Evan flexed the fingers of his left gauntlet experimentally, noting the rust still clinging to the joints. It would have to do; as long as it could hold a shield it would suffice. With a little sigh, he reached down and picked up the shield in question, and the movement caused the Holdfast minders around him to tighten their hands reflexively. Evan ignored them, preoccupied as he was with other matters. Not the least of which, of course, was the arrival of the entire citizenry of Holdfast, crowding into the common area to watch their lord do justice.
The Holdfasters were drifting in, arriving singly and in groups, chattering excitedly among themselves about the upcoming jousts, and this year's harvest, and everything in between. There was a decidedly festive atmosphere to the proceedings, as might be expected at any public event, and hawkers were already out selling hot pastries to the crowd or otherwise trying to make a few coins from the occasion. Considering that there were no other knights present at Holdfast to make much of a day of the jousting, the turnout was considerable. Then again, it wasn't every day you got to see a man joust for his life.
Evan turned the shield around in his hands. It was covered with a heavy black cloth; obviously it still bore a device, and as the accused, he couldn't be seen to carry anyone's colours. He wondered whose the device was. Was it someone long dead, a forgotten scion of the Hardys, or was it just a spare belonging to someone in the keep? He resisted the urge to peel back the cloth and see - in the end, it wasn't something he needed to know. Instead, Evan turned his attention to things that would matter much more to him in the short term, checking the mace tucked through his belt. It was a good one, and a good choice - a secondhand blade might be dull, rusted, or weak, but a mace was a mace, no matter how little service it had seen. Not a chivalrous weapon, but a brutally efficient one. On his other hip, he reseated the dagger in its sheath. Again, it was there for function, rather than form. On the battlefield, more noble knights died to the lowly dagger than any other weapon, knocked to the ground, stunned or helpless, where a swift thrust with a short blade could find an eyeslit, or throat, or armpit. Whatever transpired, Evan knew his best odds lay in something other than a stand-up fight.
Across the field, he could see Garyn leading out his horse, and he took a deep breath, slinging the shield over his shoulder by its strap. He glanced past the horse, towards the stables, where the Hardys had gathered, and caught Syndra's eye. Thoughtfully, he chewed the inside of his cheek, and inclined his head, beckoning for her to come over.
Syndra's eyes widened in disbelief that he would be beckoning her now, in front of all these people. She shook her head slightly, obviously trying to hide her reactions from the people around her.
Lady Hardy also seemed aware of the interchange, for her position in the tourney box was closer to Evan Tamm. She frowned across the tourney ground at Syndra, and then made an imperious gesture, beckoning her and Edlyn across.
"You'll have to carry me," said Edlyn to Rhys resignedly. Then she tilted her head to smaile at him. "Unless you'd prefer to watch my bobbling all that way?"
Syndra saw Lady Celia's gesture and suppressed a grimace. The last place she wanted to be during this tilt was at Lady Celia's side. She glanced at her father, then at Corryn plaintively. "Are you certain there's nothing either of you need me to stay here for?" she nearly begged.
Corryn, silent and watchful, turned his hazel eyes on the young girl. He smiled gently and offered his arm. "We'll stick together, you and I, shall we? She wants both our hides, for much different reasons, I should think. You protect me if I protect you?"
Syndra nodded gratefully and took his arm.
He nodded to Rhys, who presumably would help Edlyn. "Shall we be about this then?"
"I'll carry you," Rhys told Edlyn, giving her a small smile. He hefted her up lightly in his arms and walked across the field to the tourney box.
Lady Celia watched their approach with a slightly frosty eye.
"Edlyn," she said, "you had best sit there."
"Yes, Mama," said Edlyn meekly, accepting the position to one end.
"And Maester Rhys, if you will stay beside her," added Lady Hardy. "If you are needed to deal with any injury, I trust here will be as good a place as any to wait."
"As you wish, Milady," Rhys replied.
Corryn leaned in close to Syndra, "And ignore him, my dear. He'll just upset you further and your father needs you strong right now."
Syndra glanced at Rhys's back, then blushed, realizing that perhaps Wolf had meant Tamm. Or had he? She wasn't sure and she certainly wasn't going to ask. Deciding to ignore both Rhys and Tamm, Syndra gave her father one last smile before walking away on Corryn's arm.
Corryn smiled politely to Lady Hardy as they approached. He positioned himself between Syndra and Celia as nonchalantly as possible. Fortunately, Rhys and Edlyn were receiving much of the woman's disapproval. It allowed him to seat Syndra one position down from the woman before taking a seat himself.
He let out a faint sigh, casting a glance down the field. His hand went to Syndra's, squeezing it. "Ready yourself, Syndra. Your father is watching you."
But in truth, his eyes were on Tamm. His free fist clenched. That damned Eryk had failed. He shook his head. Why had he expected otherwise?
