DragonMaiden Chapter 6 – Tournament

George discarded his shattered lance and took the fresh one offered to him by Eumaeus. With it tightly gripped in hand, he turned his horse back for another tilt. His opponent was a knight in red, blue, and yellow, though dust had dulled his bright colors. His foe, Accolon, seemed an honorable enough knight, and skilled in the lists.

Accolon was fighting for Earl Zuggart of Huntsman, an elderly relative of the King. The going consensus was that the man was earnest, but old, and his mind was addled and his body failing. He was not seen as an effective foil to Argal Seine.

George had been less nervous for this fight than perhaps he should have been. This was not the fight to the death which George had fought just a day before. Manassen was a very different opponent from Accolon, both in that he was less skilled and more murderous. Nevertheless George felt considerable unease, but not because of his opponent. He felt an urge to look to Argal Seine, though the slit in his helm made picking the man out in the crowd impossible.

Argal Seine. That evil bastard, George had seen that face in his nightmares. It rivalled the face of Cleolinda for his attentions in the night, the face of shadow and fear contrasted to her flame and power. But it was Seine’s eyes, and the Entity within, that truly frightened him. Evil lurked there.

As he thundered down the field, he was not focused. His mind was half upon the enemy that he knew was watching him. All at once he saw Accolon’s lance in its approach, and saw it move at the last second. He tried to move to block with his shield, but the strike hit true, and the force nearly knocked him from the saddle as Accolon’s lance erupted in splinters while his own lance went wide.

Through the thundering of blood in his ears and the fogginess of his head as he rattled inside the helm, he managed to catch to Ephialtes and clasp him, barely hanging on. He was aware of the roar of the crowd, and in hindsight he would not fault them for it, for it was a mighty hit indeed, and he could only imagine how he looked.

It was by the even speed of Ephialtes – who was rocksteady as a platform and kept level – and by the strength of his armor which absorbed most of the force that George was able to stay on and recover. His head swam from the hit, and he looked to see Accolon raising his hands in celebration.

It was one thing to worry about Seine and his treachery, but George realized he had erred in not taking Accolon seriously. Yes, he was not trying to kill him, but a defeat would end his chances, and it was imperative to remove Seine. Effectively, Accolon was as much an agent of Argal Seine as Manassen had been.

“Holy Mother, that was close,” Eumaeus said as George reached the other side “I don’t know how you stayed on Ephialtes.”

“By rights I should be in the dust,” George said bitterly. “I let myself become distracted…”

“Put it behind you, noble Knight,” Eumaeus said. “He has splintered two, and you one. You must get ready for the final pass.”

George nodded, and secured his visor. “I shall need to unhorse him to win,” he said. He trotted Ephialtes over to the line, watching his foe prepare for the charge. Accolon’s mighty Destrier was about as big as Ephialtes, and George could tell by the numbness he felt in his shoulder that the horse moved swift and strong. Were it not for the mighty armor that Cleolinda had gifted him, he would have been in great pain.

The trumpets sounded, and the crowd quieted. George kicked his heels into Ephialtes, and the warhorse took off down the track. Ephialtes thundered towards Accolon and his stallion, and George lowered his lance across his body even as his opponent lowered his.

George’s lance caught Accolon in the gorget, shattering, while he deflected away his opponent’s lance tip off his shield and into his armored shoulder. The blow was strong, and Accolon’s lance wobbled and cracked, but did not shatter, as it slid off even as Accolon accelerated backwards off his charging horse, and landing upon the ground with a resounding thud.

The crowd cheered. Trumpets sounded, and George panted, relieved. He took a moment to raise a hand to the crowd, making them cheer all the more and bringing the black favor of his Mistress before his eyes. He reverently brushed it against his helm. He would give anything to have her watch him, to impress her with his jousting skill, but that was quite impossible. He patted Ephialtes on the side of the neck.

“Good job old friend,” he said.

Ephialtes let out a little whinny and tilted his head as he trotted off the field. He took a moment to scan the crowd, at least as best as he could. Roferato was pleased, the King unsmiling as always. Argal Seine was not watching him; rather, he was staring off into space, and he looked sick and tired. That is, until George passed into his view.

Then his gaze steeled, and his lips curled into a mocking sneer. The transformation made George’s stomach drop, and he felt a shock through his body as though his blood were frozen.

But there was also Malliard, the Dragon Slayer, though his garb was the roughspun dyed wool of a commoner. He was on his feet, cheering wildly. His love of jousting was as pure as anyone’s. There was one powerful reason that George shouldn’t like the man and yet he found the DragonSlayer so honest and affable that he couldn’t bring himself to loathe him.

He felt guilty for not hating Malliard, for it felt like it was a betrayal of his DragonMaiden. Cleolinda…how he missed her. It had been one or two weeks since he had departed, though it felt like years, and his thoughts frequently turned to her lips, and her embrace. He missed them both and he wanted to feel them again. But with the Dragon hunter here, he didn’t want her anywhere near him.

He approached Eumaeus, who was applauding. “Bravo, George. That was well-hit!” The swineherd said. He reached up to help George down off of Ephialtes, and George took his offered hand.

“It had to be,” George replied, landing with a loud thud and clang of his metal plates. “I let myself get behind…”

“Let yourself?” Eumaeus said with a laugh. “You can’t control everything. You recovered well.”

George removed his helm, and took a deep breath of the cool air. Though sunny, the breeze carried a chill.

Sir Griffid approached, smiling. He was covered in dust and sweat, his armor still on. He had won his tilt against Sir Ostreium, unhorsed him twice and shattered his lance on the fourth run.

“Well hit, Sir George, well hit!” Sir Griffid said, outstretching his hand.

“Thanks,” George said, taking his hand and the firm shake.

“We are the last two for the same candidate. Every other is down to one champion, or eliminated. Roferato stands the best chance.”

“Corsit won today as well,” George said. The hulking foreigner was walking back to his tent.

Corsit’s opponent, Sir Gorbrie, had been carried off the field in a stretcher. George had heard the clang of metal as the lance tip had hit the brown knight’s helm, and turning he saw (and heard) the crash as Gorbrie fell to earth like a meteor. The crowd, normally quite happy to cheer the unhorsing of a knight, let out a collective grimace.

Sir Griffid smiled. “I went and spoke to Gorbie. He’s alright, just has no memory of the joust,” he stopped to laugh. “Between us, I was worried Gorbrie would deprive me of the honor. I look forward to unhorsing that heathen bastard,” he said.

“I hope someone does,” George said, he looked over at Argal Seine’s twisted grin.

“Well, Corsit faces Sir Vale tomorrow. He very well may meet his match against him,” Sir Griffid said. “I will face Lord Medruo.”

“What kind of man is Medruo?”

“The worst kind imaginable to play dice with,” Sir Griffid said. “He has a temper like scorned wife. But he has a good nose for wines.”

“I will face Sir Urien. I know little of him,” George said, recalling the burly man in blue and white.

“I know him little also. In truth, although he is said to be a great jouster in the south,” Sir Griffid said. “At any rate, I shall remove my armor. Congratulations, Sir George.”

They bid each other farewell, and George went back to his tent to do the same. At the tent, they waited for Concita to return. In this Eumaeus rubbed his legs and looked to the tent flap frequently, shifting his weight and fidgeting with his hands.

“She’ll be here,” George said. “Concita is very good at sneaking around.”

Eumaeus let out a long, deep sigh. “I know,” he said. “But still, I worry…”

Concita entered shortly thereafter, although Eumaeus would have probably said it felt like an eternity. He pounced on the bird-girl, embracing her and making her squeak as he planted a kiss in her lips. She rapped her wings around the swineherd’s neck, and allowed herself a happy moment to coo.

“How have your trials gone?” George asked. “Were you able to find any way into the dungeon?”

