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For what felt like the thousandth time that day to Jeanne, the dull, metallic toll of lances splintering against shields rang out through the common. Chips of wood and paint alike exploded from the point of contact, obliterating the careful designs painted on the shield. After another similar charge, the spectators would be hard-pressed to tell one from the other.
Tall, broad-shouldered men, both dressed in simple armour, there was little else to distinguish Paitr Pureheart from Arkon the Invincible. Pureheart's shield bore a painting of the Virgin Mary, while Sir Arkon's was decorated with his Leaping Stag. The two knights wheeled around to collect fresh lances from their squires, then prepared themselves for a second charge. This time, Arkon made a lie of his appellation by being unhorsed. Pureheart caught him squarely on his left shoulder and set him flailing for balance. With a clatter of iron, he tumbled to the ground and fumbled at his waist for his sword. Pureheart leapt off his own mount and drew a blade of his own. Metal pealed against metal, and blue sparks leapt into the air when their blunted weapons struck each other or the other knight's armour. It was like a clumsy, lumbering dance, she thought, although nowhere near as interesting.
After what seemed an eternity of this to her, their blades locked and, with a complicated movement of his arm, Pureheart wrenched Arkon's sword out of his grasp. The other knight had no choice but to submit, raising his visor before gritting out that he yielded to Pureheart's superior skill.
Around her, the crowd roared its approval and she wondered why she could not share in their excitement. She should have been in raptures by now, like the queens and princesses in the books she loved so well. This contest was for her benefit, after all. Her husband had arranged it to choose the champion who would carry her honour into battle and defend it against those who would impugn her.
She applauded unenthusiastically as Sir Paitr Pureheart lifted his sword to her, eyes looking past him to the silken pavilions ranged on the green. Only four banners billowed in the wind now; the remainder of them having been taken down in defeat. Of them, she recognised all but one.
As the symbol of the king and of the Summer Country that he ruled, the Golden Sun was raised higher than the rest. Like any other knight or noble, her husband had to fight for the honour of defending her. The Queen's Champion was a title conferred on the finest warrior in the land, and even her lord husband could not command it to be otherwise.
The Grey Wolf, flying above a simple tent of sailcloth, could only belong to Sir Logane Wolfsclaw. A half-wild fighter from the barbarian north, he had bludgened his way through his opponents, leaving a trail of broken limbs in his wake. Few people had had the courage to challenge him after he had killed the Laughing Lord, Robert of Drake. She could not blame them. Even she shuddered at the thought of having him as her champion.
Next to the Grey Wolf, Paitr Pureheart's banner, with the Sacred Heart picked out in beautiful reds and golds, seemed almost soft. It would be a mistake to believe the same of the man. Although a member of one of the temple orders, Pureheart's deeds were not sung throughout the kingdom as a result of his piety. He would make a fine champion for her, she thought, were it not for how very small and frivolous she felt every time he looked at her.
The final banner was unfamiliar to her, however. The stark, black silk was skillfully embroidered with tiny stars, so that it looked like a ribbon of midnight itself was flapping on the tent-pole. Dressed in similar armour, the knight to whom it belonged was standing in front of his pavilion. Beside him, a tall, lovely woman with an air of command about her was saying something to him. He was clearly next to challenge and Jeanne examined him curiously, wishing she had paid more attention as the challengers had been introduced. She could not see his face, which was covered by a solid helmet, to identify him, and there was something . . . different about him. A quality that intrigued her. Even in heavy armour, he was a blade-slender man, slighter and shorter than the other challengers, which she knew to be a marked disadvantage in the joust. Her unknown knight was evidently very skilled - or lucky - to have made it this far in the tournament.
"Who is the knight with the starry banner?" Jeanne whispered to the serving woman who was sitting beside her, taking advantage of a lull in the applause. Having paid his respects to her, Paitr Pureheart was returning to his pavilion to rest before his next bout, while Arkon the 'Invincible' seemed to be making his way to the nearest keg of ale in order to drown his sorrows. His squire trailed after him, carrying his sword and shield.
"That is Sir Remidan du Lac," Moira replied in her soft brogue, a slight frown on her face, "There are many tales told of him, my lady, not least that he is under the patronage and the protection of the Lady of the Lake."
