There Honour Lies
By A. S Warwick
The sorrow-filled field at last lay still, the battle won, or lost, depending on perspective. Across it were strewn the bodies of men and horses, twisted into grim caricatures of the once living, and about them was the scattered detritus of battle; splintered shields and broken swords, discarded spears, arrows by the score and the once proud banners of knights and lords.
Most of the dead were numbered from the levies, simple men in drab gear called on to fight by their lords and masters, yet here and there lay the armoured forms of fallen knights, for the most clustered around a central focal point. It was there that the rebellious Lord Duncraig had made his stand with those knights loyal to him. The king’s men had been drawn to his banner, and there it was that the fighting had been heaviest.
The rebel knights had fought bravely, yet in the end it had not been enough and one by one they had been slain or forced to yield and, at the last, Lord Duncraig’s banner had been cast down into the blood and mud that stained the ground.
Gloom laden clouds rumbled across the horizon. A storm was approaching, and already the warmth of the day’s air was beginning to drop. Raucous calls came from above, where circled the dark shapes of expectant birds, awaiting their spoils of battle.
Lord John of Eastbrook slowly made his way between the fallen, dented helmet in hand. He absently fiddled with the red plume that surmounted it. It had partially come loose from an errant blow during the battle and his wrinkled hands worried at it, even as he worried it may come loose.
His aged face was creased with sorrow and a deep sadness lingered in his eyes. The fallen knights and lords were known to him, or at least by him, from either side. Men that had once been as friends and brothers had been plunged into conflict, the peace shattered by unnecessary rebellion.
A nearby body caught his sight. A lord lay face down in the mud, but even though his tabard was stained with blood and dirt, the Red Hawk of Lord Alan Munro was unmistakable.
Lord Eastbrook hurried across with as much alacrity as his aged bones would allow, rolling the body over for a closer look. Above a droopy grey moustache, dark eyes stared up lifelessly. Eastbrook slowly closed the eyes, his head falling forward.
Laughter came from nearby. Eastbrook looked up, seeing three young knights walking the field. They were exulting in life, Eastbrook knew, feeling alive and invincible, for he had also known those feelings himself when he had been a young man in the aftermath of a battle, but now, with his age weighing down heavily upon him, it only served to remind him of his own mortality. A surge of resentment rose up in him, resentment for his aging years, for the intrusion of the young knights into his presence, for a hundred reasons all colliding in one instant.
“Your friend is dead, I see.” It was the tallest of the three young men that had spoken, a strong man, fresh faced and clean of limb, with an air of easy competence about him.
“He fought well,” Eastbrook replied, biting down on a retort.
“He should never had fought, old man. It was folly at his age.”
“He fought because of honour, a concept you obviously are ignorant of,” Eastbrook snapped.
The young knight’s face darkened at the reply. “You old men should not have been allowed to fight. It was little more than suicide.”
Something inside Eastbrook snapped, all the seething resentment of his aging years, all the snide comments coming to a head. The glove at his belt was torn free and struck the young knight across the face.
The shock from the three young men was palpable, but on the one struck there was more than just shock. There was a burgeoning sense of horror mingled with terrible sadness.
“You, you would challenge me?”
Already Eastbrook regretted his hasty actions, but there could be no turning back from it. “I already have. Honour demands a response.”
“Then I can do nothing but acquiesce.”
“You can not go through with this Eastbrook.” The King was seated in his pavilion tent, spread before him a simple repast of a roast haunch of mutton, bread and wine. Like Eastbrook, age was showing upon him, but he had not fought.
Oh, he had desired to, but the Royal Guard had kept any away who would challenge the King and so he had chafed under the protection of his guard.
Now, the battle won, he was to pronounce judgement and favours on friend and foes alike.
“I must, sire.”
“Honour, sire,” Eastbrook replied simply.
The King dipped his fingers in a bowl of scented water to clean them, rising to his feet and coming around the table to join with Eastbrook. He looked the elderly lord directly in the eyes. “I could order you not to fight. Make it a royal decree.”
“Then I would be shamed before my peers.”
The King gave a regretful sigh, shaking his head slowly, almost in a lack of comprehension. “There was no need for this. You still have much to live for.”
“What exactly, sire,” Eastbrook asked. “I am an old man. Few of our generation remain and the peace we strove for so hard has fallen apart. Even my lady wife has passed on.”
“There is your son,” the King reminded him, voice deep with sadness.
“If I were to renege on the duel, then I could no longer look him in the eye.”
“If you fight, you will die. You can not beat him.”
“It is likely so, sire, but I have made my decision. I must live, or die, with it.”
The King nodded slowly, resting a hand on Eastbrook’s shoulder. “I would have it that this was otherwise, old friend.”
“As would I, sire, but I will follow this path come what may.”
The morning dawned clear and bright. Lord Eastbrook rose for the first time in many a year no longer burdened by doubts and fears, his sleep having been a refreshing one despite the coming day.
