Trial by Combat

We return to the frontier of Northumbria for another Beckett Family adventure. 


Background

See the Blackwater Keep article for a key to this map.

The session began with the PCs newly returned from a foray to the ruined temple of Pholtus on nearby Settlers Mountain. They made it back to Blackwater Keep just in time to keep a dinner appointment with Lord Balin Blackwater. Several members of the party were still sorely wounded from the recent encounter with the indescribable ‘terror in the tower.’ Just before departing for the Keep, some Beckett kinsmen learned that the hated Mandrakes, their archenemies, some of whom had recently arrived in the Barony, had been active in their absence. The leader of the Mandrake party here was Sir Mallory, the second son to the cunning and twisted Mandrake patriarch, Lord Terrick. Several Becketts spotted Sir Mallory hunting and hawking with Lord Balin on the previous day, and many feared that he was poisoning Balin’s mind toward them. They were anxious about the impending dinner engagement.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers. Those that feature in this session are listed below in black, while the rest are grayed out. The players and/or GM have also provided some casting ideas this time around, given in the parenthesis. Editor’s note: I believe ‘MU’  in several of the descriptions stands for ‘Magic User.’

Wyrm Cormallen:  Elfin druid/MU, distant relative to most (Napoleon Dynamite!) 
Tavion Cormallen:  Elfin F-MU, distant relative to most
Jade Cormallen:  Half-elfin ranger, distant relative to most (Chloe Grace Mortez–as a blonde)
Granny Beckett:  Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family (Mother Gothel from Tangled—Granny uses her magic to keep her looking young)
Thurin:  Half-Elfin thief, quirky and flakey daughter of Granny (Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad—minus the makeup)
Asher:  Elfin thief, ward of the Cormallen clan, friend to most (Bridget Regan from Legend of the Seeker)
Lord Roger Beckett:  Ranger, new family head (Powers Booth in Southern Comfort)
Sir Raynard:  Cavalier, handsome and witty (Val Kilmer in Willow)
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour (Kevin McKidd from the HBO Rome series)
Daniel Beckett:  Assassin, passionate and protective ( Daniel Craig from Casino Royale)
Sir Callum Beckett:  Cavalier, burly and jovial (Brian Blessed in Henry V)
Sir William Beckett:  Cavalier, sarcastic and brave (Bill Paxton from Aliens)
Brother Lewie:  Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful (a young John Malkovich)
Elwood Beckett:  NPC Druid, simple and quiet
Raymond Beckett:  NPC fighter, stoic and responsible (Rufus Sewell from The Pillars of the Earth series) 
Owen Beckett:  NPC Ranger, introverted and self-sufficient   (James Franco from Tristan and Isolde)  
Kieran Beckett:  NPC MU, gentle and intelligent (Matthew Macfadyen from The Pillars of the Earth series)
Rayner Beckett:  Thief, bastard half-brother to Raymond
Brother Liam:  Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie (David O’Hara from Braveheart)
Sergeant Blaine:  NPC fighter, porter to the Beckett family (Jesse Ventura from Predator)  
Sven Ragnarsson:  Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin (Arnold Schwarzenegger from Conan the Barbarian)
Bjorn Ragnarsson:  Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin (as above)
Dagis:  NPC Fighter, new squire to Sir Callum  (any young, blond, jock teenager) 

Narrative

Day 13, Ninth Moon

The hall was alive with the sights and sounds of revelry.  A band of minstrels filled the spacious room with the airy piping of flutes, the flittering of cymbals, the light twang of lute strings, and the muffled thump of the tabor drum.  This soft music mingled with the lively murmur of conversation.

The feast had been underway for over an hour, and by now most of the guests had relaxed with a goblet of wine.  Jade had stopped listening to the talk at the table.  Human castles were still somewhat new to her, and she could not help but gawk at the strangeness all about her.

Blackwater Keep was certainly the largest castle in the entire region, and she now sat in the Baron’s private hall, reserved for dignitaries.  The walls of fitted stone, bedecked with colorful tapestries and banners, reached up more than thirty feet to a ceiling of heavy timbers.  Several large chandeliers hung from heavy oaken beams by means of sturdy chains.  At one end, a wide, columned gallery, resting on stout stone corbels, overlooked the entire hall.  Jade spotted several Baronial guardsmen there, standing unobtrusively and almost out of sight, keeping a careful eye on everyone in the hall below.

The hall’s size was clearly meant to impress, but Jade saw only a large and unnatural pile of stone and lumber.  The hangings were bright and cheerful, but they lacked the natural splendor found in elfin halls, where nature and architecture mingled seamlessly.  Though richly carved and well oiled, the heavy rafters above seemed crude compared to the delicate stone fan vaulting in elfin halls.  She did appreciate the many tall Frangian-Gothic windows, which mimicked the elfin style of Lathlainen, but she noted that the windows did not let in enough sunlight.  For all of her host’s efforts, the great hall seemed gloomy.

Certainly, the décor and fare on the table were the best.  Silver candelabras were on every table, and those on the high table featured tall tapers of pure beeswax.  Platters of silver were piled high with fresh grapes, figs, apples, cherries, pears, walnuts, peppered sausage, roasted boar, tangy venison pasties, steamed vegetables, and fresh loaves of crusty bread.  The aroma of soup and roasted meat hung heavy in the air.  Wine and honey mead flowed freely, and Lord Balin even produced a light golden wine from the elfin orchards of Lathlainen.  The wine was good, she admitted, but the human hunger for animal flesh never made any sense to her.  Feeling melancholy, she sighed, turning in her elegant armchair and looking about the hall.

Below the dais on which she sat, about three score lesser officials, important servants, and their wives dined together, seated at several wooden tables about the hall.  Many feasted and laughed.  Some argued, and others danced.  A few Frangian wolfhounds milled about freely, occasionally fighting over table scraps, scattering the fragrant rushes that lay scattered on the flagstones.  Two-dozen servants moved to and fro about the hall.  It was a blur.  Meanwhile, Jade and her kinsmen, along with a few other guests, sat at the high table, along with Lord Balin and some of his close advisors.  The long, richly engraved, oaken table seated twenty comfortably.  Today, all twenty wooden armchairs were filled.

Brother Liam, sitting to Jade’s left, caught her eye and asked, “This is all somewhat new to you, I gather?  Enjoy it, lass, for it is not often that one sits above the salt.”  To emphasize, he pointed with his silver fork to the large, engraved, silver salt canister that sat near the middle of the table.

The elfin maid smiley weakly, whispering, “All the same, I would rather be walking through the woods.  Though not ungrateful, I do wonder why we are here.”

