The road stretched out before them further than their eyes could see. From the southern coasts and into the northern snow-capped mountains. Past villages large and small, castles and keeps, fields planted with blooming crops and others populated by livestock. Along dirt grooves, long worn by wagons and horses alike, three men traveled. Weary and worn, they moved through a wooded grove that shaded the scalding summer sun.
A tall, slender man with golden hair, piercing blue eyes and a blade of a nose rode atop a destrier. Across his back a bastard sword glimmered when the sunlight flickered through the forest canopy. A young boy with bushy black hair and strong features rode beside him on a garron. Slightly behind them their companion walked slowly, his gate hampered significantly by a limp.
“Do we have to move so quickly?” The walking man asked.
He was met with no reply. The young boy looked back at him briefly with wide solemn eyes.
“It’s just that my leg–”
“I’ll hear nothing of your leg again, Dancer,” the man on the destrier cut him off. “You brought this wound upon yourself. You will deal with the burden.”
“We’ve been traveling for weeks,” Dancer protested. “My leg grows worse by the day. I need a horse if I’m to survive this journey.”
The destrier snorted almost derisively in Dancer’s direction. No reply came from its rider. Dancer dropped his head and continued limping behind in silence. Again the young boy stole a glance at their walking companion.
Gathering his courage, the young boy saddled up beside his mounted compatriot and spoke in a low voice.
“Sir, I think we should acquire a mount for Dancer. He is wounded quite badly and the king will want him alive to stand trial at court.”
He looked down upon the boy and sneered. “His guilt is well-known. He travels with me because others would kill him. He will walk. He will live and he will stand trial.”
“The matter is settled. Do not raise it to me again.”
Dancer hobbled up beside them, desperately attempting to regain his wind. “My lord, the boy speaks kindly. If I may ask a question?”
“You may not,” the response was curt.
“Why can’t he, sir? Why not talk? There’s nothing to do but walk this road for leagues on end. What harm can one question do?”
The destrier whinnied as the reins were pulled back hard. The garron pulled up as well and a swift backhand from a mail-clad hailed struck the young boy’s face.
“Your insolence will not be tolerated, boy,” those piercing blue eyes were being put to work. “Consider that your only warning. As for your plea, I will allow him to ask one question. He may respond to me if given leave to do so.”
The boy rubbed at the plum sized welt on his cheek and tried to keep a strong jaw. “Yes, my lord.”
“You may ask one question, Dancer. Make it count.”
Dancer licked over his rotted brown teeth as he smiled.
“What makes my crimes so much worse than anything you’ve done, Sir Earnest of Longflower?
The knight did not hesitate to respond. “All I’ve done has been in service to King Peter. I have done all asked and required of you. Why do you ask this needless question?”
“You’ve murdered in cold blood, just as I have,” Dancer spat back, bile lacing his words. “You’ve no doubt killed many a more men than I. Women and children as well, I’d be willing to wager a gold piece on that. We’ve all the heard the stories of Sir Earnest the Malevolent. They whisper it in inns and bars up and down this highway. You may be a knight, but you are surely a worse man than I.”
The squire looked at Sir Earnest, his mouth agape. His eyes darted between his lord and Dancer waiting for the knight to respond.
“Is that some sort of poor jape,” Sir Earnest eyed Dancer coolly. “Consider yourself lucky. If not for the king’s order, I would have your filthy tongue out here and now.”
“No jape, sir.” Dancer replied. “You are no more than a dog. Your arrogance and black reputation arrive in any town leagues before you do. They fear your hand and that sword upon your back. You are not popular, nor loved by your own people.”
“I only need the king’s love and affection,” Sir Earnest hid his rising anger. “I live only to serve.”
“The atrocities committed by your hand are not cleared solely because you are the king’s man, sir,” Dancer riposted. “The king may not always rule and the next may not have such favorable views of your… service.”
“Sir Earnest is a just, honest and truthful knight,” the young squire piped in.
“Sing me sweeter lies, young boy.”
The horses pulled to a halt once more and Sir Earnest dismounted, his squire scurrying behind. Dancer, with his hands bound was an easy target and was quickly pulled into the surrounding wood. Sir Earnest forced Dancer to his knees and unsheathed the great bastard sword from his back.
“The Justiciar,” Dancer murmured.
Birds flew from the canopy in a cacophony with branches rustling. The cut from the sword was swift and true. Dancer’s disembodied head came to a rest against a large tree stump. Sir Earnest looked to his squire and spat on the ground.
“Burn the body,” he snapped. “There will be no word of this. The king will hear that his wound killed him and the wolves carried him off into the woods at night while we slept. If word of this passes of your lips, your fate will be the same as Dancer’s. Understood?”
The young squire set about his required task as grim as it were. As he worked, Sir Earnest watched with a smile, all while cleaning the blade of his infamous sword.