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“Bentley of Chessington, do you swear to uphold the Articles of the Code, to defend Chessington and her citizens from enemies both outside and within her borders?” Lord Kifus’s voice echoed through the great hall of the palace.
“I do.” Young Bentley looked up at Kifus. Sand-colored hair formed loose curls around the young man’s neck and ears. His square, clean shaven jaw revealed a small, faint scar—a badge to remind him never to become prideful about his considerable abilities as a swordsman. Bentley’s shoulders were broad, and he carried himself with the distinctive posture of a nobleman. In spite of his comely appearance and his social charm, however, Bentley did not hold himself in high regard, and thus there was very little to dislike about the young man.
“Do you swear to uphold the honor of the Noble Knights, placing the protection of your fellow brothers- in-arms above your own?”
“I do,” Bentley replied.
Nearly all two hundred Noble Knights were present to witness the knighting of one more squire into their brotherhood. It was a time-honored tradition that often followed the family lines of the wealthiest men in Chessington, and such was the case with Bentley. Behind the Noble Knights stood two to three hundred highly respected citizens of Chessington, for this was a significant event for both the Noble Knights and the citizenry.
“Do you take this oath without reservation, fully understanding the authority and responsibilities granted to you by the King—an oath that binds you to the order of the Noble Knights until death?”
Bentley hesitated, looking past Kifus toward the two men standing behind him. His father, Sir Barrington, and Sir York, the man who trained him at sword—his role model and his mentor. Could any two men be more different?
Bentley looked toward York and then to his father. A few seconds passed, and the delay became awkward. Barrington gazed at his son, smiled, and nodded. The room filled with tension, and Kifus’s gaze became stone hard.
Bentley looked back to the white-haired knightly leader, an icon of the perfect knight in many eyes. This was what Bentley had wanted his whole life, and yet something tugged upon his soul from another direction. It was those last few words that caused him to hesitate, for such an oath was a seal that would establish the course of his life forever.
He repeated the words in his mind:
“Do you take this oath without reservation…an oath that binds you to the order of the Noble Knights until death?”
What could be more honorable than service to the King?
“I do.” Bentley lowered his head in submission.
As if the doors of a flooded chamber had opened, the tension abated. Kifus lifted his brilliant silver sword to just above Bentley’s shoulder.
“Then I dub thee Sir Bentley, protector of Chessington and Noble Knight of the King!”
He touched the flat of the blade to each of Bentley’s shoulders, and a roar of shouts and acclamation filled the great hall. Bentley stood and Kifus offered his arm as a token of brotherhood.
“Well done, Sir Bentley. You are young but well deserving of the honor.”
“Thank you, Lord Kifus.”
Kifus turned to greet some of the approaching prestigious knights and citizens. Bentley’s father stepped forward and embraced his son.
“I am proud of you, my son.” Barrington smiled broadly through his cropped salt-and-pepper beard.
“Thank you, Father. You and you alone have been my inspiration.” York stepped forward and grasped Bentley’s arm.
“Sir Bentley…has a nice ring to it, aye, laddie?” He slapped Bentley hard on the shoulder with a meaty palm.
Bentley bowed his head toward York. “I am indebted to you for all the training you have given me, sir.”
York’s smile vanished as his mind seemed to return to a former preoccupation. “Aye, and ye’ll be needing those skills in the days to come. The Followers continue to be a menace to our cause, and Kifus tells me our missions to eradicate them will increase.”
“Yes, sir,” Bentley replied, but something in his heart resisted the words. “What was it like before?”
York squinted and cocked his head to one side. “Before the…ah…Followers?” Bentley added. It was an unusual question, and it conveyed much more than curiosity. Those few words carried a subtle message that raised the eyebrows of both York and his father.
York looked back and forth between Barrington and Bentley.When he spoke, his words vibrated with passion. “It was a time when the authority of the Noble Knights was never questioned! That’s why we must fight well in coming days. The lingering effects of that dead Stranger will end, and we will restore the order of the Noble Knights to its rightful place when we eradicate His imbecile Followers.” York’s countenance had assumed a familiar ferocity, his eyes beneath their bushy black brows seemed to shoot forth fiery darts.
Neither Bentley nor his father said a word. It was exactly the response Bentley had expected, and he wasn’t sure why he had even asked the question. The momentary awkward silence between them ended when his mother took his arm and a dozen other knights and citizens moved in to offer congratulations.
When the knighting ceremony was over and the accolades were finished, Bentley lingered behind in the great hall. It was a day he had looked forward to for a long time. He took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the moment. It felt good to be a Noble Knight…almost perfect.
