It was twenty-four hours until the Tournament of Champions. Arthur was set to prove himself to be a battle-ready member of the defenders of the Island of Anglo-Saxony.
I can hardly wait until the morn, the young man thought. I must demonstrate myself to be a worthy squire so that I may be apprenticed to one of the knights of the many regions.
Arthur was twenty years old. He was tall and lanky and sported a muscular yet wiry physique. He had amber hair and blue eyes. The aspiring warrior bore a smattering of whiskers on his chin of which he was very proud. He had lived for the last ten years under the tutelage of the wizard, Merlin.
I wish Merlin was more supportive of my martial training,” Arthur considered. Although I love him dearly Merlin sees merit only in the perpetual perusal of musty tomes and arcane arts.
The ambitious, would-be apprentice pulled his sheepskin jacket about himself as the gusts of the summer wind billowed over the heath before Sussex Castle.
The towers and pinnacles of the large, thriving castle were ornately adorned with the flags and banners of the visitors from the neighboring fiefdoms.
The sound of clashing steel and neighing horses resonated over the hewed stone walls surrounding the central square of the large cairn. Apart from the ubiquitous activity of farmers and hunters to barter their wares a virtual city of tents and makeshift stables encircled the castle and modest village below it.
Aspiring men from throughout the burgeoning regions jousted in the castle quadrant. The last few weeks had been filled with the raucous noises of their fencing and sparring. They strove to optimize their military skills which ran the gamut of equestrian mastery to swordplay and offensive and defensive magic.
Arthur chose to hike along the outer perimeter of Sussex so that he might temporarily escape the ongoing complaints of Merlin about the racket of the candidates below the tower of his quarters and study.
The summer air was fresh. Arthur drew in a deep breath. He smelled the scent of roasting mutton from the settlement along with the aroma of the nearby pine and oak forest. Clouds of smoke crawled through the atmosphere where smithies hastened to keep horses shod and blades ready for the Tournament of Champions.
Arthur didn’t need a new sword for he had found a fine one strangely thrust into a cluster of rocks in the Sussex woods. Like the knights from across the North Sea Merlin insisted on giving the sturdy weapon a name. The wizard, who claimed to have visions of the past and future, called it Excalibur. Merlin said that it was a gift from a lady friend of his.
“Excalibur’s custodian is the Lady of the Lake,” the grizened, robed mage stated. “She reveals it to a very few and only with good purpose. I suspect the future holds great promise for you, young Arthur. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day you are made a great leader of men, who unites the various regions of this wooded land to combat challenges both domestic and abroad.”
Merlin speaks queer things sometimes, thought Arthur. In many ways he reminds me of the mist and fog of daybreak. This is when the calls of the owls and birds of prey grow louder yet are obscured by the damp and darkness. I’m sure that Merlin means well, however, despite his mysterious predictions.
Arthur trod to the top of a nearby hill. It gave him a splendid view of Sussex Castle and the surrounding encampments. The walls and towers of the edifice gleamed in the brilliant light of the afternoon sun. The village was protected by a moat and a lake fed by a forest river. Each of the four roads leading to the settlement possessed retractable drawbridges and portcullises that could be quickly engaged in the event of invasion or siege.
I must continue my training, Arthur vowed to himself. The testing time draws near and I am obligated to maximize my military abilities if I am to arise successful.
Arthur envisioned the trunk of an oak tree as an opponent in armor. He drew Excalibur from its leather scabbard and wielded the sturdy blade in a two-handed grip. He changed his stance and wove from side to side, deflecting imaginary attacks from a flail and large shield.
The young man pictured the jagged bark of the oak as chain mail, guarding a stocky challenger.
“For Sussex!” yelled Arthur as he doubled his efforts to locate a breach in his competitor’s defenses.
“Very good, young Arthur,” boomed a deep, scratchy voice. “You may yet employ Excalibur to greater purposes.”
Merlin stepped into view from behind the girth of the tree. Arthur was startled by the bearded mage’s appearance out of nowhere. It was not the first time the aspiring apprentice had been taken off-guard by his teacher’s wiles.
“Hello, Merlin,” said Arthur.
The young man sheathed his blade and grasped his caretaker’s hand in greeting.
“It’s good to see you, adept mage, despite your lack of appreciation for the Tournament of Champions.”
“I’ve begun to have second thoughts about that, Arthur. Tomorrow’s competition may prove to be a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. Much of England will be watching the games. A victory will certainly bolster confidence and support from the visiting liege lords. It is time for the fiefdoms and contested territories to be brought together. The British Isles remain in peril with their current social structure. Rumors are abound of turbulence among the Viking tribes beyond the North Sea. Their population has grown significantly in recent years and they are positioned to conduct a string of invasions through the Pictish lands and uncharted woods between them and ourselves.”
“I have heard such rumors, myself, Merlin,” Arthur replied. “The past invasions were the cause for the construction of the castles of Anglo-Saxony, such as our own. I understand that in past ages the fortresses of our people were made of wood and simple masonry.”
“Don’t forget the dragons,” Merlin replied. “As their bones and nests reveal, the giant beasts may use their mass and size to return the civilized world to what it was in past eras. This is why our cavalry trains with spears as well as swords. The leviathans of the deep water off the coasts also may return to populate the lochs and quagmires that permeate the highlands of the Picts.”
Arthur sheathed Excalibur as he continued to speak with his bearded mentor.
“The time for the Tournament of Champions draws near, able wizard.”
“That is the truth, young Arthur. We should be on our way. The jousting arena is complete and needs only the presence of the aspiring warriors of England to commence the ceremony.”
