"The grand prize in His Majesty's tournament," bellowed the herald as he wrapped up the scroll with the king's declaration, "shall be a noble kiss from Her Highness, Queen Adela."
The queen's name echoed off the walls of the stable yard where the knights were gathered. "Adela, Adela, Adela."
Sir Arnost dropped the horseshoe he was holding. It hit his foot, but he wouldn't let the pain sully the moment. The thought of the queen's pure lips touching his ruddy skin made all of Arnost's breath slip away.
"That's pretty cheap!" Sir Odrick yelled to the herald. Other knights laughed.
The herald shrugged and walked away, his duty done.
"It's better than raising taxes again," Sir Mellam said.
"I don't mind raising taxes when the prize monies go to me." Odrick snorted and scratched the sides of his barrel-belly. "I wonder, do we have to keep the kiss, or can we tithe it to the church like Lansfrick does?"
The other knights laughed, all except Arnost.
He stood away from the group of knights, some still wearing bits of their practice armor. Most had stripped down to their shirts and lay on straw in the warm summer sun while their pages carted armor away to have dings polished out. Arnost was with the farrier, watching carefully as the man's skilled hands worked with his warhorse's hoof.
Now Arnost could not even see them. He still had visions of that day he first beheld the queen. One came upon him now, vivid and bright, as if she were standing before him. Her eyes shining like jewels, her hair of rich auburn, her soft, white shoulder . . .
Arnost winced against the vision until his sight went dark. He lost his balance and stumbled forward, finally catching himself with a hand on the warhorse's back. The horse sputtered his lips and stomped.
The farrier lunged out of the way of the enormous horse's hoof. "Watch it, oaf!"
Arnost stepped back. The world of the stable yard was clear around him again.
The farrier lay on the ground like an upturned turtle, kicking his legs to find balance on the straw and packed earth.
"Bumbling," he muttered, and then he stopped mid-curse. He looked up at Arnost through eyes filling with horror.
Arnost watched him. He was fully within his right to take up his sword.
The farrier knew it, too. He moved as if his body had gone slow. "I, I, um, sorry, milord. So sorry. I meant no—"
"It's nothing," Arnost told him. He shook his head. Did he hold the same fear in his eyes in days not too long ago?
"Oh, thank you, milord!" The farrier began to grovel. He suddenly found some speed about him and whipped himself to Arnost's feet, facedown. "Your mercy—"
"Shut up," Arnost mumbled. He left the farrier still groveling on the muck-stained straw.
His fellow knights were strewn over the stable yard. Many of them had moved into the shade now, taking sips from the bowls of water the pages brought around. Others were sprawled on makeshift beds, napping with their eyes open after a rigorous day of pounding at one another to keep their battle-skills sharp. The air was tart with the men's drying sweat.
"I don't see why the king's hosting a tournament in the first place," Sir Bonna was muttering. "Tomorrow's not a fair day."
"It's summertime, and there's no war on," Mellam told him. "An open tournament will give us a little diversion while the crops grow."
Odrick grunted. "With a prize like that, the king can have a tournament a week without worries to his coffers."
"Think many peasants will enter?" Sir Glowen asked.
"They should know better," Sir Usford replied.
Arnost sneered as he walked among them. These knights were children. They did know a hard day's work in yard as they trained, when sweat poured off a man's brow so heavily he couldn't see through the torrent. They knew pain, too. Arnost had dealt his fair share to them in mock-combats. But they didn't know what it was like to come home to an empty dinner table.
On tiptoes around the ranks of slumbering knights at a hurried step, Arnost's page raced toward him with a bowl of water that sloshed with every step.
"Care for a drink, Sir Arnost?"
Arnost gave a nod. "Yea, Roger."
Roger held up the bowl and gave a lopsided smile. The boy, now nearly a man with fuzz decorating his upper lip, was born in a castle somewhere in the dreary north. It was too minor of a landholding for Roger to be a page for a knight like Sir Lansfrick, but his father was too rich for him to be cast aside. So, he was granted to Arnost.
The bowl was half-empty from where it had spilled, and Arnost drained it dry with one sip. The water was cool and crisp, fresh from the deep well in the middle of the castle instead of the murky stuff from the sandy well nearby. Roger must have run the whole way.
Arnost handed him back the bowl. "Thank you, lad."
"Now here's a man excited to hear the grand prize!" Sir Odrick called. "Ain't that right, Arnie?"
A few of the knights chuckled.
Odrick sat up and clapped his hands on his knees. "Aw, come now, we're just teasing you. Everybody knows your fondness for the queen."
