From the edge of the training field, the clang of sword meeting sword rang in five year-old Arthur's ears like the clarion song of birds first thing in the morning. His blood thrilled. His face hurt from smiling so widely.
And there, in the middle of it all, was his father. The King. The strongest of all.
Uther's opponent overestimated a lunge and stumbled, giving Uther the opening he needed to bring the other man to his knees. "Yield!" he commanded, the point of his sword hovering over the knight's throat.
After a moment, the knight's hand fell limp. His sword slipped from his fingers to the well-worn grass.
The audience cheered. Arthur joined in with them, clapping until his palms hurt.
Uther reached and gave his opponent a helping hand, but his eyes were already sweeping those around him in search of another foe. When his gaze lit upon Arthur, half-hidden behind his nursemaid's skirt, his smile widened.
Arthur stiffened. He wasn't supposed to be out here. He knew that. But he'd whined and sulked until his nursemaid agreed to escort him out of the citadel to watch the daily training session. His only instruction was to stay out of sight. Clearly, he'd failed.
Uther crooked his fingers for Arthur to approach. Arthur's knees turned to water, but he took the first step, then the second, bracing his shoulders as strongly as he could manage under the watch of so many of his father's subjects. He kept his gaze up, as he'd been told time and time again, the only way for a prince to present himself. "Never show weakness," Uther always said. "You will be king someday. Men must believe in you, even when you don't believe in yourself."
He did his best to remember that lesson as he came to a halt in front of Uther. He even remembered not to speak until after Uther did.
"Have you been practicing?" Uther asked.
He could only refer to one thing. Arthur saw a swordmaster every day before lunch, using a scarred wooden toy Uther said had been his when he was young instead of the real thing. "Yes, sire," Arthur said with a solemn nod.
"Do you think you could take me?"
A ripple of laughter coursed through the people surrounding them. Rather than becoming embarrassed, Arthur grew angry. He wasn’t a baby any longer. They should know that. He lifted his chin when he replied, "I would try my best."
"Then let's see it."
One of the pages scurried forward with a wooden practice sword that was almost as big as Arthur. He had to grip the hilt with both hands to keep the tip of the blade from dragging along the ground, but he managed to square off with Uther without dropping it. The beads of sweat on his forehead might betray the effort he was making, however. He could only hope Uther was too amused by the challenge to notice.
When Uther lifted his hand, the crowd fell silent. Arthur held steady, his sword at the ready, as Uther took the same position.
Arthur lunged forward. Before he could blink, Uther swung his blade and knocked Arthur's from his grip. It landed a solid six feet away, too far for Arthur to even consider retrieving without getting stabbed in the back.
Uther laughed and turned to his knights. "Who's next?"
With his cheeks flaming, Arthur trudged across the field. That had not gone according to plan. He'd hoped to last at least a few moments against his father. Everybody was going to think him a fool.
As he bent over to pick up his sword, he caught the eye of his nursemaid. She hadn't moved from her vantage at the edge of the field, but at his notice, she offered a brief nod and cut her gaze back toward Uther.
Arthur's brows shot up. She hated his fighting, and yet, here she was, telling him to stay at it.
Fresh determination bloomed inside him. With his fingers curled around the hilt, he turned back to his father.
"Again!" he shouted.
Uther paused where he'd been chatting. "That's enough of this nonsense, Arthur." Though his tone was light, Arthur recognized the underlying warning. "Run along now."
"No." Setting his jaw, he dragged the sword to the center and brandished it with a double grip. "Again."
Uther's eyes narrowed to slits. "All right."
The second time, Arthur lasted five seconds before Uther disarmed him. The third, it was almost ten. By the fourth, his shoulders ached, and he could barely hold the sword up, but he actually caught Uther on the shin once before losing his weapon.
Uther was the one to pick up the sword this time, keeping it beyond Arthur's reach. Arthur slumped, but his gaze remained straight, his lips tight to keep from audibly panting for breath in front of Uther's men.
A long moment passed. Then...
"Be here tomorrow after breakfast," Uther said. "It's time we move your lessons out of the nursery."
He turned his back on Arthur, then, making his dismissal clear. In spite of his losses, Arthur practically floated back to his nursemaid's side.
"You have your father's spirit," she said with a fond smile as they made their way into the citadel. "It's good for the king to be reminded of that once in a while."
Inwardly, Arthur smiled. It was good that he'd been reminded, too. He was Arthur Pendragon, the future King of Camelot. His men would believe in him, even more than Uther’s.
But regardless, he would keep picking up the sword. Because true kings did not give up.