“I have mapped the locations the scorpions along the walls, and found most of the hidden ones, I think. But I wasn’t able to get into all of the rooms within the keep, and those that I did enter had no hidden passages or obvious ways into the lower levels,” Concita said.

“I’m not sure it is worth the risk to check this,” Eumaeus said, folding his arms. “If you are seen-”

“I just say that I am a lost nun,” Concita interjected. “People pretty much leave me alone.”

“But if the ‘lost nun’ keeps showing up around there, people will begin to notice,” Eumaeus said.

“What other options do we have?” George asked.

“If we could gain access to the treasury room, we might be able to see where those scorpions are hidden,” Concita sais.

“You mean, they let us in?” Eumaeus asked. “Why would they do that?”

“Lady Linde. If she gave a pledge of support, it might be enough to get us into the treasury,” Concita said.

“Lady Linde could never get here in time,” George replied. “The last day of the tournament is in three days.”

“You could say Lady Linde will grant a loan, but she is worried about moving and storing her gold here,” Concita said.

“Would they believe that?” Eumaeus asked.

“I suspect that if the sum is outrageous enough, they’ll believe anything,” Concita said. “Perhaps ask questions, and maybe you can get a tour of the dungeon.”

George pondered that. “I think there is an opportunity to use the prospect of a loan,” he said. “But not in this.”

“Well…I did have another idea,” Concita said. “It occurs to me that Malliard is affable and disposed favorably to you. Perhaps you can loosen his tongue with wine, and get him to tell us where the remaining scorpions are.”

“Neither Eumaeus or I are particularly devious,” George said.

Concita smiled. “That is what makes you such good men. The key is not to be dishonest; just ask him questions when he is drinking. He has no reason to suspect treachery,” she said.

George looked to Eumaeus. “What do you think?” He asked. “Are we up for it?”

“It is worth a chance,” Eumaeus said with a shrug. “At worst, he doesn’t tell us.”

George nodded. “It’s our best option,” he said. “Let’s pay him a visit after the jousts end.”

The three ate a meal, and Concita began updating her maps of the castle, including as much detail as she could. When the last joust had completed, George and Eumaeus went to find Malliard.

They found the Dragonslayer happy and excited, and when asked if he would like to share some wine he was only too happy to agree.

The tournament had a large tent set up as an outdoor pub, and George purchased a Cask of Pharaoh Wine, Amanda Llado, from the far south. Together the three men began to drink.

George decided to move the revels away from the public, and after a few drinks they convinced Malliard to tour the grounds and make their way to his tent. There, George and Eumaeus added water to their own wine, but gave Malliard the full potency and bade him match them drink for drink.

And so when George was feeling slightly numb and happy, Malliard was laughing and gregarious, talking eagerly and at length on many topics. Malliard was most impressed by George’s recent joust, and expounded on it for some time.

“…that was an amazing hit. And how you recovered from the one before, I’ll never know…” Malliard lifted his drink and gave a reverential gulp. He turned to Eumaeus. “You have a brave friend, Sir Eumaeus.”

Eumaeus laughed. “I am no knight, DragonSlayer. I am a swineherd.”

The dragon slayer clapped a hand on the swineherd’s shoulder. “Then I esteem you even higher. I love watching knights joust, but pork is my favorite meat.” He laughed to himself.

Eumaeus looked to George, and they both judged now was the time to ask.

“Tell me,” George asked, pouring more undiluted wine into Malliard’s cup. “Is it hard to place your scorpions?”

Malliard nodded as he lifted the cup to his lips, sloshing some wine. “Oh yes! Well, I told you that before. As I said then, it needs to be in a place not readily apparent from the air, and a place where a fairly good shot can be taken while the dragon has limited degrees of movement. Of course the critical setup is in the treasury…”

Unseen by Malliard, George stared up at Eumaeus a moment. The latter nodded. “I suppose you have one just aimed at the entrance?” Eumaeus asked.

“As tempting as that may seem, Dragons have amazing reflexes. They can dodge or deflect quite easily,” Malliard said. “You need to conceal your shots, always. Like, the entrance to the treasury is flanked by are recesses on either side of it, not visible from the entrance…”

“You put scorpions there?” George asked.

“It’s a good spot for them,” Malliard replied, taking a gulp. “This dragon apparently changes into her maiden form to loot gold. When she does, the scorpions will loose from behind and into her back. Normally that wouldn’t be enough to penetrate a Dragon’s hide, but I have these scorpions drawn with Hind heartstring. They can punch into stone.”

“Seems pretty straight-forward…” Eumaeus said. “Although that means you’ll need two brave men in the treasury to man the Scorpions.”

Malliard laughed. “More than that,” he said. “It is best to have a Scorpion set up to shoot wherever you know the dragon will be. I have two additional set up hidden among the gold to shoot at the scorpions in the recesses.”

“How much room is there in the treasury for all this?” George asked.

“Well, between us, there isn’t as much gold as you’d think, given the King is trying to raise an army. There’s more than enough room for two more scorpions, hidden amongst the gold,” Malliard said. “Every guard in the treasury is trained to use them.”

“Well, it would seem to me that you have it well protected,” George said. “The King must be pleased.”

Malliard shrugged. “I’ll be honest; the King seems pleased by very little if it doesn’t gleam in light,” he said. “Reminds me of the bastards I kill. But that Argal Seine was pleased. He wanted even more, though. He wanted a bunch in the dungeon of all places, but I told him I only had eight to work with – the four that I brought, and the four they made.”

“Why the dungeon?” George asked, knowing full well.

“When I asked Seine, he said there was a chest of locked treasure that was more important than the others,” Malliard said with a shrug. “He said the Dragon would want it. I put a Scorpion inside the cell opposite the door to his laboratory.”

“Any others?” Eumaeus asked, perhaps unwisely.

“Oh…I ah, really can’t say much more. You never know who is listening,” Malliard said.

“No, no, of course…” Eumaeus said. “I apologize.”

“No need. I mean, curiosity is only natural…”

“I wonder what that chest is,” George said, again knowing full well but wanting to change the subject.

“People think it is books,” Malliard replied. He shrugged. “Dragons don’t care about books, unless they are covered in gold or very rare. But he seemed pretty convinced.”

“He? Seine?” George asked.

“No, not Seine. One of the guards that I taught to use the Scorpion in the treasury, Bayard,” Malliard said. “Young guard. You may find me silly, but he ah…he reminded me of my little one. My son would be about his age now. And his eyes are similar…”

Malliard snorted, and his smile faded. “I don’t like to drink, because this happens,” He said with a laugh, but his face was dark. “I start dwelling on the old days. On what I lost…”

Malliard stared forward a moment, silently, twirling his cup in his fingers as it rested on the table. In the DragonSlayer’s eyes, George saw anguish, and he realized this pain was always there, always hidden by the man’s immense will. As his eyes had become more and more bleary as he drank, the truth was coming forth.

“What do you think of the lists tomorrow?” George asked quietly, hoping to raise the man’s spirits.

Malliard swallowed. “Most of the jousts tomorrow are all show. None of them are seeded for victory in the tournament, but there shall be some great riding. Only three contests matter. I expect you and Sir Griffid to both when your tilts. I think Sir Vale shall beat Corsit,” he said.

“That would please me,” George said. “Even if Sir Griffid fears it.”

Malliard laughed. “Sir Griffid has a fierce nature, and always desires competition,” he said. He regarded George with narrow eyes and pursed lips for a moment. “Not you, though…”

George frowned. “Oh?”

“You are here for a purpose,” Malliard said. “For someone. May I guess it is this Lady Linde?”

George nodded.

“She must be a remarkable lady,” Malliard said. “Very…powerful.”

