Gay pennons fluttered from a thousand lance tips and gay with color were the housings of the richly caparisoned chargers that proudly bore the Knights of the Sepulcher upon whose backs red crosses were emblazoned to denote that they had completed the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were returning to home and England.
Their bassinets, unlike those of the Knights of Nimmr, were covered with bullock hide, and the devices upon their bucklers differed, and their colors. But for these and the crosses upon their backs they might have been Gobred’s own good knights and true.
Sturdy sumpter beasts, almost as richly trapped as the knight’s steeds, bore the marquees and tilts that were to house the knights during the tourney, as well as their personal belongings, their extra arms and their provisions for the three days of the tourney; for custom, over seven centuries old, forbade the Knights of Nimmr and the Knights of the Sepulcher breaking bread together.
The Great Tourney was merely a truce during which they carried on their ancient warfare under special rules which transformed it into a gorgeous pageant and an exhibition of martial prowess which noncombatants might witness in comfort and with impunity. It did not permit friendly intercourse between the two factions as this was not compatible with the seriousness of the event, in which knights of both sides often were killed, or the spirit in which the grand prize was awarded.
This prize as much as any other factor had kept open the breach of seven and a half centuries’ duration that separated the Fronters from the Backers, for it consisted of five maidens whom the winners took back with them to their own city and who were never again seen by their friends or relatives.
Though the sorrow was mitigated by the honorable treatment that custom and the laws of knighthood decreed should be accorded these unfortunate maidens, it was still bitter because attached to it was the sting of defeat.
Following the tournament the maidens became the especial charges of Gobred or Bohun, dependent of course upon whether the honors of the tourney had fallen to the Fronters or the Backers, and in due course were given in honorable marriage to knights of the victorious party.
The genesis of the custom, which was now fully seven centuries old, doubtless lay in the wise desire of some ancient Gobred or Bohun to maintain the stock of both factions strong and virile by the regular infusion of new blood, as well, perhaps, as to prevent the inhabitants of the two cities from drifting too far apart in manners, customs and speech.
Many a happy wife of Nimmr had been born in the City of the Sepulcher and seldom was it that the girls themselves repined for long. It was considered an honor to be chosen and there were always many more who volunteered than the requisite number of five that annually made the sacrifice.
The five who constituted the prize offered by the City of the Sepulcher this year rode on white palfreys and were attended by a guard of honor in silver mail. The girls, selected for their beauty to thus honor the city of their birth, were gorgeously attired and weighed down with ornaments of gold and silver and precious stones.
Upon the plain before the city of Nimmr preparations for the tourney had been in progress for many days. The lists were being dragged and rolled with heavy wooden rollers, the ancient stands of stone from which the spectators viewed the spectacle were undergoing their annual repairs and cleansing, a frame superstructure was being raised to support the canopies that would shade the choice seats reserved for the nobility, and staffs for a thousand pennons had been set round the outer margin of the lists—these and a hundred other things were occupying a company of workmen; and in the walled city and in the castle that stood above it the hammers of armorers and smiths rang far into the night forging iron shoes and mail and lance tips.
Blake had been assured that he was to have a part in the Great Tourney and was as keen for it as be had been for the big game of the season during his football days at college. He had been entered in two sword contests—one in which five Knights of Nimmr met five Knights of the Sepulcher and another in which he was pitted against a single antagonist, but his only contest with the lance was to be in the grand finale when a hundred Fronters faced a hundred Backers, since, whereas, before his encounter with Malud he had been considered hopeless with sword and buckler now Prince Gobred looked to him to win many points with these, his lance work being held but mediocre.
King Bohun and his followers were camped in a grove of oaks about a mile north of the lists, nor did the laws governing the Great Tourney permit them to come nearer until the hour appointed for their entrance upon the first day of the spectacle.
