Chapter 15- The Tournament of the Squires
After Perrin disappeared from the meadow, murmuring that "they knew where to find him when and if she was ready" as he did, Alice and Wren walked back toward the castle in silence. Wren continued casting glances at Alice all the way, questions obvious on his face. Alice understood. She imagined that any of her other friends who knew of the curse would react similarly if they could see what she had done. Still, she waited until he asked when they were halfway back to attempt an explanation.
"You didn't have him lift the curse?"
Alice shook her head, then hesitated, adding in thought, "Not yet anyway."
"But… but after everything you've been through. After being trapped in that pit, and the knights mocking you back at Bear's Teeth, and not being able to warn the town. I thought it would be all you wanted."
"I know, but…" She paused, looking up at him strangely. "How did you know about the knights mocking me?" Although she had told Wren about her curse, she hadn't gone so far as to tell him about her involvement with Bear's Teeth for the last years.
Wren suddenly wouldn't meet her gaze, fumbling with his words as he tried to come up with an excuse. She suddenly remembered when Perrin mentioned in passing that Wren only had half the story and when Wren himself had mentioned that his master had told him "stories" about her.
"Wren, what has Faer… has Perrin told you?" she asked suspiciously, unable to stop the idea of Wren knowing his master's identity all along. Wren seemed to sense this suspicion for he immediately looked up, his eyes hurt at the idea that she would suspect him of betrayal.
"I had no idea that he was the sorcerer who cursed you! He never told me that!"
Alice paused, noticing for the first time the moisture rimming Wren's eyes, and she realized that this revelation was not only massive for her. Wren had looked up to Faer since he was a child. She couldn't imagine what seeing him this way would do to him. She set her other hand on his shoulder.
"Of course he didn't," she thought. "I'm sorry."
Wren sniffled, turning away so she couldn't see his face.
"He would tell me stories," he mumbled. "About far off places, powerful sorcerers. I never expected he was telling them about himself. And… and he told me about you too, since I was young. He told about a girl named Alice Moore who was cursed and couldn't speak, and even though she was, she still hoped. That's a story you don't hear much when you're a slave. It helped me those first few years. And then he told me new stories, stories he'd heard. How Alice Moore left home and how she chased a bluebird and fell down a pit, how she warned the Bear's Teeth of coming danger, tamed a monstrous horse. I always longed to meet you. Then I came home from France and my master brought me to the tavern, he said he had a surprise, and I looked up and there you were. I knew it straight off, he'd described you so many times."
"That night when you were hiding in the stable. You knew about the curse before you touched my hand," Alice thought.
He nodded. "My master told me it was a grave secret, and that I couldn't even tell you that he had told me. So I decided that I must do my best to become one of the lucky few you told about the curse yourself. I honestly didn't think it would work." He couldn't help but laugh a little, and Alice had to laugh too.
"I thought you seemed a little too excited to learn about a curse."
"I was more excited that you were the one telling me it." His expression changed, and he turned back to her. "But you're really not going to have him take it from you? I mean I thought..."
"I know it doesn't make sense, does it?" Alice thought with a sigh, feeling both foolish and relieved for her answer to Perrin, and all the more confused by her own response. "I don't know, perhaps it seems so sudden. I mean it's my entire life that would be changing, and I like how things are. I've waited all my life to have what I have now. Friends, warmth, a place to call home… Besides, I think I haven't done so terribly for myself with the curse, have I? It wouldn't change anything, would it?"
Wren watched her for a moment, and Alice couldn't help but think what a let down it must be for him, seeing the person who had been something of a hero to him like this. She wondered at first if he was disappointed, but when he spoke he did not seem at all bitter.
"You remind me of a boy I once knew as a slave. One day I thought I might have a chance of escaping, and I urged him to go with me. At first I thought because he feared being captured and flogged, but when he talked he talked only of his fear of trying to adjust to a new land. We were very far from home, you see, and he had been taken from home much younger than me. He thought if he went back he would not be able to find his way in the city of his birth and he certainly would not know how to survive wherever we were then. Besides, all he knew was servitude. He was terrified that he wouldn't be able to do anything else.
"Well, I was stopped before I could try to escape then, so I suppose it ended up being for the best, but I always wonder what would have happened to that boy if perhaps his master died suddenly or if one day he broke off his manacles and shouted 'You're free!'. I always wondered if he would fall at his feet and continue there rather than face such a terrifying change."
He smiled, setting a hand on her shoulder. "It is your life and your voice, no one can make the choice for you. And whatever you decide, I will never stop thinking you're a wonder."
In the distance, there was clamouring of trumpets, followed by a raucous cheer.
"It sounds like the tournament will be starting soon, we don't want to miss anything," Wren said with a smile. "This is simply a day of legends!"
With that he ran ahead toward the arena. Alice lingered a moment, glancing back toward the woods where Perrin had left her before rushing ahead into the crowds.
It took a great deal of weaving through the crowds for her to locate any of her friends. Eventually she found Toby and Gerard as well as Clark where the rest of the already armored squires stood around. Alice had to pause when she saw them, struck by how truly like knights Toby and Gerard looked in their borrowed armor, and how much they had grown since she first met them by the fireside at Bear's Teeth. Even Clark, who wore no armor but a white strip of cloth around his upper arm. While she stood thinking this, Toby glanced up and waved her over with a grin.
