The Champion’s Desire – Marie Lipscomb

FOR CENTURIES, the champions protected the people of Aldland from their foes. Anyone who could prove their strength and courage could join the order and be remembered throughout history as a guardian of the people. To join their ranks was an honor. As the world changed, so did the Guild, and with peace came new purpose. Instead of protection, they dedicated their lives to entertainment. But even when Aldland was at peace, the hearts of men were rarely as tranquil. After travelling the land and returning each time to find their castle was overrun by thieves and brigands, the champions decided they needed a leader. Thus, the position of Guild Master was forged. Under the watchful eye of the strongest and wisest champion of them all, the Champion’s Guild flourished. The leader’s purpose was to remain within the keep, mold the champions into legends, and arrange their events. Built upon a foundation of tradition and honor, the Champion’s Guild remained a respected order, reminding all who witnessed them, that anyone with strength, courage, and determination, might someday become a champion. CHAPTER ONE THE CLATTER of galloping hoofbeats stilled Natalie’s heart. Her feet pounded the floorboards as she hurried across the room and peered from the window, hope and fear battling for dominance. A rider thundered along the road towards her; a messenger, dressed in red. Brandon was late, and daylight was fading fast.

“Oh, Goddess no.” She held her breath, willing him to keep riding. Whatever message he carried had clearly come with the instruction not to spare the horse. If it was from Brandon, it was not good news. Mercifully, the messenger passed below the window in a flurry of chestnut and flowing crimson, a cloud of dust billowing in his wake as he sped up the road. Natalie found herself able to breathe again. Hours earlier she might have entertained herself by attempting to guess where the rider was going and what tidings he brought, but she was only capable of dark thoughts now. She wrapped her arms around herself and fought off a shiver. “Where are you?” Her question rode on a puff of vapor, out into the rosy-skied evening. Closing the window, she turned back to the room.

After a month of fruitless searching, shivering through the night in wet clothes and drafty tents, foraging for meagre meals, the small, simple room in the roadside inn was practically palatial. Brandon’s armor gleamed in the corner of the room, laid out so Natalie could learn the names of all the pieces. Eager to excel at her new role as squire, she had polished and re-polished it that morning until her arm ached and he had teased that she would wear through the steel. How she wished he had worn it when he rode out to meet the other champions who were joining their hunting party. Their quarry was one of their own, Henry Percille, the Dragon, the champion who had organized the bandit attack on Blackmere and fled before his secret was discovered. There had been no sign of Henry since, but even so, Natalie worried. Every clatter of hoofbeats, every raised voice coming from the bar below, spiked her pulse. Skilled, vicious, and fueled by ambition, Henry Percille was as dangerous as he was cunning. As Natalie set about straightening the worn grey bed sheets for what might well have been the twentieth time, a sharp knock on the door turned her lungs to iron. She bolted across the room and flung open the door.

“He’s not back yet then?” Genevieve asked in lieu of a greeting. Natalie shook her head. The champion’s expression remained neutral as she gave a casual one-shouldered shrug. “The Bear never does anything quickly.” Natalie stepped aside to allow Genevieve into the room and closed the door behind her. The champion strode towards the bed, her boots thumping on the wooden boards. She peered down her nose at the sheets, as though assessing whether they were clean enough for her to sit. “I hate this inn.” Natalie fought back a grin. “Not as nice as Blackmere’s tavern, is it?” “No.

No it isn’t.” Since the day they had set off from Blackmere, Genevieve’s temper had grown sourer and sourer. Natalie knew the cause. She knew why the champion’s sullen gaze drifted to the east whenever she thought no one was looking, and why her expression hardened at the end of every unproductive day. Genevieve, the indomitable warrior known in the arena as the Thorn of The Rose, was in love, and the woman she longed to be with was more than one hundred miles away; a barmaid, working in the tavern in distant Blackmere. Compared to Genevieve’s heartache, Natalie’s anguish at being away from Brandon for a day seemed pitiful. The bed squawked as Genevieve sat upon it. “I need help writing Jenny a letter.” She braced her elbows on her thighs and let her hands dangle between her knees “I want to tell her we’re still searching for Henry but have found nothing, and that I think about her every day. I don’t want her to think I’ve forgotten her.

