LisaAnnMcLean.com 

 

home

news

book

short stories

bio

links

email

 

The Stable Boy

By: Lisa Ann McLean

 

“Ho! Tryst!”

Sir Trystan stopped walking with a sigh and turned, offering a thin smile in response to the big knight’s bellowed greeting.

“Hello, Kay.”

Sir Kay was a ruddy, dark man with long, brown curls that never seemed to be neat, no matter how much care he put into them. Clean-shaven, unlike most of the knights, his dark skin covered features that were square and attractive.

“We showed ourselves well in the lists today, didn’t we?” Kay smiled broadly as he caught up to his friend. “After a show like that, I’m sure we could find more than a few willing maids at court! Come out with Bors and I, Tryst! Let us feast tonight on more than the wine!”

Trystan shook his golden-haired head, his sky-blue eyes meeting the dark brown eyes of his friend. Trystan was just as tall, but built slighter than his brawny friend, and shared his clean-shaven example. In fact, the two of them were the only beardless knights in court. They had shared many more things in common, except as of late, when the fair knight’s brooding had separated them. Even now, Trystan’s thin smile did not broaden. In fact, it waned a little.

“Not tonight, Kay.”

Trystan turned dismissively on his way, but Kay caught him by the shoulder.

“Oh, come on Tryst! We haven’t had some good fun in months! What’s up with you, anyway? You’ve been as moody as a woman.”

“I’m just... tired, Kay,” Trystan said evasively, not meeting the big man’s searching eyes. Kay sighed with resignation, knowing better than to push his friend. But his face revealed his concern.

“All right, Tryst,” he said, then added. “It’s your loss...”

Trystan smiled, trying to feign a lightness he did not feel. He patted his friend on the arm. “You and Bors have fun without me,” he said, turning away towards the stables.

“So, you’ll be spending the evening with your horse again?”

Trystan stopped, hearing the prodding jest in his friend’s voice. He cast a sidelong glance back at his friend with one eyebrow raised.

“We’re starting to wonder about you and that horse...”

Trystan rolled his eyes and waved a heartily laughing Kay off to his exploits.

Trystan entered the stables with a sigh, his smile long gone from his face. If he saw one more of those tittering, fawning court women, he would...

A low nicker sounded from Apollo’s stall, and the tall, golden stallion pressed his white-striped face against the bars over his stall door, eagerly begging attention from his master.

“Hello, old boy,” Trystan said softly, pushing the stall door open and stepping inside.

He offered a small bit of apple to the horse, who snapped it up gratefully, nuzzling his thanks to Trystan. Trystan stroked the silken mane and the long muscular neck.

At least Apollo was quiet. The last thing he wanted was some giggling wench on his arm.

But what did he want?

What’s the matter with you, Trystan thought irritably, you’ve become a successful knight, and King Arthur is a good king. Why is it you must always need more?

He sighed again. But that was the way it always was with him, wasn’t it? No matter what he achieved, what he accomplished, it only served to make the void inside him seem larger by adding its own emptiness to it.

Oh, stop it, he told himself angrily. Kay was right—maybe he just needed some fun. Maybe he should just stop feeling sorry for himself, and go back there with Kay and...

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard a voice. A woman’s voice. Singing.

A woman here? At this hour? There was no one here, save for the horses and a few tired grooms. And one brooding knight, of course...

The voice drew nearer, humming and singing happily and soothingly—it was beautiful. Like an angel. Surprised, he heard Apollo nicker a low greeting.

So, you’ve met, Trystan thought, bemused. Then he heard something even more surprising.

He heard a low nicker from the stall next door. Daemon’s stall.

Daemon was Sir Sedgemore’s horse, and he was well named. The most the horse had done in greeting to anyone, Sedgemore included, was a laying back of his ears and a baring of his teeth. He was a big, mean brute. But he was nickering softly. Trystan stealthily moved his head around Apollo’s neck to peer out of the stall door. He heard the latch to Daemon’s stall being opened.

