“Why can’t you be more like your Brother?” Robin asked me just as I loosed my arrow. Even before the arrow struck the target, Robin knew the arrow wasn’t going to find its mark. He was proved right a half a second later as the arrow hit the very bottom of the target, missing the Bull’s eye by a foot or more.
“I’m getting better!” I exclaimed. “Look! The arrow hit the target!”
“Aye, Lad, aye. But you still missed the bull’s eye by over a foot! From where I come from, that’s still a miss and you would still be dead.”
“Right,” I said. “I remember in my days in the hood…” I started, mocking Robin.
That rewarded me a cuff alongside my head. “Now’s not the time for japes, Lad. You have got to get better.”
“But I am decent with the sword and with a crossbow…”
“With the crossbow, you’re what?”
My father’s commanding voice bellowed across the yard. Robin and I both turned with a start to see my father crossing the yard.
“No Son of mine to going to learn the crossbow! ‘Tis a weapon for commoners and thieves!”
“M’Lord, the boy does show some remarkable skill when it comes to the crossbow.” Robin explained.
“Father let me show you!” I said a little too hastily. I sounded more like a small child trying desperately to gain my father’s attention, and yes, affection. Which, I was really.
“Fine,” my father said, exasperated. “Let’s see this remarkable skill.”
Robin wasted no time. He quickly pulled an apple from out under his tunic and threw it in the air. I quickly dropped the bow, scooped up the crossbow which was lying next to the bow, grabbed a bolt and started to load. By now the apple had reached the apex of its arc and was starting toward the ground. I had the crossbow loaded in a split second and aimed, and let the bolt loose…
Just as the apple and the target were on an even plane, the bolt skewered the apple and then continued on its path until if finally rested in the target – in the bull’s eye!
“Aha!” I exclaimed while the bolt was still shaking the in the target. I turned to look at my father with a smug look of satisfaction and a little pride. I mean c’mon, that was a great shot! Even Robin tipped his head slightly towards me in acknowledgement of the shot. He was the finest shot in the land. It was his remarkable skill with the bow that got him out of the poor district – the hood – as it was locally called. Named for the way the peasants and other denizens of the district would wear their hoods drawn up over their heads to avoid making eye contact with anyone. It wasn’t the best place to be in the Realm if you were an honest person. Life there was hard enough, but Robin had managed to escape there using his quick with and bow arm to fight is way clear of the hood and into courts across the land teaching the skill with the bow to high lords and their sons. Only the instruction wasn’t taking for me; much to my Father’s dismay.
“Nice parlor trick.” My father’s look of dismay hurt more than if he struck me across the face. “Your brother would have made the same shot…
“With both hands tied behind his back and upside down hanging from a tree!” I finished in with my eyes rolling and a mocking tone. That did earn a hit across the face. Not a nice open handed slap like Robin gave me, but an actual punch. I saw stars as I stumbled to my knees, the corners of my vision starting to blur a little. Say what you will about my father, he can throw a solid hit!
“I will not have you mocking me, or this family!” My father screamed at me, his face red with fury.
“ART! STOP!” My mother thankfully appeared. Her stern gaze at my father stopped him cold.
“Gwen, “my father stammered. My father has faced armies, countless foes, and if you believe the stories, a dragon or two. The only person he was truly afraid of was my Mother.
“Enough, Art. Mace isn’t Lance. You can’t expect the same things of him.” My mother crossed the yard to help me up. She dabbed the blood that was trickling from the corner of my eye where my father had struck me. Yeah, that was going to bruise and my head would feel the brunt of it in a few hours, I guessed.
My father grumbled under his breath, but was smart enough not to make his grumblings too loud.
“We have a visitor,” my mother said. Looking to my father with a stern glance she told him: “Now, go make yourself presentable and greet our guest. Mace and I will be along shortly.”
My father made one more “this isn’t finished” glance at me and turned on his heel and quickly stormed off. My mother finished with her mothering of my wound and looked at me.
“He cares you know. I know it isn’t easy being the youngest, but your Father does care and he really wants you to make a name for yourself.”
“He sure has a strange way of showing it.” I said as I touched my eye, wincing in pain. “Everything I do he compares to Lance. I’m afraid I’ll never be good enough or better than Lance.”
“Sadly that is the curse of the younger Son.” My mother said sadly. “But you can do it. You can make a name for yourself and bring honor to us and you. You have a good heart. You can do great things for people. No, you will do great things for people!” My mother looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Now come along. Let’s meet our guest.”
We both walked into the great hall, thirty minutes later. I had a bandage applied to my eye, which made me look roguish really. Sitting in his Throne was my father. Standing at the bottom of the short stairs was a maiden surrounded by a very small number of handmaidens. Everyone’s eyes turned our way as we entered the Hall.
