The Lady’s Champion – Marie Lipscomb

NATALIE’S HEART still raced from the excitement, and considerable stress, of the day’s events. After twelve years of pleading, letters, and planning, the Grand Tourney had at last come to Blackmere. Aldland’s finest fighters were just a stone’s throw from the castle. Though she was back in her bed chamber, the scent of combat lingered in Natalie’s senses; the tang of sweat and adrenaline. The roar of the crowd still vibrated in her chest. Even while perched on the town’s walls, where she was forced to keep a respectable distance from the violence, the curses and mud, she could taste the battle. Jenny, the tavern’s landlady placed her hands on her hips, her dark blonde hair swaying just above her shoulders. “I swear, Lady Blackmere, if you get me into trouble…” Natalie, pressed her teeth into her lower lip and pulled the gown’s laces tighter against Jenny’s slender figure. “I won’t.” She could not hide her grin as she threaded the final eyelets on the bodice. “This is my castle anyway. Who are you going to be in trouble with?” Jenny sighed in defeat. “Well, what am I supposed to do all night?” “Whatever you want. The castle is yours for the evening.” “It’s awfully… dreary.

No wonder you’re so pale and pasty, hiding away up here all these years.” A huff of incredulous laughter burst from Natalie’s lips. “Thank you. That’s just what I needed to hear before I meet my heroes.” She pushed her auburn locks over her shoulders to keep them out of the way of the laces. Jenny turned her head. She pressed her lips together and cringed at her poor choice of words. “I only say it from a place of concern, Natalie. You were so bold and rosy-cheeked when you arrived at Blackmere all those years ago, and now—” “I know.” Natalie drew a steadying breath and offered her friend a reassuring smile.

The past twelve years had been hard. Raw grief had dulled to numbness, then complacency, and finally comfort. But now, it was time for her to break out from her self-inflicted prison. The champions had saved Aldland once, long ago. Perhaps they could save her spirit. “Anyway, there’s plenty to do tonight. You could read?” Natalie gestured to the bookshelves tucked in the corner of the room. There were tales of epic battles and brave heroes, mythical creatures and indomitable heroines. Their spines were battered and bent out of shape by multiple rereadings. “Is that what you do in here all day?” “Among other things.

” “Such as?” Natalie chewed her lip in the heavy silence. If she was honest about what she really did for fun, it would only result in teasing. She smiled to herself as she thought of the scraped and chipped stones concealed behind tapestries, the places where she had gotten carried away with the blunted, decorative swords which hung on the castle’s walls. With a tug, she knotted the laces at the small of Jenny’s back and stepped around the tavern landlady to admire her handy work. Against Jenny’s slight frame, the gown was loose and creased, and stopped four inches above her feet. The washed-out blue wool was cool against her pale skin, just as it was with Natalie’s, but the gentle pink of the setting sun glowed through the window, and cast soft light on the landlady’s rosy cheeks and freckles. Her blue eyes sparkled in the light. At the sight of her, a sense of longing overcame Natalie. She could not remember the last time she had stayed outside long enough for the sun to warm her skin. Lowering her eyes, Jenny stepped to the side, peering at her figure.

She looked every bit as stately as the lady of Blackmere Castle should. “By the Goddess, I look like a queen.” Natalie could not help but smile. She would gladly give Jenny the castle if it meant she could take off in the morning, concealed among the ranks of the champions, and live among them at the Guild. “You look beautiful.” “Why do we have to switch though? It’s completely normal for the nobles to meet the champions after a tourney. Just call them here.” “Someone has to stay here. If the castle looks empty, they’ll know something’s amiss. And if the champions come here and meet me as Lady Blackmere, they’ll be stiff and formal and dull.

I want to meet the real champions.” “Oh, you and your champions.” Jenny rolled her eyes, smoothing the folds of fabric over her slender figure. She looked around Natalie’s bed chamber, at the dark stone walls, fine—albeit dusty —tapestries, and the large, soft, canopied bed. The landlady smiled. “And what are you going to do while I’m locked away in a castle like a fairytale princess.” “Your job,” Natalie grinned. “I’ll serve drinks in the tavern.” Jenny cocked her eyebrow. “To the champions?” “Aye, if they’re thirsty.

