A gambler bet the tales were lies
And scorned the wisdom of the wise.
The odds were not the ones he chose Darkness comes where Nightfall goes.
– “The Legend of Nightfall”
Nursery rhyme, alternative verse
The rising and falling roar of milling crowds, merchants hawking wares, and the shouts and applause of the spectators did not awaken Nightfall; but a closer noise did. The last round of tilting had scarcely finished when a horse violated the mental boundary Nightfall’s mind considered camp. Instantly fully alert, he leapt to his feet, instinctively positioning himself between Edward and the threat. He found himself facing Prince Leyne mounted on his palomino charger. The beauty of horse and rider gave them the appearance of a grand, golden statue draped in purple and silver. The identification did not allow Nightfall to relax. He still mistrusted the elder prince.
Leyne laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle anyone.”
Edward looked up from where he sat near their gear, reading, clearly unstartled. “‘No harm done.” He closed the book, careful not to bend pages, placed it on his pack, and rose.
Leyne swung down from his horse, passing the reins to Nightfall, obviously accustomed to instant responses to his needs. Nightfall accepted the responsibility without reluctance or comment, playing his role. He admired the horse, a highly-worked and -muscled gelding that seemed as obedient and calm as it was beautiful. Stories abounded about knight’s horses, and most peasants and stable hands believed them ingrained to one owner. Dozens of tales circulated about well-intentioned stable boys stomped to death by war-horses taught to kill any man but their masters who touched them. Clearly, either highborn disseminated the stories to discourage thieves or Leyne used a different beast for war than tourney.
“Congratulations.” Leyne approached his brother. “I never thought of lance as one of your better weapons, and you bested a worthy opponent.”
Nightfall listened for some grain of accusation or challenge in Leyne’s voice and did not find it. The sentiment seemed heartfelt, the elder prince genuinely happy for and complimentary of his younger brother.
Edward fairly beamed. His blue eyes sparkled, and the corners of his lips bowed slightly upward. However, he maintained his dignity. “Thank you, brother. I’m pleased.”
Nightfall watched and judged openly, not bothering to hide his protectiveness from either prince. Physically or emotionally, he would defend Edward’s well-being.
Leyne smiled, either at Edward’s innocent joy or Nightfall’s overcaution. “They’ve posted the next round. You’re fighting Astin of Ivral, the baron’s first son. It doesn’t seem like you to pick double swords, so he must have gotten choice of weapon.”
Nightfall had always considered Edward huge; however, Leyne dwarfed him for sheer muscle mass. Nightfall guessed the elder prince outweighed Nightfall, at his baseline, by double or more. With the addition of armor, the golden gelding carried an impressive burden that explained its bulk as well.
“Double swords?” Edward’s words seemed more repetition than question, but Leyne explained as if the latter were true.
“Long swords. One in each hand.”
“No shields, then.”
Leyne smiled to show he meant no malice. “Not unless you intend to hold it in your teeth.” He clapped an encouraging hand to Edward’s shoulder. “An unusual choice certainly, but not one you’re altogether inexperienced with.”
Edward smiled, but it was strained.
“You’ll do fine. The strangeness of the weapon will draw attention to the match. Win or lose, if you put up a good fight, you’ll be long remembered for it. And I can’t see you giving any less. You handled Captain Rahtayne and me well enough.”
Edward’s grin wilted into sobriety. “With two of the best swordsmen in the country pounding on me whenever I did something wrong at practice, how could I not learn defense? But I don’t think I ever scored a strike against our teacher or you. War or contest, nothing was ever won without offense.”
Leyne shrugged. “You’ll do fine. If you expect to win every contest you enter, especially the first, you’ll be forever disappointed. Pride yourself on a competent defense. If you stand long against Astin, you’ll gain a reputation and a following.” He glanced at Nightfall with a smile not returned, then brought his attention back to Edward. “Do you have two sparring swords?”
Edward shook his head. “Not even one.”
“Long swords will go fast, and you’re going to need two, preferably ones that balance well together. Why don’t I pick some good ones for you?”
“Thank you. Give me just a moment, and I’ll come with you. I appreciate your help.” Edward made it clear he trusted his brother’s eye implicitly. Nightfall felt certain Edward would follow Leyne’s intuition even over the feel of the weapons in his own hand.
“You stay and relax. You’ve earned it.” Leyne gestured Edward to remain in place and headed back to his horse. He took the reins from Nightfall. “I’ll just take your squire with me if you don’t mind.”
Nightfall stiffened, certain Leyne had not arranged the situation as casually as it seemed. He scrambled for an excuse that would not insult royalty.
Prince Edward did not make it any easier. “Certainly. Take Sudian along. Between the two of you, you probably know me better than me.”
Nightfall played his only card. “Master, I’d rather not leave you alone among so many strangers.”
Edward dismissed the concern with a wave. “Nonsense, Sudian. I’m safe with this crowd. Mount up and go with Leyne.”
