1001 KNIGHTS & THE PRISONER
"The Prisoner" is an original short story set in the world of A Knight Adrift for an incredible project called "1001 Knights." Developed by Annie Stoll and Kevin Jay Stanton, 1001 Knights is a three-book anthology of inspiring artwork, comics, and prose that challenges the traditional idea of “knighthood” to illuminate the wisdom, courage, and fellowship we can all find within. Created by a diverse collection of more than 250 professional and lesser-known artists (view the complete list here), 1001 Knights has been over a year in the making, with a ton of love and work put into its character-rich pages.
But we cannot make this dream project a reality without your help. The 1001 Knights Kickstarter is now underway and has so far been met with tremendous enthusiasm! To support the cause, I thought it would be fun to share a short excerpt from my story and a glimpse at the accompanying title illustration. It is the first time any portion of A Knight Adrift will be in print and the only way to get the whole story (as well as a truly mind-boggling collection of amazing artwork) is to join the quest and support this project on Kickstarter.
So, what are you waiting for? Lend us your strength and rise a knight!
At the edge of the mountain road, a young squire of sixteen years caressed her brown mare’s mane. An azure cloak, too large for the lanky frame underneath, caught the wind and billowed like a sail behind her. Lips set in a solemn line beneath a pair of anxious green eyes, the girl stared over the cliff at the forest rustling in the valley below.
"I could swear I saw something," the young woman mumbled to herself as she tightened her grip on the sword at her waist. She thrust a finger toward the creaking, verdant depths. Two black shadows darted back and forth amid the overgrowth. "There! Right there among those trees!"
The woodland’s canopy, submerged beneath a shroud of darkening mist, stretched from the base of the mountain to the horizon like a bed of leaves for the stone giants looming above. A solitary, dismal howl echoed upward. Ears stiff and eyes wide, the girl’s horse tilted her head, whinnied, and stomped back from the threshold. Cooing, the squire put a tender hand to the beast’s neck.
“Steady the horses! The storm’s nearly upon us!” A woman bellowed from behind, voice full of youthful bravado.
Mounted high upon a restless steed and wielding a great silver spear, a knight clad in plate armor shouted to the company of soldiers at her back. Etched on her chest was the sigil of dawn, engraved lines of light spreading from the symbol’s center and glinting in the sunset. The knight’s black hair danced on the wind as she swung a leg over her dapple grey and dropped to the mountain path with a thud. Within seconds a blanket of heavy clouds smothered the last light of day and bathed the crags in gloom.
Her face a mask of stoic resolve, the knight yanked a golden cloak over her armor and raised a gauntlet. At the sign, nine men and women dismounted their horses in unison, faces grim, armor clattering. As each wrapped their leather reins tight around their wrists, the knight's guards struck sparks to oil and set torches ablaze. The glowering faces beneath the dusty gray cloaks eyed one another in silent apprehension.
“Aveline!” The knight shouted to the girl. At the sound of her name, the youth was startled from her thoughts and hurried toward her commander. “Aveline, we haven’t time to dally.”
“Sir Julia, I…” Aveline started, but the knight’s admonishing gaze demanded silence. The girl’s brown mare snorted anxiously as she trotted in place. Looking at the wide-eyed creature, Aveline tried again. “Sir Julia, I think a pair of wolves has our scent.”
“We’ve spent weeks hunting a beast. Wolves are the least of my concerns,” Julia chuckled, waving her glimmering hand in dismissal. Thunder rumbled on the mountainside, as though the giants were alive and snoring. The knight narrowed her brown eyes at the sky above, then returned them to Aveline. “Attend the prisoner, squire. See she doesn’t drown.”
“Yes, Sir Julia,” the girl said, her face red as coals beneath days of dust and grime. A handful of snickering smiles spread wide beneath the soldiers’ burning torches. Aveline shot a sidelong glance at the jeering guards, but eager to hide her crimson cheeks, she turned from the knight and pulled her cloak up over a mess of hazel hair.
Slowly, the squire approached the ill-fated cargo lashed to her horse. A woman’s form, bound and bent, lay silent across the beast’s back. Wrapped in a dingy shawl, her shrouded head and roped feet dangled like saddlebags on the creature's flanks. As Aveline reached out a hand to touch the prisoner, lightning spread bright fingers above the dark mountains and with a roar set the sky to weeping. A chorus of snorts and whinnies burst from the startled horses as the soldiers clamored to regain control.
Over the discord, Aveline thought she heard the prisoner laugh.
Rain fell with the weight of stone and in moments each traveler was soaked and bruised. Flickering flames hissed and trembling steeds huffed. Still, the proud knight would not be deterred. As if to challenge the booming voice of the clouds above, she cupped a hand to her mouth and shouted over the riotous torrent.
“Tempest be damned – we push on to the city!” Julia cried. And though her words were drowned amid peals of crackling thunder, the soldiers offered a loyal cheer in return. Aveline frowned in dismay.
Reins in one hand and spear in the other, the knight pointed down the dark path and marched ahead. One by one, the others followed in single file, heads bowed to avoid the rain and watch the contours of the cliff. Parched dirt drank deep of the relentless shower and within minutes the road was drenched and slick.
For a time it seemed the storm would be only an unruly nuisance. But alas, fortune and fate are fickle masters.
Without warning, a chunk of the mountain gave way to the pitiless deluge. Aveline's horse saw its doom first, ears perked at the rumbling that was not thunder. In a second the beast was wild with fear, bucking and thrashing the girl holding her reins. As the boulders crashed into the mountain road, the night exploded in deafening calamity. Soldiers and steeds dodged and scattered. Mud and stone trampled forth. The girl's mare dashed for illusive safety, dragging Aveline toward death.
Before any could intervene, squire, horse, and prisoner plunged screaming over the edge into the darkness below.
* * *
Body awash in pain and mud, Aveline awoke to the sounds of scraping tree limbs, battered leaves, and vicious bickering. Beneath a sputtering torch, the knight and the prisoner exchanged a flurry of tense words despite the torrent around them.
"You thought it best to dive after us, nothing but a torch and spear at hand?" The prisoner scolded, raising bound wrists to point in accusation. "That the kind of nonsense they're teaching knights these days?"
Aveline flinched at the words' familiar tone. The prisoner's shroud had been discarded in the mud, revealing an ancient face etched by time. Deep lines traced the woman's eyes and cheeks, pale remnants of old scars scattered throughout. A cascade of drenched hair, black as night despite her age and not unlike Julia's, fell over her serious brow and broad shoulders. Though the prisoner was little more than a bent shadow amid the darkness, her posture was that of a captive animal: head still and limbs ready, waiting to escape her bonds.
“You don’t find it cruel, them sending a daughter to hunt her mother?” The prisoner chided.
"Not when her mother's a traitor," Julia retaliated. "You tried to kill our king!"
"The monster killed your father!" Roared the prisoner.
Aveline's breath caught in her throat. At the sound, the knight hefted her silver spear and glared toward the girl as if ready to attack. Surprised to see her squire awake, Julia trotted through the mud to Aveline’s side and held out a silver hand. The girl shook her aching head, bewildered by the conversation. She knew they hunted a treasonous assassin, but that betrayer was Sir Julia’s mother? The prisoner’s furious accusation sent a cold tremor through Aveline’s body. The girl pushed her tangled wet hair out of her eyes and grabbed the knight’s outstretched gauntlet.
"I'm sorry to have caused so much trouble," Aveline murmured as she climbed to her feet.
"Don't blame yourself. It's her fault we're out here," Julia said. The girl’s heart beat fast in her chest.
"And I suppose it was my idea to forego the village ten miles back and push on through this nasty business? Forgive me, my old mind isn't what it once was... I seem to have forgotten I had command of the company," the old woman scowled, before raising her open mouth to the sky for a drink. A blast of thunder boomed overhead.
"Forgive my mother. She once knew respect, but hasn't kept polite company for some time," the knight said.
“’Polite company.’ Ha. You abduct an old woman, then question my manners?" The prisoner growled. "What happened to you?"
"You happened to me," Julia spat.
Aveline shook her head in amazement, then stared intently at the knight and the prisoner. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. When the knight opened her mouth to speak again, a weary voice cut through the din of the rustling forest around the three women.
