CHAPTER 2

The Green River ran underneath the bridge as they rode across it.

They could see smoke trailing into the air in the distance. Ironsville, the town of iron smiths. Neither Fayte nor Wilson were born in this town, but this was the closest place to home for the both of them now. Daylight poured across the land as the sun made her slow ascend. Fayte had put on his chainmail but not because Jeremiah caught him off guard again. No, he put it on for he was riding to a fight.

Fayte pulled on his leather glove and took out his helm from Whitesong's saddlebag.

"Don't worry," Wilson said, riding next to him. "You'll beat him this time."

They came to a stop outside the town where the townsfolk had already gathered. Ironsville had watchers placed along the path leading to the town. No doubt they were informed of their coming.

"Halt!" a man called, his head wrapped with a thick leather cap, and his body armoured with more boiled leather. This was a town of iron smiths, but a suit of iron was too heavy for his style of fighting. "Dismount and name ye-self."

Fayte did as he was told, getting off from Whitesong before he approached the man. He left a good five yards in between them.

"Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," he declared. "I am on my knight's pilgrimage and I seek shelter in your town."

"Denied," the man said, holding up his hand as a brawny blacksmith handed him a sword.

The sword was large and forged to be wielded with two hands, though forged would be an inaccurate word to describe its making. This sword was made with steel wires bound and twisted with more wires, forming a blunt edge and the crossguard, while its handle was made out of an iron pipe. It was a mess of a sword but Fayte had never once best it.

"If ye want to enter our town, then ye must first defeat me in combat," the man said, raising his sword.

Fayte wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword and drew it. Amber rays scattered around his feet as the sun hit the face of his sword. The townsfolk were quiet. Only the rustle of the wind could be heard. No smiths were hammering now for they were all here to watch. This was the tradition in Ironsville for their squires to return and challenge this blade of wires. It was a very solemn event.

"Go Fayte!" a little girl yelled and jumped. "Uncle Jacob is old! You can beat him!"

Behind him, Wilson was stifling his laughter while Fayte could see an old lady shushing Wilson's little sister, Amelia.

Lord Jacob is old, Fayte agreed. But his strength has not aged. His stamina however…

The humble magister of Ironsville took a step forward. "Begin."

With his blade of wires, he surged at Fayte and wailed on him, slamming on his shield over and over in a frenzy of attacks. Fayte was caught off guard by the sheer intensity of his blows. Lord Jacob is not holding back at all! Never had Fayte felt such ferocity in his attacks from their duels in the past. In fact, Fayte found himself knocked to the ground and for a terrible moment, thought he had lost. Lord Jacob raised his sword and swung it down. Normally he would stop at the last moment, but on this day Fayte felt an intent he never once sensed in their past duel.

Fayte rolled aside as the blade of wires stabbed into the ground.

He looked to the townsfolk, and saw that the older men were clearly amused to see how shocked Fayte was. This was why they were so solemn. This was why the event had to be quiet. Lord Jacob had to get himself into the right frame of mind to make this duel real.

Real like it was life and death.

Fayte grinned at them in return. I have faced a horde of ghouls and creatures risen from the earth. He raised his shield as Lord Jacob landed his sword on him. I have face an ancient demon larger than a castle. The clang of steel would ring in his ears if Fayte hadn't stuffed it with candle wax earlier. He rolled aside when Lord Jacob raised his sword again and jumped onto his feet. I have slain men before.

"You can't scare me so easily," he said.

The townsfolks lost their smiles but underneath the gap of Lord Jacob's leather cap, Fayte saw a grin.

Fayte dove in and went on the offensive, striking at Lord Jacob and forcing him to turn his weapon into a shield. Every time he blocked, Fayte would swing his shield and try to catch his arm, but Lord Jacob was fast and he would dodge or jump away. The man had once told him to control his shield and not let it control him. Fayte had trained long and hard with his shield since. He had built up his strength and now his shield, like his sword, was an extension of his body.

Lord Jacob threw a wild slash and force Fayte to jump away.

"Now…" he said, panting hard. "Now you're finally fighting like a knight."

Fayte allowed himself to enjoy the praise for just a moment before he swooped in with his sword again. His relentless blows wore on Lord Jacob quickly. The man was strong but his stamina had withered over the years. While Fayte had never seen another squire challenge Lord Jacob, he suspected that most would fall within the first minute of the duel. That was when Lord Jacob unleashed all his strength in a sudden burst of attack.

Withstand that and the match is mine.

"Yield," Fayte said, the tip of his sword held to Lord Jacob's face while the blade of wires lay out of reach on the ground beside them.