Nightfall hesitated, weighing concern against propriety. Seeing advantages to discovering why Leyne wanted him alone, he raised no further objections. If the elder prince tried to harm him, he could defend himself well enough. Pain accompanied the thought; the oath-bond leapt to attention and slid into a crescendo of alarm. Recognizing the offending idea, Nightfall carefully reconstructed his thoughts to indicate he would not consider hurting Leyne or any other in the hierarchy of Alyndar. He would only run from conflict. Satisfied, the oath-bond settled. Nightfall placed the bridle on his bay, then sprang aboard without bothering with a saddle. Leyne mounted his palomino.
The two men rode in silence toward the central area where the extra blunted weapons lay piled. Once there, Leyne began his dismount. Before he could reach the ground, Nightfall vaulted down and caught both sets of reins. The prince muttered something incomprehensible either in thanks or impressed appreciation. He picked through the weapons without asking or, apparently, expecting any assistance. This pleased Nightfall well enough. Even from a distance, he could tell Leyne gave at least a reasonable effort to make good selections, tossing aside many for color, construction, or balance. Whatever his intention, it did not seem to involve sabotaging Edward’s chances with bad tools. That consideration, however, when coupled with the knowledge that Edward had a strong defense gave Nightfall the answer to how to rig the contest.
At length, Leyne settled on two practice swords. He carried these to a small Tylantian standing nearby, apparently the one in charge of the weapons. They exchanged words Nightfall did not hear, although he caught Edward’s name among them and guessed Leyne had explained his purpose for taking two. The Tylantian wrapped the swords in cloth. Leyne balanced them on the palomino’s rump, binding them to the back of his saddle with twine. He mounted. Nightfall passed the prince his reins, then leapt aboard his bay.
“This way,” Leyne guided Nightfall away from the main affair, through the circling line of merchants and hangers-on, to the base of the outer Tylantian wall. Finding a quiet, grassy place, he pulled up his horse and dismounted. This time, he removed the bridle to allow the palomino to graze. He dropped the head-tack to the ground.
Nightfall followed suit. He waited, allowing the noble to speak first as Edward had taught him, though the urge to question Leyne’s true motivations burned strongly.
Prince Leyne’s dark eyes seemed to bore into Nightfall’s blue-black ones. “I didn’t bring you along to select weapons.”
That being self-evident, Nightfall responded only with a nod of acknowledgment. Though mistrust goaded him to spar for dominance, if only with eye contact; he used the head movement as a way to politely avert his gaze instead. There was far more at stake here than a war of egos. To antagonize might cause a battle the oath-bond would make him helpless to fight.
“I brought you to offer you this.” Leyne put a hand in his pocket and enclosed something in a meaty fist. “Here.”
Obediently, Nightfall outstretched his hand to take the unseen offering. Leyne dumped half a dozen gold coins into his palm.
Nightfall could not recall the last time he had seen gold, let alone six coins at once. Though surprised, he allowed his features to reveal no reaction other than confusion. He squinted, brow crinkling. “What’s this for, noble sir?” He looked up, unable to keep from meeting Leyne’s stare again.
Leyne held the cold eyes with his own, his mood intense, obviously judging every word and movement. “It’s yours if you leave my brother’s service.”
Nightfall’s dislike for Leyne turned to frank hatred. In response, he flung the gold at his feet, stomping each precious coin into the dirt. He met Leyne’s eyes again, this time hoping the ferocity of his infamous glare stung. He did not bother with words, certain his actions had spoken loudly enough.
Leyne’s expression was unreadable. This time, he pulled a pouch from beneath his cloak and opened it so Nightfall could clearly see the contents.
Nightfall tore his gaze from Leyne and cast it upon a treasure. Gold coins and trinkets filled an area nearly the size of his head, its value priceless.
“All this if you leave Edward in any fashion you devise.” Leyne shook the contents slightly so that gold shifted across gold, the sound a muffled series of clinks.
Nightfall could not help imagining the uses for more wealth than he had accumulated in a lifetime of theft and butchery. Still, no amount of gold could purchase his soul; wealth served no purpose to a dead man. He did not reach for the bag, even from habit. Instead, he raised his eyes back to meet Leyne’s once more. “Noble sir, it is only because of the esteem in which I hold your brother that I don’t spit on you and your money.” He whirled, storming toward his horse.
Nightfall stopped, but he did not turn.
“Sudian, please. Hear me out.”
Nightfall stepped around to face Prince Leyne once more. The shrewd eyes glimmered with joy, and neatly combed yellow hair perched high above features so similar to Edward’s yet intelligent-looking where the younger prince’s seemed only boyishly handsome and innocent.
“I love my brother, Sudian. You came from nowhere with a loyalty as fanatical as the most ardent priest. You can’t blame me not trusting you.”
Nightfall said nothing. The highborn could teach him their ways and manners, but they could not change his inner feelings. He would place blame as he wished.
“The payment.” Leyne returned the pouch of gold to his cloak. “It was a test. You passed gloriously, with more honor than any knight or noble here today.”
Nightfall understood that Leyne gave him the highest praise he could muster, yet it did not wholly appease him. “Scant months ago, Ned would have turned that contest with a Mitanoan into a war of cause and conscience against slavery. Righteous rage might have driven him to kill.” Leyne studied Nightfall as he spoke. “He would have credited his victory to the holy Father’s will rather than his own ability. He may not believe it, but he’s a reasonably good warrior.”
“The best, Sire,” Nightfall returned with habitual ease.
Leyne smiled. “That remains to be seen. He’s not better than me, I’m afraid, and I intend to win this duchy.”
“Why?” Nightfall challenged. Then, realizing he had forgotten the title of respect, he continued as if he had not finished. “Sire, what need does a crown prince have for a duchy?”
Leyne shrugged as if the answer seemed too obvious for answer. “What use does any man have for a duchy? My father will live long, and I may never inherit the kingdom. Even if I do, we both believe I will appreciate my inheritance more if I understand the effort it took my forefathers to win Alyndar. Those who receive without toil become weak rulers and their offspring more so. More than one reigning line has degenerated into decadence and destroyed itself.” His manner softened as he brought Nightfall into his confidence. “Besides, someday I’ll probably have more than one child of my own. Who does not inherit Alyndar will still have territory to rule.”
The concept had seemed obvious to Nightfall from the start. Now, he needed to understand. “Sire, you would provide for your younger children? Why won’t your father do the same for my master? Surely, there’s enough of Alyndar for more than one.”
“First, dividing a kingdom weakens it.” Again, Leyne scrutinized Nightfall, though he had surely learned all from his previous efforts. “It would be better if what I say next did not reach Ned’s ears.”
Nightfall nodded. “It is my mission, Sire, to do what’s best and safest for my master. So long as ignorance does not place my master in danger, I promise he will hear nothing of what you tell me.”
Leyne bobbed his head once as he made his decision. “My father is concerned about Ned’s ability to rule. He needs to win his land and title to truly appreciate and understand its complexities. Hardship and experience teaches.”
“I understand hardship, Sire.”
“Yes,” Leyne grinned again, this time with genuine warmth. “My father said so. Though I think he worries still over his decision to let you squire, he believed you might have a good effect on Ned. I doubted it, concerned you would either prove as unworldly in your devotion to Ned as he with his to the causes he chooses or that you I had an agenda of your own in mind. Now, I can see my father was right, as always.” Clearly, Rikard had not told Leyne about Nightfall’s identity, which meant almost certainly that only the king and his chancellor knew the truth.
Nightfall gained a new respect for King Rikard, now sure the king had not sent Prince Edward away to die. It required a competent mind to project how such an unlikely couple as Nightfall and Edward would fare, yet Rikard had, apparently, guessed well. Whether or not Edward got his land, the king had achieved his goal. Likely, it did not matter much whether the actual landing occurred so long as Edward benefited from the association. The fate of Nightfall’s soul, however, was not King Rikard’s concern. “So, noble sir, it would be very much in my master’s best interests to win this competition?”
Leyne laughed. “Certainly. But it won’t happen.” He sobered almost instantly, obviously realizing he had become insulting. “Not because of any frailty on Ned’s part, of course. I believed from the start he would win that first round if he tried at all. He’s better than he believes. He’s just used to sparring or watching me; and, with all modesty, I’m ranked the best on the continent. But it’s Ned’s first contest. And he’ll have me to fight, at least.”
Nightfall took a chance. “Sire, if it’s in your brother’s best interests to win, why wouldn’t you let him.”
Leyne’s forehead crinkled. “Let him? What do you mean let him? I’m cheering for him every match.”
“Except against you, Sire.”
“That goes without saying, of course.” Leyne’s dark eyes went pensive as understanding seeped within. “You want me to purposely lose to him?” Horror and surprise tainted the question.
Nightfall’s shoulders rose and fell, leaving Leyne to work the suggestion through himself.
“That’s cheating. It’s dishonorable.” Leyne shook his head so vigorously his yellow hair flew. “Ned would never feel good about winning in that manner. He would suffer from the shame for eternity.”
Nightfall clung to the point. “Only if he knew you let him win. If he believed he had done so by his own skill…” He let the thought trail.
“No.” Leyne’s dark eyes narrowed. “I would know, and I won’t forsake my honor for anyone. It’s unlikely Ned will make it far enough to compete against me. But if he does, he will win with his own hand or not at all.” His features darkened, and his hands trembled slightly with anger. “This, I hope, is not what you’ve been teaching Ned.”
Nightfall remained calm. “Sire, it’s my job to protect my master, not train him. I just thought, perhaps, my master’s brother would help him achieve the goals your father set. Help or not as you will. My master will win this contest with his own talent alone.” Again, he spun around to leave and, again, Leyne stopped him with a word.
Nightfall turned back.
