Short Stories

Sir Geoff and the Quest to Go on a Quest

knight helmet

‘Tis often said that it be not the knight that maketh the quest, but the quest that maketh the knight. And indeed, just as practicing magick maketh a wizard clever and wise, and working the fields maketh a peasant base and disgusting, so doth questing maketh a knight courageous and bold.

But not e’ery knight hath the goode fortune to spend his days slaying dragons, and rescuing princesses, and protecting the Realm from evildoers.

Some knights instead must bear the dark burden of “responsibility.” Many a would-be hero hath withered away, wasting his time caring for home and hearth, without e’er venturing boldly into the farthest corners of the Realm.

Alas, such was my case when, despite my knightly bloodline, by the ripe olde age of nine-and-twenty I had never been on a quest.

But in noble blood the fire doth burn hot, and after years of wallowing away working a “job” to support my “family,” my desire to quest had risen from the depths of my breast and was ready to ejaculate its gallantry upon the world. All ‘twould take was the right moment and I, Sir Geoff of South Foot-o’-the-Mountown, would brandish my sword and embark on a great quest to earn my place amongst the ranks of the valiant!

***

There I sat, in a corner booth of the tavern Ye Newe Aggrievéd Ducke with three of my fellow knights. Across the room, a lutist strummed a minor tune as a minstrel sang the lyrics to “Mine Eyes They Gazed Upon a Maiden (And Were Later Cut from Mine Skull for Lechery).”

 

“Moste graceful maiden, fair and sweet,

Mine heart thou turns to dust.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to gaze,

Upon thy noble bust!

But to a mighty lord thou art

Betrothed so ‘tis unwise.

I see his men are coming now,

To cutteth out mine eyes.”

 

And on it went in like manner. In spite of his blindness, the minstrel claimed the lyrics were not autobiographical.

“Thou shoulda seen the fangs on this she-dragon!” This was exclaimed by Sir Cloud Biffifius. He had just returned from a dragon-slaying quest, in which he had felled a mighty she-dragon by the name of Beth.

Beth had lived for seven hundred years in a cave just a few days’ journey from South Foot-o’-the-Mountowne. Sir Cloud had slain her in what he described as a fierce battle. He had told the story countless times in his journey back, no doubt, and already the bards were singing his praises in taverns as far away as West Foot-o’-the-Mountowne.

At seven hundred years of age, Beth was quite an elderly dragon. And, in fact, her vision was so poor at the time of her slaying that she thought Sir Cloud was her neighbor bringing her breakfast. She had come out of her cave to ask if she should put the tea on, when Sir Cloud slit her throat with his broadsword.

“That old she-dragon? That’s nothing compared to the battle I fought on the plains of Ymenym Drym. The Armies of Darkness had us outnumbered ten to one, but I charged through their ranks on my mighty steed Gortudius and struck down their Dark Lord with my blade.” That was Sir Iaian Govelfyne. Observers of the battle would have considered his account of it wildly exaggerated. But he was there, that much was true. There were so many battles happening all the time with Ghouls and Dæmons and Armies of Darkness that one could hardly travel across the Kingdom without getting involved in one.

“And what about thee, Sir Geoff. Anything knightly happening down on the farm?” This comment from Sir Twag O’Twyggym was met with much laughter. Nothing knightly was happening down on my farm, and the fact that this was known to them all hurt my pride all the more. I felt great embarrassment at the lack of slaying and vanquishing in my recent exploits.

“Nay, but I taught my daughters to shoot a bow,” is what I said.

This was also met with great laughter.

“Daughters shooting bows? I suppose you taught them to read and write as well?” This comment from Sir Cloud was but a quip, as it was the established science of the day that womyn were incapable of learning.

“As a matter of fact, yes. All of my daughters read and write quite well,” was my reply.

My companions paused for a moment and looked round the table in stunned disbelief.

