With the runaway carts bearing down on the tournament field, Kat urged Sir Kaeden to call reinforcements from the watch. There wasn’t time.
The thugs fleeing Jonathan Crisp and Pilgrim hurtled onto the tiltyard, heading for the gate at the other end in order to make their getaway. The Laughing Knight Sir Troyan d’Marek (so-called because he wore a helm that resembled a laughing gargoyle) and Sir Desmond the Black Knight of Breckshire had just begun to tilt as the the wagon careened across the field. Sir Troyan d’Marek reined his horse in, but Sir Desmond shouted a curse at the knaves disturbing their solemnity, and he dealt a blow to one of the runaway thugs with his blunted lance as the other fired arrows at the pursuing wagon.
Kat sprinted across the field and leapt for the back of the thugs’ wagon, pulling herself up into the back of the cart as it bounced along. She drew her sword and commanded that the cart be stopped in the name of the law. One of the thugs turned and tried to push her off the moving cart, but Kat held fast to the side and would not be moved. Behind her, Jonathan Crisp and Pilgrim drove their horses onward, but Sir Desmond would not let them pass without a callous blow at the driver. Jonathan Crisp took the blow and swore at the black knight.
In the meantime, the people in the stands stood in awe of the chaos unfolding before their eyes. Baxter saw an opportunity. As Sir Kaeden, the master of the lists, prepared to ride out with some kind of explanation, Baxter ran to the middle of the tiltyard and shouted, “How about that show, good people? Let’s have some applause!” The folk in the stands seemed somewhat skeptical, but cheered all the same—mostly those not of Marek or Breckshire, who had a stake in the match.
At the other side of the tiltyard, the thugs’ wagon made a sharp right turn, bouncing along the cobblestones and throwing Kat to the side as she battled the villain in the back of the cart. Just as the thugs were about to get away, Jonathan Crisp drove his horses forward and to the right, smashing their wagon into the thugs’ wagon at such an angle as to ram both vehicles into the side of a market stall. There was an explosion of melons and straw from the stolen carts and the loud splintering of wood, the screams of horses, as thugs and watchmen alike went flying through the air. Jonathan Crisp attempted to leap from the cart onto the roof of the stall, but missed the top by inches and smashed into the temporary structure.
Nearly useless, the thugs’ cart tried to limp onward. Cursing Jonathan Crisp, Kat dragged herself to her feet, narrowly avoiding a thug’s club. She pommeled the man in the head, knocking him cold in the cart. Meanwhile, Pilgrim and Jonathan Crisp extricated themselves from the wreckage. Jonathan Crisp climbed slowly to the top of the market stall and knocked an arrow. As the thugs’ cart limped toward Strongwood with a bruised Kat onboard, Jonathan Crisp, bloody-nosed and scraped up from the destruction he had caused, loosed his arrow long and far, into the fleeing driver’s neck.
Baxter’s warm-up of the crowd gave Sir Kaeden the moment he needed to compose himself and ride out onto the field in an official capacity. He hailed the crowd and cheered them on. He extolled the virtues of the Order of Maj Hraegar and the valorous knightly feats of arms that had been done on the field that day and he spoke of the festival days yet to come. In short, with Baxter’s help Sir Kaeden brought the crowd back under control and focused them while the watch took care of the mess with the carts.
Jonathan Crisp came down from the market stall swearing an oath against the black knight for taking a swing at him. As he made for the field, Baxter and Pilgrim suggested that he cool down. Kat ran over to the ruins of the cart to see how the others had fared. But by the time she had investigated and returned to the cart where she had left the unconscious thug, the man had disappeared—in only a matter of minutes. Cursing herself for leaving him alone, Kat raised her eyes to see Mortimer Schteck and some of the watch from the Strongwood gates coming down to the field to assist.
Schteck berated his watch for letting the situation get out of hand and for losing track of the missing man. On the field, the tournament started again and Sir Troyan d’Marek the Laughing Knight lost to the Black Knight of Breckshire. As the tournament wound down, Schteck told his watch that they had one chance left to prove themselves or he didn’t know what he was going to do with them. In the Iron Lord’s absence, security needed to be tight and no more “accidents” could happen.
Kat, Baxter, Jonathan Crisp, and Pilgrim were stationed in the feasting tent of the Order of Maj Hraegar. They were to be placed amongst the knights’ house guards and men at arms and were to touch no strong drink, only some wine and ale in moderation as they kept their eyes open for trouble.
Prior to the feast, Kat spoke privately with Braedon Crownworth, Sir Karlak’s chamberlain, who was organizing the tent for the feast. They spoke of leadership and responsibility. Kat spoke of organizing her troops and of learning to command stubborn or resistant soldiers. Braedon Crownworth smiled and told her that they had the same job, she and he, which was the circumstance of their meeting. A year before, Braedon Crownworth had entrusted the watch with finding Sir Karlak, who on occasion enjoyed slipping away and carousing and brawling amongst the people. Kat took his meaning to heart and after talking more they parted company.
