Lady Cecily scorns the French hostages held at court. Treated as honored guests, the men play at love games and Cecily fears her mistress, the princess, could be disgraced.
War-weary chevalier Marc de Marcel wants only to return home. Uncertain whether his ransom will ever be paid, he makes an unlikely alliance with enticing, fire-and-ice Cecily. He'll help her keep the princess safe from ruin if she'll help him escape. A pact which could lead them into a scandal all their own
A hint of scandal this way comes!
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Smithfield, LondonNovember 11, 1363
Mon Dieu, this island is cold.
Frigid English wind whipped Marc de Marcel's hair from his forehead, then slithered beneath the chainmail circling his neck. He peered at the knights at the other end of the field, wondering which would be his opponent and which would face his fellow Frenchman.
Well, it mattered not. 'One pass,' he muttered, 'and I'll unhorse either one.'
'The code of chivalry calls for three runs with the lance,' Lord de Coucy said, 'followed by three blows with the sword. Only then can a winner be declared.'
Marc sighed. It was a shame that jousts had become such tame affairs. He would have welcomed the opportunity to kill another goddam Anglais. 'A waste of the horse's strength. And mine.'
'Best not offend someone when you are at their mercy, mon ami. Cooperation with our captors will make our time here much more tolerable.'
'We are hostages. Nothing can make that tolerable.'
'Ah, the ladies can.' De Coucy nodded towards the stands. 'They are très jolie'
He glanced at them. Women stretched to King Edward's right, near impossible to distinguish. The queen must be the one gowned in ermine-trimmed purple, but the rest were a blur of matching tan and violet.
Except for one. Her dark hair was graced with a gold circlet and she glared in his direction of the field with crossed arms and a frown. Even at this distance, he could read a loathing that matched his own, as if she despised them all.
Well, the feeling was mutual.
He shrugged. Les femmes Anglaise were not his concern. Two visiting kings sat beside the English Edward today, overlooking the tournament field. 'It is les rois I would impress, not the ladies.'
'Ah, a chevalier always strives to impress the ladies,' his dark-haired friend said, with a smile. 'It is the best way to impress their men.'
It amazed him, this ability the younger man, Enguer-rand, Lord de Coucy, had to cut down a foe with an axe one day and warble a chanson with the ladies the next. Marc had taught him much of the first and nothing of the second.
'How do you do it?' Marc asked. 'How do you nod and smile at your captors?'
'To uphold the honour of French chivalry, mon ami'
What he meant was to preserve the pretence that Christian knights lived their lives according to the principles of chivalry.
And that, as Marc well knew, was a lie.
Men spoke allegiance to the code, then did as they pleased.
'French honour died at Poitiers.' Poitiers, when cowardly French commanders, even the king's oldest son, had fled the field, leaving the king to fight alone.
Enguerrand shook his head. 'We do not fight that war today.'
But Marc did. He fought it still, though the battles were over and the truce had been signed. He was a hostage of les Anglais, trapped in this frozen, foreign place, and resentment near strangled him.
The herald interrupted his thoughts to give them their order and their opponents. De Coucy would ride first, against the larger, brutish man. A foe worth fighting, at least.
The one left to him? No more than a boy. One he might kill by accident if he were not careful. How careful did he feel today?
By the saints it is cold.
Shivering, Lady Cecily, Countess of Losford, saw her breath turn to fog in the frigid air as she gazed over the frozen tournament field. Red, blue, gold, silvercolour ran rampant before her eyesdecorating flags and banners, spilling across surcoats that shielded armour and draped the horses. A splendid display for visiting royalty. And King Edward, third of that name, reigned over it all, triumphant after his victory in France.
She lifted her chin, struggling to keep her countenance worthy of her rank.
It is your duty.
Her parents' words, their voices alive only in her memory now.
'Is that not so, Cecily?'
She turned to the king's daughter, Isabella, and wondered what she had missed. Six other ladies also attended the princess and, sometimes, Cecily's attention strayed. 'I'm certain you are right, my lady.' That was always a good answer.
'Really?' The princess smiled. 'I thought you did not care for the French.'
She sighed. Isabella loved to tease her when her thoughts wandered. 'I'm afraid I was not listening.'
'I said the Frenchman looks fierce.'