The priest, signaling a servant, responded cheerfully, “Oh come now.  These affairs are somewhat important.  Politics, of course.  Your family would make a new start, and Lord Balin is just the man to make that happen.  You heard him announce earlier that the much-discussed land grab will commence in the coming days.  For months, it has been the worst kept secret in the Barony, I gather.  Every wayward adventurer and hedge knight is flocking to this Keep for a chance at land, goblyn hordes or no goblyn hordes.  There will be…”

A comely serving maid quietly refilled the priest’s silver goblet, interrupting his train of thought.  Jade interjected, “I know all this, of course.  Forgive me.  The news from the Yyrka Valley still has me rattled.  I want to cry, not make merry.”

The priest’s face sobered, and he laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, saying, “I understand.  The loss of even one elfin life is tragic, but the loss of so many is unprecedented in these times. Yet you must take heart in the victory that they bought with their noble sacrifice.  The slaughter that they inflicted on the goblyns was great.  Many say that they broke that wicked army and that the frontiers of Laithlainen are now safe, at least for the moment.”

“I suppose,” muttered the ranger.  It was all she could muster.  She drained her goblet.

Brother Liam continued, “Perhaps the blight is soon to pass, for the dwarven victory at Dag-Kurkak also cost the goblyns untold thousands.  The siege lasted for months and dwarven losses were great, but rumors say that they killed five goblyns for every dwarf that perished.  Surely the enemy cannot withstand such losses much longer.  Perhaps we stand on the threshold of victory.  Be of good cheer.”

With that, he excused himself.  Jade signaled to a servant, who quickly refilled her goblet.  The wine is good, she thought again.  When the servant departed, Jade turned to her right, where sat Daniel Beckett.  She noticed a dark look on his face and could sense his black mood.  Despite her own pained thoughts, she felt compelled to make him smile.

“You look gloomier than I, if that were possible,” she said lightly.  Daniel did not seem to hear her, for he toyed with his two-tined fork, slowly stabbing a piece of gristle on the side of his plate—repeatedly.  From time to time, his eyes shot across the table, but then they immediately went back to his plate.

Jade slid her heavy oaken armchair towards his and lightly poked him with her own fork.  Daniel raised his head slowly, his pale blue eyes locking on hers.  A wry look on his face, he asked flatly, “How can I help you, blondie?”

“What troubles you?” she asked.

With a snarl, he replied in a low voice, “I am finicky about company.”

She needed no explanation, for she knew his mind.  Her gaze went past his head and to the far side of the high table, where sat Sir Mallory of House Mandrake.  He was telling a story and had the far side of the table enraptured.  His bright green eyes and flashing white teeth seemed to stand out in the gloomy hall.  So fresh and vibrant, she thought.  It is a shame that he is so twisted. Those curly dark locks and that handsome face would make most maids weak in the knees, but I know the darkness that lies within.

Lowering her head and looking up into Daniel’s eyes, she said, “They are here, my friend.  Brooding over it will accomplish little.  Your elder brother dragged us to this dinner with some purpose in mind so we must suffer the unpleasantries.  One day, they will reap the evil that they sow.”

“Oh, I will make sure of that.  Mark my words, blondie,” muttered Daniel.

Uncomfortable with the black look in his eyes, and slightly concerned that he might do something rash, the half-elf tried to engross him in conversation, asking, “Is it true that the Mandrakes are also looking to settle here?”

“So they say,” he answered.  With that, Daniel turned in his seat, toward her and away from the Mandrakes.  He asked, “Tell me blondie, do you believe in coincidence?”

She hesitated at first, but finally replied, “I guess so.”

“I do not,” he stated flatly.  He continued, “House Mandrake buys up my father’s debt, seizes our estate, bribes the nobles at court to look the other way, has my father framed for murder, and has us exiled.  Then, having Beckettwood in his legal possession, the pig just happens to send his second son more than seventy leagues north to aid an unknown baron against goblyns?  Then, said son just happens to show interest in gaining land in a war-torn hinterland?”

“Hickory Mountain is nice this time of year,” she mused.

He shot her a cold look.

“In this case, of course you are correct,” she replied, “but what can we do?  We have no proof that they are corrupt or wicked, and the locals here are not so uncivilized as to overlook murder.”

“I would call it self-defense… or vengeance,” he quipped.

“It matters not what you would call it,” she pointed out.  “Besides,” she continued, “I hear that the Mandrake star is rising in these parts already.  To start, he offers Lord Balin as many swords as we do.  Then, two days ago, Kenrick and Finn saw Mallory and his retinue hawking with Lord Balin.  That does not bode well for us.”

“It gets better than that, blondie,” he quipped.  Just then, he paused, listening in to the conversation across the table behind him.  He jerked his head, motioning to those behind him, saying, “They speak of his heroics even now.  Listen to this rot.”

At the far end of the table, the aging captain of the Lakesend Militia, Gaufred Farmer, was relating a tale from a few days ago.  As he leaned back in his chair, goblet in hand, his deep voice carried across the table.  He sipped his wine and continued, saying, “We already had two-score refugees from Brackenham choking the village and the Keep, all weak and hungry, and many wounded.  Then another wave comes from Birch Grove, also to the north.  The stories were the same—waves of goblyns descending on them in the night.  Some even mentioned a flying bat-like creature.  The villagers were panicked, for sure, and who can tell how accurate were their tales.  In any case, Lakesend could not take in any more souls, and food was running short.”

At this, Sir Uriens, the grizzled Lesser Bailiff of the Keep, added, “The outer bailey was choked with the dispossessed.  They were in the way and had to go.  How can you defend a Keep with piles of women and children lying about?”

Lord Balin retorted sarcastically, “Your compassion is overwhelming, Uriens.  Why use a keep to safeguard the local inhabitants?”

“Your father used it to project your power across the lake region, my lord,” responded the bailiff flatly.

Sitting back in his armchair, Balin responded, “Yes, there is that.  However, I fear that we do not project much of anything these days.  We are entirely on the defensive, which suits me not at all. Still, what can we do against an unseen and shifting enemy?”

Sir Mallory spoke up at this point, saying, “We can locate and crush the hobgoblyns, or whatever they are.  The elves and dwarves have had their victories.  It is high time for ours.”

The veteran militia captain asked, “But with what men, I ask?  We have a garrison of just over two hundred against untold thousands.  We need more men, my lord.”

Balin nodded in agreement and said, “Indeed, my good captain, and this is where the land grab comes in.  With enough brave knights, sergeants, and yeomen settling in this land, we shall eventually have the numbers and resources to drive out any invaders.”

The captain nodded and returned to his original point, saying, “Let us toast to Sir Mallory of House Mandrake, who both safeguarded the helpless and preserved our resources.  It was he who paid the Guild captains to ferry no less than eighty-one refugees southward towards Yarrvik.  Their plight is unfortunate, but he gave them safety and a chance at a new start.  Just as important, we have eighty-one fewer mouths to feed in the coming months.  Well done, good sir.”

