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A young man stood in the tent, his head bowed. "Milord, you asked to see me?"
"Yes, yes…" In the middle of the tent was an older male, leaning on a table which bore a half-played game of chess. He seemed distracted, moving the pieces at random from one square to another, not playing in set order. "There's something I wanted to tell you."
"I suppose you heard about the knight of mine who died a few days ago jousting, hmn? I've been needing a replacement knight for a while."
"But…I'm not noble."
The older male smiled slightly, the expression tugging at the corners of his lips. "What if I were to tell you that you are noble, hmn? What if your common born mother conceived you in a lord's chambers? What then?"
A soft protest emanated from the youth's lips.
"If I were to give you a chance – would you take it?" the older man pressed.
Curiosity spoke the next words. "Would you tell me who my father is?"
"Ah, yes… He is called Veicede, and he has another son. To take your place as a true noble knight, you would need to get rid of that son." A pause. "Can you do that?"
Conviction. "Yes, milord."
In the realm of knighthood, there are but three things of importance: bravery, chivalry and luck in the lists. A knight is nothing without these, but as in all things, one triumphs in importance above the rest. Without bravery, he is scorned; without chivalry, he is disgraced; but without luck, he is dead.
Ardent shifted, adjusting his leather gloves yet again. Beside him, Kelly rocked from foot to foot, slim frame swaying like a sapling in high winds. The young knight attempted to ignore his agitated squire. He focused on the pair of knights readying themselves at either end of the palisade, lances clenched in unyielding grips. Identical helms shielded their faces, and neither one's armor bore signature. Even the horses wore matching coats of grime.
The knights, following a seemingly invisible signal, nudged their mounts into motion.
"Ardent, are you even listening to me?" Kelly mother-henned, breaking the redheaded knight out of his entranced state. The squire offered Ardent a helm.
He took it, regarding it thoughtfully, and then looked back up as the crowd let out a roar. One of the knights lay unmoving in the dust as his mount shied away from the fence, stepping on its master.
Kelly made a small sound of distress.
A young man leaped over the fence surrounding the arena, raced to the fallen knight and dropped to his knees. Jousting attendants followed suit, moving to trap the excited horse and lead it off the field. The squire stayed stationary amidst the chaos, still kneeling in the dust beside the unmoving knight.
"Don't worry about it."
Ardent started in surprise at his knight master's deep voice. Damion rested a hand briefly on the young knight's shoulder. "Your opponent has been scratched from the lists," he informed Ardent tersely. "You will be jousting with one of Pernicies' knights – the landless whoreson." He cast a sharp glance at the redhead. "Don't disappoint me."
Ardent could manage onlya nod. His knight master nodded in return, clapped him on the shoulder and melted away into the crowd.
"What did he want?" Kelly sounded shaken.
"I'm not jousting Ashley," he answered softly. "The lists were rewritten – I'm jousting Pernicies' Ratio." He didn't look at Kelly. There was no point in deliberating or fussing. What was done, was done. "Do you remember anything about his style?" he inquired wistfully, shaking his arms out as he made his way towards the challenger's side of the palisades.
Kelly tagged along, helpful but invisible, in the manner of any good squire. "Nothing about Ratio in particular," the youth admitted, "but Pernicies' jousters have a reputation for winning at any cost. Be careful?"
Ardent declined to answer as he swung up into Felise's saddle, offering a nod of thanks to the attendant who had fetched her for him.
Across the arena, his opponent was going through the same motions.
"I wish you were riding Cathor," Kelly fretted, offering Ardent a jouster's lance procured from yet another attendant. Felise shied and snorted.
"I don't ride injured horses," Ardent snapped back, accepting the lance before nudging Felise to the rail to escape Kelly's nattering. The wood weighed heavily in his hand. A thousand thoughts jumped to mind as he waited for the other's signals of readiness.
He wished he had asked for a shielded joust. He wished Cathor's steady body were carrying him instead of high-strung Felise. He wished he'd taken more time out of his training to focus on tilting instead of sword fighting. He wished –
His opponent's lance rose to cross his mount's shoulders – the signal for which Ardent had been waiting. Drawing a deep breath, he shifted his lance as well, paused for a heartbeat…then urged Felise forward.
The other knight grew larger as they thundered towards one another. The paddled lance tips thudded upon contact. Ardent's arm went numb about the same time he felt his lungs compress under his armor from the weight of the other's blow. His body popped out of the saddle and soared backwards.
