Vow of deception, p.9

Vow of Deception, page 9

 

Vow of Deception
 



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  Chapter Eight

  In the raised wooden stands overlooking the lists, Rose, with Kat and Lady Alison by her side, sat to the left of Queen Eleanor. Lord and Lady Briand sat next to the king. A great purple silk canopy with golden fringe shaded the party.

  Kat leaned over and whispered, “Rose, the next joust shall be Rand and Sir Golan. Don’t forget our wager. If Rand requests your favor for the joust you must kiss him for all to see. ’Tis too late to turn back now.”

  Rose plucked her skirt, cursing herself for letting Kat goad her into that ridiculous wager. She did not like bringing attention to herself. The mood of the crowd grew more volatile as the main event approached.

  Rose returned her attention to the joust in progress.

  Alex and Rose’s cousin, William de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, couched their lances as they charged forward. Their destriers’ hooves pounded loudly, churning up dirt. With a sudden spurt of speed at the last moment, the two mounted warriors met with a resounding clash. Lord Warwick’s lance blow was a direct hit to the younger lord’s shield. Lord Lincoln jolted backward, then slowly slid to the side of his mount before falling to the ground.

  The crowd in the stands roared with excitement. The tournament herald announced Lord Warwick the winner of the joust. But the main draw of the competition anxiously anticipated by everyone came next. Rose tried to relax her tense shoulders, her eyes fixed on the entrance to the lists. Rand entered first, followed by Golan. A second roar rose from the crowd.

  Rand wore over his hauberk a surcoate emblazoned with his coat of arms. Leviathan was caparisoned in the same bold colors. Golan also wore his coat of arms: black and white chevron, or checked pattern, quartered by a white cross.

  Rand reined in Leviathan, and Golan proceeded to the far side of the field.

  The herald read a list of great feats and the rank of first Rand and then his opponent. All the accolades were announced and pageantry was performed according to the joust rules. The crowd grew suddenly silent as Rand approached Rose in the stands.

  Sidling up to the railing, he bowed at his waist before her. “Lady Ayleston, will you do me the great honor of bestowing upon me a token of your esteem so I might do battle in your honor this day?”

  Rose felt her face brighten in consternation and embarrassment. Her pulse beat at the base of her throat.

  She had little choice but to honor his gallant request, not only because of the wager, but because she refused to dishonor him before the crowd. Sir Golan watched the spectacle with a fierce glare. She perceived the evil menace in his stance, and even in this crowd, it threatened to suffocate her.

  She gulped, drawing deep breaths into her chest. Rand shifted in his saddle at her silence. Gray-green eyes dimmed, and his broad smile slipped infinitesimally. She got up from her cushioned seat and stepped down to where Rand waited on his destrier.

  After removing the scarf from her neck, Rose leaned over the railing and knotted the silk material around his upper arm. She looked back at Kat nervously. Her friend gave her an encouraging smile.

  Rose leaned closer to Rand; his eyes widened.

  A shiver raced down her spine as his intense regard held hers with a heat that scorched them both. She pressed her lips to his smooth cheek. The sensation of warmth penetrated her lips and his pleasant scent filled her nose. Gasping, she jerked back in shock.

  A jolt of heat speared Rand. He touched his cheek briefly where Rose’s soft lips had ventured. She appeared surprised. But surprise could barely begin to describe what Rand felt at that moment. Wonder and amazement beat in his breast. He tried to tame it, without success.

  Rand bowed again. “Thank you, my lady. I shall wear your token with pride and honor.” Then he turned Leviathan around and returned to where his squire awaited him.

  “Your shield and helm, my lord.”

  Rand pulled on his metal helm first, tied the laces to his hauberk, and then slipped his left arm through the braces of his leather-covered wooden shield. The first horn blew, calling the participants to take their initial positions. The spectators cheered. Rand maneuvered Leviathan into position, reached down and took his lance from Will. He tested the weight and balance, and, deeming it perfect, tucked it under his arm.

  Silence reigned over the crowd, the only noise the jangle of horse tack as their restive destriers shifted in anticipation. Rand stared at Sir Golan in fierce concentration.

