Secrets of the Court: Chapter 19

 February 15th - Wessport

The storm of the night had swept past the region swiftly, discharging the cold tension in the air. Powerful winds had mixed with the heavy downfall of snowflakes, darting to the ground while thunder and lightning danced around Wessport.

It was still early morning. Many had gone to their beds after the winds had calmed and lightning and thunder had ceased. But there were still those who roamed the apartments and halls of the palace. There were those who could not sleep, for their minds and souls alike were weighed heavy. Daybreak was but a few hours away. A duel to the death was soon to take place in the white vastness that stretched out beyond Wessport.

Little was said in the parlor as Christine Vega paced around, sleep evading her at every moment. Tristan was sitting in front of the fire, sharpening his dress sword, knowing fully well that it would not be Alistair's weapon of choice. But the monotonous action calmed him.

After everything they had been through, they were surprised that no tension occupied the vast space of the room. Only worry. Christine did not doubt Tristan's abilities. Her eyes searched for him—a shadow against the flames that licked the inner walls of the fireplace. She was certain he would do everything in his power to beat Alistair.

The events of the previous days made themselves known in his mind and now all came crashing down quickly around him. Athar's revelation was still fresh, too much for him to process all at once. Magnus had usurped his brother Philip. Philip had a third daughter who, together with unknown men of the court, conspired to overthrow James and claim Angloa.

Christine looked at him with his back relaxed, for the first time in a long time. His hands guided the stone up and down against the blade, the sound of metal and stone clashing. She smiled, a warm feeling spreading within her as her eyes rested on him.

Tristan had said nothing after returning from interrogating Athar. But whatever had been said between him and Athar, she could not read it in his countenance. He masked it so well that if she didn't know better, she thought he was at ease.

"One would think you are to attend a picnic, not a duel," she smiled sadly as she sat down next to him. His lips tugged upward as he worked on the sword. Anne was preparing Tristan's clothes. His old military garb had been brought out of its confinement, the tailored clothes and mourning regalia were cast aside. A few hours before dawn, Anne went to fetch Fawkes, Rajac, and Joseph. The three of them would ride to the meadow, meeting Alistair and Braun. Tristan did not doubt that there would be a substantial crowd. He knew Christine would want to go. He had never given his permission, but some part of him knew the stubborn young woman would not listen.

"A duel in winter, fighting in the deep snow. There has to be a first time for everything," he said looking at Christine. She unknowingly inched closer to him as the magical time before dawn neared. It was the moment before the sun rose, when the black sky became soft as the colors of early morning slowly melted into it—painting a picture no painter would ever capture, however hard they tried. She placed her hand on his, her action making him stop. He let go of the wet stone and put down the sword, directing his gaze at her.

"After this duel, let us go home," she said, her eyes glittering with further unspoken words. There was longing in her voice as she said the last word. Outside of the palace, the dark sky was slowly turning, the astronomical dawn changing the gradient of the heavens. Black slowly morphed into lighter hues of blue closer to the horizon. It was soon time to depart, yet the couple wanted to stay as they were, in the other's company.

"Home." Tristan savored the word. He thought of only one place: Cadherra. It was home now. As he looked at Christine, he knew that it was there he wanted to go, with her. He smiled, his eyes crinkling slightly at the edges and the depths of the endless sky in his eyes lit up as the light shone through them.

She revelled silently in their closeness and took in his scent—pine, earth, and sandalwood. Her lips curled into a soft smile as she rested her head on his shoulder, staring into the fire. Yes, she could sit like this forever. Tristan's chin came to rest on her head, he wrapped his arm around her, afraid at first. Maybe she would shy away. But when she didn't move, he came to understand that Christine wouldn't shy away from him anymore. His heart sped up as his arm wrapped around her further and his hand came to rest in hers, their fingers lacing together.

"You know," her soft voice said, melting into the present like a soft ray of sunshine finding its way through a bolted window. "I always wondered," she continued as her smile grew bigger. "Why it is we have yet to be wed?"

It hadn't seemed so bold a question in her mind, but the moment she asked it her heart skipped a beat. The steady warm breath on her hair grew slightly faster—as did his heartbeat. She could feel it, being so close to him. Come to think of it, sitting like this had been natural to them, but only now did they realize how close they were. Tristan relaxed after a while and she could hear the smile in his voice.

"I was waiting," he said in a light tone.


“For you to come and ask me to call it off.” There it was again; that soft voice, the syllables rolling off his tongue like sweet honey. Friendly and inviting, and strangely familiar, as if she had always known him.

She squeezed his hand and sighed. "I wanted to… at first…" she trailed off, not really knowing what to say.

