His squire fastened the last buckle of his armor, then handed Lucien his helmet. “Ready for the joust, my lord.”
Lucien smiled as he tucked his helm under his arm. “How many times have I told you, Brice? You can just call me Lucien.”
Brice ducked his head, flushing red to match his hair. “I’m sorry, Lucien. Mama told me to be respectful.” The squire hesitated, then asked, “How do you think you’ll do?”
“Well, I hope,” Lucien replied. For five years, he’d been competing in tournaments across Vlidious, and training under Kadir for most of that time. He bested Lord Arthurius in his second year and had gone to win many more tournaments since. “But I have stiff competition. I doubt I’ll win.”
“I’ll say a prayer that you do,” Brice promised.
“Thank you. Darkfire is ready for me?”
Brice beamed. “Of course! He’s more excited than you, I think.”
“He always has loved a joust.” Lucien picked up the apple he’d brought with him. “Let’s not keep him waiting.”
The competitors had prepared in the barracks, located a short walk from the stables. Squires bustled around the stalls, putting the last touches on the horses. As Lucien walked down the aisle, he heard a deep snort and the stirring of straw. He couldn’t help but beam as he reached his horse’s stall. “Hello, Darkfire.”
Darkfire cut an elegant figure no matter the situation. Black as jet and massive, the stallion carried himself with more pride and grace than any other creature Lucien had met. His gait was elegance and power combined, and his long mane and tail streamed like banners when he galloped.
For the joust, Darkfire wore light armor to protect his face, neck, and haunches from any broken pieces of the lances. To strike a horse in a joust was a dishonorable and punishable act, but Lucien felt more secure in having some protection for his mount. Darkfire had been further decorated in a black silk caparison trimmed with icy blue. Gray wolves howled on either haunch. As Lucien greeted him, his soft lips mouthed at the apple in his palm. In a series of swift bites, Darkfire devoured his ritual treat.
“You know what today is,” Lucien said, stroking the velvet soft nose. “You’re probably the readiest of everyone.” Darkfire lived for the tilts of a joust, the chance to race down the rail. The great black stallion had spooked a few opponent’s horses in his wild plunge down the tilt.
Soon they were called to go to the list field. Lucien put on his helmet and mounted his horse. Darkfire joined the parade without hesitation. They had barely left the palace when a smaller horse pranced to Darkfire’s side. Astride it sat Kadir, who grinned out from beneath his pointed helmet, the scarlet plume fluttering from the top. “I see your stallion is as ready as ever.”
“Always,” Lucien replied on a laugh.
Their horses were entirely opposite. Where Darkfire was strength and power, Kadir’s gray horse was light, swift, and agile. Its prancing legs seemed almost too delicate for the body, small as it was. Its face was its oddest feature, dished slightly inward, but the effect was overall charming. It was far better suited to the plains and deserts of Malkasar than Darkfire ever could be, and its swift agility made it a fine horse for the joust.
Kadir’s armor for the joust was made of plates, though it was far lighter than that of the other knights. It allowed him to be agile enough to dodge some blows and keep him light for his smaller steed. For the melee, he would wear his typical chainmail and plate armor instead.
“It should be an interesting joust,” Kadir observed.
Lucien looked around at the rest of the riders. The other Vlidian lords were equally as at ease as himself, all intimately familiar with jousts. Some of the foreign nobles looked relatively at ease as well. Most interesting was the sight of Prince Rasmus, who sat stiff and tense upon a horse.
“The Bosnan army doesn’t have a cavalry,” Kadir said beside him. “Rasmus likely has rarely, if ever, jousted. He won’t do well at all.”
“And what about Delu? How do you think she’ll do?”
“Likely not well, either. Jousting is uncommon in Bemmed, as well. Their tournaments are hand-to-hand combat. Melee, individual, wrestling.”
“We have a real chance of winning this part,” Lucien said. “It might be our only success. We need to make it count.”
“I was going to say the same thing. I wish you luck, Lucien.”
Lucien returned the sentiment before Kadir left his side, falling into line behind him just in time for them to enter the tiltyard. As the parade of jousters entered, the gathered spectators began to cheer. Lucien skimmed a glance around the arena, noting where commoners and gentry sat. Esmeralda sat with the rest of her family and court in the center of the grandstand, in the covered area from which great banners hung depicting the Bornesher swan.
The competitors paraded around the tiltyard, stopping in a line in the center and facing the royal seats. They all rose their arms in salute, and King Renard answered in kind. So dismissed, they trotted out of the list to their designated wings. Lucien stopped his horse beneath his own banner where Brice waited.
