Trial by combat. An accepted practice throughout as much of the civilized world as I knew about. Was there ever more compelling evidence that your average sixth century king, usually the greatest warriors in his kingdom, didn’t have enough logical ability to reason his way out of an open burlap sack?
Suppose you match two fighters, neither of which has an advantage in arms or armor. Which one do you suppose wins? In 99% of the cases, it’s the better fighter. Either the stronger or the faster or the one who’s spent the most time in the training hall. Or the one who cheats better.
But occasionally—I emphasize the word as meaning ‘not very often, maybe one time in a hundred’ and hence the 99% estimate above—something bizarre happens. A fighter slips and twists his ankle and can hardly stand, much less fight. His sword breaks. His saddle strap snaps and he tumbles to the ground after barely being brushed by his opponent’s lance or baton de faux guerre. And the weaker fighter wins. Shit happens. Not very often, but it happens.
Now suppose you declare the battle to be a ‘trial by combat’ instead of a mere grudge match to the death? How often does the lesser fighter win? Well, the first estimate should be ‘about one time in a hundred.’
Not around here. There is this pervasive superstition that right will win out in the end. For the religious, that translates to mean that whatever god they worship will intervene. God likes right, right?
The new Christians are the worst. Those who worship Thor or Mithra or Apollo—popular gods among soldiers—know that the gods are often off drinking and carousing with their buds (or in the case of Zeus, changing forms to mate with mortal women) and not paying attention to the affairs of men. But Christians believe that their god is so enamored with them that he watches over every move they make. Mostly that’s to keep score so if they fuck up and die without confessing their fuck-ups, they won’t get into heaven by mistake. But since god is watching, and undoubtedly bored out of his mind from the petty antics of his followers (not to mention the droning of all those cherubs and/or seraphs), he amuses himself by never allowing evil to overcome good.
Let me just say that there’s not one shred of evidence that right wins out in the end more often than evil. Arthur defeated the Saxons; because we won, from our point of view, god defeated evil. But from the Saxon perspective, evil clearly carried the day.
And then Arthur comes along and makes this big point about how might isn’t the same as right. You’d think his first act would be to banish trial by combat, right? Not a chance. In some things, Arthur is as superstitious as everybody else.
I was 99% confident that when I demanded a trial by combat, Arthur would allow it. And only 1% fearful that he figured I would get my ass kicked and maybe die or that he’d have to banish me and get another seneschal and then the quality of the food and the living conditions would plunge until Camelot was no better than any other barbarian stronghold, and thus refuse. So I cast the dice and, as expected, they didn’t come up snake eyes. Arthur granted my request, then summoned the Knights to the Round Table for discussion.
“Sir Kay has accused Father Ignatius of being a boorish, ill-mannered fraud and stated publically that the Holy Grail is a fake. Father Ignatius has called Sir Kay an ignorant twit. Sir Kay has demanded a trial by combat, as is his right, and I have granted his request.”
A chorus of muted gasps answered Arthur’s proclamation. Somewhere in the room, something metal hit the floor with a dull clank that wouldn’t have normally been audible above the racket. And then silence.
“Kay, I assume you will be representing yourself in this trial?”
“Aye, Sire.” My voice was clear and unwavering, not even hinting at the pounding of my heart.
“Who will be Father Ignatius’ champion?”
The champion. The institution that made sure a knight didn’t challenge a farmer who didn’t stand a chance for rights to his land. Surely, if good hung in the balance, a champion would be moved by the righteousness of the cause and fight, to the death if necessary, for one of the parties.
Ah, there was the kicker. Trial by combat was fought with naked steel. And although it didn’t have to be to the death, it usually was. With emotions running so high, the victor more often exercised his right to slay the defeated than took the higher path of showing mercy.
Dead silence. Then Agravain rose to his feet.
Ah, shit. In a contest of skill, Agravain was the Knight of the Round I’d be most equally matched with—I probably had a one in three chance of beating him. However, I’d hoped to be facing a lot better odds than that. And with his well-known vicious streak, and looking to avenge his loss to me, losing would almost certainly be a fatal experience unless Arthur intervened.
Not to mention that he would cheat if he got the chance.
Yes, but wasn’t that what you were planning to do?
Cheat? Of course. But I would be cheating for a righteous cause; he would be cheating to kill me.
That’s the same rationale the Saxons use.
That’s one of the problems with being logical: it’s hard to fool yourself, even when you need to.
Fortunately, my plan intervened to keep me from having to find out if I could beat Agravain when it mattered most. “No!” screamed Ignatius. “It must be the Grail knight who defends the Holy Grail from these vile accusations.”
“But I spoke first,” Agravain whined. “And I was the first Knight of the Round Table to be baptized. It is my right.”
“It is not your right.” Ignatius was practically frothing. He was going to have to do something about managing his anger if he expected to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his scheming. “God has chosen, and you must submit.”
Agravain clenched his fists and looked like he wanted to argue some more. But in the end he spat and sat back down.
After the scraping of his seat died away, there was again total silence.
Finally Galahad stood. His head was down as he struggled with his emotions. Eventually he looked up at me. “I don’t want to fight you, Sir Kay.”
“You must!” Ignatius was spraying spit again. “You are the Grail knight. God has chosen you for His champion. Defy Him and risk your soul.”
“I don’t want to fight you, Sir Kay,” Galahad repeated. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me the entire time.
I smiled at him and nodded. “It’ll be alright, Galahad. Fear not. Things will work out for the best. Perhaps, as Father Ignatius says, it is the will of the gods.”
Ignatius began to spit and sputter at my twisting his words until Arthur bade him to sit down and shut up. Then he named the hour for the trial as nine the following morning and dismissed the company.
I’d like to believe that, under other circumstances, he’d have asked me to stay behind, question me, console me, spend perhaps my last day on earth with me. At least ask me what in Ignatius’ hell I thought I was doing. But Arthur couldn’t do that now. I’d demanded the trial; to talk with me now would be to take sides.
Instead, I went out walking with Oswald. Savoring the joys of England in the summertime, in case things went dreadfully wrong on the morrow.
“Are you worried, Sire?”
“Not particularly, Oswald,” I managed to get out with a straight face. “Are you?”
“Perhaps just a little, Sire. Based solely on his performance at the tournament at Pentecost, Galahad is one heck of a fighter. He threw the match with Lancelot, you know. Had him beaten fair and square on a number of occasions, but he wouldn’t go for the kill. And the rumors say he is far better with a sharpened sword than a padded stick.”
Oswald stopped walking and looked over at me. “But I find it a most curious coincidence that your opponent is the same knight you went out riding with last week. Curious and comforting both. I only hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I, lad. So do I.”
We walked on in silence for most of a mile before he spoke again.
“There’s something else I must confess, Sire.” He shifted his weight from one foot to another a couple of times, then looked up and stared directly into my eyes. “If Agravain killed you, I would take vengeance on him. I’d have to flee Camelot or die for murder, but I’d do it anyway. I owe that to you. But I couldn’t kill Galahad. He’s really a nice guy, and he doesn’t want to fight you.”
Real knights don’t cry, so I had to look away or risk not being a real knight in Oswald’s eyes. But I put my arm around him and drew him close. And started to say something, but really: what more was there to be said?