"You should not have to wed me…only to be granted access once more to Adelton. Cadherra was never mine to begin with. After the duel, I will speak with James," he said slowly. There was a hint of restraint in his voice. Christine felt guilty. "I wanted to give you an opportunity to break off the engagement—if you ever felt the need."

Christine didn't know when it had changed. But she knew one thing, she wanted to be with Tristan. There were still many things she didn't know about him, but they had a lifetime to learn about each other. He had given her room to decide, and she had made her decision. She couldn't see herself with anyone else. She didn't care that she'd never seen his face, she didn't care if he was disfigured or considered himself unappealing.

"I do not wish to call it off," Christine said. It was a soft whisper, dancing through the air like the flames in the fireplace. The light on the horizon was slowly trailing up the night sky, pushing away the stars to ready it for the arrival of the sun. To her surprise, she noticed his heart speed up again as Tristan tensed. His head shifted, leaving hers and looking down at her face. She twisted hers so that she was staring up into his eyes, a myriad of questions shining through them.

"You wish to get married?" he asked in utter disbelief. He never thought in a million years that Christine would push the conversation in such a direction. Then, despite himself, a sly smile grew on his lips. "You're not saying this because you believe Alistair will win, are you?" he teased. Christine chuckled.

"We have been engaged since November, my lord. I have had time to adjust." She never admitted to caring for him, but they both knew. Words did not have to be spoken to express such a thing. She was surprised when Tristan seemed conflicted by her words.

"I always suspected that you would break off the engagement," he confessed. He dared caress her face, his thumb trailing softly along her cheek. "I...I cannot give you everything—" 

Christine placed a reassuring hand on his cheek as well.

"I am certain that I will come to know one day what hides under your mask. But I accept that you have to wear it, and I will accept whatever lies underneath it. However foul or horrid you might think yourself without it, I do not care. I know you, my lord," she assured him.

His expression softened as his thumb trailed to her lips. Without knowing it, Tristan started leaning in.

Suddenly, a knock broke the spell in the room. Tristan got up before Anne entered, swiftly followed by Fawkes, Rajac, Durun, and Joseph.

"It is time, Hawthorne," came the tense voice of Fawkes as he leaned through the entry, dressed in his military garb as well. Christine stood up next to Tristan, her hands gathered in front of her as a frown grew on her face.

"Already?" There were so many things left unsaid, so many things she wanted to talk with Tristan about.

"Yes, my lady," Rajac's voice said as he threw Tristan a piece of bread. "You should eat something on the way." The melancholy faces stared at him. They wanted to believe in him, but it seemed only Joseph continued to have faith in Tristan's abilities. Tristan looked at the bread and then at Christine. He swiftly pulled his cape around him and went to say his goodbyes with a small bow.

The five men left the parlor while the sky turned from midnight blue to softer hues as the sun was no more than an hour away. The horizon was a lighter blue and gradually changed into an orange tone.

Anne asked if Christine would like some breakfast as the door closed after the men. However, Christine disregarded her maid and went to her chamber and dressed in warmer clothes—a beige gown lined in gray fur with a deep hood. She found her gloves and a warm wool shawl to throw around her shoulders. When she entered the parlor Anne stood there, dumbfounded.

"Where is m'lady going at this hour?"

"To the duel. Where else?" Christine said matter-of-factly.

"But did not his lordship state that you were not allowed to go earlier?"

"We both know I am going either way. You may stay here or come with me, the choice is yours, Anne. I am not making you do anything you do not want to do."

Anne stared at Christine and then at the floor, shaking her head. "I cannot allow you to go, m'lady. I must ask you to stay here," Anne drawled as she came to stand in front of the door. Her eyes grew thrice when Christine promptly pushed her out of the way.

The road before them stretched into the woods. Morrow's Glade lay just ahead. It was a quaint clearing heavily visited by the local gentry during the summer months but it lay abandoned when the snow coated the land.

Tristan sat on Cid and swayed with the gait of his mount. Even now, moments before his confrontation with Alistair, his mind could only drift to other events. Christine, Athar, the king, Angloa, and conspiracy were all that occupied his mind. He paid little attention to Alistair.

But as they silently waded through the dunes of snow — the steady muted sound of hooves hitting the ground echoing — Tristan clenched his jaw. What Athar had revealed would change the whole political structure of Wessport. Athar had been framed, someone knew of his importance as an advisor and mentor to the king. James needed to know of Athar's innocence and prepare for a hostile takeover, a takeover that Tristan was certain would happen soon.

After his conversation with the old duke, Tristan had tried in vain to gain an audience with the king. When Tristan returned from the dungeons, asking to see the monarch, he had been denied access by the guards. James had retired for the night and wanted no visitors. Tristan grew frustrated and had at one point tried to force his way through only to be threatened with a dungeon cell himself.

