The bright red of a cardinal flying next to the window called sir Phoenix's attention so powerfully, he couldn't avoid turning his head to watch it. Unfortunately, his movement coincided with the very moment his guest threw his gauntlet at him, with the result that the challenge hit sir Apollo's face instead.
That, of course, hadn't been sir Kristoph intention, but he couldn't say it and ask a second chance to issue the challenge. All he could do was to wait and see if sir Apollo would pick it up. The sir Apollo he knew, the one who had been under his wing since he was a squire until less than a year ago, would do anything to decline, but everyone knew the boy had gone through a long way since then.
Sir Apollo hesitated for a second but then he did pick up the gauntlet. "I accept," he said simply.
Sir Kristoph did his best to stop the twitching of his eye. "Very well," he said. "I'll meet you tomorrow at dawn by the bridge." Then, he left.
"That was so brave of you, sir Polly!" exclaimed lady Trucy, running to hug him. "You spared my father a fight!"
"It's Apollo," sir Apollo muttered as he did allow his eye to twitch a little bit while lady Trucy hugged him. What he didn't tell her was that he didn't have exactly much chance to do otherwise, not with the talk he and sir Phoenix had had about the duties of knighthood the night before.
The idea of dueling sir Kristoph was awkward at best for sir Apollo, not because sir Kristoph was more experienced --which was the case--, but mostly because he had been his mentor for the longest of times, before the king saw fit reward sir Phoenix's deeds with some lands and granted his wish of having sir Apollo under his command. It had been such an specific request, and the reason behind it was still a mystery for most, even for lady Trucy, sir Phoenix's daughter, who had became sir Apollo's good friend and whom he had come to love as a sister.
"It was, indeed, quite brave of you," sir Phoenix said. "My old bones would have protested after the first seconds of that battle."
As sir Apollo thought his mentor wasn't as old as he claimed to be, he excused himself. He had to get ready for the upcoming battle.
"I'll help you!" lady Trucy said.
"There's no need, my lady," sir Apollo said. "I have a squire--"
"Let's go!" lady Trucy said, grabbing sir Apollo by the arm and dragging him all the way to the stables.
"They're spirits are so high," sir Phoenix said as he looked at them from the window. "I hope they last forever."
Long before the sun showed itself on the horizon, sir Apollo, his squire and lady Trucy were on their way to the bridge (sir Phoenix claimed he had the gout and wouldn't be able to leave the bed anytime soon --sir Apollo thought impossible someone would develop gout overnight, but lady Trucy had dragged him away again and hadn't let him voice his objection).
It was cold and damp, and the armour made it all worse, but sir Apollo did not complain: there were more important things on his head.
He knew most of sir Kristoph tactics, but in all this time, he could've developed new ones. Sir Apollo couldn't afford to be careless.
"I know you can do it, sir Polly," lady Trucy said. She always seemed to know what he was thinking, and he had also an accurate intuition about her own feelings. He had them for most people, actually, but he was more in tune with her. Peripherally, this should've made him more popular with other ladies than he actually was.
"Thank you for your trust, my lady," he said. "I'll do my best for you."
"You'll win, I'm sure of it. But, just in case, I'll let you borrow a little something for luck. It's very important for me, so don't lose it."
Sir Apollo felt moved. He closed his eyes and he began to thank her again, but then he opened them and saw what he was offering him and stopped mid sentence.
It was a piece of female undergarment.
Sir Apollo felt himself going as red as the cardinal from the day before and nearly fell down from his horse.
In the end, sir Apollo didn't have to wear that undergarment --magical undergarment, lady Trucy had called it-- tied on his lance but beneath his saddle. He still felt quite embarrassed by the whole ordeal, but his embarrassment was mixed with gratitude for the thoughtfulness of lady Trucy.
Finally, they were on the bridge. Sir Kristoph and his younger brother, sir Klavier, were already waiting for them.
"Are you ready, sir Apollo?" sir Kristoph asked.
Sir Apollo wanted to say he wasn't, but since he couldn't, he said otherwise.
"Where is sir Phoenix?" sir Kristoph continued.
"Father wasn't feeling well," lady Trucy said. "I'm here in his place."
Neither sir Klavier nor sir Kristoph had a thing against it, and sir Klavier even offered himself to escort lady Trucy back to her castle once sir Kristoph had finished sir Apollo.
"But who's going to escort you back to your castle, sir Klavier, when sir Polly finishes sir Kristoph?" lady Trucy said, her index finger on the air.
Sir Apollo spent a few moments considering which part of lady Trucy's speech had been the worse one.
Sir Kristoph, on the other hand, just smiled smugly. And again he tried to stop his eye from twitching.
That was odd, sir Apollo thought, he didn't use to do that back when I was with him.
"Let's begin," sir Kristoph said.
The combatants took their places on each side of the field. Their squires finished the preparations and gave them their weapons. Sir Apollo prepared himself mentally for what was to come. He took notice of sir Klavier going to sit down near lady Trucy, but that didn't worry him much --lady Trucy knew how to defend herself if needed. Besides, sir Klavier had always seemed a very decent man to him.