Several dignitaries at that end of the table clapped or banged their utensils on the table in applause.  The cheers spread to the far side of the table until everyone was focused on Sir Mallory. Lord Balin applauded as well and then redirected the conversation, turning to Lord Roger.  He asked, “Speaking of depleted resources, you all know that several villagers have gone missing lately, one of which was Master Keven the provost.  The timing could not be worse, for the harvest is when we need him most.  We have had endless problems in collecting food stocks from the villagers and in stocking the Keep for a siege.  With a garrison of over two hundred souls, this is a serious problem.  Lord Roger, you and your kinsmen were looking into his disappearance.  Pray, do tell us what you have found.”

Most heads turned to Lord Roger Beckett, seated across the wide table from Jade.  She saw Roger hesitate for a second and then clear his throat.  Looking to his left, he nodded at Balin and replied, “Yes, we have spent several days looking into the matter, my lord.  Though we have a growing collection of evidence, which points to some sort of infection in the village, the exact nature of this infection remains elusive.  We are not sure what is behind the sickness, but it seems to have physical as well as mental effects.  This may be what befell the provost, though we have found no trace of him.  We suspect that there may be a cult or cabal in the village that is causing these effects.”

Jade could see Roger’s growing discomfort as he spoke, for despite their many attempts, they had found no damning evidence and no sign whatsoever of the provost’s whereabouts. Editor’s note: See ‘The Investigation Falters‘.

Roger was about to continue, but Sir Mallory cut him off, saying in a loud voice that cut across the room, “So you have failed to find the provost or the reason for his disappearance.  Is that correct, Beckett?”

Roger held his tongue but shot Mallory an icy look.  Before the two could continue, the aged Father Godfrey, seated at one head of the table, spoke up, saying to Lord Balin in a soft voice, “The Becketts have worked closely with me to determine the nature of a plague that may be spreading in these parts.  Moreover, they discovered something sinister in the ruins of the old temple on Settlers Mountain. It is possible that whatever unholy evil is lurking there could be the cause of both the strange disease and the recent disappearances.”

Jade breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that the good priest had supported them.  Yet, Mallory would not desist, saying, “Tales of witches and warlocks do not feed hungry men-at-arms, Father. With all respect, we need results, not more stories.  Perhaps, my lord, you have simply placed your trust in the wrong man.”

In a soft voice, the priest shot back, “Are you the right one, Mandrake?  Before you answer, know that the Huntsmen, the village militia, the Baronial Guard, and my acolytes have found neither hide nor hair of the missing provost, or the whereabouts of my Lord Balin’s eldest brother, the missing Lord Bors.  Are we all incompetent, Sir Mandrake?”

Sir Mallory smiled a wolfish grin and replied, “At ease, my good cleric.  I do not say that.”

Godfrey did not relent, spitting back in a louder voice, “Then perhaps you suggest that you could make more progress.  Are you the man for the task, Mandrake?”

Jade could see instantly that the vicar’s opinion held incredible weight in this company, and she saw the charismatic effect of his voice.  He would be a dangerous foe, she thought.  Jade’s eyes shot back to Sir Mallory.

Mandrake did not lose his cool, nor did he back down, saying, “I am a knight, my good vicar.  I did not ride seventy leagues north to play at the role of inquisitor.  However, I am known for solving problems.  Perhaps you simply need a new approach.  If feeding the garrison is the main concern, why not assign extra men to the task of collecting taxes and food payments from the villagers?  If no one is up to the task, I volunteer my men, if it will help.”

Lord Balin took note of the rising tension and said, “Thank you, Sir Mallory, but we have already assigned Baronial Guardsmen to that task.  It is more difficult than you think, but they shall get it done.  Since you spoke of your long journey, why not tell this assembly why indeed you have come north?”

“For the land grab, of course,” replied Mallory, his white teeth gleaming as he smiled. Many at the table laughed aloud, but he continued, “Having heard of your need for knights and having seen maps of the area, my kinsmen and I had our eyes on Hickory Mountain.  It lies northeast of the Keep.  If my kinsmen ruled that mountain or whatever parts you were willing to bestow, we could shield you from any hordes that come south out of the mountains.”

Someone made a jest that caused half the table to erupt in laughter, but Jade noticed Daniel’s white-knuckled grip on his eating knife.  “What is it?” she asked.

Daniel seethed and muttered to Jade, “Nine Hells!  Somehow he found that we had been speaking with Balin about Hickory Mountain.  The man is out to ruin us—again!”

“He must have eyes and ears in the Keep,” Jade muttered aloud.

“I shall remove his eyes some day soon,” quipped Daniel, his hand still gripped tight on his knife.

The laughter had died down, and Lord Balin finally responded to Mallory’s suggestion, saying, “Yes, Hickory Mountain and Pilgrims Mountain are both strategically important.  We shall see about specific allotments in the days ahead.”

Sensing that the matter was final for the moment, Sir Mallory stood up and spoke aloud, saying, “My lord, there is another important reason why we rode north.  It is a family matter of grave import to us.”

There was an audible pause.  Lord Balin, his eyebrows raised and his goblet in hand, said, “Speak freely.”

Mallory then placed his goblet down hard on the table, saying, “I have come with my kinsmen to reclaim a stolen heirloom—a golden chalice, three hands tall and a palm-and-a-half in diameter. The whole resembles a golden cauldron, held in place by a base made to resemble the gnarled roots of a tree.  In those roots are several jasper stones, one larger than the rest.  My family has held this chalice as an heirloom for over a century, and I would have it back.”

A puzzled look settled on Lord Balin’s face, along with those of several others at the table.  The two young knights beside Mallory were now grinning maliciously toward Jade and the Becketts at the far end of the table.

His voice growing louder, Mallory continued, “A thief stole this from our estate many weeks ago.  We hanged him, of course, but before he died, he revealed that he gave the stolen chalice to the new patriarch of the disgraced Beckett family.  I am here to collect!”

Most of the Becketts leaned forward in their seats, and many spoke at once, objecting to his claim.  Daniel, however, was on his feet in an instant.  Jade grabbed at his forearm to keep him from lunging at the knight.

Daniel’s voice carried above the rest, “You lie, you pig-eyed son of a whore!  Your whole family lies!  You can take…”

Mallory’s face tightened as he reached for his sword, but the guards had taken all weapons as the guests had entered the Keep.  His face flushed with anger, Mallory spat, “I did not give you leave to address your betters, whelp.  I would beat you down for your insolence, but it is beneath me as a knight.”

