• Zenia Platten

Chapter 4 Practice

Wilder shifted, trying to force the arena’s rented armour fit his tall frame. Rogar straddled a bench across from him in the dressing room and polished his third place medal for the one-hundred meter dash. He was sure to hold it so that the other contestants in the large shared changing room could see it clearly. Beside them, Jinju stretched in preparation for the long jump competition.

“So you’re not allowed to use any of your magic? No praying at all?” Rogar asked Wilder, watching the wiry noble struggle.

“Rogar, I’m a witch, I don’t pray,” Wilder answered shortly. At the half-orc’s blank face he sighed and explained. “Denterra is a divine mage, an oracle to be precise, so she has certain spells she knows and she can pray to use them at any time. Witches like me draw energy from the arcane, that means that my powers come from places other than the gods. I can learn any number of spells, and then commune with my familiar,” he paused and motioned to John, playing happily on his discarded coat, “to prepare a certain number of spells of varying power. Do you understand?” he finished impatiently. Rogar scratched his head and looked thoughtful as he replied.

Don't mind me... just shoe-horning in unclear explanations of two Pathfinder classes... I'm sure no one will notice.

“I think so… but did you choose to be a witch? I know wizards train specially but Denterra never wanted to be an oracle, it just sort of happened. Which was it for you?” Wilder looked at the helmet in his hands as he considered his answer carefully, and when he spoke his voice was soft.

“When I was younger, I wanted to have magic very badly. I was never good with swords and it seemed like the only other option at the time.” Long afternoons of sword practice with his brother played out in his mind, every defeat stinging over the gap of time. “My mother was a divine cleric, so I tried to take after her, praying every night to be stronger.” He sat on one of the long benches stretching the room as he continued, a light shiver running down his spine as he recounted the night that he discovered magic.

“One evening, someone answered my prayer but it wasn’t a god.” The shivering grew more intense and Wilder gripped his helmet hard to keep his hands from shaking. “It was just a voice out of the darkness and it taught me how pluck magic from the strings of the universe and channel it.”

Wilder was dizzy as he remembered the voice in the close darkness of his room. It had come through John but also from everywhere and nowhere at once, dimming his bedside candle with its power. He was relieved to have the memory cut short as a crier entered and called for the members of the joust. Rogar had agreed to act as Wilder’s squire and together they left the discussion in the dressing room. Trying to walk as he imagined a knight should Wilder led Rogar to the stables where the participants either rented mounts or had their own checked for magical tampering.

Wilder nudged Rogar as they entered the stable, pointing across the stalls to where Urkest Dray was circling his large bay destrier as it pawed eagerly at the dirt. Wilder approached with arms open and a friendly smile as he greeted the lord with forced warmth in his voice.

“Lord Dray, I was hoping to get a chance to apologize for my earlier behaviour, how fortunate that we’d run into each other again. Are you ready for the tournament?” Urkest looked at Wilder in surprise and his face fell into a frown as he answered.

“Why Wilder Jones, I was not expecting to see you backstage, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were here to compete. As it is I assume you are page to your uncivilized friend here?” Rogar did not flinch at the stereotype as Wilder feared, instead smiling broadly to show his prominent tusks and exaggerating the pushed in nose of his people.

“Not at all, my lord, I thought I’d throw my own lance into the ring. Who knows, maybe I’ll give you a run for your money.” Wilder jested, but his lack of good humour twisted the words into a taunt. Lord Dray looked down his nose at Wilder’s rented armour and scoffed.

“I am always ready to defend my title as champion, but you look like this is your first time wearing armour. How do you expect to compete in that tawdry excuse for protection?” Urkest sneered as he prodded Wilder in his abdomen, exposed between the breastplate and the belt of the short suit. Wilder felt his cheeks flare with heat at the uninvited touch and tried to laugh off the intrusion, falling short in his authenticity.

