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A monthly art collective featuring work inspired by a one sentence statement.

February 2016

The Sagebrush Knight

Max Hawkins

She held the old man by his throat.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said to her. His face red was with strain. “Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before.

...

There was once a boy who lived in the flats beyond the Tyra marsh. He wasn’t a brilliant boy, though he had a knack for gardening. It was a skill his father had passed to him shortly before his death, which his mother had passed to his father, shortly before hers. The idea was - plant the seeds and attend to the garden, and though there would be times of plenty and times of little, on the whole one should not want. This sort of surety and self-reliance was was important, for few traveled to the farm on these flatlands.The Tyra marsh was long and sucked wooden wheels and horses’ heels alike into its bog, so merchants and vendors were rarely seen.  After his father’s death, the boy continued as his father and before that his mother had, tending to the garden. Given that the soil was wet and the skies were gray, tubers grew best: yams and potatoes, and roots: carrot, ginger, and the like. Herbs also sprung fairly there, mint and thyme and sagebrush.  For a span, a small grapevine clung to the side of the boy’s fence, though it was washed out in due course. Thus the boy would pass his days, snipping and digging and turning his garden, and some days ate plenty, some days ate little, but on the whole grew as boys do and gained his sturdiness.

As the boy gained his hair and voice, his thoughts also turned to starting a family of his own. Of course, living past the marsh he was lucky if he’d see more than two people in a season, and they were always knotty, burly, sour, irreconcilably male. One day, perhaps I shall cross the Tyra and find a wife, the boy thought. But in that time my garden would wilt and die, and I would have nowhere to take her back to. So the boy-ish man-ish boy cursed into the wind, tossed and turned in the night, but mostly, mostly gardened.

And then a day came when not one but three men wandered upon the boy’s small farm. When the boy first saw them, he grabbed his axe, for he believed them to be draugrs, evil souls that refused to stay in the ground, so bloodied and bedraggled were these men.

But men they were. Starving, bloodied, half-frenzied, yes, but men all the same. And so the boy stayed his axe. Boy, one of the men said as they limped to him. We are in the employ of your noble King. We took heavy harm in the Cherrgh Hills while hunting with he and his Royal Legion. We are pained to say that the King has been stricken dead, along with all his best men, all save us, who fled with naught but what you see upon us. We need your food, water, and roof or we will be obliterated.

The boy stared at these men. A sorry few, if indeed such a tragedy had beset them. Though they were large and many, he welcomed them into his hut and fed them what he could, and gave them some water from the well to wash their wounds. That first night, the men were so exhausted that, while they slept on the ground and had no blankets, they did not grumble or snore. By the second night they were more lively, and whispered amongst themselves in the corner beside the warm stove. On the third night, they were quiet once again, but now were tense and restless.

After the third day, the boy spoke to the men as they shared puffs from a pipe that onced belonged to the boy’s father. Although your wounds are not yet healed fully, it is time for you to move on, the boy said. My garden is not large and cannot support so many. I will give you each a day’s food to sustain you across the Tyra. The men eyed him in silence for a long bit, then shifted and glanced at each other. Finally, one man answered, we thank you for your offer Boy, but we refuse to go. In our state, we cannot make it across the Tyra, so we will not go. However, we are good and fair men and will offer you something better than a trade. Let me reveal something spectacular. Our King and Yours led us into the hills of Cherrgh in the order of slaying a dreadful Giant.  Many are the sorry souls who have disappeared in these hills, only for their polished bones to be found in later months, and not all in the same place, if you take our meaning.  And so our Good King led us, his royal legion into the hills to end that nasty brute. Unfortunately, we were surprised in the night, and the beast tore through us in an instant, including our Fair King.  This is how we found you, in our sorry state. We were lucky to venture upon you, but now I know is not luck but Fate’s mighty arrow, pointing us exactly where we were intended to go. I now see that all is not lost. We fled, and the is a shameful thing, yes. But while we left our dignity in those hills, we returned with this.

From his tattered travel sack, the man revealed a plain wooden box. He unclasped the box, opened it, and from it pulled a chipped dagger. The blade was dull and badly knicked, though a faintly visible ornate engraving traced what remained on its sharp edges.  

This, Boy, is Cylleniae, and she is the King’s Holy Sword, or was, I should say, given His pitiable fate. Unfortunately, our King had no occasion to use her, as we were set upon swiftly and He was among the first to fall in the carnage. But Cylleniae has slain many a monstrous foe, and has the meaning to slay one more yet.

