Delisha stood at the edge of her father's land and looked out over a stretching field of wheat as it danced in the wind. It was a beautiful summer day. The sun shone brightly down upon the countryside. The sky was blue, and the clouds were big, white, and fluffy--the kind that children would stare up at for hours on end and turn into all manner of wonderful and magical objects and creatures. She smiled, for the wind, which was warm and strong, sent her hair and dress billowing about her and filled her heart with joy.
But 'twas not simply the wind and the sun which filled her with happiness. She was terribly excited for, upon the next day, there was to be a tournament which the king himself would attend. The whole of the town of Kerrinbrook was in a flurry of anticipation.
Of course, excited expectation was a feeling oft felt in the small town during the past month, ever since the king had wearied of life in the capitol city and had traveled to Kerrinbrook to take a vacation of sorts.
At the beginning of his stay he had announced that in four weeks time, at the end of his visit, there would be held a tourney. Almost immediately all manner of knights had begun entering the small town. Kerrinbrook's single inn was soon filled to overflowing, and any warrior who came after was forced to seek lodgings elsewhere, which was quite agreeable with the young maidens lucky enough to have parents willing to open their home to the glory-seekers.
Delisha was, most likely, the only girl whose heart was not set aflutter at the sight of one of those handsome rogues. 'Twas not for lack of opportunity, either, for her father, being one of the richest landowners in the town, had provided lodging for three knights.
Delisha, however, did not view men in a romantic light, nor did they seem to see her as a creature love. Why men showed no interest in her she did not know; she assumed it was because, while she was very comely, she was not exotic in any sense of the word. Her hair was long and brown, her eyes hazel, and her skin tanned from too many hours spent beneath the sun. She had a beautiful smile, but rarely did it light her face when she was in the company of others; more often than not, that which took her was the serious expression of a person in intense thought.
She smiled again and turned her face to the wind. What did she care if a man loved her or not? In sooth, judging from the actions of other maidens, Delisha was of the opinion that love was far more trouble than it was worth.
She began making her way along the edge of the wheat, and as she went she began to sing to herself. It was not many minutes before she reached the corner of the field. There, to mark the boundary between that field and the next, stood a tree. Delisha had passed it many times before and had found nothing particularly interesting or unusual about it and, therefore, paid no attention to it.
"That's a very lovely song."
Delisha was so startled she tripped and fell.
Someone burst out laughing. "And it's a very lovely voice. But--" and here a young man stepped into view on one of the tree's lower branches--"I think the maid who sings is even lovelier than voice or song." He jumped down and added with a laugh, "Even if she does fall down upon the slightest provocation."
He reached his hand out to her, and, when he had helped her to her feet, Delisha said, in the voice of one who was less than thrilled, "Hello, Shanahan."
When Delisha said that no man loved her, what she meant was that no man in his right mind loved her. She was of the belief that any man who looked upon her in a romantic light was at least slightly insane. It was rather circular thinking, to be sure, but it seemed to serve her.
"Hello, Delisha," said Shanahan with a smile. "What a beautiful day to meet such a beautiful maid as yourself."
Shanahan was a very handsome young man. His hair was golden, his eyes bright blue, and his body lithe and strong. He was only twenty-one years of age, yet he possessed an air of maturity and authority that made him seem much older.
He was a strange man who seemed to enjoy great experience and yet appeared as innocent and lighthearted as any country boy. Delisha could not discover for herself what his station in life was, and he would not tell her. Over the days, because, more often than not, he seemed affable and provincial rather than serious and learned, she had come to the conclusion that he was simply a farm-boy who longed for adventure and had seen perhaps a little more of the world than had she.
"Shanahan," said Delisha, crossing her arms, "every day for the past three weeks you've managed to find some way to annoy me. I do hope you'll be leaving once the king has gone."
"Don't hope too hard," answered he with a grin as he lay down upon the ground and put his hands behind his head. "A maid such as you would make even the most restless of men think of staying in Kerrinbrook."
He laughed at the expression his words brought to her face.
"Well, I don't see why," she finally retorted.
"Maybe if you looked in a mirror more often..."
She sank down upon the grass. "So, you like me only because I'm pretty?"
"Yes," he answered simply. Delisha drew back in surprise; she felt rather insulted.
He laughed again. "But I love you because you have a spirit and a character which far outshines your outer beauty."
"I don't think it's right for you to speak of love when you've known me for only three weeks," she told him severely.
"What's wrong with speaking about love?" he cried as he sat up. "I love this day. I love the clouds. I love my father and my mother." He grew suddenly serious as he leaned closer to her. "It's not even my talk of loving you that you dislike, for any man can talk so, whether he really does or not. No, it's the fact that I truly do love you that you think wrong."
Delisha turned her gaze to the ground, for she found the intensity of his piercing blue eyes unsettling.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said.
"Yes, you do," he answered.
"Look at me," he said. He said it so firmly and with such an air of command the Delisha looked up, startled. Their eyes locked, and for a moment she felt as though he were looking into her soul, but she was too proud to turn her eyes away.
"Yes, you do," Shanahan said a second time, certainty in his voice.
Delisha said nothing but continued to stare steadily back at him. For a full minute they sat like that, neither willing to be the first to move or drop their gaze, until, suddenly, the spell was broken and they both burst out laughing. Shanahan fell back to the ground and once more laced his fingers behind his head.
For a long moment they were silent and simply looked out at the field as the wind played with the wheat.
"I don't see how you can know you love me," said Delisha finally. "You've known me for a mere twenty-five days. That may be enough time to tell whether or not a girl is pretty, but, no matter what you think, 'tis not enough time to tell whether their character is beautiful."
"Of course it is!" protested Shanahan as he sat up once again. "You act as though character is something that's kept in a little box and hidden in the darkest, most obscure corner of your soul, and that only after months of digging and searching can it be discovered.
"But it's not like that, Delisha. Your character is shown in every single one of your actions." He was looking intently at her. "I've seen you protect the child from the bully, even though you cared nothing for the child. I've seen you give your gold piece to the beggar. I've seen you near tears and yet refuse to cry. I've laughed as you've walked through the streets, completely oblivious to all the men who turn their heads toward you. And I've seen you with a distant look in your eyes as you dream of far-off lands few others will ever imagine or understand."
She looked silently at him for a moment, for he spoke with such earnestness and passion that she knew not how to reply, and she felt her will beginning to break beneath his steady gaze. Suddenly, her practicallity took over, and she stood up indignately, demanding, "Have you been following me and looking at me wherever I go?"
Shanahan laughed and once again fell back down upon the ground. "Do you know what I love most about you?"
"No, and I don't care to know, either." She turned to walk away.
"It's your stubbornness."
She turned back to him, placing her hands upon her hips. "My 'stubbornness'?"
"You, Delisha, are the most hardheaded woman I have ever met. You feel emotions--perhaps more passionately than many--but you won't allow them to rule you. Good God sometimes you won't even let them to guide you. You do what you think is right and refuse what you think is wrong, and I am left amazed and wondering how I can ever convince you to love me."
She did not know how to answer and so stood there, saying nothing.
Shanahan rose to his feet and brushed himself off. "I came here today to tell you that in a few short days I shall be going off to seek whatever adventure and fortune the world has to give me."