“Sir Julia!" A man cried from above. “Sir Julia, are you all right? Is the prisoner alive?”
"We're fine! Press on to the city! We'll rally at dawn!" Julia shouted, waving her torch. Raindrops ringing like chimes on her armor, the knight turned to her companions. “Gather what you can and we’ll set out. To linger in the dark would be folly.”
The prisoner rolled her eyes. Aveline approached the lifeless form of her fallen steed on weak, shaking legs. Surveying the mangled horse, Aveline could barely believe she or the old woman had survived their fall. The girl knelt by the mare’s side and reached out to caress her scattered, chestnut mane.
“Thank you, friend. Forgive me,” Aveline whispered beneath the noise of the rainfall. With one last touch to the creature’s fragile neck, the squire rose and salvaged what she could. In minutes, Aveline recovered a short sword, a shield, and a pack filled with rations and rudimentary medical supplies. The squire looked to the knight’s torch. “I have a book of flash paper for light, if this storm ever relents.”
“Let’s pray to Dawn it does,” Julia murmured.
The knight and the prisoner trudged away from the cliff, but Aveline paused in her steps.
Icy fingers of warning creeped up the girl’s spine, as though unseen eyes were upon her. Beneath the cacophony of the storm, Aveline would have sworn she heard a menacing, feral growl. A memory of black shadows flashed in her mind as the girl peered into the forest through the torch’s mercurial light. It seemed nothing looked back from the darkness, but still the girl trembled, clutching the straps of the soaked canvas satchel on her back. Aveline looked once more at the lifeless horse, exhaled a shallow breath, and turned to catch her companions.
The three marched on, mighty trees looming beside their path like abyssal sentinels cloaked in charcoal shrouds. An hour passed beneath the rain’s persistent drums. As quickly as it had arrived, the thunderstorm abandoned its torrential siege, sparing the unfortunate souls below from a night of further torment. The wayfarers welcomed the reprieve, but three hours since the cliff, Julia’s frustration was plain.
“We should have been there by now,” Julia mumbled to herself, holding her torch aloft. The fire atop the wooden baton flickered and wavered on the verge of death.
“You know, of course, that we’ve been traveling the wrong direction for some time,” the old woman remarked. She turned her ancient face on Aveline and smiled. “But maybe you'd like to enlighten her?”
“Me, I…” Aveline stammered.
“I've seen you looking skyward. Which way’s home, girl?” The prisoner's eyes were two pools of ink.
“Well, that’s – that’s the Stag’s Eye," Aveline murmured. She peered up to the purple sky and pointed at the brightest of the shining dots. "If we turn left and continue north, we should make the city by morning."
“Oh, I like this girl. Reminds me of someone I once knew,” the prisoner chortled. Julia sighed in exasperation and stopped. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t talking about you, sir. Who was your mother?”
“That’s quite enough,” the knight snapped. The old woman glowered at her daughter, eyes ablaze. Glancing between mother and daughter, Aveline raised a hand for peace.
"My name is Aveline, of House Drummond,” the girl whispered. “Daughter to Rayner and Hannah.”
"Those eyes, that hair, that blue cloak. You do so take after your mother," the prisoner said. Aveline blushed and stared at the dirt passing by beneath her boots. "My name is Margot, of House… Well, that doesn’t matter. Tell me, Aveline, what's become of my old friends?"
Aveline grew quiet, but the knight spoke up in her stead.
"They're dead, mother. Murdered in their home before her," Julia hissed, her voice full of contempt.
Before Margot could respond, the three travelers were stunned to silence. A monstrous roar shook the forest like an echo of the twilight storm. From the orange gloom at the edge of the torch's dying light, a pair of enormous wolves stepped forward, their faces and limbs encased in shards of black crystal. Long, obsidian claws dug deep into the wet dirt as strings of shimmering saliva fell from ravenous jaws. Four empty eyes glared at the humans.
“Stay behind me!" Julia shouted, lowering her spear and raising her torch.
"Set me free," the prisoner growled. "I can still fight."
"Why should I trust you?" Julia snapped.
