Ironsville saw no further attacks after Fayte left, Wilson informed after he returned a week later. Based on the reports, none of the other cities and towns were attacked either since. There was however a rise in complaints of dry land and weakening crops, but that was not something the King could do anything about. If Sera wanted things to be drier then drier it will be. Besides, Fayte had something more important to worry about than a rise in turnip prices.
The Annual Squire Tournament.
The event that preceded the graduation of the squires and the start of their pilgrimage. The annual tournament pit the squires against each other one final time, before they set forth on their journey to attain the Light of the Spirits and become knights of Hylan. It was an event that drew hundreds from all over the country. Reputations were at stake as rivalries between families took stage between representing squires. As much as they were told that the tournament was a friendly event, every batch of squires had come to treat the event of a form of final test. They believed the results affected where they would hold command after… or rather, if they were knighted.
Fayte heeded Lord Jacob's advice and trained harder, building up his strength by going everywhere with his heavier training shield and doing exercises with it. He was glad to hear when word came that Lord Jacob had returned home with his son. He had only strayed from his original path during the hunt. They encountered no undeads on the way back and even brought home some good prizes.
The tournament was held in the morning for the weather was cooler and the sun was kinder then. Final touches to the venue were still being made when Fayte arrived outside Mastior Gate. The arena was setup south-east outside the city walls. Five grand stands were put up with a circular platform in the centre for the duellers. Two servants and a knight were helping to move the King's throne up a flight of steps and into his royal viewing box.
"A throne signifies the King's authority," Jeremiah said, his long and brown hair tied into a tail as usual. "Yet I cannot help but sometimes find it ridiculous when the throne has to be moved."
"And I thought I was early," Fayte said, stepping up next to his friend. "No wonder I didn't see you this morning."
Jeremiah and him were good friends and partners many time during their training. They had been through some horrible trainings together during their earliest days in the Order, and went through worse when they were squires. The tournament would be their final event together as squires.
"Mason and I went for a run," he said, sweeping a bit of dirt off the face of his shield. "We washed up once we were done and came straight here to see if we could lend his father a hand."
Mason was a fellow squire whose father earned a living building structures like the five grand stands that towered before them. They strode into the arena underneath the sheltered path, marvelling at the sheer size of it all. The palace always employed his father for large events such as this, for the man had proven many times before that he was reliable. Mason was not so different from his father, even if he was not magically talented like his brothers and father.
"Any word on the match up yet?" Fayte then asked, adjusting his belt.
They were both dressed in their squire's armour, a combination of boiled leather and dented grey plates. These were old armours passed down from squire to squire, mended when broken and melted down when beyond repair to make 'new' plates. It was warm and uncomfortable and very much heavy, but it made for good training and taught them to better appreciate their true armour when they turned knight.
"Nay," Jeremiah said. "I had thought of asking the son of the man in charge of this whole event, but it seems even he is clueless as well."
Fayte gave him a wry smile. "Very funny. Speaking of which, did you see my father?"
"I saw him at the castle earlier," a girl said from behind them. "He seemed like he was in a rush."
They both turned and upon seeing who it was, Jeremiah fell to his knee.
"Squire Jeremiah Vladertz, offers my morning greetings to Her Grace," he said, his shield held out in front of him with his head held low.
Emily smiled. "Good morning, Jeremiah of the noble Vladertz family. Please, rise."
And so Jeremiah did, standing up only to see that Fayte had not gone down onto his knee at all.
"I am not kneeling before someone whom I've seen put horse poop in her mouth."
Emily's cheeks began to flush. "FAYTE!"
Jeremiah didn't quite know how to react so he just stood there and pretended to dust his shield again.
"So you said you saw my father?"
"Yes," Emily said, dressed in a blue velvet gown with a light vest weaved from white lace over it. Her hair was let down in curls over her back, and held behind her ears with a ribbon clipped with a white rose. "But he was in a rush which I guess is normal since he has the tournament to take care of."
The two squires turned around. The setup did not look like it was behind schedule or anything.
Did another town get attacked? "Are you sure it's not something--"
Fayte flinched before he reached for his sword while Jeremiah was more composed, pulling out his weapon in an instant as he stepped in front of the Princess. They both relaxed when they saw who it was and replaced their swords into their sheaths.
"What's wrong, Mailer?" Emily asked, as Jeremiah stepped away.
Mailer was in his usual motley of colours with his marotte in his hand. This time he was wearing his 'OH NO!' mask and he was jumping around in a circle, causing the bells on his hat to jingle out a terrible ruckus as he pulled on them.
"THE SALDARIANS ARE COMING! THE SALDARIANS ARE COMING!" he screamed. "AHHHHHH! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!"
No one was going to die.
