Valun had in fact ordered games and contests to be prepared in advance of his coronation. However, due to the general state of the nobles and the public after the unfettered revelry of the king’s feast, no one, save Conan and others like him who had been able to restrain themselves, could be considered fit to participate in any sort of competition the following day.
Therefore, Valun declined to announce the opening of the contests until the second morning had broken, at which time the nobles and their retinues repaired to the lists which had been prepared outside the north wall of the city, to make their preparations for a day of jousting and the tournament. Meanwhile, the attendants who were not immediately required mingled with the general public of the city to watch and compete in lesser sports.
Among these lesser sports, which were spread throughout the plain around the walls and continued until the jousting was announced, there could be found footraces, quarter-staff duels, wrestling and other contests of strength, and an archery competition. The archery contest drew the greatest crowd, including Valun himself, for whom a dais had been provided where he sat flanked by Evelyn on his right and Anne on the left, Conan was not present, having left the others earlier to prepare for participation in the tournament. When they had been seated, a silver medallion was presented to them as the prize to be given to the winner.
The other contests still continued while the archery progressed. As a winner was found for each event, they were led by royal guards to the king’s dais, where the Trondale ladies took it in turns to present each champion with a medallion of their own, of which Valun had earlier ordered several struck and given into their keeping with this intent.
The archery was thrilling, with many men there displaying uncanny skill at the hunter’s art. When it finally concluded, the victor was revealed to be an attendant of the Bristolans, which Valun noted with pride since that family were his relations on his mother’s side. When the man was brought before the dais, Valun rose as the man knelt before him. Holding out the medal and letting it fall around the man’s neck, Valun asked “What do they call you, man?”
The man, who had kept his head bowed till now, answered “My name is Roger o’ Dale, my lord.”
“Roger o’ Dale, you have this day brought further honor to the name of the honored queen mother. Take that and this medal back to your home. I name you the King’s Archer, until a man can best you. Rise now.” As Roger o’ Dale rose, Valun took a step back and said “Throughout this day there have been many champions, and many, many, worthy challengers to their victories. Let us now give them their due.” With these words he began to slowly applaud, as Roger o’ Dale made his way through the crowd, smiling widely and thrusting a fist in the air. The king’s applause spread like fire down from the royal seats and among the common people and lasted several minutes, trailing off only when a herald’s horn became audible in the distance.
This was the announcement that the nobles’ own contest waited only on the presence of the king. In response, the crowd began to disperse toward the lists, as four royal guards made their way to the side of the king’s party, creating a buffer between them and the commoners which allowed them to move at their own leisurely pace. A short walk brought them to the grandstand alongside the lists, where their arrival was announced by fanfare as they took their seats. Then a herald presented the king with a silver circlet on a cushion, which he in turn presented to Anne.
The grandstand was considerably larger than the dais that had been provided at the archery contest. Not only was it three rows tall, but it was also covered with a great awning, and pennants displaying the king’s crest were hung from the top on all sides. The king’s party of course occupied the top row, and the remaining spaces were filled by those recognized as manor lords who were either too old or too young and untested to pit themselves against those in the prime years of their life, and their attendants.
Noticing that a herald was looking to him for orders, Valun said to him “Let the contest begin.”
Turning back, the herald blew a note on his horn and cried out for all to hear.
“Hear ye, hear ye! This tournament, given by the king Valun III here present, shall now commence. The jousting shall be with blunted lances only. Any who use sharp points shall forfeit the match and the whole contest. If a third pass must be made, the two shall dismount and fight until the victor is clear. Following the jousts, the two who have the most victories in the lists shall be captains for the melee, which shall continue until a champion is determined, by conquest or by the king’s decision. Let the first contenders come forth!”
