Here’s another long post. This is the second chapter of the book I wrote, For Two.
The cavernous great hall smelled of smoke and roasted meat, resounding with the sounds of half-drunk laughter and raucous shouts. The long wooden dining tables were filled with the occupants of the castle: knights, noblemen and ladies. At the far end of the hall was a dais where sat Lord Amsbury himself, along with the more important occupants of the castle. Amsbury was graying at the temples, and past the prime of his life, but still strong and fit, if putting on a little weight on his midsection. He had worked his way up through the ranks of infantry, becoming a knight and eventually becoming a very powerful commander who found victory in many campaigns before becoming the lord of his own province. His fighting prowess had been as infamous among his men as his proclivity to cruelness. He now sat at the head of the hall on a cushioned and elaborately carved chair, tearing into a hunk of meat, paying no heed to the grease that smeared onto his clean-shaven face and hairy arms.
There were five other people who sat with Amsbury at the head table. The first was Carenen, Amsbury’s captain of the castle guard. He was in charge of the thirty castle guards, but that was not why he sat on the dais with the others. It was mostly due to his close confidence with Amsbury.
The second was Olfelia, the plump Lady of the castle. She was not the wife of Amsbury, or involved with him in any such way, but merely the woman who played the role of Matron of the castle. Her liberal application of rouge made her perpetually look as if she had imbibed a little too much wine, and her large lower lip gave her a pouty appearance. She spent most of her days ordering around the working women of the castle, wheezing from her own weight as she bustled to and fro amongst the workers, ordering and correcting them in tasks. To say that she put on airs would be putting it lightly, but Amsbury tolerated her, since she generally kept to her own business of managing the women of the castle.
The third was the young Lady Sienna. She was the niece of Amsbury; her mother, Amsbury’s sister, was said to have died in childbirth, and her father had perished in battle soon after. Lady Sienna’s beauty and figure were popular topics of conversation among the knights, who liked to compare her to all the other maidens in the castle and debate which one’s features were more pleasing. Very rarely did a knight try to argue that another woman was truly more beautiful than she. Many knights had asked to carry her token in tournaments and battles, but few had received such a token. Those who did were completely enamored with her, and heartbroken when she ultimately rejected their advances. At nineteen she was the perfect age to be wed, and many nobles and knights desired her hand.
Fourth at the head table was Mernov. Mernov was a knight of the highest position, and had earned his place at the head table through many feats of valor. Young, strong, and in the prime of his life, many people considered him to be the obvious heir to Amsbury’s seat of power after Amsbury was gone. As the highest ranking knight in the castle, Mernov often led patrols along the province’s border, and any time complaints of bandits or marauders appeared he was generally the one to lead the elimination of such lowlifes. Unlike anyone else at the castle, Mernov would often visit Donsburr, the village near the castle. He would devote his time to speaking with people, spending the evening in the tavern with the farmers and travelers. Sometimes he brought food from the castle for the occasional farmer or tradesman who was having a difficult time feeding his family.
Fifth at the head table besides his lordship was Tiurne, an elderly man who was both in charge of the training of the guards and knights as well as being in charge of the general affairs of the castle. He was considered a rather harsh man, keeping everyone in line with a steely gaze and harsh voice, but the deep wrinkles in his face betrayed the innumerable smiles that had graced his face as a younger man.
Amsbury wiped the grease from is face. “Carenen, has the herald returned from delivering his message?” he asked. The herald had been sent out near midday and Amsbury was eager to hear about the man he would be competing with.
Carenen, who sat directly to Amsbury’s right, leaned in to reply. “Yes, my lord. The man who was selected is named Jean Levison, he is a farmer who lives with his wife and-“
“Never mind all that,” Amsbury grunted impatiently, grabbing at a loaf of bread and grabbing a knife to cut it with. “Tell me what he’s like.”
“Of course my lord,” Carenen replied, knowing exactly what he meant. “A man in the prime of his life. He is quite tall, perhaps a couple inches taller than Mernov, and very well muscled from a full life of farm work. Not built like a blacksmith, slimmer and less muscle mass, but all his muscles are toned. He’s never seen battle, never been trained in weaponry or war at all.” Carenen smirked. “The closest he has ever gotten to combat is cutting down a tree. ”
Amsbury grunted contentedly through a mouthful of bread. Despite the fact that Jean had been described as tall and in superior physical condition, as well as being in the prime of his life, Amsbury was not in the least bit worried about that. Amsbury was confident that his own extensive experience with combat gave him a great advantage regardless of his opponent’s physical condition, if he had no experience in fighting. Even then, Amsbury would not be unduly worried if his opponent did have experience in fighting, because he did indeed rig the competition.
