In which we meet Jase and have a joust.
No snot-nosed Okie was going to unseat the champion.
Jase lifted his steel visor and swiped a gritty palm across his sweat caked brow. Narrowing his gaze, he studied his opponent at the far end of the jousting list before letting his eyes wander to the crowd. After a moment, he spotted the sports announcer who’d made that flawed prediction about a snot-nosed kid from Oklahoma. When Jase caught the woman’s eye, he smiled and gave her a thumb’s up. She responded with an upraised finger of her own.
“My lord.” Jase’s attendant, Craig, dashed up and grabbed his horse's bridle. He swung around to Jase’s stirrup and offered up a perspiring bottle of water. “Drink, my Lord, drink.”
Parched from the unrelenting Houston heat, Jase snatched up the container and drained half before upending the chill contents over his head. He relished the damp, cool fingers as they crept beneath the sweat-matted weave of his sunbaked armor.
“How’s he look?” Jase asked. “I couldn’t tell what happened after I unseated him.”
On either side of the 100-meter-long, dirt track, the bleachers buzzed with excitement as the crowd waited out the ninety-second commercial break. On one side of the stadium, the gyrations of a scantily clad troop of dancers kept the crowd entertained while a woman armed with an air-bazooka lobbed tee-shirts into the bleachers on the other.
“He hit the ground hard, m’Lord.” Craig turned to eye Jase’s opponent, Sir Richard Garcia of Houston. “He’s been favoring his left side ever since.”
At the far end of the list, Houston’s hometown hero and ranking champion sat perched atop his jet-black stallion. A big man, Garcia stood a full five inches taller than Jase’s muscled five-nine, and outweighied him by a solid nine-kilos, though most of that was fat.
“We’re well ahead on points,” Craig said, “and only one pass remains.” He released his hold on the bridle and stepped back. “The wise choice, m’Lord, would be to settle in and take Garcia’s lance. He cannot win unless he unhorses you. Even then, the points would be tied.”
Jase nodded as a buzzer indicated the fifteen-second warning. “Thank you, Craig,” Jase said. “That’s good advice.”
Snugging down his helmet, Jase accepted a lance before turning his chestnut bay and cantering to the starting post.
“With only one pass remaining,” a voice boomed over the loudspeakers, “the score remains, Sir Richard Garcia of house Lopez, five...”
Like typhoon driven leaves, red, white, and blue banners whipped across the crowd. A chant boiled up in the heat saturated air backed by a hard, stomping rhythm:
The racket slowly seeped away as the Knight Marshall and other judges rushed onto the field waving bright red warning flags.
“And the newcomer from Oklahoma.“
Boos filled the air.
“Jase Hildebrand of clan Hildebrand... fifteen points.”
Jase couldn't resist. Spurring his stallion onto the field. He rose in the stirrups and pumped his lance as catcalls and shouts exploded around him. Turkey legs and red plastic cups rained onto the field in a staccato of dusty thuds and soggy splats.
As judges calmed the crowd and ground crews sprinted out to clear the field, Jase's gaze wandered to the VIP-boxes where his family sat watching. He immediately spotted his kid brother leaning over the divider as he led a rowdy band of children in the Hildebrand chant. Upon spotting Jase watching them, the kids went wild. They leapt up and down whipping the air with sky-blue Hildebrand banners and grinning like fools. Jase threw them a wave.
But where was Mother? She'd never cared much for professional sports and rarely attended his meets. Still, her son was in the lead for the national championship, you’d think she could at least pretend. Then he spotted her. In a shaded corner at the rear of the bleachers, she sat huddled beside her sister, the two of them locked in conversation. It seemed the entire trip, mother and Aunt Anna had been secluding themselves in secret consultations.
As ‘We Will Rock You’, thundered over the speakers, Jase wondered what had kept the two in such confidence. They’d hardly said a word the entire journey. Now that they’d arrived for the King’s party and the announcement his daughter would assume the throne, it was as if he didn’t exist.
The fevered crowd cavorted to the ancient tune and drew Jase’s attention back to the bleachers and shook his head. In all his years in the sport, he’d never understood the crowd’s odd obsession with classical music.
