D&S: To Be A Knight - Part Twelve

  • Aeda manned the bellows.

     

                   With each pump the hearth breathed forth another wave of heat, drenching her clothes in sweat. From time to time sparks danced off the fire and struck her arm. For true, she winced but that was more of the work of reflex than of real pain – she was after all a blacksmith, a Martellus blacksmith at that and mere sparks are akin to a kitten’s lick. She paused, shovelling more charcoal to feed the flame.

     

                   Charcoal. It didn’t burn as hot or as pure as coke but it was cheaper. It was courtesy to not ruined the fort’s smithy who so generously allowed them to use his forge.

     

                   Father raised his hammer and struck the stock, turning it and delivering one blow after another until the metal tapered to a point. He threw the stock into the fire, removing when it glowed yellow and hammered away on the cutter. He then heated the stock for the third and final time before snapping the stock with clean with a pair of tongs. He slid the snapped metal in the pritchel, hammering till the top flattened. He quenched the tapered metal to a shrieking sizzle and laid his creation aside.

     

                   A perfect nail. Father removed another stock and repeated the process again and again.

     

                   An hour of rest, that was all they were given. Most knights would’ve taken the chance to recuperate; mend bones or suture wounds, enjoy a drink or a light meal, or with the more productive; plan and discuss strategy. Father? Father rested by working the forge. The fire, the hammer, the metal was in his blood. It was in her blood too.

     

                   Father had crafted near a hundred nails now and he was making more at an increased rate as he found his rhythm. It was like combat, he once told her. He who controls the pace wins the fight.

     

                   Aeda looked on as father continued to work, singing steel as if he had not spent the day in joust.

     

                   He would go on like this, forever if he could. Aeda pushed the bellow down, the orange light cutting through her goggles.

     

                   Suddenly, the first horn wailed long and hard for them to take pause. They pricked their ears to be sure it was no trick of the mind. The second horn followed.

     

                   It was time.

     

                   Mechanically, the smith and his apprentice cleared the forge – dousing the hearth and returning the tools. When they strolled to their tent, father changed out of his soot stained tunic and into his arming doublet. He wiped his face with a damp cloth as Aeda strapped him into his armour.

     

                   Artos stuck his head into the tent. ‘Father,’ he said. ‘They’re waiting for you.’

     

                   ‘They?’ Father cocked his head.

     

                   Artos held the flap open as they left their tent. Aeda gasped. Outside was stood not just Chestnut and Little Aran but also a crowd of men and women, battered and bruised and at their van, a stout man with a swollen face.

     

                   ‘Albus,’ the stout man said. ‘How are you feeling?’

     

                   Aeda squinted and she recognised that man or at least that beard, Uncle Mark. Slowly, she recognised the members of the crowd – Imperial Knights. Strange, Aeda thought. Out of their armour, they seemed so… ordinary. Not the heroes she knew but the common man she’d give no thought as she’d walk by them in the market or the road. But that was who the Imperial Knights were after all? ‘Commonborn’ folk who were the Emperor’s finest.

     

                   ‘I’m ready if that’s what you’re asking,’ father said, gripping his helmet.

     

                   Aeda could see Ser Mokir readjusting the bloodied rag in his maw. Ser Constance, hair stained brown leaning on Ser Cassius for support. Ser Shahzad massaging his arm and Ser Yahn standing straight with his bandaged torso. She saw many faces but she did not see Ser Marcella. Where is she? Aeda thought. I hope she’s alright.

     

                   ‘Aye,’ Uncle Mark said, resting a hand on father’s shoulder. ‘That was what I meant.’

     

                   The horn blew again.

     

                   ‘Martellus,’ he continued, voice growing serious. ‘Show these Bretons the fire that forged the Iron Knight in Deshaan. Show them what it means to be a knight!’

     

                   ‘Hoo!’ the knights cheered, raising their fist the air. ‘Hah!’ they repeated he chant. ‘Hoo!’