"There you are. Right on time. I wouldn't dream of going out onto the field without a blessing from Lady Bluebird Chaser," he said giving an overly humble bow. Alice laughed, pantomiming with jesting importance laying the sword on his shoulders as though she was dubbing both him and Gerard. When she came to Clark he gestured away her imaginary sword.
"Don't look at me, Fendrel just pulled me to act as a medic."
"In other words, Fendrel managed to drag him away from Lady Elena to be a medic," Toby added with a smirk, to which Clark flushed scarlet and muttered,
"Shut up, Toby."
Alice laughed, and as she did she noticed a round, wooden shield lying by Toby's feet. It was painted with the image of a bright red rooster. Alice gestured toward it in curiosity, and Toby nodded toward it fondly.
"Ah, that. That would be my symbol for the tournament. The mighty cock. Gerard's got the bull. As if there was any other choice."
She glanced toward Gerard, noting the shield he held at his side and the bull that decorated it.
"It's a tradition of tournaments of this sort," Toby explained. "Since everyone will be wearing a helmet, they give every squire a shield decorated with a different heraldic animal to help the audience to keep track of their favorites once the fighting starts. Oliver's off getting his shield now. Of course he'll be getting the bear. It's tradition for the squires who come from knightly stock to choose the animal that your father wore on his shield. Makes me glad my father's not a knight. If he was I'd have to pick a bow, and after the snide comments I heard from some of the squires about my hair… Well, let's just say I'm excited to make them eat those words when the last thing they see before I knock them out is another red plumed bird."
"Careful, Toby," Gerard warned. "The ones who spend the whole fight thinking about revenge get distracted and taken out right away."
"Oh, don't worry about me, Gerard. You just focus on making those dear eyes in the audience proud."
Gerard nodded, his eyes alight in unadulterated joy. "Do you think she'll be proud of me, Toby?"
"Of course she will, Gerard, why wouldn't she be?"
Gerard looked down at his feet, mumbling a little bashfully, "Well, it's just I expect that she must be a little ashamed, what with me being me and all. You know how the town is… about me and my family. And I'm not even a knight, least that's what the knights think…"
Toby's eyes blazed and he gripped his friend's arm. "Don't think about all that, Gerard. You were a knight the second you fought your way to the front of the crowd of boys in the village thirteen years ago, and when you get out there it isn't going to matter a stitch what they think you are. It won't matter a stitch what anyone in the village thinks you are. It isn't even going to matter what Mary thinks you are. Because when you go out there, you're already going to be it whether they like it or not. Understand?"
Gerard nodded, and Toby allowed his intensity to soften into a smile and a laugh. "And don't worry about Mary. She was proud of you when you dreamt of being a shepherd, and that isn't going to change now."
This was enough to set the fire in Gerard's belly once again. He would have put his helmet on then and there, if Toby had not stopped him with a laugh,
"Well, hold on a second, Galahad. There's time yet before the tournament. Though not too much time." He frowned, glancing off toward where some other squires were gathered, holding shields.
"I wonder where Oliver is. He went to get his shield ages ago."
"Maybe he's off with Lady E?" Clark suggested.
"No, she's up in the stands with everyone else. He wouldn't have gone up there."
Alice suggested in gestures that she go and find him, and slipped off into the crowd. She first went to the table where they were passing out shields, and when she didn't see him there amongst the jesting and bickering squires she continued her way through the stablehands and the knights who were already readying for the joust. She found him nearly by chance sitting on a wooden bench, somewhat hidden behind the support beams of the stands, dressed in all of his armor except his gauntlets and helmet. He held his shield in his hands, gazing presumably at the picture, his eyes clouded with thought. When he noticed her approach he immediately put the shield down. He chased away his previous expression with a smile.
"You finally found your way to the arena, and with no new wounds to speak of."
Alice nodded with a laugh, sitting beside him on the bench. "Toby and Gerard were looking for you, and I said I would go find you. How are you feeling?"
"Feeling? Oh, fine. Nice weather and all that. It's hard to be in a bad mood when the sun's out." Alice waited, watching his face steadily until his eyes sank and he admitted at a bit of a mumble, "Which is to say I am utterly terrified, and I don't really know why."
Alice brushed his hand with her own. "Are you nervous for the tournament?"
"Yes and no. I mean, I guess I'm not worried for the fighting part. All the weapons are blunted, and no one's striking to kill. It's just… I don't know, this feels like the most knightly thing I've ever done. Yesterday I could just forget about all my reservations and just do what I had to do, but this… It feels so public. Like I'm making a statement, and I don't know what I'm trying to say."
Oliver hesitated, before slowly picking up the shield, glancing around to be sure no one else was watching, and showing her the picture. There was a dog painted on it, golden as his hair. It took Alice a long moment to see anything particularly odd about it until she remembered what Toby said about the traditions involving those from "knightly stock" and their shields. She glanced up at him, noting the guilt in his expression. Before she could comment he muttered,
"I can already hear them whispering about me, praising me for shunning my father's treachery or cursing me for turning my back on him."
"Is that why you didn't pick the bear?"
"Of course not! I mean, not exactly…" He shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "I don't know why I did it. I had every intention of picking the bear. I even had my hand on the shield, but something in me wouldn't sit right about it. I kept thinking about what they told us when they were explaining the shields, that this symbol would represent us in the eyes of the crowd, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't stop thinking how much I didn't want to be the bear. Not just that, I wasn't the bear. Toby picked a rooster- that's definitely him, short tempered, big personality, will peck the eyes out of anyone who threatens his brood. Gerard, bull, big eyed and incredibly strong. But me? A Bear? Come on, look at me. No one would believe it. Then I saw the dog."
