‘I was already a man when he came, heralded by a red star in the sky. I had barely proven myself as a part of my ser’s retinue when I was called upon to accompany her to the Feast of Champions.
That was where I first lay eyes upon him. Pale and savage, a dark stain amidst the riot of colours at court…’
-From the journal of Thaben Catcher, Herald of Ser Agnez de Vry
The city of Courolle was in an uproar. For the first time in history, an outsider had come to partake in the tourney. Gossip blazed through feasting halls and taverns alike, the lips of nobles and peasants burned with questions and speculation.
Who was he?
A wandering Freeblade, certainly. He bore no heraldry of his own and his steed was clad in the deep, rich red of fine wine. He was no son of any of the Dukedoms for he was too savage in manner and appearance. Tall and broad shouldered, with a trio of skulls hung from his belt, he did not speak with the eloquence or grace of one born to the court.
The outlander had arrived upon his steed the day before the tourney was to start. Shouts of alarm had arisen and flocks of men and women had rushed to man the walls of Courolle as he approached the city gates. Calling up to the assembled levy, he revealed himself to be a wandering Knight, seeking to test his skill and mettle – and where better than at a tourney?
‘‘Tis a disgrace, is what it is,’ muttered Ser Montagu into his goblet. A few of the other lords and ladies at his table nodded their agreement. ‘A Freeblade in the King’s Tourney? He could very well be an unblooded whelp for all we know!’ The man continued with greater confidence as he returned the goblet to the table, running a hand through his sleek black hair, treated with the same fine oils as his steed.
‘Perhaps, but he has ambition aplenty,’ replied the woman to his left. Braided auburn hair rested on her right shoulder as she washed her hands in a steel bowl. Her plate was immediately switched for a fresh one by one of the many servants loitering at the edges of the hall. Ser Foucault was a demanding woman, with a reputation that extended far beyond her father’s domain of Montfort. ‘Besides, for an uncultured brute, he did show respect to our King in the proper manner,’ she added, shrugging as she reached out for some fruit. ‘Even if his style was a tad archaic.’
Montagu glanced at the empty chair that had been added to their table before speaking again. ‘Oh yes, he knows his place no question. I just loathe the mess that will come about if he gets himself killed.’ Though a rare occurrence, death was always a possibility in a tourney. And if the stranger died… well, that would complicate matters.
‘Oh, please Phelipe, the man’s a Freeblade. It is not like his House will come demanding that honour be satisfied if he falls,’ said Ser Rallart, using Monatgu’s first name as freely as if he were family. The dark-skinned warrior from Brionne took another bite of poultry before continuing. ‘And if he does, the tourney will gain a fine steed for it’s prize!’ A murmur of agreement swept their table at that.
Phelipe de Montagu of Artois shook his head and sipped from his goblet once more, letting his eyes wander. Fourteen of them sat together – the competitors. A champion for each dukedom, ready to enter the arena and duel until one was crowned the King’s Champion – for a year at least. Courolle, the planetary capital and dominion of the Gryffencour family, always hosted the tourney and its associated festival during the summer solstice.
And upon the eve of the tourney itself, the competitors traditionally gathered to feast and toast their coming trials, forming friendships and rivalries in equal measure. Their table was just below that of the King’s, and above the assembled host of nobility that had travelled from near and far to reach Courolle.
The atmosphere was vibrant, the troupe of bards playing nearly drowned out by the collective gossip of the nobility. Everyone of note was dressed in colourful finery, proudly displaying the colours of their bloodlines and their dukedoms with equal flair.
They sat at four long tables, running the length of the hall from the great double doors to the steps of the raised platform upon which rested the competitors table, perpendicular to the other four.
Royal men-at-arms, armed and armoured in mimicry of the God-Emperor’s Angels, stood at attention all along the hall, ready to break apart any drunken fights – which always seemed to occur at these events. Servants were constantly in motion, weaving their way amidst the nobility to keep the tables supplied with food and drink.