Trystan gasped, ready to leap forward and stop her. Nickering or not, no woman should go near that horse.

But as he looked into the big, black stallion’s stall, he was transfixed by what he saw.

The stable boy was in there.

The stable boy who had always taken Sedgemore’s horse. The one with the messy, brown hair always hanging half in his face.

His face? No, her face! He was a she!

Trystan watched, dumbfounded, as the girl worked over the big stallion. She sang and talked in a musical voice the whole while, brushing his coat until it shone and picking out the large hooves, while Daemon nuzzled her. He saw her hand reach up and pat the glistening, black neck.

“You did well today, didn’t you old boy?” she asked affectionately, “He doesn’t appreciate you, but I do. Here.”

She looked up at the big horse and smiled as she gave him a piece of apple, and Trystan saw her face.

It was a young, pretty face. Browned by the sun and the wind, she smiled with a full, playful mouth and her brown eyes danced as she did. Her brown hair fell in soft waves when it was pulled back from her face, the sloppy cut stopping its descent down her back. She was roughly dressed in leggings and a tunic, with no perfume or paint enhancing her features, but Trystan could not tear his eyes from her. How could he not have noticed this before? He watched her as she fed and watered Daemon, and watched her as she stepped into the corridor, latching Daemon’s stall behind her.

Apollo nickered again, but Trystan hardly noticed.

“Oh, you,” the girl said laughingly, “I would love to care for you, too, but you’re not my responsibil—Oh!

Her head had turned suddenly, and she stared right into Trystan’s watching face at the stall window. All of the colour in her cheeks drained and the brown eyes widened into huge circles. Trystan swallowed, ashamed, and was about to say something—although he wasn’t sure just what—when the girl dropped to her knees on the ground, eyes downcast.

“Oh, my lord, please do not reveal me!”

Trystan stood blankly for a moment. Then he shook his head, his long golden hair waving and glinting in the torchlight.

“No, please,” he said softly. He quickly moved out of Apollo’s stall to stand in front of the girl. Gently, he placed his hands on her trembling shoulders.

“Please, rise.”

Awkwardly, the girl stood, but did not raise her eyes.

“Please,” she asked in a low voice, “Please, I beg you not to reveal me.”

Trystan raised his hand to her chin and lifted her face to look into his. It suddenly struck him how lovely she was.

“I will not reveal you,” he said softly to her, “but... why do you make yourself to be a boy and care for horses?”

The girl remained silent for a long time, and Trystan was beginning to think that she would not speak at all, when she finally sighed with something like resignation.

“The stable is warm and dry, my lord,” she replied, “the streets are not. And for my work, I am fed and clothed.”

“I’m sorry...” Trystan fumbled. The girl gave him an odd look.

“It’s not your fault, my lord.”

“Does... your family...?” Trystan tried again after an uncomfortable silence. The girl’s eyes dropped once more, and once more she hesitated. She did not appear to be accustomed to a knight speaking to her in this manner.

“My family took care of me well, and sheltered me as well,” she said at last, “However, the Saxon raid two years ago took their lives and my home. I escaped.

“I found myself alone,” she offered suddenly, her face clouding as she became lost in the memory, “and I learned quickly how cruel the world can be to those who have nothing. I was starving, living from charity. Then a friend told me Sir Sedgemore could never get a groom for his horse. I knew something about horses. My father had had two, and I would often help in their care, but I also knew Sir Sedgemore would never accept any woman for a groom. Well, as a woman, I could never be his groom. As a boy, though...”

She paused, coming to herself as abruptly as she had drifted. She looked at Trystan as though she had just realized he was still there. When she spoke again, her tone was earnest.

“If Sir Sedgemore were to discover me, though, he would probably kill me himself. So again I beg you, please... do not reveal me.”

Her brown eyes met Trystan’s sky blue. As he gazed back at them, he knew there was something different about this girl—something he had never seen in any other woman he had known, something that moved him deeply.

“You have my word, my lady,” Trystan said soberly, “upon my honour as a knight of this realm that I will not reveal your secret.”

