“Awaken, Edward! Awaken, thou sluggard!” he cried.
Edward rolled over on his back and essayed to say “Eh?” and to yawn at the same time.
“Up, lad!” urged Michel. “Forgottest thou that thy master fares forth to be slain this day?”
Edward sat up, now fully awake. His eyes flashed. “’Tis a lie!” he cried, loyally. “He will cleave Sir Malud from poll to breast plate with a single blow. Livest no sir knight with such mighty thews as hast Sir James. Thou art disloyal, Michel, to Sir Richard’s friend who hath been a good and kindly friend to us as well.”
Michel patted the other lad upon the shoulder. “Nay, I did but jest, Edward,” he said. “My hopes be all for Sir James, and yet——” he paused, “I fear——”
“Fear what?” demanded Edward.
“That Sir James be not well enough versed in the use of sword and buckler to overcome Sir Malud, for even were his strength the strength of ten men it shall avail him naught without the skill to use it.”
“Thou shall see!” maintained Edward, stoutly.
“I see that Sir James hath a loyal squire,” said a voice behind them, and turning they saw Sir Richard standing in the doorway, “and may all his friends wish him well this day thus loyally!”
“I fell asleep last night praying to our Lord Jesus to guide his blade through Sir Malud’s helm,” said Edward.
“Good! Get thee up now and look to thy master’s mail and to the trappings of his steed, that he may enter the lists bedight as befits a noble sir knight of Nimmr,” instructed Richard, and left them.
It was eleven o’clock of this February morning. The sun shone down into the great north ballium of the castle of Nimmr, glinting from the polished mail of noble knights and from pike and battle-axe of men-at-arms, picking out the gay colon of the robes of the women gathered in the grandstand below the inner wall.
Upon a raised dais at the front and center of the grandstand sat Prince Gobred and his party, and upon either side of them and extending to the far ends of the stand were ranged the noble knights and ladies of Nimmr, while behind them sat men-at-arms who were off duty, then the freedmen and, last of all, the serfs, for under the beneficent rule of the house of Gobred these were accorded many privileges.
At either end of the lists was a tent, gay with pennons and the colors and devices of its owner; one with the green and gold of Sir Malud and the other with the blue and silver of Sir James.
Before each of these tilts stood two men-at-arms, resplendent in new apparel, the metal of their battle-axes gleaming brightly, and here a groom held a restive, richly caparisoned charger, while the squire of each of the contestants busied himself with last-minute preparations for the encounter.
A trumpeter, statuesque, the bell of his trumpet resting upon his hip, waited for the signal to sound the fanfare that would announce the entrance of his master into the lists.
A few yards to the rear a second charger champed upon his bit as he nuzzled the groom that held him in waiting for the knight who would accompany each of the contestants upon the field.
In the blue and silver tilt sat Blake and Sir Richard, the latter issuing instructions and advice, and of the two he was the more nervous. Blake’s hauberk, gorget and bassinet were of heavy chain mail, the latter lined inside and covered outside, down to the gorget, with leopard skin, offering fair protection for his head from an ordinary, glancing blow; upon his breast was sewn a large, red cross and from one shoulder depended the streamers of a blue and silver rosette. Hanging from the pole of the tilt, upon a wooden peg, were Blake’s sword and buckler.
The grandstand was filled. Prince Gobred glanced up at the sun and spoke to a knight at his side. The latter gave a brief command to a trumpeter stationed at the princely loge and presently, loud and clear, the notes of a trumpet rang in the ballium. Instantly the tilts at either end of the lists were galvanized to activity, while the grandstand seemed to spring to new life as necks were craned first toward the tent of Sir Malud and then toward that of Sir James.
Edward, flushed with excitement, ran into the tilt and seizing Blake’s sword passed the girdle about his hips and buckled it in place at his left side, then, with the buckler, he followed his master out of the tilt.
As Blake prepared to mount Edward held his stirrup while the groom sought to quiet the nervous horse. The lad pressed Blake’s leg after he had swung into the saddle (no light accomplishment, weighed down as he was by heavy chain mail) and looked up into his face.
“I have prayed for thee, Sir James,” he said, “I know that thou wilt prevail.”
