John stepped out into the late morning sun and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. Lord Sarus' men had roped off a rough circle in the courtyard. To one side, a small platform had been set with seats and an awning for Sarus and his closest friends to sit and watch the trial. A servant was filling wine cups and delivering trenchers of roasted meat. Opposite, another platform had been erected, but instead of a comfortable chair, this one held a gallows, a black-hooded executioner, and Berig, rope already around his neck. If John lost, the Redemptionist would hang.
A crowd had already gathered, pressed close to the ropes. The guards didn't seem inclined to clear a path or escort him to the circle. John reached down to the core of his faith and called on a small measure of the grace granted him by his god. The clean folds of his white visten alorna, the ceremonial uniform of the Luathan Knights, seemed to catch the sun and flare brighter. The crowd drew back involuntarily at the glimpse of the Divine, half-forgotten almost instantly.
In the centre of the circle stood a tall man in dark steel plate and mail, an arming sword in his right hand and a wooden shield strapped to his left. A yellow surcoat with a black eagle marked him as Lord Sarus' proxy. A savage grin broke through coarse black beard before the man lowered his visor. As John stepped over the rope and entered the circle, a herald banged his staff against the ground and shouted, "Loyal citizens of the Crown, gather round to witness the justice of the Synod. In the matter of the rape of the daughter of Odovacar of Daecimar, Lord Sarus, Earl of Samprivan, has judged that the truth of the matter is best clarified by a Trial of Combat. The Justice of Gardruss, the Love of Assarné, the Wisdom of Delpha and above all the Perfect gaze of Luathas shall guide the hands of the combatants on this day. The Synod guard us and protect us all!"
Turning to John and the other warrior, the herald called out, "Lords and Ladies of the Synod, if it please you, behold your humble servants! Standing proxy for Lord Sarus, Earl of Samprivan is Sir Rhima Sevenhills, a man of sound body and good standing in Your eyes. Standing proxy for the accused rapist is Sir John of - ", here, the herald paused, glancing at John. "Of Luathas. A man of sound body and good standing in Your eyes."
The crowd grew silent for a moment as the novelty of John's identity set in. A thundering roar followed, rippling through the crowd. John saw money changing hands among the spectators. The herald stepped back, under the ropes, and moved to stand next to Sarus' platform. The Earl stood and bellowed, "The duel shall be ended by the surrender of one of the participants, incapacitation or death of same. Fight with honour, and let no trickery, magic or foul play soil this holy combat. Let the combat commence!"
Luathan Knights travelled individually, with a minimum of equipment. As such, John had neither a full suit of plate like the one Rhima wore, nor a squire to assist in donning armour. John's visten alorna covered a steel breastplate and vambraces, affording considerable mobility, but leaving him much less protected than his opponent. After John and Rhima had bowed to each other, and sworn to fight by the rules decalred by Sarus, they began circling slowly. John drew his sword, to a surprised murmur from the crowd. The greatest possession of a Luathan Knight was his luatha shal, a long blade made of a strange white metal. A luatha shal never dulled, and was unbreakable, so long as the Knight wielding it stayed true to his oaths and upheld the principles of his God and his Order. The white metal was lighter than steel, and flexed less, which meant that it was easier to weild a longer blade, and could handle blocks better than a steel sword. John could hear the crowd debating the odds in the fight, whether John's superior reach would be enough to compensate for minimal armour and no shield.
John stood, relaxed, and waited for Rhima to come to him. The larger man raised his shield and charged forward, trying to force John's sword aside. Instead, the Knight flowed sideways, his sword sliding along the shield and deflecting the other's downward strike. Turning and stepping backwards, John swung casually at Rhima's head. The soldier shrugged and took the blow on the pauldron of his armour. As Rhima swung his sword in an upwards slash at John's leg, white blade met steel, and the two men stepped back.
John nodded at Rhima. The soldier and the knight had taken each other's measure. Now the real fight would begin. John's long blade flashed out, cutting across Rhima's surcoat before the other could bring his shield in line. John blocked Rhima's counterattack, and the steel sword bounced off the hard white metal. The knight spun quickly and swung hard. Rhima raised his shield in time, but the wood shattered from the force. John stepped back and gestured at the splintered remanants strapped to Rhima's arm. Lord Sarus raised a hand, and a boy wearing Sarus' colours ran out and removed what weas left of the shield.
The warriors resumed thier dance. Rhima pushed hard, attacking aggressively over and over again, shouts echoing from inside his helm. John calmly and quietly blocked, parried and dodged, letting the bigger man tire himself. Finally, as Rhima slowed, John stepped sideways, hooked his sword hilt in the crossguard of the other man's blade, and twisted while kicking at the larger man's foot. Rhima stumbled and lost his grip on his sword. John turned and drove his sword's pommel into the visor or Rhima's helm, while sweeping at the same foot he'd kicked at. The solider fell hard. John kicked the fallen man's sword out of reach, and lowered his own swordpoint to a poorly protected point in the throat of the solider's armour. John spoke a single word; "Yield."
The prone man snarled and clenched his left fist. There was a sound of breaking glass, and a flicker of green light, followed by a clap of thunder and a bright flash. The force of the lightning tossed John to the ground, smoke rising from his body. Rhima shook his left arm, and stood, slowly, pausing to pick up his sword. As the armoured man walked toward him, John gasped and twitched. Rhima stood over John and stabbed him in the shoulder. The big man snarled "And now we end this!" as he raised his sword for a killing blow. As the blade descended, the still-smoking John rolled suddenly. The cut squealed against the back of John's armour. The knight rolled again, and sprung to his feet, rocking unsteadily for a moment. For the first time, John's expression showed emotion. He was livid with rage.
"Oath-breaker," he spat, "Coward!" John hopped back, avoiding another swing from Rhima. He stepped in, pinning the soldier's blade between his vambraces, and knocked the other off balance. Dropping backwards, John rolled and came up with sword in hand before Rhima could regain his composure. John stepped forward and stabbed Rhima in the shoulder before disarming him almost casually. The white blade became a blur as John attacked again and again, each blow landing hard and fast against Rhima's armour. None of the strikes penetrated the plate and mail, but the force kept the soldier off-balance. Finally, John swung hard at his opponent's helm, and with a calng like a bell, the soldier went down. His helm was dented along the temple, but the steel had held.
John turned to Lord Sarus and scowled. "Enough?"
The Earl was on his feet, purple with anger. Through clenched teeth, he said "Enough. It is done." The herald stepped forward as several young men ran to drag Rhima away.
"Let all present bear witness! The gods have spoken, and found Berig the cobbler innocent of the charges brought against him. May the Synod shine upon him!"
John climbed the gallows and helped Berig down. As he passed, the executioner whispered "You should have killed him - it would have been a mercy compared to what Milord Sarus will do to Rhima."
The knight met the hooded man's gaze and replied, "I know." Berig and John paused at the edge of the ring, looking in as the boys tried to pry Rhima's helm away form his head.
Berig looked at his saviour. "That was... amazing. Thank you. I owe you my life."
John shook his head. "Justice was done, and an innocent man goes free. I shouldn't have lost my temper. My actions were... imperfect." He frowned, before walking off with Berig.