Sir Johnathan de Armes, first Captain of the White Guard, recipient of the Golden Medal for Valor, keeper of the second knights crown with double ivy clusters, and royal bodyguard to the Queen, sweated profusely in his bent, burned, and broken armor. He leaned heavily against the blackened stones on the walkway leading up to the tower that was the most secure location in all the kingdom, and that he knew would mark the end of it as well.
He took the luxury of gathering a few breaths and a moment’s rest before turning to the handful of people in sooty clothes that huddled in the dark entryway below him. Then he nodded, and they began to rise up the stairway to meet him. They were exposed here on the stairway. Everyone knew it, but there was no way around it, and without Johnathan having to say the obvious, they hurried up the stairs in the darkness of the night.
Below them, fires rages throughout the castle, and even though Johnathan couldn’t see them, he could imagine his own troops, his elite White Guard, fighting a losing holding action against the enemy while they gave Johnathan and his small party time to get to the keep high above their heads. Johnathan watched as the young archer, barely fourteen, then two maidens-in-waiting passed him. Finally, the Queen herself stepped out of the shadows and crossed the walkway and climbed the steps to where Johnathan guarded their way. He daughter, the princess followed quietly behind her, stopping for just a moment.
“I will never forget you,” the princess said to him. She was just thirteen. Johnathan could see that she would be a very good queen someday. Beautiful, wise. Correction: would have been. There was no way he would be able to stop what was below them from getting past him.
“Captain, do your duty,” the Queen hissed, reaching out and grasping him by the arm. He could tell that she was just as frightened as everyone else, but after having spent the past twelve years in her court, he had seen her fear reflected in a different way. He actually preferred it this way.
“Yes, your Grace,” he said. “Bolt the doors when you get inside.”
The two women passed him and he watched them pass through the heavy oaken door on the other side. It started to close, then he heard a voice below them.
“Wait!” He turned and looked below. It was the Wiseman. Henrich, mystic, cleric, and metallurgist, puffed his way up the stairwell. In the haste to get the Queen to safety, the Wiseman had been left behind.
“Don’t leave me down here!” Henrich said, using his cane to help him balance on the narrow, precipitous walkway that climbed from one tower to the next at the very top of the castle. Johnathan reached forward and helped the old man up the last few steps to the top of the stairs.
“Sir Johnathan,” Henrich puffed. “Blessed we are to have you here to guard us. I know you will do your best to protect us.” Henrich paused to look at the knight, and then shook his head. “Well, you’ve looked better.”
Johnathan inhaled stiffly through his nose. Blood still trickled through small cuts on his cheek and chin. A bandage was wrapped around one upper arm. His armor, once shining brilliantly golden, was battered, burned and torn. He had only one greave. His shield was missing.
Johnathan nodded. “I would have to agree with you, Wiseman. I am not at my best. When we started this fight, you equipped me with enchanted armor, a shield that could not be dented, a sword that knew no equal, and a helm that could see through walls. And following me I had a division of the finest men I had ever fought with in my entire life. And still you said that the odds were against us. I laughed when you said our army could not defeat five of the enemy. Five!
“And then I met the Triskelion. It has taken everything we have, and more. And now, where do we stand. How many of the enemy still survive?”
“One,” Henrich answered him. “The Spectral Queen. Defeat her and our kingdom will be victorious.” He looked from Johnathan back down the path as if the enemy might arrive any second.
Johnathan grinned in irony. “Defeat her, he says. I had an army. I had armor, a shield, a helm, a sword.” As he spoke, he stripped the broken armor from his shoulders and it fell to the ground. “What do I have now?”
“You still have your sword.”
Johnathan slowly drew the sword from the scabbard and looked at it, as if he were looking at it for the very first time. Henrich looked at it at the same time. The once brilliant blade now was dull, bent, nicked. One huge chunk was torn from it near the tip.
“As you see, it’s not much of a blade.”