The man pushed the hilt of the dagger into the boy’s hands. You must do it, Boy.  You must go into the hills and avenge your King.  It is well known that Giants sleep for a span after feasting, and feast he did on our comrades, as much it pains us to say. But you can pluck our redemption from its bloody jaws.  Catch the Giant while he sleeps. Stick this blade below its chin. Do this, allow us to return with glory instead of sorrow, and the kingdom will be in your debt.

The boy scoffed. I am no knight, he said, and this blade is too dull to cut through ivy, least a Giant’s throat. It was well known that Giant hide was far stronger than human skin, more akin to thick, tanned mammoth hide.

Indeed you are no knight, the man said, for if you were you would recognize this is no ordinary carver’s knife. Cylleniae is blessed with a thousand years of enchantment, a thousand years of blood spilled by its dance, and with each soul it claims, it grows stronger still. Further, though she dresses down before humble folk as you, in the presence of great evil she blossoms into a fearsome and magnificent weapon. You need not concern yourself with sweat over her prowess - only the tears you may shed when you, unused to splendor, view her in rapturous bloom.

My garden, the boy said. It is a week’s trek to the Cherrgh range, then I would find this Giant, and then I must make my way back. I cannot leave my garden for this long.

This is no quandary at all, the man said. We will remain on this plot until your return, healing our wounds.  Though we are knights, we are also the sons of farmfolk, and that blood remains in us still. We will tend your garden in your absence. This is the essence of our deal. In return for our redemption, you keep your garden and gain glory throughout the kingdom. This farm will become a manor, and the fairest young maids, the bravest good knights will flock to your lands.

Give me a night and a day to make my decision, the boy said. Do not wait long, replied the man.  You must be quick if you wish to catch the Giant in sleep. And with that, the men retreated to the corner of the hut and shared a pipe, their eyes fixed uneasily upon him.

For his part, the boy considered what the man had told him. As the last light left and the boy stared into the starless sky, the boy expected to find his fear: of Giants, of violence, of leaving his garden. But instead he saw only desirous things: fortune, renown, and - more than anything else - a woman to claim as his own.

The boy rose early in the morning. He packed potatoes and carrots from his garden to feed himself on the hunt. He packed his axe to make kindling for the cold nights. And he packed Cylleniae, in her box, for the Giant’s throat.  

The men were in good spirits as they watched him prepare, laughing and teaching him bawdy songs to keep him company on the journey:

You go to your glory, they sang, so sharpen your blade

Your sword in a Beast then your sword in a Maid

The men cheered as, for the first time in his life, the boy left his farm.

There is little to say of the journey to the Cherrgh Hills, for there was little on the way save slick, craggy rock and frigid wind and the circling of crows in the pale sky.

In time, the boy reached the Cherrgh. The hills were thickly wooded and already damp with the first snowfall. The boy spent his days slowly creeping through the frost and following hints of activity: broken branches, trampled grass, the sudden flight of birds . If he had been a friend or scholar of the Giants, he would have known that Giants considered themselves kin and caretakers to the tall trees, cousins to all that grew around it, and were meticulous in their care not to disturb the forest. In fact, it is professed by those who would know that all manners of green life spring forth where Giant tread: shrubs and vines and thick roots sprout from their footfalls to cover their tracks. This, it is said, is one of the forest’s gifts of gratitude to its wards.

So for days, and then weeks the boy followed false signs, and in the night he huddled beside a small fire beneath a frozen trunk to wait and wonder. Wonder if what the men had told him was true, wonder if he had the fortitude to fell a Giant, wonder if his fortune would bring him a woman and a wife. And then the morning would arrive, and he would rub the frost from his nose and plod on.

He spent a full moon’s span freezing in the hills. By the end, the food he’d brought with him was long eaten, and he spent more daylight hunting rats and hares than Giants. So it was that, following the path of a hare for hours, he passed over clearing and found her - covered in moss and clover, nearly blended into the cliffside as she dozed: a Giant. In this moment he understood why for many Giants were a thing of rumor rather than fact: in stillness, the forest grew into them, around them, such that they were fully hidden at rest. It is possible, he considered, that he had passed his prey for weeks and simply not spotted her.

It did not occur to him how, if this were this true, he had not been attacked as the other men were.

