Knight of Swans
The armor felt familiar, lucky almost perhaps, as Brice helped him prepare for the melee. Lucien had won the joust, and he was certainly skilled in sword fighting. There was a true chance he could win, that he could become the Knight of Swans.
Preparations for the melee were unlike that of the joust. Instead of all crowding in the stable and parading together, each knight stood secluded in a small chamber under the stadium seats. Their squires would help them into their armor, they would pick up their weapon of choice, and they would wait for the trumpets.
Unlike his jousting armor, Lucien opted to wear a lighter suit of plate mail. The impact of swords, axes, or spears was far lighter than the shattering lances, and the lighter weight was essential for mobility and speed in the melee. The plates were dark, characteristic of the steel crafted in Theoria, and his only decoration was his family sigil etched into the breastplate.
“Are you ready, sir? Or, Lucien, I mean,” Brice stammered out. “Sorry.”
Lucien gave the boy’s red hair a fond tussle. “I think I am. As ready as I can be, that is.”
“I’ll say another prayer for you,” the boy said, rubbing a last bit of polish on his armor. “It seemed to work last time.”
“It did. You’re a fine squire, Brice.”
The boy flushed again, this time solely from pleasure. “And you’re the finest lord I could hope to serve.”
The trumpet blew then. Lucien picked up his helmet once more and slipped it on. The visor came down with a clash. Brice opened the door to the chamber, and he went down the hall.
The sunlight at the end of it was almost blinding, but Lucien did not shield his eyes. A few blinks and he could see clearly. The tilt field of yesterday had been altered, strewn with boulders and dips and rises. An electric tingle worked across Lucien’s body, a telltale sign of powerful fairy magic. The landscape change was a crafty illusion, real and not real all at once. Such was the power of the fae.
Lucien skimmed his sights around the arena. The other nine suitors were spaced evenly around the arena edge. A few spaces to his left, he recognized the scarlet sash and pointed helm of Kadir. He caught only another glimpse of another suitor, the Bosnan prince just two spaces away to his right, before the trumpet sounded again to start the melee.
The rasp of steel echoed in the air among the roaring cheers. In seconds, the orderly ring descended into chaos. The suitors plunged at each other immediately, weapons drawn. Lucien found himself warding off a foreign prince armed with a sword.
The goal of the melee was not to wound or kill, but only to disarm and force an individual to yield. It was as chaotic as true battle, but with more chivalry; yet it lacked the finesse and rules of the joust. Nothing was off limits in a melee, serious injuries occurred and were always claimed accidental, and there were plenty of accidental deaths as well. The risk was known to them all, yet they still raced into it willingly.
The clash of his sword with the foreign prince’s vibrated through his arms. Lucien could see nothing of his face through the man’s helmet. Lucien, clutching his sword hilt in both hands, disengaged and swung another strike. The prince blocked and pressed his own attack.
Each drove the other about, feet scuffling through the loose sand. All around were the clashes of other weapons as the other suitors engaged in their own battles. Lucien focused only on his own.
He plunged forward with a shout, clashing attack after attack on the prince, driving him backwards. The prince staggered, stumbled, tripped. Seeing his opportunity, Lucien kicked the sword from his grip and held his poised to the man’s throat. The foreign prince let his empty hands fall to the ground. “Yield, I yield,” he declared.
By some unseen signal, two Grismere knights came to them; one picked up the prince’s sword, the other aided him to his feet. Lucien did not watch the escort from the field. He turned about to assess the rest of the field – and immediately blocked another blade. Behind it was Lord Arthurius, recognizable by his armor and his sigil likewise decorating it.
Lucien broke away and feinted to one side. As Arthurius lunged after his ploy, Lucien spun and came at him from the other side. With a fresh flurry of blows, he disarmed the lord once more and won his yield. The melee was too hectic to take any pleasure in it, though.