“I will not condone fraud for any man, but I do still admire your loyalty. I wish Ned luck and you as well, and I hope you see my integrity as a virtue not an evil, though it does not work in your favor this time. I understand that those born low cannot always understand the principles of nobility.”
Honor loses meaning in the face of starvation and pain. I’ve never yet met a priest who would not abandon the Father for his own personal gain. Dyfrin had often warned Nightfall to learn men by deeds not words. Those who claimed to be most pious and devoid of sin veiled souls without conscience and deeds of greed and cruelty they justified as gods’ will. It was those most evil who generally believed themselves most good, surrounding themselves with lies to placate whatever shred of decency remained. “It’s not a matter of understanding, Sire. It’s a matter of circumstances. Morality, like laws, can’t cover every situation.” He turned from generalities to specific. “Sire, I respect your honor and am truly sorry I suggested what I did. I’ve never done it before, and I won’t do it again.”
Leyne saved face for both of them. “It seems a shame to let gold lie in the street. If we recover it together, our dishonors should cancel. Three for you and three for me, no favors involved.”
Nightfall agreed to the compromise.
Nightfall spent that night swiping swords from the sleeping Astin, then whetting the blunted practice weapons to wickedly sharp edges. He finished by meticulously sanding the temper until its razor verge appeared as dull as prior to the filing. Although he had thinned the blades at either edge, he doubted the difference in balance would prove obvious enough to cue Astin. From rumors, he had learned that the baron’s heir had a ritual of practicing the night before a contest and blessing his weapons prior to sleep. He believed training prior to a contest would wash luck and benediction from the blade. Whether or not he kept to his routine, Nightfall doubted Edward’s opponent would notice the duplicity.
Nightfall remained edgy, which kept sleep mostly at bay, even after he successfully returned the swords to their sheaths without Astin’s knowledge. The maneuver would work only if Prince Edward proved as competent with defense as he and Leyne had suggested. If not, that sharpened blade might prove his downfall, possibly even his death. The oath-bond clamped onto that worry, chiming a warning that ached through Nightfall, assuring the sleeplessness to which his own doubts had already condemned him.
The morning dawned with a light rain that daunted none of the knights. Whittled from forty-eight to twenty-four, the participants could achieve all of the contests in half as many rounds. Many of the losers had packed up and left that night, though the majority had chosen to stay from interest, curiosity, or a desire to learn procedure and technique for future events.
Edward and Leyne both drew into the first round; therefore, neither could watch the other fight. That suited Nightfall well enough. The younger prince would probably prove less self-conscious without worrying about his critical brother scrutinizing every attack or defense. The parade to the field proceeded with its usual pomp, its symmetry marred by the mixture of horseback and on-foot participants as well as the many and varied weapons selected. Nightfall walked quietly beside Edward, alert to any sign of trouble from Astin. He also examined Edward’s potential future competitors, dredging up all the information he had learned about them so far. He would need to use a different trick for each one to keep from, raising suspicions against Edward. The shartha flowers he had gathered in Schiz seemed the obvious next step.
King Jolund’s speech came to an end, and the participants moved into their appropriate arenas. Edward entered first, turning completely around before Astin came into the ring. Nightfall took his position directly along the rail where the spectators grudgingly gave him room as convention specified.
The battle began with a double attack by Astin that sent Edward immediately into the defense he and Leyne had described. Repeatedly, Astin’s swords skipped for vital areas, parried or blocked by deft movements of Edward’s blades. The crowd applauded every jab and each deflection.
Yet, soon, the style of combat wore on everyone. Astin continued his attack, finding little need for defense since Edward tended only to his own, protection. As the strokes became repetitive, the applause dropped to a few polite claps. Nightfall kept his attention on the baron-heir’s swords. The small amount of light glazing through the clouds diffused across the blades, revealing nothing of their sharpening. But Nightfall knew where and how to study the blades, finding constant, regular notches cut where Astin’s swords had bashed against Edward’s. Over time, the steel would weaken. He only hoped Edward’s patience would hold that long.
Even the last, scant applause died away as the audience waited for some new maneuvers to break the monotony. Edward ignored them, eyes following every movement of Astin’s hands, face tight in concentration. The baron-heir changed his style of combat to hard, slamming strokes that Edward fended with his usual skill. The oath-bond increased in intensity as the blows became more vigorous, a warning that sharpened steel, well-aimed, could stab or carve between joints of armor. Then, just as Nightfall gritted his teeth against the pain, Astin’s right-hand blade snapped. Steel flew in an ungainly arc, then tumbled to the dirt. Muttering darkly, he dropped the hilt. The crowd murmured in sympathy.
In becoming more one-sided, the battle became less so in other ways. No longer bombarded by two swords, Edward found openings for attack as well as defense. Apparently from a sense of fairness, he cast aside one of his own weapons and battled single sword to single sword. Yet, within half a dozen exchanged strikes and parries, Astin’s second blade broke also, its tip digging into the arena floor.