"Good, then I shall finally be free of you."
His features fell. "Really, I was hoping for perhaps a bit more from you. Even 'good luck' would have been nice."
"And what would 'good luck' from my lips do? You'd still be a simple farm-boy who'll be killed upon your first run-in with highway robbers. You're a peasant. You weren't meant to seek adventure and ride a horse off into the sunset."
"But my name is 'Shanahan'. That's the name of the prince; certainly that must have some importance."
"If anything, it's a curse. If I were going off in search of adventure and my name was 'Shanahan' the first thing I'd do is change it."
Everyone knew that the prince was a sickly fellow who would most likely die before his twenty-fifth. He was bedridden most of the time; in fact, he had become very ill only a week before the king journeyed to Kerrinbrook and, therefore, had been unable to accompany him.
"Well, if I am to die, the least you could do is allow me to die happy."
"And how, praytell, would I be able to make you die happy?" asked Delisha hautily.
He looked at her hopefully. "Give me a kiss?"
She rolled her eyes and sighed. She had grown very weary of his company. "For the last six days you've asked me for a kiss, and for the past six days I've refused you. Do you actually think that today will be any different? Why do you continue to ask?"
He gave a grin. "Your name sounds so much like 'delicious', and you're enough to make any man hungry. What am I to do? Let myself starve to death?"
"You talk as though I'm a stew or a roast. I'm not; I'm a girl. And you, Shanahan, are an insufferable pig," she declared in indignation. She turned quickly from him and tried to walk away, but even as she did so he reached out and, taking her by the arm, pulled her back.
"Let go of me!" she cried.
"All I want is a kiss--nothing more," he said, looking hopefully at her.
"Kiss this!" she snapped as she slapped him hard across the face. "I never want to see you again!"
She pulled her arm from him and began to run away through the field. The wind blew strongly against her back, sending her dress and her hair and the wheat dancing wildly all around her. It filled her body and her spirit with strength, and like a deer she ran through the field back toward her house, leaving Shanahan to gaze after her beneath the summer sky.
The next day came quickly. Even before dawn the field in which the tournament was to take place was in a flurry of excitement, and by the time Delisha and her father arrived the activity was simply frantic. All of the people of Kerrinbrook and scores of citizens from the nearby townships flocked to see the joust, and they completely surrounded the field. Woe to those who arrived late, for all hope of having a decent view of what went on in the lists was gone.
The field which had been marked off as the stage for the fierce entertainment was a very large rectangle, perhaps one hundred fifty feet in length. Along one of the sides there had been built a dais upon which King Lachlan, Queen Corvina, and all the other noble people sat.
Delisha's father was the mayor of the small town and was, therefore, allowed to sit upon the dais with the royal people. Delisha was glad, for it meant Shanahan would not be able to bother her.
Of course, she thought as she looked ruefully down upon her dress, it did also have its drawbacks. Her father had forced her to wear her best dress, which also happened to be her most uncomfortable.
She was very pretty, however, in it. It was a brown dress, trimmed with gold, with the bodice tied not too tight, as some women wore their's. The puffy sleeves of her white blouse ended just above her elbows, and her hair was bound up with multi-colored ribbons. She wore no jewelry save for one small golden bracelet around her right wrist. She cut altogether the most fetching of figures.
She and her father sat at the very end of the dais, and Delisha looked out over the huge crowd which had gathered there. She had seen Shanahan earlier in the day--thankfully, he had not caught sight of her--but now, as she looked slowly over the crowd of people, she could not find him. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"Sir Mayor, good maid," a voice broke into her thoughts. She turned her head and saw a page of the king standing before her and her father.
"My lord, the king, says it's not right for you to sit here at the very end; you're the mayor of Kerrinbrook. Please, let me take you to better seats."
Delisha and her father rose and followed after the page who led them along the dais until, in amazement, they found themselves standing before the king himself.
"Your Majesty," said Delisha's father in reverence as he bowed.
Delisha, for her part, curtsied but remained silent.
"Mayor," said the king, "I feel absolutely terrible that you would think you had to sit at the end of the dais. Goodness knows you quite deserve to sit here on my left hand." In an undertone he added, "and it's certainly better than having that dullard Duke of Ballingham sit there."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Delisha's father even as the queen hit the king lightly with her fan and said, "Oh, don't speak that way about Maximilianos."
"But it's true," Lachlan hissed back. "And what sort of a pretentious name is 'Maximilianos'?" Almost before he finished speaking those words he looked back up and, his gaze settling upon Delisha, said, "So, is this your daughter?"
"She is, Your Majesty," answered her father.
"And what, good maid, is your name?"
"Delisha, Your Majesty," answered she, curtsying.
"Oh, what a beautiful name!" exclaimed the queen.
"Yes, dear, it's completely delicious," murmured the king. Delisha flushed at his words.
The king turned back to her. "So tell me, Delisha, how old are you?"
"Sixteen, Your Majesty."
"Only five years younger than the prince--and goodness knows a good deal healthier," said he to himself. "And, of course, everyone knows a princess is better than a prince any day." He turned his gaze to her. "Yes, you're exactly what I need."
Rather confused, Delisha looked at him and waited for an explanation. It was soon in coming.
"As you know, my son, the prince, took ill...again--" he held his hand to his forehead and gave a sigh--"and cannot be here. Now I am saddled with the monstrous responsibility of finding someone who can take his place during this tournament--we all know that a tourney put on by the king is not complete unless the whole royal family attends. So, will you take the prince's place?"
"Well," answered Delisha after a slight paused, "I can't very well refuse you; after all, you are the king."
"Spoken like a true philosopher!" declared Lachlan with a laugh. "Very well, I dub thee 'Princess Delisha'. Now, take your seat by my side."
"Have you ever been to a tournament before?" he asked as Delisha sat.
"No, Your Majesty," she answered.
"Ah. Then you have much to learn, but never fear; I'll explain everything about the fine art of knocking a fellow man down with a long, wooden stick."
The king went through all of the basic rules of the sport. It took him a rather long time because each rule brought to mind some sort of past incident or experience. He seemed to have an endless supply of stories. If Delisha were to believe him, fairly every last knight from the neighboring kingdom of Lokstria was an incompetent bumbler who had been defeated either by Lachlan himself or one of the king's chief knights.
Delisha could not remember having ever met anyone as engaging or as comical as the king. He had her hanging onto every word and laughing at every sentence.
He finished telling her about his run-in with the greatest of all the evil rogue-knights of Lokstria--the villainous Red Knight. According to the king, that particular knight struck terror into the hearts of hundreds of helpless peasants; of course, anyone who dressed as poorly as he would have struck terror into the hearts of anyone who looked upon him.
The king laughed, "Terrifying though he was, even Shanahan could have defeated him."
"Is that a compliment on Shanahan's part or an insult to the Red Knight?" asked Delisha.
The king gave a sigh. "The worst of insults." He put his hand to his brow and shook his head sadly. "You know not how great an insult."
Delisha looked in concern at him. "Then the prince truly is as weak and ill as we have been told?"