A guttural howl burst from the wolves' cavernous, jagged maws on a gust of carrion breath. Glancing at the creatures and then at her mother, the knight sighed. From her belt she grabbed a knife and cleaved the ropes wrapped around the prisoner’s wrists. Flipping the knife, Julia offered its hilt and thrust the torch forward, its flame nearly spent. Margot grabbed both and smirked.
Aveline pushed her mouth to her blue cloak, breathed deep for comfort, then drew her sword and mounted her shield on her arm. The girl stepped behind Julia, shield raised high to cover the knight's flank. Wary green eyes shifted back and forth beneath a sweat-drenched brow.
As the corrupted creatures stalked and snarled, the knight flung her gold cloak back over her moonlit shoulders and traced a wide arc with her silver lance. The single-minded beasts sprinted toward the travelers, their heavy, thunderous steps shaking the earth beneath each stride. Branches snapped, mud splattered, and in a moment the slavering wolves were upon their prey.
The knight charged the creatures, armor glittering in the starlight. As the wolves attacked, Julia battered one with the shaft of her weapon and thrust its blade at the jaws of the other. The shining edge bit deep into the demon's gloom-ridden face, shattering flesh amid a cloud of exploding shadow. Howling in pain, the animal leapt away.
The knight smiled wide, but within seconds the beast's companion was dashing forward. Aveline lifted her shield. As she set her boots in the muck, the wolf crashed into the broad metal wall. Jets of hot breath barraged Aveline's face as she pushed against the crystalline creature's weight and hacked at it with her sword. In a moment, Margot was beside her, adding her strength to the struggle. Claws raked the shield’s groaning edges.
"Push!" The prisoner howled to the girl, but their effort could not dissuade the beast.
Screaming at her quarry, Julia sprang forward and plunged her lance into the grizzled fur on the great wolf's flank. An otherworldly shriek erupted from the beast’s snapping jaws. The smell of copper filled the air as blood gushed to the ground. Aveline marveled at the knight’s ferocity. The thrashing beast snarled and bounded toward Julia, who stepped casually out of the creature's path as it sprinted back into the forest.
The knight grinned in victory. The squire gaped in horror.
Before Aveline’s cry of warning could reach Julia's ears, the shattered jaws of her first opponent snapped shut on her shining arm. The wolf swung its sharp head and the knight was flung to the dirt. Her gauntlet crushed and drenched with blood, Julia stood on tremulous legs, then collapsed to her knees. The world was silent and gray as Aveline sprinted toward the knight, Margot but a step behind. It was then that warm glow of the torch's light was extinguished, submerging the scene in darkness.
The stubborn beast's black form glided like a wraith amid the gloom. Fallen leaves and pools of rain crumpled and splashed beneath the onyx claws just out of sight. Aveline squinted into the forest, frantically tracking the phantom's movements with her shield.
"Flash paper! Now!" Margot commanded the squire.
Aveline thrust her sword in the dirt, then unslung her pack and let it fall behind her. The old woman set upon it, ripping open its buckles and scouring its contents. In a moment, the prisoner held a small booklet, then tore out a handful of its pages. On each was traced a sigil of interlocking lines and geometry set in an arcane sign of flame and light.
"Forgive me," Margot muttered. Julia moaned and reached toward her mother.
Without another word, the prisoner raised her knife and brought its hilt down on the back of her daughter's head. Eyes blank, face lifeless, Julia plummeted again with a crash of armor to the mud. Aveline gasped in shock as Margot glared at the circling creature and screamed in challenge. Amid a blinding flash and burst of smoke, the prisoner stabbed a handful of paper onto her blade and waved it to gain the wolf's attention.
Margot cast a dark, knowing eye at Aveline, then vanished among the shadows, the crystalline beast in pursuit.
* * *
The first shafts of dawn's light were piercing the forest canopy when Julia’s eyes finally opened. At the sight of fluttering eyelids, Aveline yelped in surprise and elation. After two frantic hours spent stripping the knight’s tarnished plate and mending countless wounds, the girl's hands were stained and shaking. A wet spool of black string and crimson needle rested upon a broad leaf by her side.
"What happened? Where has she gone?" Julia groaned as she put a palm to her blood-caked forehead.
"She fled in the night,” Aveline said. “I think she meant to draw that monster away,"
"Or to escape me," Julia murmured. Shaking her head, Aveline pointed north.