“You’re third in the first set,” Brice informed him. “You’ll ride against Lord Guillen.”
“A fine match,” Lucien admitted. “Who does Kadir start against?”
“Princess Delu. A fine match also, as far as horses go,” Brice remarked, gesturing towards a banner depicting a roaring lion.
Delu looked comfortable on her light horse, but the heavy jousting armor sat ungainly on her, and she fumbled some with the lance. It was certainly no act to put Kadir in false confidence. She knew Kadir to be a fair and experienced jouster, had likely seen him joust even. But it was a fair start, given each rode horses smaller and lighter than the rest of the competitors. Kadir was guaranteed to pass, and Delu to halt.
A herald stepped up in the royal box, blowing on his trumpet to silence the crowd. “Welcome,” he called out, “to the Tournament of the Swans! This year, our contestants are competing for the hand of our Princess Esmeralda. We start today with the joust!” A raucous cheer rose in response.
“Our rules are simple,” the herald continued once quiet fell. “Riders automatically win if they dismount their opponent. If there is no dismount, points are awarded by the breaking of the land. Points are tracked by flags.” A series of flags on the two sides of the arena flew up, white on the left, black on the right. “Whoever has the most points after three tilts is the winner. Today’s points will be added to those in the melee as well to determine a champion. Riders are disqualified for injuring a rider by the strike itself, or for striking a horse.
“With these rules made clear – let the joust begin!”
With another roar of excitement and flourish of trumpets, the competition began.
The first round started with Lord Arthurius against Prince Rasmus. Lucien hated to watch but could not look away. Rasmus clearly rode a borrowed horse, given the way the horse reacted to his orders. Yet the horse knew its job, and so it raced down the tilt when the trumpet sounded. Rasmus’ form was fair, but Arthurius had experience. Both lances struck, but Arthurius hit true and hard. The Bosnan prince toppled from the horse. He landed unscathed and rose with decent humor, clearly aware of his own disadvantage.
Kithral and Delu followed, an equally unpleasant display. Kadir flew down the tilt, lance perfectly poised. His strike came well down Delu’s half of the tilt. Delu fell without even landing a blow on Kadir. The crowd, many of which recognized the former champion, cheered wildly.
Lucien and Lord Guillen were called. Lucien pulled down his visor and took his lance. Darkfire pranced up to the tilt without any guidance. At the opposite end, Guillen’s horse snorted and shook its head, while Darkfire remained still and poised, ears pricked and head high.
The trumpet bugled. Darkfire plunged forward, racing down the tilt. Lucien did not have to steer; the stallion knew its job and raced towards their opponent.
Both lords lowered their lances as they approached, each with perfect form. Each lance shattered, but both Lucien and Guillen remained in their saddles. Guillen, whose lance tip only broke, received two points. Lucien’s shattered lance received three.
They trotted back to their squires, who waited at their respective ends of the tilt. Lucien grasped his next lance and readied himself once more.
On the second pass, Lucien succeeded in unhorsing Guillen, advancing himself to the next heat. He cared little for the other riders. He already knew who the last three riders would be: Arthurius, Kadir, and himself.
The second heat was more difficult, with an odd number of riders. Kadir helped to prove his prediction, as they each eliminated the other riders. It was determined that Kadir and Arthurius would then ride against each other.
Lucien did not know who to root for. On one hand, a selfish hand, he wanted Arthurius to win. Lucien knew he was the superior jouster. Arthurius’ bitterness over Lucien’s defeat of him from three years back fueled his pride. To face him and defeat him in this contest, one even more important than a trivial tournament, would prove without doubt that Lucien was the superior knight of them.
Yet on the other hand, he wanted to ride against Kadir, a competition between friends. Doubtless they would laugh about it after, perhaps even embrace on the tilt to congratulate whichever of them won.
Kadir had an advantage from his second run, where he had acquired more points. Arthurius had an advantage of his own in his horse, which stood nearly as tall as Darkfire. His lance, able to angle downward, would be primed to unhorse Kadir.
The impulses battled as the pair aligned at the tilt. They clashed as the horses flew to each other. Kadir’s mount raced with unmatched speed, flying towards Arthurius. The lances both shattered, and neither was unhorsed. The crowd screamed as each earned two points.
The second tilt. The horses flew, sand flying from under their hooves. Kadir’s blow struck with violence, shattering half his lance. Arthurius tilted to one side as he flew down the rest of the tilt – but he righted himself before he could fall. The crowd howled as Kadir took the lead, chanting for their past champion.
