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Melitta would never forget the day she decided she would become a hero. It was the holy day of St John, and the entire court was present in the Great Hall for the feast.
"Your Majesties, may I present to you, the renowned knight from far off lands, the hero of countless battles, the mighty Sir Chase!" the herald bellowed.
From her place at the high table, two seats away from Queen Margareta, Melitta had an ideal view of the knight who strode into the Great Hall, haloed by the rosy rays of the sinking sun behind him. His armour caught the candlelight from all directions, bathing him in gold. Gasps rose from the long tables on either side of him. Only the king and his knights could afford so much metal, while most of them wore leather. To wear such glorious armour, for surely it could not be real gold, this travelling knight must be rich indeed. And if it was real gold…why, he must be the best knight in all the lands, and a true hero.
The kind she wished to be.
King Erik called for a place to be set for the knight, before announcing grandly that there should be a tourney on the morrow, so that his own men could test their skill against such a legendary hero.
Cheers erupted around the hall and men raised their cups to toast the king's health.
Melitta didn't need to read the men's minds to know they all shared the same thought: every man present wanted to beat the newcomer in a fair fight, for honour won in battle, even a mock battle, was more precious than life itself.
"Fools," Queen Margareta muttered to Mother, loud enough for Melitta to hear. Whether she included her husband in that, Melitta didn't know.
As if the knight had heard, Sir Chase bowed his head and removed his helmet.
Now it was Melitta's turn to gasp.
Sir Chase was the handsomest man she had ever seen. Dark hair warred with light coloured eyes, and yet the outcome of the battle was…mesmerising. No wrinkle or a scar marked his face, beneath a thatch that bore not even a single white hair. He appeared younger than even their ever-youthful queen. Too young to be a hero, yet here he was.
Sir Chase bowed low before the dais. "Your Majesty King Erik, I am honoured by your hospitality. I wish only to serve."
This was when he would whip out his sword and lay it at the king's feet, Melitta knew, as he pledged his fealty and honour to the king's service. She'd seen enough knights sworn in to know the way of it.
Yet Sir Chase's sword remained firmly in its scabbard.
"I eagerly await tomorrow's tourney, for what better way to show a man's fighting prowess? Yet there is more to a knight than his sword."
Queen Margareta's musical laughter rang out across the hall, silencing all conversation. "Pray continue, Sir Knight."
"As you wish, most beautiful queen. A true hero must keep his wits as sharp as his blade. His honour must shine as bright as his armour, and never be allowed to tarnish. So that if his liege or his lady is plagued by the most enormous monster or the tiniest gnat, he can dispatch it forthwith."
Gnats? In summertime, they had more problems with flies, Melitta thought, shooing several of the buzzing nuisances away from her meat. How did they manage to seek her out so fast? She'd been so focussed on Sir Chase she hadn't seen them appear.
"Allow me, Your Majesty," Sir Chase said.
He reached behind him for his bow, notched an arrow to the string and let it fly. His arrow lodged in one of the tapestries high above Melitta's head.
What was he doing? In her momentary distraction, Melitta must have missed something Sir Chase had said.
Melitta bit her lip, and concentrated on his thoughts.
His gaze centred on a fly buzzing above the queen's head as he drew another arrow. The point followed the insect until he had a clear shot, when the knight released. His arrow arced up, skewering the insect before embedding itself in the wax encrusting a lit candelabra at the back of the dais. The candles wobbled for a moment, but did not fall, to the knight's relief.
Evidently deciding that Melitta's meal was a far safer target than the queen's, a fly zoomed past Melitta's face.
For a single, heart-stopping moment, Sir Chase's eyes met Melitta's. His eyelid drooped in what was definitely a wink.
She clearly heard him say, "Fear not, young maiden. A knight's duty is to save every lady, not just the queen."
His arrow point followed the fly as it finally left her alone and bumbled toward Mother.
Melitta felt a burst of satisfaction from the knight as he released the third arrow. It would meet its target, the queen would be impressed, he would have a place at court, he…
Queen Margareta leaped to her feet. "Guards!"
Melitta stared. A thin line of blood trickled down the queen's fingers to where the arrow had lodged in the table before her. A shimmery wing was all that remained of the fly, now squashed under the weight of the arrow point. The knight had shot the bug, all right, but he'd been so intent on his target that he'd unwittingly hurt the queen.
Sir Chase was too stunned to resist as two of the king's trusted men seized his arms, and a third reached for his sword. "Your Majesty, I meant…I meant to rid you of a pest, not…" Sir Chase stammered.
"Silence!" Queen Margareta thundered.
At her side, King Erik rose. "Anyone who seeks to harm my queen commits treason. Such a heinous crime is punishable by death."
Sir Chase's thoughts were a jumbled mess of panic as he found he could not speak. Yet rising through it all was a scream of horror that he had not meant to harm the queen. Melitta believed him.
But the queen did not.