” Natalie could not help but smile. “I don’t think you need to worry about that, but I’ll help write it.” Genevieve buried her face in her hands and released a weary breath. When she raised her head again, her eyes were glazed. “Do not tell anyone.” “Of course. Your heart’s icy reputation is safe with me.” The champion narrowed her eyes. “I’m serious. When the other champions arrive, you can’t mention it, and you mustn’t let them see you and Brandon together.

Don’t even let them suspect. If the Guild finds out about Jenny and I, or you and Brandon…There’s a lot at stake. Sex is fine… encouraged, even, but only outside the Guild. Relationships are forbidden. They want us focused on the fight, on training, not our hearts.” “Viv, it’ll be fine. Brandon’s warned me a hundred times already.” Natalie sat on the bed beside the champion. Her heart fluttered as she caught Brandon’s scent tangled amongst the bed sheets. She glanced back towards the window, to the darkening evening sky.

“Goddess, I hope he’s safe.” “The Bear’s a big boy, he can look after himself. Besides, Henry will be miles away, fleeing for his life after all he did.” Genevieve rolled her eyes and leaned back on her hands. “Don’t fret. Darius is among the champions that the Bear is meeting, so most likely they’re wrestling on a roadside, or drunk… or drunk and wrestling.” Natalie chuckled and fidgeted with the ram’s head brooch on the collar of her dark green padded gambeson. Being away from Blackmere was both a blessing and a constant source of anguish. The brooch was a persistent reminder that her time with the champions was only temporary. “I hope so.

I can’t wait to meet them.” An awkward hum sounded at the back of Genevieve’s throat. “Just try not to act like a noble around the other champions.” “How can I—?” The slow, steady rhythm of walking horses silenced Natalie. She pressed her lips together, suppressing the urge to run to the window. Every hoofbeat coiled a spring inside her, winding tighter, until she felt as though her excitement would burst and send her leaping through the inn’s roof. Genevieve’s eyes bore into her, a single eyebrow cocked in mock despair. “You want to see if that’s him, don’t you?” Natalie released a strained breath and swallowed. “Not at all. I’m sure it’s nothing.

” “You’re a terrible liar.” “I had you believing I was a barmaid, didn’t I?” “Not for a moment.” Genevieve laughed and shook her head. “You were far too haughty. Rest your noble bottom, my sweet, delicate lady. I’ll check the window.” The champion stood, casually stretched her long, muscular limbs, and sauntered towards the window. Every step was torturously slow. She threw a grin over her shoulder, enjoying every second of Natalie’s squirming. Finally, Genevieve reached the far side of the room.

“Ah-ha.” Natalie sat tall. “It’s him?” “Oh, forgive me, I was looking at my reflection in the glass. I thought I had something in my teeth…” “Viv.” “…I didn’t though.” “You’re terrible.” Natalie stood and craned her neck to peer at the road below. Genevieve turned, blocking the little window with her broad, well-built shoulders and gripped Natalie by her upper arms. “Do you want me to check your teeth?” The champion teased as the hoofbeats grew louder and came to a halt on the road beneath them. “It’s him, isn’t it?” “Perhaps,” Genevieve shrugged.

“There is a big hairy man out there, riding a big grey horse.” Natalie’s heart fluttered against her ribs, and her stomach flopped like a landed fish. She stood straight, checked the fastenings on her gambeson and brushed the seat of her trousers. “I’m nervous. Goddess, why am I nervous?” “Because you are a fool, and you’re in love, which is why I’m worried.” Genevieve smiled and picked an invisible spot of dirt from Natalie’s coat. “Before you go running down there and throw yourself into his embrace, remember what I said.” “I won’t let them know we’re together. It’s alright. Stop worrying.

