Old Oaths, Lon Remembered by Lia Cooper (C) 2019
Authors Note: I wrote this for submission to an anthology earlier this year. It wasn’t accepted (obvs) and it’s just been sitting in my folders ever since. I don’t know what to do with it tbh, but it’s set in a wider fantasy world I’d one day like to write. For now, I’m releasing it here to the wilds of my website in case there’s anyone still out there interested in what I’m creating. Here’s a freebie.
This short story is set in a world where a knight came to save a sleeping beauty who ended up saving herself. F/F
DO NOT REPOST
It wasn’t the most absurd thing she’d ever done, surely. Though Jean couldn’t recall a more ridiculous situation.
“Time is getting away from you, old girl,” she muttered under her breath, checking the tension of the leather straps holding her riding leathers to her chest and back. “Making you forget.”
Because of course this wasn’t the most dangerous situation, nor the most puzzling, or even the most frightening. It should have been. Their future hinged on how well she and Mel played their parts in the coming days. They faced destruction, an upheaval to everything they’d spent the last twenty-five years building.
But while Jean couldn’t think of a moment that stacked up to this one in sheer dumb-fuckery, she found herself strangely serene.
She wasn’t afraid.
Her aide pulled on her right glove and began tightening it down. The weight of the oiled leather and riveted maille made an old injury in that wrist twinge. She’d woken that morning with three fingers curled painfully from a malady in the joints, and she couldn’t stand this long without periodically relieving the pressure on her knees and hips. Her body felt every previous battle, every fight, every one of her forty-eight hard lived years.
She should be afraid, but she didn’t feel anything.
“Sir?” the aide asked, freezing with the left glove in her hands.
Jean shook her head. “Who is readying my horse?”
The young woman cast a nervous glance out the window. These palatial rooms didn’t overlook the stables as Jean preferred.
“We thought—that is Jeffreys thought you would prefer to attend to that responsibility yourself. Considering…”
“Considering what, girl? Speak up.”
“You know how temperamental Grey has been with the new grooms.”
Jean narrowed her eyes at the strip of trampled green lawn stretching three miles along the palace keep’s north side, to the Queen’s wood. A month ago that same lawn had been pristine. Now her eyes snagged on all of the jagged places where horses and men and heavy carts had churned it into a festering mulch dotted with a hundreds hundred tents.
Mel’s elder cousin Forge II Montler had certainly made his mark on the view.
The night before that same view had made the blood rise in Jean’s face. Or maybe it had been the missive Forge’s aide had delivered into her hands an hour after table. How dare he come here to destroy everything Mel had built? How dare he come after fleeing the kingdom all those years ago like the cowardly flee he was, to claim what was theirs.
Jean had been livid the night before, but now she felt cold and calm, like the morning. As though all of her harsh edges, her rage, her aches and pains, her frustrations, and doubt, had been smoothed out by the fog that rolled in overnight, all of the feeling chilled by the freezing dawn—now just an hour away.
“If they can’t do their jobs, perhaps they should be reassigned to an area of the household more fitted to their abilities.” It wasn’t a fair comment, Grey had been standoffish with the staff ever since his old groom Bertam had passed three winters ago, but Jean wasn’t feeling generous that morning.
Her aide’s fingers slipped on the left glove straps, but she recovered quickly, tightening it down painfully. Jean felt an answering tingle in the tips of her fingers.
“When I’m finished here,” she said hesitantly, “I can see what I can do—”
Jean waved the comment away with a flick of her hand, ripping it out of the girl’s grasp. “Never mind. I’ll see to it.”
“Then should I inform her Majesty?”
“She’s been informed.”
Jean pretended not to see the girl’s disbelief.
Mel had been informed. In a note. Left on her bedside where she so rarely slept these days. That it was possible for Melisende to go whole days without stepping foot in their apartments was not important to Jean in the moment. She was the Queen’s champion and it was her duty to damned well act like it, even if it meant killing her Majesty’s bastard cousin.
Or if it killed Jean.
“We’re done,” her aide said, stepping back.
Jean stayed where she was, leaning with one hip against her desk, both hands now hanging heavy at her sides. Her head dipped down to meet the hardened breastplate and she felt the muscles and nerves in her upper back protest, a sharp pain radiating up the back of her beck where she’d slept wrong the evening before. Nothing would put a dent on the pain.
“Would you like me to pass along a message to her Majesty’s attendants?” her aide asked in a soft voice. Jean had to give the girl credit for courage.
“No. I’ve taken care of that. Thank you,” she said. “You may go.”
They’d lose the dawn if she didn’t get moving.
