(Content warning for torture and sexual assault)
The Knight awoke from the longest sleep of his life and found that his armour had become too heavy to bear.
He was lying down in the mud, ants crawling into his helmet through his visor. Blinking equalled pain. Rolling over onto his back, he squinted under a blinding sun.
The Knight crawled onto his knees while everything inside burned. His armour seemed to have become an inferno, dousing his body in sweat. His body reeked inside its metal trap. Filth encrusted his skin, like a mail within the armour. Somehow, underneath the great weight, he managed a fevered shiver. At the enormous labour of standing upright his heart felt like a pounding mallet in his chest.
“Squire,” the Knight cried out, out of fear that blackness would take him.
“Here, Knight,” a voice returned from somewhere behind. Not the voice of his squire.
“Who are you? I want my squire.”
“Your Erstwhile Squire abandoned you after the final battle. I am your Present Squire.”
A woman approached the Knight but stopped at a respectable distance. The Knight realized the voice belonged to her.
“Come closer,” he instructed, panting.
She did so, said, “At your command,” and knelt.
“I don’t recognize you.”
As she rose she pulled back the tangle of her long black hair with an efficiency derived of practice. “I became your squire while you slept.”
The Knight observed her peculiar features: the nose too thin, the cheeks too round, the brown eyes beady like those of a prepubescent boy. But her forehead was strong, her build robust. And she carried a sword—the same one his Erstwhile Squire had once wielded.
“Where did you come by that weapon?” the Knight demanded.
The Present Squire smiled. “I saw it lying in the mud, at your side. You were too busy sleeping to object to my taking it.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’ve always wanted to serve a knight of renown.”
“You want to serve me? Then help me remove this cursed thing!”
The Present Squire obeyed, inserting her fingers along various joining points of the Knight’s armour—gauntlet and vambrace, plackart and breastplate, cuisse and tasset—but it would not come undone. She tugged and yanked at his gauntlets and greaves; she pulled on his helmet, tried to cleave his pauldrons with her sword.
Nothing loosed and nothing freed.
The Knight spat out in contempt. “Get this armour off me!” he yelled. New sweat slicked the old.
The Present Squire studied him. “There’s a village not too far from here. They may be able to help.”
“A fine beginning,” the Knight grumbled, steeling himself for the demands of forward locomotion. He impressed himself by managing a few steps and then choked out, “How far is the damned place?”
“Three leagues. Stay close to me. We’ll be there soon.”
As the first houses became distantly visible some hours later the Knight asked something he should have asked long before, but which felt oddly unimportant under the circumstances. “Who won the war?”
The Present Squire beamed. “We did,” she said. “Thanks to your valour.”
They walked on and for the first time since waking up the Knight noticed strange black markings on his armour that hadn’t been there when he’d launched into battle. He assumed now that a bitter soldier on the losing side had found amusement in defacing him while he slept.
They entered the village when night had not yet fallen but the sun was in retreat, during the time of day favoured by shadows and rascals. A crowd gathered. Smiles, nods, a few leery cheers.
“We thank you for the peace you’ve helped bring to this land,” said a rotund man in a high-pitched warble. Others assented.
“Take us to your water fountain, if you have one,” said the Present Squire.
The Present Squire wrapped a long tapering tube stitched together out of cured leather around the water pipe, squeezing its other end between the Knight’s gorget and his Adam’s apple.
As the villagers pumped water through the pipe it began to flow down the makeshift hose and into the Knight’s suit, filling it from within. The leather became sodden and heavy, so that two men were required to hold the contraption in place.
The Knight grimaced as the cold water ran down his scabbed chest and legs, down to his musty feet.
The water level rose within the armour, bringing chill upon chill. And yet no more than tiny beads of water appeared at the armour’s joints and seams. Finally the water reached the Knight’s neck and began trickling out from the gorget. He bellowed that they hold the hose in place and clamp down the visor.
The water sucked at his face within his helmet, covering his mouth and nose.
Blind and drowning, the Knight held his breath.
The armour refused to weaken.
Flailing, he gestured for them to cut the water off.
Visor back up, he studied the looming crowd. As his eyes cleared the Knight recognized a heavily clad figure: his Erstwhile Squire. But he was in no mood for additional company, and waved him away.
The Knight sat in Vanc Eturge’s spellroom and coughed.
“Nasty sound,” the wizard remarked. “Drink water and get some rest.”
The Knight shot him a look of well-crafted contempt. His Present Squire, standing nearby with crossed arms, said, “Help us remove the armour and the Knight’s cough will mend itself.”
Vanc nodded mechanically, disregarding the stench that wafted up from the Knight’s armour. “It continues to get heavier and heavier, you say.”
“Every day since I arose from my long sleep,” the Knight said. “Soon I’ll be unable to move.”