Lady Cecily followed her gaze. At the far end of the field, two Frenchmen had mounted their destriers, but not yet donned their helmets. One of them, a knight she had not seen before, was tall, sharp and blond. Like a leopard. A beast who could kill in a single leap.
'He is handsome, is he not?'
Cecily frowned, ashamed that Lady Isabella had caught her staring at a French hostage. 'I do not care for fair-haired men.'
Her lady did not bother to hide her smile. 'I meant the dark one.'
Ah, the one she had barely looked at. Yet it did not matter which the princess meant. Cecily despised them both. Despite the conventions of chivalry, she could not understand why the king allowed the French hostages to take to the tournament field. They were, after all, little better than prisoners and should be denied such privileges. 'Both of them will be handsomer when they are unhorsed and covered in mud.'
That sent Isabella and the other ladies into peals of laughter until a frown from Queen Philippa forced them to stifle their mirth.
Cecily smiled, relieved she had saved the moment with a jest. Yet she had been deadly serious. In fact, it was a shame that the joust had become so tame and ceremonial. She would not have minded seeing a bit of French blood spilled.
'I wonder,' the princess said, 'which one rides against Gilbert?'
Cecily looked to the other end of the field where Gilbert, now properly Sir Gilbert, sat tall and straight and hopeful on his horse. Her favour, a violet silk scarf, fluttered expectantly on his lance.
Opposite him, covered in chainmail and plate armour, the blond French knight on his battle-tested mount looked even more imposing. She was no expert at war, but the way he sat on the horse and held his lance bespoke a confidence, a sureness, that she could see through the armour. 'I am certain,' she said, not certain at all, 'that Gilbert can unseat either man.'
Isabella flashed a sceptical expression. 'Don't be gooseish. This is Gilbert's first tournament. He'll be blessed if he doesn't drop his lance. Why ever did you give him your favour?'
Cecily sighed. 'He looked so forlorn.'
A quick frown deepened the lines between Isabella's brows. 'You are not thinking of him as a husband.'
'Gilbert?' Cecily laughed. 'He is too much like a brother.' He had come to her father as a young squire, just a couple of years older than she. And when the king selected her husband, he would not choose a lowly knight, but a man powerful, and trustworthy enough to hold the key to England.
Frowning, Cecily leaned closer to Isabella and whispered, 'Has your father said anything more of my marriage?'
Since her father had died, Cecily had become a very eligible heiress. She was now near twenty and it was time, past time, that she and Losford Castle be delivered to a man of the king's choosing.
The princess shook her head. 'His royal guests have consumed his attention. The King of Cyprus, Jerusalem, and whatever else he styles himself is urging my father to go on Crusade.' She rolled her eyes. 'At his age! It is bad enough he plans to lead the final charge in the tournament today.'
At least he is alive to do so, Cecily wanted to say, but held her tongue.
'Besides' Isabella squeezed Cecily's cold fingers 'I don't want you snatched away so soon.'
But it was not 'soon'. It had been three years since her father had been cut down by the French. And the first annual death mass for her mother was barely two months away. The time to mourn was over. And yet
She smiled at Isabella. 'You just want a companion for your revels.'
Isabella was an astonishing thirty-one years old and unmarried, with an abundance of time and money for all the pleasures of the court.
'You've been in mourning too long. You should enjoy yourself before you wed.'
Trumpets blared, signalling the next joust, and as the herald announced the rules for the single combat, Cecily could summon no joy. She frowned at the French chevaliers. God should not have let them live when her father had not.
De Coucy's red, white and blue banner snapped briskly in the breeze. He smiled at Marc, eager to ride. 'A glorious day! The king thinks to impress us! He is the one who will be impressed, n'est pas?''
Marc grinned. So many times, they had ridden side by side. Memories of successful battles quickened his blood. 'Will you take him in one pass or two?'
Enguerrand put on his helm and lifted his mailed glove in a brief salute. And three fingers.
Marc laughed. Ever the perfect knight, de Coucy, unlike too many of his fellow Frenchmen.
Yet as his friend rode, Marc watched each move, as if his attention could ensure the outcome. He still looked on the younger man as a novice, though de Coucy had long ago assumed his title, his lands and his rightful place as a leader of men.
On the first pass, his friend's lance hit the opponent's shield squarely. On the second, he allowed his opponent a touch, but with a last-minute twist, made certain it was only a glancing blow, one that scored poorly.
