Royce didn’t show any outward reaction to the victory. When his soldiers joined him, he merely nodded, then turned and walked to the king’s platform. His soldiers fell in behind their baron.
William stood up, raised his hand for silence, and then proclaimed in a shout that once again Baron Royce’s soldiers had proved their excellence. They would all be suitably rewarded. The cheers were nearly deafening.
Nicholaa clasped her hands together and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the victory.
It would soon be time for the younger soldiers to participate. Nicholaa turned to her brother and took his hand. “No matter what happens, I want you to know how proud I am of you,” she whispered.
Since the other soldiers were watching, she didn’t hug him. She squeezed his hand instead. God’s truth, she didn’t want him to go down that hill. She forced herself to let go of him. Bryan helped Justin put on the leather hauberk. Justin flexed his arms. The left sleeve was a bit stiffer than the right. Nicholaa watched her brother adjust the fit, then nod with satisfaction.
The trumpets sounded from the field, calling the soldiers into position. The men bowed to Nicholaa, straightened their shoulders, and then fell into line behind their commander. Justin led the procession down the hill.
Nicholaa watched her brother follow the path down to the base of the hill. She spotted Royce then. He’d walked across the field and was now waiting at the edge for his soldiers to join him. He would give them his instructions, then await his second victory.
Nicholaa could see her husband clearly. He was smiling. The most remarkable thing happened to her then. Every bit of her fear vanished. She drew such strength from her husband’s arrogant confidence.
Royce looked up at Nicholaa. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. She looked like a vision to him, dressed in shimmering blue. She was a beautiful woman, yes, but what captivated Royce was her smile.
Justin had to clear his throat in order to get his baron’s attention. Royce seemed content to stand there staring up at his wife for the rest of the afternoon. The other soldiers were already in deep discussion with their barons, who were issuing last-minute instructions.
Royce forced himself to turn away from his wife. He gave his soldiers one simple order. “You will give me victory today.” He then turned and walked by Justin’s side toward the center of the field.
“Will we use swords, Baron?” Justin asked.
“The king will decide. Wait until you receive his instructions.”
Justin nodded. There was still a fair distance to walk. He cleared his throat again. “Baron?”
“I noticed that over the past few weeks you’ve seemed more concerned about training me than the others. Was that because you had less faith in my ability?”
Royce held his smile. Justin was experiencing an attack of pre-battle worries. It was a common affliction, especially among the younger, unseasoned soldiers.
“As your baron, I have complete faith in your ability. I didn’t give you this honor, Justin. You earned it. As your brother, however, I’ll admit I’ve forced you to work harder. You have to be better than the others, remember?”
“You have fulfilled my expectations,” Royce announced, giving him the praise he knew he needed to hear.
Royce did smile then. “You insult me by giving me your gratitude,” he said. “As your baron, I was only doing my duty.”
Justin didn’t look at Royce but kept his gaze directed on the center of the field. “I wasn’t thanking my baron,” he said. His voice was gruff with emotion. “I was thanking my brother.”
Royce gave Justin an affectionate cuff on the side of his neck. They reached the center of the field. Justin and the other nine were the first to arrive. The other competitors were still in huddles with their barons.
“Was there something more you wished to say to us?” Justin asked when the baron started to walk away.
Royce turned around. “The others need further instruction. You don’t. I’ve told you what I expect. Victory, Justin. Nothing less.”
Nicholaa watched her husband walk to the side of the field. He had such a wonderful swagger. She started laughing. Justin and his team were lined up now. They all stood with their legs braced apart and their arms at their sides. They radiated confidence.
Clayton the herald drew her notice then. He climbed the hill and stopped at Nicholaa’s side.
“History is being made this fine day,” he told Nicholaa. “A one-handed warrior is leading Baron Royce’s soldiers in combat. This is what legends are made of, Lady Nicholaa.”
She smiled over his enthusiasm. “His name is Justin,” she said. “And he’s my brother.”
Clayton was thrilled with her news. “Two legends in the same family,” he announced. “Quite remarkable.” He bowed to Nicholaa, after explaining he was on his way to gain a better position to watch the feats, and hurried on up the hill.