The feast began that night in the tent, with all the Order of Maj Hraegar assembled. In the Iron Lord’s absence, Sir Karlak the Red Rider presided over the feast. Although he resented speaking publicly, and had a rough way about him, Sir Karlak rose to the occasion of his duty. Sitting amongst his fellow of the order was different than speaking before all the people. The others of the Order were all there—Sir Jandy of Brenmark, Sir Desmond the Black Knight of Breckshire, Sir Robiram of Ghenthold, Sir Havalhorn of Gondry, and Sir Troyan d’Marek and Lady Tamra d’Marek in attendance for Sir Gurney of Marek.
Sir Karlak addressed the knights of the Order formerly, reminding them that since the old days it was their custom to tell tales of their bravery and that of their ancestors, and to talk of their lands and customs so that they might share in fellowship. To the knight who told the greatest of the tales—voted upon by his peers of the Order—that knight would gain the prize of a golden chalice. So, beginning with Sir Karlak, the knights told their tales.
Sir Karlak told the story of his great uncle Kalen who had fought in the last struggle against Whrotgate fifty years ago. His uncle Kalen was missing an eye, and by the end of the battle he had lost his foot and his arm and the rest of his force, but still he struggled on. He followed a flock of ravens to the camp of his enemy, who had stolen the women and children from Kalen’s village. Kalen stole upon the enemy camp in the night and murdered their general—another black knight—where he lay. Kalen slew many others before he fell, but with their leader defeated Whrotgate’s force had been decapitated. Sir Karlak’s tale was gruesome and full of gore, but this was the kind of tale he enjoyed telling.
Next, Sir Havalhorn, the hunter knight from Gondry to the north, told a story of a strange phenomenon that had happened in his lands in the long winter that had just passed—a chilling tale that conjured old fears of the Queen that once was said to have inhabited this area. The Tale of Sir Havalhorn.
Then, the robust Sir Jandy, the businesslike knight of the fair land of Brenmark, told a tale of his great great grandfather, and how this brave knight had fought against Whrotgate in the great civil war a century past. Sir Jandy’s tale was a stirring epic that told of Nulmoria’s rebellion against their overlords and the struggle for their own independence. His tale brought the meaning of the knighthood back to the Order, and had many men toasting and others stirring in quiet contemplation. Sir Jandy’s Tale.
When it came to Sir Desmond the Black Knight of Breckshire, he abstained from his tale, saying, “I do not believe in fairy stories, nor do I waste idle time in telling them.” Doubtless Sir Desmond would never have said such a thing in the presence of the Iron Lord, but before the Red Rider he had no such qualms.
Sir Robiram, the magnificent and orderly knight of Genthold begged the knights’ attention and to show some decorum as he told his tale. He spoke of a dance that had once occurred in Genthold, on the solstice. A strange lady had come to that dance and the lord had been so taken with her that he followed her to distraction, and eventual misfortune.
When it came time for Sir Troyan’s turn, it was the Lady Tamra who was given the chance to speak, for she was the closest blood relation to her absent father. Lady Tamra d’Marek told a story of an iron axe that had been used to cut down a holy tree in Marek. She likened this axe to the Order and the tree to Nulmoria. “And that,” she said, “is why Marek is leaving the Order immediately!”
The tent burst out in cries of surprise, anger, defiance. Lady Tamra looked upon all the knights of the Order and she said that the Order was no longer what it was, and now the Iron Lord does not even attend his own tournaments in lieu of chasing maidens. With the Order as corrupt as it has become, she said that her ailing father sent her as an envoy to deliver this message of Marek’s withdrawal, that he should not perish in the shadow of the Order’s fall, but before the light of a new and brighter day free from the petty squabbles of the Order. Lady Tamra spoke of the way the Iron Lord ignored Marek and how they were better off on their own. Then she departed with her knights.
A pall came over the tent, now absent the Iron Lord and one of its primary seats. The Red Rider, melancholy and flush with wine, raised a goblet and decreed that the ceremony must finish or the sanctity of the Order is indeed lost. So, gloomily the knights cast their ballots and Sir Jandy was announced the winner. When the cup was passed his way, however, Sir Jandy poured his share into the goblets of the other knights and showed his blank ballot. “In times such as these, each knight must stand together,” he said, “for there cannot be one who stands over the others.” So saying, they solemnly toasted and resolved their ceremony.
After the feast, Mortimer Schteck spoke with his watch back at Stromvald’s Holdfast, since they had witnessed all of this. Sir Karlak, Sir Kaeden, and Sir Braedon Crownworth were all in attendance, sorting through solutions as to what was to be done about Marek. Some of the knights were for marching on Marek and taking it by force. Others urged patience and called for an investigation of Lady d’Marek’s claims of secession. It was decided that before any drastic action should be taken, the Iron Lord should be consulted, though a small group of neutral emissaries from Strongwood could go to Marek in Lady Tamra’s and Sir Troyan’s company, as their guests, and investigate the situation, gather intelligence, and so forth. The councilmen Lugyon Wood and Daemon Rathfein of Strongwood were chosen for this mission. Kat, Baxter, Jonathan Crisp and Pilgrim, volunteered to serve as guards and to be the eyes of Schteck, giving themselves a newfound purpose as the hand of Strongwood and its reeve.