Chapter 5- Two Men Enter
Silver had trouble sleeping. Wincott's taunts had him tossing and turning for most of the night. Tomorrow, Silver would have to contend with that cheater. The idea to stoop to Wincott's level and cheat back kept cropping up every once in a while. On one hand, it would put them on even footing and ensure that Wincott would not win, but on the other, Silver would sacrifice his integrity and honesty, not to mention Blaze's respect. He did not think he could cheat anyway, so he continued to push the thought aside each time. For added insistence, Stewart's advice echoed in his mind as well. "The ends do not justify the means," Silver mouthed.
At some points, when Silver did dream, he dreamed of winning the tournament. Of defeating all the competitors in the remaining rounds, being crowned king, but most importantly, having Blaze as his own to love. It seemed so real each time and whenever he would wake from the dream, he was left disappointed and bitter as the reality of his situation crashed back down around him. He had to fight for Blaze's freedom, he reminded himself. That did not ease a growing desire to win her heart. That opportunity as a prize and his denial of it was causing his love to run rampant through his mind, planting seeds of what-ifs. What if he won the tournament? What if he won Blaze's hand? How would she feel?
She would be upset. But would she really? The prospect was very tempting. He threw the idea back and forth between the urges to cheat.
Morning soon came to Silver's bedroom window and brought with it Brimble, Slate, and Gardon. As his squire and bodyguard helped him outfit himself, Gardon gave him a pep talk. "Now, you should have an easier time today. It's the melee round and from what I've seen, you should be able to nail this. Have you thought about what you'll use?"
"A sword and shield," Silver said. It was the most comfortable set-up to him and he could conserve energy with it.
"Good," Gardon said. "I actually had a shield created for you." He left the room and returned holding a green shield. Silver's red feather and borders were painted on it. He knocked on it for show and handed it to Brimble. "With any luck, you'll take out the toughest competitors and leave room for Blaze."
"What if I go up against Blaze?" Silver asked.
Slate jammed the helmet on Silver. "Then you let her win. Duh," he said.
"Even if she has to go up against one of the harder opponents, I'm sure she'll be fine. You'll have cleared a path and made it easy for her, so they will be tuckered out," Gardon said.
Silver nodded, but was a little unsure. Blaze could end up facing Wincott and need some help. Or Silver's expertise in sword fighting. Should she win? He shook his head. Of course she should. He was doing all this for Blaze after all so she would not be forced into a loveless marriage. Stick to the plan, he thought. He squashed his doubts and selfish desires deep down.
Once Brimble and Slate finished, they headed down to breakfast. Silver joined Blaze and Stewart once more. They heartily welcomed him. "Feeling good about today?" Stewart asked. The way he looked at Silver, it was if he could tell that Wincott had shaken him up a lot.
"Yeah," Silver said, digging into the food already laid out. "I'm good. Just a little tired." He collected a sampling of eggs, flapjacks, hash, and some fruit.
"Better wipe away the last of your sleepy eyes then," Stewart said, scarfing down his eggs. "You'll need it for the melee round."
"So what will you be using?" Silver asked.
"I probably shouldn't tell," Stewart said, chewing thoughtfully. Then he shrugged. "What can it hurt? A sword and shield. How about you?"
"The same," Silver said. He turned to Blaze. "What about you?"
She did not appear like she would answer at first, but eventually said, "A spear." It did not surprise Silver. She had proven to be proficient with spears during their training.
Training. He had trained against Blaze. She knew his footwork and style of fighting. Silver panicked. Blaze would discover his identity. Maybe she already had by the way he fired arrows yesterday. Stupid! Stupid! Silver scolded his carelessness.
Then, another thought entered. Blaze would not rat him out. After all, he could be in a lot of trouble if he was discovered, and she would not bring that upon him, just as he would not bring that trouble down on her. They were in this together and would keep one another's identities a secret. Blaze would be upset for certain, but Silver could handle that compared to any punishment for entering the tournament under false pretenses.
And who was to say he would even fight Blaze? She would be too busy with her own battles. Silver calmed down and enjoyed his meal, feeling much better.
After breakfast, the competitors saddled their horses and trotted out to the field where the archery tournament had been held. Now the targets were gone and were replaced by wooden rings, sitting at waist-level. Silver counted at least a dozen. Closer to the audience were weapon racks housing every kind of close combat weapon one could imagine. He eyed a decent-sized sword to match his shield.
Thomas walked onto the field, once again addressing the crowd and participants. "One round is over, but that does not mean that victory is assured! This tournament is still anyone's game and anyone can win! That said, today will be the melee round. Two men will fight in each ring at a time. We have taken strides in our effort to ensure fair matches today."
It was then that Silver noticed the various knights from the castle standing closer to the rings alongside other officials. He sweated under his helmet. He knew several of the knights. What if they recognized him? "The one to survive all the eliminations will be the victor," Thomas continued. "Let the round begin!"
