The snow lay melting in Askelon’s inner ward yard. The high, windswept dome of the sky appeared spotless and clean, heralding an early spring. Servants of various rank scurried across the yard, avoiding the mud and standing water as much as possible. Each was intent upon some important task. To look at them was as much as to see a column of ants hurrying about their chores with more than the usual amount of vigor.
In a constant parade to his chambers, where Prince Jaspin held court amid the bustle of servants packing his furniture and belongings, came the knights and nobles, some of whom would ride in his train. They all came to pledge their support and fealty to his cause, and to receive some indulgence for themselves in return. The sycophant Ontescue stood at the prince’s left hand, bending close to whisper in the prince’s ear how much this noble’s allegiance had cost, or what boon that knight required to satisfy his conscience.
A young knight, who wished to leave to take back the lands of his father (which he had squandered away in dissipation) by right of the point of his lance, entered and knelt before Jaspin. He pleaded his cause when asked, and the prince acquiesced as instructed by Ontescue’s intimations. As the knight rose to leave, bowing deeply, Prince Jaspin asked, “Will you be attending us at our summer castle at Erlott Fields?”
“If it so pleases you, Sire,” replied the knight. Several of the younger knights, and a few of the less secure nobles, had begun using the royal designation as a show of deference, and it did not fail to please the greedy prince, who took it as his right. Those who knew better withheld their esteem judiciously.
“It pleases me to have your lance ever ready at my side, Sir Knight,” the prince replied. He did like to be attended in style when he chose to move about the country. “I daresay there will be sport and game enough to occupy a young and lively blade anxious to win some valor among his peers.”
“It is my honor, King Prince,” said the knight, bowing again. He would rather have seen to the retaking of his forfeited lands, but a request of the prince was not to be trifled.
When he had gone, Jaspin turned to Ontescue. “You have sent my chamberlain and attendants on ahead to ready Erlott for my arrival, have you not?”
“Yes, of course. They left the day before yesterday and should be even now seeing to your homecoming,” Ontescue replied. Of late he had weaseled himself into a position of growing consequence in the prince’s estimation. “We may leave as soon as you yourself give the order.”
“That is well. I am weary of this accursed castle. I want to see my own lands again.” The prince pouted. “And another thing: I am not at all pleased with the way the queen has disappeared. She has been away far too long without word or sign of her whereabouts.”
“Why should that trouble you, Sire?”
“Something is amiss; I can feel it. I fear not for her safety, but rather my own while she is loose about the country, doing who knows what. She may stir up a faction against me.”
“If she were to stir up a faction, you would soon know about it. You could quell it in an instant and have her thrown into chains for her troubles.”
“Throw the queen into chains? Ho! There’s a thought. I would have done it long ago if I had dared.
“Still, I would rest the easier if I knew where she was.” He paused; a small dark cloud crossed his brow. “Oh, why haven’t I heard from the Harriers? They should have returned with their captives—or their captives’ bones—long ago. This bothers me more than the queen’s absence . . .”
“What could go amiss with them? Are they not proven to the task— and with cunning to spare? You will soon have your answer, my prince, never fear.”
The prince pulled on his chin and threw his counselor a fretful glance. “I suppose you are right. But I would go to my summer quarters in a better mind if these loose threads were clipped and discarded.”
“Say no more. If you like, I shall remain behind until I myself can bring you the news you seek.” Ontescue smiled his most ingratiating and winsome smile.
“You are a good counselor, Ontescue,” replied Jaspin, glad to have the matter taken care of. “I will tell you this: I can use men of your abilities when I come into power—that will not be long in coming now. Sir Bran and Sir Grenett are good men, but they are, after all, soldiers and understand not the finesse of court and government. You, though you may not admit it, have special gifts in this area, I perceive.”
“You are too kind, my lord.” Ontescue bowed and looked appropriately innocent to deserve such favor; inwardly he shone for joy that his goal was so nearly within his grasp.
In all the prince took fifty knights and nobles with him to his summer palace. Counting their servants and men-at-arms, the numbers swelled to five times as many.
