Tournament Day dawned crystal clear. I confess one side of me was hoping for a late spring cloudburst. Not a 40-day deluge so I’d have to build Arthur an ark, but a downpour nasty enough to hold the crowds down and make the horses slip. But even with the miracle of my opponent’s horse slipping, I wasn’t going to survive past the 2nd round no matter what. When Merlin visited Greece, the bards and troubadours there sang lays written by a blind poet named Homer that told of the gods and goddesses getting jealous with each other and intervening in men’s battles as part of their petty games. But those gods never venture this far north, so there was no help to be had from that quarter. When Jesus picks favorites, according to the priests, they always die in painful and messy ways to become saints and martyrs. So I’m just as glad I’m not one of his faves.
A tournament is a funny cross between battle and play. The underlying purpose is to keep your knights honed so they’ll be ready at a moment’s notice to head off to war. Without tournaments, practice gets boring after awhile and you start to slack off. But if two trained knights couch their spears and charge each other, somebody’s going to get hurt. Chain mail does a reasonable job of deadening a sword or axe blow so you didn’t necessarily die from it, but it wasn’t going to stop a charging knight’s spear. Even if you took the points off, which we did in the early tournaments, people got seriously wounded from the sharp ends of shattered ash poles. Smashing each other with padded swords wasn’t much better, particularly when the knights would get more and more pissed off as the contest went on and would go for a cheap shot to end the dual.
So in the Year of My Lord 26, or the Year of Gascon’s Lord 512, whichever you prefer, we used a device invented in Gaul called a bâton de faux guerre—literally, a “stick of fake war.” The first time the knights heard of it, they mistook it for something from a goose that you eat on toast points and it nearly caused a riot. But once we convinced the hotheads that it was for their own health and well-being, they eventually bought in.
A bâton de faux guerre is a stout ash quarterstaff, about seven feet long, with both ends heavily wrapped in cloth padding. So you can charge with it just like a short lance, but it generally isn’t long or slender enough to shatter. And if you swing it with both hands you can break ribs but aren’t likely to kill anybody (purposefully hitting a horse is grounds for immediate disqualification). Shields aren’t used, nor are stirrups, that recent marvelous invention that gives the knight a place to brace his feet so he doesn’t go flying off the end of his horse when he sticks his lance into something resisting. So unhorsing a fellow knight can be done with a maximum of humiliation and a minimum of damage.
The better the knight—more skilled, better trained, better conditioned—the more likely he was to win the tournament, even with a fake war stick. My basic problem was, I was so lacking in raw talent that even if I practiced three or four hours a day, I still wasn’t going to beat anybody except a total beginner. I was born slight of build—the same design flaw that killed my mother trying to give birth—which I more than undercompensated for with slow reflexes and a mild case of awkwardness. My regimen for preparing for a tournament was to quaff two strong ales just beforehand so falling off my horse wouldn’t hurt as much, then go out and take my lumps like a man.
The lists were already packed when I went down to check on arrangements. Not only did Arthur proclaim the Pentecost tournament as a day off from work, he fed the commoners who attended a meal that included meat at the end of the contest. A treat most peasants experienced two or three times a year at best (servants of the nobles did a lot better). So every commoner who lived close enough to get back to work the next day was packed in the bleachers. The tradesmen and artisans sat in a paid section of the stands and bought food and drink from scores of hawkers.
Incidentally, Father Ignatius strongly disapproved of Arthur’s giving men time off work for anything except the celebration of mass on holy days. But despite Guinevere’s conversion to Christianity and Arthur’s benevolence toward the faith, as far as I could tell he really didn’t give a rat’s ass whether the priests approved of such things or not. One time Monsignor Dagrezia was giving him a ration of shit about some perceived slight to his religion when Arthur held up both hands for a moment of quiet, then summoned his Captain of the Guard. “Sir Sagramore, our good Monsignor is so wrought with his holiness that he has quite forgotten that sanctity must be balanced with humility and courtesy. We would therefore offer him the use of the cell in the South Tower for solitude, meditation, and prayer for the night and the morrow. Please escort him there.”
The Knights of the Round Table took turns at honorary posts such as Captain of the King’s Own Guard, and it was Sagramore’s month. Sagramore was from some barbarian kingdom far to the east of Rome—in fact, when drinking he liked to brag that his grandfather had participated in the sack of Rome. Hulking, dark, and downright ugly by Celtic standards, his looks had not been improved by an axe blow that had taken away part of his cheek and left half a dozen teeth exposed in a permanent sneer. When he gently took the Monsignor’s arm—gentle by his standards, I suppose—that effectively ended forever Dagrezia’s career as a bully for Jesus. Curiously, after just one night in the tower—it was a touch drafty, and by tradition no food was served to those held there—he had become a wise and valued advisor to the court.
As expected, preparations for the big feed were proceeding along without my intervention. Hire good people, train them well, let them know your expectations, and be quick with praise and gentle with correction—that was my method of getting things to run smoothly. When I finally retire, I’m going to write a treatise called “The Work Habits of the Highly Effective Seneschal.” So few people outside of the priesthood can read that it’s probably a total waste of time. But maybe the new King of the Severn Valley—no way Arthur’s going to let me retire before he does—will start choosing his seneschal from among the Christian clergy (or at least those trained by them).
With no kitchen duties to distract me from my duty to fall off a horse, I sighed and went to dress for the opening parade.
Eighty-seven of the Knights of the Round Table were present—mounted on our impressive steeds, chain mail freshly polished with sand, colors bold and clean. The winner of last year’s tournament—Sir Lancelot, no big surprise there—led Arthur’s finest through the lists, to the blasts of the heralds’ horns and the wall of noise from the stands. Behind us rode a hundred and a quarter other knights. There were two empty seats at the Round Table—not counting the Siege Perilous, of course, which was reserved for the Grail Knight whenever he finally decided to show up. These places would be awarded to the best of the knights not already ensconced in our company. So excitement was high.