The crowd was no less wild than yesterday. In fact, there were more cheers and banners flown to match those the bannermen held. Silver even picked out a few of Blaze's fabricated insignia waving above the crowd: a yellow background pinpricked by numerous, small red and orange crosses.
The first round for everyone proved to be unexciting. Many matches were one-sided. Silver won his quite easily, as did Blaze, Stewart, Wincott, and several others. The second round was where Silver ran into a tougher opponent- Sir Arcantos the Tempest, a white wolf that abandoned any shield in favor of two long swords, the blades slithering out of dragon hilts like long, silvery tongues. Silver sized his opponent up. Arcantos was slim, making him seem taller. Given his opponent's weapon choice, Silver thought he might be able to wear the wolf down through defense and counters.
Arcantos smacked his breastplate, drawing attention to the blue dragon on it. His helmet was also dragon-shaped, causing his head to look like it was about to be swallowed up by the iron-wrought beast. "Ready to lose?" he asked, his piercing blue eyes already assured of victory.
The match started and Silver held up his shield. His sword was at the ready, twitching in anticipation of an opening. But Arcantos did not attack. The wolf held his swords up defensively, only occasionally probing Silver's shield with some quick thrusts.
Silver switched tactics and attacked. He swung low, but his sword clanged off one of the wolf's swords. Arcantos hit his shield hard and fast, stumbling Silver. He brought down both sword ends onto the shield, pushing against it. Silver gathered up strength and shoved back. Arcantos tripped, but blocked Silver's next attack.
Silver narrowly dodged a sword tip aimed at his head. The blade sliced off a tuft of fur. He stabbed at Arcantos' face, hoping the wolf would take the bait. Arcantos did. He blocked Silver's attack, scissoring the sword between his own. He leapt back to his feet, holding the sword firmly.
Gotcha. Silver yanked to the right, then quickly to the left. He nudged Arcantos' swords just right so that one flew across the ring. Now there was one more. He let Arcantos batter his shield. Then Silver smacked Arcantos' arm with the flat of his sword. The wolf looked worried. He constantly eyed the fallen sword, but Silver stood between him and the weapon.
An idea crept into Silver's mind. He smacked Arcantos again, then leapt far out of reach from a swing. Arcantos rushed for his sword, somersaulting as he picked it up. Silver was on him in moments. They clashed, the swords ringing in the air. Arcantos stayed on his knees, needing both swords to keep Silver's at bay. He was not paying attention to the shield.
Wham! The shield collided into Arcantos helmet and he fell back. Silver held his sword at the wolf's throat. When he came to, Arcantos reached for his swords, but stopped when he saw his position. "Do you yield?" Silver asked.
"Yes," Arcantos said. He panted, flopping back onto the dirt. Silver bent over and helped him off the ground. "Good match." He shook Silver's hand.
Arcantos held up Silver's arm and the crowd cheered wildly. He could not escape from the grasp, so Silver went along with it. He was bashful, not wanting to be the center of attention. He slowly waved at the people and they went crazy. He started to enjoy it a little. The people were cheering for him and his fighting prowess. It was so surreal to him.
He headed over to Brimble and Slate. They cleaned off his armor and checked his weapons. "Good fight," Brimble said.
"Good? That was excellent!" Slate said. "Keep that up and it should be easy street for Blaze."
"Yeah," Silver said. Where was Blaze? He located her in one of the other rings, lording over her victory. She bowed to the crowd that cheered her name. He grinned. Things were definitely looking up compared to yesterday.
The next rounds were tough, but nothing that Silver could not handle. Big or small, all his opponents yielded to him. Each win brought more fanfare and more praise from the audience. Silver savored more and more each time, happily waving to the people. At one point, he almost threw his helmet into the crowd like another victor had done. Thankfully, his common sense broke through the frenzy, reminding him to keep all of his armor on.
At one point, Blaze had to face off against Wincott. She, in her gleaming armor, selected a spear to match her small shield, emblazoned by her crest. Wincott chose a rapier. His own shield displayed a vicious, hungry mutt snarling fiercely.
Silver sat on pins and needles as the round began. Blaze thrust at Wincott, but he was shockingly swift. Several times, he connected his sword's tip to Blaze. He never pierced the armor, yet it was enough to scare Silver. The hedgehog felt the urge to do something, but the officials and knights nearby made that impossible. He considered using his powers when Wincott pressed the attack. No, no. That would not be right, Silver thought. The ends do not justify the means.
Blaze sidestepped an attack and stabbed. Wincott howled, reeling back. He checked his leg and snarled. Then he ducked low, striking her legs. Blaze cried out. Silver leaned forward. Had her armor been broken? Was she bleeding? Was she alright?
