Thursday, January 18, 2024

King's Champion. A Ballad of sorts.

This Is the companion piece to 'Taking Possession'. (See previous Post) First published in The Rotary Dial. I had been reading Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry', one of those rare books that were influential in their own time and still readable today. I wanted to try a ballad style story, knowing that half the effect of such a form is lost if there is no tune and no singer.  I am also intrigued by the phenomena of trial by combat or ordeal. There is a story of William Marshall, the most famous knight in his day, being accused of treason by King John. The Marshall demanded he be given the right of trial by combat. Since no one was willing to face him, the charges were dropped. The same phenomena is evident in Malory's book, where Lancelot demands the right to prove the queen's innocence in single combat, despite the fact that everyone knows she's an adulteress. 
End of Prologue. 

King’s Champion.



The journey made, his duty done,

the invitation to remain was not refused

while winter raged and sulked 

about the castle walls. Humming  

a minor key in passages and towers 

the wind fumbled the tapestries.


Beside the brazier keeping watch 

on a land gone hard and white,

everything seemed dead 

or waiting to be born. Summer,

stories they remembered

for this stranger from the south 


who joins the winter games   
and watches m’lord’s daughter.  

Nothing to soften the darkness, 

until spring, then mounted, armed, 

into bright sunshine and bitter wind 

taking the princess to her wedding. 



The journey done, the prize delivered.

The king’s doubts laid to rest 

in private conversations: 

the land’s well-run, the castle’s sound.

So the wedding goes ahead

But first, obligatory festivities. 


He is the King’s Champion 

and he kills not for pleasure: 

it’s just what he does. On the first day

he won everything and all the women 

would have thrown their honour 

in the moat to be with him. 


On the second day he was undefeated. 

When the Princess smiled he fled, 

risked his life on the point of a spear 

and hurtled down the lists. 

On the third day the stranger came.

Wind tugged the bunting, swirling the dust.


His shield was black, his armour black

his herald, dressed in black, rode to the stands

saluted the young King, and said:

My master says: this woman is my wife.

She is no maid. He claims his right

to prove this truth in combat.


The King called for his Champion: 

You lied! You found the rumour true: 

a Knight came courting for his Lord 

and won the Lady’s heart instead. 

You will defend the honour 

of this woman I must marry. 


Your skill must prove her purity

stainless as the robes she’ll wear 

on coronation day. And if you fail, 

I’ll feed them to the royal pigs.  




Spears shatter, horses buckle, 

scrambling clear they pound away. 

His enemy anticipates each stroke. 

But he predicts the Knight’s attempts. 


A mirror image of himself,   

who tip-toed passageways 

who risked the terrifying consequence

and wanted his reward. 


They paused. Leant on their swords.

Blood dripping on the troubled dust. 

All summer long I had her, gasped the Knight.

We plighted troth. I am her spouse. 


I know you did, the Champion replied,

and that is neither here nor there.

Her father won’t acknowledge you:

he wants a grandson on the throne.


My master was impatient.

he proved if she were maid  

the first night that she came 

and that is neither here nor there.


He needs her father’s castle

his lands, his loyalty, his men 

to keep the northland settled

at this stage of his reign.


What matters is not

the truth of your claim

but this ritual proof

we both know proves nothing.


He had not trained to parry words.

Edge striking battered metal 

slashes the knight’s head from his body.

The Champion paused to breathe, 

and bleed, then straightened up

and turned to the applause 


The King and Princess came in finery

to stand above the metal and the meat. 

A royal gesture had it dragged away: 

blood spatters on the Ermine 

from the puddles round her dainty feet.

He took her hand. Gentles, the liar shamed

tomorrow this false-slandered lady 

shall become your Queen and mine. 



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