Tilt

A Camelot 2050 Short Story by David Cartwright

A light drizzle fell over the York tournament grounds, but the sun still shone through the sparse cloud. His Grace, Sir Andrew Sachs-Kohlberg the Duke of York, excused himself from his guest in the host’s box and slipped out of the entrance. Descending the back steps, he circled the public stands at a brisk pace and entered the arena by the participants’ gate. The riggers were taking down the square fences of the sword arena and setting the field in preparation for a joust. At either end of the arena, huge vid screens played scenes from the day’s events in recap to keep the crowds entertained.

The Duke kept to the edge of the field and made his way to a small square marquis, decorated in the red and white of his house, near the gate. Pulling back the canvas, he ducked inside. The page who was attending the tent’s other inhabitant looked up, gulped and stood back at full attention until the Duke waved the young woman back to her task.

     “Are you ready, squire?” he asked jauntily.

John Loxley, late of the Easingwold militia, now squire to the Duke of York, looked up from his arming stool and his expression was grim.

    “Why are we doing this?” he grunted sullenly.

   “For honour, glory and the entertainment of the people. You know, the usual,” Andrew replied wryly.

      “It’s a bloody farce is what it is,” the squire shot back testily.

     The Duke folded his long arms and regarded his ‘squire’ carefully. Most knights would select their trainees young, in their early teens, to begin the training. They would be taught the ‘soft’ skills and theory, educated in the ways of honour and knightly conduct as well as the standard curriculum, but John’s case was wildly different.

   Already in his late twenties, the broad-shouldered man before him had been raised to York’s service for an act of great courage, an act that had seen him horrendously wounded in its execution. The great fire at Berkeley Castle had nearly claimed the life of Lord Berkeley’s young daughter, but for the intervention of militiaman John Loxley of the Baronet of Easingwold’s retinue. But, as was so often the way of such acts of heroism, the explosion of the castle’s magazine had wrought a terrible cost on the valiant young man.

     Sir Andrew recalled the memory easily, since he had been there, and he was still astonished that Loxley had survived his injuries. He’d been more surprised at the time to learn that Baronet Easingwold hadn’t the means for the extensive reconstruction procedures, and had only intended, upon recognising John’s heroism, to retire him on medical grounds. Such an end to his career was ill-fitting a veteran of actions in the Congo and the far-east, so the House of York had intervened on John’s behalf.

     Fourteen months, a dozen reconstructive surgeries, an extended stint of physiotherapy and a new artificial arm later, and the newest squire to York was back on his feet. But he was no longer the cheerful, exemplary soldier his service record and psych profiles described.

    He’d been stony-faced at his investiture, tight-lipped with his trauma counsellor, and barely engaged with the instructors for his theoretical lessons. But, in physical training and combat, a glimmer of the warrior he had been showed through, and so, Andrew suspected, there was still hope.

     “Squires don’t joust,” Loxley spoke evenly, dragging Andrew’s attention back to the here and now.

   “There are precedents,” the Duke shrugged, “and it’s a simple exhibition, no grave matter of honour. In fact, it’s a favour I’m doing Stafford.”

      John sucked his gunmetal-grey teeth irritably. “My gums itch,” he complained sourly.

     “Well, the doctor says the tissue has healed. There’s no visible swelling and it’s as likely to be a side-effect of anti-inflammatories as something that can be eased by them. Most likely it’s psychosomatic,” the Duke offered, not unkindly.

     “You haven’t answered my question, why are we doing this and who is this ‘Geoffrey Mayland’ kid anyway?”

     Though his voice was sullen, Andrew finally detected a trace of actual interest from John, so he indulged him.

      “Stafford’s latest squire, one Geoffrey Mayland, is a progeny. Skilled, smart and charismatic, but he tends to rest on his laurels and he’s in danger of becoming not just complacent but arrogant too. Baron Dominic wants someone to ‘knock him on his arse’, in the Baron’s own, well chosen words.”