     

                   Father said nothing as he wore his helmet and threw himself over Chestnut. Aeda armed him with lance and shield before seizing the reigns of Chestnut from her brother. She took a deep breath and exhaled.

     

                   I am of steel: Martellus steel. I am of steel: Martellus steel!

     

                   ‘From beyond the Jerall Mountains in the cultured province of High Rock,’ the herald announced, his voice barely audible through the cheering crowd. ‘Son of Sir Bertrand de Aquilos, Master of the Eagle’s Crag, Chevalier of the Sacred Rose, Flower of the Glenumbra, the Lance of the West, the Slayer of the False King.’

     

                   Aeda’s hands shivered as the leather dug deep.

                  

                   ‘The Chivalrous, the Brave, the Gallant – Sir Reynald de Aquilos!’

     

                   The cheers erupted into a mighty roar as the chevalier rode forth from the northern camp. Reigning his steed was his squire, this time wearing clothes as extravagant as he.

     

                   Cedric. Aeda frowned.

                   ‘Nervous?’ father said, voice echoing.

     

                   Aeda sighed and nodded her head.

     

                   ‘I’m nervous too.’

     

                   Aeda turned to him and smiled.

     

                   ‘From the Imperial heartlands in the county of Anvil,’ the herald began. ‘Son of Aenar Martellus, Knight-Sergeant of the 19th Legion, the Iron Knight.’

     

                   Her stomach churned; boat rides didn’t churn them this bad.

     

                   ‘Ser Albus Martellus!’

     

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

     

                   Aeda tugged on Chestnut’s bridle and the courser obeyed, moving forward without so much as a snort of protest. The crowd cared not who or where the knight came from for as long as they gave them a good joust, they cheered and cheered they did when the Imperials showed themselves. Aeda blushed and kept her head down – to have so many eyes on was as daunting as her first forging.

     

                   Can’t breathe. Aeda sucked in a mouthful of air. Cover your mouth – No, don’t cover your mouth now you idiot!

     

                   Chestnut suddenly shook her head, her mane slapping Aeda in the face.

     

                   Aeda readjusted her nose and scratched the mare’s neck, leaning in her ear to whisper, ‘Guess I deserved that, didn’t I?’

     

                   The knights before the viewing stand where the Knight-Commander and Chevalier Grandmaster in their armour, sat on wooden chairs under the shade of the canopy. Beside them were their attendants; scribes, heralds, and mages. Aeda felt her knees on the verge on giving out, standing under their presence.

     

                   When the Knight-Commander and the Chevalier Grandmaster rose, all grew silent.

     

                   ‘You have fought brave and true this day,’ the grandmaster began, voice resounding and metallic. ‘You have proven yourselves to be champions in your own right but the day is not yet done.’

     

                   ‘There can only be one victor in battle. One champion in the joust,’ Ser Dalton said, raising a hand. ‘Ride well, children of the Empire and ride strong.’

     

                   ‘Champions, know that the gods are watching – make sure they are not ashamed!’

     

                   Drums pounded, trumpets blew, the crowd boomed as the knights tipped their lances to the knight-commander and grandmaster before circling to their end of the lists.

     

                   Aeda let go of the reigns, retreated to the racks, and bit her lip. Legion’s Joust rules scored the first to three. For the finals, it was custom to be the first to five. Father was in for a long fight. Now? Now was the waiting. The damned waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

     

                   The horn blew.

     

                   Father rode as he usually did; with a slow methodical trot as did de Aquilos. Then they swung their lances over their steeds and the trot slid into a gallop. When their lances finally met, they kissed each other’s shield before the point veered off to a hard strike into their foe’s breastplate. Both knights reeled but the horses carried their riders to the end.

     

                   Father and de Aquilos fought like a mirror, Aeda noted. They just noticed that before the lances met, de Aquilos never moved his head – he didn’t turn his chin up or look down but kept his eyes locked on father. Both even threw their shattered lances away at the same time. On the return both knights glared at each other at the same time.

