The tournament had barely begun when two young men made their way to the tent for the wounded. The older, shorter and broader of the two, clad in mail and a muddy surcoat, had his arm under the shoulder of his companion, who was obviously a squire. The lad was unsteady on his feet, and he had a bloody nose.
“I’m sorry I made you fall, Sir Melvin,” the squire said mournfully. “If I hadn’t, maybe Lord Barengar --”
“Never mind, Alphonse,” the knight replied, his deep, rich voice full of compassion. “Could have happened to anybody. Been knocked down by a horse plenty of times myself and none the worse for it. I wouldn’t have lasted long anyway, so might as well have been captured by my cousin right at the start.”
“But now you’ll have to pay a ransom for your horse and --”
“I would have had to pay a ransom to somebody to get them back. In fact, you’ve done me a service. I was never going to best anyone, so the sooner I was out of the melee, the better, as far as I’m concerned. So let’s get that bloody nose seen to and say no more about it.”
Sir Melvin paused and looked around the inside of the tent where cots had been prepared for the injured. Most of them were empty at the moment, except for one where a young knight sat, pale and stiff-lipped, his shoulder obviously out of joint. A simply-dressed middle-aged man with an open medicinal chest on the table near him examined the injured man. Beside the physician stood a slender serving wench in plain gown and apron, her dark brown hair tied back in a long braid and she held a basket of bandages.
“Oh, dear heavens,” Melvin mumbled, swallowing hard and looking away.
The physician raised his head, saw Melvin and his squire, and gestured at a cot.
“Sit him there, sir knight,” he said before he went back to his task.
Melvin helped his squire to the nearest cot. Once Alphonse was safely seated, Melvin started to remove his helmet, which did not come off easily.
“Bother this cursed thing,” he muttered.
When he finally got it off, the lining tore, leaving bits of straw in his dark hair. Some also fell into his mouth and eyes, making him blink and splutter as he used the edge of his surcoat to wipe his sweaty face.
A yelp from the direction of the cot where the man with the dislocated shoulder lay made him wince, while Alphonse looked as sick as Melvin felt. Nevertheless Melvin put a smile on his face and clapped his hand on his squire’s shoulder.
“Buck up, lad!” he said, his jovial manner only somewhat strained. “Have to expect these things in a melee. People falling off horses or getting knocked off ‘em by a lance, and getting bashed about a bit. Nobody’s died, and that’s the main thing.”
“If only I’d stayed where you told me to, Sir Melvin --”
“My fault for not realizing you’d want to get a bit closer to see the fighting,” Melvin replied with a wave of his broad, gauntleted hand. “Did the same thing myself when I was a squire. Got stuck in a tree once, matter of fact. Easy enough getting up but thought I was going to have to fall out or spend the night in an oak. Damned embarrassing at the time. Nearly missed the whole feast before I figured out how to get down.”
“Is it just a bloody nose, or has your squire other injuries?”
At the sound of the woman’s voice, Melvin turned and immediately encountered the loveliest hazel eyes fringed with long dark lashes that he had ever seen.
Melvin rarely spoke to young women, for they usually either ignored or laughed at him, even serving maids. However this young woman, clad in a plain gown and soiled apron, and her veil was linen, did neither. She stood still, silently and gravely regarding him with her beautiful eyes.
“Sir?” she said, glancing from Melvin’s flushed face to Alphonse.
“I-I, that is, Alphonse here,” Melvin stammered. He took a deep, steadying breath and commanded himself to get control of himself and stop blushing like a boy. After all, she was only a servant and apart from her eyes, wasn’t even really pretty. Her mouth was a little wide and her nose a little long. “His, um, his nose is bleeding. Well, you can see that for yourself, I suppose. Messy, isn’t it? Poor lad got knocked over by my horse and his nose started bleeding and I thought he ought to be seen to, so I brought him here.”
“I see that it’s stopped,” the young woman noted, smiling a little, but her eyes held sympathy and her tone was not unkind.
“It’s all my fault,” the squire woefully explained. “I stepped in front of his horse. I should have been paying more attention. Then Sir Melvin dismounted to help me and he got knocked down, too, and his horse and arms taken.”
The serving wench turned her attention to Melvin. “Are you hurt?”
“Me? Oh, bless you, no,” he replied. Now that the first wave of bashfulness had passed, he felt on firmer ground. “Head as hard as a rock, or so my late father always claimed. Melvin, you have a head of stone, he’d say! Well, that’s not exactly the same thing, I suppose, but still, hard headed and right as rain despite the odd blow from a horse or otherwise now and then.”
