Aleksandr tried not to tremble as he looked over the top of his wooden shield at his opponent, who seemed nearly twice as tall as him and built like a tree. Indeed, Aleksandr might as well have been facing a tree he thought, for the amount of damage he was likely to do to the brute. Sigurdur was many years older and more experienced than Aleksandr — in fact years older and wiser than any of the squires, as Sigurdur was well past the age when most squires would have become knights. Aleksandr had learned by way of boot and fist why Sigurdur had not yet received his spurs; through countless beatings and other cruelty, Sigurdur had proven himself to Aleksandr as having as much honour as highway brigand. Only the fact that he was Baron Dorja’s nephew kept him in Fennell Keep. A nasty grin covered the older squire’s face, and he spat on the ground in mocking arrogance.
As he often did, Aleksandr wished with all his heart that he had not been prematurely promoted to a squire by Baron Dorja Fennell after an attempt to save the Baron’s daughter, Zhilinda. Aleksandr had been nine years old at the time, and though now twelve, he was still at least two years younger — and smaller — than the next youngest of the squires. And he was the baron’s squire no less! As ruler of the household, Baron Dorja demanded that his armour, swords, and horses be the best maintained of all the knights’ in Fennell: a daunting task for even the most seasoned squire. As always, his wish went unrealised.
“What are you waiting for?” a shrill female voice tore at Aleksandr’s ears. “Get on with it. We haven’t all day, you codswallops!”
Aleksandr grimaced as his heart filled with ice, and he slowly began to approach the hulking boy — no, man — in front of him. Aleksandr was terrified; so much so that he could feel his knees weak with fear and his sword arm go limp. Sigurdur advanced with surprising speed for his size and struck the first blow. Aleksandr was sent sprawling onto his back. He was able to roll away from the following attack and regain his feet before the older boy could bludgeon him again. As he scuttled away from the larger youth kicking up dust with his feet, he was vaguely aware of the other squires in the bailey cheering Sigurdur on.
“Smash the squireling!” That was Aleksandr’s nickname among them because he was a partly grown squire.
The first terrible blow out of the way, Aleksandr was able to concentrate more on how to defend himself and less on how afraid he was. His legs and arms regained their strength, and he was able to hold Sigurdur off for a time, even getting a few glancing blows of his own in. Of course, none of them were potent enough to bring about a mercifully painless end to the ordeal and victory for Aleksandr.
After a few menes that seemed like bells, Sigurdur seemed to be tiring of the endless feints and lures that had dominated the contest thus far. He lowered himself to a knee and seemed to drop his guard. Seeing the older squire relax Aleksandr lunged, and his eyes burned as Sigurdur tossed a handful of sand into them. Aleksandr reeled, and tried to get as far away from Sigurdur as possible. He resisted the urge to drop his sword and rub at his stinging eyes, but instead tried to force them open. Without warning, a club-like foot slammed into Aleksandr’s groin with the force of a war-horse’s kick. Aleksandr dropped to his knees clutching himself in agony. He could not breathe, and flames engulfed his nether-regions.
He began to cry, both at the pain and the injustice of it all, before being laid low by a blow to the face. He received several more solid blows from Sigurdur’s wooden sword across his side and back before Dame Lyudmilla, the squires’ weapons trainer, brought the combat to a halt.
“That will be enough, Sigurdur.” As sharp as her voice had been before, it was now icy. “Straight. That’s enough training for today. Off to your chores.”
“Ha,” Sigurdur said as he walked away from his devastated opponent. “I smashed the squireling good this time, eh?”
“By Cephas’ boot, you sure did, Sig,” another squire said.
Aleksandr lay on his stomach, motionless save for the sobs of both pain and humiliation that wracked his body. Tears flowed unhindered down his face. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and he could feel more of it streaming out of his nose onto the ground below. Contrary to the grand visions of knighthood he had held as a page, he now knew not a shred of dignity, honour, or glory. He missed being a page. Among other things, he missed Sir Igrim who had been his weapons trainer in those happy days that seemed so long ago.
Dame Lyudmilla knelt beside him more out of duty than any real concern for his well being, Aleksandr was sure. She had instantly taken a dislike to him when he had entered the ranks of squires. She seemed not to notice when Aleksandr appeared for training with bruises given him by the other boys, and indeed, often cursed him for being slow as a result of stiffness from doing extra chores. She also liked to pair him up with the biggest and strongest of the other squires when it came time for sparring.
“Will you live?” Her face was now right in front of Aleksandr’s. Despite a scar that ran along her forehead, she was a very pretty woman.
“Yes, Dame Lyudmilla,” Aleksandr croaked.
“Good,” she stood and put her hands on her hips. “Get up.”