The first two knights to come forth were named as Mason, duke of Berunthia, on the left, and a northern earl, Bryan of Lansfel, on the right. They both saluted the king and then shared a nod of courtesy before galloping down the lists. On that first pass, however, Bryan of Lansfel declined the strike, and Duke Mason pulled up and let him pass. At the end of the lists, now at the ends opposite those they had begun from, they turned and charged each other once more. This time they struck, and Bryan of Lansfel emerged victorious, as Mason’s lance shattered upon the Lansfel’s shield, while the other’s lance remained intact. Saluting each other from the ends of the lists, they returned to their pavilions to await another chance to ride.
The second match was between the Elderon, a baron who had come from outside Carribeasa, and the Urstalan, another baron whose land was near the border with Naibern on the coast below Corrandion. This time there was no free pass. Neither of the two wavered, and they struck at full gallop, only for both to break their lances against the other’s shield. At this, they turned back to their own pavilions to receive new lances and do it again. The second time, the Elderon succeeded in jolting the other loose from his saddle, and so was declared the victor in that match.
A third match came and went, with the victor succeeding in one pass and receiving especially energetic applause from the audience for having done something the previous contenders had not achieved. It was the fourth match, however, which drew the most excitement from the king’s row. It was in that match that Conan made his first appearance in the lists, removing his helm for his salute to the king’s seat and not replacing it till his opponent had appeared at the opposite end.
Conan’s counterpart in his first bout was a giant earl from the midlands, whose land lay close to that of the Longfurrows and the Aldaricks. After sharing the appropriate salutes, the two charged. Both their lances shattered, with neither giving any sign that they had been upset by the blow. Receiving fresh lances from their respective attendants, they broke those also, to the surprise and excitement of the audience. The knights dismounted and remained where they were, while attendants approached to remove their steeds and bring them their chosen weapons. Conan, to the surprise of no one who had seen him, wielded a double-bladed battleax, while his opponent flourished a sword longer than some men’s arms. They went at each other like two wild animals fighting for dominance of a pack, each giving and parrying tremendous blows which drew gasps from the crowd. After several minutes had passed and Anne had begged him several times to put an end to the fight before one killed the other or they both had to remove themselves from the contest, Valun gave a signal to the herald standing nearby, who immediately blew two blasts on his horn. The unexpected noise caused both men to stop suddenly, their weapons locked, as they had been several times already. As they turned to look toward the king’s seat, the herald called out “Remove your helms. The king wishes words with you.”
As both men complied with this order and turned to face him, Valun rose and said “You have both shown great strength, skill, and courage in this duel, but the lady asks that you retreat, so that you may both be able to appear before us again this day. Neither has lost nor won this contest.” At the conclusion of the king’s speech, the audience gave the two combatants hearty applause as they saluted the king, shook hands, and retreated to their own pavilions to await another chance to tilt against each other or another.
When they had cleared the lists, the jousts resumed, with many exciting matches between nobles from all over the country. The hours advanced, the shade grew longer, and several of the contestants, including Conan and the giant earl, came out multiple more times, though those two declined to face each other again. Finally, when the jousting had progressed until most of the competitors were down to their last lance or had simply declined to participate again, The heralds granted a few minutes of rest to everyone, during which time attendants prepared the field, before calling for the start of the melee combat.
When the rest period had expired, a herald blew one long note and then announced the captains for the melee which would decide the day’s champion.
“The captain for the west side, with three victories, one loss, and the king’s draw, is Conan, baron of Wycliff, the Trondale!” Valun heard Anne almost shriek with excitement as she cheered her brother along with himself and the rest of the audience. Conan made his reappearance in the midst of the cheering and saluted the king again. When the cheering for Conan had died down, the herald promptly announced the second captain.
“The captain for the east side, with four victories and the king’s draw, is Robert, earl of Salanfel, the Darron!” His record having been announced, no one was the least bit surprised to see the giant Conan had fought in his first match emerge immediately from his pavilion to hearty applause and cheers from the assembled crowd. As the Darron gave his salute to the king, the rest of the nobles who had participated and were still able to compete rode into the field, assembling behind their captain depending on which side they had come in from.
