Chapter 10:

The Tournament

The Knight of the Golden Rose

It was scheduled for high noon when the sun was blazing and Sir Gawain was said to be at full power, though everyone was sure there was no Gawain to be found at Lord Barrymont's tournament. On the days leading up to the event, I saw a procession of brightly-dressed lords and ladies steadily enter through the town's elaborate stone entryway where the local drunkards congregated. They then settled in the manor's infinite guest chambers, each with its own little desk and pink bed curtains.

Some particularly loud and obnoxious women marvelled at Anselm's physique, his well-toned limbs, his rectangular face, and his cheeks with the slightest hint of baby fat. They asked who he was representing. He simply said Lord Barrymont, for he has given us food and shelter.

Streams of red and blue banners were draped across the tournament arena, which was filled with such a dense mass of people it must have looked like a human-colored forest from a bird's eye. Peddlers ran around, singing and selling their gingerbread, waffles, and pretzels, toasty scents that once again brought me back to my father's bakery and his beautifully-glazed creations, melted sugar and butter dripping down the sides.

A boy in torn pants and bare feet was sparring with another child with feral eyes. They were using twisted sticks they found on the ground, which were clearly not very sturdy, for a pile of twigs lay between them. Another group of children was playing with a blunt sword, tossing the rusted metal between each other like a ball game. I hope the blade did not land in their eyes. I had seen many children back in the village suffer gruesome scars from seemingly harmless play.

Poor John who can never walk again after falling from the tree and little Elaine whose hands were permanently disfigured from some boys who were curious how long human flesh could be held over a fire!

I had Anselm buy me a doughnut, which we shared after he took off his heavy helmet. I wiped away the tiny flakes of sugar on his mouth. I couldn't imagine how hot it was in that shining metal suit of armor under the sweltering sun. It was painful to even touch him, for the burning steel hissed under my flesh. We attracted a small crowd around us since Anselm's clunkily put-together armor sounded like an armful of buckets falling on top of each other each time we walked.

The sword he carried was specially handcrafted by our village blacksmith, who claimed it was made from iron mined over three hundred years ago. I lit a fire on top of Blackwood and Rowan wood (for it is said that those trees contain the magic of the fairies), heated the sword on top of the flames, and muttered some incantations for strength that I found in Asfutus' book. I showed the finished product to Anselm and told him that the sword would now never break.

Using the same method, I enchanted his thick blue shield bearing the emblem of Lord Barrymont, who he received all his equipment from and whose army of page boys tended to his every need. After the heat treatment, I rubbed leaves of the Elder tree over the shield, letting the raw green juices dribble down and evaporate. I told Anselm that the shield would now offer greater protection.

My knight graciously accepted my gifts and told me that my magic was the strongest and that he was sure to be the greatest at the tournament this way. I was so happy to finally be useful instead of jabbering on and on as I usually do. The thought that it would be my own magic that helped Anselm win made me feel like I was ever so slightly closer to that legendary utopia I always dreamed about.

When it was time for the tournament to start, a group of ladies with pointed hats ushered Anselm into the main battle area, leaving me to watch alone on the sidelines as I always did when it came to real business.

Hundreds of knights in blinding armor dotted the field, each jostling each other, impatient on their horses. Sweat seeped through the joints in the metal and fell to the ground, watering the thirsty weeds that grew in patches along the ground. Some experimental knights shunned the armor and simply donned light leather protection, perhaps hoping that their more traditional comrades would be too encumbered to land any blows.

They all had their swords out, for spears were only allowed in jousting battles because the range advantage of the spear was too great. The fighters were divided into two groups, and each side had their own variation of Lord Barymont's emblem proudly displayed on a huge banner.

I could smell the sense of pride that each knight had in representing their lord in one of the greatest displays of chivalry of the age. Their heads were held high and their backs were straight like an arrow, the opposite of the peasants in the field with neck bent low and spine curved, hunched over and hobbling.

Lord Barrymont looked over his festival from his high box, either excitedly waiting for the outcome or already certain of a particular group's victory. His wife was beside him in a brilliant dress. They were both extremely self-assured and proud, but they were not rude, as arrogant people often are. Lord Barrymont spoke of events like he had already foreseen (and potentially brought about) the result and imbued you with the same feeling of clairvoyance.

He had a magnetic personality that was able to draw even the greatest doubters into his sphere. I understood how the townspeople had switched from the old Lord Barrymont to the new Lord Barrymont so quickly, even if the transition was through bloodshed. His was the type of rule that you felt would surely make your life better, at least if you were not a farmer.

To my left and right, I saw the lords and ladies that had arrived at the village in days past. They were snacking on various dried jerkies and fruit. This was the moment they had travelled those many days for! A life of leisure punctuated by extreme visceral experiences. The nobles had neither the crops nor the animals to worry about and likely thought life dreadfully dull at home with their servants and their food that was delivered straight to their mouths.

And what of the knights? Was their entire training just to be simple entertainment for their lords? Vows of chivalry and honor nothing more than a bedtime story? Or did they wish to die a glorious death in battle, forever remembered in magnificent murals on manor house walls? After all, it was better to live like a wildfire that burned bright and died fast instead of the careful flame whose weak, smoldering embers refused to go out.

What did Anselm want from knighthood?