Behind his lips, Arnost ground his teeth.
"Tell you what, Arnie. I'll win the kiss for you, and then you can kiss my lips! Just the same, right?"
A shiver ran down Arnie's spine. His skin, hot in the sun, still turned to gooseflesh. He said with a growl, "You should show more respect for your queen."
Odrick waved a hand. "Aw, what Queen Addy-lala won't know can't hurt her."
Arnost pounced with the speed of a wolf. He grabbed Odrick by the neck of his shirt and hoisted him onto his feet. Odrick was taller than Arnost, and thicker, too. Yet Odrick's weight was in his gut, not like Arnost's tree-trunk arms and legs.
"That is not her name!" Arnost roared.
Hands of the other knights grabbed Arnost around his heavy shoulders. Bonna and Mellam grabbed Odrick, too, pulling him out of Arnost's grip.
"Calm down, Arnost!" Bonna cried.
"Odrick!" Mellam shouted. "You're going to get yourself hurt!"
Odrick squirmed free. He raised his fists. Bonna and Mellam stepped back with their hands in the air.
Odrick's fists unfolded. He laughed and pointed at Arnost. "Hurt by this dairy farmer?"
The words came as a slur, but Arnost found no pain in them. He tested the grips of the men holding him. Hilliac was there; Usford, Baub, and Glowen, too. They clutched him tight.
Odrick pounded his chest with his free hands. "I am a knight of the realm, as was my father, and his before him! This milksop, for all high and mighty as he pretends to be, is nothing before the rest of us. He can't even grow a proper beard!"
Arnost moved his hands slowly. The men's grips on his arms shifted to grant him some liberty. He stroked the patches of bare skin between the bristles on his pock-scarred face. "What kind of man judges another by his beard? Only one afraid of any test of strength or mind."
With a yowl, Odrick rushed forward. Bonna and Mellam were on him in an instant. They grabbed his hands, but they couldn't keep him from leaning so close that his gnashing teeth nearly reached Arnost's eyes. Breath laden with the stink of rotting meat swarmed Arnost's nostrils.
"You're not a noble," Odrick whispered.
Arnost shrugged against his knights' grip. "I never claimed to be."
Odrick sneered. It was the look of a boy whose sure-shot arrow somehow missed the deer.
"All right, lads," Mellam said smoothly. "Let's save it for tomorrow."
"Yea, settle it in the tournament," Usford added.
The other knights gave their own easing mumbles. Arnost sighed and nodded with them. He thought of combat, but his mind's eye traced back to the queen, who would be watching from her courtly seat. He winced again.
Odrick spat. "I'll have her before you ever do."
Arnost flung his arms back, kicking with his legs as he did. His whole weight fell against the knights behind him. Arnost felt their hands let go as they tried to catch their balance. Then he charged and planted the middle of his brow in Odrick's face like a bull defending his herd.
Odrick fell. Arnost again found himself pinned by his fellow knights. He did not struggle. Shouting and hurried footfalls of pages turned into a cacophony.
"Did you see that?"
"Let him lie!"
"Get some water!"
"Shall I summon the wizard? Perhaps his healing herbs—"
"Fetch the priest, more likely."
Arnost just stood and watched. Between the scurrying knights and pages, he saw flashes of Odrick's inward-turned nose, his face all painted crimson. Odrick had been something of a handsome man, but now no woman would want him, even with his lands and title.
Bonna stepped in front of Arnost and pointed a finger at him. "You better hope he survives the night."
"I do," Arnost admitted. "I hope he lives a long life."
Mellam appeared over Bonna's shoulder, wiping a hand across his forehead and leaving a red streak from where he had held Odrick. "If he doesn't, it could be murder in cold-blood."
"You all heard him insult the queen's honor. To testify otherwise would be a lie against the king and your own souls."
The knights all began mumbling. Hilliac and Usford let Arnost's arms go. The others on his hands and legs followed suit.
Arnost felt another hand on his elbow. It was Roger's shaky grip.
"Come, sir," he said. "We should get you cleaned up."
"Nay," Arnost said, shaking his head. "I must see my warhorse ready."
"I can see to that for you, sir," Roger told him.
Arnost ignored him. He went across the yard and away from the tangle of knights trying to heft Odrick back into the shade. Roger followed after.
Beside the stable, the farrier panted while he hammered the shoe onto the horse's foot. He glanced up at Arnost with a worried eye. If that is what Arnost could do to a fellow knight . . .
Arnost sighed. His being there would only burden the work and make it worse for the horse. He walked past the farrier into the stable. "Roger, come sit a while and let the man finish."
Roger mumbled and trotted after him.
The stable was quieter, free from all but a few gabbles of men in the yard. The creatures knew how to stand and even eat without filling the air with useless, harmful words. It was as cool as the stables of cattle back on the farm.
He stroked the mane of Baub's horse. The fool barely gave it any attention; it was no wonder that it stirred every time he mounted it in armor. Arnost had tried to tell him, but it was knowledge shared not by speech, only being with the horse. Men were so dull.
Perhaps it was because men, unlike animals, had the weight of sins on their minds. Arnost was a man, and there was a time to speak. He leaned onto a bale of hay to confess.
"Did I ever tell you how I became a knight, Roger?"
Roger's tense body relaxed like an unstrung bow. He grinned and leaned against the wood wall. "Everyone knows that story, Sir Arnost! You slew the Beast of Boorsbath! A horrible monster cat that was! Big as a horse, black as night, licking its claws with its nasty venom—"
Arnost held up a hand to stop Roger. "There wasn't venom. Peoples' minds go all fancy when a cut doesn't heal right, and claws make deep cuts. A big cat was all it was."
"As big as a horse!" Roger repeated.
"Yea," Arnost admitted. The cat really was that big. For every lie woven into a tale, there was a strand of truth. The huge paw had left deep marks in his right shoulder that went to the very muscle. Arnost survived the blow. The beast didn't. Its overreaching scratch left its belly wide open to Arnost's blade.
"And the skin rests on the back of your chair in the king's hall," Roger said. "It's a trophy worthy of any knight!"
"Yea, I won my knighthood, when I slew it." Arnost rubbed his pitted face. "But did you ever ask yourself: why did the king send a dairy farmer's son after the Beast?"
Roger opened his mouth wide, but then he stopped and closed it. After fluttering it a few more times, he finally said, "No, I don't know."
"It was for penance."
"That's the part of the tale best never repeated." Arnost leaned more heavily on the bale until he was practically lying. "Yet it must be, from time to time."
Roger only watched him, narrow-eyed.
"It was years ago," Arnost began. "I was a young man, a few years older than you but still at home. My father needed help growing up the herd. He planned to divide it to me when I wed, and I was as happy to aid him as he was to see me work hard.
"One warm day, warmer than this, we had a cow wander out of the field and into the woods. By the time it was out of sight, it was too far to leave the rest of the herd, so I drove them back to the common. Once I picked up the cow's trail, I followed after it all the way into the king's forest. I worried about being thought a poacher, but since it was my father's own animal and I carried no weapons, I decided to go on after it. The trail became thinner and thinner. I found and lost it what must have been five times, and then I heard some women's voices."
Arnost bit his tongue.
"Well, go on!" Roger cried. He calmed down and added, "Sir, if you please."
"It was the queen and her handmaidens."
"The queen? In the woods?"
Arnost nodded. "I didn't know it until I saw them. There were guards, but they were stationed far off the other way as the women . . . they were bathing in the glade."
The color drained out of Roger's face. "You saw . . . the queen . . . Oh, Sir Arnost!"
Arnost sighed so deeply his chest ached. "I meant no harm. I should have called out to them, but I was thunderstruck. It was a horrid trespass. The shrieks of the women roused the guards. They seized me . . . they should have killed me there."
Roger threw his hands up into the air. "Sir Arnost, no! You can't wish such things!"
"You don't know what it's like."
Roger slowly drew his hands down. "It's shameful, yes, but an accident! So, as you said, the king sent you on a quest to test your purity against the Beast of Boorsbath. And you passed! That day is gone. You're a knight now."
"A knight haunted by his sinful visions."
Arnost closed his eyes, and he could see Adela again. She stood just knee-deep in the sparkling water, her body lit by the sun pouring between the branches of the forest. His heart began to pound. He pressed his eyes tight, trying to drown the image in the blackness of his eyelids. He pressed tighter until he added pain to the darkness.
Roger cleared his throat. "So, the queen . . . is her form as beautiful as it seems from her gown when she bends—"
Arnost leaped to his feet and slammed a flat hand right onto his page's head. "Filthy-minded swine! Never think of your queen in such a way!"
Roger yelped and fell to the stable floor. He lay there amid the muck-crusted straw.
Arnost sneered. It was a fitting place for the lad . . . just as it was for him.
Arnost's sneer softened. He sat down beside Roger.
The lad had tears in his eyes, but he just stared. He didn't blink; he wouldn't let any drop fall. Roger's pupils danced under the warping water.
Arnost patted his shoulder.