Vanc nodded again, this time with excitement. “The markings… I must study them further.”
The wizard pulled out various tomes and passed a magnifying lens over the coal-black etchings. He poured hot wax on one line of symbols and boiling water on another. The symbols remained unchanged. Stroking his dark ochre stubble, the wizard at last leaned forward.
“Your armour is no longer just armour,” Vanc Eturge declared. “It has become a repository for people’s unruly impulses.”
“Well then reverse the fucking spell,” the Knight said. “Isn’t that your craft?”
“You misunderstand,” the wizard replied. “The etchings are not the result of spell-work. They are self-generated, a rare instance of mythographis axia. Unusual historical and mythological forces have converged. The esoteric mechanisms that normally preserve the balance between the worlds of Being and Representing, the worlds of physical existence and symbolic adjunct, have allowed your metaphorical nature to dominate your material one. Your armour will continue to absorb the violent passions of this land and help preserve the peace. I wouldn’t reverse this even if I could.”
The Knight grimaced and banged his front breastplate. “Useless toad.”
At once his Present Squire helped to lift him up. At this moment the Knight wished he hadn’t dismissed his Erstwhile Squire so hastily the day before—more hands would have been helpful.
They staggered out of the wizard’s abode. As they departed the Knight felt the wizard’s stare lancing through the back of his helmet.
It took a week to cover the distance they had previously traversed in a day and a half. As it was evening, his Present Squire left the Knight to rest, propped up against two bales of honey-hued hay in a dusk-laden barn, while she procured necessities in the village.
She returned with some invisible burden of her own and said, “I ran into your Erstwhile Squire again.”
“A pest,” the Knight said. “But one for whom I have affection.”
“He shared news with me. News that reached the village before we did.”
The Present Squire sat before the Knight, pulling her legs up against her bosom and wrapping her arms around her knees. “Vanc Eturge is dead,” she said. “Hanged himself.”
The Knight’s eyes widened, two pale orbs in his helmet’s penumbra. “Good riddance.”
“Don’t you see?” she asked, rocking back and forth. “His death…his violent passion… He did it to add to your burden.”
“Why would the miserable wretch sacrifice his life just to weigh me down?”
“Your Erstwhile Squire told me about Vanc’s daughter.” She paused, shivering. It was a hard silence. “He said that during one of the bloodiest episodes of the War, you raped her. Your Erstwhile Squire found her shortly after—distraught, to put it mildly. He gave her solace. And fell in love with her. She was killed in the War, but the wizard learned of what you had done.”
“The War of Inchoate Desires was long and hateful,” the Knight said in a monotone voice, as though reciting an abstract fact he had been forced to memorize. “I gave it everything I had. At times the only way to keep going was to take something back in return.”
The next morning was dull and grey.
“Water didn’t work,” the Knight said. “Perhaps it’s time we fight metal with metal. Find me a rack. The kind used to break the truth out of someone.”
“As you wish,” his Present Squire said.
The crowd was larger this time.
The Knight was tied down to a limb-stretching rack. Metallic pincers had been clamped to the various seams of his armour in the hopes that tension would pry the pieces loose.
The Knight nodded once and his Present Squire operated the handle and ratchet. The pincers tugged at his gauntlets and sabatons. There followed a small metallic groan. But the metal resisted, and the pincers began to detach.
The Present Squire stopped the rack’s motion to have the pincers re-clamped more tightly. Again the Knight signalled, drone-like, and the stretching resumed. This time the pincers held. But the armour didn’t come off, and the Knight’s limbs began to pull out.
The Present Squire stopped, but the Knight signalled her to continue.
The grind began and his body was further deformed. The Knight tasted blood as he bit his lips and his tongue began to curl inside his mouth. He strangled a cry. The blood on his tongue tasted like iron. For a moment he was confused: was he tasting his own blood, or the iron in the armour?
More blood was drawn. He forced down his howls as he felt bones pulled from their sockets. The muffled sounds died in the private world of his helmet like animal noises swallowed inside a cave.
Hearing these his Present Squire ceased the cranking and took several steps back. She threw up her hands and looked down at the ground in shame, saying nothing.
The Erstwhile Squire, until now discretely part of the crowd, stepped forward and assumed the Present Squire’s place.
The Erstwhile Squire looked at the Knight.
It began again.
The Knight had to see for himself how far it could go. It went very far. Seconds lasted weeks. At each turn he lived a life—each more gruelling than the last. In the end his obstinacy gave way to the sound of popping cartilage in his left arm.
That gruesome sound made even the firm-willed Erstwhile Squire desist.
The Knight’s left arm fell askew when it was released from the device, accompanied by the Knight’s hollering.
The Present Squire brought him water, shot the Erstwhile Squire a denigrating look, and tied the useless arm into a leather sling.
The pincers had left not a single mark on the armour.
