A red mist descended. I was gripped by a murderous rage. I jumped to my feet, and as I drew my sword, the crowd gave a thunderous roar.
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As the sun reached its highest point in the sky, Jed and I made our way across the tournament field. I could tell by the way he tossed his head and pawed the ground that he was impatient to get underway. As for me, it was another story. I felt lousy! My limbs were heavy, my chest ached, and my head felt as if it had been stuffed with goose down.
The trouble was, I was exhausted. I hadn't slept a wink all night. I just couldn't stop thinking about the fix I was in.
Should I throw the joust, as Duke Wolfhound wanted, and walk away with a heavy purse? Or should I fight fair and save her ladyship, but risk a heavy beating from Wolfhound's thugs? My head said one thing, my heart said another, and I lay awake all night trying to choose. The early-morning light was streaming in through the holes of my moth-eaten tent before I decided at last what to do.
I wasn't proud of my decision, I can tell you. It went against every knightly fiber of my body. But though I hated to do it, there was nothing else for it. I would go down to Hengist.
Of course, I'd make it look good. I'd flip from Jed's back and, taking care to cushion my fall, land on the ground in a clatter of armor and a cloud of dust, but then stay down....
Afterward I'd collect my promised gold from Duke Wolfhound and tell him to let her ladyship go, or I'd shop him to the herald and bring his tournament-rigging days to an end. And if Hengist were to have a problem with that, we could have a nice little chat about it, away from the tournament field. I also decided that I'd give her ladyship half the gold so that she and the troubadour could travel far away and live happily everafter.
As plans went, it wasn't great; the herald might side with the duke, Hengist might prove to be a bit of a handful, and her ladyship might end up at the top of a tall tower with no staircase. But under the circumstances it was the best I could come up with.
Just then a trumpet sounded loudly, and I looked round to see the herald waddling to the center of the field. The first joust was about to begin.
"At the south end, in wed and white stwipes," the herald proclaimed, "I give you bwave Sir Walph of Mountjoy!"
The crowd cheered.
"At the north end," the herald continued, "dwessed in blue, the...errm...the Blue Knight!"
The cheers grew louder. Everyone loves an underdog.
The herald raised his arms. The crowd fell silent. All eyes turned toward her ladyship, who rose to her feet and let a glittering handkerchief flutter down over the balcony. It landed on the grass.
The herald inspected it. "Let the field-of-gold joust commence!" he cried.
At the second trumpet blast the Rich Kid spurred his black warhorse viciously. The animal sprang forward, its ears flat back, its muzzle foaming, the whites of its eyes glinting wildly as it tossed its head. It looked like a creature possessed.
Glancing over at the duke, I noticed the raven-haired handmaid standing behind her ladyship, her dark, glaring eyes fixed on the horse and rider.
At the other end of the field, I saw the Blue Knight urging his bony-looking nag forward. I shook my head. Whoever the Blue Knight was, he certainly wasn't a natural jouster. He rode like an east-country bumpkin, and he couldn't hold his lance steady if his life depended on it. And the way it was looking, it just might, because the Rich Kid had gotten into his stride now.
Keeping the warhorse on target with a tight rein, the Rich Kid leveled his lance and brought his opponent into his sights.
It was a lovely move, one even I would have been proud to perform. The Blue Knight didn't stand a chance.
At least, that was what I thought. But at that moment an extraordinary thing happened. Just as the two knights were about to clash, the black warhorse let out a terrible whinnying screech, arched its back, and crashed headlong into the tournament turf, pitching the Rich Kid high up in the air...and onto the Blue Knight's wavering lance.
There was a bone-shattering crunch, the splintering of wood, and a turf-shuddering crash as the Rich Kid hit the ground. He didn't move. The herald strode across the field and poked the crumpled body with his toe.
"Victowy!" he cried and raised his arm. "The Blue Knight will go through to the final."
The crowd seemed confused. Only a couple of halfhearted cheers rose above the gathering murmur. No one could quite believe what they'd seen. For a healthy warhorse simply to collapse like that was unheard of.
The Rich Kid's four squires rushed forward and fussed about their master. I was more concerned about the stricken warhorse. Dismounting, I strode over and knelt down beside it. The poor creature whimpered, one wild eye staring back at me. There was blood at its mouth, and its front legs were broken.
"There, there, boy," I said. There was nothing I could do.
I looked up to see a man-at-arms approaching with a crossbow. I knew that a bolt through the temple was the kindest thing, but I still couldn't watch. I turned away.
"Come, come, sir knight, it is time," came a familiar voice, and I felt old Pudding Head tugging at my arm.
"Sad that the horse must be put down," he said, "but these things happen."
I nodded. He was right, of course. As he led me away, I noticed the raven-haired handmaid, her eyes boring into mine. I looked away, shocked by the thin smile playing on her lips.
"Huwwy up," said the herald impatiently. "The joust must commence without further delay."
I climbed back onto Jed's back and took my place at the south end of the tournament field.
We waited as the warhorse was dragged off and the Rich Kid -- moaning softly now -- was stretchered away by his four squires. A ripple of anticipation ran through the crowd. I nodded to those who were cheering me on and raised my head proudly. I might as well enjoy those cheers while they lasted.
I, a free lance, had made it to the semifinals of a major castle tournament. It was only a shame that, on the second tilt, I would have to go down as hard as the Rich Kid before me -- and the cheers would turn to boos when the crowd realized that the favorite they'd bet so much on was not getting up.
At the other end of the field Hengist had mounted his stallion. Clad in his dull gray armor, he cut an impressive figure -- but was too slow and plodding to be a great jouster. At least, that was what I hoped.
As the trumpet sounded, the herald stepped forward. "At the north end we have Sir Hengist of the Western Marches."
There were boos amid the cheers as the crowd greeted the local boy.
"At the south end," the herald continued, "Sir...um...Fwee Lance."
For a second time that afternoon all eyes fell on her ladyship, who climbed to her feet and held the handkerchief high. As our eyes met, a smile fluttered uncertainly across her face. I lowered my visor.
The handkerchief fell.
"Let the field-of-gold joust commence!" cried the herald.
With a loud snort, Hengist spurred his horse. I twitched Jed's reins, and he was off. Beneath me I could feel his pounding hooves gathering speed. How he loved the tournaments -- the charged air in his nostrils, the boiling blood coursing through his body.
I raised my shield, fixed my sights on Hengist, and leveled my lance. All brawn and no brain, the oaf was lumbering toward me, bouncing about in his saddle like a cider barrow in an ox cart. His great, heavy armor was doing him no favors either, pitching him this way and that.
At a lance length away, I saw he was leaning so heavily forward that he'd left himself wide open at the neck. I could have finished him off there and then. Instead, I turned my lance away and took a glancing blow to my shield as Hengist thundered past.
The crowd gave a loud gasp of surprise.
On the second joust, as we approached each other, I deliberately dropped my shoulder and raised my shield, offering a target that even a hopeless jouster like Hengist couldn't miss. Urging Jed on, I shifted my lance round so that it would glance harmlessly off Hengist's armor. Then, at the last possible moment, I slipped my feet from the stirrups and got ready for the heavy blow that I knew was about to come.
I wasn't disappointed. The air abruptly filled with the sound of shattering wood and a desperate cry from the crowd as Hengist's lance struck the top of my breastplate, and I shot from the saddle like a speared moat-fish.
I hit the ground hard and rolled over and over, clattering like a brewer's barrel on cobblestones. If I had to go down, the least I could do was put on a show. I came to rest just near the grandstand -- a nice touch, I thought -- and lay there, stock-still.
It was all over.
Through my visor I glimpsed the shocked face of her ladyship looking down at me miserably, the color drained from her cheeks. Beside her, Duke Wolfhound was smiling unpleasantly. He knew he'd won.
Just then I became aware of a fierce, stabbing pain in my shoulder where Hengist's lance had struck. I'd felt the blow of a blunted tournament lance many times before -- a dull, bruising ache. But this was different. I put my hand to my shoulder and was shocked to feel the end of a shattered lance shaft.
I pulled myself up -- to the gasps and cries of the crowd, who had already written me off -- and tugged at the length of splintered wood. I found myself holding the pointed iron tip of a war lance.
I'd been taken for a fool! A total sap! The duke had never intended to pay me for throwing the joust at all. He'd merely wanted me off my guard so that his great hulking henchman could finish me off for good. If I hadn't ridden the blow so well, I'd be dead now.
A red mist descended. I was gripped by a murderous rage.
I jumped to my feet, and as I drew my sword, the crowd gave a thunderous roar.
Hengist was lumbering toward me, his own broadsword gripped in a great ham of a hand. I threw myself at him, meeting his lunging uppercut with a high parry.
Our swords clashed, and I felt as if a red-hot poker were boring into my shoulder. With a roar of pain, I dummied a high sword cut to his right, though swung low instead. It was an old trick, but one that caught Hengist totally off guard. As my broadsword sliced into the back of his knees, he crashed to the ground, bellowing like a wounded bear.
I stood over him, my sword raised high, about to bring it crashing down, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the herald.
"There seems to have been a slight mix-up with the lances," he said out of the corner of his mouth while smiling for the benefit of the cheering crowd. "Most unfortunate, but we don't want it to get out of hand, do we?"
The red mist was lifting, and I suddenly felt very tired.
"After all," the herald was saying, "this is a field of gold, not a field of blood, wemember."
I lowered my sword. My head was swimming, and my shoulder hurt more than ever.
"My lords, ladies, and gentlemen," the herald announced loudly, "Fwee Lance is thwough to the final!"
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Steward and Chris Riddell