Blake saw tears in the youth’s eyes as he looked down at him and he caught a choking note in his voice. “You’re a good boy, Eddie,” he said. “I’ll promise that you won’t have to be ashamed of me.”
“Ah, Sir James, how could I? Even in death thou wilt be a noble figure of a knight. An fairer one it hath never been given one to see, methinks,” Edward assured him as he handed him his round buckler.
Sir Richard had by now mounted, and at a signal from him that they were ready there was a fanfare from the trumpet at Sir Malud’s tilt and that noble sir knight rode forward, followed by a single knight.
Blake’s trumpeter now announced his master’s entry and the American rode out close along the front of the grandstand, followed by Sir Richard. There was a murmur of applause for each contestant, which increased as they advanced and met before Prince Gobred’s loge.
Here the four knights reined in and faced the Prince and each raised the hilt of his sword to his lips and kissed it in salute. As Gobred cautioned them to fight honorably, as true knights, and reminded them of the rules governing the encounter Blake’s eyes wandered to the face of Guinalda.
The little princess sat stiffly erect, looking straight before her. She seemed very white, Blake thought, and he wondered if she were ill.
How beautiful, thought Blake, and though she did not once appear to look at him he was not cast down, for neither did she look at Malud.
Again the trumpet sounded and the four knights rode slowly back to opposite ends of the lists and the principals waited for the final signal to engage. Blake disengaged his arm from the leather loop of his buckler and tossed the shield upon the ground.
Edward looked at him aghast. “My Lord knight!” he cried. “Art ill? Art fainting? Didst drop thy buckler?” and he snatched it up and held it aloft to Blake, though he knew full well that his eyes had not deceived him and that his master had cast aside his only protection.
To the horrified Edward there seemed but one explanation and that his loyalty would not permit him to entertain for an instant—that Blake was preparing to dismount and refuse to meet Sir Malud, giving the latter the victory by default and assuring himself of the contempt and ridicule of all Nimmr.
He ran to Richard who had not seen Blake’s act. “Sir Richard! Sir Richard!” he cried in a hoarse whisper. “Some terrible affliction hath befallen Sir James!”
“Hey, what?” exclaimed Richard. “What meaneth thou lad?
“He has cast aside his buckler,” cried the youth. “He must be stricken sore ill, for it cannot be that otherwise he would refuse combat.”
Richard spurred to Blake’s side. “Hast gone mad, man?” he demanded. “Thou canst not refuse the encounter now unless thou wouldst bring dishonor upon thy friends!”
“Where did you get that line?” demanded Blake. “Who said I was going to quit?”
“But thy buckler?” cried Sir Richard.
The trumpet at the Prince’s loge rang out peremptorily. Sir Malud spurred forward to a fanfare from his own trumpeter.
“Let her go!” cried Blake to his.
“Thy buckler!” screamed Sir Richard.
“The damned thing was in my way,” shouted Blake as he spurred forward to meet the doughty Malud, Richard trailing behind him, as did Malud’s second behind that knight.
There was a confident smile upon the lips of Sir Malud and he glanced often at the knights and ladies in the grandstand, but Blake rode with his eyes always upon his antagonist.
Both horses had broken immediately into a gallop, and as they neared one another Malud spurred forward at a run and Blake saw that the man’s aim was doubtless to overthrow him at the first impact, or at least to so throw him out of balance as to make it easy for Malud to strike a good blow before he could recover himself.
Malud rode with his sword half raised at his right side, while Blake’s was at guard, a position unknown to the knights of Nimmr, who guarded solely with their bucklers.
The horsemen approached to engage upon each other’s left, and as they were about to meet Sir Malud rose in his stirrups and swung his sword hand down, to gain momentum, described a circle with his blade and launched a terrific cut at Blake’s head.
It was at that instant that some few in the grandstand realized that Blake bore no buckler.
“His buckler!” Sir James hath no buckler!”
“He hath lost his buckler!” rose now from all parts of the stand; and from right beside him, where the two knights met before the log of Gobred, Blake heard a woman scream, but he could not look to see if it were Guinalda.
