D&S: To Be A Knight - Part Seven

  • Breakfast was kept simple, just a bowl of porridge with fruits and berries; anything heavier might upset the stomach. Usually breakfast in House Martellus was a noisy, chaotic affair filled with laughter and jokes but now, even a snuffed forge was livelier. Aeda couldn’t found within herself the strength to eat more than a few bites and she knew she was not to ride today.


                   The children helped their father get dressed. The Legion tended to scoff any armour or personal equipment that needed any help to wear, such is a mark of decadence or the archaic but tourney armour was different. To the Imperial Knights, it was a mark of trust to be armed by those closest to them.


                   First was his arming doublet. It was crimson, the colour of their house with black trimmings. Woollen, the doublet featured maille gussets for extra protection. Aran helped buttoned father in.


                   Second was the armour itself. Tourney armour, the thing was far heavier than the more practical combat armour that Aeda learned to sleep in. Nonetheless, it was of Martellus steel, good steel. It was scratched and dinted but metal unrusted is metal untested, as father himself once said. They laced the plates to the doublet and strapped on his gauntlets and greaves. Artos himself belted father’s armour thrice, just in case.


                   Third was Chestnut, old and loyal Chestnut. A fine steed, the Martellus barded her in boiled leather of House Malik’ make with particular care for her chamfron; the eyes were a vulnerable spot. Chestnut deigned not to complain when her master climbed onto her back… Well she did snort in defiance but father was as heavy as an anvil, no one could fault her on that. Aeda held her by the reigns and led her to the fort.


                   They gathered in the yard, the Bretons in the north and the Imperials in the south. To the east was the keep, foreboding as it was shadowed over a viewing stand that wasn’t here the night before. Hastily built but not shoddy. To the west were the commons, gathered to witness the splendour of the riders. The men and women of the Legion wore as father did – unadorned and dull to the eye but well-tested and proven armour. While even Uncle Mark’s armour was rather strange, bulky and bulbous like an onion, they too had their share of fights. The knights from the north however…


                   Aeda found her jaw hanging at their mass of gaudy colours. Looking more like jesters than proper soldiers, the Knights of High Rock dressed themselves in all sorts of colours and cloths. She spotted surcoats in chequys of blue and silver, green and black, red and yellow. She even saw garish stripes on them – sometimes both. Their helmets too were strange, never mind their snarling masks or complicated arms. Of metal horns and wings, of silken bands and veils, of enamelled and wrought crests. One even had a gilded rooster crowing on the top of his helm.


                   Aeda quickly and stealthily flashed a certain gesture that Mrs. Moorsley explicitly told her not to do.


                   ‘Legions, hoo!’ the herald cried. He was of the Legion.    


                   The Imperial Knights snapped to attention.


                   ‘Knights of the Realm, focus!’ another herald shouted. His clothes are of High Rock.


                   The foreign knights saluted.


                   All were silent.


                   Out of the keep marched two men. One was Ser Rickard Dalton. Clad in blued steel with a red sash across his shoulders, the Knight-Commander as Imperial as they come. Dutiful and brave, Aeda saw the battle scars showing through his nearly trimmed beard, ashen as his hair. He walked with a slight limp, a limp but proud.


                   Next to him was no doubt his counterpart from the north. Gilles Barthélemy looked as much of a perfumed ponce as the rest of his ilk. His armour was polished to a mirror sheen, as shiny as his clean-shaven head. On his shoulders, a triband velvet cloak of vermillion and azure; the colours of High Rock, clasped with a chain of gold.


                   Aeda reckoned, Gilles was copper to Ser Dalton’s steel. He only looked pretty in his armour; an imitator to a true knight.


                   The pair set foot on the stand, together.


                   ‘Soldiers of the Legion, Chevaliers of High Rock, Citizens of the Empire,’ Ser Dalton began, his voice resounding and metallic. ‘We welcome you to our humble training exercise.’


                   Chestnut tossed her head from side to side as Aeda brushed her mane.


                   ‘Calm yourself,’ Aeda said. ‘You have yet to ride.’ She was unsure if she was talking to Chestnut or herself.


                   ‘Let it be known that this is not a mere contest of prowess and guile,’ Giles continued, his voice too bearing that unnatural echo. ‘Today is also a celebration of brotherhood and of courage by his Imperial Majesty’s finest.’


                   ‘Let the weather be fair and let us bear witness to the glory of our Empire’s sons and daughters,’ Ser Dalton said.


                   ‘Knights of the Empire,’ they said in unison. ‘Remember above all: the Nine are watching, make sure they are not ashamed!’


                   Horns blared and the commons erupted in cheers. Aeda released the reigns and father and all of the knights trotted to the stand. The contrast was for all to see: Imperial Knights dressed uniformly with only slight variations while the Knights of High Rock stood out from one man to another. They paused before the stand, dripped their lances in salute, then rode back to their respective ends.