     “Yeah? He’s also, like sixteen, so why me, and why a joust of all things?” John was rising to the bait at last.

     “Firstly,” Andrew raised a stern eyebrow. “He’s seventeen and a half and-”

     “Ah Christ! I’ve got ten years on the kid!” John protested.

  “And,” Andrew went on, holding up a hand, “has already undergone his first round of augmentations, so don’t feel you have to pull any punches,” the knight cautioned. “As for ‘why you’, it’s all about reputation. You have one, as a hero no less. That kind of psychology plays a greater part than you might think. Also you’re already a skilled combatant, and an unknown quantity as far as young Geoffrey is concerned. He has already proved himself amongst his contemporaries, so he really does need taking down a peg or two.”

     “But why a joust?” John held out his hands beseechingly. “Squires don’t joust!”

     “That’s exactly why you will,” Andrew replied, a maddening, smug little smile playing on his lips. “You’ve both had only limited experience in simulated jousts, but this will be for real. It ought to level the field in a way no other contest could.”

      Squire Loxley hunched his shoulders. “I never asked to be a bloody hero,” he spat vehemently, as if the word itself was distasteful.

     “Maybe not, but don’t underestimate the benefits of building a reputation early on.” The knight smiled. “Anyway, if it makes you feel any better, once you do this you can take a step away from the spotlight for a while, okay?”

      The arming tech held out John’s tabard, emblazoned with the stylised branding based on the coat of arms of York, her intention to help to big squire into the garment. With a derisive grunt, John stood, snatched the cloth away and draped it over his head, covering the ballistic cloth-lined carbon fibre breastplate that ought to protect him from the worst of the impending impacts.

Gesturing to the tech’, Andrew took the gorget to which his squire’s shoulder-guards would attach, and stood in front of John to fit it. It seemed slightly odd to him that he was fitting armour to someone so close to his own stature, but he had an idea of what was troubling the squire, and it was his place to do all he could to help.

      “You feel guilty, don’t you?” Andrew asked quietly, settling the armour plate and holding out his hand for the first pauldron.

       “Why should I feel guilty?” John mumbled sourly.

     “I’ve read your record; you lost comrades, friends overseas in combat. You might have dealt with it at the time, considered it ‘part of the job’, but now? Now you have to deal with a completely different kind of consequence. Maybe you think you should have died in the explosion, maybe you feel that what you did wasn’t so worthy of all this,” the knight waved a hand vaguely to encompass the tent and indicate the stadium around them. “But, much as it’s for you, it’s not entirely about you.”

      “That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” John muttered.

      Andrew finished fitting the armour and placed his hands firmly on John’s broad shoulders.

      “You served, faithfully. I know it wasn’t your choice after your father sold you into Easingwold’s services, but you made the most of it. You might have served a household, but Camelot still owes you a debt for your service. Beyond that, Camelot holds true to its values and must be seen to do so. We could have simply pensioned you off, but why? When we could help you? When we could restore you after your injuries?  You can always say ‘no’ but, I notice, you haven’t. Yet,” he finished with a slight wink.

       John raised his gaze to meet Andrew’s. “What else can I do? All I know is how to fight.”

       “Anything, everything!” Andrew chuckled. “You are beholden to no-one John, give the word and you’re released from my service. You could go back to school or, with your record, you could go into policing or personal protection. Why, you could start a security company, I’d invest in you, but for the time being you need to heal and not here,” the knight patted John’s augmetic arm, “but here,” and he tapped a finger to the squire’s temple.

        “The best way to do that I can think of is to stick to what you know.”

       John frowned a moment then reached a hand up to tug on his gorget, settling the armour more comfortably.

      “Alright, I’ll think about it.” He held out a hand for his sword belt. “In the meantime, let’s go whip this little Geoffrey bastard’s arse.”

