‘C’mon Archer, you can do it!’
‘Go for it Finn!
His grin widened as he spotted his mates; they were Finn’s friends too and their worried expressions reflected the dilemma of who to support.
Fletch didn’t care, holding up victory fists to both contenders in turn as he roared their names.
Chuckling, Archer returned his friend's gesture, then wiped away the moisture on his upper lip. He was not sure whether it was the heat of the sun or the familiar thrill of blood pumping through his veins roasting him in his armour.
‘Good luck, mate.’ Tybalt, Archer’s Second, held up his shield. ‘May the best man win.’
Archer raised an eyebrow. ‘Man?’ Inside, Archer was secretly punching the air at the idea, as he slipped his gauntlet through the shield straps and took the reins.
‘Yes, Archer. Today, you and Finn are men.’ Tybalt handed over a blue and yellow lance. With an anxious look in Finn’s direction, he walked to the dais to prepare for the tributes.
Looking down the tilt at his opponent, Archer’s heart surged with the warmth of brotherhood. No, Finn was more than a brother, they did not argue as siblings did.
Despite the intense heat, Archer shivered. This was not the same as an ordinary practice. The enthusiasm of the crowd made it more exhilarating than anything he had ever done in his life. As he settled his mare, he thought how the buzz of anticipation was affecting everyone – many moons of effort had gone into the preparations for this day and people had travelled from miles around to celebrate Beltane, the Festival of the May.
Professor Niall, a senior trainer, had pronounced them the only pair ready for the joust – all the others settled for the rings. He nodded to both boys as he took his place on the dais.
The shield weighed heavily on Archer's arm, which still ached from the hours spent waxing and polishing until the metal shone like a looking glass. Noticing how it reflected the sun, he worried that this might give an unfair advantage if it shone in Finn’s eye. As the glare from his opponent’s shield dazzled him, Archer realised why Niall had been so precise about the orientation of the tilt. Siting it perpendicular to the sun’s path meant they would both be equally disadvantaged.
Finn won the coin toss, electing that Archer’s tribute was first because he knew people always remembered the last thing they heard. The Senechal introduced the two Seconds.
Tybalt did a good job of supporting his friend. As a member of the learned Magi clan, his speech was eloquent, but a little too earnest. ‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, I present to you the splendid Archer, a true warrior of superlative courage and daring. This squire is a veritable man of the horse,’ he paused at the round of applause that greeted this statement.
Archer’s cheeks warmed at the exaggeration – horsemanship was the only part of his training that did not feel natural. Tybalt concluded, ‘He has remarkable skill with any and every weapon and is a dutiful son and loyal friend.’ Archer tipped his lance at Tybalt and accepted the applause, bowing at the cheers – not the easiest of things to do on horseback with thirty pounds of metal weighing you down. He frowned as Edlyn appeared on the dais with a shallow smirk and slow handclap. Finn had no choice about using that snake as a Second, his mother had insisted because of the blood ties. Finn was no mother’s boy, but this event was much too important for him to disobey her wishes.
The clapping didn’t quite stop. Edlyn cleared his throat noisily. ‘A-hem. It is my pleasure, nay my absolute honour, to introduce to you, one of Aveburgh’s best kept secrets. Squire Finnegan is truly a champion of champions.’ Waving his arm in a grand gesture, he continued, ‘No junior in this contest can touch him on the back of a horse.’ He paused, obviously expecting a similar reaction to Tybalt’s ‘man of the horse’ comment. When it didn’t come, he carried on as though it didn’t matter.
‘With the staff, he has the strength of a bear and his skill with a sword would rival Hector himself. I give you, the people’s choice, Squire Finn. Join me in going wild with delight.’ Catching Archer’s eye with a smug wink, Edlyn bowed to Finn, clapping enthusiastically and whistling.
After a moment’s stunned silence, the crowd did as he suggested.
Archer recognised his enemy’s mastery of rhetoric. He knew Edlyn would take great pleasure that, due to his superb oratory skills, the round of applause for Finn was louder and lasted much longer than Archer’s.
A large cloud crept toward the sun, and the officials waited for its cover even though both heralds had finished their tributes some minutes earlier. As the momentum from the big build up was lost in the delay, Archer sensed Apollo getting restless. Finally, the Seneschal took his place on the dais and an expectant hush fell over the crowd.
‘Ladies and gents, juniors and children, please accept my apologies for the stoppage.’ He gestured at the cloud, ignoring the good-natured catcalls from the tightly-wound juniors, who were desperate for the bout and needed to voice their frustration.
Raising his eyebrows until the silence returned, the Seneschal continued, ‘Contender Archer, are you set?’
