth blazing at them, exposing them to a withering X-ray of truth that they could not possibly endure without the most excruciating pain. No wonder they stopped, piling up in their hundreds, unable to move forward, or even to retreat, since the mount behind them was threatening to explode at any moment.

At the same time Ero felt like leaping, and as he did so his ankle jets ignited and he flew upwards.

Seeing a monster devil coming toward him, Ero took aim. A porn spirit feels the fatal sting of the Red Cross Knight's Torch of Truth as a ray shoots upwards and blasts the flying slimebag. It takes only a second. There is no contest, no question, no board of appeals, no lawyers and judges to bring into it and maybe arrange a nice plea bargain and get the porn spirit off for a certain amount of money. What looks like a popped balloon drops to the ground.

Damon also had his hands full.

Now it fell time for Lord Yeshua to reveal the ultimate battle for his fully trained and fully obedient knights as He has already designed and commissioned both knights as Repairers of the Breech and Bridge Builders.

Damon and Ero, Knights of the Axes of Honor, slew many monstrous devils that day. The rest were badly wounded.

Just at that moment the whole earth shuddered, and the Mount of Defiance blew skyhigh, taking everything and everyone, human, devil, and beast, with it.

One moment the knights were standing, the next they found themselves on the ground, which rolled beneath them like many charging bulls.

Moments more passed, and they were consumed. As the knights recovered, rising up on their feet again to look about, finding each of the refugees had also survived the cataclysm, the heavens rolled back, like a scroll. Indescribable light and glory shone forth into their world from another world and dimension. Shielding their eyes, they could still see a form of Someone moving down toward them from the boiling white and gold clouds. The clouds turned out to be an almost infinite number of winged beings, not real clouds at all. And the Form of a Man, it turned out to be Yeshua, with a word to the champions.

When you went through deep waters and great trouble, I was with you. When you went through storms of difficulties, I was with you, and you did not drown! When you walked through the fire of oppression and dangers and snares, you were not burned up, the flames did not consume you, for I was with you. Neither is there any smoke in your clothes. For I am the Lord, Yeshua, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

What could they say in response? Damon and Ero, and the refugees threw themselves down on the ground.

"One more thing I give to you for your faithfulness to me and your compassion for others in your struggles. I make you Repairers of the Breech, Bridge Builders, and will now send you onward to the Bridge that is needing your courage and arms! Fierce enemies will attack and seek to destroy it, time and again again, but though half will be destroyed, a half will not, and I will bring a yonder half to it to make it complete, almost, but then the sacrifices of saints will replace every lost beam and join both halves together and make it perfect and acceptable in my eyes.

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