Sir William Beckett shot to his feet, shouting, “Then try it with me, you smug ass!”

Roger was on his feet as well, his arm extended to restrain William.  Several Mandrake knights rose to their feet, and the music suddenly died out.  Angry shouts and accusations flew across the table, but the burly Lord Melias, younger brother of Lord Balin, brought it to an end, shouting “Silence!”

His one word, drawn out for effect, drowned out every other, and the edge in his voice gave all fair warning that they had crossed a line.  Red-faced, he continued, “You are guests in this hall, and you will behave as such!  Do not think us so far away from Yarrvik that civilized rules do not apply here!  Be warned!”  With that he sat down.

All others slowly followed suit, and Sir Mallory was first to speak, saying, “My apologies, my lord.  Your lord brother correctly points out that there are formalities to observe.  Thus, I do petition you, as lord of this barony, to hear my case.  I formally accuse the Beckett family of purposely withholding property stolen from House Mandrake.  If they refuse to return it immediately, I demand that you impose your justice.  If they deny the charge, I demand trial by combat.”

By now the whole hall was watching the drama unfold at the high table.  The hall was hushed as compared to a few moments earlier. Balin’s youngest brother and sage, Lord Morgan then spoke in a soft voice, saying, “Gentlemen, this is hardly the time for such disagreements. For all we know, a horde of goblyns remains poised to descend on this Keep, and we need every sword working together, not fighting each other.”

An older man, sitting with Mallory’s retinue, spoke slowly in response, saying, “My Lord, this has been brewing for some time. It shall not mend until there is some resolution. The best way forward is to address the issue now, with the Baron’s leave, of course.”

Lord Balin slowly placed his goblet on the table and then gazed at both parties. After a brief pause, he said in an even tone, “Gentlemen, your private quarrels are your own. My regulations in this barony are simple. You shall not shed each other’s blood in Blackwater Keep or in the village of Lakesend. Those are my regulations, and punishment for disobedience shall be harsh. However, my strong suggestion is to put aside your quarrels for now and aid me in fighting off the hordes of Hell.”

All eyes went to Sir Mallory, whose green eyes bored into Roger. Shifting his gaze to Balin, Mallory said, “I place my sword and those of my companions at your service, my lord, but I will not stand shoulder to shoulder with thieves. No. I demand justice, as is my right.

Lord Balin’s jaw tightened with frustration, but he seemed keenly aware that all eyes were upon him. He turned abruptly to Lord Roger, asking, “Lord Beckett, do you have property that belongs to House Mandrake, and if so, will you return it?”

Roger glared at Mallory, while answering the question through clenched teeth, “I have nothing that belongs to House Mandrake. I will return nothing! I will meet him in combat if he chooses, and this matter will most certainly be ended!”

At this, Balin seemed about to speak, but Mallory, his voice dripping with disdain, interjected, saying, “This… man… is not even a knight, and he fights with a peasant’s weapon. The laws are clear. The champions must be knights. Perhaps this house of beggars cannot produce one.”

Lord Melias, still red-faced, pointed a finger across the table at Mallory and said, “Watch your tongue, Mandrake. Say your piece, but if another insult comes across my brother’s table, you will answer to me!”

Mallory met Lord Melias’ gaze but said nothing. Roger was about to speak, but William half rose out of his seat. His voice cut through the others, saying, “I am a knight of House Beckett, tested in combat several times by the blades of Picts, goblyns, and robber knights. With your leave, cousin, and with your leave, Lord Blackwater, I shall defend my family’s honor and reveal the truth in this matter.”

Jade’s mind raced as events unfolded rapidly. Surely Roger, as Beckett patriarch, wished to face Mallory himself. Yet, he had not been knighted, though she never asked why. His younger brother, Raynard, was the next obvious choice, but he was not here. Even their cousin Callum, also a knight, was a likely choice. William, as Callum’s younger brother and the youngest Beckett knight, seemed the least-likely choice. However, he was here, and his ire was up.

Balin closed his eyes in frustration and sighed. Then, his eyes snapped open as he said, “So be it. It is known to all that in matters of justice, a knight that is false may not triumph in combat over a knight that is true. Therefore, at noon tomorrow, each family shall send forth a champion to decide the matter. The victor of the trial shall keep the chalice in question, wherever it may be, and the loser shall put aside all legal claims to the contrary. This is my ruling.”

At that, Sir Mallory rose with a satisfied, smug look on his face, saying, “I thank my lord for his fairness and justice. I now beg your leave to retire, for I am eager to get my rest for the contest on the morrow.”

Lord Balin waived his hand dismissively, and the Mandrake retinue rose to its feet. Yet, Balin, perhaps on a whim, then added, “Get plenty of rest, Mallory, for tomorrow’s contest will decide not only this personal matter, but the ownership of Hickory Mountain as well. I shall not have this nonsense flaring up a few days from now!”

The news clearly caught Mallory by surprise, but he then flashed his wolfish grin and departed without further word.

Seated across from Lord Balin, Adelard the steward turned to the minstrels below and commanded, “Play. We must recapture the mood!”

The music came alive once again, and the murmur of conversation slowly returned to the hall.  Jade watched those at the table carefully, though. Lord Balin was clearly irritated, as was his brother, Lord Melias. Sir Uriens seemed mildly amused, while the gray-haired steward seemed concerned. As for the Becketts, Roger seemed frustrated and embarrassed, perhaps angry that he could not face Mandrake himself.  William looked less angry now and more nervous, perhaps realizing that the family’s lot in the land grab now depended on his sword. Daniel was still fuming and was now talking to himself—a bad sign. At Roger’s request, the Becketts also rose and excused themselves.  It would be a long night.


The menu of the Welcome Wench Inn

At the Welcome Wench Inn, a few hours later, some of the Becketts gathered for a light supper. Of course, the impending trial by combat dominated the conversation. Secluded in a private back room, with Squire Dagis outside the door, the small group spoke freely. The shouts and songs of the evening crowd outside ensured that their voices would not carry.

“Let me slit his throat, brother,” Daniel pleaded. “Say the word, and he shall not see the dawn,” he continued.

Granny wrinkled her nose and waived dismissively, saying, “Do not make idle boasts. Mandrake sleeps tonight in the Keep as Lord Balin’s guest. Would you scale the walls and murder him without being seen or heard by two hundred Baronial soldiers or Mandrake’s retinue? Keep your teeth together and pass the stew.”

Sir Raynard then appealed to Roger, saying, “Let me face him, brother. If archaic rules forbid you from doing so, let me do it.”

Roger fumed, “Archaic rules, indeed! I could put a bodkin through his visor at thirty yards. That may be the only way to shut the bastard up. The rules be damned! Liam, do the Scriptures actually say that a knight must fight?”