Jean rolled her shoulder in its thick casing to ease the tension, and grabbed her weapon belt from its wardrobe. She half expected there to be dust on her hands, but of course the palace household would never have been so careless. She found her swords and daggers in regular order. Her instincts led her eyes to the plainer set of weapons hanging on the left side of the armoire, good weapons, the same she’d carried all those years as a knight-errant. She might have preferred arming herself with such old friends, but they wouldn’t do for her purposes that morning. Jean withdrew the more elaborate set, inlaid with silver and fine filigree, bearing the marks and heraldry of Melisende’s Queendom, including a delicate, richly ornamented dagger—the symbol of Jean’s office.
Her thoughts churned over her plan as she left the palace through an indirect route. She wasn’t hiding, she told herself, she wasn’t taking a servant’s route, merely a circuitous path that would avoid any of the Queen’s laboratories or her library. Or courtiers. Just the idea of crossing paths with one of those gossiping fools—all of them keeping a safe distance while they judged how Forge’s claim to the throne would fall out—made Jean curl her mailled fist tight around her sword hilt.
She didn’t want any interruptions. She’d made her decision. She was going to see it through. She was younger than Forge, and more experienced. A coward like that…Jean was surprised that the man had taken her up on her challenge.
The old rules, the ones written down by the first conquering king of Montler, who had bested his eleven brothers and sisters, and twenty-seven blood cousins, had writ them down himself in the first laws, and even though no challenge had been settled by ritual combat in a dozen generations, the option was still on the books. If Forge won, his claim would be absolutely legitimate in the eyes of the law. But if Jean ground him into the dirt like the worm he was, then she would secure Melisende from any further claims by Forge or his descendants.
Jean stepped out into the cool, dawning air, her breath misting out in a vaporous cloud that surrounded her for a second before drifting off into the lavender black sky. The grass crunched under her steel reinforced boots from the frost. Forge had arrived just after the last winter’s snow, at the coldest point of the winter and just as their winter food stores were beginning to look stretched. When they were cold and weary from the long winter and looking forward to the spring. Just in time to threaten the spring harvests that would follow.
The stables were noisy with hungry horses and hurrying grooms when Jean arrived there to attend to Grey. He was stabled at the far end, in a separate stall, significantly larger and more comfortable than the already spacious accommodations of the royal herd. Grey preferred living outside the walls of the palace, but during the coldest parts of the year he conceded to being stabled inside for easier access to rich food and a comfortable temperature for his aging joints.
There was no door to Grey’s stall, and so Jean rapped her mailled fist against the bars lining the front wall where grooms could shift through dried alfalfa and grain. She heard a soft, disgruntled snort from the darkness inside.
“Go away,” a low voice grumbled, harsh like rocks tumbling down the side of a dusty cliffside—a far cry from the smoother tones of her memory. Grey had historically chosen to speak to few other than herself, and Jean realized with a start how many weeks it had been since her last visit.
“It’s me. I need you.”
Another snort, louder, and the muted swish of a tail flicked against a thick winter coat.
Jean waited, flexing her fingers in her gloves and trying not to fidget. She couldn’t arrive at the meeting place on foot.
Bare hooves scraped across the straw covered floor before a pink and white nose appeared from the gloom. He had been a deep dapple grey color once, nearly blue in his coloring, hence the name they’d given him at the Royal Arcadabad Stables. But the years had bleached Grey of his namesake until only a handful of dapples remained, concentrated around his withers and hind quarters, and in the dark streaky coloring of his tail. Even his mane shone more white than she remembered. His brown eyes were tired and long lashed, peering out from behind a long, tangled forelock and a shaggy face. It was too early in the season still for the horses to begin shedding their winter coats.
“I’m retired,” Grey grumbled in that same rock-tumbled voice.
“We’ll never be retired.”
“We?” he snorted loudly and tossed his mane, shaking free bits of straw and dust.
She didn’t have time for this, but it was her own fault, she supposed, that Grey was in such dire condition. She was his rider after all.
Jean tugged off her gauntlets with some effort and then dug out a curry and brushes from the tack room. She coaxed Grey out of his stall with minimal complaint once he caught side of the tools, explaining her situation while she worked.
When she was done, a thin coat of sweat and dust and loose horse hair covered her face and neck, grime crusted black under her nails, but Grey looked marginally more presentable if still a bit like a shaggy pony that had been left out in the field all winter. At least he hadn’t been out rolling around in the mud so his lighter coat didn’t bear too many unseemly stains. She couldn’t imagine that Forge’s horses would be in much better condition after marching to Montler all winter across the western wastes.
“So you understand why I have to ask you to bear me out this morning?” she finished, wiping her hands off on a dirty groom’s rag.