                   A herald, climbed to the top of the viewing stand with a scroll in hand. ‘Sir Reynald de Aquilos the Slayer of the False King,’ he called, his voice carried only by his lungs. It was just a twitch but Aeda detected a frown on father’s face. ‘Ser Gerald Goldwine, the Vintner Knight. Sir Rolant Foucault the Hammer of the Coasts. Ser Markus Ambry, the Stout Knight. Come forth and prove your valour!’


                   ‘It’s the Fat Knight!’ Uncle Mark said, laughing as he fastened his helmet. ‘I’ll see you in the semi-finals, Martellus! Tarkus, let’s go.’


                   The competitors trotted to the start of lanes, looking down at their foes. The Imperial Knights wore no surcoat: their worn armour was for all to see. Foucault wore striped blue-and-red over his plate and his body were adorned with badges. On his head he wore a great helm plumed with three coloured feathers. de Aquilos was modest at a glance but by the grace of the morning sun, his white surcoat gleamed with threads of gold as did his winged helmet.


                   From the moment the mages and attendants ran clear and the knights saluted their opponents, Fort Istrius grew still. So quiet, Aeda could hear the sound of her own heartbeat thumping in the sides of her head. Then a sounded and like the first push of the bellows, the silence collapsed into an upheaval before Aeda could muster the thought to even blink. Spurs sunk into their horses, the shouts and screams of hundreds louder than a roaring smelter, iron-shodded horses digging and pounding the ground so hard that the very earth shook and the knights clashed in a cacophony of muscle, metal, and wood.


                   Uncle Mark and Foucault’s lance met at each other’s shields, bending and exploding in brilliant spray of splinters. Foucault reeled, Aeda held her breath but he steadied himself soon enough. Uncle Mark however was as steady as they come. Through the crowd, Aeda could hear Uncle Mark’s booming laughter – of course he would. A man who’d call himself the ‘Fat Knight’ would take more than that to knock him off his horse. The two wheeled their horses for the next pass, gracefully as if they weren’t just hit with a stick powered by the weight of a charging horse.


                   Ser Gerald wasn’t so lucky. Aeda saw his lance, resting in its cradle, steadily hung in the air as he rode closer. She saw the tip of his lance kiss de Aquilos’ shield only to slide off. It seemed that de Aquilos would’ve done the same but at the last moment, he flicked the point up and landed a blow to Ser Gerald’s helmet. The Imperial’s head jerked back and tumbled to the ground, hard. Some in the crowd gasped, others cheered but those in the south kept to themselves, answering in cool stillness.


                   On the return, Uncle Mark looked on as his fallen comrade was carried away on a stretcher. By then he had stopped laughing.


                   He held his hand open and Tarkus gave him a fresh lance. He dug his spurs deep and began his second pass. The Stout Knight’s arm was steady, steadier than Ser Gerald but unlike Gerald, he aimed high – at Foucault’s head. While the head was worth more points than a body shot; it was a much harder target and knights only went for it if the opportunity presented itself or if they were lucky. Uncle Mark might as well tell his opponent what he was trying to do with his brazen move. Their horses charged hard and at the point of contact Aeda couldn’t look but she also couldn’t look away-


                   Foucault reeled again, only to let go and slump off his horse. Lance unbroken. Uncle Mark slowed from a gallop to almost a trot, glaring at de Aquilos as he turned as if he was saying ‘I can make headshots whenever I want too,’ and rode back to the Imperial line, holding his fist in the air with much fanfare.


                   That makes one win and one lost, Aeda thought. Not the best of omens but not the worst either.


                   For the rest of the first round, it was more of the same. Imperial Knights and Chevaliers rode against each other, an intentional or unintentional recreation of the Knight Wars? Aeda could not tell. Horns blew; the cornu or the clarion louder whenever their owners won, crowds cheered and jeered, lances snapping, and soldiers made quiet bets. The names called out; some she knew, most she didn’t – most being the Chevaliers.


                   ‘Ser Shahzad Malik’, the Centaur Knight,’ the herald called. Ser Shahzad was of House Malik’, one of the finest riders and horse breeders the Empire has ever seen and Ser Shahzad was the best of them. Aeda had never seen a Yokudan Charger before and to finally meet one, so small yet fast and strong – she almost envied him. Almost. She had Certainty. Ser Shahzad rode well, exchanging blows until his opponent slipped and Ser Shahzad secured the win, being the first to score three points. ‘Ser Mokir R’ul, the Patcher Knight. Come forth!’ House R’ul was the only Khajiit Imperial Knight house and a brilliant quilter. She’d half-expected him to ride a mountain lion.