A veritable army of candles blazed all around to keep the darkness at bay, though a movement at the door caught Montagu’s attention, and he felt himself grimace as he saw the stranger enter. As the man made his way steadily down the hall, few noted his passing – but those who did fell silent and stared.
Unlike the other gathered nobles, the Freeblade was clad in his black pilot suit – more dressed for combat than celebration. He paid no mind to the attention he garnered as he strode towards the competitors table, the skulls hanging from his belt clattering against one another with every step.
Silence spread across the table as the unknown Knight took his place in the fifteenth chair. He set down his helmet, bearing a red dragon crest, on the table by his goblet before reaching out and grabbing a bowl.
The table was silent as he ladled some soup for himself before setting the bowl down and looking up at the other competitors.
Montagu took the chance to inspect the off-worlder. Dark brown eyes sat beneath a heavy brow, with an angular face framed by tangles of long black hair. His skin was pale, and a faint burn scar was visible on his neck that vanished into the collar of his pilot suit.
His eyes swept the table, taking the measure of each of the competitors, before focusing on his food. As he began to eat, a sense of normality slowly returned to the table. Though the gathered scions conversation was hushed now, with wary glances cast towards the Freeblade.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ muttered Ser Foucault, flipping her braid off her shoulder before shifting in her seat to face their guest. ‘Apologies, Ser, for our behaviour. It has been centuries, I believe, since an unknown face has entered the tourney.’
The man swallowed and wiped his lips with the back of his hand before replying. ‘There… is no offence taken.’ He spoke slowly, as if unused to conversing. His voice was faintly hoarse and flat. ‘It can be… difficult… to accept a strange face in times like these. Your King has my thanks… for granting me the pleasure of partaking.’
Foucault nodded, smiling at their guest. ‘Well, he is fond of drama. I imagine the matters of court hardly move him as much as the mystery you present.’ She lowered her voice slightly, as if conspiring. Montagu rolled his eyes as he reached out for some fruit, while Rallart coughed to mask his own reaction to the woman’s dramatics. ‘A Knight of no House, upon a crimson steed,’ Foucault continued. ‘It is a story the bards will tell for some time, no matter the result of the tourney. You’ll be immortal here,’ the woman said, waving over a servant to refill her goblet. ‘So, if your goal was renown, why, your mere presence has earned it!’
The Freeblade frowned at that, his hand moving out to cover his goblet when a servant with a wine jug approached. ‘Ah… water for me,’ he sighed to the blandly dressed man, who bowed and retreated without a word. ‘Renown is… of no use to me,’ he confessed, lifting his bowl to his lips and taking a gentle sip of the soup before continuing. ‘I came to… test myself. Against worthy opponents. And what is worthier… than a Knight?’
There was a snort. ‘Fine words, though they will hardly avail you tomorrow,’ said Ser de Vry, the competitor from Bordany. Clad in a rich blue gown with sewn on sea-green scales, a few curls of blonde hair were visible from beneath her matching veil. ‘I wager you won’t even make it past the first bout,’ she declared.
The Knights of Bordany were famous for skirting the line between confidence and arrogance, though few dared to challenge them – as the wardens of the eastern archipelagos, they often wandered the shallows and ocean depths to slay the great beasts that preyed upon coastlines and ships.
The black-clad Freeblade looked to her and smiled crookedly. ‘And what is it… you would wager?’
Ser de Vry blinked, not expecting the stranger to so readily rise to her challenge, but immediately rallied. ‘W-well then, what can I wager that you can match, hmm?’
There was silence as the outlander pondered the question before replying. ‘A… trophy, perhaps?’
‘You mean those?’ de Vry asked, nodding at the skulls hanging from the stranger’s belt.