Astin hurled down his hilt, now swearing long and loud. Edward hesitated, obviously uncertain of the rules in such a situation. He glanced swiftly around the judges. When they all shrugged in turn, he followed his own honor. Approaching the sidelines, he passed his second sword to Nightfall. Then, he returned to the battle, weaponless. He dove for baron-heir Astin, wrestling him down. Within moments, Prince Edward had his opponent lying flat in the dirt beneath him. The judges called a halt.
Edward released Astin and rose, reclaiming the sword he had thrown down.
All eyes turned toward Astin. No one waited for him to actually call a foul; his disgruntled demeanor told the entire story. The judges surrounded him. Nightfall slipped nearer to the baron-heir’s side of the ring to try to catch at least a few words of his complaint. An investigation might reveal his sabotage, but there would be no way to link the sharpening with Edward. The much more likely explanation, that Astin had whetted his own blades to give himself an advantage, would surely seem far more believable. Many witnesses could corroborate that Edward had gone nowhere near Astin’s camp, and the baron-heir’s own servants would verify that the swords had remained on their master’s hip since his personal inspection the previous night.
Astin stood, brushing off the colored silks that covered his armor. He entered a short conversation with the judges that seemed mostly to involve ascertaining that reasonable and fair procedure had been followed regarding broken blades and winning a contest with weapons other than those chosen, in this case a bare-handed match. Apparently, Edward had violated no rules in this regard because, after a few moments of griping and questioning, Astin waived his right to call a foul. Applause followed, more than at the previous contest. Edward had, apparently, already won himself a following.
“The winner of round two, Prince Edward of Alyndar.” The judge gestured at Edward for the benefit of those who did not know either of the combatants.
Prince Leyne met Edward and Nightfall as they headed back to camp, his match having lasted far shorter than the double sword fiasco; He clapped Edward on the back. “Won again, little brother. That’s wonderful. Keep going. You’re proving all Nargols formidable opponents, no matter how young and untested.”
Nightfall dropped back to let the nobles talk.
Edward smiled. “How did you do?”
“I won.” Leyne did not dwell on the victory. “The next round of fighting will determine your next opponent and who chooses weapon. We’ll all fight one more time tonight.”
“Tonight?” Edward flexed his forearms, obviously sore from the constant jar and pound of swordplay.
“It’s customary. One more battle, though this time we’ve few enough to only need one round to finish. That’ll leave six competitors by morning and three finalists by tomorrow afternoon. Things should wrap up tomorrow evening. By nightfall, the Tylantis/Shisen area will have a new territorial duke.”
By Nightfall. Nightfall smiled. We can only hope.
Leyne reached for the practice sword Edward had given Nightfall, and the squire turned it over to him. The prince then tapped the hilt of Edward’s other sword. “Here, let me take those back for you. You get some rest.”
Edward drew the sword, though he did not hand it over right away. “Don’t you need rest, too?”
“Yes. But the practice pile is on my way.”
Edward handed over the weapons and watched Leyne head into the crowd. After a few moments, he started back toward camp. “This should be a learning experience for you, too. I’ve gotten so caught up in my own role, I’ve been remiss in my teaching.”
Nightfall moved back into step with his master.
“I began with defense, biding time for an opening…”
Nightfall let his own considerations take over, disinterested in the details of a match he had observed from beginning to end. He guessed each participant’s security would tighten as the goal became visible, and he appreciated that he had used the flashier, more invasive techniques earlier. This afternoon, he would poison Edward’s opponent with shartha petals, causing waves of nausea that would weaken the other enough to assure Edward’s victory. Tonight, Nightfall planned to seek out Okraniah, a street woman who had worked for Nightfall many times for pay. Whatever the job, she had always done well and remained closed-mouthed about the scam. Others would perform tasks for money, but he trusted few.
Edward continued, oblivious to the loss of his audience. “… a weapon, it only seemed honorable to disarm myself as well…”
Nightfall uttered an understanding noise to indicate that he was listening and impressed, though neither was the case. They headed back to their camp for a short rest.
The relaxation period ended too quickly for Nightfall. Shortly, he headed out to find the slave carrying a meal to Sir Aoscurit, a knight from the western tip of the Xaxonese Peninsula who was Edward’s next opponent. It had proven simple enough to sprinkle powdered petals onto the meat amid the hurried jostle of the crowd. Hours later, nothing about the knight looked amiss. Edward had chosen his favorite weapon, poleax, and Aoscurit seemed miffed by that particular decision. He argued vehemently with the judges, loud enough that nearly anyone could hear. Though not a standard dueling weapon, it pleased judges and audience alike, a standout from the usual sword to shield combinations or even the grand horseback lance jousting that was becoming routine.
Nightfall wondered if argumentativeness, for Aoscurit, was a side effect of feeling ill from poison petals, though it did not matter. Whether an unrelated or associated symptom, it would only serve to further wear him down.
