Chapter Six: The Duel
Why, oh why do I get myself into these terrible situations? I asked myself for the umpteenth time on the way home from my fencing lesson. I had been chiding myself about it ever since I agreed to the duel the next day. My brother was even now sitting astride his horse with a smug look on his face, probably certain of the victory all ready. I was certain he only wanted to have the duel with me because Crystal was sure to come, and he knew it would be an easy win.
“Show off,” I muttered.
My brother turned to me with a quizzical look on his face. “What did you say?”
I shrugged. “Oh, nothing.”
He let it go, much to my relief. The remainder of the ride home was silent.
Once home, I began supper preparations, determined to not show how nervous I really was about the fight tomorrow. It was a difficult thing to do, and I had to check my desire to run outside and scream in an effort to relax my nerves.
Malcolm spent less time with the animals than usual and I put him to work setting our table. He did this cheerfully and whistled a catchy tune while doing so. I began humming the harmony to it almost automatically. My mother had sung that song to me whenever she put me to bed so I was very familiar with it.
Greensleeves is my delight
Greensleeves is all my joy
Greensleeves, my heart of gold
And who but my lady Greensleeves?
I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever you would crave
I have both wagered life and land
Your love and good will for to have
Well, I will pray to God on high
That thou my constant sea may see
And that yet once before I die
Thou will doth say to love me
He caught my eye and winked. I smiled, forgetting my troubles for the moment in the joy of having him there; a treat I knew now that I would not have forever.
Supper was laid on the table and we sat down to eat after a prayer. Once my brother had finished his plate, he folded his arms, leaned back in his chair and studied me. I finished my own meal before he spoke.
“Meg, you don’t have to do the duel,” he said. “William would understand.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Do you think I would back out now? After all the work I’ve put into practicing?”
Malcolm’s face clouded for a moment. “Meg, I’m worried what might happen. I don’t want to injure you.”
“Well then, I guess you’ll have to let me win!” I grinned.
“Please Meg,” my brother pleaded, “I’m serious.”
I sobered. “I am too Malcolm. If I don’t fight the duel with you, William will find someone else that won’t bother about being careful. Having a duel with you is really the safest way for me to get better.”
He sighed and pushed his chair back from the table. Lowering his voice suddenly he whispered, “Meg, the Duke of Akred has just declared that he will no longer give King Frederick the tribute that he has in the past. This means war. Our king will be summoning troops in the next few months to march on the duke’s castle before winter comes. He wants you to stay in the castle with Chrystal while we are away. Are you willing?”
Slowly my mind wrapped around the information. “Of course I’ll stay with the princess. Does he really believe that she might be in danger?"
Malcolm shrugged. “A king can never be too careful. It will ease his mind to know that she is not alone.
“Much help I’ll be if the castle is stormed,” I answered ruefully. “How will I help keep her safe?”
My brother grinned. “Let’s just say that there was another reason I let you learn the art of fencing.”
“How long is the king planning on fighting this duke?” I asked.
“Until he gives up and gives the king a formal agreement that he will continue paying his tribute. We may come back for short periods of time, but the king knows his men will do a better job fighting if he’s right there, fighting alongside them.”
A worried frown creased my forehead and I began twirling my hair absentmindedly. “When does the king leave?”
“Within the month.” Malcolm ran a hand through his hair and stood up. “I thought I would warn you.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Malcolm grinned suddenly, the worry melting from his face. “We’d better get some sleep tonight so we can duel our best tomorrow.”
I groaned. “I don’t know how I get myself into these predicaments! Why do I even open my mouth?”
He laughed. “Just go to bed and try to get some sleep. I’ll check on the animals one more time before also going to bed.” He winked at me again as he shut the door. “Good night!”
I sighed, cleaned up after our supper, and went to bed as he had ordered me. Laying on my back, the soft mattress and scented pillow beneath me, I suddenly realized just how tired I was. Only a few minutes passed before I shut my heavy eyelids and drifted off to sleep.
* * * * *
“Ready?” Malcolm asked me, his eyes twinkling, and a grin spread across his face like the butter I had spread on my biscuit that morning.
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“William, you’ll act as judge?” My brother turned to my teacher quizzically.
“I will,” he answered, “but I have one question for you both. I know this isn’t going to be a fight to the death—”
“Most definitely not,” I agreed.
William grinned. “—so how will I know when the fight is over?”
My brother rubbed his chin thoughtfully while eyeing me. “I don’t want to have it be whoever inflicts the first wound wins either though…” he said.
“No,” I agreed again. “No wounds.”
“Is there such a thing as a fight to the point of losing?” Malcolm asked William.
My teacher frowned. “You mean a fight where whoever knows he is losing will call an end to the fight?”
“Not exactly. I was more thinking that we could make to lines in the dirt of this courtyard on opposite ends and have each opponent start on one of them. Then they would come to the middle and begin the duel. Whichever duelist manages to get their opponent over the opposite line wins. Can you understand that?”
William worked out what my brother was saying for a minute before nodding his head. “I understand. What about you Meg?”
I shrugged. “I understand as well. To win I will have to force Malcolm over his starting line. It’s simple enough.”