Then they let out a roar of laughter. Clearly my comment was made in jest. A true knight always enjoyed a clever jest at the expense of womyn or the less fortunate.

“Sir Geoff, you need to come questing with us one of these days. All of this ‘work’ and ‘family’ business is driving thee mad.” Sir Twag patted a scarred and heavy hand on my shoulder, nearly causing me to drop my mug. He was a brute, but he meant well.

“Yeah, Geoff, no offense, but if you don’t go on a quest soon, people will start questioning whether you’re really a knight.” People already questioned my knightliness. I knew it well. They didn’t even try to hide their disdain for the lack of blood on my sword and notches in my girdle. I hung my head and took another swig of ale.

*

The tavern introduced at the start of our tale was at one time known as Ye Olde Aggrievéd Ducke. Said tavern later came under new ownership and was known as Ye Bardpartridge for some while. Years after this, it would again be sold to the son of the original owners, and ever since it has been called by the name Ye Newe Aggrievéd Ducke. The menu has remained roughly the same through all of these changes, although their hoof stew is not as hoofy as it was under the original proprietors. I have addressed this in customer feedback surveys multiple times, but it still has not been remedied. Anywho, the reader may know this tavern by any of the names above if they have chanced to visit South Foot-o’-the-Mountowne in their journeys.

South Foot-o’-the-Mountowne is nestled in the shadows of the mighty Rumpback Mountains, just to the south of the much larger and better known municipality of Foot-o’-the-Mountowne. And just as these mighty mountains cast their shadows o’er this humble village, so the many valiant knights who passed through it deigned to cast their shadows o’er its humble residents.

One of those residents upon whom shadows were cast was I, as thou hast seen. And I do believe my lack of questing is worthy of some explanation.

‘Twas in this town nine-and-twenty years prior to our story that my mother did expel me from her womb and into this lyfe. And from that day, in this town and in the surrounding parts was where I had chosen to kindle mine hearth. For, though I was of knightly bloodline, my family fell on hard times when I was but a boy on account of the peasant blight. Most of our vassals died agonizing deaths, and from a young age I was forced to work the lands to make ends meet.

With each passing year, I told mineself that this would be the year I would go on a quest. But the shortage of sufficient free labour bound me to the land. I soon married a young maiden, who gave birth to many young Geofflings – seven daughters to be exact – and my dreams of glorious adventures were all but dashed upon the cliffs of naught. I had nearly packed it in and resigned mineself to a questless existence.

I had tried to go on many quests o’er the years. But some little inconvenience would always come up to detain me. One of the kids would come down with the sweating sickness and I’d have to take them to the doctor for a bloodletting; or drought would ravage our crops and I’d have to put in extra hours in the fields to ensure my family could make it through the winter without starving to death.

So my dearth of questing wasn’t due to lack of courage or mettle. ‘Twas more just a matter of life getting in the way.

“Don’t ye be goin’ on no quest until the barley and turnips hath been sown,” my wife would say. She was always going on about the barley and turnips. She had a point, too, because we would die without them. I respected that. She was always thinking about not dying.

But a knight needed some time for living, too.

*

“Natural stance, firm grip but not too tight. Strong breath in for the draw, slow half-breath out to aim. Hold. Release.”

Lo! Much fun my daughters and I had on the archery range. When the weather was fine, we would head out to the pasture nigh on every day, where I would teach them to shoot the bow. Natural born orc slayers they were. My littlest one Goiswynth could consistently hit an ox’s eye at 20 rods not long after she learned to walk.

The girls would oft craft targets that bore a likeness to the Lord of the Northly Parts, a much hated rival from an adjacent valley. Thertrude would shoot out his eyes and yell, “Be gone with thy eyes, thou ghastly Lord of the Northly Parts,” and Weertja would douse his head in oils and set it aflame whilst cackling maniacally, then Bragwayna would say, “Lord of the Northly Parts? More like Lord of the Smelly Farts!” and we would all have a rollicking good laugh.