Grey grumbled wordlessly. He canted up his back left leg and leaned sleepily on the right, ears flicking around as he took in the wakening sounds of the stable. Jean took it as permission. She returned bearing his courtly tack, unsure even as her hands wiped off the thick layer of dust, when he’d worn any of it. Probably around the same time she’d last worn her own elaborate court weapons.
She worked in silence, fingers stiff at first before the memory of these actions, from a time before grooms or stable masters, when all she and Grey had were one another, came back to her hands.
She splashed water on her face and scrubbed briefly at her nails when she was done before haphazardly pulling her gauntlets back into place and tightening them with her teeth. Jean tried not to think about how much time had been lost as she swung up onto the horse’s strong back. A young boy hurried ahead of them to swing the door wide and Sir Jean of Buscoine and her steed, the strange and foreign talking horse Grey, clattered out into the first rays of dawn light.
* * *
“Do you have a plan?” Grey asked, tossing his nose in the air to catch the scent of troops and their horses tainting the wind.
“Have you become a righteous blockhead in your old age?” he demanded, shortening his stride. “I can’t believe She’s allowing this.”
Jean knew from his tone precisely which “she” he meant.
“I know what I’m doing,” she replied through gritted teeth. “Forge won’t be able to resist the temptation this sort of legitimacy—”
“Assuming he wins—”
“Yes, if he won.”
What Grey failed to say in the pause that followed, was that she acted with a large amount of faith in her own ability to swing this encounter in her favor.
“I’m more experienced. Younger. Fitter.”
He made a derisive sound.
They had left the enclosure of the main palace grounds by a side gate, opened by three armored lads standing watch that morning. Grey picked up his feet as they strolled across the thick grass, it was a dark green, hearty and heavy with water from the snow melt. He did not, however increase his pace, almost as though he wished to draw out their approach as long as possible. Almost as though he were trying to stall.
There was a commotion in the distance behind them.
Jean nudged Grey forward with her legs. “It won’t do any good. He’s already accepted. If either of us backed out now it would be worse than a loss.”
Grey snorted and tossed his mane; there wasn’t a bit in the hackamore he wore, but if Grey had been a person, Jean could imagine him grinding his teeth together in frustration. His pace increased, breaking into a smooth four step stride that covered the distance at a smooth gait that allowed Jean to sit perfectly still astride his back.
They were confronted by guards on the edges of Forge’s camp who, rather than give Jean her due by recognizing the importance of her colors and cut of her heraldry, demanded she halt and name herself.
“Your master expects me. Move aside.”
The two, both pale faced and thin under a layer of dirty linen, exchanged glances. One of them grimaced and gripped his polearm more tightly like he wanted to brandish it at her again.
Grey made a low threatening noise and stamped a hoof. Jean stared down at them with all of the cool disdain she held for their lord.
There was a bright trumpet call then that split the morning air, coming from the center of Forge’s camp, and the man with the polearm sighed and stepped out of the way, if begrudgingly.
It was time.
Jean and Grey made their way into the enemy’s camp, all eyes on them, some bald with curiosity, some more sly about their interest, all of them weighing this newcomer in their midst. She could imagine the content of their whispers: was this really Queen Melisende’s champion? Some might even know her name, may have heard something of the stories that bards still sung of her deeds in the time before she came to Montler. Of the princess from across the sea who had abdicated her throne, her name, and sailed to some southern kingdom to train as a knight. She shook her head. No, none of these people would have heard that story. Perhaps another, of her exploits on the plainslands, roving from one ducal seat to another, hiring herself out to lords and common folk alike, whoever had been worthy and in need of some fair and lofty assistance.
Grey kept his mouth shut and his ears pricked as they made their way to the grounds Forge had had his people clear in the dark hours before dawn, a roughly circular shape of brown grass ringed by his curious army. Two young boys criss-crossed the edges of the circle, picking up the litter that moving men and tents in such a hurry had left behind.
Jean spied a particularly ornate pavilion just passed the edges of the crowd that she assumed belonged to the man himself. She couldn’t imagine allowing herself or Melisende—heaven forfend—making their quarters in such an obvious location if they’d been on campaign. Not that that had ever been a concern. Melisende had prided herself on a rule without warfare. An era of peaceful scientific discovery, she always called it. In that way, Jean’s own position in the Queendom had been largely figurative until today.
Today she’d prove her place at Melisende’s side to every courtier who had ever whispered doubts.
A bird cried from the wall of the palace, it’s voice piercing the crowd’s low murmur. Jean watched a small, dark figure launch itself into an updraft. The green and gold penants flying from poles along the palace walls snapped in the wind.