The people came in hundreds as the tournament approached its start. Mailer had been running around the castle earlier when he saw the Saldarian Prince land in the courtyard with his roc, escorted by three of Hylan's gryphon riders. That would explain his father's behaviour in the castle. Clearly he did not want the Prince's arrival to affect the tournament. That was why Fayte thought as little of the matter as he could, opting to sit at one of the stands than wait with his friends at the holding tent outside.
"I say the King has already killed the Prince," Wilson said, seated on the grandstand with Fayte and Amelia beside him. "Or at least stabbed him a few times."
"You do realise that your sister is sitting right next to you," said Fayte, tapping his foot impatiently.
The tournament was supposed to begin a half an hour ago. Wilson turned and looked at Amelia who sat next to him with her little chest of flowers. The girl was completely occupied with Preston, counting his teeth with a song the Ironsville bard taught her.
"She's not listening. Anyway, what do you think?"
"I think the Prince is locked up somewhere," he said, looking at the royal viewing box directly in front of him at the opposite grandstand. The King had just arrived and so did his father. "Because if he had killed the Prince, Emily wouldn't just be yelling at him."
Wilson sat up and looked at the royal viewing box. Fayte was right, Emily was just shouting which was not unusual, so the Prince was likely only being held. With a wave of the King's hand, one of the wizards guarding the viewing box sent a fire bolt into the air, exploding in a burst of embers and sparks to catch everyone's attention.
"Greetings, people of Hylan!" the King announced, his voice magically amplified.
And the crowd roared in return, greeting their King with screams and cheers and what Fayte felt was unnecessary applause considering that the man was late. Then again it wasn't entirely his fault. It was the Prince who should be blamed.
"I beg for your pardons for my being late," he said, his wife and daughter watching him from behind. "In light of that, I am going to skip my speech which I feel really is the same thing that I have been saying for the past… Sera knows how many years. But I do have one matter that I would like to take this chance to address, and that is regarding the recent degradation of our lands. I am here to assure all of you that we now have a clearer idea of what is going on, in fact, we now have a solution."
The Prince arrives and all of a sudden the King has a solution? "Kestel was right," Fayte said. "The attack on Ironsville really was related to the Saldarians."
"Are you sure?"
"It would appear so. The King only just spoken with the Prince a while ago, and now he claims he knows the cause behind it. It has to be the Prince."
"Young man," said a noble lady sitting behind them. "Who is this Prince that you speak of?"
"No one in particular, my lady," Fayte said, getting up. "Just having a random chat with my friend here."
"Good luck," Wilson said. "Try not to mess up alright?"
"Hey, I've killed undead monsters," Fayte told him, tapping on the pommel of his blunt duelling sword. "A bunch of squires is nothing to me." Sera, please do not make me eat my words.
"Good luck, Fayte!" Amelia said, holding Preston with both hands. The dragon waved goodbye to him on his own. "We'll be cheering for you the whole way! Won't we, Preston?"
Fayte reached over and patted the girl on the head. "Then there's no way I can lose now, can I?"
"Yeah!" she cheered, absolutely excited.
The tournament finally began and the first match ended in less than a minute when one the two squires was pushed off the side of the platform. The fall broke no bones but it would surely bruise badly. The second match lasted a little longer with the two squires slamming their shields against each other before one of them managed to disarm the other. The third match ended even quicker.
"I forfeit," Julin said the moment he ascended the steps onto the platform and saw Jeremiah.
Fayte started laughing with his friends who were sitting at the waiting benches below the platform.
"No one forfeits, squire," his father said, sitting in the viewing box with the royal family. "A knight does not back down from a fight. Especially not a friendly fight with three priests waiting to heal you."
The nervous boy with the curly black hair looked at Jeremiah again.
"Jeremiah will take me down in less than five seconds," he said. "I really don't see the point, my lord."
"Fight him," his father said. "Or you shall be doing extra duties until your pilgrimage."
Julin had no choice but to concede. He brought his round squire helmet over his head and squeezed his head into it before drawing his sword. Jeremiah smiled and put on his helmet as well, but he left his sword in the sheath and told the referee, a knight, that he was ready. The moment the referee signalled the commencement of the fight, Julin charged Jeremiah with a shout and more ferocity than Fayte had ever imagined the boy had. He opened with a slash while bringing his shield forward to bash Jeremiah.
The Vladertz ducked and threw a punch into Julin's sword arm, disarming him before following through with an elbow to Julin's chin where the helmet did not protect him, dropping the boy onto the ground.
"Match cease!" the referee announced. "Victor, Jeremiah Vladertz!"
The crowd applauded. The match ended the way everyone had predicted. Jeremiah was laughing as he pulled Julin up, but he was not laughing at his friend and Julin knew that, wearing a smile when he pulled his helmet off. There was no shame in losing against a Vladertz. Only a Vladertz would bear shame in a battle when he or she did not come out the victor.
