This week I’ve been working on the second draft of an early chapter of the The Kingdom of Fief where Aliyah jousts with Skippy at Merrymount Middle School’s annual Med Faire. This is when Aliyah snaps — meaning she becomes, in her mind, a knight-errant.
“Prrrfffft,” the trumpets screeched once more.
Aliyah and Skippy ducked under the tent-flap at the exact same time. Their tube-horses collided, sending them pinging off each other into the tent walls. Aliyah clutched at the canvas to keep herself from toppling over. Skippy did the same. The combined weight of their bodies, plus Aliyah’s armor, was too much for the flimsy tent. The nearby posts collapsed.
I zipped around Aliyah out into the open air. The bundle of lances I was holding got caught in the opening as I rushed through it. They flew from my arms in all directions.
Down came the tent on those unlucky enough to be inside. The crowd gasped.
Aliyah was rolling around on the ground. The tube-horse cushioned her waist. Her scabbard acted like a break, halting her rotation. She laid there face up, flailing her steel-sheathed limbs around like a capsized crab.
Skippy had bounced up and was practically crying with laughter. “I’m okay,” he shouted to the crowd. He waved. The crowd cheered.
I was busy gathering up all the fallen lances, when I realized Aliyah needed help. I dropped the lances and rushed over to her. I laid down on the grass and tried to wriggle my sneakers up under her breastplate. Then I pushed up as hard as I could like I was doing a leg press at the gym. She slowly tipped forward and was able to sit up. Now I got on all fours beside her. Pushing off from my back, she was able to prop herself all the way up onto her legs. She wobbled for a moment then got her footing.
The crowd cheered again — even louder than before.
Both combatants made their way to a patch of dirt just under the royal tent. Aliyah clapped her gauntlet to her chest and the clang of steel-on-steel rang out.
Skippy doffed his skateboard helmet and took a deep bow.
Aliyah said, “Knights don’t bow.”
I trotted up beside her with the stack of lances poking out in all directions.
Under the royal tent, the entire Med Faire court sat in rows of folding chairs. They were all wearing Kingdom of Fief-branded finery — the boys in puffy coats, stockings, and pointy-toed boots, the girls in long flowing gowns and modest head wraps. In the center, there was what appeared to be a pleather recliner. Beside it was a [mesh-upholstered] pro gaming chair. Both were draped in pink madras tapestries.
The trumpets blared again.
In walked the King and Queen of Med Faire. Wrapped around the King’s narrow shoulders was a cloak of purple velveteen with a thick mantle of fuzzy white trim arrayed with black dots. He was a carrying a scepter — the same one on the King Courtois doll Aliyah had on her bedside altar — except larger. On his head was a replica King Courtois Royal Crown with faux ruby and sapphire jewels. The crown was a bit too small for his head and tilted to the side. He had to keep adjusting it with his free hand lest it slide ride off his skull and crash to the ground.
The Queen was wrapped in a similar cloak, but instead of black dots, it had pink hearts. Her head and neck were covered in a white ski baclava leaving a oval for her face. The stark whiteness of the baclava made the skin of her face glow pink. On her head sat a crown just like the King’s, except it was pointier and daintier.
The audience had turned to watch them take their seats. The King was doing his best to look dignified. His chin was thrust high in the air. The queen’s mouth was puckered into what looked like a permanent smooch.
But they looked terrified. They stood in front of their chairs and gave one of those royal waves where they hold their hand rigidly open and twist their wrist like a weathervane.
The audience whistled and hooted. Somewhere in the crowd, a toddler voice rang out, “I need cotton candy, Mommy!”
When the King went to sit down, he miscalculated his descent. The recliner back rocked back and the leg rest snapped open. His crown flew back, thumped on the platform, and spun like plate at the feet of a maiden who was sitting right behind the thrones. The maiden leapt up and perched on her chair as if the crown were a rabid animal.
The crowd was aghast.
“That’s funny!” the toddler said.
The King groped around for the handle on the side of the recliner. He finally got himself sitting upright. After profuse encouragement from her neighbors, the maiden got down from her perch, scooped up the crown, and brought it over to the King. He let her place it back on his head.
There was an awkward silence.
“Bwaaaang,” the trumpets rang out. “Braaaap. Baa-raap.”
The Queen leaned over and whispered something into the King’s ear.
“Oh,” the King muttered to himself. He held up his scepter and cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, let the joust…er…commence. May the best knight…um…triumph.”
Skippy trotted over to the end of the jousting course.
Aliyah smacked her breastplate again. She took a few steps forward and stood just below the royal platform. “I dedicate this victory to the Queen,” she said. “If her Majesty would find me worthy.” Aliyah removed her helm, got on her knee, and bowed her hand deeply.
The Queen looked confused.
“Mommy, look. Robot is sad.” the toddler said.
“That’s not a robot, Bunny, that’s a knight.”
“Night night time for robot?”
“No, a knight, with a ‘k.’ Like a soldier.”“K is a letter!”
Aliyah would not move.
“What’s the hold up?” I whispered in the tiny ear hole in her helm. “I will only fight in honor of the Queen.”
“Okay, so go ahead and do that.”
“Her Majesty must give me…no, it is improper for me to make demands of my betters.”The crowd was getting restless. They started chanting in unison, Joust, joust, joust,” getting louder and louder.
“What do you want? I’ll tell her.”
“I’ll tell Her Majesty what you want.”
“A token of her favor.”
“A token? What, like a subway token?”
“A scarf. Or handkerchief.”
“Oh!” I turned to the Queen. “Sir Aliyah…”
“Speak up, boy, we can’t hear you,” the King said with a big grin. His Majesty seemed pleased with his regal air.
I shouted, “Sir Aliyah requests a token of the Queen’s favor.”
“Does she…I mean, does Her Majesty have a hankie?”
I pretended to blow my nose into a handkerchief.
“Are you ill?”
“A snot rag!”
The Queen started fishing around under her cloak. She shrugged.
The mother of the toddler yelled out, “I have a wet-wipe. Will that work?”
The King tapped his scepter on the platform. “I command you to send it this way!”
The folks in the mother’s row passed the wet-wipe over. The King pinched it in his white glove and handed it over to the Queen.
The hitched up the hem of her cloak and stepped gingerly forward. She leaned over the railing with thrust out the wet-wipe.
Aliyah rose and approached the Queen. She kneeled again, bowed, and held up her hands. The Queen dropped the wipe and, mercifully, it fell right into Aliyah’s palms.
The crowd cheered. “Joust! Joust!”
Aliyah gazed at the the wet-wipe with loving attention. Her voice was trembling. “It is the greatest honor that the Queen has favored me with this small token of Her Majesty’s favor. I will cherish it. And that Her Majesty gave it to me with Her Majesty’s own hands. Words cannot express how honored—” Her voice cracked.
The King whacked his scepter on the floor again — this time with such force, I thought it would break in half. “Can we start now!”
Members of the crowd shouted out, “Crush him! Kill him! Lay him low!”
[ADD jousting instructions here — by the vizier character]
Aliyah tucked the wet-wipe into the collar of her breastplate. She moved to her position at the end of the tilt-yard. That’s what they called a jousting field back in the day. There was usually a long barrier in the middle of it, called a tilt. Here in the grassy sports field, they’d set up a string of those airport barrier belts with orange traffic cones at each end. Skippy was on the left side at one end, Aliyah at the other.
I followed Aliyah to her end. She shooed me away. I was to take my position with the spare lances. I trotted over to the spot she was pointing too with lances dangling precariously from my arms.
Aliyah called me back. She lifted her visor and cupped my shoulders in a tight grip. She fixed her eyes on mine. “Steel thyself,” she said. “We must meet a chance at glory with our best self.”
“Aren’t you nervous?”
“I live for these moments.”
“Please be careful.”
She gave a flash of a smile then released her grip. “Go.”
I trotted back to my spot.
“Nunce!” she said, “A lance.”
I trotted back and pulled a lance out of the bunch and handed it to her. The rest of them spilled onto the grass. It took a bit to gather them back up.