He slid his hand across the shield in the way he would stroke Morgan's back while he was sleeping. "I don't know why, but something just spoke to me when I looked at it. I couldn't stop thinking, 'This one is me. It's this one' and before I knew it I had walked off with it and couldn't bring myself to take it back… even if I am spitting on my father's memory"
The conflict in his eyes was plain, the pain of abandoning his father and the draw toward the shield. Alice looked upon the shield herself, gazing into the painted dog's merry eyes.
"You know, that dog looks a lot like Morgan," she observed in thought.
Oliver glanced at her strangely then gave a slight laugh. "I guess so. He's got the ears at least."
"I don't mean his ears. I mean his eyes. He's got Morgan's gentle eyes. That's what makes Morgan the best hunting dog. It's what made his great grandfather the best hunting dog. It wasn't just that he could seek out and kill his prey better than the others. It was that he would run into a burning building and carry a baby out in its teeth. It was his gentleness and loyalty and compassion. And that's what makes you a great knight, Oliver."
She looked up at him with a gentle smile. "This shield couldn't possibly represent you better. Besides, your father was a man who struck out against law and tradition in order to forge his own path and live his life on his own terms. When you go out there with this shield on your arm you'll be following in his footsteps, and I can think of no better way for you to honor his memory than that."
She became suddenly aware of the moisture in his eyes, a fact he seemed to become aware of at the same time for he turned his head, trying to appear casual in his effort to wipe away the tear. He gave a winded laugh to hide his emotion.
"There you go again with that power of yours. How did..."
His voice faltered, unable it seemed, to proceed with the pretense of tranquility in the wake of what was going on within him. She leaned lightly against his shoulder in a more understated sign of comfort. He came back to himself after a moment, but did not seem able to return to whatever thought he had left unfinished. Instead he said with quiet sincerity,
"Thank you, Alice."
She beamed at him, gesturing, "You're welcome" before her eye caught something that made her lean forward, glancing around Oliver into the thronging crowds. When she saw who it was she gave a faint grin, brushing his hand and thinking,
"It seems I wasn't the only one looking for you."
Oliver glanced up, noticing Eleanor walking through the crowd, glancing about her as though searching for someone. He immediately straightened, but seemed to push back his first instinct to dart up from his seat for Alice's sake. Alice gave a smile, trying to alleviate his embarrassment.
"Do me a favor, Oliver. Every time you start worrying about being a knight while you're out there fighting today, I want you to look around until you find Eleanor in the crowd and remember what made you fight out there yesterday. That will make all the doubts disappear. Now go on, you don't want to keep your lady waiting."
Oliver chuckled, getting up to walk toward her. He paused though, glancing back toward her with the same sincerity as before.
"You know, Eleanor wasn't the only one I was fighting to defend yesterday."
They exchanged one last smile before he walked off toward her. He watched at a distance as he went to her, seeming to ask something of her. She handed something to him then, something small enough to fit within her hands so she couldn't see from a distance. Whatever it was seemed to surprise him, for almost immediately he tried to give it back to her, but she closed his hand around it with both of hers. He nodded then, seeming to accept the gift. As he did a look of vulnerability crossed her face and she said something that made Oliver look up in surprise. He set a hand on her upper arm, gazing full in her face as he spoke to her. After a moment he said something that made her smile which brought a smile to his own face.
Before anything more could be said between them a herald raised his voice, shouting that those who were taking part in the tournament needed to gather by the entrance to the arena. With a few more words they parted ways. Before he got too far away, Eleanor called out loud enough that Alice could hear,
"Oh, and please know that if you bleed on that I will be forced to kill you."
Oliver let out a laugh, giving a bow as he walked. "As you command, my lady!"
She lingered there for a moment, watching him walk away before starting off presumably to where she was sitting in the stands. Alice waited a few moments, long enough for it to not seem as though she had witnessed this interaction, before she got up and went to catch up with her.
Eleanor grinned when Alice appeared beside her. "There you are. We were starting to worry you wouldn't make it back in time."
Alice laughed, gesturing. "I wouldn't miss it. Did you get to see Oliver beforehand?"
A slight embarrassed flush came over Eleanor's expression, and she played it off with a wave of her hand.
"'Course I did. I had to say good luck and all. Besides, I had to give him…" She paused, seeming to think better of it, then went on. "Well, anyway, it will be interesting to see them all in action other than sparring like we usually do. I think I should be ok watching this time around, I've been bracing myself all morning."
Alice nodded slowly, but her curiosity got the better of her and she had to inquire, "What did you give him?"
Her embarrassment doubled, and she admitted with a somewhat sheepish laugh.
"Well, when I was sitting in the stands, I overheard some ladies talking about giving knights favors during tournaments, handkerchiefs, scarves, things like that, so I thought, well, might as well not spit in the face of tradition this once… I gave him my kerchief to take with him, the one I always carry. It's a piece of cloth from a dress that my ma made for me when I was still a serf. It's the only piece of my old life that I have left."
Alice looked up at her in surprise, not that she would give a favor, but in the choice of gift.
"You're all right giving that away?"