The pilgrimage to Erlott Fields, the prince’s private castle, wherein he resided some four or five months of the year, was a drawn-out affair, commanding more regard that it warranted. But Jaspin would have it no other way. Being within an hour’s riding distance of the sea, the climate remained somewhat cooler there during the hotter months, and though many times smaller than Askelon, it was nonetheless well fortified and ample for any prince’s needs. Castle Erlott housed his fluctuating retinue with ease.
The coming of the prince to Hinsenby, the nearest village, was always a gala event. People lined the roads as the royal caravan passed. They marveled at the knights and horses, the weapons and costly furniture they saw carefully packed away on the wagons. It was a show well attended with merrymaking and festivity. Jaspin himself usually participated, supplying a good deal of meat and wine to the occasion.
This year Jaspin was weeks early in his desire to remove the safety of his own battlements. Two things occasioned his somewhat premature notion: his own growing uneasiness about his alliance with Nimrood, who was showing himself to be a perverse and ambitious ally, and his wish to remain apart from Askelon until the Council of Regents should meet and declare him king. Then he planned a glorious triumphal entrance to the great city as its monarch. He did not wish to lessen the impact of his brightest moment by remaining in Askelon until the deed was accomplished. Jaspin reveled in the pomp and splendor of such events. He knew how to please the common people and wooed them with lavish spectacle and cheap entertainment to divert their wandering attention from their troubles and thus silence any defaming tongue.
A chill yet sunny day greeted the departure of the prince and his army of nobles and knights, servants and soldiers, and various minstrels, game masters, and ladies who had been invited to help while away the cool spring evenings. A day of good travel would bring them south to Hinsenby, there to encamp and enjoy a day of sport before removing to Erlott, another half day’s march to the west.
The day proved fair for the journey, and they achieved Hinsenby well before dusk. The servants set about erecting the bright, multicolored tents used on these occasions as they took the broad fields just west of the town. Under the sparkling eyes and laughter of the townspeople, the tent city blossomed. A great bonfire sparked to life in the center of the field, and smaller fires for cooking flamed around it and in front of the various tents.
Eating and drinking would continue through the night, and on the morrow a mock tournament would be held among the knights and the more adept of their sidemen. It was done for play and practice for the knights, and for the grand sight it presented to the people who would crowd the perimeter to see the spectacle of horses clashing under gallant knights, dangerously armed. Much care was taken to prevent anyone from being harmed accidentally, for there was no renown in being wounded in a mock tourney, and a knight indisposed was without honor or a source of income. Like knights anywhere, most relied on their skill at arms to secure the favor and patronage of a wealthy nobleman—that is, those who were not themselves of noble birth.
In his large tent, raised above the others on a wooden platform, Jaspin slept uneasily while the raucous sounds of the roistering crowd continued far into the night. The prince, begging leave of his merry followers, had retired early, saying he wanted to present himself fresh for the tournament on the following morning. In truth he had grown restive and disturbed, having brooded the whole day upon Queen Alinea’s disappearance and the lack of effect from the Harriers he had sent out to bring back the fugitives.
He took to his bed in an apprehensive mood and fell at once into a troubled, dream-filled sleep in which the ghost of his brother rose up accusingly before him, demanding to know what had happened to his wife, Alinea.
Twice during the night he awoke feeling a lurking presence somewhere close by—as if someone were prowling around outside. Each time he called for his chamberlain, who denied, after checking the circumference of the tent, that anything was amiss.
By morning he had all but forgotten his unpleasant night; the prospect of games greatly cheered him. All that remained of his midnight misgivings was an occasional twinge of foreboding, vague and undefined, as if bad news were winging its way toward him unexpectedly.
But his disquiet vanished as preparations began for the mock tournament. The boundaries of the fighting field were drawn and marked with lances bearing red and gold pennons. Tents at each end of the field were converted for the use of the knights who would engage themselves in combat. The weapons were readied—all sharp edges wrapped in leather and the points of the lances blunted with wooden protectors. Helmets, shields, and breastplates were shined and devices and insignias painted fresh where use had rubbed them thin.
The people of Hinsenby and beyond, some who had walked all night, assembled on the somewhat soggy Hinsen Field early in the morning. Most had brought with them baskets of food and drink to last the whole day; others bartered with the local merchants, who took advantage of the sudden influx of visitors to vend special delicacies— sausages and rolls and spicy meat pies of a small, portable nature.