In the depths of the night the Knight was remembering what the wizard’s daughter had felt like, warm and moist, a squealing vitality that had fed him like nothing else. He remembered well how he had held his hands over her mouth and how she had tried to bite him, how he had been strong yet also flexible enough to twist in tune to the spasmodic movements of her head, keeping his hands safe but never letting go, never allowing her shrill screams to rend the air. He pumped at her with the relish of a soldier launched now on a familiar battleground instead of the unknowable, empty ravages of the War. This was the Knight’s private performance, as meaningful as any charge into battle, as significant as any plunging into flesh in the fields of combat.
As he thought these things the Knight grew lonely and sick. With this armour on him he could never again enter a woman. The Knight’s memories changed into something else then, a waking dream. He was climbing a hillock upon which stood a single figure. The figure bowed to him in the unmistakable manner of a squire. The Knight smiled at the subservient gesture, but he could not make out the figure’s features no matter how closely he looked. They remained a blur, a shifting image that could not be pinned down. Yet something about the squire’s garb and his dejected, mournful pose struck a familiar chord. Then the Knight looked about and realized that he was naked. The glory of it was too strong, like nausea.
The Knight’s visor was being shaken, bringing him back from the dream.
His Present Squire had brought food and water.
The Knight described his dreams to her. After he had finished his narration the Present Squire said, “A vision of your Future Squire, perhaps.”
“Perhaps. If so, your face disapproves.”
“I am worried that you are ever farther from the here-and-now,” she said.
“Worry only about the practical things—like this blasted armour. In this land of newfound peace only I, it seems, am still at war.”
Hundreds of townsfolk and travellers from neighbouring villages gathered to watch the melting of the Knight’s armour. The idea had come to the Knight after his Present Squire had donned a new piece of jewellery, gifted to her by a metal-caster grateful for the new trade that came with peace.
At the Knight’s behest, the metal-caster had brought a charcoal-fired hearth and a huge clay-and-sand crucible. An elevated wooden assemblage had been mounted on its sides, a large spit placed above the crucible.
The Knight was hooked to the spit.
The spit was lowered into the crucible.
Some villagers gasped. Others clapped at the Knight’s bravery.
The Knight felt the blast of heat at once. It moved through the metal like a liquid creature and then reached his undergarments and finally his skin. He could barely breathe. Sweat basted his brow.
The caster studied the metal, which showed no signs of melting as the seconds wore on. He asked the Knight what he wished him to do. The Knight yelled to raise the heat.
The caster squeezed bellows to deliver more oxygen to the hearth’s heart, pumping in furious jet after furious jet.
The Present Squire asked him to stop.
But the Knight roared that she should not interfere, and she acquiesced.
Agony befriended the Knight. Garments scorched his skin; deep burns erupted in his underarms, in the flanks of his legs, in his toe-holds. He yelled for more heat, for in the flames within his mind he could visualize the armour dissolving, flowing from him like a tar.
Spectators became agitated, distressed. One farmer declared the proceedings barbarous and took his three children and wife with him as he left, shoving through the crowds with righteous indignation. But an old man who had lost his right arm in the War had a peculiar gleam in his eyes and he smiled and nodded, as though he had been asked a question.
The heat blooming from the man-sized crucible was such now that it reached the crowd in waves, cascades of shimmering air that began to smell of burning flesh. Several women and a few men spewed forth their meals. One cleric condemned the spectacle as unholy and threatened to report the proceedings to the Crown. But those remaining were entranced by the sight of the Knight on a spit in the great crucible.
At last, after what seemed an impossible rite of endurance, the metal became so hot that it bubbled and shifted, malleable to the caster’s prodding.
The Knight no longer screamed. Many believed he was dead.
The caster asked for help from the Present Squire and a few others to scrape the metal from the Knight’s body with long skirmisher’s spears. But they found that the metal did not obey. It oozed down through the garments and, ignoring gravity, towards the Knight’s body, fusing with his clothes instead of peeling off. The Knight yelled then as no one had ever heard him yell.
The caster and the others immediately hoisted up the spit and put out the hearth. Buckets of brackish water were poured over the Knight. Grey steam rose up in columns from the Knight’s charred body.
After the Knight had cooled enough to be touched by human hands, they discovered that the armour had become directly grafted onto his skin.
The armour’s etchings remained, as delicate and beautiful as ever.
The Present Squire and the Knight stood near a cliff that dropped several hundred feet. The Knight squinted through his visor and made out tiny people below, swarming where they thought impact might occur. He imagined them as insects preparing to feed on his carcass after he plummeted to the ground and shattered. The thought brought no pain to his mind, now immolated like his flesh. At least his armour would finally be vanquished.
The Knight gave his Present Squire the terminal command.
Without hesitation the Present Squire shoved him off the cliff.