“She is,” George said forcefully. “The most beautiful amber eyes. And so strong, a strength inside that makes me feel awe. You would like her very much, and she would like you.”

Malliard raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Why should she even care that I exist?”

“She knows all about you,” George said. “About our meeting on the barge.”

“Oh? Good things, I hope?”

“I told her you were a serious man.”

“That is true enough,” Malliard said. “Very serious. I loved a woman as much as you love your Lady Linde, and she gave me children I loved just as fiercely. I failed to keep them safe. I have resolved to keep anyone else from feeling that anguish. The Black Dragon is dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous Dragon O have ever placed.”

“Our main issue is not the Black Dragon. It is the Damned,” George said.

“Truthfully, I fear you are correct,” Malliard replied. “But when it comes to fighting The Damned, I know nothing. I am a DragonSlayer, and if I can at least remove that threat, it may alleviate things to let The Damned be dealt with.”

“What do you think of the Monster Woman threat?” Eumaeus asked.

Malliard shrugged. “I know little of them. I have met some of their squirrel-tailed traders, and they were very kind,” he smirked. “TOO kind. There was one at a tournament in Durmstred. Chuki. Had sparkling green eyes… ” he cleared his throat. “At any rate, that was a great tournament, almost as good as this one.”

“How do you see the remaining contest going?” George asked.

Malliard took a drink of wine with a loud gulp. “Of you three I see Sir Vale as the best rider. Sir Griffid is the fiercest and sharpest, and you have perhaps the most talent, albeit with less experience,” he said.

“I am surprised you do not rate Corsit among the best,” George said.

Malliard frowned and brushed aside the comment with his hand, dismissively. “Corsit relies on a trick. He is a large man, and he holds a lance lower than one would think. It is an unusual hold, an archaic one from the western archipelago where he was taken. That gimmick gets him success until his opponents have experience against him. Next season he will have far less success.”

“Sadly, that matters little when a King’s Valor is being selected,” George said.

“I see no reason why you couldn’t adjust to it now,” Malliard said. “Sir Griffid is shrewd enough to notice too, I think, as is Sir Vale…” Malliard yawned, and rubbed his eyes. “Forgive me, gentlemen. I am suddenly feeling tired. I am not accustomed to having so much wine.”

“I should probably depart,” George said. “I have a match against Sir Urien.”

“Sir Urien…yes, he will be a challenge, I hear,” Malliard said, he rose on unsteady feet. “At any rate, good night gentlemen.”

They bid the DragonSlayer farewell and disembarked.

“I think we have what we need,” George said in a hushed tone as they walked away from Malliard’s tent. “We can send this at once.”

“We shall have to wait,” Malliard whispered. He pointed to the pink and rose rays rising above the horizon. “The sun is rising.”

George sighed. “Yes. Tonight, then.” He yawned.

“You need to get some rest,” Eumaeus said. “You joust in the afternoon.”

“Indeed,” George replied, rubbing his eyes. “Still, this was necessary. We can make haste to our tent and sleep.”

George wandered through the dark night and absently crawled into his bedroll, his head mildly swimming. He had drank wine all his life, but this was more potent, and his head swam slightly. The night was chill, and the rhythm of the tent flapping in the wind lulled him to slumber.

His dreams disturbed him, for he saw in them Cleolinda in her dragon form, bleeding, a scorpion dart through her chest. Her amber eyes were staring at him in despair, and the light within them was fading. George cried, and frantically pulled and pulled, but the spear would not be removed. He was not strong enough.

As he looked up in terror, he saw the eyes of Argal Seine, and his hideous grin. George seized him and tossed him to the ground, strangling him, but it did no good. Seine just laughed and laughed. Seine had won. He had slain Cleolinda. It was over.

He was trembling when he awoke, his heart beating in his chest. He let out a deep sigh as it slowly occurred to him that it was only a dream. He heard the tent flap in the breeze, and saw the sun above the treeline.

He blinked, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. By the scribbling he knew that Concita was busy sketching on a paper. She was using, considerable skill given that she was using her wing. Eumaeus was nowhere to be seen.. The air had warmed considerably, and he poured water to wash his face. He had a slight headache from the wine the night before, as he took the water in cupped hands and splashed it onto his face, The cool water helped a little, but the pain soon returned. Still, it was better than the dream had been.

“Rough dream?” Concita asked.

George nodded.

“Join the club. Eumaeus and I had them too, and it didn’t affect just people in our tent,” she said. “The whole castle has been talking about it.”

“What does it mean, if everyone had nightmares last night…” George began.

“It wasn’t Nightmares,” Concita said fiercely. “They don’t work that way, but always they get blamed…”

“Nightmares? No, I don’t mean them,” George said. “It’s just a term for a bad dream.”

“Not to Argal Seine, it isn’t. He is claiming it is an attack,” Concita said.

“He what?” George asked.

“Seine is saying that mamono sent the wicked dreams last night,” Concita said.

George recalled his dream. He remembered Seine’s (or his possessor’s) eyes, and his laughter. And Cleolinda fading…He found himself so angry that he stood. “It was him,” he growled. “He sent the nightmares with his sorcery.”

“You’ll have no argument from me,” Concita replied. “It would fit with what we know of that wicked man.”

George grunted. “For now, we must bear it. I can’t run him through,” he shuddered. “Just deal with them, even if the dreams were…unpleasant.”

“Yes,” Concita said. She stopped writing and rubbed her wings together. “I gave Eumaeus an extra hug this morning…”

“He is outside?”

Concita nodded. “I’d join you, but I’m updating our map for Cleolinda,” she said. She held up her wing. “It would be hard to do that without being seen.”

George rose and went outside. Eumaeus was tending to the fire, above which bubbled an aromatic meal of beans and beef. Eumaeus spooned out a bowl for George, and they ate near the campfire. As his stomach was rumbling, the beans were good food.

“You had the dreams, too?” George asked, taking a bite of the beans and finding them a bit bland, but filling.

Eumaeus nodded. “It is unnerving that our enemy has the power to invade them,” he said.

“Falling asleep tonight will not be fun,” George agreed.

A middle-aged man approached them, of George’s height but slightly stockier, in fine clothes of blue and yellow.

“Hail friend,” George called out, having swallowed another spoonful. “Would you care for breakfast?”

“The hour is late for breakfast,” the man said with a laugh. “And there are fewer hours until I hunger for lunch. I am Sir Urien. You are Sir George?”

George put down his bowl and stood, wiping his hand on his tunic. “A pleasure, sir. To what do I owe the honor?”

“We tilt in a few hours,” Urien said. He outstretched his arm. “I wished to speak with you, first, and wish you luck.”

“Certainly,” George said, taking his hand eagerly. “May the better jouster win!”

“Indeed! I admit also that my curiosity bade me to come. You represent Lady Linde,” he said. “I have lived in the sight of her castle since I was a youth, and only seen her from afar. I am eager to hear of her, and of the castle. How did you come to know her?”

“My family were in her service, once,” George said. “I journeyed south at her behest.”

“And did you stay in Southeron on the way down?”

George nodded. “Briefly.”

“At the Starboard Hall Inn, or the Monocle?”

George shifted. “I don’t recall. The trip down is all a blur,” he said. “There were so many Damned, I confess I took little notice of the places save that they were walled. I took the barge down the Phlegethon most of the journey.”

“The ways have become treacherous,” Urien agreed. “Did you stay in Dalmont?”

“As I said, I can’t recall names.”

Urien raised an eyebrow. “Dalmont is in the sight of Lady Linde’s castle,” he said.

“Oh right,” George said, cursing himself. “We carried on into her castle, and I spent little time outside of it once I arrived.”

“I see. How did you enter?” He asked intently.

“As you would expect,” George said. He folded his arms. The more this became like an interrogation, the more nervous he became.

