The sound of sudden cheering broke the king’s boredom as he stared across the grounds at the horizon. Accompanying the applause were many whistles and the screams of delighted woman. Men shook their fists in the air, girls pelted the arena floor with flowers and guards waved their swords, clashing them on shields excitedly.
It was the Annual Tournament in Vigilance, Galladorian outpost in Belanyr. Banners adorned with the many-coloured emblems of the various knightly houses fluttered in the light breeze. The sky was periwinkle blue, and the sun smiled brightly.
King Brock looked down, studying the nine arrows protruding from the centre of the circular, wooden target. As he gazed, a further green-fletched arrow impacted on the bullseye, splitting one of the arrows down the middle. The cheering crowd erupted into frenzy. It seemed that finally, after three cycles, Lord Jasper Tenegrin had been beaten in at least something.
‘We have a new champion of the archery, my lord,’ Captain Gareth reported as he mounted the steps into the king’s viewing stand. He was almost quivering in excitement. His rugged face alight with the exaltation that Tenegrin had finally lost a contest, he gestured at the royal musicians. There was a chorus of bright notes and silence descended, except for a few giggling young maidens. With a jingle of chain mail, Gareth motioned the winning archer forwards.
The king’s eyes flickered over the stranger.
He wore a short, sleeveless, leather jerkin over his slender, bare torso and close-fitting, leather breeches. A scarlet cloak with a russet fur collar hung from his shoulders. Combat boots trimmed with fur protected his feet and fingerless gloves adorned his hands. Buckled to his waist was a sheathed sword alongside a deerskin pouch, and a knife dangled at his right hip. On his forearms were strapped a pair of leather vambraces, each one adorned with a bright red, triangular gemstone. But it was the man’s face to which Brock’s attention was truly drawn. He had slanted, peridot-green eyes and pointed ears, framed by a mane of shoulder-length, raven-black hair.
‘My name is Aefion Bloodclaw, of House Arileth,’ the stranger said softly.
A hush pervaded the atmosphere; even the women were silent. For a moment the king stared in astonishment.
‘An elf?’ Brock gasped. ‘Tis a long time since one of your kind entered the Tournament of Vigilance.’
‘My people, the Eldenians, would like to thank you again for guarding the northern approaches to Lightwood Forest. We are grateful for your friendship.’ Aefion bowed his head as he accepted the small, golden statuette.
Brock returned the gesture and then flung his arms wide.
‘People of Vigilance, I give you a new champion!’
Amidst the clapping, Jasper Tenegrin, muttering darkly, stepped forwards. The man pushed roughly past Aefion, his polished silver armour clanking. He was mightily annoyed, having his three-cycle winning streak brought to an end by another man. It was even more humiliating because this Aefion fellow was not a man at all, but a half-naked primitive.
’He’s not a champion yet,’ he sneered, ’he’s only won one contest. I am still the reining champion for this cycle.’ He glanced left and right, taking satisfaction in the quickly diminishing applause.
‘But at least this time you lost a contest!’ Someone roared. This was greeted with a healthy amount of laughter and those in the viewing stand couldn’t help but smile.
Ignoring the comment, Tenegrin continued.
‘I object to this… unfairness.’ At once there was a rumble of disapproval from the crowd. Aefion turned to face Jasper, his face impassive. Brock looked down disdainfully at the whinging noble.
‘You have no say in who wins the Archery, Tenegrin. You’ll still win the tournament.’
‘But,’ Jasper replied, fidgeting with his gauntlet, ‘tradition dictates that the Annual Tournament is to be contested by Galladorians.’
‘The tournament also extends to our good neighbours and allies.’
Jasper grunted and stepped away from Aefion as if distancing himself from a source of virulent infection.
‘Then perhaps the elfling would be willing to deal with the matter of the princess?’ He chuckled maliciously before departing, his cloak billowing behind him.
The king’s smile faded, and he glanced at Gareth. As the guard captain nodded slightly, Brock looked back at Aefion and sighed.
‘Two days ago my daughter Cassandra, went riding into the countryside. Tired of being followed everywhere by an escort, she persuaded me to allow her to go without one. Now I sorely regret that lenience. Although I have warned her many times not to stray too close to Darkroth, she seems to have ignored my advice. She has not returned, and Lord Tenegrin has informed me that it’s likely she’s been kidnapped by a warband of Black Satyrs.’ He paused, breaking eye contact and slumping in his throne. ‘What a fool I was to let her go alone. Now she has paid the price for the freedom I gave her.’ Recovering a little, he withdrew a scrap of parchment from his tunic. ‘I sent a guard into the fringes of Darkroth to try and ascertain her whereabouts, but venturing too deep is dangerous. However, they did discover this note, fixed to a tree stump. Unfortunately, no one I know can understand the language.’ Brock handed the parchment down to Aefion.
The elf glanced at the note. Its letters were crudely scrawled in a scabby, dark red ink.
‘It is not written in Alathaic, the common tongue,’ Aefion said after a pause. ‘But I will of course attempt to rescue your daughter, majesty, and return her to you. It would be an honour.’ He glanced around at the surrounding women, flashing a winning smile. In return he received a share of heart-felt sighs. ‘She will be safe with me.’
As Aefion flicked his hair and made to leave, Brock could swear he saw a cunning glint in the elf’s eye.