D&S: To Be A Knight - Part Eighteen

  • Aeda leaned on Certainty, a cool damp cloth pressed against her forehead. The stallion was restless, snorting and shaking his head from side to side as Artos inspected the belts and buckles on his saddle and barding. Artos was her lancebearer now – Gorggnak had to attend to the stall while Aran was too little to hold a lance. Should’ve been him, Aeda thought. Father should’ve been my lancebearer.

     

                   In the lists, the jousters and their steeds began with a methodical trot and then a gallop right before their opponent at the middle. Foucault rode a massive gold charger, barded in the red and white and embroiled with the head of a roaring ebony lion. de la Guerre’s white courser’s barding was half-chequered, half-striped green and black. Baillet’s horse was covered in a deep rich shade of blue, decorated by silver chains. Symmachus looked so stranger, so out of place when compared to the other riders – his bay mare wore leathers as plain as his own armour.

     

                   All fours clashed fast and hard, their lances either cracking cleanly in two or exploding into splinters but all held onto their seats. A cheer went up and Aeda dunk her head in a bucket – they were too loud, never mind that the sun peeking between the clouds made everything too bright.

     

                   Every now and then, Aeda could hear a strange buzzing noise yet she dared not close her eyes for when she did; the very earth moved beneath her feet and more than a few occasions, she had almost puked.

     

                   The riders wheeled about and tossed their broken laces – the first set of lances. One fewer set before I am to ride again. One set too soon. Ever since her joust with Cordelier, Aeda had drunk copious amounts of medicinal tea, chewed on strange roots and even forced herself to ‘expunge’ into a bucket but they did little to nothing. She dared not sip a drop of poppy and smelling salts could only do so much before they completely burned away her sense of smell.

     

                   Fresh lances in hand, Aeda braced herself for the eventually clash and the loud noises that followed after that. When they rode, they rode perfectly – the pose perfect and their lances stable. How do they do that? Aeda thought. What are they doing right?

     

                   Aeda frowned as an image of a broken man lying on a cot flooded her mind. Father would’ve known. If he was here, he’d know what to look for and he’d tell me. To teach me.

     

                   All lances shattered again to the great roar from the crowd and a distant rumbling of thunder, as if the Gods themselves sent forth their approval. Damn good riders, this whole lot. Two-to-two and two-to-two; the next ride will determine the victors of the joust. I will have to do better. I must.

     

                   Aeda dunked the cloth in the bucket and pressed it against her forehead again, excess water streaming down her face. The jousters lined up waiting for the signal to charge in what seemed to be an eternity. The squires’ steeds stomped and whinnied, no doubt reflecting the mood of their riders but Symmachus?

     

                   Beyond a few stretches, man and beast seemed calm. Too calm. Let the fires die and it’ll take an hour to stoke the hearth again, father had once said. Aeda however was mistaken.

     

                   Symmachus wasn’t resting, not truly the way Aeda thought he did. Man and beast were like an arrow, drawn on a bow and when the trumpet blew, they shot forth with a charge – hard and fast. He’ll tire his horse early if he rides like that, Aeda thought before she shook her head. No, Symmachus would know better than that. He has a plan… There!

     

                   She winced even before the lance made contact, before the Symmachus overrode the mid-point and ran down his opponent. Playing the aggressor, Symmachus’ gambit relied on the fact that his opponent would be unprepared for an attack and the gambit succeeded. As he zoomed, Symmachus drove his lance right into the still trotting Baillet – the sudden impact forced the horse in deep blue and silver chains to rear, and lifting Baillet from the stirrups and falling onto the barricade.

     

                   For a moment, the world seemed to freeze, like a fly trapped in amber. Even Aeda found herself holding her breath until Baillet rose, loosened his helm and chased after his horse. An amusing sight for sure but Aeda was keener on Symmachus, once again letting the broken lance slide off his hand and begun to retreat to his tent with his non-descript lancebearer behind.

     

                   As he rode by, Aeda whooped. ‘That was a beautiful strike,’ she said, waving a hand. ‘Hope to break a few lances with you at the Semis!’

     

                   A heartbeat later as Symmachus rode by Aeda frowned, feeling foolish. He’s wearing a helmet. What did you think was going to happen? And you, surviving till the Semis? What conceit! She shook her head and immediately regretted it – her temples throbbed as if it was struck by a hammer.