“I really don’t know what that means…” Urien said, genuinely confused. “The fens are said to be impenetrable fog. How did you chart a path through the rocky waters?”

“As to that…” George said, reaching back and rubbing his neck. “She…sent people to meet us.”

Urien stared at him a moment. “That makes sense,” he said. “She does retain staff, though they are quite secretive. What is the Lady like?”

“Beautiful,” George answered in a moment of honesty.

Urien started. “I am surprised. I have no doubt, and forgive me for saying this, but I understood her to be advanced in age.”

“I mean, in her way and in her grace,” George said. “I have a great respect for her.”

“Indeed. You wear her favor,” Urien frowned, looking at George’s armor on its scaffold, and the black scarf hanging from it. “Many have been…curious as to the nature of Lady Linde.”

George laughed. “Why should she be any different from anyone else?” He asked.

“There is always a Lady Linde. They pass, and there are funerals, but we never see a husband, or children. In fact, no one saw you come or go, either. Some believe the Lady Linde there is the same one, over all these decades and centuries. A vampire, some say.”

George laughed. “I assure you, it is not a vampire. It is a different woman throughout the years…”

“A daughter? Sister? Cousin?” Urien asked.

“Some are daughters, some sisters. The current is a cousin to the last,” George said.

“She is…many years your senior…” Urien said.

George nodded. “Still, I have a deep affection for her,” he replied. “But that is a private matter.”

Urien cleared his throat. “Of course,” he eyed George, and he wondered if it was with suspicion. “Well, I apologize for peppering you with questions. My intent was merely to wish you good luck.”

George smiled, relieved the questioning was done. “Not at all, I was happy to answer them. Whom do you tilt for?”

“Duke Seppius,” he responded. “A decent man, but between you or I, I suspect it matters little who is King’s Valor.”

George frowned. “What do you mean?”

Urien stared at him a moment, as if weighing what to say. “Only that I suspect that if Roferato or Seppius win, it would be much the same.”

“I know little of Seppius, aside from hearing his name growing up,” George said. “Aside from that he is the King’s Uncle.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I know him, either,” Urien said with a laugh. “He is a reserved man, but ardent in his loyalty to his nephew.”

“I do not understand. Why fight for him, then?” George asked.

“Do any of us know these men, truly? Most of us are here because we are bidden by our Lords. Your friend Griffid is unique in his fervor to his Baron,” Urien replied. “It makes sense, of course; Roferato fostered Griffid and raised him like a son. For most of us, this is no more than when we must raise levies to fight for our Barons.”

“At any rate, good luck in our contest, Sir George…” Urien said. He smirked. “Do not take the loss too hardly.”

George laughed. “I’ll act as if I won,” he said. “Good luck, Sir Urien.”

Sir Urien departed, and George finished his breakfast. It was near noon, and he and Eumaeus went to the lists to see the first runs.

The first match of note was Sir Vale against Corsit Tashaban. Sir Vale was resplendent, in gilded armor almost as ornate as that which George wore, on a charger white as snow. He looked like a Knight from antiquity.

“He certainly has a presence,” Eumaeus said.

“By that alone I see why Malliard rates him highly,” George said. “But he has done well in the lists.

“Indeed- he has already bested two knights by shattering lances in every run” Eumaeus replied. He pointed and grimaced. “There is Corsit.”

The Calormene was approaching, astride a massive Calormen horse, one which looked as enraged as Corsit looked indifferent. George watched, and noted that it was as Malliard had said, the man held his lance strangely, lower than one would think.

The Castellan announced the two competitors, and the men trotted within lance range of each other. Sir Vale offered his salute, and Corsit responded stiffly. The two men then saluted the King, and the contest began.

The trumpets sounded. The two horses galloped down at each other, the perfect knight against the perfect slave warrior. In the first tilt, Vale’s lance found Corsit’s chest, and shattered, while Corsit’s own spear tip deflected off the Knight’s helm with little more than a loud noise.

The crowd cheered. In general Corsit was not favored by the crowds, for though Seine claimed he was an ardent knight of the Faith, in all ways his manner was foreign. The crowd’s favoritism for its native son didn’t much bother him. He rode with the same even determination. There was no passion, no zeal. He was just a thrall, doing as he was trained to do like the angry drafthorse he rode, which seemed to have more independence than he did.

“That was well hit,” Eumaeus said. “Perhaps Vale shall take the match.”

“Yes, perhaps…” George said. He looked at Sir Griffid, whose eyes were narrowed. The Knight was watching stone faced, disinclined to reveal his emotions, but he knew Sir Griffid wished to defeat the foreign knight, and was disappointed.

The two men lined up for the second tilt. The crowd hushed, the trumpets blew, and again the only sound was thundering hooves and shifting armor. The lances dropped, and both exploded into a shrapnel of wooden splinters. Sir Vale nearly fell, but held himself in the seat. Corsit rode onward, unaffected by the shattered lance.

The crowd applauded. George looked into the stands at Argal Seine, who was politely applauding with a smug smile. But he made a strange arcane gesture with his hand, one which reminded him of those the Drained Priests had made.

“Sir Vale is ahead,” Eumaeus said, clapping excitedly. “First time someone has gotten up on Tashaban.”

“Yes…” George said, frowning.

“What troubles you?”

“I’m not sure, but Seine…” George began. He noticed that Sir Vale’s neck was visible. His gorget had come loose. It dangled, and George could see Sir Vale’s throat. Sir Vale rode onward, unaware of his exposed armor.

“Eumaeus, look: Sir Vale’s armor is unfastened…” George said.

Eumaeus squinted. “How in the hell did that happen?”

“I’m not sure, but he is unarmored,” George said. “I need to try to signal them…”

George tried to call out, but no one heard him, for the trumpets had sounded. With a lump in his throat, he watched as Sir Vale thundered down the dusty ground, towards Corsit Tashaban and his dull, pointed lance: harmless against plate, but not flesh. He grit his teeth, hoping that Corsit would not target the loosened gorget, or would somehow miss it.

When the lances crossed and shattered, however, it became clear that Corsit had found the spot. There was a piercing cry, a resounding crash, and Vale fell to earth. A snapped off lance was embedded in his neck, the ground around him stained in blood.

The crowd gasped in shock. A woman screamed, hoarse and terrible. Men raced to the writhing knight – among them a highly distressed Sir Griffid – but even as they gathered, Sir Vale grew still.

The fallen knight, his gold armor now dull, was swiftly carried from the field, and all knew this was a very serious wound. As two men carried him from the field on a stretcher, Sir Vale’s limp arm fell and dangled. His wife, the woman who had cried out, had fainted in the stands, his daughter was on her feet screaming inconsolably. George saw Malliard looking at the weeping women, his hand covering his mouth and tears streaming from his eyes.

While most were watching the sad tale in the stands, George watched Corsit Tashaban turn and ride away as if he had just left a tavern. The man rode to his squire and dismounted, walking away and removing his helm. His eyes were shining and his face dull, and George knew the death had meant nothing to him. He turned a moment to Argal Seine and saluted before continuing to his tent.

George looked to the vizier, who was grinning wickedly at Sir Vale as he was being removed, his fingers joined in a steeple. Seine saw George was staring at him, and his smile widened. George felt the hairs on his neck stand on end.

“This is dreadful…” Eumaeus said. “I’ve never seen anything like that…”

“Argal Seine…” George said.

“What, George?”

“I…I’m not sure…” George replied. The arcane gesture and the loose gorget…had Seine been involved.

“A grim business, but you must suit up, now,” Eumaeus said. “You will be on soon.”

Eumaeus and George quickly returned to the tent. Though tragic, such accidents did not stop the games, especially when a King’s Valor was being chosen. Concita was there, her work finished, staying out of sight as much as possible.

