“A tract of woods under the bridge across from the Indianapolis Zoo—on the banks of the White River sealed off by a rusted trellis and a concrete overpass—it was their corner of the world. Few predators roamed the area, especially the two-legged variety. A couple of vets stayed down the way in a neighboring stretch of woods.”

—From The Knights of Breton Court, Book Two: King’s Justice

I dreamt that a mother bird returned to her nest, though all of her chicks were dead. Their heads lolled at odd angles from their tiny necks, their little tongues protruding from their beaks, their eyes white and empty. With doting care, she placed food into each of their open mouths. The mother bird hopped up on the side of the nest, cocking her head to assess her handiwork. Pleased that she had performed her maternal duty, she then plunged her beak into her chest. I was glad to be woken by the sound of someone trespassing into our home.

Summer was still a couple weeks away, but the grove we lived in had already bloomed to life. The greenery grew so thick we were far from casual prying eyes. Old hand towels buried among the brush marked the entrance to our grove. If someone strayed from the path, they’d be riddled with burrs and brambles, nature’s way of unwelcoming strangers. Or they might have a spike plunge into their chest, our way of tending to such matters. An action figure, I think from one of those X-Men movies, was strung up between branches. I scrounged it from a trash bin once and thought it made a haunting addition to our squat, like a voodoo doll kind of warning. Not heeding any of our warnings, a man poked through our camp.

My cousin, Luke Dant, glided through the woods like he was born to it. He wasn’t really my cousin, but we like to tell people that just to see the momentary flutter of confusion. To my mind, cornrows never looked right on a white guy. He may have called the woods home, but he made the rounds of the local ministries each week to make sure his hair was done. But a braided mullet was still a mullet. He had a face like a rat: his head too small for his body, eyes deeply recessed, and a sharp chin. His mustache was too thick for his face, which was why I kept calling it a molestache. His training wasn’t as extensive as mine, but he’d have snuck all the way up on the man and slit his throat before he knew Luke was there.

Avoiding a milk crate with a toilet seat covering a hole in the ground, the man shambled through our squat, brushing dead leaves from the burgundy-colored vinyl car bench. Plopping down on it, he rifled through the set of warped, faded, cracked bookshelves. The shelves stored clothes, hand-cranked flashlights, and a set of toiletries collected from area shelters. Overturning a rotted log, he discovered our stash of Magnum 40, Cobra, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. He began to toss back a beer as if he owned the woods. After exuberant noises of drinking and swallowing, he smacked his lips. “Ah, refreshing.”

By the time he turned in my direction, I was less than a foot from him.

“What’s your business here?” I asked.

“What, ho, errant knight?” The man backed into the wan moonlight. It glinted from the aluminum foil worn like a yarmulke. Despite the warm temperatures, he remained wrapped in his black trench coat, a thing so tattered strips of it fluttered in the slight breeze. Nodding at my missing left arm, he asked, “Want to play catch?”

“Merle? Is that you?”

“Bedver, yon squire. Well met.” Beer foam collected in Merle’s auburn beard.

Bedver Dwyer. I know, a fucked-up name. My mother thought she was naming me for Medgar Evers but couldn’t quite remember the name. When she realized her mistake, she refused to change it. “You are who you were meant to be,” she told me.

“Who is this crazy fuck?” Luke stepped into another shaft of moonlight. Leaf shadows dappled his face.

“My favorite color is chicken.” Merle didn’t turn to meet him, nor did he appear startled by his sudden appearance. Instead, he paced back and forth, studying the lynched action figure. He raised a finger as if recalling a point, then waved it off thinking the better of it.

“Merle and I go way back.  I … was at Camlann.” Merle’s brand of crazy was contagious. Hanging out with him, a person could get caught up in stories of kings and knights and swords and magic and monsters. Listen long enough and they might start believing it themselves. Live long enough and they became part of those stories. My adrenaline rush ebbed, pushed aside by a sudden sick feeling lodging in the pit of my stomach. “How’s King?”

King had that way about him. Just by stepping in a room, he commanded attention and respect. His eyes burned with a stern glint, decisive and sure. A head full of regal twists, he had that swagger about him, but not in a self-conscious way. You wanted to swear allegiance to him. And you’d follow him anywhere. Merle was King’s chief advisor.

Locking his slate gray eyes on me, Merle focused with momentary lucidity. “It’s bad out there.”

“Out where?”

“On the streets. King held things together. But the king ails and now things are spinning out of control.”

“So? That’s their problem,” I said. “We live here, away from all that, for a reason.”

“We don’t owe King anything,” Luke spat.

