XI. The Challenger

As Ranadin had predicted the warriors adjusted to their new food, and meal by meal old foods were reintroduced to them, but in smaller quantities. There were no more complaints. Then came the day Ranadin gave the warriors praise and to honour her they founded a new order of knights. They called themselves the Knights of Anguis, and their members referred to each other as snakeswords. They said their order would be world renown and to celebrate this they announced that the castle would host a tournament.

It took them weeks to prepare the tournament. The snakeswords named it the tournament of the Winter Serpent and vowed to hold it each winter. It was an odd time for such an event as most tournaments were organised during the summer season. In despite of this it gathered a great amount of knights from all around Deles and even from the neighbouring countries.

*****

The white surrounding the Loulea castle was now dotted with tents of many shades of colour. Only the highest ranking guests could be given accommodation in the castle while others slept in the temporary canvas buildings. Banners and streamers whipped in the cold wind adorned with the different colours and seals. It was as if a rainbow had come down from the heavens to lighten the world.

The castle guards and warriors had been sent out to hunt in the Great Forest, and the kitchens were busier than they had ever been. The food was set out in the courtyard where all were allowed to partake in it. Frenna seemed to have momentarily forgotten Ranadin’s existence and enjoyed her spotlight as the lady of the castle.

Servants moved between the tables. People spoke and tested each other’s strength playfully. Sometimes men broke out into fisticuffs, and the guards worked hard to keep the order. All around Ranadin there was gambling, drinking and general merriment even though the tournaments true challenges would begin the next day. Few were wise to abstain from too much festing.

Ranadin barely touched her food and only imbibed water. Her guards were accustomed to her ways, so they too followed her example. They observed their fellow humans with scorn and secret envy.

From outside the edge of torchlight some voices could be heard calling out in pleasure. The whores of nearby villages had been drawn to the great amount of potential customers. They were normally banned from the castle grounds, but now they were mostly ignored in the mass of humans.

Around midnight, mothers began herding their children to their beds, and the festivities began slowly winding down until the last joy lovers were dragged into the great hall of the castle singing drunkenly. The floor of the great hall had been covered with straw and blankets. It was full of deeply breathing and snoring mounds, but not all were asleep. In the far corner of the hall there was a band of Thormian bards quietly having a conversation around a small lamp. Some blankets moved rapidly with quick breaths coming from their confines.

Ranadin was one of the last ones to leave. Only Dael and Wech had stayed to guard her. They walked passed the hall and along the empty hallways to Ranadin’s set of rooms. Suddenly there was a thud as a figure dressed in black was tackled by Ranadin. A knife flashed in the faint light. The guards stared at the figure confounded wondering how it had appeared so suddenly. Their thoughts were dulled by fatigue.

The figure’s face was covered only its eyes peeking from a small slight as it crouched low on the floor ready to pounce on them if they moved even a muscle.

“Go”, Ranadin ordered the figure.

“You will not have me this night.”

The figure huffed and disappeared into the night.

“Why did you let him go?” Dael asked attempting to comprehend what had happened. Ranadin did not answered but stepped into her rooms locking the door behind her. She then moved a large cabinet in front of the door. Just in case.

*****

It had been some time since Ranadin had slept in so that Tea was the one to wake her. The woman had been disappointed that Ranadin no longer allowed herself to be dressed in beautiful gowns of elaborate design. She pictured Ranadin as a lady whose beauty surpassed all others in the land.

Tea had especially loved emphasising Ranadin’s eyes with complicated hair-do’s and using different shades of yellow and gold to bring out their shine. She wanted to arrange the snakewoman’s white hair into a halo around her exquisite face.

Despite her fervent wishes Tea was obedient and had taken Ranadin’s order of leather britches, vest and a cotton tunic to the tailor. The order was delivered by her very hands only a few days later. Tea now allowed Ranadin dress herself, but she refused to relinquish the right to do her mistress’ hair. She had the talent to combine beauty and practicality. Today she long braid that followed her scalp tightly and then flowing down her back. Then grabbing her recently shined battle staff, Ranadin was ready to fight.

*****

On the first day of the tournaments no actual competitions had been scheduled, but the morning was filled with shows of feats of some of which had been organised by the Knights of Anguis with the help of Ranadin.

The audience was suitably impressed as the knights’ swords flew through the air in a perfect choreography. They attacked Ranadin as one letting their blows come close before she blocked them last minute with her staff causing the younger noblewomen in the crowd scream and sigh with fear and excitement. The show ended with the snakeswords tying Ranadin’s hands behind her back and setting a sword on her neck.

After this there were archery competitions. The competition for the youth was won by Farrim who was just old enough to participate. He was the centre of attention for the rest of the day and many warriors praised his skills predicting him to become one of the best archers of his generation. The series for squires and master archers were won by Thormaians and the one for knights by a gomm from the land of Gome.

The next day followed with duels where the only weapon allowed was the sword. This was divided into three groups, the master swordsmen, knights and squires. It was common knowledge that the best swordsmen came from Missaile, and so the winner was naturally a Missailian lord who refused to speak anything else but his mother tongue though he knew Maaroan which was the mother of all human languages. Missaile was a small kingdom whose inhabitants were all inherently prideful. They allowed for only one word in Maaroan.