      “Honoured guests, welcome to the York showgrounds!” the announcer’s voice boomed over the PA system. “At this time, the House of York is pleased to present an exhibition joust for your entertainment!”

        Andrew held the tent flap, awaiting John’s cue.

      “At the yellow flag, representing the House of Stafford, please give a warm round of applause for Geoffrey Mayland!”

      John winced slightly at the thundering applause the crowd raised for his opponent. It wasn’t a complete surprise, Stafford was a popular brand and those that wore its colours were always well received by the public.

       “And, at the red flag, representing the house of York, it is our great pleasure to introduce, for his first appearance, John Loxley!”

      Andrew pulled the canvas aside and John stepped out into the grey light. The nearby audience clamoured and cameras flashed, but only when Andrew revealed himself at his squire’s shoulder did the noise begin to approach the level of Geoffrey’s reception.

      “Give them a wave!” Andrew leaned in and growled solicitously from the corner of his mouth. With a pained smile, John raised his arm, and again the volume rose.

     “Not bad, not bad,” Andrew reassured his uncomfortable squire and led him toward the starting point. “I’d better get back to my box. Good luck, John,” he smiled and held out a hand. John reached out and gave Andrew the warriors’ wrist-clasp handshake before the knight turned and left the field, waving to the crowd the whole time.

Taking a deep breath, John turned and nodded to the attendants who manned his point. Two attended the weapons rack where his lances and spare shield were hung. Two more stood by his bike, holding his helmet and primary shield. Striding over, he grasped the handlebar of the latest incarnation Triumph Tiger which would serve as his mount for the joust. At one-hundred and eighty kilo’s dry and with just over ninety foot-pounds of torque, the bike was capable of zero to sixty in just over eleven seconds. Its high-seated enduro-styling was intended for cross-country and military use, but suited it toward jousting very well. It was a machine John was familiar with.

     He cast a glance toward the big screen which was currently showing his opponent sat astride his own bike. John recognised a Norton Commando when he saw one, but the usual Cafe-Racer style had been tweaked, the suspension bumped high and off-road tyres fitted for this joust. Still, John chuckled to himself, a clear sign of his opponents’ inexperience.

     The Norton was a fine road-bike, capable of zero to sixty in fully half the time John’s bike could achieve but, here on the woodchip and dirt floor of the arena, it’s lighter frame and lower torque would take a second or so to gain purchase, even with the knobby off-road tyres.

     John took a second to rev the growling engine, drawing the eyes of the audience and the cameras to his own position, a calculated move to annoy the poster-boy Mayland, as he beckoned for his helmet and shield. Seating his helmet and offering his arm for the mag-lock shield, John took a breath and snapped his visor down. With the cheers from the stands and the noise of the arena finally muffled, John sighed in relief.

     Holding out his hand, he received the offered lance and tightened his augmetic fingers around the shaft. Had his arm still been flesh it might have dipped to compensate for the added burden, but the bionic limb held firm, and he felt the bike dip to the right as if it meant to fall. With a slight heave, John steadied himself and drew the lance into his body to centre the weight, holding it upright to signal ‘at the ready’.

    He watched the marshal signal his opponent and made out the raised lance signalling ‘ready’. Turning toward John’s point, the marshal raised a hand again and John lifted his lance, feeling all the while that, whether he was actually ready or not was of precious little importance right now.

     The official nodded, satisfied and lowered the flag, again bearing the York crest, to signal the riders to be ready. John felt the sweat break out on his forehead and the slight nausea in his belly as he ground his titanium-alloy teeth in anticipation and twitched the throttle again.

     The crowd hushed, awaiting the signal of the flag and the commencement of the bout. Seconds stretched out until, with a final glance to either end of the quarter mile stretch, the official raised the flag and the joust was on.

