England, 1309 AD.
Although dawn had barely broken over the realm, the castle keep was already bustling with activity.
In the kitchen the cooks were busy skinning rabbits, stuffing and basting boars for the spit and taking inventory of the plentiful stores of mead and wine in preparation for the festivities ahead. Elsewhere pages were decking out the Great Hall in velvet and silk drapes while maids prepared the numerous guest chambers, scrubbing floors, beating tapestries and gutting the fireplaces. For every summer on the solstice, the King hosted a momentous gathering of foreign heads of state, dignitaries from far-flung lands and military commanders fresh from battle.
Three days of tournaments, pitting the most illustrious knights against each other in trials of martial prowess, would culminate in an extravagant banquet. There would be conjurers, acrobats, jesters and a myriad other exotic entertainment...
For Lady Leighton Meester, ward of the Court, it was all extremely tedious.
She wasn't impressed by jousting or sword fighting. Once you've seen one preening nobleman encased in a tin can on the back of a horse, carrying a big stick, you've seen them all. Despite her complete disinterest, it didn't stop many a knight attempting to win her favour. Rather than have to endure the King's dull lectures about proper courtly behaviour, she pretended to be at least mildly flattered by their interest – she was, after all, here at the King's discretion and could just as easily be sent off to a convent or to France. Or worse, a convent in France.
So every year she smiled on cue, bestowed coy looks where appropriate and generally tried to ignore the King dropping anvilicious hints about prospective suitors.
It didn't stop her maid, Taylor, from chattering incessantly about it all though. That morning Leighton made a Herculean effort not to roll her eyes as the young blonde shoe-horned her into an elegant brocade dress, all the while enthusing about the imminent events.
“I was up on the ramparts before I came to wake you, m'lady,” Taylor said, full of an exuberance that was frankly distasteful at such an ungodly hour, pulling on the stays of Leighton's bodice until it was virtually impossible for her to draw breath. “All I could see was an endless procession of flag-bearers, shield-carriers and knights. For a moment, I thought we were under siege! Isn't it exciting?”
“Not terribly, no,” Leighton sniffed. “I can't say I particularly enjoy the stench of unwashed soldiers first thing in the morning.”
“But they're so dashing and brave and - ”
“They're also pompous and egotistical. Not to mention lecherous. You'd do well to keep away from them and their philandering ways,” Leighton said with a stern look. “Many an impressionable girl has lost her maidenhood to those cads. Do you want to end up with a child out of wedlock, to be spat on by peasants and forced to live in a cave? Because that's what happens.”
The young blonde receded into a sullen silence as she cleared away Leighton's breakfast plates and emptied the chamber pot. For a while Leighton ignored the stamp of petulant footsteps as Taylor went about her duties, concentrating instead on her needlework, but soon she could no longer stand it. “Alright,” Leighton sighed, setting aside her things. “Enough. Tell me every fascinating detail about this wretched tournament before the room collapses in on itself under the force of your pout.”
Taylor rushed over to Leighton's side, clapping her hands together in glee, her sulk quite forgotten. “Badgley, the stable boy, told me that there's a celebrated young knight competing this year. Apparently this knight's been winning tournaments all across Europe. And do you want to know the most astounding thing, m'lady?”
“Pray tell,” Leighton said in a bored tone.
“This knight is a woman.”
“A woman?” Leighton repeated, eyebrows leaping in surprise. It was widely agreed that the fairer sex were weaker, ill-suited to the rigours of combat, lacking the intelligence to be tactically astute, and not in possession of the constitution required for bloodshed. “How is that possible?”
“They say she was orphaned at a young age and adopted by a noble family. The lord's wife was barren and couldn't produce an heir so they raised her as a boy. When the lord passed away, she inherited his title and lands. She's so masterful with a sword that no one would dare think of relieving her of her estate now.”
“Goodness me!” Leighton exclaimed, at once repulsed and perversely intrigued by this notion. “And how did you discover all this?”
Taylor shrugged. “Eavesdropping. It's what we servants do.”
Leighton became lost in silent contemplation for a moment, trying to wrap her mind around the concept of being free to live as one pleased - to live as a man would. It was a truly radical idea – heresy in many quarters. “I should like to meet this woman,” Leighton said eventually. “What is her name?”
“Sir Blake Lively, m'lady. They call her The Vanilla Knight.”
For once Leighton found herself discretely craning her neck to get a better look at the jousters from her seat beside the King and Queen in the royal enclosure. Usually she found these things to be terminally dull but the entire crowd was atwitter with whispers about this so-called Vanilla Knight.
Sir Blake Lively had yet to be called to the field and Leighton was eager to catch a glimpse of her. Leighton was fully expecting to see someone built like a brick outhouse – how else could a mere woman compete physically with these accomplished men?
Her newfound interest in tournament sports hadn't gone unnoticed by her guardians. “Leighton, dear, you seem uncharacteristically happy to be here,” the King remarked. “Has one of these young men caught your eye, perchance?”
He exchanged a knowing smile with the Queen.
Why did everything come down to marrying her off? It was tiresome. “No, my liege. I've simply developed an appreciation for the skill jousting requires,” Leighton replied, unable to keep the haughty edge from her tone.
“Oh,” the King replied, disappointed.
It was just then that the herald announced Sir Blake Lively's name, and that of her opponent, the smarmy and loathsome Sir Edward Westwick. Leighton almost leapt out of her seat to get a better view before remembering that she was supposed to be aloof and that such a lack of decorum was frowned upon in regal company.
