49. Deliverance (II)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Water tumbled through the freshly opened mouth of the river. The river was dammed for at least a century and, today, at last, it would resume a natural course. The knights stood on the banks and watched. The serfs, after two months at work, scattered from the roaring water. The stagnant water had formed a pool where mosquitos and other pests had bred over the years. Now, the disease was at an end. The struggle to open the river had taken decades to complete. It was the lords of the Marches who opposed the river’s return to its own course. They had used the river’s power for their mills and forges, each powered by a waterwheel that relied on trenches dug from the reservoir. Their power, in the end, had fallen; it is always the way with things that defy nature. For a while unnatural power endures and then, quite suddenly, it is gone.
The knights counted their dead and burned the most noble warriors on a pyre. Their numbers were thinned. A knight, a unicorn on his breast, turned to his companion. “The best have gone,” he said. The companion, whose symbol was a lion, merely nodded in agreement. Their order had been founded about a century before, started by a wanderer from the wasteland. It had one objective: to let the river flow again. Now, the task accomplished, the order had lost its purpose. It was only a few days since their victory and, already, the order was beginning to fray. There were arguments in camp and bickering over trivial details, over wild boars and pet dogs. The camp followers were becoming wary of the knights. They feared that, in the midst of some dispute, they would be cut down.
The last of the lords of the Marches had died of his wounds. After his final breath, the tower of his castle began to crumble and, within a few hours, the entire edifice had crashed to the ground. Scavengers and looters picked their way around the fallen masonry. They took tapestries and silverware with them, but, a few metres from the castle ruin, they found that the tapestry had faded to thread and the silverware melted in their hands.
From a hill above the river, the knight of the unicorn watched the change. He felt pain in his bones. He had passed his highest mark and now there was only dissolution for him. The river was regenerating the valley it flowed through. The scene changed by the moment. He saw trees break into blossom and hills, previously the colour of mud, spring into green. The mills and forges were silent. The chimneys of the forges had fallen, a slight suggestion of black smoke hung over the ruins. The knight’s legs gave way under him. His manservant, watching from the distance, ran to him and helped him stand. He lasted only a few moments. Under the weight of his armour, he collapsed back into the grass. His breath came in shallow gulps.
The knight died and was burned on a crude pyre made with trees cut from a nearby pine forest. His manservant felt that his own heart had weakened, though, perhaps, given his lesser station, he would last a few years longer; perhaps he would live to see his young son grown. The knight of the lion, still quite well, took the ashes of his friend and rode from the valley and the river. He was among the last of the knights to fall. His mother, a sorceress, had granted his blood a curious resistance to enchantment. He took the ashes of his friend to a marble hall, a place where the knights had once feasted and celebrated the solstice. The knight placed his friend’s remains in an alcove and then, finally tiring, walked to a marble slab and lay down. His breath turned green in the dying light; and he moved his head to face the setting sun. Death found him well.