Relief infused the girl’s face.

“Thank you, my lord...”

“Trystan. My name is Trystan.”

The girl looked at him with a kind of wonder, and her mouth tilted in a half-smile.

“Thank you,” she said carefully, “Trystan.”

Trystan bowed, feeling some lost part of himself coming alive as he heard her speak his name.

“I... have nothing to repay you with for your kindness,” the girl said miserably, turning her face away. Trystan shook his head. He wanted no more than the smile that had begun to curve her lips.

With one more quiet “Thank you,” she turned and walked up the corridor.

“Wait.”

She stopped at Trystan’s voice.

“There is one thing you could do...”

Trystan could see her stiffen, but he asked anyway.

“Your name. What is your name?”

She turned around half way, and her smile this time was playful, almost coy.

“Chris,” she answered.

“Chris,” Trystan repeated, “Chris is short for what?”

The girl turned away, and she was still smiling. “Just Chris,” she said as she continued slowly up the corridor without looking back.

Trystan stood there for a long time after she had disappeared.

When he finally did leave the stable and go to his bed, he didn’t sleep well. And when he did, his restless dreams were filled with large brown eyes looking playfully out from a tangle of brown hair as an elusive voice sang like an angel all around him.

* * *

For the next few weeks, Trystan’s waking thoughts echoed his dreams, and it seemed that even though he spent less time pursuing knightly gains and more time standing in the stables, he was happier and more fulfilled than he could ever remember being. Chris’ cold formality had melted quickly under Trystan’s warmth, and he could feel her slip into his heart with the ease of a hand slipping into a glove.

“What do you think of love?” Trystan had asked her once.

“Love,” she had answered with a smile, “is a convenience for the whimsical and the rich.”

“Such a cynical response,” Trystan had toyed laughingly.

“For you, perhaps,” she had replied, still smiling, “but then, you are whimsical and rich.”

Her constant driving of a wedge between them was the only source of frustration for Trystan now. Try as he might, she refused let him call her his equal, laughing when he addressed her as ‘my lady’, even though a blush stained her cheeks and she smiled when he did so. As Trystan’s affection for her grew, though, so did his desire for her, and he determined to seek out a way show her that his heart saw beyond who she thought she was.

It was a chill morning at the end of summer that pulled Trystan out of bed before the sun began to slowly paint the sky a golden yellow over the eastern walls of King Arthur’s castle court. There was a strange foreboding in the air—like a shadow standing over him—and he had an urgent need to see Chris. He began his sword manoeuvres extra early that morning, working out close to the stables in the hopes of seeing her about her work, but was disappointed. Then the king sent him on an errand and he didn’t get back until after dark, so it was late evening when he found himself wandering back to the stables.

Chris was bent over, tending to Daemon, her brown hair falling over her face.

“Hello,” Trystan greeted happily. Chris started, but did not look up. “I hope you found the flower I left for you...” Trystan went on.

“Yes. It was lovely—thank you,” she answered in a quiet voice, carefully keeping her face down. She seemed unnaturally subdued, and a slight shade of concern edged its way into Trystan’s face.

“I didn’t hear you challenging the lark as I came in,” Trystan remarked solicitously, then looked at the darkening window, “or perhaps at this hour, it should be the nightingale...”

Trystan stopped abruptly as Chris stood up then, and faced him. And Trystan saw the ugly blue-black swelling over one of her brown eyes. His sharp intake of breath caused Chris to look away.

“Sir Sedgemore found the flower first,” she said uncomfortably.

Trystan was so shocked he could not speak. First he felt remorseful. Then a terrible anger began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

“Sir Sedgemore... did this to you?” Trystan was trying to control the fury in his voice. It wasn’t working very well. He could hear the quiver in it.

“He said I had better not dare waste his time collecting bobbles for some slut in a local alehouse.” Chris turned to Daemon, stroking him, and she allowed herself a bitter laugh. “If he only knew who the slut really was.”