He chuckled drily at that, shaking his head. ‘No… something more… befitting these fine halls,’ he explained, reaching up to a breast pocket in his suit and unzipping it. Reaching in, he extracted an exquisite gem – an opal carved with swirling elegant patterns. ‘A piece of finery… torn from the hulk of a xenos Knight.’ That caught the attention of the whole table, with the competitors gazing in rapt curiosity at the strange gem – its patterns seeming to shift and flow as if they were a heavy vapour trapped within.
‘Well, it seems you are a blooded warrior after all,’ grumbled Ser Montagu after tearing his eyes from the trophy. ‘To casually throw away an epic tale such as that in a single line!’
‘Not everyone loves the sound of their own voices as much as you Montagu,’ Foucault countered, biting into the flesh of the soft fruit in her hand, juice bursting forth and running down her fingers.
‘That will do fine,’ de Vry replied, nodding at the stone. ‘In return, hmm, how about the teeth of a sea-wyrm?’ she offered with a faint smirk. ‘Not as pretty as your bauble but durable enough to make fine blades for a reaper chainblade.’
The Freeblade cocked an eyebrow as he put the stone back in his pocket, smiling faintly. ‘Ah… you have my measure. A weapon… would serve me best, yes. Then are we in… accord?’
‘Yes. I shall have my herald take note of it, though I’m sure everyone here is happy to vouch for our wager as witnesses?’ the woman asked, looking about at her fellow scions, who nodded their agreements. ‘Wonderful. Then good luck, Freeblade,’ she stated regally, reaching out and offering the man her hand.
The dark-clad stranger seemed to eye it in confusion for a moment before realizing what was expected of him. He reached out and gripped her forearm, giving it a single shake before releasing and turning his attention back to his food.
Montagu snorted from behind a quickly raised hand as de Vry slowly withdrew her arm, her face a mask of confusion as to what had just happened.
The cannon roared and the target was drilled with a thousand rounds, chewing through metal and tearing a ragged hole. Even at this distance, Thaben winced at the noise, which was swiftly replaced by the cheers of noble and peasant onlookers alike.
As it’s cannon spun down, the green Knight took a step back and lowered the weapon, turning its head toward the royal box and bowing as much as its machinery would allow.
Thaben made sure to note down the result the machine had achieved with it’s weapon – an Avenger cannon he reminded himself, amending his notes.
The Tonnerre was… a Knight. Its armour was painted a rich green, mottled and specked to resemble the canopies of the great forests it patrolled to the far west. Ser de Vry had told him that, although the warriors of the kingdom were required to bear the royal colours when questing and fulfilling their duties, during the tourneys the steeds were permitted to be decorated as each scion saw fit.
Even his mistress’s Prédateur, the machine that had saved his life, had been repainted and decorated for the occasion. Its panelling covered in a mix of greens and blues, enhanced with swirls and masterfully painted frescoes of sea life. It was a monument to the oceans of Bordany, and had conducted itself well during the Shooting Trials.
However, as de Vry had confided in him, it never really stood a chance – the Knights of Bordany were more reliant on harpoons and melee weapons, so whilst their accuracy was impeccable, they never truly learned how to utilise their ranged armaments to their fullest potential.
It did not make much sense to Thaben, but he did not need to understand. He just had to witness, record, and when called upon, recite. Which was why he was idling in the competitor’s box, where champions and their retinues could sit and watch the tourney, writing down everything he could into the large book his mistress had provided for him.
‘An excellent… showing, wouldn’t you say?’ said someone, their hoarse voice making the herald start suddenly. He looked to his side and noticed that the rough-looking Knight – no, scion, Knights were the steeds – the rough-looking scion who hailed from parts unknown had joined him. He was watching the Tonnerre march off towards its hangar.
Thaben bowed his head and held his tongue, as anyone was expected to when confronted by nobility. It wasn’t until the stranger turned and looked at him with a raised eyebrow that he remembered he wasn’t just a peasant anymore – he was a herald. ‘Ah, yes ser,’ he replied, raising his head, trying not to stare at the human skulls hanging from the other man’s belt. ‘Ser Foucault has been the Champion of the Shot for the past… six tourneys I believe,’ he continued, flipping through the pages of scribbled notes, pausing only to make sure he was reading the words correctly. ‘Uhm… should you not be with your steed for your turn, ser?’
