Bearslayer and the Black Knight

Issue #92
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From the Lay of Bearslayer and the Black Knight, as recorded in Vaidota township by Krishan Gatherer:

As mighty elk, kings of the forest, measure each other before they charge, so do Bearslayer and the Black Knight before the battle of Tureida.

Ho Bearslayer, reveal yourself. Raise your arms, so we may see the strength to uproot oak. Lift your head, so we may glimpse a bear’s ears grown from your scalp. Stand tall, so we may know the champion of the Latts—ever ready to serve, ever ready to fight.

Ho Black Knight, foul Invader, reveal yourself. Beat on the plate of your chest, so your metal dogs rise up and howl at the sky. Shake your arms sheathed in steel, so that the maws of your cannon roar to fiery life. Lift your visor, so we may see your eyes devoid of mercy.

The armies of the Latts and the Greni surround the two of them but will not fight each other. The armies’ strength is now their champions’. The courage of the Latts guides Bearslayer’s arm. The cruelty of the Greni breathes fire into the Black Knight’s heart. Through ritual and sacrifice, the power of many has infused the two.

Now they clash. Now they decide the fate of their peoples.

No one decided anyone’s fate that day. The champions were too evenly matched. At nightfall they gave up the struggle, and their armies fell back to their camps.

The troops slept—but not Bearslayer and the Black Knight.

They clashed in Bear Forest, and the trees sighed around them. Unarmed, dressed only in shadow, they explored each other with sore fingers and hungry eyes. The enchantments of battle cast aside, they were two men of flesh and bone—no taller than any others and no stronger.

They’d discovered it in the heat of battle. A recognition, a kinship, a need.

“You’re different,” the Knight had whispered, as he soared through the air to cut Bearslayer’s throat.

“Tonight,” Bearslayer had replied, as he grasped the Knight and squeezed until his armor cracked. “In Bear Forest.”

From the Lay of Bearslayer and the Black Knight:

The Black Knight charges. His stallion’s hooves shake the earth. His iron mortars buck and roar and spit hellfire across the sky.

All around the grass burns. In the distant forest, trees shatter and moss withers as the Black Knight draws life from the world. His heart is dark, no soul has he—but powers great, this Enemy.

Who can stand against him?

That night, they came to know each other, thoroughly and sweetly and painfully.

Later, when they were done and crouched sweating on the moss of the forest, the Knight spoke to Bearslayer. “The Latts are savages with their wood and bronze and pagan effigies. Let us teach them of God and steel. Why die for them?”

“You want my reason?” Bearslayer gestured at the trees and called to the Bear of the Forest. “Mother!”

There came the tread of heavy feet. A lumbering shape moved in the shadows. Eyes like dying embers lit up the night.

While the Bear watched from the dark, Bearslayer bulged and twisted. He grew and grew, until a massive shape towered over the Knight. His breath steamed hot and humid. Six gnarled arms broke from his ribs and rose at his sides.

The Knight stumbled back but spoke without fear. “That thing raised you?”

“The Latts gave me to Her as sacrifice,” Bearslayer answered, an animal growl. “Every night for ten years She tore my limbs with her claws. She ate my guts while I screamed. Then She sang me back to health and power. Yes, she raised me.”

A fury took the Knight, and he stepped toward the Bear, his fists clenched to strike. But Bearslayer grasped his shoulder and held him tight—and the Bear turned her glowing eyes aside and padded silently into the night.

“I hate her, and I love her, as I do the Latts.” Bearslayer twisted and shrank as he spoke, bone crunching, skin crackling, until a man stood by the Knight’s side once again. “The Latts gave me to her, and She broke me. But She also remade me. And the Latts accepted me when I came home. When others called me demon, they made me their champion.”

The Knight drew Bearslayer close, distraught at the pain that welled up in him—distraught that he could be touched so easily.

“I won’t call you demon,” he whispered.

From the Lay of Bearslayer and the Black Knight:

Bearslayer runs with no weapons, no shield. Now his legs ripple and bulge. Now his chest sprouts fur hard as stone. With each step, his head nears the sun: three yards, four yards, five yards high. From his ribs burst a dozen limbs on each side, their paws moving in concert.

He rears up and thunders his rage. His maw disgorges wolf-sized spiders. They scuttle across the meadow on sleek furred legs.

This is Bearslayer, who holds the power of a thousand Latts. This is he who protects their homes and fields from foreign arms. Call his name! Sing his praise!

Late another night, they rode across the sky, Bearslayer and the Knight. A mechanical beast carried them on steel wings, moonlight glinting on its ridged spine. Below stretched the Greni camp, as far as the eye could see. Campfires and banners and weapons at rest, carried across the Amber Sea from Stadt Dura.

Bearslayer spoke in the Knight’s ear, arms tight around his waist. “Why do you fight for the Greni? They talk of God and holy things, but they pillage our homes, and burn our forests, and blacken the earth.”

The Knight shifted in his seat. “As a child, I slept on a bed of pig iron in Furnace One. At midnight, the priests came and rolled shut the heavy doors, and twisted open the valves of the gas lines.” As the Knight spoke, his skin hardened, until Bearslayer held a creature of iron, and not a man at all. “I sat in the dark and listened to gas venting around me. It felt like clammy fingers tickling me. Until someone struck flint against steel.”

