The Tale of Sir Damien
On the first morning in Adalrik, Damien woke to find himself alone. It took him a while to notice this. He stretched and rubbed his eyes, drinking greedily from their water skin. He only realised Gunvor’s bedroll was empty once he got up and glanced towards it. For a moment he stood with obvious confusion on his face; he used one foot to prod the empty bedroll. Only fabric and the dirt underneath met his movement.
Crouching into a stance ready for battle, he crossed his hand over to grab the hilt of his sword; his eyes darted around among the surrounding bushes where they had camped. “If this is some trick by Elvenfolk – if you have taken my companion, know that I have good steel ready for you,” he called out, but not too loudly.
There was a rustle behind him, and he swung around with the sword a few inches out of its scabbard. The foliage of the bushes separated, and a green shape passed through. Damien relaxed his tense body as he saw it was Gunvor; she stared at him astonished. “Who are you fighting?”
“You were gone,” he mumbled, letting the sword slide back into its sheath. “I thought someone had taken you.”
“I was merely collecting a few nuts and berries.” She held out the cloth in her hand that she had tied into a bundle. “You sleep so late in the morning, and you’re impossible to rouse.”
“Soldier’s habit. You learn to sleep as soon as you can, as much as you can.”
“So you retain at least one habit from your soldiering days,” she remarked pointedly, gathering her things.
“That sounded like a veiled insult.”
“I’ll be clearer with my next words. You keep holding your sword or your belt, or you hide your hands behind your back.”
“Strange thing to observe,” Damien muttered, picking up his cloak that served as his bedroll.
“Your hands are shaking. Thirsty, are you?”
“I just like holding my belt,” he yelled with sudden anger. “Keep your eyes to yourself, you Hel-damned robe!”
“Hand that shakes, blade that breaks,” Gunvor spoke with a mocking tone. “How can you call yourself a warrior?”
“As if a bloody priestess would know anything about that!”
“I’m not defenceless!” she retorted, drawing the dagger in her belt.
Reacting on instinct, Damien grabbed her wrist and bent it, making her drop the knife and exclaim in pain. “Careful,” he growled, releasing his hold. “You draw a blade on a man, you best be prepared to use it against him.”
“You’re a brute,” she said with a scowl, picking up her dagger. “You’re no better than the brigands you’re supposed to protect me from.”
He gave a harsh laughter. “Trust me, I have killed far more men than any bandits you will ever meet.”
“I thought you said that brittle sword of yours never killed anyone,” she pointed out.
“This is a holy blade, consecrated for use in the Temple,” he told her with a sneer. “I never killed anyone after I took the Templar’s vows, except…”
“Except? Regale me with tales of your exploits, mighty warrior.”
With a scowl of his own, he picked up his possessions. “We are wasting time.” Without waiting further, he returned the road. Staring at Damien’s back, Gunvor eventually followed his example; they began moving east, keeping distance to each other.
Moving from forest to farmlands brought another change; the travelling pair began to see villages on their journey. None of them lay close by the Kingsroad, as its only purpose was to connect the major cities, but they saw the smoke rising in the distance that spoke of hearths and homes. Inevitably after days of journey, they passed by an inn offering food and shelter to weary travellers.
“We should stop for the night,” Damien declared.
“The sun hasn’t set yet,” Gunvor pointed out. “We can easily walk another hour.”
“Why sleep on the ground when beds are available?”
“It hasn’t been a problem for the last three weeks.”
“We can get a warm meal. Sleep without roots prodding us in the back,” Damien said with a tone of temptation.
“Such comforts become a crutch,” the priestess replied without much conviction.
“You can have conversation with someone other than me.”
Gunvor exhaled. “If it’ll silence you, fine. But I have the coin purse, and I decide what we spend it on.” She patted the small bag hanging by her belt. “Food and beds, nothing more. We drink water,” she told him pointedly.
“As you wish,” Damien assented, sounding docile.
They entered the common room and found it mostly empty. A handful of men sat scattered around the tables, drinking, talking, and playing dice. By their garbs, they were peasants from the nearby villages; none wore signs of lengthy travels like Gunvor and Damien.
“Gods’ peace to you, Sister, and your companion. What’ll it be?” asked the tavern keeper.
“A meal for us both, and a simple bed for the night,” she replied.
