Elsdeth heard of the iron champion long before he arrived in the kingdom, his reputation a bard’s song on the wind. He had many names—the Black Giant, the Forged Knight, Scourge of Warriors, Wolf Lord–but the Armoured Death was what most folk called him, and as Elsdeth knew him thenceforth, until she learned of his true name.
As handmaid to Queen Selesta of the Serpent Court, Elsdeth had seen many champions come and go, each hoping to charm the widowed royal, and thus win the realm for their own. But no man yet had proved a match for the lost King Kronnen, and so each would-be hero was turned away, humiliated by their lacking.
Now it was said that the Armoured Death, at last, was to stake his claim, and of all the queen’s suitors it was he that Elsdeth credited with the strongest chance. Eight feet tall and clad in spined armour, this champion had never been seen without his helmet, nor had he ever been witnessed to bleed even in the harshest battle.
It was said that he had come from the Barren Hills, and had, in fact, interred himself there willingly where most wandered, haplessly lost, across its borders, irreparably changed by the radiation and fractured magic that set that land aglow. A mutant, washed clean of his past and his old name, the Armoured Death had—according to legend—emerged from the Hills, keen to do battle against any who would face him.
He had never lost, not even to the war lords in the mountains beyond the Fifth city, who were said to be as fearsome as he.
Some folk whispered that the Forged Knight never slept; others claimed that he ate flesh and blood at moonrise, thieving virgins from their beds to slake his hungers, of which he had many. There were rumours that his dread sword was cursed with Black Magic, or else possessed by spirits gone mad in the Barren Hills.
Whatever the case, the Armoured Death had the strength of an immortal, and had slain or forced to kneel a thousand opponents until his black ornamence was forever dripping with the crimson of blood. On this path of slaughter he had strode from realm to realm until he reached the Serpent Lands, where witnesses passed forth the message that he had begun his slow tread to its waiting court.
Queen Selesta seemed only amused by the approaching threat, unperturbed by her advisors’ panic.
“I will fuck the brute, if he defeats our greatest warrior,” she said to Elsdeth, in the privacy of her chambers. “But I will not appoint him king, whatever my promise. Besides, the fiend will never win.”
“You are so certain?” asked Eldeth. “Who is your champion, my lady?”
Selesta raised a flagon of wine to her full lips and smiled thinly.
“My third child,” she said. “The so called Prince Of Sighs. She is still absent on her quest, but should she agree to return I believe that this child of mine will soon surpass all others.”
It surprised Elsdeth to hear the queen voice such a statement, for never before had she spoken of the wayward prince with anything akin to pride. Sy, like all the royal daughters, suffered from a vicious curse placed upon her by the Forest God, and was, thus, doomed to turn into a dragon if she did not go to beg His mercy. Offended by this demand, the prince had refused, and was rumoured to have already begun her slow transformation into a serpent.
Against her mother’s will Sy had set out across the realm and begun training for battle against her mortal enemy, an impossible task, by all accounts, that threatened calamitous reprimand upon the court were she to fail. Once, Selesta had condemned the prince, branding her selfish and a fool for thinking herself above the pilgrimage her mother and sisters had all made.
But tales of Sy’s many victories had apparently warmed the queen’s impenetrable heart, and Elsdeth was in awe of any person able to impress her mistress. Now, it seemed, the Armoured Death was the second to claim that honour, for Selesta had never before seen fit to stake her own children against any wandering champion.
Elsdeth became excited by any news of the knight, however spurious, pondering, at length, what manner of creature existed within the iron suit, if he had indeed once been human, but was no more.
Illustrations of the Armoured Death began to circulate the court. In many styles and modes he was depicted, but in detail always the same: the plates of his obsidian armour resembling predatory teeth, his helm a wolf’s head, each gloved fist clawed. He rode no horse, only walked, his vast strides engulfing the land faster than any beast of burden. In drawings his bootprints left trails of blood, although it was told, in truth, he left no mark at all.
Elsdeth poured over these images with an avarice she could not put to words. All her life she’d been drawn to darker things, songs and stories ending in glamorous death and terror. Now this midnight champion absorbed her dreams.
She felt rather alone in her devotion, for there was more to her passion than fear, a carnality unsuited to her position, which required always chastity and grace.
Still Elsdeth imagined the champion’s taloned fist wrenching her throat as he made her flesh his sport– yet it would be the Queen to know this particular thrill, and as in many things Elsdeth envied her.
