Okay, for those who are still interested in the fantasy story, here is chapter 4. If you still haven’t been reading, check out the previous chapters first!
Chapter Four: At King Garrick’s Castle
Ariana looked out of her chamber window into the training yard of Prince Garrick’s castle, watching the knights and squires practicing their jousting, swordsmanship and archery for the upcoming tournament. Prince Garrick was to be crowned as king today, and Garrick had invited all the thanes and their families to his castle for a celebration including feasts, tournaments and entertainments of all kinds. Not that she would be able to participate in the tournaments. Those were only for men.
She thought of her clothes at home that she had worn as Arin. But she had not been Arin since she was twelve, seven years ago. She had kept her word to her father. She had stayed boring and useless, like a good woman, and studied her music and tapestry. The only times she felt any freedom at all were the times when she went on her daily ride with Lenora.
Ariana always carried her bow with her when she and Lenora went into the woods, for Corin had taught her to shoot. She could never be as good as him, of course, but she was tolerable enough. Sometimes Corin humored her by practicing swordplay with her, though if they ever got caught, who knew what the consequences would be for them both?
But Ariana was even more concerned about what would happen if Corin and Lenora ever got caught at their secret meetings in the forest. Ariana was always present, of course, but she didn’t count and they knew they could trust her. Of course, Corin could never see her the same way he saw Lenora. Ariana was just a fellow squire in a dress to him. Lenora was his great love. They never knew how difficult it was for her to see them together, to keep a lookout while they whispered sweet, forbidden words to one another. She would die before she ever revealed it to a soul.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Come in,” she said. A maidservant entered.
“If you please, my lady,” the girl said, “The coronation is about to start. Everyone is requested to come to the throne room. Ariana sighed.
“Of course,” she answered. “I shall come at once.”
The coronation was boring enough, as such ceremonies generally are, but the feast was considerably more interesting. King Garrick had minstrels, jugglers and fire-eaters for entertainment and nearly everyone was being overcome by their high spirits.
Thane Haraldr had chosen Corin to be one of his escort of thirty men, not because he particularly liked Corin, but it could not be doubted that Corin was among the best of his warriors. Corin, now a handsome young man of nineteen, sat over with the other knights, but he and Lenora kept exchanging glances and smiles, till Ariana began to be quite annoyed.
“Lenora,” she whispered to her sister, “You might have a little care in so much company. Perhaps you should not smile quite so much.”
“Oh Ariana,” Lenora protested. “What harm can there possibly be in a few smiles?”
“If our father should happen to notice—”
“Our father never notices anything,” Lenora replied with some asperity. “Besides, he and almost every other man here have had so much wine that I doubt if they’ll remember their own names in the morning.”
“You cannot be too cautious,” Ariana urged her. “If anyone should ever suspect the two of you, Corin’s very life and your freedom will be in danger.” Lenora looked solemn.
“What would you have me do?”
“If you cannot look at him without making yourself obvious, don’t look at him at all,” Ariana told her. “Not in public. Trust me, the servants observe everything and will share information with anyone who will pay for it.” Lenora cast her eyes down and did not argue anymore.
King Garrick would have been a handsome man if his eyes had not been so cold and cruel. He was a man of stature and talents and planned to rule Caradonia with an iron fist like his father before him. He looked around at all the rustic beauties that had come with their noble fathers and his eye fell upon Lenora, who was undoubtedly the most beautiful lady in the room. He leaned toward the Duke of Wythorn, who was sitting to his right.
“Pray, who is that young lady there?” He asked him. “The one who eclipses the beauty of all the others.” The duke looked.
“That, your majesty, is Lady Lenora, the younger daughter of Thane Haraldr, of Aelbridge,” he replied. “She has many admirers, though none that her father considers worthy as suitors.”
“Do you suppose Thane Haraldr would consider a king a worthy suitor?” Garrick asked.
“Do you fancy the young lady for yourself?” The duke asked.
“It is impossible for anyone who sees her not to fancy her,” Garrick replied.
“Now that you are king, your majesty,” the duke said with a sly smile, “Perhaps it is time to consider a queen.”
“Yes indeed, Wythorn,” Garrick replied, still not taking his eyes of Lenora. “I believe you are right.”
