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Laughter followed the utterance of the one-word joke as it had before while the group trudged along the dirt road. Unlike the times before when the strange word caused others in the group to shout it back until everyone's side was aching from their mirth, the group's joyfulness fell silent, as if a wave had washed over the group from its head to the farthermost person at the back. Far ahead, their destination had finally come into view though it remained a mere speck. It wouldn't be long until they felt certain that they'd learn the truth instead of the tall tales containing unimaginable foreign words told to them by those who left their destination in defeat.
* * *
Kaither caught sight of the imposing, outer castle wall of black granite as he rounded the last bend in the road. The castle had been in sight for hours, except for brief intervals when other hills blocked his view. When he could see it before, the castle seemed smaller. Now that he was almost up to it, there was a marked difference in his perception. Now it loomed like a giant.
Though his travels had been long, he'd not been entirely alone. When he started his journey, he fell in with two men who had already walked many miles. Others later joined the group as he had, gradually adding some color to it as their robes were no longer just the color of a single kingdom. Now fully a dozen others around him walked the same path to Castle High Crag.
Generations ago, High Crag was a bleak, foreboding wayside best not visited in any season. The castle's only virtue had been its impenetrable defenses bolstered by the high coastal cliff it perched upon. Now it wasthe most visited location on Caerna, though the countryside remained bleak because of its barren cliffs and a predominance of rocky soil. Each year, thousands flocked to its gates seeking membership among the Knights of the Star, a small Order established a mere century earlier by Sir Private Malidor.
Like the others walking with him Kaither had tried on one of the stiff leather suits molded to the same exact size as the black armor worn by the Knights of the Star. Each copy traveled from village to village, carefully protected from the elements by proctors belonging to the Order of the Star, one of the major religions within the Allied Kingdoms. Kaither had been judged by others in his village as a good fit. More importantly, his friends and neighbors had urged him to seek knighthood. Only those considered pure of heart and fully worthy ever gained the permission of a patron knight spirit, regardless of their own religious beliefs. Certainly, it spoke well of Kaither that his neighbors had convinced him to journey and try. After all, he could accomplish much for them and others if he succeeded.
Of course, there was still the preliminary training he had to undergo before he stood in front of the patron knight spirits and asked for their judgment. Though he still understood very little of the process from discussions in the evenings with travelers returning home after failing, he'd seen the results a few times from a distance. Consequently, he considered it worth his while even though it took him close to a month of walking to reach the castle.
He wondered whether he'd have to wait outside the castle for others to take their turn first. Returning groups had mentioned that sometimes happened. They'd stated that the gate guard maintained a testing order based upon arrival. If the line was long his group could look forward to living for several days in a crude shelter provided by the Order. That was somewhat like their circumstances during their travel. When near villages or towns they'd found themselves welcomed and given a place to sleep. Occasionally, they were given a little food and beverage to supplement what they carried. However, few could afford to purchase much, so they'd often forage along the way to replenish their supplies. At night in the wild they usually found and reused the abandoned temporary shelters of those who'd traveled the trail before them. When necessary, they strengthened the shelters against the elements.
As he and the others drew closer to the castle, shouts of strange words came to their ears amid the sounds of ropes and pulleys in constant use. Several of the others with Kaither expressed their surprise at hearing those words in use. Some returning travelers had mentioned that they'd have to learn strange magic words, a few of which they'd uttered to everyone's laughter. As the trail shortened it became clear that the travelers hadn't been joking for those very words were what the group heard.
A scream and a loud thump pierced the air just as Kaither 's group reached the gate. They craned their necks in time to see a man bounce back from hitting one of the castle walls. He dangled limply from the leather harness he wore. After a few moments, he was pulled by an attached rope to one of the battlements where several burly men and a padded cart waited to receive him.
"Take him out gently!" a black-robed proctor shouted on a battlement.
"Enter and follow that proctor. Do as he instructs or leave," the guard said, pointing to another black-robed churchman standing within the courtyard.