As they met Blake reined his horse suddenly toward Malud’s, so that the two chargers’ shoulders struck, and at the same time he cast all his weight in the same direction, whereas Malud, who was standing in his stirrups to deliver his blow, was almost in a state of equilibrium and having his buckler ready for defense was quite helpless insofar as maneuvering his mount was concerned.
Malud, overbalanced, lost the force and changed the direction of his blow, which fell, much to the knight’s surprise, upon Blake’s blade along which it spent its force and was deflected from its target.
Instantly, his horse well in hand by reason that his left arm was unencumbered by a buckler, Blake reined in and simultaneously cut to the left and rear, his point opening the mail on Malud’s left shoulder and biting into the flesh before the latter’s horse had carried him out of reach.
A loud shout of approbation arose from the stands for the thing had been neatly done and then Malud’s second spurred to the Prince’s loge and entered a protest.
“Sir James hath no buckler!” he cried. “’Tis no fair combat!”
“’Tis fairer for thy knight than for Sir James,” said Gobred.
“We would not take that advantage of him,” parried Malud’s second, Sir Jarred.
“What sayest thou?” demanded Gobred of Sir Richard who had quickly ridden to Jarred’s side. “Is Sir James without a buckler through some accident that befell before he entered the lists?”
“Nay, he cast it aside,” replied Richard, “and averred that the ‘damned thing’ did annoy him; but if Sir Jarred feeleth that, because of this, they be not fairly matched we are willing; if Sir Malud, also, should cast aside his buckler.”
Gobred smiled. “That be fair,” he said.
The two men, concerned with their encounter and not with the argument of their seconds, had engaged once more. Blood was showing upon Malud’s shoulder and trickling down his back, staining his skirts and the housing of his charger.
The stand was in an uproar, for many were still shouting aloud about the buckler and others were screaming with delight over the neat manner in which Sir James had drawn his first blood. Wagers were being freely made, and though Sir Malud still ruled favorite in the betting, the odds against Blake were not so great, and while men had no money to wager they had jewels and arms and horses. One enthusiastic adherent of Sir Malud bet three chargers against one that his champion would be victorious and the words were scarce out of his mouth ere he had a dozen takers, whereas before the opening passage at arms offers as high as ten to one had found no takers.
Now the smile was gone from Malud’s lips and he glanced no more at the grandstand. There was rage in his eyes as he spurred again toward Blake, who he thought had profited by a lucky accident.
Unhampered by a buckler Blake took full advantage of the nimbleness of the wiry horse he rode and which he had ridden daily since his arrival in Nimmr, so that man and beast were well accustomed to one another.
Again Sir Malud saw his blade glance harmlessly from the sword of his antagonist and then, to his vast surprise, the point of Sir James’ blade leaped quickly beneath his buckler and entered his side. It was not a deep wound, but it was painful and again it brought blood.
Angrily Malud struck again, but Blake had reined his charger quickly to the rear and before Malud could gather his reins Blake had struck him again, this time a heavy blow upon the helm.
Half stunned and wholly infuriated Malud wheeled and charged at full tilt, once again determined to ride his adversary down. They met with a crash directly in front of Gobred’s loye, there was a quick play of swords that baffled the eyesight of the onlookers and then, to the astonishment of all, most particularly Malud, that noble sir knight’s sword flew from his grasp and hurtled to the field, leaving him entirely to the mercy of his foe.
Malud reined in and sat erect, waiting. He knew and Blake knew that under the rules that governed their encounter Blake was warranted in running him through unless Malud sued for mercy, and no one, Blake least of all, expected this of so proud and haughty a knight.
Sir Malud sat proudly on his charger waiting for Blake to advance and kill him. Utter silence had fallen upon the stands, so that the champing of Malud’s horse upon its bit was plainly audible. Blake turned to Sir Jarred.
“Summon a squire, sir knight,” he said, “to return Sir Malud’s sword to him.”
Again the stands rocked to the applause, but Blake turned his back upon them and rode to Richard’s side to wait until his adversary was again armed.
“Well, old top,” he inquired of Sir Richard, “just how much a dozen am I offered for bucklers now?”
Richard laughed. “Thou hast been passing fortunate, James,” he replied; “but methinks a good swordsman would long since have cut thee through.”
