The heavy iron gate separating Ronan from tournament victory rattled upward revealing the sun drenched sands of the arena floor. Raucous cheers erupted from the spectators straining to catch the first glimpse of the competitors. Outside the holding pen’s cramped confines, a hundred thousand rumbling voices shook free bits of dirt and debris from the low hanging ceiling. Dusty particles drifted through the stale humid air and settled into the dark hair of the young prince.
As the first wave of cheering faded, Ronan’s stomach rolled, and beads of sweat coated his hands loosening the grip on his blade and shield. Recalling Master Tyrell’s lessons, he closed his eyes and pulled a deep breath in through his nose.
The crowd noise began again. The cheering started low and intensified, rolling over the coliseum like a horde of locusts feasting on a summer harvest. Ronan’s opponent, Bryson Slater, strode into the arena waving a clenched fist skyward amid chants of “Bryson”. His polished steel helmet gleamed in the crook of his arm as he waved and flashed a smile to the adoring crowd. He strode with confidence across the arena floor, and his pale skin and spiked blond hair glowed like a god under the cloudless afternoon sky.
Ronan trapped air in his lungs until it hurt. As he exhaled, muscle tension drained from his back and shoulders. He kept his chin tucked into his chest and drew the sign of the circle around his heart. “Elan, please see me safe this day.” He lifted his gleaming silver helmet to his head and paused midway. “And, if You give my blade an extra nudge, I promise to keep it secret.” He allowed the whispered prayer to hang in the room’s stagnant air giving Elan a moment to hear.
When he opened his eyes, particles of loose soil drifted through rays of sunlight penetrating the dusty room’s shadowy darkness. He twisted the crowd’s roar in his mind until it carried the intensity of a lazy bumblebee drifting on a summer afternoon breeze. With focused attention, he concentrated on the passage of air through his nose and out his parted lips.
Ronan pushed aside his fears, expectations, and the promise of a home amid the knights he so revered. He focused the entirety of his conscious mind on this singular moment to leave his mark. His hand flexed around the grip of his blade, and he gave his shield strap one last pull tightening it to his arm. At last, he opened his mind, and the world crashed in flying forward at full speed.
He lowered the visor on his helmet, pounded his sword against his shield, and charged out of the holding pen.
Freehold had slow cooked beneath a full month of cloudless summer skies, and the temperatures on the arena floor hit Ronan like a physical blow. His breaths came short and hard, and it took focused concentration to steady himself as he sprinted across the shifting sand.
As he’d done throughout the tournament, he never hesitated. He wanted his rivals to panic. A frightened opponent became easy prey for an aggressor, and he used the tactic to rattle his foes.
At eighteen seasons, Bryson Slater had lived three years longer than Ronan, and he’d used that time transforming himself into a muscled giant of a young man. Eyebrows raised when he’d delayed his graduation a year waiting for a shard to become available. His gamble paid off, and he’d run through his opponents in record time. Freehold’s oddsmakers made him a heavy favorite against Ronan.
A smug smile flickered over Bryson’s face as he lowered his visor and tightened the chain mail gloves around his wrists. Unlike Ronan’s other competitors, Bryson displayed no sign of fear or panic. He readied his sword and shield and waited for Ronan to close the distance.
Ronan pulled up a few yards short. His first strike strategy ended before it began. Bryson had superior size, strength, and experience, and he needed a new plan.
Knights representing the three schools of Elan’s magic stood along the interior edges of the arena acting as tournament judges. Through toil, effort, and sheer determination, each had claimed tournament victory. Only the strongest absorbed Elan’s shard magic and gained the title of knight. They wanted a fair hard fought contest and for both competitors to walk out alive.
Ronan circled Bryson keeping his shield up and his sword poised and ready. He took a defensive stance allowing the bigger man first strike.
Bryson raised his shield, twisted to his side, and flicked his wrist striking downward vertically along the inside of Ronan’s shield. He intended to wrap his blade around the backside of Ronan’s ankle and severe his exposed tendon. Tyrell taught this tactic, called the grass cutter, to third year students at the citadel. Although difficult to land, a successful strike would secure tournament victory and cripple Ronan for months without shard healing. Most students didn’t try the move during a sparring session let alone the championship match of a shard tournament.
Ronan stepped right and forward avoiding the cut and launching into a thrust targeting Bryson’s exposed shoulder.
Bryson moved to parry as Ronan turned his blade horizontally and used his offhand to land a scoring blow on the larger boy’s helmet.
The crowd roared as Bryson staggered backward caught off guard by the change of speed and direction of Ronan’s attack.