Trystan could hear the tremor in her voice in spite of the lightness of her words. Chris pressed her face into the stallion’s black, shining neck, and tightened her jaw, as though she were trying very hard not to cry. Bright sparks began to explode in Trystan’s brain, and he clenched his fists without realizing he did it.

Suddenly Chris turned hard, reprimanding eyes upon Trystan.

“Don’t say anything to Sir Sedgemore, Trystan. Please. You need not exercise your chivalry on me, remember? I am not a lady.” Then her face softened, and she added, “Even though you address me so.”

A large black storm cloud was swelling in Trystan’s chest. He dared not say anything for a moment as he tried to breathe calmly. Finally, he spoke.

“I told you, you have my word I would not reveal your secret,” the control in Trystan’s voice surprised him. Chris looked relieved.

“I’m sorry, Trystan. I... I just... never mind. Thank you.”

“If you’ll excuse me, now, my lady,” Trystan said abruptly, “There is something I have to take care of...”

The relief in Chris’ face dissolved into concern.

“Trystan—”

Trystan touched his hand to her unbruised cheek, tried to smile, but he was not sure how it turned out. Her face did not give him much assurance that it had at all.

“Don’t worry, Chris,” he said tightly.

Trystan walked out of the stable before Chris could protest, his anger boiling and seething within him like a cesspool. He managed to retain control over himself long enough to walk into the court hall and find Sir Sedgemore. He was carousing with a group of ladies and men as Trystan strode up and stopped an armspan behind him.

“Well, Sedgemore, have you taken to beating your stable boys silly in your spare time?”

Sir Sedgemore sat still for a moment, not even turning around so Trystan could see nothing but his shock of black curls. Then the big, hulking knight slowly stood and faced Trystan with cold, blue eyes.

“What business is it of yours, Trystan?”

“The boy is half your size...!”

“He should be caring for my horse, not picking flowers all day!”

“He’s just a boy!”

“He’s my groom, Trystan, and if he doesn’t serve me properly, I reserve the right to knock some sense into him!”

The group of people around Sir Sedgemore had fallen unnaturally silent. Trystan desperately tried to harness his tongue. You cannot give her away. You swore upon your honour. But he could not just let this go. She didn’t even pick the flower, for God’s sake...!

He clenched his teeth at his own helplessness, and bent close to Sedgemore, his blue eyes lancing into the bearded man’s face. Trystan’s voice dropped to a lethal whisper.

“Listen, Sedgemore, if I see you knocking that boy about like that again, you’ll have me to deal with.”

Sir Sedgemore’s face darkened, and he smiled menacingly.

“Well, well, we’ve all heard about you and your horse, and now it’s the stable boy. What kind of man are you, Trystan?”

There was a ripple of nervous laughter from Sedgemore’s friends. Trystan, normally subdued and quiet, could think of nothing more enjoyable than embedding his fist into the dark knight’s grinning teeth. Right now he hated Sir Sedgemore with a passion that almost frightened him. He raised one finger in Sir Sedgemore’s face, and in a low, threatening voice, he snarled:

“Don’t push me, Sedgemore. You’ve been a bully in this court long enough.”

Turning sharply around, he strode out of the court hall without waiting for Sir Sedgemore to respond. But he could hear Sir Sedgemore’s sneering voice call after him.

“We shall see about that in the lists, my friend.”

Indeed, Trystan thought savagely, indeed we shall...

* * *

“Trystan!”

His name was hissed out at him from the shadows behind a shrubbery as he left the court hall. Trystan stopped his headlong advance and stepped cautiously closer to the bushes, peering behind them to find the source of the voice. He saw the piercing brown eyes before his own eyes became accustomed to the dusky shadows enough to make out the urgent face around them.

“Chris,” he said, mildly surprised, “What are you...?”

“You spoke to Sir Sedgemore, didn’t you,” Chris cut him off, too frightened and angry to bother with pleasantries. Trystan looked uncomfortably away.

“I did not reveal you. I called you a boy...”

Chris cast her eyes heavenward.