Waiting patiently at the inner railing, practice polearm in hand, Edward discussed the matter with his squire. “Maybe l should withdraw and choose a different weapon.”
Nightfall frowned, leaning against the wooden framework to keep their conversation private. “It’s too late, Master. The judges already approved your choice. Besides, you won the flag toss, not him. He can’t get his pick every time, Master. It’s not fair for him to expect otherwise.”
Prince Edward watched the ranting display in center ring with distress. “But it doesn’t really matter to me what weapon we use. And it obviously matters very much to him.”
Though Nightfall did not care about the weapon, he preferred Edward used the one with which he felt most comfortable. Even with cramps and nausea, Aoscurit might prove the better using his own favorite arms. “Trust me, Master. It’s an insult to you for him to insist his choice is superior. Injury always follows insult. And how will he learn sacrifice and honor if others give in to his tantrums? Let him rave.”
Apparently resigned at last, Aoscurit hefted his pole, stepping into position. He seemed slightly more awkward than Edward, and Nightfall attributed this to the poison although smaller size or inexperience could have explained it as well.
“Begin,” the judge said.
Prince Edward remained in place, giving Aoscurit ample opportunity and space for the first attack. The knight obliged, charging, the poleax horizontal. As he closed, he whipped the butt end up in an obvious feint. He snapped the polearm back, spinning the metal end toward Edward’s helm. Edward caught the attack toward the butt end of his pole, allowing the momentum to help drive his strike for Aoscurit’s abdomen. The practice weight slammed against armor, driving the knight off his feet. He crashed to the ground. Edward finished the movement, ending with the butt end of his polearm against Aoscurit’s throat.
“End,” the same judge said.
Edward removed his weapon and backed away.
Aoscurit sat up, ripped off his helmet, and hurled it to the ground. He shook his head at the judge to indicate no challenge of foul. He had already lost his only possible claim.
The judge raised his hand to Edward. “The winner, Prince Edward Nargol of Alyndar.”
This time, the crowd cheered.
Nightfall glanced about, surprised to discover other contests had not yet finished despite the lengthy argument that had delayed their own. Prince Leyne’s palomino was just winding its way from a nearby ring, a lance couched against its withers. His smile revealed his victory, and he swiveled his head to catch a glimpse of Edward’s contest, now finished. He rode to Nightfall. “How’d Edward do?”
“My master won.” Nightfall adopted the look of a child whose greatest wish had come true. “And you?”
“I won, too,” Leyne replied matter-of-factly. “Perhaps we will stand against one another after all. If he needs me, you know where to find me.”
Nightfall nodded. “Yes, Sire.” He did not know the precise location of Leyne’s camp, but he could find it easily enough with a short search.
Leyne rode away.
Soon after, Prince Edward emerged from the ring victorious, and Nightfall stepped up to meet him.
Nightfall set out to find Okraniah that evening, threading through the masses of camped nobles as if on a simple food-buying mission for his master. He took special care to pass Aoscurit’s area, seeking some indication that he intended to cause trouble. But the knight had, apparently, raised all the objections he would before the match. His slaves diligently polished and packed his gear except for one who huddled near a ragged tent, arm clamped to his abdomen, reeking of stomach contents.
Nightfall bustled past, but not before the realization and irony struck him. Aoscurit had not eaten the poisoned food. Either he had given it to this slave or he had thrown it away and this man had plucked it from the garbage. In either case, Edward had fought a fair battle. Realization extended naturally from the conclusion: Edward had bested Aoscurit without Nightfall’s assistance. And he had done it well and quickly.
As Nightfall trotted from camps to periphery, he considered the implications. If Edward had bested one of the continent’s finest, he was clearly more competent than Nightfall, Leyne, the judges, or even Edward himself had credited. How could that happen? Haw could every man misjudge so completely? Nightfall discovered the answer with the barest amount of thought. That Edward had never entered a contest before seemed only half the answer. The rest came more slowly. Since childhood, Edward had practiced with, aspired to, and been compared only to Leyne Nargol, the warrior ranked the best on the continent, at least in tourney. Age and experience gave Leyne other advantages as well. In such a situation, how could any man seem more than mediocre, to himself or to others? He recalled Leyne’s own words: “He’s better than he believes. He’s just used to sparring with or watching me.”
Nightfall edged through the ring of camp-followers, ignoring the goading cries of merchants and the women’s quiet displays of thighs or breast valleys. His obvious livery made him a small target for merchandise, and he slipped past and into the city with relative ease. Once past the hangers-on, he found Tylantis much more as he remembered it. Narrow streets wound between cottages, shops, and pastures, constructed before horse and cart traffic became common. As he headed north and east, the byways thinned further, hemmed by drafty homes and crumbling, ancient warehouses that blocked the sun. Grimy, snot-nosed children peeked at him from alleyways or through crevices in cottages that appeared abandoned.