A light tingle rippled through Ronan’s chest, and his confidence soared. Unleashing a guttural cry, his adrenaline surged, and he thrust at the opening provided by Bryson’s off-kilter stance.
The citadel’s top student hadn’t earned the title by chance. Bryson spun avoiding the thrust, and Ronan slipped ahead whiffing on empty air leaving his backside exposed. As Bryson spun, he carried his momentum though his arm and into his blade increasing its speed fourfold. The attack caught Ronan square in the center of his back sending him sailing face first toward the loose sand of the arena floor.
Ronan’s armor protected him from the blade’s sharp edge, but the blunt force of impact ignited a surge of pain across his lower back. When he struck the sand, the weight of the fall pushed his breast plate into his chest knocking the wind from his lungs. Hot sand entered his visor sticking to his perspiration soaked face and caking his tongue.
The crowd roared its approval as Ronan sprawled across the arena floor with his sword and shield splayed at awkward angles.
Bryson circled Ronan raising his blade skyward adding fuel to the frenzied roar of the crowd caught in a wave of blood lust.
The palm of a shield knight nearest Ronan glowed blue with readied shield magic as she channeled spirit in preparation for the end of the match. Next to the knight, blue light pulsed from the extended hands of two other shield knights.
Ronan’s heart raced as panic took hold. “No.” His voice came out strained and harsh echoing inside his helmet. The shield knights couldn’t hear him. If Ronan’s life came under threat, they’d stop the match despite his protest. If he saw a spirit shield surround him, the match ended. Bryson’s plate mail boots clanged just inches from his face, and Ronan managed to roll to his side.
The queen stood motionless within the royal box as lines of concern dulled the edges of her flawless complexion. With white knuckles gripping the railing, her gaze locked on her wounded son sprawled on the arena floor.
Sir Alcott Agers, Ronan’s lifelong teacher, sat next to her with his hands cupped around his mouth screaming words lost in the cacophony of a hundred thousand cheering fans. He’d won a healing shard at a tournament decades ago but had long ago traded in his hammer for more scholarly pursuits.
Pain circled Ronan’s rib cage as he twisted to his side. It flashed outward changing to a dull ache as his roll ended beneath Bryson’s dark shadow. Rivulets of sweat streaked the sand and dirt on his face stinging his eyes and blurring his vision. His breathing came in shallow ragged pulls, and he begged for air to fill his depleted lungs.
Bryson paused, and his gaze shifted to the man sitting to the queen’s left, Merric Pride.
Unlike the thousands of spectators around him, Archbishop Merric Pride, Ronan’s spiritual leader and a powerful shield knight in his own right, remained seated. A few months after Ronan’s birth, Pride had christened him in Elan’s First Church and had guided him through the more difficult patches of his youth. He’d served on the queen’s private council with Sir Alcott and Patron Tyrell during Queen Arianne’s reign. Archbishop Pride sat stone-faced and rigid with his gaze locked on Ronan’s competitor as if in expectation.
For the span of two seconds, Bryson stood motionless holding the gaze of the archbishop. Then, with a slow subtle motion, Pride shook his head three times with his expression remaining distant and aloof. Bryson tilted his helmet forward in acknowledgment, and the moment passed. An instant later the archbishop’s expression melted into one of visible concern, and he stood and clapped his hands. He rested a reassuring hand on the queen’s shoulder and leaned into her speaking a few words. But Arianne’s eyes never wavered from her son, and she’d missed the exchange between Bryson and the archbishop.
Ronan’s chest tightened, and his stomach sank. He tried to make sense of the exchange he’d just seen. Caught in this moment of pain and anxiety, could he trust his senses? A logical explanation must exist.
Bryson tightened the grip on his sword and pounded it against his shield. Using his sword, he mocked the prince with an obscene gesture that elicited fresh roars of laughter and approval from the coliseum’s lathered crowd.
Ronan’s mind raced sorting through the events as they unfolded. Why didn’t Bryson just end it? He’d earn admission to the Order and the power granted from the precious shard magic. With a single swing of his sword he could finish off Ronan and claim victory.
As if reading his mind, Bryson raised his sword arm with slow methodical deliberation. As the blade reached its peak a hundred thousand people held their breath awaiting the finishing blow. Bryson released a primal scream and dropped his blade.
Ronan rolled and Bryson’s blade sank into the loose sand of the arena floor an inch from his breastplate.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Ronan gripped Bryson’s ankle and pulled with desperate strength.
The larger boy toppled landing with a thud face first in the sand beside Ronan.