The third heat. Lucien felt his heart twist as they galloped together. And as he watched, he saw Arthurius tilt his lance just so. It shattered against Kadir, the force of the blow tilting him back and to the side. For a breathless moment Kadir seemed to catch himself on the high back of the saddle. But then he slipped further back, and as he lost his balance, he twisted himself to fall sideways, away from his horse’s thundering hooves. He landed in the soft sand as the crowd shrieked in surprise.
Kadir rolled immediately to his feet, shaking sand from his plume. As Arthurius paraded his victory, Kadir whistled; his horse wheeled back to him, slowing to a canter. Kadir grasped the saddle as it raced by and swung himself up without disturbing the horse’s flight and returned to his berth next to Lucien.
“Consider it a gift,” he said as he jumped down. “Beat him for me, won’t you?”
Lucien nodded before slamming down his visor. He approached the tilt with Brice at his side. His squire handed him his first lance as Arthurius took his.
While Kadir’s round had made his heart sick with anxiety, calm filled him for his own. He knew Arthurius’ style. Against a seasoned opponent, he savored the contest, waiting until the third round to deliver his hardest strike – just as he had done with Kadir. The key to defeating Arthurius was to either stay in your saddle and focus on points, or unhorse him in the first round.
Lucien decided his course just as the trumpet blew.
Darkfire flew forward, caparison billowing around his powerful legs. Lucien noted his opponent’s posture. Arthurius loomed in his saddle, poised for violence. Pride had the better of him; he would unhorse Lucien at the soonest opportunity.
Lucien tightened his knees around Darkfire’s flanks and lowered his lance.
The force of the impact to his chest rocked him, but he held on. So did Arthurius, though he listed a touch to the side. They swung back around, tied in their points and their desire to best the other.
The second round raced forward, and again their lances shattered. Neither wavered this time. Lucien grabbed his final lance, teeth gritted behind his helm.
The trumpet bugled and they plunged forward again. Lucien urged Darkfire faster, galloping full speed down the tilt. As he prepared for impact, he thrust into the strike. The lance shattered apart, splinters flying. Arthurius flew sideways, his own lance skidding off Lucien’s shoulder, just failing to break. As they flew past each other, Arthurius fumbled and then fell into the sand.
The crowd, surely almost hoarse from the shrieking, grew to a frenzy. Darkfire slowed to a trot. The stallion preened under the applause, neck arched and tail flagged as he basked in vanity. Lucien raised his shattered lance as they took an obligatory lap around the arena. Lucien halted the stallion at the royal seat. He pushed back his visor before saluting the royal family with his lance.
Princess Esmeralda rose from her seat and approached the rail. In her hand she held a pink rose, perhaps the very same one from the garden. “Congratulations, Lord Alane,” she said. She bent over the rail, extending the rose to him.
Lucien rose up in the saddle, hand clumsy in his gauntlet, but he managed to catch the stem and grasp it in his fingers. Esmeralda’s hand brushed over his gauntlet, as much a treasure as the favor awarded to him. The young lord lifted the bloom to his nose to admire the sweet perfume.
“You are the champion of the joust,” the princess continued, her voice lowered for only him to hear. “Tonight, you may sit beside me at dinner, if you wish.”
“I would,” he agreed without hesitation. How could he refuse? Even if he wasn’t in a contest, he would have accepted an invitation to dine with her, to have that chance to speak to her more. Their conversations so far had revealed a keen intelligence, and he knew without a doubt he would enjoy the chance to know her better.
“Then I shall see you tonight,” she promised. She straightened, raising her hands to silence the crowd. “We shall continue with the melee tomorrow,” she announced. This dismissal was clear, and the spectators began to filter from the stadium. Lucien spun Darkfire about and returned to his berth.
Kadir awaited him there, and as soon as he had dismounted, the Malkasar champion fell upon him in a fiercely proud embrace. “You were incredible! Brilliant! Arthurius can’t claim to be better than you, now.”
“Thank the goddess for small favors,” Lucien agreed. He glanced across the field to where Arthurius stood, throwing off his armor as his squire tried to help him. In contrast, Lucien held still, letting Brice unbuckle him from his suit. “I just hope he doesn’t take it personally.”
Kadir scoffed, putting an arm around Lucien’s shoulders as the last of his armor came off. “Wounded pride is all. He’ll get over it.”
As Lucien let himself be steered away, he glanced a final time at Lord Arthurius. Stripped from his armor, Lucien could see the lord’s face flushed in anger. The elder’s glare pierced his back as they left him behind. And Lucien wondered if perhaps this time his friend was wrong.