“Well my lord, to be completely honest with you I didn’t enter the games to compete. I still need to speak with you and you were… unreceptive outside of the arena. I was hoping that with an apology and some more details you might be more willing to help. After all, I believe you know the gentleman in danger quite well.” Urkest sighed and scanned Wilder’s face, searching for something.

I wish I could say that formatting dialogue is something that came to me with practice, but alas, it still gives me trouble. It's one of those things that no matter how many times you re-learn it, it just won't stick!

“You may explain what you know, however the insult outside the arena didn’t exactly leave me feeling generous,” he said, watching Wilder down his nose, an impressive feet as the half-elf stood more than half a foot taller.

“There’s a knight in the service of Lord Burske named Sir Isaac Greenfeather who usually attends these events, and I haven’t heard from him in a few days. He’s a family friend and I can’t believe he’d miss the tourney so I was wondering, as you are acquainted, if you had any idea as to his whereabouts?” Urkest did little more than blink at the mention of Sir Greenfeather.

“Mister Jones, if your only reason for coming here was to get me to help you find a lost friend than I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. I don’t make it my business to keep tabs on the competition, and if Sir Greenfeather could not be bothered to show up it is hardly my concern. Now if you’ll excuse me I believe I have a tourney to win.” Urkest tried to push past Wilder but the younger man grabbed his arm, holding him long enough to whisper a few words in his ear before letting go.

“I know about the Flaming Salamanders, Dray.”

Urkest paused and after a moment’s reflection leaned close to Wilder to continue their discussion unheard.

“I don’t know what you think you’ve discovered boy, but as it happens I do know something about your missing knight.” Wilder’s pulse quickened. “But information is not free, especially not after your antics outside.” Leaning back and speaking louder now so that his servants and Rogar could hear, the lord continued, “Okay Wilder, I’ll agree to that wager. If you beat me in the tournament I’ll tell you what you want to know. If I win however, you will subject yourself to a humiliation of my choice. I’ll see you on the field.”

With a smirk Urkest pivoted towards the door and led his little team of squires and guards into the open sunlight. The guard Wilder had cursed earlier was still pink along his face where he had been scratching and he glared at Wilder as he followed his lord. Wilder stood open-mouthed with an outstretched and futile hand reaching after them.

“What did you bet him that for? He’s been the jousting champion for years, you’re sure to lose. Have you ridden a horse before?” Rogar asked, far too loudly for Wilder’s taste and he looked around to see some of the other combatants snickering by their horses.

“Shush! I didn’t bet him anything. He made that up to make a fool of me, and now I have to go through with it or look a coward. And yes, I’ve ridden a horse.” Wilder looked sideways at one of the stabled creatures and finished the sentence internally: well, a pony anyway…

I can't for the life of me remember why we decided the squishy witch was the best one to go in the joust. I guess Rogar and Jinju had already chosen their events, and Wilder's player took what was left. Either way, it became obvious pretty quickly that rampant cheating was going to be the only way forward... happily, we've never been a party for fair play.

The jousting component of the Slo’detheskel games usually lasted a few hours to a day, as opposed to the usual four days of traditional tourneys. This made the most efficient use of the field for all the events, miniature battles, races, and musical performances that made the games a spectacle. Because of this condensed timeline it was only a few hours later when Wilder found himself seated on his rented chestnut mare. He was sweating heavily under his dented armour, shifting back and forth, trying to stretch the leather, while Rogar readied a lance to hand him.

As he waited, Wilder scanned the crowd and saw Denterra, Peirce, and Aangle seated near the middle of the stone bleachers, eating confections that Wilder didn’t recognize and laughing with each other. The three had opted not to participate in any of the events, as none of them could match the physical prowess of either Jinju or Rogar, and were not required to be there to speak with Dray as Wilder was. Peirce waved to Wilder when their eyes met and Wilder lifted his gauntlet in response, attempting to lift his thumb but finding the gloves too restricting. He avoided glancing to the covered noble’s stands and looking for his brother and sister.