Eyes widening a fraction, Jeanne glanced back at the woman standing beside Sir Remidan. Was she the legendary Lady of the Lake? Was she the great sorceress and healer, who rivalled even Wizard Xavier himself? Was she the one of whom men spoke in hushed tones and about whom women made the sign against evil? She was dressed in a shimmering gown that rippled from blue to silver in a way that reminded her of sunlight playing off the surface of the sake. On its bodice, tiny diamonds, sewn into the fabric, sparkled like droplets of water. Even she, Queen of the Summer Country, did not own a gown to rival it. That was not the strangest thing about his companion, however. Although her hair was as white as any crone's, the features beneath it were strangely youthful. No lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes or creased her forehead. If Jeanne had had to hazard a guess at her age, she would not have put her above twenty. She shivered, and, almost unconsciously, sketched the sign against witchery herself.
Moira touched her sleeve, "Sir Remidan is to challenge next, my lady."
Smiling her thanks, although she already gathered that much by herself, Jeanne settled back into her chair and folded her arms in her lap. Outwardly, at least, she was all composure by the time the master of games - a fat, pompous man with a rubicund face - had mounted his platform. With a flourish of one lacy sleeve, he removed a parchment from his belt and unrolled it, before proclaiming: "Sir Remidan du Lac calls out Logane Wolfsclaw, the Grey Wolf of the North, to challenge him for the honour of defending the queen, Jeanne Graymalkin, the Rose of the Summer Country."
Jeanne sucked in her breath sharply, as the crowd gasped. Was Sir Remidan a halfwit that he challenged Logane? Did he have a deathwish? Had he not noticed that everyone had gone against Logane had been carried off the green on either a stretcher or a bier in the Laughing Lord's unfortunate case? There was a palable hush around the field as Remidan climbed onto his horse - a midnight-dark stallion, clad in the same starry armour as its rider - and cantered onto the green. Jamming on his wolfshead helm, mounting his own ugly-mouthed, vicious beast, Logane followed suite. Their squires brought them their shields and lances before hastening off the field as fast as their stockinged legs would carry them. Clearly, they did not want to be there when the two men clashed, when Logane went berserk, when Remidan was butchered.
Bugles sounded to announce the joust was beginning: a golden peal of sound that died away in a thousand, fairy echoes. No-one in the crowd seemed to breathe, let alone shout or cheer. Logane's brute pawed at the earth, kicking up chunks of earth, while Remidan's stallion snorted almost insultingly. The two knights adjusted shield and lance, shifted slightly in their saddles for greater stability, setting for the first run at each other. Jeanne's stomach did a queasy hop, and her chest tightened within her until she felt as if she would suffocate.
"I have to stop this, Moira," she said, battling to keep the tremble out of her voice, "I can't let that butcher, Logane, kill him. If I choose my champion now, they won't have to fight. Remidan won't be killed. I can't let this happen.I'm . . . my honour . . . Blessed mother, I'm not worth it. I'm not."
"You can't stop it, my lady," Moira's hand on her sleeve was as much to restrain as to comfort her, but her voice was gentle, "It's already begun. . . ."
For a second time, the bugle's golden sound rang out over the commons and Jean sank into her seat, chewing anxiously at her lower lip. Moira was right. It was too late for her to intervene in any material way. All she could do now was to pray for that Remidan's immortal soul be spared, because Logane Wolfsclaw would certainly not extend his body the same courtesy.
She watched numbly as the two men touched greaved legs to their horses' flanks and charged at each other. The thunder of hooves drowned out the cheers of the crowd momentarily. A brown cloud rose behind them. The sun caused their polished armour to flare, flashes of brilliance that penetrated the dust they left in their wake.
Logane howled like a blood-thirsty wolf as he bore down on Remidan with his lance, catching him squarely on the shield and causing the starfield to shatter. It fell to the ground in pieces, useless. To make matters worse, the younger knight had only caught Wolfsclaw a glancing blow, scraping the paint of his shield but doing it no damage. The crowd hissed its disapproval. Jeanne tasted blood as she bit down too hard on her lip.