Instead she found herself holding her breath as Sir Blake, sheathed head to toe in shiny plate armour, trotted into her line of vision atop a glorious white steed. Beside Sir Blake a squire carried her jousting pole and flag, which bore the Lively coat of arms – two lions aside a bevelled, quartered shield. Within the quarters of the shield there was a rainbow, a sparrow, a Viking longboat and some kind of odd looking rodent with a long neck...
“This is an abomination,” the Queen murmured in displeasure. “A woman jousting, indeed!”
“Let's see how she fairs against our champion, shall we?” the King responded evenly. He raised his hand, signalling for the contest to begin.
Leighton watched, heart in her throat, as both competitors reared their horses and charged. Her eyes were fixed on Sir Blake as she galloped down the narrow strip of field, jousting pole poised. The two met in the middle, exchanging glancing blows off their shields. They turned, charged again and Sir Blake struck a solid hit on Westwick's shield, denting the metal.
It was almost unbearable to watch; for some reason unknown to her, Leighton was so invested in Sir Blake winning that any other outcome would be nothing short of devastating. It was as if Sir Blake rode for every woman trapped by their mundane lot in life, oppressed as they were by the heterosexist patriarchy. Or something.
This time round, Sir Blake's pole connected with Westwick's shoulder. He wobbled unsteadily for a moment and the spectators collectively held their breath. Then, just as it looked like he was about to fall off his black stallion, he righted himself. A collective murmur of disappointment could be heard.
“She's not bad actually,” the Queen said, somewhat grudgingly.
“She's outstanding,” Leighton breathed out, both hands clutching her seat in a white knuckle grip.
Sensing that the spectators were against him Westwick charged with renewed vigour, recklessly aiming low. His pole struck the flank of Sir Blake's horse, causing the animal to rear up and attempt to dislodge its rider.
“That cheating swine!” Leighton exclaimed, slamming her fist into her palm.
Two startled sets of regal eyes turned on her, astonished by her outburst. She gave an apologetic smile.
Somehow, through what could only be attributed to great horsemanship (or miraculous intervention), Sir Blake managed to wrestle control of her steed. She raised her jousting pole, ready for another attempt. This time her aim was steady and true; Westwick didn't stand a chance and, as the pole connectedly solidly with his chest, he was knocked off his horse, landing with a dull clang on the grass.
Cheers went up around field while the monarchs politely clapped. Furious at being beaten by a mere woman, Westwick limped away, ignoring the jeers of the crowd as he hobbled past.
Victorious, Sir Blake dismounted her horse and approached the royal enclosure to accept the King's congratulations.
Before she reached the King, Sir Blake lifted off her helmet and, for a split-second, Leighton's heart stopped. Time seemed to slow to a near standstill as Sir Blake tossed her head and shook out flowing blonde tresses before tucking her helmet under her arm.
A single thought echoed through Leighton's mind: Sir Blake Lively was gorgeous. Somehow, she hadn't counted on that. Nor was she prepared for the curious fluttering sensation in her stomach caused by the indisputable fact of the knight's knee-trembling, swoon-inducing loveliness.
As Sir Blake came nearer, Leighton's palms grew damp. She hoped that she looked presentable and wondered if perhaps she should've gone for the emerald green dress rather than this deep blue one...
Stopping in front of the King, Sir Blake bowed her head respectfully and Leighton heard the Queen's soft gasp at this flagrant breach of courtly behaviour. Although she didn't have any first-hand experience, Leighton suspected that it was nigh on impossible to curtsey in a suit of armour so she was willing to overlook it.
“My liege,” Sir Blake said. Briefly she caught Leighton's gaze, deep blue eyes lingering a second longer than propriety allowed and Leighton felt it again, that inexplicable flutter.
“Excellent performance out there, Sir,” the King said magnanimously. “We shall see if you can sustain it in the coming days.”
“Thank you, your majesties,” Sir Blake said, bowing to the Queen, who still looked scandalised, before turning her attention to Leighton.
The King made the introductions. “This is my niece, Lady Leighton Meester.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady,” Sir Blake said as she dipped her head, eyes never leaving Leighton's. She flashed a devastatingly charming smile.
Leighton gave a demure nod, her outward appearance of calm quite at odds with her thunderous heartbeat.
“Sir Blake, you will dine at our table this evening,” the King announced. “I have heard many tales of your valour. Perhaps you will regale us with a few yourself?”
“I'd be honoured to, your majesty.”
For a while the guests at the King's table were content to listen as he held court about the political situation in Europe, the ever shifting dynasties and in-fighting amongst the nobility. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than tournaments, it was gossiping about his neighbours.
The King and Queen sat at the head of the table, as was customary, with Leighton to the King's right. Beside her sat Sir Blake, dressed in light chainmail and a tabard, tousled blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. The proximity of Sir Blake made Leighton nervous and she was especially careful not to spill any food or drink on her finery or otherwise make a fool of herself.
“Is it true, Sir, that you've slain a dragon?” Countess Jessica Szohr asked suddenly, once the King had finally fallen silent. She was a distant cousin of the King, one of many visiting nobles, and rather vulgar Leighton thought.
All eyes turned eagerly to Sir Blake, who was sipping from a jewel-encrusted goblet.