Roger lay a moment longer before speaking softly. "You're a good man, Sir Arnost. You fought at the Battle of Ruggedown, where you pulled two wounded men out of the fray. You were the first to stand when the king asked for men to cleanse the Pressfield Wyrm. You never make demands while on a quest; you always pay your due. I say all these things as your page, but the truth remains that you are good. You should not worry about a little offense that happened so many years ago."
"The sin still lingers," Arnost said simply.
Roger sat up. "How do you know that? You're not a priest."
"I know my sin. It lives over and over in my mind."
"But not in your heart?"
Arnost pursed his lips and didn't answer.
"All men carry lust," Roger told him.
"What does a boy know about men?"
Roger scratched his head. "I don't know much, but I know that a man who doesn't act on his lust is better than one who assaults a lady."
"I've already assaulted her with my eye."
"You said that was a mishap. It was never your purpose."
"It happened. And it happens again and again every time I close my eyes. My sin has bored a hole into my very soul."
"Surely the queen has forgiven you?"
Arnost nodded, although he could only move his head so slightly that it was given away only when his patchy beard bushed up.
"And you've confessed?"
"Then why can't you forget it?"
Arnost tried to think, but all that filled his mind was the image of the queen. She turned toward him. The hairs on his neck rose. His heart began to pound. His breath became fast. The image grew. Was she walking toward him? Did she want him, too?
Roger stood up suddenly. Arnost blinked, and the queen was gone.
"It's obvious!" Roger cried. "The kiss!"
"Of course the kiss." Roger moved from foot to foot, dancing in his excitement. "Think of all the stories that end with a kiss awakening a cursed beauty or healing a mortal wound."
Arnost shook his head. "Those are just stories."
"But," Roger said, raising a finger and tapping his bare chin, "don't you think that a kiss from the queen could possibly help?"
"I . . ." was all Arnost could say. He had to think, and he was careful not to let the vision of the queen fill his mind. They had never touched. He had only seen. So many of his debauched dreams brought them to touch. Perhaps his mind was attempting to fill a void.
"Perhaps," Arnost said, clumsily pushing his thoughts into words, "perhaps knowing her touch would be the end of it."
"Exactly!" Roger clapped his hands once, and then the grin began to grow dim on his face. "Although . . . do you think you can win?"
Arnost looked at him.
Roger wrenched up his face. "No offense, milord! I just happened to think of the other knights, and while your skills are great, theirs . . ."
Arnost ignored him. "If God wills it, I will win. For my part, I will give it my all."
Roger's smile returned. "Then, sir, I must go polish your armor. I'll make it bright enough to blind your opponent!"
"And I should go train. Perhaps Glowen's still out there. He's quick, a good sparring partner."
Roger threw up his hands. "No, Sir Arnost, you've already trained all day! Your body will be weary! You must rest. Look, it's already turning to evening, and the king's dinner will be laid soon."
Arnost turned toward the stable entrance. The yard was not as bright as it had been. The sun must have been setting beyond the castle wall. The farrier was brushing Arnost's warhorse, newly shod.
"No," Arnost told Roger, "I will practice."
Without another word, he moved back into the yard. The other knights were gone, leaving behind a harried pattern of boot-prints and a red stain in the sand where Odrick had fallen. While the men were gone, the dummies still stood on their pivots, ready to swing a wooden blade at anyone who struck their standing shields. Arnost plucked up an ironwood sword, gave a yell, and charged them one after the next. He did not quit until the yard became so dark he couldn't see the targets on their shields.
In the king's hall, he ate meat and bread but drank little wine. The other knights whooped and cheered. Only King Walter's toast caused Arnost to raise his cup. When the food was gone, he did not stay to spin tales and laugh at the jesters.
Arnost slept, but not as peaceful respite. He slept as a chore. Just as the sun slept and then burst at dawn to drive the night away, Arnost slept to become strong.
He didn't awaken to dawn's light streaming in the window. He didn't awaken when the trumpets began to blow for competitors to gather on the tournament field. Roger had to shake him awake. Arnost washed only his face that morning.
Roger stood beside him with a towel. "Are you well, Sir Arnost? Tournaments are dangerous enough at your peak."
"I will fight anything to be rid of my wicked visions," he replied.
By the time Arnost arrived, fresh from the dressing tent where Roger suited him in the armor that bearers had brought down in carts, the field was packed with warriors. Most were the king's knights, shining in the morning sun with their bold standards, newly repainted for show. A few were peasants, dressed in their ruddy tunics and armed with pitchforks or flails. The peasants parted as he came into the crowd until he hit the wall of men in iron. There he stood with Baub and Glowen.