He saw other fights around him. Delu Lionsbane, nimble in her light cloth and leather armor, holding swords at bay with her shield and spear. The long, kilt-like quilting protecting her legs was decorated with bells that rang as she ducked and wove about the arena, and her bronze helmet gleamed in the sunlight. Kadir the Bold, a whirling dervish with his two curved blades, light and swift in his chainmail suit and light plates, the scarlet silk sash tied at his waist.
But it was Prince Rasmus who caught his eye next, for it was the prince racing towards him.
Most of the competitors wore plate mail, like Lucien. Rasmus wore minimal plate mail, only reinforcing his torso. The rest was leather and quilted wool. He had worn a helmet at the start, but it had since been lost. His fair blond hair had darkened with sweat and dirt, indicating that he may have fallen, but gained his feet again. The prince’s face twisted into a feral snarl, icy eyes bright with the promise of violence.
Lucien knew without a doubt that this was the kind of face that the world had trembled before as the Bosnas Empire swept across the land. How could any soldier stand against hundreds of those faces, hearing whatever bloodthirsty battle cry they unleashed?
Lucien readied his sword.
Lord and prince collided with a flurry of sparks as steel struck steel. Rasmus struck with more intensity and power than Lucien could ever have guessed. They were not of a height, Lucien stood a head taller than the Bosnan prince, but it was the smaller who drove the battle. Gone was the polite prince so apologetic for his late arrival. Lucien fought a warlord, a prince raised on conquest and victory. This was a man who knew no fear.
Sword and axe clashed over and over. Lucien felt himself become ensnared in an endless parade of defensive moves. It was all he could manage to keep up. Rasmus laughed at his struggle and flew onward, his grin as sharp as his axes, his eyes just as cold.
The wooden shaft of one axe slammed into Lucien’s helmet. The force of the blow set the helmet ringing. Lucien staggered back, disoriented and dazed, barely managing to block the next flurry of blows.
Lucien dared to thrust, sweeping his sword low to try and catch Rasmus’ legs. The Bosnan prince jumped over the blade, and while Lucien was unprepared, threw himself forward in a tackle.
They fell to the ground. Rasmus sheathed one axe with a swift, practiced motion as they fell. Immediately the empty hand flew forward and snagged on Lucien’s helmet. He felt a knee press down on the elbow of his sword hand, digging the chainmail into his skin. He brought one hand up to grapple with the prince. His hand caught a fistful of blond hair and he jerked up, slamming their heads together. Rasmus lost his grip on the helmet as they collided. The imperial prince swore, and as Lucien reared back, he saw blood trickle from his nose.
Before Lucien could press his advantage, Rasmus’ knee dug further into his elbow. The joint was too mobile and essential for plate mail, and the simple chainmail did nothing to block the pressure of a grown man leaning on the joint. Lucien shouted out, scrambling and shoving to try and free himself from the building pain. Fingers caught in his helmet again, and this time they yanked it off and threw it aside. Rasmus, still armed with one axe, swung the weapon down as if to sever Lucien’s neck.
The blade stopped just shy of kissing his skin. “What do you say, Lord Alane?” Rasmus hissed. “Do you yield?”
For a bewildered second, Lucien debated. He still held his sword, but his arm was pinned tight. In a true battle, he would be dead already. Lucien shut his eyes and nodded. “I yield.” The words tasted like sawdust on his tongue.
Rasmus laughed and launched up again. Lucien sat up, leaving his sword in the sand. Two guards came for him as they had for the others. He went, willing but stiff, escorted just out of the field to a set of seats where the other vanquished suitors sat.
By the time he had sat down and been given back his sword and helmet, the field had narrowed to just four contestants: Prince Rasmus, Sir Kadir the Bold, Princess Delu Lionsbane, and a fourth who, as Lucien watched, lost his poleax and was escorted off.
Delu and Kadir each leveled their weapons at Rasmus. Rasmus grinned, blood still oozing from his nose. He twirled each of his axes, then curled them inward in a sharp beckoning gesture.
