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The March, late spring
HAL WAS NOT yet a prince when she fell in love with Lady Hotspur, but she would be within the hour.
It was the end of the battle, and Hal had been ordered to collect the knight of Perseria and bring her to the castle where their mothers waited.
Hal was exhausted, but lit up inside with awe and hope and rippling terror. The wind smelled of sour blood and sweaty horses, and her ears rang. Just twenty years old and Hal had nearly died four times this afternoon:
—A spear caught under her buckler, shoving her arm back, and its tip would’ve gutted her if she’d not trained herself into the twist-and-nudge that turned her body and signaled her horse to sidestep.
—A surprising gust of wind tossed a rain of arrows over the shield wall, toward the cavalry troop she led; one arrow sliced open her cheek but avoided her eye.
—Her horse screamed and fell, and Hal’s boot almost trapped itself in the stirrup before she threw herself free.
—On her feet, she fought shoulder to shoulder with Vindus of Mercia, and missed the moment her fellow knight was cut down, and suddenly the space was empty: she spun into it, breathing hard and desperate, knowing if Vin was down she was the knight in charge. She screamed as she shoved her sword into the man before her, slicing under his pauldron and up to skewer his shoulder, nearly cleaving it from his neck.
But Hal had survived.
Not only that, but the rebels had won. Her mother had won.
Hal’s nerves translated into her new mount, and the mare skipped anxiously along the muddy edge of the field. She’d not seen her mother in a decade, and now she was a rebel, bruised and panting, her hair knotted and her helmet lost saints knew where.
Ten years ago, King Rovassos had exiled his niece, Celeda Bolinbroke, to the Third Kingdom on the lying word of his lover. Celeda had been accused of murdering the king’s youngest brother, though she swore she did not—she’d fought and argued and screamed she did not—on the lives of her own mother and father, on the lives of her daughters, on the lives of the great kings before them: Segovax, Isarnos, and Morimaros the Great.
Thank the saints, Celeda had been banished instead of killed, only forced to leave her daughters and homeland behind, instead of her life. Hal had grown up without her mother, a ward of the king alongside the heir to the throne, Banna Mora. She’d always hoped that someday Celeda would return home, forgiven by Rovassos. Then last year Rovassos had stripped the title and lands of Bolinbroke from Hal, giving it to his (new, different) lover. Hal had written to her mother that the last thread of hope was gone.
But in the Third Kingdom a strong mother-line was respected, and for a decade now Celeda had gathered allies and woven her plans, always knowing she’d never be invited home. Knowing if she was to return, she would have to seize back her legacy.
The divesting of Bolinbroke by the king had been the simple spark, offensive and untimely, that lit the pyre of this rebellion. And Celeda was not the only one to have seen it for the sign it was: Caratica Persy of Annyck and the Red Castle, her sister, Vindomata the duke of Mercia, Mata Blunt of Ithios, the dukes of Westmore and Or, and Ardus of Iork, had all joined together against the weakened king, and they summoned Celeda home.
Today it had come to a head here at Strong Water Castle, at the edge of the March on the western coast of Aremoria, where the king returned from a voyage to Ispania. Rovassos was welcomed back to Aremore shores with swift violence. The rebels had crushed the king’s forces beneath banners of ancient Aremore houses: the lion and bluebells of Bolinbroke, the eagles of Westmore, the wolf of Perseria, the oak of Mercia, and the coursing river of Or. As if the very animals of land and sky, the bones and veins of Aremoria agreed it was time.
Dead sprawled across the battlefield, and the injured sat or limped with the help of comrades, but most of their soldiers remained afoot. The surrender had sounded before too many casualties fell.
And Hal had survived her first real battle. It bore repeating. It was a triumph, no matter what else.
Her shoulder throbbed and the gambeson under her mail shirt stuck to her side from the seeping blood. She’d survived. She’d killed. At least three soldiers she was certain of, and others would die of wounds she’d inflicted.
Her stomach churned as she thought of their families. Their Aremore families.
In his diaries, Morimaros the Great had written, Never ignore the consequences of your actions, for such ignorance alone makes your actions unjust.
It had been academic, until now. The consequences of her actions had been more along the lines of dragging squires into punishment with her for sneaking into the throne room, or hangovers, or regrettable mornings-after with girls who would run home to their husbands or fathers. Or a bone bruise from picking a fight with Banna Mora—and worse, the charged disapproval of Lady Ianta Oldcastle’s frown.
The consequences of childhood, Hal thought, are gentle guilts and awkward memories. The consequences of adulthood are ghosts.
But there! Hotspur Persy stood surrounded by soldiers, blood smeared like autumn leaves across her face, the vivid splatter turning her eyes lightning blue. As orders flew past her lips, her teeth shone pink.
Blood sharpened the flavor of Hal’s tongue, too. She wanted to kiss that other bloody mouth.
Hal stared at the flaring aggression, the living command that was Hotspur of Perseria. It was an easy pull to feel, to be drawn toward the lady knight, and Hal wished she weren’t so weary, so nervous; she wished that instead of muddy armor she wore a splendid suit of shining silver mail, her hair combed and fresh—anything to capture Hotspur’s attention in return.
The almost-prince stared too long. Her horse stomped; Hotspur’s gaze swung around and slammed into her.
Hal, startled, pushed a fist into the air and called, “Lady Hotspur! I’ve word from Mercia.”
Wind scoured across the space between them, jerking Hal’s hair free of its braids. The black strands whipped about her cheeks and tangled in the buckles of her armor.
Hotspur lifted a gauntleted hand in response.
Was it Hal’s imagination, or did the wind die at the gesture?
She could not bring herself to dismount, but directed her horse toward the other woman. An aide in Persy green spoke urgently in Hotspur’s ear and Hotspur nodded, eyes on Hal the entire time. The lady knight’s mail hood was pushed back off her head, pooling against her neck, her cap gone, and so her wild hair was tangled and torn, some dark orange strands stuck to Hotspur’s pink cheeks with sweat and blood.
“Hotspur Persy,” Hal said as her horse picked delicately over a broken shield. “I’m Hal Bolinbroke. I’m commanded to bring you with me to the gates of Strong Water Castle, where your aunt, Vindomata of Mercia, and my mother, Celeda, have the king.”
Hotspur nodded at Hal and put a hand on the aide’s shoulder. “Unhook my chest plate, Sennos.”
The young man, plain, his face shadowed with strain, helped her out of the plate armor, swinging it over his own shoulder when she was free of it. Hotspur wore a dark green gambeson beneath. Her sword belt was empty, her boots muddy up the calf.
“Ready,” Hotspur said.
Hal blinked down at her, and did her best to banish uncertainty. She offered her arm and shifted her foot out of the stirrup to allow Hotspur to put her boot in its place. Their hands gripped together, and Hotspur mounted gracefully, swinging up behind as Hal clenched her teeth against the ache of her side injury.
Copyright © 2019 by Tessa Gratton