Eumaeus helped George suit up. By now the pair were quick at it, and George was fully armored and astride Ephialtes with a lance swiftly. He made his way to the jousting field.

The Castellan stepped up yet again after Sir Griffid completed his victory lap.

“Our next match: Sir George of Silene against Sir Urien of East Dalmont!”

George rode Ephialtes before his opponent, Sir Urien. The two men saluted, then went to their ends of the field. He looked over at Argal Seine briefly, who was grinning with eyes full of wickedness.

George felt something on his armor rattle, but checking, he saw nothing unclasp or unfasten. In the stands, he saw Argal Seine rise, his face full of fury, and George understood. The armor of Mars Ultor, holy as it was, was immune to the sorcery of the wizard, and the Vizier could not contain his rage.

The King stared at Seine with a frown, and realizing his erratic behavior, Argal Seine sat back down, his mouth tight and his eyes flashing. With a smile, George put on his helm.

Of the contest itself, there was little to report – both men shattered lances on the first pass, then on the second, and on the third neither shattered. On the final tilt of the lance, George shattered his lance against Sir Urien’s helm, nearly unhorsing him. The score was thus in his favor, and George was declared the winner.

Though George was quite eager to warn Sir Griffid, he went through the perfunctory steps. He rode to Urien and shook his hand to the crowd’s applause, then embarked on his victory lap – which he knew people were remarking was awfully quick. George dismounted and made his way through the throng, past a congratulating Eumaeus, and looked for Sir Griffid.

George raced towards Griffid’s tent in full armor, and though the suit could be worn like a second skin, the exertion of jousting and sprinting exhausted him. He found the black knight in the act of suiting up, for his joust was soon.

“Sir Griffid,” George said, arriving out of breath with a distressed Eumaeus quickly behind him. “Argal Seine…your life is in danger…”

Griffid stared at him somberly. “Speak, friend,” he sais.

“Seine is using sorcery…against us.”

Sir Griffid frowned. “Sorcery?” He asked.

“He cursed Sir Vale’s armor and tried to curse mine, but my armor is blessed. When his hex failed to wreck my armor, he grew outraged.”

“I saw him grow angry before your joust, but it was unclear why,” Sir Griffid said. He clenched his teeth. “Sir Vale…murdered by black magic?! This is a dark turn. We must warn the Baron.”

“I shall, but first you must secure yourself,” George sais.

“What can I do? I shall not refuse to joust…”

“I would not ask that. Have your armor blessed, as mine is,” George said.

“Will that work?”

“It protected me,” George replied.

Sir Griffid stared at him a moment, and the only sound was George’s heavy breaths.

“Percy!” Sir Griffid called to his squire at last. “Fetch a priest!” Sir Griffid turned back to George as the young man ran off. “I appreciate the warning, Sir George. This is dark news indeed. Between this and the nightmares, Seine’s wickedness compounds. We must tell the Baron.”

“I shall speak to him,” George reiterated. “In the meantime, be on your guard against Seine’s tricks. He may have others.”

Sir Griffid nodded. “I shall,” he let out a deep sigh. “About Sir Vale…” he began. “I was upset when I thought he would win, but I didn’t want-”

“It is alright, Sir,” George said. “It is not your fault. Put it from your mind for this joust.”

George unsuited with Eumaeus’ help, then entered the stands, taking a seat on the back bench behind Baron Roferato. George tried not to look at Argal Seine, believing he would strangle the man and the wicked spirit in him. The portly man leaned back to him.

“You have done well,” Roferato said. “You stand to challenge the winner of the contest between Corsit and Sir Griffid,” he laughed. “I bade Griffid to go second, but he is so fearful you will defeat Tashaban he begged me to let him joust first.”

“I have great confidence in Sir Griffid,” George said. He darted his eyes and leaned in. “My Lord, I have grave news: Argal Seine is using witchcraft against the jousters. He caused Sir Vale’s accident.”

“Is Sir Griffid in danger?”

“I bade him to bless his armor, to protect him,” George said. “That should suffice.”

Roferato’s reaction was more muted than George thought: the man rubbed his beard. “There have been an unusual number of accidents today. Seine attributed it to the dream attack upon us,” he said.

“Both have the same source, I fear,” George said.

“Seine has claimed otherwise,” Roferato said. “He says that a monster woman was seen in the skies last night.”

George’s mind raced. “The Black Dragon?”

“No. Much smaller. This was a bird girl of some kind,” he said.

George knew that it had to be the contact. “Did they get her?” He asked.

The Baron shook his head. “Fired at her and scared her off, but didn’t hit,” Roferato said. “But Seine said she caused the nightmares, and also that he believes there may be monster women among us.”

“He is lying,” George said. He added, quickly; “at least, on the first part. It’s him, and he is using witchcraft.”

“Perhaps, but that is impossible to prove,” Roferato said. “He has some concoction he is making from foreign reagents – a unguent he shall administer to all the women within the castle. It will tell monster from real woman.”

George felt his eye twitch at the characterization. “That is good,” he forced out. “When will he administer it?”

“Soon,” Roferato said. “Tomorrow, from what he has told us.”

George nodded. He needed to get Concita out of the castle, he realized. “What if his potion is some wicked concoction, like his hexes?” He asked.

Roferato cleared his throat. “I see little gain: we would know if anything bad happened to the women. As for the hexes, so long as Sir Griffid is okay, there is little we can do. It comes down to Griffid and Lord Medruo. The winner shall face Sir Corsit, and then you. As I have two champions, I may hold one in reserve-”

“Sir Griffid of Roferato and Lord Medruo!” The Castellan announced.

“As to that we can talk later,” Roferato said. “Sir Griffid lines up in the charge with Lord Medruo.”

George turned to the stands. Lord Medruo was in Red and yellow, a bright armor which caught the light and made George’s eyes narrow from the intensity. His lance was a yellow and red swirl which reminded George of a very large candy.

The joust was competitive; in the first tilt neither man scored a hit. In the second and third, both shattered lances. And so it came to the fourth tilt, and after would be flails.

During each tilt, George watched Argal Seine. On the final tilt, the Vizier made a wave of his hand and mouthed some words. George expected (and hoped) that he would again look angered, but instead a smirk crept onto the man’s lips. George gasped.

“Seine’s sorcery has worked, I fear,” George said.

Roferato looked to George with alarm, but the trumpet of the third charge sounded. The portly Baron then stared at Sir Griffid with concern. “You cannot say anything,” he whispered to George, dread in his voice. “To yell would distract him.”

George was about to respond when the horses began their run. He looked at Sir Griffid with his heart pounding. His armor looked intact, but…

The two horses approached at a full gallop, and the knights lowered their lances. Sir Griffid’s lance shattered and Lord Medruo flew from his horse and slammed into the ground. But Sir Griffid had cried out, and tucked his arm in to his side, dropping his lance.

“Something has happened!” George exclaimed. Both he and Roferato left the stands and raced to the dismounting knight.

When they reached the field, Sir Griffid was off his horse and surrounded by a surgeon and several attendants. He sat upon the ground, grimacing. His helm and breastplate were off, and his vambraces. The splintered wood had pierced into his hand, blood flowing from the spot. A surgeon was attending to the wound.

“Damn!” The gray knight grimaced, as the surgeon worked to remove the wood. “Damn it, damn it!”

“Hold still, sir!” The surgeon yelled in a deep voice as he worked at the splinter. “You’ll make it worse by moving.”

“What happened?” Roferato asked.

“A splinter somehow worked into the Gauntlet,” the surgeon said. “Damned strange, but shattered wood can go strange places.”

Sir Griffid growled, less in pain than anger. He looked up at George. “I didn’t have the gauntlet on when I was blessed,” he said through clenched teeth.