The midday sun, bright and warm before its season, found all in readiness. Jaspin sat under a canopy on a raised platform overlooking the field of contest; a score or more of his favorite nobles graced seats on each side of him. Ladies, their faces demurely covered from the sun, sat below, just in front of the platform. Publicly these fair damsels decried the rough sport of the tournament, but not one flinched from the clash of arms or from the issue of blood that accompanied the games.
When all the contestants, buckled and braced and mounted on their sturdy warhorses, had ridden twice around the list, the marshal of the games took his place upon the field and read out the rules of the tournament to the participants now lining each end of the field.
Lots had been drawn to decide the order of the knights to participate. Sir Grenett had won first place and advanced across the field, paused, and turned in front of Prince Jaspin’s party.
“For Mensandor and glory!” he shouted. All the people returned the cry. “For freedom! Fight on!” Prince Jaspin dipped his head, and Sir Grenett rode to the knight he chose as his opponent, picking him from among the mounted knights assembled in a long line at the west end of the field. He stopped before Sir Weilmar and touched his buckler with the point of his lance. The two then rode out to take their places at each end of the field.
At the signal, the prince’s falling glove, both riders spurred their charges forward, lances held high. As they closed upon one another in the center of the field, the combatants lowered their lances and made ready to exchange blows.
Sir Weilmar’s aim was good. He placed his blow precisely on target in the center of Sir Grenett’s chest. Sir Grenett was no less precise, and the shock of the collision staggered the horses. Sir Weilmar’s lance splintered like kindling as it glanced off his competitor’s heavy armor. Sir Grenett would have fared no better but for the strength of his arm and his own slightly more advantageous weight in the saddle. His blow caught Sir Weilmar and lifted him in the saddle, but Weilmar’s excellent horsemanship kept him at the reins, causing instead his saddle bindings to burst.
Weilmar’s saddle slid to the side, and both saddle and knight tumbled over the rear of the horse to the ground. This slight advantage was accorded to Sir Grenett’s favor, since neither had won a decisive fall.
All this took place in a twinkling amid the general clamor and cheering of the crowd, many of whom had placed wagers upon their favorites. The marshal accorded Sir Grenett the victor and Sir Weilmar vanquished. The two retired to watch the rest of the games in peace, having won enough valor for the day, and the next two contestants took their places. Sir Grenett received a gold sovereign for his victory; Sir Weilmar, nothing but a broken cinch strap and fleeting disgrace.
The games moved through their course to the delight of the gathered onlookers. One after another, each knight tried his strength and skill at arms. Midway through the contests a murmur of alarm rose from the far side of the field opposite Prince Jaspin’s canopy. The riders awaiting the signal for their turn at the joust paused and turned their attention toward the crowd to see what the disturbance might be.
“What in Orphe’s name!” cursed the prince as spectators, apparently frightened by some cause as yet unapparent, fled onto the field.
“Someone has undoubtedly seen a snake in the grass,” laughed Bascan of Endonny, sitting near the prince. “Nothing to be concerned about, I am sure.”
Another sought to further the joke, adding, “A snake in the grass is better than rats in the cellar.” Everyone laughed again.
The prince, perceiving this to be a sly comment on his jailing of Weldon and Larcott, exploded at the joker. “Who dares ridicule my judgment? Speak up!”
“I meant nothing by it, my lord. It was only an idle jest . . . ,” Sir Drake sputtered. “No offense was intended, I assure you.” He was about to speak further when a gasp arose from the ladies below them, and several knights on the platform jumped to their feet.
“Blood and thunder!” someone cried. “Who . . . what is it?”
The throng on the far side of the field had opened, clearing a wide avenue for a lone rider, who took the field with a slow, dignified, and somewhat menacing gait. Prince Jaspin’s face drained of its ruddy hue, and his hands fluttered like frightened birds in his lap.
A lone Harrier advanced across the field and brought his horse to stand in front of the prince. On his shoulder perched a large hawk; at his side hung an awkward bundle.
Without a word he loosed the bundle and drew out the contents of the rough sack. The defiant Harrier then raised high into the air for all to see the two severed, bloodied heads of his dead comrades.