     Both bikes roared and leapt forward, though John was slightly satisfied to see a tall spray of woodchip from the back of Mayland’s machine as it sought purchase. The crowd roared in approval as, surging forward, John juggled the throttle and the lance, trying to catch the cradle bars protruding from his armour to bring the shaft to bear, frustrated by his own lack of finesse. Much as he’d practiced in the VR sims, they were based on the assumption a Knight would be astride one of Camelot’s synthetic C.T.E.E.D.’s.

     The A.I. driven Cybernetic Transport Engagement and Evasion Devices were styled after horses, and fully capable of guiding themselves toward a target, leaving the knight free to wield their weapons; the motorcycle beneath him now, not so much.

     In apparent disdain of his own fumblings, his opponent seemed all too comfortable in the saddle, his lance dropping smoothly into position as the two raced toward one another for the clash. The distance decreasing and the speed ever increasing, John, grimacing with the effort, managed to seat his lance and bring it to bear at the last second as he braced for impact.

     Looks could be deceiving and, as John’s wobbling lance glanced off his opponent’s shield, Geoffrey’s lance likewise slipped on John’s midriff armour and dragged across the plates, Geoffrey struggling to retain the weapon as it swung, bouncing off the tilt rail, unbroken.

     The riders steadied their machines and carried the ungainly shafts to the far ends of the course. Turning, they each rode to their starting points as the crowd cheered and jeered in equal measure. John furrowed his brow in frustration, some of it spared for the crowd but most reserved for himself. If only he’d managed to break his lance he’d be one up but, as his old C.O. would say, ‘Ifs and buts didn’t win wars’.

     The official jogged out as the riders waited, and dropped the flag again to let the riders commence the charge.

   This time, John was more prepared for the struggle between bike and lance, and managed to gun the engine and hold the weapon in position for the strike.

    The dulled carbon tips impacted their targets and shattered with a resounding ‘Crack!’ as they were designed to do. John ‘whuffed’ as the shock of his strike ran from his arm into his shoulder and, at the same moment, the impact of Mayland’s lance on his shield threatened to tip him off his bike. They passed so quickly that he didn’t see how well he’d struck. The front wheel of his bike wobbled skittishly, and John had to drop his shattered shaft as he grabbed the handlebars with both hands and fought to stay upright, until his feet kicked out from the pegs for balance. With a sigh of relief, he brought the bike under control on the damp ground and turned smoothly at Geoffrey’s end of the run to ride back to his own starting position, kicking up a spray of chips of his own.

     As he passed the judges’ box on his return, he saw the score screens flash up the numerals. Both squires had struck, both knights had scored. He had two more lances left to change that.

His lance arm, his prosthetic, felt neither the worse for the strain nor the better. But his shoulder and chest on the left, his shield arm, was throbbing slightly from the strike. He pulled up and dropped the bike into neutral, stretching and flexing the pulsing muscles, rolling his shoulder before taking grip of the handlebar once more and signalling for a new lance.

The Mayland kid was good; he’d brought his lance into position smoothly and hit John like a truck. Glancing up at the screen, he saw the replay and winced as he watched himself jerk in the saddle but stay upright. The camera switched to show Mayland, and Loxley was gratified to see his opponent in similar straits, reeling back from John’s own blow, the bike itself rearing with the force. But Geoffrey recovered his balance and control with almost miraculous speed, riding the wheelie to the end of the tilt to the delight of the crowd.

     The kid was good, John could give him that.

     Lance in hand, he tried to come up with some plan, some tactic to overcome the young showboat but, with his limited experience of the joust, all John could think of was ‘hit him harder’. He turned his helmed head toward to Sir Andrew, seated in the York stand. Straining his eyes, he just saw the knight give him a small nod and a smile.

      ‘A good enough start then,’ John thought and blew out a shallow breath.

The competitors back at their stations, the official lowered the flag again and signalled for readiness. Both riders raised their lances, the flag flew upward and the engines howled again, higher and louder this time as they left their marks, the crowd cheering along at the spectacle.