"It seems we shall have a clear day," muttered Fawkes tiredly. No cloud graced the heavens. The old general was indeed weary. His closest friend was locked away with charges of high treason, and he was to be Tristan's second. Fawkes was torn, he wanted to rush to Athar's side and help persuade James, but he knew deep in his heart that his words had little importance against the overwhelming evidence. Yet, Fawkes chose to believe in Athar and his innocence.

"How is he?" It was so muted that the words almost wnet by unnoticed at first. But Tristan heard them, his head snapping in the direction of the general. Fawkes and the other men that rode with him were the only ones, except Christine, who knew he had visited Athar.

"Better than expected, considering…" Tristan trailed off. He didn't know what else to say.

After that small exchange, they settled into a tense silence, keeping quiet as their horses took them further into the woods. The sky was now golden. High up over the horizon, some stars still shone down on them, twinkling faintly as gold and orange hues blended with each other.

They finally made it to their destination. The trees surrounding the glade were covered in thick frost and no sign of animal life could be seen or heard. Soon, however, the stillness of the morning was broken by the sound of horses and sleighs.

Half of the palace's courtiers had journeyed from the upper circle to the outskirts of the city, just for a glimpse of the duel between Tristan Hawthorne and Matthew Alistair. Ladies and gentlemen of the court were dressed in finery as they descended their sleighs or got off their horses. The usual chatty aristocrats seemed more nervous than the participants of the duel.

Lord Alistair arrived with his ensemble as well, setting up their spot on the other side of the glade. It was almost like an arena where two gladiators were about to fight to the death. Instead of dry sand and a screaming crowd, they had knee-high snow and silent onlookers, there out of curiosity, not for the bloodshed.

Tristan stared at the circle where he and Alistair would fight and he felt the electric tension in the air as the anticipation of the fight neared. He could only smile, eager to take Alistair head-on, like a matador facing a ruthless bull in the ring.

They had a pageboy take care of their horses as they got together to talk about the duel. It was time to plan a strategy and how to best go about it.

Soon, in the middle of the glade, two figures stepped up and spoke. It was General Fawkes and Lord Savoie, setting the terms and conditions for the fight. Tristan was surprised that Braun wasn't there. He was Lord Alistair's second, after all.

"My lord, where is Lord Braun?" asked Fawkes curtly as he stepped up to meet the Frenchman.

"Unable to attend due to illness, I am afraid," responded Savoie in an equal tone. Fawkes accepted it with a nod. Savoie pushed the pleasantries aside. "Lord Alistair chooses combat by longsword."

"So be it. The duel will be until the first blood is drawn," Fawkes said, his eyes narrowing. Both men were not too keen on finding themselves on the opposite end of the fight. Fawkes respected Savoie as much as Savoie respected Fawkes. They shook hands and parted ways.

Tristan stood on one side of the glade with some of his new friends by his side, speaking in whispers with him. He mostly ignored their words. A faded rug in woven hay had been placed on the ground for him to stand on. Two flags, one on each side, representing his coat-of-arms. They flapped proudly in the soft wind. It was what Lucius had suggested to Tristan months ago, when he was proclaimed as a titled lord — that he should embrace the name he had gained during the war with the English. Thus, the coat-of-arms of Lord Hawthorne was that of a simple black and white Lion's head.

On the other side, Alistair sat down in a wooden chair, with a similar rug on the snow-covered ground and two flags representing his heraldry. Around the glade, footmen and pages had swiftly lit torches, placing them in the snow to light up the partially dark space. Dawn was swiftly approaching, but it was still hard to see well.

They all took the time to once again go through each fighter's best choice in combat style.

As each minute passed, more and more people came by horse, sleigh, or even walking. The whole glade was soon encircled by curious onlookers. Although dueling was allowed, it was not common practice to have such a crowd. It appeared more as if they were hosting summer games and jousting instead of a duel.

"It will be by sword," said Fawkes as he reached Tristan. Tristan's long black cape flapped in the wind as he looked over a small stack of swords without a word. Rajac, Durun, and Fawkes had provided him with their fair selections of weapons. Tristan eyed the wide variety of swords. Fawkes walked up by him, looking at the weapons that had been placed on the wooden rig.

"Alistair will most likely choose a Zweihänder; a double-handed longsword. It has always been his weapon of choice and what he is most comfortable with."

The wind tore at the cape and there was a rising tension as the masked man had yet to choose his weapon. "I have more experience with a one-handed weapon, such as a dress sword." Fawkes' eyebrows knitted together, they had spoken of this before.

"How did you survive up at Castell fighting off the English then?" he asked.

