How does a man know who he is?

The man with the blank shield had been many things. Now he was a king. In the beginning ruling had been easy, as he rode the countryside defending the weak with his friends ever beside him; but now kingship was a snare, a noose around his neck. That was why he was here—incognito on a tournament field, just another man, made faceless by a close-fitting helm.

The blank-shield king felt his shoulders straighten as part of his burden lifted. Simple things: a mêlée, every man for himself. The stuffy smell inside his basinet helm. The weight of scale armor on his back.

No reputation to uphold.

The stands were full—all the folk of the county were here today. A minstrel sawed away at his rebec before the royal box. The fair woman in white who sat there threw down a silver coin.

Of course she would wear white.

The first trumpet. The two dozen knights on the field bowed toward the stands. The blank-shield did not bow—there were limits to his pretending. He peered through his eyeslits and shifted away from a knight with a double-eagle shield.

The second trumpet. The king’s heartbeat sounded twice in his ears; then metal crashed. The king cut a swathe through his young knights. The crowd cheered, but he did not care. For the moment, he knew who he was.

Then another knight loomed on his left—clad in a sallet helm and the finest of French armor. The blank-shield would have turned away; then he saw the white ribbon tied around the man’s arm.

Of course he would wear that, thought the king, and his bitterness rushed into his eyes, tinging all he saw a bloody pink. He dropped his shoulder and charged, crashing into the Frenchman shield to shield. So close, he punched with his sword-hilt, aiming for his enemy’s throat. But the other man was quick. He batted away the king’s blow, whirled into a disengage then spun back again, striking a heavy blow to the king’s knee. The king shifted his weight before he could fall, feeling the grass rip under his heel. He moved his shield—clumsy borrowed thing—across his body, then threw up his sword as he spotted the Frenchman’s wrist move. Even with his block the Frenchman’s blow scraped along his visor.

From the stands came a delighted laugh.

The king reached across to grasp his sword with both hands. He let the Frenchman strike him, then countered left, his blade followed by the scream of metal.

The king heard a hiss of breath. He looked up, and his eyes locked with his enemy’s—hard brown eyes glaring into shocked blue ones.

He looked up, and his eyes locked with his enemy’s.

The king struck again. Now the Frenchman was too slow to counter; splinters flew from his shield.  The king hit him on the sword-arm, and the other retreated. Blow after blow the king struck, his enemy’s parries too weak to stop him.

Catcalls from the stands. The audience had expected better.

The king struck the sword from the other’s hand. He could have let him pick it up again, but he did not. Instead, he grasped his shield with both hands and smashed the Frenchman to the ground.

Now the heralds were shouting, waving bailiffs onto the field: this was not chivalrous. A tournament was no place for the underhanded tricks of war.

The king did not care. He was anonymous, free. He ripped the shield from the other’s grasp and threw it away. The other man did not rise, but half-lay in the mud, one arm raised protectively. Then, slowly, he lowered it.

The king hefted his sword, then swung it against the Frenchman’s helm with a crash. The other slipped, falling to one elbow. His white ribbon was stained with mud.

Once again, the king caught the other man’s gaze. He pulled back his foot to kick. The Frenchman braced himself.

No, the king thought, the taste of his victory souring. A man shows his true heart when no one knows him. Is this my truth? He turned his back on his enemy, letting the borrowed sword and shield drop to the ground.  No more disguise. No more. He walked away. Behind him, the Frenchman bowed his head.

The heralds, uncertain, called for the winner to approach the royal box. The white lady stood turning the wreath in her hands; but no one came for her to crown.

 

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Meet the Author

Kathryn McConaughy is a Christian who writes stories set in fantasy versions of Medieval and ancient Near Eastern worlds.  She is the author of the ancient Near Eastern fairy tale “Guardian of Our Beauty” (in the anthology Five Magic Spindles), and the flash fiction story “A Bride-Price for Hinzuri” (in the May 2017 issue of Spark).  She someday hopes to crack the conundrum of traditional publishing–but for now, this dissertation thing seems to be taking up a lot of her time.