When all the participants had assembled, the heralds walked between the parties and made a space in the center as wide as the height of two men, which no man was to cross until the order had been given. On their respective sides of this space, the combatants arranged themselves in neat squares, with the captains riding front and center. All told, there were twenty men to a side, but this was not the full complement of nobles who had come to participate. Several more had been unhorsed or even injured in the jousts and had declined to ride in the melee. However, several of these worthy knights could be seen watching the contest from chairs which had been brought from their pavilions, loudly cheering one side or the other, depending on which side of the lists they were seated on.
After a moment had been allowed to grant the knights time to be sure of their weapons and their footing, Valun gave the signal that the combat should begin.
Accordingly, the heralds blew one long blast on their horns and cried in unison. “Strength, will, and courage win the day! Strike no foul blows, and may the best man take the victory!”
With a resounding cheer from the audience, the battle began. Each side charged at the other full tilt, with each man singling out a man he would try to unseat. Conan and Robert Darron avoided each other at the first clash, taking on lesser foes in clear attempts to tip the balance in favor of their own side, rather than engage immediately in the titanic struggle, which few people doubted, after the jousts, would eventually come anyway to decide the ultimate victor of the day.
The first to fall was the Elderon, on Conan’s side, struck down by a blow from the Darron. As attendants ran into the midst of the fight to return him to his tent, Conan evened the score by unseating the Selden, a southern earl who had very nearly unseated Conan earlier. Then the Aldarick fell, and the Urstalan, and more besides. After this flurry of victories, which were met equally by cheers and gasps, there was a lull in the casualties, though not in the combat.
After some minutes, the Relton, who had been fighting on Conan’s side, was knocked down. Valun joined in the cheers, as he had been doing for each and every victor throughout the day. However, secretly within his mind he was beginning to worry for Conan’s side, as the Relton was the fourth man the Darron himself had struck down, and the balance was distinctly in favor of the Darron’s side.
However, the next moment, as Valun turned away to give orders to an attendant, he heard wild cheers break out suddenly from the crowd. Turning back to the fight, he saw his own cousin the Hightower, Mason of Berunthia, unseat the Darron’s right-hand man, and follow this up with another quick conquest. Valun turned to Evelyn and asked “What has happened?”
Not breaking off her applause, Conan’s mother answered “The Hightower has just unseated four men in succession. No man has done that yet.”
Her words prompted Valun to watch the subsequent battle more closely. In the ensuing minutes more men on both sides were unseated, and the field was reduced down to Conan, Duke Mason, and two others on one side, and Robert Darren and six others on the opposing side. As Valun watched, everyone paused for a moment. The remaining knights seemed to be sizing each other up and enjoying the moment before the final clash which would leave some of them on the ground, being dragged out by their attendants, having failed in the chance to take the crown of the day.
Without any warning, the eleven knights remaining on the field all started up at once, charging at each other in full gallop. Swinging his ax above his head, Conan unseated one of the Darron’s men using the flat of his blade, and blocked another’s stroke against him with the backswing. Duke Mason and the two other knights each unseated a man before the latter two were unseated themselves, leaving Conan and the king’s cousin alone against the might of the Darron and the two men remaining on his side.
Pressing their advantage, the Darron and his men, one of whom was Bryan of Lansfel, charged hard at the king’s favorites without warning. In the face of the charge, the Hightower, who had been right alongside Conan, pulled back and turned his horse so that he was back-to-back with Conan as the Lansfel and the other rushed by. Following this, the Hightower seized his chance and steered his horse into a corner, where he sat facing the field. Raising his visor, he yelled out “Who will face me? I’ll take both of you on!” He closed it again amidst admiring cheers from the audience at this display of bravado.