"I managed," Tristan answered tersely. Fawkes sighed, but the old man said nothing. His eyes wandered to the surrounding crowd and by a sleigh, he managed to spot a much too familiar face by now. He saw Christine Vega, standing alone next to a horse. A serious look was plastered on her face and her jaw grew tense. She had come there to watch or support her fiancé. But no one seemed to notice her presence, and Fawkes did not wish to alert Tristan, for she might distract him.

"You would do well in choosing a longsword as well, my lord. A dress sword would be shattered instantly by the Zweihänder." Tristan viewed the selection once more and selected a lighter longsword. It was sharpened and had a handle ending in a flattened knob with inscriptions in Latin. Black leather encircled the handle itself, offering a better grip for the wielder. He felt the weight of the weapon in his hand as if considering it.

"Where is Braun? Was he not Alistair's second?" asked Tristan hastily as his eyes jumped around the meadow.

"He is not able to attend, due to an illness. Savoie was asked to replace him instead," said Fawkes. Tristan kept looking at the sword pensively.

"Strange, is it not?" he said after a pregnant pause.

"What is?"

Tristan swept a hand over the crowd, motioning at its sheer size.

"This duel," he turned to Fawkes. "I find this whole situation strange—the absence of Alistair's original second, such a large crowd…" he trailed off. He watched as Fawkes' face suddenly paled when he understood what Tristan was implying.

"The palace stands practically empty for I even see some guards and soldiers here," Tristan continued to point out.

"You suspect an attack on the palace?"

"The plans Cardinal Thorpe presented against Athar when he was charged with treason were real, that much I know. There were elaborate plans to attack the palace, and they just managed to remove one of the men that had the power to stop it. And as for the rest of us — you and I included — they managed to coax us out here under the premise of a duel," Tristan said, fuming at his own foolishness. He had no doubt Alistair had wanted him to issue a challenge. Tristan had practically seen to it himself that the palace stood empty.

"How... how can you be certain of this?" Fawkes asked and quickly continued when he received no answer from Tristan. "We cannot leave now," Fawkes murmured, his eyes glancing at the crowd, still growing in number. "This is just speculation on your part, isn't it?" Tristan never responded to that either. He couldn't confide all he knew in Fawkes, not yet.

"Joseph!" Tristan said, the other man hastily making his way over to them. Tristan turned and looked at Fawkes. "We only need one man to confirm that something is amiss at the palace and we rush over there in a heartbeat." Joseph came up to them, a confused look on his face.

"Forgive me for asking this of you for I know you wish to be here, but I need a favor. I need you to ride back to the palace as fast as your horse can carry you and look out for any unusual activity."

"Unusual activity?" Joseph asked.

"You know what I mean," Tristan said. It was enough for Joseph to understand. He sneaked a glance at Fawkes, not knowing how much Tristan had confided in the older general. Joseph stepped closer to Tristan, jittery, knowing something big was about to happen.

"And if I do stumble upon some unusual activity?" he whispered, his large, dark eyes searching Tristan's for answers. Joseph had never shown it, but the more he found out together with Tristan, the more unsettled he became. He couldn't understand how the other was so calm on the outside.

"You get away from there and return to me immediately. Do not try to interfere on your own."

"You think they will attack now?"

"I know they will. I just need a final piece of confirmation," Tristan growled in low tones as his eyes drifted to Alistair. He was ready.

Fawkes kept glancing at Alistair in disbelief as Joseph ran for his horse unnoticed.

"Lord Alistair is a traitor?" Fawkes could not believe it.

"That is what I want to unveil," Tristan said "I can play this game as well." He then rose a gloved hand, signaling that he was ready. Savoie accepted and informed Alistair.

Dawn was now minutes away. Christine stood alone in the crowd, realizing Fawkes had recognized her so she pulled the deep hood over her head. She didn't want to distract Tristan as he fought. Anne had put up quite the resistance as Christine had pushed past her. The brunette had rushed after her, even calling some guards to help keep her there. Christine had been quicker, running as fast as her legs could carry her to the stables where she'd taken the first saddled horse she could find. Only later did she discover that said horse — a mare with caramel coat and white mane — was the favored horse of Lady Monica Savoie. It had only been all the more reason for Christine to steal the horse to venture to Morrow's Glade.

Christine shivered, not just from the cold, but also from fear and excitement. She wished she had someone to share her doubts and fears with at that moment. However, the young woman put her faith in Tristan. As she saw him towering over the many weapons he could choose, she grew considerably calm. Christine knew Alistair was good, but she suspected Tristan was better. Something in the pit of her stomach told her as much. It was time she started to fully trust in him and his abilities.