Finally, the field was cleared, and the Knight Marshall waved the green flag for the joust to resume. The rumble of the crowd swelled, and like a great heartbeat, it pumped with the beat of the ancient tune and the stomp of ten-thousand feet.
Jase eyed his opponent across the list disgusted by the crowd’s blind support. Couldn't they see their champion was done? The better man had won. The only thing that could save Garcia now was a miracle and Jase had no intention of handing him one.
The line judge raised the green flag and slashed it down. Garcia lowered his lance and charged. Instead of lowering his own lance, Jase cantered along the tilt, his lance jutting skyward as he waved defiantly to the crowd.
The stands went wild. Trash pelted the field and jeers filled the arena as the thunder of Garcia’s stallion neared. At the last moment, Jase closed his eyes and leaned in to accept the blow.
The lance caught Jase in the grand guard on his upper left shoulder and exploded with a lightning sharp crack. Rocked back in his saddle, Jase’s feet and thighs dug in to resist the impact, but at the height of the pressure, his left stirrup gave way with an audible ‘pop’. With a sudden lack of support and a gasp of surprise, Jase tumbled over the back of his saddle. He hit the ground hard, stealing the air from his lungs and sending stars across his vision.
“I claim right of tie-breaker,” Garcia bellowed above the riot of cheers. “By long sword.”
Jase rolled to an elbow gasping for breath.
Did Garcia say long sword? He rolled to his side and sat up. Somehow, he faced the royal seats.
People sprang to their feet, eyes wide, mouths gaping.
Why was he facing the royal seats?
The metallic clatter of someone in armor drew closer. The roar in his ears competed with the roar of the crowd as a shadow flickered across Jase’s lap. Turning, he spotted Garcia standing behind him. Sword raised, the big man leapt the final meter and brought down his blade.
Steel grated steel as Jase held up an arm and rolled away. The blade ricocheted off his gauntleted arm in a shower of sparks and filled the air with an ozone stink.
“Point, Sir Garcia,” the PA boomed.
Jase rolled to his knees and grabbed for his sword. His hand came away empty. His blade was gone. Garcia's sword hissed down again, the point thudding into the dust where a split-second earlier Jase’s had been sitting. Spinning on his knee, Jase kicked out and smashed his foot into the big man's thigh. The impact was enough to knock Garcia off balance and buy Jase some time.
Garcia regained his footing and closed. Searching the ground before him, Jase grabbed the only weapon he saw; a piece of his shattered lance. With the four-foot wooden stump in hand, Jase rolled to his feet and faced his attacker.
“Come on, Old Man,” he taunted. “Let’s see what’cha got.”
Garcia circled switching his sword from one hand to another as he searched for an opening, then gripping the blade with both hands, the big man waded in. Wood chips flew as each blow whittled away Jase’s trifling defense. The lance’s wood was designed to be light and nimble. It couldn’t long withstand the onslaught of even the unsharpened competition blades.
With a final angry shout, Garcia whipped the sword in a high slashing arc and sent it crashing through Jase’s defenses. The blow shattered the lanced and struck Jase’s chest with a harsh, metal clang that sent him tumbling into the railing at the foot of the bleachers.
The announcer's howl sent the stands into a fury. Garcia raised his visor and from behind his thick dark beard spilled the words Jase never thought he’d hear: “Sir Hildebrand. Do you yield?”
Jase righted himself stunned at the sudden turn of events. He’d gone from certain victory to utter defeat in the span of a heartbeat. How had this happened?
“My lord!” Craig called.
Jase glanced to the edge of the list where his servant stood with his stallion’s reins in hand. He was gesturing at a spot behind Garcia. “My lord,” Craig called again. “Your sword!”
He followed Craig’s finger to where a twinkle of steel gleamed in the dust.
“Come, Lad,” Garcia crooned. “You’ve done well for a rookie. There’s no disgrace in yielding now. You’ve got no weapon.”
Jase turned to eye the crowd. Each voice was shuttered awaiting his reply.
He turned to Garcia. “You’ve fought with honor,” Jase said. He bowed and stepped closer shifting the stub of his lance from right hand to left. “Accepting surrender would be the wise thing to do.”
Garcia’s eyes narrowed as he lifted his blade and shuffled back.