Fayte was up next. His friends slapped him on the back and tossed him his helmet as he got up and went up to the platform. Like Jeremiah, Fayte had little difficulties with his opponents. It was not that his friends were lousy or did not train hard enough, no, the reason why Fayte won match after match was because he trained with these people. It even made him felt like he had an unfair advantage because he knew every single one of their weaknesses.
Petyr was his first opponent and though his feet were quick, Petyr was short and small and his sword too long for him. All Fayte had to do was strike his sword hard at the tip and Petyr was disarmed. Herman fought patiently and had the most stamina amongst them. The way to defeat him was in bursts. Strike him hard and strike him fast or the match would be his. Ivana was tricky since he rarely trained with her. Twice Fayte almost lost his grip on his shield, but it made him realise that Ivana did not use her own shield much. He struck her shield repeatedly then, and eventually she dropped her shield out of frustration and charged him. Fayte disarmed her with a feign and a flourish of his sword. And he won match after match in that manner until finally he met the one person he never could beat.
Fayte sighed. He may have fought undeads but Jeremiah was well… the guy was a Vladertz.
They don't lose very often.
The crowd fell into an eager silence as they anticipated an intense fight. Either one of them losing would be some form of dishonour. Jeremiah was predicted to be the winner because of his family, while Fayte had to win because his father was the Lord-Knight of the Order.
Fayte drew his sword and readied his shield and in a show of how his peer judged his skills, Jeremiah too drew his weapon and got into his stance. If the helmet had not covered their mouths, they would see each other grinning.
"Begin!" the referee said.
Neither of them charged. They circled each other slowly, moving around the rim of the platform as they edged closer and closer to each other. Fighting a Vladertz required patience, that was what his father told him. To the common eye, a Vladertz may simply be more skilful than others, but what truly contributed to their reputation was their ability to analyse, to see where the enemy's weakness was and--
Fayte dodged and slashed but Jeremiah blocked with his shield. The guy spun, whipping his hair in the air as he brought his blade down on Fayte in a stabbing motion. It was a move that all squires learned and there were four ways to counter it. When Jeremiah did it however, all Fayte could do was dodge. Fayte hissed as he ducked his head and barely escaped the stab. The crowd gasped as he followed through with a lash at Jeremiah's abdomen, but that was only to force the guy to jump away and give Fayte some space.
Jeremiah did no such thing.
The Vladertz parried the Kaywin's steel with his own and threw a knee into Fayte's face. It connected, denting the side of his helm as Fayte fell to the ground. But Fayte fell rolling and he continued to roll out of the way until he pushed himself back onto his feet. He had little time, forcing the dented helmet off his head before he brought his shield up right after. Jeremiah slammed into his shield but Fayte held his footing and shoved him back.
We know everyone's weaknesses. They went at each other with their swords swinging and slashing, feigning then stabbing. Save for each other.
It was a sight to see as steel met steel and the audience was kept on the edge of their seat. One mistake was all it took to lose this match. Then finally, Jeremiah managed to twist his sword and dipped in to Fayte's hand, effectively disarming him when he forced him to release his sword. Fayte did the unthinkable then. He turned his wrist and threw his sword into the air. That was the end of the match…
…if he had not retrieved his sword.
Fayte threw his weight behind his shield at Jeremiah. It was an act of instinct and a reckless one it was leaving his sides completely exposed. Jeremiah abused those openings, leaning to his right to stab at Fayte from the side. But this match was not to be his. Fayte caught his sword in the air. He made a guess based solely on luck and he got lucky, swinging his sword to his left - when it could have been right - where Jeremiah's blade emerged and he parried it. Jeremiah was visibly shocked at his luck. Fayte seized the moment and followed through with a spin that knocked away Jeremiah's sword, bring the point of his own weapon to Jeremiah's neck.
"Match cease!" the referee yelled.
Fayte laughed as did Jeremiah but when the referee announced the winner, Fayte stopped laughing.
"Draw?" he said, looking at the referee. "Why is it a- oh."
The side of Jeremiah's shield was pressed against the opening on the bottom of his chest plate. The shield was strapped to Jeremiah's arm and in his hand was a dagger.
"The trick is to hide the dagger in your shield, in a way that you can retrieve it easily yet keep it secure," Jeremiah said, holding up the silversteel dagger that had the letters 'J.Vz' etched with gold on the blade. "I will teach you when we have the time. That will be my prize to you for forcing me to use it."
To have made Jeremiah resort to his trick was an achievement. Knights from the Vladertz family would only resort to using tricks in real life-threatening combat. For Jeremiah to have used one meant that he took this fight more seriously than Fayte had realised. It even got him wondering if Jeremiah had always seen him as a rival. If that was the case then Fayte could only be honoured.
"Great fight," Wilson said, greeting Fayte at the base of the platform.