Lord Jacob and Fayte were both drenched with sweat. The match was his but the reaction was much quieter than what Fayte had expected. He saw Wilson approach and touched Lord Jacob on the shoulder. Light radiated from Wilson's hand. In just a few moments, Lord Jacob was healed and his energy revitalized while someone handed him his sword again.

"I won," Fayte said. "Right…?"

"No," was all Lord Jacob said.

The blade of wires scratched him on the cheek when Lord Jacob swung it all of a sudden. A moment slower and Fayte would have had his face cut open. Now he was confused. He had clearly won the match. But the way Wilson came forward and heal him while Lord Jacob was handed his sword back, it was like this was planned.

He raised his now dented shield and focused on defending himself.

If winning this duel by disarming him isn't the way. Fayte ducked a slash and answered with his own, only to take a knee in the face from Lord Jacob. Then what? Am I supposed to kill him?

"This is not a duel to the death," someone said, and Fayte stole a glance to see a knight standing next to Wilson behind him.

"Quiet!" Lord Jacob yelled, holding off to catch his breath. "Do not interfere, Sir Ian."

Fayte was worn out as well and he wasn't healed when the match was restarted earlier.

"My lord, this is a squire who has seen more than most of the younger knights in the Order," Sir Ian said, the knight who had been assigned to help guard Ironsville back when the horde first attacked. Fayte did not expect him to still be stationed here. "You fight like you wish to kill him while he holds back. I assure you that will soon change had I remained hush. And this test will quickly become a tragedy."

It sounded as though Sir Ian was saying that Fayte would kill Lord Jacob. Nonsense, I could never best Lord Jacob in a true fight let alone kill him…

And that was when Fayte looked at Lord Jacob again and remembered that the man was fighting with all his strength. This was unlike their past duel. Lord Jacob was attacking him like he was a real enemy. Yet Fayte had managed to disarm him and defeat him cleanly once. It occurred to Fayte now that he had improved much more than he realized. So much that he had surpassed Lord Jacob.

Suddenly, Sir Ian's words shook him and Fayte felt his arms going weak. I was going to kill Lord Jacob?

"Calm yourself, Fayte," the knight said as if reading his mind. "Now if I understand the point of this duel well enough, I believe Fayte has won."

"What?" Lord Jacob pulled off his leather cap. "Nonsense!"

Wilson laughed. "Raise your sword, Lord Jacob."

The man took the handle of his sword with both hands and heaved.

He could barely hold it up. "You didn't heal me properly!"

"I did, Lord Jacob," Wilson assured him.

"Well then I'm just a little tired," he said, waving him off. "Give me a minute to catch my breath, Fayte."

Some of the men in the crowd started laughing, one of them even said, "Give it up, Lord Jacob. You lost! Look at Fayte's shield. He passed the test."

Fayte looked down at his shield. It was a dented piece of steel and there were even holes in it now. Bits had fallen off and Fayte found his arm caught in the straps. The shield was so severely dented that it was keeping him from taking it off.

"I am tired and very confused," Fayte conceded. "Someone please explain what is happening."

That was when Aunt Silvia stepped forward, holding Amelia's hand while the other clutched tightly on a short walking stick. The old lady let go of Amelia and the girl ran up to Wilson and Preston. With a wave of her stick, light poured into the both of them and Fayte felt his energy returning. The cut on his cheek and the bruises on his limbs faded away.

"The match was restarted because you won the match offensively," Aunt Silvia said. "The point of this duel is to remind you that you are on a journey to become a knight of Hylan."

"A knight of the Order of the White Shield," Sir Ian added.

Now Fayte understood. "I was supposed to win by wearing Lord Jacob out, until he could no longer fight."

To that, Aunt Silvia nodded along with many of the townsfolk. "But that was assuming you could not defeat him. None of the squires in the past could. It was up to them to realize that the only way they could win was to rely on their shield. To defend and guard and protect, to stand unwavering against the enemy, yada yada yada. I believe those are the words of your oath?"

Fayte nodded, they were something like that.

"Clearly he's too old to be conducting the test now," Aunt Silvia added.

"Pah! I'm not too old," Lord Jacob said. "It's them children playing with me and making me run about before Fayte arrived."

Fayte turned and looked at Amelia.

"We wanted you to win," the girl said shyly, hugging Preston.

"Thank you," Fayte said, touched by her ingenious plan to help him.

"Excuses. I healed you before you went out remember?" Aunt Silvia shot back. "Just hurry up and declare him the winner, you old furnace."

Lord Jacob grumbled bitterly as he walked up to Fayte. "Ah well, she's right."

He grinned at Fayte and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Congratulations, Fayte," said Lord Jacob. "Ye finally beat me!"