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Royal Blood Excerpt from Royal Blood

by Rona Sharon



Chapter One

Tiltyard at Castle Tyrone, Ireland, 1518

"Again!"

The command was followed by a clap of thunder.

Michael slammed his visor shut and stormed into combat. Rain sheeted the marshy, torchlit lists, rendering him near blind. After hours of training, his arms throbbed from holding the lance and shield, his leg muscles burned with the effort of keeping his hot-blooded destrier at a straight gallop. The earth shook beneath the thundering stallions as mighty hoofs plowed through sludge. Dreading the collision and despising his fear, Michael couched his lance at his sinister opponent, armored in black steel cap-à-pie and bearing down on him like a dark chthonic force.

Aim low, then at the last moment strike the helm, the Earl of Tyrone's instructions resounded in Michael's head. Strike the helm, the helm . . . 

The shocking blow to his own helmet prized Michael out of the saddle. He crashed into the squelchy ground, whence he had risen moments before, in an ungainly heap of armored limbs.

Mud splotched the grille of his visor as massive hoofs reached his sprawled form and reared up, threatening to fossilize him in the midden. With an oath, Michael recoiled on capped elbows and spurs, glaring up at Sir Ferdinand, Lord Tyrone's shadow. "Blood from a stone!" the raspy voice mocked him. The raven visor turned toward the shrouded figure observing the joust from a recess inside the barbican. "Your incompetent sunflower is not ready! He will never be ready!"

Michael felt murderous. Yes, he had lost, again. But he could cudgel Ferdinand for drubbing him and then deprecating him to the great lord who had reared him as his own son and legal heir. Only killing Sir Ferdinand would be akin to slaying a mountain; the knight was indestructible.

Michael fell back on the pulpy alluvium, exhausted and dispirited. Rain drummed his visor; cool rivulets sluiced his face. The storm was gathering force. Dusk bled into night. Squinting at the donjon, its diamond panes glowing brightly beneath the darkening welkin, he fancied a long hot bucking by a roaring fire, a flagon of mulled wine, a juicy hunch of mutton, a pliant wench . . .

"Again!"

The terse order sliced through his aching head, jolting his battered bones. The varlets' strong hands hauled him up and set him aright. He wrenched himself free from their steadying grip and trudged, clanking, to the end of the course. Pippin, his manservant, bridled his horse. Archangel snorted, shook its armored head, and stomped its feet in protest, fetlocks deep in mud.

Michael gentled the destrier with petting and praise. "One last time, and we will have done, O great one. My word upon it."

He swung onto his weary horse with a metallic clang, his muscles groaning at the ongoing torture like rheumatic joints on a withered nun. Pippin handed him the lance and buckler with his usual word of encouragement. "You will fell him this time, master. I know you will."

"The left shoulder." Michael eyed his complacent adversary. "He protects his heart."

"A delicate heart, eh? Forsooth, that is a point in his favor, for I doubted he had one."

"Aye, 'tis black as his suit of armor -- and his soul."

"God smite him," Pippin muttered scathingly.

Michael steered Archangel to the starting line. The signal was given, and he was hurtling up the rain-battered course at full tilt, the sloughy ground quaking beneath Archangel's hoofs. The heart, the heart, Michael thought, focusing on the magnificently wrought black breastplate.

A heartbeat later, he was on his back in the muddy puddles. His left shoulder hurt as if it had been ripped from his body. He shut his eyes tightly. He felt . . .  routed, peppered, unworthy.

Sir Ferdinand drew rein, laughing viciously. "Mind your own heart next time, sunflower!"

The authoritative voice in the tower rumbled, "Put him on his feet and bring him to me!"

Michael, divested of his armor and a good deal of aplomb, leaked mud at the threshold to the castle's eyrie at the top of the bastion. His noble protector's preferred haunt was constructed after the Pantheon in Rome, an architectural marvel with a rounded dome and a skylight carved out of its center that formed an interior waterfall when it rained. A gilt gridiron set in the black marble floor drained the rainwater into the support pillar around which the tower stairwell spiraled and straight into the castle's water reservoir. Here, the Earl of Tyrone, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and England's bulwark against a Celtic uprising, came to study the heavens through his teleskopos.

A plethora of horn lanterns set in the rotund wall paid homage to marble busts of gods and emperors and to the arms man had wielded on battlefields since the birth of time: The twenty foot long sarissa Alexander the Great conquered Asia withal; the Roman gladius that taught the old Greek world Latin; the francisca that shattered the shields of the legionaries and catapulted the Roman Empire into darkness; the crushing Norse mjolnir, the bane of the Saxons, the Celts, the Franks, and the Iberians; the Mongol short bow that kept vast territories under Genghis Khan's thumb; and Don Álvaro de Zúñiga's innovative espada ropera, the light-blade ushering the future.