The horizon had taken a reddish tint as the sun now peeked up from behind it. The fiery globe was slowly rising in the sky as the daylight reached Wessport. The stars had disappeared, and the forest grew deathly silent.

Tristan shredded his bulky doublet and leather jerkin, only wearing a thin cotton shirt. It would allow him more movement but less protection. He felt the weight of the sword in his hands once more.

"Take him down," Fawkes spat, contempt shining in his eyes as he glared at Alistair. If Alistair had somehow caused Athar's imprisonment, Fawkes wanted to watch the man suffer endlessly. His uncharacteristic remark sent Rajac's eyebrows arching into his hairline. He offered Tristan some encouraging words as well.

"The day is yours, Hawthorne," Simon Rajac said, his poetic remark coaxing a small smile from the masked man.

The torches around the tree line were not needed anymore, but the fire in each of them still danced as the soft wind picked up the flames. The sun rose higher with each passing second. As Tristan prepared to go out onto the field Fawkes stopped him.

"I do not know what will happen out there. I will not lie, I have had my doubts, but I choose to ignore them and put my full trust in you, Hawthorne. For you have shown me again and again that there is more to you than meets the eye. But, with that said, if anything were to happen to you know that I will look after young Lady Vega and make sure nothing happens to her. You have my word." Fawkes hand was outstretched and opened, waiting for Tristan to give him the old Angloan handshake. The masked man did not need to respond, the look in his eyes said it all—surprise, appreciation, and respect. He took Fawkes' hand in his own and both men parted ways.

Durun was the last to wish Tristan luck. "Do not roughen him up too much, Hawthorne. His corpse needs to be identifiable after this," the young man joked as he sent the count on his way. They then watched in anticipation as he stepped out onto the snow-covered field.

Alistair briefly spoke with Savoie and some other lords on his side. Tristan snickered as he saw the pompous fool with his sword by his side. Alistair dressed as if he was going to attend a ball. The young lord was wearing a doublet in ruby red with matching hoses. His boots extended well beyond his knees. He looked like a peacock ready to parade before the crowd.

When Alistair saw Tristan he snickered at him as well. The man dressed in black, as if still in mourning. Alistair would shred his simple clothing to pieces as he cut away at Tristan with his sharpened sword. But what Alistair wanted the most was to tear away the mask from that proud fool. He would revel in the sight of the once proud and arrogant man bared and defeated for all to see. Alistair would show Tristan's true self, probably a scarred and hideous face.

The tension between them was unbearable. They both noted the depth of the snow, reaching just below their knees. It would be hard to fight in, but none made a remark about it.

The soft murmur of the crowd died.

The Glade was eerily silent, only the flutter of fabric could be heard as the soft winds pushed through the trees.

"I hope you have put your affairs in order, Hawthorne," Alistair said smugly as he did a final inspection of his sword, eager to sink the metal deep into the flesh of the other.

"Likewise," Tristan muttered, not certain where Alistair's eagerness to talk suddenly came from.

"It shall be a thrill to see you beg for your life when I am done with you," Alistair continued. He was about to say something else when Tristan pointed his sword at him.

"Less talking, more fighting, Alistair."

The sun was now over the horizon and illuminated the glade, the naked trees cast soft shadows on the white snow as both men stared.

Alistair narrowed his eyes, getting into a fighting stance. Both were ready as their seconds signaled for the duel to commence.

All was quiet for a while. Somewhere, a bird chirped, singing to its heart's content as the beautiful morning revealed itself in the delicate rays of the sun. The public stared at the scene before them, holding their breath as they waited for the clash of blades.

Alistair was the first to strike, his sword crashing hard down on Tristan's. The steel ripped a loud echo through the meadow, the sound stronger due to the tense silence.

Tristan blocked the attack, pushing Alistair away. The other lost his footing, grunting in the process.

Tristan came to his side, pushing the sword away again, aiming for his throat. It was by sheer luck that Alistair managed to block the metal before it sank into his flesh.

They danced around each other, no one ever really managing to touch the other. The clash of steel upon steel was the only sound in the meadow as both men attacked. Soon, however, Alistair started emitting sounds of frustration as he found that he could not reach Tristan. The arrogant young man reverted to fouler tricks the more tired and frustrated he got.

At one moment, Alistair swept his feet under Tristan's, tumbling him to the ground, putting all his weight into the next thrust of his Zweihänder.

Tristan gritted his teeth as the sword came down hard on his. His own weapon came up over his chest, parrying the attack. One hand held the handle while the other was at the other end of the sword, near the tip, to keep the metal from slicing into him. Both men could hear the public gasp as the fight turned around. Alistair could not help himself and he pushed on the sword further — Tristan fighting to keep its side away from his neck. The other man put his whole weight on it and took delight in watching Tristan fight against him. He knew he had him then and there and he savored every second of it.