* * * * *
That hurt… There were going to be bruises tomorrow, if they weren’t already forming now. He was vaguely aware of a hand shaking him. The dull gleam of armor cut through his senses. Ardent slowly gained his feet, shaking off Kelly's assistance. The other knight sat, frozen on his mount, softened against the sun by a liberal shading of dust. After a long moment, Justice and his mount moved off, leaving Kelly staring after them, hands clenched. "He didn't even speak to you!" the youth snarled.
Ardent laughed, though it sounded more like a dust-choked croak. "He lacks chivalry, not skill. I won't challenge him on his own grounds." With that, the young knight began to limp slowly off the field, Kelly tagging along faithfully.
Damion will not be pleased…
The knight master's tent was large enough to accommodate a pair of flimsy wooden chairs, a small table bearing a chess set, and oddments of armor. A sharp faced man partly clad in chain mail held ownership of one of the two chairs. His elbows rested on his knees, and his dark eyes followed the figure of the knight master.
"Milord – this is the chance I have been waiting for," he said, a shade too impatiently.
Pernicies, a thin man with the bearing of an aristocratic cat, turned. His left hand stroked his whiskered chin in a thoughtful gesture, but his eyes were cold and hard. "I believe I have made my side clear on this. You know the consequences of disobeying."
"This is something I must do!" Ratio cried.
"You are my vassal," Pernicies answered sharply. "Have you forgotten your oaths, child-of-no-land?"
Dark eyes blazed. "There is a difference between sensibility and honor," he protested. "This is my brother, milord. Respect – he is my only kin now."
The knight master chuckled, an ugly sound, like grating rocks. "If he is kin, he is only half-kin, and in the way of my goals. Avedon and all its children stand between me and my position as the King's favorite." Pernicies rested a hand on the edge of the table, thoughtfully regarding the half-played game of chess. One emaciated hand briefly caressed the dark bishop. Pale eyes locked with dark ones. "You are a simple pawn in a much larger game. A brilliant pawn, perhaps, but I still control your motions."
Ratio glowered, but held his peace.
"You will withdraw from the lists," Pernicies announced, reaching across the chessboard to remove the light King's side knight with the dark bishop. "I had hoped you would be capable of controlling yourself, but in lieu of self-control, I offer my control." He contemplated the board for an instant, hand hovering above the light Queen's side rook. After a moment, the light Queen's side knight moved.
A pawn vanished from the light side, captured by a dark castle. "Justice will compete in your place."
Ratio's jaw tightened. His eyes darted to the board.
The light king danced away from check.
A small smile lit Pernicies' face.
"Be sure he knows his opponents." A dark castle shifted. Three moves late and the light king fell. Pernicies looked up. "You are dismissed."
Ratio gave his knight master a curt nod and stood, hands clenched into fists at his side; he bowed and exited the tent, leaving an amused Pernicies in his wake. The knight master picked up the chess piece and rearranged the board.
"Bastard sons of Veicede…all of them landless, soon to be dead. All of them buying their knight master's bread."
Ardent raised his arm as Kelly snapped the vambraces on. He was exceptionally grateful that his squire knew exactly where each odd and end of armor belonged, because at the moment, Ardent could not bring himself to focus. His opponent in the lists from the day before had scratched. Why?
Perhaps more importantly, he needed information on the new jouster, and from a reliable source. With Kelly absorbed in helping him prepare, there really wasn't anyone he could send –
The tent flap ripped open and Damion stormed in, startling Kelly. The squire accidentally dropped the pauldron he'd been about to affix to Ardent's breastplate.
"Milord?" the young knight asked in surprise, ignoring Kelly as the squire fumbled for the armor.
Damion was glowering, and though he stood still, gave off the air of a wild animal pacing in captivity. "You're facing Justice of Dover!" the distraught man cried. "Some god has singled you out for punishment today." He ran a hand over his face, shifting from foot to foot, agitation sharpening each motion. "Whatever luck you live by, it had better take you through this. The sons of Dover are not known for forgiving blows."
Satisfied that the young knight understood the severity of the situation, Damion abandoned the tent. Once he had vanished, Kelly snapped the final piece of plate into place and glared. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"You rise above your station, squire," Ardent warned, flexing his gauntleted hands. "Justice is a knight as any other. Skilled perhaps, but just a knight, and only a man. He will not defeat me in my quest for glory."
