“Ow, that hurts Tridie…I don’t understand why I can’t wear my hair in plaits. It’s not as if I’ve ever seen Sir Tristam of Joldt before, nor has he seen me.” Lady Annael of Garloun, only daughter to Count von Garloun, Sir Johenz Andrei and his wife, Countess Maritz crossed her arms in irritation. She had been sitting in her bedchamber for well over a candle mark now. Sir Tristam was speaking privately with her parents and her brother, Sir Gregori. “I bet Gregori didn’t have to dress up.” She muttered.
“Gregori isn’t meeting a potential husband. You must look your best, my lady.” Tridie gave Annael’s golden locks one more tug with the imported camel hair brush to clear out a stubborn knot. “There, perfection if I say so.” She stood back to give her charge the once over. “Your mother will be pleased.”
“But will I?” More comfortable in a woolen tunic than a silk gown, Annael preferred to be flying her hawk or practicing her archery than working on the castle tapestry. Making candles made her ill, but she didn’t mind caring for injuries. Her mother had been nagging her father for the past three years to get Annael a husband. So far, Annael had managed to scare most of the suitors away with tricks or lies. Her parents were losing patience. Annael knew her time was running out, they just might marry her by proxy to a stranger.
Dragging her feet, Annael gave the appearance of walking fast to the private solar of her father, when she was really taking her time. Arriving at the door, she nodded to Sir Tyrolene, an older knight standing guard. He opened the door for her.
The room was brightly decorated with fine rugs from the Land of a Thousand Pearls on the floor. Ancient tapestries depicting battles long past hung from two walls. A large fireplace was stuffed with what appeared to be half of a tree ablaze. The only window had the shutters open to let out the smoke, which curled up and drifted from the fireplace in lazy puffs.
Annael’s parents and two men sat around a table, the discomfort of the large wooden chairs softened by extra large velvet cushions. Wine and finger food was spread out in the middle of the table, along with papers – probably betrothal contracts – thought Annael.
She greeted her parents and guests, taking the empty seat between her parents.
“As you can see, my daughter is fair of face. She has been instructed in the womanly arts by her mother. She can run a keep and give you children.” Her father said without a blink.
“I have no doubt Lady Annael has been properly raised. I am not certain she is right for me.” replied Sir Tristam.
Lady Maritz leaned forward, her eyes giving away the turmoil within. “Please, Sir Tristam, stay as our guest. Don’t make a hasty decision without getting to know our daughter. I’m sure you will find her delightful.”
Tristam eyed his companion, who gave a slight nod. “Very well, I shall stay a week. My men and I could use the time to rest our horses and get to know your family.”
“Excellent,” Johenz said with a smile, “how many guest quarters would you desire?”
“Two, one for me and another for Sir Ulrich; the rest of my men can stay in the barracks.”
A servant was summoned to show Sir Tristam and his men to their rooms. Once the knights had left, Johenz & Maritz turned on their youngest child.
“This is your last chance, Annael. If he doesn’t accept you, the Temple of Jaira will. You have managed to insult just about every good family in the kingdom in your attempt to remain unmarried. Your reputation is known as a shrew throughout the land.”
The Temple of Jaira? I don’t want to be a Priestess! “I will try to be nice this time, I promise.” Annael answered.
Sir Tristam tossed his bag on a chair. He pulled off his boots and stockings. “I never thought I’d get a chance to get these off. Edard, help me with my maile.”
Another knight poured a cup of ale, gulping it down with gusto. “Just a moment, I’m savoring my ale.” He slammed the mug on the table, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He walked to Tristam. “Alright, lift up your arms.”
The two friends helped one another shed the accoutrements of armor, stripping down to linens. Utilizing the water made available, each man cleansed the road dirt from his body.
“Looks like we’re sharing a bed again. I can’t wait to get home, to my own bed. I’m fed up with fathers and brothers throwing women at me.” Tristam complained.
Edard laughed. “If they only knew of your true desires, they’d be sending their sons your way. Too bad about the Count’s daughter, Annael; she’s scared off most of her suitors.”
“A shame. I’d consider a marriage of convenience, but it would not do for one such as her. She deserves a husband who would treasure her. I can’t be that man. We’ll be polite guests and leave after a week.”
“As you say. Good night, Tris.”
“Dress for a hunt today, Annael. You are to accompany Sir Tristam and your father.”
“Yes, Mother.” Annael watched her lady mother leave her room. Tridie had a proper hunting outfit ready for Annael. The young lady snacked on a light breakfast as Tridie helped get her dressed and ready to ride. A deep blue samite gown embroidered with lilies in silver thread and edged with white lace showed Annael’s tiny waist to perfection. Silver and blue ribbons were entwined in her braids. Annael wore a pearl and lapis necklace with matching earrings. Tridie had even applied a light coat of kohl to her eyes.
Every man watched the Count’s daughter when she walked the distance to the courtyard from her bedchamber.
Tristam offered a courtesy complement, eager to begin the hunt. His aloofness intrigued the Count’s daughter. It was the first time a man had not fawned over her. Her heart was warming to the knight.