The men and women along the far side of the ring parted at the arrival of their lord astride a bay mare. Forge bore a close resemblance to his cousin, the same sharp cheekbones and pointed chin in a cool toned brown face, dark hair with a touch of natural curl and body to it. He was older, however, the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper, the skin rougher and reddened from the elements. He wore the dark green and gold Montler colors, though his were picked out in expensive velvets and dyed wools, not the padded leather and reinforced fabrics of Jean’s gambeson. He was not dressed for battle.
“Come now, Sir Buscoine, why such a long face?” Forge called to her. He rode his horse as though they were part of a parade, with full regalia, its head arched and its feet moving in high steps that moved more vertically than forward. A second man rode behind him, dressed in dark greens with a long coat in a similar pattern as Jean’s, and a helm covering his face.
“What is this?” she demanded with a jerk of her chin at the second rider.
“The King’s champion, of course,” Forge replied. He reined in his horse, staring down Jean’s surprise. “You didn’t expect to fight me? Surely.”
“It’s your claim you defend.”
“Yes, and I’m fortunate to employ a very talented and loyal young man for just such endeavors. Like how my cousin employs you, no doubt,” he replied with a smirk.
“You’re not king.” Jean had to work to keep herself from spitting the words in his face. He would never be king, the unspoken promise.
“And yet by right I should be,” Forge snapped. The cheerful look slid off his face. “Do I sense hesitation, Sir Buscoine? Perhaps you would like to concede de—”
Grey reared his head and snapped his teeth in Forge’s face. The coward jerked away, face paling in the weak light.
“Very well. To the death.” He waved a hand at his man, spun his horse around and cantered off to the sideline to watch.
“And do you have a name?” Jean demanded her opponent.
Forge’s champion rode to the edge of the circle and dismounted, handing the reins off to another solider.
She should have brought her aide. Not that Grey needed minding, but Jean realized how it must look arriving alone, without an entourage. She had thought it would look like strength, that she thought so little of besting Forge that she needn’t bother anyone else, not even a groom, but just then Jean mostly felt…alone.
“You better know what you’re doing,” her horse muttered as they made their way to the opposite side of the arena.
A young boy trotted up to her and Grey as she dismounted, as though he thought to hold Grey’s bridle, but hesitated when the horse rolled his eyes, shook his long white mane, and completed a neat pirouette, prancing away from Jean and taking up station just out of reach of any of Forge’s men.
Jean unbuckled the shield from her back and drew her sword. Forge’s champion took an intimidating claymore from a second youth dressed like a squire in worn colors clearly modeled after his master’s.
They approached one another on foot, sizing the other up slow and deliberately without either making a move for some time. Long enough to make the crowd restless. Until even Forge could be heard egging his hired sword to, “Get on with it!”
Jean couldn’t see the other man’s face behind his helm, couldn’t get a read from his movements, except that he responded to his master’s call by closing on her suddenly and with startling agility despite his heavy armor and weapon.
They fought, sword meeting sword in feints and glancing blows, a parry, a block from her shield, as they measured the others strength and ability. Jean realized quickly that Forge’s champion was no green squire. He might not even be young, though his speed and the lean bulk of his muscles under his armor suggested a well-kept, if trained and experienced, youth.
He was quick with his heavy sword, pressing its superior reach to keep her on the defensive.
After some time had passed without either champion finding an advantage, Jean tried to press her luck with a flurry of quick, jabbing blows, ducking under the other man’s reach, aiming for the weakest joints under his arms. If Forge’s champion had been a fraction slower, she might have found her opening, but instead he twisted and swung his sword down in a tight blow that struck her glancing along her hairline.
Jean scrubbed blood out of her eyes. The wound no doubt looked worse than it was—probably. Head wounds always bled furiously, but that didn’t necessarily bely their severity. Dark spots danced around the corners of her eyes and her head spun with pain. Her breaths came short in her chest, her muscles burning from the exertion, fingers trembled both from fatigue and the rush of adrenaline. A part of her mind raged at these facts. She’d kept herself in shape. She’d been so careful about it, even as her joints ached more with each morning, even as the pain in her hip worsened with every winter. She’d made sure to keep her body active and the muscles in her hands and shoulders familiar with the weight and heft of a weapon—even if only blunted training swords.
She couldn’t tell if Forge’s champion felt a similar strain but by his confident stride as they circled one another again, Jean doubted it.
She gathered herself as her opponent brought his sword up and around, using the momentum to chop down at her with tremendous force, encouraged by the sheer weight of his weapon. The blow rang through her bones as she blocked it with her own sword in a neat parry. Her wrist twanged in protest. She would have preferred to catch it off the concave slope of her shield, where the force would have been distributed, for he carried through the motion with another chop and another, each moving faster than she would have expected him to wield the claymore—a deadly weapon, but not one built for speed. If he was younger, then he had to have been seasoned by war or the tournament circuit to win Forge’s confidence. The opposite of what she had expected walking into this fight.