"She left a trail," the girl explained as she crouched and dipped her hands in a pool of rainwater.
Some paces off, an uneven line of smoldering paper led away from the churned mud and dirt of the battleground. Despite the tiny rivers running wild on the forest floor, the paper still burned bright and loud. Wisps of smoke drifted on a gentle breeze up toward the chattering tree tops.
“You lost a lot of blood," the girl frowned. "Perhaps we should wait to recover? What about your armor?"
"Leave it. I can't let her get away," Julia growled.
The knight grabbed hold of the spear resting in the dirt beside her and braced herself. Stumbling to her feet, Julia thrust out a hand, which Aveline caught before her commander could fall. With a glance at the pile of gouged plate, Aveline stepped beneath Julia’s shoulder as a crutch. Step by halting step, the squire led her knight past the trees and bright scraps of errant paper. The carcass of a freshly slain wolf lay across their path, a dozen skillful wounds in its bloodied flesh and fur. The knight’s silver knife sat buried to its hilt in the creature’s lifeless neck.
As they walked, Julia eyed the damp, muddy fabric clinging to Aveline’s shoulders.
"I've heard rumors of your mother's cloak; that she weaved magic into its threads,” the knight said.
The squire shook her head at the idea, but voiced no reply as she guided her charge across a fresh, rain-carved trench. Her boots slipping on wet leaves, the knight winced when she struggled to regain her grip on the spear.
"You must be proud to call her kin," Julia muttered between clenched teeth.
"I'd rather she were alive," Aveline said. The younger woman’s voice was hushed and cool as she stared into the somber, storm-ravaged forest ahead. Julia paused a moment, considering the response.
It was an hour before the ragged pair emerged from the edge of the woodland. A low, crumbling stone wall stretched down into a bayside valley, encircling the abundant expanse of farmland that surrounded the great castle city looming in the distance. The clear morning light that followed in the storm's wake drenched the parapets, towers, and water beyond in rich tones of amber and gold. Head crowned and sword held aloft, a colossal stone man presided over the buildings and streets that had expanded through centuries beneath him.
"Home," Aveline whispered, looking wide-eyed at the king around which the city crowded and turned. Indifferent, Julia nudged her squire to press on.
After a dozen paces, the girl cried out, rushed from beneath the knight’s arm, and then froze. Sprawled out on her back amid a circle of burning paper, Margot stared up at a cloudless blue sky through half-closed eyes. Aveline gulped and thrust a hand to her mouth, fearing the old woman was dead.
At the sight of her mother, Julia staggered forth, silver spear quavering by her side. Silent and solemn, the knight loomed over the prisoner, her face a blank silhouette. Margot appeared ashen and haggard, her black cloak shredded to red-stained tatters. Aveline clenched her fists and looked away, afraid to utter a word.
“Was wondering when you’d catch up,” the old woman winced as she struggled to lean back on her elbows. Despite the blood-painted grass beneath her, Margot’s lips were parted in a toothy grin as pale as her skin. “Been so long since last I saw this dreadful place. The walls, that towering monstrosity. It really is hideous. Ruins the horizon. But I suppose this is it then. Time to deliver my old bones to justice?”
“I should kill you now and save the king the trouble of your judgment,” Julia snarled, tear-filled eyes flashing with frustration and fury.
The knight brought her weapon to bear on the old woman, who for her part only smiled. Before she could think, Aveline sprang forward to stand between the knight and her mother, arms spread wide in protest. The blue cloak draped around her shoulders snapped on a blast of cool wind. The small heart within her heaving chest thundered loud.
“She saved our lives!” Aveline shouted, voice firm, eyes forbidding.
Julia stared at her squire, fury tempered by bewilderment. The blade of her spear quivered inches from the girl’s breast, but the stony grimace upon Aveline's face was unshaken. Two streams of gentle water trickled down the knight's cheeks and with a strangled whimper, Julia let her spear fall to the ground.
"You... You’ll die," Julia whispered.
"Of course, child,” the old woman grimaced. The tall grass stirred beneath a gentle breeze’s phantom touch. “But not today, I don't think."