Syndra squeezed his hand back and nodded silently, chewing on her lip. She was too nervous to speak. Corryn could certainly feel it in her touch, though.
Rhys sat as still as stone, watching the field, lost in his own thoughts.
Ser Godfrey nodded. "I'll need help to mount," he said, and looked the length of the tourney field to see whether Evan Tamm was already mounted.
I'll take the far side of the list," he said to Godwyn. "If I do fall, I'd rather it was not too close to Syndra."
Garyn had moved the horse into position now, and was waiting for Evan Tamm.
The horse looked to be an ornery beast, with an eye that rolled evilly when Evan approached. But it was healthy, and powerful, and Evan nodded curtly in the younger man's direction as he took the bridle directly beneath the horse's mouth and tugged it around to stare him full in the face. Man and horse matched stubbornness for a long moment, before Evan nodded again, and stepped back towards the saddle.
He gave the tack a cursory check, but his mind was elsewhere, mulling over the affray to come. Only when he felt Garyn at his shoulder, waiting to help him up, did he come back to the moment, and shook his head. "It's a good horse," he said by way of encouragement, and swung one foot into the stirrup, mounting with a comfortable ease. Unlike his opponent, he wore a piecemeal, limited suit, far more than any man would wear on a daily basis, but not so much that it limited his movement.
Evan sat tall in the saddle, and slung his borrowed shield to his arm, strapping it in place. "My lances," he said crisply, and Garyn hustled away to get them. Evan took a deep breath as the first shot of adrenaline started to pulse within him, and wrapped the reins tightly in his hand. Finally, it was time.
The horns blared out; it was time for the formal ceremony that marked the beginning of the tourney. Ser Godfrey bent forward in his seat to accept his lance from Godwyn, then nodded to him, his visor still raised. Slowly he rode forward to salute the stand, parallel with Evan Tamm, before they wheeled back to take up their stations at either end of the field.
He raised his lance, and then smiled reassuringly at Syndra before bowing his head, waiting for Lady Hardy's acknowledgement.
In the stands, Syndra stiffened when she saw Evan Tamm ride out with only cursory armour. It would be suicide to joust someone like Ser Godfrey with so little protection. And she did not believe for one instant that Tamm was willing to commit suicide.
She leaned over to Corryn without taking her eyes off the field. "Tamm's gonna roll off. He's going for melee instead. Look at him. He's hardly armoured at all," she whispered fearfully. "Father will know that, won't he? He'll watch for that?" She tried to keep a brave face for her father as he looked up at her, but Corryn could hear her voice tremble.
He'd never done this before, but Evan showed an unexpected willingness to go along with the formalities of the event. Trotting out towards the stand, he raised his lance momentarily in acknowledgement, casting a long, deliberate gaze over the assembled spectators.
It would be very easy, he realised, just to lie down and give everyone what they wanted. Every single soul assembled wanted and fully expected just one result out of this. The citizenry wanted to see their lord crack some skulls, and the Hardys just wished Ser Godfrey would hurry up and kill him and come out unscathed, so they could get on with killing the Boltons in their midst. Any different result would be too horrendous to contemplate. Something within himself told Evan to just give in, just give them what they wanted, and his lips twisted wryly at the sensation, almost akin to stage fright, in a way. After all, even if he did find a way to win, neither Bolton or Hardy were going to let him leave alive. Why prolong the inevitable?
Why indeed, he thought to himself as he took his place at the end of the list. The lance felt heavy and awkward in his hand, and he couched it under his arm, resting it across the saddle as best he could. His eyes locked on Ser Godfrey, such a long way away, and he felt his pulse pounding in his ears. Well, you're not dead yet, he thought to himself, and closed his visor with a ring of finality.
Godwyn tried to watch everything at once, his uncle and Evan to see the result of the fight, and whether Evan tried to cheat, Bolton and his men to see what treachery they would attempt, his father's wife in case she had anything underhanded planned, and ever approach to the tourney field for Tamlin returning with a rescued Limosa. He offered brief prayer to the Old Gods, and waited and watched, hand itching for his sword hilt.
Ser Godfrey wheeled his horse to canter easily back down the line of the broad tournament field to his starting position. Now that he had formally greeted the onlookers, he did not look towards them again, all his attention focused on what was to come.
Edlyn shifted restlessly in her seat and reached out to clutch Rhys's arm.
Lady Celia leaned forward slightly in her seat, her eyes intent on Ser Godfrey.
Ser Godfrey had reached the end of the list now. He took his lance from Godwyn and nodded an acknowledgement, but did not speak. He lowered his vidor with a hollow clang and then turned his horse one final time to look down the length of the list at his opponent.
Slowly, deliberately, he brought his lance into position.
Then he spurred on his horse and was suddenly galloping towards his adversary, his control of his warhorse perfect.
[Continued in Trial By Combat ]