The Challenge

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Faith and Trials

In days of yore, a lad of fifteen years with a physical handicap busies himself with his father's account books, but yearns for something more. Then comes the king's annual challenge, and in spite of his limitations, he feels drawn to it. What is he to do?


The Challenge


The afternoon sun beamed in through the dusty window above Edward Entell, who sat hunched over the account books, writing carefully with a quill pen. He had just entered into his fifteenth spring, but a weariness not befitting such youthfulness hung over him. A stack of documents which he was working from sat to one side on the desk.

His father, Thomas, stepped into the room and stood behind him. “Have you completed all of the entries, my son?”

“No, Father.” Edward put down the pen, straightened up, and pushed his sandy blond hair back out of his face. “That was a considerable cargo you brought in.”

Thomas chuckled. “Aye, it was, but my customers seek to lay hold of their goods.”

“Error is the companion of haste.”

“Do you chide your father? I would not receive such from a hireling.”

Edward smiled. “But I am your son, and so you must bear with me.”

Thomas turned to go. “Be done by dinner.” The door closed firmly behind him.

Edward stretched his back and stared bleakly at the bills. “It appears that I may go hungry tonight, my friends,” he said, and, sighing, took up his quill once more.

About an hour later, Edward overheard one of his brothers call out, “Father, horsemen approach!” He limped to the small window that faced onto the laneway and opened it. Two nobles on horseback jogged up toward the house.

Edward recognized the elder of them and, blanching, hastily shut the window.

. . . . .

Thomas opened the front door. “Sir Richard!” he called as he went out to greet them, and bowed when he got near. “Well met. I assume that you come to inquire of my third son, Edward.”

“I do indeed.”

“Here, my men will tend to your mounts.” Thomas whistled, and several servants appeared. “Now, do come in.”

Once inside, Sir Richard said, “Allow me to introduce my companion, Robert, second son of baron Sir George de Talen the Third.” He turned to Robert. “This is Thomas Entell, merchant and shipowner.”

Robert and Thomas bowed to each other.

Thomas hesitated for a moment, then said to Robert, “Did I not send several bolts of fine Preteian cloth to your father last year?”

Robert chuckled. “Aye, that would have been for my mother, Dame Winifred. He does love to have her well dressed.”

“Indeed. Now, I would be honoured if you would stay for supper.”

“Oh, by all means,” replied Sir Richard. “I recall the quality of your board from my previous visits.” He turned to Robert. “You had best slacken your belt, lad, when you eat here.”

Thomas laughed and asked, “May I take your capes?” After passing the travelling capes to a servant, he said, “Please follow me,” and led them to a large sitting room. “Do make yourselves comfortable while I fetch Edward.” He bowed and left the room.

The knight sat down, drew a pipe out from his pocket, and proceeded to light it.
Robert, standing at the window, gazed out at the harbour. “What is this lad like?” he asked.

The knight blew some smoke. “Unusual, I should say.”

“Indeed. In what manner?”

“You will see soon enough.”

Thomas returned shortly with his son. “Gentlemen, may I present Edward?” The youth nodded. “Edward, I present to you Sir Richard of Haradale and his companion.”

“Well met, Sir Richard,” Edward said, and bowed to the knight.

“You know, of course, why they are here,” said Thomas.

Edward stifled a sigh. “Aye, Father.”

Sir Richard set down his pipe. “Very well; let us get to it then.” He received a scroll from Robert, unrolled it, and cleared his throat. “This is the challenge issued to select young men of the realm of Fredrick, the second of that name, King of all Meladonia.
“Come forth, my lads, and show your mettle.
“You have strength, so let us settle
“From whom among you in the field
“One may stand, all else to yield;
“And he who would a champion be
“Must show to the king his victory.”

He looked at Edward. “Do you accept this challenge and agree to meet in the presence of his Majesty the others so challenged, on the fourteenth day of June of this year, or do you decline?”

Edward looked uncomfortable. “Am I permitted time to consider?”

Robert gasped in surprise.

Sir Richard shot him a warning look, and then said to Edward, “His gracious Majesty does so grant.”

“How shall I render my decision, once made?”

“Attend the field of challenge on the date given, state your intention, and you will be received.”

“I thank you, my lord.” He bowed again. “If you will excuse me, I must be back to my work.” He turned and left.

Robert’s eyes widened as he noticed Edward’s limp.

. . . . .

Sir Richard tore open a scone and buttered it. “Thomas, I do believe that I gave the challenge to your second son last year at this time.” He took a bite.

“Indeed. Malcolm carried himself well, although he did not win, as I am sure you are aware.”

“Aye, but he did impress the captain of the Royal Militia sufficiently to be invited and accepted there. You must feel honoured.”

“Certainly.”

Thomas’s wife, Mary, said, “Malcolm does constantly complain of the burden of training whenever he is home, but I have never seen him more content.”

Robert turned to Edward, who was chewing on some chicken and staying out of the conversation. “You are fully aware of the nature of the king’s challenge.” Sir Richard glanced over, but Robert signalled peace and continued. “Why do you hesitate? How could you think that you had a chance if you entered?”

Edward swallowed his mouthful as if it had turned to sand, and shook his head. “I am of two minds. I am no man-at-arms …” His eldest brother, Thomas the Younger, snorted at that from across the table. “… such as are my brothers, but a keeper of books for my father’s affairs.” He lowered his head. “Such is the fate of one who is lame from birth.”

His brother leaned forward. “So offer your respectful withdrawal and be done with it! There can be no shame in that.”

“I cannot!” Edward blushed at his own forcefulness. “The challenge was recited to Malcolm a year ago, and e’er since it has granted me no peace whatsoever.”

“Indeed?” Sir Richard put down his knife. “I pray you elucidate.”

Edward turned to the knight. “The verse is such that I find myself chewing on it like a dog on a bone, seeking for a possible deeper sense. It mocks me, for perchance the king deems that I have some morsel of strength for battle that I perceive not.” His eyes appealed to the knight. “Would he otherwise have permitted such a one as I to be challenged?”

Sir Richard smiled. “Would he indeed? Nor are you the first of your kind so challenged.” Edward started at that revelation. “I do offer this: pray to the God of Peace, and may He give you the answer which you seek.”

. . . . .

“I thank you for a fine repast,” said Sir Richard, nodding to Thomas the Elder as he pushed away from the table. “Now, we must take our leave.”

“Truly? It is late, and you are welcome to stay the night.”

“Nay, I needs make Eastwood by dark so that I may arrive at the castle by midday tomorrow.”

“Very well. Your company was most welcome.”

In the front hallway, Thomas returned the travellers’ capes. “God’s speed on the road, Sir Richard.”

The knight nodded. “And God’s blessings upon your house.”

As they stepped outside, Thomas the Younger followed and softly said, “A word, my Lord.” Sir Richard turned. “Why do you encourage the lad?”

The knight inspected the trim on his glove, then looked at him. “His Majesty has told me that there indeed exists a hope beyond appearance in his challenge.”

“And in what does he hope? Edward can no more cross swords than I can lift a horse.”

“The simple response is ‘God,’ but that does not answer your question. His Majesty has said that the idea of the challenge arose as an answer to a prayer he once offered; however, naught else will he reveal until that for which he hopes is fulfilled.”

“I see—a mystery.”

Sir Richard pulled himself up into the saddle. “Aye, and I pray that this young Edward prove himself worthy of it.” He flicked the reins and started off down the lane, followed by Robert.

. . . . .

Three weeks had passed since Edward had received the challenge. Breakfast done, he stood before his father in the front hall, wearing a travelling cape and boots. He held a staff for support in one hand and a leather bag in the other, but a heavier burden weighed on him.

Thomas put a hand on his shoulder. “You have less than a fortnight before the challenge, with no decision; and in the end you seek divine assistance? I cannot see why you are yet so perplexed.” He cleared his throat. “Shall you not at least take a horse?”

“No, Father.” He sighed. “The shame of my infirmity may burn in my heart, and I do not now see the way clear, but I have a hope to be able in some manner to prove myself. Pray do not deny me in this.”

Thomas looked at his son. “As you wish.” He opened the door. “Do give my regards to the lord abbot when you see him.”

“I shall.”

Edward stepped into the rain, headed for the main road, and followed the muddy track out into the valley where it forked. The way to the abbey lay to the left, up the slope, so he strode that way as well as he was able.

When he caught sight of the abbey, the late afternoon sun was just getting the best of the clouds and rain. Approaching the door, he leaned on his staff and knocked.

“What do you seek?” came a familiar voice from within.

“I seek wisdom from God, Brother Andrew.”

The door opened. “Well met, cousin Edward,” said the brother, and embraced him.

“Health to you also.”

Andrew drew back. “You are soaked through! What affair brings you to this place in the despite of this rain? And your …” He hesitated.

“His Majesty’s challenge. I needs come with haste to a decision regarding it.”

“Is that not a matter for those who are at arms?”

“If it were so simple. The scroll did state that I was considered strong, and I have recently learned that the king has ever called on such as myself in every challenge, none accepting.”

An older man approached from further inside. “Master Edward Entell? Greetings, greetings. How is your father?”

“He is well, lord abbot, and he sends his regards.”

“Thank him for me on your return. What brings you here?”

“Indecision, my lord. If I may offer my unworthy service to the monastery, I would remain here seven days seeking resolution.”

“You may. The cell set aside for guests shall be yours.”

“I thank you.”

“Vespers will begin shortly,” said Brother Andrew. “Permit me to fetch you a robe to wear in place of your wet things.”

. . . . .

Edward, because he could write, was assigned the task of copying a portion of the new parchment text of the Missal.

He sat on a stool, hunched over the work, which was set on a low lectern off to one side in the abbey common room. During a rest time in the middle of the afternoon, Brother Andrew came in and sat nearby. “What think you of your assigned task?”

Edward put down his quill, got up, and joined him. “It reminds me of my father’s accounts, being so tedious.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I have often asked myself what is the importance of keeping books of accounts. I suppose Father does need to know the status of payables and receivables and the like.” He stretched. “But I have no desire to hide myself away in an office my entire life.”

Brother Andrew stood and peered at the text. “What of the business? Will you not take your father’s place in due time?”

“Thomas the Younger, his sire’s firstborn, stands to inherit it, and worthy is he. Where does that leave me? One cannot do great things in accounts, surely.” He got up. “I seek another future.”

“I do not envy you your quest.”

Edward returned to his stool, examined his work, then blew a speck of dust off the page. “This I do hope, that I may come to serve men and God as well as it dwells within me, in the despite of this leg.”

. . . . .

On Sunday, after midday prayers, Brother Andrew asked Edward, “Come you now to the lord abbot’s lecture?”

“He gives lectures?”

“Aye. Since he is the sole brother schooled in Latin, he teaches us from the text of the Sunday Mass. I for one have found them most enlightening. Such treasures hidden in the words of God!”

“Lead on, then, by all means.”

The abbot had placed at the front of the common room the lectern that Edward had been using. The Missal that he had been copying from lay open upon it.

Once everyone was settled on the benches, the abbot said, “I have chosen to speak about the Introit that was chanted this morning. The text can be understood thus: …” and he began to translate freely.

Edward listened, but his attention was seized by the sentence, ‘Not by their sword did they win the land, nor did victory come by the strength of their arms, but Your right hand, Your arm, oh God, did gain it.’ He heard nothing else.

When they left the common room later, Edward approached the abbot. “My lord.” The abbot turned to him. “I would that we could speak together apart. I have a concern.”

“By all means. Come with me to my cell.”

When they arrived, the abbot glanced at Edward. “Oh, forgive me. Please, take my stool. I will fetch another for myself.” He scurried off. On his return, they sat down and he said, “You wished to speak?”

“Aye, my lord.” Edward rubbed his hands together. “I did advise you on my arrival that I was undecided regarding a matter.”

“I do recall that, indeed.”

“It is in regard to the king’s challenge.”

“‘The king’s challenge?’ Has that aught to do with contests of arms and the like?”

“Aye. I received an invitation to the same some weeks past.”

“Surely there can be no indecision on your part. You cannot fight with your leg as it is.”

Edward looked at the dirt of the floor. “Aye, I cannot; but that is not my dilemma.” He was silent for a moment, then placed his hand on his chest. “The king did challenge me! He stated that I was strong, although in the flesh I am clearly not.”

“Then what will this contest of arms achieve for you?”

Edward said nothing.

The abbot smiled. “My son, manhood rests not in strength of body or skill at arms. If you accept this contest as a mere test of yourself, you will most assuredly fail and prove naught.” He stood up. “I am confident God does truly wish to use you in some good work, although of a certainty not through this challenge. Now since this is the Lord’s day and all duties but to pray have been put in abeyance, ensconce yourself in the church. Seek Him who directs all things well, so that the matter may become settled in your heart. I also shall pray for you.”

Edward got to his feet and took a deep breath. “I thank you, my lord.”

. . . . .

Edward entered the stone church and looked around as his eyes adjusted to the twilit nave, the sunlight respectfully creeping in through the small windows above him. There were no seats, since the people stood for prayers and Mass, and so he approached the altar. After crossing himself respectfully and bowing, he sat with some effort to one side on the stone floor and leaned against the wall.

The opposition of the abbot to his taking the challenge disheartened him; he had so wanted to go.

But why? All the world could see that he was no warrior, although his heart did yearn to be a champion of some sort. God did indeed have a work for him, as the lord abbot had stated, but Edward willed that it not be bookkeeping. The very thought of doing such, either for his father or another, for days unending made him vaguely nauseous.

He laid his head back against the cool stone.

What then was he to do?

He turned and gazed on the crucifix above the altar. The Pater Noster came to his lips, and he recited it several times. That done, he struggled to his feet and visited the fourteen small stations of the cross mounted around on the walls. For some reason, walking in imagination with his Lord gave him a measure of peace. He returned to sit in his place by the altar.

He had to accept that the lord abbot was correct, and that he was being foolish to even think that he might gain aught by accepting the challenge. The very scriptures stated that victory does not come by one’s own strength.

He sighed.

He had accepted his decision, but it gave him no joy. However, he was thankful that he wouldn’t have to make the walk across that field of battle and show his infirmity to the world.

Some time later, he heard the call to supper. After he had eaten, the abbot beckoned him over and said, “If I may presume that God would speak to such a worm as myself, I believe I have an answer of sorts.”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Go, submit yourself to the challenge.” When Edward opened his mouth to respond, the abbot held up his hand. “Hear me out, please. I do now truly believe that God wants you there; and if you will bear no arms – not so much as a needle, mind you – it will be given to you what you must do.” When Edward’s face showed his perplexity, the abbot shrugged. “That is as much light as God has given me, sinner that I am. Be not disobedient.”

Relieved, Edward gave a small bow. “I thank you, lord, and shall do as you say.”

. . . . .

Five days later, Edward tied his horse off where many more stood, and made his way toward a field where a stand had been erected and royal banners unfurled. People in colourful dress were seated in the stand, including, Edward noticed, Sir Richard and Robert de Talen. He acknowledged them with a bow. Out in front was an assortment of people, including other young men of Edward’s age, dressed for battle.

Hey, Edward!”

Edward turned toward the familiar voice. “Greetings, Malcolm. How is it with you?”

“Well enough, though I doubt not that the one in whose charge I have been put wishes me harm, the way he does drill me. And you?”

“I am as well as can be expected.”

“Did Father come?”

“He was constrained when a ship anchored last night with much cargo.”

Malcolm rolled his eyes. “It has ever been thus. Have you come to watch the challenge?”

Edward turned away. “Nay, I have come to be in it.”

“Say what? You?”

“Aye, me.”

Malcolm stared at him. “No. I cannot allow it. You are my little brother and …”

“I am my own man!” Edward was suddenly breathing heavily, but he pulled himself erect. “A youth I may yet be, but I have made the choice and I will stand by it.”

“Or fall by it. Why, you have not so much as a dagger at hand, if you could even use it.”

Edward gave him a look that held more confidence than he felt. “Brother, the king called me. In good faith I have answered.”

“And you are willing to risk injury in that faith?”

Edward took a deep breath. “Aye, I am. Now, please show to me the man who receives those challenged.”

Malcolm glared at him and exclaimed, “This is absurd!” Then he threw up his hands. “I have done what I can to gainsay you.” Pointing, he said, “The gentleman yonder will receive you.” He hesitated, then rested his hand on Edward’s shoulder. “Go with God.”

Edward nodded. When he joined the other youths who had taken up the challenge, one said, “Here now, gimpy, you don’t belong with us.”

“But I do,” he replied, turning red. “I too was challenged.”