Nightfall discovered Okraniah headed, with two younger women, toward the contests. All three wore hand-made dresses that clung at breasts, hips, and waists and ended short at the thighs. Okraniah kept her red-brown hair cut femininely short with a curl in the front that gave her an air of sultry innocence. Long lashes bowed from her large, dark eyes. The three headed toward him.
Nightfall leaned against the wall casually, waiting until the women approached. He kept his face and his colors in shadow, preferring that no reports of his presence find their way back to the tourney. The cut of his clothes would reveal him as a servant, which should satisfy them that he was not a local thief or danger.
From habit, they assessed him as they passed, the strangers with only a passing glance. Okraniah granted a flirtatious smile. Having played the game longer, she realized that nobles’ servants often carried money or made arrangements for their masters.
Using only a brisk movement of his head, Nightfall summoned Okraniah. She said something to the others, who looked briefly back at Nightfall then continued walking.
Okraniah wandered to Nightfall. “What can I do for you, sir?”
Nightfall smiled. He pulled two silver and one of the gold coins from his pocket, sorting through them with a finger.
Okraniah glanced quickly, then stared as she recognized the gold.
Nightfall plucked out the gold and passed a silver. “There’s a knight whose symbol is a walking bear, named Sir Gondol. Spend the night with him… and the morning. See to it he sleeps too late for the contests, and the last coin becomes yours, too.” He handed her the second silver. “You never spoke with me.”
Okraniah nodded agreement. Taking the money, she headed toward the fighting grounds.
Nightfall slipped quietly into the darkness. Tonight, at least, he would sleep.
Sir Gondol had chosen a sword and shield combination the previous night, and Nightfall methodically prepared Prince Edward for the match. With practice, armor found its proper positioning more easily; and Edward seemed comfortable with the classic weaponry, though he had not selected it. Nor, Nightfall believed, would he have to use it. He had seen Gondol and Okraniah arm in arm the previous night, and the woman had never failed him at any task in the past.
Nightfall had just finished with preparations when Okraniah threaded through the crowd. She feigned interest in a nearby noble while Edward faced her. As soon as he looked away, she made a subtle wave at Nightfall.
Sudden alarm washed through Nightfall. Only six participants remained, and King Jolund had abandoned the paraded entrances and repetitive lectures to allow each match to occur singly. That way, everyone could watch, and it would delay the final round until evening. Edward and Gondol had drawn the earliest position. It seemed simple enough for Okraniah to delay the knight until just past daybreak, long enough to force him to forfeit the match. Yet, apparently, something had gone wrong.
Nightfall handed Edward his shield. “Excuse me a moment please, Master.”
Edward studied his shield, scrubbing at a dull spot that Nightfall knew from the previous evening would not respond to polishing. He nodded his consent.
Nightfall strode to Okraniah and pulled her aside. “What’s wrong?”
Okraniah took Nightfall’s hand, surreptitiously returning his coins. “I couldn’t do it. I’m sorry. Here’s your money back.”
“What?” Nightfall made no attempt to take the silver, openly or in secret. She would never have considered defying Nightfall when she had known she worked for him. He had not expected his Sudian persona to win the same obedience, but he had believed his money would make up for the difference.
“I’m sorry. I tried my best.” Okraniah looked genuinely regretful, her already big eyes looking huge. “Gondol has some woman he’s promised to. He was ready to forget her early on, but guilt got the better of him late last night.”
Damn. Nightfall shook his head.
Okraniah sighed, a sad smile bending the corners of her mouth. “I’m sorry.”
Nightfall met her gaze. She looked away quickly, dark eyes disappointed, though he did not ponder whether from personal failure or loss of payment. It did not matter. Either way, Edward would have to win or lose this contest by skill, and all of Nightfall’s trickery might come to nothing. Ignorantly, Okraniah might have sold out the demon’s soul for love. Nevertheless, he let her keep the silver. That would buy her silence, even from Gondol. Turning on his heel, he headed back to Prince Edward.
Nightfall had only traveled half the distance when Edward waved him in impatiently. “Hurry, Sudian. We wouldn’t want to be late.”
Nightfall trotted to Edward’s side, helping him strap on the swordbelt since the gauntlets did not allow delicate adjustments of buckle and leathers. They rushed to the center ring to find that Gondol and his entourage had beaten them there. The knight stood in the center, facing the entrance, his squire and two retainers hemmed against the railing. Nightfall left Edward at the entrance then took his position beside the walking bear standard, wishing he had room to pace. He had no one to blame except himself; experience had taught him to trust no one, and he should have found some means to handle this match that did not rely on another.
Nightfall studied the competitors with a detail that made his eyes water. The armor made it difficult to judge size, but he knew from prior observation that the two seemed nearly evenly matched for weight. Age had given Gondol a paunch; yet, though not as well-defined, his musculature seemed as developed as Edward’s own. The hazel eyes seemed alert and ready, measuring the prince with a scrutiny that nearly matched Nightfall’s intensity. He held the sword in a relaxed position, halfway between attack and defense, and with a composure that indicated assurance as well as skill.
