Amid splintering timber, a heavily-clad knight was launched from his steed at the end of a wooden pole. He landed on the green turf with a thud! He let out a groan. He felt like someone bent his shoulders a way they were not intended to move.
As he lay on the turf, his shoulder throbbing and several sharp rocks poking miserably into his side, the rumbling sounds of cheers and applause struck his ears.
He opened his eyelids, and beheld a young man dressed in a green tunic atop gray chain-mail armor. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His clear Eastern and European expressions were firm and resolute yet somewhat handsome. Immense muscles stood out beneath his mail.
“Art thou seriously injured, uncle?” he asked.
“Nay, Sir Arthur, except for a few bruises on my back. My shoulders feel as if I fell off a horse and landed on the ground. Tarry a moment, I suppose I did,” the knight joked as he dusted off his red cloak and was helped to his feet. “Anyhow, it was admirably done, young sir. Thou art very promising.”
“I agree with thy statement there, Sir Giles,” said a gray-bearded nobleman with a kind face, walking toward them.
“Well, my good brother, I trust thou thinkest that the outcome was in favor of thy son?”
“Why thinkest thou thus?” angrily questioned the young man.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! I suffered thee to win the joust,” Sir Giles answered. He jutted his chin, defying the proud youth.
“Did what?” asked Sir Arthur, his voice incredulous.
Sir Giles crossed his arms, but instantly uncrossed them, for the pain shooting up the biceps. I hate jousts, he thought. But if I must, I must.
“I knew, nephew, that if I won, everyone would hate me. But, methought, if I let Sir Arthur Gifford here win, everyone might not love me, but at least they wouldn’t despise me. And that is what I did.” The words were barely out of his mouth when the young knight's fist struck his own thigh.
“I know the laws of chivalry,” he cried, “and by suffering me to win the joust, thou hast broken all of them!”
Sir Giles glared back.
“Hold!” cried Sir Arthur's father. “My son and dear uncle, let not this combat of lances break our friendship one with another.” He lowered his eyebrows, and Sir Giles saw Sir Arthur lower his head.
The gray-bearded lord spoke quietly to his son. “Methought I had trained thee better, Art.”
Sir Arthur did not speak.
“Be each man swift to hear, but slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” To Sir Giles it sounded as if his brother Sir Lionel was quoting some sort of wise poet, one which Sir Giles in all his learning had never read.
“I declare,” continued Sir Lionel, speaking again in his usual tone. “In a month’s time, ye twain shall both meet in a combat of swords. Art has beaten me several times, which, I declare in all humility, a feat accomplished but by few. Sir Giles, I hear that thou art one of the best swordsmen in Europe. I have spoken. I anticipate this duel.”
At his words, the two antagonists stared at each other. To the surprise of Sir Giles, his nephew grasped his hand and, with a broad smile, shook it vigorously.
Sir Arthur placed his arm around Sir Giles’ shoulder, and left Sir Lionel. The knight was carried by his nephew over a wooden bridge, and across a gray moat, toward an impressive iron gate. The sides of it surrounded the interior in a great circle and extended in tall stone walls.
They halted a few paces away from the gate, for they beheld a tall, slim girl, richly dressed and accompanied by her maids.
The girl clearly looked the sister to the man in green, yet was much younger. Perhaps seventeen. I keep forgetting to ask, Sir Giles thought. She was fair, yet modest in her looks and apparel.
She approached the three warriors cheerfully.
“Arty,” she exclaimed, using her moniker for her brother, “what is the outcome? I was restless and regretful while I tended mother. Who is the victor?”
“I would be, my dear Esther, except your father's brother had no desire to win, so he let me.” He glanced at Sir Giles.
“Well,” said Sir Giles. “If I would have persisted, I would have beaten thine brother, which would have caused thee to detest me.”
Sir Arthur grunted softly. Esther laughed. She saved Sir Giles further trouble by asking if the defeated was badly injured.
