Authors: Rachelle McCalla
Perhaps, if Gisela saw him fighting, her respect for him would grow. She might even pass on word of his prowess to her father. At the very least, his men would recognize his skills. He’d need their trust if he was to lead them into battle. Everything Luke had told him at the border indicated a battle was inevitable.
“Hurry, then.” John nodded to Renwick. “Help me with my gear.”
They paused while Renwick passed on the order to enter King John in the tournament. Then Renwick laced up the king’s leather and chain mail armor. They arrived just in time for his round to start.
John lowered his mask over his face and took his stance facing his opponent. Though he scorned war and violence, there was, as the Bible said, a time for war and a time for peace.
King John was a man of peace. But if war was inevitable, he wanted his men to know that he was fully prepared to handle it. And though he didn’t see her on any of the balconies or in the courtyard-facing windows, John felt confident that Princess Gisela was watching from somewhere and would see that he was a capable swordsman and a worthy leader.
* * *
Princess Gisela was grateful to finally have an off round in which to catch her breath, refresh herself and monitor how her tournament was going. If the loud cheering that echoed through the courtyard was any indication, it was a rousing success. Still, she felt a sense of duty to stay informed of all that was happening. In spite of rules to insure safety, there was always the risk of someone being accidentally decapitated.
After passing by the board listing the winners and noting her rising arms, she found Renwick, one of King John’s favored messengers, watching a match on the east wing.
“How goes it, Ren?” She addressed him familiarly, having worked beside him for the past two days to prepare for the tournament.
“Splendid.” The guard fairly beamed. “King John returned in time to enter.”
Gisela tried to ignore the way her stomach swooped at the mention of the king’s name, but it was all she could do to school her features into an impassive expression. “Which arms are his? Are they the same as the banner that hangs behind his throne?”
“A modified smaller version. The proportions are off.” Renwick dismissed her question with a wave of his hand. “I don’t recognize any of the men by their arms. It doesn’t matter much to me. What matters is that the king is doing quite well.” He pointed toward the figures battling in the piste. “He’s all but won this round, and it’s only just begun.”
Gisela turned her attention to the masked men. She didn’t have to ask which one was the king. His stature and bearing gave him away, as did his skill with the sword, which was, as Renwick had suggested, far superior to that of his opponent.
She found she couldn’t tear her eyes away from him, and as the milling crowd blocked her view, she clambered up higher on the bleachers to watch the king parry. In the time he’d been gone, she’d told herself over and over again that she felt for him only respect, admiration and gratitude for all he’d done for her.
And yet, watching him, her heart pounded with emotions that felt far more like affection, attraction and awe. The man moved with grace and fought with zeal, his fierce masculinity holding her attention, making it impossible for her to look away. Every time his opponent’s sword flashed near him, Gisela felt herself cringing in fear that he could be injured. Yet the skillful king didn’t let the other swordsman get a point on him.
King John had skill and strength, but most thrilling of all was his ability to anticipate the way his opponent was about to strike. When Renwick had first suggested that the king would quickly dispatch his opponent, she’d wondered how an opponent who could be so easily beaten had remained in the competition so long.
But watching them spar, she realized the man who fought the king was handy enough with the sword—better than many she’d fought that day, and she’d been impressed with the overall skill of the Lydians.
No, the king’s superior hand was due to his talent for staying just ahead of his opponent, blocking jabs before they came, whipping his blade with a dexterity that took her breath away.
“I told you he’s good.” Renwick followed her.
“Very. I think I could learn from studying him. At the very least, I’d like to get an idea of how he moves in case I end up fighting him.” She didn’t take her eyes off the king as she spoke, but analyzed his patterns, looking for any weakness she might be able to use against him. Of all the men she’d watched or fought that day, he showed the most potential to be able to best her.
“Are you still in the tournament, then?”
“I have a break this round, and I’m glad for it. I’m afraid I’m still weaker than I thought after fighting that fever and the infection above my eye. Without a chance to catch my breath, I might have wilted in the piste. But I’ll stay in the tournament until I’m defeated.”