Melvin realized he was rambling and shut his mouth with a snap.
“Now he’s out of the melee, thanks to me, and he’ll have to pay ransom for his horse and arms,” Alphonse noted with dismay.
Melvin hastened to assure the serving woman with the beautiful eyes that he didn’t care because, in fact, he didn’t. “No trouble there. I expected to have to lose at least my horse anyway. It’s only my second melee and I’ve never been good at this sort of thing, riding and jousting and sword fights.”
He immediately regretted announcing his incompetence and cringed.
But then lo – a miracle! The young woman smiled, a smile as beautiful as her eyes, and all the more so because she wasn’t laughing at him or mocking him. “You seem to lose with good grace, sir knight.”
“I’m Melvin. Sir Melvin de Courcellet. And you are?”
She didn’t get a chance to answer before two servants bearing a litter and a man moaning, his leg at a rather odd angle, hurried into the tent.
“If you’ll excuse me,” the young woman said, rushing to join the physician as the new patient was gently moved onto a cot.
“My nose is all right now, so we can go,” Alphonse said, clearly not eager to remain.
Melvin forced his attention away from the young woman. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. We’d only be in the way here.”
Nevertheless, and in spite of his words, he wasn’t in any rush to go. “You run along, Alphonse and change your tunic. I might be of some help here.”
“Are you sure, Sir Melvin?”
“Perfectly. Run along and change. Come fetch me in time to wash before the feast.”
As Alphonse started toward the door, he looked back at Sir Melvin, who was watching the young woman and the physician.
Until the physician set the broken bone and the wounded man screeched. Then Sir Melvin crumpled like an undermined tower.
“You’re in the tent for the wounded,” a familiar female voice replied.
He turned his head and sure enough, there was the serving wench with the lovely eyes sitting beside him, regarding him with a little smile playing about her full lips. He also realized there were several more wounded men in the tent with them, some lying on the cots, others sitting, most with bandages around their limbs or heads.
Oh, God. He remembered now. The man with the broken leg. The sound of the bone crunching. The screech. He’d swooned. And now this calm, competent young woman would know what a shameful coward he was.
He had to get out of there.
“Sorry to be a nuisance,” he said, starting to sit up. Only then did he realize he wasn’t wearing either his surcoat or his chainmail. He looked at her questioningly while patting his chest as if searching for them beneath his padded gambeson.
“Your squire helped us remove your surcoat and mail when you swooned,” she replied.
“Alphonse?” Fool. Who else would it be? “Oh, I see. Of course.” He swung his legs over the side of the cot away from her. That way, his back was to her and she wouldn’t see how ashamed he was. “I’ll be going then.”
“If you’re sure you’re up to it.”
“Certainly. Just a bit woozy. Nothing serious. Best free up the cot for someone who really needs it,” Melvin replied. He hoisted himself to his feet. “Sorry to be a nuisance when you’ve got such a lot to do.”
“Oh, you weren’t much trouble,” she said. “I wish all the men who needed help would be so easy to assist, and so kind to their squires.”
She sounded so kind-hearted and sincere, he risked facing her. Remarkably, she was still smiling and there was no mockery in her expression.
The blood rushed to his face and for once, he couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“Good God, Melvin, what the devil are you doing here?”
At the sound of his cousin’s voice, Melvin closed his eyes and silently uttered a curse at the unfairness of life.
Sure enough, Melvin’s cousin Barengar was standing at the entrance to the tent, all six feet of him, with his handsome face and broad shoulders and that smile that made women flock to him like ducklings after their mother.
Not surprisingly, the young serving woman was also looking at Barengar. And now he would be forgotten.
“Who is this little flower among the wounded?” Barengar asked, running a measuring and predatory gaze over the young woman.
Instead of answering Barengar, she turned back to Melvin, her brows furrowed with what looked like...displeasure? “Do you know that man?” she asked.
“I’m Lord Barengar de Morraine,” Barengar declared, strolling forward as if this was his hall and everything in it belonged to him, including the young woman.
Not if I can help it, Melvin thought with sudden determination. “She’s assisting the physician,” he said, taking hold of his cousin’s elbow and steering him toward the opening of the tent. “Come on, coz. I have to pay you the ransom for my horse and things. I should do that before the feast, don’t you think? Don’t want to forget.”
