Authors: Rachelle McCalla
“I’ve always shared a cup with someone.” Gisela looked down the long table and saw that John’s guests would be sharing silver cups by twos and threes. No one would expect even a king to own enough cups for so many guests to have their own. And yet, the thought of drinking from John’s cup sent a shiver through her. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the faint color that rose to her cheeks.
Fortunately, John was looking past her. “Ah, here comes my sister.”
Gisela turned to see a dark-haired young woman approaching them, the rich brown tones of her delicately embroidered dress matching the color of her kohl-rimmed eyes. The way Elisabette’s hair had been piled in delicate curls atop her head told Gisela the girl had spent far more time primping for the luncheon than she had.
Suddenly she felt backward in her simple long braid and pale green gown and wondered if she’d have anything to teach John’s sophisticated little sister. Her hands were far more used to swords and horse reins than makeup brushes and curling wands, and though Hilda would have loved to pile Gisela’s hair in elaborate settings, Gisela didn’t have the patience for anything more than a practical braid. At least she’d had the presence of mind to clasp jewels around her neck and wrists. Still, she felt a far cry from the picture of sophisticated beauty Elisabette presented.
Gisela feared Elisabette might look down upon her for her lack of patient primping, but the girl smiled warmly as she bowed to greet them, and a moment later everyone began to find their seats.
To Gisela’s relief, John had Elisabette seated beside her, and the food was quickly served. She recognized fish and cucumbers and olives, though their preparations were unfamiliar to her, and there were more foods she couldn’t identify. John told her their names, but she’d heard enough names meeting people that she didn’t bother trying to remember what any of the food was called for fear of confusing the two and accidentally calling a courtier by the name of an entrée at their next meeting. If she addressed a nobleman as Sir Fish, she might start another war.
Fortunately, Elisabette kept up a constant stream of questions, asking her about her wedding plans, travel experiences and the customs of her homeland, so that Gisela had to constantly stop eating to answer, which served to keep her from eating as quickly as she’d feared she might.
For the final course, broiled pears were served with a drizzle of spiced honey, and Gisela savored the dessert to the last bite. Then John stood and thanked their guests before dismissing them and turning to her. “Would you like to retire to your room to rest?”
“Is that what I’m expected to do?” she questioned, still feeling the eyes of many upon her.
“You may do as you like.” He smiled warmly.
“What will you be doing?”
“I need to run drills with my men. Today is Tuesday—on Thursday I will meet my brother again at the border. There is much to be accomplished before then.”
Gisela felt an instant twinge of disappointment—at the reminder that she’d sparked the situation on the borderlands and that King John would be leaving shortly. She told herself to be glad he’d be gone. At least then she wouldn’t embarrass herself with him again. But at the same time, the mention of his pending journey triggered a sense of loss inside her, even though he hadn’t yet left.
“I suppose I am tired.”
“I’ll have an attendant escort you to your room.” He dipped his head in a gesture that wasn’t nearly a bow but still reminded her of the one he’d given when he’d left her room that morning.
“Thank you for all your many kindnesses.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” He handed her off to the attendant who’d been hovering near before he weaved through the crowded room in the other direction.
She watched as he disappeared through the dispersing crowd, and could almost see the burden of impending war that hung on his shoulders like a mantle. She felt sorrowful that he had to bear such a burden alone—without his father’s guidance, or the loving support of a queen beside him. Further, she felt guilty for whatever role she’d played in placing that burden on him. Surely there was something she could do to ease its weight. But what?
* * *
As Princess Gisela had feared, John’s sister, Elisabette, was primarily interested in the very feminine and domestic pursuits that Gisela had spent most of her youth trying to avoid. And the girl wanted to quiz Gisela about her pending nuptials, which made Gisela squirm.
Gisela wanted to avoid talking about her upcoming wedding in order to prevent Bette from learning of the connection between the family into which she’d soon be married and the man who’d killed King Theodoric. Knowing how deeply John despised the man who’d killed his father, Gisela wasn’t about to let that wall come up between her and Bette.
The two of them had so precious little in common anyway.
Once she’d finally convinced Bette that she truly didn’t know what she’d be wearing on her wedding day, Elisabette reluctantly dropped the subject and quizzed Gisela on what she did for entertainment in the emperor’s palace.
“When we’re on tours of the kingdom or in Rome, we do a lot of hunting.”
“Even the women?”