"You have no idea." He gave another sigh. "It begins so small--a little wine upon his thirteenth birthday. Next thing you know he's taken up tobacco and is getting drunk every night and making love to countless women, and before you can do a thing about it he's gone off and killed him...wait a minute!" The king laughed. "That's not Shanahan. That was my uncle." He leaned over and whispered. "I hated him."
He spoke not softly enough to keep the queen from hearing, and she hit him across the head with her fan, saying as she did so, "Don't speak that way about the dead."
The king straightened and, looking at his wife, smiled. "Sorry, dear." Delisha was certain that if she simply looked hard enough she would see a halo over his head.
He then turned back to Delisha. "It was the women who really did it in for my uncle. At least that's one thing I don't have to worry about in regard to Shanahan; no woman would be caught dead with him."
He noticed the look of surprise upon her face. "What is it?"
Delisha took a breath then said, "Forgive me if I speak out of place, but it strikes me as a little odd that you would speak so poorly of the prince; he is your son after all."
The king gave a sad look. "He showed such promise. In his first twelve years he was such a strapping lad, but then when he reached thirteen, just like my uncle--well, except for the tobacco, wine, and women--he went completely downhill. And there's nothing to explain it either! I swear, in the last eight years he's been well all of two months at the most."
He looked over and noticed that his wife's attention was elsewhere. He leaned closer to Delisha and whispered, "Personally, I think he's just a hypochondriac, but she..." He motioned to his wife and rolled his eyes. The queen turned her gaze to him, and he quickly sat up straight.
He smiled. "But, the lad is not a complete failure. Were it not for him I would never have thought to come to this beautiful little town." A slightly confused look crossed his face. "I wonder how he knew about it?" He shook his head. "Ah, well, what does it matter? The point is 'twas he who suggested I come to Kerrinbrook. He said it had everything--a beautiful countryside, charming people, and comely maidens, and he was right on all three points."
Delisha smiled. "I'm glad Kerrinbrook meets with your approval."
The king opened his mouth to say something in reply, but, just at that moment, trumpets began to sound.
"Finally!" he exclaimed. "The tournament is actually beginning."
As the trumpets sounded, a man galloped out into the field. He was dressed in a costly light-blue tunic and rode upon a milk white charger. His cape and long brown hair billowed behind him as he made his way across the field. Behind him galloped seven knights. Their brightly coloured capes fluttered in the wind, and the sun glinted off their bright and polished armor. They were dressed in full battle attire save that they wore no helmets. Their faces were grim and hardened, covered with the scars of many battles.
Lachlan leaned toward Delisha. "Those are the seven greatest knights who have come to this tourney. Tomorrow will be the big tournament--the mock battle--but today these seven will be jousting. That’s the Master of the Tourney at their head, Lord Nigel--himself a knight of great renown."
Almost before he finished speaking, the eight riders galloped up to the dais and stopped short before the king. The seven knights formed one line before the dais, and Lord Nigel took his place before them and to one side.
“You have come from far and near to battle in hopes of winning honor for yourselves,” Nigel said. “Bow and pay homage to he who has provided you this opportunity.”
The knights all bowed their heads to King Lachlan.
“Battle well,” Nigel continued, “for the king looks on, ready to reward those who fight honorably and punish those who bring shame to the title of ‘knight’.”
The trumpets sounded once again, and the seven knights wheeled about and galloped to their respective places at the edge of the field, where their squires stood ready with their equipment.
“That was a pointless little speech Nigel made,” Lachlan told Delisha softly. “I don’t know why, but every tournament opens with a small, empty ceremony like that.” He shrugged. “Ah, well, it can’t be helped.”
He perked up and continued to tell Delisha about the tournament. “Like I said, Nigel’s the Master of the Tourney. ‘Tis his duty to watch the battle and decide whether a knight is fighting honorably; if he thinks a warrior is not following the knightly code of combat, then he can disqualify that man from doing further battle.”
He motioned to a knight with a brilliant blue cape who stood closest to the dais. “That’s Sir Rowell. He comes from the country farthest away, and, as such, ‘tis his right to issue the first challenge.”
Even as Lachlan spoke, Lord Nigel said words of a similar affect. Rowell, who had put on his helmet, closed the visor and, taking up his lance, prepared to issue his challenge. He began to walk along the edge of the field, looking at each of the other knights as he did so. He had just slowed before a knight with a flowing cape of green and white, when a sudden murmuring rose from the crowd at the far end of the field. Everyone looked up, and cries of surprise and delight escaped the lips of the many people gathered there, for charging across the field was a knight dressed in the blackest of armor. His black cape billowed behind him as he galloped upon his sable horse. Lord Nigel rode toward him in an effort to block his way, but the black knight thundered toward him, and Nigel was forced to back up to avoid being trampled. The knight swept past him and showed no sign of stopping until, just before he reached the dais, he reined back. His horse neighed and reared up into the air. Then with a snort, he fell forward again, his hooves striking the ground with a loud thud.
Delisha could only stare in amazement at the knight who stood before her. His visor was down, and his face could not be seen, which, by itself, leant him a sinister air, but his armor, which was covered with the most intricately carved skulls and swords and demons, truly made him look like one of the dark and deadly rogue knights of which many a story had been told.
Lachlan crossed his arms and stared at the knight. “Why have you disrupted our tournament?”
The knight’s voice was muffled by his helmet, but his words were clear. “I have come to challenge all those who are willing to fight me.”
“A rather proud knave are you not?”
“I have not yet found reason not to be.”
The king rolled his eyes and said, “Nigel, escort this pompous fool from my field.”
“Yes, Lord,” Nigel said. He drew his sword and started to ride toward the knight.
Delisha looked down at the knight, then at Nigel riding toward him. She opened her mouth, hesitated for a moment, then said, “Your Majesty, wait.”
King Lachlan turned and looked at her then motioned for Nigel to stop. “Why?”
Delisha looked out at the crowd. “Forgive me if it’s not my place to speak, but I doubt the people would be happy to see him taken away.” She smiled. “’Tis not often, or so I have heard, that things such as this happen. ‘Twould be a shame to waste it.”
Lachlan bit his lower lip.
“Also, Your Highness,” Delisha continued, “would it be fair if you had this knight taken from the field and not give the other knights a chance to defeat him; he did, after all, insult them by interrupting the tourney.”
“True,” Lachlan said. Then, turning back to the black knight, he continued, “Very well, you may battle in this tournament, but I warn you all you will win is dishonor.”
The knight laughed. “You wish.”
Nigel, who had ridden up beside the knight, rolled his eyes then said, “If you wish to battle this day you must pay homage to the king.”
“Oh, very well, very well.” The knight waved his hand dismissively then bowed his head to Lachlan.
The king glowered at him. “You are an insufferable knave, and I would not hesitate to have you beaten and thrown in the nearest dungeon were it not for the princess.”
The knight’s head shot up. “Princess?!”
The king crossed his arms. “If I have declared Delisha a princess, who are you to disagree?”
The knight bowed to Delisha. “Your Highness.” Then, sitting up, he turned and galloped across the field and took his place at the edge.
The moment the dark knight’s back was turned, Lachlan started grinning. “Oh, I do love acting.” He leaned over toward Delisha. “You played your part well too. This is certainly shaping up to be the most interesting tournament I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Now, if only Rowell can keep from being an ass and challenge this pompous wretch like any decent knight would,” then he muttered to himself, “That will be the day.”