“Who cares what they say?” quipped Daniel, still angry.

Brother Lewie lightly smacked Daniel on the back of the head, saying nonchalantly, “Hush, you heathen.”

Meanwhile, Brother Liam hurriedly swallowed a mouthful of bread and said, “I do not recall that it uses the word ‘knight’ or the ancient equivalent, but the elders have interpreted it so. It matters not at this point. Only a knight will do here.”

William’s spirits were up, bolstered by the downtime and some wine. He raised a hand and announced in a loud, cocky voice, “Have no fear, you ninnies! You are looking at one damn-fine specimen of Frangian knighthood! I have the brains! I have the brawn! I have the guts, and I have…”

“Enough arrogance to fill this room!” finished Granny.

“I call it confidence, Granny!” he said, smiling broadly.

Sir Callum looked gloomy and concerned. Seated next to Roger, he finally spoke up, saying, “Let me fight, cousin. I cannot stand by and watch my baby brother do so. I should have been there with you today, but it matters not. You can still choose the family’s champion.”

“Hey! Ye of little faith! Come on, brother!” whined William in mock indignation.

Callum’s face was solemn, however, and his deep voice had a sense of urgency. He warned, “This is no joke, little brother. Mallory is older and far more experienced.”

Leaning forward toward his burly brother, William continued, “Then be honest, Cal. Have I not bested you on the training ground in recent months? I can handle it. Trial by combat is my specialty!” He smiled again and winked.

“I still say we slit his throat,” muttered Daniel.

Granny nodded to Lewie, who then leaned over and smacked Daniel upside the head.

“Thank you,” she sighed. “However,” she continued, “Daniel is thinking along different lines, and that is handy. Perhaps we should do so as well. Might there be a way to give William an advantage tomorrow? I have a few things that may help.”

His eyes brightening, Daniel said, “I have an oil that you could put on your blade, William.”

Roger, shaking his head, replied, “Discovery would mean a death sentence. Too risky. Besides, we are not assassins.”

Granny pressed her point, saying, “I was thinking more of a hex on Mandrake, perhaps an incantation that would dull his reflexes or make him weak.”

Callum shook his head and explained, “Any sorcery, by whatever name, is forbidden, Granny.” In an official proceeding, they will have someone watching for such things.”

Roger added, “And since tomorrow’s contest shall determine our bid for Hickory Mountain, we must not do anything to disqualify our claim.”

Turning to William, he said, “I lean toward Raynard, but you have had the most practice in recent weeks. Go get some rest, cousin.  Tomorrow is your big day.”

Raynard shook his head in resignation, adding, “No worries, cousin. At stake are only a legal matter, the Beckett family’s honor, and control of a fief.”

Suddenly nervous, William swallowed hard as he left the room. The rest continued to eat, save for Granny, who excused herself. On her way out, she cracked Raynard on the head with her staff.

“Don’t be petty,” she quipped.


Almost the entire Beckett family processed quietly into the sprawling grassy field that lay just north of Blackwater Keep. William felt anxiety rising in his chest, but he determined not to show it. He walked a few feet behind Roger, his sword rhythmically clanking against his plate harness. Raynard and Callum walked at his side, offering small bits of advice. Dagis, following close behind, carried his shield and helm.

William wiped running sweat from his brow as he walked. The noon sun was hot, and there was no sign of cool autumn weather coming anytime soon. Any chance we can fight in the shade? he thought to himself.

Blackwater Keep loomed in the background, with scores of guardsmen lining its ramparts, eager to watch the unusual spectacle. The weather had cooperated with their hopes. Puffy white clouds sat lazily in the distance, floating above the hills far to the north. The noon sun was high in the clear sky, and its heat had long since dried up the morning dew on the large grassy field. Yet, the soil was a touch moist, and the lush aromatic grass still smelled of summer.

“Damn bugs!” spat William with disgust. “Do we have to fight in a field? I can beat him down just as easily on the road,” he complained.

Scores of mayflies surged from the tall grass into small frenzied clouds, honeybees flitted from wildflower to wildflower, and grasshoppers leaped from one perch to another to avoid the group as it passed.

The long grass swished around their knees as they walked toward the center of the field. Sir Callum leaned his head toward him as they walked, saying, “Remember not to hit the horse, little brother. It brings instant shame. Aim for the center of his shield, and remember to angle your own shield just as he makes contact.”

“Will do,” replied the knight.

Clapping William on the shoulder as they walked, Raynard added, “I expect to get my helm back in good condition, cousin. Take better care of it than you did your own.”

William protested, “Getting my head crushed by some tentacled Hell-spawn was a bit out of my control, cousin! This loud-mouthed fop does not pose the same threat.”

Raynard simply nodded and clapped him on the back.

As the group reached the throngs of people assembled near the center of the field, the excited murmur of the crowd drowned out everything else. At least one hundred people had gathered—a motley collection of guardsmen, craftsmen, pilgrims, peddlers, laborers, heralds, and mercenaries. A dozen guardsmen had accompanied Lord Balin and Master Adelard the Steward to the field, where they erected an ornate wooden throne.

Lord Balin cut a fine figure on this occasion, dressed in fine black hosen, with a white brocade tunic atop a black velvet undertunic. Though an ornate leather belt, adorned with engraved silver plates, cinched his waist, he also wore a much simpler black leather sword belt, from which hung his long arming sword. On his face, William spotted a veiled expression of frustration and exasperation, but this quickly faded, replaced by a serious and official gaze. Master Adelard at his side nonchalantly handed him a goblet, while the dozen guardsmen took up positions around him. William also noticed the vicar of the shrine to St. Cuthbert, Father Godfrey, who appeared at Lord Balin’s side. Over his white robe, he wore his formal green vestments, adorned with the white cross of the Saint.

Just then, the bells from the nearby shrine pealed, and the chatter from the crowd grew louder. A moment later, a second set of bells pealed in the distance, probably from the temple in the village. Noon.

William spied Sir Mallory Mandrake and his retinue of a dozen men, standing at the far end of the field. One young man held the reins of a charcoal-colored Falkirk warhorse wearing a flowing black caparison. Fastened on the horse’s head was a gleaming iron chanfron. Another attendant braced several heavy lances against a wooden weapons rack, and yet another held the knight’s heater shield, brightly painted with his family’s arms: sable, on a chevron argent, three sprigs of mandrake vert. Behind the group, a large matching Mandrake banner fluttered in the midday breeze.

William’s eye then went to Sir Mallory, a plate-clad figure approaching on foot, with great helm in hand. His harness of blackened steel gleamed in the midday sun, as did the gold spurs that adorned his ankles. They clinked rhythmically as he strode forward toward Lord Balin. On his hip hung an arming sword and dagger.