It was on a Feast Day that the Armoured Death’s arrival came to pass. He threw open the doors to the palace dining hall with his full strength, as indifferent to the deluge of sprawling guards about him as a titan to the presence of mayflies. All seated gazed in silence, their food and revelling forgotten.
“Queen Selesta,” said the knight. “I have come to meet your challenge.”
His voice was hushed, rich, like a wind at dusk. A black cloak rippled behind him, caught up in the sway of unseen magic, and the shadow cast by the champion’s great height was like a deadly sea, swallowing whatever it touched.
As the beast turned to survey the chamber the eyes of his infamous helm blazed alight with red smoke that writhed, vivid, coiling, sentient.
The diners at the long table all shuddered, even Elsdeth, who had long steeled herself against this moment. Only the queen was unmoved; she looked at the stranger as though he were no more than a common page, her lip curled.
“I may refuse you, monster,” she said, coolly. “You cannot accept what is not freely offered.”
The Armoured Death stepped forward, and Elsdeth—seated demurely to Selesta’s left—felt the smoking coal of the champion’s gaze sear through her.
She shuddered. Was it hatred, desire, or merely apathy that he turned upon her with those dread eyes?
“You will offer me your challenge,” the Armoured Death said, quietly. “Your kingdom has long awaited a worthy champion. So, consent. Your greatest warrior against my sword.”
A single breath seemed drawn by every occupant of the room, all except Selesta, who reclined in her high-backed chair and laughed.
“You are aware of what the reward is for this trial,” she said, flatly.
The knight inclined his bestial head.
“I am aware.”
“You desire my hand, then?”
About the chamber many sets of knuckles whitened. To have such a formidable king seated upon the Serpent Throne would come with many benefits, but the thought of a mongrel spirit from the Barren Hills ruling over them curdled the blood.
The black hulk of armour surveyed the court with a remote disgust.
“I have no wish to rule,” he said, at last. “That is not my purpose. I ask that I claim something else from your possession when I defeat your champion.”
The queen sneered, the expression rendering her pale beauty into a savage and haughty ugliness.
“Again, you make such assumptions of my generosity,” she said. “I might not grant this new request.”
At this the Armoured Death gave a harsh laugh.
“You will not refuse me,” he said. “But not through generosity, only to preserve your honour. Your house has lost much of that, this century past.”
A chill ran through Elsdeth, such as the frost winds of the Bitten North, and about her the court retreated ever lower into their seats, horrified that any intruder would dare speak of the curse when even friends of the Royal House feared to do so.
All eyes turned to Selesta, who sat back against the many coils of her black hair, a stillness in her. Elsdeth, well knowing this look, raised a hand delicately to her mouth to suppress a smile.
There would be excitement in the palace for some time yet, it seemed.
“The greatest warrior of the Serpent Lands is away on a personal trial,” said the queen, at length. “I could send a message by Volan, but it will not reach the Prince for many weeks. You may do battle with one of my many other illustrious knights instead, if you like. Or you may wait until my champion returns.”
“I will wait,” said the Armoured Death. “Name my opponent.”
It seemed incredible that any creature could radiate such threat with so few words and motions. He stood like a dark portal at the end of the dining hall, drawing all light, and warmth, and pleasure from the room through him. Yet Elsdeth found herself afloat in his pull: buoyant, she sat as though she were not there, feeling not the hardness of her seat under her, nor her weight upon it.
“You will face Prince Sy, my third born,” said the queen. “Doubtless you’ve heard of her, if you are as well-travelled as is told.”
A pause followed, in which the only sound was the bang of a tankard falling over on the tabletop, spilled by some trembling hand. Then there came the slow creak of the Armoured Death nodding his terrible head.
“The Dragon Obsidian,” he said, and a shiver passed through the room like a delicately plucked string. “Prince Sy of the Serpent Court. She will kneel to me, or die by my sword.”
“Or you will, to hers,” Selesta retorted. “The Prince is, as yet, undefeated.”
“As am I.”
The knight’s arms hefted the black terror of his weapon, and in the flat of its blade Elsdeth saw, briefly, the faces of the thousand souls that had fallen to it. Such things she could perceive, now and then, although she took pains to conceal it from others. This time, it seemed, she did not succeed, for again the flickering eyes within the Armoured Death’s helm lingered upon her.
It could not be coincidence. He’d looked at no other sat at that long table but the queen, and she only with a quiet derision.
“Well,” said Selesta, with a thin politeness. “I will have servants prepare a room for you, sir.”
Lowering his sword the Armoured Death said, softly, “I would prefer to remain outdoors. I am used to it.”
“A tent, then,” said the queen. “I will have someone attend to your needs, whatever they may be, as a gesture of my hospitality.”