She smirked and shook her head. “Alas, I have not, my lady. The bards are prone to flights of fancy and in this instance they've let their imaginations run riot.”
“So you haven't fought any mystical creatures or foul beasts?” the Countess enquired, disappointed.
“Not unless you count Sir Edward Westwick.”
A chorus of knowing chuckles went around the table.
There was a companionable silence as the guests tucked into the generous helpings of pheasant, cabbage and venison on their plates, washing it all down with plenty of wine.
It was unquestionably the wine that gave Leighton the courage to speak. “Perhaps you should not mock your rival so freely, Sir. If he is humiliated by his defeat he may challenge you to a duel to restore his honour.”
Westwick was renowned for being an unpleasant and covetous young man – he'd petitioned the King for Leighton's hand in marriage on several occasions but the King had always refused, for while Westwick had proven himself accomplished at tournaments, he'd yet to achieve glory on the battle field. That and the fact he was universally disliked by everyone at court. Most found his constant lurking presence disturbing but his father had been a great commander so the King tolerated the impetuous youth.
Sir Blake inclined her head. “Indeed he may. In fact, I'm counting on it. The knave should be put down for that trickery on the field today.”
“Those are fighting words!” the King practically bellowed in mirth. “And I'd happily wager on the outcome.”
“My lord!” Leighton gasped, appalled.
He waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, it's just a bit of harmless fun. Sometimes you are too serious, Leighton.”
“You ought not to make sport of their dispute,” Leighton said, stabbing angrily at the scraps of meat on her plate with her fork.
“Very well,” the King replied, an indulgent expression on his face. “I see this crude talk has upset you, my dear. I will speak no more of it.”
She wasn't upset, she was livid. But men always had a tendency to put women's legitimate annoyances down to being 'highly-strung' or having 'delicate sensibilities'. Her ire dissipated somewhat when she felt a gentle touch on her wrist.
Sir Blake was smiling at her, not patronisingly as the King did. “I'm stirred by your concern, my lady,” she said quietly, words almost lost to the competing conversations that were now going on elsewhere around the table.
Sir Blake leaned closer to be better heard and Leighton held her breath, gaze taking in every detail – the curve of the woman's lips, the tiny dimple in her chin, the flecks of grey in cobalt blue eyes. Those lips were moving but at that moment Leighton was oblivious to sound. It was only when she noticed Sir Blake looking at her with raised eyebrows and a curious stare that she realised a question had been asked of her.
“I- I beg your pardon, Sir?” Leighton stammered, blushing to the roots of her hair.
“I asked if you would accompany me on a walk this evening, my lady?”
Leighton felt, suddenly, that everyone was watching her. “Yes,” she replied, clearing her throat slightly. “That would be agreeable.”
Ordinarily, it was forbidden for a lady of the court to take a stroll unchaperoned with a knight. Since Sir Blake was a woman, the usual rules didn't apply. Regardless, Leighton had insisted that her maid accompany them, Taylor following a few paces behind as they made a circuit of the vast castle courtyard.
“Beautiful evening, isn't it?” Sir Blake said, head tilted towards the heavens.
Leighton didn't take her eyes off the other woman's face. “Yes, it is,” she replied, averting her gaze when Sir Blake caught her looking.
There was an enigmatic smile on the knight's face, as if she was silently amused by some secret joke that Leighton wasn't privy to. “Is it because I fascinate or disgust you that you stare at me so?” Sir Blake asked in a low voice, after they'd walked in silence for a few moments.
The directness of the question quite literally threw Leighton and she lost her footing slightly, tripping on the cobblestones underfoot. She was caught by Sir Blake, one hand capturing her own, the other landing firmly on her lower back, dangerously close to the swell of her backside.
Leighton looked down at their joined hands, struck immediately by the enormous size of Sir Blake's appendage compared to her own. The sight of those long fingers made Leighton strangely giddy.
“Are you alright, m'lady?” Taylor asked worriedly, noticing a sudden change in her mistress's pallor.
“I should like to retire to my chambers,” Leighton mumbled, her cheeks aflame, unable to meet Sir Blake's eyes. “I bid you goodnight, Sir.”
If Sir Blake was chagrined by this abrupt change of mood, she concealed it well. She bowed, bringing Leighton's hand, which she still held, to her lips and pressing a light kiss to it, a gesture that did nothing to calm Leighton's wildly beating heart.
“It's funny, isn't it, how she behaves like a proper knight?” Taylor mused as she helped Leighton out of her dress and into her nightgown.
Leighton made a non-committal sound, mostly due to the fact that a nightgown was being pulled down over her head.
“Aside from the jousting and whatnot, she seems very chivalrous. It's a bit queer coming from a woman,” Taylor continued as she let down Leighton's hair, combing out the lustrous brunette locks. “Of course, that's not all that's queer about her... She seems keen on you.”
Leighton reached out to still Taylor's hand. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she kissed your hand for starters.”
Leighton scoffed. “You can't base your assumptions on-”
“She was eye-fornicating with you all night, m'lady.”
“Taylor Momsen, wash your mouth out!” Leighton said, thoroughly shocked by her maid's foul assertion, then: “That's absurd.”
“Did you once see her pay any heed to the menfolk?”
Thinking back on it, Leighton couldn't say that she had. Then again, neither had Leighton. They'd spent the entire evening exchanging shy glances. It hadn't really occurred to Leighton what that meant. Even now she was fairly oblivious about it.