Ronan pushed himself to his feet, tightened the grip on his sword, and knelt before Bryson. He centered his attack on the exposed flesh of Bryson’s lower back and sent his blade downward. The moment before impact, shimmering blue light appeared an inch above Bryson’s body. Ronan’s blade slammed into the shield sending a ripple of bright blue light across the magical barrier. Sparks flew from the blade’s edge, and the force of impact sent a tingle through his hand that continued up his arm into his shoulder. Smoke curled from the molten sword, and Ronan tossed it aside.
The coliseum erupted with cheers as Ronan stood and staggered backward. He wanted to touch the shield surrounding Bryson just to confirm he’d won, but he didn’t dare.
With unhuman speed, three battle knights sped across the arena sand and surrounded the boys. The lead knight grabbed Ronan’s arm and raised it signaling him the victor.
Ronan removed his gloves and helmet and mopped away the sand and dirt smeared on his sweat covered face. Bouquets of flowers rained onto the arena floor as spectators showered him with appreciation for his hard earned victory.
The lead knight raised the visor of his golden helmet. Patron Tyrell, commander of the Order of the Shattered Heart and Ronan’s mentor, wore an uneasy expression on his face. “Congratulations Ronan.”
Ronan slipped on his leather boots, stood, and slammed shut the changing locker’s door. He gathered his soiled underclothing and hurled the stinking pile into a basket in the corner of the locker room.
The door to the citadel’s changing room opened, and Patron Tyrell slipped inside shutting the door behind him. The world’s foremost battle knight leaned against the closed door and crossed his arms.
“So you think Bryson let me win?” Without looking up, Ronan fastened the buttons at his wrist.
Tyrell paused a long moment before responding. “Yes. I think he lost on purpose.”
Ronan leaned back and shook his head meeting his master’s gaze for the first time. “Don’t hold back. I’ve got thick skin.”
“I’ve never lied to you Ronan. Would you prefer I start now?”
He waved off Tyrell’s explanation. “It’s okay. I agree with you. I haven’t earned the shard. Bryson deserves it.”
Tyrell eased onto the wooden bench next to Ronan, leaned forward, and sighed. “The shard doesn’t belong to Bryson. A knight conducts his life with honor and ethics. If I ever found proof he threw the match, by Elan’s law, I’d strip the shard from him by force if necessary.” He shook his head. “No, if he threw the match, he has no place in the Order.”
Ronan sat up and leaned forward staring at the rough wooden floor between his boots. “Did you see the archbishop shake his head toward Bryson?”
“Yes. That’s what bothers me most.”
“Do you know what I think?” He didn’t bother waiting for a response. “I think someone rigged this whole tournament.” Ronan kicked a towel near his feet, and his shoulders sagged. “I feel like a fool. Here I thought I’d earned each victory.”
The door to the changing room burst open, and Sir Alcott walked in with a smile stretched wide across his bearded face. “You’ve done it my boy. Congratulations!” Sir Alcott froze when he saw the dark expression on Ronan’s face “You do realize you’ve won right? What’s with the long faces?” He glanced between Tyrell and Ronan.
Ronan kept his head lowered. He didn’t want to celebrate a fraudulent victory.
Sir Alcott furrowed his brows and looked to Tyrell for an explanation. “Why is he sulking Patron?”
“Ronan has doubts about his victory. He believes Bryson may have thrown the match.”
“That’s ridiculous. Thousands of cheering citizens watched you win today,” Sir Alcott said.
“Bryson wanted to win. I could feel it,” Ronan said. “Something stopped him from finishing me. He played games with the crowd and wasted time taunting and posturing. He gave me a chance to recover.”
“That’s not what I saw. Bryson was overconfident. Pride and arrogance cost him the match. He wanted to humiliate you rather than finish it, and he paid the price.”
“I hope you’re right,” Ronan said.
“Trust me. I’m right. You earned every victory. Don’t let self-doubt ruin what should be the happiest moment of your life. When I won my shard, my opponent tripped over his feet, and I scored an easy win. You know what I did?” Sir Alcott paused waiting for an answer.
“What did you do Sir Alcott?” Ronan said.
“I celebrated. That’s what I did.” He let loose a short hard laugh. “Stop worrying and enjoy the day.”
“I appreciate you trying to cheer me up.” Ronan ran a hand through his hair. “But, I still have doubts.”
Sir Alcott leveled his gaze at Tyrell. “Patron, tell the boy I’m right.”
“There’s more to it I’m afraid,” Tyrell said.
A ripple of confusion spread across Sir Alcott’s face. “What aren’t you telling me?”