"You and Oliver must share a brain; he reacted the same way when I told him what it was. I just gave it to him to hold for luck. I figured it made sense to give him something that actually mattered to me and not just some piece of silk."
They paused, ducking out of the way of a group of fully armored knights who were walking by, each holding a lance. Eleanor visibly tensed up, but after a moment she seemed able to relax somewhat again, though there was still something troubled about her expression. She shook her head.
"I'm trying not to worry about them. In my mind I'm not worried, but after everything yesterday… I mean, you know in your head that they're knights and all, but you forget that means that they're trained soldiers who put their necks on the line for a living, you know?"
"Believe me, I've had that thought more times than I can count. They'll be all right. They've got their training and their experience on their side. Besides, with you in the crowd, Oliver won't be able to help but fight his best."
Eleanor grinned, elbowing her in the side as they made their way to the stands. They had hardly approached the place when Alice heard peals of unmistakable laughter and a small figure crashed into her legs. She laughed, embracing the laughing little boy who clung to her.
"Clovis, you wee beastie. You nearly knocked me over," Alice thought laughingly.
Clovis had certainly grown in the last few months, and he certainly had a more healthful glow about him. None of this impacted his ability to recognize her, nor his glee at it. He laughed, pulling Alice along toward the bleachers where she saw Mary propped up on the bench beside Aldin, a blanket covering her legs. Edith sat in her uncle's lap, evidently over her fear of him and the others. Edith gave a delighted wave as she approached. Her mother smirked.
"It's about time you got here. It's just like you to keep a crippled woman waiting."
Alice laughed, greeting her with a wave as she and Eleanor settled on the bench beside her.
"Glad to see you both could make it out here" Alice thought, touching her hand briefly as she sat.
"I said I was coming, didn't I? Fortunately for us, Eleanor here was nice enough to get us a spot in the stands," she said, nodding toward the lady in question. Eleanor gave a laugh and a wave of her hand.
"We were introduced before you got here. I figured if anyone ought to have a seat it was her. Besides, It's nice not to be the only person in the stands feeling odd being surrounded by aristocrats."
"I hear that," Mary said, glancing out of the corner of her eye at a pair of ladies who were clearly whispering about her. She shook her head. "Toby's family is standing over with the villagers on the other side. I'd rather stand too, but it's not exactly possible." Alice but a comforting hand on hers, knowing that, as well as she was taking losing her ability to walk, it still crushed her not being able to do simple things like this. Mary sighed heavily, then tried visibly to perk herself up.
"Still, I wouldn't miss seeing my boys for the world. Besides, watching young men beat the tar out of each other is better than staring at a blank wall."
Just then, trumpeting fanfare erupted and the crowd roared as the squires entered the arena. They strode in single file around the outer perimeter of the arena, helmets at their sides so the crowd could see their faces. Their expressions bordered almost exclusively between a warrior's ferocity and stoicism. Those who did not seemed they were about to faint, for which Alice couldn't blame them. Other than sparring, this was likely many of their first time in combat without their master. The only exception to the rule was Toby, who did not hesitate to grin into the crowd or give a wink to some of the ladies. Mary chuckled when he passed them.
"Always the entertainer, that one."
"Hey, it's your first tournament, might as well have a good time doing it," Eleanor laughed. "Oh, and here comes Gerard."
Alice couldn't remember seeing Gerard so serious. Unlike others whose expressions seemed masklike, like one playing the role of knight, Gerard's expression seemed from a genuine concentration on the battle ahead. It reminded Alice of the transformation she saw in him when Wiltshire's remnant attacked. For one moment the warrior stepped away and the old Gerard peeked through when he saw Mary and a large grin erupted on his face. He waved, but in doing so nearly dropped his helmet. He managed to retrieve it before the person behind him ran into him, and continued on, his face washed with embarrassment. At the derisive snickering from the crowd, Mary scowled.
"They won't be laughing when he whips all their aristocratic squires, the lousy…" She muttered.
Finally Oliver came. It seemed to Alice that he was fighting the urge to throw up, but those who did not know him as well did not seem to pick up on this fact. In the spot in front of them, a trio of ladies began muttering among themselves loud enough for them to hear,
"Who is the blonde one there? He's a handsome fellow."
"Isn't that Sir Paul's nephew?"
"Really! I remembered him as a squirrelly little brat. He's certainly grown up, hasn't he? They say his father left the ladies swooning. I suppose the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. What was his name? Oliver? Yoo-hoo! Oliver!"
Oliver heard his name but didn't seem able to discern who had said it. He glanced up in their general direction, and his eyes met Eleanor's. Something about seeing her seemed to relax him, making Alice think that he was thinking of her last advice. The tension left his jaw, and he gave a smile and a nod. The ladies in front of them commenced a fight as to which one of them he had been nodding to, and Alice couldn't help but notice the quietly pleased expression on Eleanor's face.
Because of the nature of this melee, rather than stand on two sides of the arena, the squires stood in a ring around the outside, facing in as a herald in splendid livery rode out on horseback to address the crowd. He was faced the box where the four judges of the tournament were seated, as well as the royal box situated just above it where the king, the heirs, and the Aldozat royals sat. It took Alice a moment to realize that there was anything odd about the king being there at all. In all the commotion she hadn't even gotten to be at his side many nights. She had nearly forgotten he was sick, but there he was, propped up on his throne. At a glance, he seemed back to his normal self, dressed in his regalia, chuckling at his nieces, nephews, and siblings. Occasionally leaning over to speak to a (now fully disguised again) Faer. It was only when you watched him carefully that you noticed that the unhealthy sheen to his skin, the uncomfortable way he shifted in his fine clothes, or the way he leaned against Faer for support when no one was looking.