The knights were centered on Sir Lansfrick, who stood tall with his helmet under his arm and his yellow locks floating in the morning breeze. The other knights wore their helmets, shifting their eyes to see who hadn't shown up for the tournament. Orick's page stood with his boar's head flag atop a pole to mark his absence.
"He's not dead then," Arnost mumbled. He changed his grip on his sword in one hand and his shield along the other arm.
"No," Baub answered, his voice tempered by his helmet. "It'll be a long while before he fights again."
"It'll be a long while before he speaks anything against the queen again," Arnost added.
Glowen coughed. "It'll be a long time before he speaks any words."
A roar rose up from the wooden risers full of spectators. Trumpets blared. Knights upheld their swords. Arnost followed suit, as did the peasants with their farming tools.
King Walter appeared atop the royal stand. While the crowd sat in the sun, his wooden box was shaded with rich drapes and purple tapestries showing his bear standard. He waved and turned back with a hand extended.
From the shadowy stairs at the back of the stand, Queen Adela appeared. Her hair was completely hidden, wrapped under a white cap fitted with her thin golden wreath of a crown. The white cloth covered her neck and extended down beneath her collar. Her gown was soft blue and covered with golden embroidery of the phoenix of her father's family. Only the fine features of her face showed.
Arnost's armor seemed to strangle him. The air felt too hot to breathe.
King Walter gave an address, but Arnost heard little of it. He tried to train his eyes on the ground before him, but they slid up again and again to the woman standing beside Walter.
He stamped on his own foot and reminded himself, "She is your queen."
At last Walter and Adela stepped back, trumpets sang, and people began to shuffle around Arnost. He took in a gasp of air. Suddenly he was awake.
It was the Great Match, the first round of the tournament that would cut its number of competitors in half. Each man found a rival, and the two fought until one stood to continue in the games. Heavily armed knights hurried to grab peasants as opponents for easy victories. The peasants tried to scatter away from them or take hold of one another's shoulders, but inevitably they ended up paired against a hulk clad in steel. A few of the knights came against one another, ready to fight out their quarrels. Ornost's page forfeited and ran.
Arnost took a peasant as his own foe, a gangling and strangely tall young man with a scraggly beard grown long despite its thinness. He held with both hands a long threshing flail, well used sticks of yew joined with a chain.
"Please don't kill me!" the peasant said in a ragged whisper. "I'm only here to prove my bravery to my sweet Belinda. Once she sees me on the field of battle, she'll—"
Arnost interrupted. "When the trumpets blow, take a swing at me."
The peasant still stared.
"Fight me for your Belinda."
Finally the peasant nodded. He began to smile.
Arnost growled. "Take your love seriously. She's watching, isn't she?"
The peasant stopped smiling and raised his flail.
Heralds sounded their trumpets, and the combat began. All around them, weapons began clattering against one another. A few men gave hurried cries of surrender that stood out shrill against the bestial grunts of attackers.
The peasant didn't strike as quickly as Arnost hoped. He pulled his sword back and made a slow, easy jab toward his foe's right.
The peasant dodged away. His face was pale, yet a fire started in his eyes.
Arnost smiled under his helmet.
The peasant charged with a wide swing of his flail. Arnost caught it easily against his shield. The force almost brought him to one knee, but Arnost pushed himself backward and wedged his boots into the dusty ground to keep his footing. He made another relaxed jab at the peasant, who again dodged.
They traded blow after blow like that. The peasant did well enough; Arnost would ask for him if he ever commanded a march of infantry.
The barks of battle began to wane around them. While taking cover under his shield for their rhythmic game, he looked around the field. Most of the peasants were on the ground, knights standing over them. A few knights, too, had tumbled. Baub had knocked down Glowen. Apparently they had moved too slowly to get one of the easy matches against a peasant.
Arnost looked back over his shield. The peasant was standing light on his feet. He had his flail twisted back, expecting a jab over which he could attack.
"Time to end this," Arnost said, although he doubted the peasant could have heard over the battle-clatter.
Arnost made a quick jab to the far right. The peasant dodged to the left and leaned farther over to give weight to his flail as he swung. Instead of readying to block the blow as he had before, Arnost leaped with his shield in front of him. He hit the peasant squarely in the chest and followed him to the hard ground. They landed with a thud, and Arnost heard the peasant give a moan of air rushing out of his lungs.
The peasant lay still while Arnost got back to his feet.
"You're all right," Arnost assured him.
The only response was a dull groan.
