* * *
Balfrith and Aingeall sat together at the table in the study room, across the hall from Aingeall’s bedroom. It was evening, and they didn’t usually have lessons after supper, but their father had said during the meal that there was a special lesson for them prepared this night, and they were to wait here for their tutor to arrive. And so, they waited.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a long wait. Leofred entered not long after they did, and immediately announced, “This evening’s lesson is about the knights of Nûmidëa. Specifically, we shall learn about the Vigil of Arms, the rite of passage that all squires must pass through before they are promoted to knighthood. But, rather than listening to me lecture on the topic, we have a singular opportunity tonight. Your father, duke Osric, will be dubbing a new knight into his service tomorrow. And today, that squire has begun his preparations for tomorrow’s ceremony. He has already spent the day fasting, and will neither eat nor drink from sunrise this morning until after the ceremony at sunrise tomorrow morning. He has also undergone several ritual ablutions throughout the day, in order to cleanse his body, mind and spirit. These are private things, between the squire, the chapel servants, and the One.”
Leofred paused for a moment. “But tonight, we will be allowed to watch the beginning of the Vigil of Arms, in which the squire will spend the night, from sunset to sunrise, praying and fasting before his weapons and armor, dedicating himself and his equipment to the service of the One, and to his lord Osric.” He looked at Balfrith then, and said, “Someday, your oldest brother Aldfrid will pass through this same ceremony. And your brother Wilfrid will be his squire, from that day forward.”
And what of me? thought Balfrith, bitterly. His older brothers had already been taught these things, of course - and they’d used the information to tease Balfrith, and say that he had no place among the knights of Nûmidëa. Which was technically true, since only the eldest son of a lord was elevated to knighthood. On rare occasions, a second son was elevated if he earned honor on the battlefield, or if his brother was slain. But for third and later sons, it was almost unheard of. No, those boys were most often sent off to the university, or to the monastery, or, on rare occasions, sent to the king’s court to find a position as a low-level functionary.
Leofred interrupted his thoughts, saying, “Remember, we must be silent upon reaching the chapel. The squire is not to be disturbed during his vigil, or the ceremony is tainted and must be started again. If you have any questions, it is best to ask them now - or hold them until after we have left the chapel.”
Aingeall looked up at Leofred, and asked, “What does the squire pray about for all that time?”
Their tutor nodded, saying, “That is a complicated question, but a good one. There is a litany of things which the squire must pray through, regarding the confession of personal failures, asking the One for strength to do what is right no matter the cost, and even praying for his enemies. But it isn’t enough to fill twelve hours of prayer time, so much of that is left to the squire, to pray as he feels the need. We will not be allowed to hear him pray - that is a private matter, as is most of the vigil. We will only be allowed to observe from a distance. Do you have any other questions?” He looked at Aingeall, then Balfrith.
“Which of father’s squires is being promoted?” asked Balfrith.
Leofred had to think for a moment, then said, “I believe it is Guthlaf.”
Leofred then looked at them for a moment, waiting. Seeing there were no further questions, he nodded, and said, “Alright, then we shall walk over to the chapel. You may ask me any questions you wish as we go, but remember that upon reaching the entrance, you must be silent from that moment, until after we have left and are walking back to the manor house. Understood?”
Balfrith and Aingeall nodded their agreement, and the three of them left, walking out the door and down the stairs to the main floor, and their father’s great Hall.
It was a brief walk across the yard to the small family chapel, where they paused outside the double doors and Leofred once again admonished them to keep their silence. Then he quietly opened one door, and they stepped inside, staying at the back of the chapel so as not to disturb the squire in his prayers.
Squire Guthlaf was a young man, one whom Balfrith had known for a few years, though they weren’t exactly friends. He was closer in age to Aldfrid, and those two had been friends and companions as far back as Balfrith could remember. He knelt at the front of the chapel, dressed in some sort of multi-layered robes in different colors: white, red and black. Those aren’t my father’s colors, thought Balfrith. I wonder what they signify? Before he said anything, Balfrith remembered he was to keep his silence, and so he saved this question for later.
Balfrith could see that he knelt directly before the altar, and there were pieces of armor and a sword laid out upon it. He supposed that, as Leofred had mentioned, he was praying over each item to ask for the One’s blessing. As they watched, Guthlaf took the sword from the altar, stood it point-down on the floor with his hands on its hilt, and resumed praying with his head bowed.
As they continued watching for a time, Guthlaf replaced the sword upon the altar, then took a piece of armor, and held it in his hands while he bowed his head over it, still praying. This continued, as he went through each piece of equipment on the altar, so that Balfrith found himself growing bored and restless. Was this all there was to it?
As he began looking around the chapel for something of interest, Guthlaf suddenly called out, loud enough for them to hear him clearly. Balfrith looked back, and now the squire had his arms out-stretched before the altar, still kneeling, but with his head raised. He said, “O Great Lord, I am not a good man, and I have no honor save that with which all men are born. But I promise you now, to conduct myself in all ways to the best of my strength, in word and deed. If you will accept my service, I promise to walk with honor and integrity for all of my days. I will serve you, and my lord Osric, and strive to bring honor to both.” At that, Guthlaf’s voice broke, and he bowed his head, and said no more. Balfrith saw his shoulders shaking - Did he weep? He couldn’t tell, and was afraid to ask.
Leofred turned, gestured to Balfrith and Aingeall, and opened the door quietly to lead them out. They stepped out into the dark evening, and Leofred closed the door once again.
Turning to them, he said quietly, “I did not expect such a display from the squire, and you should not have seen that. Please keep this to yourselves, for it was a private thing between Guthlaf and the One, not to be shared with others. And now, if you have any questions - about anything other than his last prayer - you may ask.”
Balfrith remembered his question, and spoke up. “What were the colors of the robes he wore? They aren’t our family colors - do they mean anything?”
Leofred smiled now, and said, “Ah, I’m glad you noticed that. Yes, the three robes, each in a different color, all have their meaning. First, and underneath all, he wears a white robe signifying his purity. As I mentioned before, he had undergone several ritual ablutions prior to the Vigil. After those cleansing rituals, he donned the white robe. Next came the red robe, which signifies his willingness to shed his own blood in service to the One, and to his lord. Finally, the black robe is worn to signify death, the thing which all knights must face and which no knight may fear. Those are the various meanings of his multi-colored robes.”
Balfrith nodded, satisfied.
Leofred said, “I have a few other comments about the Vigil or Arms, so we shall return to the study room for a short while, and then I will send you to your beds.”
They continued on their way back to the house, and up the stairs to the study room, to complete the lesson.