Archer pointed his lance to the sky.
‘Contender Finn, are you set?’
Finn echoed the move with his red and white lance.
‘You will both begin on my horn.’ As they readied their weapons to the starting position, he raised an ivory horn to his lips and blew.
The two friends had practised together for several years, so they each knew the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Archer knew that Finn’s mastery of his steed Artemis was so complete that he could easily bring off the dangerous ‘side-hang’ manoeuvre to avoid the tip of an opposing weapon. Also, that he was just as likely to wait until the instant before impact before making his move. Finn wouldn’t care that the high speed would affect his balance, putting him at greater risk, he thrived on danger. He also knew that Archer’s legendary skill with weapons was diminished on horseback.
Although a competent rider by most people’s standards, Archer was fully aware that he didn’t have Finn’s gift of becoming a part of the horse – attuned to every nuance of movement as though their bodies and minds were connected. Archer was not confident with the trickier techniques used by more experienced warriors to delight the crowds. His opponent would be expecting just a shoulder roll, more subtle but less effective at reducing the impact.
Archer didn’t disappoint him. As their mounts were less than a couple of paces apart, he rolled his left shoulder, craftily aligning the shield so that it presented a shallower target to Finn’s weapon. He had this idea in training, however he knew there was a strong possibility of facing his friend, so he kept the idea to himself.
It worked. Finn’s lance was deflected and he was so surprised by the novel strategy that he lost concentration long enough for Archer to make a direct hit on his shield. The tip shattered, giving him two points and the crowd showed their delight by clapping and stamping. Someone started a chant; he couldn’t hear the words apart from the final, victorious ‘Archer’.
Finn dipped his lance in defeat as they trotted back to the judge to show the extent of the damage. The lances were designed with two stress sites to reflect the strength of the collision and so the courage of the contestants. Only the fragile pottery tip had shattered, suggesting a normal speed. Archer knew that Finn would be looking for a bigger impact from a faster charge or stronger thrust. The length of wood immediately behind the tip, known as the crumple, would disintegrate, earning more points.
A second wave of noisy appreciation from the crowd acknowledged Archer’s marque on the scoreboard. Tybalt was ecstatic, slapping Archer’s lower leg. ‘Well done, that was truly inspired. Did Niall teach you that trick?’
‘Actually, I worked it out for myself.’ Archer grinned at Tybalt’s back-handed compliment, implying it was a strategy worthy of a champion such as their trainer. Taking the lance from his enthusiastic Second, Archer looked over at his opponent.
Finn was not impressed by the first pass – the joust was his best event and he needed a high score to get through to the next round.
Archer was not, however, prepared for just how unimpressed his friend was. The second pass flashed by in an instant of red meets blue. At the horn, Finn charged like a demon, thrusting his lance at the approaching chest plate hard enough to leave a dent. Archer rocked back in his saddle, but there was no real danger of being unhorsed. The collective intake of breath from the crowd suggested they had the scent of six points for a dismount, but he raised his lance to show that he was still a viable contender. When they met at the centre, it was Archer’s turn to dip his lance.
Finn seemed concerned, raising the visor of his helmet as he lowered his voice. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘It’ll take more than that little tickle to worry me. Is that your best effort?’ Archer raised his visor with a grin so his friend could see that he was solid. Finn’s crumple had smashed into tiny pieces, giving him four points. Archer’s lance was intact. The crowd stood to show their appreciation as the boys returned to their stations. This time, they took the full five minutes to recover. Their Seconds offered skins of water and checked that none of the straps or buckles had come undone in the violent collision. Finally, at the time-out signal, they presented the fresh lances. Archer took his, grateful that it was the junior version, several feet shorter and only half the weight of the full battle weapon. Although he was fit and strong, he felt the toll of the first two bouts and was glad that this was to be the last.
Then it came to him. Finn was of slighter build and never quite matched him in the strength and endurance exercises during training. He had probably put everything into that second pass, knowing that he would have little left for the final tilt. The third Warrior, Beorn, had done well in the rings, scoring seven points, so Finn would need at least another four points to go through to the next round. His sword-work was excellent, but his accuracy on the archery range could be erratic, particularly when he was tired. As the Seneschal went through his speeches, Archer was furiously working out whether he could still advance if he allowed Finn to unhorse him.
Common sense prevailed in the end. No matter how good a friend Finn was, it would not be honourable or fair to either of them, if he deliberately conceded the pass. There was only one thing Archer could do – what his years of training had instilled. Play to win. With a silent prayer for strength and courage, he gave a light touch to Apollo’s flank and held his breath for the charge.
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