Trumpets blew a fanfare. Families of the foolhardy peasants raced onto the field to collect their fallen. The knights unable to stand were carried off the field by pages and bearers in bright courtly costumes. Arnost could already hear the teasing jabs forming about them. At least none of Odrick's sing-songs would be heard.
Arnost walked around his former enemy, still pinned to the ground as if held by an invisible giant's hand. A peasant girl brushed past the knights. She fell to her knees next to the peasant and smothered his face with kisses.
"Your bravery is unmatched!" she told him.
He groaned in reply and took her in his arms.
Arnost felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He shuddered to chase away the feeling and continued toward the tents. As he left the field, servants rushed to set up the posts and rails for the joust.
Roger appeared at his side with a bowl of water. "So, halfway there!"
Arnost slipped his helmet off and shook his head. "Most of that half was never my opponent."
He poured the water over his sweat-lined hair.
They sat quietly until another fanfare of trumpets sounded the joust. Arnost stood without a word and went to his warhorse. Roger trotted behind him.
The horse stood proud in his stall. As Arnost came close, he whinnied and stamped his newly shod hoof.
Arnost touched his nose. "Carry me true, my boy."
The horse blew air over his lips. Arnost patted his neck. He handed Roger the reins, and they walked together toward the crane that would lift him into the saddle.
One or two peasants had made it this far, but knights quickly unseated them from their huge, borrowed warhorses. It had taken Arnost years to catch up with the horsemanship of men who had grown up on horseback. Now he faced Sir Baub, who rode under his green flag with three ravens.
Baub's horse tossed its head. His hand with the reins pulled far back to hold it in place. The horse took a step sideways.
Arnost shook his head and patted his own horse's calm mane.
At the judge's call, Arnost goaded his horse on with his heels. He charged as close to the rails as he could. Baub's horse leaned away, instinctively out of the path. Baub leaned far toward the rail, forcing his horse back into line by his armor's weight.
Arnost struck wide on Baub's far side, sending him tumbling off the saddle and gut-first onto the rail. When he came to the end of the field, Arnost turned his horse around to see if Baub survived the fall. He did, and the tournament went on.
He next unseated Usford under his standard of deer at the river crossing, then Hilliac, who roared as piercingly as the gryphon on his flag when he fell on the third pass. Sir Bonna stayed in the saddle, but he held up his broken spear between charges in surrender. Arnost saluted him.
When Sir Mellam fell, he climbed to his feet and dusted off his shield until the white branches of his family oak shined. He wasn't going to give up without combat. The crowd of peasants roared. The court clapped their hands politely.
Arnost nodded inside his helmet. He dismounted while Roger held his horse, then the page handed him his sword. Arnost did his best to approach Mellam without looking back at the royal box.
Mellam raised his own sword to Arnost. "Didn't think I'd let you off that easy, did you?"
"I hear your words, but they might best be directed at yourself," Arnost told him. He took the hilt of his sword in both hands. "I hope you enjoy this, but I must be victorious."
"Shall we try, then?" Mellam called.
Arnost took a breath. "Go."
Mellam moved forward; Arnost moved back. The two danced, trading blows and moving their feet to gain the upper hand. It was the same as practicing in the yard, though their swords were sharper and the shouts from the crowd were louder.
Arnost kept his breath and thought. Something was off with Mellam's usual rhythm. He fell back only in one direction, leading Arnost toward the crowd, toward the royal box where the queen sat. Her face caught his eye. Was she smiling?
Mellam's sword slammed into his helmet. Arnost retreated three steps across the dusty ground. His ears rang, but he had fallen out of the spell.
"You're clever," Arnost yelled at him.
Mellam replied only with narrowed eyes behind the slits in his helmet. He sidestepped, again placing himself in front of the royal stand. To see him, Arnost would have to look toward the queen.
Without raising his head, Arnost charged. His armored shoulder met Mellam's breastplate, and he flung the knight off his feet. Even before he landed, Mellam, dropped his sword and raised his hands. He was done. Pages dashed onto the field to collect him.
Arnost was panting as he left the field. He wanted to drag his sword on the ground, let it carry some of the burden, but he would not. Roger took it from him as soon as he got back to his horse. The next knights came on the field, and the tournament went on.
There were still more than a half-dozen knights to beat, but Arnost was close. He let himself steal glances at the royal box, where the queen sat watching. Her eyes were dull as the other knights battled. If she had been smiling before, it was for him.
Arnost felt his heart become light. His whole body eased. His armor seemed not to press him at all. He still could not catch his breath. His lips felt dry under his gasping, but soon they would meet the warmth of the queen's own—
His dream broke under Roger's trembling voice. "Sir Arnost, they're calling you."