“I hear it. Do you hear it?”  Merle scanned the trees.

“Hear what?”

“My time draws near. Sir Bedver, I must go away for a time. Do not fret, the story keeps telling itself. There are keepers of grails, guardians of blessings and miracles through whom wonders come. Sacrifices of blood through which healings come. And when those treasures go missing, they need to be sought without further delay.”

“What are you talking about, Merle?”

“Do you know the story of the Grail?”

“What the fuck’s a grail?” Luke circled Merle. He had that dead-eyed glare he sometimes got, half-murderous intent mixed with something like lust. Probably not unconvinced the old man wasn’t here to jack his stuff.

“The Holy Grail,” I said. “Some people say Christ used it at the Last Supper to do the first Communion. From there, the story gets a little complicated. Some people believe his grand-uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, collected Christ’s blood and sweat in it when he was crucified. It was then taken to the Corben-Vicus where it was housed in a magnificent castle, always guarded by the Grail Kings. It was said that the Grail would one day be re-discovered by a descendent of St. Joseph, the best knight in the land, the only one able to sit in the Siege Perilous. See, Merle? I pay attention when you babble.”

“Does this fool want us to look for a cup?” Luke asked. “There a reward for it or something?”

“A cup, platter, chalice, dish, book, stone, cauldron. Who knows.” Merle refused to look at him. “There are those who would pay handsomely for it, but it is its own reward. It’s the source of true wealth.”

“Where is it?” I asked.

“You dream of birds.” Merle gave me one of his all-too-knowing glances. “Your heart already knows and knew the quest was coming. You seek the settlement of crows.”

“The what?” Luke asked.

“The Corben-Vicus means crow’s settlement,” I said.

“The Proud Castle, the Castle of Marvels, the castle in a land as sickly as its King.” Merle twirled in a circle.

“These Grail Kings … they the only security?” Luke’s voice rose with the hint of greed to his curiosity.

“A Grail King, a Fisher King. Tomato, avocado. The location of the castle forgotten and it passed from that world. But the story repeats. Different stories, different knights. Tarry your heart and find the castle.” Sometimes it seemed like Merle was reading from a script he had recited a hundred times before, knowing the ending but not wanting to spoil it. All portent and insinuation … between bouts of utter gibberish.

“I don’t know, Merle. This sounds a lot like one of your ‘Merle’ moments.”

“You are like cheese to a mousetrap. Sir Rupert lacks confidence in such a quest.” Merle glared at a nearby squirrel. It scampered off as soon as we turned its way. “He couldn’t charm a pigeon these days. The best thing for you to do is to give up your quest and return to King’s side.”

“So you don’t want us to go?” Luke asked.

“The quest is the point of the story,” I whispered. Any misgivings I had turned to ash in my mouth at the thought of King. We had been friends, comrades at arms, and then nothing. It was as if something soured at the Camlann apartments and we drifted apart. So many times I’d daydreamed about him being in a tight spot, needing a favor or service or something important only I could provide. Some excuse so that he’d have to let me back into his life.

“Be strong and be true, my precious knight.” Merle pressed his hands on either side of my face. “But beware the Haughty Maid of Logres.”

****

The early morning fog lifted, leaving a muggy day in its wake. Despite what Merle claimed, the White River was no Perilous Ford, especially with a bridge to cross it, as we traveled east from the zoo. It was, however, a natural ley line. Ley lines connected high places of power or sacredness. Most people considered them the stuff of superstition. It sounded ridiculous when said out loud to most folks, but not me, I suppose. Indianapolis had a shadow aspect to it. Content to convince themselves that the world they lived in was normal, people only caught a glimpse of it from the corner of their eye, a side most never admitted was there, full of wonder and magic. I already believed in God; demons and angels, too, if you pressed me. Rumors of trolls, giants, even the occasional dragon, traveled along the street vine. So it wasn’t too much of a leap to invisible lines of power that carve up a city.

“You hear about the alligator on the loose?” Luke asked.

“Ain’t no alligator running around Naptown.”

“That any less plausible than any other monster we’ve seen out here? Anyway, this made the news and everything. Up north side by the pyramids.”

“So some kid bought himself a pet alligator and flushed it down the toilet or some shit?” I asked.

“Yeah, you know how they do. Like when everyone was buying them pet pigs. They look all cute when they little, but people forget how big they grow to be.”

“So they leave the door open and let a monster loose on the rest of us.”

