CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

Erec trotted on his horse in the morning light down the well-worn path, flanked by a contingent of the Duke’s knights, including his friend Brandt. As they went, heading towards the jousting lanes, they were greeted by thousands of spectators, cheering wildly on both sides of the road.

It had been a long hundred days of jousting, and Erec had won every competition thus far. Today was the final day, everyone out in force to celebrate the finale, and as Erec trotted, he could think only of one thing: Alistair. Her face remained frozen in his mind, and as he tightened his grip on his lance, he knew that he would be fighting for her. If he won today, he could, finally, claim her as his bride. And he was determined that no man, in any province of the kingdom, would defeat him.

As they rode through the immense arched stone gates, into the arena, they were greeted by a cheer from thousands more spectators, seated in the outdoor stone coliseum, looking down at the jousting field in its center. People rose to their feet, throwing down flowers as Erec entered. He felt a swell of pride. He had devoted his life to his fighting skills, and in moments like this, when everyone cheered for him, he felt that all of his hard work paid off. Erec had been defeated by no man in battle.

The crowd roared as he trotted in, and he proceeded down the center of the lanes, where he turned and bowed his head to the Duke, who stood with the crowd, flanked by his contingent of soldiers. The Duke bowed back, a smile on his face, and Erec turned and headed to the sideline. All along the sideline were small contingents of knights, hundreds of them, all wearing different armor, of different shapes and colors, riding on a broad array of horses, wielding exotic weapons. They had assembled from all corners of the Ring, each group more exotic than the next. They had been training all year for this, and the competition had been formidable. But Erec had consistently bested them all, and as he thought of Alistair, he knew he would find a way to win today.

Erec waited and watched as a horn sounded, and out charged two knights, from opposing sides of the stadium, one in dark green armor, the other in bright yellow, each holding out their lances as they charged for each other. The green one knocked the yellow off his horse, and the crowd cheered wildly.

Joust after joust ensued, and more and more knights got eliminated. Erec, being the champion, was given the honor of the last spot of the first round.

When the horn sounded he charged without a moment’s hesitation. He was matched against one of the best opposing knights-a burly man with black armor, with a chest twice as broad as Erec’s. He charged on a horse that wore an awful sneer, and the man’s lance seemed twice as long as Erec’s.

But Erec, being the professional that he was, did not allow it to faze him. He focused on the man’s breastplate, the angle of his head, on the way his armor shifted between the plates. He identified the weak spot immediately, in the way the man lowered his left shoulder. Erec waited until the last moment, aimed his lance at just the right spot, and held it until they clashed.

A gasp spread through the crowd as the opposing knight went flying off his horse, landing on the ground in a clang of metal.

The crowd roared in delight, and Erec rode to the other side of the stadium, and waited his turn for the second round. Dozens of rounds remained.

The day grew long. One after the next, round after round, knights fought, until there were but a handful of warriors left. When they reached the final ten a horn sounded, and a break was called, as the Duke walked out into the middle to address his people. Erec used the opportunity, as did the others, to lift his armor, remove his helmet, and breathe hard. A squire appeared with a bucket of water, and Erec drank some and tipped the rest onto his head and beard. Even though it was now Fall, he was dripping with sweat, breathing hard from hours of fighting. He already felt sore, but as he looked around at the other knights, he could tell they were more tired than he. They did not have the training that he did. He had made a point to train every day of his life, and had never missed a day. He was prepared to be exhausted. These men were not.

The Duke raised both arms to the crowd, and slowly, it quieted down.

“My fellow people,” the Duke yelled out. “Our provinces have sent their best and brightest from all corners of the Ring to compete these hundred days for the best and most beautiful bride our kingdom has to offer. Each warrior here has chosen one woman, and whoever wins today, shall have the right to wed that woman, if she agrees. For these final knights, the bout will switch from jousting to handheld fighting. Each warrior will choose one weapon, and they will all fight each other. There will be no killing-but everything else goes. The last man standing wins. Warriors, good luck!” he shouted as he walked off, the crowd roaring behind him.

Erec put his helmet back on, and looked over the weapons cart his squire had rolled to him. He already knew what weapon he wanted: it sat in his waist. He pulled out his old, trusted mace, with its well-worn wooden staff about two feet long, and at its end a spiked metal ball. He had wielded it since his days in the Legion, and he knew no weapon better.

A horn sounded, and suddenly, the ten men charged each other, meeting in the center of the ring.

A large knight, not wearing a helmet, with light blue eyes and a bright blonde beard, a head taller than Erec, charged right for him. He swung a massive club right for Erec’s head, with a speed that surprised him.

Erec ducked at the last second, and the club went flying by.

Erec used the opportunity to spin around and crack the man hard in the back of the head with the wooden shaft of his mace, sparing him the metal ball so as not to kill him. The man stumbled and fell, unconscious-and he was the first man down.

The crowd roared.

All around Erec knights fought, and more than one singled him out. Clearly, he was seen as the man to beat, and he ducked and weaved, as one came at him with an axe, another with a halberd, and a third with a spear. So much for the Duke’s exhortation not to try to kill each other, Erec thought. Clearly, these knights didn’t care.

Erec found himself spinning and twisting, fighting one after the other. One jabbed at him with a long, studded halberd and Erec yanked it from his foe’s hands and used it to jab his attacker right at the base of his neck with the wooden end, finding the weak spot above his armor and knocking him down flat on his back.

Erec then spun around and swung the sharp end of the halberd, chopping a spear in half right before it hit him.

He then spun again, drew his mace, and knocked a dagger from the hand of another attacker. He turned the mace sideways and smashed his attacker on the bridge of the nose with the wooden end, breaking his nose and knocking him to the ground.

Another knight charged with a hammer, Erec ducked low and punched him in the solo plexus with his gauntlet. The knight keeled over, dropping his hammer mid-swing.

Just one knight remained now opposite Erec, and the crowd jumped to its feet, cheering like mad, as they circled each other slowly. They were each breathing hard. All around them lay the unconscious bodies of the others who did not make it.

This final knight was from a province Erec did not recognize, wearing a bright red armor with spikes protruding from it, like a porcupine. He held a weapon that resembled a pitchfork, with three long prongs, painted a strange color that shimmered in the light and confused Erec. He jabbed it continually at the air, and it was hard for Erec to focus.

Suddenly he lunged, thrusting it, and Erec blocked the blow at the last second with his mace. The two of them locked in mid-air, pushing back and forth in a tug-of-war. Erec slipped on the blood of one of his opponents, and lost his footing.

Erec fell on his back, and his challenger wasted no time. He thrust his pitchfork right down for Erec’s face; Erec blocked it and held it back with the end of his mace. He managed to hold it at bay, but he was losing ground quickly.

The crowd gasped.

“YIELD!” the opponent screamed down.

Erec lay there, struggling, losing steam, when he saw Alistair’s face in his mind. He saw her expression when she looked into his eyes, when she asked him to win. And suddenly, he felt overcome with a new strength. He could not let himself lose. Not here. Not today.

With one final burst of strength, Erec rolled out of the way, pulling the pitchfork down and plunging it into the earth beside him. He rolled again and kicked the knight hard in the stomach. The knight fell to his knees, and Erec jumped to his feet and kicked him again, knocking him to his back.

The crowd roared.

Erec drew his dagger, knelt, and held it to the knight’s throat. He pushed the tip firmly against it, until the knight understood.

“I YIELD!” the knight yelled.

The crowd roared and screamed in delight.

Erec slowly stood, breathing hard.

He now had but one thing left on his mind.

Alistair.

Contents