Fortunately, Rowell proved himself more capable than the king believed him to be and straightway challenged the dark knight who, of course, accepted.
Down the center of the field, horizontal to the dais, there had been set a low wooden barrier, and to opposite ends of this the two knights quickly made their way. Rowell’s two squires stood nearby, ready to serve their master.
The dark knight, as it soon became apparent, also had a squire--or rather a substitute for a squire, for no man there would have called him a true squire. He was obviously a peasant boy whom the dark knight had hired to play the part. He was, however, eager to serve, and stood ready with the dark knight’s lance in hand.
The dark knight took hold of his lance, and both he and Sir Rowell made ready. The whole crowd grew silent, and the only sound was that of the wind as it blew across the field and the occasional snort or stomp of a hoof by one of the horses. The two jousters sat poised upon their horses; their garments blowing slightly in the breeze.
Suddenly a huge trumpet blast was sounded and the horses lunged forward. Their hooves cut into the ground, sending dirt flying everywhere, as they charged toward each other. The knights crouched behind their shields and lowered their lances into place.
The crowd strained to see. There was a slight smile on the king’s lips as he leaned forward. Delisha’s eyes were wide, and she could only stare in shock. The two knights were almost upon each other.
Suddenly, with an earth shattering boom they crashed together. The crowd gave a huge cheer. Wooden splinters flew everywhere, and a huge cloud of dust rose around the knights. For a moment, no one could see what had happened, but slowly, the dust settled, revealing the dark knight bringing his horse under control, and Sir Rowell lying flat on his back upon the ground.
The crowd let out another huge cheer.
“Hurrah!” King Lachlan cried. “I say, for a pompous pig, this fellow certainly is turning out rather well.”
Delisha, suddenly realizing she had been holding her breath, let go of it and started smiling. “He certainly is, Your Highness.”
Sir Rowell’s squires quickly ran forward and helped their wounded master off the field.
Lachlan leaned forward. “Now, let’s see what happens next. ‘Tis the right of the victor to chose his next opponent.”
The dark knight quickly rode back to his squire and picked up another lance then, wheeling about, started making his way down the field, inspecting the other knights as he did so. Everyone who was gathered there leaned forward to see who it was he would choose. He continued riding until he reached a knight who wore a long, flowing, red cape.
There he stopped and said something. His words carried not more than a few feet, but they obviously brought about the result he desired, for the red knight’s face twisted in a look of fury, and he slammed his visor down and prepared to do battle.
Lachlan laughed. “Oh, the fellow is smart. That’s Sir Conleth, by far the strongest of the knights here; he’s fighting him early, while he still has most of his strength.”
“He seems not very smart to me. Whatever he said seems to have greatly anger Sir Conleth; will not Sir Conleth be all the more difficult to fight now?”
“That’s the beauty of it all,” Lachlan answered, grinning. “Conleth may be extremely strong--he is in fact one of my chief knights--but his skill seems to leave him whenever he grows too angry, and this fellow certain managed to make him angry.”
The knights quickly took their stations. The dark knight, who already held his lance, amused himself by tracing circles in the air with its tip until Sir Conleth, who was still furious, grabbed his lance from his squire. The knights took their final positions and waited for the trumpet blast, summing up their opponent as they did so.
After what seemed an eternity, the sound they waited for came. Conleth gave a howl as he dug his spurs into his horse’s sides. His horse fairly leapt forward. The dark knight gave not so nearly as furious a cry, but his horse too charged forward. Their armor flashed in the light of the sun, and the ground fairly shook beneath the horses’ pounding hooves; the thunderous sound was only added to by the cries of the crowd.
Delisha’s whole body was tensed, and her fingers dug into the armrests of her chair. She started as the two knights crashed together; she could almost feel the force of their blow. The crack of the lances breaking filled her ears, and she waited to see who would fall.
But neither knight did. They galloped on past each other and finally drew their horses in past the ends of the wooden barrier.
Lachlan gave a loud hurrah. “I say, Conleth didn’t lose all of his wits when that knave insulted him.”
Delisha straightened. “Now what happens, Your Highness?”
The king was leaning forward in anticipation. “They have at it once again, and hopefully this time one of them will fall.”
Even as he spoke, Sir Conleth twisted his horse around and started howling something at the dark knight. Not all of his words reached across the field, but his basic message was clear; in a few short moment that pig of a knight would be lying in a pool of his own blood, and Conleth would be riding away with his horse and armor.
The dark knight only laughed and rode back to his place at the end of the barrier. Hoisting another lance, he waited while Conleth rode back to his position and picked up a lance of his own.
The two knights made ready. The crowd, which had caught the spirit of the tourney, did not grow silent but instead had already begun cheering. The dark knight’s horse started forward, but he quickly stopped it and took his place again. Conleth shouted something, but his words were lost beneath the cries of the crowd.
The knights sat ready, crouched behind their shields. Suddenly, the trumpets sounded, and the horses leapt forward. Once more the ground shuddered beneath their pounding hooves, and once more dirt and dust were kicked up all around them. The crowd’s cheers rose to a staggering intensity, and there was a huge, bone-jarring crack as the two knight crashed together. The black knight swayed in his saddle and almost fell but managed to catch himself. Conleth, however, went flying backward and with a huge howl struck the ground and lay still.
The whole field grew silent as everyone gathered there leaned forward, straining to see whether Conleth was wounded. His squire ran out and fell to his knees beside him. After a long moment, Conleth began showing signs of life. He was finally able to rise and with the help of his squire walk off the field.
“Well,” the king said, “Conleth didn’t make a complete ass of himself.” He laughed. “Of course, he didn’t win any glory either, but he almost unhorsed the wretch. If only he had succeeded, we would have had so much more sport to watch.”
“Why is that, Your Highness?” asked Delisha.
“The battle would have continued on foot, with sword--always a delight to watch.” He leaned forward. “But enough of that. The fellow is choosing his next opponent.”
The dark knight made no show of it but went quickly to a knight wearing a green and white cape and issued his challenge.
Delisha cocked her head slightly. “I think Conleth hurt him. He seems much subdued.”
Lachlan leaned forward. “I think you’re right. Oh, blast! And the tournament was just becoming interesting.” He began fretting. “Malvyn is a very strong knight. Wounded, tired, the dark knight’s sure to be defeated now. Da...” His last word ended with a very long, drawn-out “a”, after Queen Corvina hit him with her fan before he could say what he had wanted to.
The king crossed his arms, scowled, and, when he could think of no other words that would be suitable in the presence of women, muttered, “Blast it!”
Lachlan’s worries, however, proved unfounded, for, not only did the dark knight send Sir Malvyn flying from his horse upon the first pass, he did is with such a force that Malvyn was knocked unconscious and had to be carried from the field.
The crowd, now thoroughly behind the black knight, erupted in thunderous cheering. Lachlan gave a huge howl of delight, which sent Delisha, who was already grinning from ear to ear, into a fit of laughter.
“I knew he would do it!” the king exclaimed. “I never doubted him for a moment!”
Corvina rolled her eyes. “Please, show a little dignity; you are the king, after all.”