“What can I say? They in the big house, we live in the outhouse. Shit always flows down to us.” Luke didn’t believe in anything. Each day was taken on its own terms. Each day he woke up alive he considered a welcome enough surprise. Each day also brought a new hustle: breaking into houses to steal copper piping; selling dime-bags worth of oregano to burn guys for weed; dealing bootleg DVDs; “borrowing” a lawnmower to do people’s yards; whatever it took to get over. I met him panhandling on the corner downtown. His “homeless vet” sign caught my attention. We all had a story of who we told ourselves we were. Luke’s story had dark chapters he tried to keep to himself, but the darkness seeped out of him. Every woman who strolled by he glared at as if he were angry at them. Every time 5-0 rolled by, he got ghost. I half thought the real reason he lived in the woods was to duck a charge.

We wandered along the sidewalk closest to the traffic of Michigan Street, passing Arsenal Technical High School. Back in the day, Indiana had its own arsenal in Indianapolis to supply its regiments. Tech was opened on its grounds. Three young cats rode up on us, their bikes too big for them. They glared with empty menace, going through the motions of being hard but without the experience to truly own it. The streets would school and own them soon enough.

“Where you heading?” the lead one asked. Shirtless and dusty, his already dark skin looked further baked in the late morning sun. His blue jean shorts hung low, revealing red boxers.

“Off to a castle. Looking for a cup,” Luke said.

The leader whispered something to the other two, then all three cackled. Their eyes had a predatory hunger about them, a pack of hyenas sizing up easy prey. I returned their eye-fuck stares. I remembered sitting on the front porch of my grandmother’s house. She had gotten sad and grown quiet. She said that she recognized the look in my eye. It was the same look my brother had before he joined the aptly named gang, the Wretched Boys. She told me that everyone needed to be devoted to something. For some it would be school and then a job. For others it would be the streets. The streets would raise me as their own. When I peered into the boys’ eyes, I knew where their devotion was.

The leader turned back, but spoke directly to me. “Don’t continue on this path. From here, no knight shall return.”

“We have no choice,” I said.

“Choice is your gift.”

“Then I’ve chosen the hard road for myself. It’s in my nature.”

“War is your nature,” the boy said, but the voice was not his. “War is all you know. We create our own demons. Be cleansed in the fountains and be judged.”

The boys half-huddled again, chattering between their titters, taking turns watching my every move. Concluding their deliberations, they took off without further comment.

“What do you think they meant?” Luke asked.

“The fountains? Maybe the ones over in Woodruff Place.”

“No, I mean the ‘war is your nature’ stuff.”

“I don’t know,” I lied.  “Come on.”  Not every chapter in the story of my life was for public consumption either. I was old enough to remember my father in his Army uniform, standing at attention, so regal and proud. It was like he found himself, what he was meant to do. He died in the Iraq War, the first one. As soon as I turned eighteen, I enrolled. Eight years ending with a fateful jeep ride. I re-lived that final patrol most nights when not dreaming of crows. The deserted stretch of road. The rising plume of dust. The old beggar. The lone jutting stone protruding from the sand next to the road. Something was out of place. The hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end. The explosion. The jeep rolling. Pinned under the remains of my vehicle, seeing my arm in the middle of the road.

Darkness. Service. War. Death. All to connect to a man I never really knew. When I got out of the hospital, the military, you would have thought I caught some sort of contagion. Maybe it was me. I couldn’t stand to be around my family. Witnessing my disability, my unemployment, our losing the house, my failure to provide, my failure as a man … I ran out on them the same way I ran out on King at Camlann. I doubt my son or daughter even remembers me, much less my uniform. As far as they’re concerned, their daddy died overseas. Because I did. The sins of the father re-visited on the son.

Crows settled along the phone lines as we turned into the sprawling housing edition. The breeze made the day cool enough in the heavy shade of the sidewalk. Woodruff Place was the first suburban neighborhood in Indianapolis, back in the days when folks used to build their summer homes in Broad Ripple. A planned residential community within a park-like environment. Three north-south boulevards—East, West, and Middle Drives—trisected the neighborhood. An east-west street, Cross Drive, divided it. Large carriage houses and servants’ quarters lined the alleys. Magnolia and oak trees stood sentry along the streets. Esplanades ran down the center of each street. Cast iron statues and urns decorated each one. Fountains beckoned at each intersection. Over two hundred large homes in the platted area, with their large windows staring at them like empty eyes.

“Do you see them?” Luke whispered.

“See who?”

“In the windows. The faces of young women.”

I studied each drawn window. “I don’t see anything, Luke.”

But Luke kept staring at the surrounding windows like they were mirrors into his soul. “She asked for it,” he pled to no one. I pretended not to hear him.