Bentley’s heart pounded hard in his chest. He readied his sword in a midguard stance as he stood face to face with a fierce warrior whose markings Bentley had never seen before.The warrior yelled and initiated a diagonal cut that nearly blew Bentley’s sword from his grip. Preoccupied with his own survival, he was barely conscious of the clanging of other swords nearby.
He tightened his grip and countered with a rising cut, followed by a horizontal slice. His sword was met by the nearly immovable dark blade of the warrior, and he had to retreat to avoid the next deadly slice.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of his fellow Noble Knights fall to the ground—and realized that he, York, and his other five companions could shortly succumb to the same fate. The five warriors they faced were much more than mere marauders; they had the look of seasoned war veterans. The Noble Knights had the advantage in numbers only, for the skill and power of these men far surpassed anything they had ever experienced.
Bentley considered his next move. How could they have made such a serious miscalculation and come to such a desperate situation? The months following his knighting ceremony had been filled with raids on the Followers, but each week seemed more intense than the previous. This was already their third mission this week.
They had received news from an informant that a handful of Followers was meeting near a hut in the hollow at the northwest edge of Chessington.When they arrived, a strange old woman had yelled at them and cursed them from afar. York had ignored her and insisted they search the hut and the surrounding area. When they dismounted and neared the hut, these five massive warriors had attacked. Bentley had barely been able to draw his sword in time before one warrior launched a deadly slice toward him. Ever since, he had been fighting for his life.
Another powerful slice came terrifyingly close, and Bentley ducked. He heard the swoosh of his enemy’s blade pass just above his head. Bentley initiated another rising cut, but missed and found himself slightly off balance. He knew that such an experienced man of war would capitalize on Bentley’s mistake—and he did. The next slice came from Bentley’s left, and he was only able to raise his sword for partial protection before the grisly blade blasted through his defense.
The concussion on his sword carried on to Bentley’s left spaulder and slammed into his helmet. Bentley careened to the right, scrambling in vain to keep his footing, then crashed to the ground.
He knew what would happen next. In seconds, he would feel the steel of his enemy’s sword pierce his armor and then his chest. He lifted his sword for protection against the vertical slice, but the edge of the warrior’s blade burst through his resistance and into his breastplate. The impact of the blow on his body seemed to force the last of his strength from him. His end was near.
Bentley froze as the warrior lifted his sword high above him for a final downward thrust.His physical exhaustion did not diminish his fear of death in the least. But just as the tip of the warrior’s sword began its plummet, Bentley heard an unfamiliar yell and watched a wide arcing blade slice across his enemy’s torso from behind.
Screaming in pain and frustration, the warrior recoiled and turned on his unknown assailant. Bentley’s strength immediately returned, and he rolled away, quickly finding his feet. The warrior was now heavily engaged with a new adversary, one Bentley had never seen before.
Bentley chanced a quick glance about him and realized that four other knights had joined their cause against these massive warriors of destruction. Another glance filled him with shock as he recognized their insignia.
The newcomers bore the unmistakable mark of the Stranger. This was the enemy Bentley and his comrades had set out that morning to engage. Yet these men were fighting to save their lives.
Bentley brought his sword to bear along with his unexpected ally against the dark warrior, who was now wounded and searching for an avenue of retreat.Together, they forced the warrior into flight and joined the remaining knights in vanquishing their foes.
When the tips of the swords slowly settled to grassy harbors of rest, only one man had fallen. Bentley and anotherNoble Knight went to him and began removing his breastplate, for the wound was serious.The other men stood breathing heavily as the rush within their bodies subsided.
Bentley looked up in gratitude toward the man who had wielded sword to help him. “Thank you for your help. We’ve never faced such men before.”
The Follower nodded in the direction the enemy had fled. “We have. They are enemies of the King.”
“As are ye,” came York’s voice from behind. “Drop yer swords.”
Bentley looked up incredulously. “But these men—”
“—are our enemies,” York repeated. “They’ll be imprisoned.”
The four Followers looked stunned, then slowly stepped back and away once they determined the burly knight was not bluffing.
Bentley jumped to his feet. “They just saved our lives!”
“Then they be fools as well,” York spat. “Disarm them!”
The other knights looked at one another and then at Bentley. Bentley met their eyes, then knelt back down to his fallen comrade.The delay allowed the Followers to separate themselves, and they ran into the trees of the valley.
“After them!” York commanded.
“Sir!” one of the older knights exclaimed. “Nordan is down and needs immediate treatment.We either help him, or we chase the Followers and let him die—you choose!”
York’s eyes burned with fury, and in that moment Bentley fully discerned how deep York’s contention with the Followers lay.
It was a moment that set his mind on a different course.