D&S: To Be A Knight - Part Twenty

  • The sun loomed over the fields, hot and implacable.


                   Waves of heat dried the water, leaving the air thick and humid. The fort smelt of baked earth and torn grass with no blowing wind to abate the odour. At the jousting lane, riders and horses alike were taut; like an arrow drawn from a mighty bow, just waiting to be loosed. Artos busied himself attending to Certainty while Aeda sat on a box, a hand resting on her helmet. She still wore her doublet even though she could feel the cloth chafing against her skin. Her metals though were undone – they hung free and loose giving her at least some room to breathe.


                   The signal was given and jousters began their run, rumbling the ground. Aeda took a long drink from her cup – just water. Uncle Mark had offered her some beer, told her that it’d calm the nerves but she refused – father never drank before he worked and neither would she. Father knew how to keep his focus, his courage, and his duty.


                   Father was- no, father is strong. Ser Albus Martellus was more than a knight, he was a true Imperial Knight. The Iron Knight was brave, kind, and true – the embodiment of what all who serve should be. Ser Albus was great. Ser Albus was guile. Ser Albus was the one she looked up to all her life – more than looked up to him, Aeda wanted to be him.


                   But Aeda knew that wanting was different from actually being. She looked down in her cup and saw a stupid girl, a face contorting into a frown. She had coal-black moplike hair and her eyes were an unremarkable shade of brown. The shape of her mouth, nose, and ears were just as unremarkable but she did have an ugly angular jaw. Most revoltingly, the girl was dressed in linen and steel. Even rag cloths and buckets were more appropriate if she wanted to play pretend knight.


                   Stupid girl, she thought as she turned the cup over and emptied it on the floor.


                   No, this girl was no knight, no more than a pig dreaming itself a dragon. Yet the girl can dream, couldn’t she? Could she not dream to be a knight? Everyone has the right to dream and why shouldn’t she?


                   But Aeda knew she was lying. She didn’t want to be a knight – she wanted to be Ser Albus Martellus, the hero that kept the monsters away at night. The hero that made her feel safe. The hero… that made her feel weak. So very weak.


                   Looking up to the shoulders of the giant made her feel small. She envied that strength. Hungered that skill. Yearned for that wisdom but whenever she measured and weighed herself, she always came up painfully short. It was like bending ebony metal without a fire or casting sword out of iron – it was impossible.


                   Lances met shields and snapped. Albeaux was good, he had to be to make it this far but now he was barely hanging on. His foe, that bastard Cedric rode with such talent that he might as well be a centaur. It made sense; the creatures did live in High Rock.


                   Jousting. It was more than a sport – it was a rite. One of many that all cadets must pass before they begin training proper as an Imperial Knight. Foot and horseback, sword and lance, axe and shield, hammer and mace; an Imperial Knight who can only fight in one way is considered unarmed. Rain or shine, castle or ditch – this was why it was the Imperial Knights and not Chevaliers were His Imperial Majesty’s Finest; they were willing to do what needed to be done and worry not of things like ‘honour’ and ‘propriety’.


                   But did she have what it takes? She was but a brute who only made it this far because she was lucky. Tiberius however, he was actually good. He was different from Cedric – not of in-born talents but of hard-earned skill. Cedric knew what to do while Tiberius as of honed reflexes. She’d like to see that: a natural uncut diamond versus a blade of well-crafted steel. No competition! Tiberius would-


                   Aeda caught lying to herself again. She knew the truth. Tiberius Symmachus was a falsehood, there was no Tiberius. There was only Titus, no, Crown-Prince Titus Mede, wasn’t her friend, he was heir to the throne. And she was to ride against the princeling?


                   She stood up, rolling her arms before they became stiff, and walked to Certainty. The horse snorted in greeting and also in complaint of the saddle he wore.


                   ‘Artos,’ she said. ‘Loosen that belt. Yes, that one. I know what’ll happen but just loosen it before Certainty bites someone.’


                   The crowd let out a hearty cheer when the squires met at the middle and gave each other a Breton salute. Pretty, like in the pageants. Everyone seemed oblivious that the Crown-Prince was in their midst by the way they behaved…. That or they merely pretended that he wasn’t riding incognito.


                   ‘Hang in there,’ she whispered, scratching Certainty’s ear. ‘A little while longer and then we can all go home. I’ll personally give you a bucket of whiskey and apples. Two apples if Gorggnak isn’t looking.’


                   The stallion snorted.


                   ‘You’d like that, don’t you?’


                   ‘How about you don’t,’ said a voice from behind.


                   Aeda jumped and turned around, her metals clinking on one another. Uncle Mark hobbled to her, Tarkus at his side giving him support. Aeda tried to bow but Stout Knight beckoned her up before her knee touched the ground.


                   ‘You’ll spoil the damned beast if you do,’ he continued. ‘And I don’t just mean his temperament. I mean you could end up making him fat!’


                   Aeda raised an eyebrow as he laughed.


                   ‘Uncle Mark,’ she said, saluting. ‘Tarkus. To what do I owe the pleasure?’


