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The Uncrested Knight

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Python had planned to end the day with a couple of rounds of ale and a hearty stew from a local tavern. And, hopefully, in the company of two people who would be too exhausted from their training exercises to complain about an extra helping of said ale and stew on their dime. However, his hopes for a relaxed evening were quickly dashed as Forsyth charged towards Python with a giddy look on his face, clutching a flyer and tossing it onto the table.

“Python, take a look at this!”

“Yup, that sure looks like a roughed up piece of parchment,” Python drawled. With how excited Forsyth was, it could only mean one thing- something time-consuming was on the horizon.

“Oh, don’t act like that.” Forsyth straightened out the parchment, revealing a picture of a cavalier holding a lance with the words “Celebration Tournament” inked on the top. “I’m sure this is something even you’ll be interested in.”

Python sighed, resting a knuckle against his cheek. “Yeah, yeah. How about you get me some booze and tell me all about it.”

Lukas turned away from the bar, pints already in hand. He set them down with his usual polite smile as Forsyth explained how, in honor of their most kind and exalted sovereigns, there would be a tournament open to all as a chance to show off their skills in melee, jousting, and archery. The winner of each, he finished excitedly, would receive a medal and monetary prize.

“So, what do you think?” Forsyth asked, clearly too excited to have noticed Python rolling his eyes. Who decided it was a good idea to have wargames for fun? The point of fighting was to kill your opponent- not playact for a bunch of stuffed shirts.

Nevertheless, Python gulped down the rest of his ale before giving his reply: “Think they’ll have free food in the stands?”

Forsyth groaned and rolled his eyes. “I thought the money would at least whet your appetite…”

“Sorry to break it to you, Fors, but having a bunch of nobles pretty clap me when I shoot my bow real good isn’t my idea of a good time,” Python peeked over at Lukas, who was nursing his ale slowly. “So what are your thoughts on all this, stud?”

Lukas set his pint down and tented his fingers together, pensive. “Actually, I think it’s a commendable idea. The tourney is open to all, not only the nobility. It might be just the thing to start building bridges between the classes. I have no qualms with it.”

Forsyth gave Lukas a firm pat between the shoulder blades, strong enough that Python saw his usual polite smile curdle at the force. “Which is why Lukas and I have already signed up for the melee! You should compete in the archery match, Python. Save for Tobin, there’s…”

Forsyth’s face flushed as he realized he was about to give Python a compliment.  

“Yes?” Python drawled, elongating the syllable for as long as he could.

“There’s…”

“No other archer in our company with your amount of skill,” Lukas finished. “Wouldn’t you like to gain some popularity amongst the general public?”

Python sighed. “Think I’ll pass on the chance. The coin doesn’t sound half-bad, but I don’t want to fight or train unless I have to.”

“Very well,” Lukas replied with a shrug. “I suppose it will go to one of the nobles entering the tournament, then. Tobin is on leave visiting his family, and Leon also expressed disinterest.”

Python narrowed his eyes at the younger man. No, he was not going to take the bait. No way, no how.

But when the trio made their way back to the military barracks, the thought kept nagging at Python like a gnat he couldn’t quite swat. It should be no skin off his nose if he didn’t compete in some tourney. It would be just like all the others he had heard about, no difference at all.

And yet...

Python groaned into his pillow and ended up with an unusually unrestful night. He trundled to morning drills, going through the motions and skipping out once the mandatory junk was finished to head for the market.

(~)

When the day of the tournament arrived, Lukas and Forsyth found themselves marching to the competitors’ tent alone. Python, of course, had refused- no matter how much Forsyth had insisted he join them.

“I’m sure he’ll come later for the festivities,” Lukas assured his fellow knight, struggling to keep up with Forsyth’s brisk, angry pace.

“He wasn’t even in his bunk! The man is probably dozing in a tree to avoid us, the nerve!” Forsyth wrung his hands in frustration. “Well, we’ll just show him up by coming back with first prize.”

“First prize only goes to one person per category.”

“W-well then, we have twice as much opportunity to win!” Forsyth replied, his energy now shifting back towards the tournament. Despite it still being rather early in the morning, a number of people stood crowded around the main entrance. The promise of glory in battle- without the threat of war- appeared to be a powerful draw for many.

“The public seems to have come out in full force,” Lukas commented. “I’ve heard they used to have similar events in Rigel open to all, but this is the first time such an event has been adopted in the south, at least on such a scale.”

“Really now? Such tournaments as this always seemed to appear in the stories I read as a boy.” Forsyth replied.

Lukas smiled. He could only imagine how such stories would have influenced a child. “So you did read more than the arts of war.”

Forsyth’s cheeks flushed. “W-well, I suppose so. Though I don’t think they were that true to life. Most of them had a mysterious competitor enter the tournament in disguise, best everyone, win the lady’s favor with their skill, and even donate their prize money to the less fortunate. Still, it was a nice goal to aspire to.”