Blake, in preparing for the tourney, had followed the custom adopted by many of the knights of wearing distinctive armor and trapping his charger similarly. His chain mail was all of solid black, relieved only by the leopard skin of his bassinet and the blue and silver pennon upon his lance. The housings of his mount were of black, edged with silver and blue, and there were, of course, the prescribed red crosses upon his breast and upon his horse housings.
As he came from his quarters upon the opening morning of the tourney, followed by Edward bearing his lance and buckler, he appeared a somber figure among the resplendently caparisoned knights and the gorgeously dressed women that were gathered in the great court awaiting the word to mount their horses which were being held in the north ballium by the grooms.
That his black mail was distinctive was evidenced by the attention he immediately attracted, and that he had quickly become popular among the knights and ladies of Nimmr was equally apparent by the manner in which they clustered about him, but opinion was divided in the matter of his costume, some holding that it was too dismal and depressing.
Guinalda was there but she remained seated upon a bench where she was conversing with one of the maidens that had been chosen as Nimmr’s prize. Blake quickly disengaged himself from those who had crowded about him and crossed the court to where Guinalda sat. At his approach the princess looked up and inclined her head slightly in recognition of his bow and then she resumed her conversation with the maiden.
The rebuff was too obvious to permit of misunderstanding, but Blake was not satisfied to accept it and go his way without an explanation. He could scarce believe, however, that the princess was still vexed merely because he had intimated that be had believed that she took a greater interest in him than she had admitted. There must be some other reason.
He did not turn and walk away, then, although she continued to ignore him, but stood quietly before her waiting patiently until she should again notice him.
Presently he noted that she was becoming nervous as was also the maiden with whom she spoke. There were lapses in their conversation; one of Guinalda’s feet was tapping the flagging irritably; a slow flush was creeping upward into her cheeks. The maiden fidgeted, she plucked at the ends of the wimple that lay about her shoulders, she smoothed the rich cyclas of her mantle and finally she arose and bowing before the princess asked if she might go and bid farewell to her mother.
Guinalda bade her begone and then, alone with Blake and no longer able to ignore him, nor caring to, she turned angrily upon him.
“I was right!” she snapped. “Thou art a forward boor. Why standeth thou thus staring at me when I have made it plain that I wouldst not be annoyed by thee? Go!”
“Because——” Blake hesitated, “because I love you.”
“Sirrah!” cried Guinalda, springing to her feet. “How darest thou!”
“I would dare anything for you, my princess,” replied Blake, “because I love you.”
Guinalda looked straight at him for a moment in silence, then her short upper lip curved in a contemptuous sneer.
“Thou liest!” she said. “I have heard what thou hast said concerning me!” and without waiting for a reply she brushed past him and walked away.
Blake hurried after her. “What have I said about you?” he demanded. “I have said nothing that I would not repeat before all Nimmr. Not even have I presumed to tell my best friend, Sir Richard, that I love you. No other ears than yours have heard that.”
“I have heard differently,” said Guinalda, haughtily, “and I care not to discuss the matter further.”
“But———” commenced Blake, but at that instant a trumpet sounded from the north gate leading into the ballium. It was the signal for the knights to mount. Guinalda’s page came running to her to summon her to her father’s side. Sir Richard appeared and seized Blake by the arm.
“Come, James!” he cried. “We should have been mounted before now for we ride in the forerank of the knights today.” And so Blake was dragged away from the princess before he could obtain an explanation of her, to him, inexplicable attitude.
The north ballium presented a scene of color and activity, crowded as it was with knights and ladies, pages, squires, grooms, men-at-arms and horses, nor would it accommodate them all, so that the overflow stretched into the east and south balliums and even through the great east gate out upon the road that leads down into the valley.
For half an hour something very like chaos reigned about the castle of the Prince of Nimmr, but eventually perspiring marshals and shouting heralds whipped the cortege into shape as it took its slow and imposing way down the winding mountain road toward the lists.
First rode the marshals and heralds and behind them a score of trumpeters; then came Prince Gobred, riding alone, and following was a great company of knights, their colored pennons streaming in the wind. They rode just before the ladies and behind the ladies was another company of knights, while in the rear marched company after company of men-at-arms, some armed with cross bows, others with pikes and still others again with battle-axes of huge proportions.