“I know Malud would have if I had packed that chopping bowl along on the party,” Blake assured him, though it is doubtful if Sir Richard understood what he was talking about, as was so often the case when Blake discoursed that Richard had long since ceased to even speculate as to the meaning of much that his friend said.
But now Sir Malud was rearmed and riding toward Blake. He stopped his horse before the American and bowed low. “I do my devoirs to a noble and generous knight,” he said, graciously.
Blake bowed. “Are you ready sir?” he asked.
“On guard, then!” snapped the American.
For a moment the two jockeyed for position. Blake feinted and Malud raised his buckler before his face to catch the blow, but as it did not fall he lowered his shield, just as Blake had known that he would, and as he did so the edge of the American’s weapon fell heavily upon the crown of his bassinet.
Malud’s arm dropped at his side, he slumped in his saddle and then toppled forward and rolled to the ground. Agile, even in his heavy armor, Blake dismounted and walked to where his foe lay stretched upon his back almost in front of Gobred’s loge. He placed a foot upon Malud’s breast and pressed the point of his sword against his throat.
The crowd leaned forward to see the coup-de-grace administered, but Blake did not drive his point home. He looked up at Prince Gobred and addressed him.
“Here is a brave knight,” he said, “with whom I have no real quarrel. I spare him to your service, Prince, and to those who love him,” and his eyes went straight to the eyes of the Princess Guinalda. Then he turned and walked back along the front of the grandstand to his own tilt, while Richard rode behind him, and the knights and the ladies, the men-at-arms, the frecdmen and the serfs stood upon their seats and shouted their applause.
Edward was beside himself with joy, as was Michel. The former knelt and embraced Blake’s legs, he kissed his hand, and wept, so great were his happiness and his excitement.
“I knew it! I knew it!” he cried. “Didst I not tell thee, Michel, that my own sir knight would overthrow Sir Malud?”
The men-at-arms, the trumpeter and the grooms at Blake’s tilt wore grins that stretched from ear to ear. Whereas a few minutes before they had felt ashamed to have been detailed to the losing side, now they were most proud and looked upon Blake as the greatest hero of Nimmr. Great would be their boasting among their fellows as they gathered with their gons of ale about the rough deal table in their dining hall.
Edward removed Blake’s armor and Michel got Richard out of his amidst much babbling upon the part of the youths who could not contain themselves, so doubly great was their joy because so unexpected.
Blake went directly to his quarters and Richard accompanied him, and when the two men were alone Richard placed a hand upon Blake’s shoulder.
“Thou hast done a noble and chivalrous thing, my friend,” he said, “but I know not that it be a wise one.”
“And why?” demanded Blake. “You didn’t think I could slick the poor mutt when he was lying there defenseless?”
Richard shook his head. “’Tis but what he would have done for thee had thy positions been reversed,” said he.
“Well, I couldn’t do it. We’re not taught to believe that it is exactly ethical to hit a fellow when he’s down, where I come from,” explained Blake.
“Had your quarrel been no deeper than appeared upon the surface thou might well have been thus magnanimous; but Malud be jealous of thee and that jealousy will be by no means lessened by what hath transpired this day. Thou might have been rid of a powerful and dangerous enemy had thou given him the coup-de-grace, as was thy right; but now thou hast raised up a greater enemy since to his jealousy is added hatred and envy against thee for thy prowess over him. Thou didst make him appear like a monkey, James, and that Sir Malud wilt never forgive, and I know the man.”
The knights and ladies attached to the castle of Gobred ate together at a great table in the huge hall of the castle. Three hundred people could be accommodated at the single board and it took quite a company of serving men to fill their needs. Whole pigs, roasted, were carried in upon great trenchers and there were legs of mutton and sides of venison and bowls of vegetables, with wine and ale, and at the end immense puddings.
There was much laughter and loud talking, and it all presented a wild and fascinating picture to Sir James Blake as he sat at the lower end of the table far below the salt that night, in his accustomed place as one of the latest neophytes in the noble ranks of the knighthood of Nimmr.
The encounter between himself and Malud was the subject of the moment and many were the compliments bestowed upon him and many the questions as to where and how he had acquired his strange technique of swordsmanship. Although they had seen him accomplish it, yet they still appeared to believe it inconceivable that a man might prevail without a buckler over one who carried this essential article of defense.
