The key turned in the lock with a heavy clunk, and the iron-banded door swung open. Morhault looked up and saw, for the first time in a month, the gray-bearded ex-mercenary from Tamur. Sir Feldon was getting around with a cane, now; he must have been using a healer's aid to help the bone mend at an accelerated pace.
"You're looking good, Feldon."
"I'd say the same, but I'd be lying, even though you're still too blasted handsome."
"Prison life," Morhault replied with a shrug. The tower room, though spartan, was not a dungeon cell, but even without the window bars and the two guards outside it still would have been a prison. "I'd offer you something, but for some reason all I have is bread and water."
Feldon dropped into a chair and flexed his leg to work out some of the stiffness.
"Well, you really stepped in it this time, didn't you, Morhault."
"Bad news on the diplomatic front?" the younger knight asked dryly.
"You haven't heard?"
"I haven't really been getting out lately." Morhault waved a hand, indicating the ten-by-ten room.
Feldon grunted unsympathetically.
"You can probably guess, though. It all fell apart at once. It took about a week for the merchants of Tamur and the Prairie Tribe clan-chiefs to start seriously accusing each other of plotting the whole thing, and then everybody dug out all their old grievances and prejudices, so it degenerated until a formal declaration of war was issued."
"In the middle of winter?"
"When did a little weather ever interfere with a good, rousing political discussion? The snow is making them cautious, though, so the real bloodbath won't start until spring."
Feldon sighed heavily, and for the first time he looked to Morhault like he was carrying the weight of his years.
"Why did you do it, Morhault?" he asked. "Why did you let a couple of adolescent lovers run off together when you knew it would provoke a war?"
Morhault laced his fingers together behind his head and leaned back against the wall.
"Sometimes I ask myself the same thing."
Feldon glared at him.
"Of all people, you'd better know."
"You've heard all the great, heroic stories about the deeds of the Lion Knights, haven't you?"
"Most of them."
"Me, too. In fact, they're why I joined the order as a boy. I admit it, just like Oren, I wanted to be a hero. Maybe I couldn't be a Dragonmaster, but a Lion Knight was the next-best thing. I wanted to rescue maidens and fight evil warlords and slay foul monsters." He smiled sardonically and said, "I don't remember any stories about Lion Knights forcing girls into marriages they don't want for the sake of political expediency."
"She had a duty to her family," Feldon said. "Just like you'd sworn oaths of loyalty to our order, solemn oaths that kicked aside just because you didn't feel like following them one day."
Morhault snapped upright, emotion flooding him.
"Yeah, maybe so--and maybe I saw two young people in front of me who deserved a chance at happiness. If the people of Tamur and the Prairie Tribe didn't want to be fighting a war, they'd have left their swords at home. Why should Tarrent and Marysann have to give up their love for the sake of people too stupid or too power-hungry to put aside feuds that are about nothing but pride and money?"
"It's not that simple."
"Maybe it should be."
"That's a fair description of the Mayor you've given there, Morhault. I'll even grant you a fair chunk of the Tamur merchants and Prairie war-leaders to boot. It isn't just them who'll fight the war, though. The soldiers will be ordinary citizens and tribesmen, and they're the ones who will do the fighting and the dying. There'll be famine and disease--there always is with war. Fields trampled and burned, buildings demolished, herds slaughtered...That's why we were there, Morhault. That's why the Lion Knights cared. We could have headed it all off, stopped it before it started, but you decided not to."
"The ends don't justify the means, Feldon."
Leaning heavily on his cane, Feldon pushed himself back to his feet.
"Tell it to the dead, Morhault, tell it to the dead."
-X X X-
It was another week before Morhault was called into Lionhead's Tribunal Hall for the last time. The tribunal, consisting of the Grand Master in addition to four knights chosen by lot, had heard the testimony and the arguments, studied the law and tradition, and were ready at last to deliver their verdict.
"The penitent shall rise, that he may receive the judgment of the tribunal," intoned the knight acting as sergeant-at-arms, his voice booming out in the arched chamber.
Morhault rose from his seat to face the five knights who sat behind the great high table.
"Sir Morhault," the white-haired Grand Master, Sir Pellain, addressed him according to formula, "do you accept the authority and the judgment of this tribunal of your own free will?"
"Then let the judgment be heard."
As the order of Lion Knights attempted to fill the role of the Dragonmaster, the Goddess Althena's champion, so did they take the model of their tribunal rules from the priesthood's canon courts. Each judgment was issued in two parts, the "judgment of the heart," which examined motive, and the "judgment of the body," which looked to the act itself. Pellain glanced down to the end of the table, and a slim, hawk-faced knight named Veras leaned forward to speak.
"Sir Morhault, having heard the testimony of all the witnesses before us, this tribunal finds that your actions stemmed from the dictates of conscience and not from malice, nor from a deliberate desire to bring harm to your charge or this order."
That was a relief, Morhault thought grimly. He had to admit, he'd been afraid the knights would be so incensed at his actions that they'd judge them to have been inherently incompatible with good conscience. One of the key points of the Lion Knights' code was that "one who acted within the dictates of his conscience" could not be executed.
Morhault still hadn't quite figured out why he'd come back to the Citadel of the Lion for judgment knowing that he might end up facing the headsman's axe. Lately, his decisions had been running like that.
Sir Veras leaned back, his part done, and the knight at the other end of the table, Damosel Anya, spoke the judgment of the body.
