October 4th, 2020
Tournament DayThe tournament’s climax is to be a bout between two gigantic men on horses of equally prodigious size. One grey with chestnut legs, black spots and a mane that hangs shaggy over his baleful brow, this is the visitor, who journeyed from the depths of forest country, slung across his saddle the body of his page who perished in the snow. The other, jet black with a streak of white running like a scar across their flank, towering above the groom who nervously eyes the beast, shuffling in their leather strapped boots, eagerly waiting for the tournament to begin and the chance to be out of the animal’s glare. Both stand now, with riders astride, the foreigner against the home-grown champion. With a bow they click their heels and make swift way to the tilt’s ends, one towards the lake, the other at the forest’s edge, where the trees’ shadows are creeping across the cut meadow. The sun has peaked and now sits low in the autumn sky, casting lengthening shadows across the fields that surround the castle, reflecting in the ponds and lakes where geese and swans flock and scatter, lazily ready to tuck beaks for the night. The trees are rustling the season’s change and will deliver soon to the darkening earth their great boughs of curling leaves, so the lawns by the castle walls will be an ocean of reds and browns and the weary of the royal gardeners to gather and press for their muddy slurry, spread to the fields for the new year. The black horse, bred in the castle stables, trained in the castle barracks, run through the very earth on which now they stand, is calm. It’s rider, a large, top-heavy man sits like a barrel atop a mountain in preparation to lean and weigh on, his weight masterfully adjusted to bear down through his lance. The crest of his helm catches the sun’s light and glints, daringly in the eyes of the onlookers, who watch with bated breath, anxious for the clash to come. They shuffle with the frightening anticipation of thundering hooves and crashing steel, of lance point against heavy shield, splintering wood as the shaft breaks into a thousand pieces, the body hitting the floor, the cheers from those gathered to witness the carefully organised destruction. Opposite, on the other side of the tilt stands the chestnut, stamping and wheezing, the giant aside them looking less comfortable on horseback than they might do on the ground. In their hands the lance, pointing skywards for now, wobbles and shakes, the weight uneven and unwieldily in hands more accustomed to hatchets and knives than these cumbersome spears. On his head he wears a simple metal crown, his tangle of knotted, braided hair held back in a rough tail that swings as he stretches his neck to one side, then the other. From each end they signal their readiness, one visor down, one roar of defiance and the horses are spurred to the point. Sand flies in swirling clouds, beaten from the hard earth by the iron shoes that canter down the tilt, thumping a heavy rhythm that slips in and out of time, echoing across the empty grounds and up to the castle walls. From the barricades the guards stop and squint out into the sunset, tensed in anticipation of the snap. Seconds later the rumbling thunder of hooves is broken by a wild cheer from the spectators, but which way? The crowd had been undecided, only having been briefed on the new-comer by the rumours spread through the castle grounds that day. In the dead of night under a waxing moon the challenger had arrived with a heavy fist slamming roughly on the keep’s great wooden doors. Giving no explanation for their journey, which must have taken weeks if not months, they laid forth their challenge, and went swiftly to bed, the tournament arranged for the following day. Gracious as ever, the Lady of this land had offered a delay, for health to be recovered and the wearying wounds of travel seen to, but to no avail. Word was sent through to the reigning champion, who was as surprised by the sudden events as the rest of the court, none being able to think of a reason. So the whispers has begun, flooding the courtyards of the castle with stories of the wild people in the East, the wild people in the West, the wild people in the North, the wild people in the South, and even the wild people who lived in their very land. By the time the sun had begun its decline not one person had escaped the inquisition of gossip that spread like a plague from household to market, carrying the nonsense of a contented, yet bored people, for whom this new excitement in their lives was unheard of and, secretly, eagerly welcomed. Yet none of that mattered when the two men rode down from the castle stables, side by side they proved their respect, without the need for words, and took up their places at each end of the dusty strip. A simple announcement was made to begin proceedings, the mysterious nature of the bought meaning no grand introductions or proclamations could be made, the only certainty was the resolution in the eyes of the visitor when he had stood before the court, and respectfully demanded of the Lady there that his challenge be met. The birds circle, the horses breath hard, the crowd are stunned as attendants rush to the fallen, their helmet bent in on one side, arm angled worryingly underneath them. A groan came from the man who was carried away, a messenger running to the Lady who stood, concern etched into her brow. A whisper in her ear and her face eases, though not completely, as the full weight of the events begins to dawn upon her. The challenger in the night, the clash under the sun, perhaps something was going to happen.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale