The cheers from the gathered crowd sounded like a thunderous rain as the horses charged at each other, their hooves kicking up dirt from the grassy field. The two knights, fully armored for this joust, bent low over the heads of their equally well-protected mounts, their brightly striped lances gripped firmly. The white plume on the helmet of the challenger knight appeared defeated and submissive as it flattened under the rush of wind created by his speeding stallion. The champion shifted his shield to the front of his body, where the challenger could see it – a snarling red wolf strikingly painted against a black background. Through the slit in the challenger’s visor, the champion saw his opponent’s eyes widen in fear. Seconds later, the champion’s lance struck the challenger’s chest, the wooden tip crunching as it hit the man’s breastplate, and lifted him cleanly from his horse, depositing him roughly on the ground.
The crowd sprang to its feet, wild with applause and shouts of joy. The champion slowed his horse and turned, raising the visor of his helmet to reveal dark, impenetrable eyes. These orbs watched patiently as his staggering opponent was helped to his feet by his squire. Bryce Princeton waited for the defeated knight to stumble from the arena before he urged his horse around the field for his victory lap.
The peasants who lined the jousting field’s fence shouted his success. “Prince! Prince!”
The rush of power that surged through his veins at every joust, at every triumph, gave Bryce the feeling of invincibility. He savored the taste like a favored wine, relished the shouts. He had never known defeat, either in battle or in Tournament. As he rode past the nobles’ stand, all the women batted their eyelashes at him and some bent over the wooden railing to dangle their favors before him. He gladly accepted them – all of them. But he returned most of their heated, lusty gazes with a cool disdain. These pampered and powdered women brought only an occasional twinge of curiosity to his mind. They were all too much alike to be of any real interest. Some men cast him envious glances, while others seethed quietly. Finally, Bryce came to a halt before King Henry’s chair. He dismounted and bowed before his sovereign.
Henry grinned at him and stood. The king was a tall and muscular man, his brown hair trimmed in a bowl cut.
The crowd quieted as Bryce approached the stand. He slid his helmet from his head to reveal a thick mane of long black hair that fell to the middle of his shoulder blades. It gleamed in the sunlight, wet with moisture. His face was bronzed by the sun. There was an inherent power in the set of his jaw, the sensual curve of his lips, his dark eyes.
“You have done well today, as always,” King Henry said loudly so all could hear. “You are truly England’s champion.”
Huzzahs and gleeful shouts erupted into a deafening roar.
Henry bent toward Bryce. “Come, walk with me, Bryce,” he commanded.
Bryce led his mount across the field and handed the reins to his waiting squire as a small boy ducked under the wooden fence that surrounded the field and dashed up to him. Bryce smiled and ruffled the child’s dark hair as the boy exclaimed, “You were great!” His eyes shone with excitement and admiration. “I knew he wouldn’t defeat you.”
“You had doubts, Runt?” Bryce wondered, a mock frown drawing his lips into a pout.
“Never!” Runt exploded.
Bryce couldn’t help but smile at the pride and boundless love that emanated from those large, inquisitive blue eyes. Then he noticed the dirt that dusted Runt’s small hands as the boy reached for his helmet. Bryce quickly surveyed the boy’s brown cotton tunic, noticing with mild annoyance that it was spotted with mud. He ran a finger along one of Runt’s cheeks, leaving a trail of clean skin through the dirt. “You should bathe,” Bryce offered, showing him the smudge that stained his fingertip.
The boy groaned and shuffled his feet. “I hate bathing,” he mumbled.
Bryce sympathized with him. As a youth he had hated to bathe. It took up too much of his time and there were more important matters to attend to…such as imitating the knights. “A knight cannot meet the king with dirt on his face,” Bryce told him.
Runt nodded grudgingly. “All right.”
Bryce’s dark eyes searched the dais for his king. He found the platform empty and followed the path of rich blues and satiny golds of the court until he spotted the king heading for the streets that led into the town. As Bryce turned to leave, he heard Runt say, “I hope to be as great a knight as you.”
Bryce paused, turning back to the boy. Runt gazed up at him in wonder; his big blue eyes round with admiration. “You will,” Bryce promised, before moving toward the dais. A procession of fashionably dressed lords and ladies followed the king, as always, and Bryce was hard pressed to catch up with him with the weight of his plate armor impeding his movement. In his hurry, he almost stepped on a duke’s long green cloak. The duchess accompanying the duke turned a shy smile to Bryce, a wisp of her pleated coiffure at the very top of her head flapping with each step. Bryce bowed slightly and rushed by her. At a fast walk, he managed to reach King Henry as he stopped to speak with a man selling apple cider. “The cider is wonderful in the village. No matter how hard they try, my servants can never duplicate it,” King Henry told Bryce, lifting a goblet of it to his lips.
Bryce nodded absently. He glanced at the nobles trailing the king like well-trained falcons, vying for his attention. Bryce did not miss the contemptuous stares many of the nobles cast his way. He despised them and their pretentious ways. If they sought attention, they should act – take a castle, contribute finances to the impending war. Instead, they hoped to win the king’s favor with their beautiful clothing and their pretty faces and witty words. It was to Bryce’s credit that Henry chose to speak with him and not one of the fanciful dressers. The king was not a fool.
