The wizard in black fled across the desert, and his company followed.
Strictly speaking, the wizard was wearing blue jeans and a white tunic. However, if you take the wizard to be the stuff under the mortal coil that is his skin, which in this case is black, then Martin was literally the wizard in black.
Regardless of your views on what makes a wizard, Martin was fleeing across the desert, followed by his company of Sil, Rin (sometimes still known as Flinch), and Harold, the former knight turned nurse.
They had been traveling for nearly two months since leaving The Order of the Knights Suspended in D’orcahst, and by Sil’s best estimate they only had a few days left of travel. By her worst estimate, they would all die in a week.
“What?” Martin stopped short and faced Sil, her carefree countenance mostly visible by the moon’s light. “What do you mean die in a week?”
“It’s just the worst estimate, Martin” she replied without stopping, a sly smirk tugging at her right cheek, “dying is almost always the worst estimate – that should encourage you!”
“But you said you knew this desert!”
“Yes, but can anyone truly know such a gargantuan thing?”
They bickered a little longer, but after the first few weeks of their mostly isolated travel, they had all become accustomed to one another well enough for these squabbles to ebb out quickly. There was sparse more conversation until dawn when they set up camp at the base of a dune, and slept.
The next night followed the same routine: wake up, ration food, ask of the desert to provide water, rest, walk, and walk, and walk.
“Ist Ullman, the new Head of the Order, is persecuting black professionals.” Sil had said as they were sneaking out of D’orcahst, “And until we’re at least three days out of here, not another word on this. She could have listeners anywhere, and we need her to believe you’ve escaped of your own volition, not run away with us from the Order.”
The Order of the Knights Suspended, Martin thought to himself with the mental equivalent of spitting words, more like the order of the knights suspended. Bastards don’t deserve upper cases. He stared blankly at the small fire they had set up in the middle of a cramped forest clearing, waiting for Sil to make good on her three day promise. When she sat, he took no measures in being subtle. “The Head of your Order is persecuting black professionals?”
“Yes, Martin.” Sil began, “Black Wizards, Black Knights, even Blacksmiths. Ullman is an Old Superstitionist who twists the meanings of these professions to turn the masses against them. She’s the kind that still believes in the Den of the Dead and Black Magicks. She spreads her superstitionist fears to towns and cities across the kingdom through brainwashed knight errants -” she lowered her head and exhaled through her nose, “like me; when I came to Melrah.”
Sil’s eyes went blank for a moment, then she pressed forward. “On the face of it, Ullman’s plan is to redeem the entire Order’s stature by imprisoning or destroying all of you. And she believes it will, but her old fears have twisted her thoughts -” she paused, “and I helped her. I turned a whole town against you, Martin.”
Martin took a breath and put his hand on Sil’s shoulder. “Come, Sil. It’s fine. The people of Melrah know me. Simple folk as some of them are, they have good hearts.”
“Think of how it looked to them, Martin,” Sil interjected, “a knight in full armor comes hollering into town about a Black Wizard, and she gallops off towards your home. A few hours later, I leave the town with you behind me. That night, and I am certain they noticed, a wild forest fire blazes in the direction we left. Simple folk as some of them may be, Martin, but what else could they have possibly deduced?”
“The hearts of folk are not so easily turned – ” Martin started feebly.
“I’ve seen them turn for less,” Harold spoke for the first time that night as he stirred some stew over the fire. “I once met a black knight who lost all his limbs defending the Monthon Forest bridge. This bridge was entrusted to him by the City of Typy, by no less than the magistrate himself. A valiant knight who glared into the eyes of defeat and refused it.”
Harold set his jaw and continued, “And when he returned to the city, waddling limblessly back, did a parade of thanks await him?” His voice started rising, filled with pent up shame. “It would have, had a knight of the Order not arrived just days before, preaching about the dangers of Black Knights and their fealty to the Den of the Dead.
“Instead of a thanks, he was wrapped up in little more than a burlap sack by the Order’s knight, and hauled back to us barely alive.” Having said this, Harold shut his eyes as the painful memory splayed across his face. “I spent days healing him, Martin, regrowing his limbs with roots and the help of a life wizard. But when the treatment was done, no healing I could offer was potent enough to mend his broken faith.”
A tear crept down Harold’s face and dropped into the stew with a soft plop. He looked at the small ripples the tear made and exhaled a tiny chortle, “Anyone else? This could use more salt.”
They all chuckled softly, and each took a small sigh. After the stew was passed around in wooden bowls, Sil explained that it was Flinch who realized what was going on first.
