I wrote the first draft of The Paladin during National Novel Writing Month 2006. One of these days I might get around to a second draft.

For those that are interested, the word “paladin” originally referred to the Roman soldiers who guarded the Palatine Hill. This unit later evolved into the Praetorian Guard, which was the elite unite that protected the emperor. Later, the term evolved to mean a particularly noble sort of knight. The stories of the Paladins of Charlemagne eventually became the basis for the Knights of the Round Table.

* * * * *

Waking up in an unfamiliar alley was an unusual experience. To the casual observer most alleyways looked the same, but Roland of Vendicier was no casual observer. He was intimately acquainted with most of the back-alleys, gangways and gutters of Mediria, and had slept or passed out in a good many of them. He had his favorites, of course, but Roland had been something of an adventurer once, in another lifetime. Finding himself half-buried in muck with which he was not already acquainted was an auspicious occasion. It meant he had been thrown out of some place new.

A quick check of his pockets told Roland that the few coins remaining to him had not been stolen, which indicated an establishment of some class. It also meant he could not have been laying there very long; in Mediria the Duke himself couldn’t walk from his bed to his chamberpot without risk of being beaten, robbed an left for dead. Common folk thought the Order of Sun and Light kept things like that under control, but all it really did was make those who would commit a crime be more clever about it.

Standing proved more difficult than Roland anticipated. The filth from which he tried to extricate himself covered a cobblestone path, making the stones particularly slick. Once he reached his feet, a sudden swirling pain in his head made Roland double over and vomit. As he ejected the contents of his stomach, Roland ruminated on his surroundings. A paved alleyway meant he was in a particularly wealthy part of town. There were very few of those, and all were near to the ducal palace. Near the palace also meant near to the barracks of the Order of Sun and Light, and that was never a good thing. The last thing a man in Roland’s position needed was to be directly associated with the Order. His life was precarious enough as it was.

Roland slunk his way from one alley to the next, hoping to avoid notice until he reached his own lodgings on the far side of the city. His landlady would complain at the state of his clothes when he deposited them in the wash bin, but they were no worse than they had been a dozen times before, or more. He’d have to pay extra to bathe himself, but while Roland no longer cared what he smelled like he found he could not do his job if nobody would let him close enough to speak.

Roland shivered. It occurred to him that mornings had been much colder of late. Winter must be coming. Mediria was not so far north that it could expect snow. Folks who had lived in the city their whole lives did not believe in it. Roland had seen it with his own eyes, though. He thought about it, and was surprised to find that he missed it, a little. Perhaps, Roland thought, I might go north and see the snow again. One day, if I can ever get away from here. If the Order of Sun and Light would ever allow it.

Thoughts of the Order never failed to darken Roland’s mood, and since they tended to exist under a cloud most of the time anyway, he was feeling particularly foul by the time he found his own street. Roland thought for a moment that he may have succeeded in completing the journey unseen, but then he heard a familiar voice call his name. He pretended he did not hear and proceeded toward the boarding house where he rented a room.

“Roland!” the voice called again, much closer this time. There was a disappointing lack of traffic on the street today; Roland had no way to pretend he did not hear the second shout. He turned to see a handsome, youthful fellow striding toward him. The man, Roland knew was in fact two years older than Roland himself, although he looked almost a decade younger.

Or I look a decade older, rather, Roland thought. When the man drew close enough, however, Roland could see the lines of care etched in the man’s face, and the drooping skin beneath his eyes from lack of sleep. Roland knew the look too well.

“Good day to you, Marcus,” Roland said, nodding. He spoke low, still unsure how fragile his head was after the previous night’s exploits. The man, Marcus, took this for secrecy, and followed suit.

“I looked for you to return home some time ago,” Marcus said. His eyes scanned the street up and down. “We’ve been waiting for word for some time now. A few of us started to get restless. We feared the worst.”

