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The Nethergrimby Matthew Jobin
The best horse I ever knew was a bay stallion with a white star on his face. His name was Juniper—a strange name for a steed of war, but thats what he was called when he was born, and his rider never changed it. The rider was the fourth son of the lord of a little place far away south. This boy had heard every tale of every grand old hero ever told, and when each of them was finished, he asked to hear it again, long after the other boys had started sneering at them. His father gave him Juniper on his sixteenth birthday because he had no land left to give, and so this boy—his name was Tristan—thanked his father for the horse and the armor and the sword he was given, and rode away from home. He had too many brothers for anyone to miss him much.
Tristan and Juniper wandered the roads for many months, looking for good deeds that needed doing, and after a while they found some—lonely things, quiet things in little hamlets and manors at the edges of the land. Tristans shield was often dented and often mended. His sword grew notched, but he kept it carefully keen. Juniper grew as fearless as any horse ever born, and the rumor of their coming sent awful things scurrying into their holes.
But the world is not a story, or if it is, the plot is very strange. The people Tristan helped were mostly poor, and though they were grateful when he killed a quiggan or caught an outlaw, it was hard to live on what they gave in thanks. He and Juniper grew both tough and wild, and in safer places where there were no such troubles, he found that people had no use for him. After a while he found himself dreaming of a different life, with warm fires, good food and cheerful friends.
One day, as Tristan traveled through a land south and west of us near a great curve in the mountains, he was met on the road by a lord and his household knights, well-fed men in polished mail astride great horses of war. They commanded that Tristan stop, for they had heard stories of this youth who roved the marches, doing the bravest of deeds for the least of men. The lord bade Tristan attend him at court, where Tristan spoke of his adventures with the grace of perfect truth. The court sat up listening long into the night, and when Tristan was finished, the lord raised his cup and welcomed him as a knight of his household. Tristan was overcome with joy, and swore a sacred oath to serve the lord all his days.
All seemed well at last. Tristan was a gallant young knight in service to a mighty lord, riding at the head of his vanguard in gleaming armor. As the months went by, though, Tristan began to discover something he did not like. He would hear stories of trouble out on the borderlands, just as before: boggans in the millponds, thieves and cutthroats on the roads—the sort of things he would always go and try to fix when he was on his own. But now he was an oathbound knight, and his lord would never allow him to go help anyone. Tristans lord wanted very badly to have more land, even though he already had so much that you could not ride across it all in a week. He plotted and schemed for months, drawing up his plans in secret and buying allies with coffers full of gold. Other lords came and went from the castle—some fearful, some angry, and some with terrible hungry smiles.
Soon enough, war came, a war that was happening only because Tristans lord wished to rule more of the world. Tristan had sworn an oath, and that meant he would not leave no matter how unhappy he became, for he had been raised to keep his word, especially when those words were sacred oaths. His lord led an attack through a nearby land, fighting all the way. Instead of monsters, Tristan found himself in the thick of battles against other men with whom he had no quarrel. He tried to be merciful whenever he could, but people died on his sword—perfectly decent people who did not deserve it. Sometimes he would lie awake at night, and a little voice in him would ask if it would be better if it was he who died.
At last they laid siege to one of their enemys great castles. Tristans lord thought he could win if he struck fast and hard, so on a hot night in summer some of the men were ordered to throw ladders up the sides of the walls and try to take the castle by storm. They scaled the gatehouse and let down the drawbridge under a rain of arrows. Thinking victory was his for the taking, Tristans lord charged in, leading Tristan and the other knights far ahead of the foot soldiers. He made an awful mistake, for the enemy within the castle was much stronger than he had guessed. They sprang in a mass from every tower, trapping the knights in the courtyard below. Tristan tried to protect his lord, throwing himself in front of every enemy who came near, but it was no use. An arrow struck the lord in the neck and he fell off his horse, dead.
The attack had failed. The courtyard was strewn with the dead and the dying. Tristan lowered his sword and stared about him like a man in a dream, and it was only Juniper, weaving this way and that through the fray, who saved both himself and his rider. Tristan let his sword fall with a clatter to the stones, and then his shield. He grasped the reins and rode from that courtyard through a hail of arrows, past his own army and into the night. He was never seen in that country again.