Bragwayna was a jester, that one. Always knew how to make mutilating the likeness of thine enemy funny.

They say that girls learning to do things is unladylike. But I thinketh not. I’d take those girls over any archers in The King’s Army. Out here in the mountains ‘tis a matter of life or death. I knew one day I would have to leave on a quest, and seeing as my wife’s womb did not see fit to bless me with a son, ‘twould be my seven daughters who would defend the farm in my absence.

*

“Look, Geoffy boy, all I’m saying is there’s a magick fountain in the Beguiling Forest that everybody’s been talking about. They say it can grant infinite wisdom to any who drink from it. Or maybe it was eternal life?” Sir Twag pondered a minute over which magickal power they said sprung from the fountain’s waters. “No matter. The Prince of Wallyce has offered a golden chalice to the first knight who can bring him a phial of water from the fountain. I think this would be a great opportunity for your first quest.”

I responded that I appreciated his letting me know of the opportunity, but that my wife had been going on about the turnips all week, and I really had work to do on the farm.

“Confound thy turnips!” shouted Sir Iaian. He slammed his fist on the table and rose madly from his seat. “Confound them, I say! Confound them!” His mighty hand threw a flagon of turnipwine straight across the bar, and his eyes glazed over into a blank and maddened stare.

The others had to struggle to constrain Sir Iaian. The mere thought of a knight doing peasants’ work drove him into a blind rage.

The other knights had families, too. At least I assumed they did. They never talked about it. All they talked about was quests. This is why I usually kept silent whilst we were a-taletelling at the tavern. I felt my humble stories of family life couldn’t possibly compare to their stories of slaying dragons and vanquishing Dark Armies.

My mage told me I needed to stop comparing my life to others. He said ‘twould only bring me down. The only life we could live was our own, and one had to be content with that. And their stories were mostly codswallop anyway, he said.

The barley is always browner.

*

We practiced other things, my daughters and I. Knightly things. Swordsmanship, tactics, tea parties. We studied the great battles of hist’ry and had picnics with berries and little sandwiches.

I taught them how to carry themselves like knights. A knight never suffered an affront to his (or her) honour, I taught them. Perhaps I wasn’t the best example of this, for my honour was affronted on a daily basis. But what I couldn’t do mineself I nonetheless tried to inculcate in them.

I recall passing through the market one day with Rajnawolfe when she was but seven winters of age. Some lads a few years older approached her and mocked her for wearing a dagger.

“What’s our litt’l girly ‘ere gonna do with that great big dagga’, eh?” they laughed. “She gon’ go off an’ slay some big ol’ dragons, is she?”

They poked and prodded at her, but she would not budge in her bearing.

“Oye, I say she’s more likely ta’ cut off ‘er own pretty litt’l fingas by mistake, I say.”

Through it all, like a stoic knight, Rajnawolfe held her head high and kept her cool. A knight knows how to stay calm under pressure.

“Why don’t we go on ahead an’ take that from ya’ before ye hurts ye’self.”

One of the boys approached her.

A knight also knows when to strike. He reached to take her dagger and she broke his wrist.

“Oye, what’s that then? She broke Thommie’s wristicles!” shouted their leader.

He charged her. She drew her dagger and stabbed him thrice in the ribs. The third boy froze in fright. Easy prey. She grabbed him by the hair, threw him to the ground, and crushed his skull with her bootheel.

Dozens of villagers had gathered ‘round by now and were watching the spectacle. She cast a menacing glare towards the boy with the broken wrist. He turned and ran, but not before it became readily apparent to all that he had soiled himself.

Then my seven-year-old girl stood over the bodies of her two slain foes and pronounced boldly to the crowd: “I am Rajnawolfe Geoffsdottir of South-Foot-o’-the-Mountowne, Blade of Destiny, Master of the Mighty Rumpback Mountains, Slayer of Poopy-Headed Naughty Boys. Gaze upon mine enemies and see what happens when one dare provoke my wrath!”