“The worst?” Roland snorted. “What would ‘the worst’ be, to you? I doubt you have any such care for my well-being.”

Marcus stiffened at the rebuke. “I’ll not deny that for most of us, our chief concern was the outcome of the mission,” he said. “But there are a few of us, Roland who knew you from before. They called you a friend once, and they despair what you have become.”

“Despair me nothing,” Roland said. “As long as I have your coin I do not need your pity.”

“I wish the movement meant as much to you as it does to the rest of us,” Marcus said. “To see a man of your abilities wasting away like this; it saddens me.”

“My abilities?” Roland said, smirking. “My abilities are what brought me here. It is my abilities, not myself, that are of value to you now. I’ll do such dirty work as you require, but I’ll be properly paid for it. I’m not such a fool as you. I know well enough what it means to oppose the Order of Sun and Light.”

Marcus flinched at the mention of the Order. “Keep your voice down!” he whispered. “Do you want one of your neighbors to denounce us? Does the thought of swinging from the gallows thrill you that much?”

“The gallows?” Roland said. “My dear Marcus, you know as well as I that our work goes beyond mere treason. We are delving into new and unexplored realms of heresy. And while there is something tantalizing about swinging from the gibbet, nothing quite catches the eye like a bonfire, eh, Marcus?”

The older, but seemingly younger man looked Roland up and down. He seemed to be weighing Roland in his mind. From the look on Marcus’s face, Roland gathered he must have come up short. Marcus reached into his cloak and produced a small leather sack. He hefted it in his palm; the jingle that came from it was like music to Roland’s ears.

“Here is the agreed amount,” Marcus said. “All of it. What do you have for us?”

Roland forced himself to look Marcus in the eye. “It is all arranged. Two days hence,” he said. “After the morning services. The Lord High Marshall of the Order has arranged a day’s hunting. His party will ride out of the north gate, and his pavilion will be erected near the main road, about two miles from the walls. Our man will see to it that the Lord Marshall follow his hounds to the clearing you selected. His bodyguard will be small, and not all will ride with him into the forest. Our man swears there will be no difficulty separating the Lord Marshall from his men. You will be able to kill him without too much difficulty.”

“We have no intention of killing him,” Marcus said. “He would be too valuable as a hostage.”

“And too dangerous as an enemy if he should escape!” Roland said, appalled. “What do you think you can gain by holding him? I know you won’t torture him for information, so what’s the point?”

Marcus favored Roland with a quizzical look. “I didn’t know you cared,” Marcus said.

“I care that my main source of income is a complete idiot,” Roland said. “But you do what you want. As if what you do to one man will break the Order’s hold on everything.”

“We have to start somewhere,” Marcus said.

“That’s what you said five years ago. Let me know when you really get around to it.” Roland snatched the bag from Marcus’s hand and felt its weight in his own. He liked the feel of it. He peeked inside. Silver peeked back. “Best of luck,” Roland said, and then scuttled off toward the boarding house.

“Roland,” Marcus said. Roland stopped, but did not turn. He waited for Marcus to finish. “Take care of yourself,” Marcus said. Roland did not answer, but continued on toward home.

Inside the widow Merlind’s boarding house a fire burned merrily in the corner, warming the common room. The room was sparsely occupied at the moment, with only one of Roland’s fellow boarders seated at the long table in the center. The man’s name was Kennit, or something like that, and Roland knew that he had been an artist of some kind, maybe a playwright, before the Order of Sun and Light came along. Now he made a living as a scribe. If Kennit had enough to drink he would describe at length how dreadfully dull such work could be, as the only things anyone hired a scribe for were legal transactions and prayers. The legal transactions were by far the more interesting work, but even then the charm wore away quickly. Almost as quickly, Roland thought, as the charm of conversing with Kennit. To make things worse, the scribe had placed himself in the chair closest to the fire. Nothing to be done about it, though, Roland thought. He stomped up to the table and deposited himself in the seat just across the table from Kennit.

