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Illuminated Shadows Part I
By Shaun Mehta
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Shaun Mehta
All rights reserved.
Melmony Kingdom of Reluch
I closed my eyes and smiled, the pleasant warmth of the early morning sun caressing my face. It was a perfect day to celebrate the beginning of the annual Summer Festival. Thousands traveled from all corners of the kingdom to participate in the three days of festivities and mirth.
A chorus of distant cheers broke my thoughts.
I opened my eyes, and leaned over the balcony of my chambers located in the palace's tallest tower.
Far below, a throng of people, resembling colorful insects, congregated in the Square of Champions, outside the Royal Palace. Although the Summer Festival took place throughout the city, the highlight of the celebrations was the Grand Knighting Tournament at the Square of Champions.
From my vantage point the entire yellow-stoned city of Melmony, the great capital of Reluch, spread to the horizon. Majestic trees and blooming chrysanthemums splashed the city with vibrant greens and yellows. At the top of every tower, spire and dome, flags adorning the king's seal—a golden water dragon surrounded by waves—fluttered in the warm summer breeze. Plums, lemons, melons, oranges, peaches, mangoes and grapes dotted countless courtyard gardens and roof-tops. The sweet fragrance flooded my senses. With the city located in a temperate region of the continent, Melmonians' love for gardening was practiced for much of the year.
Where is he? I wondered, searching the sky.
I looked to my right, above the towers and dragon temples that jutted into the cloudless sky, and beyond the outer walls that encircled the city, towards Lake Reluch. Half of the outer walls were strategically built beside the banks of the lake to further increase the city's defenses.
My eyes hurt from the sunlight reflecting off the lake's surface. I squinted as I continued to search the impossibly blue heavens.
I smiled as I saw a small shape the size of a crow flying high above the waters.
Shaye, my falcon.
He soared gracefully in tight circles, his wings fully extended, his tail fanned out, searching for prey.
Shaye suddenly dove with incredible speed. Wings folded, he struck an unsuspecting pigeon like a missile. The impact sent the stunned pigeon tumbling towards the lake. In one fluent move, Shaye caught the pigeon with his deadly talons and severed its spine with his upper notched beak.
Magnificent, I thought, my chest swelling with pride.
I extracted a hand-held mirror and aimed it towards the sun.
The flashing reflection caught Shaye's attention. The falcon screeched, dropped his catch into the lake, and flew towards me.
I pulled on my gauntlet, a long leather glove that allowed Shaye's talons to wrap around my arm without cutting flesh.
With rapid, powerful wing strokes the raptor zoomed towards me.
Shaye gracefully landed on my outstretched arm. He bobbed his dark brown head and pumped his long narrow tail up and down, signifying excitement.
I gently stroked and admired him. Shaye's chest and the underside of his wings were covered in soft white feathers. The top of his wings, tail and head were dark brown. The contrast between his chest and head created an illusion that Shaye wore an executioner's hood. A splash of bright yellow on the top of his deadly beak curved into a solid black. His large, shiny black eyes sparkled with intelligence.
Three years ago, I had found Shaye lying injured at the base of a tree in the palace's royal garden. He had been a chick then. I had nursed him back to health and freed him once he regained his strength. Much to my delight, he returned every few days. Soon a mutual understanding, a bond that I did not completely comprehend, yet cherished, formed between us.
"Most ladies have tamed falcons as pets, my love, but not I," I murmured softly. "You are my perfect companion, gentle and intelligent, fast and fierce. You're as free and powerful as the wind."
There was a knock at the bedchamber's door.
"Come," I said, turning.
Marta entered and curtsied. "Pardon me, Your Majesty, but the hour approaches, and you have still to dress."
Although only five years older than me, Marta had been my nursemaid when I arrived to Melmony as an orphan. The narrow age difference and her maternal kindness had instantly binded us. Although I was royalty and Marta a servant, I had always looked at her as my older sister. Growing up, many members of the court often remarked at our similar appearance and mannerisms, often mistaking us as siblings. Marta had played my childish games, tended to my grooming, listened to my fears and dreams, and took care of me whenever I was ill. Even after I was too old to have a nursemaid, I made certain Marta continued to stay by my side. She was my best friend and I loved her dearly.
"O Marta, isn't it wonderful?" I exclaimed. "It is a perfect day for the Summer Festival!"
"This perfect day passes as you daydream in this tower, Your Majesty. You shall miss the opening of the tournament if you do not make haste."
Despite our friendship, Marta had stubbornly refused to call me by my first name once I had been crowned.
"Hush, Marta. They cannot begin without me."
"The king has summoned you twice, and swears on Klaniss that he shall begin the tournament without you."
"Do not jest, Marta. Magnus would not dare."
"In all our years have I ever teased of such matters, my queen?"
My mouth fell open as Marta's eyes twinkled with truth.