In the fifteen years of his Competition of Arms, only twice had it not been rigged; the first year of the competition, when Amsbury was a younger and more athletic man, he had had no doubts about his victory. But that ended in near disaster when his opponent revealed himself to be a traveling mercenary who had secretly taken the place of the farmer who was supposed to fight. The mercenary, who had hid his prowess in battle until the day of the competition, had almost defeated Amsbury. Only by blind luck did Amsbury triumph, and from that day on he had rigged the competition.
Amsbury rose, pushing back his seat and raising his goblet. His strong voice rose above the general hubbub as he called out, “A toast! A toast to the sixteenth year of our Competition of Arms!” The clamor of the diners muted as he continued. “Once again, I, your illustrious lord, benefactor of this province, will battle a man in single combat, for the good of us all! A toast, to the brave man who is to face me in this mortal combat, and a toast to I myself!” There was a cheer and a general raising of glasses.
A knight somewhere near the middle of the tables, shouted out, his courage bolstered by the wine he had liberally consumed. “And may the best man win!”
A wave of snickering and tittering rustled through the diners at this statement, but all of those there who were mindful of their own well being tried hard to suppress their laughter. Everyone in the castle knew it was a rigged competition, and the knight’s words had obviously been a jab at this.
Amsbury had not seen which man had presumed to shout such a statement. So instead of directing some action towards the man who had made the statement, he instead addressed the whole assembly. He set his goblet on the table and spread his hands out wide.
“What man of you,” he began, his voice booming out in the hall, with a dangerous undertone of menace that had not been in his previous speech, “what man of you can claim the conquering of nations? What man of you can claim to have received honors from a king? What man among you can claim to have brought prosperity to a region, beyond any that had ever been know in this region before? What man of you”-his voice grew noticeably louder and more intense-“can claim to protect the hundreds, even thousands, of people under your rule from marauders, bandits, and foreign powers every day? And what man can deny that it is necessary for a man in power to display his power, lest those who follow him attempt to rise up against him, thus forfeiting the safety they had under him? What man among you can claim a pure heart?”- his voice rose to a crescendo-“Is there any knight here who can say that, in the midst of battle he has no felt a heat in his heart for the death of his enemy, felt the protection of his own life, that sin of selfishness, pervade him, so that to kill his enemy is sweet? No man can truthfully say that has kept himself from all the evil of this world. But each man would say that he does what he can and must to combat that evil.” Amsbury’s voice took on a charitable tone. “And that is all that I am doing here. A battlefield is where a man sees his own heart most plainly, and I am merely bringing that battlefield into our lives, to remind us of who we are, to protect each of us, as is my duty, from the wickedness that seeks to devour our humble lives. No man can say that I am against those who I rule. No man can say that I am not just. A fair trials of arms, that is all I ask of you. A fair fight, the pitting of two men against each other. We cannot rid this world of evil, but I, as all of you, must play our part, and that is all I seek to do.”
The hushed crowd stared in silence at Amsbury as he finished his speech. Amsbury strode out of the hall towards his own chambers, followed closely by Carenen. It was not unusual for Amsbury to burst out into impromptu speech, but this one had been particularly fiery. After a few moments of silence after Amsbury’s departure, a man spoke up weakly.
“What is the life of one man? Amsbury has prospered each and every one of us here.” The speaker looked around, seeing if there was anyone who wanted to challenge his assertion. Few men would look him in the eye, and none looked as if they wanted to contradict him. “So, I say we just let Amsbury do as he likes, all he’s ever done for us is good, in my opinion, and we should just get on with our lives. God knows what’s right.”
There were a few mumbled grunts of agreement from the assembly. No one dared challenge Amsbury’s violent custom outright. Most would rather just watch it in silence.
At the head table Mernov stood up, catching people’s attention. “Indeed, God knows what is right. And surely it is the duty of every man to obey him who is of greater authority than he. And if we are the lesser men, what are we to do but follow his commands?” Mernov surveyed the group of nobles, knights, and ladies before him and then exited the hall, his face blank. He was soon followed by both of the ladies at the head table and Tiurne. The babble in the hall slowly grew back to its preview volume, and Lord Amsbury’s impassioned speech was soon forgotten by all but a few.