“No, but -”
Taylor rolled her eyes. “She's one of them Greek Sapphists, isn't she?” Off Leighton's blank look, Taylor elaborated. “They're women who lay with other women. Although she doesn't look Mediterranean...”
Admittedly, Leighton's knowledge of coupling wasn't extensive but she was at a complete loss how two women might make the beast of two backs. Nonetheless, she was intrigued.
“I can assure you, Taylor, that I have absolutely no interest in being wooed by Sir Blake or any of her ilk,” Leighton lied.
“Yes, m'lady. Perish the thought,” Taylor demurred though her eyes betrayed her true opinion.
Just so that Sir Blake wouldn't get any ideas that Leighton was in any way encouraging her, Leighton avoided the tournament the following day, choosing instead to spend her day sewing, playing the lute and generally keeping herself busy with the pursuits of the idle rich.
It wasn't until that evening's banquet that she emerged from her chambers. She may have spent a little longer than usual choosing her gown – an elaborately embroidered golden brocade number with a plunging neckline – and coiffing her hair but it wasn't for Sir Blake's benefit.
She wasn't disappointed that the seat to her right was occupied tonight by a rotund Hungarian Archduke whose name she couldn't remember, much less pronounce. And she wasn't incensed in the slightest to spot Sir Blake getting overly friendly with Princess Michelle of Trachtenberg (some backwater of Saxony), leaning in indecently close as the Princess – the unwholesome strumpet – giggled and made suggestive eyes.
It seemed Sir Blake was rather indiscriminate with her attentions.
Suddenly, Leighton felt her appetite desert her. Excusing herself, she hurried out of the Great Hall, heading in the direction of her chambers in the east tower. She was so absorbed in her own fuming thoughts that she didn't hear the heavy footfalls behind her, didn't anticipate the hand that closed around her wrist and pulled her to a stop.
She whirled around to be confronted with the sight of a breathless Sir Blake, face half cast in shadows.
“Forgive me but why do you flee, my lady? The night is still young. I was hoping -”
“I have a headache,” Leighton interrupted, her voice cold.
“Ah, too much merriment perhaps?”
“No, it's more the ill company.”
Sir Blake stepped towards her, moving further into the torch light, and Leighton found herself drifting closer though her mind railed against it. “I sought you out at the tournament today but you were nowhere to be seen. Were you avoiding me?”
“Hardly, Sir. But I see you soon found favour elsewhere so you cannot have missed me greatly.”
The blonde's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “I'm afraid you've lost me.”
“Princess Michelle of Trachtenberg? The hussy was draped all over you.”
“Oh,” Sir Blake said, then laughed. This only served to enrage Leighton further.
She started to flounce off but Sir Blake caught her by the wrist again, an insufferable smile on her face. “My lady, I have no desire to win her favour. You don't believe me? Perhaps this will convince you...” Without another word, Sir Blake seized Leighton by the waist and kissed her firmly on the mouth.
At first Leighton was too dazed to do anything about it, ensnared as she was by the knight's arms around her, and trapped by the warm, soft press of lips against her own. It was possible that she inadvertently kissed back for a second or two but she put that down to being so shocked at being manhandled. Quickly, she shoved Sir Blake off her, though she couldn't quite break free of the embrace.
“Why you – you presumptuous knave! You uncouth braggart! I should have the King behead you!” For good measure she slapped Blake across the face, the sound echoing satisfyingly off the stone walls.
There, on Sir Blake's cheek, was a distinct red handprint.
They stared at each other, suspended in mutual surprise. For a moment, Leighton felt a swelling of pride; she didn't even know she'd had that in her. That fleeting moment of triumph was spoiled, however, when Sir Blake started to laugh again.
“You're a feisty one.” Sir Blake said, grinning. “I like a woman with spirit.”
“Release me this instant or I shall scream for the guards,” Leighton said in a furious whisper.
“I think the lady doth protest too much.”
Sir Blake's lips descended again but this time Leighton turned her cheek as she struggled within the confines of the other woman's arms. She froze suddenly when she felt those lips travel across her jaw before trailing a hot path down her throat, mouthing at the pale, tender flesh.
Under this passionate onslaught, her anger rapidly melted away. Instead she tilted her head to allow Sir Blake greater access.
By the time Sir Blake pulled away, Leighton's bosom was veritably heaving. There was a look in the blonde's eyes that could only be described as wanton, though Leighton had seldom seen such an expression at close quarters.
“I'll let you go on one condition,” Sir Blake said, gaze raking over Leighton in such a way that Leighton felt it might have been prudent to wear a dress that better preserved her modesty. She'd already been ravished once and it could just as easily happen again... “Watch me in the tournament tomorrow. Grace me with your presence, my lady, for you bring me luck.”
Sir Blake hardly needed Leighton's attendance to win yet Leighton felt unable to deny her. So when Sir Blake's mouth sought her own, she didn't resist, offering herself up willingly to the other woman.
“Come away with me,” Sir Blake said after a few minutes of ardent kissing. She pressed Leighton against the cold stone wall. “Come to my estate.”
Leighton's response was muffled by Sir Blake's lips. “I can't. The King would never allow it.”
“So persuade him,” the blonde suggested with an irresistible smile.
“Alright, I'll try.”
Impatient for more contact, Leighton sank her fingers into gold-spun tresses and pulled the knight down to capture her mouth in another dizzying kiss.