"He's telling the truth!" Melitta was surprised to hear her own high voice echo across the hall. Somehow, she'd risen from her seat, and now her knees wanted to wilt so that she could sink under the table and hide from what seemed like every eye turned toward her. Yet Sir Chase's talk of honour and heroes emboldened her, and she forced herself to stand tall. Maidens could be heroes, too. "He shot a fly. Look!" She pointed at the arrow with a hand that shook.
Mother shoved her back into her seat, telling her to hush, but it was too late. The queen had heard every word.
Glittering dark eyes seemed to survey Melitta's soul. Melitta stared back defiantly. Until, miracle of miracles, the queen inclined her head and yielded.
Queen Margareta turned to the knight. "Get out," she said softly. "This once, you may leave with your life. Set foot in this kingdom again and you will not be so lucky."
Melitta slid out of the knight's mind as easily as she'd ventured into it. He bowed one last time toward the dais before making a hasty exit. And while Sir Chase vanished from her world, he never really left her thoughts.
Only it wasn't his handsome face, or his shiny armour that stayed with her. No, it was his words. And the dead flies.
And the hope, one day, of being a hero once more.
* * *
After St John's Day, Melitta resolved to spend more time on archery. She dusted off her bow, took a few minutes to remember how to string it, then headed to the field reserved for the archery butts. It appeared that everyone else shared her passion for archery practice, for the normally deserted butts now had queues of men and boys waiting their turn.
Everyone in the training grounds seemed to want to best Sir Chase at his fly-shooting, even if the knight himself had departed in accordance with the queen's command. While they were waiting, a bunch of boys Melitta's age had climbed the fence into the next field and were shooting at a pile of horse dung.
"I got that one!" one boy cried excitedly.
"No, you didn't," another boy snapped, looking like a smaller version of the boy he'd contradicted. Brothers, Melitta assumed. "It just flew away and you didn't see it."
"Watch where you're shooting!" cried a third boy, as horse dung splattered his shoes.
"You're aiming too low," Melitta said, jerking her chin at the boy who'd caused the splatter. "When they notice movement, they fly up and off. So you need to aim higher, for where they're going to be."
The boy she'd tried to help glared at her. "What would a girl know about archery?"
His friends joined in.
"Yeah, what would a girl know?"
"Girls can't be knights!"
"Girls don't belong in the practice yard."
"Shouldn't you be in some chamber somewhere, practising your sewing?"
Melitta regarded the boys coolly. "I’m already better at sewing than you are at archery. Maybe you all would be better off inside sewing."
"What's going on here?" The deeper voice of a man cut through the boys' enraged protests. The master-at-arms, Sir Faris. "Shouldn't you boys be practising, instead of flirting with girls?"
More shouting ensued, until Sir Faris waved the boys into silence.
"What are you doing here?" the knight asked Melitta.
She lifted her bow. "Waiting for my turn to practice."
Sir Faris' eyebrows rose. "Is King Erik's army so weak we need girls to man the walls? I see more fighting men here than any other kingdom in the world can boast. We would be in dire straits indeed if we had to rely on girls to protect the castle."
"Queen Margareta once protected the king from a dozen men," Melitta returned. She had heard the tale many times.
"Is that the tale your mother tells you? I heard the queen distracted the men with her womanly charms so that the king could slay them and lay their bodies at her feet for daring to attack her." Sir Faris' gaze held pity. "Girls on the practice field or the battlefield are little more than a distraction. Go home to your mother, child."
Melitta met his gaze. "My mother is with the queen, and she shall hear of this. After I have had my turn at the butts. I have as much right as any man here."
Any pity Sir Faris had shown vanished. "Then pick a queue, girl, and be prepared to wait a while. My men have been here since dawn, when a little lady like yourself was fast asleep in her bed." He stalked away, cupping his hands to his mouth to shout instructions to a man sighting on the furthest target.
Melitta surveyed the field. At this rate, it would be several hours before the men tired of archery and let her anywhere near the butts. In the meantime, she could stand around, watching, or she could join the boys in shooting shit. Neither appealed to her. Sure, she could carry out her threat and tell the queen what had transpired, but she knew her mother was working on a dress for the young princess's betrothal ceremony, and if Melitta joined them, she'd soon find her hands full of pins and silk. So much for her hopes of being a hero.
Melitta marched to the armoury, resolving to put her bow away until later in the evening, when the men were gone. She wasn't giving up, she told herself. Merely postponing practice.
The armour-master was nowhere to be seen, but Melitta heard a clatter from the darkness at the back of the cavernous cellar that housed King Erik's armoury. "Sir Bruno?" Melitta ventured.
"What is it, boy?" a gruff voice demanded. Sir Bruno, the armour-master, emerged from the darkness carrying a pile of shields almost as high as his head. "Who are you?"
"Lady Melitta, Lady Penelope's daughter," Melitta replied. From girl to child to boy, Melitta had had enough of diminutives for one day.
Sir Bruno scratched his bald pate. "What can I do for you, my lady?" Before she could respond, the stack of shields unbalanced and clattered to the floor. Sir Bruno growled out a string of colourful curses, only half of which Melitta understood.