Arnost made one final gasp. He looked around himself. Without a word, he hurried to the crane and mounted his horse. Roger's hands were clumsy and shaking as he worked the crank. Arnost landed atop his horse with a thud.
"What's the matter with you, boy?" Arnost called.
"It's Sir Lansfrick."
"Lansfrick? What of him?"
"You're fighting him next."
Arnost felt his face go cold. He was glad to have his helmet to hide behind.
Sir Lansfrick was the king's champion, the greatest knight in all of the realm, perhaps the kingdom's three neighbors, too. Arnost would of course have to defeat him for the prize, but he wasn't ready yet. He still had so many others to fight. He should work up to the greatest foe.
Arnost bit his tongue. This was the penalty for his arrogance to think a queen would smile at a dairyman's son.
"So be it," Arnost said.
Roger led the warhorse to the field. Sir Arnost held his spear in a loose hand. His muscles seemed turned to stone. His back ached.
Across the dusty ground, Sir Lansfrick rode atop his ghostly white horse, waving to the crowd. His blue banner with its golden eagle flew out behind him. His armor shone like the sun.
Everyone cheered, from the screaming peasant girls to the ladies of the court, who waved their kerchiefs at him in hopes he would pick one of them. Lansfrick refused to chose; he bowed to them all in turn. At last, he stopped his horse in front of the royal stand to blow the queen a kiss. She smiled and nodded.
Arnost tightened his grip on his spear until he heard the sound of his knuckles cracking. He spurred his warhorse and left Roger behind him.
Lansfrick collected his own spear from his velvet-dressed pages and lined up at the end of the rail opposite from Arnost. Lansfrick's horse stood statuesque; Arnost's stirred and stamped. Arnost placed a hand on the horse's mane. The sun seemed to go dim as he waited. He heard only silence until the judge gave his call.
When the cry came, Arnost slapped his horse's side. He watched Lansfrick spur his own steed. The two charged at one another, leaning heavily on their spears.
Still yards away from Lansfrick, Arnost's horse fell out from under him. He tumbled forward, over the horse's head and to the ground. The horse gave a horrid scream. Arnost just let out his breath.
A wave of dust flew up, and then came a rush of pain along his shoulders and arm. Brown clouds flew against his eyes. Arnost imagined he must have made noise as he rolled, but he didn't hear anything above the yelling crowd.
Finally it ended. Arnost coughed at the dust and turned over onto his shoulder. His horse was on its side, kicking its legs. One stuck out, twisted. The horse had thrown its shoe, tripping as it did its duty to charge. The farrier's fearful hands had done poor work. Now it took the skillful work of a man with a knife to end the horse's pain. Arnost closed his eyes out of respect; his last sight was Roger leading a band of pages to drag the horse away.
Out of the darkness behind his closed eyes, the queen came to him again. She raised her hands from the gentle curve of her hip and reached out to Arnost. He wanted to raise his own hands, but his arms were so tired. Still she beckoned him. Her eyes pleaded with him, wet with worry.
Arnost opened his own eyes. If he lay much longer, the judge would name Lansfrick the winner. He had to get up.
Arnost gritted his teeth and shoved himself more fully onto his side. He pushed against the ground with his shield. His arm ached, and he bit his tongue to let the sharp pain he controlled drown out the grinding pain he didn't. Once he could move his legs, he was on his knees, then to his feet.
The crowd gasped and screamed. Arnost dusted off his shield. He had to fight on.
Sir Lansfrick hopped down from his pale horse and waved his sword to the crowd. They roared again for him.
"Good show, Arnie," Lansfrick said through his helmet as he approached.
"I heard what you did to Odrick yesterday," Lansfrick went on. "About time somebody taught that pig a lesson. I'm only sorry it wasn't me."
"Are we talking or fighting?"
Sir Lansfrick let out a merry laugh and raised his sword. "Whatever you like."
Arnost said nothing. He took a breath, changed his stance, and took a stab at Lansfrick.
His helmet rang with a bitter noise. A wild force threw him to the ground. The world went dark for a moment, and then he looked up again. There was only blue sky, and then a shadow.
Lansfrick stood over him, sword raised triumphantly. He had knocked Arnost down in one blow.
"No!" Arnost screamed. He threw himself up to sit on the ground.
Lansfrick turned. "What are you doing, Arnie?"
Arnost forced his legs under him and stood.
"I bested you fairly," Lansfrick told him.
Arnost raised his sword. "I am still on my feet."
