Renee Mihulka – Children's Book Reviews & Writer

The Joust

A short story I wrote recently about jousting…well, sort of.

Enjoy.

 

“What book are we reading tonight?” Caleb asked, already wading through the large pile of library books on the bedside table.

“I thought that tonight, for a change, I would tell you a story,” his Mum said.

“What? Like a made up one?” Caleb asked, dubious. “You’re not going to tell us a fairytale are you? We’re a bit too old for that sort of thing now.”

“I still like fairytales,” said Zoe, his oler sister.

“Yeah, cos you are a girl,” Caleb said, as if that explained everything.

“I still like fairytales too,” their Mum admitted.

“Again, because you are a girl,” Caleb said, rolling his eyes.

Their Mum laughed.

“I’m not sure it’s as simple as that”, she said. “But it just so happens that I am not planning on telling you a fairytale, but rather a story that I have made up myself.”

“Really? That’s cool,” Zoe said, snuggling down under the doona and nestling closer to her Mum.

“Well, I guess you can start and if it’s boring we can always read this,” Caleb said, holding up a book with a picture of a boy being chased by secret agents on the cover.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Caleb,” his Mum said dryly. “But I guess it is good to have a second option.”

“I think your story will be very good,” said Zoe loyally, and was rewarded by her Mum with a kiss on the top of her head.
Caleb groaned and still clutching the book, clambered into the other side of the bed, making sure he tugged the donna just enough so his sister’s right side became exposed.

“Caleb!” she cried, tugging it back into place.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling a face at her, only to have her pull an identical face back.

“When you two are finished,” their Mum said, shaking her head.

Moments later, when finally satisfied with their doona coverage, they nodded for their Mum to start.

“Right,” she said, setting down into her pillow. “Here we go…”

The crowd cheered as the two brave champions entered the ring. Both had fought off six opponents to reach this, the final, championship joust. The winner would be forever remembered, showered with riches and suitors, the loser forgotten, almost immediately.

Max scanned the crowd. There, surrounding the royal box, sat the lavishly dressed nobles, each layered in folds of fine silk and damask and weighed down with ropes of gold chain and jewels. A few waved roses in their direction and smiled seductively. Most were taking selfies with their phones or snapping shots of the finalists and their horses. Others crammed already plump faces with popcorn and crisps, pausing only to slurp down bucket sized quantities of soft drink.

Max patted Brienne. The horse hrrumphed under the touch and stamped her foot. Max squinted through the heavy visor, down the fence marking the jousting run, to look at Jude, the other finalist. Jude, in black and red armour, sat comfortably on a large, bay quarter horse. The horse was muscular and fast, almost identical to Brienne, except that Brienne was grey. Max patted Brienne once more taking comfort from the action.

The trumpets sounded, blaring merrily to announce the first tilt. The rules of the joust were simple. The champions would run against each other three times and the champion who had acquired the most points at the end of those tilts would be the winner. Points were awarded as follows: 1 point for breaking a lance on the opponent’s chest armour, 2 points for breaking a lance on head armour and 5 points for unhorsing your opponent. Obviously, staying put on your own horse and avoiding your opponents lance were also vital.

Max nodded at the stable boy to bring the first lance. It was painted in blue and silver, Max’s family colours. Apart from the decoration it was essentially a long, wooden pole with a blunted tip. Max hefted it until it felt comfortable and was pointed straight at Jude. This was their fifth meeting in as many months and Max knew Jude was an extremely tough competitor. Last time they had met, Max had tasted dust on their third tilt, something that had only happened to Max twice before. Max was determined that this time it would be Jude who ended up closely acquainted with the muddy ground.
The trumpets finally decided they had imparted enough fanfare to the occasion and ceased. The master of ceremonies, old, hunched Merkin, hobbled into the centre of the field.

“Welcome to the final joust of the competition between Max, from the house of Nelson and Jude, from the house of Warren,” despite his fragile exterior, a fine, steady voice boomed into the microphone attached to his lapel. “Both are fine, fierce competitors that have proven their valour many times already. As to who is the finest? Well, this will be decided shortly after three gruelling tilts. May the best knight win.”

He hobbled away, amidst cheers and clapping and scrambled onto the judging platform, positioning himself among the two other judges already seated. The crowd hushed as the flag bearer strutted to the mid-point of the fence that marked each side of the jousting run. He placed the long flag so that it lay over the two fences.
Max leant forward on Brienne in anticipation. A good start was vital to winning. Just when Max thought the flag bearer would never lift the flag it soared into the air and the bearer skittered backwards in a style akin to a bull riding clown being chased. Max pressed down on Brienne’s flanks. She jerked forward and Max had a moment to feel grateful for the horse’s strength and reliability before concentrating on the imposing form of Jude, bearing down on them.
CRACK! Max’s head snapped back as Jude’s lance broke on Max’s visor. Max’s heart sank. Two points against. On the positive side, the lance Max held was also broken. Tugging on Brienne’s reins to slow her, Max trotted back to the starting point.

“Two points for Jude of the house of Warren for a head blow. One point for Max of the house of Nelson for a body blow,” Merkin announced.
Max saw the scores flash up on the four, enormous, electronic scoreboards around the arena. One point down after the first tilt. Not so bad. Max would have to try for a head blow this time.