A light knocking came at the open door. Archbishop Merric Pride hovered at the threshold adorned in the white robes of his station and leaning on a solid silver cane. Behind him, a pair of shard knights stood flanking his left and right.
“May I come in?” Pride said.
“Of course you may Your Grace.” Ronan stood and bowed.
“Please Ronan. Sit. There’s no need for such formality. I just came by to offer my congratulations. You know I don’t approve of the fighting, but I’m glad it was you who came out victorious.”
“Please have a seat Your Grace.” Ronan offered his arm to the archbishop.
“Thank you Ronan. Your mother did a fine job raising you.” Pride took Ronan’s arm and eased into a high-backed sturdy maple chair in the corner of the small changing room.
Ronan found his seat on the bench next to Tyrell.
“You’ll have to excuse an old man from eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation as I came down the hallway. I’d like to understand Master Tyrell’s concerns.”
A flush of heat spread across Ronan’s cheeks. “Your Grace, it was nothing.” Ronan answered before Tyrell sparing his master the embarrassment.
Pride raised a hand. “Forget my station. Perhaps I can offer some counsel.”
Ronan searched Tyrell’s eyes before answering.
“Go ahead. Tell him the truth,” Tyrell said.
“Your Grace, this is awkward.”
Pride raised an eyebrow. “Please explain.”
“During the match, I saw you make eye contact with Bryson. You and he stared at each other for several seconds before you shook your head,” Ronan said. “After your exchange, Bryson gave up. He held his last strike over his head so long my dead grandmother could’ve avoided it.” Ronan’s palms began to sweat as he realized how crass the statement came out. “I’m sorry for that last bit Your Grace.”
“There’s no need to apologize. Are you finished?” Pride said.
“Yes sir. That’s what I saw.”
Ronan’s head jerked up, and his mouth fell open. “I’m sorry Your Grace?”
“I did make eye contact with young Master Bryson, and I did shake my head. However, I didn’t mastermind some grand plot to gain you one of Elan’s precious shards.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just-”
“I shook my head at the boy for two reasons. First, I wanted him to stop cajoling the crowd as well as taunting you. I found that rather distasteful. The second reason is that I didn’t want to see him hurt you. I can assure you, your victory came without my influence.”
Ronan slouched and dropped his chin to his chest as scarlet bloomed on his face. “Of course Your Grace. I don’t know why I doubted you, but I needed to be sure. I want the Order to accept me without any doubts. I don’t want any special treatment.”
“I understand. Perhaps Bryson is a superior warrior. However, as I heard Sir Alcott mention, his pride proved a far greater weakness than his ability with the blade. You earned the shard by exposing your opponent’s weakness just as Master Tyrell taught you. I think you’ll make a fine shard knight my boy.”
Tension drained from Ronan’s muscles, and a smile spread across his face. “Thank you Your Grace. I needed to hear that.”
Pride pushed against his silver cane and rose. “Treasure the gift you’ve earned today. Two millennia ago, Elan’s Orb shattered into one hundred and seventy-six separate pieces by those who would do Meranthia harm.” He reached over and squeezed Ronan’s hand. “Use Elan’s magic to protect Meranthia from those who would do her harm.” He shifted his weight to his cane. “Which shard did you win?”
“It’s the seventh enhancement shard Your Grace,” Ronan said.
“So you’ll take the mantle of battle knight.” A warm smile spread across his face. “I wish your father would’ve lived to watch you take the shard. He’d be proud of you today.”
“I’d love nothing more Your Grace,” Ronan said.
“But, you’ll have a fine master to further your training. Commander Tyrell is the greatest battle knight I’ve ever known. It’s too bad you didn’t earn a protection shard. I could’ve trained you in the art of shield magic myself.”
Sir Alcott shifted his stance. “I’ll stand by healing magic Ronan. A warrior that mends wounds while slinging a hammer makes a formidable opponent. It’s a blessed gift.”
Pride’s eyes took on a faraway look. “Yes Sir Alcott, Elan has blessed us all with his gifts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to discuss details of your induction ceremony with the queen. Congratulations Ronan.”
Ronan bowed. “Thank you Your Grace. You’ve made me feel much better.”
Pride took Ronan’s hand and squeezed with a firmness surprising in the old cleric. “Good. That’s good. I’ll see you later this evening then.” He shuffled from the room with shard knights trailing him.
“I guess I overreacted,” Ronan said.
“I told you,” Sir Alcott said. “Let’s start celebrating. I’m going to check with Master McClaren on that shipment of ale for this evening’s feast.”
“Master Tyrell are you coming?” Ronan said.
Tyrell nodded and flashed a tight smile across his face. “Yes. Let’s go.”