As one of the three official observers, Clayton kept his gaze on the field, memorizing each and every detail for future recounting, and watching Lady Nicholaa, too, hoping to get a few additional details to add to her legend. He would not question her until the games were concluded, however.
The competition finally began. Nicholaa kept her gaze on Justin. She let out a gasp when the very first opponent grabbed his arm and tried to pin him down. Justin shifted positions. His opponent jumped back, then stared down at his bloody hand. The blades sewn into the leather had done their work. The soldier had taken his attention away from Justin, too. Nicholaa’s brother used the back of his hand to knock the soldier backward. As he was staggering to the ground, Justin slammed his foot into the man’s groin.
The king hadn’t allowed the use of any weapons. Some of the opposing soldiers had wrapped their hands with steel links. The covering proved to be more of a hindrance than a help, though. Justin and his men quickly took the advantage over the soldiers who were trying to hold on to their makeshift weapons. In minutes only Baron Guy’s soldiers were left to fight.
A giant of a man swaggered toward Justin. Even from a distance Nicholaa could tell he was much older than all the others. Guy had planted a seasoned warrior in with his Doves, she realized.
Justin didn’t seem intimidated. He motioned for the soldier to come closer. It was an arrogant command. The crowd loved it, too. They cheered. Even Royce, who hadn’t shown any reaction to what was going on until now, actually smiled.
So did Justin. Guy’s vassal became infuriated. Justin couldn’t have been more pleased. His opponent was making a fatal mistake. He was letting emotion get in his way. He let out a battle cry as he lunged for Justin. Justin did just as Royce had instructed time and time again. He waited until the last possible second, then moved to one side. The warrior went flying to the ground, losing any advantage he might have had. Justin didn’t show the older soldier any mercy either. He made certain he stayed down.
Two members of Justin’s team were knocked unconscious. As leader, Justin now had to take on two additional opponents. God’s truth, he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He actually laughed when one of his opponents got in a lucky kick; then he retaliated in kind.
The crowd went wild. They began to chant Justin’s name. Nicholaa was overwhelmed by what she was watching. Her brother’s strength astonished her. His cunning was even more impressive. The two guards assigned to Nicholaa completely lost their composure when the last of the challengers went down. Their cheers made her ears ring.
For a minute or so before the others joined him, Justin stood all alone in the center of the field. Victory belonged to him. The proof littered the ground around him.
Justin heard the cheers, but it didn’t register in his mind that the crowd was chanting his name or that their shouts were for him. He bowed low to the king, then turned to his baron.
Royce gave him an arrogant nod. Justin nodded back. Ingelram and the others joined Justin then. Together now, they walked toward their baron.
The crowd swelled onto the field. Nicholaa watched as the ladies hurried to surround her brother. He seemed confused by all the attention he was getting.
Nicholaa expected Royce to come up the hill. He went in the opposite direction. She noticed King William had left his platform, too, and now stood at the bottom of the steps. Guy stood on one side of his overlord, and Royce stood on the other side. A heated discussion got under way. Nicholaa couldn’t see Royce’s face. His back was turned to her. Guy kept shaking his head. Then he took a step toward Royce.
King William shoved Guy back.
“The barons are having a disagreement,” the guard named Vincent announced.
“A heated one, from the looks of things,” replied Edward, the second guard assigned to protect Nicholaa. “See how the crowd has backed away.”
“Please go and find out what this disagreement is all about,” Nicholaa requested.
Both Edward and Vincent shook their heads. “We cannot leave your side, my lady,” Vincent explained.
“Then at least go up to the top of the hill and ask Clayton what’s going on.”
The two guards agreed with that request. Only the herald stood above them. Clayton wasn’t that far away, either, and if anyone came up the hill to get to Nicholaa, the soldiers would have plenty of time to get to her side to protect her.
Nicholaa turned her attention back to her husband. Guy’s two vassals were now being escorted over to the king. Morgan and Henry genuflected in front of their overlord, then stood up. The king was doing all the talking now. Nicholaa wished she could hear what he was saying. He was waving his hands in obvious agitation. His face was red, and she thought he might be shouting at the vassals.
Morgan and Henry took turns shaking their heads. The king raised his hand, turned to say something to Guy. After a minute or two Guy nodded.