“I’m impressed, Your Highness.”
Gisela couldn’t tear her gaze from King John and his sword, recalling with a pleasant shiver how it had felt to have his arms around her. “So am I, Renwick. So am I.”
* * *
Gisela gulped a long drink and propped herself up with her sword to keep from fainting with exhaustion. Fighting so soon after her injury had been taxing.
“This way, Highness.” Renwick tugged on her arm. “The championship round will be in the center piste. They’re lighting the torches. The crowd can’t wait.”
“They have to wait.” Dizziness overtook her as she tried to walk. She stopped and shook her head, gasping for breath after a battle she’d honestly expected to lose. If her opponent hadn’t made a few costly mistakes, Gisela would have met her second elimination and been out of the running. Perhaps she’d been wrong to think she could fight so soon after her illness. “Who am I fighting?”
“I don’t know yet. The other fight just started—Tertulio versus King John.”
Gisela balked at her choices. Tertulio had already delivered her lone defeat of the day. She’d hate to be eliminated by a second defeat from the same man. And yet, she knew King John would dispatch her easily, especially since she was almost too weak to stand. “If they’ve just started, I can rest.”
“But don’t you want to study them while you have the chance?”
“Right, then. Lead the way.” Gisela leaned on Renwick’s arm as he weaved through the milling throngs of people. He found them seats on the top tier of a set of bleachers that had been facing another piste until some men had tugged it nearer the action. Gisela slumped down, her arms too weak to lift her heavy helmet and peel the leather mask from her face.
It didn’t matter. No one was paying her any attention. The crowd was riveted on the battle before them. Tertulio was a giant of a man, as tall as the king but far heavier. As he had when he’d defeated Gisela, Tertulio leveraged his weight against his opponent, beating him back with his sword, his barbaric hack-and-slash method only effective because of his imposing size. The brute was graceless, especially in comparison to the king, who held Gisela’s attention now as he had before, twisting her heart with concern for his safety.
Gisela whispered a prayer that King John wouldn’t be injured by his opponent’s aggressive tactics. Though most of his face was hidden by the protective shield of his thick leather mask, he occasionally turned at such an angle that Gisela could see the glint of his eyes. They sparkled with intensity.
If he made it past Tertulio, he’d defeat her easily. Temptation whispered to her, to withdraw her name rather than submit herself to the rigors of a battle she knew she couldn’t win. She’d underestimated the skill of the Lydian swordsmen, who had spent her strength with their long-lived battles. And she’d overestimated her degree of recovery. It wouldn’t be wise to fight on. She should withdraw.
But then, assuming King John vanquished his current rival, that would leave him to win by forfeit. It didn’t seem right, not when such a large part of her motivation for hosting the tournament was to rally the men—to prepare them to follow their king, should the Illyrians strike.
How much more would they trust and respect their king if he won the tournament on skill alone, and not because she’d withdrawn out of weakness? It could be a great boost to their morale and their pride in their leader.
Watching King John parry, she knew he deserved their respect.
She couldn’t take that from him, no matter how exhausted she felt.
Her mind made up, she determined to fight as best she could if King John went on to meet her in the final match. But if Tertulio bested him now, she’d withdraw.
* * *
John raised his sword, pumping it victoriously into the air as the crowd chanted for him.
“This way, Your Majesty.” Renwick led him to the neighboring piste where the licking flames of torches cast alternating light and shadows across the faces of the waiting crowd.
John scanned their faces impatiently, hoping to see Princess Gisela. He’d spotted his little sister at a balcony above, but the Frankish princess hadn’t been with her. Knowing Gisela, she’d want to be at the heart of the action.
He could only trust she was well. He hadn’t realized until her absence wore at him that he’d been looking forward to their reunion with expectancy. The day was nearly over, and his longing had only grown.
“Ready, Your Majesty?” The trumpeter raised his instrument to call the start of the round.
