All Things Are Lights – Day 60 of 200

He forgot his fear for her in surprise at her last words.

“Constable of France? Is that what Amalric wants?”

“He would be King if he could,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “Constable is as close as he can come. He is very close to that. Eudes d’Arcis is too old to continue as Constable. Amalric has told me that his name heads the King’s list.”

A black fire raged through Roland. Amalric, commander of all the armies of France? It must not be.

Now, as he sat on his horse alone in the center of the field, he felt a hollow in his stomach and he wondered at his rashness. Had he not stood just outside the lists this morning and watched Amalric conquer ten knights in a row? Three of them had been carried off the field unconscious. And later he heard that one of Amalric’s victims had needed an armorer to cut him out of his crushed helmet. That is the man I expect not only to fight, but to kill?

Well, first I must earn the right to challenge him.

Roland bowed again to the King, who still wore the blue surcoat and mail he had worn this morning when he had ridden a careful passage at arms with the aging Constable, Eudes d’Arcis.

From the group of officials and musicians gathered below the gallery, a herald in a yellow and blue tabard stepped forth and asked Roland’s name.

A moment later three trumpeters blew a long blast and the herald bawled, “Sire Orlando of Perugia challenges the Sire Enguerrand de Coucy.”

Roland turned to look at the man he had challenged. The Sire de Coucy, who had just defeated his last opponent, sat his horse awaiting challengers at the eastern end of the tilting barrier, a low wooden wall that ran lengthwise down the center of the field. He was a broad, powerfully built man. His tilting helm sported huge bronze elk antlers.

Roland anxiously awaited de Coucy’s response to the challenge. What if he refuses to fight me? The de Coucys are one of the great families of the realm, after all, and I am just a landless knight. But he cannot refuse. He is only a younger son of the house, and he has neither land nor title.

Before de Coucy, all the knights who had taken the field had been landed barons, bearers of old and famous titles. Tournament custom would have permitted them to reject a challenge from an unknown. Enguerrand de Coucy was the first likely opponent to appear for Roland.

Roland remembered Enguerrand’s older brother, Raoul de Coucy, the head of the house, who had been so pleasant to him at the Queen’s singing contest. All Roland knew about Enguerrand was that he had a reputation as a savage fighter and had many tournament victories to his credit. Today Roland had seen him drive two knights off the field.

Slowly, de Coucy lowered his lance, pointing it at Roland. He had accepted the challenge.

With a last look at Nicolette, Roland turned and rode into position at the opposite end of the tilting barrier from de Coucy. Alezan, impatient, stamped his hooves and blew out his breath noisily.

“Easy, my big fellow,” Roland said softly.

He raised the thirty-pound shield on his left arm till it covered his body from his chin to his knees. He shook his head to settle the tilting helm more comfortably.

The nobles’ gallery was quiet. Hundreds of common people pressed against the fencing. Roland stared down the field to the opposite end and saw the narrow platform on four wooden legs where knights who broke the tournament rules would be made to stand, stripped of their armor, their shields turned upside down, to endure public scorn. For now the platform of shame was empty. Saint Michel, do not let me make some blunder and end up there, he prayed.

“Cut the cords! Cry battle!” shouted the chief of the heralds from the center of the field. He turned and walked back to his place in front of the gallery. Six musicians in blue and gold royal livery stepped out and raised pennon-hung trumpets and clarions to their lips.

Roland lowered his lance and pointed it across the barrier, sighting along it at the figure of de Coucy, two hundred yards away.

At the trumpets’ blast Roland settled himself deeper into his saddle and spurred Alezan to a gallop down the length of the barrier. Peering through the slits in his tilting helm, he kept his eyes fixed on the red and white bands painted across Enguerrand’s shield.

He leaned forward in the saddle as Alezan picked up speed. The center of the field seemed to rush at him. He felt himself hurtling forward, his heart beating faster than the drumming of Alezan’s hoofs. The wind whistled through the eye slits in his helm.

As de Coucy’s red-banded shield grew in his sight, Roland remembered Guido’s instructions and turned his shield to meet de Coucy’s lance point at an angle. But he fixed his eyes and his own lance point on the exact center of de Coucy’s shield. He tensed the muscles of his chest, shoulder, and arm till they felt like a solid piece of iron.

Enguerrand’s blunt lance point struck Roland’s shield off center and slid harmlessly by, but Roland’s lance hit solidly. The shock of the impact would have knocked Roland out of his saddle were it not for the high back that held him in place, and he threw all his weight forward to keep his seat. His horse gave an angry whinny.

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