“My apologies for our tardiness, Your Grace.” My mother said as we entered the room. She was always more courtly than I was and always knew what to say. It was yet another skill that I lacked, but sorely needed. “We did not mean to keep you or this Lady waiting.”
“No apologies necessary, My Lady. I understand there was a mishap in the training yard and that your Son needed to be looked after.” The Lady at the bottom of the stairs said. “I trust that the wound isn’t too grievous?” She asked of me. Her voice was soft and silky. She turned slowly to face me and she did with such style and grace that she didn’t actually move as so much as flowed to face me.
“No My Lady, the wound is superficial. It was a,” I looked directly at my father with some hate in my look, “crossbow accident.”
“Ah, I understand the crossbow is a dangerous weapon. It is more accurate and deadly at shorter ranges than a bow; but like a Lady, quick to anger if you don’t handle her correctly.” She fluttered her eyes, which were a crystal blue and did more to quicken my heartbeat than anything.
“Just so, My Lady, I’m sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name?”
“Lady Lake! So good to see you!” My Brother, Lance, suddenly burst through the doors. Standing at well over six feet, his golden hair flowed as he walked across the room. With his rugged good looks, blonde hair and rippling muscles, he was everything a maiden wanted, as I have been told many times by maidens who left me for my brother.
“Lance!” Lady Lake flowed to meet him in the center of the room, they embraced like old friends and she chastely kissed both of his cheeks in greeting. “I was afraid I would visit your home and not get a chance to see you.”
“Ah, but you almost did, I’m afraid! I just finished my tour of France, seeking adventure, fame and glory!” Lance said smoothly as he returned the kisses on the cheeks.
“How many times are you going to ride around France? Five? Six?” I sarcastically asked my brother.
“Seven, actually” He replied glancing at me. “Ah what adventures! George and I had many battles, and won many tournaments! George won the day at Flanders, I was never more proud of him!”
“Sounds lovely, I would love to hear more about it.” Lady Lake stated, without any real sincerity, I noticed.
“Ah but where are my manners? Forgive me Lady Lake, but what brings you to our modest little castle?”
“I have a boon to ask your family.” Lady Lake started to explain.
“She needs an escort.” My father quickly interrupted. “Some bloke in Italy is hosting a fair.”
“This ‘Bloke’ is the Marquis de Ferrara, Nicolo III and deserves some respect, Your Grace.” Lady Lake chastised my Father. There were three things my Father exceled at: Drinking, Fighting, and angering women.
“My Lord Husband, means no offense, Lady. Our little castle and lands are far from, Italy, was it?”
“Italy it is.” Lady Lake said as she smoothed out the fabric in her already impeccable dress. Gaining her composure she continued. “The Marquis is hosting a week-long celebration at his Castle in Italy. He has spent the last few years collecting masters of every type to help train nobles and their sons in, well everything. There you can find Masters to teach you the sword, lance, and how to dance.” Lady Lake looked at me again with those blue eyes and smiled coquettishly.
“Italy is a far way off. Too far for a Lady to travel with such a small group that you have. Especially with them all being women. How about it Lance? Care to escort Lady Lake to Italy so she can attend her fair?”
“Ah but sadly, I am unavailable Father. I only returned home for a few short days before I leave again. It seems there is a Spaniard who is making quite the noise about besting me in tournaments. I must leave shortly to keep my title and honor intact.
“Ah to be young again!” My father wistfully said.
“Your Grace,” Lady Lake started, “Perhaps your youngest Son…” she looked at me.
“Mace, my Lady.”
“Perhaps Mace would do me the honor of escorting me to the fair.” She suggested.
“Seems like a good idea really,” Lance said in support. “Might do him some good to get out of here for a while see the lands. Perhaps learn a thing or two at this fair.”
“Oh yes.” Lady Lake stated. “There will be a Grand Tournament at the fair. The winner will not only get recognition, but a new suit of armor to be crafted by the finest armor smiths in all of Italy also a commission in his army.”
“Army you say? Fame and Glory?” My father eyed me suspiciously. “Very well. Mace your first quest is escort the fair Lady Lake to the fair. While you are there, pick up a pointer or two, and for the love of God do well the Tournament!”
With a look of shock, I stammered back. “Y-yes, Your Grace. I’ll do my best to see the Lady to her fair.”
My father returned my look with a shrug of his own. “Do better than your best. Make a name for yourself. See Caledfwlch for a new sword. Make ready, you will leave as soon as the Lady is ready.”
“It won’t be long Your Grace, I hope to leave in the morning.” Lady Lake said. She looked at me again, smiled and continued. “I am sure with such a strong and capable escort, we will make excellent time to the fair.”
She held her gaze on me as she slowly turned and followed her hand maidens and the page out of the room towards their rooms for the evening. My brother clasped me on my shoulder as he turned to leave as well.