A last show of life before departing. For those he loves. The thought suddenly lit in her head, and she noticed Faer meeting her eye across the space. He gave a sad smile, confirming that the thought had been his, and turned back to those in the box, making some remark that made the royals laugh. It made her long to know more, to stride over to the box and ask him all the questions that still burnt in her- what did the royals know of his actions? Why go to them in disguise as a poor minstrel when he supped in the banquet halls and council tents of kings and rulers as himself for over a thousand years? But for her friends she turned back toward the arena as the herald proclaimed,
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please! In honor of the most blessed marriage of the Duchess Bernice to Duke Alistair, a tournament has been called, pitting the greatest knights of the realm against each other in a a show of skill and strength. Before we begin in this most glorious tradition, behold we present another tradition honored in our kingdom's history- the tournament of the squires!"
A cheer went up through the crowd, more from those of the home kingdom than the visitors. Alice was had heard somewhere that this was a tradition more particular to their kingdom than any other. The herald went on, motioning grandly at the young men standing around him.
"Before you stand a collection of young men who, after years of intense training and service to our kingdom's knights, are but a breath away from knighthood. This will not only be a display of their prowess for our benefit, but a test for themselves to see how deserving they are of the title of knight."
He began explaining the rules of the tournament. There were no teams. When a contender was knocked off their feet or rendered unable to continue the fight, they would leave the field or be escorted off by one of the waiting physicians. The last man standing would win a set of armor. With a last grand gesture, the herald rode from the field and, as if by some invisible signal, the squires at once ducked under their helmets and instantly the youth of the competitors disappeared. They were no different than their knightly counterparts. All that marked them out as the same young men they knew were the images on their shields. There was Gerard's bull, Toby's rooster, Oliver's dog. Somewhere a drum beat loudly and they drew their weapons of choice. Some held swords, others pole axes or maces. Even knowing they were blunted did not make them look less lethal. Alice heard Eleanor's quick intake of breath beside her and could sense her tensing at the sight of it. She couldn't blame her. There were three resounding drum beats punctuated by another trumpet blast and with a roar the squires raced at each other to the enthusiastic shout of the crowd.
It became clear to Alice very quickly who had developed the better battlefield instincts and who had not. As with the bandits, there were some who were relying on their own brute strength and aggression more than any kind of strategy, either because they thought it would give them an edge over their opponents or because they were too nervous to remember what they had been taught. These were knocked out of the running first, either from competitors better trained than they were or from mistakes on their own part. Some left the field with heads bowed in shame, others were dragged off by younger squires toward waiting physicians. It was not long before the fight had thinned out to those who had kept their heads during the first portion of the fight. Now it was clearly a matter of training and skill.
In the chaos of the fighting, it was difficult to keep track of those they knew. They watched the shields, noting every now and then when the red rooster would rise above the tumult to block the blow of a mace, or when the bull would smash its way through other competitor's defenses. Often though, Alice simply had to rely on their own movements, watching for the way she knew Gerard would throw his weight when he fought, or the way Toby shifted his feet, or Oliver flicked his wrist or turned his sword. In spite of the knowledge that she had watched them all fight more times than she could count and the knowledge that the weapons were blunted, she couldn't help sitting on the edge of her seat, her hands gripping the front of her dress as her eyes traced desperately the path of her friends' weapons and the weapons of those who came against them. There were certain times when she suddenly felt herself back in the village during the battle with Terrowin's men, could see in her head the picture of one of them falling to the ground in a pool of blood like Geoffrey. There were moments she even had to stop and close her eyes lest she feed her imagination this image more. It was for that reason when- with only one third of all the competitors left to fight- a sword hilt came crashing down on Oliver's skull and he wavered and crumpled to the ground, she couldn't help but let a silent, petrified scream come to her lips.
It took the others a moment for them to realize what had caught Alice's eye. A hand flew over Eleanor's mouth, and Mary pulled her gaze from where Gerard had knocked down two squires at once. Clark rushed out to the field, ducking nimbly through the fighting to hoist him up, his arms beneath his and dragging him backwards from the field. When he was just beyond where the men were fighting, he lay Oliver down and pulled his helmet from his head. With a flurry of quick, deft hand motions he checked where the blow to his head had occurred as well as his pulse and other vitals. They watched, their breath suspended until he rose from where he had bent over him, looking around. He met Alice's eye across the field, noticing that she and those with her were watching him fretfully. He gave a nod, and gestured,
"He will be all right. He's just knocked out."
A great breath of relief rushed out of Alice, and she gripped both Eleanor and Mary's hands, relaying this message in thought. Eleanor doubled over for a moment where she sat, muttering a short prayer of gratitude. Mary pat Alice's shoulder, knowing the shock this would have dealt her. (This made Alice realize that probably no one had told her about Eleanor and Oliver and she decided to let that fact reveal itself at another time).