In the soft snowfall, the boy crept upon her. Carefully he navigated past the dark green hill that defined her bent knee, around the thicket of thorn bushes that lined her breast, under and over the long, slippery branches that guarded the gentle curve of her neck, careful, careful. He opened the lid of the box that held Cylleniae, the King’s Sword. The men said that Cylleniae would transform in the presence of his foe - but the dagger sat in its box, as chipped and dull as it had been on his farm. Perhaps, the boy thought, the sword’s enchantment was of a more practical nature, that the weapon didn’t visually change but had a mighty force beyond its appearance. This must be the way, the boy decided. He squeezed the handle of the sword and took a last moment to study the Giant’s throat. He felt pity for ending this creature without so much as a struggle, but this was the way of things, just as he had done with goats on his farm on the few occasions that he had them. Quick was best. He thrust the blade into her throat.

The blade snapped, easy as a twig. The boy stood there and dumbly stared at the handle.  The Giant’s eyes shot open. She roared.

The boy leapt back and fled to the nearest oak. The Giant swatted at him as he sprinted, missing narrowly, and only because she was still groggy  from sleep. She crawled to her hands and knees, shook away the clods of soil and snow that had settled upon her in rest, and rose to her feet.

The boy peeked around the oak behind which he hid and gasped, part in terror, part in awe. She was a savage, splendorous being. She stood the span of five men in height. She was adorned in the living cloth of the forest. A singlet of moss, ivy, and cobweb clung to her from chest to ankle. A track of pale wildflower traced curving patterns around her shoulders and down to her waist. A thicket of sapling threaded down her right arm. Hidden in her tangle of dark hair, white vine pierced and looped her earlobes. Contrary to human telling, Giants hold a deep sense of pride in their appearance, as it tells the story of their relationship with the environment in which they live. Although the boy could not read it, the story of this Giant’s clothing said: there was a time when I did not care for this land, but I have grown to love it fiercely, and any who these hills question will also answer to me. There was a protective violence in her, not of a mother but as a lover. The boy could not read this in her dress. But he could read her eyes. And he knew his end would be this day. His end, or hers.

They fought until the day fell dark - she clawing, leaping, and stomping at him, the boy ducking, climbing, and hacking at her limbs with his axe. The most battle-tested of men should succumb to a Giant in moments, but somehow this boy survived and survived. Perhaps it was luck, or ingenuity, or strength gained on his farm, or perhaps the Giant did not truly want to harm him. Perhaps she saw that there was fear in him, but also respect and tenderness for her forest, for her. Into the night they fought, and in time he was no longer fighting for his survival, but she for hers. When the first light of morning lit the trees, she was splintered, broken, and exhausted. She was defiant. She was defeated. He climbed atop her, bruised and trembling, to finish it. Now I bring peace to these hills, he said.

She did not beg the boy perched atop her chest. Instead, she said this:

You will find no peace in taking me. My family and I have lived in these hills to the time of fifty men, and not once have we seen you at peace. We have listened to you in these hills as you tell your stories. Always ‘a long time ago’, your stories. Always, ‘one day, one time.’  Always dreaming of where you were or where you go, and never where you are. So it is in this.  You search for me, season after season, and when you find me you have no better idea than to strike. Here is your peace, before you then. Show me what you will do.

The boy looked into the Giant’s eyes. Above him black birds chirped and hopped from branch to branch. A cold wind snaked through the trees. The boy brought his axe down upon her, and took her head. Like the shadow from a passing cloud, his senses dimmed as he did his work.

When it was done, he shivered. In the echoing stillness he felt an agitated grief settle in his gut.  Surely he was a man now, he decided. He fashioned a rope from the Giant’s hair and made his way down the mountain with her head in tow.

The path home took twice as long as the path to the hills, for his grim bounty took time to haul and the flatland had iced over. The boy longed to return to his farm, for he expected the men might have difficulty stewarding his garden through the cold spell.  At night, he warmed himself with a vision of adulation for his courage, and it was during this brief period only, as he returned to his farm, that he recalled his time on the mountain with something like pride.

Finally, the boy reached the edge of his land. He called out to the men to retrieve the Giant’s head and to warm some food. He heard no reply.  The boy called a second time, and again was met with the hollow sigh of the wind. When he neared his garden, he found that all had been picked and ransacked: his carrots, ginger, sage, and mint gone, the patches of shrub and wildweed - torched. Empty sockets pockmarked the soil where once his garden stood. His hut, too, had been stripped bare: his seeds and stored food and tools, his bedding, clothing, his pot and bowls, the wooden toys he had played Dragons and Devils with as a child. All gone. His water well emptied and defiled. The boy wailed, and the sun fell, and no one heard him in his grief. Half-starved and heartbroken, he slept on the floor where his bed once lay.