Aveline allowed a sigh of relief, then wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. Setting her pack down beside the prisoner, the girl set about stitching and dressing yet another tapestry of wounds. With a steady hand clad in decades of callous and scar, the prisoner gestured at the girl.
"Some squire," Margot cringed as Aveline tightened a reddening, cotton bandage.
"Someday she'll be a knight," Julia replied without emotion, her eyes trained on the brightening horizon. Mother and daughter sat in silence for a time as Aveline shifted her green eyes back and forth between the two and set about her work. Wispy orphan remnants of storm clouds drifted slow overhead. Out among the grassy fields, a pair of sparrows chattered as a hawk circled above.
“What name did you take?” Margot wondered. Her voice was low and earnest.
“The Shining Knight,” Julia admitted. Blushing, the young woman pulled her tattered gold cloak close. A shadow of a grin passed over Margot's age-riven lips.
“Worthy of that plate, to be sure," the old woman chuckled.
“You’d rather I’d taken after you? Been called a ‘beast’ and spent my days blood-soaked? Snarling? Ridiculed by anyone with the misfortune of meeting you?”
“‘Knight of Beasts.’ Always liked the name. Felt true, honest,” Margot confided. With each word, her voice grew more pensive. “There was a time when I believed as you do that the oaths and ideals made me better than most. A weapon forged over years to be a ‘knight.’ Revered by the people, beloved by king and country! But in time I came to see that we’re all beasts… There are no beautiful weapons. Warriors, soldiers, killers. Protect the innocent. Serve the crown. Defeat the enemy. No matter the words, knights are no better than dogs, bred to bay for the crown.”
“Not even dogs abandon their young.”
Margot fixed a stare at her daughter for a long moment, then returned her gaze to the sun. Aveline remained silent, trying hard not to be seen between sutures.
“Lofty ideals make prisoners of us all, Shining Knight. The things I’ve done in the name of honor, chivalry… After your loyal father died at the hands of his master, I decided that the only knight deserving of the title is the beast who wants it least. Without me you had a chance to be something better," the old woman whispered. "I didn’t want you to walk the same path I did."
“And yet…” Julia said, brow furrowed in anger. The red-tailed hawk fell like an arrow from the sky, shrieking terror at its prey. It was a long time before the Shining Knight spoke again, but when she did, her voice was somber and resolved. “Aveline, give her your pack.”
"What will you tell the king?" The prisoner asked. "You return without the beast, they'll think you one as well."
"I'll think of something," Julia replied, glancing at Aveline. The girl nodded. "Be on your way already, old woman, before someone sees you and we’re all hanged for treason."
With knight and squire beneath each arm, the prisoner struggled to her feet, weathered face scrunched in quiet pain. Aveline raised her canvas sack, straps heavy with sword and shield. Threading her arms through its loops, the old woman hefted it onto her back, then winced at its weight. One by one she surveyed Aveline's bandages, nodding at the thorough work.
"Saved two lives today,” the woman concluded. “Hannah’d be proud."
Aveline averted her eyes, then stepped away, blushing.
"Should you grow tired of the charade, I'll be waiting," the Knight of Beasts muttered. Turning to Julia, Margot held out a trembling hand to caress her daughter's cheek, but said nothing. The two women gazed at one another again, their brown eyes, black hair, and solemn faces like reflections across time. "But perhaps... Perhaps you will yet prove me wrong."
Without waiting for a reply, the old woman turned and started limping toward the trees. After a moment she had vanished beyond the oak, ash, and shade. Aveline raised a red hand to bid farewell.
"Nothing but ruin in her wake," Julia said flatly, watching her mother depart. The knight’s pale lips lifted below somber eyes.
"I don't know," Aveline murmured. Faint memories of another woman—her bright green eyes and head of hazel hair couched in blue fabric—swam in the girl’s mind. Melancholy warmth spread throughout her chest as Aveline touched the azure cloak wrapped around her body. "What will we tell the guards?"
"The prisoner fled in the night. Taken by shadow and beast," Julia muttered. She shook her head, then started hobbling through the field toward the city.
Aveline turned to follow, but a movement in the sun-dappled darkness caught her attention. Just beyond the forest’s threshold two forlorn, shining eyes watched Julia depart. Her own eyes glimmering, Aveline smiled before running to catch the knight.