by James Page
Beyond the tumbling hills, the great storm brewed on the horizon. Katherine found it mesmerising: its devastating vastness, the way it twisted and changed from moment to moment, the flickering light from within it flashing and fading. There was something strangely calming about its intricacies, despite the inevitable destruction it contained.
She had found herself spending more and more time gazing into it since her husband had passed. The philosophical part of her mind had frequently commented on how this behaviour was telling of a desire for destructionism in a world now becoming seemingly devoid of meaning, and then the rest told that part of her mind to silence itself, and to let her deal with her grief in her own time. Besides, that would only really be true if it was something new she could latch onto, but the storm had been on the horizon for years, always threatening but never daring closer. Even before they could see it, there had been tales and accounts from the heartlands of dark clouds brewing, threatening to destroy a wicked land grown too powerful under corrupt rulers. But Katherine knew the truth of all that: People could make up meaning for such disasters, but time always found a way to end anything that was supposed to last, regardless of its merit.
She had been staring from behind her home for some time now, trying to find new meaning in the plumes, when something changed. A red light flickered into view, low on the horizon. For a moment, Katherine thought that the storm had grown a mouth, finally deciding to tell forth its judgement on the land below; but then she realised the light was not coming from the storm, but the Western road. A rider was approaching from the heartlands.
A tolling bell rang out behind her, summoning everyone to the village courtyard. Others had seen the light too.
Soon enough the whole village was gathered under the bell tower at the western gates, awaiting their new arrival. Many were worried; others, excited. Lauren, Katherine’s overly eager neighbour, couldn’t help but speculate.
‘Who do you think it might be?’
‘I have no idea.’ Katherine was less keen to ponder. ‘We shall simply have to wait until they arrive.’
‘Perhaps it’s a call to war.’
‘Against who?’ retorted Katherine. The only dissonance in the heartlands in her lifetime had been the storm, and since its arrival such petty squabbles had hardly been worth a second thought.
‘Who’s to say? But whatever news they bring: when the call comes it must be answered.’
This phrase was a popular one in the community, and one Katherine had not had much time for of late. She simply nodded and looked back to the road. Before Lauren could pipe up again, the rider emerged from behind the final hill.
In the diminishing light of day, the lamp the horse carried punctured the darkness before them. At first, all anyone could see beyond the light was the outline of a horse and a shimmering silver on top, reflecting the weaving flame. As the horse drew closer, and the crowd made way, they started to see the figure in detail:
‘A knight,’ stated one keen-eyed observer, and, much to the surprise of those gathered around him, he was right. The figure was now clearly armour-clad, and as the horse slowed to a trot before them they could pick out emblems and crests on the damp fabric in which it was draped. The man and his steed shone of nobility, a quality the village had rarely before witnessed. Katherine started to think that maybe Lauren was right. Perhaps this was a call to some war of the great houses.
Then the knight slid off his horse and slammed into the earth below.
* * *
Lying on the bed before her, out of his armour and tended to by four trained healers, Katherine made note that the man had no distinctly noble quality to him. They had brought him here out of the night after he had collapsed, and Katherine had forced her way in after them. She had a powerful force of will and, these days, few were inclined to deny her something as harmless as a back seat to proceedings.
His chest and arms were rinsed purple with bruises, and the only distinctive item he now wore was the small green stone that hung around his neck. They had tried to take it off him, but each time they had tried he had started tossing and turning so violently that they were forced to stop. Katherine kept getting lost in the distortions of the jewel he wore. There was something about it that reminded her of the chaotic beauty of the storm. The knight had been muttering the same two things for the last hour or so: ‘Joanna’ and ‘Failed’.
Just as her mind began wondering that way a third time, the man shuddered and coughed, and his eyes slowly began to open.
‘Where,’ he drowsily managed, ‘Am I?’ There was a moment’s hesitation in the room, as people groped for an answer, and then realisation dawned in his eyes. ‘I need to go ba-’
He didn’t manage to complete his thought. Trying to sit up had reignited his map of bruises, and he fell immediately back down, moaning. One of the men at his bedside tried to calm him,
‘You can’t be going anywhere just yet. You’ve got a lot of healing to do before going within a mile of that horse of yours.’
‘I have to,’ he mumbled, seeming to slip into semi-consciousness. ‘My wife. She needs help. The storm. Please.’
The knight caught her eye with this last phrase, and in them she recognised something she herself had been feeling for months now. She knew what she had to do, and with a smirk she whispered to herself:
‘When the call comes it must be answered.’
She stepped up to the anguished knight and put her hand on his shoulder. ‘We will see to your wife. I promise you.’
He looked up into her eyes, his brown on her blue, and with perfect clarity told her: ‘Take the stone to her. Take it to Crofton’s seat.’
‘I will,’ and without a struggle, she lifted the stone off his neck. As he drifted back to sleep, she slipped quietly from the room.
* * *
Lauren found her some hours later in the village courtyard with the knight’s horse.
‘What on earth are you doing? Where are you going?’
‘I have a promise to keep,’ Katherine declared as she climbed onto the horse. She had learned to ride as a girl, but the years were a gulf of lost elements, and she hoped that this skill was not one of them., ‘Make sure to keep my affairs in order while I am gone. I do not intend to return to a looted home.’
‘And if you don’t return at all? Katherine, please, this is madness. Why would you ride into the storm?’
But even she did not know that. She only knew that it had called her, and that she could no longer ignore it. She spurred on her new companion, the nameless horse, as her old companion called out in final protest behind her.
They advanced together beyond the gates of the village, and rode towards the beckoning darkness.
To be continued ‘In Extremis’…