Lachlan waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, be quiet.” He focused once more on the field. “Now, who next shall fall beneath the dark knight’s unwavering hand?”
The dark knight seemed to regain his strength beneath the cheering of the crowd, and he went galloping over to a grey-caped knight.
“Sir Dominic,” Lachlan informed Delisha.
The dark knight slowed then began walking around Dominic as though inspecting him. When he had completed his circle he shook his head, said something to him, then galloped off. Dominic’s face turned red with fury, and he howled a curse after the dark knight.
Lachlan laughed. “A knave to the core this dark fellow is; I like him more by the moment.”
The dark knight rode over to a knight who wore a brown cape and issued his challenge then turned and started back toward the wooden barrier.
“Sir Ruskin,” the king said, “a churlish fellow if I ever knew one, but, then again, all people from Lunmark are. And to think, when I was younger, my father wanted me to marry the Lunmarkian princess.” He shuddered. “Well, at any rate, unless I miss my mark, Ruskin will receive a thrashing today; perchance it shall knock some sense into him.”
By this time, the two knights had taken up their lances and sat ready upon their horses at opposite ends of the barrier. The crowd had not grown weary of cheering and, in fact, had grown more enthusiastic by the minute. Their shouts and howls filled the air.
Lachlan watched the lists closely. “The dark knight is wearied. I wonder how well and quickly he’ll dispose of Ruskin.”
Delisha eyed the dark knight intently. She could feel her heart pounding.
Suddenly, the trumpets sounded. The horses flew toward each other. The knights lowered their lances into place. Delisha held her breath. The pounding of her heart seemed fairly to drown out the cries of the crowd. She started as the two knight’s crashed together.
The cheering of the crowd reached a climax. A scream escaped her own lips as she saw Ruskin go tumbling from his horse. He hit the ground with a thud and did not move. Lachlan gave a huge cry.
Ruskin’s squires ran out onto the field and quickly carried their fallen master away.
Lachlan turned to Delisha. “I say, if he keeps this up, I’m going to have to ask that dark knave to be on my court!”
“But, oh!” Delisha exclaimed as she saw the dark knight suddenly slump forward before catching himself and once more sitting up. “Look at him. He’s wounded and tired. Look at how he’s favoring his left arm.”
The king suddenly grew concerned. “You’re right.” He eyed the knight for a moment then murmured to himself, “Wounded with three knights left. He’s never going to survive.”
Delisha watched in dismay as the dark knight made his way toward a knight with a black and white cape. “But surely there must be something you can do. You are the king after all.”
The dark knight reached the other knight and issued his challenge.
Lachlan looked out over the wild crowd. “I can’t paused the tourney. I may be the king, but I doubt these people would care.”
Delisha gave a disheartened sigh as she watched the two knights take their places and make ready.
“Oh well,” Lachlan said. “The fellow’s already won four horses and four sets of armor. If he’s unhorsed by Dubhan he gives up one horse and one set of armor--no loss. Hopefully he won’t be that wounded and he can still join my court....” He was startled from his musings by the sound of the trumpets.
The horses thundered toward each other. Delisha watched in silence not even daring to breath. Just before they crashed together she closed her eyes. She could hear the cries of the crowd, and she could hear the cracking and splintering of the wooden lances. The cheering of the crowd swelled, and slowly Delisha opened her eyes.
“Hah hah! He did it!” the king exclaimed with delight.
“He did!” Delisha cried as she saw the dark knight still firmly seated upon his horse and Sir Dubhan upon the ground, struggling to sit up. She started laughing with relief. “He actually did.”
“Only two knights left--Sir Dominic and Sir Nevin--and this fellow just might pull it off.”
Delisha watched as he made his way toward the two remaining knights. “He must be incredibly strong, even for a knight.” “Definitely.” The king leaned forward and stared at the knight intently. “I have to get him on my court.”
As Lachlan spoke, the dark knight reached a knight who wore a yellow cape. Delisha took him for Sir Nevin. The challenge was issued, and they both rode to their places.
Delisha’s face clouded. “He’s still favoring his left arm.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the king replied. “I’m sure he’ll do fine.”
Almost as if to reassure her the dark knight, who had looked over and seen them staring at him, raised his hand slightly and nodded his head to them. He then turned and prepared for the task at hand.
The trumpets sounded, and Delisha watched intently. It was almost as though she were there with the dark knight. She could feel the muscles of the horse moving beneath her and hear the hooves striking the earth. The lance dropped into place. She winced and gave a slight gasp as the two knights met with bone-jarring force.
But neither one fell. They continued on past each other and finally reined their horses in and turned around.
Delisha and Lachlan were not the only ones who were anxious. The whole crowd had grown concerned for their hero, and they shouted out many words of encouragement. He seemed to draw strength from them, and, as he rode back to his place, he sat up straighter in his saddle.
The two knights took up their lances and prepared once more to joust. The trumpets sounded, and the horses charged forward. The cries of the people rose as the horse thundered down upon each other. The ground fairly shook as they crashed together. Nevin went flying from his horse. The dark knight nearly went tumbling to the ground also, but he managed to grab hold of his saddle and pull himself back up. The cheering of the crowd was deafening.
The king’s cries were added to the crowd’s. “This fellow is amazing! Six knight’s all in a row! ‘Tis a wonder I’ve not heard of him before. Mark my words, one day his name’ll be known throughout the whole land. He’s truly one of the greatest knights I have ever seen!”
Delisha, though relieved that the dark knight had unhorsed his opponent, was not nearly as excited as Lachlan. “Nevin almost threw him, and he still has one knight left to fight.”
“Ah, but Sir Dominic is the weakest of the seven. Have no fear.”
“Dominic may be the weakest of the seven, but those seven are the strongest of all knights who’ve come here.”
Lachlan patted her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m sure the dark knave will do splendidly.”
The two knights, lances in hand, were already at their places. The whole crowd grew silent, and only the sound of the wind could be heard. Suddenly, the sound of the trumpets blasted across the field. The horses leapt forward, and the crowd burst into cheers. Delisha could hear nothing save the pounding of her heart as she watched the horses bear down upon each other. Closer and closer they drew until, with a cracking, splintering, deafening sound, they crashed together.
Delisha gave a gasp of horror as she saw the dark knight go flying from his horse. He struck the ground hard and went rolling over several times until he finally came to a stop and lay still.
Dominic, however, did not escape unscathed. The dark knight’s blow sent him reeling. For a moment it looked as though he would regain his seat, but, even as he reached for his saddle, he became so unbalanced that he went sliding from his horse.
Lachlan jumped to his feet and gave a huge howl. His cry was joined by the cries of the hundreds of other people gathered there.
“He still has a chance!” the king exclaimed. “He still has a chance!” He sat back down. “Now the battle continues on foot. The victor is whoever dehelms or knocks out the other knight first.”
“But he can’t even stand up!” Delisha cried as she looked upon the fallen dark knight. His squire knelt beside him but seemed unable to rouse him.
“Stand up!” Lachlan howled as he once more jumped to his feet. “Stand up!”
The whole crowd began shouting out for him to do so.
“I’m the king; I order you to!”
“Please stand up,” Delisha whispered.
Slowly, the dark knight began to stir. The cries of the people rose in intensity. He pushed himself up to his knees. His squire reached out to help him, but he pushed him away. Finally, with a supreme effort he rose to his feet. The crowd erupted into even greater cheering.
“He did it!” Lachlan exclaimed. “Never in all my years...He actually did it!”
The dark knight took his sword from his squire and began walking to Dominic, where he stood, sword in hand, a few yards away.
Lachlan took his seat once more. “He’ll be hard pressed, but I still think he has a chance.”
Delisha bit her lower lip as she looked in concern upon his left arm. He had obviously been sorely wounded.
The sound of their swords clashing together rang across the field. The dark knight reeled back and barely regained his footing before Dominic fell upon him. He managed to block Dominic’s first blow but the second struck him in the leg. It glanced off his armor, but it sent him lurching. Shouts of dismay arose from the crowd.
With a growl the dark knight pushed himself forward and sent his sword slicing toward Dominic. Dominic blocked it and thrust him back. The dark knight took a few stumbling steps and fell to the ground. With a cry Dominic launched himself toward him. The howls of the crowd filled the air.
Dominic sent blow after blow raining down upon the dark knight. Delisha closed her eyes; she couldn’t bear to watch. The dark knight could barely duck the blows much less fight back. Suddenly, with a grunt, he kicked out his foot and struck Dominic in the knee. Dominic gave a cry and stumbled back, giving the dark knight time to roll to his feet.
Dominic quickly recovered and once more flew at the dark knight. He drove him further and further back until they battled right before the dais. Dominic’s sword slice through the air toward the dark knight. The dark knight ducked out of the way, then gave a groan as he fell against the wooden railing of the dais.
“Sir knave!” Lachlan cried. “Twenty gold pieces if you finish Dominic!”
There was a loud thud as Dominic’s sword struck the wooden railing, just inches from the dark knight’s head.
Suddenly, the dark knight gave a huge snarl and propelled himself forward. He slammed into Dominic and sent him reeling back. The cheering of the crowd swelled as he sent blow after blow down upon Dominic.
Dominic was completely unprepared for this suddenly burst of strength and fury. He was driven back to the very middle of the field where he crashed into the wooden barrier and went tumbling to the ground. The dark knight fell down after him and, with one quick motion, grabbed his helmet and yanked it from his head. The ground shook with the frenzied screams of the people.
Dominic gave a huge howl and pushed the dark knight from him. He struggled to get on top of him, grabbing at the dark knight’s helmet as he did so. The dark knight held his arms up in a feeble attempt to ward him off.
Sir Nigel galloped out to where they fought and jumped off his horse. He shouted something, but it brought no result. He grabbed one of Dominic’s arms and pulled him from the dark knight. Dominic screamed out a curse and swung his arm at Nigel. Nigel ducked out of the way then sent his fist slamming into Dominic’s face. Dominic staggered back then fell to the ground unconscious.
Delisha was laughing with relief.
“I can’t believe it!” the king cried. “Seven battle-hardened knights at one time! I can’t believe it!” He was jumping up and down like an excited school-boy, but Queen Corvina did not tell him to stop making a fool of himself.
With Nigel’s help, the dark knight struggled to his feet. His squire, leading his horse, ran out to him. With their help, he mounted then turned and rode toward the dais.
The king, seeing him approach, suddenly regained some of his dignity and quickly sat down. The knight reached the dais, stopped, and bowed his head to Lachlan.
“You fight as no knight I have ever seen before,” said Lachlan with awe. “Tell me, what is your name? For surely you must be some great knight of renown.”
The dark knight’s voice was soft and muffled by his helmet, but his words were clear. “I am not yet ready to tell you that.”
“But you will in time, I trust?” Lachlan pressed.
“Soon I hope.”
The king seemed a bit miffed by his reply, but he moved on without argument. “You have proved yourself a great hero and have certes earned the right to declare who shall be this tournament’s Queen of Love and Beauty.”
Queen Corvine rose. In her hands she held a beautiful, finely wrought circlet of gold, inlaid with small, sparkling rubies.
Lachlan glance over at it then back at the knight. “Which maid do you find fit to wear the crown?”
The knight reached out and took it. He rode but a few steps to where Delisha sat and stopped before her. “I can think of no woman more worthy to bear the title of Queen of Love and Beauty than you, though this trinket seems hardly beautiful enough to grace your brow.”
Delisha flushed. “You only say that because I am the ‘princess’ and you wish not to offend me.”
“I say it because it’s true.”
For a long moment Delisha simply stood there, her face turning redder by the moment, and looked down at him and the golden circlet.
“Delisha, just take it! How hard can it be?!” he suddenly cried, throwing the crown at her as he did so. Then, with one quick motion, he reached up and pulled his helmet from his head.
“Shanahan?!” Delisha, Lachlan, and Corvina all exclaimed together.
“Who?” asked Delisha’s father.
“Now can I have a kiss,” Shanahan demanded.
“What?!” asked Delisha in surprise.
“Shanahan?!” Lachlan cried again.
Shanahan gave a lopsided grin. “Hello, Father.”
“Father?!” exclaimed Delisha.
“What is going on?” asked Delisha’s father.
“Yes, ’Father’,” said Shanahan, “and as the prince of Loorland I demand you give me a kiss.”
“I’m not kissing you!” Delisha cried.
For the first time a look of pain crossed Shanahan’s face. “I just had my arm dislocated and broken in ten different places. Surely I deserve a kiss.”
Delisha crossed her arms. “You’re sweaty, and you smell bad.”
King Lachlan roared with laughter.
The crowd by this time had figured out what the dark knight was after and had started chanting, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”
“Please?” Shanahan begged.
Delisha stood there for a moment, the chanting of the people sounding her ear, as she looked down at Shanahan’s pitiful expression.
“Oh, all right,” she muttered. She leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
“That’s all?!” Shanahan cried.
“And it’s more than you deserve,” Delisha declared with a scowl as she sat down.
Another look of pain crossed his face, as he grumbled, “At least I get my twenty gold.”
“Oh, yes...about that,” Lachlan suddenly said. “I was thinking. You’ve already won seven horses and seven sets of armor, you’re the prince of the whole land, and you have a lot of explaining to do to me and your mother...so why don’t we just make it ten?”
Shanahan was leaning forward slightly in his saddle. The pained look had not left his face. “What?”
“I don’t feel good,” Shanahan suddenly groaned.
“Shanahan!” Lachlan cried, but, before he could do anything, the prince went sliding from his saddle and tumbling to the ground. Delisha gave a gasp of horror.
Instantly, Lachlan was on his feet, calling out for the servants to help Shanahan. The prince’s squire, who was already at his side, rolled him onto his back. Shanahan’s face was twisted in pain.
“No kiss, no gold, a broken arm,” he grumbled, “a bloody lot of good being prince did for me.” By this time he was surrounded by servants who helped him to his feet and started to carry him off the field. “I feel terrible. I want to go to sleep. I should have been born a farm-boy.”
King Lachlan and Queen Corvina quickly walked from the dais and followed after their son. Delisha silently watch them, a disheartened look upon he face, until they disappeared in the crowd.
She looked around and suddenly noticed the golden circlet lying at her feet. She bent and picked it up. “I want to go home.”