The first two rounds were held two matches at a time, but even so, a tournament of more than two hundred knights takes eight hours to complete. The hawkers would make a killing, and the peasants—well, water was free, and the prospect of a good meal at the end was more than enough to make up for a little hunger, which was an old friend to them anyway.
But first we had to do the whole tokens bit. The new fad, courtly love, demanded that noble and virtuous knights wear their lady’s token in the tournament. So in groups of twenty or so, the knights rode up to the stands to claim some bit of cloth to fasten to their armor in her honor.
I hadn’t had a courtly lady in years. I mean, that whole pretend love thing without getting laid—what was the point? Plus it wouldn’t bring much honor to a lady when I got whacked on the first pass. Although, the mathematics of a tournament being what it was, half of the ladies were going to watch their champion hit the dirt in the first round. So all in all, it didn’t bother me not ride forth to fake war not carrying some scrap of cloth. Much.
As I waited, I scanned the section of the stands reserved for the nobles to see if I could spot Morgan—hey, maybe she’d give me a token! But I didn’t find her. I’d expected her right up front to cheer her champion on. Come to think of it, Sir Carodoc didn’t seem to be around either. Interesting.
But I did spot one of my favorite ladies in the whole world—Lisle, Gascon’s youngest daughter. I pushed my horse through the crowd and up to where she and her family were sitting.
“Lady Lisle, I would be honored to wear your token in the tournament today, if you would have me for your champion.”
Even at eight, you could already tell that Lisle wasn’t going to be a beauty. Too much of her mother’s swarthiness. But she was quick, with a head full of ideas that bubbled forth whenever she talked. If I could talk her father into teaching her to read—or even letting me teach her—I was going to have to wait around another six or seven years until she came of marrying age. Assuming she’d even consider marrying an old, broken-down knight who never won a tournament.
Just kidding. It was quite common for women to marry at fourteen, but unlike a lot of men, I had no prurient interest in girls.
“Oh, Mum, may I?” Lisle danced up and down on the wooden stand in her excitement. “But what can I use for a token?”
Esmeralda, Gascon’s wife, smiled at her daughter’s joy. “You silly thing. Did you forget that you wore a ribbon in your hair today? Sir Kay won’t want you for his lady if your head is full of fluff.”
“Good Sir Kay knows what my head is full of, Mum. Mother Mary must have guided my hand as I dressed this morning. Here, Sir Knight. Wear this with honor, and fight valiantly.”
Well, even if I couldn’t win, I could certainly fight valiantly for my lady.
The knights were all clustered a little ways off where a herald—a lad with a big voice had a sure-fire career as a herald—was announcing the pairings for the first round. I joined the throng to find out to whom I would have the pleasure of losing.
“God’s wounds, I hope I get an easy match today.” A nasal, grating, and unfortunately-familiar voice a couple of knights over could be heard above the herald’s announcement. “Last tournament I lost in the first round to a big oaf from Cornwall. Wish I could get Kay as an opponent.”
Agravain. Proof positive that a noble birth and a seat at the round table didn’t make a knight noble. How that weasel came from the same parents as Gawain and Gareth defied explanation. Not only that, he was scarcely better in the lists than I was—Agravain found practice boring, spent his time drinking and gambling instead. I had faced him on three separate occasions, a tournament and two practice matches, and had actually won the last. I wished the same as he did—those were a lot better odds than a random opponent.
After the pairings were announced and the matches began, I wandered among the knights to take a look at my first round opponent. He turned out to be a rude man-at-arms from the wilds up near Lincoln who’d ridden in the day before and added his name to the hopefuls. I casually checked out his armor and horse and found them to be less than awe-inspiring. Not to mention a general air of clumsiness. Ah Fate, thou ficklest of the goddesses. If She were kind today, I might not take the Big Spill until later.
Finally I could hear my name announced above the clamor. Oswald was there to help and encourage as I swung myself up into the saddle and trotted out into packed dirt in the center of the lists.
No chorus of cheers greeted me, but at least there was only a smattering of boos. Over to my right I could hear the high-pitched shrieks of a young girl defending my honor. Well, Sir William from Lincoln or points thereabout didn’t have anybody screaming for him either, so as fan favorites at least, we were evenly matched.
The joust official dropped his scarf and the match was on.
Sir Willie lowered his bâton de faux guerre and spurred his horse to the gallop. I didn’t, but rather held my fake war stick upright as my faithful nag and I trotted forward. And then just before we met, I swung it down in front of his horse’s eyes, just far enough away to avoid a disqualification foul.
The horse shied away—I’d long ago figured out that he hadn’t been trained by my people—and the sudden move caused Sir Willie to slip sideways toward me in the saddle. I was waiting for it, and quick as my leisurely reflexes allowed I slipped my stick under his arm, spurred my horse sideways, and levered him off slick as Aphrodite’s hairless inner thighs.
I’d won a match! True, I’d used my best weapon, my brains, rather than knightly prowess. The crowd booed me heartily for it. Crowds hate brains. Well, not surprising—most people don’t like things that are unfamiliar. I rode over and dismounted in front of my lady, kneeling most courteously to the wild applause of one. Well, I suppose her family joined in. Oswald gave me a grin and a thumbs up when I trotted back over to the waiting area.
My next match was Sir Lionel, so I got to savor my victory exactly as long as it took to call my second match plus maybe a minute more. But what the hell, it was already turning out to be a good day.