A green and white cloth wrapped around a tree reminded me of a song my grandmother used to sing to annoy us around the house. Seeds from the low-hanging branches fell on me, but I flicked them off like bothersome insects. The sound of heavy rainfall interrupted my peace. A three-level fountain sprayed water into the air, three cherubs braced its upper tier. The air was redolent with the scent of red, white, and violet flowers in bloom. A squirrel in a tree glared at me as if I were an unwanted visitor. “Sir Rupert?” I asked, then remembered I was talking to a squirrel. Its tail jerked about annoyed, brown and gray with black flecks, then it darted off to join two others in chase.

No cars lined either side of the drive. No cyclists pedaled along the boulevard. No pedestrians toted backpacks. A teenage girl sat on the street curb, sobbing. My grandmother would have called her “high yella” with her butterscotch complexion, then sucked her teeth at the fact that the young girl had straightened her black hair and dyed the ends of it blond. Her black and gold tresses framed a face marred by an old scar, though her beauty was still quite obvious. Her thick-framed glasses, too large for her face, distracted from her scar.

My daughter could be her age.

Luke couldn’t tear his eyes from her too tight white blouse. Not quite buttoned well, it threatened to pop open with each movement,

“What’s the matter” I asked.

“I weep for your friend,” she said.

“Why?”

“For the lives he has touched and torn apart. For his soul. He is not worthy to even be asked the questions. The black knight comes to judge him and will find him wanting.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You seek the grail.” She turned to me, her face full of compassion, though a hint of madness danced in her eyes. “You don’t even know your part in the story, do you?”

“I …” I had no idea what words were going to tumble out of my mouth.

In the distance, a train’s forlorn horn sounded.

“Bedver, look out.” Luke tackled me.

I landed hard on the esplanades. Arrows flew just overhead. The stone cherubs climbed down from their perch along the fountain. With their short arms and stubby legs, they clambered over one another like awkward toddlers. Their blank eyes tracked our movements. They drew back their bows and took aim. I shoved Luke from me and rolled. Their shafts struck where we had once been. We dashed across the grassy median, taking cover behind the next fountain.

“What the fuck, dude?” Luke said.

“I don’t know.” The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. The fountain trembled. At first I thought it had been struck by more heavy bolts. Then movement fluttered in the periphery of my vision. I ducked from instinct. A concrete paw narrowly missed my head. The lion statue crept down from its stand.

“Shit!” Luke yelled. He hauled ass away from me.

I hunched under the fountain. The lion’s pounce shook the foundation. It bounded after Luke.

“You are lost, errant knight,” a voice said from behind me.

I whirled around, barely avoiding a blade crashing into the fountain where my head had been. A single, heavily muscled arm floated in the air at about the height of a man my size. The sword lowered to the ready, cutting me off from Luke. I remained hunched over, creating a smaller target for him. He feinted to his left then arced his weapon wildly to his right. He toyed with me. So much of close quarters combat was about reading an enemy’s eyes or watching their feet, counting on their body betraying their intent.

I had an arm to follow.

To my left, Luke cried out. He tripped over a bench in the middle of the esplanade, then scuttled to the metal gazebo. The lion prowled around it, but Luke ran to a nearby oak. Luke scrambled to keep the tree between him and the concrete beast. The dangling arm twirled the sword with a flourish, focusing my attention. It passed the sword to its invisible arm, further disorienting me as the blade seemed to float by its own volition.

The three cherubs skulked toward me using the urns as cover, their baby fat chubbiness formed with concrete. I ran toward the nearest house. A vacancy sign hung on its door. A metal horse head rose from the lawn, like a knight piece from an invisible chess board. I leapt over a pile of 2x4s, but slipped in the scree of pebbles the stone porch had been reduced to. The sword hovered nearer, so I knocked over a couple saw horses to slow him down as I cut between the houses. Shards of pain pierced my shoulder and my thigh. Arrows like thin spikes of rebar stabbed me. I collapsed to my knees. The lone-armed knight swung his beheading stroke. The breeze of its passing whizzed past my scalp when I dropped. The movement snapped the shaft from my leg. I pulled the other one free with my good hand.

“We create our own demons.”

The knight poised to drive his sword home. I thrust the bloody arrow into where his belly should have been. I found purchase in something, so I twisted my makeshift blade then drove it up. The arm froze in mid-air. Blood spurted from the invisible seam. The sword clanged against the remains of the stone step. The arm disappeared.

The enchantment broken, the cherubs froze in their spots, now bracing an urn, like a trio of Cupids returning fire. The lion was caught mid-rear along a tree. New whispers would spread about it, more legends for Woodruff Place.

I searched for Luke.

