Queen Eleanore regarded the two knights recommended by her Master at Arms with her usual regal disdain, but inwardly she worried. She had few choices, and none appealed. Least appealing of all was marriage to the power hungry oaf who ruled the neighbouring kingdom.
But a year of war had exacted a heavy price, and she cared deeply for her people. Her father’s sense of duty ran in her veins. She would do what she must to secure peace, and a battle of champions would end the bloodshed.
“Sir Tauthe of Denham, why should I choose you as my champion?”
Tauthe returned her gaze with a bold look of his own. Eleanore schooled her features into well-practised blankness. She liked curly hair on a man and he wore his well, complementing a strong jaw and bright, clean armour.
“As your majesty knows I am unbeaten at the joust. My sword training was undertaken with the great Dirke of Greenhill, and I have proved myself in battle. It would be the greatest honour to defend this land as your champion.” He bowed low, one hand on the pommel of his sword. “My life and my sword are yours.”
Eleanore nodded and turned to the other knight. His bowed head revealed silver scattered among dark, cropped hair. His armour, though of fine quality, was marred by a scratched crest and dented breastplate. This was how he presented himself to his monarch?
She didn’t miss Tauthe’s sideways glance.
“Sir Gerann of Bree.” She looked him up and down, cool and distant. “Why should I choose you as my champion?”
Gerann raised his head. His left cheek bore a long thin scar, and another ran vertically on his scalp to a damaged right ear. Eleanore blinked at the fire in his eyes and he dropped his gaze immediately.
“If it please your majesty, I would give my heart and soul willingly for our land.” He drew his sword bright and unmarked from its battered scabbard, then knelt and offered it to her with both hands.
Eleanore weighed the confident ease of a man unbeaten in battle against the scarcely older but shabby, combat-scarred veteran. She had to choose the right one if she hoped to keep control of her throne and her life.
The queen took a breath. A silent prayer, and she nodded at Gerann. Master at Arms wore the ghost of a smile as he brought her pennant forward.
Eleanore needed a man prepared to get close enough to risk injury, and tough enough to fight on despite it. She trusted Gerann would fight to his last breath. And if he lost, they would each accept their fate with honour.
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