“Morning, Ken!” Roland said. He leaned in and grinned as wide as he could, making it a point to exhale voluminously.

“Good afternoon, Roland,” Kennit said in his timid little voice. He looked up from his papers and glanced at Roland, then glanced again when he saw the state of Roland’s clothes. “Oh,” Kennit said. “I see, um.” He coughed once as the smell hit him. “I, um,” he coughed again. “Good day, Roland.” Kennit grabbed his papers and exited the room, holding a sleeve over his nose. Roland slid around and stretched out in front of the fire.

“Oh, Master Roland!” a voice said. “I didn’t see you come in last night.” Roland turned his head to see the widow Merlind filling the hallway. Roland had never ceased to be amazed by the fact that Merlind was as wide as she was tall. And she was almost as tall as Roland himself, which was saying something. There was no bullying the widow Merlind the way Roland had bullied Kennit.

“I hope I haven’t disturbed anyone,” Roland said.

“You’re disturbing me with that horrid stench you brought in with you,” Merlind said.

“I apologize,” Roland said. “I was hoping I could trouble you–“

“I’ll do the wash this afternoon, and yours as well so long as your rent is paid. You’re a month behind, you know.”

“I do know it, and I am happy to tell you that my latest business venture has been a success.” He opened the leather bag and started counting out coins. “I have only silver, I’m afraid, so the counting will take a little longer.”

To her credit, Merlind did not miss a beat in her response. “Just make sure you count it correctly, or I’ll know where to find the rest.” But she did not take her eyes off the steadily growing pile of coins on the table.

“And this,” Roland said, holding up two extra pieces of silver, “is in hopes that you might provide some hot water for a bath.”

“Living extravagant, are we?” Merlind said as she scooped the money from the table. “Don’t get used to it; you’ll find yourself in arrears again. I don’t imagine all these ‘business ventures’ work out the way you plan, do they?”

Roland’s smile faltered a little. “Actually, madam, so far I have yet to be surprised by anything.”

“I care not,” the landlady said. “Just so long as the rent’s paid. And so it is, and so I’ll heat some water for you.” She dropped a comedic parody of a curtsy and then wobbled back to her work.

After his bath Roland spent the rest of the afternoon in his bed, a bottle of wine open on the nightstand nearby. He had not realized how tired he was until he scraped the last of the previous night off of him. He faded in and out of consciousness; each time he opened his eyes he saw the patch of sunlight from the single window had crawled a little farther along the floor, then up the wall. Also, level of the wine in the bottle sank lower and lower.

The sun was almost gone when the smell of food finally roused Roland from his slumber. He checked to make sure that his money was securely locked inside the small chest he kept under his bunk. He did not believe Kennit, who shared the room with Roland, would steal it, but he could not walk around with that kind of money either.

Downstairs in the common room the crowd was small and quiet, but for Merlind’s house it was brisk business. He took a seat as close to the fire as he could find and let Bryn the serving girl bring him a bowl of stew and a heel of bread, and another bottle of wine. Roland hunched over his food did his best to fade into the shadows of the darkened room.

He had no idea how much time had passed. His bowl sat on the table in front of him, empty, and the bottle of wine half gone. Roland sat staring at the fire when he heard the front door open. Something made him turn and look.

A man stood at the entrance to the common room. He was in all respects an ordinary man. Roland could spot nothing remarkable about the man’s clothes or features. His expression was guileless, almost bewildered. Roland wondered if the man might be lost, but at the same time knew that he was not.

“Grab yourself a seat, dear,” Merlind said from across the room. “Three coppers will get you a venison stew and your choice of ale or beer. The serving girl will be along shortly.”

“I’m sorry,” the man said as he removed his hat. Roland had not noticed the hat before. “I’m looking for a Mister Harriman. Is this the right place?”

“Who?” Merlind said.