His page had already set for him a simple meal to break his fast, yet Lord Eastbrook was not feeling particularly desirous of what lay before him. He picked up a loaf of bread, tearing off a hunk, and dipped it into a pot of salt, devouring that instead. A cup of wine was swallowed from and he went out to prepare for the duel.
A young man waited for him, one of his retainers. Sir Alfred had been in his service since a young boy, growing up alongside his own son.
Alfred bowed deeply. “My lord, can I speak with you on a matter of urgency?”
“Of course, Alfred. Speak”
“Let me champion you on this day,” the young man begged.
Eastbrook gave a soft sigh. “I can not allow it, Alfred. You are young, with your whole life ahead of you. What of your betrothed? I could not part you from her. We both know that you have never been able to defeat Sir James, and nor would this be any different.”
The young man seemed almost of the verge of tears. “But you are going to die, my lord. I am sworn to your service, to die for you if needs be.”
Eastbrook stepped forward, taking the young man’s head between his hands. “I, and I alone, must walk this path I have chosen. You have been a good and faithful subject, Alfred, and have been like a son to me. I had a surprise for you that was to have been your wedding gift, but as I will not be seeing that, I bequeath it to you now. The estate at Ravenshollow is to be yours, and to your progeny. Now go and let me finish preparing.”
The field of combat lay ready, part of the very field that the day before had been stained with the blood of battle. A section had been roped off, and around it had gathered knights and lords, men-at-arms and peasant levies. There was a strange atmosphere to the watching crowd, almost a sense of shock that muted the normally boisterous reaction.
To one side the King sat in his armour, crimson surcoat bright upon it, and a simple iron circle for a crown rested on his brow. He stood as the two challengers entered the field and the crowd fell silent.
The Master of the Lists stood forward, inspecting each man, his arms and armour. The King and crowd waited until at last his inspection was complete.
“Sire, I verify that these two men, Lord John of Eastbrook and Sir James Hosbrough, are who they declare to be, and furthermore, certify that their arms and effects adhere to the strictures set forth.”
The King held up a hand. “Lord John, Sir James, this is a most trying matters and weighs most heavily upon me. Lord John, are you resolved to continue on in this course?”
“I am sire.”
The younger knight looked stricken with sorrow but nodded. “It grieves me so, sire, but I am.”
“Then fight, and die, with honour.”
The two men turned and faced each other. Sir James’ face had become a mirror of resignation. “It is not too late to avert this.”
Lord Eastbrook raised his sword slowly. “Raise your sword.”
Sir James closed the visor of his helm before taking a two handed grip on his sword and bringing it up before him. The two men stood watching each other, then touched their blades together.
At that moment the duel began.
They circled, warily, every so often swords probing, before being parried aside. Neither made a serious move, simply feeling out the other, but even this early Lord Eastbrook could tell that his chances were nil. The younger man parried his testing attacks with ease and the stiffness in his knee that came from an old wound was flaring up again, hindering his steps.
With little choice, he attacked, hammering a blow at Sir James’ side. The blow was turned aside, but he pressed on, a combination of low and high attacks, forcing the younger man backwards with each strike, though none came remotely clear to connecting. Even that short assault though was enough to tire him, his armour weighing down heavily and breath coming short. Sweat beaded and ran down his skin.
Another strike was turned aside and the younger knight span away, then attacked for the first time, one, two, three attacks coming in quick succession. It was all Lord Eastbrook could do to turn them aside. He backed off, trying to draw breath, but Sir James pressed again, forcing him ever backwards, blows raining down, each closer than the last to striking.
As he backed away, disaster struck. His heel caught an uneven patch of ground, unbalancing him. He fought to stabilise his footing, but to no avail, and down he went, flat upon his back, though somehow he retained the grip on his sword.
Lord Eastbrook lay upon the ground as Sir James approached, knowing the end was upon him. The younger man stopped before Lord Eastbrook, tightening the grip on the hilt of his sword before he raised the blade high. For a second he hesitated, a sliver of an opening, and pure reflex and self-preservation kicked in. Lord Eastbrook stabbed upwards, sword sliding home before he had time to think. The shock of the impact ran through him, but it was not as great as the shock that ran through his mind. The younger man was not one to make a mistake. He had left himself open deliberately, goading the strike.
For a moment Sir James wavered on his feet, but then his sword fell from his grip and he crashed to his knees. Lord Eastbrook looked on in disbelief as the younger knight slowly raised his visor, an oddly peaceful smile on his face. A trickle of blood escaped his mouth, and then he was keeling over to land with a crash of armour on his side.
“Why? Why?” was all that Lord Eastbrook was able to stammer out.
The reply was weak. “I would not see you dishonoured, father.” Then the eyes fluttered and closed.
Lord Eastbrook scrambled over and gathered up the still body in his arms, and with head bowed, wept in utter grief over the body of his son.