“Certainly. That’ll be a silver for each of you, and I can have my boy fetch water for a bath. Won’t cost you a petty extra,” the owner offered.
Damien waved his hand dismissively. “I bathed the other month.”
Gunvor gave him a look. “I would be grateful for that, good master.” She dug out two silver marks from her purse.
“No trouble at all. Find yourselves a place to sit, and a bowl of stew will be on its way.”
“Some water to drink, if you please,” Gunvor quickly added. Damien glanced elsewhere.
They sat down at an empty table; moments later, the promised bowls were placed before them along with a wooden spoon and a mug of water for each. They began eating.
“You know what would go well with this stew?”
“A strong, stout ale.”
“A cup of red wine.”
“Water with flavour of hops.”
Damien sighed. “I tried.”
“You are a harsh task mistress. You make a good priestess.”
“You would know, I’m sure. All that time you spent in the great Temple. How long did you serve?”
He looked down into his bowl. “I do not wish to discuss that.”
Gunvor glanced around; being the only strangers, their simple presence had attracted attention, as did their conversation. “Then you best eat and be quiet.”
“Very well.” They finished their meal in silence; with a sad look, Damien drank his water.
“Pardon me, good mistress.” A boy in his early teens approached their table. “The bathing room is ready for you, and there’s an empty bed for each of you upstairs when you want to turn in.”
“Thank you,” Gunvor smiled, getting up. She passed through one of the doors to enter the adjacent room.
It contained a hearth, upon which water could be heated; in the middle stood a tub, partly filled. Gunvor quickly undressed and stepped into the warm water with a pleased look. After enjoying the warmth for a while, she made use of the coarse soap and rags made available to her.
Half an hour later, she returned to the common room. Her expression turned from satisfied to alarmed as she saw Damien in the company of the other patrons, emptying a tankard as they laughed.
“Of course, by then we were long gone, leaving them with nothing but their trousers,” the former knight explained.
“Friend, I think you’re full of lies, but they’re well told,” one of the farmers admitted.
Gunvor stalked over to the table. “Damien, I believe it’s time you retire,” she told him.
“Uh, the wife is here, and she’s not happy,” someone remarked, causing laughter.
“Sleep all you want,” Damien told her. “I am not finished.”
“Yes, you are,” Gunvor insisted. “You should not entice these men to buy you drink.”
Damien’s companions raised their hands with demonstrative innocence. “Sister, we’d never be so foolish. We know better than pouring coin down a bottomless well.”
“I pay for my own ale, thank you,” Damien told her.
“How? Did you steal from me?” Her hand grabbed at the purse hanging by her side.
“How dare you!” Damien exclaimed. “Damien of Montmer is no thief! I had a silver mark down my boot, for desperate times. Old soldier’s trick.”
“I’ve heard that name before.” One of the peasants stroked his chin. “Sir Damien, right? Of the Temple.”
“Not as such,” muttered the former knight.
“Damien, you should sleep,” Gunvor insisted. She took hold of his arm, trying to pull him up, but he resisted with ease.
“I will sleep when I damn well please,” he growled.
“Better listen to the wife, friend,” someone laughed.
“Hey, you’re right,” another interjected. “Damien of Montmer, he was a Templar. Broke his oaths, didn’t he, lost everything. Sword broken, spurs taken.”
“Lies. All lies,” Damien mumbled with slurred speech. “Never broke an oath.”
“Sometimes you wonder, what happens to these high and mighty fellows.” Several grinned. “Now we know.”
“Dogs, the lot of you,” Damien declared, wresting himself free from Gunvor’s grip. “I wore the ash tree upon my surcoat. I earned my golden spurs on the field of battle. I was first on the walls at the siege of Beaumont. What has any of you curs ever done?” he roared.
“We’ve never broken any oaths.”
Damien smashed his tankard into the table with such force, it broke in his hand. In an instant, he was on his feet, towering over the villagers.
“Damien!” Pushed back by his sudden movement, Gunvor placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling at him. He swung around to face her. Anger overflowed his expression, and his empty hand was curled into a fist. “This is beneath you,” she said quietly, and when he hesitated, she dared to place one hand against his cheek. “A man of your stature does not involve himself in simple tavern brawls.”