Little did they know a malignant presence lurked in the shadows watching them, concocting a dastardly plan.
As it turned out the King was predictably adverse to the idea of allowing his favourite niece to leave the safety of court to jaunt across country with the Vanilla Knight.
The castle was rife with innuendoes flying around about unnatural passions and the King didn't want his ward being sullied by these rumours. Leighton was still of marriageable age, after all, and such lewd accusations could ruin a young maiden's reputation.
Of course, she railed against his decision but in the end he refused to be swayed. Worse, he forbade her from attending the final day of the tournament and the subsequent banquet in a bid to keep her apart from Sir Blake.
That night she cried herself to sleep, despite Taylor's best efforts to console her. Her slumbers were plagued by fitful dreams, of Sir Blake flirting with Princess Michelle, Countess Jessica and countless other faceless harlots.
She woke the following morning to find the tournament guests – and Sir Blake – gone. But rather than wallow in self-pity, she steeled herself in quiet determination for she had a plan in mind.
“Taylor,” she said, interrupting the girl who was going about her duties as unobtrusively as possible, wary as she was of setting her mistress off on another crying fit. “I need you to to something for me.”
“I need to speak to Badgley, the stable boy. Will you fetch him please?”
Taylor frowned. “Why?”
“Just do as I ask, please.”
Not fifteen minutes later the young man in question stood before her nervously. “You asked to see me, m'lady?”
“Taylor, wait outside.”
The maid turned a horrified stare on Leighton. Under no circumstances was she to leave Leighton alone with a man – and a filthy peasant one at that. “But m'lady!”
Leighton gave her a look that brooked no argument.
Glowering, Taylor left the room and slammed the door behind her.
Badgley looked positively terrified now, anxiously twisting the cap in his hands.
“Are you able to keep a secret, boy?” Leighton began briskly. She wasn't exactly sure why she was inclined to put her trust in this stable boy but he had an honest face. “If you haven't the mettle for a bit of subterfuge, I'll say no more and you may take your leave.”
He swallowed then gave a stiff nod. “I can, m'lady.”
“Good,” Leighton said, her voice softening. “I need you to ready a horse for me at dusk.”
“Begging your pardon but it's dangerous for a refined lady such as yourself to be travelling after dark. There's bandits and poachers and all kinds of miscreants that roam in the night.”
“It's a risk I'm willing to take,” Leighton said, her jaw tensing. “So will you help me?”
Badgley seemed to think on it a moment. He bowed respectfully. “Yes, m'lady.”
Leighton put down her lute and cleared her throat gently. “Taylor?”
“Yes, m'lady?” the young blonde replied flatly. She was still in a sour mood after being expelled from the room earlier and didn't look up from mending one of Leighton's dresses.
“I have a favour to ask and it may be the last request I make of you.”
This melodramatic announcement grabbed Taylor's attention. She gave a look of alarm, embroidery immediately cast aside.
“I intend to escape and ride to Sir Blake Lively's estate under cover of darkness,” Leighton said in a rush. Speaking the plan aloud made it seem even more reckless than it sounded in her head. The incredulous expression on Taylor's face merely confirmed it.
“M'lady!” Taylor practically spluttered. “Surely you jest?”
Leighton shook her head. “I can't spend the rest of my days shut away in this castle – or worse, married off to Westwick.” Here she threw in an exaggerated shudder for effect. “I should rather die.”
“But running away in the night!” Taylor pursed her lips. “I seem to remember you lecturing me about maidens and knights and getting knocked up in caves.”
“Sir Blake may have many skills but I hardly think impregnating me with her non-existent seed is one of them.”
“I wouldn't put it past those Sapphists to be capable of such witchcraft...”
“Taylor, it's the only way. Please,” Leighton beseeched, “I need your help.”
So that was how Leighton found herself, in one of her maid's plain gowns and a ragged cloak, scurrying across the courtyard to the stables. Dressed as she was, with the hood up concealing her face, the night watch didn't give her a second glance and she was able to move freely through the castle.
She found Badgley waiting beside one of the stalls, a stricken look on his face. “M'lady,” he whispered, “for a moment I thought you weren't coming.”
“Sorry. Is the horse readied?”
He nodded, pointing towards a tawny mare that was saddled and bridled. “You remember the directions I gave you, m'lady?” he asked as he helped her up on to the horse.
“Yes, I think so. Thank you,” she said sincerely. “I've asked my maid to ensure no one learns of your involvement.”
Badgley nodded, a smile on his face. “Good luck and Godspeed.”
For two days she rode across the realm, stopping only when the little mare was too fatigued to carry her any further. She slept in filthy, miserable inns, careful to mask her accent and noble bearing lest she attract unwanted attention, using the meagre purse of coins Taylor had given her to pay for meals and boarding. When this was over she resolved she would release Taylor from her servitude, awarding her a generous income that would allow the girl to live comfortably and afford her the freedom to do as she wished.
It was late on the third day that she arrived on the outskirts of the Lively estate. There, set in acres of thick forestry, she could see the distant ramparts of Castle Lively rising out of the treeline. With a soaring heart and a new lease of energy, Leighton spurred the mare into a gallop.
She arrived, breathless, at the moat surrounding the castle. From the tower over the drawbridge, a surly guard shouted down at her. “Who goes there? State your business, peasant.”