Henrich looked at the sword, then at the man who had been chosen to defend them.
“I know I am supposed to be a Wiseman, but…I am not sure what I can say to inspire you at a time like this.”
Johnathan shook his head. “There’s no need. Even before you told me of the Triskelion, I knew that this would be my lot in life. It is the lot of the warrior. It is the way of the paladin. You fight and you die. If you don’t die, you keep fighting.” He shrugged.
Henrich hesitated. “Sir de Armes, have you ever seen the Spectral Queen?”
Johnathan shook his head. “She has always sent her comrades to fight in her stead.”
“Then there is something I need to tell you,” Henrich said. “You must be careful when she comes. Do not believe your eyes. She is evil, just as the others were. Do your duty, whatever happens.”
Johnathan looked at the chipped sword in front of him and took a piece of rock and began to sharpen the blade. “You don’t have to worry about that. Duty is all I have left.”
Johnathan focused on his blade from that point on, not noticing as Henrich left and went through the oaken door behind him. He barely heard the latches fall into place, the massive deadbolt drop, and the crossbeam slide into position. He knew then it was simply a matter of doing what he was trained to do: prepare, kill and perhaps die.
It was liberating to know that for his final battle he would be fighting without armor. He had believed for a long time that the weight of fifty pounds of armor on his chest slowed down his reaction time considerably, and he would finally have an opportunity to prove it. Unfortunately, the limited space of the walkway where he was standing didn’t give him many options for moving around.
The first indication he had that something was coming was a cool breeze blowing up the passageway that they had all traveled up. He had been fighting the Triskelia for six weeks, and so had become familiar with such hints. Those who didn’t often ended up dead. He put the rock he used to sharpen his blade down and looked around for the best place to stand. He decided that he was standing in just as good a place as any, and waited.
What came out of the doorway wasn’t like anything he had seen before. The Triskelia had no connection with humans and didn’t try to bear any resemblance to them at all. The closest Johnathan could do to describe them would be to say they were like ice ghosts. They flew through the air, attacking soldiers by drawing heat from their bodies. But they could be killed, if one was smart, quick and courageous. Four of them had been killed before this, but at great cost to the kingdom and to Johnathan’s army.
But what came through the doorway looked nothing like what he had seen up to this point. This was no ice ghost: this was truly a queen. It was a beautiful woman, dressed in white, her skin the color of alabaster. She stood taller than Johnathan, who himself was well over six feet tall. Her white gown flowed behind her. It was everything Johnathan could do to stop from bowing before her in reverence.
“You are the one called Sir Johnathan de Armes,” she said matter-of-factly. Her voice came out in an echo, as if she were speaking deep inside a cave somewhere. Johnathan noticed that the sound of the battle below them had died down to nothing.
“I am,” he said. “And you are the one they call the Spectral Queen.”
“I am Wisandra, queen of the Spectral Realms, here to claim what is mine. I ask that you step aside and allow me to do so.” She paused and smiled. “Better yet, I ask that you bow before me and join me in my court.”
“I am afraid I cannot do that,” Johnathan said. “I am bound by duty to protect my Queen.”
“With what?” she said in a mocking voice. “That toothpick you call a sword? Where is your armor? Where are your armies?” She looked around. “It appears you are all alone.”
Johnathan smiled lopsidedly. “If I am, then we are both alone. If memory serves me correct, you had four companions.”
“I did indeed,” she said. “It has been quite a while since we have conquered a world that has put up this much of a fight. I thank you for making it…interesting.” She took a breath and looked at Johnathan, as if trying to decide what to do.
“Tis a shame, you know,” she said to him. “I would have loved making you into a Triskelion.”
Johnathan shrugged. “I understand. Do you worst.”
A moment later, the beautiful features of the Triskelion in front of him disappeared and a flash of white coldness enveloped Johnathan. He responded with a sidestep and a parry that he had been saving for this particular moment.
It was going to be a glorious battle.