His rented protection embodied everything he hated about armour. It made casting traditional spells with delicate finger and wrist motions impossible, it made the heat unbearable, and no matter how he sat, twisted, or slouched it would pinch and chafe in wholly unfamiliar ways. He was sure too that his horse knew that he was a novice rider. As he readied himself for his first practice tilt she tossed her head, trying to yank the reigns from his grip and succeeding more often than not. The practices that took place before the official tournaments were usually reserved for squires to show their growing skills and prepare for the days when they would be old enough to participate in the games. Wilder was one of the few adults involved and the only contestant, the others choosing to conserve their energy or oversee last minute preparations. He waited as a short round man in oversized training armour clambered aboard his placid grey horse with the help of a younger boy. As he watched his opponent Rogar whispered instructions to him.

“When you hold the lance be sure to brace it here.” The half-orc tapped the lance rest protruding from under Wilder’s right armpit. “That’ll take a lot of the strain. If you can, you want to knock them off but as it’s your first try just aim to smack ‘em, often that’s hard enough on its own. If you can crack them on the head that’s two points, shield or body is one, and hitting the horse or dropping the lance loses you points.”

Wilder nodded, accepting the lance and bracing it where the half-orc had indicated. Across the field his opponent was readying his own weapon and Wilder raised his lance into the air again to signal that he was ready. A young squire stood in as the official start man and held himself proud and tall as he waited several breaths, solemnly raising the flag and rushing out of the way. Wilder spurred his mount and she leapt forward, veering vexingly to the right so Wilder had to concentrate to steer her back to center with his legs. He had barely gotten her in line when he heard Rogar yelling from behind.

“Lance down!” His booming voice carried well over the general babble of the audience and Wilder worked to obey, the tip of the weapon drifting from side to side as he tried to work it against the brace. Raising his eyes he could see his opponent already had his lance lowered and steady only a breath away from impact. Wilder cringed, closing his eyes and tried to work the tip of his lance over to his opponent’s side of the dividing fence. His weapon met the round squire’s shield and he celebrated inwardly at the hit, smiling into the darkness of his helmet.

The expected sound of shattering wood did not come however and he felt a hard push through his arm and bracing plate. His horse continued her gallop forward and to Wilder’s mortification he could feel his legs sliding backwards along her flanks. His lance lost its point of contact just as he flew from his mount, his heavy landing creating a cloud of dust around him. Rogar’s face appeared in his line of vision, made narrow by the restrictive helmet, and the half-orc pulled him bodily to his feet. The loud, braying laughter of the audience ground on Wilder’s nerves and he spat into the dirt.

“How did I do?” Wilder questioned, confused by the firsthand experience.

“Well, you hit him, which is good.” Rogar said smiling a tusky grin. “But I think you’re one of the first contestants to ever land a touch and dismount themselves.” Wilder groaned and let his head fall forwards onto his chest. Rogar patted him on the back and tried to console him motioning to the audience, which was nearing hysterics. “At least the crowd loved it.” Wilder looked sideways at his well-meaning squire and rolled his eyes.

“Great.” Was all he said as he approached the mounting area for another bout. As he waited for Rogar to retrieve the mare Wilder let his eyes wander to the judge’s booth and to the cone-shaped instruments they used to detect spells and magical tampering. He had always disliked the ban on magic, seeing it as a prejudice in the favour of brute force, and as he idly studied them an idea began to form. He started an incantation under his breath and wiggled his fingers as best he could in the awkward metal gauntlets.

It had to be his simplest spell, and a harmless one or he would most certainly be removed from the tourney. As he cast it he kept his eyes on the judge’s booth. Before he had completed his mutterings a blue robed official was already walking over to him with shuffling speed. As the spell finished he ran his hand along the breast plate of his armour and red and silver leapt off of his glove to stain the metal, leaving the Jones’ family dragon on his chest. The official arrived at the same time as Rogar returned with the horse and he scowled at Wilder, every inch the unbending guardian of the sacred rule book.