                   ‘I wanted to check up on you, girl. See if you’re alright.’


                   Aeda nodded. ‘Yes, ser. A little nervous but I’ll manage.’


                   ‘Good. Good, I suppose.’


                   No one said a word after that. Uncle Mark smacked his lips while Tarkus looked at his boots. Aeda cleared her throat and Artos appeared. Not another word until the horns bellowed.


                   ‘Artos,’ Uncle Mark said. ‘Why don’t you and Tarkus go fetch some water for the horse?’


                   Artos bowed his head and ran along. Tarkus followed.


                   ‘Cack, never was good at this nor am I at dancing around the firepit.’ He pointed at finger at her. ‘Look, girl – do you have any idea who you’ll be riding against next?’


                   Aeda bit her lip. ‘Tiberius of House Symmachus.’


                   He scowled. ‘Don’t play dumb with me, girl. Like your father, I know you’re both smarter than that… that and you’re both terrible liars.’


                   Aeda looked away. ‘Titus of House Mede, Crown-Prince to the Imperial Throne. Yes, I know whom I’m to ride against.’


                   Uncle Mark snorted. ‘And yet you’re still going to meet him in the list?’


                   ‘Yes,’ she answered, a wince peering through the cracks.


                   Uncle Mark sputtered for a few moments before he massaged his temples. ‘Oh gods,’ he said. ‘Why did you have to curse me with these hard headed Martellus! All the same, the whole lot of you!’ He scowled. ‘I mean, why? Why girl? Why are you doing this? Are you daft or something? You don’t look daft and-‘ He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.


                   ‘You do know what will happen if you wound him don’t you?’ he continued, this time slowly. ‘Or even if you, touch wood, kill him? Do you know what they’ll do to you and your family? Cack, what they’ll do to me and mine just by the association!’


                   ‘Yes,’ she found the courage to answer. ‘I do.’


                   ‘Then why would you bloody do it?’


                   Aeda sighed. ‘It’s what father would’ve done.’


                   ‘Girl I like you and I know your father Albus and you’re no Albus.’


                   Aeda felt sick but she kept it in.


                   Uncle Mark paused, noticing the look in her eyes. ‘Look you- you do what you want. Just promise me you won’t do something stupid. You hear me?’ he said as he turned to leave. Artos and Tarkus were right on time with that bucket.


                   ‘Yes, ser,’ she managed.


                   Uncle Mark sighed. ‘Talos… Talos ride with you in the lists.’


                   Wordlessly, Aeda returned to her box. Across the yard, the jousters lowered their lance and began the final charge. Rider and beast soon smashed against one another and in the blink of an eye – the Young Eagle seized victory. Aeda wasn’t even sure what happened, only that Albeaux leaned on to his horse, lance unbroken while Cedric lifted his visor and raised his hand up high. The crowd began chant his accursed name.


                   Cedric! Cedric! Cedric!


                   The herald marked two points for Cedric while Albeaux scored none. Cedric wins, easily if Aeda might add and would move on to the finals and have a chance at glory. Aeda picked up her helmet and glared at the reflection.


                   I declare that I shall never rest, the thought appearing in her mind. I declare that I shall never rest until all will witness Cedric de Aquilos be shamed, be beaten, and be humbled by I.


                   Humbled by I.


                   ‘Damn hubris!’ Aeda spat as she threw her helmet into the ground. Artos jumped and Certainty stomped.


                   ‘Aeda,’ Artos said. ‘What’s wrong?’


                   ‘I can’t do it,’ she said, the ringing in her ears returning. ‘I can’t beat Cedric! I just can’t!’


                   ‘Tiberius,’ the herald began. ‘Tiberius Symmachus!’


                   Aeda fell to her knees. Trembling fingers digging into the ground. ‘I’m not strong enough. I can’t do it!’


                   She gagged for breathing became difficult again. She coughed and heaved but nothing came to. Artos grabbed her arm and towed her to her feet. She leaned on her brother, still choking on air.


                   What would father do?


                   ‘Aeda,’ Artos said, he too shaking. ‘Do you need a healer?’


                   ‘Aeda Martellus,’ words that hung in the air. ‘Daughter of Ser Albus Martellus. Come forth and prove your valour!’


                   ‘Wait here,’ Artos said. ‘I’ll call for a healer!’


                   ‘No!’ said, pushing him aside. ‘I’m fine- help me don my armour.’


                   Artos stood there frozen at the command but his training took over and he buckled her swiftly. By the time he was done, Tiberius had trotted to the northern end of the list and was ready. Aeda took a deep breath and set her helmet in place. She wiped away the clods in her visor before swinging herself onto the saddle. As she waited for her lance and shield, Aeda felt eyes on her. Unfit. Embarrassment. Disgrace!


                   Aeda trotted to the southern end. A hundred yards away, Tiberius tipped his lance in salute but she didn’t respond, her grip merely tightened as her body seized up. Mind the list you fool! Tiberius is an Imperial cadet just like you! She calmed for a moment at that thought before stiffening further.