“Where are your arms and armour then?”

He turned away. “You will see at the proper time.” Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he wondered how this would all play out.

Some minutes later, a herald stood up. After a fanfare silenced the crowd, he said, “Hear ye, hear ye! Ye have come into the presence of his Majesty, Fredrick, king of this fair land of Meladonia, in response to the challenge issued by the same to select young men of the realm! Who are those who have accepted this challenge?”

“We are!” shouted the group of young men together.

“Come then, and show yourselves worthy!” He read two names and they stepped forward. “Take your places on the field of challenge.”

The pair moved over to the area in front of the stand and bowed to the king, who stood and called out, “Be it known that the battle is not to the death, for this be not war. To overcome your opponent, that shall be sufficient.” He nodded to the combatants. “You may begin.”

When his name was called in turn, Edward removed his coat to make it plain that he was without weapons. As he advanced up the field, he struggled to make his limp less obvious.

His opponent noticed just the same and sneered, “Well, my lovely, have you come to dance perchance?” He strode by.

Edward ignored him as he took his place, feeling chilled as he bowed to the king in spite of the sun. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself that he must rest in God.
Whispering began over the entire area, and the king sat back, cocking an eyebrow at him. When the gathered crowd quieted down, he called, “You may begin.”

Edward’s opponent drew his sword. “Shall I slice your buttons off first, or cut your belt and drop your drawers?”

Edward felt a wave of despair, for he knew not what to do. What was the answer? If God would not speak, where else could he turn?

He glanced at the king as if he might help. The king … his victory! The scripture verse suddenly lined up with the challenge.

He smiled with relief and looked back at the lad in front of him. “Neither. Now, stand ready for a fight!” He held up his right hand, and called, “Come forth, oh king! I am in need! Show yourself victorious!”

The stand erupted in confused talk, but the king beamed and bounded out of his box. He ran over to Edward, drew his sword, and demanded of Edward’s startled opponent, “Do you stand to face me?”

The young man went pale. When he found his voice, he said, “Nay, your Majesty.” He bowed and offered his sword.

“Ha, ha!” The king turned and thumped Edward on the back, staggering him. “Well played, Edward, son of Thomas Entell. You must tell me over dinner tonight how you did come to grasp my challenge. But we must allow the others their time in the sun.” He called to the herald, “Let another be called forth to do battle in Edward’s stead.”

As the two of them withdrew to the stand, Edward had to fight to keep from fainting.

. . . . .

“You see,” Edward said to the king as they ate, “I judged that you would not have been acting frivolously in repeatedly calling out those who, like myself, were ill-equipped to take up arms. I wondered what you truly sought, so I earnestly pursued God’s wisdom in the matter. Right on the field of battle, I received His answer.”

“And what did He tell you?” said the king as he picked up some food from the platter in front of him.

“That your challenge was in truth of two parts: the first, for the men-at-arms; and the second, for myself and those like me whom you have challenged over the years.”

“Indeed, but that is not all, is it?”

“No, sire. It took the word of God in the scripture chanted at Mass on the Sunday last to complete the riddle. It related that God’s people did gain their victories by the arm of God Himself. Thus I perceived that the champion would be the one who called on you to show your victory. You gave me your victory this day.”

“Very subtle, my husband,” said the queen from the other side of the king. “How came you to frame the challenge in such a manner?”

“My darling, well you know that I have need of more than men-at-arms in my service. After my coronation, I was beseeching God that I might have worthy men to serve me in all capacities. In response, God gave to me a dream which portrayed a challenge like unto the which you have witnessed this day. I told none of it, for that plainly would have spoiled the scheme. Today, this Edward has answered, by the grace of God, and thereby fulfilled my earnest hope. He will forthwith be trained in the administration of the kingdom so that I and my heir may perchance have an able chamberlain or minister of the exchequer to advise us in days to come.”

Edward went into a choking fit, having swallowed his food the wrong way in surprise.

. . . . .


Submitted: February 10, 2021

© Copyright 2021 AScovil. All rights reserved.

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Ann Sepino

This is beautiful and wisely crafted! I do love when wordplay and hidden puzzles/meanings are incorporated in stories. And I love the narrative flavor! :)

Thu, February 11th, 2021 1:01am

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