Delu lunged with her spear. Rasmus ducked past the point and lunged inward. One axe swept up in a swift arc. The blade cut clean through the wooden shaft of the spear, severing the metal head off. Delu danced forward, bells ringing on her armor, swinging the shaft up. It cracked smartly against Rasmus’ nose. The prince howled, staggering back and pressing his twice injured nose into the crook of his elbow.
Kadir made no war cry as he flew forward, and that was his smartest move of the whole tournament. One of his curved swords caught under the head of an axe. With a sharp, upward wrench, he rested the weapon from Rasmus’ grip and sent it flying.
Delu came next, wooden staff spinning in circles around her. She struck sharp blows on the prince’s arms and legs, but they did nothing through the thick quilting he wore. Rasmus simply reared back on one foot and kicked Delu in the stomach. The Bemmedian princess fell backwards, gasping for breath. Rasmus followed her down, wrenching her broken spear away and cracking it over his knee. He threw it aside and left her in the dirt.
Rasmus and Kadir began to circle each other like wary beasts. Lucien watched them with baited breath, barely aware of a fuming Delu Lionsbane ejecting the noble who had sat down next to him and taking his place. He wanted more than anything for Kadir to win, but it was clear that they were fiercely matched.
In theory, Kadir had the upper hand, armed with both weapons still, his helmet remaining securely on his head. But it was evident from Lucien’s own spar against the prince that he was not opposed to bending the rules of chivalry.
Rasmus lunged, but Kadir danced backwards and aside. The imperial prince scrambled to a halt, boots kicking up sand. He spun around but did not yet lunge, instead studying Kadir.
Their stances could not have been more opposite. Rasmus stood hunched forward, poised to sprint. His armor was dirtied from tumbling and wrestling in the dirt. His fine blond hair fell and stuck to his brow, shading his cold eyes. Blood smeared his lips and chin, adding to the impression of a warlord unleashed on the battlefield. Opposite him stood Kadir, perfectly upright, swords at the ready. His armor gleamed in the sunlight and his scarlet sash remained unsoiled. His face was hidden from Lucien’s seat, but he could imagine the serenity of it, the poise and quiet.
Rasmus lunged again with a vicious scream. Kadir did not dance from him; he raised his swords and caught the axe on his blades, tossing it aside. The Malkasar champion swung out with his own weapons, meeting Rasmus cut for cut. The two danced in a dervish of steel and sand. Their weapons would crash together, forcing them to shove and twist and vie for control of the fight only to break apart and repeat it seconds later.
It was harsh and violent, nothing like Kadir’s typical fights. The Malkasar knight fought with the elegance and beauty of a dance. Rasmus brought forth a savage edge to his style.
The speed of the fight faltered; how long had the melee run now? Lucien could not say. But he gasped when Rasmus stumbled. Kadir saw it also and lunged, seeing an opportunity-
But Rasmus dropped one hand from his axe, flying down to the sand beneath him. In a gleaming arc his hand swung up once more, retrieving his second axe from where Kadir had thrown it. He swung the shaft up and drove it into the back of Kadir’s knee. The high knight gave a hoarse bark, his strike failing to connect as he stumbled. Rasmus rose again and barreled straight into the off-balance knight.
Again Rasmus fell to the ground, but Kadir did not fall as easily as Lucien had. The champion twisted under him, locking both his blades to stave off Rasmus’ axes. Yet he remained pinned to the ground with the imperial prince bearing down on him with more and more force.
“He’s going to yield,” Delu whispered. “He can’t come back from that.”
Yet Kadir scrambled his legs up under the prince and kicked him aside. He swung one sword in a fierce, powerful blow. The blade, whetted impossibly sharp, curved to cut and rend apart, swung through the wooden shaft of an axe. The axe head fell to the dirt and Kadir tossed it far behind him.