“Listen to the wife.” Scattered laughter could be heard.
Damien breathed heavily; his face was red with drink and anger. He stared at Gunvor until his body suddenly relaxed; the broken mug in his hand fell to the floor. “To Hel with all of them,” he mumbled.
“To Hel with them,” Gunvor reiterated.
“We should retire for the night,” Damien declared.
“We should.” With her supporting him, the pair walked up the stairs to the sleeping hall.
The next morning, they woke to find the other patrons gone; none else had stayed the night. The tavern keeper’s wife offered them some porridge and water for breakfast; otherwise, she and her family kept their distance. Damien and Gunvor ate their meal in silence; before they departed, she left a handful of copper petties on the table.
“The gods made the sun too bright,” Damien complained. They were in the midst of summer, and ever since leaving the forests of Vidrevi behind, they travelled on roads without shade.
“We should look for a stream soon,” he remarked a while later. “We forgot to fill our skins before we left this morning.” Gunvor did not reply.
An hour later, Damien knelt by a brook, drinking his fill. “Cold,” he muttered. “Are you not thirsty?” Ignoring him, she submerged her skin until it was full once more.
They travelled a few miles longer before Damien broke the silence again. “You are not saying much today.” He continued a moment later. “Not that I mind. My head aches a bit.”
“I wonder why.”
“Probably the bed I slept on.”
“Really? Really?” she repeated. “You don’t think it has anything to do with all your drinking last night?”
“I had maybe three ales. Four at most,” Damien replied casually. “Nothing to trouble me.”
“Oh, so you wouldn’t count your behaviour last night as trouble.”
“Hah! There we have it. You are angered.”
The priestess kept a quick pace, pointedly avoiding looking in Damien’s direction. “Why would I be? You’re a drunk. Of course you’ll drink when you get the chance.”
“Right. Glad you understand.”
“Never mind that you nearly started a fight and Hel knows what else!”
“You must be really mad if you are using such language.”
“You – you absolute bastard!” Gunvor yelled.
“I assure you, my parents were married at the time of my birth.”
“What if there had been a fight last night? What would you have done?”
“You mean if I had faced three peasants? Probably cracked their heads together and sent them home with bloody noses,” Damien considered.
“And if you had killed one of them? You would have been seized as a murderer and brought to trial!”
He quickened his steps to move ahead of her and turned around, walking backwards while facing her. “If so, you would be free to continue your journey alone, unhindered,” Damien said with a wry smile.
“Get out of my face!” He did so, albeit not of his own will; not able to watch his own steps, he stumbled and fell to the ground. “You really are useless,” she remarked with contempt, stepping around him.
“That is harsh,” he complained, getting up. He took one step and immediately fell down again.
She stopped and turned to look at him. “Really?”
“I think – I may have sprained my ankle,” he mumbled, avoiding her gaze.
“Gods give me strength.”
“To carry me?”
“To keep from strangling you.”
With some difficulty and leaning on Gunvor’s shoulder, Damien hobbled off the road. He sat down against a tree, removing his boot with a small grunt of pain. His sock followed after, revealing skin that was growing red and starting to swell.
“It will be fine,” he claimed. “A bandage, maybe a walking staff for support, and I will be on my feet again.”
“Depends on how much it swells. If it is bad, you should not move for a few days.”
“I thought your robe was green, not red.”
“You don’t have to be a norn to understand a simple sprain,” she retorted.
“I once fought for three hours with an arrow through my ankle. Between the two of us, I think I am the better judge of injuries,” he claimed.
She looked down at his foot. “I don’t see any scar.”
“I have two ankles.”
“Fortunately only one tongue,” she muttered, digging out a piece of cloth from her travel bag that she began wrapping around the swelling.
“Not too tight,” he cautioned her.
“You are not the first person in the world to have ever a sprained ankle,” she proclaimed in exasperation. “There! Does it suit his lordship’s standards?”
He moved his foot back and forth. “It will do.”
She stood up. “Wait here.”
“Where are you going?”
“We will need more water at some point. Foraging for food and collecting firewood for tonight would also be useful. And I can imagine which of us will have to do it!” She stalked away, leaving him to tentatively prod the bandage around his leg.
When night came, Gunvor had built a fire and shared anything edible she had found. Using the pommel of his dagger, Damien cracked several walnuts open and handed a few over to her.