Again the flag bearer approached and again Brienne launched into action the moment the flag was raised. Max watched Jude as they thundered towards each other. Jude’s lance was held high. Another head blow attempt. Max decided on impulse to try and unhorse Jude. Unhorsing was enormously difficult, especially when facing a rider as good as Jude. Max’s timing would have to be perfect. At the precise moment Jude came into reach, Max would have to jerk the lance sidewards and bump Jude of the horse. If Max’s timing wasn’t spot on, or if the blow wasn’t hard enough, Jude would sail away, unharmed.
SMASH! Again Max’s head snapped back. Trying to ignore the searing pain, Max thrust the lance sideways. It was too late, Jude had galloped away and the lance whooshed through air, intact.

“Two points for Jude of the house of Warren for a head blow. No points for Max of the house of Nelson.”

After two tilts Jude was now three points ahead. The only way Max would win now is if Jude was unhorsed and Max avoided Jude’s lance entirely. Determination flooded Max’s system. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet. As Jude circled and trotted back into position for the last tilt, a plan started to form.
For the last time the flag bearer’s long pole tilted into the air, but this time Max waited, forcing Brienne, who wanted to move forward, to stay put. Jude pounded ominously towards them. Brienne stamped her hoof and tossed her head but still Max held her back, watching Jude who was fast approaching the mid-point. As Max watched, Jude began to rise slightly in the saddle, as though unsure of what was going on and in response, Jude’s horse began to slow. Max hoped it would be enough.

“Go!” Max cried, leaning forward, head down and lance held low.

They clashed only metres from Max’s starting point. By then Jude had slowed quite a bit and was not leaning as low as normal, giving Max more room to aim. Max’s lance thrust sideways, aiming for Jude’s ribs. At the same time, Jude’s own lance thrust towards Max but as Jude was sitting higher it skidded past Max’s shoulder. This meant that Jude’s own forward momentum, with no contact to stop it, along with Max’s thrust, was enough. Leaning madly, Jude balanced sideways on the saddle for a full second before toppling to the ground.

The crowd roared.

Max thrust both arms in the air and the unbroken silver/blue lance glinted in the sun.

“No points for Jude of the house of Warrren. 5 points for Max of the house of Nelson for unhorsing the opponent,” Merkin announced. “The champion of the joust by 6 points to 4, Max of the house of Nelson.”

Roses, popcorn and party poppers rained down on a beaming Max. Jude, after being attended to and found to be OK, approached the platform where they would be awarded their prizes.

“You got me this time Max, no doubt about it,” grinned Jude, holding out a hand for Max to shake.

“Thanks, I got lucky,” Max grinned back, shaking Jude’s hand warmly.

As was customary, two opulently dressed men came forward to unclasp the contestent’s helmets and remove their armour before they would receive their oversized cheques and bunch of flowers.

“Ahhh that feels so much better,” Max sighed as the heavy helmet was removed. She shook her head and a cascade of long dark hair flowed down to her waist. Turning, she saw that Jude was also relishing the removal of her helmet and ….

“What?!” Caleb cried out. “No, no, no, no NO! You telling me Max and Jude were both… girls?”

“Yep, Maxabella and Judith,” his Mum explained, smiling.

“But..”

“Yes?”

“…they can’t be girls. They were brave knights. Jousting. Girls don’t joust,” Caleb said, his eyes wide. “If they’re girls, that makes the whole story dumb and untrue.”

“Err, the whole story is untrue anyway. It’s made up, Caleb,” his sister said, rolling her eyes. “I think it’s cool they were both girls.”

“Well I think it’s dumb,” grumbled Caleb.

“Did you think they were girls?” Mum asked Zoe, ignoring Caleb.

“Umm, well, no,” she admitted. “I assumed they were boys too.”

“See, that’s because they should be boys,” Caleb pointed out.

“Why? Because of the names?” asked Mum, again choosing to ignore her son.

“Yeah, that and because they were jousting, I guess. Girls don’t normally joust,” said Zoe, but she seemed unsure.

“Exactly,” agreed Caleb. “So if you can just go back and change the story and make them boys,..”

“Didn’t you enjoy the story Caleb?” his Mum asked, turning towards him.

“It was OK, up until the bit where they turned out to be girls,” he admitted.

“And why is that?”

“Because girls can’t joust,” he replied, but this time without as much conviction.

“But why can’t girls joust? If she had a horse and the right equipment, why couldn’t Zoe go and joust right now?”

Caleb slumped back on his pillow and refused to answer.

“Zoe?” her Mum asked instead.

“Ummm, well, I don’t really know,” Zoe admitted. “I could I guess, except, I wouldn’t really want to.

“See!” Caleb cried, triumphantly. “Girls don’t want to joust.”

Caleb’s Mum gazed at her son for a long moment, her face was still and serious.

“But that’s the point Caleb. Some girls do.”

 

Did you assume the knights were boys too? How did you feel when you found out? I would love to hear any thoughts you might have about this piece. 

My idea with this story was to show how easy it is to just assume male and female roles and that this starts at a very young age and is perpetuated throughout literature. It follows on from my desire to encourage boys to read more books with female protagonists.

Come on comment, you know you wanna.

Book Reviews and Writer