No thanks came, only a slow nod. The grinning wolf’s head helmet made every movement grotesque, concealing whatever the man behind it felt with a false rabid glee. The need to see the face under it was so strong in Elsdeth that it was all she could do not to rise to her feet and demand he remove the helm.
Of course, she did not. From those dual, staring coils of red steam she doubted that there was truly a man in the suit at all, merely a demon, possessing it, and her.
“Bring news of the Dragon Obsidian to me,” the Armoured Death demanded. “That is all I require.”
Then he turned, and in a roaring twist of the living cloak he vanished from the chamber, allowing the doors to clamour shut behind him.
The dining hall retained its silence, none daring to move, least of all the princesses, who had done no more thha cry soundlessly against one another since the Armoured Death had first shown himself.
White-lipped, Selesta stared at the doors through which the warrior had departed. Whether fear or anger dominated her was a mystery; with the king dead and her three sons absent Selesta was, even amongst her guard, stranded and alone. Her men had always been her strongest counsel, and, in this moment, they had all abandoned her.
Elsdeth leaned into Selesta’s ear and murmured, “Highness. Let us go to your rooms. I tire of this feast, as do you, I think.”
A small shiver came from the queen, and at last she stirred, smoothing her expression into a doll’s bland neutrality.
“Indeed. It is tedious. I find I have no hunger, this day.”
Only later, as Elsdeth aided the queen in her evening bath, did talk of the Armoured Death begin again. It was Selesta herself who picked up the thread of conversation, her tone harsh, tautly agitated.
“He is uncouth,” said the queen, as Elsdeth tipped water over the back of her sleek head. “Demanding some unnamed prize, refusing a room. Well, let him languish on the grounds like some great watering can. I hope he rusts.”
“I’m not sure that he meant to be rude, Highness,” said Elsdeth, blandly.
She tried not to flinch as Selesta turned a sharp glance over one milky shoulder.
“Why are you playing the diplomat?” asked Selesta. “This fiend intends to do battle with my child. ‘The Dragon Obsidian’, he called her: it is an insult, to refer to our misfortune so blithely. Surely you do not feel sympathy for this monster.”
Elsdeth squeezed water from the tangled lengths of Selesta’s hair, half-thinking, for some foolish moment, that black ropes of it would rear up to bite her, like asps.
“I am a little sorry for the creature,” said Elsdeth, cautiously. “For against Prince Sy he will surely lose.”
At this Selesta relaxed, her lips parted by a silvery laugh.
“Of course he will. I have heard whispers that Sy conquered one of the Old Ones on her travels. What chance does this iron idiot stand when the Gods themselves fall to her blade?”
Yet there was tension, still, in her, that Elsdeth recognised as fear. It touched her to see it, humanity in a woman so often cold.
“The servants are all afraid of the knight,” said Elsdeth. “They refuse to approach him with food and ale. It is still sitting in the kitchens, untouched. The Armoured Death may starve before the battle even begins.”
“I pray that he does,” the queen retorted. “Still, I cannot be seen to snub a guest.”
Rinsing soap from her hands, Elsdeth said, “I will take the food to him, if you permit it. I fear the knight only a little. It is nothing I cannot bear.”
“Elsdeth the Fearless,” said Selesta, smirking. “Were you a knight this would be your title.”
She stood up abruptly, water coursing down her narrow body. It was as Elsdeth attempted to wind a towel about her that Selesta seized her by the arm, pulling her so close their faces touched, cheek to cheek.
“Do not betray me, Elsdeth” she breathed. “You are my dearest friend. Who can I trust in this forsaken life, if not you?”
Selesta pressed her lips to Elsdeth’s, the caress icy, utterly without sensuality.
“You may tend to our guest,” she said. “Pray that he asks of you no service that you cannot provide. Perhaps he would take your head for such a slight. Or your heart.”
So it was that Elsdeth set out across the palace grounds carrying a silver tray, impervious to the early evening breeze gnawing at her thin dress.
She found the Armoured Death sitting on a jagged rock overlooking the distant River Stealth, sharpening his vast sword, little though its edge seemed to require such attention. A tent stood to his left, rippling in the grey wrath of the wind, yet the champion seemed as untouched by the elements as Elsdeth, seeming not to flinch even they rattled the many plates of his armour.
There was a loneliness to him, this impossible beast, something in the way he gazed down into the valley, the smoking pits of his eyes darkened.
“Pardon my intrusion, sir,” said Elsdeth, performing a short curtsy. “My name is Elsdeth. The queen sends refreshments, with her regards. Your journey must have been quite arduous. Allow the court at least some measure of hospitality, if you will not take a bed.”