“You are a stubborn, foolish man, did you know that? Sedgemore is a cruel knight with a lot of cruel friends, and there’s a tournament in three days! If he could fix it so that you are paired with him...!”

“I can handle Sir Sedgemore,” Trystan snapped, some of his anger at the big knight trickling into his voice. Chris shook her head rapidly in exasperation.

“It’s not just that. I mean... people think I am a boy, Trystan! They could say so many things...”

Chris’ verbal assault crumbled abruptly as she caught the serenity in Trystan’s sky blue eyes, and his tender smile. He gently took her hand in his, his touch sending electricity coursing through her in brilliant colours as it always did. He placed her hand over his heart so that she could feel it strongly beating in his chest. She wanted to move away, wanted to stay, afraid and excited at the same time, and she hated herself for her foolish reaction to someone so, so out of her reach. But defiant love held her there, and for a moment, she believed that she could see the moon and all of the stars mirrored in his eyes. He slowly smoothed her tangle of hair with his other hand, and the warmth of it brushed her face.

“I would risk it,” Trystan whispered.

Then he dropped her hand and turned away, disappearing into the night, leaving Chris’ heartbeat echoing his.

* * *

Three days later, Chris entered the stables to find Jonathan, Trystan’s squire, smiling suggestively at her. Chris sighed.

“What is it this time, Jonathan?”

“Your friend left you yet another token,” he announced with a flourish. Then he winked, “He’d better watch it, you know. He’s going to give you away with all of this... affection. Then I would have got you this job for nothing.”

“It’s no business of yours,” Chris retorted with mock reproach, smiling against her will.

“He’s just lucky Sir Sedgemore is never here often enough to find out what you are,” Johnathan went on, handing her the flower. Chris snatched it from him as she stuck out her tongue. Looking at the flower, she was surprised to notice that it had a long piece of yellow silk tied to it. She looked questioningly up at Johnathan.

“I would say,” Johnathan replied, glancing sidelong up at her, “that it is a favour...”

Chris untied the silk gingerly from the flower, and clutched it to her heart.

* * *

Chris stood among the squires and grooms later that afternoon, peering into the arena-like enclosure from the opening that led to the stables. She absently watched the courtiers milling and bustling about, making their way to the brightly coloured pavilions that represented the colours of each competing knight. The favour was a crumpled lump in her pocket, damp by now with the sweat of her hands, which had seemed to increase with the arrival of the butterflies in her stomach that whirled sickeningly around and around. By now, news of Sir Trystan’s words with Sir Sedgemore had spread, and it was the talk of the court projecting what would happen if the two men were paired. Wagers were made on who would win, and it seemed that the majority of the courtiers were crowded beneath either the blue and red, or the yellow pavilions.

A loud fanfare of trumpets shattered her thoughts, and a parade of flags marched across the field led by four white horses. Last to enter were the knights.

Sir Sedgemore was the first in line, emblazoned with blue and red colours. Then, four other knights, sporting a myriad of festive colours emerged, followed finally by the yellow knight.

Trystan and Apollo moved with a fluid grace, as though they were floating over the ground. Trystan looked surreal, like a war god with golden hair, golden horse and golden trappings. Chris clutched at the favour, and tore her eyes from Trystan’s glittering splendour to look first at it, and then at herself—at her threadbare tunic and leggings. She began to cry softly.

The parade made a circuit of the arena and came to a stop in the centre. Then, the knights broke up and galloped to stand in front of their respective pavilions. King Arthur, stately and regal, with his young queen, Guinevere—a contrasting beauty of ebony hair and milk-fair skin—entered, their gold and jewelled raiment flashing brightly in the afternoon sun. With a rousing word of pride for his knights, the king started the tournament officially.

Chris hardly noticed the games of skill as the knights showed off their abilities to the cheering crowds. She stood and stared at this favour she held in her hands, afraid and ashamed of what it could mean—ashamed more for Trystan than for herself. She was nothing... nothing in this world of glamour and beauty. She had no place holding favours for knights of renown...

The games of skill ended, and the knights exited the arena, allowing the lists to be set up for the jousting tournament.

