This story is the fourth part of Clovir: An Overture and is itself the first of a three part series about newcomer Lord Palfrey. It is set a long time before the opening of The Yoga of Strength, when the Thrain capital of Isha was still a humble fishing village. The second and third parts will be released as part of The Atikan Interlude and A Liserian Chronicle, respectively. For more information on what this means, please click here.
If you like the story, please consider pre-ordering a copy of The Yoga of Strength.
Robin of Erifracia
“Nothing ever changes
At least that's how we act
Like nothing ever changes
Like God has got our backs
Like nothing ever changes
I'm looking down this road
And I can see this pain, yes
It's only gonna grow.”
-Everything Changes, SOJA
“Hold the line!”
“We cannot, sirrah, there are too many of the bastards! Our swords and crossbows are useless, and they move like the wind!”
“I said hold the line, Palfrey, so get the fuck back there, form up your squad, and hold the bloody line!”
A loud crash woke the man out of the flail of his nightmare. He shot up, grabbed four times at the hilt of the scabbarded dagger he kept lashed to the underside of his bed before finally finding purchase. Jumping to his feet in the dimness, a full white vernal moon shone brightly through a window, casting shadows along the walls. His heart, pounding thick blood through an anxiety-narrowed vascular system, as Physiker Lordon might say, kept the man from gaining easy focus of his surroundings.
The meow of Rogerman, the man’s cat, drew his gaze. The creature was over by the small table upon which he had supped on a classic of Thrain cuisine: potatoes, squash, and venison. He was so tired from his studies that he had neglected to clear his dishes down to the kitchens, dishes that were made from… fired clay. The kind that made a racket when it broke.
“Damn it, Rog,” the man said, letting his shoulders drop a few hairs. He creeped forward slowly, only to shout surprise and pain when his big toe found the jagged edge of one of the bits of pottery. Bending down and grabbing at the toe with one hand, he used the other to fire the bit of smashed dish at the general area where he knew his cat to be slinking. A scared shriek and a bolt of movement in the dark was plenty of evidence that he had scored a near-miss.
The man limped back over to his bed, rooted through a nightside table for a flint, then bashed the steel pommel of his dagger against it a couple of times. The sparks were sufficient to show him the location of a bit of cloth draped over a small chest. His last silken handkerchief. He gathered up and pressed against his bleeding toe. Rather than go through the rigamarole of finding a bit of tinder so that he could light one of the ox fat candles, the man simply threw the dagger and flint down, got back abed and vainly waited for his heart to cease its pounding.
Three hours later, when the first rays of dawn began exploding out over the countryside and beaming through the large window cut into the stone behind the table, the man had had enough of the endless tossing and turning.
“Fucking Erifracia,” he said, spitting over the side of the bed into the pan in which he pissed. The man stood up, rubbed his eyes, and walked to the great oak wardrobe across from his bed. He pulled out wrinkled red cotton slacks, an equally disheveled white silk shirt, yellow silk socks, and unlaced leather boots. He glanced at the white-dusted and tightly curled perruque that hung from a large wooden ball attached to the cabinet with a dowel. Sighing and smoothing his own hair, he pulled the wig on, fetched his vest, coat, and jacket from one of his chairs, hauled on the boots, called down to his single remaining servant to clean up last night’s mess, and bounded from the chamber.
“Lord Palfrey,” began the judge seated in his chair high up above man, “perhaps you could inform this Honourable Court one more time what exactly you meant to do with this… long bow, as you so aptly called it.” The judge grasped the dark wooden stave of the weapon in one hand and brandished the thing lazily in front of the gallery before replacing it on the floor beside him, propped up against his bench.
“Well, Your Venerable Justice, I would start by saying that I never intended to do anything but test a new invention,” said the man standing before one of the large wooden tables set up in the low area. He was almost exactly in the middle between the tall platform upon which sat the judge and the crowd of gawking fools that were cramped together in the elevated rectangular seating area behind him. “This longbow, well, it has the potential to pierce most any material, from Thrain steel to the hated-“
“Yes, yes, Lord Palfrey, you have mentioned all of that,” said the judge, peering at him through pince-nez spectacles, the creases of his elderly face growing more pronounced in the process. “What I do not understand is why you thought it appropriate to ‘test’ this device in the cliffs above the Pond of Sacrifice. And in doing so, to aim the bloody thing in the direction of the forest. You must have known that there was the potential for citizens of the realm to have been wandering about, perhaps even to try their luck at the Pond itself? The frost has lifted, and it is indeed the best time of year for grey-bellies. I would know, I am something of a Caster myself.” The judge looked up with a grin to the snickers of an appropriately entertained gallery.