During their stay at the Order, Rin made sure that the only other pages he interacted with would be those in the library’s books. Partly because he never got along too well with the other knights’ assistants, but also – if he was being honest – because the pun was too good to forgo.
To his misfortune, the Order’s library was small and mostly stocked with every original, translated, and spin-off edition of Tales of True Knights, from the first volume dating back some two hundred years, to the most recent Tales of True Knights: Coelho to Ullman.
Excepting the odd case, Rin had read all of the Tales’ volumes. He skipped the likes of such volumes as Katz to Arim, which were more of a pamphlet than a book. These short titles generally read to the tune of:
To celebrate his ascension to Head of the Order, Katz led a party of twelve of his finest knights to hunt the ogres in the south. When a week had passed sans word from the hunt, Katz was presumed dead and Arim ascended in his stead.
As the main section of the library held no interest to Rin, he moved to the Legals section which kept ongoing records of all the Order’s accounts: quest orders, decrees, hangings, etc. These documents would later be used as bases for the next volume of Tales (undoubtedly titled Ullman to Whoever Succeeds Her), with no embellishment save for the flare of linguistic styling.
But as Rin perused through Legals, he noticed something strange. All the recent decrees for arrests and eliminations signed off by Ullman had the same word when describing each person’s profession: Black, with a capital B. Rin went back to Coelho to Ullman to see if there was a similar pattern, but found – to his basic understanding of statistics – nothing significant.
He jotted down a summary of his findings and rushed off to Sil, who was visiting Martin at the infirmary. As he stitched together an explanation through his tumbling cascade of words, Harold happened to have overheard enough for a thought to occur.
“Without a single exception in the past half dozen moons,” Harold said after Sil queued him in with her spoon, “every time a knight returned to the Order with a prisoner, the prisoner was black – lower case B, Martin.”
“How could it have taken you so long to notice?” Martin interrupted. “Surely you saw them all in plain sight as they came!”
“Knights do not return from quests every day.” Harold replied and looked to Sil for confirmation, “They trickle in and out every few weeks – it is only by chance that Melrah is so close to the Order’s base in D’orcahst. But one thing became very clear.” He paused, prodded at their fire with a stick, then locked eyes with Martin. “Ullman was not arresting criminals. She was starting a purge.”
They spoke a little longer of Ullman’s family and her dubious ascension to Head of the Order, until Sil turned the conversation back to their current predicament.
Three days prior, when Martin had woken up from his comma in the Order’s infirmary, Sil explained, she and Harold went to work to put an end to Ullman’s Superstitionist ploy. Legal documents only had text and so could not constitute as valid proof, but each warrant was always accompanied by a visual rendition of the target. The drawings were meant to help the knight with identification, and they were all kept in Ullman’s office.
When Ullman went to visit Martin after he woke up, Sil and Flinch snuck in and gathered enough documents to make a case against the Head of the Order.
“Just like that?” Martin interrupted in mock jest, holding his spoon up and motioning it in a slow arch towards his now empty bowl “No launching yourself from a catapult, lance at hand crashing in through her window?”
Martin’s question drew a stern face from Sil and a chuckle from Rin, his first audible contribution that evening. When all eyes turned to him, he stopped suddenly and stammered: “You see, uhm, Martin sir, in the Order – well, that is, for the knights there, what with them redeeming themselves – of course, not that you could know seeing as you aren’t a knight, but it’s unthinkable to s-s-steal. And from Ist Ullman,” he let another nervous chuckle slip, then scrunched his face in seriousness again, “or steal at all, really, sir. Even if, that is, if someone even saw us, we’d say Ullman asked us to fetch her some documents, sir, if we had to say anything at all, that is, what with the trust and the, the –” he trailed off and looked expectantly at Sil.
“The boy is right: it was no task.” Sil filled in for Rin, “Say what you will about Ullman and her archaic fears, she does believe in the Order and its tenets. Even if only two stones and half a twig serve as the anchor to her common sense.”
Dawn was just rising again as they ended an uphill trek of a deceptively high dune, when Martin came up to Sil, panting. “So then, Sil. What do your best estimates tell us about our expected demise today?”
Sil put her hand on Martin’s shoulder and gestured for him to look forward with a nod. “My best estimate – and I am fairly certain of this one –” She grinned, “is that we made it a day earlier than I expected.” Sil extended her arm, palm up, and presented the city of Arlot, half covered in the orange blanket of morning light, home to the Order of Orders.
“The Order to which all others must give deference and fealty. The most prestigious and sought after by any self-respecting knight.” She took a deep breath from her nose, and let it out slowly between pursed lips. “The Order that renounced my rank, titles, and knighthood five years ago.”