“What’s the matter with you?”

It was Jonathan. Chris refused to look up lest he see her tears.

“Nothing,” she replied in a muffled voice.

Suddenly his hand was on her arm. She looked up at him, and his face was a gentle reprimand which added emphasis to his words.

“Chris,” he said softly, “don’t. He wants you here...”

“But I don’t belong here, Jonathan...”

The trumpets sounded again and the knights galloped in, mounted on their horses. Dressed in full armour now, only their colours revealed who they were. Chris found herself involuntarily twisting and wringing her hands.

Then, each knight galloped to their pavilion. Trystan, however, skirted the yellow pavilion and continued galloping to the small clutch of squires and grooms where Chris was standing. Jonathan poked her in the ribs, and Chris stood frozen, feeling like someone had just dropped her stomach off of a cliff. Trystan came to a halt in front of Chris, and held out his lance.

Chris was trembling. He had done it. He had come to her, and now he wanted the favour. Had he no regard for his own reputation...?

Shaking, she pulled the favour from her pocket and kissed it self-consciously as she ducked down, trying to make herself as small as possible. She slowly tied it onto the end of the lance, concentrating intently on the task so as not to look at Trystan. Trystan lingered a few moments after she had tied it, and she stared at the lance, wishing the ground would open and swallow her whole. It didn’t, and Trystan bent forward in his saddle lifting the visor on his helm.

“Chris is short for what?”

Chris flushed an even deeper red than she already was. Still, she refused to look up, and answered him from between clenched teeth.

“Just Chris.”

Trystan sat back up, lowering his visor and he galloped into the arena. Chris didn’t move for a long time.

Murmurs from the crowds brought her attention abruptly to the activity in the centre of the arena. Sir Trystan of the Blade, the yellow knight, approached the lists with his opponent, and the first thing Chris noticed were the bright red and blue colours.

Trystan. And Sir Sedgemore.

The two knights faced each other at opposite ends of the lists. Sir Sedgemore sat solidly astride the mountain of horse that was Daemon. The horse looked like a completely different animal from the one she cared for in the stall. His ears were pressed flat against his head, which tossed incessantly up and down, throwing the black cloud of mane up around his neck like a bonfire. His teeth were bared against the harsh bit Sedgemore used, and white froth mixed with blood dripped and flew from his mouth while his giant hooves pawed the ground, digging up clods of earth. Just the horse alone would have been terrifying enough, without the mammoth bulk of Sir Sedgemore sitting stock still on his back. His armour gleamed in the afternoon sun beneath the red and blue surcoat and cape, and Chris could see the sharp, cruel spurs glinting, set against Daemon’s ebony sides.

In stark contrast to Daemon, Trystan’s mount stood still as stone, except for an occasional flick of a golden ear back, as though listening to some word or signal from Trystan. Trystan and Apollo looked like a statue. Yet, for all of their placidity, they cast an aura of power, a calm-before-the-storm, which was both intimidating and intriguing. Every sound from the crowd had ceased, and the raucous cry of a crow wafted across the stillness that had suddenly and ominously descended. Chris tried to stop her hands from wringing nervously.

Suddenly, the joust was on! The two charged towards each other, Apollo and Trystan exploding into action. Chris was caught up in the grace and power of Trystan’s charge, and found herself cheering and shouting in a most unladylike fashion. She saw the lance go down, saw Sir Sedgemore’s lance go down, and the two knights came together with a crash.

She could hear the splintering of the wood, saw the yellow lance shatter. Trystan held his seat, and Sir Sedgemore’s lance was still whole! No! It was cracked!

Lance useless now, Trystan drew his sword. Sir Sedgemore pulled out a spiked flail.

Chris gasped. She had heard her father say once that a blade’s worst enemy was a chain...

Chris’ both hands were over her mouth. She saw Sir Sedgemore swing the flail over his head as fear tied her insides into knots. Trystan raised his shield and deflected it, but lost his balance and fell from the saddle. Landing on his feet, he turned and ran towards Sir Sedgemore, swinging his blade while Apollo turned and ran obediently to the stables.

