…in their hoarse, wordless chorus as their destriers pranced in the courtyard and the banner of the opaque cross upon the field of snow fluttered in the frigid breeze. The ringing of iron shoes on granite flags, the hollow scrapping of horny hoof on granite same, the swag of leather-sheathed scabbards against leathern saddles, the soft slinking of mail against all, the furious flutter of banners, and the ominous clink of the visor of that awesome opaque helm, greeted him. Upwelling within swelled a kind of humiliation buoyed with elation he had never known, not even upon Elevation and Induction.
He stood as straight as he might a head below the slobbering bit of the black destrier and looked up with no little trepidation into the face of Justice Claret, a grin with crusading zeal, his waste-burned bronze face contrasting starkly with his beard of silver and snow, his falchion-cleft nose and eye acting like a crossbow sight for his one blazing ocularius, dancing an icy grey under that silver brow.
Leaning straight upon his dolphin-headed crook of ivory, shifting his cowl back upon his shoulders, shifting unfamiliarly in his walking boots, and forcing himself to meet that baleful visage, bringing one hand to the rosary at his breast from which the dolphin borne image of the Blessed Mother shone above Christ upon the Cross, he intoned as manfully as possible, “Justice Claret, Our Lady of Angels blesses us with your presence.”
The fierce man, old enough to be his grandsire, snarled, “Prentice, the gargoyles yet bray, the breath of the Hinterbeast yet plays down the Passages of Damnation. Why do you not sing within the Sanctuary?”
Only the banners flapping in the wind provided the context for his response, as the Dozen Sanguine Apostles of Justice Claret observed a stark silence, as did, eerily, their bone-crushing steeds.
“Justice Claret, The Blessed Mother of God bade me with a painted tear to admonish the Hinterbeast, to stand upon its icy tongue and cast out the demons that possess its hunger for Christendom. Acolyte Wells and Servitor Bund attend my person and the Holy Relics. The Mysteries shall accompany us.”
The legendary knight, his fiftieth winter in the saddle behind him, glared down into he who spoke on behalf of Blessed Mother Mary.
‘Blessed Mother, let me shrink not.’
The old Crusader then snarled down at him
crookedly, that ancient blade stroke having frozen that side of his upper lip.
‘Jesus Christ, give me strength from the Cross.’
Justice Claret then regarded him with a look of pity, a dismissive judgment that said that this, narrow shouldered, prayer-booked kneeler, this singer for mercy, this comforter of the suffering Faithful, deserved no knightly escort. The thirteen crossbow men in their quilted jackets and the thirteen pikemen in their dented cuirasses, arrayed against the high walls of the narrow court, hung their heads and glanced sideways at the least among them with wry and silent snickers, it being obvious to all that Justice Claret would not be sparing a knight from his duties to escort his domiciled counterpart, his generations delayed junior, on his silly quest to pray away the ice. The ice had been exorcised for generations now, by hundreds of pious Prentices, all of them his senior and most his better, and it waxed ever deeper into Christendom with every passing year.
The twelve knights sat their destriers in mailed and visored silence, forming twin columns behind their Master, between the Sanctuary Gate from whence
this frail messenger from Mary had embarked on his thus far graceless mission and the outer Gate of Soliloquy, beyond which leered the forests and loomed the peaks of Hither Heathenry.
Prentice Dolphin had never ridden a horse. It was not given to his calling. The lowly prentice, all of them manning the sanctuaries that ringed Christendom with Humariums against the Blight, like monk and priest, prior and bishop, cardinal and Pope, all above them, walked as did Jesus among his flock. Hence the workings of the horseman baffled him. Justice Claret did not click at the horse like a merchant, whip it like a farmer, shake the reigns like a messenger, or spur that beast like a knight. No, he used his knees
somehow to convince that great black destroyer to turn about, whip Prentice Dolphin across his bare face with a tail that dwarfed Servitor Bund’s heavy
sanctuary broom, and rode out between the ranks of his knights, leaving the insulted Prentice to wonder at his failure.
As the iron rang on granite and banners flapped in the icy wind, he wondered within, ‘Does Justice Claret declare me unworthy? If so, why? Did I mis-deliver my intent?’
The ringing of iron on stone ceased, then began with a crooked cadence. To his horror, the Crusader now peered at him from beneath one narrow brow through a visor slit of an eye, clanged shut his visor, struck his brazen spurs to the black scarred flanks of the mighty destrier, and charged, charged down upon Prentice Dolphin as if he were a very heretic caught
haranguing the serfs in some hamlet, beneath the boughs of a heathen tree…
‘God Almighty, pray grant me courage!’