  He could not let Rose down. She was counting on him to rescue her from a life of servitude and humiliation as Golan’s wife.

  The horn blared, and Rand spurred his mount. Leviathan shot out, and Rand lowered his lance and couched it next to his chest. Hooves pounded. The crowd roared. Golan came closer and closer, racing toward Rand on the left. The blunted tip of Rand’s lance smashed into Golan’s shield, and at the same moment Rand absorbed Golan’s lance blow. Rand jerked back, pain vibrating through his shield arm at contact. He turned around and made his way back to his station.

  In that first round, neither gained an advantage, each scoring a point. Two more rounds remained. Before the next one could commence, though, a commotion broke out behind Rand. He spun around on Leviathan and stared in horror as flames curled up the wall of a large pavilion, a billow of smoke rising above it.

  Inside the tent, a horse screeched with fear. A squire, heedless of his safety, ran into the burning pavilion. Rand jerked his reins. Leviathan sidestepped nervously, kicking up his forelegs. The spectators in the stands scrambled from their seats. Several charged toward the fire while others sought to flee from the threat. But Rand was oblivious. His heart seized in fright as he was plunged back to the day of the stable fire, when he’d rushed into the building and tried to save his horse.

  Flames all around him, Rand charged toward Caesar’s stall near the back. He swung his hand before his face, dispersing the smoke impeding his vision. His eyes stung, but he did not turn back. Then, suddenly, he tripped over a large bulk on the floor. Lunging headfirst, he landed with his hands outstretched, scraping his knees. He looked back, and upon seeing the giant stable master’s eyes open wide in death, he yelped. His heart thundered in his chest.

  Puny little brat, you are a disappointment to the Montague lineage, his father’s voice echoed accusingly in his ears. “Nay!” he shouted in denial. Determination to prove to his father he was not weak and ineffectual imbued him with steely resolve.

  Groaning in pain, he lurched to his feet and continued. As he approached Caesar’s stall, he noticed the fire enveloped the entire back of the building and crawled across the ceiling beams. The left divider wall of the stall and one wooden column were ablaze. Caesar reared up slamming against the other wooden divider in an attempt to avoid the blaze. His large dark brown eyes rolled back in fright.

  Overhead, timbers groaned heavily. The intense heat and thick black smoke seized Rand’s lungs. He choked, falling to his knees. He coughed uncontrollably. Time was running out; he needed to retrieve Caesar and get out of there quickly, before the ceiling collapsed. With his last ounce of strength, he pulled himself up by the stall door and flung it open.

  Rand entered the neighboring stall and slapped Caesar on the hindquarters. The panicked palfrey shot out of the stall and toward the stable exit.

  “Rand?! Where are you?! Can you hear me?! Rand?!” A shrill feminine voice called out.

  Rand heard his mother’s shout a moment before she appeared through the smoke.

  “Mother, get out of here! The ceiling is about to collapse!”

  Holding a handkerchief over her nose, she held out her hand. “I am not leaving without you, son! I refuse to lose another child!”

  Stricken with guilt, for she did not know the truth of his cowardice when he’d let his sister drown, Rand grabbed her hand and they turned as one.

  There was a sudden booming clap. Rand looked up. A beam above them plummeted straight down. He shoved his mother toward the entrance a moment before a heavy, crushing p
ain seared his back. As he was pinned beneath the burning beam, bright white pain struck him and his world went black.

  He woke, choking. The section of the beam lying on his back was no longer aflame. Wheezing, his mother dipped a bucket into a nearby barrel of water. She hurried back and tossed the contents on the fiery beam, extinguishing it. Then she bent down and tugged on the heavy timber. He blinked, his wet hair straggling in his eyes.

  His mother’s ethereal, frightened countenance blurred before him.

  “Mother, I pray you, go, save yourself,” he begged, his voice weak and thready. “The beam is too heavy. You cannot lift it. ’Tis hopeless.”

  Staring down at the beam, a sharp V etched between her blond eyebrows, his mother concentrated on lifting and tugging the beam off him. At his words, her head suddenly shot up. She stared into his eyes, her soft hazel gaze darkening with conviction. “Naught is ever hopeless, my darling boy. Do not ever believe otherwise. Do you promise me?”

