Chapter Thirty-One

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The next day arrived in full glorious summer. Riona felt beads of sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Despite the shade the royal box offered, it could not keep the oppressive heat at bay. Riona did not understand how the knights, in their mail and leather, could bear it much less compete.

But compete they did. It was rumored that the warriors who performed great feats would be honored with a place at the round table.

The archery contest had been first. Luckily for the competitors, as this required, no armor save a bracer to protect the flesh of their arm. In fact, the winner by a wide margin was Ser Lamorak, a Hedge Knight of little standing among the nobility who had performed in nothing but his tight hide breeches. The sight of his lean, sweat-adorned body drawing back a longbow had been enough to send more than a few ladies into a tizzy. Riona thought the heat might be contributing to their amorous reaction.

Next had come the joust. Only those who could afford both horse and lance competed here. Riona marveled at the ornate armor these lords bedecked their steeds with. In some cases, overshadowing that which they wore themselves.

Riona cringed at the first clash. The sudden snap of wood against steel was a foreign and jarring sound to her. The queen became loud and precocious, cheering in her full northern dialect at the top of her lungs for her favorites. Between jousts, she explained the point system to Riona, who decided it was not worth trying to keep score and simply watched them charge with gritted teeth. The knights that were unhorsed seemed to linger dangerously on the ground. Riona clasped her hands together each time, willing them to rise unhurt. Most did. Some did not.

One notable clash left the first yard of a lance broken off in a man's shoulder between spaulder and chest plate. His wracking cries of pain echoed over the suddenly still tourney ground. Riona doubted the knight would have kept his life, or arm, had Myrddin not been there to attend the wound.

At first, there had been no forerunner, but as soon as Ser Bors took the field, he quickly overcame all opposing scores. His horse was a sinewy mare with a coat black as the knight who rode her. Together they moved so smoothly it appeared as if they floated across the field. Bors wore dangerously little armor, only one spaulder on the flank that faced his opponent; the rest was a simple leather jerkin. Though potentially deadly, this bold choice, when matched with his skill, gave him a distinct advantage over his opponents when it came to speed and accuracy. Gwenivar explained that Numidia, from where Ser Bors hailed, had produced fearsome calvary known across many empires.

Now came the mêlée, the only one of the three competitions Ser Luc and Aidan were participating in. Throughout the tourney, Riona had felt a knot of anxiety growing tighter and tighter in her stomach. The ladies around her chatted excitedly, but Riona sat in nervous silence, her eyes gazing vacantly into the distance.

"Riona," the queen's insistent voice drew her back to the present.

"Hmm?" was Riona's distracted response.

"He is speaking to you."

"Who—" Riona glanced toward the front of the box and jolted in surprise.

An unfamiliar knight stood there, fully helmed. His voice sounded tinny and muffled when he spoke; he did not lift his visor. "M'lady, would you do me the honor of letting me bear your symbol into the mêlée?"

The ladies-in-waiting giggled and whispered.

"I am sorry to disappoint, Ser Knight, but I am no lady and as such have no token."

"Then, we are a perfect match," replied the man, "for I am no knight."

Riona blushed. Gwenivar gently tugged a silk ribbon from Riona's hair and handed it to Riona. Riona held the limp strand of red in her palm. Slowly, she stood and moved to the railing that separated her from the knight. He knelt and let her tie the ribbon about his arm. The red stood out like a rose against the dark leather of his tunic.

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