Wincott kicked a cloud of dirt into Blaze's face, blocking Silver's view. She coughed and sputtered as he drew back his sword for a final strike. That does it. Forget means and ends. Silver concentrated hard, watching those around him. They were too busy watching the fight to notice the ever so faint glow from his greaves. Thanks to the rolling dust, no one could see Silver pull Wincott's legs out from under him. The dog fell to his knees, frantically searching for the unknown force.
It was all Blaze needed. She seized the opportunity and whacked Wincott in his open helmet. Wham! Down he went, moaning. She pointed her spear at his throat. "Do you yield?" she asked, loud enough for all to hear. He only groaned some more, rolling away from her. The judges took that as a yes and Blaze moved on to the next round.
Silver congratulated Blaze when she exited the ring. "Great fight," he said.
"Thank you." She looked back at Wincott, who was being dragged off. "I think something happened in there. He seemed to lose his balance."
"Oh, really?" Silver said, averting his eyes. Behind him, he saw Brimble and Slate, listening closely. They exchanged looks with one another, then stared at Silver. "Maybe it was all the dust," Silver said, again turning his gaze elsewhere. Unfortunately, he landed upon Gardon, who sat near the front of the audience. The stern expression Silver received from him returned Silver's eyes back to Blaze.
"Maybe," Blaze said. She held her leg, covering part of her armor.
"Do you need any help?" he asked. Silver could not see any blood past the hand, but her leg was turned from his view.
"I will be fine." She walked off, leaving him to face Brimble and Slate.
"For Blaze after all. As long as she wins, right?" he said. They did not answer. Both glanced at each other once more and walked back to Silver's equipment. As for Silver, he trailed behind, frustrated. I did the right thing, didn't I? I couldn't let her lose. He might have seriously hurt her.
The fights continued, stopping for only an hour around lunch. Silver was not very hungry. He sat beside his team and Gardon, who joined them later. Brimble and Slate did not talk to him except to comment on the current tournament standings. It was looking more and more like Blaze would end up in the finals. Silver only hoped that he could take out Stewart in the process to help her. He was doubtful if she could win. She had a noticeable limp when she left.
"You got all that, Locksley?"
He looked up from his food. Gardon had been talking about something involving the finals. He just nodded. "Yeah."
"Good. Now, as for Sir Percival, they have bandaged his injury as best as possible. He has a limp, however the swelling is under control." Silver noticed that Gardon put a subtle emphasis on "he" and "him". "He won't be able to move very quickly, so keep that in mind Locksley if you're paired up. Make it look convincing. You know what you have to do."
Silver nodded again absentmindedly. He knew that he had to take a dive. However, the more he thought about it, he wondered if that was the best option. Blaze had a lot going against her in this round of the competition. Could she defeat Stewart if she fought him? It sounded like her leg would hinder her. Allowing her to go up against Stewart would exacerbate her injury at best. Her time in the tournament would most likely be over.
Silver hoped it would not come down to that. He hoped he fought Stewart before she could or that she might lose or give in, allowing him to fight Stewart in her stead. He chuckled. Give in? Not for Blaze. She would never throw in the towel. She was stubborn like that. One of the many traits he and she shared. They frustrated each other at times because of it, yet it was one of the things he loved her all the more for.
"And Locksley, one more thing." He raised his head to face Gardon. "No using your powers. I don't think I need to remind you that you should fight fair, do I?" So he had caught the glow from his position in the seats. Silver shook his head, but the koala appeared unconvinced. "Using your powers would also out you. You don't need that. Got it?"
"Got it," Silver said, mumbling and returning to his food.
When the matches started again, Silver soon found himself and a handful of others aiming for victory. The competitors were eliminated one by one. Stewart stayed strong, defeating every foe in his path. Silver lamented each match that did not pair him with the expert knight. Stewart made it to the final round, cementing Silver's worst fear. The announcer read off the penultimate match. "Sir Locksley the Unyielding versus Sir Percival the Keen!"
Silver gulped. Of course it would be his luck to fight Blaze. Whoever won would take on Stewart. He swapped out his sword and shield, opting for a long spear. "She knows my footwork," he said when Brimble asked about the change.
He marched into the ring. Blaze did as well, carrying her spear and shield. Her gait was stiff, awkward even. The limp was weighing her down. There were some bandages around her legs, bulging out the armor. He could almost see the pain she was in.
Off to the side, Silver saw Gardon watching. The koala was far from relaxed, although his face seemed to remind Silver to let Blaze win. However, there was a hint of worry in his eyes. The same worry was present in Silver's teammates. Then he saw who they were all staring at: Stewart.