                  

                   Aeda took a deep breath, steeling herself before shoving her head into her helmet. She took another breath again, the stink of sweat soaked lining and the confined space oddly familiar, comforting even. The weight of steel on her neck was little burden as a hat of straw or wool would give – it felt… lighter even. This is me, she thought. Not of silk but steel. Not of dresses but armour. Me.

     

                   ‘Fetch my shield,’ Aeda said to her lancebearer before fastening her helmet to her gorget with practiced hands. She checked her breastplate, still unused that it requires help to put on but at least she herself could inspect the straps and adjust accordingly. She pulled down her gloves and balled her hands into a fist, her gauntlets rhythmically grinding against one another. ‘Artos, shield?’

     

                   ‘A shield?’ Artos said, head sticking out from under Certainty. ‘What for?’

     

                   ‘What for?’ she said, eyebrow raised. ‘I’m not to ride without a shield. Not if I had a choice anyhow.’

     

                   ‘Yes, but why now?’

     

                   ‘Now? What do you mean “why now”?’

     

                   ‘They called for a recess,’ Artos said, tilting his head. Her brother gave her a blank stare before continuing, ‘to repair the barrier. The herald announced it whilst you were eyeing Symmachus.’

     

                   ‘I was not!’ She stomped her foot and placed her hands on her hips, frowning.

     

                   Artos shrugged stood up. Aeda felt her blood boil - was sure the brat was smiling behind the horse.

     

                   ‘He’s a good rider,’ Artos said, nonchalantly. ‘I’ll give him that.’

     

                   Aeda nodded, more for herself than for Artos really. She held out her hand and scratched Certainty by the mane. The shadowed stallion was a full courser; unlike Chestnut’s half-and-half heritage, a pure warhorse with a proud pedigree. However, a pure warhorse he may be, Certainty was like Aeda – of good steel but untested. For true, she has ridden Certainty for many a year but never in combat, let alone a proper joust. As she patted his face, the stallion bared his big square teeth at her.

     

                   ‘Artos,’ Aeda said. ‘Head to the tent and fetch Certainty a drink. Not too strong, he still needs to ride.’

     

                   Artos to his credit didn’t snicker nor make a face but did as he was told, running off after adjusting a saddle belt. Aeda sat on a bench, looking at her feet. Mud and water, her imagination played tricks on her – on what they’d call her if she were unhorsed and was sent crashing down.

     

                   The Brown Knight. The Mud Knight. Amongst other undignified names. The Rusted Knight.

     

                   ‘Hail Martellus,’ a voice said.

     

                   Aeda looked up and she greeted by the sight of a young man. The man had dark moplike hair which clung to his scalp, a bad case of helmet hair. His brown almondine eyes and sharp nose were very classically Imperial features. His stained gambeson did no favours for him, neither did the stench of horse and sweat. But by Dibella, he was handsome in an unkempt sort of way.

     

                   She stammered, choking for words before she decided stand up and just greet him with a salute, which the man returned – his movement practiced and precise. Where had she seen him before? Aeda wondered. The man seemed oddly familiar.

     

                   ‘Hail,’ she finally said. ‘W-w-what can I do you for?’ She found herself thankful that she suited up early – she was blushing again.

     

                   ‘Nothing much really,’ he said before leaning in. Aeda was taller than he but only by a few fingers. ‘Truth be told, I just wanted someone to talk to,’ he continued in whispers. ‘My attendants are rather dull on things and if they’d keep me lock up a minute longer, I’ll be madder than the Prince of Madness himself!’ He pulled back and winked.

     

                   ‘I’m Aeda. Aeda Martellus but you already knew that.’ Oh, you idiot. ‘Uhm and you are?’

     

                   ‘Ah, where are my manners,’ he said waving a hand. ‘Nana always complained that I lacked “propriety. If she heard what I did, I’d get an earful.’

     

                   ‘Oh, I know what you mean.’

     

                   ‘Do you now?’ he said smiling and Dibella’s blessing that was a very nice smile ‘I am Tiberius of House Symmachus.’ He bowed. ‘At your service.’

     

                   ‘Tiberius? You’re Tiberius?’ Aeda thanked every god that Artos wasn’t here. She’d never hear the end of it if he were. She paused for a moment thinking what to say, ‘I don’t think I’ve heard of your house before nor have I read it on any census.’