A father has never been prouder than I was in that moment. Her killing of the two boys was judged to be self-honour defense, and she was let off with a warning.

*

On the other side of the bar, unbeknownst to me, a dark figure sat alone in a booth. He wore a tattered grey-black cloak, the shadow of a hood concealing his face. Behind the shadow his eyes glowed like dark coals from the fires of a desecrated land. If one were to gaze into those smouldering eyes they would see nothing but a venomous hate and terror. He listened intently to everything that was said by our party whilst he ate a bowl of bogworm porridge.

I later learned this dark figure had been sent there on purpose to coordinate my dispatch. His name was Kolrek Stanza, and, despite his shadowy countenance, in normal times he worked as a candlemaker. The candle market had taken a downturn recently, so he was doing some freelance work for an evil overlord on the side. This was his first assassination job.

His plan was this: To follow me home and wait ‘til I was asleep in my bed, whereupon he would signal a troupe of warriors hiding in the woods to raid my estate. They would burn it to ash and kill mine family and I whilst we slept.

Apparently it had been prophesied that a knight of my bloodline would one day rise to lead an army against this particular evil overlord. Which one he couldn’t be sure. The overlord had decided to eliminate us all just to be safe.

Lucky for me, Kolrek Stanza hadn’t planned it very thoroughly. He had picked up this gig sort of last minute and spent most of his preparation on looking sinister. On top of that the bogworm porridge at Ye Olde Aggerievéd Ducke was well known to cause bouts of explosive fæculence, and as it were Kolrek Stanza suffered from a bad case of the rickety bowels.

*

“Ay boys, sinister chap o’er in the corner just downed a bowl o’ bogworm porridge,” laughed Uldrick, the barkeep. Sir Iaian had finally calmed down from his anti-turnip rage, and Uldrick had come to our table with another round of ale. “I reckon ‘is guts ‘ill start turnin’ within the hour.”

*

I know it is an unfashionable habit, but I always tried to treat my peasants like they were actual human beings. Yea, I realize they can be quite boorish, and filthy, and foul-smelling, and dimwitted, and ugly, and borderline rebellious at times. But I found that when one got to know them, they weren’t much different at their core from people of our more knightly classes.

I raised my daughters to think likewise, and our whole family worked and ate and played alongside our peasants. ‘Tis true that some of this was due to our aforementioned unfortunate circumstances, but in hindsight methinks I would have done things the same regardless of our situation. ‘Tis good honest work, plowing the fields and tending the stables. It taught my daughters to be stout of heart and strong of arm. And besides, on account of our good relationship with our farmhands, we didn’t suffer the frequent peasant revolts and occasional murder that most of the other knights did.

My daughters built great bonds of friendship with the peasantlings as well. One season, the cabbage harvest was stricken with blight, and it seemed all of our cabbage farmers were apt to starve. I agonized over their plight and had nearly come to terms with their imminent demise, when Rajnawolfe approached me with a solution.

“Papá, whilst our cabbage farmers hath nary a cabbage to eat, we are at this time well-provided with barley and meats from the other side of the farm,” she said. “Mayhaps we should share our abundant resources with the cabbage farmers now, allowing them to avoid starvation, and they shall return the favour at some future date.”

Share. I had never even considered this option, and indeed I was only vaguely familiar with the term. She explained it to me.

“My daughter, this is a most judicious idea. I believe it shall serve to the benefit of all,” I said.

She also recommended I charge them a small interest rate of one tenth of a cabbage per fortnight until they could pay me back in full. This I did, and they made good on it within two cabbage seasons. The barley-to-cabbage exchange rate is constantly in flux and is too technical to describe in these pages, but the bottom line is nobody starved, and I ended up with a few extra cabbages.

I am always surprised by the innocent wisdom of children.