” “Lady Blackmere!” Jenny laughed, rolling her eyes. “If the rumors are true, the champions are always thirsty.” Her racing heart pounded harder. “Oh, by the Goddess I can’t wait, Jenny. I’ve wanted to meet them for so long. I wrote to the Guild every year from the moment I became Lady Blackmere, begging them to come here. I want to hear their stories, and see their battle wounds.” “You’ve heard their stories. The troubadours sing of them constantly.” “But I want to hear it from them!” Jenny shook her head and gathered her own rumpled dress from the floor.

“I suppose it won’t be so bad. The feasts are over, and kitchens will have closed for the night by the time you get there. Just make sure you don’t wreck the place.” “You have so much faith in me, Jen. It’ll be fine.” The smile fell from Jenny’s lips as she took Natalie’s hands in her own. “You need to be careful though, a bonny woman like you. You might find the champions aren’t so willing to talk as they are to show you their prowess in other ways.” Her concern made Natalie’s heart squeeze. Jenny had been a good friend to her, ever since she had arrived at Blackmere.

Grief had not driven the landlady away as it had with so many others Natalie had once been close to. If anything, the solitude of the castle seemed to be a sanctuary after a long day running the tavern. “I’ll be careful. And if it comes to that, I’ll leave.” “And what? You’ll close the tavern for the night?” “Aye.” “And my staff?” “Will be compensated.” With a huff, Jenny held her own simple dress aloft, and dropped it over Natalie’s head. Lady Blackmere wiggled through the canopy of thin, taupe wool, pulling it over her figure. She winced at the tightness of the bodice. Her ample chest and full waist were packed into the pale wool, but she would manage.

The generous flare of the skirt barely skimmed over her thighs and stomach, and did not restrict her movement. Jenny screwed her face as Natalie rearranged her bosom. “I hope you weren’t planning to breathe tonight.” “I’m sure once I see the champions, I’ll be unable to anyway.” The landlady laughed as she rolled the sleeves above Natalie’s elbows. Unlike Natalie’s fine gown, fit for a noble, Jenny’s simple dress was designed to be laced at the front by the wearer. Natalie tugged at the laces, closing the dress as best she could and hoped she didn’t look too indecent. At least the white cotton smock she wore beneath gave her some semblance of coverage. “So, is there anyone in particular you fancy?” Jenny gave a sly grin. “A champion who caught your eye.

” Natalie scoffed. “I could barely see their faces. The chamberlain insisted it wouldn’t have been proper for me to sit close to the fighting. From what I saw, The Dragon fought well.” “Ah, yes, the Tourney’s victor,” Jenny smirked. “That chiseled jaw, the glistening muscles. I’m sure he’s a great conversationalist.” Natalie rolled her eyes as Jenny stepped behind her and began to fuss with her long, coppery hair. “Who would you pick?” “If I had the courage? Genevieve,” Jenny sighed. “The Thorn of the Rose.

” “Oh? She’s intense.” “Wonderfully so.” “Agreed,” Natalie laughed. “Are you sure you don’t mind me taking your place at the tavern? Wouldn’t you rather go to meet her?” Jenny dismissed her with a wave of her hand. “I’m glad of the night off. I know how much this means to you Natalie. I’m glad to see you getting out and meeting people. It’s been so long since—” Natalie’s throat clamped shut. Jenny seemed to detect her sudden discomfort, and adopted a brighter tone. “Anyway, you have to do it.

You’ve been pining after the champions since the day I met you and you missed most of the Tourney.” Natalie smiled and lowered her head. Her fingers fidgeted with the ends of the ribbon crisscrossing over her chest. “I did always dream of meeting Brandon—” Jenny snickered as she tugged and braided Natalie’s hair. “Brandon the Bear? The one in all the songs?” “He was Grand Tourney Victor for six years.” “Aye, but… the way he fought today…” Natalie would be bitter until the end of her days that her chamberlain had cornered her with her duties that morning. There had been disputes over farm borders to settle, funds to be allocated, letters to be sent to neighboring nobles—mostly apologies for not attending their events—and a seemingly endless list of repair work to be done to the castle. She had missed the melee, and barely made it in time to see the final round of the joust. Jenny shook her head and restarted the braid. “He was out almost as soon as it started.