The formidable knight was no more tired than when the morning started. In fact, he had a glow to him. Fueled by adrenaline, Stewart was pacing the outside anxiously. He was already geared up. Now he waited impatiently for his next match, his arms dangling by his sides. Silver had not been watching Stewart's matches, but his reputation as a skilled swordsman held true. There was hardly any blood on his armor, no wound open on display, or anything to speak of save for scrapes on his shoulders.
Silver turned back to Blaze. There was no way she could beat Stewart. Not in her condition. She was struggling to hold her battle stance at the moment. If she went up against Stewart, she might hurt herself. She was stubborn to the last. Blaze would not relent until she was broken, unable to continue at all. Losing would be the least of her problems then.
The precarious impasse Silver found himself at froze his body. What should he do? Gardon and his team's faces clearly said to let Blaze win. Yet the more he watched her, the more his own rationale told him that path would send her to the slaughter. He loved her too much to see her hurt like that.
I'll finish it quick, he thought, making his decision. He gripped his spear tight. For Blaze's sake. He spread his legs a little wider than normal, hoping to throw Blaze off if she suspected his identity. He moved to the left when the match began, knowing it was her strong side. If he could be fast in his attacks, perhaps she would not notice his fighting style. Or that was what he was hoping for.
Silver thrust his spear. Blaze easily blocked it and stabbed back. Her leg took its toll when she stepped forward. Silver heard her hiss. Her leg twitched, but she righted herself, coming at him again. She stabbed a little faster, managing to catch his side. He yelped painfully. It stung something terrible. He poked at her side, breaking through her defenses. He was careful to hit using the wooden part below the spear. He connected to her gut.
Blaze stumbled, yet she bounced back. She attacked viciously, all too slow for Silver. The limp and shield were weighing her down. Blaze must have realized that for she discarded the shield. Silver jumped at her, unleashing a flurry of strikes. Side of helmet. Shoulder. Low torso. Uninjured leg- he was careful to choose the correct leg. The last hit threw her off balance.
She fell to a knee, whimpering from the pain. I'll hurry this up, Blaze. Silver tried to force her yield. But she pushed back his spear. They each grabbed the ends and clashed, face to face, up-close. The spears had become staves. The stalemate blows came harder and faster every time.
His side was getting worse. Every move strained it, as if he were yanking the skin back further. Silver waited a moment, stepping out of her range. Blaze fell forward. He jammed his spear's handle into her helmet as hard as he could. She fell back, her weapon tumbling from her hands. Silver held his spear at her head. "Do you yield?" he asked.
"Y-Yes," she said, groaning.
As the announcer named him the winner, Silver helped her to her feet. She cried out, leaning on him for support. He carefully helped her over to her squire, who took Blaze off his hands. "You did good," he said, trying to reassure her.
"Thank you. You did as well," she said. Then she limped away, hanging from her squire.
He held his side. It was flaring up fiercely. Silver turned around, walking into the glares of his team. "What was that?" Slate asked.
"What? You saw how badly she was hurt. She couldn't take on Sir Stewart in her condition," Silver said.
"What are you going on about? That's what was supposed to happen!" Slate said, throwing his hands up. He was drawing the attention of those around. Silver tried to calm him down. "Gardon outright told you!" he continued, dropping his voice. "At lunch! Remember?"
"What do you mean?" Silver had a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Stewart's arm got busted in one of the matches. Haven't you noticed he hasn't been using his right arm? His good arm, I'll remind you." He pointed to Stewart, who was still pacing. Only now, Silver saw that his right arm was almost immobile compared to his swinging left one. "That's why her leg was wrapped up good and well. She may have been slow, but she could've used her weapon of choice. He can hold a shield, but he's really limited to weak arm. Weren't you paying attention at all?"
Silver's tongue swelled more than Blaze's leg. He felt foolish. Stupid! Stupid! You didn't listen! He was at a loss for words. Slate and Brimble eyed him, waiting for an answer nonetheless.
"But now she doesn't have to strain herself," Silver said, arguing. "She might've seriously hurt herself."
"Like she's any better now?" Brimble said, clucking his tongue.
"Yes," Silver said. "I went easy on her. Even after she sliced me." He showed them his side. There was a gash there. The bleeding was subsiding, but a crimson splotch was already smeared on his armor. She had stabbed him very hard.
"You call that easy?" Brimble asked, his accusatory tone directing Silver to Blaze. Her squire tending to her. She held her arm protectively, cradling it. Her head was tilted back and her squire was dabbing through a slit in her helmet. The clothes used were pulled out blood-soaked. Blaze sat wobbly in her seat, nearly falling over several times.
"I- I didn't mean…" Silver trailed off. Had he hit her that hard? There was no possible way he could have, yet the proof was shakily sitting before him.
The announcer interrupted the questioning. "And now, our final match for the melee round! Sir Locksley the Unyielding and Sir Stewart the Stout! Please make your way to the ring!"
"I guess you had better go," Brimble said, crossing his arms.