“As to blessings, you received one, good knight: your hand is cut badly, but the bones were spared,” the surgeon said to Sir Griffid.

“Good, I can joust tomorrow,” Sir Griffid said.

“I would not recommend holding a lance for a few days.”

“Nonsense,” Sir Griffid said. “I can still-”

“The tournament is over for you, Griffid,” Baron Roferato said. “I dare not send you out against Tashaban in such a state,” he looked up at George. “Not when George is uninjured.”

Sir Griffid took in a deep breath, and sighed. “Yes, my Liege,” he said.

“I am sorry, Griffid…” George began.

Sir Griffid stared forward with clenched teeth. “Do not apologize, Sir George,” Sir Griffid said at last, and stiffly. “My Liege is correct. You stand as our best chance now.”

“I suggest you take no late night tonight,” Baron Roferato said. He clutching George’s arm for a moment firmly. “Get rest early. Corsit Tashaban is a serious foe.”

“I shall, My Lord,” George replied. When he was sure Sir Griffid was alright, George made the journey to his tent, where Eumaeus and Concita were preparing for her flight to meet the contact that night. He told them all that had happened

“We need to get you out,” George explained. “Our contact was seen, and Seine suspects there is a spy. He has some means of detecting monster women, and is getting ready to use it on every woman here.”

“I’ll fly out once it is dark…” Concita said.

“No; they are watching the skies now. And even if you escape, they will know Eumaeus and I are involved. You must leave at once, through the gate.” George looked at Eumaeus as Concita together. “Both of you,” he said.

Eumaeus started. “What?” Eumaeus said.

“Head south on a barge and make for the Mountain, Eumaeus. Keep Concita – and the map- safe until you can rendezvous with the contact.”

“And leave before your fight with Corsit?” Eumaeus asked.

“I’ll be fine,” George said. “If Argal Seine has some means to detect monster women, it is imperative Concita get out as soon as possible, and that puts you at risk.”

“And you, as well,” Eumaeus said. “When we leave, it will arose suspicion.”

“I shall invent some excuse,” George said with a handwave. “I am Roferato’s champion, they won’t second guess me if I say I sent you both on an errand.”

By the grimace on his face, George could see that Eumaeus was torn, but George knew he would go with his heart. The swineherd rubbed Concita’s wing, and put his hand to her face.

“You could stay,” Concita said. “I mean, if you feel you need to…”

“No, I can’t,” he said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of you journeying in this country alone.”

Eumaeus turned to George. “You’re sure you’ll be alright?” Eumaeus asked him.

George nodded. “Sir Griffid’s attendants will help me get in my armor, I am certain of that. I’m much more worried about you two.”

“You could come with us, George,” Concita said. “The mission was to get the information on placements, and we have it. Cleolinda can strike within hours of us getting it to her.”

“I can’t. I would be missed,” George said. He took a deep breath. “Besides, I feel I must do this.”

“We’ll depart at once,” Eumaeus said. He offered his hand. “Good luck to you, George.”

He took it, firmly, and brought the swineherd in to a hug. “And you as well, Eumaeus,” he said.

He embraced Concita, then sent the two of them on their way, swiftly to depart. He ate a modest meal, brushed down Ephialtes, spent the evening thinking about the upcoming fight against Corsit. His armor was proof against sorcery, but even so the foreigner was large and powerful. Ferocious and dangerous.

He passed the night in quiet, praying to God that his two companions made their way out without issue. When sleep came there were no wicked dreams, for as George realized Seine had reached his purpose with them. Instead there was Cleolinda. In his dream, he wrapped his arms around her waist as she put her mighty clawed hands to his face, and she kissed him tenderly, as she had done atop the mountain.

He awoke with a smile before first light, and ventured to Sir Griffid’s tent to ask for his aid in preparing. He was surprised to see Baron Roferato there, talking to the dejected knight, whose hand was bandaged. The latter’s mood improved when he saw George approach.

“Sir George, well met,” he said. He pointed to a bubbling pot above the fire. “Would you care for some breakfast?”

George’s stomach rumbled. “That sounds fantastic,” he said. He bowed to Roferato, who was himself just getting ready to eat as well.

George sat near the fire, basking in the warmth. He took the bowl of beans and meat, letting it warm his hands. The meal was filling, if a bit more peppery than George would have liked.

“I came to see if your attendants would help me put on my armor,” George said.

Sir Griffid blinked. “Where is Eumaeus?”

“Yes…where is your man at arms?” Roferato asked, wiping his chin as he ate.

“I sent him to Lady Linde,” George said. “With a note, asking for funds to assist in the war effort.'”

Roferato smiled in a wide grin. He set down his bowl. “This is excellent news! It can be useful to get into the King’s good graces,” he said. “Will she listen?”

“Absolutely,” George said. “I have her confidence.”

Roferato clasped his hand on George’s shoulder. “It is a good position to be in,” he said. “I will have the King’s favor, and that will be useful when I clash with Argal Seine.”

“Provided I win,” George said, taking a deep breath. He had found that there was always some degree of nervousness before a joust, but this was more intense and serious.

As the only jousting event of the day, George and Corsit would fight at noon. He spent the morning making sure his armor was ready, and talking strategy of the fight with Sir Griffid.

One decision which George made was to bless everything he would use – Ephialtes, the lances, his shield, his sword. There was a hedge priest attached to one of the knights, who was only too happy to bless everything after George told him he would buy him a cup of mead.

As noon approached, Sir Griffid’s attendants helped him suit up. He mounted Ephialtes, took up his lance, and trotted to the lists.

The crowds had gathered, and were eager, cheering as he was seen. The crowd would favor him over the foreigner, which gave him some encouragement. In the stands he saw Malliard, applauding enthusiastically.

Corsit Tashaban arrived like rain clouds, looming over his angry horse and casting a shadow as the sun was not quite at its zenith. He carried his lance low.

George went forward to salute his opponent.

“Good luck, Sir Corsit,” he said stiffly.

Corsit perfunctorily saluted. But he whispered, “I am going to kill you.”

The two men rode to their respective ends of the field. George gripped his lance and took a few calming breaths.

“The final match of the Tournament, to determine the King’s Valor: Sir George of Silene, representing Baron Roferato, against Corsit Tashaban, representing the Vizier Argal Seine!” The Castellan said.

They lined up for their first pass. Trumpets blared, the horses galloped. And lances crossed and shattered. George was mindful of the location of his enemy’s lance as Malliard had warned him, and with that aid he lined up his defenses. Corsit made an ineffectual shot which still, improbably, shattered his lance.

The lance strike had been hard, but the centaurs with whom George had jousted hit far harder and were tougher opponents than Tashaban. But then, they had unhorsed him several times. It was certainly within Corsit to do the same if he lined up a good hit.

As for the foreign knight, George’s hit had been directly in the center of the knight’s chest. It should have sent him tumbling, and George thought he was about to fall, but some force held him in place. In the end, it was scored as two shattered lances.

The second and third, and fourth passes were all the same, although George noted that on the fourth pass Corsit’s lance shattered without making a clean hit at all. Looking to Seine, the Vizier was smiling wickedly, and he understood.

With no clear winner from the joust, it went to flails. George had practiced this extensively among the centaurs, and become far more proficient at it. He scored hits that, by all rights, should have sent the large man tumbling to the ground, but some force seemed to be holding him in place. Despite this, the hits were taking their toll on Corsit. After one particularly good strike, where the ball of the flail made contact to Corsit’s helm with such a reverberating clang that it silenced the crowd, Corsit staggered forward, held his helm, and nearly tumbled. George thought that he might have won the match, but amazingly Corsit remained on his horse, and began to move again.