The other man smiled crookedly and shook his head. ‘Ah… no. I have no… interest in this title.’
‘But, if you passed the first bout of the contest, would not your wager against my Ser be won?’ Thaben asked with a slight frown. From what the Lady de Vry had said, they hadn’t limited the wager to any one contest, just the first bout of the tourney – surely any bout would have sufficed?
The Freeblade eyed him up and down, no doubt noting his ridiculous outfit, which, whilst far more restrained than that of other heralds, still made Thaben feel somewhat foolish. A mantle of seabird feathers rested on his shoulders, and his cap had a large plume from a rex raptor sprouting from it like an oversized leaf. His tunic and hose were a deep blue, accentuated with paler details and polished silver buttons which alone were worth more than his old village. ‘You are… of de Vry’s household?’ the stranger ventured.
‘Yes, ser,’ Thaben replied with a bow of his head and a polite smile, just as he had been taught. ‘I am the herald of de Vry of Bordany,’ he recited, making sure to speak slowly to avoid stumbling over the formal words.
‘… And do you… have a name?’
‘Ah, it’s Thaben, ser.’ Talking to a Knight – a scion – had never been really taught to Thaben. From what he gathered, heralds were somewhat beneath the notice of anyone of the court. At least when they weren’t fulfilling their duties announcing the deeds of their masters. Indeed, they were meant to be beneath notice so as to be undisturbed when chronicling events. He almost asked for the man’s name before he caught himself.
‘Well… Thaben, I have… no interest in that… contest. Mostly because… my Knight is not… equipped for such.’
The herald blinked before nodding. He was not particularly familiar with all the various forms of Knights being used by the nobility, but he knew that some were tailored specifically for melee. That seemed important so he opened his tome and began to note down that detail even as he continued to talk. ‘So you intend to win the Champion of the Blade instead?’
‘If that… is what the joust is called… here.’
‘Then yes… I intend to be your… Champion of the Blade,’ the stranger declared, turning away and heading for the stairs. ‘Watch close herald… I am certain you… will see much to write about.’
Agnez de Vry could not help but huff in annoyance at seeing her opponent for the third bout of the tourney. It was a hunched red machine, edged with gunmetal and far dirtier than any other Knight that had taken the field. It bore no crest she recognized – it’s ion shield heraldry depicted a black castle atop a mountain, with a white moon backdrop on a red field.
So, this was the steed of the mysterious Freeblade. She had been too busy focusing on her own trials to pay much attention to the other participants, but the fact she had already lost the wager irked her. The scion of Bordany had figured that other competitors would have dealt with the stranger, and being proven so obviously wrong stung her pride as a Knight of the Kingdom.
They faced one another across a muddy field, the ground already churned up by a number of combats, flanked by stands filled with people clambering over one another to get a glimpse of the battle to come.
Her blue Paladin stood proud and still, it’s lenses focused on the royal box. She could just make out the King and his household, glinting in the noon sun like gilded statues. The man raised his arm, and she tensed, attention flicking over to her opponent, displayed in the sights of her battle cannon gun-cam. The machine seemed to be some variant of a Gallant, sporting two fists rather than the usual fist and sword combination. It seemed to almost be rocking back and forth on its legs, it’s rider barely able to rein in the Throne’s urge to fight.
The King’s arm fell, and the bout began.
Clods of dirt sprayed up as the Freeblade launched into action, legs slamming into the churned ground, driving it forwards as its arms swung in imitation of a runner’s.