Meanwhile, Conan had finally engaged the Darren in the duel they had both been avoiding throughout the afternoon. However, the two were no longer mounted, by choice. Whilst the Hightower had been drawing off the others, Conan had quickly dismounted and sent his steed away. According to the rules of engagement, this meant the Darron could no longer attack Conan unless he also was dismounted. This he did, as he and everyone knew both that three on one with one spare opponent was unmanly, and that Conan had already proven himself the Darron’s worthiest opponent. And so the two rivals began sparring on foot near the center while the Hightower held off the other two riders in the northwest corner of the field. Suddenly the Hightower inspired a round of cheers with a series of movements in which he parried both his opponent’s weapons at once, kicked his horse, and rode between the two, pushing Bryan of Lansfel, who was on his sword arm, off his saddle in the process. As the Lansfel was taken away by his servants, the crowd’s attention turned back to the captain’s duel. This time, both having spent so much strength in the course of the day, neither stood as firm as they had in their first duel during the jousts, and both found themselves giving ground when the other landed a good blow. Then the crowd grew excited again as the Hightower and his remaining opponent, in an astonishing turn of events, managed somehow to unseat each other while fighting with swords.
Leaning down to speak to one of the older knights, Valun asked him “Have you ever seen that happen before?”
His elder answered with a smile “Aye, my lord. If two men in a tournament agree not to go on, and cut each other’s saddles, then it can be done. I did it myself in my day. Your father the old king was also known to do it.”
Leaning back in his chair, Valun digested this surprising piece of information while refocusing his attention on the last remaining combat, the duel of the champions. That duel, as slow as it was compared to the earlier one, was still quite a sight. At one time the two had locked their free hands together as well as their weapons, and each seemed to be trying to pull the other closer. However, they soon broke this off as it did not seem to be giving either of them an advantage. Upon breaking apart, they each stepped back and began swinging their blades once more. It was then, finally, that a chance came for one to win the duel and the crown.
The Darren swung at Conan’s legs, but Conan, seeing this, displayed agility which drew gasps from the crowd, pulling his legs up over the sweep of the blade and at the same time manipulating his ax so as to catch the other’s sword in the space between the ax-blades and the haft. Succeeding in this, he twisted the ax haft within his grip at a great speed which broke his rival’s iron grip and sent the sword spinning away to land in the grass a yard or more away.
The moment this became apparent, wild cheers began to ring out from the crowd, the loudest that had been given all day. Valun and the ladies did not join in the cheering, but simply all rose at once and stood applauding both victor and vanquished until the applause died away at the call of a herald’s horn.
Then the herald, as was his duty, unnecessarily followed his horn-blasts with the announcement already clear to everybody. “The final champion of the king’s tournament, by the disarming of his last opponent, is Conan, the Trondale, Baron of Wycliff!” The general applause resumed at a much reduced volume as the heralds cleared the way for Conan to mount the steps.
As custom dictated, he knelt on the last step below the king, head bowed to receive his prize. Without missing a step, his sister, who Valun could see was struggling to remain composed, approached Conan with the crown and said “Rise, noble sir, champion of this day’s combat. For you have proved so worthy.” With these words, she placed the circlet crown on Conan’s uncovered head.
Valun almost missed Conan’s reply, which the new champion had not raised his head to say, because he had not expected Conan to say anything.
“Must I wear this thing for long?”
Valun grinned as he heard the ladies stifling laughter. Then Evelyn spoke what he had been thinking himself.
“Well of course you must, my boy, fifty men have been bashing each other about over the thing all this day. It would a slight to them if you did not take pride in your victory.”
“If I must…”
Deciding it was time to set things right again, Valun broke in with the solemn words that closed the tournament. “Rise, King’s Champion. We will expect you at our table tonight.”
This was Conan’s cue that he was free to leave the king’s presence for that time, and he wasted no further time in taking it. The common people gave him space, but those of the nobles who had watched the entire event from the grandstand did not restrain themselves in their congratulations.
“That, my boy, may have been the finest tournament this country has seen in ages of kings.” Said one.
Another remarked “Never have I seen such endurance in the trial. Robert of Salanfel has long been the mightiest knight in the country, and only the most skilled hope to bring him down.”
To this, Valun heard Conan reply “I am not among them. I would thank you not to place me in their company yet.” With these words, he left the confines of the grandstand to make his way back to his own pavilion.
