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Elaine--first pages


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The hermit heard the distant clash of shield and spear before he saw them. Not until he trudged over a muddy knoll, using his gnarled broke-branch for a third leg, did he see them there below, their horses hard-breathing and spurblood streaming down their bellies. Two knights in provincial armor all hard-leather and hauberks rusting, faced one another readying for another charge and tilt. 

             Rain began to fall, bone-cold, and the hermit steadied himself against a skeletonized tree to watch.

            He marked their shields as they raised them into position—each emblazoned with a weathered crest of a thorn-stemmed rose. An internal feud, a dispute of honor among shieldmates no doubt. A shame thought the hermit. A shame.

            They charged. The hooves of their horses churned up gouts of mud the size of drowned rats. Their spears lowered. Neither knight wore a helmet nor visor, their faces murder-serious.

            The hermit’s robes soaked at the shoulders, but he did not shiver. He watched them down in the glen’s clearing, watched the knights devour the space between one another. There was no rise in the hermit’s brow when they collided. No blink. 

            It became a shambles. One knight’s spear hit true and buried shaft-deep into the guts of his opponent just under the rib cage. Before flying from his harness, the skewered knight’s spear tilted low and was thrust into the soft spot beneath the neck of his rival’s horse. The dying horse screamed, reared up and fell backwards upon its rider.

            The skewered knight writhed in the mud and struggled to pull out the spearhead that impaled him. A great gust of breath blew out from his mouth, and he lay still on his side with his back to the hermit. After a few moments his only movement was the twitching of a leg. This knight’s horse trotted off towards a barren thicket on the far side of the clearing with its loathsome saddle empty and released spooked shards of hay-packed feces.

            Bracing himself upon his walking branch the hermit made his way down to this fallen knight.  Raindrops dotted down on the knight’s shield. By the time the hermit walked to him the knight no longer moved. The hermit stared at the dead man’s face while droplets fell from the old man’s mane of hair, down off his nose and nestled in his grey beard.

            Behind him the other knight made a noise; the hermit turned. His steps were deliberate as he walked through a slick of gore, mud-mingled, issuing forth from the massive wound of the dead horse. Beneath the weight of the animal lay the other knight.

            The hermit stood over the knight and now did his brow rise, now did his eyes blink. This knight’s visage was the exact copy to the dead man in the mire a few paces away. What deviltry? But then he knew. The knights were more than shieldmates, more than brothers. 

            They were twins.

            The hermit nodded and looked up into the rain where the sun should be. A shame.

             A spurge-gurgle of bloody froth oozed from the gape of the knight’s mouth. “Holy father...” he said.

            The hermit looked down on him. “Not holy.”

            The knight’s eyes rolled. He swallowed some of his frothing blood.

            The hermit divined the knight’s back was broke and his insides were possibly crushed.

            “My dagger...” said the knight. “Mercy...”

            “No. I’ve renounced steel.”

            Tears flowed from the knight’s eyes. “Mercy.”

            An ice-shive of thought sank into the Hermit’s mind. Not just a thought, but a memory. The moment of the most unequivocal horror of his life. He remembered his own naked body rising from the pool. Beside himself. Himself, bicameral. What deviltry.    

             What if they are more than brothers?

            The hermit bent down on his knee. “Is that yonder knight your brother? Or is he…”  

            “Mercy…” the dying knight repeated.

            “A woman. Was it a woman?”

            But the knight’s face was starting to slacken, the vessels in his eyes had already burst red. He did not, could not, answer the hermit.

            The rain was not stopping.

            Finally, the hermit nodded. He took his broke-branch and laid it across the knight’s throat and leaned down upon it with all his weight. It did not take long.

            The hermit closed the knight’s eyes. “Let there be mercy, brothers. Let there be.”

            Another salvo of lightning and thunder split and shook the sky and the surviving horse reared and brayed. Weary, the hermit took up his branch and walked up out of the mire; he walked on, melting into the grey ethereal.

 

 

 

 

 

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