“Interpreter! Interpreter!”

They were infamous for these words. There were no knights in Missaile, so the knights’ series was won by the gomm who had been triumphant in the archery ranges, and the most talented squire was a young man from the south of Deles.

*****

On the third day began the jousting competition, though it was not heralded as the main event of the competition to the dismay of those who did not come from Loulea. Wild rumours moved amongst the crowd about what would happen on the last day of the tournament, everything from war games which was to be attended by everybody to wild partying. It was a long list as there was no bounds to the imagination of humans.

Joarik and Haumm participated in the jousting competition to uphold the honour of the house of Pathraon. As per tradition many knights carried the favours of their chosen ladies in the form of scarves tied to their lances and necks. Joarik wore the violet of his wife and the green of his sister. Haumm on the other hand had won the favour of a Thormaian lady, and showed it with a light blue scarf.

The snowy ground became hard and dark after a whole day of horses spurting and trampling the white blanket under their hooves. The knights’ armours turned muddy as warriors fell to the ground from the force of the lance. Swords clanked loudly as the competitors attempted to overcome their opponents.

Many bones were broken with a sickening crunch and others received deep wounds when a sword was able to cut them at a weaker point of their armour. Ranadin saw madame Bantrin-Salvach command a great army of healers in her own personal battleground. Physil shook her head at the mindless violence, but did not comment upon it. She lived by her own rules of not judging, but went about healing her patients.

Ranadin had heard from some of even the visiting noblewomen that Physisia Silva Bantrin-Salvach was the most famous healer in all of the eleven kingdoms. She was known for her neutrality as she would heal enemies and allies. Nobody knew where she came from, but the inhabitants of Loulea had been overjoyed when she had fallen in love with madame Farning’s predecessor and had stayed even after becoming a widow.

It was not only her neutrality that had made her so known, but also her creative and innovative solutions developing the old healing techniques. She was invincible in her skills. The visiting warriors were happily surprised to find themselves under the best care.

“They dare to be more daring in their attacks, now that our Physil is here for as far as we know, no one has ever died under her care. Naturally she cannot resurrect the dead, but barring that and old age, well”, a noblewoman whispered to Ranadin forgetting about her inappropriate outfit. Ranadin followed how Joarik lost his fight after getting quite far in the tournament and he left the field holding his back with a grimace. His wife and sister did not scold an old man, but welcomed him for he had returned to them uninjured.

“I think this is the end of my tournament career. My back is not my friend any longer”, Joarik cursed and Frenna gave him a sympathetic look, the first one since Ranadin had arrived. She hugged her husband and kissed him on the cheek. Joarik seemed surprised, but smiled at her warmly. Joarik’s sister turned away to follow the competition.

Haumm did very well. He fought with his full concentration only turning to his Thormaian lady after he had one each battle. She would smile at him shyly from under her veil. In the end it was Haumm that was declared the winner. And the young lord who had always been sick for attention paid no mind to the many people who wanted to praise his prowess. Instead he rode right to where the lady was sitting and they gazed at each other as if they were the only ones in the world. Ranadin got the funny feeling that Haumm had competed for something else than the honour of his house and the order he belonged to. She was not the only one to have seen the enchanted moment between the two youths. The knight who Haumm had just won marched on Joarik and Frenna.

“Are you the parents of that boy?” the knight inquired in Maaroan with a strong Thormaian accent. Joarik nodded and Frenna radiated pride.

“And you are?” Joarik countered in a polite note.

“I am sir Justisen Lamenin Orthodren of Sarrac, the supreme commander of the army of Thorma and the prince of Sarrac”, the knight answered and glanced into the direction of Haumm and the lady who were now speaking quietly.

“That most honoured lady that your son is with is my daughter Tanara Lamena Orhodrena the Gentle. It would seem that she regards your son very highly.”

“It would seem the feeling is mutual”, Joarik remarked.

“Is your daughter betrothed?”

“Yes she is, and she has been miserable since the day she received the news. I have not seen her this happy for quite some time”, sir Justisen said. Then he smirked.

“But it is in the custom of our land that a betrothal can be undone even on the day before the wedding. My house would be honoured to promise the hand of my daughter to your victorious son.”

“It is Haumm’s choice, but I highly doubt that he would decline such an honour”, Joarik answered and looked knowingly at the veiled Tanara and his son who had removed his helmet laugh together. Sometimes they fall into a comfortable silence.

“Haumm. That is the name of your son?”

“Yes. Haumm Zemes Pathraon, a prince of Deles, and second-in-command of the royal cavalry, the heir to the thrones of the fortress of Loulea, the province of Aquilonem and city states of Alta and Adanor.”

“Prince? Last time I heard he was the heir apparent to the throne of Deles”, the fellow knight wondered.

“An heir to the throne was not declared until my brother chose our nephew Ell of Adanor. He married my daughter Ytja”, Joarik revealed. Frenna grimaced letting her bitterness bleed through a moment, but smiled then quite fetchingly for the joy of her son’s engagement.