“No,” said Bearslayer.

“I burned. Red iron flowed up my skin and down my throat, and I screamed. Each night I screamed, though I should have known better. When I woke each morning, naked on a bed of metal, the priests came and bowed before me, and called me champion. I took the title—what choice did I have? I knew what I was.”

Bearslayer closed his eyes. Saw a little boy burning, screaming. Saw him trapped, as Bearslayer himself had been all his life.

“We’re monsters both of us,” he whispered. “Dark. Twisted. Terrible.” He kissed the Knight’s hair.

From the Lay of Bearslayer and the Black Knight:

The last battle is come. High on Loimdota’s Cliff, over the River Daugyva, two figures stand dark against the rosy-fingered dawn.

The Black Knight swings a jagged blade, long as a lance. Cruel steel bites Bearslayer’s side, and he screams, twelve arms raised to the sky. The Knight’s cannon spout fire, and Bearslayer burns, a pillar of flame a dozen yards high—both he and the Latts near final conquest.

Yet Bearslayer is not so easily ended. He calls on the Daugyva. The river flings Herself up from Her stream to wash Loimdota’s Cliff and douse his flames.

Bearslayer’s fur is scorched, his wounds terrible to behold, yet he roars defiance and falls upon the Knight. Claws tear at iron, teeth bite into steel—terrible is his fury!

Bearslayer and the Black Knight never fought atop Loimdota’s Cliff. That final morning, they stood as two regular men in plain cotton clothes, with no armor, no weapons in hand, and waited.

The armies trickled through the morning gloom, bleary eyes blinking against dank fog. Space was tight on the cliffside paths, and Greni and Latts arrived together, making little pretense of martial order. They hadn’t come to fight, after all, but to watch their champions.

Except that, when they formed a wide circle around Bearslayer and the Knight and waited for battle, it wouldn’t begin.

“We’ve fought enough,” called Bearslayer to the Latts, his shoulder against the Knight’s.

“Let us go home,” called the Knight to the Greni. “Let us plant barley and wheat, and roses.”

“We are done with you,” they said as one, and turned, and kissed each other.

It was no pale thing, this kiss. Sharp as cut diamond, soft as warm honey, it burned them both with a molten passion.

And it burned those who watched. Cries of outrage rent the air like sharpened spears. Snarls of hatred boomed forth like blasts of gunpowder. Latts and Greni both grasped for blades that had never seen blood until this day. The ground shook as they charged their champions.

This, Bearslayer and the Knight had expected.

“To me, Bear!” Bearslayer roared—calling for power to break him, make him, change him into a fighting god.

“Burn me!” the Knight shouted—calling for flames to scour him, harden him, forge him into a machine.

Their calls went unanswered.

The Greni and the Latts poured across the clifftop toward them—and the champions stood there as two men, no taller than any others and no stronger.

In the heartbeats that remained, they locked eyes.

In the final moments, they knew the truth.

Power, skill, and hatred—those were never truly theirs. Those were mere weapons, borrowed from their peoples. The Latts and the Greni had reclaimed their gift and curse.

They had no use for champions who would not fight.

The Knight took a step toward Bearslayer and spoke Bearslayer’s name.

Bearslayer reached for the Knight’s hand and-

A pike ripped through the Knight’s ribs.

A mace shattered Bearslayer’s spine.

A hammer caved in the Knight’s skull.

A knife slit Bearslayer’s throat.

The two champions collapsed atop each other, dead before they hit the ground. Their corpses lay breast against breast, cheek against cheek.

No one much noticed. The Latts and the Greni had recalled their taste of blood.

The battle lasted for hours. The war—for centuries.

From the Lay of Bearslayer and the Black Knight:

The day wears late, and still the two champions fight. Yet an end must come to this as to all things.

Great is Bearslayer’s anger, bright his righteous wrath. “Not for you, to destroy my people!” he calls. “Not for you, to claim this land!”

Though he is near to death, his wounds weeping crimson, Bearslayer attacks with godlike force. He grapples the Black Knight, and lifts him up, and leaps into the air.

Together they plummet from Loimdota’s Cliff. Together they plunge into the Daugyva far below.

The waters froth white, and they’re gone.

The Knight, foul Invader, is dead—his menace, gone. And so, it seems, is Bearslayer. Woe to the Latts! Weep for their hero!

Yet as the Latts and the Greni collide in combat, Bearslayer’s voice rings loud and brave.

“My honor is yours, oh Latts! My purpose—yours! Through all the ages yet to come, wait for me! In the time of your greatest need, I’ll come!”

To this day, Bearslayer rests vigilant in the Daugyva’s bosom—ever ready to serve, ever ready to fight.


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Tom Crosshill's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and has appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Intergalactic Medicine Show. After many years spent in Oregon and New York, he currently lives in his native Latvia. He's a satellite member of the writers' group Altered Fluid. In the past, he has operated a nuclear reactor, translated books and worked in a zinc mine, among other things. Visit him at http://www.tomcrosshill.com.

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1 Comment on “Bearslayer and the Black Knight”

One Response to “Bearslayer and the Black Knight”

  1. Eliza C says:

    I read this story over a year ago, when it first came out. I have never forgotten the haunting images and went to find it again today. I enjoyed it as much on this reading as I did that first time.

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