“Nay, not much.” Sir Giles answered.
Sir Lionel led them through the gate, across a green lush courtyard. The large multitude of spectators behind followed them. The Duke stepped up and opened a door. They passed and entered a hall of considerable length, leaving the mass outside. Esther led the way to a small yet tidy sleeping-chamber. Sir Giles was laid on his bed of rushes by Sir Arthur and he, with his sister and her attendants, departed, leaving Sir Giles to his dreams
An hour later, Sir Giles was awaken, despite his aches, and seated at a long table in the hall. At the head of the table sat the lord of the castle, Sir Lionel Gifford, Duke of Giffordshire. He was dressed in his finest, his short gray hair topped by a small golden crown.
Seated to his right was his eldest son and heir, Sir Arthur Gifford, a knight of twenty-five summers, his straggling raven black hair growing in all directions.
At Sir Arthur's right was his brother and squire, Rufus, a lad of fourteen. Next to him sat another of Sir Arthur's brothers, twenty-year-old scholarly Jerome. The rest of that side of the table was filled with a few of Sir Lionel's knights.
On Sir Lionel's left sat his wife's brother, Prince Bayezid, an esteemed visitor from Turkey. He was, in fact, the Sultan of Turkey himself. Beside him, several emirs, or princes, ate and talked. On the end Esther sat, also dressed in her finest and lightly veiled.
The table was suited on a dais, or raised platform. Below it and behind the veiled girl was placed a larger table filled with retainers, servants, Bayezid's slaves, and such like.
At the hour set, a waiter came forth bearing an enormous fish. After they had finished that, the servants came with an assortment of meats, such as lamb, gazelle, many specimens of birds, and most of all, a great roast camel.
There was scarce any conversation, expect when Sir Giles commented about how savory the food tasted every time he tried a new dish.
After the flesh was eaten, drinks were served all around, a rich red wine for the inhabitants of the dais, and brown ale for those below it. Esther and her father, who both hated intoxicating liquids, partook of fresh clear water cooled with snow, a rare treat. With the beverages came talk, beginning with Bayezid asking Esther in the Arabic tongue, “Where is the princess my sister and your mother? Surely she is not ill?”
“Yea,” replied the maiden. “She is always sick. What! You did not hear! Well after the trip to England several months ago, the climate there affected her, and she has never recovered. So now she is confined to her bed and I am the woman of the castle, as well as head-nurse.” She sounded tired.
“My utmost sympathies,” the sultan said pitifully, “for both you and my good brother Prince Great Lion here.” He laid his hand on Sir Lionel's shoulder. “I do hope she recovers. I must see her soon. But,” turning to Sir Giles, “putting that aside, has your visit from the land of the Christians, dear Frank, to your brother's lands been satisfying?”
After Bayezid's question had been translated by his brother, Sir Giles answered, “Admirable, except for the joust this day. However, I intend to leave after the sword-duel in a month’s time.”
“To whence?” asked Rufus.
“I am thinking of journeying eastward and touring the great lord Timur's lands.”
“Timur!” shouted Rufus. “If that fiend finds that thou, a Gifford, hast put thy foot in his lands, he will skin thee alive!”
“Why?” Sir Giles demanded of his brother. “What hast thou done to shame the name of thy fathers?”
Before the Duke could answer, a servant approached the table and informed his lord that two Persians wished to see him.
“Send them away,” Sir Lionel told the servant.
“But they say it’s important.” The porter leaned closer and whispered something which Sir Giles could not hear.
Sir Lionel glanced at the servant. “Well, hurry! Send them in,” he commanded.
The door-keeper left the hall, and returned with two turbaned, fierce looking warriors, armed with huge talwars hangings on sashes across their waists. These were unmistakably the messengers of Timur.
They strode up to Sir Lionel. One of the two, a man quite tall and with a gruff voice, spoke.
