All Things Are Lights – Day 62 of 200

Roland dismounted and dashed through a wicket in the tilting barrier to attack his opponent on foot. They went at each other with blunted one-handed swords. Blade clanged against blade, against helmet, against shield.

The Englishman was a dogged battler. I will never beat him, Roland thought, almost despairing. His right arm ached with fatigue. His arms and shoulders throbbed from the bruising blows of the Englishman’s sword.

Desperate to end it, Roland suddenly smashed his shield into the front of his opponent’s helmet. The foreign knight staggered backward, dropped to his knees, fell forward with a clatter, and lay still.

Roland stood panting with relief as two equerries rushed to help the fallen knight.

As he watched the Englishman tottering off the field, leaning on the equerries, Roland felt a surge of sympathy for him. Having traveled from England to France to join the crusade, he probably could ill afford to lose expensive equipment.

Roland turned to face the King, pushed back his tilting helmet so he could be heard, and addressed Louis in a voice that stilled the crowd. “Sire, I would restore to the English gentleman his forfeited arms and horse, that he may use them when he accompanies you on crusade.”

The audience shouted in praise of Roland’s gesture, and Louis lifted both hands in a gesture of blessing.

Again Roland felt a warm glow in his chest as he bowed to the King. Absurd that I should be happy because this King, who reigns over the destroyers of Languedoc, approves of me! Or that I should be assisting crusaders.

At that very moment he saw Amalric, leaning against the lists, staring at him. Amalric’s look was empty of recognition. As if I were already a corpse, thought Roland.

An hour later, the crowd was cheering wildly for the unknown Italian knight. Close to exhaustion but dizzy with excitement, Roland could hardly believe what he had accomplished. Nine more knights after the Englishman. Now, as he waited at the end of the tilting barrier for Perrin to water and wipe down the sweating Alezan, he could not remember how he had overcome them all. Two — or was it three? — had been knocked unconscious when he unhorsed them. Some he had attacked furiously on foot, driving them up against the lists and so automatically defeating them. Others he had battered into submission with his sword.

Nine war-horses, each worth a fortune, he thought. Nine helmets, nine shields, nine swords, nine hauberks. I shall keep the best two of each and sell the rest, and I shall be able to support my household for a year without help from Father. If I live.

He saw Guido, with the Templar’s eight-pointed cross on the chest of his white surcoat, standing in the western gateway. Guido waved, and Roland waved happily back. By God, without that month of training with the Templars, I could never have done this. They are a wealthy enough order, but I shall give them a handsome gift.

I have surpassed Amalric, Roland thought. Now, before I am completely exhausted, it is time to call him out. His body tingled expectantly.

He remounted Alezan and leaned over to speak to Perrin. Moments later the chief herald cried, “Sire Orlando of Perugia challenges His Grace, Count Amalric, Seigneur of Gobignon, to try conclusions with him on this honorable field.”

The crowd shouted eagerly. They would like nothing better, Roland thought, than to see a passage at arms between the two knights who had fought best so far this day.

But when Roland looked up at Nicolette in the gallery, she half rose from her seat, pale and frightened.

Do not be afraid, my love. In a few moments I may set you free. Gingerly, he touched the blue and gold scarf with his mailed hand, wishing he were stroking Nicolette’s cheek.

Peering down the length of the field, he saw a dun-colored percheron draped in purple and gold being led to a violet and yellow tent. He saw the flaps of the tent swept apart and a tall figure with long blond hair emerge.

Having rested from his combats of this morning, Amalric would be fresh, while Roland’s every muscle ached with fatigue. Amalric’s hauberk gleamed as if he had never been in battle that day, and Amalric vaulted into the saddle as if he were not wearing a coat of mail. Every move Amalric made seemed to Roland full of a terrible calm strength — the way he donned the tilting helmet with its silver wolf’s head, the way he took a lance from an equerry and lifted it high, the way he spurred his charger to a trot as the gateway to the lists swung open before him.

Can I really do it? Roland wondered, full of doubt as the glittering enemy rode into position at the far end of the tilting barrier.

In the silence that fell over the crowd Roland could hear a ringing in his ears from the blows he had taken on his tilting helm.

He felt a painful emptiness in his stomach as he thought over his plan. When they clashed, he would break his lance on Amalric’s shield. Then, instantly, he would lift the broken end of the lance and smash it, with his and Alezan’s full weight behind it, into the front of Amalric’s helm. More than one knight had died that way, his face caved in.

But his hands were cold and damp under the mail gauntlets. There is no way I can be certain this will work. What if my lance does not break properly? What if Amalric holds his shield high to protect his face? He forced himself to stop thinking about what could go wrong.

The trumpet blared. “Do not fail me, Alezan,” Roland whispered to the chestnut war-horse, and he spurred him to gallop.

The figure of Amalric, small in the distance, suddenly loomed huge before him. Roland thought of Perrin and Nicolette. He forgot everything else. His eyes and his arms must carry out his plan.

He flung his shield wide when Amalric’s lance struck, driving the point off to one side. His own lance hit the purple shield square in the middle. Roland’s lance shrieked and splintered. Yard-long slivers of wood flew past Roland’s head. So hard was the blow, Roland was amazed to see Amalric still in the saddle — amazed but pleased, because he wanted him there.

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