Fool, she berated herself. Overconfident fool.
They fought, Jean dodging where she could, neither taking or giving up much ground as they worked at one another. Her opponent was fast and strong, but he could not best her for skill at least, nor instincts, which kept Jean barely ahead of his blade on more than one occasion. A lifetime spent drilling in the manner of her masters, until she could move and react without thought, her eyes reacting faster than her brain could have weighed and considered.
Still, as the fight dragged on, she worried that it would be only a matter of time before her muscles couldn’t keep up with the demands of the fight. Jean could feel herself tiring already, and—
Pain sliced through her shoulder where the flat of a blade skimmed through a weakness in the leather. She drew back a couple of quick steps, fighting to give herself a moment to breathe, to roll the shoulder, checking to see if anything had been severed. She didn’t dare take her eyes off her opponent long enough to check whether she was bleeding—she hoped not—because he had followed her retreat, large strides eating up the ground between them as he pressed his advantage. Jean brought her shield up to deflect the blows, breathing quick through her teeth, belly and chest pumping desperate air through her body.
She managed to plant her body into his instep, using the shield this time to proect herself, and catch him off balance. The claymore dropped its guard and he stumbled. Jean knocked him a hard blow across his sternum with the front of her shield and took the moment it afforded to glance at her shoulder. There was blood but not an excessive amount, and she could still move the arm. She scrubbed sweat and loose strands of hair from her brow and met the man’s next attack, thrusting and parrying, both parties looking for an opening.
Jean couldn’t find one. She couldn’t see a way to finish Forge’s champion and it made a flutter of panic roost in her gut.
In desperation, she faked a stumble, opening her left side up to attack. Her opponent moved to capitalize and she forced the hilt of her sword up in a quick motion that wrenched the edge of his helmet half off his face without fully dislodging it. Her opponent was forced to retreat and deal with the armor obstructing his view. Jean took the time to steady herself. She didn’t need to wait for an opening, she could make one, she reminded herself.
The bent helmet came off with a curse. Her opponent was a young man with light hair and delicate features. Blood dripped from a gash in his jaw where her sword hilt and the helmet had met and dug a furrow through the skin. The tops of his cheeks were flushed bright pink and sweat dotted his forehead, but Jean saw in a moment that the fight had barely begun to effect him.
Her body’s flagging energy told her that she’d never be able to win a battle of attrition. That was what she had planned to do against Forge, betting on her superior skills, but this youth had matched her sword for sword, wearing her down quickly with the ferocity of his strength and sufficient technique.
He grinned at her and nodded at the helmet.
“It wasn’t my idea; my patron says I should take care of my face. But I hear that the lads and lasses like a few scars on their heroes. What do you think?”
“That you wont live long enough for it to heal.”
The smile slipped into a sneer as he eyed her with disdain.
“You won’t win this, old woman. You never stood a chance.”
“And yet I’m still standing, and you’re the one there bleeding.”
The sneer grew into a thing that twisted his otherwise pretty features into an ugly snarl. He renewed his grip on his sword and swung at her.
Jean ducked, parrying more with her shield than her sword. Could he be enraged into making a mistake?
He laughed. It was as though removing the helm had unleashed his personality, allowing it to bubble over across their combat arena. A thick effervescent thing that mocked her with its energy and surety. A part of Jean ached to smash in his lovely face and teach him that that she was far from just an old woman ready to be shut up in a tower and left to rot.
Jean was so caught up in her bubbling rage that she failed to notice the commotion churning up the ranks of men and women lining the arena.
She fought, catching out a dozen small places where her opponent left himself open, but he shrugged off each blow like one of those bulls she’d seen sacrificed down in Smarna, where acrobats inflicted a hundred tiny stabs to the insensate animals, all the while jumping above their wicked horns in a mortal dance to please both the crowds as well as their gods.
But Jean was no acrobat. And her opponent cleverer than a mindless bull. He wanted to win glory for himself, the title of Champion to the King, and the only thing standing in his way was one old mercenary.
He sword caught in a flaw in the shield and the wood splintered awkwardly, shards flying up at Jean’s unprotected face as her arm was wrenched down and out at an awkward angle. Pins and needles shot through her shoulder. She stepped into his next swing and used her armored shoulder to shrug off his blow. He had superior reach with his claymore, but it made it awkward for him to fight at close range and she used that to her advantage, bashing the wrecked shield into his unprotected face. He leapt away before she did more than graze him, but it gave her enough space to slip free of the broken shield, nothing more now than bits of dark polished woods and Melisende’s doe emblem split down the middle. Jean couldn’t help but stare as the doe lay there, broken, its smooth coat painted in white and traced in gold, marred by black mud.