“Mister… ah… Harriman? Herriman?” the confused man said.

“Merrihan?” Bryn suggested.

“That’s it,” the man said. His face brightened in relief. “Is this… ah…”

“No, sorry,” Bryn said. “Merrihan’s tavern is just down the street, at the corner. There’s a sign with barrels and grapes on it. You can’t miss it.”

“Oh,” the man said. “So sorry. Thank you.” He replaced his hat and left.

Roland waited until the conversation level returned to normal. He finished the last of his wine and then slipped out the door.

In the street the night air bit hard. Winter was not far away at all, Roland thought. He looked up the street, toward Merrihan’s tavern. A man stood beneath the sign Bryn spoke of. From this distance he could not be sure it was the same man, but then the stranger looked up and saw Roland. The face was the same, but it told a different story than the one inside the common room. This face belonged to a man who knew his business, and executed it with cold precision. The man nodded once at Roland, then turned and entered the tavern. Roland waited a moment, and then went the opposite direction.

He passed only a handful of people as he made his way to the end of the street. Roland could not shake the feeling that each one glared at him accusingly. Sometimes he would glance back at someone he had passed, sure that he would see them staring back at him, pointing a finger. It had never happened. Roland thought the feeling would go away after a while, but so far it had not.

At the end of the street he turned and ducked into a gangway. The shadows surrounded him; Roland could not see an inch in front of his face. If ever there was a more opportune moment to commit mischief upon his person, Roland could not think of it. But these were his instructions, and it would not serve to disobey.

The gangway opened onto a small garden. Roland wondered whose house this was, and if they knew their garden was a clandestine meeting place. If the owner did not know, Roland wanted to apologize. If the owner did know, Roland wanted to kill him.

A light flared up in the darkness. A single small flame flickered. It moved down and touched the wick of a candle. This slightly brighter light showed a table, and the silhouette of a chair in front of it.

“Please sit,” deep voice said. Roland did as the voice asked. The first time he said he wished to remain standing, and the candle went out. He found himself alone in the darkness. Now he just did as he was told. Roland’s stomach roiled, he tasted bile on his tongue. It happened every time.

“You may speak,” the voice said. The voice came from somewhere on the other side of the candle. Roland had never seen the speaker, but his curiosity had been purged from him a long time ago.

“Two days,” Roland began. “The Lord High Marshall plans a hunting party. Plans have been set to kidnap him in the woods.” Roland laid out the plan exactly as he and Marcus had set it. When he finished, a vast silence engulfed the tiny garden. Once Roland would have thought he was alone, but the candle still burned.

“Very well,” the voice said. A moment later a leather sack, disturbingly similar to the one Roland received from Marcus earlier, landed with a thunk on the table in front of him. His hand shook a little as he reached for the bag. Roland tried to dismiss it as a lack of wine. The bag felt the same, but was a bit heavier. Roland resisted the urge to peek inside this time.

“May I ask what will happen next?” Roland said in his most obsequious voice. He received no answer. After a pause, Roland heard movement on the other side of the candle.

“May the Sun keep you,” the voice said.

“May the Light guide you,” Roland responded, numb.

“If we require your services again, the Order will contact you in the usual way. Farewell.” A gloved hand reached out of the darkness and pinched out the candle flame. Roland found himself in true darkness once again. He stood and found his way back to the gangway, and from there back out to the street.

Back at Merlind’s boarding house Roland took a candle and another bottle of wine up to his room. Seated on his bunk he finally dared to open the second bag. Gold glittered up at him this time. Roland placed the bag in his chest along side the first one. Then he sat and stared out the window for a time.

Mediria was a city of plots, schemes and treasons, Roland thought, just like Tyr before it. He was only carrying on the tradition. Roland allowed himself a bitter laugh. The truth was, none of the cities of the new Confederation had a hint of the intrigue that Tyr once had. Once Tyr fell, each of the remaining cities took up some small part of the slack. But there was no place that could hold a candle to Tyr.