“It does rouse one’s interest. I’ll have to look out for such stories the next time I go to the book lender.” Lukas said.

Forsyth wrapped an arm around Lukas’ shoulder. “I’ll join you then, see if they have any titles I remember.” He grinned, keeping the awkward position as they walked on. The competitors’ tent was full, with participants lounging upon wooden chairs and even boxes. Judging by the fine attire- and the men handing them food and drink- Lukas assumed they might be lords, attended by their squires.

One of the more elaborately-dressed men, sporting a neatly trimmed mustache and a tunic of deep purple, smirked when his eyes caught sight of the two knights.

“Well, if it isn’t the Heroes of Valentia!” He raised the silver goblet in his hand towards them, followed by titters of laughter around the group.

Nevertheless, Lukas gave them a small and swift bow of his head. “Good morning. Are you all set to compete?”

“Well, someone has to show the fine people there is still some elegance in combat,” the man replied, earning another round of laughter from his coterie. “I’m afraid soldiers like you don’t have the necessary...well... background for such sport.”

“Excuse me?” Forsyth’s eyebrows rose as he stepped forward. Lukas held the other man’s arm to prevent him from going further. “I don’t believe, sir, that I ever saw any of you on the front lines. My friend and I have just as much skill and ten times the experience in battle.”

The man in purple frowned. He snapped his fingers to beckon a squire to fill his goblet, then swirled its contents and took a deep, lingering sip. “Anyone can pick up a pointy stick and stab someone with it until they lay still. It takes true prowess to make the battle something pleasurable, something of true art. Unfortunately, in our fair nation’s new Brotherhood, I’m afraid that that art is…rather lacking.”

Lukas focused more on the man’s clothes. Judging by his boots, he supposed he was a cavalier of some kind, common among old Zofia’s nobility. But the colors and sigil emblazoned on his tunic rang a faint bell.

“If I might ask, are you a member of House Aetius?”

The man smirked. “Heard of me, have you? Yes, I am Giles of Aetius, the younger brother of our current duke.”

“Ah, you have a striking resemblance to your older brother.” Lukas smiled.

Giles grinned before his eyes narrowed. “How perchance do you know my brother, sir?”

Forsyth’s own eyes widened. “Oh, you’re the younger brother of the duke that Lukas…”

His voice trailed off, but part of his mouth quirked up in a grin. Some of the men surrounding Giles averted their eyes, and some covered their mouths to hide their amusement- they all remembered that incident well. Ah yes, Lukas was the soldier that had humiliated the duke during his short stint fighting for the Deliverance.

Giles shoved his wine goblet into his squire’s hand as he stalked towards Lukas, his face now red with anger. “You’re the backwater noble that cost my brother his war glory!”

“Oh, I believe your brother did that all on his own.” Lukas continued to smile.

The man grabbed a fistful of Lukas’s shirt, raising his hand to ready a blow. “You swine! I’ll make you pay for-”

But before Giles could finish his threat, Lukas felt a shot of wind brush against the ends of his hair as an arrow whizzed past Giles’s ear and hit one of the wooden boxes by the tent.

Giles yelped and released Lukas’s shirt as his underlings launched from their seats. Forsyth reached out towards his friend before both of them turned to find another person had entered the area, now lowering their bow. Their head and face were completely covered by a helmet and visor that only left a small bar of vision for the eyes and no feather for decoration. A plain brown tunic that bore no sigil covered their chainmail. It was hard to tell whether they were a man or a woman based on what they wore, but they were undoubtedly tall enough to cut an imposing figure to the group.

Giles clicked his tongue, then gestured to his little group. “Leave these ruffians to their play. We’ll best them in the tournament.”

“Like he has any room to talk,” Forsyth muttered under his breath as they all dispersed into the main tent. Lukas approached the stranger, who had turned to retrieve the arrow.

“Thank you for getting involved,” Lukas replied. “It was rash of me to egg him on like that. It could have ended much less favorably.”

The stranger said nothing, merely inspecting the arrowhead for any deformities and placing it back in its quiver. They offered a brief nod to Lukas before walking ahead.

“That was unexpected,” Forsyth replied, unusually at a loss for words.

Lukas smoothed the wrinkles out on his shirt. “That seemed straight out of your stories, didn’t it?

“Well, yes. Uncannily so.”

Lukas smiled at Forsyth. “It’s a good thing they seem to be an archer. Let’s hope we won’t meet any other concealed faces in the melee. However, it might best for us to wait until the tournament begins before we stay in the tent. It should give us all a chance to calm our tempers.”

(~)

The initial section of the melee tournament went without incident, though that might have been due to most of Giles’ group being focused on the opening joust. Both Lukas and Forsyth made it to the semifinals of the melee portion, and the day seemed to be going relatively smoothly. However, it did not last.