He lost in the first round of the melee.” “He was unlucky.” “He’s not…” Jenny’s words faded behind a grimace as she placed Natalie’s sloppily plaited hair over her shoulder. “He’s not in the best shape, to put it kindly. His best days are behind him. People have taken to calling him Brandon the Boar.” “People can be cruel.” Natalie grimaced and looked out of the window, at the dwindling sunlight. “Besides, my interest in meeting him is purely out of respect for his prowess in the Tourney.” “Aye, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the songs they sing about the size of his weapon.

” Natalie’s cheeks tightened as she hid her grin behind a façade of outrage. “Stop it.” Jenny chuckled and placed a gentle kiss on Natalie’s shoulder as she squeezed the top of her arms. “Just try not to destroy my tavern, my lady.” Natalie smiled and leaned back into Jenny’s touch. “I’ll try.” Her eyes drifted to a small crack, gleaming silver in the corner of the window. Frustration tightened her jaw. There was always something which needed to be fixed. The crumbling pile of ancient stones was hers to fix.

Hers alone. She was isolated, a hundred miles from her mother and father, tasked with the responsibility of running Blackmere castle and the surrounding lands. Blackmere was a grim and dreary place compared to the castle she had grown up in. Caer Austwick’s white towers and legendary rose gardens had been her playground whilst growing up, but after the passing of her maternal grandfather, Blackmere became her home; their home. A home for Natalie and her newly wedded husband. A home to raise a family in. No one, least of all Natalie, had intended for her to live in Blackmere alone. She had to get out, even if just for one night. Away from the empty corridors and endless unused rooms. Natalie silenced her memories with a smile and turned to face Jenny.

“How do I look?” “Like a bonny barmaid about to burst from her ill-fitting frock.” “Perfect.” “L CHAPTER TWO ADY BLACKMERE?” Natalie closed her eyes and exhaled an exasperated breath as her name rattled through the air. Her fingertips rested against the keep’s heavy wooden doors, agonizingly close to freedom. Slow, shuffling footsteps drew near and quelled her excitement. Her shoulders slumped as she turned. “My dear chamberlain. You should go home for the evening. Enjoy the celebrations.” The elderly man hobbled towards her.

His silver eyebrows, stark against warm brown skin, knitted together as his clouding eyes scanned her lowly garb. In his mottled hands he carried an open ledger, its pages crinkled at the edges. A brown and black speckled quill, and a pot of black ink sat upon the pages. “I have a few things I need to discuss with you.” “Can’t it wait until tomorrow? We’ve both had an eventful day.” “It’s about the Tourney, my lady. I need to fill the account books. There are gaps.” Natalie let her fingers fall from the door handle. The chamberlain took his cue and began flipping through the pages of his ledger.

His breath rattled in his throat as his eyes scanned the entries. “Now…The Tourney.” He chuckled. “Oh Goddess, where do I begin?” Natalie forced a smile. Every moment she lingered was time she could spend speaking with the champions—or rather pining after them silently and overthinking what she could say to them. “Ah, yes.” The chamberlain peered down his nose. “The Tourney Victor’s prize money, and the Guild Master’s cut. You made no mention of it when we were accounting for the expenses, and I noticed there was rather a handsome sum of gold handed over.” Natalie’s stomach tightened at the mention of it.

She had not looked forward to the conversation. “It was my own money. The money my parents gave me.” His eyes flickered towards her. “Your dowry? My lady, your mother gave you that money in the event that you remarry…” A shrill ringing pierced her skull, muffling the chamberlain’s words. Heat crept along her spine. Her muscles tensed, demanding she throw open the door and bolt outside. “Chamberlain, please.” He snapped his jaw shut and pressed his lips into a thin line. “My lady?” “It was my money.

It was given to me to use if I ever chose to remarry. I have no intentions on using it for its intended purpose.” The old man’s eyes lowered as he moistened his lips with his tongue. “Very well, Lady Blackmere. I shall adjust the records of your personal account.” He scribbled a note in his ledger and peered down his nose at the pages. “Oh, and one other, rather urgent matter.” Natalie pressed her fingernails into the palm of her hand. “Yes?” “There have been reports of bandits spotted on the east road.” “Goodness, I hope somebody stops them.

” The chamberlain raised an eyebrow and cleared his throat. “The aforementioned portion of the east road falls under the jurisdiction of Blackmere—your jurisdiction.” Natalie’s smile tightened. A muscle beneath her eye began to dance. “Very well. Dispatch the guards.” “How many should I send?” She stared at the grey stone floor, her mind racing. “A lot of people will be travelling the roads after the celebrations tonight, many with coin in their pockets and ale clouding their minds. They’ll be easy targets, won’t they?” She took a deep breath and gave an assertive nod. “Send every guard we have.