Following this hit, however, Corsit was changed. His manner was less the dispassionate servant than a raging beast. No one, George guessed, had ever really bested the brutal knight before in such a way, and he was beside himself in rage. His grunts and yells were louder and more intense. The slave was growing angry, showing his true self, that of a mad dog.

Even before the strike, Corsit’s hits were hard and furious, but after the hit they landed with a strength that approached a centaur’s. Though his armor absorbed the blows, more than once George found himself reeling from the strength of the force against him, almost knocked clean from his saddle. He took a few hits to his helm that left his head ringing or his shield arm sore, but in four passes, neither was unhorsed, and both had recorded hits upon each other in equal measure.

The contest would go to dismounted sword. Ephialtes whinnied uneasily, seemingly aware that he was no longer a factor in this joust.

“Don’t worry, old friend,” George said, patting him. “I’ll be careful.”

For their part the crowd was cheering, for this was the most contested and fierce joust of the tournament, even including George’s duel against Manassen. Both men dismounted and approached each other, preparing their weapons. George stood before Corsit.

The slave warrior was taller than George and stockier, almost as big as a minotaur, in thick armor which was surely proof against a sword. He bore a large black scimitar and a shield. George stood before him, unintimidated, and raised his own sword and shield.

“I will crush you, pretty man,” Corsit shouted, his voice raw with wrath. He took off his helm and tossed it onto the dirt with a clang, unclasped his breastplate and sent it to the ground with a clash, then his shield. George saw the face of the crazed man, his bald head, his ugly pointed nose and shining eyes.

The crowd gasped. The message was unmistakable – a fight with no armor meant a fight to wound, to kill. George understood that. Everyone did.

“Hold, now!” The Castellan shouted. “Resecure your armor, Sir Corsit. This is a joust, not a bloodsport-”

The Castellan stopped speaking, confused, as the King signaled him over. The King whispered something to him, a sick smile on his face. Roferato, who was at the King’s left whispered something, while Argal Seine whispered at his right. The King made no acknowledgment of either, but beckoned to the Castellan. The disheveled man nodded.

“The King has decided to allow it,” The Castellan said. “The competitors may fight without armor if they choose. The fight shall be until one yields, or dies.”

George could have simply run Corsit through, but it would have been dishonorable. That was a trap; men would revile him as a murderer. He unlatched his helm and tossed it to the ground, enjoying for a brief moment the breeze against his face. He next undid his breastplate, and let it fall to the ground. He clenched his teeth at his foe.

Corsit raised his black Calormen scimitar, and George saw that the edge was jagged and worn, and still subtly stained. The combat began.

The Calormen thrall swung his curved sword. George ducked back, letting the black blade’s chipped tip sing past his face. He riposted with his sword slicing Corsit on the arm.

The large man bellowed, and in response the scimitar came fast and repeatedly at George’s head. George blocked, dodged, and parried away the blade, taking only a glancing strike on the knuckle. Corsit was swift for his size, and his swings were strong.

For his part, George responded in kind, stabbing and slashing wherever he could get an opening. Despite Corsit’s fury, in the exchange it became clear that George was both quicker than Corsit, but also almost as strong. The onslaught of thrusts forced the foreign knight on his backfoot, until in frustration he launched a furious but ill-conceived attack.

George sidestepped and struck at Corsit’s exposed hand, slicing into his hand. Corsit howled, and dropped his sword. George may have killed him, but to strike an unarmed man in a duel would be a dishonor.

“Do you yield, Corsit?” George shouted.

The response was a growl and a charge of such sudden fury that it caught George off-guard. Tashaban tackled George and brought him down, knocking the wind from him. George heard the sound of a knife drawn from a sheath, and purely by instinct he clasped at the blur heading for his face. George found he had caught a wrist which held a rondel dagger. The spike was just above his eyes, and pressing downward, getting closer.

Despite having only one hand upon the blade, Tashaban’s strength was immense, and George found himself barely able to keep the dagger from plunging into him.

“I will stick this spike in your pretty eyes, boy,” Corsit snarled. He leaned in, his lips curled, licking his lips as he savored his victory.

It was Corsit’s mistake, for George delivered a powerful fist strike to the slave warrior’s face, generating an audible snap and cracking his jaw. The punch caused George’s hand much numbness and pain, but had its intended effect: for while Corsit was stunned, his strength waned, and in that brief moment George summoned a burst of force and tossed Tashaban off of him.

The warrior landed with a hard thud, and George rose, trying to grasp up his sword.

Corsit saw George’s move and tossed his dagger at him, and though George dodged a hit that would have gone into his heart, the blade still pierced through his gambeson and into his left shoulder.

He fell back, tugging out the dagger in time to take a punch to the face from Corsit’s giant fist. The dagger flew out of his hand, and another punch landed. Beneath the barrage, even as his head spinning, George realized that Corsit’s wounded hand was healing, knitting even as it was swinging into his face. Seine’s witchery.

George’s head swam. He shielded himself from the torrent of blows, backing away to attempt to get better footing. His eyes were swelling and his face was numb with pain. His shoulder was pulsing from the stab wound.

“I will kill you, pretty man!” Corsit shouted. He grasped up his scimitar from the ground and approached him, rearing back to strike.

George recovered enough to see the threat, and darted in right as Corsit began to raise his sword. George blocked the swinging blade by putting his arm against Corsit’s wrist, and delivered a right cross to Corsit’s chin. Then with all his strength he grasped the Calormene about the waist, lifted him, and slammed him on the ground causing the scimitar to fly from his hand.

George piled on top of the panting warrior, and blind with fury he let his fists rain down upon his face. Corsit’s skin marbled, then became bloody. After Corsit’s face slowly became a mound of bloody and raw meat from George’s fists, George saw and grasped up the scimitar. He raised the heavy curved blade above his head, readying for the death strike.

“I yield!” Corsit gurgled, spitting blood and getting flecks in George’s eyes. “I yield, Sir George!”

George’s grip on the scimitar tighter, and he clenched his teeth. He wanted to kill Corsit, but he had clearly yielded, and such a move would risk a murder charge. He tossed the scimitar to the ground.

The crowd cheered. Argal Seine stormed out of the stands. The King sat smiling, licking his teeth at the spilled blood.

Surgeons raced to both George and Corsit, the latter now unconscious. The Surgeons tore open George’s gambeson and began to stich the dagger wound in his chest. The spike had bit deep, but cleanly, and was easily sewn shut. His face was tender and his mount hurt. He realized it was bleeding, but the surgeons dressed and bandaged all his wounds.

“Well fought, George!” Sir Griffid said with genuine excitement. “You have defeated Corsit. That was the greatest match I have ever seen.”

“Next time, you fight him,” George said with a laugh that hurt his face and made him wince.

“A shame there must be a next time,” Sir Griffid said. “It was clear he meant to murder you. Men will revile him as a coward now.”

“Excellent work!” Roferato exclaimed as he approached, absently patting him on his wounded shoulder. George grimaced from the pain.

“Forgive me, good Knight,” Roferato said. “Argal Seine has left in outrage. I shall be declared the King’s Valor tomorrow. The King likes you.”

George spit blood in the ground, and checked to make sure there was no tooth. “Why did he let Corsit try to kill me?”

“I tried to counsel against it, but Seine said that a blood sport would establish that Lady Linde was not the master of him,” Roferato said.

George pondered for a moment what would have happened had he been killed. He guessed that Diocletian would have very quickly learned of “Lady Linde’s” wrath. “The lessen is well-taken, My Lord.”

“At any rate,” Roferato continued. “The matter is settled amicably for me – Corsit Tashaban has been defeated, and I shall be named as King’s Valor. With the addition of Lady Linde’s funds I shall have advantage over Seine.”

The Baron and Sir Griffid helped George to his feet. “Come, Sir George,” The Baron said. “Let us get you to a more fitting accommodation.”