Kaither entered and followed a proctor whose directives were law to visitors like himself. The proctor's stern manner left no doubts about that in Kaither's mind. The proctor gave hand signals that the group should be quiet and follow. They walked to one of the corners of the courtyard and sat down upon the ground at the proctor's guidance. Aside from some scraggly grass where soil had gathered in the cracks, the rock they sat on was bare. The proctor seated himself on a stone bench.
"Keep your voices down so the test attendants can hear."
"What now?" Cheetan, the woman next to Kaither, asked the proctor.
"First, you'll watch how it's done. Good or bad, what those applicants do up there is what you'll eventually go through. You must pass the air test before you may approach the patron knight spirits," the proctor answered.
Kaither stared up as another man high upon the battlement dressed himself in a leather suit with ropes attached. The suit was nearly identical to the one that Kaither tried on in his village, except for the ropes. Several assistants looked the man over as if his life depended upon their keen eyesight and knowledge. In truth, it did. One slip could cause him to fall the fifty feet to the ground where he might be killed. It was solely up to him to avoid colliding with the walls and trees that dotted the courtyard. Carefully, he was attached into a maze of ropes and pulleys meant to give him very close to full three-dimensional movement through the air within the confines of the castle. The specially trained assistants waited for his commands.
"Five up!" the man shouted, though the alien words meant nothing to Kaither.
Instantly, a team of strong men strained and yanked on the proper rope to raise the leather clad man off the rampart. Dangling in the air, he alone remained in control of his destiny as he gazed down at his proctor's hand signals for instructions to give his rope bearers.
"Forward... Left... Forward... Down... Hover!"
The last command had an urgency underwritten to it that only made sense to those who could also view the spikes beneath the man. Kaither still didn't know what the commands meant, but he assumed that the strange words had something to do with where the leather clad man was pulled and tugged by the various ropes above and around him. Then he realized that his assumption actually came from what his own proctor was saying as the action took place. Gradually, Kaither let his mind's attention linger more on his proctor, leaving his eyes to follow the suspended man.
"He just now gave the magic command to ascend once more," the proctor said in a soft voice.
The ropes sang as the man lifted up quickly, though not as fast as a real knight could do without the use of ropes. Kaither had already seen one fly through the air, though at a distance.
"It's always best to give a spell word of four or five to your commands to rise and especially to lower yourself. If you do not, you can hit the ground before you can stop. Even experienced knights have been before in that manner. So has their armor. That is why you must pass these tests first. We dare not lose any more of the suits. Remember that five is more than four. If you give a four to rise, do not give a five to lower. If you do, you'll probably break both your legs."
"Right... Forward... Hover!"
"He just gave a command to turn to his sword side, proceed to his front, and then to stop."
"Hover means stop?" Cheetan asked.
"You catch on quickly," the proctor said. A smile creased his aged face.
"Sounds like a good word to use when approaching those walls," a man said.
"He just gave a command to turn to his shield side. He's spinning in place because he didn't give any magic command for forward."
"Forward?" a man asked.
"Get used to hearing and using those commands. I already told you that forward is the magic command for moving to his front. I'll be using the magic words as much as possible to speed your learning," the proctor said with a tired voice.
"Forward... Forward... Forward... Hover!"
The group watched as the man in leather barely came to a halt before smacking into a stone wall.
"Why did he give the forward command three times?"
"In real usage with the magic suits it makes you go even faster when a direction is involved. It's most dangerous to use when flying at low levels or heading down. A knight who ruins the magic in his armor risks losing the right to an honorable burial alongside those who've passed before him, or her, as the case might be."
Cheetan smiled at the thought of succeeding as one of the few women to ever become a knight. She knew that there was presently one other woman active as a knight among the Order of the Knights of the Star. She'd heard that there were once three women active simultaneously as knights before she was born. Though it seemed like a small number, it wasn't. The Order rarely held more than twenty active knights at any one time. Two were stationed at the Castle of High Crag. The rest held posts at other distant castles from which they forayed. Most of the time they worked in small teams of two or three. Consequently, they rarely posted knights at more than ten castles.