  Knowing better than to disagree with his mother, Rand croaked out, “I promise, Mama.” He bravely gulped down tears in the back of his throat.

  She nodded her approval and gripped the beam again. Grunting and straining, her breath harsh, she gave a mighty heave. A long, torturous groan expelled from her throat. The beam shifted. But she lost her grip and stumbled backward.

  Another thunderous crack rumbled above them. Several more beams came crashing down. He yelled hoarsely, “Mother, run!” and then a paroxysm of coughs overtook him.

  The beams missed her, but her body jerked up short. She twisted around. A heavy beam trapped her long, trailing velvet skirt, flames catching it ablaze.

  She screeched, batting at the flames with her hands.

  “Mother, jerk your skirts free and douse yourself in the water barrel.”

  But the fire jumped and spread to her lower back. The long end of her braid caught aflame.

  His heart beat in his throat and his eyes grew wide in terror as her screams rent the air. Rand struggled beneath the beam, desperate to escape and help his mother, but it was useless.

  As she frenziedly twisted and turned, the fabric finally tugged free. In panic, though, she ran instead of dousing the fire. Her whole skirt was ablaze, and soon the flames engulfed her head. Rand wailed, watching as she crumpled to the ground and writhed in agony as the fire consumed her.

  “Naaay, Mother!” His cry ended on a hoarse croak.

  Blessedly, a great agonizing pain seized his back and blackness descended on him.

  “Rand, are you coming to put out the fire?”

  Rand started, and stared at Justin. The knight gazed at him oddly.

  Disoriented, Rand glanced around. Only moments had passed. The crowd was running in all directions in panic, and cries of fright filled the air. Having dismounted Leviathan without realizing it, Rand clutched the destrier’s reins in his white-knuckled grip and sweat beaded his brow. His shield, gauntlets, and helm were on the ground beside him.

  Where is Rose? He searched for her in the crowd. The king was calmly assisting the queen and the rest of the royal party from the stands. Rose was not among them.

  His heart fluttered in panic. Rand swung his head this way and that, searching the chaos. People ran with buckets of water from the Abbey Almonry to put out the fire. Merchants were loading their wares in carts in case the fire spread. At a booth not far from the stands, a group of women were collecting linen for bandages, one of whom wore a wimple and veil headdress.

  Rose stared at him, but he was unable to read her expression. Rand shuddered in relief.

  “My lord?” Justin queried.

  His gaze jerked back to his friend. “Aye, Justin, I shall be right behind you,” he said gruffly, embarrassed. He prayed his friend did not guess at the secret depths of his fear of fire.

  Justin hesitated, then nodded and headed for the tents. Rand threw back his shoulders and followed Justin. By the time he reached the burning tent, a fire line had formed. He joined in next to Justin about a third of the way down the line.

  He gritted his teeth as bursts of flame shot into the air. Ignoring the heat blasting his face, Rand passed the buckets down the row. Sweat trailed down his temple and his heart pounded.

  While the fire distracted everyone and the crowd dispersed, a dark-clothed man waited till the lists were deserted. He quickly switched Sir Rand’s lance with one made of a piece of defective ash. The exchange happened in moments, with none the wiser. The outlaw Golan had hired returned to the tents and joined the men in the fire line.

  When the fire was extinguished, Rand handed the bucket to a liveried page as King Edward approached Rand. A fierce frown marred the king’s face. Could the king have seen him freeze with fear in the lists when he’d first spied the fire? Rand braced himself, expecting the king’s reproach for his cowardice.

  “Well done, Rand. The fire could have caused great harm if it had spread. ’Tis a miracle no one was hurt.”

  Rand breathed an inward sigh of relief and wiped his moist brow with the sleeve of his surcoate. “Aye, Sire. We are blessed indeed. I wonder what could have started it, though?” His gaze shifted to Sir Golan, standing not far away. The man’s hard, menacing glare did not shift or waver.

  Hands on hips, Edward nodded to a nearby fire, which was now sputtering from the recent dousing. “Probably a spark from that fire. It is somewhat gusty today.”

  “Aye. No doubt you’re right.”