The next morning, Lady Lenora walked around the castle gardens quite alone, except for the guards standing at the gates. She was startled when she heard a step behind her. She turned around and was astonished to see the king himself standing next to her.
“Your majesty,” she said, with a low curtsey.
“Pray, don’t do that,” Garrick said, holding out his hand. Not quite knowing what to do, she put her hand into his. “A creature as lovely as yourself should never have to lower herself to anyone.”
“Please, your majesty,” Lenora said, turning away and blushing. She attempted to take away her hand, but he would not relinquish it.
“Do I make you nervous?” he asked her smoothly. “You have no reason to fear me, I assure you.”
“No, your majesty,” Lenora said, still not meeting his gaze. “But I beg you not to trifle with me.”
“Do I seem like the kind of man who with trifle with you?” he asked her.
“No,” she replied. “But I can conceive no other reason why the king should speak so to the younger daughter of a thane.”
“Then you must surely be blind to your own beauty,” Garrick said. “For you if you had ever looked into a looking-glass, you would not say such a thing.” Lenora did not reply.
They were interrupted by Lenora’s father and sister entering the garden. Thane Haraldr stopped short when he saw his daughter and the king in company together.
“Forgive me, your majesty,” Haraldr said. “I have been looking for my daughter. I believe the jousting is about to begin.”
“Of course, Father,” Lenora said. She did not hesitate to go to Ariana’s side.
“Thane Haraldr,” Garrick said, “Might I offer you and your daughters a place in the royal box?” Haraldr looked dumbfounded at such an offer.
“Of course, your majesty,” he replied. “Indeed, you do us too much honor.”
“Oh, I do not think that is possible,” Garrick replied.
The jousting tournament lasted all day and Garrick insisted that Lenora sit by his side. Corin came before the royal canopy. Lenora smiled warmly when she saw him, and Garrick glanced at her before turning to Corin.
“Speak,” Garrick said.
“Your majesty,” he said, kneeling, “With your leave I have message for Lady Lenora.” Garrick motioned for him to continue. “Lady Lenora, I come to beg your assistance for my friend Sir Wilfred. He has been injured in the joust and he says you have a potion of herbs that might help him.
“Yes, but it is in my chamber,” Lenora answered. “Your majesty, may I have your leave to fetch it? For this is a man I think well of, and one of my father’s finest warriors.”
“Far be it from me to deny any request of yours, my lady,” Garrick said gallantly. “I will send one of my own guards with you.”
“I would not wish for you to be a guard short because me,” Lenora replied. “Corin will escort me.” Garrick narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“That is very considerate of you, Lady Lenora,” he said, “But nevertheless, one of my guards shall attend you both.” He whispered something in the ear of his nearest guard, who nodded once and followed Corin and Lenora.
“Why did Sir Wilfred enter the jousting tournament?” Lenora asked Corin, aware that their conversation was heard. “Jousting has never been his strong point.”
“I believe he thought it was more impressive,” Corin replied. “I don’t suppose it is so impressive since he is so easily defeated.”
“Is he badly injured?”
“I believe his pride is injured more than anything,” Corin said with a slight smile. “But I do not think he should compete anymore.”
When Corin returned Lenora to the king’s canopy, he gave her a meaningful smile. Ariana then stood up and declared she had a headache and would return to her chamber. As she passed Corin, she whispered,
“Meet me inside the east gate after it closes.” Corin would have followed her immediately, but King Garrick asked him if he was not eager to return to his friend with the potion. So Corin had to wait.
Ariana wrapped herself in a cloak and put her hood up. Her sword was sheathed on her back, concealed by the cloak. She opened the door of her chamber as quietly as possible and looked to the left and the right. She saw no one and closed the door behind her and walked down the hall to her left. She heard a guard approaching and concealed herself inside an alcove as he passed by, and silently moved forward when his back was turned.
She made it to the door of the castle and slipped out behind the guards. The courtyard was lit up by the light of the full moon and she ran to hide in the stable just by the east gate when she was startled by a man’s voice before she went in.