The trumpets blared and an explosion of cries erupted in my ears. The battle had started!

Several knights immediately vaulted out of the jumbling mass. They were the ones with the most proven battle prowess and had the most prestige. They nimbly guided their fleet-footed horses and weaved through skirmishes like a snake, striking at foolish knights who were not paying attention but sometimes also knights who were already embroiled in battle, which was a very evil tactic. Lord Barrymont looked displeased with such a blatant disregard of chivalric values.

In contrast, there were other knights who, heavy with strength, stood their ground and preferred challengers to come to them. Every blow from them struck like lightning onto their unwitting opponents, who crashed into the ground in defeat.

After a couple of hours, scores of bodies and limbs and metal scraps littered the battlefield. Specks of blood fell to the ground like rain. The defeated men were not dead, mind you. It was actually rather dishonourable to kill the foe after a battle won, for what could an act of murder of an undefended knight prove except basic barbarianism?

Some horses that had not been trained well even fled the arena, leaving their rider at a permanent disadvantage.

Every time a knight fell, shouts of jubilation and moans of defeat met each other. People were betting on the outcome of the battle and of individual knights. I put two copper coins into Anselm's victory against a particularly burly fellow.

Anselm, against the expectation of many, was doing rather well for his relative inexperience. He felled several knights larger than him and won many a sword battle. Although he was tall, he was also leaner than the other fighters, giving him a slight speed advantage. His horse, also a gift of Lord Barrymont because he had gotten too attached to our own travel horse, was powerful and fast, probably owing to its extensive training and prestigious pedigree.

Soon Anselm was facing those lightning knights from earlier, who had destroyed all the easy pickings. A small-headed man with a thin mustache charged at him. The muscles of his horse's legs rippled with speed.

"Who are you, boy?"

Anselm blocked the surprise attack from the foreign knight at the last second.

"I am nobody yet, but I will soon become a knight of the king himself."

Because the brooch was too precious to bring into battle, he had the royal golden rose printed on his shield alongside the manor's lion head emblem.

The knight saw the extra insignia. "You fraud! How dare you claim to represent the king?"

He started another barrage of blows.

"I swear it is the truth!" Anselm held up his shield just as a sword was about to cut his neck clean off. "I will prove it after this battle!"

"You will not, for I shall slay you right here!"

With a roar, the opponent cut down Anselm's poor horse, who now lay dead on the ground. Anselm slashed at his attacker's horse in retaliation. Now both men were horseless and battling on foot.

"Now it will be a contest of pure swordsmanship!"

Sparks jumped every time their blades met each other. Up, down, left, right, the strikes came from every conceivable angle. Anselm was barely able to dodge, and tufts of boyish hair were chopped off. Slowly, Anselm was being backed into a wall by that machine of a man.

However, the other knight took a slightly wrong step into a stone and momentarily stopped his advance. Anselm immediately saw the opening and began his counterattack, putting the dazed knight on the defensive.

Suddenly, crack! Just as Anselm was about to deal a fatal blow, the other fighter lifted up his shield and sent the tip of Anselm's sword flying, leaving only half of the three hundred year old iron in his hands.

My stomach plummeted. It seems that my spell didn't work. Was it because of my failure to follow the book's careful instructions? Or was it simply a lack of ability on my part.

I felt the hot flush of shame as I thought about Anselm's look of pure elation when I handed him the sword and his overbounding, unfounded confidence in my skills. Why did he place so much trust in such a foolish girl?

If Anselm died in this arena, I would never be able to show my face again. I would give up all my stupid ideas and live out the rest of my life as a nun in permanent disgrace and repentance.

With a smirk at the evidently third rate weapon, the quick-footed knight bashed Anselm in the face with the shield and knocked him to the ground. Luckily, there was a sword right beside him where he had fallen, so he took the bloodied weapon, quietly asked for forgiveness from the dead knight that he had just stolen from, and slashed his accuser right across the eyes, causing a great gurgle of pain.

Now that the other knight was rendered blind, Anselm struggled back up and tackled him just like he did with the old man. He cut across his arms and legs so that the opposing knight was unable to stand up. Anselm put the tip of his sword to his opponent's neck.

Despite the violent underpinnings, it was actually rare for knights to outright murder each other in these tournaments. The occasional deaths were usually caused by accident or blood loss, but not from a vindictive winner. Indeed, executions were only reserved for those who had broken the chivalric code of conduct, those undeserved of being called knights and thus were no different than a common criminal.

"It's my win," Anselm said.

"That it is," the other knight replied. "Since you have defeated me today, I will accept that you are truly of royal blood and fit to represent the king."

Anselm stood up. "Thank you for the fight. I have become stronger because of it."

It was the perfect chivalric battle. Both sides had performed admirably and respected the honest result. I could imagine Lord Barrymont up in his seat clapping his hands at such a marvellous spectacle of manhood. The ladies must have gasped at the blood, but they too in the end enjoyed the surprise defeat of an experienced fighter by the mysterious boy who came from the south and claimed to be the king's very own.

Yet Anselm seemed uneasy, even when his victory was so celebrated. Did he not like the attention? Or was the battle not to his taste in its fairness?

The fallen knight lay there, self-assured that he had performed to the best of his abilities while exhausted Anselm with his stolen sword and battered shield left to take on the remaining competitors.

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi