The tournament at gorlan, p.25
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.25

           John Flanagan
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  “Have the soup first,” she said. “Before it goes completely cold.”

  She touched her hand to the side of the bowl, checking the temperature. “There’s still a bit of warmth in it,” she said. “Just what you need in this drafty old room.”

  He nodded and picked up the clumsy wooden spoon. Morgarath had forbidden him the use of any iron implements, lest he try to fashion a makeshift weapon from them.

  He took a sip. The broth was tepid and thin, without much nourishment in it. But he nodded his thanks to the girl. It wasn’t her fault, after all.

  “Thank you, mistress. You’re too kind.”

  She grinned at him and bobbed down in a curtsy. “Wish I could give you something more substantial,” she said. “But Lord Morgarath’s healers say you need to keep to a low diet to prevent fevers.”

  “I’m sure they do,” he said dryly, taking another sip.

  Content that he was eating, she turned away and knocked on the door to be let out. The guards outside opened the door and she departed. Oswald heard the key grate in the lock behind her. He looked at the watery broth and the small chicken leg. What was the point, he thought.

  “Keep your strength up,” he said. He noticed that he’d taken to talking to himself over the past week or so. He thought that might be a bad sign. Then he shrugged the thought away. Bad sign or no, it made little difference to his situation.

  He dipped the spoon into the bowl once more and let the soup fill it. As he did so, he accidentally pushed the spoon against the far side of the bowl, moving it a few millimeters on the tray. He frowned as he saw the edge of a piece of parchment revealed under the soup bowl. He set the spoon down and moved the soup bowl to one side, revealing a small square of parchment that had been hidden underneath. There was writing on it.

  He picked it up and held it angled so that the light from the shuttered window fell on it. His lips moved as he made out the five words written there, and he felt a dull glow of hope in his breast. He read them again, to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, and this time he said them aloud.

  “‘Duncan is safe. Hold on.’”



  Word ran round the tournament ground like wildfire and people rushed to line the jousting ground fence where they could get a good view. The crowd buzzed with expectation. This was the first of the challenges to one of the senior knights or barons. The challenger was a young knight seeking to build his reputation.

  Such combats were always a source of excitement for the spectators. There was a strong element of the unknown about them. The young challenger could well be a champion in the making, and could succeed in defeating his more experienced opponent.

  Or he might simply be a hopeless optimist whose confidence far outweighed his ability and he might well be dispatched into the dust of the jousting field in the space of a few passes. Either way, it made for exciting viewing—and an excellent chance to place bets on the outcome.

  The crowd watched as the young knight, his green-painted helmet and shield shining, his mail polished till it shimmered in the sunlight, completed a circuit of the field, as was laid down in the challenge procedure. It was done this way to enable the crowd, and the gamblers, to get a good look at him and assess his chances.

  “Who is it?” The question was on a score of lips, but only a few knew the answer.

  “Wallace of Belconnen,” came the reply. “He was knighted six months ago.”

  “Is he any good?” Arald asked. He had come to the entrance to his pavilion to watch procedures. He glanced up. His blue-enameled shield was displayed on a tall pole beside his pavilion.

  Sir Rodney, the young battle master of Redmont Fief, replied. “He’s won a few minor tournaments in the past months, so he’s good. But I doubt he’s any threat to you, sir.”

  Arald was aware that he could well be the subject of the challenge. After all, he was the reigning champion. He glanced to one of his squires, standing watching.

  “Make sure my gear is ready,” he said and the man knuckled his forehead and dashed for the arming tent.

  Sir Wallace, his circuit of the jousting field complete, now began a slow progress around the pavilions at Arald’s end of the field. Again, this was part of procedure. The challenging knight must ride past all potential opponents’ pavilions before selecting one. It was a piece of theater, of course, but an effective one.

  His battlehorse, a high-spirited young chestnut, clip-clopped nervously as he held it in, resisting its inclination to prance and curvet. They passed the pavilions closest to Arald’s, and seemed to slow as they came closer to the blue shield mounted high above the blue-and-gold-striped tent. Wallace had his visor up and he made eye contact with Arald as he approached. He was a clean-shaven, good-looking young man.

  Arald tensed to receive the challenge. He had already decided to accept.

  The young knight nodded a greeting and Arald responded. Then the challenger set his spurs to the chestnut and cantered past, heading for the far end of the jousting field.

  This time, he didn’t do a circuit of the assembled pavilions, even though protocol said he should. He rode straight for the black-and-gold pavilion in the center, raising his lance so that it struck Morgarath’s shield with a ringing clang.

  The challenge was issued. Now it remained to be seen if it would be accepted.

  Having struck Morgarath’s shield in a challenge, Sir Wallace reined in his horse and waited for a response from the tournament host. His pulse was racing, although he tried to appear calm and unperturbed. Morgarath was perhaps the most skilled knight in the tournament—with the possible exception of the young Baron Arald. Wallace knew he was risking serious injury by challenging him, but he was determined to advance in the world, and contesting with the best was the quickest way to do it.

  Besides, it was a tournament, not a real battle. If he lost, he might suffer some bad bruises or even a broken bone or two. But a joust like this was rarely a matter of life and death.

  The canvas flap that closed the entrance to the pavilion was pulled aside and Morgarath stepped into the open. Wallace had previously only seen him at a distance and he was a little surprised by Morgarath’s height. The lord of Gorlan stood just under two hundred centimeters tall and was an impressive, and somewhat disconcerting, figure. He was slim in build, but well muscled, with long arms and legs. His height and long reach had made him a formidable opponent in duels over the years. He was dressed entirely in black—thigh-length black boots over black trousers, and a belted black leather doublet marked with the yellow lightning-bolt insignia on the breast. His face was pale and long, with a prominent nose. His hair was white-blond and lank—a startling contrast to his all-black attire.

  He regarded the young knight on the nervous battlehorse, his lance raised to the vertical, its weight supported in a small leather cup on the saddle’s right stirrup. Wallace had his visor up still and Morgarath sneered as he studied the young face, fresh and unmarked so far by any scars of battle.

  We’ll soon change that, he thought to himself.

  “What do you want, boy?” he said, his tone dismissive and bored.

  Wallace went to speak, found his throat was dry with nerves. He swallowed twice, then managed to force the prescribed words out. “I stand here challenging you to a joust, Lord Morgarath. This is my right and privilege as a knighted warrior of the realm.”

  Morgarath sniffed sardonically, allowing his gaze to travel over the carefully polished arms and armor worn by the young man. There was not a dent or a scratch visible. Never seen a real fight, the Baron thought.

  He didn’t answer immediately, allowing the silence between them to stretch to an almost unbearable length while he kept his sardonic gaze on the young man.

  “Is it indeed?” he said finally.

  Wallace was a little taken aback. He had been expe
cting either acceptance or refusal. The question had no part in the set dialog for such occasions.

  “Er . . . yes,” he said.

  Morgarath muttered a reply in a low voice—so low that Wallace leaned forward in the saddle, frowning uncertainly. “I beg your par—”

  “I said I accept, you young idiot!” Morgarath roared at the top of his voice. The young battlehorse started at the sudden noise and took several nervous paces backward before its rider brought it under control. Wallace, by now thoroughly confused, wasn’t sure how to proceed.

  “Then . . . ,” he began, and faltered.

  “Thirty minutes. In the lists. Don’t keep me waiting,” Morgarath snapped. Then he turned on his heel and plunged back into his pavilion, calling for his armorers. Once out of sight, he smiled cruelly. He had successfully wrested the initiative from his young challenger and sowed a seed of uncertainty in his mind. All this was part and parcel of the mental game that one played in a challenge like this, and over the years, Morgarath had played that mental game more times than he could remember.

  Morgarath sat unmoving astride his dead-white battlehorse, Warlock, at the head of the tilt—the long meter-and-a-half-high board fence that separated the jousters as they thundered toward each other. His visor was down and he looked enormous and menacing in his glittering black armor and surcoat, relieved only by the lightning bolt in yellow on the breast of the garment. The same device was evident on his black-enameled shield. His helmet was plain and rounded at the top, with no ornamentation that might provide purchase for an opponent’s lance.

  The shield was a specialized tournament shield. Whereas a battle shield would often be slightly convex in shape to cause an opponent’s sword or lance point to glance off, those used in tournaments were concave, designed to allow a lance head to stay in contact with the shield and so facilitate the shattering effect that was sought after. Even a slightly off-center hit would tend to slide toward the middle of the shield.

  A well-directed center hit would, of course, deliver maximum impact to the shield, and could throw an opponent from his saddle, even while the light wood shaft shattered into splinters.

  Morgarath watched impassively through the slits in his visor as his green-armored opponent approached the far end of the list. One of Morgarath’s attendants brought over a lance and passed it up to him. He hefted it, testing its weight. Alone among the jousters, Morgarath had his jousting lances bound at intervals along the shaft with lead bands, to approximate the weight and balance of a heavier war lance.

  “Is this all right, my lord?” the attendant asked nervously. “Or did you want the other—”

  “Shut up, you fool!” Morgarath snarled, his voice echoing dully inside the helmet. The attendant backed hastily away, bowing his head obsequiously, cringing before his master’s anger.

  Morgarath balanced the butt of his lance in the leather cup on his right stirrup and waited. Wallace was having some trouble with his horse, he noticed. The young chestnut was prancing nervously, sensing the tension of the occasion. That probably meant his rider was nervous as well, Morgarath thought. Battlehorses were highly attuned to their riders’ moods. If a rider was nervous or uncertain, that would often communicate itself to the horse, who would behave accordingly.

  Warlock, of course, a veteran of hundreds of combats, stood steady as a rock beneath the ominous, all-black figure astride him.

  Finally, Wallace seemed to gain control of his horse, although the chestnut still pawed the ground with his front hooves and looked ready to burst out of control at any minute. The marshal standing close by him said something to the young knight. Morgarath saw him nod.

  There was another marshal standing at Morgarath’s end of the list. He looked up now at the sinister black figure, towering above him.

  “Are you ready, my lord?” he asked.

  “Ready.” Once again, Morgarath’s voice rang inside the steel helmet. He tossed the lance up and caught it at the balance point, behind the fluted handguard. The butt of the lance was thicker and heavier than the long shaft, to provide better balance. He tucked the butt under his right arm and held the lance at forty-five degrees. The marshal raised a flag, the action mirrored a few seconds later by the marshal at Wallace’s end of the field. Both riders were ready.

  In the center of the western grandstand, a herald raised a long trumpet to his lips and blew an ascending series of triple notes. As the last note died away, both riders clapped their spurs to their horses and started forward.

  Battlehorses were not racehorses. They didn’t leap forward, reaching full speed in a few strides. They were heavily muscled animals, bred to carry the enormous weight of an armored man, and to resist the thundering impact of another horse and rider’s charge.

  Warlock gathered speed steadily, reaching his top speed within fifteen meters. He powered toward their opponents, his hooves thrashing the earth beneath them, sending torn clods of dirt and grass high into the air. Morgarath leaned forward slightly in the saddle and began to lower his lance. Forty meters away, he saw Wallace doing the same. But the young knight’s horse was crabbing slightly to the right, losing speed and forcing Wallace to correct him with his knees instead of concentrating on where his lance would go.

  With ten meters to go, the young challenger got his horse under control and his lance point steadied, zeroing in on Morgarath’s black shield.

  The two combatants crashed together with a thunder of wood on metal. Morgarath’s lance hit dead center on Wallace’s shield. Wallace’s was slightly offline, and hit with reduced impact. Both lances bent alarmingly, then shattered into splinters, hurling slivers of white wood high into the air around them. Then the two warriors were past each other, their horses now at full tilt, their momentum carrying them on, in spite of the savage impact.

  A gasp rose from the watching crowd.

  Wallace, taking the full force of Morgarath’s lance before it shattered, had been sent reeling back in his saddle. The high rear cantle saved him from being hurled to the ground, but he slipped sideways, for a moment hanging out over the earth whirling past beneath him. Then he recovered, and the crowd let go a relieved sigh as he regained his seat, slowed his horse and cantered to the end of the list.

  Morgarath had been unmoved by the impact. Wallace’s lance shattering against his shield had caused him no more apparent concern than a faint movement to one side—almost imperceptible.

  He cantered to the far end of the list and turned Warlock to face back the way they had come. The imperturbable warhorse stood ready and unmoving. Each combatant had attendants waiting at the opposite end of the list with spare lances. Morgarath’s servant ran forward now and passed him a new lance.

  He watched as Wallace reached the opposite end and received a new weapon as well. But now the young knight’s battlehorse was thoroughly disturbed. He had felt his master being hurled backward and sideways by Morgarath’s strike, felt him struggling to regain his balance. And now he sensed the fear that had begun to take hold of the young knight. Never before had Wallace felt anything as devastating as that center hit upon his shield. For the first time, he began to appreciate the gulf between his level of skill and Morgarath’s. As he accepted his new lance, trying to calm his horse, he realized that he was seriously outclassed.

  Morgarath, on the other hand, was furious. The lance strike had been perfect—centered exactly on Wallace’s shield. Morgarath had felt the overwhelming force of the impact transmitted back through the lance and into his arm and body before the shaft had shattered. The young knight should have been hurled ignominiously into the dirt. But somehow, he had retained his seat. Morgarath had even heard some among the crowd cheering as the upstart managed to stay in the combat. That infuriated him. He was used to being the crowd’s favorite.

  Now Wallace would be taught a lesson.

  He raised his lance to the forty-five-degree point and nodded to the mar
shal below him. The man raised his flag, a few seconds before his opposite number did the same. The long trumpet was placed to the herald’s lips and the signal to charge rang in the air.

  Warlock began his measured, lumbering run. Once again, he slowly accelerated to top speed, his hooves thundering on the torn grass beneath them. As his horse’s gait steadied into a full gallop, Morgarath lowered his lance point, again seeking Wallace’s shield. He could see a mark in the green paint where his first stroke had hit. Wallace lowered his lance in turn, but Morgarath could see it wavering as the young challenger tried to keep it aimed at his shield.

  Then, in the final five meters, with exquisite timing and precision, Morgarath raised his lance point to aim for Wallace’s helmet.

  There was a ringing crash. The lance point snagged in the bars of Wallace’s visor and the young knight’s head was thrown back. His lance fell from his nerveless fingers as his body followed and he was hurled out of his saddle. At the very last moment, just before he lost consciousness, he had the instinct to kick his feet clear of the stirrups. Then he was driven several meters through the air by the savage impact, before he crashed to the turf. He lay still, half on his side.

  A horrified silence fell over the crowd. Watching from the grandstand, Arald shook his head in recognition of Morgarath’s skill. It had been a brutal stroke, but it was perfectly legal and expertly executed. There were few knights in the Kingdom with the skill to pull it off.

  A murmur of relief swept over the crowd as Wallace slowly began to move. He rolled onto his stomach, then got hands and knees beneath him and started to rise to his feet, swaying unsteadily, grasping at the central fence for support. Dirt and torn grass stained his tunic and armor. Someone cheered, then applause swept over the crowd, only to die away when they saw Morgarath rein in at the far end of the list and drop lightly to the ground, drawing his massive, two-handed longsword from the scabbard on Warlock’s saddle.

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