Kelly didn't reply, but worry rolled off him in waves that made Ardent nauseous. He gave his squire a simple nod and exited the tent, tasting the cool, fresh air. Buds of frost had taken root and bloomed overnight, sprouting in the grass and along the palisade fences. The harsh jangling of his armor set itself in foil to soft gusts of wind, ruffling flags around the arena.
He made his way through to the lists, confirming his opponent. Then came the waiting; some knights paced and some sat, some curried their horses while others penned bad poetry, yet they all remained quiet, listening to the violent roaring of the crowd and the dull screeches of lances against armor. Hearts pounded, palms sweated and lips pursed with prayer. A friend one bid good morning to not an hour before wasn't always in one piece come evening.
The crowd's sigh signaled the end of another joust. Ardent nudged Felise again with his heels, intent on keeping the mare steadily circling. The joust after the next was his. Tension in his mind must have affected Felise; she pulled up, snorting. Ardent attempted to ease her, urging her back into motion once more. Reluctantly, she obeyed. He breathed an internal sigh of relief.
Kelly was nowhere around. Ardent wondered offhand if he was sulking in some forgotten corner.
Another thunderous chorus roused him from his musings, and the young knight felt his heart begin to pound faster. He guided Felise into the palisade to roaring cries. Ardent's eyes flickered to the mounted knight on the challenger's side, taking in the man's lazy confidence.
Felise picked her way delicately to the start where an attendant waited, holding a lance and shield. Ardent accepted both and drew a deep breath. He hefted the heavy shield on his left arm, and then crossed the long, wooden shaft of the lance across Felise's withers. His opponent mirrored his actions a moment later, and then they began to race towards one another.
Jousts were nearly always silent affairs, since most knights preferred to concentrate on striking their opponent rather than intimidate him. But as Felise's stride carried Ardent closer, a bloodcurdling war cry exploded from the other knight. The mare's head jerked up and she faltered, slowing and shying away, carrying Ardent out of reach of Justice's lance. The other knight passed and Ardent swore colorfully, trying to get the skittish mare under control.
Jeers rained from the fickle crowd.
"Brush it off." That was Kelly, materialized as though Ardent's unease had called him. The squire's hands caught at Felise's bridle; he clapped her firmly on the neck. "Easy, easy," Kelly crooned, helping her settle down. Then the squire backed away, and Ardent crossed his lance once again.
Twice more the knights clashed, but neither managed to unseat the other, and on the final pass, Justice's lance shattered. Attendants moved out to lead the mounts in, but the knight of Dover kicked them away. "You there – Avedon!" His bellow was a twisted mix of gravelly rock and shrieking wind. "I'll have my satisfaction of you yet – on the ground with sword!"
Ardent hesitated. He hadn't brought –
"I'll take her in." Kelly held Felise's reins in one hand, Ardent's sword in the other.
The knight hesitated a moment longer before dismounting and accepting the proffered weapon. Across the arena, Justice dismounted as well. As Kelly led Felise off, Ardent shifted uncomfortably, disliking the way the jousting helm reduced his vision to a sliver of the outside world.
"Are you ready, Avedon?"
Justice had discarded his jousting helm and shrugged out of the majority of his armor; it littered his path like demented trail markers. The attendants scrambled to pick it up. Ardent tossed his scabbard aside after drawing the sword and shook his own helm off, otherwise electing to remain encased in his protective shell. Cool air struck his forehead, damp from sweat.
The blond knight of Dover circled, crouched, balancing on the balls of his feet. Much slower with armor weighing on him, Ardent lumbered around to keep his face to his opponent.
Unlike jousts, insults were commonly thrown about in the midst of a swordfight. Ardent had rarely engaged in the practice, feeling it best to save his lungs for breathing. It seemed he was not the only unorthodox one in this; Justice breathed no sound louder than sharp panting.
Without warning, the blond knight lunged in, sword leading. Ardent twisted, bringing his own blade to bear in time to deflect the blow. The metal lengths made a dull clanging, calling to mind battlefields and soldiers drowning in muddied red.
The crowd was hushed, intently focused on the pair. Bloodlust hung heavily in the air.
Justice came forward again, poised for an overhand chop. Ardent swung his sword up to block, but the feint changed course to drive into his unprotected side. It knocked the breath out of his body, unbalanced him. In the comically clanking suit of armor, he crashed to the ground.
A mad light shone in the other knight's eyes. Justice stepped over the fallen Ardent and raised his sword yet again, the tip dangling over the younger knight's face.
"Yield," Ardent whispered, ashamed at having lost so ingloriously.
Justice pulled back.
Ardent began to sit up.
The blond knight whipped his sword back around, driving the live steel into Ardent's unprotected neck. It stuck halfway in, caught on bone. Justice let go of the pummel with distaste, backing away as the young knight convulsed. He was aware of the wretched crying of a squire, leaping the fence to attend its master's body. He heard the crowd sing its capricious song – glory to the victor and death to he who fails!
Something rippled within the crowd, and a dark-haired man stumbled across the fence into the arena. Justice regarded the invader with interest until he recognized the man. Ratio.
"Come to witness my victory?" Justice taunted, relishing the moment. He had succeeded where Ratio had failed. Laughing at the distraught knight's jerking motions, Justice turned away, raising his arms to the crowd as it roared its approval. There were heavy steps behind him, the jaded movements of a fallen knight.
Justice turned to face him, smirking.
Ratio drove the bloodied sword, retrieved from Ardent's corpse, through the blond's gut, his face a mask of fury. Justice stumbled back and the blade slipped out, leaving a gaping wound. He fell to his knees, vainly attempting to hold his innards in place.
The crowd had descended into silence, unsure what to make of the spectacle. Bloodlust rode high but for a short time. This was not the mindless mob of the amphitheater, but a more easily satiated group. Death on such a scale threatened to disturb them. They did not condone heedless slaughter.
Ratio paced along the palisade, staring into the crowd. Searching, seeking… An Achilles, calling for Hector, he bellowed Pernicies' name.
The knight master stood out briefly in the crowd, but it was not he who vacated the stands to enter the palisade. A quartet of men clad in chain-studded leather advanced menacingly as a group while their knight master looked on.
Ratio growled, bringing Justice's sword to bear. Unease rippled through the crowd, unsure of how it should react. A single entity, incapable of separate thought – it wondered… and worried.
* * * * *
It takes years of training to forge a blade strong enough to survive an engagement. Swords are often passed down from father to son to grandson. The edge will not hold if it is not maintained. Repeated sharpening thins the blade, makes it lighter…and easier to break.
A half-sword, sheared off near the hilt, rested in Ratio's hand as his adversaries dispatched of him. The crowd put out a half-hearted cheer, rising only to full volume when it became clear the massacres had ceased.
In the crowd, the sharp eyes of a knight master studied the hunched form of a young man, yet attending the still body of the first slaughtered knight. Another fly to snare in the spider's web. Pernicies excused himself from the row, drifting on course with obscene purpose.
Kelly wiped grimy hands across his tear-stained visage, flinching as he realized he was smearing Ardent's blood on himself as well. The jousting attendants had collected the young knight's body, leaving the squire behind, staring dazedly. He wandered, dream-like from corner to corner of the tournament grounds, passing vendors and knights, tents and makeshift stables.
He turned when a hand seized his shoulder. A man with wild black hair glared down at him. "The master wants to see you." Still numb, Kelly allowed himself to be dragged away.
The tent of a knight master seemed too large for such a slight boy. Pernicies pursed his lips, regarding the timid squire with critical eyes. "Such needless destruction is painful, is it not?" he lamented, watching for the boy's reaction. "But surely good may rise from evil's ashes." The boy looked up. "Perhaps you are destined to be a knight of fame and fortune."
The promise rang heavily in the air. A shaking Kelly brushed his hands across his tunic. It was already blood soaked and muddy – another stain could hardly ruin it further. "I'm not noble…only nobles– " he whispered.
"But what if I were to tell you that you are noble, hmn?" Pernicies questioned, shifting one leg over the other as he leaned forward in his chair. "What if your common born mother conceived you in a lord's chambers?" He paused to study the boy's twitching response. "What then?"
"That still doesn't make me noble," Kelly protested weakly.
"But if I was to give you a chance at knighthood – that fame and fortune – would you take it?"
Kelly hesitated. The question that hung on all bastard children's lips jumped to his. "Will you tell me who my father is?"
The knight master smiled to himself. Another one caught… "Ah, yes… He is called Veicede, and he has another son…"