The midday sunlight washed down upon the tilting field. A dozen knights were busy practicing their skills in the arena set up in a field on the western side of Castle Delaney. Some of the men were on foot, clanging swords in mock battles. Others rode their muscular warhorses, practicing battle maneuvers. Several men worked diligently on their jousting skills.
Bria pulled her knees up to her chest, staring down at the men in the field. She sat beneath a large tree, watching her grandfather give orders to one of the younger men as he handed him a jousting pole. Her grandfather indicated the quintain in the center of the field with a wave of his hand. The man nodded and spurred his horse forward, riding toward the far side of the field.
Someone plopped down on the grass beside Bria. She swiveled her head to see Mary adjusting her patched skirt around her legs. Her friend shoved a strand of unruly dark brown hair behind her ear and attempted to pat the rest of the flyaway strands flat. Her brown eyes twinkled with glee. “Has anyone arrived yet?” Mary asked breathlessly. She liked this suitor business much more than Bria did.
Bria returned her dismayed gaze to the field. The young knight with the jousting pole had reached the far side of the field and was turning his steed to face the quintain. “Two. No one interesting, though.”
Mary chuckled. “I think if the Midnight Shadow himself walked through your door, you’d call him ‘not interesting’ to avoid marriage.”
“If the Midnight Shadow walked through my door, I’d jump at the opportunity to marry him!” Bria exclaimed. “But he isn’t going to walk into Castle Delaney.”
The young knight in the jousting field spurred his horse and it charged forward, kicking up small puffs of dirt in his wake. The knight leaned forward in the saddle, leveling his pole at the quintain.
“That’s your problem, Bria,” Mary explained, watching him. “No flesh-and-blood man will ever be as attractive as the imaginary one you’ve created in your head.”
The young knight hit the quintain, which spun rapidly. The soft bag hit him in his shoulder with enough force to throw him from his steed. He tumbled over the side of the animal, landing in a pool of dust.
Mary put her hands over her eyes and groaned.
Bria grimaced and murmured, “Well, we know he’s not the Midnight Shadow.”
Mary burst into laughter.
“Can you still meet me tonight?” Bria asked, elbowing her friend.
“Of course,” Mary replied.
Suddenly, the distant sound of trumpets filled the air.
Mary’s eyes widened and she strained to see toward Castle Delaney, where the sound was coming from.
Bria rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, sitting back against the tree. “Another suitor,” she said with disdain.
Mary giggled and grabbed Bria’s arm, trying to pull her to her feet. “Let’s go see.”
“Why?” Bria demanded, refusing to be lifted.
“With all that fanfare, he might be handsome!”
Bria huffed disinterest. Mary yanked her to her feet and pulled her down the slight rise toward the road leading from the village to Castle Delaney.
Before them, Castle Delaney rose mightily skyward, its rounded towers standing as sentinels at each corner of the grand structure, connected by massive walls that protected the inner wards of the castle. The drawbridge was lowered, the portcullis raised to welcome the guests marching across the bridge.
Bria looked closely at the arriving guests, trying to discern their heraldry. The red flag one of the riders held fluttered in a gentle breeze, giving a teasing glimpse of the crest of a lion.
Bria’s heart leaped slightly. She knew the crest. It was Lord Dysen and Garret!
Mary shook Bria’s arm in excitement as she, too, recognized the heraldry.
Garret! She hadn’t seen him in five years! Bria took a step forward, scanning the throngs. Dancing women waved translucent scarves as they moved to a minstrel’s flute; men on stilts called out to the castle guards; a caged bear growled as a guard stuck the tip of his sword into its cage.
Bria scowled. Why had Garret brought such a show with him? He usually just arrived with his father. These performers must have cost enough to feed a village for a winter. Oh no, she thought. Not Garret, too! She groaned slightly and rolled her eyes skyward. Please Lord, tell me Garret hasn‘t come for my hand in marriage! But as she returned her gaze to the jugglers and minstrels disappearing into the castle beneath the gatehouse, she knew Garret had.
Mary grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the castle. Bria had been away at her aunt’s castle the last time Garret and his father had visited two years ago, but Mary said he’d grown into a very handsome man. It was quite obvious Mary had been smitten by him, and still was. Her friend giggled whenever they spoke of him, and dramatically placed her hands over her heart whenever his name was mentioned.
But regardless of his newfound manhood and his handsome looks, he was still the Garret Bria had grown up with. He’d always be a brother to her. She couldn’t imagine him being anything more.
Mary all but dragged her over the drawbridge and beneath the gatehouse. Inside the outer courtyard, the retinue had come to a stop. Jugglers with brightly painted faces entertained the peasants milling around. Children raced in and out between the legs of men on stilts, screaming in joy. Shouts of awe arose from the onlookers as one of the stilted men teetered and then caught his balance. Somewhere a dog barked. Several onlookers cried out in delight as a man slowly lowered a sword down his throat.
