2. Smashing Pumpkins (teaser)

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A sizable crowd had already gathered at the practice pitch by the time Mavick arrived. Knowing the drill, his trusted warhorse, Warhammer, took up position at the end of the wooden barrier. With the square-haunches of an ox and a rock crusher for a head, an uglier mount one could not have asked for, but there was more to Warhammer than met the eye. Quick-minded and cool-tempered, the old warhorse had a knack for sizing up situations on and off the battlefield. At the moment, it turning in a slow circle to give Mavick the opportunity to take in the crowd, which in years past, would have been full of admiring spectators.

At a gesture from Lucius, a pair of squires hustled forward with a large pumpkin which they mounted onto a ballasted turnstile at the other end of the pitch. The pumpkin had a storied history as a jousting target. It came in a variety of sizes for all skill levels, and it had one chief advantage over wood: it provided the satisfaction of smashing something to bits. That aside, tilting against the Pumpkin Prince hardly made for a crowd-pleasing spectacle. How then to explain this sea of shifty and expectant faces?

Mavick didn't like the look of this pumpkin either. It was enormous, more than double the size of the previous one. If Lucius wanted him to miss, why would he give him such a large target to aim at? As if to mock him, someone had gouged out a pair of squinty eyes and a jagged grin.

"I left my gloves in my pack," Mavick told Lucius. "I'm sure you wouldn't object if I sent my squire to fetch them." If this was some kind of trick, perhaps Darien had caught wind of it and could alert him to its hidden dangers. There was no one more loyal than his squire. Now where had he gotten off to?

"Are your hands sweaty?" Lucius asked with a grin that might have inspired the pumpkin carver.

"No, but the last person's to use this lance were."

Scowling, Lucius tossed him his own gloves. "You can use mine. Try not to get them soiled."

As he was donning the gloves, Mavick made one last attempt to sort out the situation. He sniffed an ambush, but he couldn't tell what direction it might come from. Was sabotage involved or were they counting on him making a donkey's ass of himself all on his own? Trick or not, there was nothing to be done for it now. Backing out at this point would be worse than anything Lucius might have cooked up for him.

"Now, if you're quite through stalling..." Lucius cut in.

Mavick flexed his hands and tested his grip on the lance. "Who's stalling?"

"Hit it between the eyes." Lucius put two of fingers up to the bridge of his nose. "If you can."

"Oh, I'll hit it between the eyes all right. When I'm through with it, you won't be able to find two pumpkin seeds together."

Patting Warhammer's neck, he squared up to the wooden barrier. The freshly churned lane stretched out dark and welcoming before him, littered with the smashed rinds of previous targets. He lowered the visor and seated the lance. When he leaned forward in the saddle, Warhammer reacted instinctively, peeling back his lips in a primal whinny before launching like a shot put toward their crooked-grinned adversary.

With the familiar weight of the javelin in his right hand and the percussion of powerful hooves thrumming in his bones, Mavick was transported in his mind from the pumpkin-strewn practice pitch to the freshly raked soil of a tourney barrier. His ears filled with sound: the dull thunder of applause, the frenzied shrieks of children as they played at impaling each other, the snapping of banners, the skirling of trumpets, and the fluting cheers of maidens both shy and bold. The smell of freshly-turned earth, sweaty skin and oiled leather mixed with the fragrance of perfumes, sizzling fat and steaming hotbreads. Decked out in their finest regalia, the nobility looked down from their shaded pavilions in barely concealed envy, wishing for once that their roles were reversed.

At the center of it all was Mavick. The Embroiderer, they used to call him, as many a man he tilted against came away with some fine new stitching. It was said that he could put a lance through the eye of a needle, and they were not far from wrong. During one legendary stretch, he had gone almost two years without losing a single match, including his crowning victory at Dansing Downs where he unseated three of the greatest knights ever to ride the barriers: Dolce of Erymis, Katch Klakken and the Emerald Knight.

Mavick floated lightly atop Warhammer's back, his seat hardly touching the saddle even as thick muscles bunched and released beneath him. His knees absorbed the shocks so that his lance remained perfectly level with the ground at all times. He recalled the words of his master, Gannamoten, already many years in his grave, Jousting is about equilibrium. Aim arises from symmetry. Force flows from balance.

A split second before impact, he leaned forward and pumped his arm, imparting extra reach and force to the blow. Against a literal vegetable it was an unnecessary measure, but the motion had long ago become second nature. His wounded shoulder gave a painful twinge but his aim held true. The tip of the lance struck the Pumpkin Prince flush between the eyes and drove straight through with such force that the melon literally flew to pieces.

To those watching, it appeared as if Mavick had galloped full tilt into a very large pie. Despite the pumpkin shell, however, the filling was distinctly unpumpkin-like, a deep crimson the color of black cherries. It splattered in all directions, drenching horse and rider.

It happened so fast that Mavick didn't know what hit him. One moment he was lancing a pumpkin and the next he was awash in blood. It sprayed into his eyes like a crimson rain. He could taste the saltiness on his tongue, smell it in his nose. Now it was welling up from inside him, filling his mouth, his stomach, his lungs. He clutched at his wounded side, trying to staunch the flow. The world tilted violently then went dark. He didn't even feel himself hit the ground.

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