“Your Venerable Justice,” replied the Lord, absently fiddling with one of the buttons on his coat as he spoke, “I did not expect to miss. The power of this weapon-“
“Is clearly not something that a man like you can be trusted with,” interrupted the judge. “You are a decorated Officer of the Green Order, sirrah, which is why you are not already hanging dead in a gibbet. You killed a good Thrain farmer through your negligence, and you shall see his family compensated – well compensated – for their loss of the paterfamilias. I order you to pay the Greene family sixty nine pieces of gold coin, which represents monies for his loss of breadwinnery and some metallic succour for the widow and poor infants. You shall have a fortnight to deliver up the coin to the Greenes. Failure to do so shall be penalized with hot tar, feathers, and two moons in the gibbet. You will then be given another fortnight to pay, at which time failure to do so will result in the same punishment. This will be done five times in total. If you have not paid by the expiration of that period, it shall be death by hanging, valour in the latest Erifracian campaign be damned. And the cursed device, well, it shall be burned. Do I make myself clear?”
Lord Palfrey had been gazing out one of the arched windows beside the bench while the judge was pronouncing his fate. He noticed with some wistfulness the pink and white blossoms on the enormous cherry tree that was found across the dirt path from the Courthouse. Some were dropping to float on the crisp Aprilis Month breeze. They were his mother’s favourite, Christ-man rest her soul.
“Do I make myself clear, sirrah?” the reddening judge asked. “I have not closed my judgment, I may yet make it harsher!”
“My apologies, Your Venerable Justice,” said Lord Palfrey, turning to the bench and inclining his head. “I did not mean to offend. Of course Your Venerable Justice has been quite fair in your sentence, quite fair. Is there perhaps a way that I might have the bow return-“
“This gods-damned bow shall be burned in a pyre at the Mortiker’s, sirrah! This very morning!”
The smash of the iron gavel on wood the tiny anvil made of oak reverberated noisomely throughout the chamber.
“Mortiker Flensing, perhaps I might have a word?”
“Charles,” said the black-clad man as he turned, his top hat dropping askew and a hand pushing it back into place, “This gods-damned bow – I don’t know what you’ve done with it, but it’s a-“
“Bear ash, Philip,” Lord Palfrey said to the Mortiker. “It is immune to fire, as you might have heard.”
“Well, why did you not tell the gods-damned judge that? He ordered it destroyed and I cannot do a thing with it!” The Mortiker kicked at one of the logs of his pyre. Flames licked the large steel rod in the center of messily arranged bits of wood. The bow had been clamped on to the rod. The string had long since been lost to the flames, snapping out the curve and leaving just a stave stained black with soot.
“Justice Kortshire simply ordered it burned, did he not?”
“Well,” said the Mortiker, retrieving a folded bit of parchment from a pocket inside his jacket. He peered at it and read deliberately. “’Long bow – to be burned.’ Kortshire J., His Majesty’s Royal Court.”
“And it is burned, is it not?”
“Well, I would say that it is, yes. But it has not been consumed!”
“That is not in the Royal Order, now is it?”
Philip Flensing put a finger up to the shabbily dressed nobleman and reviewed the document once more.
“No,” he said finally, sighing. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re going to ask me to do something I feel uncomfortable with, Charles?”
“Because you have a blood hound’s intuitive nose for such things, Philip, old boy,” Lord Palfrey said with a laugh. “I will be taking that bow stave, and you will tell the Sheriff that it was burned, per the good Justice’s Royal Order.”
“Christ-man, Charles, you cannot be serious? You might be a Count of Tyro Province, but I am nothing but a gods-damned cadaver lover to the Crown. I will be drawn and quartered if they find out I gave you that. Why can’t you just make another blasted stave?”
“Because that fucking wood comes from Kashya, and it already cost me a prince’s ransom for the one that is failing to roast in your pyre.”
“So,” said the Mortiker, peering at the gentleman and adjusting his spectacles as he did so. “You have your father’s fortune. ‘Piles of gold in the old bastard’s safe,’ was how you described it to me not ten years ago.”
“Had,” replied Lord Palfrey ruefully. “I ‘had’ the fortune. I just handed the last of the lot to our good Sheriff for him to ‘deliver it up’ to the Greenes. Costly accident, that.”
“An accident?” said the Mortiker, incredulously. He took a moment to look out to the small buildings of the village before him. The pair were standing in a lot next to the squat shack where the man prepared the bodies for burning and where he lay his head, those odd nights that did not find it resting on the floor of Forsythe’s Tavern. The yellow shag of dead grass from the previous season, recently free of its cover of icy snow, was beginning to become overtaken by green sprouts.