Valun and the ladies remained where they were until the champion had left the field. Only then did Valun indicate to the attendants that they wished to leave, at which time the guards came up and the heralds blew a blast on their horns and cried
“The day of festival and tournament is ended! Make way for the king!” Flanked by guards, the royal party began then to make their way through the crowd and back toward the castle, as the present nobles began to fall in behind them according to age and rank.
By the time Conan had reached his pavilion and had come into the care of his attendants, who were not his own men but a pair who had been lent to him by one of the nobles on his side, he was lurching about and needed their assistance to reach the chair without crashing to the ground. Once he was firmly placed in it, though, the attendants immediately began to divest him of the armor, while he merely sat and watched the operation unfold.
In the midst of their work, there was a knock on the post outside on which Conan’s shield was hung. His throat parched by the harsh exercise, Conan forced himself to call out in response “Enter.”
As the attendants helped Conan rise to his feet and gave him a bowl of water to drink from, he saw his rival for that day, Robert of Salenfel, enter the tent, ducking his head to fit himself into the opening. Straightening himself again, he spoke.
“Greetings. I have come to give you my congratulations, if you will take it, for your victory today.”
“I will take them gladly. More gladly than I wear this champion’s crown, even though it was given by the king, and bestowed on me by my own sister.”
“The lady who was with the king is your sister? She is a sight to bring light to men’s eyes, if you will bear my saying so. You are fortunate indeed, to have such favor with the king.”
“Yes, he is giving us great favor, but I have no doubt that he would do as much for you had your house made the sacrifices of mine. The king has not yet told me of any desire to make my sister his queen. And be careful how you look toward her, for she is barely of age, and you have learned something of what a threat I can be.”
“I will take your words to heart-and that indeed- No man has bested me in trials of strength for many years, and I am but rarely unseated by the best knights in the land. You are a worthy successor to my title. You, young baron, can rightfully claim to be the strongest noble in the kingdom, and few men will dare to challenge your reign.”
By now being fully divested of his scuffed and battered armor, which the attendants had already removed to begin the process of renewing it, Conan finished his drink and said “I thank you for the compliment, good sir. I would speak falsely if I said I never thought there was a chance that I would fall to you. At the king’s right hand in the fight to reclaim the kingdom, I fought many strong men, but none were a match for you. Join me in attending the king’s feast.”
“That I will gladly do.”
So saying, the two departed from Conan’s tent and began to make their way, through a wave of cheers for both of them, up to the castle. When they had set foot inside and the herald had announced “Robert, Earl of Salanfel” and “Conan, Baron of Wycliff” All the nobles there present stood once more and again gave them both a round of applause. In the midst of this noise they shook hands and then separated, each going to the place assigned to him.
When at last Conan had reached the high table, and taken his place at the king’s right side, above even the king’s own family, Valun opened the feast and another night of much food and good fellowship began. After some minutes, Conan saw that Valun was leaning to his side and asked “What would you say, my lord?”
Valun answered calmly “I would ask where John of Ronaiera is, for I believe he should be here with us, yet I have not seen him this day.”
“I have done nothing against him, my lord, and I know not where he can be found. Please let us not allow his absence to spoil our good cheer.”
“I will take your advice for this night. I sent for him some time ago, however. Surely he must have been found were he in the city.”
John sat on a small bed in a chamber situated high up one of the towers of the castle. He had gone up to that room while everyone was watching the tournament. The window into it did not look toward the north, so he had missed the whole event, but that did not bother him. He found that little bothered him anymore. He groaned as he tried to straighten his back to walk around the small space and keep his limbs from going numb. The pain still hurt like knives, however, and he was forced to fall back after managing two steps. He no longer feared death, only pain. Death, in fact, had been easy, he thought. It had taken but little to give it to the king’s messenger, who had found him as he approached the castle earlier. The Naiberns had disposed of the body. His task was to wait for a chance. He began to softly sing a tragic ballad as he continued to sharpen a long knife.