“You more than any,” Jase continued. “should realize the battle’s not over until the final blow falls.” With that, he flipped the wooden rod at Garcia’s face and dove for the ground. Rolling onto his shoulder, Jase somersaulted beneath the man’s slicing blow and skidded to a halt in front of his sword. Jase scooped up the blade and turned.
He barely had time to grip the hilt and bring the blade up before Garcia was upon him. To Jase's surprise, as much as the crowds, the point of his blade caught Garcia in the chest halting his attack. Looking up from the dust, Jase heard the judge's voice echo across the field.
The judge’s whistles filled the arena and called a halt to the match as Garcia bellowed his protest.
“While judges review the call,” the announcer’s voice boomed. Behind them, dancers in sparkle topped bikinis sashayed onto the field. “Please enjoy the stylized moves of the Houston Sparks.”
Jase stabbed his sword into the ground and rose shakily to his feet using his hold on the grip to keep from falling.
“Well played, my Lord.” Craig was at his side lifting Jase's helm and dousing him with water. He pressed an icy, cold bottle into his hand. Jase drained it in a gulp.
Across the dusty battlefield, Garcia glared.
“What happened?” Jase asked. “How did he unseat me?”
Craig pulled a length of worn leather from his pocket and held it up. Though his head was still swimming, Jase’s brows narrowed as he stared at the strip. Then he recognized what it was Craig held; his saddle’s belt cinch.
“Someone sabotaged your equipment, m’Lord.” Craig flipped the length of leather over and exposed the cut. Easily overlooked, the gash was deep enough to cause the strap to fail if put under strain. Looking at it, Jase was surprised it had lasted so long.
“I'm sorry, m’Lord,” Craig said. Jase took the strip and ran its supple length through his fingers as he examined the cut. “I should have looked closer. The fault is mine.”
Jase gritted his teeth and glared. Craig was a loyal servant but a commoner none-the-less. And it wasn’t as if his House had the money or clout to warrant an actual squire. A noble might have noticed such treachery but a peasant? Jase slowly shook his head. No, the fault lay with whatever agent perpetrated this mischief. His eyes narrowed as he considered Garcia. There was where the responsibility lay.
The cluster of judges broke up as the Marshall marched to the center of the field a microphone in his hand.
“After further review, the call stands. Point Jase Hildebrand.” Scattered boos rose from the crowd. “The score is now, Garcia, seventeen, Hildebrand, Sixteen.”
The judge handed his mic to one of the ground crew then stepping between the two combatants. With a quick look at each, he spun his arm in a sign to begin.
Craig took the now empty bottle and seated the helm on Jase's head. “Good luck, m’Lord.”
With a nod, Jase stepped onto the field, the rage within him swelling. Jase couldn’t abide a thief. Peasants driven by necessity or desperation oft times slide into such sins. Evil men became thieves. Seduced by craven desires, lesser folk might be driven to such acts. But a nobleman? The idea one of the highborn would steal Jase’s victory, his honor … by cheating. Jase circled with his hand firm on the sword’s leather grip. His breath echoed in the hollow confines of his helm. His dishonor could not be borne.
Garcia had recovered his shield during the break, and he circled Jase with it held out before him, his sword cocked on one shoulder. With a bellow of rage, Garcia sprang. He hammered his blade down on Jase’s, once, twice, three times, the clatter of steel filled the arena before Garcia shuffled back, panting, and circled Jase once again.
The heat inside Jase’s helmet was unbearable. Despite the danger, he ripped it from his head and flung it to the earth. Here was the wretch who’d slithered into his stable and cut his saddle. Or at least here was the man who’d ordered it. Jase's fury ignited and with a crowd silencing whoop, he charged. Heart drumming with each clang of steel upon steel, his lungs were the bellows of his anger, his blade a smith's hammer flattening Garcia's defenses. With a final stroke, Garcia’s shield split asunder and the big man stumbled back. His foot came down awkwardly atop Jase's shattered lance and, unexpectedly, it rolled. Garcia’s foot shot out from beneath him as his whole body went airborne. For an instant, he was silhouetted against the backdrop of open-mouthed fans before crashing down and striking his helmeted head on one of the tilt’s steel posts. The rattling clang echoed through the sudden silence and the big man lay still.