“When you put it like that!” my teacher agreed with a laugh.
Quickly, William took a handy stick and drew the suggested lines on opposite sides of the court.
“Ladies first,” my brother offered gallantly, giving me the choice of which line I wanted to start on.
The whole courtyard was shaded, currently, so that made the choice relatively easy. I knew I did not want the sun in my eyes if I was fighting, and direct sunlight on one’s back was also extremely uncomfortable since it would make one’s hands sweaty and unable to wield a sword as well as one might in the best circumstances.
I finally chose one and Malcolm took the other. Both of us looked at William. He dropped a piece of cloth that had been dyed red for similar duels and my brother and I stepped to the center of the courtyard to begin our duel.
I had come knowing that my brother was good, and as the duel began, I could see that I had been right. I was immediately backed towards my line for at least ten feet before I was able to gain back some of the ground I had lost. Our blades both flashed so fast I could hardly watch my own, let alone where Malcolm’s was going next as I tried vainly to be ready to counter his moves with my own. It was almost a miracle that I was able to back him towards his line at all.
Why did I ever listen to Malcolm and William when they said I had a chance at being better than they are? I thought to myself as I grimly tried at least to keep Malcolm from pushing me back to my line. Well, they were wrong. I cannot hold a candle to Malcolm’s swordsmanship. I can at least have the satisfaction to say “I told you so” after my brother beats me.
Suddenly, things got easier. Malcolm’s blade stopped flashing as quickly, and his eyes were not watching my sword…they were focused on something behind me. I did not bother glancing away from him though. I took advantage of his temporary distraction and pushed him farther and farther away from my line. His eyes suddenly snapped back to the fight and widen in slight panic. He had realized that the fight was in my favor now and he jumped back in desperately trying to turn the fight back.
Hope had come to me though, and I was unwilling to let go of it now. Malcolm’s own line was only twenty feet away now. Mine, though I could not know for sure, was at least thirty feet behind me. I was not going to give up now. I had a fighting chance at last.
If possible, my sword’s blade flashed faster and my eyes darted back and forth in effort to keep up with it. My attack methods became almost reflexes as I advanced another yard closer to Malcolm’s line.
He pushed me back two feet.
I gained another four.
He pushed me back again, this time at least three feet.
I gained seven feet.
His line was now only fourteen feet away.
I pushed him back again for a gain of five feet.
By now, we were both exhausted and I silently wished that our lines had been drawn closer together. Although, I thought, if they had been closer, I probably would have lost by now.
With less than ten feet left to go, my brother fought almost wildly. I was surprised how well we had both managed to keep from hurting one another. Our swords had been so fast during the entire fight, and our fighting so frantic most of the time that it was nothing short of a miracle.
Finally, with a breathed prayer for strength, I gave one last effort. Forcing my exhausted muscles to swing my sword one last time, I pushed Malcolm over his line.
We stopped immediately, panting for breath. My arms felt like clay and I barely had the strength to sheath my sword and sink to the ground.
William came over to congratulate me as did my brother, but my face was buried in the soft ground and I merely groaned and waved them away. “Give me some time,” I ordered into the sweet-smelling grass.
After a few minutes of rest, I sat up and smoothed my hair, redoing the bun that had fallen out during the course of the fight.
Presentable at last, I stood up, still slightly weak-kneed and shaky. I shook William and Malcolm’s hands meekly, but shook my head at their compliments and praise.
“I didn’t deserve to win,” I said finally. “Malcolm is still better than me.”
“Then how did you win?” William demanded.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “About half way through the fight Malcolm got distracted and I didn’t so I was able to take advantage of him. That is how I won. I wouldn’t have had a chance other than that distraction.”
Malcolm grinned sheepishly. “She’s right about the distraction. Princess Crystal came out of her room onto her awning to watch us for a moment. The movement and color of her dress against the grey stone did take my focus away from the fight.”
William smiled. “Well in that case, shall we have another fight some other time when the princess isn’t around?”
I shuddered. “No thank you. I want to stop while I’m ahead.” I gave my brother a teasing smile. “Not every one can say that they’ve beaten Malcolm in a sword duel. Besides,” I added mournfully. “The way my arms feel, I doubt if I’ll ever be able to lift a sword again, not to mention actually be able to fight with one.”
Just then one of the castle guards came out onto the courtyard, interrupting our laughter. “King Frederick wishes to see you in his apartments Sir Malcolm,” he said stiffly.
“Tell him I shall come immediately Alfred,” my brother answered.
“I will do so with all speed,” the guard replied. “I have a message for your sister as well: Princess Crystal wants to congratulate her.”
I blushed. “It wasn’t really a—”
“My sister thanks Her Royal Highness for the congratulations,” my brother said.
The guard, Alfred, left us and Malcolm followed soon after.
“Be sure to go to the princess and stay with her until I come to go home with you,” Malcolm ordered. “If she offers you dinner, accept. This business with the king might take a while.”
I nodded. I hope nothing has gone wrong yet. I thought to myself. “I’ll be ready,” I promised. Ready for trouble, I added mentally, seeing the worried look in his eyes.
As I had suspected, though hoped against, trouble was coming…and, it was coming sooner than any of us had expected.