“Well now Brother, do us a favor and don’t embarrass yourself!” He leaned closer to my ear and said more softly. “And I expect details of that conquest when you return!” He straightened up, winked at me and left the Hall from the doors he came in. My mother turned me to face her. Pride shown in her eyes and she looked at me.
“Your first quest! Mace, I am so proud of you!” She hugged me in only the way a mother can. “You will make us proud.”
“Mother, I..” I started. But the words caught in my thought.
“Now, now. None of that. Go and see Caledfwlch for a sword worthy of you. I hear he has been working on something special.”
I walked into the blacksmith’s shop which was always hot. The forge was going 24 hours a day and in my short life I could not recall a time when the forge fires were ever out. Caledfwlch had apprentices and those apprentices had apprentices so there were always the sounds of hammers ringing on steel and the hissing sounds of hot metal cooling in water. I moved my way through the smithy to where Caledfwlch’s anvil and workstation was. As I got closer the blacksmith wasn’t in sight, but what I did see was the most curious thing ever. In his anvil was a sword stuck blade down in it. Only a foot of the blade shown and an ornate hilt rested on top of the blade. As I was examining the blade Caledfwlch’s voice came from nowhere and gave me a start.
“Here no’ Lad, bring me tha’ blade!” Caledfwlch’s thick Welsh accent helped me to pinpoint his location. I turned to face him and he stepped out from the shadows of the smith. He had no shirt on, but a thick leather apron covered his barrel of a chest. His arms, as big as tree trucks, hardened by decades at the anvil pointed to the sword protruding from the anvil.
“Great idea, righ’? I got he idea from a gatherin’ I went to las’ month. It holds the sword in place so I can work on the hil’. There’s a slot in me anvil! Go ahead lad! Pull it out and bring it to me!”
I pulled the sword from the anvil, and just like Caledfwlch said, there was indeed a slot in the anvil to in which the sword rested. It pulled out freely and I handed the sword to him.
“Trick is not to put the sword in the slot when it’s hot! A fellow smithy from Wales had done that and the blasted sword fused with his anvil! He makes some spare coin at fairs trying to get locals to pull it out! A pence a try! Winner gets to be King! HA!”
I handed the sword to him and he took the blade with the same care as a mother would her new born child. “Right, now listen up. Your father said you needed a new sword, so fortunately, I just finished this beauty. Like I said I went to a gatherin’ last month of all the Master Smiths in the land. We drank, and talked – drank mostly. But we came up with the idea of having some credentials for swords. Calibers, you might say. A sword built to specific calibers, so all the swords in the land will have some uniformity. It’ll help with trainin’ our ‘prentices. Now lookee’ here lad, this is the top of the line. It’s been built to the specifications of the tenth caliber of requirements of the sword. X-caliber, I call it! It’s solid steel, with 90% carbon for strength and lightness, 33 1/3 fullers with a ¼” depth and full tang with cross grain for strength in the hilt. It’s a thing of beauty!” I looked at Caledfwlch when he explained the technical jargon of the sword. I nodded when appropriate, I thought, as I had no idea of what he was talking about! But like he said it was a thing of beauty and the sword felt amazingly light in my hands as I gave it a few practice swings.
“It’s a great sword.” I said in awe of the remarkable blade.
“It’s my best. Stuff of legends! Treat it with care, and if it ever breaks or fails to live up to your expectations, ye have my permission to toss it into the nearest lake!”
“Thank you, Caledfwlch, I am honored that you have given me such a great sword. I won’t let you down.”
“I know ye won’t lad. I know ye won’t.”
In the morning, I wolfed down a quick breakfast and hurried outside. Strapping on the X-Caliber sword I crossed the yard where the stable lad had already saddled my horse. Lady Lake and her hand maidens were waiting outside as well standing in front of their carriage.
“Sorry to keep you waiting My Lady, my first day on the job as escort and I am already failing by keeping you waiting.”
“Think nothing of it, Mace.” Lady Lake replied. “I rose early and thought it best to stretch my legs for a while. I’ll be sitting in the cramped little box for a while. Italy is a far ways off.”
I leaned in close. “Perhaps when we are further down the road, you would care to ride my horse for a while.”
Lady Lake blushed and flirtatiously turned away. “Mace! Please what would your father think? A lady riding a horse!”
I sighed. This wasn’t going well already, and we hadn’t even left the gate! “Please, I meant no offense!”
“Neither did I, Mace” She looked at me and took my hands into hers. Her hands were soft and silky. “I was merely teasing. I look forward to our time together during our travels to get to know one another more.”
I helped the Lady into her carriage and her hand maidens piled in as well. “I look forward to it as well.”
I mounted my horse and the carriage driver started out of the castle courtyard. I followed behind and I dared one last glance over my shoulder to see my Mother and Father standing close together. Mother had tears in her eyes as my Father raised his hand in salute.
Fighting back tears of my own, I looked forward and rode out of the gate, eager to face whatever adventures and fortune came my way.