Aleksandr valiantly tried to get his hands underneath him, but a searing pain shot through his side. He his bit his lip to stop more tears and keep a shred of dignity as he struggled to get up again.
“I said, get up!”
For a moment Aleksandr feared that Dame Lyudmilla, too, might hit him, but instead she grabbed him by the back of his padded shirt and hoisted him to his feet. “Must I do everything for you, squire? I’m not your mother, you little piece of scrud! By the good God, I fought Northfielders in the Shadow Wars that were more co-operative than you!”
The words stung, all the more so because Aleksandr did require a fair amount of extra training from all of his superiors to make up for the years as a page he had skipped. He limped cautiously after the rest of the squires who had left Fennell Keep’s inner bailey for the cool recesses of the keep proper. With everything else that had preoccupied Aleksandr’s mind, he only just now noticed that it was indeed quite hot out, despite the fact that the sun was nearing the end of its journey to the western horizon.
Once inside, Aleksandr removed his padded shirt, and placed the wooden sword and shield in their proper places. No sooner had he cleaned his face of blood and grime than Sigurdur threw a shovel into his arms.
“Your turn to muck the stables, squireling!”
“I’ve done it every day this sennight!” Aleksandr protested. “And the tournament’s tomorrow. I have to get the baron’s armour ready.”
“And I have to get Sir Fonnin’s armour ready. So too bad for you,” Sigurdur pushed Aleksandr back towards the door leading to the bailey. Pain washed over Aleksandr anew at the rough contact. He had to bite his lower lip to keep from bursting out into tears again.
“That’s straight, I’ll help you, Aleksandr,” Tpliki, Sir Igrim’s squire, said. He gave Sigurdur an evil glance as he picked up a pitchfork. “You’re nothing more than a bully, Sigurdur. And that’s all you ever will be if you –”
“If I what?” Sigurdur, a good head taller than Tpliki, walked purposefully towards the smaller squire.
Aleksandr knew that Sigurdur would probably thump Tpliki in a hand-to-hand fight, and apparently Sir Igrim’s squire knew it too, for he only said, “Nothing,” and gently laying a hand on Aleksandr’s shoulder headed for the door.
“That’s what I thought,” Sigurdur boomed triumphantly. “I don’t know why you waste your time with the whelp. You’d be better off leaving him to rot!”
Once outside, Tpliki let out an audible sigh. “That Sigurdur will never be a knight. He doesn’t know anything about chivalry or honour and especially nothing about brotherhood. We’ll all have to fight together one day as knights; we are supposed to be like brothers. Turdation! If that oaf weren’t Baron Dorja’s nephew he’d have been sent away from here long ago.”
“Yes, what is it Aleksandr?”
The day of the tournament was full of cheer and sunshine. Not a cloud blemished the perfectly blue sky, and a gentle breeze played over the town of Fennell Keep. The despair that Aleksandr had felt the day before was gone, as the excitement and merriment of the occasion took hold of him. As Baron Dorja Fennell’s squire, he wore the baron’s livery colours though unadorned with the baron’s heraldric symbols. The red and white tunic and gorget he wore had been cleaned to a sparkling brilliance. On the white half of his tunic over his heart, Aleksandr was allowed to wear an embroidered red rose — the blazon that signified an act of great courage — in appreciation for saving Zhilinda Fennell. Normally, only knights were allowed to wear blazons, but such was the baron’s gratitude that he had made an exception for Aleksandr.
The young boy stared with eyes the size of archery targets at his surroundings as he led the baron’s horse from the stables to the tent where his lord would change when it came time to prepare for an event. In the meantime, Baron Dorja sat in the stands, watching the tournament from a place of honour. For now, archers from the surrounding shires were testing their skill against one another while servants set up the jousting lists.
The tournament was always held on the first day of the Holy Sennight that the Cyruzhians thought to be the sennight Cephas Stevene had been tried and executed. After the first day’s festivities Aleksandr, and all of the other squires, pages, and knights in Baron Dorja’s household would return home to their families. Aleksandr looked forward to returning home once again, but for now his chief concern was the tournament.
All about Aleksandr, knights from as far as Dargon, Hawksbridge, and even Northfield prepared for the jousts. All were magnificently decked in full armour resplendent with heraldry. Each knight had his own unique arrangement of colours, devices, emblems, and crests. Bright reds, blues, greens, yellows and whites dominated the scene.
As Aleksandr neared Baron Dorja’s pavilion, he noticed many familiar heraldries. Sir Fonnin rode past, his black and green field topped by a yellow lion rampant blazon, followed closely by Sigurdur. Aleksandr’s grip on the reins of Baron Dorja’s stallion tightened when he saw the older squire, also wearing his master’s livery colours. In the black and green he looked even bigger and more menacing than usual. Ease returned to Aleksandr however, when he noted a horse with a black caparison approaching. The knight atop it wore a great helm with a black falcon crest atop it, signifying he had slain a Northfielder knight in the Shadow Wars. It was Sir Igrim. When Aleksandr stopped and wav ed, the knight removed his helm to reveal a weathered face that bore a grey-streaked beard and moustaches.