Sir Mallory was tall and comely. His thick, dark, curly hair was close-cropped, giving everyone a good look at his strong aquiline features. His green eyes were bright with anticipation, and he still wore that smug grin. Two other armored men walked at his side.

“I shall knock that grin right off of your face,” muttered William to himself.

Father Godfrey wrenched William’s attention away from Sir Mallory, as he announced in a loud voice, “Here at noon on the fourteenth day of Ninth Moon, Lord Balin Blackwater, acting Baron in place of his eldest brother, sits in lawful judgment over a matter of honor and justice. The two parties, House Mandrake and House Beckett, having failed to resolve the matter privately, shall each send forth a knightly champion to engage in trial by combat to determine the truth, for it is written in Saint Cuthbert and Common Sense that the Saint shall not allow a knight that is false to prevail over one that is true.”

At this, Sir Uriens the Lesser Bailiff stepped forward, fully armed and armored, his long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. In a loud voice, he shouted to the crowd in a harsh tone, “Neither party may use enchantments, either before or during combat, and disobedience will result in harsh punishment. However, the law permits the use of weapons that are family heirlooms. Combat shall commence on horseback with a joust for three passes with the lance or until a combatant is unhorsed, after which it shall continue on foot, until one combatant yields, loses consciousness, or dies. The victor shall be vindicated, and the loser shall forgo all legal rights in this matter. It shall be closed. Combatants, kneel.”

At this, most of the crowd dropped to one knee, save for Lord Balin and his guards, and Father Godfrey, who stepped forward again. His voice carried easily in the gentle breeze, and he waved his right hand in a blessing as he said, “Fight with honor that the truth may be known and the matter settled. The Saint’s blessing be upon you and on all here assembled.”

At this, the crowd rose and the started to converse, but Sir Mallory strode forth to get everyone’s attention, unsheathing the arming sword on his hip and holding it above his head. He said aloud to Sir Balin, loud enough for the assembled crowd to hear, “I fight today with my family’s ancestral sword called ‘Nightshade,’ forged six score and two years ago, and quenched in the blood of a hanged man. For over a century, my kinsmen have wielded it heroically in battle and have defended the family’s honor without fail. I present it to you today, Lord Balin and my good vicar, for your inspection.”  He then handed the sword to Sir Uriens.

Jade, standing next to Roger, muttered into his ear, “Does William have anything like that?” Roger did not answer.

Uriens held the Mandrake blade respectfully and showed it to Lord Balin, who nodded and waved dismissively. The battle-hardened bailiff then returned the weapon to Sir Mallory. Turning to William, he asked in a loud voice, “Bear ye any ancestral weapon in this match?”

William answered simply, “No. I bear a Cimbrian blade that I took from heathens trying to kill me. Though well made, it has no enchantment, as far as I know.”

The bearded bailiff took the blade from William and showed it to Lord Balin, who nodded and waived again. Uriens returned the blade and then shouted to both men in his gruff voice, “Mount your steeds and await Lord Balin’s signal.”

William pulled on his great helm and adjusted the chin strap. Callum held the reins of his brother’s chestnut Falkirk, which snorted and bent its head to inspect a patch of tiny orange wildflowers at its feet.

Raynard stood nearby, holding a lance painted black and white. They had borrowed a few lances from Lord Balin, but they still bore Blackwater colors. “Were it that we had time to paint these properly,” Raynard said regretfully.

Roger replied, “Who cares what it looks like, as long as it aims true? Spit him like a piece of meat, William!”

“Quality is paramount,” Raynard admitted, “but it never hurts to look fine when crushing a foe. We should have lances made with a ‘B’ on the tip. You could slam the Beckett’s mark into the bastard’s chest.”

William twisted his torso a few times to stretch, squatted down once or twice, and then vaulted clear onto the back of his charger with ease. Taking the reins from Callum, he nodded to his brother. “Time to earn my pay,” he laughed.

Dagis handed up an unpainted, iron-rimmed heater shield—a replacement for the one that he lost recently at the ruined temple of Pholtus. William slid it onto his arm and secured his grip.

Raynard, now chewing on a spring of grass, remarked aloud, “No caparison, lances of the wrong color, no painted shield…  Roger, people will mistake us for shepherds or dung merchants. Loosen up the purse strings, brother!”

Handing his brother the lance, Callum’s face was stern as he said, “Angle your shield as his lance hits.”

His face hidden behind the grim-looking great helm, William laughed, “Fear not, brother. Trial by combat is my specialty!” With that, he spurred the horse lightly and lined up opposite Sir Mallory.

Daniel, grabbing a spare lance, muttered to Roger, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Without looking at him, Lord Beckett asked, “When is the last time you had a good feeling about anything?”

A hush came over the crowd. From the Becketts’ vantage point, Lord Balin and his retinue sat or stood near the middle of the field, off to the right. Father Godfrey, with Fr. Liam and a few acolytes at his side, gave a final blessing to the proceedings, but the breeze drowned out most of his words. For a few seconds, the only sounds were that of the breeze and that of several banners flapping.  The horses then whinnied at both ends of the field. The riders were about forty yards apart. This was no tournament with wooden barriers to protect the horses or wooden crowns on the lances to protect the riders from serious injury. Lord Balin raised his hand high, and dropped it sharply.

William spurred his horse hard, and it leaped into a run, its hooves pounding the grass. Through the narrow eye slit, he could see Sir Mallory’s destrier picking up speed and heading straight for him. William fought to keep his head steady as the charger reached a gallop. He had no time for emotions or fears, for they were closing the distance quickly. Thoughts came as a steady stream of reminders—Keep your eyes on him. Do not lose sight of him. Pick up speed. Lower the lance now. Aim for the center. Aim for the center. Adjust left! Adjust left! 

With a loud crack, both lances shattered and sent oaken splinters flying. William felt Mallory’s lance strike home like a hammer blow on the upper part of his shield, and his left shoulder tingled. It happened so fast that William was unsure of exactly what occurred. He heard the crowd gasp, and he felt the blow. Yet he knew that he was still in the saddle. His stallion continued to gallop down the field so William had no idea if his lance had hit home. His shoulder aching badly, he dropped his shattered lance, turned the horse with his knees, and looked down through the eye slit at his heater shield. A foot of Mallory’s black lance, including the iron tip, was embedded deep in the oaken shield. Nine Hells! he thought, adrenaline coursing through his veins.

William passed by several of Mallory’s men-at-arms, ignoring their glares and jeers.  On turning about, he was disappointed to see Mallory still ahorse at the far end of the field, wheeling his charger about. The two trotted back toward their respective camps.