Halfway through the day, Lukas and Forsyth left their armor behind to gather some much-needed food and refreshment;, but when they returned to the competitor’s tent, they found their allotted section in shambles. The mannequins that had been used to rest their armor had fallen over, leaving it scattered on the ground.

“What the-?” Forsyth kneeled down and grabbed the closest piece and felt around for dents. While it was outwardly undamaged, when his fingers hooked into the leather that lined the inner parts of the metal, his hand came back coated in oil. “For Mila’s sake, this is going to take days to scrub out!”

As Forsyth began to gather up their loose parts, Lukas turned to the other side of the tent and caught eyes with Giles. The noble was smirking as he passed some coin to one of the younger squires. The latter’s hands were as stained as Forsyth’s now were.

Lukas felt his hand clench into a fist, trying hard not to make the same mistake he had before. This tournament was meant to bring the kingdom together, not drive it into factions. He would not be the cause of another division.

“Forsyth,” He crouched down and rested a hand on Forsyth’s shoulder. The situation would grow more complicated if Forsyth noticed the vandals showing their actions so plainly. “It’s a lost cause for now. Why don’t we go enjoy the festivities?”

“But Lukas-!”

“You know as well as I do that we won’t clean these out in time,” Lukas replied with a bemused smile, before pulling out a handkerchief. “Let’s cheer Valbar on instead. At least one of the Queen's champions is still in the running.”

Forsyth looked ready to object, but instead heaved a heavy sigh and accepted Lukas’s favor to wipe his hands. Carefully, the two of them put their armor in a pile to deal with later. Though it was unfair, there was still an air of goodwill that permeated the spectators' area. Sure enough, Valbar made it to the final round and bested his opponent, bringing honor to the queen and king.

Lukas also took great pleasure watching Giles fall flat on his rear into the dirt and dung that had accumulated in the arena after Mathilda knocked him from his steed. Justice, in a small way, had prevailed.

The last event of the day was the archery final, where a familiar helmet-covered head was among the five competitors.

“It would seem that our friend may create another tale today,” Lukas commented.

Forsyth nodded. “Well, it’s expected, isn’t it? They were a crack shot!” Forsyth raised the remains of his ale into the air. “Go, Mystery Knight!”

Despite the plentiful cheers among the crowd, the knight raised a hand in their direction, before turning back to watch their competitors. The walls were higher than the provided targets, so there would, hopefully, be little chance of a stray arrow hitting anyone. The primary goal was that each competitor had an equal amount of five arrows, with a target offered for each one. The winner would be who garnered the most bullseyes. As they began, the jeers lulled as all eyes focused on the unfolding events.

The first two shows, unfortunately, were not so entertaining. Whether due to the wind or a shift in the sun, the arrows went off course with only one bullseye between them. The third, a man in Giles’s retinue, put up a tad more of a challenge, hitting two bullseyes. However, one veered dangerously off course, and several people in the crowd had to jump down not to get hit.

The archer let out a stream of blasphemy as he was immediately disqualified, before stomping out of the arena. The fourth, dressed in villagers clothes, was much more composed but did not go over the former’s scores. The audience watched with bated breath at the mystery knight, hoping for more entertainment.

They stepped forward with bow at the ready. Unlike the previous competitors, however, they did not hold it with the practiced stance of a stationary archer. Instead, they leaned to the side, drew their first arrow-

It took less a minute before it was over. With the short and practiced movements of a trained soldier, the knight unleashed their five arrows into the targets. All five made their mark.

There was a brief pause, as if to process what had just occurred, before the stands burst into roaring cheers. Forsyth had gotten to his feet to yell, but Lukas remained in his seat as a smile spread wide across his face.

The victors were given their glories and prizes by King Alm and Queen Celica, with most of them accepting them with evident pride. However, this was not the case of their faceless knight. They lifted a gloved hand to decline the medal, and when presented with the monetary prize, they jumped off the champion’s podium and into the crowd. Hands clamored around them, and they gave handfuls of coin to the people. Lukas saw Mathilda and Valbar share a glance and smile, before joining in the giving. Everyone left the stands with an extra coin in their purse and a story to tell.

After hauling their slick armor back to the barracks, Forsyth and Lukas went back to their favored tavern for a much-needed respite. They found Python snoozing at one of the tables with a half-finished pint.

Forsyth immediately smacked Python’s back. “Python, you won’t believe the day we had!”

Python groaned. “I bet. Why not get me a top off and tell me all about it?”

“Since I’m in a good mood, I shall. Wake the man up a bit more, would you Lukas?” Forsyth grabbed the cup and walked to the bar as Lukas sat down.

“So, Forsyth shared some of those chivalric tales with you when you were children?” Lukas asked casually.

Python scowled as he ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. He looked overheated and exhausted. “Not a word 'bout it to him, stud. Not a word.”

Lukas’s usual small smile now reached his eyes. “As you wish.”