He had to win this. For Blaze. "I'll fix this," he said, picking up his sword and shield. "Could you guys help her out in the meantime?"
"Of course," Brimble said.
"I'll win the tournament for Blaze. Don't worry." He would make this right. He had to. He headed for the ring
"The tournament? Don't you mean the round?" Brimble asked.
Silver stopped. "That's what I said, wasn't it?"
"No, you said the tournament." Now their eyes grew dark as they watched him.
"It was a slip of the tongue. You understand, right?" Silver looked at each of them. It had been a slip-up, had it not? He was fighting for Blaze. For her freedom, he added lest his own mind accuse him.
"Oh, we understand perfectly," Brimble said. He and Slate turned away, leaving Silver standing there.
"No! You don't-" he tried to call to them, but the announcer asked for his presence in the ring. Fine! They don't want to believe me. I don't have time to convince them. He held his shield high enough to cover his gash. He snatched a handkerchief from his equipment and stuffed it over his side. Silver hoped it would staunch the bleeding for now.
He walked into the ring. Stewart stood on the opposite end, wielding a mighty sword in his usable arm. The other, damaged arm was covered by his gold-ringed red shield. Stewart held his shield at around waist level, grimacing.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, our final round of the competition begins! Who will come out on top? Sir Stewart?" People cheered at the name. A gaggle of women threw their affection to him. He accepted their applause gracefully, smiling at the spectators.
"Or Sir Locksley?" Several people whooped and hollered for him. Silver shyly waved at the people pumping their fists for him. His eyes caught Gardon's, who turned away and left the stands. Silver lowered his arm. He could not concentrate on that. He would explain himself later. For now, he had to win the match.
The round started and they circled one another. Stewart was not one to be taken lightly. Even with a bum arm, Silver was sure he was still challenging. His own side ached, but he pressed on, continuing to step to the side.
At the same time, they ran forward. Their swords sliced the air, catching the sun's rays. Their weapons clashed, clanging hard against one another. Each pulled back as if burned by the sparks emitted. Then Silver met Stewart in another clash. Clang! Clang! Clang! The swords played their cadence for the ferocious dance. Silver met Stewart's blows, strength for strength, edge for edge.
Silver jumped to the side, aiming for Stewart's midsection. Stewart turned around and whacked Silver's shield. The hedgehog was knocked back several feet. He's good. Silver came at him again, dragging his sword low. He graced Stewart's legs before the lizard hit his sword away. Stewart chopped at Silver's sword arm. It was a close call, but he blocked the hit in time. He's very good. The injured arm did not appear to slow Stewart down in the least.
Every opening Silver tried, he was blocked off. The shield stood sturdy against Stewart's arm. At the head or legs, Stewart was too fast in countering. Silver's only option was the chest. He thrust low, hoping to pierce some point on the torso. Again, Stewart stopped him. His sword bounced off Stewart's shield, leaving Silver wide open.
Before he could recover, Stewart stabbed his knee. "Agh!" Silver yelled. Stewart had been lucky to find a chink in his armor, cutting the skin. Silver could move, but it stung awfully.
Stewart continued his attack, exploiting any opening there was. Silver was barely holding against him. How can he keep going? Where was all Stewart's energy coming from? Was the lizard using all his energy to end the battle soon? Silver had to fight back. He had to win. If he did not, Stewart would win and then only need one more victory to claim Blaze for Alans.
No! I won't let him win! He can't have her! I will win this tournament! Silver concentrated on Stewart's legs. A faint glow appeared around one. Silver pulled his hand to the side a little and the foot shifted. Stewart slipped on the dirt. That was all he needed.
Silver unleashed a fury of blows, all smacking against the shield. His merciless wailing was without end. Again and again, he hit the shield. Again and again, Stewart barely straightened his only defense back up.
You won't win! Silver's sword came down hard. He can't have her! The shield had a few dents. No one can have her! A faint, blue glow appeared around the shield. She's mine!
One final swing and Silver knocked the shield away into the air. Stewart hissed, his bad arm taking some damage in the process. Silver raised his sword up, breathing hard. His side was screaming for him to stop. His leg trembled, straining under his weight. He gulped down air, looking down at his beaten opponent. He brought the sword down. Stewart's eyes enlarged to the size of dinner plates. Silver stopped when the weapon's tip was right between the lizard's eyes. "Do you yield?" Silver asked, panting heavily. He could see stars emerging around his vision. Hurry up.
"Yes," Stewart said, calming down. "Yes, I yield."
The sword dropped from Silver's hand, clattering on the ground. He leaned over, clutching at the gash. Now that his adrenaline was slowing down, the pain was intensifying. He held out a hand to Stewart and helped him up. Even that gesture strained his side. Stewart supported him, holding him steady as the audience applauded. He had won.