Even as Bria gaped at the numerous entertainers, Mary continued to pull her through the outer courtyard and into the inner courtyard, all but leaping up and down in excitement. The large space overflowed with the front of the procession, a garrison of armored knights, their plate armor glinting in the sun.
Had any knights been left behind to guard Castle Dysen?
Behind the soldiers, a group of actors recited poetry, and behind them a group of dancing gypsies performed wonders with their gyrating bodies.
Mary jerked her forward again, and they wove their way through the peasants milling about, past a rotund blacksmith grabbing his stomach in laughter at one of the actors.
Bria searched the crowd, but there was too much movement for her to focus on any one thing. It was a scene more befitting a holiday than the arrival of family friends. More jugglers rushed about tossing bags of beans, and musicians played merry tunes. Everywhere, people were laughing and cheering.
Bria moved past the jugglers and stopped dead in her tracks as a masked man clad in a black cape and wielding a shimmering blade stepped in front of her. Bria gasped, her heart pounding with the ferocity of a madly galloping horse. Could it be? The Midnight Shadow standing mere feet from her?
Suddenly, a woman tossed an apple into the air, and the masked man brandished his sword, instantly slicing the apple cleanly in two. Onlookers clapped at the man’s show of skill.
Bria’s body slumped slightly, her heart slowing. He’s just part of the show, she thought. Just part of the show.
“There he is!” Mary exclaimed. She waved her hand high above her head and shouted his name. “Garret!”
Bria scanned the crowd, taking her gaze from the Midnight Shadow look-alike. “Where?” she demanded.
“Near the stairs of the keep,” Mary answered, continuing to wave her hand.
Bria scanned the steps near the keep, but there were too many people. “I can’t see him!”
Mary pulled Bria close. “There!” She pointed.
Bria followed her finger. She spotted Lord Dysen sitting atop a horse. He was speaking with someone on the stairs, but a man on stilts blocked her view of the person he was speaking with.
“Garret!” Mary screamed.
Bria pulled away from Mary and rubbed her ear, glancing at her in displeasure. When she turned back to search for Garret, she caught sight of a blond man dismounting a white horse, but she couldn’t see his face as he disappeared into the crowd.
Mary squeezed Bria’s wrist tightly. “He’s coming!” she whispered loudly and jumped up and down in delight.
Bria grinned at Mary’s thrill. She had to admit she was just as eager to see Garret as Mary was. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to see her friend amongst the crowd in the courtyard, but it was so full that every time she caught a glimpse of Garret, someone moved before her, obscuring her view.
Bria saw a hand waving at them above the crowd. Before she could get a glimpse of him, the hand was gone, swallowed by the undulating crowd. Finally, the curtain of peasants before them parted and Garret emerged from the throng.
Bria’s mouth dropped open. Golden blond hair swept down over strong shoulders. Garret was no longer the awkward, lanky child Bria remembered. His face had lost its thinness and had filled out; his jaw had squared. He was a knight now, a warrior. She felt an abyss of change open between them.
Then she looked into his eyes. There, in the twinkling blue depths, she found the Garret she knew and loved, the same boy she’d made a vow of friendship with all those years ago.
A smile of relief and of happiness stretched across her lips.
Garret stopped before her, his gaze sweeping her. For a moment, Bria thought he was going to take her hand and kiss it, marking a complete transformation into adulthood for both of them. Instead, Garret swept her into a tight embrace and whirled her around. Their laughter mingled.
When they parted, Garret swept Mary into a warm embrace. He kept his arm around Mary’s shoulder as he looked at Bria in awe. “You’ve grown,” he finally admitted.
Bria smiled. His sentiments mirrored her own. “I should hope so,” Bria answered. “Last time I saw you, I was but a child.”
“Yes.” Garret sighed. “As was I.”
Garret kissed Mary’s head and Bria watched the red bloom over Mary’s cheeks.
“And what of you, little woman?” he asked Mary. “What have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” Mary whispered shyly, looking up at him through lowered lashes.
Bria realized with a jolt Mary was flirting with Garret.
Garret’s smile stretched wider, revealing perfect white teeth.
And Garret knew it!
Their friendship would never be the same. The innocence of childhood had fled, and adult desires raged. He was a man now, and she and Mary were women.
“And what of you, Garret? I heard you went to war beside your father.”
Garret’s gaze swung to Bria, piercing her with the full intensity of his glorious blue-eyed stare, and he nodded, his eyes lighting up. “Have I got tales for you!” he began, but faltered. “Maybe we should speak of other things.”
Bria glanced at Mary and frowned. “Why would we speak of other things?”
“Well, you’re a lady now and –”
Bria smiled. “And maybe such talk offends me?”
“Well.” Garret shifted from foot to foot uneasily. “Well, yes.”
“When they didn’t offend me before?” Bria asked, poking fun at him. Garret had often told her of the dreams he had of slashing down the French, of ridding the land of tyranny. “I’m still the same girl, Garret, as I’m sure you’re the same boy.”
Garret shrugged slightly.
Bria reached out to squeeze one of his biceps. His flesh was firm with powerful muscles distinguishing him as a strong warrior. “These are real, aren’t they?”