Toby seemed to have noticed Oliver being dragged off the field as well, for for a moment he took himself toward the edge of the fighting where he could watch the thing occurring without meeting the same fate. Only when he saw Clark's gesture did he throw himself fully back into the fray, going noticeably after squire with the boar shield who had felled him. Meanwhile, Gerard seemed oblivious to all of this, charging through the crowds like the creature adorning his shield.
Although Oliver falling had attracted their attention, it became very clear that the crowd's attention was all for Gerard. Whether they realized it was the same boy who had made them all snicker before or not, they seemed ready to cheer him on now. All around her she heard people murmuring their appreciation and snippets of conversations beginning with the phrase, "The Knight of the Charging Bull". Mary watched the scene with none of she or Eleanor's anxiety. She watched him fight with a pride glowing in her eyes that Alice was sure would have made Gerard beam in utter delight.
The battlefield was beginning to thin out now. Only a few squires remained. Toby and Gerard among them. Their fighting styles were so different, one relying on speed, the other strength, and yet one would think they were like two eagles turning together in the air, working together toward the same goal. More than once they ended up back to back, fighting their adversaries as she had seen Sir Douglas and Sir Colin do. Soon it was down to four, with Toby battling one squire on one end of the field and Gerard battling one squire on the other.
Toby had kept up better than most of the squires throughout the tournament, but it was clear now that he was growing exhausted. He fell more and more to the defense, simply trying to keep the squire before him from disarming him. Soon the swords clashed and they stood, suspended in the same breathless moment of uncertainty that Oliver had been in yesterday where any moment a slight shifting of weight could lead to one's triumph and the other's defeat. Although she couldn't see their faces, she could see Toby's arms shaking, and she wondered if his wrist was at all tender from the battle he had been in a few months previously. Alice held her breath watching him. To lose the fight was one thing, but what if he was injured beyond recovery? How would he draw a bow?
She wondered if Toby was thinking this. For a moment he seemed to glance over at Gerard, where he fought a man equal to him in size and ferocity. He watched until, with a swing of his great arm, Gerard knocked his adversary down with his shield. When it was clear the man would not rise again to fight, Toby suddenly sidestepped, allowing the sword to be knocked from his hands. When the sword of his opponent came to stand at his neck, Toby gave a gesture that indicated his yielding to the opponent before walking from the field, rubbing his wrist. When he was out of harm's way, he took off his helmet, turning back to Gerard with a face red from the effort of fighting. He put a hand to his mouth and called loud enough for even them to hear up in the stands.
"Give him hell, Gerard!"
A roar went up through the crowd when they saw that there were two competitors left, a large knight with a dragon decorating his shield, and Gerard, the charging bull. They circled each other for a time, both clearly out of breath, but neither wanting to give away the extent of their exhaustion. For the first time in the fight, Mary seemed somewhat tense, but by no means apprehensive. She could hardly answer when Clovis repeatedly asked from the place in her lap whether that one with the green picture on his shield was Gerard or the one with the brown cow. Eventually, Alice had to take the boy in her own lap to provide an explanation.
"The brown cow is Gerard. And that's a dragon on the other soldier's shield."
"Will Gerard beat the dragon, girl?" Clovis asked innocently.
"He will, Clovis," Mary suddenly answered, not taking her eyes from the field. She gave a grin.
"He will because he is a knight."
With a roar, the two men charged at each other. Steel met steel and another cheer rose from the crowd. They fought aggressively and up close. Anyone would think it was their lives, their kingdom, and their honor they fought for, and anyone would believe that the dubbing sword had already dropped gently on each of their shoulders long before. The crowd was hypnotized by their was too, and because of this she was surprised that she noticed at all Sir Daniel appear somewhat near them at the arena fence, watching the event unfold.
He was dressed in full plate armor besides the helmet, clearly ready for the joust that would follow. It didn't seem that he had been watching this tournament at all, for he paused, making an inquiry of a member of the stands. When he had, he walked toward the fence, watching the fight with greater interest. She wondered what was going through his mind, watching his squire fight, the one he so often criticized and rebuffed. Eventually, Gerard himself seemed to notice his master's presence and the sight of it seemed to startle him enough that he nearly lost his balance and had to struggle to keep his competitor's sword at bay.
The crowd's breath seemed to hitch at the shift. Alice's did too, as she looked from Gerard to Sir Daniel, wondering whether his presence would be too much for Gerard to handle. Mary seemed to notice it too. Alice imagined she must have known about the boy's rocky relationship with his master for she went red in the face when she saw him. Alice thought she was going to shout at Sir Daniel, but when a blow from Gerard's opponent knocked him back so hard the helmet flew from his head, it was not Sir Daniel she shouted at, but the squire himself.
"Focus, Gerard! Don't think about him! He isn't anything to you."
Gerard looked up from the fight at the voice, and out of the corner of her eye, Alice could see that Sir Daniel had as well. The other squire didn't stop his onslaught, and rushed at Gerard's back, trying to wrestle him to the ground, but Gerard caught his weight, turned and threw him off so he was in front of him.
Alice couldn't be certain what that small outburst had done in Gerard's brain, whether it had dislodged Sir Daniel from his attention or, like with Oliver, reminded him why he fought, but whatever it was had been enough to put Gerard back on the offensive. He charged forward with a shout, slashing with short aggressive strikes. His opponent, still off guard from being throw off Gerard's back had to struggle to keep up as he was pushed further and further backward. It was not long before he misstepped and fell onto his back, the sword and shield flying from him.
