Nessa panicked. The leather straps to attach armor to armor crumbled in her fingers; they had rotted. She would not be able to get the armor to work if she couldn’t join the pieces.
Around her, the tent city remained quiet. No one else had risen. They probably slept off their food and drink from the previous night’s festivities. They did not have the same challenges to deal with as Nessa.
She sat back on her heels, thinking, trying to come up with some solution.
She grasped the first thing at hand.
Her red and burgundy dress.
Within moments, she had the skirt torn to strips and was twisting and braiding them into cording. She’d need someone to tie the knots for her—Alosius’s job anyway—but they would have to do.
She started threading them through the old buckles and brackets, working as quickly as she could. As she fixed everything, making sure all the pieces would fit and join together, the camp awoke. The smell of roasting meats on spits, the sounds of laughter and grinding stones, and the sunlight streaming through the tent door combined to create a spirit of festival around Nessa.
Before long, a bleary-eyed Alosius stumbled into her tent. Clearly he had not fully recovered from the previous day’s journey and feast, but he had an expectant smile on his face.
“Ready?” Nessa asked.
He nodded, a little more enthusiastically, and they began.
Each piece had to be treated carefully, for no two joined to another piece from the same suit. The lengths of velvet and damask cording actually made the job easier, offering more options than the old leather straps would have.
By the time the first horn sounded, a warning to prepare for the review, Nessa was outfitted.
She did not want to see herself. “Thank the gods there’s no looking glass here,” she told her brother.
He had a hard time suppressing his laughter. Nessa could see enough of herself to know she looked a mess. Long tails of cording hanging down like bloody sinew already pulled from her body. The battered and beaten pieces of armor contrasting against her great-aunt’s armor, so carefully packed away for some long.
And worst of all… She looked at the helm on the cot, the only one Alosius could find that would cover her thick crown of braids around her head.
She mourned for the loss of her great-aunt’s helm. Where had it gone? Who had taken it? She had no idea. In its place she would have to wear this piece of dented, rusted metal. She doubted it would even do her much good.
Nevertheless, she hoisted it and placed it upon her head. Alosius picked up the banner of the House of Cold Spring, pride clearly painted across his face.
The second horn sounded.
“It’s time,” Bridget said as she pushed aside the tent flap to peer inside. She guffawed but then bit off any more laughter.
The three, accompanied by the four homeguard who had traveled with them from Cold Spring, headed toward the melee field and the stands.
Bridget showed herself to the king’s box while Alosius and Nessa fell in line with the other knights and their squires.
No one could possibly know who she was in this armor, but everyone still stared as if she were a freak. She didn’t blame them. No one else had such a mishmash of pieces.
The review began. Each knight approached the king’s box, issued his war cry, and took favors if offered by the ladies. From her place toward the back of the line, Nessa watched Bridget carefully, wondering if her sister would offer a favor to any of the knights.
After a few knights had passed the box, Bridget did grant her favor—the ribbon from the end of her braid—to a knight, a young man barely more than a squire. Nessa recognized the boy as one Bridget had danced with the night before.
Nessa shook her head. She’d have to look out for the boy during the melee. She didn’t want her sister embarrassed by picking a novice who’d become concussed in the first few swings of swords.
Finally Nessa’s turn came to approach the box. Alosius carried her banner proudly a few steps ahead of her. At the box, Nessa paused for a moment. Tension had her body as taut as a bowstring.
Every person in the box had a smile on his or her face, except Bridget; she shook her head slightly, and her cheeks blazed red.
Nessa took a deep breath, preparing to give her war cry.
She’d practiced this deep in the woods and no one, as far as she knew, had heard it.
Without thinking further, she opened her mouth and let it rise out of her.
The ululating sound evoked the cries of the predator in the woods. It echoed of things more sinister, more ancient than the wolf. The carnivores that stalked the night before man had tamed his little corners of the wilderness.
When she’d finished, she heard cheers from the knights behind her.
But most of those in the box still smiled, unimpressed.
Bridget leaned over and whispered something to the princess.
Immediately the princess’s eyes went big, and her smile slipped from her face.
Nessa had an idea what Bridget had said.
“Who is this knight coming under the banner of Cold Spring?” the king asked, barely hiding his laughter. “You wear no sigil and I do not recognize”—here he openly snickered—“your armor.”
Nessa steeled herself and removed her helmet. She had hoped this moment would come after the melee, but she saw no way to avoid it. The king had demanded to know her identity, and she could not disobey him.
Gasps came from the gathered knights and audience when she revealed herself.
The king’s face turned stormy. Nessa pursed her lips, ready for his wrath.
But Nessa saw the princess put a hand on her father’s forearm, and the man turned his head sharply to look at the girl.
Her eyes were large and liquid, pleading with him.
Instantly the king seemed to calm.
He looked back at Nessa. “Kneel, knight of Cold Spring,” he said, and the laughter was back.
Nessa, wary, did as he told her. She knelt and bowed her head. The king stood and raised his arms. He addressed the crowd. “I dub this knight the Motley Knight!”
The crowd roared with laughter, but the little princess furrowed her brow, clearly disturbed by the taunting.
Nessa ignored it; she would have her chance to fight. To her, that was all that mattered.
When the noise died down, the little princess spoke. “And she shall have my favor.”