Loud voices finally broke through the tension surrounding the two combatants as a pillar of horses and riders thrust through the crowd, bearing the colors of the Queen herself, and Jean saw with a start that Melisende rode at their head, her face a blank mask.
The queen demanded her cousin show himself at once, and her voice brought the crowd to a breathless halt.
“Ah, my dear cousin the usurper. How good of you to join us. I was surprised that you didn’t seem more interested in—”
“Enough!” Melisende snapped. “This…display will cease at once.”
Jean winced. Oh, my darling, there was never any other choice.
They had argued about it.
Of course they had argued about it in the few precious moments they had with one another. For weeks on end, since Forge’s arrival, neither satisfied with the other’s opinion of how they should proceed. Melisende was a staunch pacifist despite her family’s bloodthirsty roots, and took pride in having ruled Montler for the last twenty-five years in conflict free peace. And in all those years, Jean had been happy to stand at her side upholding that peace, but she had met more than one man like Forge before she’d ever set foot in Monlter, and she knew that they would not be persuaded away from something like a country, a kingship, without a sword to the throat.
Melisende liked to forget that even her own peace had come at the cost of bloodshed. That there was a reason a mercenary had ever come to Montler. That while Melisende had been locked away in her laboratory tower playing with science and magic—witchcraft, the bishops had called it—Jean had been fighting and yes even killing in Melisende’s name.
Like she did now.
“Have you come here to tell me you abdicate your lesser claim on my throne?” Forge called, face lifted in a smile for his gathered supports who obediently cheered.
Melisende’s face lost some of its rich color in the dawn light, something about the morning bleaching her of her perpetual golden shine, and it made the angry flush that rose in her cheeks stand out like a beacon.
“I will speak to Sir Buscoine,” she commanded.
Forge waved one gloved hand, “I am nothing if not magnanimous in victory.” He jerked his chin at his champion, who stepped away from Jean with a shrug. She kept her eyes on the younger man as she crossed to where Melisende waited for her, almost shivering with irritation and rage by that point. The Queen leaned down from her short bay mare to growl in Jean’s ear.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing.”
“My duty. Saving your queendom.”
A short hot burst of air ghosted across Jean’s cheek.
“Through some ritual combat?”
“You said that above all else you wanted to find a solution that avoided all out war.”
“And you agreed.”
“Yes, because we do not have the resources, material or men, to wage a war against Forge’s army.”
“Is your only legal option.”
“I was negotiating—”
“What do you think you could give that coward equal to what he has come ready to claim by force?”
The queen narrowed her brown eyes, little flecks of green and gold igniting under the rising sun like embers to match Melisende’s ire.
“And you think he’ll obey the laws of this little fight?”
“They are written in the oldest laws of Montler. He has to abide by them.”
“And should he decide not to? As you have so many times pointed out, he’s far from the most honorable man.”
“He might not be but your barons are. They will stand with you against him.”
Jean could imagine how Mel would have throne up her hands in consternation had they been alone, maybe turning away to pace a groove into the floor as was her wont. But they were surrounded by the enemy, hostile eyes heavy on their backs so she restrained herself, instead reaching out with one thin hand to grip Jean’s shoulder, the side without the full metal guard, where her opponent had drawn blood. Melisende frowned at the injury for a beat before she hissed.
“So, you risk the very warfare I wish to avoid.”
“He doesn’t have enough men to fight all of the barons. And if he breaks the law then he will be forced to reckon with all of them.”
“That is a serious gamble. And with your life—”
“This stalemate will not last forever. He will kill you if he has to.”
“My knight in shiny armor,” Melisende replied after a pregnant pause. She didn’t look happy about the words.
“I will win this for you, my lady. It has been my one job these many years.”
“Is that what you think?”
Jean slid the queen’s hand from her person and bowed over it, a brush of her lips against the soft skin her only answer. It was more weathered than it had been all those years ago, the day she first swore her fealty. Until my dying breath, and even after that, should the gods allow me. There was a looseness to the skin now, rough patches from where the cold and whatever Mel had her hands into in the lab had left it chapped, the hint of age spots just beginning to show. But it would take far more than a little time to change the way Jean’s heart skipped a beat at this liberty, the familiarity the queen allowed her still. Jean had been little more than a sturdy bauble in the queen’s treasury these past twenty-five years, waiting for the moment she was needed once more.