Perhaps a hundred knights and men-at-arms all told were left behind to guard the castle and the entrance to the Valley of the Sepulcher, but these would be relieved to witness the second and third days’ exercises.
As the Knights of Nimmr wound down to the lists, the Knights of the Sepulcher moved out from their camp among the oaks, and the marshals of the two parties timed their approach so that both entered the lists at the same time.
The ladies of Nimmr dropped out of the procession and took their places in the stand; the five maidens of Nimmr and the five from the City of the Sepulcher were escorted to a dais at one end of the lists, after which the knights lined up in solid ranks, the Knights of Nimmr upon the south side of the lists, the Knights of the Sepulcher upon the north.
Gobred and Bohun rode forward and met in the center of the field, where, in measured and imposing tones, Bohun delivered the ancient challenge prescribed by custom and the laws of the Great Tourney and handed Gobred the gage, the acceptance of-which constituted an acceptance of the challenge and marked the official opening of the tourney.
As Gobred and Bohun reined about and faced their own knights these rode out of the lists, those who were not to take part in the encounters of the day seeking places in the stands after turning their chargers over to grooms, while those who were to participate formed again to ride once around the lists, for the double purpose of indicating to their opponents and the spectators the entrants for that day and of viewing the prizes offered by their opponents.
In addition to the maidens there were many minor prizes consisting of jeweled ornaments, suits of mail, lances, swords, bucklers, splendid steeds and the many articles that were valued by knights or that might find favor in the eyes of their ladies.
The Knights of the Sepulcher paraded first, with Bohun at their head, and it was noticeable that the eyes of the king were often upon the women in the stands as he rode past. Bohun was a young man, having but just ascended the throne following the recent death of his father. He was arrogant and tyrannical and it had been common knowledge in Nimmr that for years he had been at the head of a faction that was strong for war with Nimmr, that the city might be reduced and the entire Valley of the Sepulcher brought under the rule of the Bohuns.
His charger prancing, his colors flying, his great company of knights at his back, King Bohun rode along the stands reserved for the people of Nimmr, and when he came to the central loge in which sat Prince Gobred with the Princess Brynilda and Princess Guinalda, his eyes fell upon the face of the daughter of Gobred.
Bohun reined in his charger and stared straight into the face of Guinalda. Gobred flushed angrily, for Bohun’s act was a breach of courtesy, and half rose from his seat, but at that moment Bohun, bowing low across his mount’s withers, moved on, followed by his knights.
That day the honors went to the Knights of the Sepulcher, far they scored two hundred and twenty seven points against one hundred and six that the Knights of Nimmr were able to procure.
Upon the second day the tourney opened with the riding past of the entrants who, ordinarily, were conducted by a herald, but to the surprise of all, Bohun again led his knights past the stands and again he paused and looked full at the Princess Guinalda.
This day the Knights of Nimmr fared a little better, being for the day but seven points behind their opponents, though the score for the two days stood two hundred and sixty nine to three hundred and ninety seven in favor of the Knights of the Sepulcher.
So the third day opened with the knights from the north boasting what seemed an insuperable lead of one hundred and twenty eight points and the Knights of Nimmr spurred to greater action by the knowledge that to win the tourney they must score two hundred and thirty two of the remaining three hundred and thirty four points.
Once again, contrary to age old custom, Bohun led his entrants about the lists as they paraded before the opening encounter, and once again he drew rein before the loge of Gobred and his eye rested upon the beautiful face of Guinalda for an instant before he addressed her sire.
“Prince Gobred of Nimmr,” he said in his haughty and arrogant voice, “as ye well know my valiant sir knights have bested thine by more than six score points and the Great Tourney be as good as ours already. Yet we would make thee a proposition.”
“Speak Bohun! The Great Tourney is yet far from won, but an’ ye have any proposition that an honorable prince may consider thou hast my assurance that ’twill be given consideration.”