  Edward turned and addressed Sir Golan. “Come, Sir Golan. Now that the fire is put out, the joust shall proceed.”

  Rand looked over and saw Rose examining the back of a young man’s hand for burns. She glanced up at Rand, her gaze worried. Rand lifted his hand to half-staff to assure Rose he was unharmed. She looked away swiftly. He dropped his hand, feeling like a fool. Of course, her concern was not directed toward him specifically. She was a healer and never liked to see either man or beast injured or hurt. To believe she had special feelings for him was to head down a path that could only end up hurting them both.

  His unconscionable actions today proved his unworthiness. The memories of the cruel deaths of his loved ones would haunt him forever—and remind him of the dangers of loving anyone.

  Rand grabbed his destrier’s reins and vaulted into the saddle.

  Across the lists, Golan raised his great helm in mock salute, his lips twisted with contempt. Rand ignored him and put on his gauntlets, helmet, and shield. Will handed a lance up to him. Rand tested it, frowning. The balance of the lance felt distorted. But it was too late to check it; the first horn blew, signaling them at the ready.

  A second blast of the horn sounded and Rand spurred Leviathan forward. The thunder of the crowd echoed in his ears, his gaze intent on Golan. The tip of Rand’s lance slammed against Golan’s shield and shattered as easily as a brittle stick. The force of Golan’s lance jarred Rand’s shoulder, excruciating pain shot through him, and he flew backward off his horse. Rand landed on his back, the breath pushed from him. White spots danced before his eyes. His vision blurred.

  Rose screamed. Rand had landed with a sickening thump on the packed earthen floor, his head bouncing with the impact. Hands over her mouth, she watched in horror as Sir Golan dropped his broken lance, dismounted from his destrier, and drew his sword, all while Rand lay unmoving in the middle of the lists. Leviathan nudged his fallen master, and Kat slipped her arm around Rose’s shoulder. They huddled together, shaken and in shock as Sir Golan approached him. “Rand!” Rose shrieked.

  Suddenly, Rand groaned, then rolled away before Golan could press the sword to his throat. He staggered to his feet, bringing up his shield to block Golan’s downward strike. Quickly recovering, Rand went on the offensive and landed several strong blows to Golan’s shield. Their grunts echoed in the palpable silence pervading the field. Rand slashed at Golan’s unprotected legs. The knight jumped back.

  Engaging once more, they fought back and forth across the lists until Rand caught the larger knight off guard
. He rammed his shield into the knight, swung his right leg behind the man’s legs, and shoved the larger, unwieldy knight over, tripping him so he fell backward.

  Chest heaving, Rand thrust his sword at Golan’s exposed neck. “Cry craven,” he bit out.

  When Golan did not answer, Rand pressed the sharp point to his throat. “Yield, I say.”

  “Craven,” Golan’s voice came thick with fear from behind the perforated steel helm.

  Rose released a deep breath she’d not known she was holding. It felt as though a great energy was sucked from her body, draining all her pent-up fear for Rand since she’d learned of the trial by battle.

  Rand untied his helm and removed it. “Did you hear him, my lord?”

  “Aye, Sir Rand.” Edward rose from his seat and proclaimed, “Sir Golan, with your defeat, God has judged your claim to the betrothal of Lady Ayleston invalid.”

  Rand is the victor. Rand is the victor. The voice inside Rose’s head repeated the refrain over and over as relief flooded her senses. Golan could never hurt her again. She was safe at last.

  Rand sheathed his sword and backed away from Sir Golan. The knight rolled to his feet, removing his helmet and revealing his disgruntled, red-hued mien.

  “On the morrow, Lady Ayleston and Sir Rand Montague shall be joined together in Holy Matrimony.” Edward’s tone had turned jovial. “Come, all”—he raised his arms up to encompass the crowd—“to the hall, where we shall feast and dance to celebrate the conclusion of the joust, a most worthy and chivalrous affair.”

  Rose’s thoughts inevitably switched to marriage with Rand.

  Would Rand keep his word and not demand his marital rights? Could she truly put her trust in someone who kept so much of himself hidden behind a lethal charm that easily persuaded women to his bed with but a smile and a kind word?

 

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