Obviously there wasn’t a god whose responsibility it was to control the weather; otherwise, it would have been gloomy and overcast. Maybe the brash sunlight signaled that it was only gloomy from my perspective; the gods, having cast their lots with Maleagans, were heading out for a picnic. Or perhaps the pantheon alternated jobs like the knights did at Morgan’s Happy Camp for Wayward Boys, and this morning it was Fortuna’s turn at weather control and, well, she’d slept in (as Fortuna often does). But for whatever reason, the morning sun shone bright and cheerful, with promises that it was going to be a hot July day. My gravediggers were going to get sweaty before it was all over.
Crap. If this was going to be a one percent fight, decided by some random event rather than the skill of the fighters, I needed Fortuna to be awake and bored and looking for amusement. Like having Maleagans step in a gopher hole and break his leg. I mean, that should be funny to a goddess, right? But if she was sleeping in, I was totally fucked.
Was there any way I could win a battle of skills? I looked for some hopeful sign, like Maleagans showing up decked out in ceremonial helmet and mail not well suited for actual battle—a lot of nobles were beginning to have such light, stylish, and useless armor fashioned to wear for public events—but no such luck. His hauberk was utilitarian and thick; his helm open enough to give good vision while protecting as much as possible, his shield rimmed with a heavy iron border. The only concession to style was that everything that could be colored was black. Well, the count wasn’t noted for good taste, and you can’t really screw up black.
I knew some of Maleagans’ fighting history. He’d only been a squire when the Saxon wars had begun, but there’d been plenty of fighting left once he’d attained knighthood. After Mount Badon, there had been countless skirmishes with invaders to keep his muscles hard and his skills honed, along with his daily workout on the training ground. But there was no doubt I had the edge in experience, if years of fighting Saxons really helped when it came to individual combat. Frankly, I wasn’t all that convinced. If you weren’t astride a horse, and there wasn’t another soldier to your right protecting you with his shield, all of those tactical lessons I’d learned on the battlefield meant basically nothing.
On the other side of the ledger, I was ten years older and decidedly mediocre in the skills of a swordsman. Not to mention the lingering bruises and soreness from fighting two battles in . . . Freyja’s bloodstained cloak, was this the third time in a week? Since the Saxon Wars fourteen years ago, I’d not voluntarily participated in anything more dangerous than sparring or a tournament—certainly nothing with naked steel. Could love really turn a mind such as mine to mush and cause me to do such stupid things?
Was there any way I could win a battle of skill? Unless somebody slipped me a cup of kaffka in the next minute or two, not a chance.
Should have considered letting Oswald be your champion a little harder. I pushed that useless thought away. Nothing fucks up a man’s head in battle quite like regrets.
When I’d stood toe to toe with Galahad the week before, the stands had been packed and the spectators quite vocal. Here there weren’t any stands, but considering how few onlookers there were, they weren’t really needed. Maleagans’ master of arms was officiating; less than a dozen armsmen and half again that many servants, color-coordinated in baby-shit brown, stood around watching.
And on my side of the battle circle? Nobody.
That meant Oswald was up to no good somewhere.
Maleagans noticed about the same time I did. “Where’s your little squire this morning?”
“I have no idea, count.”
“Probably just as well that he not be here.”
And then there he was, the Princess on his arm. Maleagans tightened his lips and gave his head a little shake. I took that to mean he hadn’t intended to tell her until the morning’s business was all over and done with.
Elegant and graceful as ever, Elaine was gowned in white with her hair again bound with a single blue ribbon. And by the expression on her face, she was clearly . . . disgusted.
Her last words to me echoed in my head. “True love is patient.” All of a sudden, when it was too late, I realized what an idiot I was.
The master of arms had been speaking but I hadn’t been paying attention. I mean, there weren’t any rules; what was there to say? Then he held up a baby-shit brown cloth—what better symbol of the shitty day it was turning out to be—and released it to flutter to the ground. Maleagans and I drew our swords and got after it.
For the first few minutes, we circled and feinted and felt each other out. And with each passing minute, it looked worse. Maleagans was quick, strong, balanced, and confident. I didn’t see a single weakness I could take advantage of. He’d obviously been trained by a master.
