In the eighteenth chapter of our series, Basil learns to fight with a two handed sword from one of history's masters of the martial art. He takes part in a jousting contest and is feeling rather battered, bruised, and fed up.
Just in case you are wondering, we expect to wrap the whole story up by episode twenty.
Story by Bertie.
Read by Elizabeth.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.
Illustrated by Chiara Civati.
Basil stood in a field wearing a leather jerkin. In front of him, a two handed sword was dug into the ground. Its hand guard made it into the shape of a cross. A silver-bearded knight stepped forward and yanked the weapon out of the ground. He showed Basil how to hold it, with his right hand just under the guard and his left hand gripping the pommel at the bottom of the handle.
Basil was no weakling. Two terms of rowing at college had toned up his muscles no end. Even so, the sword felt heavy as he took it.
Sir Lancelot showed him a good swordsman’s posture, with one foot in front of the other, and the sword pointing up at a threatening angle from his stomach. Then he demonstrated how to strike, pushing off with the back foot, sliding the front one forward, while the thick blade strikes first upwards, and then comes crashing down on the opponent.
“Good good,” said his teacher. And Sally, who was watching from not far off, clapped and called out:
“Go on Basil, you can do it.” He was smiling, feeling much more confident, and thinking: “At least I’m learning from the best.”
In fact, after two hours of practice, Sir Lancelot slapped him on the back and declared: “A true son of Sir Eric.”
And they retired for lunch.
“You’re doing just great,” said Sally, as they ate game soup and rough bread inside Merlin’s tent.
“This is all very well, but a morning’s worth of practice is hardly going to equip me for battle,” said Basil mournfully.
After lunch he had a different teacher. Sir Robert was thirty years younger, and, though Basil did not know it, had been a suitor for the hand of Princess Talia. He had no liking for the strange foreigner who saw himself as the princess’s champion, and yet knew next to nothing about swordsmanship, and he was determined to show him a thing or two. For an hour and a half they fought with wooden swords, and by the end of it, Basil was dazed almost out of his senses, covered in bruises, and was bleeding profusely above his right eye so much that he could hardly see. He went back to the tent and collapsed into a depressed sleep.
While Basil was testing his limitations as a swordsman, Sally was finding that her accomplishments as a medieval lady were somewhat limited. She could not sing, nor dance, nor embroider. But she could gossip, and she found out a few things about the princess from the court ladies. Talia had been the most renowned beauty of her time. She was widely seen as a successor to Queen Guinevere in the hearts of the bravest knights. Musicians sang ballads about the perfection of her smile, likening it to the moon. And her own singing voice was considered to be as sweet as a skylark’s. She was blessed by a good fairy who watched over her. She could read Latin, Greek, and French with equal ease. But there were few who knew that she was living under an evil curse, and that her happiness would come to an end before her nineteenth birthday. And so it happened. Her entire family and court were overcome by sleeping sickness and gradually passed away. But she, by some miracle, slept on, and on, gently breathing, and never fading. Or so the legend held. But since nobody could see her, nobody could be quite sure if was true.
The next morning, Basil was clambering onto a horse. It had been bad enough when he had gone pony trekking in Wales as a boy, and had been terrified when his horse had broken into a canter. But now that he was weighed down by chainmail and armour, he had never felt so immobile in his life. He dug his spurs into the side of his charger. It began to slowly plod forward. He pulled down the visor on his helmet. He could hardly see anybody now, let alone fight them.
“This is a bad joke,” he thought.
But that afternoon, when they watched another tournament, Basil was able to cast a more expert eye over the knight’s swordsmanship. He could see that perhaps only two or three had any great skill, and the others were just swept up in the chaos, and swinging randomly with their swords.
“Tomorrow, you shall take part in the joust,” said Merlin.
“What me?” exclaimed Basil. “I’ve only just learned how to hold a sword.”
“You should see by now,” said Merlin, “that fortune is the biggest player on the battlefield.”
Basil was beyond being afraid. He was so bruised and exhausted that he no longer cared about anything much. The following day, as he rode onto the jousting field, he felt that fate was pulling him along by a string, and what would happen would happen. He was on the blue side, and when the others charged, his horse charged too. He threw his javelin, and it landed somewhat pathetically in the middle of nowhere. He hid behind his shield as blows fell down on him. He counter attacked with his sword more or less blindly as he could see very little through his visor. Somehow his strength and his luck held out. At the end of the bout, he was still seated in his saddle, and the blues were declared the winners. The other knights were congratulating him on his courage and strength, and Sir Lancelot declared him the man of the match.
“But I didn’t do anything,” protested Basil. But he realised that quite frankly nobody cared whether he had fought with skill or not. As Merlin had said, recklessness, stamina, and good fortune had carried him through his first battle.
That evening he had to feast with the rest of the blue team, and if anything the celebration was more exhausting than the fight.
The following day, Basil was allowed to rest his aching limbs. At mid morning, Merlin took him to see Sir Lancelot for advice on tactics.
“When you pick up the sword, forget chivalry,” advised the famed knight. “In a struggle, the victor takes all the honour, and tells the story when he gets back home.”
His other advice was: “Strike at the hand. It’s the easiest target. Strike once to cut the glove. Strike a second time to disarm your opponent. Then he is yours. You can kill him or take him prisoner as you see fit. And if you can’t see a strike at his hand, stab him in the leg. Few men can fight on one leg, though I once met a giant who tried.”
“And now,” said Merlin, “your initiation as knight is complete. It is time to visit the Queen.”
As Basil bowed before Queen Guinevere he was all too aware that he was a sorry sight. His hair was matted and his eye was black.
“So this is Talia’s champion. I am not surprised. He is indeed handsome,” declared the Queen. And Merlin whispered: “Step forward and kneel before her,” and Basil did as he was told and bowed his head. He felt a light tap on his shoulder:
“Arise, Sir Basil,” she declared.
And a dazed Sir Basil arose.
Basil actually felt quite angry as they left the Queen’s tent. “This is getting ridiculous,” he protested. “There has to be more to being a knight than this. I’m just being used as cannon fodder. Well I know cannons haven’t been invented yet, but what I mean is, you are just feeding me into this contest and I’m going to be chewed up and spat out just as assuredly as if I jumped into a pit full of lions.”
“You are right,” said Merlin. “You would have very little chance in a one to one combat with the champion of Morgan Le Fay, unless he is, like you, from your own time, and untrained in swordsmanship. Then you would stand a very good chance. The tutelage of Sir Lancelot is no mean advantage.”
“But who will this knight be?” asked Basil. “Have you any idea?”
“I suspect he will be from our time.”
“And I will be cut to pieces?”
“That’s lovely,” said Basil sulkily. “You don’t seem to care much about that.”
“Oh I do care,” said Merlin. “I do not wish my sister to win. I do not want the future of the world to be cloaked in ignorance. I cannot let that happen. Which is why I will entrust my most famed and precious possession into your keeping until your last days, when you must return it to me. I have given it to one other. You are the second to have it in your possession. It will not ensure your victory, but I believe that if you know who held it before you, you will be inspired and you will see a way to win.”
“You’ve got me intrigued now,” said Basil.
And when they returned to the tent of Merlin, the Wizard disappeared behind a curtain, and returned holding a sword. Its hilt was studded with jewels, and its shining blade was engraved with scenes of knights fighting strange and fearsome beasts.