Prince Gobred and his family sat, with the higher nobles of Nimmr, at a table slightly raised above the rest of the board and running across its upper end, the whole forming a huge T. When he wished to speak to anyone farther down the table he resorted to the simple expedient of raising his voice, so that if several were so inclined at the same time the room became a bedlam of uproar and confusion.
And as Blake sat at the farthest end of the table it was necessary for one at Gobred’s end to scream to attract attention, though when it was discovered that it was the prince who was speaking the rest of the company usually lapsed into silence out of respect for him, unless they were too far gone in drink.
Shortly after the feasters were seated Gobred had arisen and lifted his goblet high in air, and silence had fallen upon the whole company as knights and ladies rose and faced their prince.
“Hail to our King!” cried Gobred. “Hail to our liege lord, Richard of England!”
And in a great chorus rose the answering “Hail!” as the company drank the health of Richard Coeur de Lion seven hundred and twenty-eight years after his death!
Then they drank the health of Gobred and of the Princess Brynilda, his wife, and of the Princess Guinalda, and each time a voice boomed from just below the dais of the prince: “Here I be looking at thee!” as Sir Richard with a proud smile displayed his newly acquired knowledge.
Again Prince Gobred arose. “Hail!” he cried, “to that worthy sir knight who hath most nobly and chivalrously acquitted himself in the lists this day! Hail to Sir James, Knight Templar and, now, Knight of Nimmr!”
Not even the name of Richard I of England had aroused the enthusiasm that followed the drinking to Sir James. The length of the long hall Blake’s eyes travelled straight to where Guinalda stood: He saw her drink to him and he saw that her eyes were regarding him, but the distance was too great and the light of the pitch torches and the oil cressets too dim for him to see whether her glance carried a message of friendship or dislike.
When the noise had partially subsided and the drinkers had retaken their seats Blake arose.
“Prince Gobred,” he called the length of the room, “knights and ladies of Nimmr, I give you another toast! To Sir Malud!”
For a moment there was silence, the silence of surprise, and then the company arose and drank the health of the absent Sir Malud.
“Thou art a strange sir knight, with strange words upon thy lips and strange ways, Sir James,” shouted Gobred, “but though thou callest a hail “a toast’ and thy friends be ‘old top’ and ‘kid,’ yet withal it seemeth that we understand thee and we would know more about thy country and the ways of the noble knights that do abide there.
“Tell us, are they all thus chivalrous and magnanimous to their fallen foes?”
“If they’re not they get the raspberry,” explained Blake.
“‘Get the raspberry’!” repeated Gobred. “’Tis some form of punishment, methinks.”
“You said it, Prince!”
“Of a surety I said it, Sir James!” snapped Gobred with asperity.
“I mean, Prince, that you hit the nail on the head—you guessed it the first time. You see the raspberry is about the only form of punishment that the Knights of the Squared Circle, or the Knights of the Diamond can understand.”
“Knights of the Squared Circle’! ‘Knights of the Diamond’! Those be knightly orders of which I wot not. Be they doughty knights?”
“Some of them are dotty, but a lot of them are regulars. Take Sir Dempsey, for instance, a knight of the Squared Circle. He showed ’em all he was a regular knight in defeat, which is much more difficult than being a regular knight in victory.”
“Be there other orders of knighthood these days?” demanded Gobred.
“We’re lousy with them!”
“What!” cried Gobred.
“We’re all knights these days,” explained Blake.
“All knights! Be there no serfs nor yeomen?’Tis incredible!”
“Well, there are some yeomen in the navy, I think; but all the rest of us, pretty much, are knights. You see things have changed a lot since the days of Richard. The people have sort of overthrown the old order of things. They poked a lot of ridicule at knights and wanted to get rid of knighthood, and as soon as they had they all wanted to be knights themselves; so we have Knights Templar now and Knights of Pythias and Knights of Columbus and Knights of Labor and a lot more I can’t recall.”
“Methinks it must be a fine and noble world,” cried Gobred, “for what with so many noble sir knights it would seemeth that they must often contend, one against another—is that not true?”
“Well, they do scrap some,” Blake admitted.