     Finding his cradle with more surety, John tried to pick a decisive spot to strike, one that would unseat his opponent and give him a clear advantage. The bout wouldn’t be over until three lances were broken or one competitor was forced to yield, but with a scoring lead and his opponent on foot, Loxley would have a clear advantage.

     He quickly ran his tongue over his teeth as the two bikes raced toward one another, so intent on picking his point of strike that he took his eyes off the tip of Mayland’s lance.

     It happened in the blink of an eye. John raised the tip of his lance to catch the younger squire high in the chest but, apparently Mayland had seen that coming and had the augmented reflexes to deal with it. His shoulder dropped and John’s lance glanced off, unbroken while Geoffrey’s lance hit Loxley low-centre in the chest carrying him from his saddle as the bike sped away without him.

John hit the ground before he could really make out what was happening, but the thud of impact and his ungainly roll through the dirt was a clear indicator.

     Shaking off a moment of dizziness, John cursed vehemently and pushed himself back to his feet. His chest was throbbing and his lungs heaved to catch his breath. His shield was gone; the mag-lock had cut out to stop it injuring him in his fall. His sword was at his hip, but he was as unfamiliar with that as he was the joust. The crowd was on its feet, frothing at this new twist to the event.

     Mayland reached the York end of the tilt, and the tension in the air took on an electric crackle of anticipation. A knight unseated from their mount could fight on, on foot. Each house’s weapon stand held one lance ready for their opponent for just such an event. The tilt would continue until a third lance was broken or a knight (or squire in this case) was forced to yield.

      Teeth clenched, chest heaving and sweat pouring from his brow, John stood in his lane. Rage and frustration at himself and the snot-nosed, silver-spoon fed little oik sitting so serenely on his bike churned in his gut. He wanted to kill the little bastard, wanted him to hurt, wanted to watch him squirm before he died but, as he watched, the yellow-armoured squire hesitated and turned his head, lance in hand, to confer with John’s own crew.

    In a flash of realisation that cut through the haze of fury that was building, John remembered where he was and what he was doing. Mayland wasn’t riding because he wasn’t sure what was going on, because he was just a kid, and this was just a game. John blinked as he remembered, he was supposed to either draw his sword and indicate ‘ready’, or drop it to the floor to signal his surrender. He had not yet drawn the weapon, and so, Mayland wouldn’t ride.

     Taking a deep, shuddering breath and shaking his head to clear it, John reined in his spiralling anger and grinned to himself. This gave him a chance, albeit a slim one.

     He raised his head to watch until he was sure he had Mayland’s attention. The crowd had fallen silent, curiosity overcoming their enthusiasm.

      Slowly, John raised his hand and made a beckoning gesture with his fingers.

     The crowd went mad. Mayland turned toward the York staffer and spoke urgently, the staffer simply shrugged and stepped away. If Mayland refused to ride he would forfeit; if he rode down an unarmed squire he’d suffer some repercussions, maybe a reprimand, but John had signalled it, essentially taking the responsibility on himself.

     With a slight twitch of his head, Mayland raised the new lance and rode. This time straight toward John, no tilt bar to separate them, the younger squire simply rode down on his opponent, lance dipped to strike.

    The crowd’s cheering faded from John’s perception as he watched the Stafford rider race toward him with singular intensity. Blocking all distractions from his mind, he watched the Norton come on, trying to gauge its speed and watching the lance tip as it danced with the vibrations of the bike. Mayland held the lance and his elbow high, clear of his midriff and braced to strike down as he aimed it toward John’s chest.

      John shifted one foot slowly back to brace himself, bent his knees to lower his centre of balance just a little and brought up his fists in a boxer’s stance.

     That threw Mayland. John could almost feel the youth’s confusion as his opponent bobbed gently on the balls of his feet. Still, the bike came on and the crowd held its collective breath.

     As Mayland’s lance came toward him, John weaved, rolling back on his bracing leg and twisting his body away. The lance tip sailed past him and he thrust forward with all his strength, swinging his outstretched augmetic forward as hard as he could and clotheslining the youth as he passed.