Royce hadn’t moved at all. Nicholaa didn’t know if he was pleased or angry by whatever was being decided.
William mounted the platform. Guy moved to stand in front of Royce. He faced Morgan and Henry. He spoke to them, then struck Morgan across his face. Guy gave the same punishment to Henry next.
Two other soldiers wearing Guy’s colors moved forward when their baron motioned to them. They waited while the vassals removed their swords. Nicholaa understood then. Morgan and Henry were being dishonored for something they’d done.
Neither vassal appeared to be shamed by the public humiliation. In unison they turned and walked across the field, escorted by the two other soldiers. Guy bent to pick up their swords, walked to the side of the platform, and threw the weapons into the trees beyond.
Nicholaa kept her attention on the insolent vassals. Morgan stared straight ahead, but Henry kept turning back to look at Royce. She thought then that perhaps Henry blamed her husband for the disgrace he was suffering. The two vassals finally reached the area near the trees where the horses were tethered.
She let out a sigh of relief. The vassals had obviously been banned from the celebration, and she wouldn’t have to put up with their insolent remarks at the dinner tonight.
Royce turned and walked onto the field. Nicholaa thought he might be coming up the hill to her. She hurried back inside the tent. Her husband would surely be in need of a refreshment and she wanted to have it ready for him.
His packet was on their cot. Nicholaa unlatched the fastenings and reached inside to pull out a fresh tunic for her husband. She let out a surprised laugh when she unfolded the tunic and her sling fell out. There were three smooth stones inside, too. Nicholaa couldn’t imagine why Royce had carried that equipment along.
The sound of trumpets caught her attention. Nicholaa rushed back outside to see what was going on. The games were supposed to be over by now. Royce had told her the young soldiers would be the last to participate, and their competition had just ended.
She came to a dead stop when she saw what was happening. Royce stood near the center of the field. Guy faced her husband, though he stood almost twenty feet away.
Both barons were removing their swords. Then each turned. Guy to his right, where his soldiers were lined up on the sidelines, and Royce to his right, where his soldiers had also formed a line.
Royce’s soldiers weren’t smiling. Neither were Guy’s. A hush had fallen over the crowd, too. Lawrence started onto the field toward Royce just as one of Guy’s vassals moved forward. Lawrence paused in his stride, turned to nod at Justin, and then continued. Justin didn’t understand what was expected of him until Ingelram nudged him and gave him a little shove. Nicholaa’s brother then hurried onto the field after Lawrence.
Nicholaa didn’t know what was going on, but she was determined to find out, no matter how many guards Royce had ordered to keep her on the hill. She lifted her skirts and started running down the path. She was caught from behind. Vincent grabbed her. The redheaded knight apologized profusely as he escorted her back to her tent.
“The baron wishes you to watch from here, my lady,” Vincent explained for the tenth time.
She turned around to give the soldier a curt response, but quickly changed her mind when she saw the sympathy on the soldier’s face. Vincent was only doing his duty. Nicholaa couldn’t fault him for that.
“Exactly what am I going to be watching?” she asked.
“The fight,” Vincent answered, looking confused by her question.
“Vincent, I gathered there was going to be a fight,” she returned. “I’m asking you why. Royce told me he wasn’t going to participate.”
The second guard moved forward. “The king just ordered the challenge to settle a dispute.”
Edward had told her everything he knew, and she still hadn’t learned anything.
Then Vincent spoke again. “Your brother’s receiving an honor, my lady,” he said as he motioned to the field below. Nicholaa turned just as Royce handed his sword to Lawrence, who in turn handed the jeweled weapon to Justin.
“Now what are they doing?” she whispered. Justin had left the field, and Royce was speaking to Lawrence. Guy was also talking to his vassal.
“They’re following procedure,” Vincent answered. “Our baron is letting it be known in front of witnesses that Lawrence will take charge in the event . . .”
The soldier realized what he was explaining a little too late. Nicholaa let out a gasp. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she whispered. Anger was quickly replacing her fear. Her voice had a sting in it when she added, “Royce specifically told me he wouldn’t be competing.”
The two soldiers exchanged a look. “He isn’t competing,” Vincent said. “A dispute is being settled. That’s quite different from a competition, my lady.”