     

                   ‘Thrash him good!’ Aeda said as she supplied father with a fresh lance.

                  

                   Father nodded, waited and charged to the sound of the horn. Same as before, a slow trot to a gallop to a clash but this time both knights refused to flinch, tossing their lances aside like the blow was nothing to them.

     

                   Father struck de Aquilos by the shield. No, he touched the shield but the chevalier rolled his body letting the force… carry from one arm to the other! Like a quintain, de Aquilos spun his torso and smashed the coronet against father’s gorget. Aeda yelped when father was lifted from his stirrups but before he could fall, he threw himself back on the saddle, lance unbroken.

     

                   Aeda closed her mouth and thumbed a nostril. The score was four to two. If father were to win, he’d need to unhorse de Aquilos for even if they tied, he would receive priority.

     

                   Father kept his head low as he rode back and by the moment he did, Aeda was already ready with a fresh lance. Aeda however felt that something was off about him, something different.

     

                   Through the slit of his visor, she saw fire in his eye and shuddered. This wasn’t the fire of warmth she came to know him by, not the fire of a comforting hearth that kept the cold out nor the controlled flames of the forge. No, this was of steeled fury, of an inferno raging in a forest burning all to ash. But that wasn’t it, that wasn’t what was odd-

     

                   …Wait. His eye. Eye.

     

                   ‘By the Nine,’ Aeda gasped.

     

                   Father’s other eye betrayed no emotion, warmth or cold but it was crying, a stream of red.

     

                   ‘Lance,’ father said quietly, coldly.

     

                   ‘Father,’ the words sputtered out. ‘You’re wounded!’

     

                   ‘Give me my lance,’ he continued through gritted teeth.

     

                   ‘No!’ Aeda cried. ‘You can’t ride like this. Yield, yes, yield! You have to yield, father. There’s no dishonour in withdrawing. Yield so that we can find a healer immediately!’

     

                   For a moment, father regarded her his face unsure. Then the horn blew and it began distant and stern.

     

                   ‘Please.’ Aeda’s eyes welled.

     

                   ‘I said, lance!’ he repeated and against all reason Aeda held the lance up and he snatched it from her hands and charged.

     

                   She stood, jaw hanging at what she did. Aeda smacked herself in the cheek, shaking herself back to rational thought.

     

                   ‘I have to stop this,’ she whispered. The herald. ‘Stop this!’ she shouted. ‘We withdraw! House Martellus withdraws!’

     

                   The herald didn’t respond.

     

                   The flag. She turned to the rack and there it was, lying parallel to the lances. She ran as fast as she could though she knew she stood no chance against a horse but she had to try. She had to succeed. Father was in danger from himself.

     

                   She grabbed the flag and began waving it wildly but it was too late, the horses had begun to gallop. Her trembling hands could only dig into the grainy wood as she watched. She watched the possessed crowd kept chanting their names; Reynald! Albus! Reynald! Albus! Reynald! Albus!

     

                   ‘He can do this,’ Aeda whispered.

     

                   Aquilos! Martellus! Aquilos! Martellus! Aquilos! Martellus!

     

                   ‘He will do this,’ Aeda said.

     

                   The lances swung over their horses and father roared the name: Martellus!

     

                   ‘Father will win!’

     

                   The lance struck the winged helmet, spraying splinters in all directions. His charger reared as rider tore off his saddle and flew a few good feet backwards. So, it was this day that the Master of the Eagle’s Crag, Chevalier of the Sacred Rose, Flower of the Glenumbra, the Lance of the West, the Slayer of the False King, the Golden Eagle had his wings clipped and he too, crashed into the dirt like any other man.

     

                   Aeda fell to her knees and wept. What sense of excitement and joy she had felt was smothered by the sight of Chestnut; making her turn without her rider.

                  

                   Why didn’t you yield?

     

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