Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 448 - 209
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"May the victor approach the place of honor to receive Ascalon from His Holiness!"

Maxi finally let out the breath she had been holding. Despite her best efforts to appear composed, she could not stop trembling.

"Are you all right, my lady?" Gabel asked, looking concerned.

Maxi nodded, her eyes still fixed on Riftan. She was torn between the urge to hit him or pull him into a crushing embrace. Her body practically ached with the desire to run to the arena and check him over thoroughly.

As her husband ascended to the place of honor, where the monarchs of each kingdom sat, a man in a purple robe declared, "Remove your helmet and pay obeisance!"

Riftan removed his helmet, revealing a face as cold and hard as steel, cast in a pale gray shadow. The noblewomen around Maxi gasped in awe, and she immediately understood why. He embodied the very essence of a knight.

After passing his helmet to a servant, Riftan got down on one knee before the seven thrones. As the roaring cheers in the stadium subsided, the pope, dressed in a snow-white cassock and golden mozzetta, slowly stood.

"Raise your head."

Riftan looked up at God's earthly representative.

“Not only have you impressed us with your unrivaled swordsmanship, but you have also shown the true spirit of chivalry,” the pope said in a gentle, yet commanding voice. “You have proven yourself worthy of the holy sword before everyone here.”

Maxi swallowed, feeling her mouth go dry.

The pope swept his gaze over the spectators, then signaled to a cleric in a somber black habit standing behind him. The cleric approached Riftan, carrying a chest about two kevvettes in size.

"You have valiantly proven yourself, Riftan Calyspe. I shall now bestow upon you the holy sword as promised."

As soon as the pope finished speaking, the cleric lowered the iron-framed chest before Riftan and opened the lid. Maxi craned her neck forward. Though the distance made it difficult to make anything out clearly, she could see what looked like a worn hilt resting on crimson satin. Riftan peered at the quite ordinary-looking relic before reaching toward it.

Maxi tensed. Was he intending to test the legend? A hush fell over the stadium.

In this breathless quiet, Riftan grasped the edge of the chest. Maxi heard someone gulp loudly.

A faint light emanated from the chest. Or was she imagining it? She widened her eyes, trying to confirm if what she was seeing was real.

Then, in a swift motion, Riftan closed the chest lid. The audience, previously waiting with bated breaths, began to buzz with murmurs. Paying no mind to the reaction, Riftan offered the chest back to the pope.

"Your Holiness, being deemed worthy of the holy sword is honor enough," he said in a calm voice that bordered on indifference.

The murmurs grew louder. Though his statement was respectful, it was a clear refusal.

Glancing around, Maxi saw disappointment etched on many faces. Some even sneered, suggesting Riftan was too scared to test the legend.

She was furiously glowering at them when Riftan spoke again.

"Ascalon is a treasure that belongs to the people of the Seven Kingdoms. Its significance is too great to be kept in a small fiefdom at the southern end of the Roviden Continent. If His Holiness would allow it, I would like to return the holy relic to the altar as an offering for the eternal peace and harmony of the Seven Kingdoms."

This explanation seemed to appease the murmuring nobles, though a sense of disappointment still lingered.

Maxi turned her attention to the spectators. The stadium was a mosaic of reactions - some grumbled in disappointment, while others smiled, content at having witnessed the continent's greatest knight in combat. A few looked outright angry. Among the travelers who had journeyed far for a glimpse of Ascalon, open jeers could be heard.

To think that such a moment of honor could change so quickly.

The depth of the crowd's disappointment seemed as great as their prior expectations. Maxi looked at her husband with concern. He stood firm, awaiting the pope's response. The pope, however, remained silent, his gaze fixed intently on the knight before him.

The silent confrontation stretched on until a faint ray of light fell over Riftan. Maxi looked up. Sunlight pierced through the gray clouds, dispelling the threat of rain. She was admiring the golden light streaming into the damaged arena when she sensed a shift in the air. Moments ago, the crowd had been vocal in their disappointment, but now they stared at the Remdragon Knight commander as though a sacred moment were unfolding before them.

Maxi soon understood why. Sunlight beamed down on the chest in Riftan's arms. It was a timely coincidence, one the pope seemed eager to imbue with meaning.