Shaye screeched, his head bobbing.
"Marta, what are you standing there for? Help me dress!"
* * *
The King of Reluch was carefully scrutinizing the knights when Marta and I entered the Regal Balcony overlooking the Square of Champions. Before each Grand Knighting Tournament, Magnus and I would carefully choose which knight to wager on.
As I took a seat beside my husband, Magnus cordially greeted me and enthusiastically declared his choice: Sir Jacob, a ferocious warrior who had barely lost to Sir Markus the previous year.
Eight trumpeteers, dressed in purple silk tunics with Reluch's coat of arms stiched in gold across their chests, stood on the ramparts of the square prepared to signal the opening of the tournament.
As I fingered my dragon tooth necklace, I surveyed the bustling activity throughout the square with mounting apprehension; I had little time to select a knight.
The Square of Champions was a huge dirt opening in the center of the city. Chiselled stone faces of previous champions of the Grand Knighting Tournament bordered the top of the stone walls that enclosed the square. A thick layer of green ivy masked the walls, creating an illusion of being in a clearing of a dense forest. The wooden bleachers that surrounded three sides of the square teemed with people, excited for the tournament to begin. On the fourth side was the Regal Balcony and stables.
Joyful whinnying drew my attention towards the stables. A sinewy man in plain clothes fed carrots to a magnificant black stallion. The horse stomped its hooves and tossed its head with delight, bringing a boyish grin to the young man's handsome face.
He seems old to be a squire, I thought.
I turned to my mentor and advisor, who stood stiffly by my side. "Jayden?"
Jayden's clean-shaven face leaned towards me. His long, blond hair was tied smartly with a purple ribbon. Since the untimely death of my mother, Queen Ava, Jayden had become my guardian, zealously dedicating his life to protecting mine.
"Queen Kaila," Jayden said, bowing.
"That young man feeding the black stallion?"
"Aye, my queen."
"Which knight does that squire serve?"
"That is no squire, child, but Sir Tristan, son of Lord Wilder."
I was surprised, but quickly regained my composure, and nodded my thanks. I studied the young knight.
Realizing that the other knights had left through the north gate with their horses, Sir Tristan gracefully mounted his stallion and galloped out of the square.
What type of knight has no squire, and rides without a saddle and bridle?
Magnus, who sat on his cushioned chair to my left, finished his goblet of ale and leaned towards me. "Has my queen chosen?"
My heart fluttered as he looked deeply into my eyes. Even after all these years, my beloved husband could entrance me with one look. Through our years of marriage, my love for him had continued to strengthen and grow. He made me feel cherished.
I nodded, breaking his spell. "Aye, my king. Sir Tristan, son of Lord Wilder."
Magnus smiled and kissed my hand. "A bold selection, dear wife. Let it be so!"
"We are ready to begin, Your Majesty," Jayden said.
Jayden bowed and left to commence the ceremonies. A moment later the trumpeteers raised their gleaming instruments. The collective blast of the golden horns silenced the swelling crowd. Jayden silently returned to my side.
The King of Reluch rose to address his people. His bearded, rugged face was filled with confidence and pride. The circlet of gold on his head and his golden chest plate glittered in the sunshine. Never had Magnus looked more kingly, projecting strength and wisdom. He stepped forward to the edge of the Regal Balcony.
My attire was less ornate and more comfortable than the king's heavy ceremonial costume. I wore a white dress with a crisscross silver lace pattern along my neckline, arms and waist, and a crown of white water lilies that Marta had especially made for the event.
"People of Reluch, greetings!" the king bellowed with his deep resonating voice. "I welcome you to the annual Summer Festival."
Magnus beamed and waited for the cheering to subside.
"To mark the first day, you shall bear witness to the Grand Knighting Tournament. This tournament has been a Reluchian tradition for centuries. Knights throughout the kingdom have traveled great distances for this event. Some have even spent their entire lives preparing for this day. All of them are brave and honorable, but only one shall claim victory. The champion shall receive the greatest of honors. He shall be sworn in as personal protector to the crown, joining the king's Inner Council. He shall also have his image chiselled among the past champions that adorn this very square, his legacy immortalized. This year the Champion will have to excel in four challenges—the foot mêlée, which will test his valor and battle skills; a human chess match, which will test his intellect; rescuing the damsel in distress, which will test his chivalry; and finally, the joust!"
The masses erupted into a medley of whistles and applause.
"Let the tournament commence!" Magnus exclaimed, raising his arms.
"Hurray! Hurray!" the crowds cheered. "Long live the king!"
I found myself clapping as well, drawn into the excitement and anticipation coursing through the square.
The trumpets blew again. The gates swung open, and the procession of knights entered the square, each horse draped in the rider's heraldic patterns and colors.
I spotted Sir Tristan. A silver and black crest of a water dragon swimming in a river was emblazoned on the blanket draped over his horse. I noticed with dismay that he still rode without a saddle. Worse, a relaxed, dreamy expression filled his face.
He looks as if he were taking a casual ride without a care in the world, I thought, bewildered.
One hundred knights dismounted and formed a line in front of the Regal Balcony. Each bowed respectfully to their king and queen as Jayden announced their name and house to the cheering audience.
My heart pounded against my chest with excitement.
It was time to begin.
* * *
Steel clashed against steel. The sweating, bleeding combatants grunted, cried and screamed. The crowds roared. These were the terrifying and thrilling sounds of the foot mêlée.
Winning the mêlée took as much intelligence as brawn. Knights cunning enough to team with others could wear down and pick off stronger warriors, but a teammate could become an opponent at any moment. With swords, maces, clubs, axes and shields swinging in all directions, a slight hesitation could result in defeat or death. Relying on instinct was critical.
A knight could yield by falling to his knees and raising his hands. The only other way off the field was through death or grievous injury. Squires with stretchers would dash into the battlefield to bring the wounded to safety. Scribes tallied points based on the place a knight finished in the mêlée. Thus, the first knight to yield received one point, while the last standing knight would score one hundred.
The mêlée had begun with fifty knights on each side of the square churning a cloud of dust as they charged each other, and had ended an hour later with Sir Jacob raising his muscular arms in triumph. He roared with jubilation, oblivious to the two teeth he had lost when a shield smashed his face.
The king turned to me with a broad smile. I glowered in response. Much to my chagrin, Sir Tristan had finished tenth, and only because six knights had turned against him. He had fought valiantly, eliminating three knights before Sir Jacob's mace smashed the side of his arm, knocking him to the ground. Grimacing from pain, Sir Tristan had quickly yielded before Sir Jacob could strike a lethal blow.
The king declared an hour reprieve for the knights to rest and prepare themselves for the second round.
"How many are fit to continue, Jayden?" I asked, standing and stretching.
"Thirty-six, my queen."
"His arm is being mended and bound. He is eager to proceed."
I nodded, pleased.
Eighteen human chess boards were assembled using large wooden square panels—maple to represent the white squares and teak to represent the black squares. By the end of the allotted hour of rest, soldiers dressed in either black or white costumes stood on position on each board. To enhance the audience's entertainment, the human pieces would engage in mock battle whenever a piece was taken. The knights able to participate in the second round sat unarmored on a pedestal overlooking their side of the board.
The chess board closest to the Regal Box matched Sir Jacob against Sir Arthur. I was pleased by the draw. Sir Arthur was a savvy player, and chess had been Sir Jacob's weakest round the previous year. Further, Sir Arthur had drawn white. If Sir Jacob was eliminated quickly, I would feel more confident in winning my wager.
"Let the Chess Tournament begin!" Magnus declared, standing.
The crowds cheered as each knight shouted their first move.
"Pawn to G4," Sir Arthur shouted.
The white costumed sentry in front of the knight piece moved forward two spaces.
It was an unusual opening move, but Sir Arthur appeared poised.
"Pawn to E5," Sir Jacob said, after some contemplation.
The black costumed sentry in front of the king piece stepped forward two spaces.
It was a standard, safe opening move.
Typical, I thought. Sir Jacob completely lacks creativity to challenge Sir Arthur.
"Pawn to F3," Sir Arthur said without hesitation.
The white pawn in front of the bishop marched one space forward to protect the pawn diagonal from it.
"Marta," I said. "Fetch me a glass of pomegrante wine."
I wanted to relish Sir Arthur systematically destroy Sir Jacob, and a glass of sweet wine was the perfect companion to watch the spectacle unfold.
Marta bowed and left the balcony.
Sir Jacob scratched his beard as he studied the board. The fact that he took so long to make a decision after only one move brought a smile to my face. I peered at Magnus, who sat frowning by my side.
"Queen to H4," Sir Jacob finally said. As the black queen slid diagonally across the board, the fierce knight grinned. "Checkmate!"
My groan of disbelief was masked by Magnus' cheers.
Sir Arthur stared at the board, thunderstruck. His mouth soundlessly opened and closed like a goldfish.
"Splendid!" Magnus cried, standing.
Checkmate in two moves? I thought. I did not know such a feat was possible.
Marta returned with a cup of wine, and watched Sir Jacob celebrating. "It is rumored that Sir Jacob hired a chess tutor last year. It seems to be true."
"May Klaniss give me strength," I muttered, draining the glass.
The chess tournament ended three hours later with Sir Jacob losing to Sir William in the final round. Sir Tristan had finished eighth, also losing to Sir William's brilliant play.
Excerpted from Illuminated Shadows Part I by Shaun Mehta. Copyright © 2014 Shaun Mehta. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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