Detlef swung his arms, trying to release the tension. The fencing tournament was nearly over now. He unsheathed his sword and turned it in his hand, watching the way the blade flashed in the light. Only once more must he put it to the test before he was crowned as victor. In the ring, Emil and a foreign lord battled for the right to face Detlef.
Detlef eyed the skilled way Emil handled his sword. His rival would be a difficult opponent, and Detlef had more than one reason for wishing to defeat him. Emil was all smiles and politeness in front of the princess, but he had been a far different man when the royal family was out of sight. It made Detlef’s stomach knot to think of the princess falling for the worthless flatterer.
Detlef’s eldest brother, Matthias, jogged by. He scowled at Detlef. “I would be in the finals instead of you if that monkey hadn’t cheated.” He shot a look of disgust at his last opponent, then shifted his gaze back to Detlef, looking him up and down. “Never did think you were much good at fencing, baby brother.”
Detlef shrugged off his brother’s subtle insults. Looking up, he saw Ilona watching him.
She was the reason he had made it this far. He did it for her. And if she got him this far, maybe she could get him to the end. Maybe he could still win this thing.
A cheer went up from the crowd, and Detlef refocused on the ring to see Emil waving his sword in triumph and the other man leaving the ring in defeat. He took a deep breath and made his way into the ring where Emil waited for him.
“Need a break before we start?” Detlef offered.
Emil smirked, adjusting his grip on his sword. “No need. I could do this all day.”
“Men!” King Adalbert’s thunderous voice shouted across the field. “I do not have to remind you of the rules. Points are given on parries. This contest is based on sword contact, not flesh contact. The last man holding his sword wins.”
Beside the ring, a man held a red flag high in the air. The crowd held their breath: one second, two seconds. Snap! The man jerked his flag downward. The final match began. Detlef turned to face his foe and saw the look of pending triumph on Emil’s face.
“Your face will look as latticed as a pie crust when I am done with you.” Emil’s blade flashed in the sunlight.
“I am not afraid of you.” Detlef shifted his sword in his hand, ready for the attack. “I would face the fiercest foe for her sake, and you know it.”
Emil lunged, slicing his blade against Detlef’s shin. Detlef felt the flash of pain and the trickle of blood. The crowd protested and Emil backed away with his hands up. “It was an accident. I thought for sure he would be able to block that one.”
Detlef clenched his jaw and charged. Clash! Clang! Clash! Clang! Emil parried – one, two, three – and then lost his focus and his balance at the same time. He crashed to the ground, rolling away from Detlef’s onslaught. But he bounced to his feet, sword still in hand.
He wiped the back of his hand against his mouth. “You’re going down, foreign boy.”
“Not if I can help it.” Detlef raised his sword and charged again. Clash! Clang! Clang! He lost track of time as the battle went on. It was the finest set of fencing Detlef had ever accomplished. And it was all for her. Clash! Clang! Clang!
Suddenly, without warning, Emil pulled a clever move, and Detlef felt his sword wrenched from his hand. He lunged after it. But it tumbled out of reach, and Detlef felt Emil’s sword rest against his throat. He was defeated.
The crowd cheered. The noise pounded around Detlef’s ears…and faded as he searched for her face. Would she be cheering as well?
But, no. Her eyes were on him, and there was no cheer on her lips. He saw his own pain mirrored in her face. His heart leapt up to meet hers.
A servant interposed his bulk in front of Detlef. “Your leg looks bad, your highness. May I summon the physicians?”
Detlef blinked at the servant, reluctant to trade Ilona’s face for the friendly pock-marked one, and then stared at his leg. “Yes. Thank you.” Then he looked again for Ilona. But she was standing by her papa, smiling, and placing the winner’s laurel on Emil’s wavy blonde hair.
(by Esther Brooksmith)