I had to have hit something, he thought. I know that I hit something. Look for damage. Do NOT show pain! No pain! As they neared each other, William spotted a gash in the side of Mallory’s shield. He made sure to sit upright in the saddle, showing no weakness. As he rode past, Mallory chided, “I shall put the next one in your chest, lout!”

William wanted to spit back a response, but the pain in his shoulder clouded his mind. All this for a damned cup, he thought.

Raynard, Callum, Roger, Jade, and Dagis ran to his side as he wheeled the horse about at the far end of the field.

Eyebrows raised, Raynard quipped, “That’s an interesting look for a shield.”

Dagis dutifully handed William a new lance, while Callum yelled, “Angle your damn shield as he makes contact. Focus, boy!”

William’s face went flush beneath the helm, and he gritted his teeth. Adrenaline continued to flow. Alright you ugly son of a goat. This time, you end up flat on your back, he thought. Spurring his horse, he yelled back to Callum, “This time he goes down, brother! HOUSE BECKETT!”

Again the chargers thundered toward each other, kicking up small divots of grass. William felt the horses’ powerful muscles straining beneath him, and it gave him a sense of strength. Through the narrow slit, he kept his eyes on the onrushing horseman. The lances lowered simultaneously, and then there was a deafening crack. William grunted loudly on impact, his body contorting in the saddle, while searing pain shot through his left shoulder. It took every ounce of strength to keep himself in the saddle. His horse continued its run and then slowed.

William realized that his lance was already gone. His shattered shield hung in ruins about his arm, a strip of iron edging sticking up at a weird angle. Bloody Hell, that hurts, he thought dejectedly. As he veered past Mallory’s henchmen and wheeled his mount, he heard their laughter. Anger welled up within and slowly surpassed the pain. Gritting his teeth hard, he spurred his horse past them, thinking: Every one of them will pay! Every one. Have to get past this one first though. Cannot take another hit like that.    

The horsemen trotted past each other again. William wanted to leap off the horse and tackle Mallory, but it took all his willpower simply to block the pain. He had no witty remark, but Mallory laughed, “I see I hit your shoulder, not your chest. Apologies for that!”

The first pangs of fear began to nag at William’s mind: Are you in over your head? Can you unhorse him? He may be too good. Cannot take another hit like that. I’ll end up on my back. Everyone watching… Family honor…. Hickory Mountain…

His kinsmen rushed to his side as he reached the far end of the field.

“Cuthbert’s mercy! Give me a rag”, yelled Roger. Raynard did so quickly, and Roger reached under William’s left pauldron. A sharp pain raced down William’s arm, and he winced. He saw the rag come away bloody. Then the pain returned to a dull ache that made it tough to close his hand.

Callum grabbed the reins and pulled himself close to his brother. “What am I going to say? WHAT AM I GOING TO SAY?” he yelled.

“Angle the shield,” William muttered weakly.

“DO IT, or there will BE no foot combat,” the burly knight barked.

Raynard reached up and began to unstrap the ruined shield from William’s arm. “I did not think it could look worse than it did a few minutes ago… I was wrong,” he mused.

Dagis rushed forth with a new heater shield, Sir Raynard’s. Raynard took it and slid it onto William’s bloody left arm. Adjusting the strap, he said to William in a low voice, “Listen to your brother, cousin. Focus, or this will be it. Put this bastard down.” He slapped William hard on the back.

William nodded weakly and then shook his head to get his blood flowing. He wheeled his mount and took a new lance from Roger.

“Did I hit him on that last one,” asked William.

“No,” replied Roger.

“Third time’s a charm?” William laughed.

“Hey!” cried Roger to get the knight’s attention. “Look at me! William! I picked you for a reason. Now tell me—did you do all that you came here to do?”

There was a pause, and then from behind the great helm came a weak, “No.”

“Then do it now, man!” cried Roger, slapping the horse on the flank.

William spurred the horse and looked down the field, only to see Mallory already charging at him. There was no hesitation in Mandrake, and his horse churned up the turf as it neared. William spurred his mount again, lowering the lance as he closed. Angle your shield. Angle you shield, he thought. Just five yards away, his head throbbing with adrenaline, he screamed, “All right, you mother…  LET’S DANCE!”

Again the tumultuous shock and the sound of splintering wood. Yet, this time he rode right through the clash, with no impact on his shield or chest. Wood shards bounced off his helm, and the crowd gasped out loud again. The ache in his shoulder still throbbed, but elation took over. Did I get him? Did I get him that time, he wondered. Galloping towards Mallory’s henchmen, he heard no jeers this time. He saw the tip of his lance shattered and tossed it away at their feet.

William wheeled his Falkirk about, his heart leaping. Alas, through the eye slit, he saw Mallory wheeling about and coming back, still astride his charger.

No matter, he thought to himself. Grimacing from the pain in his shoulder, he nevertheless forced himself to sit upright in the saddle. Mallory approached at a trot as they both made their way back to their sides. Show no weakness. You’ll get no satisfaction from me, thought William.

As they nearer each other, William saw that Mallory’s shield was in ruins. They passed without comment. No smart-ass remark; that’s odd, he thought.

His kinsmen ran to his side as he reined in the horse. Callum and Raynard were all smiles, and Dagis grabbed the reins. Grunting in pain, William jumped down from the saddle, eager to show everyone that he still had spring in his step. Roger pulled off his shield and thrust the bloody rag under William’s pauldron once again, causing him to wince anew. Quickly, Roger tied a tourniquet, while William pulled off his helm and grabbed a wineskin from Raynard’s outstretched hand.

Callum spoke over his shoulder, saying, “I think you hurt him that last time. Ignore his bluster. Focus on what Master Holgrim was teaching. Surfaces and gaps.”

William wiped the sweat from his brow, spit out the water, and pulled his helm back on.

“He comes this way,” warned Dagis.

Raynard again strapped his shield to William’s arm, laughing, “My helm… my shield… I feel like I’m out there with you. Need a sword?”

“I have one of those,” grunted William, drawing his Cimbrian blade.

“Drive it home then, cousin,” replied Raynard.

Sir Mallory approached at a steady step, clad head-to-toe in blackened plate harness, with his wooden heater shield and drawn sword at the ready. He exuded confidence, as evidenced by the swagger in his step. When he was only twenty paces away, William walked out to meet him, shield and sword held high in his guard.

The visor to Mallory’s hound-skull bascinet was raised, and he grinned at William as they approached each other. His wolf-like smile turned into a snarl as he said, “I shall finish this now, in front of everyone, casting you and your peasant household into the mud!” With that, he clapped his visor down with the hilt of his sword.

Hated swelled in William, who cried, “Can still talk with all of your teeth knocked down your throat, rantillion swine-sard!” He lunged forward and brought the Cimbrian blade down hard in a deadly arc.