“At least you’re good for something,” she mumbled.
“Nuts or skulls, the principle is the same. Apply force in the right place,” he explained.
“I didn’t ask. That’s all you’re good for, isn’t it? Fighting.”
She sent him a look, taken aback. “We agree on something.”
“But I was never simply good. I was the best.”
“I knew you’d turn this on its head somehow.”
“As a page in Fontaine, I beat every other page. Even those two years older than me. Even Sir Martel.”
“I haven’t a clue who that is.”
“I squired for Sir Theobald,” Damien continued, adjusting himself to sit more upright. “You heard of him, at least?”
“The Blade of the North? Now captain of the Citadel?”
“That may ring a bell,” Gunvor granted.
“He was the best warrior in all the realms, and for seven years, he trained me until I was his equal. He took me on because he knew I had the right mettle. That I would keep improving, keep perfecting myself,” Damien declared.
“Why?” asked Gunvor.
“What else is there to life when you are a knight? What other goals could I pursue?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know anything about knights.”
“I had a gift,” Damien explained. “I knew I could be the next great warrior. Another Theobald, another Etienne, another Eirik Wyrmbane. I swore to myself I would not relent until I had achieved this. And I always keep my oaths.”
“So I hear.”
“I was thirteen when I met Sir Theobald. I challenged him to a duel. He beat me handily, of course, but he was sufficiently impressed to make me his squire and train me.”
“What happened next?” Opposite the fire, Gunvor stared at Damien’s face illuminated by the crackling flames.
“Seven years of war as his squire. Another fifteen years of the same as a knight. I fought battles in every realm, sometimes beyond.” He stared into the fire. “Sieges in Ealond. Ships beyond Drake Run. Crossing rivers at night. Fighting knee-deep in snow on the slopes of the Weolcans. I killed men using spear, sword, axe, knife, mace, and flail.”
“That sounds like a nightmare.”
“It is until the battle is over and you have won. Then it is everything you dreamt of.”
She shivered despite the heat of the campfire. “What a wicked dream to have.”
He nodded, still keeping his eyes on the flames. “It took me too long to realise that.”
“What happened?” she asked as before.
“There was a battle in Heohlond. Sir Theobald took a spear, and I knew he would never fight as before. I knew my time had come.”
“What did you do?”
“I fought in the grand fight at the solstice tournament,” Damien related. “I crushed them all.”
“You proved yourself the best.”
“I did, and in that moment, I realised what it meant.”
“What did it mean?”
He took a deep breath. “A never-ending turn of the wheel, year after year of war. On mountain slopes or in river valleys. Attacking walls or defending them. Killing men until one day, they would kill me. I held my prize in my hand, and it was hollow. All it meant was more of the same.”
“You had enough.”
“I had nothing left to strive for. I sought leave to join the ranks of the Templars. The Highfather granted it.”
“You stopped killing.” She glanced at the sword by his side.
“For six years – or seven? Maybe five – I wore the ashen tree. I kept my vows. Obedience, poverty, chastity.”
“But something happened.”
“I spent an evening in a tavern in the city. A man insulted me. I was drunk, and so was he.”
“How did he insult you?”
“Gods, as if I have any recollection. I do not even remember hitting him.”
“You killed him?”
“It was not my first brawl. While unseemly for a Templar, I was never reproached for it before. Until I woke up and was told I had killed a man.” He wetted his lips. “The Temple paid a weregild to his family to keep the matter quiet. I was dismissed, my sword broken, and my name stricken from all records of honour.”
Gunvor shook her head. “You realise that last night you could have done the very same? Killed a man simply because of drink and anger. Do you never stop to consider?”
He gave a shrug. “I am what I am.”
“I don’t accept that. You can’t shirk responsibility for your actions so easily.”
He finally raised his eyes to stare at her. “From the age of seven until I was older than forty, I spent every day training to kill or fighting to kill. I wager it would take as many years to calm the beast they woke inside of me.”
She kept his gaze for a long while before she spoke again. “We should sleep.” She lay down on her bedroll, closing her eyes. He agreed wordlessly, manoeuvring himself to a restful pose without disturbing his ankle.
When Damien woke again, glancing over the ashes of the campfire, he saw no sign of Gunvor.
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