"So, what do we do now?" a man asked.
"You will watch, listen, and learn. When you feel you know the magic commands, you will be tested by me. If you pass, I'll train you on how to read my hand signals so that you'll receive a fair test up there," the proctor said, with a nod to the ropes. "When you pass the hand signal test, you'll climb up and be strapped in for your flying test before you're given the final magic words to speak to the hollow suits."
"How many suits are empty?" Cheetan asked.
"Twelve, but four have lost their magic," the proctor answered.
* * *
In the few hours they'd been learning the magic commands, two applicants smashed into the castle walls. Another landed hard in the courtyard. Though all three were injured, none would die. Even so, their proctor had already told the group it wasn't unusual to lose a few each week. Certainly, they knew that to be true. They'd seen some of the bodies carried away for burial by those who had tried and failed to master the magic. Hopefully, they wouldn't find themselves all failures with a body or two to carry back home or injured to assist.
"Do you feel you're ready for your signal test?" the proctor asked, upon seeing a raised hand.
"No, sir. Could you point me in the direction of the relief facilities?"
The proctor smiled. "We could certainly use a break now. Please follow me. I'll show you that and our other facilities that you may use. Right now, I can use some water for my tired voice."
Kaither's group stood and followed their proctor to a location above the outer wall where the parapet jutted over the high cliffs facing the sea. A few deliberately placed, wind-sheltered seats featured openings where some basic concerns could be dealt with. After a brief pause there, he led them to a cistern holding fresh water drawn from High Crag's deep well.
If nothing else, the new locations gave them different views of the extensive rope and pulley network arranged above the courtyard. As well, they finally saw the brawny men who reacted to the commands from the applicants. Rows of men worked different ropes from different places along the battlements. Some wore short robes. Others wore waist sashes. All were soaked in perspiration that glistened on their bodies as they strained away with gloved hands to pull the correct ropes when ordered. Near the rows of working men rested more burly men on old woven scraps obviously meant for their comfort. All the while, a few boys and women carried food and drink about.
"Is everyone refreshed and ready to resume our study?" the proctor asked. The men and woman of the group nodded, as the proctor glanced around for their response. "Follow me. If you watch carefully as we return to our area, you'll get a chance to see what you're studying to attain."
The group paid more attention to what was at their level as they descended than to the new man whizzing about above them. True to his word, the proctor guided them to an open hallway at one side of the courtyard where he halted. There, before what was a large U-shaped alcove, stood an actual Knight of the Star guarding the suits meant for worthy applicants to someday wear. He even smiled at them as they paused for a moment to stare in awe at his black suit with its inlaid silver, gold, and white ornamentation and several small, visible god lights. Their eyes soon turned to gaze at the rows of empty suits within the shadows that mostly matched his. A few possessed different ornamentation. Some showed signs of damage. One man opened his mouth to speak, but the proctor gave a sign for silence before motioning the group to follow.
Kaither hesitated for a moment, then stepped closer to the leather suit. The courtyard below seemed farther than he'd expected. The men and women he'd watched before hadn't appeared to be as high.
"You don't have to take this test. No one will fault you for changing your mind," one proctor said in a soft voice.
"I must. I can't let down my neighbors. They promised to do my work in the mines so I could try."
The proctors nodded. They'd heard similar remarks from many of the applicants, regardless from which kingdom they had arrived. Many of the applicants were truly worthy in light of how their fellow villagers felt about them. Even so, very few ever attained knighthood.
"Fine then. Are you ready now?"
"Are we in a hurry?" Kaither asked.
"Not really. We don't mind going slow. It gives the pullers more time to rest."
Kaither stared down from the battlement for another moment. "I think I better get this over with. Otherwise, I'll worry too much about hitting a wall."