“Should we not tell the young ones?” sir Justisen suggested and the three parents made their way to Tanara and Haumm.

*****

The last day of the tournament dawned the sun rising to shine brightly over the world. Tea had had the tailor make a black silk shirt and a black leather vest both embroidered with gold. Tea weaved black and gold ribbons into Ranadin’s usual braid. She had also shined the battle staff to make its black lacquered surface glow in the sun as if made of metal, the blades on each end sharpened.

A completely new arena had been reserved for this event with stands built around it. On one edge black tent had been erected for Ranadin. She was to stay in it while the snakeswords performed a carefully practised dance of their weapons. She could picture them battling this way in true war, like the war they were showcasing.

For half of the snakeswords were dressed as Dratoans and the other half as humans. They replicated the decisions the snakekin had made. Before the fighting they had acted out the shattering of the ancestral statue and the victory of humans over the dragons. Then they had showed the Dratoan Empire and the struggle of the serfs. As from a signal the knights stopped in their movements as Wech’s voice echoed over the arena.

“They had won us twice, and we had won them twice. We have hated each other for many an age. This year it is exactly two thousand years since the fall of the Dratoan Empire and the snakekin withdrew to the mountains. For all this time we have lived peacefully, but all around Maaroa there have been battles since that time. Our hate is deeply seated, but this is the dawn of a new era. We welcome the lady Ranadin an Caroon, the snakewoman the Knights of Anguis honour with this tournament.”

Ranadin stepped from the black tent dressed in black and gold. She moved to stand in the middle of the arena standing regally. The humans did not welcome her, but she had not expected that. They observed her with wide eyes, some gaping. Some knights reached for their swords, arrows were pointed at her. Wech signalled Ranadin’s guards, and they gathered around her protectively. The Gomm who had been successful during the tournament got up and spoke his voice thundered over the arena.

“I, gomm Gauril Rawergol, wonder what this is means, Joarik Pathraon? What is the reason you fraternize with this enemy of the human kingdoms?”

Many nodded at his words. Joarik stood up.

”This member of the snakekin who moves freely amongst us saved the life of the heir of Deles, the crown prince Ell of Adanor when he was captured many months ago. She has been granted her life by king Taumring himself”, the lord of the castle declared.

“Yes, she moves freely, Pathraon. That is not appropriate. To the dungeon!” gomm Rawergol counter demanded.

“You see she has guards. And no escape attempt has been made by her, no move against my people. What crime has she done to deserve to be put to the dungeon?”

The gomm was silenced. He was a guest in another country where the king had pardoned this creature. They could not judge her for her mere existence. The knights relaxed the grips of the handles of their swords, and the archers let the bowstrings loosen. The audience settled after a while. Wech gave a new signal and the guards moved off of the arena.

“We challenge all those who dare. The one who wins Ranadin an Caroon will leave this castle with a thousand gold pieces.”

Joarik’s proclamation was led with many knights and swordsmen line up to try their strength against the snakewoman. Wech laughed at them.

“If you want to have any chance at victory, change into leather armour”, he suggested kindly. Most of the knights scoffed, but others remembered that Ranadin had fought on the first day and had been fast and so followed Wech’s advice.

“First one, step up”, Dael shouted and the first knight did just so.

“What is your name?” Ranadin asked stepping in front of the man.

“Jon Thuur”, he answered.

“Are you afraid?” she inquired. He shook his head making her smile predatorily.

“I cannot hear you.”

“I am not afraid.”

“Prove it.”

With that the knight charged towards the snakewoman. Ranadin sidestepped him easily yawning theatrically. The man repeated his dashing technique before realising that it was ineffective. He began hacking with his sword finding that Ranadin’s staff did not break under his steel. After some time Thuur fell to the ground with exhaustion and the next one stepped to replace him. The challengers learned from each other and tried not to repeat each other’s mistakes, but the line depleted quickly until there was nobody left.

“Is there anyone who will challenge the mistress?” Wech called out. The guards led by Dael began moving around the arena trying to see if anyone was brave enough. Nobody stepped forth and silence fell when the beat of hooves could be heard and black horse with a black rider appeared on the top of the hills. He had black boots that peeked from under a black cloak that flowed behind him as the horse galloped down to the arena coming to halt. The man dismounted and flowed over the ground like death itself.

“I will fight the mistress”, he intoned and removed his hood revealing jet black hair and black-bluish eyes. His hair followed the crown of his head coming to rest halfway down his back. His hair was tied in a half ponytail and gleamed in the sun.

His face was pale accentuated with a sharp nose and invisible lips. His eyes were straight and eyebrows drooping, straight lines. Ranadin and the man were like day and night. Her white hair and golden eyes were a strong contrast to his darkness. A black staff was strapped to his back. He took into his hands removing his cloak. He was wearing only a vest. His arms were bare and toned.

“Darroi?” Ranadin confirmed nodding towards his weapon. He answered with a nod of his own.

“May the challenger step forward”, Wech stated and the man obeyed.

“What is your name?” she asked as she had for each of the preceding opponents. The man smiled cruelly.

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