Stewart raised Silver's arm high. The hedgehog enjoyed the reception, but was searching for Gardon and his team. He spotted Brimble, who frowned. Silver knew his appointed bodyguard had seen that final attack. Unlike the majority, Brimble knew he cheated. If he knew, then Gardon knew as well. Silver's stomach dropped. He had been expressly told not to use his powers.
Brimble did not say anything. He merely backed away, disappearing into the exiting crowd.
Silver shuffled from the arena. Stewart bared much of his weight, helping him to the edge. Outside, Blaze stood there, watching him. Silver choked up. Had she witnessed his power as well? Did she know?
She rested a hand on his shoulder. "Here, let's get you some help. Where's your squire?"
"He ran off somewhere," Silver said. He inhaled sharply. It was becoming painful to talk.
"Come with me." She tried to help, but Silver waved her off. "Please, it's the least I can do. I'm the one who gave you that after all."
You are dirt, Silver told himself as she helped him over to a seat. He had severely hurt her. He should have forfeited the match and tended to her needs. She was struggling to assist him. She winced when she moved too fast. Together, Blaze and her squire cleaned and dressed Silver's wounds, packing his side thoroughly with bandages.
"Thank you," Silver said when they finished. The blood still clung to his fur, but at least the pain was less intense.
"Thank you as well," she said. "Your squire and bodyguard helped dress my wounds too." She showed the various visible injuries he had given her, all wrapped in white cloth. Silver frowned, feeling ever more like a heel.
"Well, thank you again," he said, standing up. "I had better go." He hurried away before she could protest.
When Silver returned to his room, he expected to be visited by Gardon and his team, all three ready to deliver an earful. Only Gardon came, baring news of Brimble and Slate. "They won't come to see you. They're under the belief that you entered under false pretenses. Pretenses other than what we've entered you as," he added. "Something about how you plan to snatch Princess Blaze away for yourself."
"No, I…I…" Silver's tongue grew weak. He could not deny that he desired Blaze. He had tried to shove those feelings aside, but had they taken hold of him? They must have at some point during the round. Somewhere between receiving adoration and furious fights, he had lost sight of his goal. He buried his head in his hands. "I messed up," he said, moaning.
"That's an understatement," Gardon said. "I told you not to use your powers and what do you do? You sink to Wincott's level, cheating to get ahead. Victory at any cost."
"I didn't mean to," Silver said. "I didn't. I'm only trying to help Blaze."
"So you mean to tell me that all your love you harbor for her has no effect?" Gardon asked. When Silver did not answer, choosing to hang his head, Gardon sighed. "Silver, I've known you for years. I know that you have the princess' best interests at heart. You always have. But I fear your love is clouding your judgment. Using your powers? Not only was that unethical, but what would happen if you were caught?" Gardon leaned down, catching Silver's eye. "We would all be in trouble. Princess Blaze would be in trouble. If we're lucky, then at the very least, we would lose all our jobs. At the least," he stressed. "Most likely, we'd end up in the dungeon."
"I know," Silver said. Even though Blaze ordered that it be well-lit and the basic necessities be provided to the prisoners, it was not a place anyone wanted to end up. Silver had been there several times and always left as quickly as possible.
"My gut says I should strip you of all this and just claim you forfeited the rest of the tournament," Gardon said. "It would certainly be easier." He heaved a heavy sigh and closed his eyes. "Yet the princess needs our help and you're the only one who can aid her." He clasped Silver's shoulders. "You need to get it together. There's only one more round. Now can I count on you to help Princess Blaze and put her interests first?"
"Yes," Silver said, nodding his head.
"Good," Gardon said. He turned to leave. "I'll try talking to Brimble and Slate. With any luck, they'll at least still help tomorrow."
Then Silver was alone, left only with his thoughts. He reprimanded himself. What had he done? I was stupid. He punched his bed, grounding his fists into it. I was selfish. I don't deserve Blaze. How could she ever like a selfish person like me? In the corner, his shield laid propped on its side. He picked it up and threw it against the wall. His side strained itself. He kneeled over, holding onto the bed to steady himself. The wound did not bleed. Blaze had done an excellent job dressing it.
I'm not noble. He sat down on the bed. I'm certainly not a knight. A real knight would have acted differently.
A real knight. One like Sir Stewart. An idea slowly formed in Silver's mind. Stewart worked for Lord Alans. So far, Stewart had been everything a respectable person should be: fair, honest, strong, caring. Someone like that must have represented only half the qualities of their employer. In other words, someone who could care for Blaze. Someone who deserved her more than he did. He could see that clearly now that he was down from his selfish haze, putting Blaze's interests first. Perhaps Stewart and Alans could even help. Stewart fighting in Blaze's stead rather than Silver would please everyone more. After all, he was an honorable person.
