Sir Mary de Courcy is the current knightly Champion of the Winchester Lists--a world-renowned player in the VR game of Chivalry. As Mary Craven, she had been in graduate school working for her MBA when she won the grand prize in the school raffle--a surgical plug implant. Once hardwired into the system, Mary discovered Chivalry, and whatever plans she had for a career in business vanished like smoke. Now she made her living in the Lists, fighting joust after joust, earning the monetary and virtual rewards which came with winning.
But when Mary defeated the mysterious Grey Knight of the Sea in single combat, and won the virtual manor of St. Chad's-on-Wye, she found out that Chivalry was not all fun and games. For St. Chad's was far more than just a manor house, and someone was willing to kill Mary and anyone around her to recover it...
Cover art by Romas Kukalis.
They faced off, some hundred yards apart, the Black Knight just this side of the ford and Mary on the slope above. The height would give her a little extra momentum as she charged downhill: a fair trade-off against his size.
They came together with a clash, spears against shields: both lances shattered and splinters flew. The Black Knight's shield rang again, and Mary's a few notes higher. The horses, rushing past each other, slowed to a walk and turned again. Virtue's hooves stirred the shallows of the ford and muddy ripples ran downstream. Before Mary could reach for her sword, the lance reappeared unbroken in her hand. (It was only software. You could restore it as often as you liked.) So did the Black Knight's. (When Arthur fought Pellinore, squires kept appearing and disappearing like mere grammatical constructions to replenish broken spears; Malory had taken them for granted as modern knights did subroutines.)
On the next pass it was Mary who was moving uphill, and the Black Knight who had the advantage of momentum. It was different from tilting on a level ground, with more factors to figure in. They ought to set up contentious knights at fords more often--leaving out the part about wounds that wouldn't heal. Because he was descending the slope, the Black Knight rose and fell in the saddle a little higher than usual; Mary caught him hard across the shield at the top of his rise and sent him flying.
"Do you yield?" she asked politely, and the Black Knight muttered something that was probably blasphemous and certainly meant "no." In recalling his horse and mounting again, he gave Mary a moment to think. Twice now, her lance had struck his shield like an ordinary lance. She glanced at it, restored again to her hand: the dragonblooded lance, stained a subtle red and smooth as well-polished furniture. Instead of breaking or merely unhorsing him, it should have cooked the Black Knight's goose. Which meant his own arms and armour were enhanced. Or, as one would have said in period, enchanted. She glanced toward Greg, not far off on the hilltop, and raised the lance as if in salute.
On this third pass, Mary had the advantage and disadvantage of momentum again. She watched for an opening as the Black Knight approached, and found none, and kept looking--and his lance struck her shield, pushing it against her with such force that she thought her heart had stopped; and she fell to the ground with a loud thump and a jangle of plate. Virtue's hoofbeats clattered into the distance. Mary put a hand to the ground, trying to get her feet under her. The Black Knight rode up to her and drew his sword: the steel was dark, and a blue radiance flickered along its edges. "Foolish, vainglorious knight," he said, "now art thou in my danger; here will I spill thy soul," and raised his sword to strike.
But Mary said foolishly, "That's not Malory, that's Bunyan;" and the Black Knight's helm lifted a bit and the sword faltered; and in that moment of incongruity Mary rolled away and the swordstroke fell on empty air. Then Virtue came trotting in again and she leaped into the saddle and backed him away for another pass.
The lance that appeared in her hand was different, lighter in color and lighter in weight, with a subtly blunted tip. The "something extra" Greg had promised her if she couldn't take the Black Knight in three passes. No time to ask Greg what its qualities were; here came the Black Knight, sword still drawn, and she must gather what speed she could.
The lancetip struck his shield gently and did not break. It bent. It bent like a strand of half-cooked spaghetti, like the tales still told of that legendary Pennsic War when somebody had substituted a fiberglass War Arrow for the usual wood: no one could break it in token of defiance, and they had had to redefine the terms of the war. So the lance bent, and bent, and the tip slipped downward across the shield to catch the Black Knight in the groin. Now it straightened with an audible twang, and tossed the Black Knight high into the air, impossibly high, above the treetops.
He fell on his head, and Mary heard a snap that ought to mean a broken neck. As she rode up to take a look, he vanished; and his fallen sword vanished, and horse and pavilion and all faded into the air like wisps of shade, leaving only the tree.