During the Knight’s long fall there came a moment when he and time both seemed to flow in the opposite direction, up instead of down. Then gravity and the future resumed. He breached a wall of solid blackness and was shoved inside a mangled body.
Bones broken, brain bleeding, the Knight discovered he was still inside his cage. He could feel the newfound wreckage of his flesh still encased in armour. Or could he? Perhaps it was the suit feeling him on the inside; perhaps only the part of him that lived in the suit now lived at all.
The Present Squire rode a horse down the winding mountain and pushed aside the clawing throng. She pulled at the Knight’s armour, which the collision had forced to abandon ordinary lines of geometry. Awkward angles and distended proportions presented themselves to the hungry crowd like a delicious stew. The sight of the Knight’s jutting limbs was thrilling to the observers, serving some secret purpose.
Breathless, the Present Squire tied the Knight’s body to her own back, remounted her horse and set off for the forest. As she cut through the spectators she witnessed a transformation. Something changed within them. Anger gave way to heady enlightenment. They ceased to be prurient observers of the Knight’s collapse, and walked with a new resolve.
As had happened during the Knight’s fall, in the forest time seemed to become elastic. It careened as they slept among the birches and rowans, the alder trees and the willows. It oozed like a viscid treacle while the Present Squire searched for berries among the bushes that grew between hawthorns, oaks and hollies. She applied healing prayers and incantations while she burned red balsam, golden crocus, cassia and myrrh. Finally, time adjusted to the quiet routines that they established amidst the vines, the intoxicating ivies, the hazel pools of shadow.
The Knight’s body mended—and remained inside the armour.
“What now?” he asked the Present Squire with uncharacteristic meekness.
“We should rejoin the people,” she said at once. “We’ve spent far too much time alone.”
The Knight mulled this over. “Yes,” he said with a melancholy air.
They crossed three glades and followed a dirt path skirting half a dozen fallow fields, spotting a small hub of houses to the west. As they arrived at the hamlet the Present Squire observed men forming into a semblance of ranks. They bore arms. She advised the Knight to wait a few steps behind her. But he wouldn’t accept such protection and instead thrust himself forward to interrogate the group’s leader.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Knight inquired. “These are times of peace!”
“We have succumbed too long to that stupor you call peace,” the man replied with a toothy grin. “We wake now from the slumber.”
The Knight stared. “So it is war?”
“Maybe. We will start by taking from those lazy neighbouring townsfolk to the east what is rightfully ours.”
“By decree of the Crown?” asked the Knight.
“By our own decree. By our will,” the man said with finality.
“Someone’s joining us,” the Present Squire warned the Knight.
A man neared the forming ranks and, with firm bearing, interposed himself between them and the Knight.
“I will lead these men into battle,” the man said. There was little room for disagreement in his voice.
The Present Squire lowered her head in prostration—or perhaps defeat.
It came together then.
This was the man whom the Knight had seen in his dream. His Future Squire, come at last to the present moment.
“My Erstwhile Squire,” the Knight said. “You have returned.”
“I serve you,” the Erstwhile Squire said. “Reunited, we shall brandish our swords as once we did.”
The Present Squire sighed. “If you agree with this man’s words, I can no longer be of help to you.”
The Knight felt something stir within. No, not within. He felt himself stir. He felt himself tremble inside the armour. Remarkably, his armour shivered in consonance. It adapted; it responded, still a part of him but becoming something distinct once more.
“You have restored my strength,” the Knight said to the woman who moments ago had been his Present Squire. “I will always be thankful to you for that. Now I have an obligation to marshal that strength.”
She tossed the Knight’s belongings to the new Present Squire and departed.
The Knight caught a look in his new Present Squire’s eyes. The look was an abyss; it communicated vast possibilities. They would march out under the sun and take possession of whatever they desired. They would set the land ablaze with violent competition—men would have to learn anew that old dictum, triumph or perish. Again life pulsated within the Knight, and again his armour rippled in response. Instinct guided him now, smooth, quick. He reached up and shed his armour, one piece after another. It was effortless. It all fell away from him. The etchings on the armour crumbled into fine ashen dust. He peeled himself free of his undergarments and stood bare in the midday sun. He was unsheathed. The sun enveloped him with a warmth he had never felt before. He was clothed in light. The men, growing in numbers, their eyes startlingly alive in that same curtain of brightness, sharpened their blades and secured their shields.
But the Knight no longer needed a shield. Naked and exposed, a willing subject to the curing fever of conquest, he joined the mass of men and prepared to fight alongside them.
Story copyright © 2016 by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Kat Weaver
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes and Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Alvaro’s stories and poems have appeared in markets like Analog, Apex, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, and anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, and This Way to the End Times. His essays and reviews have appeared in venues like Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Kat Weaver (artwork) is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.