“My name is Lady Leighton Meester,” Leighton called back, drawing back her hood. “I come from the court of his majesty, the King.”
The guard scrutinised her appearance for a moment, taking in her mussed hair and dirty clothes. “A likely story. Begone before I set the hounds on you.”
“Listen, you odious troll,” Leighton yelled impatiently, “just tell Sir Blake I'm here!”
Not long after there was a loud commotion from the tower then the squeal of ancient hinges and pulleys as the drawbridge was lowered. It landed with a deafening thud. On the other side, below the raised portcullis stood Sir Blake, loose blonde hair spilling over her shoulders in unruly waves. Shortsword slung at her waist, clad in chainmail and a breasplate, she looked every inch the warrior.
Slipping off the saddle, Leighton wandered forward, crossing the drawbridge. Her legs were weak and wobbly, partly from riding, partly from the studly vision before her. When she reached Sir Blake, Leighton's legs finally gave way but strong arms were there to catch her.
“What happened? Are you injured?” Sir Blake asked, bright blue eyes searching her own, concern etched across those handsome features.
“I'm fine,” Leighton replied, unable to stop a happy smile blooming on her face.
Sir Blake's gaze flicked to the tawny mare munching on some grass then back to Leighton. “Did you travel all this way alone?” On Leighton's nod, Sir Blake's eyes widened. “You foolish girl! Do you have any idea how perilous the countryside is for - ”
“Yes,” Leighton said with a roll of her eyes. “I'm perfectly aware of that, thank you. I didn't ride for three days or spend two nights dossing in hovels not fit for a cockroach just to be chastised once I got here.”
The knight was silent for a moment, a slight smile curving the corners of her mouth. “Of course, forgive my poor hospitality, my lady. How can I possibly make it up to you?”
“A nice hot bath would be a start.”
The guest chambers given to Leighton were even more opulent and comfortable than her own chambers in the King's castle. There were rugs from the Orient, the finest bed linens, and silk robes laid out for her to wear, since she had travelled light and brought none of her own dresses. Clearly jousting was a lucrative career...
As she lay soaking in the wrought iron bathtub the heat of the water and the nearby hearth made her sleepy. Her eyelids were just sliding shut when there was a loud knock on the door. She sat up, startled.
“Who is it?” she asked with a raised voice, gathering soap suds around herself to preserve her modesty.
“It's me,” came the familiar voice of Sir Blake, muffled by the heavy wooden door. “May I enter?”
With one last glance down to make sure her bits were covered, Leighton called out, “Yes.”
The door swung open and Sir Blake crossed the threshold carrying a tray of aromatic sweetmeats and bread. An audible rumble announced Leighton's hunger, subdued as it had been until now. “I had the cooks rustle up a quick supper for you,” Sir Blake said with a smirk, brazenly taking in the sight of Leighton's glistening skin and wet hair clinging to her shoulders.
“Thank you. I am famished,” Leighton replied.
They stared at each other as they both made a silent appraisal. Sir Blake had eschewed the chainmail for a dark leather tunic and breeches, which she filled out rather admirably in Leighton's opinion. The tunic had an open v-shaped neck and Leighton could discern the barest hint of cleavage. She was so focused on that tantalising glimpse of flesh that she barely noticed Sir Blake had set down the tray and crossed the room, flowing smoothly to her knees in front of the tub.
It dimly occurred to Leighton that the rapidly disappearing bubbles weren't a terribly effective barrier between the blonde's frank stare and her skin but the thought of being completely exposed to Sir Blake caused a shiver of anticipation to pass through her.
“Are you cold?” Sir Blake asked, blue eyes keenly tracking the rise of goosebumps. Not waiting for Leighton's response, she stood and held out a blanket. “Come, dry yourself by the fire.”
Sir Blake averted her gaze as she held the blanket aloft.
Swallowing her nerves, Leighton rose out of the tub, water sluicing off her in waves. Part of her willed the other woman to sneak a glance but Sir Blake's eyes remained firmly fixed on the stone wall until Leighton was safely wrapped in the blanket. Then she felt Sir Blake's hands on her, rubbing her arms through the soft wool.
“You tremble still,” Sir Blake said, frowning. She drew Leighton into her arms, giving her the benefit of her warmth, and rested her chin atop Leighton's head.
The scent of well-worn leather and sweet-smelling blonde hair filled Leighton's nostrils, the heady combination making her dizzy. She turned her face into the base of Sir Blake's throat, breathing her in. “It's not because I'm cold,” Leighton said, her voice cracking, as she pressed her lips meaningfully to Sir Blake's skin.
The knight pulled back then and Leighton felt her cheeks colour from shame. She forced herself to meet Sir Blake's eyes and the look of understanding she saw there bolstered her courage. Standing on tip toes, for the other woman was at least a full head taller than her, Leighton kissed her uncertainly. It was barely more than a gentle brush of lips but it shook Leighton to her core.
Suddenly, without a word, Sir Blake swept Leighton up in her arms and carried her across the room, laying her down gently on the soft furs that covered the bed. If she'd had the presence of mind Leighton might at least have made a show of protesting (she was a lady, after all, not some common tart) but she was so thrilled by this bold turn of events that she was rendered quite speechless.