The woman hunched over Luke’s body. A Hispanic man hovered behind both of them. He sported a Boston Celtics jersey over a pair of black shorts. The sleevelessness of his green and white tank top showed off muscled arms. A tattoo traced his thick bicep and forearm, outlining his humerus and ulna. The tattoo theme etched across his ribs and along his legs, like an x-ray in black ink. He held his hand in front of his face, both admiring and loathing it. Slipping his black gloves back onto his hands, he examined his handiwork.

Luke’s bruised face swelled in frozen rictus. Fissures erupted along his skin, as if his blood boiled and his veins burst open. Dark postules sprang up, eroding his face. His eyes clouded, lifeless long before his body stopped writhing in agony.

“Mira este pendejo. Y ahora, hah, y ahora,” the black knight said. Then spat.

“His part in the story is done.” The woman had painted her face in white clown make-up. Black crosses adorned each eye lid, her lips highlighted with hooker red lipstick. Her war face in place, she bent over Luke to close his ruined eyes.

“I understand the impulse to avenge your friend,” the black knight said. His jersey flapped in the breeze. “You should know that he hurt one of the young woman of our neighborhood a while ago. We have hunted and we have waited.”

“He was … broken, but he was my friend.”

“We can dual if we must or you may proceed.”

I looked at Luke’s still form. We had known each other a while, but even while I studied my friend, I felt only a mild pang. No true sadness, no sense of loss. Luke was cool to drink with, but in truth, he was little more than another wraith in my life. “Shit. I’ve come so far. I have to at least try. Ask the questions.”

“You only pass if you speak true. You have three chances.” The black knight and the woman spoke in unison. Their united voice pushed out all other sounds. Then the scene of Woodruff Place broke apart, like puzzle fragments disconnecting. The woman closed her eyes, the twin crosses filled my sight and soon the blackness of them was all I knew. “Who are you?”

“I am Bedver Dwyer.”

“Liar. You have never been the man you believed yourself to be. Not a soldier. Not a father. Not a husband. You are lost.”

“But I …”  It was as if I had stepped into the shadows of the crosses. All about me was darkness.

“What do you seek?” The voice emanated from all sides of me.

“I seek the grail.”

“Liar. You seek what we all seek. Forgiveness. Redemption. You abandoned everyone who made the mistake of depending on you. You search for purpose and quest for your true meaning.”

This time, I remained silent, alone in the night. The shadows swirled about me, almost thick enough to touch.

“Ask the question,” the unified voice said.

“I don’t know which question.”

“The only one you truly want to know the answer to.”

“Where is the grail?” I asked.

“Liar. Where do you belong? What is it you were meant to do, O keeper of arms? For you … depart in peace.”

I closed my eyes and dreamt in darkness.

****

The castle was a two-story house at Michigan Street and Dearborn Avenue, an old Tudor-style home with a spire as a turret. Two stone, winged lions guarded its entrance. The entire property was fenced by razor wire, designed to echo the women’s facility just west of it. If I glimpsed it from the corner of my eyes, it was a many-roomed mansion, three stories high, a red castle with flourishes of turrets. An egg-shaped keystone with a tower, the illumination of a winter’s solstice within its sacred geometry, the property took up much of the block with the alley behind it littered with rocks and overgrown shrubbery. A poplar tree grew barely within the property, thick, low-lying branches stretching over. The tree branches shadowed a stone at its base, surrounded by strange symbols, the number 1362 carved into it.

And I would never know its mysteries.

****

We were born into pain, and death ended our misery. In between, we claimed all-too-brief respites from it. These woods were our respite. I awoke in the chapel of an abandoned church. Holes riddled the ceiling, one gnawed through the roof. Wooden pews collected the stink of mold. A piano slumped to one side, its keys like rotted teeth. Sometimes I think God already left this neighborhood. Or at least the places that claimed to speak for Him and fell short. The wallpaper peeled, revealing cracked plaster. Spray painted beneath the edge. I peeled back the wall paper.

“Many will fail in the quest.” I read the words in Merle’s voice.

I recalled the young man I had been, clean-shaven and without regret. My missing arm ached. Guilt was a heavy load to bear, especially alone. I wasn’t quite ready to return to the woods. I was who I was meant to be. And this was as fine a place as any to rebuild something.

####

Maurice Broaddus has written hundreds of short stories, essays, novellas, and articles. His dark fiction has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and web sites, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and Weird Tales Magazine. He is the co-editor of the Dark Faith anthology series (Apex Books) and the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, Knights of Breton Court (Angry Robot Books). He has been a teaching artist for over five years, teaching creative writing to students of all ages. Visit his site at MauriceBroaddus.com.