Amelia was jumping around on the spot cheering with Preston flying around her. Fayte set his sword and shield down and took off his armour, allowing Wilson to heal his injuries and get him ready for the next match since Jeremiah forfeited the match voluntarily. He refused to accept a draw for that would be an acknowledgement of him winning with the hidden dagger. A Vladertz would do anything to defeat an enemy, but Fayte was…
"…no enemy of mine," Jeremiah had said when he forfeited. "He is a treasured friend. This match is his."
Fayte smiled back at his father while the man motioned with his hand at Commander Reyner. The commander of the Whiteguards shook his head as he pressed a gold coin into his father's hand. King Eardon was laughing as he patted the Whiteguard on his back, while Emily simply looked at him and smiled quietly.
The stage was wiped clean of perspiration and the squires quickly found seats on the grandstands. They were eager to watch the next event before the final match, feeling the adrenaline in their blood as they watched King Eardon rise from his seat.
"A knight is one who holds a shield to defend the weak and wields a sword to protect the innocent. With only a shield and a sword, what good then is a knight against someone who uses magic?" the King posed the question to all but did not wait for an answer. "A knight is useless, since all he can do is swing his piece of steel around while the mage can throw fire balls and rain ice shards all over him. In other words, a knight stands no chance against a mage… isn't that so?"
The smile on his face made it clear what the answer was.
"Every year in the Order of the Elements, our Archimage will come across young casters who believe that with their magic, no squire, soldier or knight will ever be able to come close to them. The Archimage takes note of these young casters and every year on this day, we invite them on stage."
The King gestured and a group of mages in draped their long robes came up onto the stage.
"The different colours represent the different elements that those mages specialize in," Wilson was teaching Amelia who now sat on his lap. "Now, do you see that man and that lady with the prettier robes and leather shoulderguards?"
Amelia nodded, craning her head to get a better look as the twelve mages formed a circle around the perimeter of the platform.
"The man is called a wizard while the lady is called a sorceress," Wilson explained. "Fayte's father might not have it so easy this year."
Once they were in place, Fayte watched as his father climbed the steps and walked to the centre of the circle.
"He needs no introduction, so he shall have none." The King just casually gestured at the Lord-Knight like he was no one special or particularly important. "What he will do in about a minute from now is make these mages on the stage…" The King looked at each and every one of them before he grinned. "…eat their words."
Fayte was back on the grand stand with Wilson, folding his arms as he watched his father turn around and acknowledge all of the mages from the Order of the Elements. He could already see the nerves of some the younger mages failing them, while the two senior mages, a wizard and a sorceress, seemed convinced of their victory. Fayte was sure that the both of them, being older and thus surely seen this demonstration before, were confident that they would be able to defeat his father with some kind of strategy. There was a chance his father would lose, after all, knights really were at a disadvantage against mages. But somehow Fayte felt that it was a very slim chance. The King sat down on his throne and waved at his father to tell him that he was ready.
Red, blue and yellow glyphs began glowing at each of the spell casters' feet. Some even had fire balls ignited in their hand already. His father merely looked at them and took note of the elements they used, before he took his hand off the pommel of his sword and gripped the handle.
"I assume then that all of you here are ready?" he asked.
The spell casters nodded and shifted their stance to launch their spells once they were ready. He nodded and took another look at each of them before he gently shut his eyes and took a slow, deep breath.
"Well then," his father said, and as his eyes slowly opened, they began to flare white. "Let us begin."
The younger mages completely lost their concentration.
Their glyphs disappeared when they saw the Lord-Knight's eyes and when he drew his sword, they turned and leaped off the platform. The remaining six mages launched their spells at him, ignoring the fact that his father's sword was glowing white like his eyes were. Three fireballs flew at him from different directions, he blocked one of them with his shield and with a flourish of his blade, sliced the remaining two into embers.
When the ground beneath his feet began to crack, he sprinted off to the wizard to stop him. The man threw up an earth glyph in front of him to summon a wall of earth, but the Lord-Knight just slashed his blade across the glyph and proceeded to kick the wizard off the platform. The remaining mages only gaped and started to panic when he turned to charge at him.
Fayte watched his father closely.
There was a ferocity in his movement that set the Lord-Knight apart from the rest of his men. He moved with an elegance empowered by ferocity, overpowering the will of the younger mages as they failed to put up any defences to protect themselves. Very quickly, the only person who remained when he was done was the sorceress.
"I apologise, Lord-Knight," the woman said, her black hair floating in the air as the ice glyph beneath her feet flared intensely with magical powers. "But this match is mine."
Suddenly an ice glyph appeared on the entire platform itself. Fayte sat up, realising that all the other spell casters were just buying time for this sorceress to prepare her spell. This had never happened before. Every year each mage would try and win the match for his or herself. Never once did they work together against his father.
This is bad.
The sorceress smiled. "Frost Tomb."