Chivalry ruled that Sir Sedgemore should dismount, but he did not.

Again, he swung the flail. Trystan swung his sword up and the flail wound itself around the blade. Instead of it being a disadvantage, however, Trystan used it to his advantage and yanked Sir Sedgemore from Daemon’s back!

Kicking with every stride, Daemon ran headlong out of the arena to the stables as Sir Sedgemore landed hard on the ground. Trystan lowered his sword and the flail dropped off; then he stood back, taking a defensive stance. A fleeting thought that she should go and care for Daemon blinked through Chris’ mind, but never reached her body or her heart, and so she stood, rooted, watching, dreading…

Pulling out his sword, Sir Sedgemore swung it up as he stood, meeting Sir Trystan’s blade. Sparks flew from the impact, and Chris wanted to scream. The swords met again and again, and metallic clangs reverberated through the air. The blows seemed uncharacteristically hard. The tension between the two men was electrifying the atmosphere, and everyone could sense a lethal tone to the fight. It sent the crowds into bloodthirsty screaming. She had never seen Trystan this way. He was ruthless, brutal, as if some terrible fury was being released.

Please, Trystan, she pleaded to herself, please stop. It isn’t worth it. I’m not worth it...

For a moment, the two knights’ swords were locked, and Sedgemore was inches from Trystan’s face. It looked as though they were saying something...

Then Sir Sedgemore pushed Trystan back and swung his sword deftly to Trystan’s left. Off-balance, Trystan moved to deflect, but Sir Sedgemore feinted and swung his sword down, then around to Trystan’s right. There was a terrible ripping sound as the sword cut through Trystan’s surcoat, just under his shoulder.

Trystan staggered back, but caught his balance without falling. A red stain darkened the yellow surcoat.

First blood—stop at first blood, Chris thought. But it didn’t stop, and Sedgemore pressed his attack, running towards Trystan. The heavy blade swung, gathering momentum, but Trystan was balanced more quickly than Sedgemore had hoped. Trystan took his advantage, seeing the big knight’s carelessness as he ran headlong towards him. He leaped sideways and swung his own sword, catching Sedgemore under his raised sword arm as he passed, unable to stop in time. Blood showed on Sir Sedgemore’s side.

Turning his fury on Trystan, Sedgemore turned back and struck again and again. Then his sword caught Trystan at the base of his neck on his wounded shoulder, and Chris could hear Trystan cry out as more of his surcoat darkened from yellow to red. Chris blinked and blinked, trying to keep the tears from blurring her eyes. Trystan faltered, and Sedgemore swung his sword around and back, crying out in victory. Trystan could not lift his own sword, but he dropped, rolled out of the way, then stood again. Sir Sedgemore turned on him again, but in a final gathering of strength, Trystan held his sword with both hands and swung up, catching Sir Sedgemore under the chin and the big knight dropped.

Trystan stood over a gasping, wheezing Sir Sedgemore, pressed the point of his blade to the big knight’s throat and held it there. Sir Sedgemore looked up at Trystan with smouldering eyes for only a moment, then he raised both of his palms up to Trystan in the gesture to yield.

Trystan looked up at King Arthur, who acknowledged him with a nod and the crowds erupted in a deafening roar. Trystan turned back to his opponent and threw his sword down. He turned, took two faltering steps away from Sedgemore… and fell to one knee.

Then he fell down completely.

Chris felt her stomach plummet. “Oh, Jonathan...”

She turned to find that Jonathan was already gone. He had sprinted to his lord’s side, while another of the grooms joined him to help. Chris stood anchored, berating herself inwardly that she should go, that she should help, but it was as if something was holding her and she could not move. Even as the small group hauled past her, she stood still—watching, weeping—and it was only after they disappeared, weaving through the crowds, that she finally shook herself into motion and followed them to the infirmary.

