The choir of voices ascended to the far corners of the cathedral, where sculptured angels listened with somber faces to the Latin words. Shining white marble pillars spiraled down to the steps of the great altar. At the top stair stood King Charles VI. Behind him stood eight small boys dressed in immaculate white robes, each holding a red velvet pillow with golden tassels at each corner. Upon every silky velvet pillow there rested a resplendent sword. Above and behind the boys, golden statues of saints stretched out their cold arms in welcome and forgiveness with unseeing eyes.
The king shifted his regal stance, his gaze locked on the tall wooden doors at the back of the church. He knew eight young men waited anxiously outside, their breath tight in their chests, their palms slick with nervous sweat. Each one would enter as a squire filled with a boy’s apprehension, and each one would leave as a knight of the realm filled with a warrior’s pride.
One of the banners caught his eye. It was for Ryen De Bouriez, the third son of Baron Jean Claude De Bouriez. King Charles scanned the mass of people before him until they came to rest on two men – the elder De Bouriez brothers. They were tall, even by knightly standards. Lucien was fair; his honeyed hair, blue eyes, and boyish looks were rumored to have cost more than one maiden her virtue. Andre was dark, with chestnut eyes and a heart of gold. Both were skilled warriors, and this pleased the king, for he knew Ryen would make an excellent addition to his troops. He studied the brothers closely. They shifted from foot to foot nervously; even Andre, who was usually so calm, seemed unsettled. The king frowned. Perhaps the two giants were uncomfortable with the civil surroundings and were eager to be out of the church. King Charles sympathized. The De Bouriezes were, after all, known for their prowess in battle, not their sociability.
The king glanced over row upon row of nobles in their elegant satins and velvets. The Countess of Burgundy was there. Not far from her, the flamboyant golden caul headdress of the Duchess of Orleans caught his eye. Slowly, his brow creased into a frown as he finished surveying the attending nobility. Where was Ryen’s father?
The choir of voices that had filled the chamber suddenly ended, their last echoes resonating throughout the cathedral until they slipped away into nothingness.
Glancing toward the trumpeters awaiting his signal in the balcony, King Charles nodded. When they put the long golden horns to their lips, the triumphant music began. All eyes turned to the heavy oak doors at the back of the church as they slowly creaked open.
Eight squires advanced down the long carpeted aisle, one behind the other.
Sunlight streamed in from the stained glass windows, reflecting brilliantly off the shining silver-and-gold plate mail of the approaching men. King Charles squinted as a ray of light shone in his eyes. He tried to be a fair man, judging all men equally, but he found himself anxious to see Ryen De Bouriez, around whom so much controversy swirled. The first time his name had reached the king’s ears, it was with the capture of Castle Picardy, the feat that had earned him his knighthood. King Charles had heard the same story three times, and with each telling Ryen’s achievements had seemed to grow until they were of Herculean proportions. Since then, the name Ryen De Bouriez had arisen time and time again in casual conversation. The man’s strategic maneuvers were ingenious.
The initiates climbed the stairs to the great altar and bowed before the king, then stepped aside to form a row before their lord. As the squire preceding De Bouriez bowed, King Charles tried not to seem obvious as he peered over the top of the man’s head to get a glimpse of Ryen. Finally, like a curtain being drawn, the squire stepped aside and Ryen De Bouriez was revealed to King Charles. The initiate still wore his helmet. All traces of astonishment disappeared as anger descended over the king. It was disrespectful for anyone to wear a helmet in the house of God. The young man’s headgear covered most of his face except for his eyes. King Charles could see the striking blueness of them; they shimmered in the shadows of his helmet like a great cloudless sky. His gaze raked the young man again. He is very small indeed, the king thought. I cannot believe the great Baron De Bouriez squired this runt. Perhaps De Bouriez is absent because he is embarrassed by his son’s size.
Under his scrutiny, the king saw Ryen’s deep blue eyes fill with pride, and something else. Before he could discern what that strange spark was, Ryen fell to one knee, bowing his head in reverence.
Somewhat pacified, King Charles commanded quietly, “Remove your helmet, Ryen,” and turned to retrieve a ceremonial sword cushioned upon a pillow of velvet. As he reverently removed the sword, the king heard rustling and the clang of armor behind him and knew Ryen was removing his helmet.
Suddenly, a collective gasp spread through the crowd like the wind whistling through a field of wheat.
King Charles whirled at the sound. His eyes grew wide and he gaped as the reason for the young man’s diminutive stature became quite apparent. The “man” was not a man at all!
He was a she!
Why, she could be no more than fifteen! Amazement rocked him like a blow to his stomach, leaving him breathless and stunned. The girl’s soft dark hair cascaded in waves over the metal shoulder plates. Her nose was a delicate sculpture of perfection, her lips full. Her chin was strong, with a slight cleft etched into it. Beauty shimmered beneath her childlike features. She had the innocent face of a cherub…an angel. King Charles stared for a long moment.
The king knew now what that look in her sapphire eyes had been: defiance. It accented her features with determination.
The king turned to glance at her brothers. Andre had suddenly found interest in a piece of imaginary lint on his spotless white velvet tunic, and Lucien was studying the painted angels on the stained glass windows. King Charles’s lips thinned and his gaze returned to Ryen.
A girl! How had she been able to keep this secret? he wondered.
King Charles stared in shock. No wonder Baron De Bouriez is not here, he thought. He gripped the sword tightly until his knuckles hurt with the effort. He knew he should not knight her, that she should be punished for her audacity, but her deeds surpassed the defiance that her stubborn raised little chin represented. He wanted her in his army, needed her strategic skills. These were desperate times.
He lifted the sword in a sweeping gesture and saw her body stiffen, as if expecting a blow. He brought the sword down, lightly touching the tip of the blade to each of her shoulders in the customary colee, finishing with, “Rise, Sir Ryen De Bouriez.”
The young girl slowly and unsteadily rose to her feet. Her large eyes were wide, ringed with happiness; her rosy lips were parted in disbelief.
King Charles bent close to her and laid his hand on her shoulder. “Ryen, the road before you will be laced with hardship. Be a true knight, and courageous in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright. And remember that you spring from a bloodline that has always been strong.”
“I shall,” Ryen said earnestly, her expression solemn.
The king held out the sword to her. Ryen carefully took the gleaming blade in her bare palms and pressed her lips to it before accepting it from King Charles’s hands. She studied the sword for a quick moment; a flash of pride lighting up her soft features, then slid it into the scabbard at her waist.
King Charles leaned in close to whisper, “However, if you or your brothers ever pull a trick like this again, I will have your heads.” He straightened to his full height and proclaimed, “Now. Be thou a knight.”
Ryen bowed, giving King Charles her loyalty and her gratitude. The king repeated the knighting seven more times, after which he stood back and watched as the men – and the woman – turned as one to face the congregation. Ryen led the way down the aisle. As she passed her awestruck brothers, the king watched Ryen shoot them a smug look of triumph. Throwing her shoulders back, holding her chin high, Sir Ryen De Bouriez strolled confidently past the mass of whispering people.
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