“Greetings from the great and terrible khan Timur Ling, Commander of the Faithful, Prince of the Blood, and Chief of Khans, sends tidings to the noble and brave Prince Great Lion, Lord of El-Hajjam.”
“Say on.” Sir Lionel gestured with his hand, but continued finishing his trencher.
“Timur Beg speaks and informs Prince Great Lion through his servants Akbar and Farhad. Timur Beg is great and has conquered much land and has gained much gold. However, for all his land, he could not for many months find proper soil to build his palace for his new queen. But he has been informed that my Beg's servant has lands which interest my Beg. A beautiful palace already constructed, surrounded by an expansive desert and sparkling sea.” Akbar paused. Sir Lionel looked up.
The messenger continued. “Therefore he most solemnly beseeches the noble Prince Great Lion to sell his land to the dread lord Timur for one million golden shahis.”
“One million shahis!” shouted Rufus, as he leaped to his feet.
“Sit down, Rufus,” Sir Giles whispered. Rufus sat down immediately and mumbled apologies. Sir Lionel was about to speak, but Sultan Bayezid held up his hand and spoke to the messenger Akbar.
“Tell Timur that since Prince Great Lion is under protection of myself, he will have to request my permission. Let me tell you his story.”
Sir Giles sat back in his straight-backed bench.
“This great Frank called Great Lion in his own country came to me many years ago,” Bayezid continued, “and by his brilliance and bravery, rescued my country from defeat. I rewarded him the greatest I could by bestowing on him this land and my sister, the princess Fatima, in marriage. At first he refused the princess because of her religion, but after many private talks with her, soon converted her to Christianity and married her.”
“As lord and prince of El-Hajjam, he made many changes. He made many things Western. His palace, the garrison and army, and the religion of the people were the most notable. He won the admiration and love of his people, who willingly made the changes he requested.
“He has ever since been an extraordinary and beneficial servant of mine. Tell your master that instead of giving up his land for such a puny price, I will reinforce his garrison with my own men.”
“Oh, my dear cousin and lord, you do not need to do this, I have enough men to protect myself,” Sir Lionel said.
“Yea, I know, but I still wish it. Therefore, I will leave Emir Ozturk here with you.” He pointed to a turbaned man with piercing eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a truncated brow, which to Sir Giles gave a sort of suspicious look.
The man stood up, bowed, sat back down, and continued eating and drinking.
“I will leave this man, who despite his grim looks, is very faithful and an excellent battle commander. I will also send five thousand of my best handpicked troops to assist in defense against Timur, should he ever try to attack thee, which I pray Allah would never happen.”
“Praise Christ, not Allah,” said Sir Lionel, “However, I thank you.”
Akbar the messenger spoke up. “Am I to understand that you refuse the great and terrible Timur's wish?”
“Yea,” replied Sir Lionel. “I believe you heard correctly.”
Straightening to his full height, Akbar boomed, “Then disobedient rebel, I warn you that Timur, the swift and terrible, will cause––”
Sir Lionel interrupted him and pointed at the door. “My pardon, but I'm afraid that this is where you must leave. Porter, do show these brave men the door.”
Sir Giles laughed. The messengers scowled at the Duke and the Sultan. The Tatars turned about, and the addressed servant led them to the door, stepped through, and shut it.
Not a word sounded throughout the hall. Discomfort ran like a chill wind through every heart, plunging the room into awkwardness. At last, Sir Giles broke the silence.
“Brother Lionel, excuse me for my impertinence, but may I have a private talk with you outside after the feast?”
“Why, of course. Anytime. Now said, speaking up. “The feast ladies and lords,” the Duke has ended and let us retire to our chambers.”
So after seeing Sir Lionel dismiss the low-born, along with his family, Sir Giles strode outdoors with his brother.
A few hourglass turns later, he ran up the stairs in the castle and rushed into Sir Arthur's room. He shook Sir Arthur's shoulder. Sir Arthur turned and looked at him.
“Hurry!” Sir Giles found his voice agitated. “I think your father has been murdered!”