*

After a few more rounds, I took my leave of our fellowship despite their urgings to stay and have another.

“Think about that magick fountain quest I told ye about,” Sir Twag reminded me on my way out.

‘Twas a cold night, but luckily it was a short 20 mile walk back to mine house. I began my journey through a forest shrouded in blackness, the frigid air piercing my lungs like arrows of ice, in my mind strategizing how I could convince my wife to let me go on Sir Twag’s quest.

“Gwendovyr, I’m going on a quest!” I would burst in and tell her.

“Oh, well that’s great, honey. You just go ahead and travel the Realm slaying dragons for the next fifteen years and I’ll stay here and raise the kids,” was what she would say.

She would be being sarcastic. Wives liked to jest like that.

“But this is my chance to finally win glory for our family name!” I would say.

“And will glory pay for those warhorses you keep out in the stables? Those things eat more oats than all seven of our children combined.”

My attention was suddenly directed to a noise in the bushes. At first a mere ruffling, then minor groans, until at last, a loud shout of agony concurrent with an burst of explosive fæculance. I saw now the hooded man letting loose his bowels not half a furlong behind me in the woods.

“Aha! I see the bogworm porridge hath caught up to thee at last,” I called to him in a friendly manner. “Come with me to mine home, and my wife shall make thee a remedy for thine ailing innards.”

But the man gave no response, and instead turned and ran, leaving a trail of sputtering bogworm porridge drippings as he went.

What a strange fellow, thought I. I set back upon the trail, but this man’s strange behaviour aroused my knightly senses and put me on high alert for the remainder of the walk home.

And indeed, it was a good thing for that bogworm porridge, because my senses were heightened just enough to spot a number of shadowy figures in the woods around me. We were but ten furlongs from my house. By the shape and smell of them I knew right away what they were: orcs. At least a platoon of them. I could not have imagined what a platoon of orcs was doing in my woods, but the possibilities were all highly pessimistic. 40 orcs didn’t just drop by for tea in the middle of the night. I cut into a sprint and ran straight to mine armory.

Perhaps this would be it. My final battle. My quest.

*

More important than just swordsmanship or riding or the bow, a knight had to think clearly in the heat of battle. A knight had to find his enemy’s weakness and strike at it with all the tools at his disposal.

I trained my daughters in the tactics of combined arms. The archers would soften the enemy, the infantry would pin them in place, then the cavalry would launch a surprise attack from the flank to rout the enemy’s formation and drive their ranks into chaos. And, of course, there was always the mopping up.

Day attacks, night attacks, defense in depth. We practiced it all.

“Hiiiyooop!” Meegynne would yell as she rode amongst the barley sacks and scarecrows we used as targets, cutting their heads in twain with her little sword. Or Izar, up on the walls. “Loose!” she’d cry, directing the archery line with cold, deadly efficiency.

They were the cutest little killing machines a knight ever did see.

“Papá, wilt thou take us on a quest with ye?” they would ask me.

“Mine apologies, my dears, but questing be not for little girls. Thy mother would kill me if one of thee was wounded by a dragon, or eviscerated by an orc in battle against the Dark Army,” I would tell them.

“Aww, but papá, we’re better fighters than any orc this side of the Rumpback Mountains,” Rajnawolfe would say.

“I know, dear.” Eventually, I would always give in. “I’ll tell thee what, when thou art of marriageable age at thirteen winters, I’ll take thee on a very special quest for thy birthday. Matter of fact, I’ll take each of thee on a quest for your thirteenth birthdays.”

“Oh, papá that would be most wondrous!” they would say. “Will we get to travel ‘cross icy cliffs and through haunted forests? Will we get to drive our swords through the hearts of thine enemies?”

“Of course we will, honey. Of course we will.”