“Christ-man, Philip,” said Lord Palfrey, exasperation seeping into his tone. “Yes, an accident.”
“You fucking killed a man, Charles,” replied Philip flatly. “You are back now, you know that, don’t you brother? We are here, in Isha, at home.”
“We may be here in body, Philip. But every night I return. Surely you understand.” Lord Palfrey laughed. “Of course you do. Evidence of it is written on your face evenings down at Forsythe’s, rat-arsed and ranting about the scourge of the Erifracian cuir d’arbalest-“
“Leave that the fuck alone, Charles,” the Mortiker said warningly, crossing his arms as he did so. “What I do is my business. You’re not my gods-damned mother.”
Lord Palfrey raised hands spread towards his friend. “You are right, of course. I did not come here to fight with you. I came here to get the bow stave, so that I can try the hempen twine. I have tried linen, pig leather, even silk. The linen snapped, same with the silk. The pig leather was what the bow had been strung with when the shot went wild. What you just burned off clean for me. Hemp is the last on my list to try.”
“Why can’t you simply leave the past in the past, brother?” Philip’s severe limp, a relic from their shared history, became apparent when he crossed to put an arm on the shoulder of his better. Of his friend.
“Why cannot you?” came Lord Palfrey’s cold reply.
“I’ve never seen a man move as fast as an Erifracian in cuir d’arbalest. And neither blade nor bow can penetrate the shite. It was given them by their heathen devil god, of that I’m certain. And they thirst for the north, that is just as clear to me. They say that their prophet Yaruz, that he is a peaceful sort. I say bollocks to that, theys just a bunch of-“
“Ivan,” said Lord Palfrey, wrapping his flapping cloak around an arm and approaching the group of seated men without a moment’s hesitation. There was a stink on the tavern air in Forsythe’s. A comatose looking man lolling in the booth next to the former soldiers must have shat himself. Lord Palfrey was eager to finish his business and be done and gone from the rank den of whiskeyed mutterers. “Why do we not take it from the top?”
Glassy eyes peered up at the noble that had interrupted the pock-marked and thickly muscled brute that led the men in their boozy facsimile of pulpit gazing. Lord Palfrey’s perruque was as hastily applied as ever, and his clothing bore the same wrinkles and stains that they had developed ever since the Green Knights and their press-ganged civilians had returned to Tyro Province, less than a quarter of those that had left. But there was something new in the patrician, something the drunkards had not seen since their commanding officer had officially welcomed them into involuntary military service some six years before.
It was a glint of excitement.
“Take what from the top, sirrah? You knows those Erifracian cunts bettern’ me, what with your book learnin’. I’d still warrant I can top you with a bow, though.” This comment elicited raucous laughs from the seven men seated around the round table of the booth. News of Lord Palfrey’s humiliation at His Majesty’s Supreme Court the week before had not avoided making its impact.
Lord Palfrey chose to ignore the comment, even if it flew in the face of battle discipline. Battle discipline that would have to be re-established, and quick, if Sir Charles Palfrey had any say in the matter. He was still their commanding officer, after all. The letters of dismissal promised them, the ones to be delivered to them by the Crown, had simply never arrived.
Nor had Lord Palfrey ever asked after them.
“Thank you for your gracious vote of confidence, Private Kornfield. But it is exactly about bows that I have come to speak with you today. Tell me, Ivan, why is the cuir d’arbalest so hated?”
Ivan Kornfield eyed his Captain warily. “Because it’s hardern’ fuckin’ steel, that’s why, sirrah,” the large seated man replied. “It covers a man from head to toe. And it weighs a fuckin’ fraction of the weight of metal. A man wearing that can run for hours and not get tired. A knight throws on his plates and chains and we’s winded before we make it two hundred yards.”
“Astute as ever, Ivan,” replied Lord Palfrey. “Anything else?”
“Bows and crossbows can’t do fuck all against ‘em. Arrows and bolts just drops right off, like theys hit a wall of stone.” Ivan said, his eyes narrowing. “Now why the fuck you asking me all this, sirrah? You knows it as well as me.”
“Better I show you,” Lord Palfrey replied. “Kevin, do you still have that sickly old hog that needs to be put down?”
Getting the pig into the chestpiece was the final nasty impediment in a litany of nasty impediments. First, Lord Palfrey had to find the cuir d’arbalest.