“Of course. I swore to serve you all of my days. Surely you haven’t forgotten?”
Jean glanced up to see Melisende frowning at her.
“You have. In more ways than just as…” words seemed to fail the queen. Her fingers twitched against her robed thigh. She wasn’t dressed for riding. Jean could see the edge of a familiar dress trailing beneath a middle-weight cloak, the same gown she had been wearing the night before. The cloak itself wasn’t heavy enough to hold off the morning chill, and Melisende had a soft pink flush in her nose and the tips of her ears.
“I am your champion,” Jean pressed. Guilt bloomed in her chest. She’d expected to have all of this settled before Mel even discovered her note; so much for that plan.
“You are,” Melisende said softly. “But that doesn’t mean—”
“Yes, it does,” Jean protested. She squeezed Melisende’s hand gently, insistently. She was a fool for not having this conversation with Mel in private, where she could have wrapped her in her arms, touched their lips together, whispered promises into her long, shining black hair, until she agreed with Jean. What she wouldn’t give for those cold little hands to cup her face as Mel looked into her eyes and said that she understood why Jean had to do this, that she understood what it meant. But they had a crowd of hundreds watching them, every eye like an ant crawling over Jean’s skin.
As it was, Forge tired of there tete-a-tete before Jean could spend too long regretting. He heeled his horse up to his champion and shoved the man forward with a sharp command.
“Enough, finish this.”
Jean released Mel’s hand and slapped her horse’s flank, sending the creature wheeling away as she firmed her grip on her sword and met Forge’s champion once more in battle.
* * *
They fought, for what felt like hours and in truth turned out to be the better part of two. Until sweat and dirty and blood coated both fighters. Until they were stumbling husks tripping over their own boots. Until their muscles screamed fatigue and cried out for relief. It was twenty-five years since Jean had been in a real battle, since she’d campaigned. She could appreciate anew, Melisende’s commitment to peace.
Gods how she wished never to pass another day such as this.
But whenever the doubt flickered in her, all she needed was to catch a glimpse of Forge’s face as it fell from malicious smirk to dark glower the longer the fight went on, the displeasure from him palpable. And Jean remembered the other reason she hadn’t wished for Melisende to view this in person—how it put her in too close proximity to her cousin.
The queen was right, Forge may not honor the law if Jean won, he may retaliate.
She wished that one of the queen’s retainers would have had enough sense to coax her Majesty away from her cousin’s army and wait for the results behind the relative safety of the palace walls, but Melisende refused to budge.
Jean fought for her life and her queen until she thought her heart would explode, and then she fought on, moving slower, being more calculated, letting Forge’s champion take risks and tire his younger strength out on her patience.
Dread threaded its way through her gut as that thought rooted itself in Jean. What would happen after she won—she couldn’t let herself think about the alternative, not when any victory felt so out of reach—would Melisende recognize the moment soon enough to flee this field back to high walls and safety? Would she be overcome with…anger? Disappointment?
Jean’s path turned her around so that she caught sight of Grey’s proud head standing above the shoulders of the other palace horses. Of course, Grey would have sense enough to get the queen out of danger.
And in that moment of distraction, Forge’s champion found his opening. The heavy edge of his sword scored searing heat through her side, glancing off the mailled torso and finding a weakness in the leather underneath where her chest plate met her hips.
Gasps and cheers rose from the crowd, thunderous.
Her head spun.
Her opponent pressed his advantage. Jean didn’t have enough energy to stave him off. He swung in close with his sword. Favoring her side, shield arm pressed awkwardly to her chest, Jean stepped into his momentum until their weapons and legs tangled and they went down in the mud. Jean lost her sword. His claymore dug into the mud and glanced out of his hand. Steel fists went for her neck. His body bore down on her, pressing into every ache and pain until it made Jean want to scream. Her shield hand went for the courtly dagger at her waist, a pretty and mostly useless weapon, decorative more than anything else—the ornament of her office as Melisende had once put it, a tidy little insult Jean had been carrying around out of duty all these years—and shoved it into her opponent’s neck as he bore down on her. Surprise froze his face as blood bubbled up over his lolling tongue.
Silence around them. Then shouts, angry this time. Forge’s voice, perhaps, yelling loudest of all. And feet tramping hard against the dirt as an uncertain crowd surged into senseless motion.
Jean shoved her dying opponent off her and staggered to her feet. She looked for Melisende first and caught her grim face as she spurred her horse away from her retainers, riding towards her cousin much to Jean’s despair. She tried to call out, stumbled, and fell to her knees. There was another commotion somewhere in the direction of the palace, beyond the crowd, beyond what Jean could see or care about just then.
