Sir William stood in the middle of the tent while his squire Oliver buckled on his armour. As each piece closed around him, he felt a little more secure, a little more at home in himself. He had worn the armour so often over the years, it was like a part of him now. His life at court was comfortable, jousting for the king far safer and more rewarding than fighting on the borders. But donning his metal shell reminded him of the rough camaraderie of the marching camp.
Last night had been a fine night. He had been toasted by the King, shared whispered words with the lady Rosamund, been honoured to converse on the nature of war with Archbishop Francis. It left him in a fine mood, ready to take on all challengers in the tilting yard.
The steward John appeared in the entrance to the tent.
“You, boy,” he said, pointing at Oliver. “Get out.”
Oliver glanced briefly at his master, but they both knew that he would have to obey the King’s steward. William gave him the nod and out he scurried.
“How can I help you, master John?” William asked, flexing his arm to test the positioning of the plates.
“You ride against Burgundy’s champion in the first bout,” John said, striding back and forth across the width of the tent. “The King seeks an alliance with that lord. It would be best if the Burgundians were to feel good today.”
“We all want to feel good,” William said, smiling.
“Have you taken too many knocks to the head?” John glared at him. “Must I explain the situation to you?”
William sagged as the implication caught up with him.
“The King orders me to lose?” he asked.
“The King would never order such a thing. Let us just say that your loss would be most convenient, for you as well as His Majesty.”
The steward strode out, leaving William alone. He sat with his back against the tent’s central pole, feeling deflated. All the cheering and the toasts last night had come because he was a winner. Was he about to lose all that?
But he had a duty to the King, and the King rewarded those who served him well. William pulled himself back to his feet. There was pride to be taken in doing his duty, just as much as in winning.
Lady Rosamund’s maid Isabelle appeared in the doorway. She held out a silk scarf, and when William took it the air was filled with Rosamund’s scent. His heart beat faster.
“My lady asks that you wear her favour when you ride today,” Isabelle said, eyes demurely lowered. “Win in her name and all that your heart desires can be yours.”
She bobbed a curtsy and backed out.
William lifted the silk to his face and took another deep breath. All that his heart desired, and all he had to do was win. A thrill of anticipation ran through him at the thought of Rosamund’s smile, of her voice, of her golden curls cascading down her shoulders.
Except that he had to lose. The King had not ordered it, so technically William would not be disobeying him if he won. But duty was important, however it was phrased.
He sank back to the ground with a groan, clutching the silk and struggling with the choice that faced him.
A third figure appeared in the doorway. William was surprised to see Archbishop Francis smiling down at him.
“Your grace!” William leapt to his feet, a loose vambrace clanging against his arm. “Thank goodness you are here. I need spiritual guidance.”
“Is it about the joust?” the Archbishop asked.
“Yes!” William exclaimed. “Please, let’s talk.”
He pulled a pair of stools from the back of the tent.
“I am glad to see that my words sank in,” the Archbishop said, accepting a seat. “The violence of this spectacle needs to be curbed. Good Christians should not be spilling each other’s blood for entertainment.”
“I…” William frowned. This sounded familiar. Had the Archbishop said something like it last night, when William was over-excited and full of wine?
“All that the church asks is for a few good knights to ride out into the lists and then refuse to fight.” The Archbishop leaned forward eagerly. “I assure you, God will approve of your abstinence from the struggle. Your renunciation of this so-called sport will be heard all the way to the gates of Heaven.”
He laid a hand on William’s shoulder.
“God bless you, my son,” he said. “You do his work. Now I must go convince the others.”
He rose and walked out.
William sat, head in his gauntleted hands, staring at the floor. His armour felt like a great weight dragging him into the dirt.
Oliver reappeared in the entrance to the tent.
“Should I finish buckling you up, master?” he asked.
A deep sigh escaped Sir William. His King wanted him to lose. His love wanted him to win. His God wanted him to protest. What had happened to the simple joy of jousting?
“Pack our bags,” he said. “I’m going back to war.”
* * *
Living in Leeds, I can regularly visit the Royal Armouries Museum, one of the coolest places a military history fan could possibly find. They have regular reenactment events to entertain and inform visitors, and I recently got to see jousters practising for an international tournament. It was amazing to see the thundering reality of men and women in full plate armour galloping at each other on horseback, lances shattering at the impact. And of course, that’s what inspired this story.
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