Barengar pulled his arm free. “There’s some time yet before the feast and I’ll make certain you don’t forget,” his cousin replied. He gave the young woman one of his charming smiles. “So, my pretty, what’s your name?”
She drew herself up and regarded Barengar as if he was a worm. “I am the Lady Viola de Landbourgh, the niece of Lord Percival, your host.”
Barengar’s stunned expression would have been funny if Melvin hadn’t been just as shocked.
“Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I must help Royden with the wounded,” she said before swiftly returning to the physician who was bandaging the gash on a man’s chin.
“God’s wounds, how were we to know she’s a nobleman’s niece when she dresses like a serving wench?” Barengar demanded of his cousin.
Who was no longer there.
"Viola! There you are and about time, too!” Lady Anne declared as Viola hurried into her bedchamber to dress for the feast that evening.
Her Aunt Anne was always well and expensively attired, and never more so than when they were hosting a tournament. Today she wore a gown of deep green wool with a belt of soft leather wrapped twice around her narrow waist. Covering her graying hair she wore an embroidered cap over a short veil and a barbette around her chin. The ruched sleeves of her shift were visible inside the wide cuffs of the gown, and tassels at the end of the belt reached nearly to the floor. Two maidservants stood mutely by the window waiting to help Viola dress.
“Look at you!” her aunt continued with dismay. “What are you thinking, going about in that servant’s garb? Anybody who saw you would think you were a servant!”
“You’d be more upset if I got blood on one of my better gowns,” Viola calmly and truthfully noted. She was used to her aunt’s overly emotional declarations and she really was sure her aunt would be upset if she got blood on any of her other gowns.
“You shouldn’t even be in that tent!” Lady Anne went on, her hands fluttering nervously. “A lady like you dealing with wounded men and blood. It’s not seemly! I shouldn’t allow it! Next time I won’t! If there is a next time and you’re not already married, as you should be. Look at you – twenty and still a spinster! People are talking, I’m sure of it!”
Viola paid little heed to her aunt’s anxious declarations as she washed her face and hands. Lady Anne has been voicing the same complaints and making the same threats for years now.
This time, though, Viola had a response prepared. “I meet some of the men participating in the tournament in that tent. For instance, today I met Lord Barengar de Morraine.”
Her aunt gasped and clasped her hands in a prayerful attitude, her eyes widening with delight. “Lord Barengar de Morraine? He’s the most eligible knight here!” Her delight died in a moment. “And you were wearing those rags!”
“He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to my gown,” Viola noted, although that wasn’t exactly true. Her dress had no doubt been the reason he’d assumed she was a servant and treated her with such disrespect.
Unlike his cousin, that other young man with the kind eyes and lovely deep voice who blushed so readily and who was so concerned about his squire. As for swooning, Sir Melvin wasn’t the only man who was disturbed by broken bones and blood. If only more noblemen were! And if only more were less like his arrogant, leering cousin.
“What did Lord Barengar say to you? Does he know who you are?”
“He introduced himself and yes, Aunt, I made certain he knows who I am.”
Not in a way to encourage his attentions, but Lady Anne didn’t need to know that.
Her aunt clapped her hands with sudden decision. “Mary, Alice,” she said to the serving maids, “you must do your absolute best tonight! Thank goodness we had that new gown made. You must wear your emeralds, too, Viola. And for the love of all that’s holy and your hope of a good match, do not treat Lord Barengar like a dolt. You have to be sweet and docile if you’re to get a husband.”
“Yes, Aunt,” Viola replied, pretending to be sweet and docile. That was easy enough to do with Aunt Anne. Unfortunately, she found it almost impossible when she was among noblemen.
She would rather spend her life unmarried than wed to someone like Lord Barengar de Morraine. She had her aunt’s own unhappy marriage to serve as a warning about a union made for power or gain or social standing.
“Come along, Viola, get out of those horrid clothes,” her aunt ordered. “I leave her in your hands, Mary. I must see about changing the seating arrangements. Lord Barengar – what a triumph such a match would be!” she cried as she hurried from the room.
What a disaster it would be, Viola thought as she submitted to the maidservants. Nor was she anxious to sit near the man for the feast.
She’d much rather sit beside his bashful cousin.
Note: This novella is PG13. With the exception of GWYNETH AND THE THIEF and THE WASTREL, MM's books are usually steamier.