Wasting no time, Sir Blake began disrobing, quickly shirking her boots and tunic. Leighton's lips parted wordlessly as her eyes swept freely over the blonde; there was nothing that could've prepared her for the glorious sight of Sir Blake clad in nothing but a pair of leather breeches. She scarcely had a moment to enjoy the view before Sir Blake climbed onto the enormous bed and crawled towards her on hands and knees.
There was a look in Sir Blake's eyes that verged on feral and it stirred something base, some primal urge within Leighton.
With one hand Sir Blake grabbed the edge of the blanket still wrapped around Leighton and tugged hard, exposing her finally to the blonde's lusty gaze. Leighton gasped, only for it to be swallowed by Sir Blake's mouth swooping down to cover her own.
Leighton's hands snaked their way around Sir Blake's back, pulling the knight flush against her. That first touch of bare skin against hers made Leighton gasp again and she clutched desperately at the lithe, lanky body above her.
She quivered and moaned as Sir Blake rained hot, open-mouthed kisses down her neck and across her collarbone, pausing to bite and suck at the delicate skin. She knew, instinctively, there would be a bruise there come morning and she wondered if there was a law against marking the King's ward so and what the punishment might be? Not that she had much time to dwell on those thoughts because Sir Blake had now turned her attention to the rapid rise and fall of Leighton's bosom.
“Oh, my lord!” Leighton said in a strangulated moan, as warm lips closed around a nipple. Her hands found their way into Sir Blake's hair, tangling in thick blonde strands as Sir Blake teased the puckered nub with her tongue before lavishing the same attention on Leighton's other breast.
Leighton watched in a daze as Sir Blake's lips trailed lower, mouthing at Leighton's stomach before insinuating herself between the brunette's parted thighs. She bit playfully at Leighton's hip then soothed the abused flesh with her tongue, causing Leighton's breath to hitch.
Their eyes met and held for an endless moment, never breaking contact even as Sir Blake lowered her mouth, hovering maddeningly close to Leighton's quim.
The moment was rudely shattered when the heavy oak door swung open with a clatter. Two peeved pairs of eyes turned on the hapless intruder, Sir Blake's squire. He was a tall lad with chiselled good looks and a mop of hair that fell into his eyes.
He blinked and quickly shielded his eyes from the abundance of flesh on show in front of him.
“This better be good, Crawford,” Sir Blake said through gritted teeth, making no move to cover herself or Leighton up.
“Forgive me, my liege, but there's a girl here claiming to be Lady Meester's maid. She said she has an urgent message for her mistress.”
“Taylor's here?” Leighton responded, frowning.
“Yes, my lady.”
“Bring her to me.”
Crawford nodded, still covering his eyes as he backed out the door.
“Can't it wait?” Sir Blake asked, wearing an endearing pout. “We're in the middle of something here.”
Sir Blake leaned over, trying to steal a kiss from Leighton but the brunette moved away. Leighton slipped off the bed and donned one of the silk robes before tossing Sir Blake's discarded tunic at her. “Put this on. I won't have my maid scandalised, Sir.”
“As you wish, my lady,” Sir Blake said with a smirk.
Just as the knight was pulling on her boots, Taylor charged into the room accompanied by Crawford, who looked relieved to see that everyone was fully clothed.
“M'lady,” Taylor said, somewhat out of breath and performing a perfunctory curtsey.
“Taylor, what on earth are you doing here?” Leighton asked, immediately going over to the girl and grasping her by the upper arms.
“It's Westwick. He tortured Badgley for your whereabouts and he's convinced the King that you've been kidnapped. The King's agreed for him to lead an army here,” Taylor said, pausing for dramatic effect. “M'lady, they march on Castle Lively at dawn!”
Leighton released her, distraught by this ill news.
“The dog,” Sir Blake muttered, “I shall run him through!”
“Please, let me reason with him,” Leighton said with pleading eyes.
Sir Blake shook her head. “There's no reasoning with a dishonourable knave.” She glanced at Crawford, a glint of steely determination in her eyes. “Rally the men. We will stand our ground.”
As the sun slowly crested over the horizon, Leighton paced back and forth in her chambers. Located at the rear of the keep, she was safely ensconced in one of the sturdiest parts of the castle but, according to Taylor, Weswick's army numbered at least 150. While Sir Blake's men had heavy fortification and a vantage point in their favour, the odds were stacked against them - the guards totalled no more than 50 men.
There was an eerie silence; the calm before the storm. An attack was imminent but the worst part was waiting for it to begin. She'd seen Sir Blake only once in passing since Taylor's arrival, when the knight had stopped by her chambers to press an all-too-brief kiss to her lips before marching off to don her armour in preparation for the battle ahead.
“You must try to be calm, m'lady,” Taylor said, though she looked fairly terrified herself.
“How can I?” Leighton demanded, whirling to face her maid. “How can I stand by helplessly while that evil Westwick slaughters Sir Blake's men because of me? This is all my doing.”
“All we can do is pray.”
Leighton scoffed. “You pray, I'm going to help.”
“M'lady?” Taylor gaped as Leighton dashed from the room.
Since the men were all either on the ramparts or busily reinforcing the gatehouse, Leighton was able to make her way to the armoury freely. Once there she soon located an assortment of mail and armour pieces that would roughly fit someone of her size. Putting them on without assistance wasn't easy but she eventually got there, just as she heard the first volley of arrows whistling over the walls. Grabbing a shortbow and quiver full of arrows, Leighton charged as fast as the heavy burden of armour would allow to the courtyard where Sir Blake was barking orders to her men.