Aliyah sighed. She flipped her visor down and turned to face Skippy at the end of the tilt-yard.
He was hopping around and shaking out his arms, hooting and hollering. His squire also waited in his spot.
The horns burped out a long, excited note. Aliyah and Skippy looked to the King and Queen. The King held his scepter high. Then he let it drop.
Skippy buckled the chinstrap of his helmet. Aliyah lowered her visor. Skippy tucked his lance under his elbow and pointed it toward the clear, blue sky. Aliyah did the same. Skippy kicked up some grass, neighed loudly, and starting trotting down the course.
It took Aliyah a little longer to pick up a head of steam. It didn’t look easy — running in a full suit of armor with an inflatable tube cinched around your waist and a toy plastic lance tucked up into your armpit.
The crowd was cheering wildly. As the two combatants got closer to each other, they went from trotting to jogging to full-on sprinting. The rattle of Aliyah’s armor echoed throughout the whole field, like the methodical grinding of one of those old-fashioned choo-choo trains. Skippy’s gear made more of a swooshing sound.
As they got close to each other, they lowered their lances, aiming the pill-shaped foam tips straight for the other’s chest.
Both made a direct hit. The sound the foam made on metal, on kevlar, was anticlimactic. More of a thump than a crash. The lances buckled under the force of the blow and shattered in half. [MOVE UP: They were made of broom-stick wood.] That was a much more satisfying sound — a crackling and popping.
Both of them went staggering back. Aliyah got her heel caught on a divot in the field and tripped, falling on her back with a jangle and clank. Skippy just managed to keep his balance. He raised his broken lance in triumph.
The crowd roared.
“One point for Sir Skippy!” the vizier said.
“Ut-oh. Robot fall down. Robot broken,” Amir said.
The King tapped his fingertips gently on his palm, “Well played. Well played.”
Aliyah moaned. I rushed over to help her to her feet. She staggered around for a bit, then righted herself. Skippy was already in position at his end of the tilt-yard.
The trumpets blared.
Aliyah snapped to. She marched down to her end and held out her hand. I was busy cleaning up all the shards of wood from the lances. Someone had to do it. They could give you a painful sliver. She waited, immobile.
I ran back to my station, chucked the bits of lance on the ground, grabbed another lance, and ran back to hand it to Aliyah.
Before the trumpets had ended their croaky notes, Skippy was rushing down the line, skittering this way and that, cackling and whistling.
This seemed to infuriate Aliyah. [TOO interior?] She took a long heave of a breath than launched herself down the course.
Just as they were within striking distance, Skippy juked to his side. Aliyah completely whiffed.
Whump! Skippy, on the other hand, made a direct hit to her breastplate.
The crowd gasped.
Aliyah tottered for a moment, then crumpled to the ground like a jenga tower. There was a big dent in her armor.
Skippy danced around, then, for good measure, dabbed.
“Ashes to ashes. We all fall down,” Amir said.
The crowd roared its approval.
Aliyah clambered up. She took a knee, holding herself up with her lance. She bowed her head and kneeled there, frozen.
The trumpets rang out. The crowd began clapping as one, chanting, “Sweep! Sweep!”
What was she doing?
At last, she stirred. She stood up and trotted back to her spot.
I felt like it was my duty to say something. Give her a pep talk. “You gotta…you can’t get knocked over again…you’re gonna lose. Badly.”
“I am aware,” she said.
Round three. This time, Skippy came hopping up the line with his arms out and his wrists bent like he was a bunny. He even stopped to sniff in the air and nibble at some make-believe lettuce.
The crowd was chuckling.
Aliyah, on the other hand, wasn’t so much running or jogging or even tottering — more like falling forward with her feet catching her weight just before she pitched over and did a face-plant.
Just as they reached collision distance, Skippy tried the same trick as last time — hopping to the side to miss Aliyah’s thrust. But she anticipated this. She whipped the tip of her lance down ahead of his move. His lance glanced off her pouldron, sending him lurching forward just as her lance met him.
But it was low. Too low. The tip met the front of his tire-tube steed and ricocheted tight down right into his…um…groin.