Roland still dreamed of it, on the nights he fell asleep rather than passed out drunk. He had traveled far and wide in his younger days, and every time he returned home and walked through the open markets or the great mall that lay between the palace and the old senate auditorium Roland observed that there was no need to go out and see the world; the world came to Tyr. He needed only to step foot outside his door and watch as it flowed by.

But the world would come no more. It might come to Mediria, or any of the other cities, but the Order of Sun and Light would not allow it. Things were too fragile now, they said. Barbarian hordes gathered at the doorstep to the north, just beyond the mountains, they said. And civil war raged south of the Blight, with no end in sight. The Order had closed every port on the peninsula when they came to power. They said it was to keep out foreign agents, but Roland knew better. The truth was that the Order wanted to keep everybody in. Of course, he would never say such a thing out loud, but he didn’t really need to. Such things were simply understood. He heard rumors of boats ferrying refugees across the eastern sea from hidden coves along the coast. There was said to be an underground movement helping people escape. And there was also the resistance. It had not declared itself openly yet, but it was only a matter of time. Roland knew that Marcus and his friends were not the only active cell in Mediria, and they had lines of communication to several other towns.

Roland thought about the candle in the garden. The whole set-up was not unlike the act of confession, in which you gave your sins to the flame. Another of the Order’s changes to daily life. Before Tyr, nobody took the upstart cult seriously. It still amazed Roland to think how quickly they seized contol when the dust settled.

Like everyone else, Roland attended confession once a month. You couldn’t avoid it; they always knew. He told them what they wanted to hear: He was a drunk; he used foul language; he had impure thoughts about serving girls. The really good sins, though, he saved for himself.

The moon was low in the sky, and almost full. If the sky remained clear the night would be bright. In the years since the rise of the Order Roland had not been able to think about the sun the same way, but the moon, at least, remained unchanged. On a whim, Roland knelt down and reached under his bunk. The night was young yet, and his roommate Kennit would not be in any time soon. It would be safe enough. Roland slid his chest out of the way and pulled a second case from behind it. This one was long and narrow, and bound with heavy locks. Roland sat down on his bunk and placed the case across his knees. He listened for a moment to the sounds of revelry floating up from the common room. Satisfied that no one approached, Roland undid the locks and opened the case.

If anything, the moonlight made the blade appear even more beautiful. The sword had belonged to Roland’s father once, and to his father before him. Or so Roland had been told. In truth he had no idea how far back the heirloom went. Nor did he care. He admired the sword as a piece of craftsmanship. Roland knew swords well. The hand-and-a-half sword was by far the finest he had ever held, with a perfect weight and balance. When Roland was a child his father would tell stories about the sword, imbuing it with magical properties, but the blade required no such embellishment. Indeed it was simple, ordinary steel, but if a blade had ever been crafted better Roland had not seen it. And the blade held a mystery that had intrigued Roland ever since he began his studies. The sword bore a distinctive maker’s mark at the base of the forte, just above the crossguard. Roland had searched high and low for other weapons, armor or other pieces of metalwork that bore the same mark. He had never found one. Nor could he find the mark in any texts on the subject. If any of Roland’s ancestors had ever known the identity of the sword’s maker, they had taken the knowledge to the grave.

Roland held the sword as long as he dared, enjoying the weight of it. A swell of noise from the common room, a roar of laughter at some joke, broke his reverie. Furtively he replaced the sword in the case, closed the locks and returned it to its hiding place.

The sword was worth money, no doubt. More than Roland had ever had at one time, at least since Tyr fell. But he could not bring himself to part with it. Not yet. The sword was his last link to the man he once was, and some part of Roland knew that as long as he still held the sword, there might still be hope.

With the case safely out of sight, Roland opened the wine bottle and set about the task of obliterating the day from his memory.

© 2006 Christopher M. Walsh