The Throne reacted for her, triggering the chain on her reaper and bringing it up in a defensive stance as de Vry shifted her machine’s weight to its front foot, leaning in to meet the incoming blow. The revs of her sword sounded solid and continuous – good. The sacristans had worked without pause for over a week to repair the arm after it had been ripped off during her encounter with a wyrm, and their diligence was paying dividends. A clank echoed around the cockpit, as a shell was loaded into the battle cannon.
Then the red Knight was upon her.
She angled Prédateur’s chainblade across her machine’s torso to parry, but was ready to pull it back if the red warrior made any attempt to seize the blade. Thunderstrikes are dexterous weapons, she remembered the sacristans telling her, and offer great versatility in battle. Which is why she was caught off-guard when the Freeblade made no attempt to swat her weapon away, instead lowering their steed’s shoulder and slamming directly into the roaring teeth of the reaper.
Sparks burst forth as they drove their shoulder forward, the pauldron splitting under the grinding onslaught of the chainblade’s teeth. But sheer momentum carried them forward, driving the guarded back of the blade limb against her own torso, rocking her Knight back a step and trapping the weapon between both war-engines.
The Throne snarled, electricity crackling along it’s surface as disgust rose in de Vry. Her vision flickered, the red Knight’s form shifting into that of a clunky ork engine, arms flailing as it slammed into her defences, bodily pushing her backwards. Memories of a war long past flashed across her mind as the Prédateur triggered its warhorn, blaring it’s defiance and digging its heels into the blood-soaked mud.
Agnez roared as her ancestor once had, pushing against the enemy as blood thundered in her ears. This was no elegant duel between champions. No, this was a struggle between nobility and barbarity, human and beast. The battle cannon swung around, only to be deflected by a claw, the face of the enemy filling her view. It shifted and warped as memories crashed into reality. Red and silver visor – no, yellowing smirk with broken teeth – no, snarling aquatic maw – no – de Vry triggered the battle cannon as it’s tip swung past their feet.
The explosion just behind her foe made them lose purchase in the mud, sliding suddenly as their arms splayed out in a mimicry of a drunk losing their balance. And Prédateur followed, crashing on top of the other machine in a spray of mud. Agnez felt her insides shift with the momentum, her breath being forced out of her squeezed lungs. She blinked the stars from her eyes as she rolled her machine, seeking to regain their footing.
That had been a visceral reaction from the Throne. Far more striking than any experience she’d had so far. Gritting her teeth, she imposed her will upon the memories of the archaic engine and forced the flashbacks of past victories and defeats away.
Only the here and now mattered.
The Prédateur began to struggle to stand up before a vicious blow smashed directly onto its carapace, slamming the faceplate into the ground. Metal whined all around as de Vry felt something grinding her machine down. Her mortal gaze flickered to the porthole set into the cockpit hatch, but rather than the murky brightness of daylight filtering through the toughened glass, she saw nothing but darkness.
A resounding clang nearly deafened her, a flash of light momentarily visible before a fine crack appeared on the porthole. A moment of panic slashed through Agnez’s mind as she realized her enemy was stomping down on her cockpit. She almost released the controls as a small part of her mind screeched at her to curl up and pray that the giant thing beyond the glass would move on.
But she was a Knight Scion, and before primitive instincts could take over she tightened her grip on the controls, swinging her chainsword up in an inward arc. She felt,rather than saw, the hit, and heard a screech of shearing metal as the teeth of the blade caught the Freeblade’s structure from behind, past it’s armour plating.
Capitalising on the sudden halt in her opponent’s offensive, de Vry’s hands danced over the controls, making Prédateur drive it’s arms into the ground, levering itself up. The torso of her noble machine crashed into the Freeblade, and de Vry’s vision flickered. She shook her head, re-establishing the link with her steed’s sight, only to see a crimson gauntlet slam into her point of view.
Screaming filled the cockpit as the feedback struck her, the clawed fingers of her opponent’s gauntlet curling round and stabbing into her Knight’s head. Then, with a whine and metal scream that drowned her own, the head was wrenched loose.
The feedback hit a crescendo as Agnes’ voice failed her, and she fell into darkness.