Silver skipped dinner, planning what he would say to sway Stewart and Lanas. When he was sure everyone was finished, he quietly slipped out of his room. He left behind his armor. If he was going to convince Stewart and Alans to help, he needed to be as upfront and truthful as possible.
He walked down the grand halls, searching for Lord Alans' room. The more he formulated his idea, the more it proved to be the best for everyone. Blaze would have help from someone with her desires at heart, Gardon could strip Silver of his effects, and Brimble and Slate would not have to help a knight they had doubts about. It worked out for everyone.
Except you, his mind said. Yet he did not deserve anything, he reasoned. He had already lost his chance.
After searching for a little while, Silver found Lord Alans' room. Light filtered from underneath the closed door. He raised his hand to knock, but heard a loud shout come from within. "I don't care if you even lost your arm!" Who was that? Silver pressed his ear to the door gingerly.
"You are supposed to be the best! So far, all I've seen is a washed-up has-been who can't keep up." A person inside stomped to the door, then away from it. "I can forgive the archery. It's my Achilles' heel to be forgiving even when I shouldn't. But you should've had this. What happened out there?"
"I was bested." Stewart. He was defending himself. From Lord Alans? Silver's mind told him to leave, but he stayed, intent on listening.
"Bested? Bested? Bested is a hard-fought battle against a tough opponent. You were thrashed by a no-name whelp!" Silver bristled at that. "What do you think I'm paying you for? Or would you prefer to continue living the destitute life, suckling on crumbs of your former glory?"
No answer. More stomping. "My father could never have dreamed that I would be so close to taking this, not when he was too focused on scheming and removing anyone in his path to Lord. My eye is on this juicy apple of a kingdom. Thanks to this tournament, it's ripe for the picking. That's just peachy with me and fortunate for the princess."
Silver did not like what he was hearing. What had Alans planned for Blaze? "But if you fail this, I will have to resort to my previous plan. The blood from the civil war will be on your hands."
"Civil war?" Stewart asked.
"A civil war is expected when you no longer have a princess," Alans said. He let the sentence linger before continuing. Silver's throat tightened. "Of course I'll be there to guide everyone to an age of peace and prosperity under my rule. But can you live with the lives lost because you failed to win this tournament? It all rests on you after all."
Stewart did not say anything. "Then get this through that thick skull of yours. If you lose, then your lands are forfeit. If you lose, then your family also loses. Get the picture?"
"Yes," Stewart said.
"Good. Cheat if you must. No! I don't care about your glorious 'honor'. Just get it done."
Silver backed away from the door. All plans to bring in Lord Alans were ditched immediately. He had to get back to his room. He had to warn Gardon and the others. Blaze was in danger!
"Hey! What are you doing?" Silver spun around. Facing him were several guards, all sporting Alans' insignia on their armor. They drew their swords, rushing him. Silver cast a green barricade in front of him, cutting them off.
He turned to escape, but a fist collided with his face. He stumbled backwards. Then another shot hit his bandaged side. Blinding pain coursed through his veins. Another punch to the head and Silver blacked out.
"You sure you don't want to take this up with Princess Blaze?"
When Silver woke, he was cold. Very cold. His throbbing side soon overwhelmed all else. He moved a hand to cover it, but heard a rattling. A rattling like chains. His eyes snapped open and Silver saw he was sitting on the floor of the dungeon, his arms chained to the wall. In front of him was the warden, swinging a set of keys while talking to Alans and Stewart.
"No, no. No need to trouble the princess with this. She is taxed with the duties of a kingdom, not to mention the tournament. Just keep him here until the tournament is over. Then we can deal with him," Alans said.
"Still, hard to believe he attacked your guards."
"They have the bruises to prove it."
The warden shook his head. "Guess you never know some people."
Alans noted Silver coming to. "Would you leave us alone for a few minutes?" he asked. "I'd like to talk to him. See if he will tell me why he attacked."
"Sure," the warden said, catching his keys together. "I'll be right outside if you need me. Don't worry. I'll have my best men posted here to watch him."
"Thank you," Alans said. He waited for the warden to leave, then jerked his head at Stewart. The lizard walked over to the door and stood guard. Alans returned his attention to Silver. "Now, I'm going to assume you heard everything. So I'm sure you understand why I cannot allow you to interfere. It's nothing personal. It's politics. The most dangerous game after all." He chuckled. The dark slits in the middle of his golden orbs drew Silver in like yawning caverns.
"I understand you're one of the princess' lapdops," he said, leaning down. "A trustworthy soldier. I commend that. Truly I do. To tell the truth, I'm a little envious." He cast a glance at Stewart. The knight's arm was in a crude sling, but he was no less formidable in his armor. "All my dogs have to be beaten now and then to remind them who is in charge."