Prince Edward also held an appropriate stance, though wholly defensive. He crouched, legs parted for balance, and leading with his left side.
“Begin,” one of the judges said.
Gondol charged without hesitation. Edward remained in place. Gondol’s high stroke arched down on Edward, blocked by the shield. Edward riposted with a chest-height blow that Gondol fended. Both men bore in for the attack, hammering at one an0ther’s defenses until the arena rang with the sound of steel smiting steel. They exchanged blow for blow, either occasionally sneaking in an extra offense while the other closed his defenses. Nightfall cringed at every attack while the spectators applauded, shouted, or chanted at every movement. Although Gondol had drawn a more massive following over his career, Edward’s recent devotees retained loyalty to the underdog princeling who, in their minds, never should have survived the first round.
Nightfall ogled every motion, discovering a discomforting trend. Gondol’s attacks came closer to a mark than Edward’s, and he seemed more competent when it came to dodging shield defenses. Twice, he managed to jab through openings to strike armor, but the judges considered neither a killing blow. In the same amount of time, Edward met only Gondol’s shield or sword. As fatigue made them sloppy, the knight seemed likely to deliver a winning stroke first.
But the battle continued, long past the time Nightfall believed he could have managed to support the armor, let alone exchange sword sweeps. The audience seemed a wild wave of indecipherable sound, loving the length of the combat as much as any specific blow.
Gondol thrust beneath Edward’s shield. The prince recoiled far enough to save his armor, then lunged in with a high feint. Gondol raised his shield, momentarily blocking his own vision. The instant he did, Edward drove in with his off-hand, catching the rim of Gondol’s shield on his own. Edward swept his shield, dragging Gondol’s along in a movement that opened the knight’s defenses while closing his own. The prince whipped in with an upstroke that would have torn Gondol belly to throat if not for the armor.
Nightfall could scarcely hear the judge beneath the screaming crowd, but the combatants apparently did. They separated while one of the judges approached Gondol and carried on a short conversation. The knight sheathed his sword and shook his head.
The judge raised his hands, and the audience fell to silence. “Match winner and first contestant for the three man finals: Younger Prince Edward Nargol from Alyndar.”
Edwards’s followers cheered. Even Gondol’s people applauded politely, although the squire and retainers rushed to aid their knight without comment. Nightfall leapt the rail, reaching Edward first for the shortcut. Taking the shield and removing the gauntlets, he fell into Edward’s joyous embrace, truly sharing the excitement for the first time. The exhilaration that came with honestly winning a contest against a superior warrior seemed electrifying.
With a parting salute to Sir Gondol, Edward left the ring with his squire. “Let’s hurry and get this equipment off. I want to watch the others and see what I’m up against.” His own words brought a somberness that seemed uncharacteristic in the wake of his joy. Nightfall guessed the prince had just remembered he would almost certainly come against Leyne in the finals. That contest he had no delusions of winning.
Nightfall believed it might suit Edward better not to observe Leyne’s competition. It would only whittle at the confidence he had gained only after four consecutive wins against higher ranked competitors. However, he saw little means to delay Edward. Those in charge would drag out the festivities as long as possible so that money continued to flow into the city. Few would leave this near the final match. The later the contest lasted, the more meals the nobles and spectators would buy for themselves and their retainers.
As Nightfall headed back to camp with Edward, he caught a glimpse of a familiar figure moving through the crowd. His mind recognized it at once, the way a rabbit knows an owl from nothing more than shadow. Gilleran. Nightfall jerked his head around to look again, certain he must have imagined the sorcerer’s figure and movement on another man. He saw nothing but a retreating form, richly dressed in breeks and cape. The neutral brown hair could have belonged to any man. Still, Nightfall caught himself shivering from a combination of rage and fear.
Apparently, Edward detected the change in his squire. “Are you all right, Sudian?”
“Fine, Master.” Nightfall redirected his attention seeking some excuse to follow the other now and ascertain his identification; but he knew he would think of no reason to leave Edward bundled in armor. He would tend the prince first, as swiftly as Edward had vocalized. Once he had Edward safely in front of the contests, he could hunt down the sorcerer himself.
The armor removal and packing left both men impatient. As the last piece fell into place, Edward gestured to the arena. “Let’s go. Quickly.”
Now, Nightfall finally found his tongue. “Master, if you don’t mind, I’ll stay and guard our belongings.”
Prince Edward glanced back at the camp, obviously reluctant to waste time in discussion. “That’s not necessary.”
“Nevertheless, I’d feel more comfortable. Do you mind, Master?”
Prince Edward shifted his attention from central contest to squire and back. Then, apparently more interested in spectating than arguing, he shrugged. “Very well. But if you change your mind, join me at any time.” With a brisk wave, he darted toward the masses.
The oath-bond scarcely responded to Edward’s leaving. Taking its cues from Nightfall, as always, the magic found its caster the more pervasive threat.
Nightfall rushed to track down Chancellor Gilleran of Alyndar.