“Thy five maidens are as good as ours,” said Bohun, “but give me thy daughter to be queen of the Valley of the Sepulcher and I will grant thee the tourney.”
Gobred went white with anger, but when he replied his voice was low and even for he was master of his own emotions, as befitted a princely man.
“Sir Bohun,” he said, refusing to accord to his enemy the title of king, “thy words are an offense in the ears of honorable men, implying as they do that the daughter of a Gobred be for sale and that the honor of the knighthood of Nimmr may be bartered for.
“Get thee hence to thine own side of the lists before I set serfs upon ye to drive ye there with staves.”
“So that be thine answer, eh?” shouted Bohun. “Then know ye that I shall take the five maidens by the rules of the Great Tourney and thy daughter by force of arms!” With this threat delivered he wheeled his steed and spurred away.
Word of Bohun’s proposition and his rebuff spread like wild fire throughout the ranks of the Knights of Nimmr so that those who were to contend this last day of the tourney were keyed to the highest pitch of derring do in the defence of the honor of Nimmr and the protection of the Princess Guinalda.
The great lead attained by the Knights of the Sepulcher during the first two days was but an added incentive to greater effort, provoking them, as a spur, to the utmost limits of daring and exertion. There was no need that their marshals should exhort them. The youth and chivalry of Nimmr had heard the challenge and would answer it in the lists!
Blake’s sword and buckler encounter with a Knight of the Sepulcher was scheduled for the first event of the day. When the lists were cleared he rode in to a fanfare of trumpets, moving parallel with the south stands while his adversary rode along the front of the north stands, the latter halting before the loge of Bohun as Blake drew rein in front of that of Gobred, where he raised the hilt of his sword to his lips to the Prince, though his eyes were upon Guinalda.
“Conduct thyself as a true knight this day to the glory and honor of Nimmr,” charged Gobred, “and may the blessings of Our Lord Jesus be upon thee and thy sword, our well beloved Sir James!”
“To the glory and honor of Nimmr I pledge my sword and my life!” should have been Blake’s reply according to the usages of the Great Tourney.
“To the glory and honor of Nimmr and to the protection of my Princess I pledge my sword and my life!” is what he said, and it was evident from the expression on Gobred’s face that he was not displeased, while the look of haughty disdain which had been upon Guinalda’s face softened.
Slowly she arose and tearing a ribbon from her gown stepped to the front of the loge. “Receive this favor from thy lady, sir knight,” she said, “bearing it with honor and to victory in thy encounter.”
Blake reined closed to the rail of the loge and bent low while Guinalda pinned the ribbon upon his shoulder. His face was close to hers; he sensed the intoxicating perfume of her hair; he felt her warm breath upon his cheek.
“I love you,” he whispered, so low that no other ears than hers could hear.
“Thou art a boor,” she replied in a voice as low as his. “It be for the sake of the five maidens that I encourage ye with tins favor.”
Blake looked straight into her eyes. “I love you, Guinalda,” he said, “and—you love me!”
Before she could reply be had wheeled away, the trumpets had sounded, and he was cantering slowly toward the end of field where the tilts of the Knights of Nimmr stood.
Edward, very much excited, was there and Sir Richard and Michel, with a marshal, heralds, trumpeters, men-at-arms—a martial company to urge him on with encouragement and advice.
Blake cast aside his buckler, nor was there any to reprove him now. Instead they smiled proudly and knowingly, for had they not seen him best Sir Malud without other defense than his horsemanship and his sword?
The trumpets blared again. Blake turned and put spurs to his charger. Straight down the center of the lists he rode. From the opposite end came a Knight of the Sepulcher to meet him!
“Sir James! Sir James!” cried the spectators in the stands upon the south side, while the north stands answered with the name of their champion.
“Who is the black knight?” asked many a man in the north stands of his neighbor.
“He hath no buckler!” cried some. “He be mad!”
“Sir Guy wilt cleave him open at the first pass!”