The world seemed to hold its breath for a moment as Gerard stood above his fallen adversary. Slowly he approached, his sword pointed toward him. After a moment though, he stuck his sword in the dirt, reaching out toward him with a gentle smile. When the squire took it and got to his feet, the crowd erupted into thunderous cheering as the trumpets blared a tune. Gerard looked about him in the midst of the din, his eyes somewhat distant, as if he was sleepwalking in a very pleasant dream, at the squires losing their mind cheering, at the villagers where they were gathered, screaming like he was their own son, at Mary who looked apt to cry in pride for him. He seemed for a moment unsure of what to do next. Then his eyes fell on Sir. Daniel again.
They gazed at each other from across the field, Gerard's stance becoming that of a soldier awaiting orders. It was difficult to see Sir Daniel's expression from where they sat, but after a moment, he gave a gesture indicating that he ought to go forth toward the box where the royals sat waiting before turning and walking out of the arena. He had a strange mingling of pride and humility on his face that Alice wasn't sure she had ever seen from him before, but she set the thought aside, her attention caught once more by Gerard as he walked slowly toward the royal box and went on one knee, his arm across his chest in a gesture of allegiance.
The royals in the box looked to the king to speak. There was a moment of silence when he seemed he might try to stand, but after a quiet effort, he gestured to his nephew. Alice heard murmuring in the stands around her at this choice, but it died down as Duke Tristan stood to address him.
"Squire of the Charging Bull," he said, his voice resounding in the now silent arena. "Tell us your name."
It took Gerard a few tries to get his voice to come out both loudly and intelligibly.
"Gerard, your excellency."
Duke Tristain smiled, gesturing grandly to him.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your champion. Gerard of the Charging Bull."
The arena exploded in cheers as a number of Bear's Teeth squires, lead by Toby, charged the field, overwhelming him with thumps on the back and cheering. They began to escort him off the field, but as they left the arena and passed the stands, first Clovis and then Edith popped up from their places, running down to greet him. Gerard met them both with delight, first putting Clovis and his shoulder and then taking Edith up in his other arm. He looked up then at Mary, and walked toward her, holding out his hand to her. When she leaned over and took it, beaming down at him, he struggled to get out words,
"I don't know…"
"What don't you know, Gerard?" Mary asked him patiently.
He tried a few more times. His expression was resplendent, his voice was broken, and tears poured from his eyes,
"I don't know what to do… with all this happiness!"
Although the knight's tournament was twice as long as the squire's, it seemed to go by in a blur compared to it. (Although Alice was sure to clap extra loudly when Stormtredder ran perfectly in the joust). Eventually Oliver woke up and, after being checked over by Clark and warned to take it easy for the rest of the day, joined the rest of them in the stands. He was equally thrilled to hear about Gerard's success and made certain to find him and congratulate him.
Gerard and Toby, given that both of their master's were competing, were immediately needed to help in the knightly tournament, and by the time it was all over and the two of them joined them by the stands, they were clearly dead on their feet, Toby especially, given that Sir Collin progressed through the entirety of the tournament and ended up winning. He could hardly return the jests of his mother, father, or brothers who had come out to see them, but that didn't stop him from trying.
"I know I said I would throw my arms around his neck the next time I saw him, but I feel like slugging Sir Collin for doing so well. Or at least I would if I could lift my arm," he moaned laughingly.
"Let's have no belly aching. I thought knighthood was meant to put some meat on those bones," his father boomed with a boisterous laugh, clasping him on the back hard enough to make him totter.
Toby's mother gave a sly smile that her son clearly inherited. "That's no way to talk to a man who came in forth at the squire's tournament, Nicholas."
"Forth, not first," one of his brothers, Hob, pointed out with a grin. "Now if it was Gerard he spoke of I might be worried, but wee Toby? Never."
His mother tutted at him, putting an arm around Toby's shoulders, saying that he would probably not last ten minutes in his place. Toby's smile was dazed from exhaustion, but pleased at her praise. Alice got the sense that, although his brothers and father put pressure on him with their competitive natures, he did not receive the same pressure from his mother. Anyone with eyes could tell that he took after her. She thought remembered vaguely someone mentioning at the battle with Terrowin's Men his abandoning the fight to go and rescue her.
After a moment, their laughter was cut short by a child's excited shout of Toby's name. Before anyone could look up, a young girl had appeared at Toby's side, clinging to his hand and laughing and a boy had appeared before him, bursting about Toby's performance at the tournament. Their appearance was so sudden that it took Alice a moment to realize that they were Milde and Godwin, Lady Bessetta's children whom he had been guarding until Duke Tristain's summons had pulled him away.
Toby seemed bewildered but glad to see them, and laughed, trying to answer at least some of the rapid fire questions that they put to him. As he was in the midst of answering them though, his eyes traveled on something that made him falter in his response. The group turned to find Sir Collin striding toward him, an expression less than pleased on his face, accompanied by Lady Bessetta. They were hardly able to curtsey or bow in respect before Sir Collin spoke.
"Toby. A word," Sir Collin said, indicating curtly he should step away.
His family glanced at him, both parts proud and nervous for his sake it seemed. Toby stepped out of their midst to stand before the knight and lady, bowing before them both. Sir Collin seemed like he was fighting the urge to slug him rather than the other way around. He stepped back though, allowing the lady precedence.
"Her ladyship would speak to you."