Delisha’s room was small, cozy, and very simple. The floor was composed of well-swept floorboards. There was a single closest for her to store her clothes in, a small table which was at that moment bare, and her bed, freshly made, in a corner. The room was lit by by the first faint rays of morning which shone through a single window, behind which could be seen the branches of an apple tree swaying slightly in the wind.
Delisha stood in front of her mirror and stared glumly at herself. The last thing she wanted to do was go to the tournament that day, but, as the crown on her head asserted, she was the Queen of Love and Beauty, and her father had insisted she attend. He had, in fact, gone so far as to give her one of her mother’s old dresses, which was something he had never done before.
It was a beautiful, lavender dress with a very coquettish open bodice, the strings of which criss-crossed down her belly. The long sleeves were slit down the sides and tied together once right above the elbows and again at the wrists so that the white blouse beneath could be seen. It fit her well, but Delisha was not entirely comfortable in it. She had never worn blouses that were even remotely low-cut, much less one that actually revealed cleavage--if only a little. She had put on a necklace in the hopes that it would draw attention away from her breasts, but it seemed not to help.
With a sigh she had given up hope and turned to her hair. In her closet, she had found a large, gauzy, violet scarf. She had not worn it in ages, but it went perfectly with her dress, so she immediately set about binding her hair up with it.
As she did so, she suddenly heard a thump against her window. She glanced over but, seeing nothing, assumed it had been a branch hitting against the glass. She finished with her hair and took a step back, surveying herself in the mirror. She gave a slight smile. She had to admit she looked pretty, and she could almost get used to the fact that her breasts could be seen.
She started as another thump came at her window. She turned and looked at it closely. What she had heard was not a tree branch. She walked over to the window and threw it open.
A slight cry escaped her lips as her shoulder was suddenly struck by something. She looked wildly around and, glancing down, saw a small, green apple rolling across the wooden boards.
“What the...?” With a scowl she picked it up and hurled it outside then slammed the window shut.
She glanced backed out.
“Shanahan!” she exclaimed as she saw him sitting on his horse below her window. She turned and ran from her room.
“No, wait...!” she heard him cry, but whatever else he said was lost to her as she disappeared through her doorway. She ran along a short hallway and down a set of stairs to the main floor. She continued on until she reached the back door where she finally stopped. She stood for a moment, staring at the rough surface of the large, heavy door then, with a deep breath, took the handle and pulled.
She stepped out into the early morning light. The sun had yet to fully rise, and the air was still chilly with the night. Shanahan sat upon his horse a few yards away, an apple in his hand, poised ready to throw, but, when he heard the sound of the door opening, he stopped and looked over. His whole face lit up.
“Delisha!” he exclaimed then hurriedly slid off his horse and started walking toward her. His left arm was bandaged from shoulder to wrist, and there was a large, dark bruise on his forehead as well as several small cuts on the rest of his face. His skin was pale, and his whole body seemed to sag slightly, but his blue eyes were still bright.
“You look beautiful this day, Princess,” he said. “The sun may shine, but ‘tis you who lights the morning.”
Delisha silently crossed her arms and, leaning against the frame of the door, regarded him solemnly. At that, Shanahan slowed then came to a halt all together, several feet away.
“You’re very persistent,” she finally said.
“And you’re very stubborn.”
She said nothing in reply and there was a moment of awkward silence which Shanahan finally broke. “I...wanted to apologize for the way I acted yesterday--throwing the crown at you and demanding a kiss. I was not feeling well.” He suddenly laughed. “And now I just struck you with an apple.” He gave a bow. “I apologize for that too, milady. ‘Twas an accident to be sure, though that kept you not from defending yourself admirably. I have no doubt but that my brow shall soon bear another bruise very nearly as large as the first.”
Delisha smiled softly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you.” She started walking toward him. “You have no need to apologize about yesterday. For one who was wounded and exhausted, you acquitted yourself quite well.” She stopped, and her face flushed slightly as she looked down and stared at his left hand. “If truth be told I was at least a little worried about you. How is your arm?”
He smiled. “Bruised and cut along the whole length but broken only once. I sprained by shoulder also, but I shall heal in time and be no worse for wear.” His voice grew softer. “Were you truly serious when you said you worried about me?”
She nodded but did not look up. “Yes.”
He gave a lopsided grin. “Does this mean I can have a kiss now?”
Delisha laughed and rolled her eyes. “No.”
“’Tis your last chance to give it, for today I am leaving.”
Delisha crossed her arms. “I am not going to kiss you.”
Shanahan’s face clouded with a frown, and he placed his good hand on his hip. “I just fought seven knights--all for a kiss from you. I’ve tried everything short of stealing, but every time you refuse me. What do I have to do to win your favor?”
All traces of laughter left Delisha, and for a long moment she stood silent, thinking, looking at anything save his face, and growing more downcast by the moment. Suddenly she turned and walked to the foot of the apple tree.
“Delisha...” began Shanahan as he followed her, but she cut him off.
“My father has told many a tale of knights and royalty, and, by all accounts, they are not men I should be kissing.”
“Delisha,” he said again, this time right behind her, “that is not the reason. Only two ago you knew naught but that I was a simple farm boy, yet still you would not kiss me. Why not?”
Delisha stood, unanswering, and stared at the bark of the tree.
Shanahan reached out and touched his hand to her shoulder. “Delisha...”
She brushed it away. “What does it matter whether you be prince or farm boy?” Her voice was trembling, and she cursed herself silently. “What does it matter if you’re a handsome knight, or if I enjoyed our conversations, or if I find myself liking you? The fact still remains that less than five weeks ago you had yet to set eyes upon me, and, as you just told me moment ago, you shall be leaving today, and we shall, most likely, never see each other again. How, under such circumstances, do you expect me to believe your desires are honorable?”
“But Delisha I love you.” He reached out and touched her again as he struggled to convey all that he felt. “I love you more than words can describe. I have since the moment I first saw you.” He hesitated, and his brow furrowed, but he pressed on. “What...what if I said I wanted to marry you?”
Delisha’s face flushed, and she crossed her arms, brushing his hand once more from her. “Now you’re just playing with me.” She turned her face slightly toward him. “You’re a prince, a future king. Prince’s do not marry farm girls.”
Shanahan threw up his good arm. “Blast it, Delisha! I do!” He moved to her side and leaned his back against the tree trunk. “You have no idea what life as a royal is like.” Delisha looked up at him. “You’re surrounded by hundreds of people all willing to do anything to gain your favor--flattery, backbiting, bribery. Men give their wives to you, and the women willing comply all in the hopes of bending your will to theirs. It’s disgusting.” He glanced at her. “You sat beside my father yesterday. Surely you must have seen what he’s like. ‘Tis his way of dealing with the inanity and depravity he’s constantly surrounded with. Even at twelve years of age, I could see it, and I couldn’t stomach it.” He leaned his head back and stared up at the branches, and, for the first time since his speech had begun, he smiled. “I pretended I was sick, and most people left me alone then because they thought I was going to die and therefore wouldn’t be able to help them in their quest for power. My parents let me travel wherever I wanted in hopes that I would find a climate that suited me, and with the help of my nurse I was able to sneak away, unnoticed, for months on end.” He closed his eyes. “I remember the first time I saw you. Two years ago, I was in Corrlin when the smallpox broke out. You and your father were among the people who came to help us. You had drawn water from a well and were trying to carry it to a nearby house, but the bucket was very heavy. I tried to help you, but all I succeeded in doing was getting myself roundly bawled out and told to lie back down unless I wanted to make myself sicker than I already was.”