Already a couple had fallen to stray arrows but there was no one to be spared to tend to them. In the distance an ominous rumbling could be heard – the steady trundling wheels of a battering ram.
“My lord,” Leighton said, having to practically shout to be heard above the noise.
Sir Blake turned, startled. Another volley of arrows came and Sir Blake pushed Leighton up against a hard stone wall, shielding her from harm with her own body. After a moment the knight stepped back, grabbing Leighton by the shoulders and shaking her. “What were you thinking? Get back inside the keep.”
“No,” Leighton said with a firm shake of her head. “I can help.”
Sir Blake gave an unkind laugh. “How? Projectile needlework?”
“I'll have you know, Sir, that I can fire a bow as well as any man,” Leighton said, anger flaring in her eyes.
“Perhaps but I can't have you as a distraction. Now, please, return to your chambers.”
Deeming the conversation to be over, the knight turned away from Leighton, returning to her men to give further orders. Glowering, Leighton stomped away but she didn't return to the keep, instead she lingered under a shadowy archway.
She was damned if she was going to leave Sir Blake's side now.
It was only a matter of time before Westwick breached the drawbridge, footmen spilling across the battered, splintered wood to reach the portcullis. Lively's men managed to take out the first couple of waves by pouring cauldrons of boiling oil on them but soon the ram dented and warped the iron gate itself, enough for Westwick's troops to pile through the gap. The fighting began in earnest then.
The clang of swords rang out through the courtyard as Sir Blake and her men rushed headlong into the melee. Leighton watched, mesmerised, as Sir Blake sliced and diced her enemies, running them through and tossing them aside like rag dolls. She'd only ever witnessed the civilised side of combat, where knights fought with blunted weapons with the intent to overpower rather than to kill. This – true battle – was something vicious and beautiful.
If Leighton wasn't already half in-love with Sir Blake, she was now.
“You!” a voice bellowed above the din of clashing blades and Sir Blake turned to see Westwick barging past some of his men. “You and I have a score to settle.”
“About time you showed your face, you repugnant scullion,” Sir Blake sneered.
Face twisted in rage, Westwick ran at Sir Blake, swinging his sword recklessly. The men in the immediate vicinity shrank back to give them room and Sir Blake neatly dodged Westwick's lunging attack. For every thrust, Sir Blake parried. This only served to enrage Westwick further, his attacks becoming ever more erratic. Sir Blake, on the other hand, was calm in the face of this onslaught, conserving her energy, doing only enough to block each wild swing of Westwick's blade. Soon he would tire and then Sir Blake would press the advantage.
Unfortunately, she hadn't counted on Westwick's propensity for foul play. As she was parrying another of his relentless blows, one of his men struck her from behind and she stumbled to the ground, landing on her hands and knees.
“No!” she heard a familiar voice ring out and glanced up to see Leighton staring at her in abject horror from halfway up the steps to the gatehouse.
Sir Blake felt another blow connect with the base of her spine and she collapsed, sprawled out at the mercy of Westwick. She managed to turn onto her back with some effort but the sheer weight of her armour meant that she was helpless to get up unassisted.
Westwick's leering face filled her vision as he removed his helmet, the better to look down on her. “Any last words before I deliver you into the hands of Lucifer?”
Sir Blake was about to make some witty retort only to hear a whistling noise then a sudden splat. There, sticking out Westwick's left eye, was an arrowhead, the stalk of his eyeball skewered on the end of it. He teetered for a moment, his mouth falling open wordlessly, before he slumped to the ground beside her.
Quickly Sir Blake looked around for the unknown archer and her gaze immediately fell upon Leighton, bow held aloft and string pulled taut against her cheek. The entire courtyard fell deathly silent, all eyes turning to this slip of a girl who'd slain the King's commander.
Slowly Leighton stood and addressed the men before her in a strong, steady voice. “Your leader is dead. Return to your King and tell him this: I'm no hostage. I'm here of my own free will and I will not be taken from here by force while there's a breath left in my body, so help me God.”
Amazingly, the men did exactly that, leaving the castle in droves as fast as their legs would carry them.
When Leighton's eyes met Sir Blake's across the courtyard she expected to see reproach there. After all, she had blatantly disobeyed the knight's instructions. Instead there was admiration and something that made her knees tremble reflected back at her.
“That speech you made back there was quite impressive,” Sir Blake said, helping Leighton out of her armour in the sanctity of Sir Blake's personal chambers. “Is it safe to assume you'll be enjoying my hospitality for a while longer?”
“That depends. I haven't experienced the full extent of your hospitality yet,” Leighton replied with a saucy wink.
Sir Blake's eyes twinkled merrily though she tried to keep her composure. “Indeed. Perhaps we should pick up where we left off?”
“Well, it's only right that you show your gratitude for my saving your life.”
Freed from the confines of their armour, Sir Blake lifted Leighton and tossed her onto the nearby bed, earning a delighted giggle. “Oh, I should like to thank you,” Sir Blake grinned. “Often and repeatedly.”
Just as Sir Blake was about to kiss her, Leighton placed a finger over the knight's lips and nodded towards the door. “Don't worry, it's dead-bolted,” Sir Blake said against the digit before taking Leighton's finger into her mouth.
There weren't going to be any interruptions this time. Not unless anyone wanted to meet with the pointy end of the Vanilla Knight's sword.