                   Tiberius didn’t exist. Her heart reminded her that she rode against the Crown-Prince. A man destined to greatness. Who was she to ride against him?


                   A horn sounded and the horses moved.


                   Aeda pressed her heels, and cradled her lance. The Crown-Prince was picking up momentum, step by powerful step with his lance coming right for her. Some of her own instincts returned; the clear sky, the dust, the heat, Cedric – vanished. There was only her, Certainty, and the Crown-Prince. Now were the spurs. Certainty broke into a run.


                   Closer and closer. Aeda could make out the details on Tiberius’ armour. It was of simple design and it bore no decorations yet it was of good steel. His armour had suffered much today, the metal dotted in scratches and dents. Tiberius- no. He’s not Tiberius….


                   Aeda gasped and she felt Certainty recoiled beneath her. Her steed barely on his legs from the terrible blow. She herself could barely breathe and a dozen heartbeats later, Aeda felt a sharp pain in her chest and her shield arm being pulled down. The Crown-Prince had struck her hard and she didn’t even notice it until it was well and done.


                   They wheeled around, lance unbroken and Aeda shrank at the weight of judgement upon her. Even the Crown-Prince seemed to judge her from the glance he gave as met in their pass. Artos climbed up and checked on her, asking her if she wanted to wave the flag. Her mind practically barked in agreement but her body moved on its own, her head shaking in denial.


                   What is happening? If father were here, he would-


                   The next run had begun.


                   This one however was different. Even as Certainty trotted, even as the dragon swooped in, Aeda did not lower her lance. Both eyes open, the thought repeated in her head. Both eyes open. Both eyes open!   


                   The Crown-Prince struck her by the shield this time with such a force that made her body jerked to her side, nearly but not enough to fell her. I’m just a quintain. Aeda felt a burst of nausea. Not even that. Wheeling again, Aeda’s shield arm was twitching and her other still held onto her lance. I am less than that, quintains at least fight back.


                   The crowd began to boo – the Bretons anyway. Such overt displays were too much for the Imperials yet they disapproved all the same, their glowers cut her apart like a thousand knives. A dishonoured’s death. Appropriate.


                   At the midpoint, the Crown-Prince raised a hand, hailing her. The princeling, lifted his visor and smiled.


                   ‘Martellus,’ he said saluting. Aeda didn’t answer.


                   ‘I take that you know who I am?’




                   ‘I see. To be honest I will say that I’m disappointed. I truly did wish to break a few lances with you. I’ve always dreamed to be a knight but that is a dream all impossible to me. For you see, I’m heir to the throne – thus I’m too important to indulge in such petty sport. Too important to work for my own achievements.’


                   That pleasant smile contorted into a rueful one.


                   ‘This might just be the last time I’ll ever joust. Father will no doubt keep me on an even shorter leash for this… and tan my hide.’ He winced at that.


                   The Crown-Prince lowered his visor. ‘To you I only say this: Glory.’ He saluted again and trotted to his end.


                   Aeda felt shame. Regret. The feeling grew tenfold when she saw Artos preparing the flag. She waved him away and curled her fingers on her lance. He deserves a fight at least. He deserves the right to a good fight.


                   He cradled her lance before the heralds gave the signal and bolted the moment they did.


                   Aeda matched her motions to her steed, letting herself become one with Certainty; not as rider and horse but as a single force to be reckoned with like a hurricane or a hammer. The red haze returned and so did the buzzing noise. Twenty yards, Aeda raised her lance, the point to bear on the centre of the princeling’s chest. A good target, she thought. He’d ought to feel this one!



                   Ten yards. She could see the whites of his eyes. This was her moment. Her only advantage… there! The princeling started to raise his chin. He’ll be blind. He won’t see-


                   She caught a glimpse of the princeling’s face. He winked at her.


                   Her point struck home. The recoil was exhilarating, as did the princeling’s answer; his coronal found the centre of her shield and found it hard enough to embed its tip and it still carried enough energy to knock the wind out of her.


                   Aeda thrusted her shattered lance up high and cheered. At least it wasn’t a washout! Why did he wink at me though?


                   The crowds answered her question.


                   Aeda! Aeda! Aeda!


                   Aeda grew pale, sick even when the chanting grew louder, piercing even. She counted in her head; the score should’ve been a three to one – the Crown-Prince had enough to win by point. Unless…


                   She turned and saw the princeling picking himself from the ground. He gave her aa quick nod before chasing after his horse.


                   This isn’t right, she thought. This is wrong.


                   Aeda! Aeda! Aeda!


                   She stared dully ahead; her body numb.


                   She won. She was going to meet Cedric at the finals. Now she had her chance at retribution. Her mind lurched; she should’ve been happy. A win was a win after all. She was after all, an Imperial Knight cadet – she had the will to do what needed to be done and she had done it. A grand victory. She had defeated the Crown-Prince – not many can lay claim to that feat.


                   Yet why did it feel so hollow?



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