Rasmus roared, swinging his other axe. The axe caught Kadir’s sword close to the hilt, snagging it between the bottom curve and the shaft. As Rasmus wrenched the sword from Kadir’s grasp, the Malkasar knight swept his other blade up to Rasmus’ throat – only for Rasmus to catch his arm in his free hand. Rasmus twisted Kadir’s arm back with a savage grimace. The axe swept back in, wrenching that sword away in the same fashion.
Kadir froze as soon as the sword slipped from his grasp. The champion spoke, voice clear and loud enough to be heard by all: “I yield, Prince Rasmus.”
The Bosnan prince grinned, the expression as savage as his grin. He rose in one smooth motion, leaving Kadir without a second look. The Bosnan prince strode across the field to the royal seats. There he stopped and raised his axe in a victory salute.
The audience roared their approval, for it had been a wild and entertaining melee. Esmeralda rose among the cheers, stepping forward and bending down to Rasmus. If she spoke to the Bosnan prince as she had spoken to him, Lucien could not tell. But she extended to him a white rose, and Rasmus took it, even catching her hand to press a kiss to her fingers.
Esmeralda straightened once more. She lifted her hands, commanding silence from the audience. “Citizens of Ivermon,” she declared, “our melee has a victor: His Imperial Highness, Prince Rasmus.” Another wild round of cheers. Rasmus, once more the elegant imperial prince, brandished his axe in a victor’s salute to the crowd.
Princess Esmeralda swept up her hands again to silence everyone. “But there is a complication. Prince Rasmus, I am afraid your performance in the joust was less than exemplary. Lord Lucien Alane, if you will join us, please.”
Among wild cheering, Lucien found himself escorted from his seat and across the field to join Prince Rasmus. As he stopped beside the Bosnan prince, Lucien swore he felt the air turn cold as winter. A glance at the prince proved he already stared at Lucien. The ice cold eyes locked onto him, sweeping a fresh rush of winter cold over him.
“Lord Alane,” Princess Esmeralda resumed, “your skill in the joust is without doubt, and you performed with excellent valor in the melee. Yet Prince Rasmus defeated you today. You are both tired, and asking you to fight once more would be unfair.” She smiled, gesturing her hands out to them both. “Therefore, Prince Rasmus, Lord Alane, I declare you both Knight of Swans.”
Trumpets blew and cheers resumed. Princess Esmeralda descended some steps and walked through a gate in the rail surrounding the field to join them, trailed by two servants. Each bore a small cushion holding two golden medallions. Esmeralda stopped before Rasmus first, slipping the chain over his bowed head. Then she came to Lucien. When she stopped before him, she offered him first a smile.
“Congratulations, Lucien,” she whispered as she picked up the medallion. It depicted a swan taking off in flight with two crossed swords in the foreground. The princess slipped the chain over his head. Her fingers caught in his hair, pulling the ends carefully from beneath the chain. Ever so faint, her touch brushed over his shoulders as she withdrew. The touch, faint as it was, still sent a charged feeling through him, sharpening his senses to perfect clarity.
Instead he drew his sword and knelt before her, Rasmus following suit. Esmeralda took up a ceremonial sword from a third servant. The golden hilt shone in the sunlight and diamonds encrusted the fuller of the blade. She tapped it first on Rasmus’ shoulders, then Lucien’s, knighting them both as champions of the tournament.
When they rose again, Esmeralda offered a final word of congratulations. “I would have you dine beside me tonight, Prince Rasmus,” she said.
“You honor me,” the prince replied. “I would enjoy nothing more.”
With that, Esmeralda left them. Among the sound of the tournament viewers dispersing, Prince Rasmus turned to Lucien. His wintry eyes gave away no sense of his thoughts.
“Congratulations are in order to us both, Lord Alane,” Rasmus said. His voice rasped from his battle cries. “But do not mistake this. We are not equals, and we never shall be.” Then the prince turned on his heel and stalked away. He stopped only once to retrieve his lost axe head.
Lucien lingered on the field, feeling the medallion heavy on his chest, wondering what line he had unwittingly crossed.