Seasons turned in their weary round. Tristan and Juniper became lonely, wandering creatures again, but this time Tristan was afraid and ashamed, and did not try to be a hero. Junipers saddle was sold for food, and so was Tristans ring that was given him by his mother, and still they had hardly enough to eat. For many months they roamed, a ragged young man with his big shaggy horse, until they came into the north in the middle of a winter just like this one.
In that winter, in a place not far from here, there was a little village in terrible trouble. It stood at the very edge of the kingdom, far out and alone on a road so old that no one knew who had built it. Tristan rode Juniper into the village just as it was getting dark. They crept along from house to house, finding no one anywhere, until they came to a crossroad where stood a tiny inn. No sound came from within, but firelight flickered through the shuttered windows. Tristan threw a blanket over Juniper and led him to the empty stables in the back, then opened the inns front door.
Theres a draft,” spoke a voice. Its owner was the only person inside. He sat with his feet propped up before the fire and the cowl of his fine dark cloak over his head. He seemed—of all things on such a night—to be reading something.
Why are you not at the hall with the others?” The cloaked figure spoke without turning.
Please.” Tristan stepped in and shut the door. I am just a traveler. I do not know where I am supposed to be. It is very cold outside.”
The other man turned to look at him. You, friend, must be the most luckless traveler in all the world.”
Tristan came closer to the light and warmth of the fire. He could see that the other man took him for a beggar or a runaway slave. He certainly looked it; his tattered old tunic had been made for a much shorter man, and he had sold his shoes months before. His feet were bound with rags, and in his long wandering grief, his beard had grown tangled and his eyes sunken.
The other man bent to throw a log on the fire. The innkeeper is at the hall with the rest. Your best chance for survival is with them.”
Tristan held out his hands to the flames. What is happening here?”
The other man looked up at Tristan with an expression both searching and amused. Tell me, traveler, where were you going?”
I do not know. I was following the road.”
You could not follow it much farther. Past here there once stood a few farms; they are nothing now but ashes. The road then rises into the mountains, but you would never reach them. The Nethergrim has come. He has found these people living on his doorstep, and he is angry.”
The Nethergrim?” Tristan sat next to him and warmed himself by the fire. I thought that was just a story.”
Would that it were.” The other man flipped to end of his book, searching page after page. He closed it with a sigh. Nothing. No help at all.”
What were you reading?” asked Tristan.
My masters journals, for the third time,” said the other man. I was looking for some secret knowledge of the Nethergrim, some weakness I could use against him.”
Where then is your master?”
Dead—along with his guards, servants, mounts, guides and all of his apprentices save me. I was the only one who got back here alive.” The cloaked man laughed, short and bitter. We were exploring the pass, you see, searching for some sign of the fabled Nethergrim.”
Tristan stood and looked through a crack in the shutters. He saw nothing but the snow-dusted road and dark houses. And he is coming here?”
He is,” said the other man. There are records of such things from long ago. The villagers know much less than I, but their legends are enough to feed their fears. They meet now in the hall to decide their course.”
Why are you not with them?”
The other man looked around him at the shadows on the walls of the tavern. I dont like crowds, and this seems as good a place to die as any.”
Tristan felt a chill, for he knew despair when he saw it. You are sure there is no hope?”
The man looked Tristan up and down again. What is your name?”
Tristan hesitated, for it had been long since he had used his right name—first from fear, then from shame, and after a while from simple hopelessness. There was something, though, in the way the other man looked at him that made him want to speak truly. I am Tristan.”
You may call me Vithric,” said the other man. Give me your counsel, Tristan. The Nethergrim has arisen and slain my master, a wizard of no small power. Foul things of many orders obey his will. Tonight they will enter this village and harrow it—tomorrow I doubt any of us will be left alive. There are perhaps a hundred folk holed up in the hall, forty of them children, and maybe a dozen old or sick. Few of them are armed, and none are well armed. What would you have them do?”
Tristan was surprised, as it had been some time since anyone had looked on him as someone to be heeded. The village hall—how is it constructed?”
Timber over a stone foundation, with a high roof of thatching.”
Tristan shook his head. It cannot hold.” He pondered for a moment. Perhaps the villagers can buy their freedom. If they put together all their possessions and offer them as tribute, maybe the Nethergrim will let them go.”