” “Don’t even let them suspect it.” The champion’s face hardened, and any trace of amusement vanished. “His family depends on it.” Genevieve’s words were anchored in the back of Natalie’s mind as she made her way through the top floor of the inn. One false move could have him banished from the Guild, and people would suffer. His mother was afflicted with back pain so severe and constant, that for years she had been unable to work, and his father was nearing seventy years of age. Brandon’s salary and any prize money he received were sent directly to them, to pay for healers, medicine to relieve the pain, their noble’s tax, and the cost of food and housing. Losing his position at the Guild would mean Brandon could no longer support his family. Natalie side-eyed one of the bedroom doors as she passed. It had been reserved for her, though she had barely set foot in it since their arrival the day before.

She wiped her sweating palms against her hips and ran over the formal greeting she had prepared. “Well met, Sir Brandon.” As far as the other champions knew, she was simply aiding them in their quest to track down Henry and squiring to repay Brandon for his services to Blackmere. At the top of the wooden staircase she heard Brandon’s deep, thundering laughter cutting through the humming chatter below. She stood for a moment and closed her eyes as her heart skipped along her ribs. “Well met, Sir Brandon. Well met, Sir Brandon.” She whispered the greeting like an incantation, cementing it in her memory. The formality was paramount. Too informal and the champions may suspect their relationship.

“Any news regarding our quarry?” The heat of a deep pink blush crawled up her neck as she forced a slow breath. Lightly curling her fingers around the stair rail, she ventured down one of the steps. Her soft leather boots padded upon the wood. “Well met, Sir Brandon. Greetings, Sir Brandon? No… well met.” Candlelight flickered above her head as she passed, casting a squat flickering shadow across the stairs. Brandon’s laughter spurred her heart into a gallop as it rumbled from below, accompanied by raised, excited voices. The voices of champions. Natalie’s head spun. All her life she dreamed of meeting those heroes, renowned across Aldland for their prowess in battle and their beauty.

Now she was to live among them, and work alongside them, for an entire year. Even though their task was less than pleasant, she could not suppress her excitement. A giddy smile spread across her lips as she reached the bottom of the stairs, and stepped into the dense swarm of tavern patrons, crammed into the tiny bar. “Pardon me. Pardon me!” She grimaced as she wedged herself between two chattering men and began picking her way through the crowd. “Excuse me, sirs.” The air was thick with conversation and the sour reek of ale and sweat. Warm bodies pressed against her, unyielding to her requests to pass. She squeezed through, holding her breath as she passed beneath clouds of curling blue pipe smoke. By the time she reached the center of the crowd, she was exhausted, and there was still no sign of Brandon.

She stood on her tiptoes and craned her neck to find him, wondering how it was possible to lose a man so large. “Can I help you find someone, my lady?” Her heart leapt, and her breath froze at the sound of his voice. Every word fluttered against the back of her neck, sparking a fire in the pit of her belly. She whirred around to face him. His dark eyes widened a little, as though he sensed her desire to fall into his arms, and the danger they faced if she gave in to her urge. Instead she offered him a friendly smile. Brandon towered above everyone else and took up so much space with his broad frame that the air around him seemed clearer than the rest of the inn. No matter how many times she saw him she would always be in awe of his strength, the raw, brutal power of his arms, and the tenderness with which he held her when they were alone. As Natalie composed herself, the lines around his eyes deepened, and a gentle smile curled beneath the shadow of his thick, silver-flecked beard. “Well…uh… well met, Sir Brandon.

” She felt as though she was glowing when she looked at him, all strength and softness, a hardened exterior disguising a gentle heart. “How was your ride?” “Too long.” He took a step closer and lowered his head towards her. A thrill coursed through her at his familiarity. His eyes drifted down towards her lips, as though he could barely contain his desire to kiss her. Heat crept across her cheeks. “You must be pleased to be back.” “Aye.” His eyes trailed across her face. “I can’t wait to be back in bed.