"God appears pleased by your offering," he declared for all to hear.

Immediately, the atmosphere within the stadium transformed. Awe-struck, many began to pray, while others traced the symbol of faith across their chest, seeking divine protection.

"I accept your offering," the pope called out, taking the chance to bolster the pious atmosphere. "Furthermore, I will honor your request and enshrine Wigrew's sword in the Grand Basilica of Osiriya's main chapel, so that all who seek God's blessing may receive it."

As the pope's words concluded, chants of Riftan's name filled the air. Maxi's heart began to race. When the pope bent down to accept the chest, the crowd's enthusiasm reached a fever pitch.

Gabel, who had been observing silently, cracked a smile. "What a dramatic conclusion."

Maxi nodded, a wave of relief washing over her. Not only was Riftan saved from ridicule, but the peace of the Seven Kingdoms was now cast as God's will. He had accomplished what he had set out to do in the tournament.

She watched proudly as her husband stood, bathed in the expanding ray of light that illuminated his sculpted bronze features and silver armor. His dazzling appearance further ignited the crowd's enthusiasm. Riftan slowly turned and began descending the steps to thunderous applause.

Maxi could no longer sit still. Grabbing her robe, she was about to rush to his side when she saw him stop in the middle of the arena.

Confusion flickered across her face. Was it not over yet? He looked more solemn now than when offering the holy sword back to the pope. His gaze swept over the monarchs, the multitude of nobles, and the ten thousand spectators.

When his eyes finally met hers, Maxi felt an inexplicable shiver.

"I ask everyone here today to bear witness to my oath," Riftan said for all to hear.

The noisy stadium once again fell into silence. Every citizen of the Seven Kingdoms knew what those words meant.

Riftan slowly crossed the arena and climbed his way to her. The armed guards readily withdrew their spears to allow him entry into the stands.

Maxi did not dare to blink as she watched him approach. As he stopped near the top of the stairs, the spectators collectively held their breath. This was the most important moment in a knight's life, and no one was fool enough to interrupt.

Riftan crouched on one knee before her. Soon, he began to speak the sacred words of the oath a knight could only pledge once in his life.

"I place my head at the feet of my king,

My body on the dirt of the battlefield,

And my heart in the palm of your hand."

Maxi's hand flew to her mouth, covering her trembling lips. Riftan looked up at her, and in his warm eyes, now free of all pain, anxiety, and troubles, Maxi saw her reflection. It was those eyes that made her feel like the noblest of women.

In a low but resolute voice, Riftan recited the last verse of the geas.

"My honorable lady,

Will you grant me the honor of becoming your knight?"

Maxi blinked. Though she wanted to offer him an elegant smile like the princesses and the ballads, it was impossible.

Tears blurred her vision, spilling over her cheeks. The desire to embrace him and sob like a child was overwhelming, But she restrained herself in the presence of the world's greatest knight. With immense effort, she willed her shaking legs to stand.

"I-"

Her voice broke so pitifully that she paused. She bunched her skirt in her fist, determined not to ruin this moment. She would not allow it. Gathering her strength, she lifted her head high, cleared her throat, and spoke with newfound clarity.

"I gladly grant you the honor."

Thunderous cheers shook the stadium. Maxi gazed down at her husband, her eyes shimmering with emotion. His shone with pure joy.

She could not hold back anymore. Leaning forward, she wound her arms around his neck. His laughter mingled with the deluge of fervent cheers and blessings. Dizzy with happiness, Maxi squeezed her eyes shut.

Flashes of their journey together raced through her mind - from the day he arrived at Croyso Castle to lead her into the world, through their tranquil days at Calypse Castle, her quest to join him on the battlefield, their heartbreaking separation, and their passionate reunion three years later. Their love now was stronger than ever.

Looking up to meet his eyes, a fiery joy surged from the depths of her heart. In that moment, she realized she had been put on this earth to meet this person.

I was born to love this man.

She pressed her lips to his in a gentle kiss - her knight, whom she had waited so long for.

His beautiful eyes shone with even greater intensity. Those eyes, she knew, would be etched in her memory until the end of time.

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