Here in the north the Nethergrim has many names,” said Vithric. The Old Man of the Mountains, they name him, the Thief at the Cradle, Mothers Bane. They say the flesh of children is the only thing he truly prizes.”
The thought of those poor children trapped in the hall and awaiting such a fate was more than Tristan could bear. We must do something!”
There is nothing to do,” said Vithric. The villagers might as well pass the time digging their own graves. Perhaps the Nethergrim will be so kind as to toss in their bones when he is done with them.”
They can run.” Tristan stood. They can run! If they hold together—”
It is forty miles to the nearest village, and sixty to the castle at Northend,” said Vithric. They are all as good as dead—so are we.”
Tristan paced across the room and back. How many horses do they have?”
None. My master hired them all, and they are all now eaten or fled into the mountains.” Vithric raised his hands and let them drop again. Were it morning, and the fast did not wait for the slow, some of these folk might reach safety—but it is night, and mothers will carry children, sons will prop their aged fathers on their shoulders and they will all of them die upon the road. Some of these creatures can move through the shadows at great speed.”
I know that.”
A somber smile crossed Vithrics face. Then you no longer wish to play the wandering pilgrim? You were not at all convincing—sir knight.”
What use is there in hiding, if this is truly my last night in the world?” Tristan stared into the fire. Vithric watched with him. Neither man looked at the other.
Tell me,” said Vithric. When you did fight, for what were you fighting?”
I once served a great lord,” said Tristan. I thought I fought for honor, but in truth I fought for his greed. I killed good men; I made widows of their wives, I made orphans of their children so that I might hear my master say that I had done well.”
You score above the other knights I have known in your honesty, at least,” said Vithric. There is nothing else?”
Once,” said Tristan, long ago it seems, I wandered from village to village, throwing my shield over poor folk with no other hope. I never asked for more than they gave, and they never could give much. I had my sword, my shield, my horse and my honor.”
And you had their thanks,” said Vithric. Their praise and their love. And in time, as you saved the lives of more of these poor, decent folk, you began to wonder . . .”
Tristan looked up to the rafters. I began to wonder if I was doing it because they needed me or because they praised me.”
Vithric nodded just once. That is indeed the question. I would have liked to spend some days discussing it, for the currents of your thought run deeper than most mens. I fear, however, that we have no time.”
You speak truth.” Tristan roused himself from his place by the fire. Come with me.”
What do you mean?” Vithric spoke in a snap. We have already discussed it. There is no way out.”
Tristan opened the door. I have lost my sword and shield. I may have lost my honor, too—but I did not lose my horse. Come.”
He led a dumbfounded Vithric to the stable. You will have to ride without a saddle.” He touched Junipers face. Goodbye, dear friend. Bear this man to safety.”
Vithric gaped at Tristan. You could have run. You could have gotten on this horse and galloped for your life as soon as you knew you were in danger.”
His name is Juniper.” Tristan walked them out to the road. I ask only that you treat him well.”
You grant me the hope of life,” said Vithric. How do you know that I am worthy of the gift?”
Tristan helped him onto Junipers back. Make yourself worthy.”
Vithric took the reins. He stared down at Tristan, then off into the distance. Then—what will you do?”
Help the folk of this village escape their fate if I can, or die at their side if I cannot.” Tristan slapped Junipers flank. Now ride, and do not look back.”
Juniper sprang off at a gallop down the cold and empty road. Tristan turned to walk to the hall alone, but before he had gotten much closer, he felt a chill down his back. He looked around; creeping from paddock to garden to byre, the servants of the Nethergrim had shadowed him, and now they drew in. He would never reach the hall alive.
Even though he knew it was useless, he took a fighting stance. I know what you are—I have killed your kind before. You cannot scare me to death. Come and take me, if you can.”
The creatures closed in, emerging from the shadows under cottage and haystack. Just before they crept onto the road and their forms became more than awful suggestions, Tristan heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching at a gallop. At first he thought he was dreaming, and then he thought it was the villagers, but it came from the other way. He looked down the road and could scarcely believe what he saw.
Yes. It was Juniper—and Vithric, too. They rode in at a thunder, a heartbeat ahead of the Nethergrims creatures.
I come to return your gift!” Vithric reached down for Tristans hand, and so the greatest knight and the greatest wizard this world has ever known became friends. You see, before they could save that little village, and then the kingdom and all the world, first they had to save each other.
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