Stories by Colin Burke

The Kryffyr Quest

by: Scymnus de Berg

One summer day, in the south of Narbicana, a woodcutter’s son named Orogald was splitting kindling for his father’s fire, when two young knights rode into his father’s yard, which was but a short way from the road that went by it. One of the knights was merry and fair, but the other was dark of hair and eye and looked grim. Orogald knew that they were knights, from the bearing of them and from the fashion of their swords. For they sat their horses with the left side toward him, as knights of Narbicana always do in time and place of peace.

And the grim knight wore a cloak, though but a light one, in that warm weather.

The two knights sat their horses and watched a while, until he finished cleaving the heavy piece of tree trunk he was working on. For he did not use that axe as most men do, sliding left hand out toward blade to raise the axe and letting hand slip back to other at haft’s end when axe strikes down. But he kept both hands in place at the end of haft, and did much, both of raising and of striking, with his wrists. Nor did he work the axe-blade loose from wood when stroke was struck and wood was still unsplit, but lifted axe and stubborn wood together and brought them strongly down again upon the chopping block. And as they were about to strike the block, he bent his knees to lend force unto his stroke, straightening legs again as he lifted. And his wrists and his chest were strong.

When he had cleft that piece of wood and began to look at them while resting, the dark knight said to Orogald, for it seemed the merry one was loth to speak the question, “Is this the place?” And it seemed to Orogald that there was merriment behind the grimness of him.

Now the village wherein Orogold’s father sold his wood was just around a hill past which the road was leading to them. And he thought that they were asking whether they had come to the place where the village was. So he answered quickly, “Yes.” The knight said, “Good.” Then he straightened himself in his saddle and szaid to his fellow, “This is the place.” He turned to Orogald again and asked, “Where may we lodge?” Orogald pointed to the village, which had the hill between it and them, and said, “There is an inn.” The dark knight nodded and said, “Thanks.” And as they turned their horses, he saw that two pack horses followed them, and each pack horse bore armour of mail for him who led it. He wondered why those knights who carried armour in a time of peace, had no squire to travel with them.

Both the knights rode on toward the village.

Now, when the knights had been in the village for some days and seemed to wait, as men and women said, for some purpose of which they did not speak, Orogald thought more of the speech which they had had with him on that first day. It seemed to him that they might have been seeking a place of which some other man was meant to tell them, and that somehow they might have thought he was that man. The more he thought of it, the more it seemed to him that this was like to be the way of things and that he had thus misled them, to cause them waiting in a place where the thing for which they waited would not come or happen. So he spoke of it to his father, who agreed that this might be the right of it. And his father said that no one likes to seem slow-minded or to seem to meddle foolishly in matters not his own, but that a man should always do his best to make right any mistake his words have caused for others. So Orogald went to the inn and meant to ask whether he might speak with them. But before he uttered word, they spoke gladly to him, as men who welcomed a chance to speak with one who had done them great kindness or who had a common cause with them. They bade him sit and take his choice of wine or ale, and he drank ale with them. And they seemed like men who waited and who were yet content to wait.

Orogald spoke courteously to them, and with respect, and with no great regard for their being unblooded as their shaven faces said they were and as indeed at their age they were most likely to be, at a time when peace was strong in Narbicana.

They told him their names – the dark knight was called Dunard, and the other Miclas – and he told them his. And they spoke of such matters as the food and ale their landlord served, and asked the names of certain maidens they had seen, though not in a manner which would show they meant to follow these things further. But Orogald’s mind was ever upon the mistake which he had made for them, and he wanted quickly to make it right, as far as could be done, and to explain how it had happened. Not knowing how to fit that matter with the talk that was toward, he said, of a sudden, “You are in the wrong place.” And Dunard looked at him, while Miclas seemed to understand his trouble, and said, “How can that be? You told us this was the place.” And Orogald made to speak again, but Dunard put up his hand and said, “This is the place. There can be no doubt of that.” And Orogald was silent and knew not what to say. But Dunard looked at him closely and said, “It is not yet the time.” And it seemed to Orogald that the dark knight made some mockery within himself, though not of Orogald. So he thanked them for their ale, and left them.

Orogald told his father about this, and his father smiled once and suddenly, but would say nothing of it.

The day after that, the two knights came again to the woodcutter’s cottage, and they asked Orogald to go riding with them. And they had with them one of their two pack horses, which bore a saddle borrowed from their landlord. It seemed to Orogald that they did not mean him to be part of any hidden purpose but wished only to be friendly with one who had been good to them, though he did not know how. So, with his father’s leave, who saw no harm in those young knights, he took the thing they offered, though it was not much pleasure for him bodily as he was not skilled in riding upon horseback. But they urged him to try to learn it well. “A woodcutter upon horseback could be stout man at arms in time of war,” said dark Dunard.

“There is no war,” said Miclas.

“I know,” said Dunard then. “That is the best of it.” And Orogald, who was a simple youth, made bold to say, “When I saw ye first, I thought Miclas the merrier, but now I think that you are.”