“I should say so!” Garret squeaked in objection.
A grin stretched Bria’s lips and Mary covered her mouth against her giggles.
Garret glanced from Bria to Mary and back again. He shook his head, smiling. “Yes, you are the same girl.” He grasped her hands tightly. “And it’s good to see you. I missed you the last time I was here.”
Bria smiled at him. “Me, too.”
“Come on,” Mary called. “Let’s go watch the knights practice.”
Garret nodded. “I’ll meet you there. I must say hello to Lord Delaney.”
Mary raced off through the crowd toward the practice field. Bria turned to join her, but Garret grabbed her arm.
“Do you still sword fight with your grandfather?”
Bria nodded, but quickly hushed him, looking from side to side to see if anyone had heard. Her father would never approve, so she and her grandfather kept it a well-guarded secret. Garret wouldn’t have known except he’d followed her out of the castle one night long ago when the Dysens had been visiting. He’d discovered them fighting. She’d sworn him to secrecy.
“Have you beaten him yet?” Garret wondered.
Bria shook her head, a grimace of disappointment crossing her features.
“I’ve got a move guaranteed to disarm him. Are you interested?” Garret asked, a smile curving his lips.
“Am I!” Bria almost exploded with excitement.
“Meet me tomorrow morning in the field where you practice,” he whispered.
Two swords crossed under a slitted moon, their metal blades clanging as they collided. The moon shimmered in the cold steel, its reflection clear and bright.
“Come on, girl, you can do much better than that.” Harry watched Bria smile. She was beautiful. Who would have thought such a gangly girl would grow into such an elegant lady? Her long brown hair hung loosely in large curls about her shoulders; her lips were full and rose red, the blue of her eyes rivaled that of the sky — eyes that right now stared at him with the heated blue of a fire’s core. She would indeed make a fine wife. It was just that defiant, determined streak she had to be wary of. Men wanted at least some semblance of subservience from their women.
The blades pushed hard against each other, then abruptly separated, the slender steel screeching as the weapons slid free of each other. Bria swung, but Harry backed away and her blade whistled through the empty air. She swung again, but this time Harry caught her swing and grabbed her wrist, bringing her in close so they were practically nose to nose.
“You’re angry because your father finally made the decision to find you a husband.” He pushed away from her and swung. “You’re fighting with your emotions today, not with reason.”
She ducked and spun away from him. “I am not,” she insisted, then countered with an arc to his head. He blocked her blow, knowing she was lying because of the intensity with which she fought.
It took all his concentration to match her move and block it. “It’s time, Bria. You should have been married long ago,” he said.
She was quick, much quicker than he was. And she was smart, despite her emotions warring to take control. He could see her mind working as she lunged. But experience won out, and he was still able to thwart her strike. He caught her sword with his and twisted his wrist. He had disarmed her more than once with that move. It worked again tonight. Her sword went sailing through the air.
Disappointment surged within him. Even though she was getting better and better each night they sparred, he was still disappointed in her lack of self-control. Yet, it was only a matter of time before she disarmed him. Then he’d have nothing further to teach her. That would be the biggest disappointment of all.
Bria cursed quietly and stomped after her sword. Before she could reach it, Harry put the tip of his sword to her neck. “Yield,” he ordered.
Again, she mumbled a curse. “I yield,” she added grudgingly, and moved to proceed past him.
He kept the sword to her neck. “Why were you disarmed?”
Her jaw worked as she clenched her teeth. “I was overanxious. I thought I had you that time. Just like all those other times.” She shoved the sword from her neck and marched past him to her weapon, yanking it from the ground. She swung it through the air, hacking the breeze assaulting her. “I’ll never get it.”
“You’ll get it,” he said, kindly. “You just have to learn patience. You want to win, but you’re not willing to wait for an opening.”
“You make your own openings,” she countered.
“When you’re good enough,” he agreed, approaching her, “and when you realize you’ll never be stronger than a man. You have to wait for an opening. You can’t fight aggressively. You have to fight defensively. Always.”
Bria rolled her large blue eyes. “I know, I know.”
“But you don’t know, or you wouldn’t be disarmed.”
She handed her sword to him. He took the handle of the weapon. “Don’t stay out too long. Your father is suspicious enough.”
“I know,” she murmured. She walked toward the thick forest just beyond the clearing where two horses were tethered to a tree.
Harry shook his head in admiration. She was already better than most men he knew, but he dared not tell her that.
Suddenly, she paused and turned to look at him. Her long, dark brown hair cascaded over her shoulder as she stared at him. “Thank you, Grandfather.”
Harry smiled and nodded. “It’s my pleasure.” She was his joy, his treasure. She was the only spark in his otherwise tedious life at the castle. He would grant her the moon, but teaching her to sword fight was a hell of a lot easier.
One of these times, he knew he’d have to stop her from riding out to her secret meetings with her friend Mary. The world was becoming much too dangerous a place for her to be out late at night on her own.
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