Sir Apollo was now sweating in his armour. He was never going to get used to the tension before a bettle, never. Nor to the way the helmet pressed down his hair; it took him hours to get it up the way he liked it. Why didn't he become a monk when he had the chance? Perhaps he could do that once this was over. Then again, the hood would press down his hair too and he'd have to use that one more often than he currently did with the helmet.
He sighed. He wasn't kidding anyone. He loved fighting for justice, for the people, for those who couldn't fight for themselves. It made his life worth living. He was feeling really bad about this one only because he was fighting sir Kristoph.
Him having to fight sir Kristoph was unfair. Unfair because sir Kristoph original intention was to challen sir Phoenix, not him. Unfair because sir Apollo didn't have a clue why the challenged had been issued --he was just walking by into the room when the gauntlet had been thrown and no one had spared a moment to tell him.
Yet, he had to do it.
Perhaps he could demand answers from sir Phoenix after all of this.
Very few breaths later, the horses started running.
Sir Apollo and sir Kristoph, holding up their lances, charged into each other.
Everything was happening slowly, so slowly.
With the corner of his eye, sir Apollo noticed the sun rising on their right. He felt the earth rumbling under his horse's hooves. He heard his Chords of Steel in use as distantly as he heard the birds that were waking up on the trees.
Then their lances crashed.
His arm felt it. His back felt it. His whole body felt it.
But he didn't fall, not this once.
Sir Kristoph didn't fall either.
Sir Apollo dropped his lance and reached for his sword at the same time sir Kristoph was drawing his.
Swords met, and met, and they met again, clanking, clanking, making all the noises sir Apollo was so used to and yet he found them new and hateful because the situation was one he disliked with all his heart.
At one moment, after they had both dismounted, sir Apollo had the chance of looking at sir Kristoph's eyes though the helmet's visor. They were twitching again, this time unrestrictedly.
It wasn't a pretty sight.
Sir Apollo had the certainty he had become a better fighter after going under through sir Phoenix's Spartan training, but, by the looks of it...
By the looks of it, it was like if sir Kristoph hadn't been expecting him to have improved that much, that he expected to defeat him quite sooner.
Perhaps I do have a chance, sir Apollo thought and he pushed with all his might.
Sir Kristoph stumbled a bit and sir Apollo took the chance to push again and few seconds later, sir Kristoph was looking up at him from the ground.
Panting, sir Apollo took of his helmet. He was dripping sweat and he was so tired, both mentally and physically, but he had won.
He had won.
It took him a moment to hear lady Trucy's cheers in the background.
"I'll tell sir Phoenix this is over," sir Apollo said to his fallen former mentor, who just dismissed him with a nod.
Sir Apollo turned around and began to walk towards his horse. Suddenly, he heard lady Trucy screaming.
"Behind you!" she said.
Sir Apollo turned around as fast as he could and he saw a knife pointing at his forehead, and holding that knife was sir Kristoph.
Sir Apollo faltered and saw the blade coming nearer and nearer and nearer.
Just when he thought all was lost, another knife hit sir Kristoph's hand, forcing him to let go of his own.
Sir Kristoph yelled and fell backwards again.
Sir Apollo looked around and saw a terrified lady Trucy, a sir Kristoph who was doing a bad job hiding his stupefaction and, a little further, sir Phoenix and the king.
It all pointed to that it had been sir Phoenix who threw the second knife.
"Sir Kristoph," was the king saying, "you have brought shame upon yourself."
Sir Kristoph, still holding his wounded hand against his chest stood up and tried to defend himself but it was pointless. There were irrevocable proof of his treachery and several witnesses, including the king, who had seen his treason ways.
Not even his own brother would speak on his defense.
"Sir Kristoph has been doing this for years," sir Phoenix said. "He finds ways to challenge older and weaker knights for his lands. The one you gave me, my liege, was far too tempting, too rich and prosper. He had to try. It was lucky Apollo took mine, that way I was able to go get you."
"Father! You are so wise!" lady Trucy said.
"I knew he was faking the gout," sir Apollo mumbled as he picked up himself.
Less than a month later, it got to sir Phoenix's castle the news that sir Kristoph had been vanished from the kingdom and that all his lands had been given to sir Klavier, who had proven to be innocent of his brother's conspiracies.
"We should invite him for supper one of these days," sir Phoenix said. "He seems to be a good lad."
"He is," sir Apollo said.
"And quite handsome too," lady Trucy said. "He also can sing and play the lute quite beautifully."
Sir Phoenix laughed and sir Apollo rolled his eyes.
"Bye the way, sir Phoenix, may I speak with you for a moment?" sir Apollo asked.
"Oh, yes. You must want some answers now."
"Well, your gout certainly looks quite better today," sir Apollo said, referring to the excuse sir Phoenix had given him for weeks to evade him, and that right then had became useless since they'd been walking around the whole morning.
"Yes, you're right. I think I'm all cured now."
Sir Phoenix asked lady Trucy to go ahead and write sir Klavier's invitation as he talked with sir Apollo about important things.
About two hours later, sir Apollo was experiencing a particularly vicious nervous crisis, given that he had been left with the task of informing lady Trucy they they both were the lost son and the lost daughter of the queen of a distant country because sir Phoenix had just gotten a last-minute invitation to a three-month-long hunting trip with the king and had already left.
He should simply start asking where the furthest monastery was and head there as soon as possible.