“Oh, yes. Have you ever seen any of the great tapestries depicting the splendor of the hunt? The women ride alongside the men and dogs. It’s great sporting fun, and I confess I’ve become rather handy with a bow and arrow.”
“And what do you do when you’re not traveling or hunting?”
“When we’re in the Frankish capital of Aachen, we take a lot of baths.” Gisela figured they’d have that much at least, in common, given Bette’s interest in grooming activities.
But Bette only frowned. “For fun?”
“We have spas fed by hot springs in Aachen. It’s relaxing.”
Bette looked unconvinced. “But what do you do to enjoy yourself?”
Abandoning all hope of identifying an activity they both appreciated, Gisela admitted her favorite sport. “Fencing.”
“Swordplay?” Bette’s eyes lit up.
“Yes. Sometimes we organize sword-fighting tournaments.”
To Gisela’s surprise, Elisabette looked sincerely excited. “Do you think we could organize a fencing tournament?”
Gisela was glad to have finally found an interest she and Bette held in common. More important, if the borderlands really were in need of increased defense, a fencing tournament might be just the thing to encourage John’s men to hone their skills, while identifying those who were already proficient. Acute guilt continued to plague her for the role she’d played in provoking the threat of war. If she could do something to help, perhaps that would assuage her guilt.
Perhaps John would be pleased.
“I believe we could organize a tournament in a matter of days, but before we begin, we should most certainly ask your brother’s permission.”
Bette frowned. “Can’t we surprise him?”
“I’m afraid I’ve surprised him more than enough already.”
“Verily, you speak the truth.” Elisabette sighed. “I don’t suppose
mind being the one to ask him?”
ing John did not look to be in a good mood when Gisela approached him across the training field. She prayed silently that God would grant her favor with the king.
To her relief, his frown changed to a smile when he turned from instructing his men and spotted her approaching.
“Princess Gisela—” he dipped his head in deference “—you appear to be recovering quite well from your injuries.”
“With many thanks to you,” she acknowledged with a gracious smile. “I feel as though I’m almost my old self again.”
“What brings you to the training field?”
“Granted,” he assured her without hesitation. “Whatever you desire will be done. I’ve instructed Eliab and Urias to carry out any request you might make.”
While John stepped away to give further training orders to his men, Gisela stood still and weighed his words. His generosity humbled her. Even as a princess in the emperor’s household she had never been treated with such regard, being a lesser noble in a household of many higher-ranking royals.
But she couldn’t let King John’s words distract her, nor did she feel she could proceed without his specific blessing—not given the scope of her project.
“Your Highness?” John appeared to be surprised that she was still waiting for him when he turned around.
Knowing he was busy and unwilling to waste any more of his time, Gisela got straight to the point. “Elisabette and I would like to host a fencing tournament among your men.”
The sudden clang of swords cut off her words as the soldiers’ training exercises gained momentum.
But John must have heard her, because his face registered a growing smile, and for one giddy moment Gisela hoped she’d found a way to relieve some of the burden he bore after all.
The waves of men parted and John made his way back to her side. “A tournament would provide needed incentive for the men to train. Would the emperor’s daughter agree to crown the winner?”
Gisela beamed. “I would be honored.”
* * *
The plans came together with surprising speed. By that evening the word had spread among John’s men, not just at Castlehead, but as far as the walled city of Sardis. Nearly everyone was enthusiastic about entering the contest and lent their support making preparations. They carved out five sparring pistes in the main courtyard and another two in each of the side yards, for a total of nine. Given the number of entrants, it would take several rounds just to work through the first level of elimination, but once the less-skilled swordsmen had been eliminated, they’d move through the leaderboard quickly.
For that reason, Gisela felt no compunction scheduling the first rounds for Friday at sunrise. Even if they fought straight through with no breaks between rounds, the tournament might last until sundown. Torches had been prepared to light the center piste, if necessary, so that the champion fight could be held even if the sun set first. And though some claimed they’d watch only as long as their favored combatant remained in the running, Gisela fully expected they’d find themselves caught up in the action, and doubted many would leave before the final victor was crowned.
Indeed, she’d prepared to host a crowd. Bleachers were built and the castle cooks prepared a menu of stick-speared foods the fans could eat while watching the games. She’d had some trouble convincing King John’s naysaying courtiers, Eliab and Urias, to dispatch men to dig latrines alongside the field where the spectators would be allowed to camp. Though the gentlemen had scoffed at her concerns, she’d finally won the argument when she’d told them to choose between preparing beforehand or cleaning up afterward.