Carefully, the proctors slipped the leather suit around Kaither. They pulled snug and tied each lace so that no slack existed through which he might fall toward certain injury or possible death. After all, they had no way of knowing if anyone they lost might have turned out to be a truly worthy individual. Consequently, they didn't rush through procedures as they went about their duties.
Kaither tried his best to breathe naturally. At the same time, he attempted not to show his fear of being hoisted into the air to be pulled about like the wind doing its best to dislodge a seed from its pod on the end of a grass stalk. He noticed the ropes were well worn from heavy use.
"You're suited up now. You can begin giving commands when you're ready. Then take instructions from your proctor in the courtyard as you were taught."
"Have these ropes ever broken before?" Kaither asked.
"These are new. If any break, it won't be held against you. You'll be permitted another chance to qualify."
"If I survive, you mean?" Kaither asked.
One of the proctors grinned weakly and nodded.
"Is he ready?" the proctor shouted from the courtyard.
"He's ready. Give him a chance to get his courage up," one proctor shouted back down.
"Five up!" Kaither commanded, in the manner he'd been taught. His breath felt squeezed out of him as his body shot upward into the air. "Five forward!" he gasped.
Over the edge of the battlement, Kaither flew. No longer was there anything close beneath him. If he fell now, the results would be serious. He glanced down and spotted his proctor. He hadn't expected his proctor to appear so small. Perspiration broke out on his forehead as Kaither watched for the hand signals he'd spent hours learning.
"Forward... Forward... Forward... Hover!" Kaither shouted, as the wall approached much faster than he believed it possible for the men to move him.
Even more important was the unexpected appearance of sharp spikes that pointed in his direction. No one told him where to expect those on the wall. His movement came to a halt just before one of the spikes entered his legs, as the spikes were located only where he might be injured and not killed. After all, the tests weren't designed to kill anyone. The deaths that did occur were the results of accidents and blundered magic commands. Kaither felt with outstretched toes for the oncoming battlement, as he gave one last command.
After a few moments his toes felt the stony parapet once more beneath his feet as his test came to an end. The proctors moved around him and unlaced the leather suit he'd sweated inside of for what felt like an eternity. Actually, it was only enough time to wear out two sets of rope pullers. He staggered toward the edge as he regained his footing and balance. Before he could fall, a proctor grabbed him.
"Steady there. We don't want to lose you now. Not many make it this far."
Kaither didn't need that explained to him. He'd seen several men come unglued after very little time in the suit, and cry to be brought back in. They'd had enough and were willing to flunk themselves rather than risk injury. Some couldn't even make it past the first few commands. They would freeze up a few steps away from the parapet after giving the first forward command. Eventually, they'd be hauled back to the battlement and removed from the suit by proctors who tried to be compassionate in following the same creed used by the knights.
Another proctor loosely looped a knotted cord around Kaither's hand.
"What's this for?" Kaither asked.
"It's your pass to the Sacred Hall. Present it to the knight on duty. He'll permit you entry. Once you are inside, sit and meditate upon the meaning of this responsibility you would carry upon your shoulders. When the sun drops, your proctor will arrive and teach you the last of the magic commands for your final test to determine your inner worthiness. Reflect not upon the wrongs you might have performed before. Those can be forgiven. Concentrate on what you feel you can do that will be good for our people. Whatever happens, good luck to you."
Once more, the attending Knight of the Star smiled as Kaither approached. He stood aside to permit entry upon seeing Kaither's pass. Inside, there were only three other applicants waiting. Like them, he sat down upon the bare stone floor and gazed around at the suits amid hopes of qualifying once he learned the final magic commands. After a short while of moving his eyes in reverent awe from one suit to another, particularly the ones with tiny god lights showing, he remembered his instructions. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, as he tried to demonstrate a proper humility and goodness worthy of knighthood.
Copyright © 2004 by David Kuminski