“Aleksandr,” he greeted. “It has been quite a time since last I saw you. You serve the baron well, I hear.”
Aleksandr smiled at his old master. “I try to, Sir Igrim.”
“Well, best be off with you, boy,” Sir Igrim said. “You can’t serve your lord by standing about blowing wind with me!”
“Yes, sir!” Aleksandr coaxed the horse back to a walk, and continued toward the pavilion tent over which Baron Dorja’s flag fluttered in the soft breeze.
Tethering the horse to a post that had been driven into the ground near the entrance of the tent, Aleksandr set about preparing the baron’s equipment for the day’s activities. He took the sword from its scabbard on the horse’s saddle and ran a cloth along it to ensure it was looking perfect for the ceremony. After replacing it, he hauled the freshly polished armour from the horse’s back, and set it on a rack inside the tent in such a way that he would be able to dress the baron with a minimum of trouble. He laid the baron’s tunic on a table alongside his great helm. The crest on the helmet that accompanied his baronial crown was a white falcon with wings splayed, symbolising Baron Dorja’s bravery in fighting the duke of Northfield in single combat during the Shadow Wars.
As the archery competition neared its close, Aleksandr made final checks on his lord’s equipment, even ensuring that all of the pennants on his lances were secured properly.
Shortly after a horn had sounded the end of that competition, Baron Dorja rode up to the tent on one of his draft horses. The dapple-grey warhorse that bore his red and white caparison snorted in indignation.
The baron dismounted and patted his warhorse’s neck. “Oh ho!” The baron was in high spirits, caught up as Aleksandr was by the mood of the day. Though his hair was grey and his face lined with age, his eyes twinkled with a childish delight, as did those of the youngest pages. “It seems Bardo feels I should ride only him! Well, let’s get my armour on, shall we?”
Aleksandr worked quickly, and in short order he had his master clad in a full suit of heavy armour, and pulled the red and white tabard over the baron’s head. On the white part of the tabard half of a black falcon represented victory over Northfield, while on the red section a yellow crown above a white lily denoted his rank and favour with Duke Dargon.
With a little more of Aleksandr’s help, the baron mounted his warhorse. Aleksandr then handed him the great helm. Baron Dorja carried his helm in his left arm and prepared to ride onto the lists.
“Ah,” he said. “It is a perfect day for a joust, eh, Aleksandr?”
“It is indeed, your lordship.” Aleksandr bowed his head.
Restless sounds could be heard from the bleachers as the baron turned his horse towards the lists. “It sounds like I had best get the main event started.”
He cantered out to the centre of the jousting field. Aleksandr looked on from his place at the tent, marvelling at the brilliance of his master as he quieted the crowd, he and his horse shining brightly in the mid-morning sun. Aleksandr took one last look around the pavilion to be sure everything was in readiness for when the baron would return for his shield and if required, another lance after the first course.
“Gentles, please!” Once the crowd had calmed down the baron continued. “It is my great honour to present to you this day many brave knights who will test their skills in this first event, the joust, and later in the day a feat of arms and melee in the fields south of the town.”
Everyone in the stands and on the field applauded loudly. Again the baron held up his hand.
“And, as is a tradition at this Holy Sennight tournament,” the baron gestured to another knight who wore a crown on her shield, “we have with us Baroness Jehlanna Bastonne from the Duchy Northfield, in commemoration of the harmony, friendship and unity that now exists between Northfield and the rest of Baranur!”
More applause accompanied the courteous bow that Baroness Bastonne offered to Baron Fennell from her horse. When the cheers quieted it was her turn to speak. “The Shadow Wars were a long time ago and each has forgiven the other.”
“So let us join blades in commemoration of the last blow between a vassal of Dargon and Northfield –” the baron’s speech was cut short when he reached for the scabbard hanging from his saddle. “Cephas’ boot! My sword!”
Aleksandr went white and his heart leapt into his throat as he realised that the baron’s scabbard did not hold a blade! The most terrible fears of a squire realised, Aleksandr could not even move because he was so shocked and dismayed. He could see that Baron Dorja was crimson with both humiliation and fury.
“Squire!” he bellowed. “My sword!”
Aleksandr frantically cast about the pavilion to no avail. Had he left the blade in the keep? No, he was certain he hadn’t, for he had polished it before heading into the tent to set Baron Dorja’s armour on the rack. Where could it have gone? He emerged from the tent to see Sigurdur scampering out to the centre of the jousting lists with a sword in hand — Sir Fonnin’s sword to be sure.