Delisha’s eyes grew wide, and she covered her mouth with her hand. “I remember that! I remember you. You were one of the people I took care of, and one of the few who never complained or told me to hurry up.” Her voice grew softer. “You were too busy showering me with compliments.”
He gave a lopsided grin. “Smitten from the start.”
Delisha looked down and tried to hide a smile. “I thought it was because you were delirious.”
“What?” There was a rather hurt tone in his voice.
“Well, you were one of the sicker people there.” She looked up. “Why did you not tell me before who you were?”
He grew silent and thoughtful for a long moment. “You are so...unapproachable,” he finally answered. “Ever since I first saw you, I’ve come to Kerrinbrook as often as I can. I usually stay with Charles, the butcher’s son--in fact, he is my squire. Every time you would come in to buy meat, I would greet you, and every time you would return my greeting without so much as glancing in my direction. I would watch you walk down the street. You were always looking at the clouds, and, even when you weren’t, there was still a far-off look in your eyes. You seemed so distant, and I could never work up the courage to speak to you.” He laughed. “I know it sounds foolish; I’m a man, a prince, a knight, yet I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to you.” He smiled. “But, when I finally did, I found you ever so easy to be with.” He looked at her. “You are everything I ever imagined and so much more.”
When he had finished, Delisha remained silent for a very long moment, her head bowed.
“Perhaps I have misjudged you,” she said quietly. She looked up. “But still, I must wonder why, if you truly love me as you say, you are leaving to go seek adventure.”
“Not adventure,” Shanahan answered. “Knowledge, experience. One day, if God wills it, I shall be a king. Loorland is a mighty country--one of the greatest in the world.” His brow was furrowed and his jaw set. “I want to be a good ruler--to wield that power with wisdom. But wisdom is not something oft found among the petty, bickering lords of the palace.”
Delisha crossed her arms. “So, would you have me simply stay and wait for your return, whenever it is you choose for that to be?”
Shanahan was taken aback. “Well, no...not really. I never thought about it.” His face flushed, and he threw his arm up in the air. “I don’t know.” He turned and walked several paces away.
His shoulders slumped. “I’m being rude and selfish. You’ve probably already received hundreds of marriage proposals.”
Delisha walked to him. “I think you vastly overestimate that number.” She placed her hand on his arm. “And I think you are too harsh on yourself. If you were another, your words would be true, but you are the prince and you have a reason for doing what you do--a reason that seems to me to be good and honorable.”
He turned slowly around. “Does this mean you’ll wait for me?”
“In a way,” she answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Simply this, in your absence, I promise to marry no other man, but I do not promise to be your wife. You know so much more of me than do I of you. I want you to return and finish your courtship.”
He took her hand in his and held it tight. “Oh, I promise! It would take an army to keep me from returning.”
“If you are so certain of your return, then I trust you can tell me how long you will be gone.”
Shanahan’s brow furrowed and he grew silent as he thought for a moment. “Three years?” he finally answered.
Delisha tried to hide a smile. “Do you mean to make an old maid of me? Most girls would have already borne their first child by then. One year.”
“But I could scarcely travel anywhere before I would have to turn around and come back again.” He grinned. “Not that I would dislike that, but it would defeat the whole purpose of the journey. Two years.”
Delisha smiled. “Done.” A thoughtful look suddenly crossed her face. “Do you think other people settle their affairs in such a fashion?”
Shanahan laughed. “No, but we are not ‘other people’.” He paused then continued. “There is, however, one thing I should like to do traditionally.”
Delisha looked at him questioningly.
He pressed on. “Most men, when they are knighted, vow to serve a lady. ‘Tis in her name he battles. Oftentimes he shares his spoils with her, and always he protects her. I long ago made such a vow for you, but ‘tis customary for the woman to give the knight some sort of favor he can carry with him into battle. I would love to have such a token from you.”
“Of course,” Delisha answered. She hesitated. “If I had some...”
“That scarf upon your head,” Shanahan broke in.
Delisha touched her hands to her hair. “Oh. Of course.” She quickly untied the scarf and held it out to him.
Shanahan’s eyes were sparkling as he took the purple cloth. “Thank you.”
He quickly tucked it away in a pouch on his belt then looked once more upon her. The breeze caught Delisha’s hair and sent it swirling around her face. Shanahan put his arm around her waist and drew her close. His voice was soft. “Now may I kiss you?”
Her cheeks turned red as she looked up into his bright, blue eyes. “Yes.”
He bent his head, as she stood on tip-toes and put her arms around his neck. They held each other close, and he pressed his lips to hers. His kiss was warm and gentle, and it filled Delisha with peace and comfort. She could feel his body so close to her, and his arm around her, and she held him tighter. For a long time they stood, their bodies pressed together, their eyes closed, drinking in the moment. The breeze blew softly around them, catching at their clothes and hair, caressing their faces, and the morning sun covered them with its warmth, until finally they parted.
Shanahan looked down at her and with a soft smile touched his hand to her face. “It was worth the wait.”
Delisha drew herself up. “Of course it was.”
Shanahan burst out laughing. “Most maids so sure of their charms are not so niggardly with the dispensation of them.” With his arm around her waist, he started walking toward his horse. “You are very special in that respect. I could have had fairly any maid I chose, but glad I am I waited for you. I miss you already, and I have yet to even leave.”
Delisha smiled softly. “Well, the sooner you depart the sooner you shall return.”
They reached his horse, and he turned to her. “I will think of you every day.”
“And I shall wait for your return.”
“Oh!” he suddenly exclaimed. “I almost forgot.” He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small leather bag. “After many complaints and so much moaning it sounded as though he would die, my father finally agreed to give me the twenty gold pieces he promised.” He grinned. “Rather, nineteen, he could not quite bring himself to pay the full amount, saying instead that he deserved something from me considering I’d lied about my health for the past eight years and caused him and my mother ever so much pain.” He chuckled. “At any rate, I should like you to have this.”
Delisha’s eyes grew wide. “Are you certain?”
Shanahan looked at her in surprise. “Of course I’m certain. Far be it from me to take your scarf and leave you with no means to buy another.”
“But this is enough to buy fifty or sixty scarves.”
He pressed the bag into her hands then kissed her quickly once more upon the lips. “Then go buy yourself fifty or sixty.”
He turned to his horse and, clutching the saddle with his good hand, hoisted himself up. He looked down at her. “I will return; I promise.” Delisha looked up at him and nodded. He tapped his heals against his horse’s sides and started forward.
As he rode away, he turned his head often to look back. Delisha stood and watched him go. The wind blew across the fields and through the branches of the apple tree. It caught at her hair, and she put her hand to her head to keep it from blowing in her face. The early morning sun shone across the sky, dimming the stars, tinting the clouds rosy with its rays, and lighting the yet hazy horizon.
“Good bye,” Delisha whispered.