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The two eyed one another, warily, like tigers before a fight. Silence hung heavily all around them, disturbed only by a faint metallic clink. The hushed ambiance bristled with bloodthirsty anticipation, prickling like sweat on a muggy day.
There was no movement except for the flags, dazzling in scarlet, black, and gold. They whipped languidly against their posts.
The first sound came like trumpets, shrill and clear, as sharply authoritative as barked parade ground orders. The two stirred, getting positioned, oriented, lining up like sharpshooters on a target.
The quiet that followed was like a great blanket of snow, then the trumpet notes slashed out again but sounding different this time. The two erupted into motion.
Slowly at first, then gaining momentum, they raced toward each other, faster and faster, hurtling forward like projectiles.
Sound swelled up from every corner now. Voices urged on the two, strident and screeching, many infused with a lust for blood. Every eye was intent on the combatants, gleaming with expectancy. Fists shook in encouragement, arms waved wildly.
The ground began to shake and the roar of the crowd swelled. The clanking and snorting could hardly be heard over the noise of the spectators. The combatants rushed toward each other at dazzling speed, metal juggernauts on a collision course that could end only in death and disaster.
* * *
Harlington Castle had begun to stage its "Medieval Days" about ten years earlier. First it had been banquets, then the jousts and the tournaments were added and were an immediate success. The accouterments of the Middle Ages followedthe fairs, the animals, the village with its glassblowers and blacksmiths, its potters and weavers, the wandering minstrels, the jugglers and stilt walkers, the midgets and the dwarf.
The castle itself was the last feature to be brought from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first century. The music room rang once more with the notes of the clavichord and the cembalo, the harp and the cremona. The kitchens were equipped with every modern device, but the appearance of older times was maintained. As for the meals the kitchens produced ... that was where I came in.
I am a food-finder. I locate hard-to-find food ingredients, I track down rare herbs and spices, and seek out substitutes for foods that have become expensive or unobtainable. A newspaper columnist wrote an article on me and dubbed me "The Gourmet Detective." The only detecting I did was in the kitchen, the herb garden, and the delicatessenat least, that was how it was supposed to be. The fabric of life is inextricably interwoven with food and cooking, however, and now and then I would find myself embroiled in cases that led to theft, trickery, and even murder.
Another of my activities which I particularly enjoy is that I am often called upon to advise on meals to suit special occasions. In this case, the occasion was the Middle Ages. Initially, Harlington Castle had served fairly simple meals that reflected the comparatively simple times. Roast baron of beef, roast chicken, potatoes, and everyday vegetables like peas and carrots had comprised the bill of fare.
A change had to be made when portions of the castle were restored to provide accommodation. In many European countries, old manorhouses, monasteries, and abbeys had been converted into pleasant hotels that still had the feeling of tradition and a few crumbling walls for confirming effect. Some of these had become havens of good food and sophisticated cooking.
Harlington Castle now provided charming and spacious rooms furnished with antiques, tapestries, and carpets, but still incorporating every modern convenience. Such accommodation, they decided, required food of a comparative quality, and they determined to offer the same quality in the banquet room as they did in the castle dining room.
So the chicken and the beef had to go, in their more primitive forms anyway. I had been called upon to review the menu and strike the right compromise between tasty, sophisticated food and medieval dishes. I had had the same kind of commission at other castles and stately homes. It was an enjoyable way of spending a few days in an unusual environment while being paid for it at the same time.
I had arrived here at the castle in the late afternoon, and after dinner, I had been invited to watch the jousting tournament. It was an exciting spectacle. The brilliant colored flags were now being stirred by some internal mechanism and fluttered bravely as if in a stiff breeze. The magnificent horses snorted and stamped, shaking their gaily decorated manes with pride.
The crowd was thoroughly into the whole thing, shouting and yelling, on their feet as the knights closed in, lances leveled, the horses' hooves thundering and kicking up clods of earth. The lance of the Black Knighthe was the combatant receiving all the boosmissed the helmet of Sir Harry Mountmarchant by inches as the two roared by each other. Sir Harry's lance hit a glancing blow on the side of his opponent's breast armor and the crowd bellowed approval.
The perfectly trained mounts skidded to a standstill, haunches down, hooves churning deep furrowsmust be a lot of work for gardeners here, I thought. They turned and stood for a moment, puffing clouds of steam (how did they do that? I wondered). Sir Harry flipped up his visor and looked around for support. It was unnecessary: the crowd was with him one hundred percent. The Black Knight jabbed his lance into the air furiously and the crowd jeered. I presumed that was the medieval equivalent of the digital gesture of derision, deplorably popular in modern sport.
The trumpets chopped the air, clean, sweet sounds calming the crowd's frenzy and alerting the jousting knights into readiness. The horses, superb actors and beautifully rehearsed, pawed the ground, dipped their plumed manes as if eager to engage the enemy, then stood motionless, waiting for the signal.
It was only seconds but it apparently seemed like minutes to the hushed crowd. Just as impatience was about to set in, the trumpets blared, and amid a roar from the assembly, the two riders rocketed their steeds into action. Again, the metallic figures raced at each other and this time both scored hits. Sir Harry half-fell from his saddle; the crowd "ooh'd" loudly until he regained his position with a lithe swing.
Twice more, the spectacle was repeated, until with a shivering crash, Sir Harry hit the Black Knight full on the chest armor and knocked him off his steed. It trotted away and the Black Knight climbed unsteadily to his feet. Cheers of approval went up as the valiant Sir Harryno man to take advantage of an unhorsed opponentslid from his saddle and approached the Black Knight, drawing his long broadsword.
The Black Knight looked as if he had recovered now. He drew his own weapon and the two huge swords clashed, with a noise that was amplified electronically amid a shower of glittering sparks, probably generated chemically.
Sir Harry Mountmarchant took a mighty swing, but his opponent ducked and moved, looking for an opportunity. He feinted from the right, then swung backhanded, and a groan of agony came from Sir Harry, cleverly orchestrated by the loudspeakers. He recovered quickly, though, and fought on bravely.
The end came when the Black Knight started a side blow which he switched to an overhead slash. It bounced off Sir Harry's big shoulder guard, whereupon the black-clad villain treacherously pulled a hidden dagger from his belt and attempted to plunge it into Sir Harry's midriff.
This was a move highly unpopular with the partisan crowd, but their fears were unfounded. Sir Harry clamped a hand firmly on the hand holding the blade, pushed the other back, then aimed a prodigious swing of his broadsword at the other's neck.
The clash of metal on metal rang throughout the arena. The Black Knight was rooted to the spot and Sir Harry's blow was powerful and unerring. A crunching, skin-tingling sound could be heard and the shouts from the crowd faded almost instantly as the glittering blade severed the neck of the helmet completely.
Moans of horror trickled into the air and hundreds of eyes watched in helpless fascination. The helmet bounced on the grass and rolled away, leaving a trail of blood behind it.
It finally came to rest upside down, exposing a grisly, gory tangle of flesh that still dripped, running over the black metal and soaking into the soil.
Excerpted from Eat, Drink, and Be Buried by Peter King. Copyright © 2001 by Peter King. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.