     

                   ‘Oh that?’ he looked to his sides. ‘House Symmachus is a new house. A recent ascension. The bureaucracy has yet to keep up as is the Empire. But enough about me – I’d wish not to speak of it if you don’t mind. Why don’t we talk about you instead? I’m willing to bet that there’s something interesting about you.’

     

                   Aeda froze. Is he here to make fun of me, like the rest of them? ‘Sorry to disappoint,’ she said lamely. ‘But I’m not a very interesting person. Just another fool.’

     

                   ‘Mayhaps but how you ride.’ He paused. ‘Unorthodox and rudimentary but also fearless. I’ve never seen anyone else ride like you do.’

     

                   ‘Your words are too kind but I’m afraid they are untrue,’ Aeda said. ‘It’s not fearlessness but foolishness – I only ride the way I do because I don’t know any better. You Tiberius ride like the tip of the spear: fast and precise. You move when you need to and hit where you want. I ride like a bludgeon: I just hit them hard and hope they go down.’

     

                   Tiberius grunted. ‘Anvils have no technique either but no one can complain that they don’t hurt when one falls on you.’

     

                   Aeda allowed herself a small smile.

     

                   ‘Ah!’ he suddenly shouted, making her jump. ‘You truly are a fool! You’ve spoken too much and now you’ve given me your secrets!’

     

                   ‘Wait, I-‘ Aeda’s eyes widened. He was right. She did talk too much. ‘No! I didn’t mean-‘ 

                  

                   He waved his hand. ‘Unfortunate because by the ancient laws, I am honourbound to repay the favour. Listen closely and listen well. I watched your joust with Cordelier and his headshot… was a fluke.’ Tiberius touched Aeda lightly on the chest and she gasped, feeling as if she was just hit by a lance. ‘Cordelier did not mean it to happen – he aimed for your chest. Initially at least. You ride too stiffly – the head is a hard target because it is small, harder still if it’s a moving target.’

     

                   He tapped her visor.

     

                   ‘With how you ride you can see the point; you have more time to react to it unlike the rest of us. Move your shield, turn your body – something.’

     

                   ‘Thank you for the advice,’ Aeda bowed her head. ‘I just hope I can make use of it.’

     

                   ‘Worry not. I’m sure-‘

     

                   ‘Master Tiberius!’ a voice cried out.

     

                   Tiberius turned around and frowned. ‘Damn, they’ve found me.’ They being his lancebearer still dressed in a drab, unadorned tunic. Aeda cocked an eyebrow; did House Symmachus have arms?

     

                   ‘Marius!’ Tiberius drawled. ‘So, you have found me.’

     

                   ‘And so I did, Master Tiberius,’ the lancebearer said, huffing. ‘Come, you have to prepare yourself for the next tilt and pray that you’re ready.’

     

                   ‘Marius is right, I should be preparing myself.’ Tiberius waved at Aeda. ‘Fortune be with you Martellus and that we’d be able to break a few lances together!’

     

                   ‘Fortune be with you too,’ she said but by then his lancebearer had herded him back to his tent. Aeda stole one last glance and uttered a quick prayer. Tiberius was easy on the eyes but she knew better than to let anything more happen. Imperial Knight Houses don’t marry into one another – especially not the heirs.

     

                   The herald climbed to the viewing stand, scroll in hand. ‘By order of the Grandmaster and the Knight-Commander: joust shall resume immediately!’

     

                   The crowd cheered. The trumpets blared. Aeda blinked. Oh no…

     

                   ‘Sicart Courcelles,’ he began. ‘Second son and squire to Sir Gerard Courcelles, Junior Lancer in the Band of the Taliant Squires. Brien Goldwine, Son of Gerald Goldwine.’

     

                   Oh, cack! Oh, cack! Aeda held onto Certainty’s bridle as she swung herself up onto the saddle. The horse buckled at the sudden shift in weight but he adjusted well enough.

     

                   ‘Balin de Sanguin, Firstborn and First Squire to Sir Godfrey de Sanguin, Champion of the Junior Lancers of Daggerfall.’

     

                   My shield! Aeda leapt off Certainty, mud splashing as she landed and sprinted over to the wood. She slipped her left arm through the strap and closed her hand on the grip. The shield felt strange – she was trained that her armour would make shields redundant in battle but she was not in battle. She was in a joust.

     

                   ‘Aeda of House Martellus, Daughter of Ser Albus Martellus. Come forth and prove your valour!’

