The next morning, Lord Gareth waited by the front door until I finally made my departure for the day. He spoke with me as though we had no intense discussions the previous day. He was very congenial, very courteous—very fake. But I easily escaped him once I reached the stable. My horse was already saddled and ready to go. He impatiently barked for a servant to gear up his horse, and by the time the servant arrived, all that remained of my presence was the dust kicked up by Ruby’s feet.
I spent most of the morning just lying in the meadow and staring at the sky, which made Ruby so bored that she often nipped at my hair. I simply wanted to forget about the mess at home and relax. I could not succeed in my battle against the unwelcome guest with distress clouding my mind. After a few minutes, I closed my eyes and drifted off under the warm gaze of the sun.
A loud, sharp sound made me jump. My eyes shot open, and I saw Sir Jerod’s face hovering overhead. His hand was clamped over his mouth as his eyes laughed. “I apologize, m’lady,” he said, his voice quivering with a suppressed laugh. “I thought I might wake you before you receive a permanent blush.”
I slowly rose and stared at him, unsure of his meaning.
He nervously added, “You are fair-skinned, m’lady. Too much sun might burn you.”
I felt my face, which did feel a little hot. But I wanted to ease his concern. I grinned and said, “With any luck, I will sprout freckles.”
He grinned and held out his hand. “You do not want freckles, m’lady, believe me.”
I took his hand, and he helped me stand. “You mean I would be less attractive with freckles?” I quickly added with a laugh, “It is only a joke, I only mean to tease you. I would never think you so unkind.”
His eyes wrinkled with amusement as he pulled me to my feet. When I stood balanced, we were only within inches of each other. I could smell the physical efforts of his morning chores, but rather than rank, it smelled comforting, warm, and real. He didn’t try to hide himself under perfumes or cologne like…well, like Lord Gareth and all the other suitors who tried too hard. I could tell that Sir Jerod tried hard as well, but with things that mattered.
I expected him to back away, but his eyes were hooked to mine. Like Lord Gareth’s smile, I felt like there was something more going on behind his gaze, and it did frighten me—but not in a way that made me want to run. He said, “My lady, nothing could make you less beautiful than you are right now, not even time.”
Something rushed through me and stirred my heart like ringing a bell. I’d been complimented before, but this was so different, so honest. I had very little experience in dealing with this sort of compliment; normally, I would smile, bow my head, and say, “You’re very kind, I thank you”, but I couldn’t get myself to say anything that would do justice to how his words made me feel. He must have acknowledged something about my awkwardness, because he didn’t wait for a reply. Instead, he invited me to his homestead to enjoy a slice of his mother’s saffron honey bread before he started practice. I followed along like a sparkling trail following a shooting star.
The field behind his home had an archery range, a hanging practice dummy, and a post for knife throwing. He asked if I would like a chair, but I said I’d like to sit on the sunny grass. Then he took me over to an empty patch of the field where a blanket was already strewn across the grass, a paper parasol sitting on top—he knew I would choose the ground instead of a chair. I sat with my skirt hems circling around me and opened the parasol to keep the heat off my dark hair. “I know there is more than one event,” I observed, “but is there more than one tournament?”
“Only one,” he replied. “Well, for me. For us. The tournament is traveling to each fief, collecting the champions from each. Your father’s fief is the last to be visited, which means I’ll be up against the realm’s finest.”
He exhaled some nerves. I smiled and said teasingly, “I would be happy to compliment your abilities and assure your victory, but I have yet to see you perform.”
“Then I’ll delay no longer. I begin with archery. It’s less physical exertion but requires focus and patience. I feel it’s a good way to warm up my senses for training.”
“Proceed, sir knight.”
He grinned with a bow. “With your ladyship’s permission.” He stepped up to the line of dirt he had scratched into the ground, picked up his bow, and chose an arrow from the quiver. Carefully and solidly taking his stance, he drew the arrow on the bowstring and stared silently toward the target across the way. I had seen archers in tournament before and would impatiently watch from the stands as they appeared to do nothing but stand for untold minutes before finally taking their shot. But now closer to the competitor, I could see that there was much being done. I could see his muscles flex and tense as his fingers settled into their proper grip. His eyes narrowed in deep concentration. Just as I could transform from silly girl to proper lady, he transformed from charming young man to disciplined warrior. I felt a rush of excitement in my blood as he released and let the arrow fly. The strike of the arrow piercing the canvas seemed to echo in my ears—it landed just outside the middle mark. I applauded more raucously than was dignified.
Sir Jerod bowed and wiped his brow. “I thank you, gracious audience. But if I am to be the champion, I will need to improve.”
“May I suggest something?” I crossed to the target, removed the arrow, and flipped the target so the backside was facing out. Then I walked back to him to return his arrow. “Sometimes the markings on the target are distracting. Try instead to simply aim for the center of the blank canvas.”
He looked confused, and I wonder if I may have even frustrated him. He drew the arrow, took greater care aiming, and shot. I went to the target and pushed the arrow where it was until it came out the other side. Then I flipped the target back to the marked side to show him that he landed a perfect bulls-eye.
“Did you notice a difference?” I asked.
“Without the markings to guide me,” he said, “I took my time and focused harder.” He smiled at me in disbelief. “Where did you learn that?”
I smiled, suddenly feeling awkward. “My mother enjoyed archery. I would shoot with her from time to time. I learned from her.”
There was a soft light in his eyes as he passed his bow to me. “Show me.”