Tonight, as it rained, instead of standing beneath the center skylight, training a rock crystal on a comet, the earl prowled round the cascade. "Trounced today, battered yesterday, and barely held your own with the sword the day before. You outwit your tutors in every discipline. Why can you not outmaneuver Sir Ferdinand in combat? The annual chapter of the Noble Order of the Garter approaches, Michael. My honor is at stake here, as is the future of my house!"

Michael shifted restlessly, his gaze on his toecaps, his conscience trammeled by unpalatable failure. It took all he had to drudge up the galling admission. "He is stronger."

"Brains carry a man further than might, Michael! It would behoove you to know this!"

Setting his jaw, Michael lifted his eyes. "He knows my next move before I make it."

"Then outthink him, damn you! Can you not keep your thoughts under lock and key? Must the secrets of your mind be an open tome? Did I waste two decades of my life teaching you the quadrivium, training and instructing you in the games of kings to be thusly disillusioned?"

Michael remained silent.

"Ferdinand knows that the future of my house depends upon you. He pushes you to excel."

Michael bristled. "He pushes me to commit murder, my lord."

"Alas, my only son was destroyed on a foreign battlefield years gone, and the gods have not blessed me with other offspring -- until you came along. Your noble sire, who fought like a lion and died for his king at Blackheath during the Cornish rebellion, had sworn me to take his son, begotten off a second wife, and raise him as I would mine own, for fear his heir would reject a half-sibling. He did not swear me to embrace you to my loving bosom and set you up as my legal heir, but I saw a bright-eyed lad, quick and sharp and steeled. I thought, 'Here be my son, here be the man unto whom I shall bequeath my lands, chattels, and the honor of my name, my heart and soul and all that I am! Here be my future!'" The earl circled the waterfall, hands clasped behind his back. "I did not expect you to fell Sir Ferdinand. He is stronger, a bloody-minded bull who would sooner crush a lit candle than snuff it out. He has fought a thousand battles and lived. I expected you to persist! To take his blows and jolt his confidence! That was the point of the exercise! Now you come to me with your head downcast, all pity-pleading and beaten . . ."

Stoically Michael straightened his back. He had his lord's inches now, yet, heart-burned, he felt shorter than a mouse. Tyrone gazed at him grumpily, fondly. "Ferdinand has his weaknesses, greater than yours. I want you to attend this year's knightly chapter. It is important to me."

Michael blinked in surprise. "You would still send me to court?"

"I would send a champion!" Tyrone's dark eyes glinted. "Swift, cunning, and ruthless in his devotion to me! Indomitable. Unstoppable. Relentless. Are you this man? Or has the precocious boy I have nurtured to become the seventh Earl of Tyrone traded his tiger spots for a plumule?"

Michael sensed without being told that his lord and mentor expected more than words from him, an assurance of sorts, some proof of his commitment and wherewithal.

"The greatest battles are not won on battlefields, Michael. They are predetermined in council chambers and ladies' beds, in courtly banquets and tournaments, in the nursery and . . . up here!" He tapped his temple with a finger. "An illustrious general may win the battle and lose the war. In contrast, a downtrodden soldier who takes the worst punishment and rallies for another battle will triumph in the end. Remember the Battle of Cannae, Michael. When the Carthaginian army led by Hannibal slaughtered Varro's army on Italian soil, the Romans, incapable of stomaching defeat, withdrew, recovered, and returned at full strength to ultimately obliterate Carthage to all eternity. Survival is the key. If beaten, retreat, regroup, and rally -- and never ever give!"

"Give what, my lord?"

"Give up, give in, give out . . . Never! Till your last drop of blood! Do you understand?"

"I do." Michael swallowed. "Command me to London, my lord. I will do you credit."

"You will pledge it? You will do for me as I did for you?"

"More. I swear it."

"Upon your honor, you will serve none but me and let not temptation lead you astray?"

"Temptation, my lord? What could possibly tempt me to violate my pledge to you?"

Tyrone's mouth twisted wryly. "Think you I am ignorant of how you soothe your mind and body at night? You spill your vigor into wenches and souse your head with wine. You grin?"

Michael schooled his features. He could have sworn he had curbed the very emergence of a grin. Yet his lord was a master at diving thoughts. "I had as lief die than fail you, my lord."

"Attend me, Michael. The rule at court is simple: Enthrall but do not love; be loved but do not become any man or woman's thrall. Be a Spartan in an Athenian pelt, or all will be lost."

"I know my duty." Michael drew his dagger and knelt before the earl. "In blood I pledge my ever-binding fealty to you." He fisted the sharp-edged blade and was about to wrench it hard.

"Spare your hand. You will have need of it." Tyrone seized the dagger and walked over to a table laden with a gold chalice. "Come. Let us observe the proper rite of initiation. My son."

The above is an excerpt from the book Royal Blood by Rona Sharon. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Rona Sharon, author of Royal Blood