“He is not so serious about it,” said dark Dunard. Orogald laughed, but the grim knight made no smile.

And often after that, Orogald went riding with them, sometimes going to a stream where the three would swim, or pointing out the farm where dwelt a maiden they had asked about on that first day of the friendship that was growing, or roaming in the woods where he could show them certain trees and say what use he hoped to sell them for when time was ready for it. For he knew a little of all the uses of wood for carpentry and for carving, and for making of wheels and handles of tools, and many other things. But the knights gave him no knowledge of the part of Narbicana which they came from, nor said which part it was, nor spoke of what they sought in Orogald’s quiet village. And Orogald never asked, although he often wondered, why Dunard wore a cloak in summer. That cloak was worn with its clasp on the right side of his neck, so that the garment covered the whole of his left side, and Dunard wore it always. And as the knights had always their swords in goodly scabbards at their sides, Orogald took to carrying his best axe about with him. Most of his neighbours smiled at that, and some did more than smile, but it seemed to him, while the knights were there, a fitting custom, though he could not follow it when they would leave. And his father let him away from much of his work, for he knew the youth would gladly later make up, by working harder, for what the father deemed a gainful idleness. And the sun was warm upon the three that summer.

But late one afternoon as they came back from riding near the fields beyond, there was a great stir in the village, and they saw folk from all around it, and a few from other villages, gathered, with wonder and much talk, about a dray which many horses had hauled along the road. And upon that dray was what Orogald thought at first to be a bird of wondrous size, though he thought next that there was a beast behind it on the dray. For he saw only a great, smooth-feathered head, with its huge beak curving away friom him, and beyond that large paws. But even as he thought this, it seemed strange to him that a bird and a beast so large could be so close together on one dray. Then he saw with a leaping of his heart that bird and beast were one.

“Dastards!” shouted Dunard, at Orogald’s left ear. “How took ye the Kryffyr?” (For “kryffyr” is the Narbicanan word for griffon). And he rode toward the dray. Such was his anger that people drew away, leaving Dunard and his two friends to face the men whose dray it was, if his friends would face them with him. And Miclas and Orogald moved not aside, but waited.

“We hunted him,” said a man who seemed to be the leader of those eight who followed the dray. “And now we got him.”

“Not with hunter’s skill but with coward’s cunning is a kryffyr taken by such as you,” Dunard called out, with his voice raised for all to hear.

“However we took the beast, we got him now,” the leader said. “And someone who can afford to cage the beast will pay us well for it.”

“That the Kryffyr is an animal, no man can deny,” Dunard made answer, “but say not ‘beast’ of it in that manner. The Kryffyr has a place in the lives of men that nothing else can take. My people know him well.”

“What do people in the south of Narbicana know of beasts in the north?” the leader shouted.

“We moved from the north in the long ago, when the king did call us to defend the south,” said dark Dunard. “We knew of the Kryffyr then and we have not forgotten him.” He paused, and then he said, “I will tell the rest of you.”

He gathered his breath and began again. “The Kryffyr dwells in the north and leaves it only to give a warrior’s death to those who well deserve it. When a man should die a warrior’s death but Narbicana is not at war and there is no other cause worth fighting for, the Kryffyr comes to him. And then he fights such a battle as few warriors may engage in. For it is told to us by the wise that things do not go well with a man who merely lets the Kryffyr slay him.”

“Legends from the north,” the rough man sneered.

“The truth is cold and clear,” said dark Dunard. And with his voice well raised, he said again, “When the Kryffyr comes to a man and slays him in a fight well fought, that man’s sons, and their sons, may bear the title Kryffyr-fighter, as many warriors well know. And they may wear a silver badge, worked in the shape of a Kryffyr rampant, in honor of their sire or grandsire. But no one may hold such honour won by any further back than his own grandsire, and such grandsires are rare.”

Dunard threw back his cloak from his left shoulder, so that it hung straight down his back. And all might see that his left arm and side were as whole and strong as were his right. But those who were in front saw also upon his chest, above the heart, a silver badge in the shape of a griffon rampant. And he said in a voice that roared, “Free the Kryffyr.”

Then Dunard got down from his horse’s back saying, “You do not deserve to face a man and horse together.” Miclas got down also and so did Orogald. And Dunard laid his cloak across his horse’s saddle. And getting down from horseback suited Orogald right well, for if he had to fight, he did not want to do it there but with his feet upon the ground, where they were wont to be. But he thought that Miclas and Dunard might have better served the common cause by staying where they had sat. Nevertheless, he stood his ground with them.

“You cannot fight for such a thing,” the leader of the rough men said.

“That is for a knight to say,” said the knight Miclas. And he drew his sword, and so did Dunard. And Orogald held his axe ready.

Since neither party asked for help, nor appealed unto the law, the men of the village made no move to stop the fight, but stood to watch the weapon-work. And the women went indoors.

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