The baron took the blade, and touched swords with the baroness of Bastonne. The applause was less enthusiastic this time, and Aleksandr thought he caught a smirk on the Northfielder baroness’ face as she turned to gather her lance for the first joust. Baron Dorja was still the colour of a beet when he reached the tent. After tossing the borrowed sword to Sigurdur, he cast a murderous glance toward Aleksandr that said there would be trouble once he was done with the first joust. He donned his great helm without a word. Aleksandr gulped, and handed the baron his shield. Then, taking the up lance from its holder, Baron Dorja moved his horse into position for the first course. His opponent, of course, was Baroness Jehlanna Bastonne.
In the stands, Zhilinda Fennell held the cloth that, once dropped, would signal the beginning of the tournament. The honour was hers, as her father was the first to joust, and her mother had died several years before Aleksandr had moved to Fennell Keep. He supposed that Kristofer Delborne, now Zhilinda’s husband, was in the field somewhere. It had been over a year since Aleksandr had last seen her since she had wed the heir of Delborne shortly after her fifteenth birthday. Now sixteen, the change in her was agreeable, Aleksandr decided, as he was just now reaching the age where women interested him. Since he had last seen her, she had taken on a more woman-like form, with a slimming of the waist and swelling of the breasts. Her hair was as long and dark as ever, and her skin like a white rose petal. Aleksandr took refuge from his embarrassment behind the rack carrying Baron Dorja’s lances lest she glance his way.
Zhilinda dropped the cloth, and Baron Fennell and Baroness Bastonne spurred their horses towards one another. Aleksandr knew that Baron Dorja was a better jouster than he was a swordsman, but he seemed off-balance as he sped towards his opponent. With a loud crack, the lances connected with shields and splinters flew as both broke with the impact. Baron Dorja looked for a moment as if he might fall from his horse, badly shaken as he was, but managed to regain his position on the horse’s back after a tense moment. Baroness Jehlanna seemed not to have noticed that she had been struck at all and she turned to offer Baron Dorja another course.
Aleksandr ensured that he was in perfect form for delivering another lance to his master as the Baron of Fennell rode past in preparation for the next course. The next time the riders passed, Baron Dorja was knocked clean from his horse, and landed hard on his back. Baroness Jehlanna had been shaken too, however, and after a couple of strides slipped from her horse’s back, but landed on one knee and a hand. She had won nevertheless, and the crowd applauded politely, but with no great zeal.
As Aleksandr rushed to help Baron Dorja to his feet, he noted that Baroness Jehlanna was already there, and she had offered a hand to the downed ruler of Fennell. Baron Dorja removed his helmet and accepted the help, and once on his feet the baron and baroness clasped hands in a sign of good sportsmanship. To this, the crowd cheered more lustily, and regained much of its spirit.
Aleksandr scooped up his lord’s great helm off the ground, and hastened to catch up with Baron Dorja, who was nearly at the tent already, having remounted his horse that had faithfully returned to his side after he had fallen.
“Curse you, Aleksandr!” the baron snapped once he and his squire were inside the tent. He struck the boy a good blow to the face to underscore his words. “I was humiliated before countless knights and lords just now, you dunderheaded fool!”
“I’m sorry, your lordship,” Aleksandr cringed in the face of his master’s fury. “I can’t explain it — I was sure your sword was in its scabbard!”
“A good squire is more than sure!” Baron Dorja thundered. “By the good God I lost my joust to that Bastonne, too! And — what’s this?”
Aleksandr’s stomach did a somersault when he saw the baron’s ceremonial sword laying peacefully on the table. “I swear it wasn’t there when you went to the field, your lordship.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy!”
Aleksandr covered his face in a defensive gesture and huddled in a corner of the tent. “I beg your forgiveness, baron! I’m not lying!”
Baron Dorja continued to look darkly at Aleksandr for some time, then said, “Well, I have no need of it now. Take it back to the keep before it can lose itself again. And don’t be slow about it; I joust again in two bells.”
Aleksandr took the blade and gratefully scampered out of the tent. As he was unbuckling the sword’s scabbard from the warhorse’s saddle, Sigurdur walked up to him with a gap-toothed grin on his face.
“Found the baron’s sword I see, squireling.”
Aleksandr’s jaw tightened and his face heated. Sigurdur had taken the sword to humiliate him. Did his wickedness know no bounds? He had also embarrassed the baron, perhaps all of Dargon as well. Aleksandr quivered with anger, but knew he could do nothing. Sigurdur would beat him as he had the previous day if he tried to fight. Instead, he continued on his way back to the keep, staring at the ground darkly as he listened to Sigurdur’s mocking laugh.