The Armoured Death stopped grinding his whetstone for only a moment before taking it up again; he neither looked back at Elsdeth, nor spoke, and indeed might have continued on in silence had she not addressed him once more.
“Good sir. I will take the food away, if you don’t want it, but I cannot, without your word.”
“I do not eat,” said the Armoured Death, at last. “Or drink. Not as your people do.”
The words were soft, a mere whisper in comparison to the baritone that had rended the air in the dining hall to soundless tension. They lilted somewhat with the accent of the Fallow Mountains, an inflection Elsdeth had not discerned before.
“My people,” she repeated, then, in an experiment of boldness, she said, “You are not human, then.”
The great suit of armour shifted slightly.
“No,” said the Armoured Death, reluctantly. “I am not.”
At last the wolf helm turned, its slits playing with dim light.
Elsdeth’s heart fell into a queer rhythm.
“Ah,” she said, laying down the heavy tray in the grass. “So you were looking at me, in the hall. I thought so, but I could not be sure. What did you see?”
“That you did not fit in such a nest of fools. That you saw with the Sight of Others. That you have known darkness.”
The red stare of the champion made Elsdeth feel more naked than she had ever been, flesh and bone laid down from the eldritch wisp of her soul.
“Darkness,” Elsdeth repeated. “You might call it that. My mother was a vampire, my father only human. Both were murdered by some zealot, an infamous one, in a village at the borders of the Serpent Lands. There are many cults that fear drinkers of blood, still, in these times.”
Suddenly it seemed that the Armoured Death’s eyes softened, their crimson dissipating.
“This killer of your kind,” he said. “The fanatic. What became of him?”
The question took Elsdeth by surprise.
“The queen had him put to death,” she said. “She has no tolerance for those who break her laws. Afterwards she took me on as one of her handmaidens, for I had no one else, and although I cannot shapeshift like my mother, I have inherited many strengths that serve my mistress well.”
“Strange,” said the Armoured Death. “I have heard that your queen is prejudiced, and has no love of beasts.”
Elsdeth looked at the knight with interest, discerning a bitterness in his voice. What cruelty had this leviathan faced in his lifetime?
“It is true that most of the courtiers are human, at the queen’s request,” said Elsdeth. “But it is shame that drives her, not hatred. She doesn’t like to be reminded of what she almost became. What her child—your opponent—will become, if she does not succeed against you.”
At last the champion laid down his sword, and swivelled his great body on the rock. Even seated his height cast a shadow over Elsdeth, and it was all she could do not to shrink away.
“You wish to dissuade me from this killing,” said Armoured Death, flatly.
“I have no stakes in your battle,” Elsdeth replied. “But as neither you nor the prince have ever lost a fight I cannot predict its outcome.”
The champion lowered his shoulders slightly, and his cape—which, even as the fiend sat idle, clapped the sky behind him—fell briefly still.
“I have lost, once,” said the Armoured Death, quietly. “Before I was as I am today. Now I do not know if I can ever lose again, even if I wanted to.”
The confession roused a sudden terror in Elsdeth, as surely no warrior would confess such a secret without intending those who heard it to die. But as if he had read her thoughts from some constant scroll, the champion said, “I hear the beating your half-human heart, woman. Let it be still. I will not hurt you.”
There was a tenderness to these words, and Elsdeth found herself drawn ever more to this strange creature.
“Why do you tell me of failure?” she asked. “Few warriors would ever claim such a wound to their reputation.”
“Because that single loss made me what I am; I have made it my strength. Only the weak fear to speak of their past, and I have not been so for centuries.”
Coldness returned to the champion, and he looked, again, at the churning river, as though he could see all manner of strange creatures writhing their way along its bed.
“Come to me again, as you have this day,” he said, abruptly, “and I will tell you my story.”
“Why not now?” asked Elsdeth. “My mistress has no liking for you. I do not know when she will let me come to you again.”
The Armoured Death looked up, towards the gathering clouds on the horizon.
“Soon it will be dark,” he said. “And then I must be alone.”
When he did not elaborate on this statement, Elsdeth said, “Sir, might I ask your name? Rarely have I met Others, like myself; despite my allegiance to my queen I wish to part as friends.”
A soft laugh emerged from the vicious helmet, and all the minute black hairs on Elsdeth’s arms rose up as though touched by another wind.
“I am Mordann,” said the Armoured Death. “Keep it to yourself, will you? It is known, by some, and I would rather they forget.”