Victory in the tournament went to Raymon Rallart of Brionne, with his steed Résolu winning the right to bear the golden laurels of victory for the coming year. The ceremony was far more subdued than such events had been in the past however, with everyone unable to stop themselves from glancing to where the stranger stood, arm in a sling, beneath the champion’s podium.
There had been talk of disqualifying the Freeblade, his bouts proving far more brutal and savage than anyone had expected. Not one of his opponents had made it out of their fights unharmed. Even Symonne Foucault, who had managed to actually defeat the rampaging red Knight, had been forced to retire as the damage to Tonnerre had proven too much for the Sacristans to repair in time for her next bout.
The King had demanded an accounting for the Freeblade’s actions, and the mysterious man had answered with words that would become legendary. ‘We are warriors first and always. These competitions should help us hone our skills, not amuse the smallfolk. War is not clean or polite, and to fight in any way other than that is arrogant and foolish.’
Silence fell once the stranger had spoken and he took his leave.
It was evening when Thaben Catcher found the Freeblade. The man had chosen to avoid the celebratory feast, so it had taken the herald some time to track him down.
In the pens, Thaben saw the barbaric looking scion clambering up into his ramshackle steed. Though they had refused to let any of the tourney Sacristans look at their machine, the outsider seemed to have managed the repairs alone well enough.
Thaben raised an arm and waved as he jogged up to the towering red machine, it’s hatch yawning open. The stranger paused and turned to look down at him, seeming to sigh before sliding down the hull towards the Knight’s raised arm. With a squeal of gears, the machine shifted and lowered its rider.
Knights… can’t do that. At least, not the ones used by the families. Thaben was sure he would have seen one do so by now if they could, but Freeblades had a reputation for having steeds as mysterious as their riders. Maybe the Knight’s spirit was particularly active?
‘Yes?’ the black-clad warrior asked, standing before him with folded arms.
Thaben swallowed and lowered his gaze as protocol demanded. ‘Ah, forgive me ser, but my lady bade me deliver you your winnings.’
The other man seemed confused for a moment, prompting Thaben to elaborate. ‘The wyrm teeth, for a blade. You progressed further in the tourney than she believed possible after all.’
‘Ah.’ There was a moment of silence. ‘Of course… I accept,’ he rasped out. ‘Have… them delivered to… the front gates of the city… by morning. I will collect them then.’
Thaben nearly asked why the Knight would collect his winnings himself and not simply have them sent to his ship before he remembered his place. Instead he bobbed his head in his best approximation of a courtly nod. ‘As you wish, ser. The ser de Vry is saddened at her inability to bid you farewell herself, but she expressed a hope that you may one day return. She said your bout against her was most eye-opening.’
‘Indeed ser. She mentioned having been on this world for too long and is considering a quest to the stars herself, so as to serve the Imperium and not just her own people,’ the herald explained.
What may have been a smile flashed across the Freeblades face. ‘I… see. Then perhaps… she is worthy of… these after all,’ he replied, reaching into his pouch and pulling out the brilliant gemstones he had wagered several days earlier. ‘Have her… receive these, herald. A gift… from one warrior… to another. And tell her… she will find her… war.’
Thaben was silent but bowed as best he could, nervously reaching out to take the gems, wishing he had something better than his own meagre money-pouch to store them in.
The Freeblade nodded, seemingly satisfied and turned away before pausing. ‘Or maybe…’ Thaben heard him whisper, ‘…war will find her.’
About the Author
Lukasz Furmaniak is a long time creator of fan content for Warhammer 40,000. Starting out with fanfics, he recently branched out to podcasting, organising The Tritone Gambit, an actual play RPG podcast set in the grim darkness of the far future, using the Dark Heresy RPG system.
He has also worked on actual tabletop wargames and RPGs, contributing to the creation of Dystopian Wars, as well as being a playtester for a number of Shades of Vengeance RPGs.