* * *

Chris had worn a path outside the infirmary by the time Jonathan emerged. He looked very dishevelled and bone-weary. Chris rushed over to him, stumbling in her haste, and Jonathan looked tiredly up at her.

“You can go in to see him now.”

“Is... is he...?” Chris stammered. Jonathan managed a laugh.

“He wouldn’t even take anything for the pain,” he said. “He just sat there, biting on a piece of wood while they stitched him up. He said he... wanted to be alert.”

Jonathan smiled at her for a moment. He looked as though he was going to say something, but he didn’t. He just squeezed her arm and trudged wearily away.

Chris stared at the doorway to the infirmary for many moments. Then she took a deep breath and entered.

Trystan was lying on a bed, his shoulder bandaged cleanly. He smiled at her when she came in and she tried to smile back, but her mouth remained stubbornly in a line. She moved slowly to his bedside, feeling more awkward and clumsy than she ever had.

“Chris. I... I’m happy to see you.”

He sounded weak.

“I should thrash you for what you did...” she finally said. Trystan looked down, but his smile remained.

“I’m sorry about the favour. I just...”

“Not the favour, you dolt! This whole fight! Why, Trystan? Why did you fight so hard? What were you trying to prove, besides the fact that you bleed just as well as any other man?”

Trystan did not look up, and his smile diminished. “There were reasons...”

“What reasons? Because you were angry at Sir Sedgemore for hitting me? Is that all?”

Trystan looked up quickly, his bright eyes betraying the softness of his voice.

“It would have been enough,” he said, “but no, Chris, that was not all. There were other reasons.”

Chris sighed. “You flatter me, Trystan, though I do not believe you. What other reasons?”

There was a pause, and Chris could hear the wind moan lowly outside the tent, as the roof gently undulated in its wake. Rain. It’s going to rain, she thought absently.

“You see, I have friends of my own,” Trystan spoke at last, “and I was able to make some arrangements. I told Sir Sedgemore that if I won in the lists today, you were to be released to Eric.”

“Eric? The... bard?”

“He will train you... to sing with him. At court. And he would take you... as a woman. It’s an honourable profession,” he said quickly, then added with an apologetic glance, “with your leave, of course.”

Chris’ mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. Finally, she found her voice.

“Trystan... wh... why?”

“It would give you liberty to... allow me to court you...”

Chris stood speechless—not wanting to understand—and Trystan smiled up at her.

“Oh, Chris. From the moment I saw you first, I have loved you...”

Chris began to shake her head, “Trystan...”

Trystan went on, unheeding.

“I had been waiting for you for so long, only I didn’t know it. When I saw you I knew at last...”

“Trystan!” Chris shouted, tears standing in her eyes, her voice insistent and almost angry. Trystan stopped, looking searchingly at her.

“You don’t know what you want,” she said, her voice quivering, “this is stupidity, and it must stop now...”

“Chris—”

“Look at me!” She was shouting again, “look at me, Trystan! Is this what you want for a wife? A woman, shabby and having nothing but the clothes on her back? Do you think Eric would want me? Is that what you want? Is it?”

Trystan exasperatingly smiled again, and reached up to her flushed cheek.

“Eric knows what you are. What I want,” he said, his eyes burning into hers, “is the woman I see before me, and I see a beautiful woman, with great strength, who has survived the hardships of her life and still has joy enough to sing while she tends her horse.”

Chris was crying openly now. With some effort, Trystan sat up in the bed, took both of her cold hands in his and touched his lips to them.

“So, I must know the name of the woman I wish to court, and so I ask you one final time: Chris is short for what?”

Overwhelmed, Chris’ voice choked as she answered.

“Christina.”

Trystan’s smile warmed her heart, and he inclined his head to her in the best bow he could muster in bed.

“Well then, Christina, am I to believe that you would accept my love?”

Speechless, weeping uncontrollably, Chris nodded—slowly at first, and then with ever increasing intensity. Yes... Yes... Yes...

Trystan pulled her to his chest and folded her into his arms. And he found, happily, that she fit there as easily as she had fit into his heart.

* * *

back