They’d put a crew on the job within the hour.
Eliab’s and Urias’s protests aside, the majority of King John’s household hastened to fulfill her every request. As the project progressed, Gisela felt a rising sense of belonging, which only intensified when they hung a board to keep records on the large wall of the castle keep and she placed her personal insignia among those of the other men on the long row of participants. She stood back and smiled as she absorbed the sight, pleased with the appearance of her personal crest among the others.
Princess Elisabette sidled up beside her as she stood looking over the row of crests that lined the board. “Who will you be cheering for?” the younger woman asked.
Bette emitted a shocked laugh. “Isn’t the entire point of the tournament to
the men parry?” The girl had already expressed disappointment that they weren’t planning to invite neighboring kingdoms. Gisela couldn’t imagine why the girl would want such a thing, given the threat of war looming over them.
is to develop skills among the men, so that they’ll be able to defend themselves when need arises,” Gisela explained, and was relieved to see King John approaching. His appearance provided her with an excuse to change the subject.
“King John,” she greeted him. “I don’t see your coat of arms among the others.”
He shook his head regretfully. “I must leave tomorrow to visit my brother at the border. Prince Luke is expecting me.”
“Tomorrow is only Thursday. Surely you’ll be back in time for the tournament on Friday. It begins at dawn, but it will take hours to work through the first level of eliminations. If you arrive by midmorning—”
“I will do my best.” John cut her off. “It will depend on what I learn from Prince Luke.”
His words silenced her. In spite of his protests otherwise, she still felt responsible for the situation with the Illyrians. She knew John was desperately worried, not just about the possibility of war, but about his brother’s safety, as well. As she understood it, John had two brothers, but the youngest, Mark, had left for a journey by ship and was long overdue to return—a poor sign given the known activity of Saracens at sea.
As long as John refused to remarry, Luke’s safety was imperative. Luke was next in line to the throne. Gisela longed to speak with John about the situation, but it wasn’t her place. He still mourned the loss of his wife. And she was going to marry Warrick.
There was no point discussing such a painful subject especially when there wasn’t anything she could do to ease his sorrow.
* * *
John decided to leave Wednesday evening immediately after supper. It would give him a greater chance of finishing his business with Luke and making it back in time for the tournament. It would also keep him from seeking out Gisela’s company again.
He arrived at the borderland outpost feeling like a coward who’d turned and run at the first sign of danger. His brother, Prince Luke, wanted to launch an attack and take back the village of Bern. And all John could think about was the way he’d fled from Gisela as though the woman posed some sort of threat.
Technically, he figured, she
pose a threat—to his heart, and his convictions. The woman was betrothed in a politically sensitive engagement. His growing feelings for her were absolutely unacceptable, which was why it was doubly alarming that, even with the threat of war looming over him, he had to tear his thoughts from her to listen to Luke.
“The population of Bern is largely unchanged from what it was four years ago. They’re Christians like us. They would be loyal Lydian citizens if they could stop paying Illyrian taxes and following Illyrian laws.”
John rubbed his temples and tried to follow his brother’s arguments as he sat at the low wooden table of the small woodland cottage that served as an outpost for Luke and his men. “The regiment of Illyrian soldiers stationed there might feel differently.”
“They’ll be easy enough to rout.”
John kneaded his forehead with both hands. “I told you about the messenger the princess sent to her father.”
“Charlemagne is in Rome, a world away. Assuming the messenger arrives, what does Charlemagne care what happens on the edges of his kingdom? We aren’t his vassals, and neither are the Illyrians.”
“Nonetheless the Illyrians must answer to him. Charlemagne has imperial agreements with Empress Irene of Constantinople.”
“Which is precisely why Charlemagne is unlikely to act directly in our defense.” Luke pounded his fist on the table. “Would he not first bring up the matter with the empress herself?”
“That seems unlikely. Irene has granted Charlemagne leave to enforce peace along their borders. Princess Gisela seemed to think—”
“She’s not Lydian,” Luke snapped. “It doesn’t matter what she thinks. She’s the one who got us into this mess. You know that Illyrian died—the one we shot while you were in the river? If we don’t strike first, there won’t be time to wait for Charlemagne, if he cares to intervene, which I doubt.”
“What are you proposing, brother?” John gave up trying to argue. His brother seemed to be working up to a point, and John wished Luke would stop arguing and express what he was waiting to say. “If we take Bern back, then what? Do you believe the Illyrians will be content to limp away, licking their wounds?”