“Master Jones.” His voice was shrill and it pointed a verbal finger at Wilder. “The use of magic is strictly prohibited during the tournament on penalty of expulsion.” Wilder put his hands up in innocence and tried to look as unthreatening as possible, a feat made easy by his slender frame and ill-fitted armour.

“My apologies sir, I thought that rule only applied during the official matches. I was simply adding my family’s colours to my rentals, surely showing some family pride is forgivable? You can ask any of your mages and I’m sure they’ll confirm that it was but a small spell to add colour, nothing that could possibly affect a match I assure you.” The blue robed man was not the least bit placated by the excuse and scowled at Wilder.

“No magic whatsoever the reason Master Jones. If you’ll please come with me we’ll file the paperwork to remove you from the tournament. Rogar was standing wide-eyed nearby and studied Wilder’s armour, confused by the flippant disregard for one of the simpler rules of the games. Wilder took a deep breath and reached with his mind to John, safely curled into one of Rogar’s large pockets for the jousts. He felt the energy of the weasel tickle the edge of his consciousness and he drew power through the mental link. He caught the official lightly by the arm, halting him as a brief ripple of orange energy transferred along Wilder’s hand and into the man, who reeled slightly with his mouth open, eyes dazed.

“I’m sure that it’s fine, it won’t affect the outcome of the games at all. Don’t you agree mister…?” Wilder said to the man while staring over his shoulder to the judge’s stand, alert for any more signs of detection.

“Sanders. Jim Sanders.” The man replied dreamily wavering slightly on his feet. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. Completely harmless.” Gently, Wilder spun the man on his heels and prodded him carefully back to sit with his peers, before turning to grin at the perplexed Rogar.

“You spelled him.” Rogar said, too loudly.

“Hush, I did not. If I had don’t you think the judges would have sent an alarm?” The half-elf wore a smug grin and glowed with self-satisfaction.

“But I saw it.” Rogar said more quietly. “There was a light when you touched him and then he went… goofy.”

“Alright fine, I hexed him. I wanted to see if it would set off the magical alarms like normal spells do, and since it didn’t, I can use hexes against Dray and the others.” Wilder explained, feeling elated by the discovery.

“Hexes?” Rogar asked, looking lost.

“Yes, they’re… how do I explain it.” Wilder rubbed his chin as he thought. “They’re like extra spells specifically for witches, but instead of needing to chant and wave to cast them, they usually only require something simple, like a touch, or a look, or a laugh.” Wilder nodded along to himself as he continued his explanation. “Because they’re unique to witches they aren’t in any spell book, we learn them through our familiars. I suppose the wizards wouldn’t be attuned to them the same way as they are to the spells they can study.”

Across the field another opponent was waving his ready, waiting for Wilder to mount and take his unbroken lance from the previous tilt. He obliged and worked his way back onto his mare with a boost from Rogar. As Rogar handed up the lance he leaned close and opened his breast pocket, allowing Wilder to see a small vial sitting inside and sloshing a translucent purple liquid.

“If the hexes don’t work, let me know and we’ll try this. Aangle palmed it to me before we came in. Said it would help you stay in the saddle. I didn’t think you’d need it until, you know.” The half-orc said, trying to hide a snicker. Wilder nodded his ascent.

“John only has energy for a limited number of hexes, so I’ll save them for the actual competition, probably best to keep your little trick hidden too until we need it.” With that, Wilder trotted forward and raised his lance to his waiting opponent. He was looking forward to the competition of the afternoon without dread for the first time since speaking with Dray.

Even if I do say so myself, I think this is where past me is starting to improve. I found myself cringing WAY less during this chapter. Or perhaps I'm just getting used to my old style? Hopefully the first!

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©2019 by Zenia Platten.