Hand tightening around her queen's wrist, Moira commented, "Remidan always had to win this joust on the ground, milady. Even if he were not slight of build, the Grey Wolf's lance is thicker and longer than is usual, giving him an advantage on the horse."
With a bleak, little smile for the maid, "In that case, he should have fallen on his own sword at the beginning of their joust and saved Logane the trouble of cleaning his weapon. The man's a butcher."
By the time Jeanne turned her attention back to him, Remidan du Lac had dismounted his horse and unsheathed his sword. Clearly, he too recognised the futility of another pass. Nothing about him suggested that he was nervous, however - the blade in his hands was steady, and the guard stance he had assumed was almost casual. Nothing about him suggested that Logane Wolfsclaw had unlooped his enormous axe and was loping his way across the green. The barbarian's long, easy strides ate up the space between him and the other warrior at an alarming rate. As he charged, he let out another bestial howl and raised his axe above his head. But, when he brought it down, his opponent slipped to one side like fluid mercury.
Even in armour, Remidan moved like a dancer. Jeanne watched him, entranced. He made fighting seem beautiful; made a poem out of warfare and a hymn out of swordplay. His supple grace was evident in every motion he made, in every blow he gave or parried.
Grunting like a wild animal, Logane thrashed about with his broad axe, but could not touch the young knight. Any one of the blows would have won him the joust, if he had been able to land a single one. Finally, when the other knight was panting with exhaustion, Remidan's sword caught him precisely by the gorget, flicking off his wolfshead helm. It was obvious to Jeanne he could have ended the battle at any time, but he had chosen to prolong it. Why? How cocky and self-sure was this Remidan?
The blade trembled there, just touching Logane's chin. Jean could see a thin, red line appear where it did; fine strands of crimson wound around and down the gleaming sword.
"Do you submit, sir?"
The words were a grunt that barely carried to the pavilion, but the thud of his axe as he hurled it down onto the green was audible enough to make up for that.
As one, the crowd rose to its feet. Cheers and applause thundered throughout the commons. Feet stamped. Whistles pierced the air. Pots were banged together. Some voices managed to seperate themselves from the tumult: Sir Remidan! The Queen's Champion! The Starry Knight! Sir Remidan! Sir Remidan! The Starry Knight for the Summer's Rose! Above it all, the bugle somehow managed to make itself heard; clear, golden echoes of glory. Flowers began to fall on the field, as women in the crowd tossed their bouquets and nosegays at the feet of the victor. It was clear that they had already appointed their champion. Who was she to deny them their choice? Oh, her husband might reprimand her for it later, might chastise her for going against custom, but she did not care. Scot be damned, she would have Remidan du Lac as her champion and nobody else!
She stood, smoothing her silken skirts before lifting a hand for the crowd to be silent. The noise fell away within minutes, apart from the low, expectant murmur that passed through their ranks as he came to bow before her. As he did so, he removed his helmet, tucking it under one arm, and her eyes widened slightly as she saw how very young and very beautiful he was. He reminded her of the pictures of angels in Brer Heliodorus' Bible, of Michael of the Flaming Sword who had banished humanity from paradise. Curling slightly at the edges, sweat-darkened, auburn hair clung to a boyish face. He was beardless, although a slight stubble darkened his cheeks. However, for all the youth and delicacy of his features, there was a determined set about his jaw that Jeanne liked.
"Milady," his voice had a strange, musical lilt to it.
Formally, resting a hand on his bowed head, she spoke the words that would make him her champion:
"Remidan du Lac, I would have you defend my honour before God and before men. I would have you defend the honour of the Rose of the Summer Country. I would have you place my life above your life, my honour above your honour, my name above your name. Are you prepared for that responsibility?"
"With all my heart and soul, yes," his answer was an ecstatic whisper.
Touching his shoulder with one hand, "Then you are my champion and I am your lady to defend. Rise, Sir Remidan du Lac, rise to greet your queen."
A delighted smile on his lips, the young knight rose to his feet. As he did, his eyes met hers and a strange, inexplicable warmth seemed to rise within her. Blushing, she quickly looked away from his gaze past his shoulder to the pavilions on the Green; to where the Lady of the Lake was watching them with a strangely smug expression on her lovely, ageless face as if in that brief glance a future had been sealed.