“I don’t believe the Illyrians will be content to sit back, no matter what we do.” Luke flexed his fingers, setting off a ripple of cracking knuckles.
John looked up and watched his brother carefully. Cracked knuckles had always been a decisive signal for Luke that something weighed heavily on his mind. John held his breath and waited for his brother’s pronouncement.
“Who?” John asked but sensed the answer. What other name were his men so loath to speak? What other answer could Luke possibly be so hesitant to express?
What other rogue had left in his wake prayers that he might never return?
“Rab the Raider.”
John let out a long breath, then stood. If Rab was back, they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for Charlemagne. The Raider was violent, unpredictable...cruel. He’d led their father to believe he was willing to negotiate, then killed Theodoric in cold blood the moment the king had lowered his sword.
They couldn’t afford to take any chances.
John plucked up the drab hunting cloak he’d slung over the back of a chair, which effectively hid any symbols of his identity. “I’ll leave at once for Sardis and arrange for couriers to carry updates between us twice daily. I want full reports of any and all activity. Where precisely is the Raider? What is he up to?”
“He arrived last night and is staying at a house in the village. I can only assume he was called in because of the fatality. One of the villagers has informed me that the Illyrian who died was a favorite of Rab’s, possibly a relative.”
“Blood for blood,” John muttered, hating the rules of vengeance, which never ended anything, but only cried out for more. He shook his head. “After I’ve made arrangements in Sardis I’ll continue on to Castlehead and recruit volunteers. I will not ask any man to fight who is not willing to risk his life.”
“I understand. When do you plan to return?”
“That will depend on the messages you send me. If we can, I would above all prefer to wait until Charlemagne has responded to the message from his daughter.”
“I don’t believe that will be possible.”
“You may be right,” John admitted reluctantly. “Still, you know my policy.”
“You refuse to shed blood unless it is the only way to prevent greater bloodshed.”
John granted his brother a wry smile, grateful Luke had been willing to learn the words, even if he spoke them derisively. “I’ll have to make haste if I’m going to reach Sardis before they close the city gates for the night.”
“Godspeed to you, brother.”
“Luke?” John waited until his brother looked up from the map of the valley he’d been studying. “Be careful. And keep an eye out for my falcon.”
* * *
With the circuit of messengers established, John left Sardis to return to Castlehead as soon as the sun rose Friday morning. Moses seemed eager to run, so John let the stallion have his head. Why not? The horse seemed eager to stretch his legs.
And John was eager to get home and learn how the Frankish princess was fairing. He told himself there was no reason why he shouldn’t feel he ought to check on her. After all, she was his guest, and he’d soon need to remove the stitches above her eye. He had a duty to make sure she enjoyed her stay.
For political reasons, of course.
It wasn’t as though he intended to spend any time in her company, not with the fencing tournament set to begin that morning. If he arrived in time, he’d be busy sparring in the pistes. Princess Gisela could watch the tournament from the comfort of the balcony windows, far above the noise and bustle of the crowds. If he got the chance, he’d be certain to greet her and make sure she lacked no comfort.
And then he would do his best to forget she was even there.
Moses balked at the plank bridge that spanned the salty stream which divided the Castlehead peninsula from the mainland. “It’s perfectly safe,” he assured the horse, urging him across. As he’d predicted, they made it to the other side without incident. It was clear the ocean waves were cutting through the ravine, washing it ever wider, and might someday make an island of his home. But that wasn’t likely to occur for several more centuries, or at least not in his lifetime.
Urging Moses on, John’s ears prickled at the sounds that carried on the breeze. It sounded as though the tournament was well under way. As he neared the fortress, John saw milling crowds, and men practiced sparring with wooden swords around and between a village of tents that had popped up since he’d left.
John met his guards at the gate, and was relieved to see Renwick on duty. Handing off his horse, he took Renwick to the side and quizzed him rapidly.
“Am I too late to enter?”
“Your Majesty still has time. We haven’t yet worked through the first level of the contestants. The men would be honored if you would fight among them. And your skills with the sword are without peer among your men—perhaps Princess Gisela will crown
with the wreath of laurels at the tournament’s end?”
John felt happiness ripple through him at the thought. As Renwick had implied, John had received, as heir to the throne, unparalleled training with the sword. Few in Lydia could equal him, save for his own brothers, and they were both away.