Matchless skill, to fight so that the poor English knight might actually believe he had landed a blow.
Finally, on the third pass, Enguerrand returned with a perfectly placed hit and knocked the other man's lance out of his grip and halfway across the field.
The squires rushed out to help them dismount and hand them their swords for the next phase of combat. Again, de Coucy made the contest look like an intricate dance. The first blow clean, but leaving his opponent standing. The second, he took himself, yet in such a way that it was inconsequential. With the third, he knocked his opponent's sword out of his hand, forcing him to concede the match.
Cheers rose from the stands, approval more generous than Marc had expected from their captors.
De Coucy strode back, helmet off, smile on. Three passes he had declared. Three it had been.
'Well done, my friend,' Marc said. 'Although that last blow was a little off.'
Enguerrand laughed. 'Only if I had intended to kill him.'
Marc looked down the field at the young knight who would face him. Marc's match, dwarfed by his armour, looked as if he had just earned his spurs.
'They insult me, to make me fight a boy.' At the other end of the field, a brave little purple scarf drooped from the knight's lance. 'You wanted me to impress the ladies. Do you think his lady will be impressed when her favour is trampled by the horses?'
'Behave yourself, mon ami'
Marc sighed. He was expected to fight as de Coucy did: well enough to bring honour on himself, his colleague and his country, but not so well as to harm the Anglais. That was what the code of chivalry said.
For a moment, he pondered taking pity on the young man. He had a few crumbs of chivalry left in his trencher. A very few.
He could ride the requisite three passes with a gentle touch and allow his opponent to leave the field with his pride intact.
But men said one thing and did another. They gave an oath of fealty, then deserted their posts at battle. They swore to protect women and then raped them instead.
They cared nothing for honour, only the pretence of it. Some days, it seemed as if life was only a giant disguising with everyone pretending to be what they were not.
He was tired of pretending.
Today he would protest the only way he had left. Not to kill the young man, no. But embarrass him? That, he could do. That, he would enjoy.
His destrier shifted beneath him, stamping cold, hard ground that did not yield. He looked to the side, the starter gave the sign and he kicked his horse to ride.
* * *
Cecily refused to applaud the first Frenchman's victory until Isabella nudged her in the ribs. 'The dark-haired Frenchman fought masterfully, don't you think?'
Forced into clapping, she did so without enthusiasm. 'How can you say anything good about a Frenchman?'
'You talk as if he were an infidel. You forget my father's French blood.'
Yes, it was French blood flowing through the royal veins that had entitled King Edward to claim the throne of France. Cecily felt no such tie. Men like these, perhaps even these men, had killed her father. And then after his death had come her mother's
She sighed, chastened by Isabella, and gazed back out on the field. With a helmet covering his face, the blond warrior in the blue-and-gold surcoat looked even more threatening, as if he were not human at all. She could only hope he would not wound Gilbert. Of course, this was not war. No one died in a tournament.
At least, not very often.
The herald gave the sign, she sent up a prayer for Gilbert's safety and braced for another drawn-out contest with lance and sword.
The horses charged, hooves pounding the turf, blue and gold galloping towards green and white. Atop his horse, Gilbert sat off-centre, unsteady, while the Frenchman rode as solid and immovable as Windsor's walls. She held her breath, as if that would make a difference. They were going too fast, what if the Frenchman really?
Lances clattered on steel. Something flew across the field. A lance tip? A glove? Gilbert's horse reared.
Then, Gilbert lay flat on his back, his green-and-white surcoat covering the earth like spring grass.
She jumped to her feet. Was he wounded? Or worse? Not another loss, please
The Frenchman backed his horse away, so the beast would not accidentally trample the boy. As Gilbert's squire scampered on to the field, Gilbert sat up unaided and removed his helmet. Without the protection of his armour, shadowed by the man towering over him on the horse, he looked as young and thin and untried as he was.
But, thank God, unhurt.
Isabella arched her brows. 'I fear your scarf is a lost cause.'
'It was hardly a fair match. And since it was not, the French knight should have been chivalrous enough to spare the boy.'
'I don't think that one cares for courtesies. His friend, however.'
And as Isabella spoke, the French knight, the warrior Cecily had wanted to see toppled, turned his horse and left the field.
This time, there was no applause.