Mallory caught the blade on his shield and swung savagely for William’s head. The crowd gasped again and again, as they traded ferocious blows. Hacking and slashing at each with wild abandon, their shields were soon split and splintered. Unsure of the protocols for switching shield, William kept at it, despite his mangled shield. With a feint to the left, he cut back to his right and swung with all his might, shearing off the bottom part of Mallory’s shield.  His swing threw him off balanced, however, and Mallory jumped forward like a bull, lowering his shoulder and plowing into William’s bloody left shoulder. William saw stars and lost track of Mallory, who spun around like a cat and thrust his arming sword into the back of William’s left thigh, just behind the blackened cuisse.

William screamed in pain and hurled himself away from his foe. Staggering backward, he could not focus, for liquid fire seemed to be pumping through his leg. His eyes squeezed shut for just a second as he tried to control the pain, but he heard the clattering of Mallory’s plate harness, rushing forward. William swung with all his strength, if only to keep Mallory at bay. His blow shattered the remnants of Mallory’s shield and threw him backwards. Yet, he charged once again, returning the blow in kind. Shards of oak and twisted metal flew from William’s arm, his forearm went numb, and he grunted again in pain.

Both men saw the futility of fighting with debris on their arms, and both backed away to shirk the wreckage. Mallory finished first, sword now in both hands, and then bull-rushed William, intent on bowling him over. William cast aside his shield just in time, threw his blade above his head in defense, and dropped to one knee. Mallory tumbled over him, landing hard on his back behind him. The crowd gasped again.

Flat on his back, William gasped for air, and the world seemed to spin for a moment. The scent of wildflowers filled his nostrils, but pain eclipsed all other thoughts.

William stumbled to his feet, his shoulder numb and his leg still in excruciating pain. Mallory was just starting to rise so William gazed down at his leg and grabbed at his wound with his hand. Blood soaked his padded legging and came away on the glove. Have to end this soon. Cannot move much, he thought.

Mallory was up again, this time approaching slowly, sword raised in a threatening high guard. William’s mind raced: Surfaces and gaps! Surfaces and gaps! Stop trying to beat the man to death! His harness is better than yours. Find the gaps!

Mallory struck repeatedly from his high guard, nearly braining William several times. Again and again, with a heavy clanging sound, the swords clashed together. Repeatedly, William dropped his block into place just in time. The third blow knocked him to his knees, though it did not land. After the fourth block, William rose quickly and spun around hard, swinging with wild abandon. Yet the swing was perfectly placed, cutting upward and just under the steel lip of Mallory’s basinet. The Cimbrian blade struck home, shearing half of the aventail from the helm. Mallory grunted hard, let out a sickening gargling noise, stumbled backwards, and then dropped to one knee.

William desperately wanted to rush forward to finish his foe, but the pain in his leg and shoulder was blinding, and his throat was completely parched. Cotton-mouthed, he was breathing hard, his lungs burning. Yet, Roger’s words echoed in his mind: Have you done what you came to do?

Suddenly, he lurched to his feet and stumbled toward Mallory, sword held high in both hands. Mallory lumbered forward, blood sheeting down his neck behind the shorn aventail. William could hear him gasping. William struck with fury.

Again they traded blows, the heavy swords clanging in the afternoon air. One, two, three… One, two, three…. Nothing. The noon sun was hot, and there was no shade. Sweat now rolled down William’s face, some finding its way into his eyes. He shook his head and blinked repeatedly to clear his vision, but Mallory gave him no time to recover. Again he came, and the swords rang out anew.

As they locked swords, William’s ankle twisted in a rut, and Mallory wasted no time, punching the hilt of his sword into William’s eye slit. The sleek quillion actually jammed in the narrow eye slit, and Mallory pressed it home with all his strength, trying to blind the Beckett knight. In desperation, William let himself fall backwards, grabbing Mallory’s hilt and pulling him over.  The two tumbled onto the grass.  Still on the ground, William slashed at Mallory, striking him across the waist, just below the breastplate.  He had little strength behind the blow, but it gave him just enough time to get up.      

More sweat rolled into William’s eyes, and the world became a blur. He was gasping for air again, his lungs on fire. He could hear Mallory, still getting to his feet, and William finally had enough. Backpedaling, he wrenched his great helm off and wiped at his face with the back of his forearm. Air filled his lungs and the world became clearer. Unfortunately, he saw Mallory advancing again, sword held high.

“It seems you are too stupid to quit, peasant,” spat Mallory. “Now, your undoing,” he snarled before launching a series of feints. William staggered back, shifting his guard left and right. Then, seeing an opportunity, he stabbed at Mallory’s unprotected hip. It was a mistake. The Mandrake knight sidestepped his thrust and brought his hilt into William’s unprotected face. Blood sprung from his cheek, and he grunted in pain, but Mallory then spun and drove the tip of his arming sword into William’s left armpit. He screamed in agony, and his left arm went completely numb.

William grew dizzy, and his mind reeled. Cuthbert’s bones! Give me strength! he cried to himself. Sensing that he had the advantage, his foe stumbled toward him and delivered a flurry of savage blows. William caught a few on the forte of his sword, while others struck his chest, but the harness withstood them all. He swung back meekly, but his left arm was near useless. Mallory came at him again, and again they locked together, swords above their heads.

The swords clashed together a dozen more times. William was growing weak in the knees, and his legs felt as if they were made of cast lead. His left arm barely kept hold of his sword. His tongue was stuck to the back of his throat, making it hard to breathe.

Mallory and William stumbled apart, each near the end of his strength. The coppery taste of blood mingled in his mouth with the salt of his sweat. His head swam too. All this over a cup, he thought with bitter amusement.

Have to end this, he thought. Callum’s words came back to him again: Surfaces and gaps. Surfaces and gaps. As the words passed through his mind, his eyes focused on the crescent shaped gap in Mallory’s aventail, just beneath his helm. He had to try.

They lumbered forward again, swords held high. Mallory thrust repeatedly at William’s exposed face. Each barely missed. Mallory then knocked aside William’s blade and landed a right cross straight to William’s bloodied face. The force of the blow spun William about, but he pivoted on his heel and brought his blade up in a wicked arc with all his strength. He was too close for a perfect shot, but the forte of the blade landed with a sickening thud, just below the bottom of the helm. The force of the blow stunned Mallory and knocked him to the grass like a sack of stones.

William heard the crowd gasp loudly. “Surfaces and gaps, Mandrake scum!” he mumbled, dropping to his knees. He vaguely recalled the sight of his kinsmen running toward him, and a moment later, they were all about him.

Grinning and delirious, he muttered, “I told you all, trial by combat is my specialty.” Then the world began to spin and all went black.

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