He knew he had brought it back with him when he returned from Erifracia with a handful of fellow Green Knights and the remnants of the commoner squads that the King had allowed them to recruit for the Erifracian campaign. It was the only spoil of war aboard the Holy Green Sailing Ship on its return voyage, the sole vessel of four which escaped from Tunuska Harbour. The silhouette of a white bear on a green field flapping above him, Lord Palfrey had spent hours of the return trip in the cooling spray splashed up in rough waters, probing the diabolical armour. He tried every single type of metal on board, from sharpened tin and copper coins to silverware and a brass letter opener. Not a single one had made any visible impact on the material.
The manufacture of cuir d’arbalest was an Erifracian secret, one that their King had kept for three and a half decades. It was leather: looked like it, smelled like it, even tasted like it (one of Lord Palfrey’ many tests), but it was simply uncanny in its protective value. How they had fashioned such a material from animal hides was beyond Lord Palfrey’s abilities.
So, after a time, Lord Palfrey had stopped trying to figure out how to make the stuff and just wanted to solve how to stop a man wearing it. It fit like a glove against the body, all scaly and reticulated like the skin of a snake. What gaps existed in a fully armoured Erifracian were very narrow indeed, barely allowing for the tip of a blade to slip through (though it did happen infrequently – a gutted Erifracian was the source of the very specimen in his possession).
Best not to let an Erifracian get close enough to a Thrain soldier that a blade was necessary, Lord Palfrey had decided. So he went to work on bows, taking conventional designs and making the staves longer and longer, until the weapon was as tall as a man when strung. Regular ash, hickory, and juniper all failed to create enough force to penetrate the armour – the arrows simply bounced off like so many useless missiles in the latest repelled invasion.
If only the Christ-man priests would have fucked off in their insistence that the Kingdom of Thrain take the lands of the southern Kingdom of Erifracia from the Yaruzian heathens. Or if the King of the northern country, and his father, and his father’s father had not decided to follow the brown-robed crucifix- brandishing bastards in the first place. Yes, if there had been no war, Lord Palfrey would not be near destitution and waking up from nightmare after nightmare generated from his foray onto the gods-damned hot sand of that alien country.
Those were Lord Palfrey’s thoughts, anyway, before the bear ash had arrived from Erifracia and he painstakingly shaved the monstrously hard wood into shape. Stringing the new bow with silk, he had wrapped the armor around the old beech on his father’s decaying manor grounds. Lord Palfrey sweated and swore as he drew back arrow, and was promptly devastated when the silken string snapped. But it did not break before the arrow took flight. Had the arrow not left a little nick in one of the mesmerizing segments of armour, Lord Palfrey may very well have drunk the bottle of old rat poison he had placed on his mantel during the failure-laden early days of his experimentation. He had gazed upon it when he needed a reminder that there was a way out.
But all thoughts of self-destruction had fled the moment he saw the damage on the cuir d’arbalest. He had hope, now: salvation offered up to him by the miracle of bear ash. The bow was a potential deliverance from the nightmares, the unending parade of gruesome images of fellow Thrain soldiers being torn apart by tan-skinned smiling demons from a desert shithole where they had foolishly dropped anchor just hours before. Taking his cue from the fact that the exotic wood of the stave was named after the same animal as his company within the Green Order, Lord Palfrey prayed that the successful invention of an engine of slaughter to use against the Erifracians would see the nightmares finally end. And if it did not: well, there was always the bottle on the mantel.
Lord Palfrey eventually did find the armour buried in a pile of unwashed laundry, and he eventually did find the hempen twine, and he eventually did find a day when the wind was not blowing an arrow-interfering gale. The fishing village of Isha, a meagrely populated little backwater that was barely on the radar of the bustling capital of Valtha, would soon have its claim to fame.
“Robin, sirrah,” said Kevin the pig farmer, after he had led the skeletal and stumbling hog to the beech tree and tied her collar to one of the low branches.
“What did you say?” Lord Palfrey asked, feeling the sweat of anticipation as he readjusted his perruque.
“The sow’s name, sirrah. It’s Robin. Robin of Locksley, like the old story. You know, the one about the widow that stole coin from the tax collector to give to the serfs? It was my Jacqueline’s favourite story… she named her, you know. The pig, I mean. When Jacqueline was a girl, she said, ‘dat piglet’s name is Robin, da.’ And so it was. Over the years that sow has pupped over five dozen piglets of her own, sirrah.” Kevin finished, beaming with pride.
“Yes, well,” Charles replied. He could feel his men boring holes in his back with their eyes. They were arrayed behind him, in the yard closer to the crumbling manor. Kevin joined them, adding his expectation to the chorus. With a silent prayer to the Christ-man, an offering of faith to a god he had denied since that horrific day on the Erifracian coast, Charles drew the arrow back against the several dozen pound pull of the ebony bear ash.
“She’s Robin of Erifracia, today,” he muttered, releasing the arrow.