     The sheer force of impact made him gasp as the linkages between his prosthetic and his bones and muscles protested the abuse, but he carried Mayland clear off the back of the Norton, arms and legs outstretched, lance and shield flying free, and threw the slight figure to the ground.

     The stands fell silent. Using his natural arm, John gripped the augmetic as it hung limp, and rolled the rebuilt shoulder just to make sure it was up to what he had planned next. He gave the stressed prosthetic a shake out before reaching down to grip his opponent. Despite Andrew’s assurances, the stricken squire seemed much smaller than John had expected. His big alloy fingers closing around the gorget and the top of his opponent’s breastplate, John hoisted the dazed youth into the air.

     Loxley prized Mayland’s faceplate from his helmet and brought the handsome young man in close.

     “Yield,” John grunted simply.

    Head lolling and eyes blinking, the Stafford squire raised his hand in surrender. “I yield,” he announced muzzily and John lowered him gently to the ground.

     The stands exploded as the judges struck Mayland’s score, and the big screen zoomed in on John who turned and, glad that his helm was hiding his sheepish expression, gave them a hesitant wave. Geoffrey was raising himself to his elbows, so John offered him a hand as the medics rushed toward them.

      The P.A. rang out. “Assembled guests, York gives you your victor. John Loxley of York!”

      Geoffrey held John’s hand high for the furiously cheering crowd before pulling the broad squire down. “That was awesome!” Geoffrey yelled into John’s ear, beaming like a child who’d just made their first stage appearance for their parents to watch.

      The pure, sincere and unabashed joy of his ‘defeated’ opponent’s expression triggered a spark in John’s overwhelmed brain and he reached up to unclasp his helmet, lifting it from his sweat-streaked brow.

       “John Loxley,” he stated simply, offering his hand.

    “Geoffrey Mayland,” the younger squire shot back, taking the offered hand and shaking it vigorously, “but my friends call me ‘Swift’!”

     The medics reached them then, and each squire was led back to their own pavilion for a preliminary medical assessment.

      Andrew entered the pavilion as a tech was doing final checks and repairs to John’s abused augmetic. The big squire’s ribs had been tightly bound by the medics, but a purple bruise was already creeping out from under the clean white bindings.

“That was phenomenal, John,” he congratulated the squire. “Well done. I must say you exceeded my expectations, well done.”

     “Thank you, my liege,” John replied, honestly grateful for the knight’s words.

     “In fact, someone would like to come in and see you, if you’ll allow.”

     “Who?” John was truly puzzled. Which news outlet could possibly have the clout, or the interest in seeing him so shortly after the bout?

     “Your opponent, Geoffrey,” Andrew grinned.

     John blinked, momentarily taken aback. “Alright,” he conceded, still somewhat confused.

     Still grinning, Andrew pulled back the tent canvas and a slight, fair-haired young man in a neck-brace, sling and yellow Stafford tabard, entered the pavilion, fairly buzzing with excited energy.

     “That was amazing!” he announced without a moment’s preamble. “The way you took me off that bike? Absolutely amazing, I’m going to be sore for weeks!”

     “Surprised you’re not now, jumpin’ around like that.” The sheer exuberance of this strange meeting had John completely off-guard, but Geoff simply waved the concern away.

  “Oh not now, too many painkillers for that,” he winked and, as if just remembering himself and his station, he took a deep calming breath and blew it out slowly, beaming mischievously the whole time.

   Turning slightly, he addressed, somewhat more formally, Sir Andrew. 

   “My lord, might I congratulate you upon your squire’s victory. I have never seen such bull-headed stubbornness.”

   “It’s hardly my doing, Geoffrey. His tactics went against practically everything I’ve tried to teach him,” Andrew smirked. “But, stubborn as he is, he refused to die after the Berkeley Castle fire and refused to be bested by one as gifted as yourself, so, in this instance, I think we might count his Ox-like demeanour as a virtue.”