In the morning, knowing no other destination, the boy took the Giant’s head and trekked toward the King’s city. The path through the Tyra marsh was no less wearisome than the hike from the Cherrgh Hills, though he found some fortune in the cold air, which had frozen the most treacherous mudtraps. There was little he could hunt with an axe in this place. He ate frostwater and the few insects he discovered in the thin logs that poked from the earth.

His legs moved slower each day. And then, half a moon-span from the start of his long march, he saw the smoke of chimneys. His energy renewed, he reached the edge of the city before last light.

The boy startled the first people that spotted him. Filthy, ragged children were not an uncommon sight in the King’s city, but a boy towing a Giant’s head… the City Guard was quickly notified. Though by some accounts, not before every schoolchild, drunkard, and nursing wife had shared their whispers.

I have completed the King’s final wish, the boy said the the guards that came upon him.  I leave you to your wisdom in payment, though surely some bread and stew would not bother.

The guards were puzzled. I know little of a King’s wish, one guard said, least a final one. Our King is very much alive. At the this, the boy collapsed to the guard’s feet.

Indeed, the King was alive and, as much as any common shoemaker, excited to learn that a boy had entered the city pulling a Giant’s head. He ordered the boy food and rest on the palace grounds and had the Giant’s head placed in his parlor.  As soon as the boy had recovered from the journey, he was brought before the King.

Tell me your story, the King said, and I will decide its conclusion. The boy told him of the men who came upon his farm, their tale of ambush in the hills, of the death of the King and of Cylleniae, the King’s Holy Sword. At this, the King laughed. An enchanted sword? I’d sooner fight with an enchanted chicken, for all the skill I have with a blade. The boy then told of his time in the Cherrgh Hills, of his battle with the Giant, his unlikely victory, and the desolation to his farm at his return.

The King nodded in contemplation. As you might surmise, these men were no knights of mine, nor noble men of any type. More likely, bandits and thieves sent you on a fool’s quest to the mountains, not expecting your return. As for this Giant, truthfully I have no taste for Giant-hunts. This is not a trophy I have ever sought. However, it is uncommon for a party of men to take a Giant, least an untrained boy. Indeed, I am moved by your valor in my name, however mistaken it was.

Thus, the King asked the boy to join his Knights Legion. The boy, his farm destroyed, happily accepted.

The boy trained as a squire for some years, and in time became a full Knight and a man of great repute, relentless in battle, courageous in rescues. With the King’s permission, he was allowed in due course to hunt the three men who had descended upon his farm all those years past. He found them each in turn, and gave them the King’s justice. As his reputation grew, he received notes from many royal women. After some scoundrelry, he took a wife and had a daughter, who he named Cyllien, which means daughter of Cyllendiae, for she enchanted him.

This is the sum of stories told about the boy called the Sagebrush Knight.

There is one tale, however, that is unknown to most all.  It is this: soon after the boy was made a knight, when he had a horse of his own and time to himself, he rode out past the Tyra marsh, rode all night to the Cherrgh Hills. Here he stayed for many days with only the clothes on his back. In his wandering he watched the moss-green branches rustle with the movement of squirrels, he listened to the crackling of leaves for gentle steps. He returned to the oak he had once hidden behind in terror.

And at last he found the spot where her body once laid. In its place bloomed a dense glade of white vine and pale wildflower. He rested here for the night. In the morning he planted a few seeds beside her: sagebrush and mint and carrot. Over the years, he returned when he could to tend to his garden. In times of peace, he spent his idle time in books, learning what he could of Giant-lore.  In times of war he fought fearlessly, recklessly, for he knew his life was not Man’s to take. When his daughter had grown into a knight of her own name and his own battles had ended, he returned to the Cherrgh Hills with his wife and built a small hut by his garden.

It was here that he spent the remainder of his days, waiting for the Giants to return and claim what belonged to them.”

...

The old man inhaled slowly and savored the cold, clean air. 

She lifted him in her palm, high above the ground.

“There was a time,” she said, “when Man told stories to teach the unbelievable truths.”  She tightened her grip on his body. “And then, one place, one time, Man used his stories to tell unbelievable lies.”

She studied him as he trembled in her hand. It would be such an easy thing to crush him, to end his story.

“Show me what you will do then,” the man said.

“We shall see,” she said. She carried him over the mountains and into the Den of Giants. They listened to his story, and together they decided his fate.

MAX HAWKINS