“I have been told it is a secret of the Rosa family,” the Earl of March said. He wore a golden houppelande that flowed to the ground and was embroidered with flowers. The edges of his long sleeves were cut in the shape of leaves and trimmed with jewels. He was the most prettily dressed of all the nobles.
“Yes, well…” The king waved a hand, dismissing the matter and the earl, and turned to continue down the dusty street. The sun was hot, the ground parched. The dust rose in little whirlwinds on the road before them.
Bryce walked at King Henry’s side, towering above most of the lords; even the king was dwarfed by his size. In plate mail, Bryce Princeton was an enviable vision.
“There are far too many ears in the streets, don’t you agree, Bryce?” King Henry wondered.
“Aye,” Bryce answered, and followed as the king cut through the village to the countryside.
The Earl of March tried vainly to keep up. He was panting hard when he produced a lace handkerchief and patted his forehead with it. “It is a hot day, isn’t it, my liege?” he called.
King Henry cast him a sour glance. “March, go see to the countess. I believe she is having as hard a time keeping up as you.”
Bryce’s gaze shifted to the countess. She had swooned into a man’s arms and was being eased to the ground. Most of the court had lagged behind by now, and it was quite apparent to Bryce that the king wished to speak with him in private. He wondered if the earl was truly so oblivious.
But the earl simply bowed, saying, “As you wish.”
King Henry continued into the grasslands of the countryside. Bryce followed, thinking it was becoming much too hot to be wandering through the countryside in sixty-six pounds of plate mail.
“How are things for you, Bryce?” King Henry asked, taking a sip of cider.
Bryce shrugged his large shoulders slightly. “Dark Castle is in capable hands. The peasants are producing enough to support the lands. I believe it will be a good year.”
Henry nodded. “Good.” He stopped walking and looked out over the fields that stretched before them. The wild grass seemed to sigh as a breeze drifted through the long blades that reached to Bryce’s mid-calf. “Then you are prepared to leave England at a moment’s notice?”
“Aye,” Bryce said anxiously. He had been waiting months for the fleet of English ships to cast off for France. “We leave soon, then?”
Henry gazed hard at Bryce. “There is rumor of a plot against my life. I fear that I may not get to France as soon as I would like.”
Bryce frowned, his body stiffening with suppressed anger. “My lord, I offer my services to find out if these rumors are true.”
Henry smiled a weary grin. “I have others who will be my ears and eyes.”
Bryce scowled, ready to object.
Henry continued, “No, Bryce, you are a fighter. I need you in France. I cannot leave England until this is resolved.” He lifted the goblet to his lips again and continued walking. Bryce followed.
“Have you heard anything of this French knight called the Angel of Death?” the king wondered.
Anxiety rippled through Bryce like a flag in a soft breeze. Bryce had heard of his deeds, but he knew little of the man. Still, the way the king had asked…it was as though he were being tested. “I have heard the name.”
Henry turned to Bryce, his inquisitive eyes asking for details, his raised eyebrows encouraging more.
“He has taken and held land for the Armagnacs,” Bryce continued, and watched as a smile tugged the king’s lips before he averted his gaze. Bryce’s brows drew together in confusion. “He does well for his country,” he added, shifting uneasily. He had somehow failed the test, and it annoyed him.
“Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” Henry chuckled.
“Is there more to know?”
“Much.” Gradually, Henry’s smiled faded and he slowed his pace. His words were thoughtful and full of woe as he spoke. “The Angel of Death has caused more enemy deaths than any other French lord. This knight is unlike any we have ever come across.”
“He is mortal. Blood runs through his veins. And that blood can be spilled.”
“According to rumor, this Angel of Death has ice for blood.”
“Pah. Rumor is the gossip of cowards.”
“Yes. I suppose it is – Prince of Darkness.”
Surprise rocked Bryce. He knew he shouldn’t have been amazed that the king had heard the name, but he could not suppress the shock that flooded his body. The rumors had traveled so fast….and so far! The court. It thrived on any kind of gossip. “The peasants labeled me that,” he explained.
“Not without reason, I hear.”
“I am merciless only to our enemies, my lord.”
“And that is why you must be the one to go to France and find the Angel of Death. There are ships waiting to take you and your army across the channel.”
“Do you wish to keep him for ransom?”
“I would prefer a ransom. We can use the finances for the war. But if you cannot take the knight captive, then take this angel’s life. I will join you in France as soon as I can.”
“As you wish, sire.” Bryce bowed slightly.
“Many men have fallen beneath the knight’s sword,” King Henry added. “Be cautious.”
Bryce nodded and took a step away.
The king stayed him once again with his hand. “I warn you, Bryce: do not underestimate the Angel of Death.”
King Henry watched Bryce Princeton stride away. Perhaps he should have told him. But if he knew the truth, Henry was sure he would underestimate their enemy by far too much. Besides, the man needed a jolt to disturb that confident gait of his. He only hoped Bryce would be able to kill this Angel of Death…when he found out she was a woman.
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