     

                   She tried to throw herself over again but this time the length and the bulk of the shield made it difficult, impossible really. She tried again and almost fell backwards, foot ensnared in the stirrup. She saw the others were already gathered at the list. Aeda cursed and tried one more time; success but she knew she did not do this alone – she felt someone pushing her up.

     

                   ‘Father?’ she turned, smiling and hopeful but only saw that it was her brother.

     

                   ‘Artos?’ she said, glowering. ‘Where in Oblivion have you been?’

     

                   ‘Uncle Mark wanted to talk to me,’ he said huffing as he handed Aeda a tourney lance, of fourteen feet long balsa wood ending with a blunted coronal. ‘He said it was important.’ He stopped and looked around.

     

                   ‘What did he say?’

     

                   ‘I… can’t say. He made me swear and-‘

     

                   The trumpet sounded, long and hard. This was her final warning before forfeit.

     

                   ‘We will speak of this later – if I’m awake.’ She put her heels into Certainty’s flank and clicked her teeth, the stallion trotted to the starting line.

     

                   To her side was Goldwine, one of the few Imperial Knight cadets who survived the initial onslaught. Goldwine, arms – a gold grape cluster on a field of brown. She raised her lance in salute and received a salute in return. On the other end was de Sanguin. Like his father, the younger wore blue and silver chequys. He sat on a dapple stallion; the creature was slightly larger than Certainty and it had the temperament to match, jittering about.

     

                   Aeda held her breath and she waited. Waited. Waited.

     

                   Aeda looked on, as everything suddenly went quiet except for that annoying buzzing noise that plagued her. She didn’t feel the stuffiness of her armour, only the weight of her lance and shield. She looked on and on even as the de Sanguin charged, she remained still.

     

                   Unorthodox and rudimentary, a voice said.

     

                   She exhaled.

     

                   But fearless.

     

                   Certainty broke into a slow trot as Aeda brought up her shield. ‘Good boy,’ she whispered, lance brought to point. Soon, the stallion slid into a gallop, Aeda’s teeth rattling at the change of pace. Rider pressed her heels down, tightening her legs and stabilising her body. The colour of the world seemed to wash out, leaving all a shade of grey. She saw her target, not of blue and silver chequys but of unimpressive drab.

     

                   Closer and closer, the approaching coronal threatened her. Like an iron crown, the point threatened to do her harm and perhaps, this time she would not be so lucky. On instinct, she turned her head and –

     

                   No! Eyes open, Aeda. Both eyes open.

     

                   Their lances met, their tips snapping like dry twigs. Aeda tried to keep her aim steady but failed, only earn kiss on de Sanguin’s shield before sliding off to the side. Her foe however was luckier, managing to guide his broken lance into Aeda’s left shoulder. She held on, even as her body jerked violently to her sides, the metal absorbing most of the blow but the torque feeling nearly ripping her in half.

     

                   As she wheeled, Aeda’s back ached and she saw the heralds raising a point for de Sanguin, none for her. She tossed her lance and smiled. Yes, she lost that joust. Yes, her foe was unharmed but Aeda felt a thrill surge through her like a gust of air blown through a hearth. She burned with emotions; anger, fear, excitement – bloodlust.

     

                   She saw it coming. Aeda saw the blow come. She could see it. Right before the lance hit, the world paused for but a second but in that second, she saw it.

     

                   Artos surrendered to Aeda a fresh lance and immediately steered clear of rider and beast. She panted, punching her shield in the air, the fire in her burning too hot for her to contain. ‘Come here!’ she shouted and dug her heels into Certainty. She was fortunate, another second too early and she would be disqualified but the horn sounded right on time.

     

                   At the clash, Aeda saw de Sanguin aiming for her shoulder again. She spun, his lance shattering most of the force dissipating by the manoeuvre but it was still a force made with a man and horse behind it. She could feel few feet starting to lift from her stirrups but she leaned in, taking the blow.

     

                   Steel does not yield so easily!

     

                   Aeda thrusted her lance at de Sanguin’s breastplate, the odd angle tipping the rider over and finally, off his saddle. de Sanguin rolled on the ground, splattering mud and water before coming to a stop. He picked himself up and leaned on the barricade, dazed.

     

                   de Aquilos. I am coming for you!

     

    ***********************

    Previous: Part Seventeen                                                                                                                                     Next: Part Nineteen