” “All of them?” “Yes. Let’s get this dealt with as quickly as possible. I want my people safe.” “Very good, my lady. And how do you intend to pay the guards for the extra work? I do think it’s time we raised taxes.” Natalie’s eyes drifted across the hall as she searched for answers. The portrait of her mother and father stared back at her, their thin-lipped, disapproving faces watching her. “No. Take it out of my allowance.” A wave of satisfaction rolled over her as the chamberlain blinked in surprise, shrugged and made a note in his ledger.

She hid her grin behind a cough. “Will that be all?” “Yes, my lady, for now. I’ll dispatch the guard right away.” A soft chuckle escaped his lips. “The castle will be very empty tonight, but I’m sure all will be well. All the best fighters in the land are down the road in the tavern anyway.” Excitement speared her chest. “Indeed, they are. Goodnight, Chamberlain.” “Goodnight, my lady.

” He turned to shuffle away, before casting a final confused look at her appearance. “Might I ask where you are going?” Natalie turned on her heel and heaved open the heavy wooden doors. “Out. I’ll be back soon.” Pulling the door closed behind her, she hurried across the castle courtyard, wishing she had her fine grey wool shawl to wrap around her shoulders against the bitter late-autumn wind. The green hills of her land loomed beyond the castle walls, speckled with tiny white bleating dots. The guards were distracted, grumbling among themselves as they patrolled the castle walls. Blackmere’s flag, a ram’s head on a field of green, fluttered above the ramparts. A satisfied smile curved her lips as she reached the castle gate unhindered. The cobbled road sloped down beyond the strong wooden gates, surrounded by rows of houses and shops.

Natalie turned and glanced up at the keep. Jenny stood in the window of her chamber, looking as radiant as the Queen of Aldland herself. The landlady waved regally, blew a kiss down to Natalie, and scrunched her nose in amusement. With a grin, Natalie bowed low, and turned back to the gate, relaxed her shoulders, and began her journey to the tavern. Evidence of the Tourney met her at every corner; brightly colored bunting fluttered in the breeze above shop doorways, overly excited children chased each other through the streets with sticks, and the sweet scent of honey cakes baked for the spectators still lingered in the air. Natalie’s stomach growled its lament; she had not had the opportunity to taste one. As she passed the woodcarver’s workshop, she caught the soothing scent of sawdust. She cast her eyes over the wooden swords and horses made for children. A grin broke across her lips. As a girl she would have rioted if not permitted to get one, and some part of her still felt that desire.

“Can I help you?” the carver called from the back of his shop. He was a small man, not a day over thirty. His rounded face was dusted white with wood shavings. “I was just looking, thank you.” He wiped his hands on his dusty apron. “Did you watch the Tourney then?” “Some of it.” “Bunch of posers,” he griped. “Good day.” He tipped his hat and turned back to his whittling. She gave the back of his head a wry smile.

Without her finery, none of the townspeople recognized her as Lady Blackmere. To them, she was just another commoner, dressed in plain brown wool, her hair pulled back into a simple braid. The Knight’s Rest tavern sat in the shadow of the grey stone outer walls of the town. It was the first thing greeting weary travelers as they passed through Blackmere’s north gate. The sweet aroma of fresh hay wafted from the tavern’s stable. Natalie bade the stableman good evening as she passed. He squinted at her and wiped his sweaty brow on his arm before lifting the handles of a wooden cart packed with steaming manure. “Miss,” he greeted her with a nod. Her heart steadied a little. She was unknown to her subjects even just a few feet from her own castle, unlike her mother and father, who were omnipresent in Caer Austwick, always hosting some kind of event.

“Getting Natalie to talk to our guests at parties is like coaxing birds from the sky,” her father would sigh. She had no interest in their parties. Nobles were boring, stiff and conniving. Their company was like Westgarden silks; exceptionally fine, and more often than not, fake. She did not care to speak to them, and did not impress her company upon her own people. If the townspeople wanted to befriend her, she was willing, as she had been with Jenny, but she did not actively seek anyone’s company. The anticipation of conversation tended to curdle her gut.

.

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