"Know that once I have killed you and revealed your pathetic face, I will take delight in going after that little wench of yours," he whispered into Tristan's ear. He was breathing heavily from the strain of the fight. Tristan felt the sharp edge of his own sword cut into his gloved hand, slowly slicing through the leather.

"Not if I have anything to say about it, nor James, Fawkes, or anyone in their decent mind," Tristan struggled. He kept pushing against Alistair, who was practically on top of him. Alistair's devilish smile only widened as his glittering eyes crinkled at the edges.

"They will not be able to do much for they will be occupied with other things," Alistair said enigmatically.

Tristan's eyes widened. "What do you mean?"

Alistair chuckled, he liked the look of sudden surprise in Tristan's eyes. It made him feel powerful, seeing the other squirm under him, like a lamb before a wolf.

"Too bad you will not live to see it," Alistair grinned, pushing against the sword. The edge was a hair's breadth away from Tristan's neck as pearls of sweat started forming under his mask. A few seconds passed as Alistair could see how Tristan processed everything.

"This duel is a ruse," Tristan struggled as his arms started shaking. The people around watched astonished as Alistair was moments away from slicing his throat open. How could a man so easily defeated in single-hand combat have won against the English?

Christine watched shaking as Alistair was about to end her fiancé's life. Whispers were exchanged as the crowd watched in utter bewilderment and disbelief. The wind tore at the naked crowns of the trees just as the fires of the torches danced even more violently. Fawkes' eyes widened just as his brows knitted together. He had no idea what Tristan was doing—why on earth was he talking to Alistair when he was so close to being sliced down? None could hear the words both of them exchanged.

"I thought you would have realized it sooner—"

"You are the ones plotting against James. Lord Braun is in on it as well. That is why he is absent. He is leading a raid against the palace under your command while you keep me here, as well as more than half of the court," Tristan struggled to say, the sword inching closer and closer. It now rested against his throat, slowly pressing against it. The sharp edge of his own sword cut through his leather glove and pressed painfully against his bare hand. Hot pain shook his nerves as droplets of blood fell to the snow. Blood had been drawn, but that wasn't enough for Alistair. He wanted Tristan's blood to paint the whole field of the meadow red.

"Very perceptive. I see Athar got to speak with you, in the end. You flatter me but I am not the one leading this fight. Lord Braun has done the impossible to see this through," Alistair said, proud to reveal the elaborate plan he had taken part in. "James will be removed from the throne and this court will be cleansed. People like you and Vega do not belong in Wessport," Alistair spat with a crazed expression.

They struggled, Alistair chuckled as he pressed his entire weight on his sword while Tristan felt his arms give out.

A brief second passed as Alistair prepared to end Tristan's life. Then, like flipping a switch, Alistair sensed how the countenance of the man under his blade swiftly changed.

The expression of pain and fear in Tristan's eyes was replaced by a calm fury that Alistair had only seen one time before—the time Tristan had issued the duel. How could that be? The man lying before him was about to die, a sword against his throat. All Alistair had to do was to give an extra push and the metal would cut through the throat and it would all end. Any other man would be struggling in panic as he realized his time had come. Yet, Tristan’s lips curled upward into a vicious smile.

"You speak too much, Alistair," Tristan grunted with a smirk as he got a knee under Alistair, pushing him off over his head in one swift, elegant move. Alistair could only widen his eyes as he flew over Tristan, landing hard as his face crashed into the snow.

Tristan got up casually and stood waiting for Alistair patiently. The crowd stared in disbelief.

Alistair struggled to rise to his feet and turned around, charging fast against Tristan. He side-stepped and his hand pushed on Alistair's back, making him fall yet again. A small chuckle rose in the onlookers. Their laughter made Alistair grow furious as he got back up again. He ran in pure rage toward Tristan like a crazed bull, ready to strike with his sword. But the metal never found the other as Tristan effortlessly avoided every single attack in a series of quick motions. Tristan tripped Alistair once more. The chuckle from the crowd grew as it was evident Tristan had been toying with Alistair the entire time.

"Did you really think it would be that easy?" Tristan said roughly, smirking as Alistair stared at him confused.

"You were losing on purpose?" Alistair exclaimed as the cogs in his head turned.

"I had to prove a theory, which you just confirmed," Tristan said. "Athar has spent years at this court, trying to reveal who has been conspiring against James. You just revealed the plan, the mastermind, and when he will follow through with said plan." Tristan gave a sinister grin, watching as the other soon came to realize his grave mistake. Because of his arrogance, Alistair had given everything away.

