My master, Sir Loftus of Prudingham, was enthusiastic about two things: fighting in the tourneys and consuming immense quantities of roast meat. He was terrible at the first, but rivaled King Henry at the second. As his chief armorer, both these passions kept me busy planishing dents and adjusting the girth of his breastplate. I pushed the lads in the armory to have his tourney gear repaired by the time he recovered from the beatings he received.
One day, I was pounding out a nasty dent on his helmet from a well-swung mace when a stranger grabbed my arm in mid-swing. As I laid my hammer on the anvil and signaled the bellows boy to stop pumping, I faced a sallow-faced fellow dressed in plain brown homespun coated with the dust of a long journey. His lips flapped, but I heard nothing until I removed the lambswool tufts from my ears.
He ceased tapping his foot and uncrossed his arms when he saw he had my attention. “I’m Percival, servant to Sir Wilbur the Bold, and I bear a challenge for your master.”
I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “Main keep. Go through the double oak doors. Turn right. Ask for Harold, the main steward. He deals with such matters.”
I reached for my hammer.
He didn’t move.
Maybe he couldn’t hear me over the din from the apprentices hammering metal, so I yelled at them to put down their tools and prepared to repeat myself.
Percival put his hand on my arm. “You’re Egbert, the chief armorer, are you not?”
He cleared his throat and spat into the glowing coals of the forge, watching his spittle disappear in a hiss. “It’s you I must speak with about a delicate matter.”
I scratched my bald head as no one had ever associated me with anything delicate, and I wasn’t sure if he was mocking me.
He tapped a sealed parchment against my spark scarred leather vest. “I’ve read this challenge, and it’s to the death.”
Hold on now. None of these pompous clanking lords fought to the death. If they wanted to kill someone, they’d hack down a few peasants on the way to the tourney.
I shrugged. “Why bring this up to me?”
“May I sit?”
I pointed to a three-legged stool beside the anvil.
He took two deep breaths and plastered a grave look upon his bearded face. “Sir Wilbur is elderly, fifty-two next August, and has become maudlin of late. He has a morbid fear of dying in bed and wants Sir Loftus to kill him in combat.”
I perched on the flat of my anvil. “Why, Sir Loftus? He’s never won a tilt or survived a melee un-horsed.”
“Because all the other knights laughed at the challenge and turned him down.”
“And you think Sir Loftus will accept.”
“He has the reputation of fighting anybody.”
“True. But how do I figure in this? My lord rarely speaks to me, and when he does, he calls me Bertram.”
Percival stared at his nails. “Well, you could alter his weapons in such a way that he wouldn’t be able to strike a fatal blow.”
I crossed my arms and frowned. “Now why, exactly, would I do that, my perfumed friend?”
The messenger’s eyes narrowed, and with the soft voice a master might use when explaining a technique to an apprentice, he whispered. “If Sir Loftus dies, and based on his past performance, this is possible; then because he has no heirs, the king will hand the estate to another entitled buffoon.”
“That’s the way things work among the great ones.”
Percival jabbed a finger in my face, and I leaned back, feeling for my hammer. “A new lord will have his own retinue, and you might be out of a job.”
He was right.
I stroked the stubble on my chin and paced beside the anvil, pondering his words.
In mid-stride I swiveled to face my new friend. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
Percival shook his head. “It’s my fate I’m concerned about, not yours. Circumstances have woven our destinies into the same tapestry. Sir Wilbur never had a child with the late Lady Mary, and should he choose a noble death on Sir Loftus’s lance, or the two idiots kill each other, I’ll be in the same predicament as you.”
I poked the bellows boy awake. “Fetch a keg of ale and two mugs.” Then I turned to the other assistants, who were pretending they weren’t listening. “The rest of you louts off with you.”
By the time we drank the keg dry, my new friend and I had worked out a plan.
Sir Loftus accepted the challenge and limped into the armory the next day, holding a greasy goose leg in his good hand. “Bertram, make sure my armor is ready for battle.”
“Yes, my lord.”
On the morrow, I began preparations for my end of the scheme. The stable boy agreed to my request for a silver penny. From the kitchen, I filched a small stoppered jar and sent the bellows boy to the swamp to gather the rest of what I needed. I hoped Percival could carry out his end of the plan.
From what he told me later, his part unfolded like this. The night before the duel, he escorted a buxom blonde girl into Sir Wilbur’s chambers. He introduced her as Lady Gwendolyn of Tittingham, a widow longing for an introduction to such a famous knight as Sir Wilbur.
Lady Gwendolyn, known in the village as Wendy the wench, bowed deeply, displaying her ample bosom. Sir Wilbur was captivated.
Percival’s instructions to Wendy were clear. “Don’t let him stop. Don’t let him rest. Don’t let him sleep.”
At dawn on the day of the duel, two steel behemoths perched on their best mounts faced each other across a muddy field, accompanied by their squires, with a priest in attendance for the loser.
Sir Loftus leaned down from his saddle. “Bertram, don’t you think Sir Wilbur is acting a little odd? He hasn’t moved since his squire led him onto the field, and I swear I heard snores echoing from his helmet. No matter, prepare me for combat.”
I stood on the mounting stool, strapped a shield to his left arm, and handed him his lance. Before securing his great helm, I opened the jar and unleashed a flight of angry mosquitos into his helmet.
Attaching the helm was the signal to the stable boy to lead a mare in heat out of the woods behind the field of battle.
Sir Loftus’ stallion’s nostrils flared, and it bolted chasing the mare, and carrying the flailing knight off the field of battle.
Sir Wilbur and his gelding dozed through the excitement.
Three months after the duel that was never to be spoken of, Sir Loftus stood as the best man at the wedding of Sir Wilbur and Lady Gwendolyn at St. George’s church.
In the back, among the forgotten people, Percival and I got royally drunk.
Richard is a Calgary writer whose non-fiction has appeared in the major US and Canadian outdoor magazines. His short story and flash fiction have been published by Close To the Bone, The Scarlet Leaf Review, and in the anthology Blood on the Holly.