He took a swing. Lansfrick deflected the blow with his shield and stabbed. Arnost took the scratch to the hip in exchange for a better swing at Lansfrick's arm. The other knight dodged back, and then the world spun around Arnost again. His body hit the ground hard again. Squeals rang in his ears. His neck ached.
Gradually, the sharp ringing gave way to dull thuds of blood in his hears. Arnost moaned. The crowd roared.
"No," Arnost mumbled to himself. It was all he could say.
Again he forced his chest to rise and his legs to push him up.
Lansfrick was again waving to the crowd. Again, he turned. He did not laugh this time. "Arnie, stop this."
Arnost shook his head. He could feel dents in his helmet. "I cannot."
Lansfrick came close, his sword lowered. "I know about your shoulder, Arnost. That old cat-wound keeps you from raising your sword-hand much above your ear. All I have to do is stay ahead of your sword and knock you down. I can defeat you a hundred times."
"But not a thousand times," Arnost muttered. He held up his sword. "Again."
Lansfrick stepped back to a decent range and readied. They fought. Arnost made several jabs, but again he fell. Warm, sticky blood began to trickle down inside of his helmet.
Arnost pushed back to his feet.
Lansfrick kicked the dust. "Please, stay down. Let's stop this."
Arnost said nothing. He only stood. "I will not fall before you."
"You're tired and wounded. Yield."
"Not before you do."
Arnost attacked. Lansfrick defended. Again, Arnost hit the ground. Again, he stood.
"I admire you," Lansfrick said. "Your fortitude, unimaginable!"
Arnost blinked blood out of his eyes. Was Lansfrick short of breath?
"If it were not a matter of honor," Lansfrick went on, "I would step aside, but as the king's champion . . ."
Arnost attacked. Lansfrick defended. Arnost struck him three times before he fell again. His legs did not hurt as they did before. Now they were tingling as if he had sat on them too long. He stamped them as he stood up.
Lansfrick's voice was frantic. "I can't lose to you! I'm the king's champion!"
Arnost attacked. Lansfrick defended. Arnost fell. He stood again, now using his sword like an old man's stick. He couldn't tell the roaring of the crowd from the roaring inside his head. His shield-arm hung loose, but he raised his sword.
Lansfrick stood coddling his. "If you will not stop, I might kill you."
"I will not stop."
Lansfrick took in a rasping breath, but he said no more.
They fought. Arnost fell. It seemed like midnight as he forced himself to stand again: dark, cool, quiet. Something heavy fell from his shoulders. His breastplate's leather strap must have broken. He would fight on.
The crowd had stopped roaring. Even the well-bred courtiers in their boxes were staring with their mouths open. Arnost could hear only warbling words trickle from the stands. Many were swears to the Lord; some were mumbles of pity. A boy was crying.
Arnost raised his sword.
"This . . . this isn't honorable," the deep voice of King Walter muttered.
Lansfrick stood before him as a shadow. His sword trembled.
Arnost took in a deep breath. His mouth tasted of sharp copper. He lifted his sword.
Lansfrick stood still. Was he holding a defensive position? Was he considering a yield? It was hard to see, and the darkness was getting deeper.
The deep breath slipped out of Arnost's mouth. His chest caved in under him, and his sword gained a thousand tons. He fell forward, forcing his left leg to drop so he landed on his side instead of his blade.
Everything became black. Then there was noise. Unseen hands moved him onto his back.
Light came into Arnost's eyes. The queen was above him. She must have rushed down from the stands with the others.
Arnost winced at her shining face, but he could not bear to look away.
It was not her body he saw. Only her face, surrounded in its clean white cap, crowned with her twist of gold. Her jewel-eyes sparkled with tears.
There was no lust in his heart. Arnost loved her truly.
"Sir Knight," Adela said softly, her voice so much more timid than the shrieks he had first heard from her, "I should kiss you."
Arnost bit his tongue, but he felt no pain there. "No, I did not prove my worth."
Her white hand pulled back Arnost's battered visor. It squeaked and stuck midway. She did not recoil. "This I give freely."
She kissed him. Arnost felt her warmth against his own cold lips.
The tournament went on. Its winner was not recorded in annals.
Yet, in the chronicles of Sir Roger the Pious, amid his adventures in the Hellsmouth Cave and pursuit of the Drake of Fienlein, he tells those he meets time and again of his tutor, Sir Arnost, the peasant-knight who died with a smile on his face.
Copyright © 2015 Jeff Provine
"Kiss from a Queen" is the winner of the 2015 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. More on author Jeff Provine can be found here.