George did not spend the night in his tent. With Roferato to be sworn in as Valor, he was given access to more rooms in the Castle for his servants and attendants, and he granted one room to George and one to Sir Griffid. After a delicious feast of congratulation to the Baron – which Seine did not attend – he spent the night in a fine room with a good bed and a feather pillow.

He dreamt of the lake that night, when he had gone to Cleolinda naked and they had embraced and kissed. He could feel her lips, and the fire, the beautiful fire, which filled his lungs and made him feel alive.

He awoke with a smile on his face, feeling warmth like her kisses, but finding instead it was the light of the sun shining in through his window, along with a gentle breeze.

He dressed and ate breakfast, then joined Sir Griffid and headed to the tournament grounds for the ceremony of the King’s Valor. Before the stands was now a raised platform upon which Roferato stood with Diocletian.

George stood with Sir Griffid off to the side upon the platform, whose hand seemed to be recovering well. For his part, George felt sore from his battle, but his wounds were all in good shape.

Of Argal Seine there was no sign, nor Corsit Tashaban. Both were said to be in the dungeons, although it was said that Argal had sent many riders throughout the countryside. George had been filled with disquiet when he had heard this. He guessed that, following his defeat and the probable limitation.

Malliard the Dragonslayer was also absent from the proceedings. This was no surprise to George, for the man had interest in jousts but not in politics.

As to the ceremony itself, it was a simple affair: Roferato knelt before the King, kissed his ring, and then pledged an oath to serve as the King’s sword, his shield, and his open hand. With the pledge completed, Roferato was the King’s Valor.

“All hail the King’s Valor!” The Castellan exclaimed to the roars of the crowd.

The King immediately declared a festival, revealing a very rare smile. Immediately there was dancing, lute playing, and ale given freely in libation. The King’s rare good mood made the people almost ecstatic, for they knew he was unlikely to issue one of his severe and capricious edicts while he was filled with mirth.

While an outsider at first, George was now accepted by the knights as one of their own, and many drinks were bought for him for his defeat of the unpleasant Corsit Tashaban. George enjoyed an endless supply of cups of mead, laughing and joking with the knights.

In the midst of the revels, His thoughts went to Eumaeus and Concita. He hoped that they had made it to the contact, and that the news had reached Cleolinda. How he missed his Black Dragon. He had decided to stay at the castle during her attack, hopeful he could help if necessary.

He was considering Cleolinda’s (hopeful) coming assault when, like black clouds in a sunny sky, Argal Seine approached with several of his guards and two other men. The revels died at his approach.

“Ah, my Vizier arrives,” Diocletian said with a playful tone. Drink seemed to have the power to lighten the monarch’s mood considerably. “Finished with your sulk?”

“I bring grave news, your majesty,” Argal Seine announced, his voice with an urgency which seemed sincere. “We have found an agent of the monster women.”

The crowd murmured. George’s blood froze. Concita or Eumaeus, he thought. They must have been caught…

“Reveal this agent, Seine,” Diocletian said, his normal severity returning. “Reveal him so he can die a traitor’s death.”

“Immediately, my lord,” Seine said. He motioned to the two men of his retinue who were in strange garb. As they drew near George recognized them. They wore the armor and tabards of soldiers from the Star Cross Inn.

“These guards were witness to it,” Argal Seine said. He looked to the men and signaled. “Tell them what you saw.”

“We were out near Terror Lake, searching for a late merchant,” the old guard said. “There was a snow storm, so there were few Damned. We saw the Black Dragon fly overhead, and we hid from her sight. We saw her land, take the form of a maiden, disrobe, and enter the waters…”

George swallowed, he eyed the area for a quick escape, but a look at Seine and he saw the man’s eyes were fixed on him. His heart pounded.

“Go on,” Seine said to the men.

“We saw a young lad approach the dragon. He took off his own clothes, and approached her in the water. And then they met in an embrace, and they kissed.”

The crowd gasped in shock.

“Who could do something so loathsome as to join with the Scourge?” One of the knights said aloud.

George remained still as he could, but he felt his chest rising and falling.

“Who was this young man?” Seine asked. “Is he here?”

The older guard pointed his finger right between George’s eyes. “It was him. He called himself Sir George.”

There were gasps of shock. George heard people stepping away from him.

“Meaning no disrespect to these men, but are we to condemn my champion on the testimony of two of your witnesses?” Roferato said.

“Indeed, Seine,” Diocletian said. “This all smacks to me of spoiled fruit.”

“I concede that, Your Grace. So let us have more conclusive proof…” Argal Seine said. He held up a small vial. “My potion is complete. It is gathered from the venom of Monstrous scorpion-women in the east. A potent aphrodisiac when ingested,” he tilted the vial towards Diocletian’s thin wrist as he removed a handkerchief from his robe. “Your Majesty, if I may; it is quite harmless, I assure you…”

He put a little on the King’s hand, and the purple liquid did nothing, merely sat inert.

“Observe the effect – the liquid remains still,” Argal Seine said. “But it has a curious trait: it boils upon the skin of a monster woman, or a man who has been scent marked by a monster woman…”

“Scent marked?” Diocletian asked with a curled lip of disgust.

“Yes, as animals do; they mark their mates to ward off others from interacting with them,” Seine said. He wiped the King’s arm gently with his handkerchief, then approached George. The Vizier stood before him with a grin, his breath smelling of death.

“Give me your arm, Sir,” he said, relishing the words.

“I do not trust your unguent,” George replied.

“The King has used it,” Seine replied. “What better tester is there?”

With a grimace, George outstretched his arm. He watched as a purple droplet descended and made contact with his skin. It hissed and fizzled loudly.

The crowd was dead silent.

“It boils! He is marked!” Seine yelled.

Immediately George heard a sword drawn, and felt a sharp blade pressed to his neck. Looking behind him, he saw the stern face of Sir Griffid, eyes shining, holding the sword in his bandaged hand. He heard (and felt) his own sword being taken from its sheathe.

“Place him under arrest,” Baron Roferato said, dryly.

George felt men grasp his arms. He was pulled away, and his gaze locked with Sir Griffid’s. The knight’s glare was cold. Pitiless.

“Send riders to see if we can find his companions,” Seine said. He leaned in near George’s ear. “I think we have very good bait to lure your dragon, don’t you?” he whispered.

Enraged, George struggled to break free. He would have broken Seine’s neck, but he took a mailed fist to the stomach, forcing him off his feet. The guards clasped him by the arms and tugged him, his legs sliding in the dirt.

As he coughed from the hit, he stared downward at cobblestone as he was dragged towards the Keep’s gate. When he finally arrived at the portcullis he looked up, and saw Malliard. The Dragonslayer stared at him with narrowed eyes and folded arms.

“Malliard,” George said. “Please, you don’t understand…she…she’s not evil…Please.”

Malliard looked at him, his face clean of any emotion. He blinked. “Take him down to the dungeon,” he said at last. “We will set the trap there.”

As George was dragged under the open portcullis and into the torchlight of the keep, he felt nothing but horror.

“Cleolinda…” he said under his breath.

He recalled the dream, in which he saw Cleolinda pierced by a bolt. He had told himself that it had simply been a bad dream, one sent by an evil warlock. But he had a thought, and it filled him with unfathomable horror. What if Seine had not sent him a bad dream?

What if he had sent him a vision of the future?

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2 thoughts on “DragonMaiden Chapter 6 – Tournament

  1. Your works set in other time periods, especially medieval, are always so nifty! I love it. I kind of hope the king is put to the sword, though I’d settle for him seeing the error of his ways thanks to loving femdom. Keep it up brother!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you like it!

      The King’s a jerk, but he’d be a decent ruler if he had good advisors, since he would generally just let them do shit while he fussed over unimportant shit.

      Like

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