"Nevertheless," she stated, "despite your good intent, this tribunal finds that you have broken your oaths of fealty to the Order of Lion Knights, and that this violation was not done by accident in the throes of a crisis but willfully and with full knowledge of your act."
"The oath of a Lion Knight of Ilan is a sacred trust," declared one of the other knights, a man Morhault did not know by name. "The word of a knight should be broken only when fulfillment of the letter of the promise would be in direct violation of the spirit of that promise. It is that ethic which has brought this order its reputation throughout the world."
Sir Astad, the last of the knights on the tribunal and a master general who had led the campaign that had convinced Feldon to become a Lion Knight, took up the thread of the recital.
"When a knight is given a duty by his lord, it must be carried out, regardless of his personal feelings on the matter. It is the loyal bond between liege and vassal, vassal and liege, which preserves justice within the system. Without it only anarchy or despotism can result. A knight who refuses his duty is no knight at all."
"Therefore," the Grand Master said, rising to his feet, "it is the judgment of this tribunal that you, Morhault of Raculi, are named oathbreaker. As you have shown that you hold no respect for the duties and burdens of knighthood, so now do we strip you of its honors. Your rank of knight is revoked, and you are cast out from membership in this noble Order. From this day henceforth you are declared exile, upon pain of death, from the Citadel of the Lion and all chapterhouses, waystations, and other properties of the Lion Knights of Ilan. Such is the decision of this tribunal; let it be entered into the record and proclaimed to one and all."
Pellain nodded to the sergeant-at-arms, then resumed his seat. The officer of the tribunal clapped his hands twice, and two pages brought forth a large wooden stand which they set before the dais. A third page carried a shield. Like all those borne by knights of the order it was crimson and carried the golden head of a lion, but Morhault knew well that it was his own. The shield was fitted securely into the stand, and the sergeant-at-arms stepped forward. He raised his weapon, a heavy double-bitted axe, and struck. The massive blade cleaved the knightly shield in two.
Morhault winced as the two halves slipped from their places and clattered on the marble floor.
He'd expected this at the very least, had tried to imagine what it would be like, picture the event in his mind and steel himself to face it. None of it worked. The pain of being cast out, of seeing what he'd strived for ever since childhood symbolically destroyed before his eyes cut through him like a cold knife in his belly.
How was it, Morhault asked himself, that he could have thrown away his lifelong dream?
-X X X-
The whispers had taken less than a day to spread. The doings of the Lion Knights were always news for the people of Ilan, and a scandal such as this was a gossip's dream come true. Only four others had ever been cast out of the Paladins in their history, the last before Morhault had been born. The epithet "Morhault the Fallen" was on everyone's lips, and several different versions of the reason for his villainy had already sprung up. The story showed all the signs of developing into a popular folktale.
Oren hadn't even said goodbye. The boy's starry-eyed dedication to the knightly code had been repulsed by his master's actions. The dark glares he'd directed at Morhault during the tribunal sessions told the fallen knight that the shock and contempt Oren had started to show in the forest had hardened into an angry hatred for the man who'd betrayed the squire's beloved ideals--and his personal trust besides. They'd both be old men before that could be forgiven, if it ever could.
The sun was in Morhault's face as he rode past the edge of town. He wondered what the future held for him. Given his skills and his disgrace, he'd probably wind up a mercenary or wandering adventurer. It would be ironic if he found himself back in Tamur, a soldier in the war he'd helped start.
The fallen knight turned at the sound of his name.
"Just 'Morhault' now, I'm afraid," he said, but then he realized who'd spoken. "What are the two of you doing here?"
It was, of course, Tarrent and Marysann. The girl looked better than she had as the princess; her pale complexion was turning bronze from the winter sun and the outdoor life seemed to have done her good. Most of all, though, she looked happy; there was nothing tragic or withdrawn about her any more, and her dark eyes sparkled with life. Tarrent, meanwhile, bore that joyous-but-bewildered look that marked most young bridegrooms.
"You rode right by us," Marysann accused. "You were so lost in thought I doubt you'd have seen a dragon land in front of you."
"Or a whole chorus of them," he agreed.
"We heard what happened," Tarrent said seriously. "We wanted to offer our thanks, and our regrets."
"I expected no less from the Lion Knights. The tribunal was fair, even generous to me."
"That doesn't change the fact that you've lost your rank, your position, and your reputation all because you helped us," the lady declared.
"So," her husband continued, "We wanted to show you our appreciation in a more concrete way. The Lion Knights stripped you of your shield, so it's only right that we replace it."
Tarrent held out his hand. In it was the gauntlet he'd worn during their battle.
"I know that it doesn't look like much, but it is enchanted," he said, confirming Morhault's guess. "It won't break, and it absorbs the shock of blows so your arm barely feels a thing."
The former knight reached out to accept the gift, then hesitated. A magical treasure like this was probably an heirloom of Tarrent's family, and really belonged with them.
"Please take it," Marysann urged. "We owe you everything; at least let us do this for you."
Morhault's hand closed around the gift.
"Thank you. It's good to know that there are at least two people who support me." He slid his fingertips over the engraved steel surface. "I'll use this," he decided, "for so long as I still believe that I made the right choice."
He wondered whether ten years from then he would look on the gauntlet as a sign of faith, or of past folly.
More importantly, Morhault thought, what would Tarrent and Marysann think of him?