Silver relaxed a little. Alans had not made the connection between his wound and Sir Locksley. The noble must not have been close to the ring to see him. He groaned. His side was splitting open.
"Again, I apologize. Usually I'm not so barbaric. But I'm willing to let bygones be bygones. I'm quite forgiving after all. I could actually use someone like you in my employ. I could use some honesty around me. Wouldn't have to watch my back so much." He held up a hand. "Now, I know you're going to say 'no' at first, but I'm already going to rule this kingdom anyway. So you might as well be on the winning team. Think about it: you can keep whatever position you currently have, but with some added perks. I know sleeping in the barracks cannot be comfortable. You'll have a room in the castle. Some honor, title, or maybe a little summer home off in the countryside. You can settle down with a wife and kids."
"Blaze," Silver mumbled. His vision was fading in and out again. It was becoming harder to stay awake. The pain was unbearable. Alans paced in front of him, his golden tail flitting back and forth.
"Ah, yes. The princess. If Stewart's martial prowess proves up to the task, then you needn't worry. He should have won already, but that's what I get for hiring cheap." Alans shrugged.
"You don't care about her," Silver said slowly. He inhaled sharply, his ribs complaining as they expanded. "You don't love her."
"Love?" The bone-chilling cackles resounded off the empty dungeon walls. Alans held his stomach and wiped his eyes. "Love he says," Alans chuckled, the last of his laughter ending. "Let me tell you a little thing about love." He leaned down to Silver's face, their noses nearly touching. "You commoners only care so much about love because none of you will ever rise above your position. So you fool yourselves that love is the end all, be all of forces. That nothing is greater than love. That's all well and good since it keeps anyone from changing the status quo, but make no mistake. You will still die poor and a nobody.
"Not like us nobles," he said, standing up. He walked in front of Silver like a teacher instructing a student on a subject. "We die, but we're immortalized. Our power is written in history books the world round. I will admit I've often pondered what it would be like to marry for love. Certainly must be nice," he said, scratching his chin. "Not that I would know. I had to learn to give up love. You know why? Because marriage for us nobles is a little more complicated. We marry for money, land, power."
Alans grinned at Silver. "Yes, marriage for us is hitching your daughter to a count's son so they one day have an heir, giving you ample reason to go to war to press the claim. Marriage is poisoning a spouse who plans to have you killed to take your titles. That's marriage for us. A game of politics. Princess Blaze is just another pawn used in my greater game."
Silver mustered up a frown. Alans reciprocated the expression and clucked his tongue. "Oh, don't be like that. I cannot help myself. It's my weakness to need more. See, that is one thing you will never have to contend with." He squatted before Silver, baring his trembling teeth like a madman. "I need it. I cannot live without my position. Without my power. I need more of it all the time. It's my vice. An incurable one at that. So try to understand that I am helpless, as much a victim as you are."
If he could manage to, Silver would have laughed in his face. A victim? That was the most ridiculous notion he had ever heard. Yet all he could do was moan out short sentences. "Can't marry her," Silver said. "Don't love…" His voice faded. He no longer had the energy to speak.
Alans frowned. "Love again? What? Are you love's proponent? Championing its value in all cases?" He studied Silver's eyes, peering deep into them. Silver could barely return the stare, dropping his gaze to the stone floor. "No, that's not it. There's something- Wait." Alans moved back, recoiling as if a monstrosity had burst forth from Silver. "Are you- Are you in love with Princess Blaze?"
Silver could not answer. He only looked up, then hung his head once more. "That's it, isn't it? You are in love with the princess." Alans clapped his hands, stamped his feet, and laughed heartily. "Oh my!" he said, holding his forehead. "A commoner in love with royalty! No, the bodyguard even! Oh this is rich!"
He walked behind Silver. "My, my, my. This is the kind of thing you read about in trashy romance novels. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that yours will have a bittersweet end to it. But I'll tell you what I'll do." Alans pressed his mouth close to Silver's ear. "To prove I'm not a bad guy, if all goes well, I'll try and divorce Princess Blaze as soon as possible. I'll take her titles of course, but you can have her. See if she loves you too. Maybe that can comfort her as you two live out your lives in squalor and poverty like everyone else. But I doubt it."
Alans turned to the exit, but before he left, he said to Silver, "Think about my offer." Stewart cast a sidelong glance at Silver. There was a knowing look to the knight's eyes. Did he recognize the wound? It would not surprise Silver. So why did he not say anything? Was he keeping it a secret? Silver was thankful either way.
When the warden came in, Silver was teetering on the verge of consciousness. Someone cleaned his wound and redressed it. The dungeons were not inhumane like some believed and that was a welcome reprieve. He saw the warden slamming his cell shut afterwards and two soldiers positioned outside it.
"Blaze," he said. He had to reach her. Had to warn her. Had to save her. However, all too soon, Silver passed out.
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