"N-No matter," Alistair tried to save face, "I will end your life, Hawthorne, one way or another. You do not belong in Wessport, and Cadherra does not belong to you! You should have known your place and declined the title which was bestowed upon you."

"I am not the one betraying my king and country."

Alistair boiled at the man before him. He rose his sword and set out to cut him down.

It happened so fast that many of them didn't catch it. Christine stared in bewilderment, many around her drew deep breaths and whispered in disbelief amongst themselves. Fawkes' jaw dropped while Simon Rajac had a growing smile on his face.

In the blink of an eye, Tristan dropped his sword, ducking as Alistair charged at him. He took the other man's wrist and squeezed it — thus making Alistair drop his own sword. Tristan then landed such a hard punch on Alistair's face that it sent him flying back—clutching his broken nose while his blood spilled on the ground.

Alistair lay in the snow, screaming profanities at the masked man who calmly picked up the swords, pointing them both at Alistair.

"I told you the day I challenged you, Alistair, that I would make you pay. I am a man of my word," Tristan growled — all hint of lighthearted amusement and sarcasm gone now.

"W-Wait, Hawthorne! You would not kill an unarmed man!" Alistair uttered in a foolish attempt to save his own neck. It was loud enough for them all to hear. Tristan didn't care and prepared to push the sword through the other man's heart. Tears started forming in the corners of Alistair's eyes as they mixed with the blood that still emerged from his broken nose.

"Please! I yield, I yield! Mercy!" he begged, putting up his hands. But Tristan had no mercy left.

Before Tristan could go any further a familiar voice emerged from the crowd.


Tristan recognized Christine's voice before seeing her. The undertone of relief at his victory did not go unnoticed. Tristan's eyes never truly left Alistair's but they did grow harsher as he saw relief in Alistair's eyes at the sound of Christine's voice.

She stepped out from the crowd, all eyes on her. The morning air was cold and fresh, biting at her exposed skin. She waded through the deep snow, carefully nearing Tristan.

"That is enough, he yielded. Blood has been drawn long ago, my lord," she said. There was a look of disdain in her eyes as she looked at Alistair, a disgusted frown extending over her features.

"He deserves no mercy, he is a traitor," Tristan said through gritted teeth. The remark made Christine's eyes widen but that was not the main issue at hand. The public watched in awe as she neared both men. No one made a move to stop her—the thrill was too high to stop it now. Not even Fawkes intervened.

"Then let the king's justice take care of him," she said as she placed a careful hand on his arm, urging him to lower the swords. The look in his eyes frightened her, but it did not deter her.

"The same justice will cause Thomas Athar — an innocent man — to lose his life," Tristan said through gritted teeth. The tip of the sword now rested on Alistair's chest, slowly plunging into him and drawing blood as it cut through the fabric. Alistair begged him to listen to Christine, apologizing again and again. But Tristan would have none of it. He pushed Christine aside, determined to end the life of the man in front of him.

"Tristan, please!"

The words made him stop cold. The weapon had glided shy of an inch into the flesh of Alistair who squirmed at the cold touch of the metal. Tristan swiftly removed the sword and stared at Christine.

It was the first time she had ever spoken his name. The syllables rolled off her tongue like sweet honey.

"This duel was started because Lord Alistair insulted us both, is that not so?" she asked, receiving a faint nod from Tristan. "Then do not shed blood in my name, do not disgrace yourself on my behalf."

They stood there in the early February morning. The cold pressed hard against them as the winds of winter picked up speed. The crowd watched again as Tristan slowly removed the sword from Alistair—the hunger and lust for blood slowly fading in his eyes. Alistair breathed out in relief. Tristan stepped away, approaching Christine.

"Thank you," she whispered, replacing her hand on his arm, gratitude showing in her eyes.

The crowd stared dumbfounded as they realized that Tristan had been victorious. First, they did not know what to do. Should they stay? Should they leave? But then some men started exchanging money and soon all bets were being taken care of. Tristan looked at them in disgust as the true colors of the court showed. For them, this matter was only cheap entertainment.

Well then, he would entertain them.

He walked toward Alistair again who was nursing the wound on his chest while lamenting his broken nose.

"Get up," Tristan growled. Alistair cowered the moment he saw the taller man nearing with his weapon still in hand. The defeated man did as he bade without a second thought for he knew he was in deep trouble. Yet, he'd rather choose to confront Lord Braun or even the king than Tristan at that moment. Alistair started getting up only to be stopped by Tristan again.

"Not all the way, stay on your knees."

Tristan then asked Christine to come to his side. The public was once more paying attention to them, curious as to what was taking place. Christine went to stand beside Tristan, confused yet curious about what he was about to do. When she stood in front of Alistair, Tristan stepped aside.

