Onto part 2 of Le Reject.
The camp at the foot of Camelot was much more permanent in design and intent than the one with the trolls and magical creatures they had passed on the way here. Catelin was leading the group through the dozens of followers, smiths, merchants, foot soldiers, a few actual hedge knights. That much was clear enough from what they had seen with the kid in Paderborn – Knight Johann or something? She had already forgotten. Apparently people were lining up to join Sigurd and his warrior princess bride. No wonder Voigt had thought it necessary to reactivate Pariah Company. Necessary and foolish, she thought, smiling.
Catelin looked behind her covertly, angry that she couldn’t just grow another pair of eyes. Achilleos and Ahmed were following her like nothing had changed. No, Ahmed eyed her suspiciously. He was going to be a problem sooner or later if she didn’t do anything about it just now. Nothing else mattered till then. Giving up Charles had bought her some time, with the Princess giving her word about the safety of her daughter extending it again, but she still needed to get out of here as soon as possible. And that, ironically, meant going in quickly, gaining Sigurd’s trust, and asking for her daughter back.
Sigurd’s lieutenant in charge of selecting the most worthy knights to join the – appropriately named – inner circle in the inner circle of the castle wasn’t hard to spot. Getting there had been more of an issue. Catelin hadn’t seen this much armor and steel in one place for a good hundred years. Not since muskets had proven as equally good weapons against knights and magical creatures, with the added benefit of allowing the meat shields that were the peasantry to carry the main burden of combat.
“It’s funny,” she said aloud, trying to make conversation, “when I first came to this world everyone was wearing chainmail to protect against swords. Full plate came around because of the musket, then went away because of its ineffectiveness against magicals. And now plate is back for some reason. Curious, curious…”
“If you say so, effendi,” Ahmed said. It was the same tone as usual, just off in the slightest intonational difference. “I am no expert in your lands and its history.”
“No, no you’re not,” Catelin replied, keeping her suspicion down. “But will you participate in the contest?”
Ahmed shrugged, but halfway through stopped, pausing. Catelin was seeing cracks in the performance. This ‘Arab’ was about as common as the rug he carried. But what way to catch him? Maybe… He pointed towards the sanded field a few meters away where the knights and soldiers competed. “Pray tell, what is Achilleos doing?”
Catelin turned quickly. Achilleos had moved past them while they had danced their dance, walking tall and wide towards this Sir Thomas. “Good sir, my friends and I wish to participate in your contest to join your Round Table.”
The knight looked him over, unimpressed like he saw two meter tall slabs of meat every day, even ones flanked by a fairy and an ‘Arab’. Catelin wondered if that might actually be the case, judging by the panopticon of magicals and knights running around. The knight, polished and clean shaved like the kid in Paderborn had been, yet a bit older and slightly less dumb, nodded and gazed at the sparing ground. “My name is Sir Thomas. Prince Sigurd has entrusted me with choosing the best warriors to join him. He is a gracious man, willing to show favor to the best and purest of heart. It is not just a contest of strength, but one of chivalry too. If you wish to participate you must be pure of heart.” He looked at them, smug satisfaction lining his lips from edge to edge. “Are you pure of heart?”
“Always,” Catelin said without a hint of irony, while trying to not laugh at the idea of ‘chivalry’. These fools hadn’t been around in the high times of ‘chivalry’. Honor in knights only applied to your enemies’ foul deeds while you did everything in your power to win. Rules are for losers. But she was able to play it straight, considering what she had only just done to Charles. She nodded to Ahmed. “Him first.”
The Arab glared at her, understanding her meaning. Catelin cared more about the knight’s reaction. The nobleman looked surprised, even through a face that could only be be charitably be described as ‘well bred’ if nothing else came to mind. He cleared his throat. “The contest is not to the death. Even if you cannot join the inner circle, Prince Sigurd still has need of you and your abilities. Nor will the first fight decide. I will decided by your performance once nightfall comes on the day My Liege returns,” Sir Thomas said. Catelin wasn’t sure why he was trying to speak so archaic like he had swallowed a copy of Chaucer. Then again, the last century or so were pretty much a linguistic nail in the coffin for ye olden days. The magic was to blame: too modern, too universal, influencing humanity subtle when when not throwing fireballs at their houses.
“Oh,” Catelin said with a smile, “I’m sure some will certainly get in. Maybe two,” she said cheekily, smiling at Ahmed. Getting rid of him might be easier than she thought without revealing her true motifs.
“In that case face your friend,” Sir Thomas said, instructing his master-at-arms to bring swords. Real ones too.
Catelin rolled her eyes. Served her right for not keeping her big mouth shut. She accepted the first longsword, weighing it in her hand, trying to find out if they were properly balanced. They were. Quality blacksmiths were at hand then. Ahmed also got a sword, but he carried it like a butcher might a knife. The kid was clearly out of his element, clumsy. Was she wrong about suspecting him of plotting against her? Was he just out of his element in a foreign land, did she just project her annoyance with Charles on the kid who had clearly taken a shine to him? Whatever it may be, now it was too late.