*

I thought of those moments now, whilst I stood in my battle armour in front of my wall. I was facing down a platoon of 40 orcs. They approached me from the woods on a staggered line, twenty ranks across and two deep, about two furlongs distant. They moved at a walking pace, almost casual, so confident were they in their supremacy over me.

So I wouldn’t get to take my daughters on a quest after all. Rajnawolfe would turn thirteen in the coming spring, but my end would be met on this night. At least my daughters would know I went out fighting. And really, what more could a knight ask for than to die a glorious death fighting against the forces of evil to save his family?

The orcs were closer now, just under a furlong, and I drew my sword. I could dispatch maybe five or six of them, but inevitably I would be overwhelmed. My only hope was to hold them off long enough for my family to escape. I had sent the stable boy Cloodo to wake them. He returned to me now.

“M’Lord, thy wife and daughters are not in their chambers,” he told me.

Mine heart sank. Where could they be? Had the orcs already gotten in and taken my family from me? My worry mixed with rage at the thought.

And that’s when I heard it.

“Loose!” The thwap of four bows loosed in unison. I turned ‘round. There, above me on the wall, stood Izar, along with Thertrude, Weertja, and young Goiswynth, each pulling another arrow from their quiver. Before their first volley even reached its target, they had drawn again.

“Loose!”

They knew the distance. Their arrows would hit their mark. There was no need for the whole cadence of “Ready, Nock, Draw, etc.” That was for amateurs. These girls were professionals.

I looked back into the distance. Four pink sparkly arrows hit their marks, and four orcs fell. Before they even knew what hit them, four more pink sparkly arrows and four more went down.

The orcs got nervous. They picked up their pace.

Another thwap indicated a third volley was on the way, then a fourth. Perhaps this would be a fight, after all.

The orcs were at a run now, but it was already too late.

Off to the left, faint at first, but growing louder, came the unmistakable rumble of hooves. Over the crest of a hillock, perfectly timed with the final volley, came three of my daughters on horseback at a gallop, Meegynne and Bragwayna, with Rajnawolfe in the lead. Their swords were drawn. The enemy panicked.

My three little knights charged headlong into the orcs’ flank. Their line broke in an instant. There was slashing and shouting as the orcs, so confident just a minute ago, turned from predator to prey.

I heard a loud “Hiiiyooop!” and an orc’s head flew through the air.

That’s my girl.

I charged forward to join in the melee. The whole family was there, and the peasants, too. Whilst the battle raged, my wife had led some of the farmhands around to the rear. With shovels and pitchforks they mopped up the last few orcs as they fled to the woods.

But perhaps the grandest moment of the battle, nay, of my life, occurred just as Rajnawolfe killed their commander. I watched her, from atop her steed, slash down with her sword. As her blade cut his head in half vertically, right down through the shoulders, she glanced in my direction and caught mine eye just long enough to give me a wink and a smile. Her eyes twinkled in the moonlight. In all the histories of all the heroes, never has it been recorded that a knight cried in the midst of battle. But I tell thee now, without a trace of shame in my heart, that in that moment the tears did well in mine eyes. I didn’t bother wiping them away. I was proud of my tears. I was proud of my daughters. Then, the tears still running down my cheeks and mixing with the slightly acidic orc blood which by that point was smeared on everything, we returned to the slaughter, as a family.

So this was what a quest was like.

***

I never did go to the Beguiling Forest to find that magick fountain. I haven’t slain any dragons or battled any armies of darkness. I told Rajnawolfe I would take her on a quest for her birthday. But on the day she turned thirteen she wanted to have a picnic instead. So we had a picnic. Maybe we’ll go for Bragwayna’s birthday.

I still frequent the tavern, but the mood of the conversation has much changed. The minstrels still sing, the ale still flows, and the knights still talk of quests. But the shadow cast by the mountains o’er this village no longer seems so long. The tall tales told by my fellow knights no longer seem so tall.

And when one of them asks me whether I have been on a quest lately, I tell them: “Yes. I raised my daughters.”