Skippy fell to his knees, doubled over, and shrieked.
At first the crowd cheered wildly.
When he took this in, Skippy threw himself over on the grass. He started rolling around, grimacing and moaning.
Aliyah ducked under the belt of the barricade and approached him. She threw her lance down and lifted her visor. The other page and I ran over to join them.
“No fair. Low blow,” Skippy whined.
Aliyah’s voice was trembling. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You should be disqualified.”
All four of us turned to the royal tent. The King and the Queen looked confused. The vizier too. The crowd began chanting, “One more time! One more time!” [MAKE this weirder]
The vizier conferred with the royal couple. Finally, she stepped forward, “Do over!”
“Do over! Do over!” the crowd shouted.
“No fair!” Skippy bounced up to his feet. His face was all scrunched up in a scowl. He started pacing around in circles.
Aliyah, on the other hand, looked devastated.
“You have to be more careful,” I said to Aliyah. “You’re going to get disqualified.”
She gathered herself. He face turned grim. “I will yield.”
“A false blow is a great dishonor. I must yield the field.”
“You can’t let him win.”
“I must.” She turned to the royal tent.
I grabbed her shoulder and jerked her back. “He doesn’t deserve to win.”
She looked at my hand as if it were a tarantula sitting there on her pouldron. “Unhand me. You take liberties above your station.”
“You have to beat him.”
“Honor demands I yield.”
Skippy came up to us. He was smirking. “No hard feelings.” He held out his hand to Aliyah.
Aliyah was unmoving. Skippy held his hand out, waiting.
“Do over! Do over!” the crowd chanted.
I had to say something…anything to convince her to continue. “Who do you serve?”Aliyah looked confused.
“Who do you serve?” I asked again.
“You serve the King, don’t you?”
“Yes. I have sworn an oath.”
“And what does the King want?”
“A do over.”
“Yeah, the King wants a do-over, weirdo,” Skippy added.
Aliyah glared at Skippy. “Your reasoning is sound. I have dishonored my house, my self. But above all, I must obey the King’s wishes.” Aliyah took Skippy’s hand and squeezed. You could practically hear Skippy’s knuckles popping from the pressure.
Skippy squeezed back. “Good girl. This time, I’ll finish you off.”
They kept on gripping each other’s hand.
Skippy gave out a nervous laugh. “I’ll let go when you do.”
Just then, I noticed his other hand was behind his back. As Aliyah started to release her grip, he brought it up. He was holding something. I couldn’t make out what it was. Aliyah didn’t notice it either. Skippy pulled her toward him. As she drew close, he raised what he was holding to his lips. It was a pixie stick. He blew hard into it. The sugar dust came blasting out — right into Aliyah’s eyes. He let go of her hand.
Aliyah cried out and buckled over. She instinctively rubbed her eyes, but the cold steel of her gauntlet fingertips only made it worse.
“But no hard feelings,” Skippy said. He trotted off to his hand of the tilt-yard.
It all happened so fast, no one in the crowd seemed to notice. “Do over! Do over!” they carried on gleefully chanting.
“That jerk!” I turned to the royal tent. “Did you see what happened?”
The King, the Queen, the vizier — even the court all sitting behind them — they all looked annoyed. They hadn’t seen any of it.
The trumpets blared.
Aliyah staggered upright. Her eyes were all red and tearing up. She started trotting back to her spot, swerving this was and that. She veered into the stanchion. I chased after her and tried to steer her straight.
“Are you okay?”
“My lance,” she said coolly.
I handed one over. “You have to beat him.”
“For the Queen,” she said.
I fished around in my pockets. No tissue, nothing. I tried wiping her eyes with my sleeve.
The trumpets cried out again.
Aliyah waved me off. She steadied herself.
Skippy came bounding up tilt. Aliyah launched herself, still staggering, down the line to meet him.
When they neared each other, it was obvious that she was still blinded by the sugar. Skippy lowered his lance, but Aliyah was late in doing the same. She stumbled forward and — whomp! — met Skippy’s lance thrust in her neck. The lance shattered. Luckily, her gorget was protecting her there. But the force of the blow sent her feet…