The two friends wended their way through the heath and underbrush until they reached the main road to Sussex Castle. Other youthful candidates oiled their swords and chain mail armor for the day ahead. The sun was setting and the citizens gathered at thick oak tables for their evening meal. The mood was festive and many of the diners tossed scraps of meat to the dogs that begged and whined at their feet.
The mood in the dining hall was boisterous and festive. A variety of musicians played instruments ranging from harps and lutes to whistles and drums. The citizens of the many regions joined in the ballads that bespake of ancient warriors and giant nemesi.
Arthur and Merlin soaked in the merry ambience. They joined in the feast of roast duck and mutton. Once their bellies were full several of the would-be squires shouted oaths about the potential outcome of the impending tournament. Older knights moved in to keep wrestling matches from getting too serious.
“Save your strength, whelps!” bellowed Sir Mobius.
The large, redheaded knight grabbed two of the contestants by their hooded jackets and bounced their heads together. The men on the receiving end of the maneuver moaned in pain.
Mobius was the ruler of Sussex Castle and had spent the last week making sure the preparations for the tournament were in order.
The jugglers and acrobats that performed in time to the music retired for the evening. The diners in Sussex Castle ate their fill and made their way to the gathering of tents outside the castle proper. Arthur and Merlin bade good evening to the celebrants and ascended the spiraling steps to the wizard’s lodgings.
The night wind blew over the moonlit forest. Cries of wolves and toads serenaded the sleeping warriors.
The morning came soon enough and the metallic banging of the hammers and anvils of the blacksmiths roused the resting contenders.
A herald of the court of Sir Mobius blew a trumpet made from a ram’s horn and addressed the people.
“Oyez! Oyez! The Tournament of Champions is about to begin! All contestants are requested to queue at the edge of the jousting quadrant.”
The young warriors exited their tents and quickly donned their chain mail armor, helmets and swords. Over this heavy assemblage each contender put on a tunic displaying his respective coat of arms. The elaborate stitching ranged from a variety of colors and mascots. Some soldiers sported renderings of dragons and lions while others carried the image of an anvil under crossed swords. Since Arthur was a local resident to Sussex Castle his tunic bore the familiar likeness of the resilient structure with Merlin’s tower rising from the center.
Arthur had taken care to oil and polish Excalibur and wore it in a hand-made, leather sheath attached to his woven belt. The young warrior’s shoulders and back muscles had developed over the past months as he wielded the hefty, steel weapon in sparring and fencing contests. The middle of Excalibur was etched with runes. Upon Arthur’s discovery of the sword Merlin translated the characters to state, Only the King of England may use this.
Merlin scoffed as he had read the message and said, “There must be some misunderstanding. Nevermind the runes, Arthur. Excalibur is yours.”
The young warriors lined up on the edge of the jousting arena. Each was mounted on a sturdy warhorse. Upon the signal of the master of ceremonies a pair of riders charged each other from opposite ends of the stadium. Sir Mobius and other knights and ladies of the region cheered their support.
The two contenders bore large lances that they held before their mighty steeds. When they clashed at the center of the arena a huge din of metal on metal rang out across the bleachers. The crowd erupted with excitement. The lances snapped in a flurry of splinters and the armored soldiers were knocked from their mounts. Once they regained their balance they drew their swords and commenced a fierce fencing match.
Arthur and Merlin watched the fencers from the starting line. Arthur’s horse neighed and shook his mane in the company of the other mounts. The warrior patted his neck with a gloved hand. After several pairs jousted in the arena it was Arthur’s turn.
A contender with a blue tunic and helmet sat atop a dappled gray warhorse. The master of ceremonies waved a red flag and the pair of riders lowered their lances and charged. Arthur perspired from the tension as well as the heat. He aimed the tip of his lance at the right shoulder of his opponent, as did his rapidly approaching challenger.
The avid competitors collided and their wooden lances buckled and snapped. Although Arthur had braced himself for the impact his feet were pulled from his stirrups and he tumbled backward, off his mount.
Arthur’s blue-clad opponent was also knocked loose from his steed and struggled to regain his balance while wearing heavy, chain mail armor. The blue fighter drew his sword and Arthur unsheathed Excalibur. They commenced a heartfelt battle which rang out over the crowded bleachers. The collision of their polished steel blades caused sparks to fly and near horses to pull against their tethers.
Sir Mobius and the crowd of several thousand onlookers from throughout the regions and fiefdoms of England cheered at the diligence of the fencers. The outcome was uncertain when Arthur was overtaken by a surge of energy emanating from his weapon. He swung his blade with preternatural strength and cried a different challenge to his own surprise.
Excalibur flared with red electricity and passed clear through the blade of the azure warrior. The blue fighter’s sword shattered in a myriad of pieces and dropped to the sand of the arena. Arthur’s opponent fell to one knee and held his hands palms out in a position of surrender.
“Alas, you have vanquished me, sturdy Arthur. My weapon is destroyed and I have no means with which to continue this fight.”
“Well done, both of you!” cried Sir Mobius.
The stocky, grizened knight leapt from his seat at the center of the arena and approached the pair.
“Sussex Castle has long waited to see a match such as the one we witnessed here today. I congratulate you both and am certain that knights will step forward to take you into apprenticeship.”
In response to the words of the middle-aged knight a pair of warriors rose from their seats and strode across the sand to address Sir Mobius and the standing contenders.
“My name is Hector of North Hampton,” a flaxen-haired knight declared. “I will take the young man bearing the insignia of this castle into my umbrage.”
Sir Hector smiled and shook Arthur’s hand.
The other knight introduced himself to the men on the sand.
“I am Sir Guy. I will take you into my tutelage, blue warrior. What is your name?”
The defeated jouster raised the facemask of his helmet, revealing a youthful yet fatigued face.
“I am Stewart of Oxfordshire,” he said.
(To be continued…)