Jase stared down at his opponent’s unmoving form as ground crew and judges raced to Garcia’s side. His head flopped like a ragdoll’s as they removed his helm and tried to revive him.
The Knight Marshall, after consulting with the other judges, stepped to Jase’s side. “Sir, Hildebrand. It appears you have won by default.”
“Default?” Jase turned and eyed the crowd. A hushed silence had fallen over the bleachers as they awaited the results. Default? There was no glory, no honor in winning by default.
“How do the points stand?” Jase asked.
The Knight Marshall's eyes narrowed. “Points?”
“Yes, what’s the score?”
The Marshall shot a glance at the unconscious Garcia then met Jase's eyes. “I would say, the score would be even at seventeen a piece. But my lord, scores are irrelevant. Sir Garcia clearly cannot continue.” He glanced at the other judges; his brows narrowed. “If you let the score stand, the joust is a draw.”
A draw? Jase pursed his lips. A draw was worse than winning by default. There was no honor in either. Besides, there were other ways to snatch glory from the jaws of defeat. Or if not from the jaws of defeat, then at least from the jaws of mediocrity.
“Knight Marshall,” Jase said. “Does Lord Garcia's offer to yield still stand?”
The Marshall’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry, m’Lord. I don’t understand the question.”
“Moments ago,” Jase said, “Sir Garcia asked if I wished to yield.” He looked to the Marshall and smiled. “Surely, you remember?”
The Marshall nodded. “Yes. Of course, but I don’t...”
Jase held up a hand to stop him. “What I’m asking is if his offer still stands?”
The Marshall rubbed his bristled chin. “I’m not sure.” He looked to the other judges. “We’ll have to consult the rules.”
Turning, he waved the other judges over. One produced a leather-bound text from his pocket. Jase assumed it was the rules. After minutes of hushed consultation, the Marshall returned.
While they’d waited, a man and woman in crisp white shirts with bright red-crosses on their backs had driven up in a golf cart. They’d stripped away much of Garcia’s armor while attaching an oxygen mask to his face and an IV to his arm.
“Sir Hildebrand,” the Marshall said. “We can find no rule specifying a time limit on an offer to yield.” He glanced at the other judged uncertainly. “So, in answer to your question. Yes, Sir Garcia’s offer to yield still stands.”
Jase examined the stands. A low rumble emanated from the masses as a thousand tongues mumbled their concerns about their champion.
“Then, Knight Marshall,” Jase said. “I yield to Sir Garcia. The field of victory is his.”
The Marshall stared in disbelief. “You what? You yield?”
Lifting his sword, Jase turned to the crowd.
“I yield to Sir Richard Garcia,” he shouted. “The field is his.”
Jase’s announcement carried into the first few rows and was met with squint-eyed stares. Somewhere, Craig had commandeered a microphone. He rushed to Jase and pressed it into his hand.
As the judges looked on in bewilderment, Jase tapped on the mic sending a hum of feedback echoing across the field.
“Is this thing on?” His voice boomed across the crowd.
Silence filled the air.
“I, Sir Jase Hildebrand, accept Sir Garcia’s offer to yield.”
“Did he say yield?” A voice drifted from the stands.
“That’s right,” Jase said in reply. “I yield the field of honor.” Jase marched along the bleachers coming to a halt in front of the royal box. Sweat scattered like rain as he shook his head and brushed away his locks of dark hair. “I will not dethrone the reigning champion on a technicality.”
He turned to face the peasant’s section and lifted his voice. “But make no mistake. In a year’s time, I will return and defeat him properly.”
Jase extended his arm and let the mic drop. It hit the dusty earth with a ring of feedback that echoed across the crowd. Turning, he strode to where Garcia was being loaded onto a stretcher.
Like a slow wind across the Oklahoma plains, a chant rose from the crowd, and soon, the entire stadium was on its feet. Jase helped Garcia onto a stretcher as the chorus which began in the cheap seats spread across the stadium.
Swinging astride his stallion, he waved to the crowd as he followed Garcia’s cart from the field. The sound of his name broke like thunder and filled the air.