"I won this duel for my honor and Lady Vega's. But I am not entirely satisfied," he began nonchalantly while strolling around Alistair in slow steps. "You will bow your head and give your deepest apology to her for the insults you have spoken against her. You will also ask for her mercy and only hope she forgives you. If she decides it, I will skin you like the pig you are."

Alistair mumbled something intangible. His whole body started shivering as images of what Tristan might do to him sprung up in his mind. Alistair suddenly felt the tip of a sword against his throat and gulped.

"I did not hear you," came the menacing growl.

"I was wrong in calling you, my lady, a wench and I can only ask for your forgiveness," Alistair said loud and clear. The words were so forced that they almost seemed like a shout.

Christine gazed down at him from where she stood. He was kneeling in front of her in the deep snow, covered in it, mixing with the blood from his broken nose and wounded chest. He bared his neck for her as he did not even have the decency to look her in the eye. Christine knew that Alistair was a man without honor. But she also knew that he was the court fool, and she had little to gain from seeing him killed. She did not want his blood to be spilled for her, and she did not want Tristan to mercilessly kill.

She nodded, never voicing acceptance of the apology. The duel was officially over—Tristan had emerged the champion, demonstrating skills in combat none of them had ever thought possible in him. He had toyed around with Alistair for something and the moment he had gained whatever information he sought, the tables had turned.

"Fawkes!" Tristan said as he kept the sword pointed at Alistair. Fawkes came running over. A look of surprise was soon replaced by a huge grin as he saw Alistair nursing his broken nose, kneeling on the ground—as he should.

"Well done!" He patted Tristan on the back and gave a nod to Christine. Tristan’s lips pressed together, not seeming satisfied at all that he had won.

"Have this man arrested, he has confessed to taking part in a bigger plot against the crown," he snapped as his sword pointed at Alistair. It was loud enough for those closest to hear. Fawkes' eyebrows knitted together.

"Then your theory was correct… "

"He has confessed. Have you not, Alistair?" Tristan asked as his glaring eyes pierced into the other's very soul. Alistair felt a chill sweep over him, and it wasn't the cold February wind that managed to unsettle him so.

"Y-Yes, yes, I confess!" he squirmed, only wanting to get away from the masked man. Fawkes turned grim at the words. He waved for two pageboys to come over and tie Alistair's hands behind his back.

"We must take him back to the palace immediately and inform this to His Majesty," Fawkes said as he, Tristan, and Christine made their way back to the rug. Tristan put away the sword and started donning his doublet and jerkin.

"What is the meaning of this? Why are you keeping Lord Alistair? This was to be a duel, and duels do not end in one becoming the other's prisoner," Roland Launel, Alistair's close friend, said as he neared. He was backed by a group of men.

"This man has confessed to committing high treason," Tristan said, pointing his sword at Launel. More men came up behind him now, their hands twitching for their own swords. Tristan grew tense. There were more men in the Glade who were loyal to Braun and Alistair. His eyes drifted to Christine, she would be in danger in case they would have to fight their way out.

"At the point of a sword a man may say anything to save his life," Savoie said harshly, standing next to Launel. Fawkes and Durun flanked Tristan, their hands resting close to their weapons as well. The watching crowd now grew nervous at the sudden change. They had no idea what was taking place in the meadow. But, slowly, some men started stepping out on the field, sensing danger, walking up to stand next to Launel.

Tristan watched silently as around twenty men came to back Launel and Savoie. No doubt Braun had sent them to take care of him and his people in case Alistair failed. But, to his great surprise, Durun rose his hand, signaling some of his friends to come over. Confused men went to their friends, thinking they were taking part in settling a squabble.

"We will leave here, with Lord Alistair," Fawkes said haughtily. Rajac, sensing the ever-growing tension walked up to Christine.

"Come, my lady, before this gets ugly," he whispered in her ear, coaxing her away so she didn't stand right in between the two groups.

"You will stay, general. We insist," Launel said through gritted teeth, unsheathing his sword. Some people in the crowd gasped. Those with quick-thinking minds realized it was best not to tarry and quickly started leaving. Some men loyal to Durun, Fawkes, and Rajac stayed, sensing a coming fight.

Before anything could take place, however, Joseph came riding in with impeccable timing. His horse looked about ready to drop as the young man quickly made his way through the dispersing throng. A look of alarm washed over his features as he captured the attention of everyone.

"The palace is under attack!" he exclaimed, breathing heavily as he must have no doubt galloped back and forth with an impressive speed.

Tristan turned to face Launel and the rest of the men, only to find satisfied smirks.

It had begun.



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