Hands reached for her and if she hadn’t been utterly exhausted, Jean might have injured her aide before recognizing the young woman as she helped her stand and supported her up onto Grey’s back.
“Sir Buscoine, the queen has ordered you to—”
Melisende was shouting something at her cousin’s retreating back.
“The queen can’t remain here—” Jean tried to say.
“There are others coming, from the palace guard.”
Jean shook her head, swaying dangerously on Grey’s back.
Her aide ignored her, addressing Grey directly, somewhat to Jean’s surprise. And even more shocking, he bobbed his head and returned her to the palace, ignoring her invective.
Jean was hustled inside and into the royal chambers where she was disrobed and an army of servers began attending to her wounds while the surgeon was summoned. Jean slipped into an exhausted sleep despite her best efforts to remain conscious.
* * *
The door shutting with a clang woke her sometime later that day. Jean’s eyes felt like sandpaper as she looked around the dimly lit bedroom. For a breath, she felt confusion, as though the morning had been a dream, but then she tried to sit up and any doubts evaporated. There was no part of her body that didn’t hurt. She lay back and braced herself for Melisende’s anger.
“You gods damned fool. I should banish you from Montler and my sight,” the queen said, hissing between her teeth as she strode across the bedroom they’d shared for over twenty years.
Jean slumped dejectedly into the pillows, savoring the soft down for what might be the last time.
“Where is Forge?”
“In retreat. For the moment. But don’t worry, I won’t believe it just because he pulls back for the moment.” Melisende made an angry noise in the back of her throat and tore at the laces on her dress, giving up when they knotted together. Instead she flung herself onto the bed next to Jean and glared over the sea of covers.
“How could you, Jean?”
“There was no—”
“Don’t,” Melisende interrupted. “You went against my express wishes.”
“Technically, I never asked you about Forge’s—”
“You know, something I’ve always appreciated about you, Sir Buscoine, is your honesty. You never were one to dissemble.”
Jean shut her mouth and her eyes and sighed.
“I was just trying to fulfill my oaths to you,” she whispered into the darkness behind her eyelids.
A hand dug through the blankets and grabbed her’s in a painful grip. Startled, Jean met Mel’s look, the fierceness of it scorching her.
“You’re a damned fool. I could have lost you.”
Jean shrugged and regretted the movement. “It’s a hazard I’ve lived with my entire life. Just because I’ve been of no use to you for so many years doesn’t mean I forgot my duty.”
“You mean more to me that just duty. Oaths.”
“I know,” Jean said softly, pursing her lips. “But that is my purpose.”
The queen sighed and slid over until Jean could feel her breath ghosting across her lips. She thought back to how many days it had been since their schedules had placed them in this bed together—at least when they were both conscious—and then she stopped herself. It didn’t matter how many days, she had Melisende’s lips ghosting gently across her own, hesitant about the numerous bruises and cuts marring her skin. Jean would have liked to press in deeper, harder, to really taste her lover, but her body wasn’t up to anything more vigorous.
“My knight in armor,” Melisende said softly, touching the tip of her nose to Jean’s.
Jean nodded stiffly. She twined their fingers together, her winter pale ones scarred and knotted with the onset of arthritis, next to Mel’s darker, thinner ones burned and stained from the magic and chemicals in her laboratory.
They lay quietly together. Jean knew that they hadn’t seen the last of Forge. But her aide would be, even now, sending out the letters she’d prepared for the barons, reminding them of their oaths to the throne and its legitimate ruler.
“You’re more than that,” Mel said, interrupting her thoughts. “You’re my partner too Jean. Even if you aren’t acting like one.”
The word consort drifted idly through Jean’s thoughts: maybe if she’d been born a man.
Nails dug into her skin, startling her.
Melisende scowled and cupped her cheek. “What was that?”
“What do you mean?”
“That look on your face. What were you thinking about?”
Jean hesitated, but it was her queen asking.
“That if I had been born a man, I could have offered more to you…heirs.”
“That’s never mattered to me. My mother didn’t sit on any throne. Should the time come I’ll choose a successor from the most qualified candidates. I’ve never required you to be anything other than my partner. I thought you knew that.”
Jean was quiet for a long time, confused, because she realized that there was a time when she had known that. When had doubt infected her like this? When had she lost faith her lover? In her queen? She couldn’t recall. It felt as though a silent enemy had been pointed out to her, entrenched over one shoulder as bad as any poisonous adviser.
“I…” she swallowed around the lump in her throat and let her cheek fall to rest against Mel’s breast. “I forgot.”
Tentative fingers slid into her hair, still damp from where the attendants had tried to wash out the worst of the blood.
“I won’t let you forget again. My oath to you.”
“Yes, my lady.”
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