The rider pulled back on the reins. The white warhorse took several steps back along the river bank, hesitated, then took a few more. "Good boy, Scoppio, good boy. I knew you could do it." The rider, wearing a full suit of armor, leaned forward and patted the neck of the big animal.
"It's almost sunrise, Scoppio; you've had your turn, now it's mine." The dark-haired boy, about fifteen, checked the helmet one more time, then put it on. He pushed the visor up, sat back in his saddle, and waited.
The ground spread out before them into a long narrow strip of turf. At the far end, dark against the early light, stood a tall wooden pole. A long iron spike stuck out from the top. From the spike an object the size of a man swung slowly in the morning breeze. Made of straw stuffed in a rusty suit of armor, the figure gazed blindly at the horse and rider.
The sun rose, catching the straw man by surprise and hurling his shadow across the new grass until it just touched the foot of the horse. "Easy, boy," the rider spoke soothingly, "just a bit longer."
The sun cleared the cathedral dome; its rays swept over the rider's armor, exploding into blinding shafts of light. The boy snapped his visor shut and faced squarely into the rising sun. A hundred paces away his target stood out clearly against the golden sky.
"Perfect! It works!" The rider winced at the echo of his words inside his helmet, but he was pleased. The new visor was just long enough to shield his eyes from direct sunlight. Now, he said, this time silently, let's see if it really works.
He sat back in the saddle, adjusted the shield on his left forearm, cradled the lance in his right arm, and gathered the reins. At a signal the warhorse leaped forward. His gait picked up quickly. Fifty paces from the target he broke into a full run.
The rider raised his lance until it pointed at the center of the straw man's breastplate. The target, outlined in brilliant sunlight, was still clearly visible through his visor.
Suddenly, without warning, a young boy appeared, waving his arms frantically. Instinctively the rider pulled back on the reins. The charging horse dug his front hooves into the ground, reared, spun around, and let out a loud whinny of protest.
"Easy, boy, easy." The rider, his visor thrown back, spoke sharply, then softly. "Good boy, easy; easy now."
The great animal heaved and pawed at the earth. Breath billowed from his nostrils. Finally, his energy spent, the horse came to a stop.
"Roberto, what are you doing here?" the rider shouted. "Why -- "
"The duke -- Lorenzo, the duke is on his way to your father's house -- look!" The boy pointed to the stone bridge that spanned the river just two hundred paces short of the armory. A party of knights was riding toward the entrance.
"Holy Mother -- the duke! My father -- the drawings! Roberto, here -- " In one motion Lorenzo slid off the saddle, handed the reins to Roberto, and started unbuckling his armor. "Walk him! And make sure he's dry before he drinks."
Lorenzo scrambled up the slope that led to the armory's lower entrance. The hoofbeats of the duke's escort sounded in his ears as he pulled open the heavy wooden door. Sweat streamed down his back as he struggled to free himself of his armor. He looked at his tunic; it was soaked through.
I can't appear this way before the duke, he thought. Above him, the unmistakable sound of men in armor warned him that he had little time to change.
Copyright © 2003 by Don Bolognese