   Geoffrey’s eyes widened in surprise and sudden realisation as he turned to address John himself. “Berkeley Castle? Of course!”

    “You didn’t know?” John asked, surprised by Geoffrey’s ignorance.

Geoff shrugged in exaggerated embarrassment. “Let’s say I forgot, because that sounds better than admitting I was lax on my pre-bout research.”

     Andrew held up a hand for their attention. “Excuse me for a minute, I’ve things to attend to. Once again, congratulations John.” With that he left, beckoning the almost forgotten tech to follow.

     John returned his attention from the departed knight to the still grinning youth.

   “So that’s how you did it then?” he gestured smugly toward John’s augmetic. “That’s how you clotheslined me off a speeding motorcycle like swatting a fly?”

   “Would you have expected it, even if you had done your pre-bout research?” the big squire’s curiosity was getting the better of him.

    “To be totally honest? No, no I wouldn’t. No-one’s ever done anything like that before. Knights get dragged off sometimes, but that? That was one for the history books.”

    John grinned slightly. “Let that be a lesson then, even the most thorough research can’t tell you when someone’s about to do something bloody stupid.”

     “You say ‘stupid’, I say ‘inspired’.” The younger squire got a thoughtful look about him. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,” he began cautiously, “but, as someone who uses self-deprecation on a routine basis, I can’t help but feel you were being somewhat serious there?”

     John shrugged, wincing at the discomfort the motion brought. “Maybe, what of it?”

     “Well, for someone who just made a squire’s exhibition bout the talk of the town, I’d assume you’d be pretty happy about that.” The Stafford squire looked suddenly pensive, as if he was afraid to open a line of questioning that might anger the bigger man. John interlaced his fingers and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees with a deep sigh.

     “You wouldn’t understand,” he stated simply.

     “Maybe I wouldn’t, but I can try,” Geoffrey smiled encouragingly.

     As John finished recounting the story of his service, Geoffrey listened with growing awe.

“So,” the younger squire said at last, “you’ve seen some-”

“-If you say ‘real shit’,” John cut in, “I’ll deck you all over again.” John grunted. “This ain’t a bloody movie.”

“… things.” Geoff finished apprehensively.

     “Yeah,” the older squire shrugged. “You could say that I have.”

     “And yet you still don’t think you deserve this?”

     “Maybe I don’t, who’s to say?”

Geoffrey shrugged. “Well, I’d say you do. Maybe more than any of us.”

     “What does that mean?” John frowned up at the open and honest young man.

    “Look John, I can’t really comment on PTSD or survivor guilt, but what I can empathise with is imposter syndrome. You, at the very least, have already displayed selflessness, courage and the willingness to fight to liberate others from oppression. You’re proven, John, what did I ever prove? That a young man from a wealthy and privileged background can be a talented athlete and media darling, that’s what. Should Camelot ever call on me, I have no idea what I’ll do, fight, run or hide. But, with someone like you alongside me, I know it’ll be harder for me to be a coward.”

     “You really mean that, don’t you?” John asked, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

    Geoffrey blushed, just slightly. “I do,” he admitted. “Now come on, you stubborn ox, there’s a post tournament party to get ready for.”

     “Hmm,” John inclined his head thoughtfully. “‘Ox’, I like that.”

    Outside, a deep voice bellowed in frustration. “Where is that blasted boy? I’ll have ‘is hide if he doesn’t show up soon.”

      “Oh balls,” Geoff wailed. “I lost track of time, Sir Dominic is going to kill me!”

     “Don’t you worry, Swift,” John declared good-humouredly. “I’ll talk to ‘im, it’s my fault you’re late so it’s the least the Ox of York can do for ya!” and, taking Geoff firmly by the shoulder, they stepped out to face the Baron of Stafford’s ire, together.

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