” She sank her teeth into her lower lip to suppress her grin. His voice was deep and dark and full of promise. This flirtation was a dangerous game to play. “But first, I have friends for you to meet,” he said at last, hooking his arm around her shoulders. The companionable gesture snapped her from his spell. They made their way across the tavern as people parted to let them pass. Every pair of eyes was drawn towards Brandon, trailing up and down his body as though they could not quite believe his size. A few people turned to whisper to their companions, but no one said anything directly to him. No one would dare. Though those who knew him knew he was kind and gentle, Brandon looked intimidating.

He was a hulking mass of scar and muscle, renowned all over the land for his fighting skill. His glory days in the Tourney were years behind him, but word of his brave defense of Blackmere seemed to ride ahead of them wherever they went. An ache rolled through Natalie’s body as she pressed her side against him. She longed to steal him away, even if just for a moment. She was burning up as they reached the far corner of the tavern. “There he is!” A man held out his arm to Brandon and clapped him on the back, pulling him into the fray. He was young and strikingly handsome, with warm brown skin, long, black dreadlocks, and kind, dark eyes which sparkled with excitement as he talked. “We thought you were lost forever.” Natalie’s heart swelled as she looked around the small gathering. There was no denying they were champions.

It was obvious from their stunning appearance, strong physiques, and the confidence with which they carried themselves. They were chosen because they were as beautiful as they were brutal. “I hope you didn’t miss me too much, Darius.” Brandon’s cheeks grew round as he gestured towards Natalie. “May I introduce you to Natalie, my new squire.” “A squire?” Darius’s eyes lit up. “You have a squire this year? Goddess, you must be taking it seriously.” “Darius?” Natalie’s breath hitched as she held out her hand. “You’re the Storm, aren’t you?” “Why, yes I—” The smile dropped from the man’s lips. His eyes narrowed as they fixed on the brooch at her throat, a glare so fleeting Natalie might have missed it were she not hanging on his response.

Her pulse fluttered anxiously as he stiffened and tucked his arm behind his back. “Lady Blackmere.” The slight was so subtle that Brandon did not notice. He gestured to a young woman, whose pale white skin, prematurely silver hair, and slender, muscular frame made her seem as though she was a statue carved from ice. “This is Sara.” Natalie bowed her head, restraining her enthusiasm. She knew the young woman as the Snow Fox. Both she and Darius were fresh out of their debut season and riding high on a wave of expectation. They had not qualified for the Grand Tourney held that year at Blackmere, but hopes were high for the following year. Sara’s features hardened as she looked down at Natalie.

“Brandon told us about what happened at Blackmere.” “Oh,” Natalie felt herself redden. She wondered how much Brandon had told them. Her stomach coiled at the thought that they might know about her deceit, and her failure to prevent the attack. “Yes, it was truly terrible. I’m so sorry for what happened.” Darius raked his eyes across her face, leaving behind a trail of blazing heat. “We lost good people.” Shame weighed heavy in Natalie’s chest as she searched for something to say. It was her carelessness which had led to the deaths of champions and squires.

Among the list of the dead was Robert Trevaryn, a man beloved by Brandon, his best friend. His death still stung. There had been many nights she noticed Brandon staring into the flames of their campfire, his dark eyes glazed with unspilled tears. Now the eyes of all the champions were on her, burning into her, as though they could see the weakness of her heart, and the stain of death on her soul. “Aye, it was a tragedy.” Brandon’s voice came as a relief. His arm brushed against Natalie’s elbow as he shifted his weight, grounding her once more. “I’ll introduce you to everyone else later, when it’s less noisy. What say we share a drink?” “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Darius’s wide smile spread across his face. His eyes creased into a grateful smile as he turned his back on Brandon and Natalie, and his dreadlocks swung behind him like a pendulum.

“I’ll find somewhere to sit and you get them in.”

.

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