I rushed in with a pair of quick slashes which he parried almost effortlessly, then turned my sword aside and lunged in a counter that would have drawn blood if I hadn’t been moving back already. The count gave me an evil smile and a mocking salute, then launched into a flurry of blows of his own. His speed put me totally on the defensive. I not only couldn’t get in a single counterstroke, I had to take two hard blows on the edge of my shield. The second one cracked the rim. A dozen more like that and it would be hacked into uselessness.
Maleagans danced away lightly, without a trace of effort showing on his face.
On his next attack, the count led with his shield. I tried to get a hard overhand swing over the top edge, but he deflected my blow so that it missed his helm completely. His riposte ripped through the mail on my shield arm and drew blood. I thought I heard a gasp from the onlookers, but was too busy to look.
I took three quick steps toward Maleagans and then pretended to stumble, hoping by now he might take me for a total incompetent and give me an opening. But he merely looked amused and waited until I’d regained my feet, then came in with a stab right at my eyes that suddenly went low, under my guard, hard into the mail over my gut. The mail held, but my muscles felt like I’d been punched by Gareth. I backed away, but the count followed up with such rapid strokes that I barely managed to keep his sword away from my body.
At the end of his assault, my sword arm quivered from the powerful blows I’d stopped with my weapon. My shield, as advertised, was a useless wreck that I threw aside.
Maleagans looked as unruffled as if he’d merely been loosening up. He shrugged and tossed his own shield away. There was absolutely no knightly code that suggested he do that—all’s fair in love and warfare. I could only conclude that he was mocking me.
Unless Fortuna woke up and hit the ground running, another couple of attacks like that and I was done for.
I hooked the first two fingers on my left hand above the pommel of my sword for extra leverage and came in with strokes as hard and fast as I could swing. Maleagans stepped forward to meet me, taking my blows effortlessly on his sword. He got in one good hard stroke that broke ribs and another that cut through mail into the back of my right wrist. I could feel the power going out of my grip. I got in . . . nothing. Not even a love tap against his mail. He might as well be fighting without armor.
I gave a fleeting thought to the amulet I’d left on the floor by my bed. Another bad decision. I mean, maybe it would have helped; it certainly couldn’t have made things any worse than they were going. And I know, regrets fuck up a man’s head. But I didn’t see how they were going to hurt either.
Maleagans circled left, the point of his sword tracing a smaller circle in front of my eyes. I watched like a hawk; if he lunged while my attention wavered, the tip of his blade would pass through an eye socket, where neither steel nor bone would impede its progress, directly into my center of mathematical knowledge. Then I would be lying on the ground dying and not even able to do a little algebra to soften my passage from my brief mortal stay.
Sometimes a man must make his own luck.
“Fortuna!” I screamed the name loud enough to wake the dead, or at least the inattentive. “Fortuna! Elaaaaaaane.” I let the last cry linger as I swung backhanded to knock away his sword blade, continued the movement by spinning completely around in a circle, and with all of my weight and momentum behind one mighty blow aimed slightly upward with my sword, hoping to contact arm or head or, really, anything soft.
No such luck. My sword rang off his, deflecting his powerful downstroke so that instead of cleaving through my helm and into my brain pan, it hit a glancing blow that knocked me senseless.
Or perhaps not totally senseless, since I felt my knees buckle and my face smash into the ground. But I couldn’t hear anything except the ringing in my ears, couldn’t see anything except dirt, couldn’t feel anything except pain.
Maleagans rolled me over and placed the tip of his sword on top under my chin. I tried to speak the words, “I yield”—not that I thought they’d do a bit of good—but my mouth refused to work.
Then I felt someone take my hand in hers. Probably a Valkyrie, ready to whisk my soul away to the Hall of the Slain. Hopefully I’d earned that in the countless battles against the Saxons, although I’d done nothing to help my cause today.
Maybe it’s Elaine?
Don’t be an idiot. Her expression told you everything you need to know about her feelings. Don’t add sentimental optimism to your other shortcomings.
But still, wouldn’t it be a nice last thought?
Maybe I was right. I closed my eyes and imagined Elaine holding my hand as I waited for Maleagans to complete the trial by combat.
“Kay, you poor bloody fool.” He moved the sword from my throat and thrust it upright into the ground beside my neck. “I release you from your oath.” He turned and moved out of my vision, just before everything turned dark.