“Hey, who goes there?” She turned around and saw two guards, one of them little more than an arm’s length away from her. Both men were armed with swords, which they held in their hands and daggers, which were in their sheaths at their sides. When they saw her face, both men lowered their weapons from their offensive positions. “Well well well. Look who’s here to visit us.” Ariana narrowed her eyes.
“You will show me proper respect, sir,” she said indignantly. “I am a lady.”
“Of course you’re a lady,” the other guard said, leering at her. “But what sort? Pretty, I will give you that.” The first guard moved behind her and Ariana flexed her fingers.
“I am no lady to trifle with, I can promise you,” Ariana said. “But I am a lady. I will give you a chance to walk away now and leave me in peace.” Both guards laughed.
“Real ladies don’t wander outside the castle after dark,” the first guard said, softly taking a strand of her hair between his fingers. “But don’t worry, we don’t mind.” Almost in an instant, Ariana reached behind her, grabbed the guard’s dagger and was behind him, holding his own dagger at his throat. The guard dropped his sword and the other just stared in bewilderment.
“You underestimate me,” Ariana said, menacingly. “Big mistake. You there,” she addressed the other guard. “Drop your sword.” He looked at his companion still being held hostage by Ariana.
“Do as she says,” the first guard said. The second guard slowly put down his sword.
“Good,” Ariana said. She took the dagger from the guard’s throat, placed her foot on his back and shoved him into the other guard. While the two guards were scrambling together, Ariana took the dagger in her left hand and pulled out her own sword with the right. She held both weapons at the ready and glared at the two men, daring them to challenge her. Both guards took up their swords and charged at her, one from the left and one from the right. She kicked the one on her right soundly in the chest, causing him to stagger back and immediately dodged the swing of the left attacker. She rammed him in the abdomen with the hilt of her sword, only to crouch out of the way when the right attacker came back, slicing him in the knee. He roared in pain and fell to his knees.
“Shall I call reinforcements?” The other guard asked, hesitating to attack Ariana who was at the ready once again.
“For help defeating a woman?” The injured guard said angrily. “We’d be laughed out of the guard.”
“I’m really sorry you two aren’t more of a challenge,” Ariana said jeeringly. “His majesty ought to have better protection for his castle.” The uninjured guard crossed swords with Ariana, taking out his own dagger.
“Stop!” Another voice said. All three of them looked up and Corin stood there, bow at the ready. “What is going on here?”
“These men tried to attack me,” Ariana told him. “I warned them not to cross me, but they didn’t listen.”
“This woman is crazy,” One of the guards told Corin.
“This woman is a lady,” Corin said with a hint of malice in his voice. “Do you dare to attack a lady?”
“A proper lady don’t go outside the castle alone after dark.”
“What she chooses to do is her own business,” Corin said. “You’ve no right to behave in such a way. I give you the chance to walk away now. If you refuse, you shall have an arrow in your heart. You ignored a warning once tonight. I’d advise you not to do it again.” The guards looked at one another to determine whether it was worth a fight. They decided it was not and hurried away, furtively glancing at Corin as they passed. Ariana returned her sword to its hiding place. “Ariana, what are you doing out here?”
“I needed to speak to you privately,” Ariana replied. “I need to warn you that you and my sister need to show a little more discretion when you are in public.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Corin asked her.
“It means we are being carefully watched,” Ariana replied. “There is nothing going on that is safe from the king’s ears. Particularly regarding my sister. I believe he has designs on Lenora. I don’t know what his intentions are, but he has been keeping a very close watch on her today. I assure you, nothing you say to her is secret from the king. No look, no word—already he is suspicious. You cannot let your guard down for a moment while we are here. When we are safe back in Aelbridge, things can go on as before. But this place is much more dangerous than home, and the king is much more observant than our father.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Corin told her. “You only see all our signs because you know us both so well.”
“No, Corin,” Ariana said. “You must trust me. You cannot show too much discretion while you are here. You are risking your own life. And if you lose your life, Lenora will be destroyed. So you must show more care, for both your sakes. And for mine. For you know you are my best friend, and I can’t bear for anything to happen to either of you. Therefore you must promise me that you will show more caution.”
“You are right,” Corin said. “We cannot show too much caution. I promise I will be more careful.”