One of the shields rolled, hit the wall and toppled over at her feet. Melitta reached down to pick it up and was struck with the design on the round shield. Concentric circles, much like the archery targets outside. A dark stain marred the design. "What are you doing with these?" she asked.
"Throwing them out, milady. Some of these are centuries old, captured from Viking raiders, and no use to anyone. Even if they weren't mouldy like the one you hold, lady." Sir Bruno reached for the offending item.
Melitta clutched it to her chest. "So if I wanted to use it for an archery target, no one would mind?"
Sir Bruno laughed. "If you were to throw it in the fire, not even the king himself would object, my lady."
"Good." Melitta surveyed the mess. "May I have another?"
"You may have them all. As many as you can carry." Sir Bruno laughed.
Oh, so he thought a girl couldn't lift a shield or two? Melitta fumed. Bolts of silk might not seem like much until you had to carry them halfway across the castle to the queen's chambers, up and down stairs until your arms ached. She selected two more and hefted all three in her arms. Heavy, yes, but no heavier than an armload of silks for her mother. "Thank you," she said sweetly, hitching her quiver higher on her shoulder as she turned to go.
"Any time, my lady," Sir Bruno called after her.
* * *
Melitta set up her practice range in the corridor outside her mother's apartments. She wedged her shield target in the window, then stood back to take aim. Her first arrow hit the wall and clattered to the stone floor with a sound reminiscent of mocking applause.
Practice, Melitta told herself. The more practice she got, the better she'd become.
By the end of the morning, she could at least hit the target on every shot. She hadn't forgotten how to shoot, at least. She kept at it until she managed to hit the white circle in the centre three times in a row. Only then did she set down her bow to massage her aching fingers. It wasn't enough. She'd have to soak them.
Melitta headed inside her chamber, intent on finding a jug of water. She immersed her whole hand in the one on the table, beside the dinner a maid had delivered for her hours ago. Only now did she realise how hungry she was.
As she devoured her dinner, Melitta mused that there must be a simpler way to heroism than hours of archery practice. Her fingers would be a mess of callouses before the week was out – she wouldn't be able to sew a stitch. Her mother would not be happy.
Too bad. Lady Penelope had made her own choices in life. Melitta was old enough to marry, which meant she got to make choices, too. If she chose not to spend her whole life at a loom like her mother, it was her choice.
Melitta tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into the dish of honey. The movement set off a small swarm of flies that she hadn't seen until now.
Dropping her bread in disgust, Melitta reached for her quiver. At this distance, she could stab the flies with the point of her arrow – no bow required. Yet her fingers closed on the strap that held the quiver to her shoulder. There was a faster way to swat flies that didn't require a bow or arrow.
Carefully, she raised the strap. The flies buzzed on, oblivious. One or two even settled on the surface of the honey once more.
Melitta took a deep breath, then struck. The strap slapped against the table, making her tray jump before it landed with a clatter. For all the noise, it didn't look like she'd caught a single one. Chagrined, Melitta flipped over the strap to see if she'd perhaps caught a particularly slow fly.
She counted. Then counted again. No, surely not. After a third count, the strap dropped from her nerveless fingers. "A dozen," she breathed in disbelief. "A dozen dead with a single blow. Take that, Sir Faris and anyone else who says a girl has no place in battle. Sir Chase killed them one at a time, yet I can take a dozen in a single stroke!"
Seizing the strip of leather, she took the steps two at a time to the practice range. Most of the men had gone, but the boys were still there, taking their turn on the butts.
"You're wasting your time!" she called, flapping the strap. "You're using the wrong weapon! Look, I killed a dozen in a single blow!"
"Let me see that, girl." Sir Faris seized the strap. "A dozen currants? Deadly foes, indeed!" He laughed, and the boys joined in.
"They are not currants, or any kind of fruit," Melitta snapped. "They're flies, the same as the ones they've been trying to shoot all morning. I killed a dozen with one blow. More than even the great knight yesterday managed to do!"
"The one the queen threw out of the kingdom? He wasn't so great," one of the boys mocked to more laughter.
Melitta folded her arms across her chest. "So you say, yet all of you are out here, working on your bow skills so you can do better than him. Well, you've been bested by a girl. How many of you can kill a dozen with one blow?"
The boys howled with laughter.
Sir Faris laid a hand on her shoulder. "They have the right of it, girl. Catching flies will never win a battle, and a knight who thinks so is little more than entertainment at a feast. Forget your dozen and do something more suited to your station."
Melitta shrugged off his hand and stalked away. Sir Faris was wrong, she swore to herself, and one day she would prove it to him, and the world.
Would you like to read more?
A maiden dying for adventure. A prince on a perilous quest. Monsters that must be slain.
Once upon a time…
After losing a battle with a dragon, George is desperate to salvage his reputation. Only he can’t do it alone – he needs an assistant.
Royal tailor Melitta longs for adventure, so when she hears of a job opening for an apprentice hero, she jumps at the chance. Slaying monsters must be more exciting than sewing.
Can the unlikely pair still succeed at their quest – or will they fall for each other instead?
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