Lady Bessetta watched him. As always her expression had the reserve that diplomacy had taught her, but her smile made it seem she was pleased with him.
"You fought very well in the squire's tournament, Toby. You made it clear I chose wisely when it came to my children."
Toby seemed stunned for a moment. Alice wondered if he knew that his being placed as the guard for Lady Bessetta's children was the lady's personal choice. From the way his brother's exchanged stunned glances, his family didn't seem aware. He managed to shake this off though and gave a nod.
"Thank you, m'lady," he said.
"My nephew has also told me of the honorable way you took on the mission he called you too," she went on. "You ought to have some sort of reward."
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary," he said quickly, flushing slightly. "I was happy to do it."
Bessetta watching him for a moment, as if seeing if he would take back the statement. When he didn't, she smiled. "How old are you, Toby?"
He seemed surprised by this. "I'm going on one and twenty, m'lady."
"Why you are about at the age of knighthood, aren't you. I expect you will be dubbed at the next ceremony?"
Toby did not reply at first. He glanced at his family out of the corner of his eye. There was no way they knew what they had found out. Not when his brothers stood up straighter at the mention of this or the way his father nodded to himself.
"That is what they told me. And I hope it will still be true," he said at last.
"And why should it not? All you need is the experience, which you have, and a suit of armor. You have both of these, yes?"
Toby's eyes fell. "Not exactly, my lady. I…"
"He comes from… common stock, my lady," Sir Collin said, something in his voice trying to sound sympathetic. "He does not have the means to acquire armor."
"Is this true, Toby?" the lady asked.
For once Toby allowed a little of his temper to light his eyes, those his voice came calmly. "It is true I don't have armor. But my stock is not common. They aren't noble, but they aren't common either."
Alice glanced at his family. They seemed stunned by this admission, but she couldn't fail to notice that his mother looked far more proud of her boy than she had when they brought up his dubbing. Lady Bessetta smiled.
"I can only imagine. You uphold their honor well. They should be proud to have a knight like you from their lineage."
It took a moment it seemed for those words to acquire meaning for Toby and for Sir Collin. When they did they both gaped at her.
"My lady, perhaps you didn't hear me," Sir Collin said. "He has no armor for his dubbing-"
"Oh, come Sir Collin," she said with a wave of her hand. "An accomplished fighter who traveled with Bear's Teeth and has the favor of a sibling of the king, and a little thing like that should stop him from being made a knight? I can hardly imagine it being insisted upon. And if it is, I will personally see to it that the man is dubbed."
"But my lady, it is a tradition. How can one expect a knight to fight for king and country unarmored and unprepared?"
Lady Bessetta's distant diplomacy shift just slightly, a look that was enough to shrivel Sir Collin's protest and remind him that her authority still triumphed in the end. Satisfied, she went on.
"A fair point, Sir Collin. For that reason, I shall see to it that he is supplied with a set of armor, but let me clear- the armor has not given him the right to become a knight. His actions and conduct have. Do you understand?"
Sir Collin expressed in the most sincere tones that he understood completely, and she turned to look to Toby.
"And do you understand as well, Toby?"
He gave a mute nod, too stunned to bow it seemed. "Thank you, m'lady," he managed.
She smiled, turning to take his leave of him. "Come, Godwin, Milde, let us leave Mr. Toby to his uncommon family."
Reluctantly the children left Toby's side and followed the grown ups as they walked back toward the castle. For a moment everyone stood still, not seeming to know what to do in the wake of this. Finally Gerard burst with a mighty laugh, racing forth to embrace Toby with almost as much joy as he had when he had won the tournament. The rest followed suit, thumping him on the back and congratulating him. Toby looked around, a bit dazed it seemed, his eyes almost misted over. Then he broke into a wide grin like a man who had finally found himself at home after a very long time.
After a time it seemed, the cheering drew the attention of others, squires who came to add their congratulations when they heard, nobility who either smiled fondly at their excitement or stuck up their nose, and eventually Faer and Wren came over, asking curiously what was going on (though Alice figured Faer himself probably knew already).
"I knew it! Didn't I tell you, all?" Wren exclaimed again. "Young men fighting for kind and for country, soon to be knights. The beginning of a history! Dear Lady Mary, you told me not to write an epic, but how could I not with all the stuff of legends right in front of me!"
They laughed over Wren's dramatics. Alice did as well, a little misty to see her friends' destinies coming to fruition around her. Oliver, Gerard, Toby, even Eleanor and Clark to some extent. The call to adventure had come to meet all of them, it seemed, and they had answered the call. They were beginning on the road to someplace greater. For a moment the smile faltered on her face as the thought brushed her mind. What about her? In a sense, had she not met the call herself and turned it down?
She met Perrin's eye for a moment in the midst of the celebrations. He gave a small, knowing smile, and although the wrinkles and the stubbled beard did not fade, for a moment Alice could have sworn he turned back to his true form to do it. She gulped, the overwhelming urge to say yes bubbling inside of her. To say yes. But at that moment, Gerard said something that called her attention away and the moment was gone.
A/N: So one year later here I am with two chapters that I wrote MONTHS ago. I had it in mind then to just finish the book and then post them, but then I decided to commit a horrible writing crime... That is, to start writing the second draft of a book before I have finished writing the first. Whether I go back and finish them now is a question that I couldn't answer, but I do have a day off today, so we shall see.