                   ‘Hoo, hah, hoo, ha!’ Aeda joined in the Imperial cheer when Ser Constance Redflower, the Thorn Knight claimed victory with an unhorsing. Artos cheered and even little Aran – the normally reserved boy was practically jumping for the sky on where he stood. While they celebrated, they too moaned when their fellow knight lost. Aeda winced at the hard fall of Ser Yahn Gold and she felt her heart skip a beat when Ser Cassius Vorenus traded harsh blows with his opponent, sending both reeling… but Ser Cassius gave in first. Father’s eyes however were fierce, focused. The same eyes he gave when he bent metal and made steel sing. He applauded when appropriate but his expression barely changed from a stoic glare.


                   He keeps his mind on the task at hand, Aeda thought. Is that what it means to be a Knight? To be unshakable? To be unbreakable?


                   ‘Sir Alain de la Guerre the Swift Spear,’ the herald announced. ‘Ser Marcella Calpurnius, the Painted Knight.’


                   Wait, Ser Marcella? She’s here? Aeda craned her head and saw her. Her armour at a glance was as plain as her comrades but now that she was paying attention, Ser Marcella’s armour while faded was a garden of roses. The centre of her breastplate bore the cracked chalice of her house but with one variation – the chalice was wrapped by the thorns, leaves, and flowers of white roses. Her arms too sprung with the essence of spring and on her helmet, a single stalk of a red rose. The immaculate details, the hours she invested in the painting – House Calpurnius’ trade was in their art but Ser Marcella was the only one whose canvas was on steel… just like her.


                   But Aeda was no artist.


                   ‘Sir Guillaime Lonacque the Stalwart. Ser Albus Martellus, the Iron Knight.’


                   She’d heard the stories and standing in her presence, Ser Marcella seemed even bigger than anything words could convey. If she could earn a handshake, she would die content.


                   ‘Aeda,’ father said, fastening his helmet. ‘Let’s go.’


                   ‘What? Oh, sorry father.’


                   She guided Chestnut to the start of the lane. Aeda felt her heart thumping, chaotic and random as her breath. You are not to ride today, have no fear, she thought but then another popped in her mind – what if she trips? What if she fumbles the lance? There was no hiding for all would see, father, no the Knight-Commander himself.


                   I am of steel: Martellus steel.


                   ‘If you have yet to do so, please remove any enchanted items,’ the mage said. ‘It is forbidden to ride with magical equipment.’


                   I am of steel: Martellus steel. I am of steel: Martellus steel and there is no better steel than Martellus steel!


                   ‘I’ll need a lance and a shield,’ father said. ‘Aeda. Aeda?’


                   ‘Yes, father.’ She went to the racks. Fourteen feet long with a blunted coronal, tourney lances while not meant to kill didn’t mean they were harmless – it would still pierce an unarmoured target but the knights weren’t unarmoured. The shields were of pine, soft pine that tended to split but it was better than nothing.


                   ‘Fortune be with you, father,’ she said. Father accepted the lance and shield, and nodded.


                   Aeda ran to the racks and waited. She could feel the laughter of the chevaliers, on Chestnut. Old Chestnut, few would ride a mare lest they were a Yokudan Charger and Chestnut was no charger. She wasn’t even a destrier – she a half-and-half a courser and a rounsey: a mongrel with no noble bearing; just like the Imperial Knights as they would have it. ‘Lowborn’ but she always got the job done, always swift, always brave and reliable; just like the Imperial Knights.


                   The horns blew.


                   Father began his advance in a slow trot. Slow and rhythmic, like hammering nails on an anvil. He eventually slid into a gallop, shield raised and lance swung over Chestnut. Dirt and grass sprayed up until the clash. Lonacque’s lance struck father’s shield and splintered. But father avoided Lonacque’s shield entirely: bypassing his defences and smashing straight against his breastplate. As Lonacque rode closer to Aeda, reeling from the blow, the chevalier abandoned his shield and both hands held onto reigns for dear life – he held on.


                   ‘Hoo, hah, hoo, ha!’ the chant came from behind her and Aeda joined.


                   As father wheeled back, Aeda saw Ser Marcella casting aside a broken lance. Aeda turned to the heralds and saw them raising a point for father and two points for Ser Marcella– she scored a headshot.


                   Ser Marcella didn’t just ride her horse – she was one with the beast. So smooth and graceful… very ladylike yet so mighty. Aeda snapped back to attention on the voice of Chestnut, whinnying. She rushed for a fresh lance and as soon as she returned, the horn blew again.


                   ‘Get him, father!’ Aeda said, the very earth shaking beneath her boots. ‘Thrash him good! Knock him on his arse!’ she continued, waving her hands.


                   Father suddenly crouched his body, the lance barely missing his face but his own lance found its mark. While an unhorsing was more exciting father didn’t need one to win the bout. He only needed to score three first and he did. It seems they were both thinking the same thing but father was better. More precise. Ser Marcella scored a body blow but she too was the first to three.


                   Two Imperial Knight victories to close the first round.


                   If only I ride as well.



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