John spun to see his opponent already in place, sword raised in a pristinely executed opening stance. The flames cast deep shadows over the figure’s masked face, but John figured it didn’t matter who his opponent was. All that mattered was how he fought.
* * *
Gisela focused on holding her stance. Helmut, her fencing instructor from Aachen, had reminded her countless times of the importance of proper form.
“You cannot control what the other man will do, but you
be prepared to meet him.”
She’d taken the words to heart and been surprised many times before by what a difference a good stance could make even when she’d been overmatched or underprepared.
And she was both tonight. The gleam in King John’s eye spoke of limitless energy. She had no such gleam in her eye. It was all she could do to keep her sword from trembling.
The trumpet blared. The round had begun. Still, Gisela stood frozen, waiting. She’d do her best to respond to any move King John made. If she sensed an opening, she might even try to strike. As much as it was up to her, she’d make it look like he earned the round, assuming she didn’t faint from exhaustion before it was over.
* * *
John stared at the tip of the sword, alert for the slightest flicker of movement. He’d played this game before. Two men could stand at an impasse for many long minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
He could sense the rising impatience of the crowd. They wanted to see action. Yet John welcomed a moment to collect his thoughts, which had wandered to wondering where Gisela might be, and stayed focused on her still. Was it his imagination, or did he catch a whiff of her soft rose scent over the reek of humanity that filled the air?
Surely he’d imagined it. Given the odoriferous emanations all around him, Princess Gisela would have to be quite close for him to pick up the presence of her perfume. She knew to stay well back from the action. Didn’t she?
* * *
Her shoulders ached, and heat coursed through her, more than the rising heat of effort. Had her fever returned? A tremble rippled up from her legs, and fearing it would quickly work its way to her steady sword, Gisela realized she’d have to make her move.
With a flick of her wrist, she brought her sword slicing lightly in an arc below John’s blade.
He blocked the move and pushed her back.
Her response was delayed a split second too long by the mind-dulling ache of fever.
She blocked him but nearly stumbled forward. The crowd gasped and roared.
Their response seemed to spur King John to action, or perhaps he’d sensed her weakness and intended to seize the moment before it slipped by. Whatever the case, his blade darted forward, seeking an opening. All he needed was to tap her leather armor to make a point. If he made five points before she did, he’d win.
Her reflexes took over, blocking each shot. Her conscience whispered to her that she ought to let him win a few easy points before exhaustion overtook her, but she’d never willingly given away points before. They had three agile-eyed judges for the final round, unlike the lone judge who’d overseen the lesser matches.
If she made it look too obvious, the judges might wonder. John might wonder. He hadn’t yet looked any farther than her sword, and clearly didn’t realize who he sparred with.
She preferred it that way.
Best not to make him suspicious, then. Caught up in the action, she found her strength returning, if not in substance then in ephemeral determination. Perhaps, just to make a strong showing, she should win the first point.
Dancing backward, she replaced her right foot forward with her left, moving from a defensive to an offensive stance.
King John didn’t change stance but moved in as though he’d been offered an opening.
His first point fell high on her arm.
She winced against the kiss of his blade and lowered her chin.
She could score a point before the crowd finished cheering. Or had they finished cheering? The roar in her ears only grew as John’s blade sprouted mirror images on each side. There were three swords now, and three arms holding them.
Which sword was she fighting? Which man was she fighting? He seemed to have grown three heads and ten legs.
Or twelve. Or eight.
She charged at the middle man, taking the cheap thrust, only to find her opponent had evaporated. She swung back just in time to catch him on the elbow.
The crowd roared.
Gisela gulped a breath and tried not to faint.
* * *
Stinging needles speared through John’s fingers from the blow to his elbow, loosening his grip on the sword. His fingers ached and tingled. How had his opponent landed such an effective blow on that peculiarly sensitive part of his arm? There wasn’t time to sort it out. He spun to face the man, hoping only to recover before he was bested again.