“The contest is over once the opponent yields or is incapacitated for five seconds,” Sir Thomas cried. “Begin!”
“Show me what you got,” Catelin said with a smile, gripping the sword properly and positioning her feet in an aggressive stand, ready to lunge. Just because she preferred a good gladius or pistol didn’t mean a sword was either foreign or less-than-lethal in her hands.
Ahmed raised his sword, his feet moving slowly, deliberately. It betrayed the image of the naive youth he had oozed until then. The sword may be foreign to him, yet he knew the combat stances. It betrayed Catelin’s dulled senses, she had to admit. Too much time laying low, too much time running what amounted to a charity for desperate whores. The kid made eye contact. “Like you showed yourself when you betrayed Alberic?” He lunged, striking from above. Catelin parried, deflecting the blade easily enough, leaving Ahmed open for a killing blow. Her own blade went back to the defensive stance Frederick had taught her a good twenty – thirty? – years ago, protecting shoulder and chest perfectly while she could strike with the pummel. Ahmed recovered quickly, getting his blade up. Out of his depth he was, that much was certain, but clearly not a virgin.
“I didn’t betray him,” Catelin said truthfully, “that would imply it wasn’t the idea from the very beginning.” She struck quickly three times, pirouetting. Left shoulder, faint, center of mass. All of which Ahmed was able to parry. Barely. There were windows open everywhere that would have gotten him killed in a real battle or wounded in a training unit with Frederick. They paced around each other again. “I could offer you to join me, but I take it you imprinted on him already.” One more strike, quickly twirling around the blade to each the pummel and flinging it in a perfect arc in the air, embedding itself in the ground not far away, disarming Ahmed. “But why? I saw you first?”
“For all his flaws you seem to despise him for,” Ahmed said, keeping out of reach of the blade just so, “ he asked me to join him. You expected me to follow because I just came off the boat and you were the first to take pity on me.”
“Fair enough,” Catelin shrugged, gripping harder and moving in to end this. She suspected it wasn’t chivalrous to play with your food. She thrust the blade forward, slicing upward to tear the stupid bedsheet he was wearing, but then he leaned backwards dramatically, almost down to the ground. The sword only pierced air. Just then, Ahmed kicked up a leg, disarming Catelin by kicking her hand. She lost her grip, the sword went flying as the Arab’s other leg came up in an arch. Catelin, stunned, rolled backwards in time for Ahmed to get back to his feet in an instance by twirling his legs to gain momentum.His fists went up in a defensive stance.
“You are not the only one with a few tricks up their sleeve,” Ahmed said, the pathetic accent gone.
Catelin just showed her cheshire grin, raising her fists, and went for it. Lupa had taught her as well in hand-to-hand combat as any vampire with a misleading name could have. She threw a punch….
Within the blink of an eye she was on her back, her chest hurting, her windpipe under pressure from Ahmed’s legs. She kicked up, thrashing, hitting the crotch area. She wasn’t usually the type of woman to go for the church bells, but when in Camelot… Ahmed winced a bit, but nothing else happened. Her air was growing thin so she grabbed down there instead, but passed out.
“The Arab wins,” the knight said surprised. Achilleos understood him quite well in that regard. The fight had been a blur, yet Ahmed looked winded, bruised. It had been a magnificent view though, the stuff of legends. It could scarcely have lasted more than two minutes, barely enough for a crowd to gather.
“Huzzah!” Achilleos cried, “Huzzah, huzzah! Well done, friend Ahmed!” He went onto the hallowed sands to congratulate him. Unconventional but impressive. He shook the Arab’s hands vehemently. He looked down at the unconscious fairy. “Is she alright?”
“Yeah,” the Arab said, probably meaning ‘yes’ in his Arabianican tongue, “she’ll be just peachy with some rest. I’ll take care of it.” He glanced at her in the most concerning of ways. If he had meant her harm that is, but Ahmed was a friend after all.
“How honorable of you,” Achilleos said jovially. The youth seemed transformed. It was the beauty of combat indeed, the glory, the excitement, the rush of blood in one’s nether regions. Of which good Ahmed must have iron will and protection! Maybe he would be happy to teach him?
“Do you need help carrying her her?” Ahmed shook his head, lifted Catelin up by one shoulder and carried her, mostly dragged through, to a tent the knight had pointed at nonchalantly.
Once the commotion had died down, the people’s eyes went upon him. Achilleos flexed his muscles consciously and bellowed: “Who shall challenge me?”
“I will!” Another voice had bellowed this from deep within the crowd. He stepped forward. A lion of man similar to Achilleos himself, wearing black armor with a giant warhammer and prunes in his helmet. “I, Börn Stromson, slayer of giants!”
Achilleos, fully naked by comparison in his simple shirt and trousers, nodded respectfully and took a stance with his giant broadsword. “Shall we begin?!”
“Have at thee!” Björn shouted with a wide smile and charged. ANd so did Achilleos. In the exact center of the field their weapons met, creating furious trembling and a wave of pure, intangible, energy, which made all the onlookers take one step back. The two giants, larger than life, starred, locking gazed, caught in the greatest moment there was: the glory of battle as it was meant to be .