For the first time Annael didn’t care about her hawk, or what the bird caught (or didn’t). She paid attention to the conversation of Sir Tristam. She watched his face, noticing how white his teeth were when he smiled. She admired the bunching of his muscles when he pulled out his bow and strung an arrow. Annael couldn’t help but wish she was the object of his attention when he sighted, and struck, a Golden Pheasant on his first shot.
She tried to engage his in conversation on the journey back but he was busy speaking with her father. Annael was relegated to riding with Sir Edard. The knight shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He was no help.
That evening, the men recounted the hunt over wine and ale. Her presence was somehow forgotten. When Annael left the main hall to retire for the night, no one noticed.
“Tristam, you can’t ignore her. We’ve three days left and you’ve hardly said a word to the girl.” Ulrich, the oldest man in Tristam’s party said with an exasperated expression. His bald head was shiny with sweat, matching his forehead, as he blocked a sword thrust from his charge.
“Ulrich, tell me the unknown, not the obvious. I don’t know what to say to her. She follows me around as if she were a puppy. I don’t want to hurts her feelings or insult her father. Is it not better to remain silent if I have nothing good to say?” Tristam had removed his shirt, his chest dripped with sweat. He attacked Ulrich with his training sword, his black hair flipping over his forehead to just dangle over his eyebrows.
“Zabe’s Blood, man! At least talk of the weather. I want to tell your father we tried. How can I do so if you haven’t said four words to her?”
Tristam stopped when he and Ulrich’s swords caught at the hilts. “You’re right.” He stepped back. “It’s ironic, if she were a man, we’d probably become good friends. I just can’t see myself as her husband.”
“Mama, what else can I do? He ignores me. I’ve tried wearing nice clothes. I’ve brought him food and drink. I’ve complemented his hunting and fighting skills. I’ve smiled and flirted. I have listened to what he talks about and commented on those subjects. I tried to ask about his family. Nothing is working!”
Maritz was happy. Her daughter had taken interest in a man. “Don’t give up child, he will appreciate you. I promise. Come with me. I have a special trick left.”
Curious, Annael followed her mother to her work room where Maritz prepared herbals to heal the people of the keep. Maritz shut and bolted the door. “What I am about to do you must never reveal to another person. Swear this.”
“I swear, mother. I’ll do anything to get my true love to look at me and give me a chance.”
“Good. I can make more than healing potions. The women in our line are gifted with magic. We use it for special occasions. I deem this a special.”
Maritz started pulling jars from shelves. She opened various jars, checking out contents, taking pinches out some of the jars and tossing them in to a small iron pot. Maritz added enough honeyed ale to make the brew easier to swallow. She stirred the potion chanting softly, “Kywedyn, hear your daughter’s cry. My child wishes the man of her dreams to see her as his true love. Chanxeri, hear your daughter’s plea. My child is in love with a man who doesn’t return her feelings. Kywedyn and Chanxeri, please, help bring Sir Tristam and Annael together.” Maritz poured the contents of the pot in a goblet and handed it to Annael.
“Drink this. I warn you, it will burn as it slides down your throat.”
The liquid gritty with herbs was the vilest concoction Annael ever tasted in her life, and it didn’t burn: it lit her throat on fire. She choked it down as quickly as she could. The brew mad her belly churn. Moments later, Annael felt dizzy, her eyesight became blurry and the room started spinning.
Maritz started in horror as her daughter collapsed senseless, a blanket of fog covering her body. When the fog lifted, Annael was no longer on the floor. Maritz held in a scream.
“Dear Thaelia, what have I done?” Tears ran down her cheeks as she stared at the young man wearing Anneals clothes.
Annael woke up in a strange bed. She opened her eyes. Her body felt odd. She moved, even the muscles moved differently. What was going on?
She sat up. Annael gasped when she saw her hands. “These aren’t my hands!” Her chest wasn’t the same, something was missing. “My beasts, they’re gone!” Panic took over. She scooted up, an unfamiliar appendage getting in the way.
“Annael, I’m so sorry, baby. I never meant for this to happen!” her mother cried out, “The potion went wrong.”
The voice that replied was too deep to be female. “Mother, how could you do this to me? I’m a man! Change me back, right now!”
Maritz hugged her daughter, no make that her son. “The change is permanent.”
Anger took hold of Annael. “What am I supposed to do now? What are we to tell father? Sorry, Dad, you’ve lost a daughter but gained a son?” She jumped out of bed. “How long have I been here?”
“Three days. I had you brought here in secrecy. Your father believes you ran off to escape a forced marriage. I had a letter penned and signed by you left in your chamber. A bag with enough supplies and gold is on the chair in that corner. I wrote you a letter of introduction, claiming you are a cousin of mine. It was easy enough as the majority of my relatives are dead, and those alive would agree to any story to say for fear that I’d take away their income. Should you ever need gold or supplies, send word to me and I will provide what you want. Your new name is Sir Natael of Belidev. You are 19 years old and newly knighted. I acquired the weapons, armor, and two horses – a destrier and rouncy – for you. If you hurry, you can catch up to Sir Tristam. He and his men left this morning.”
“Why bother, I’m a man, Mother. What good would it do?”
Moritz slapped her child. “Stupid girl! Kywedyn and Chanxeri did you a favor. Go after the knight and see what happens. What do you have to lose? If nothing else, you can follow your dreams now.” She kissed her youngest. “I love you, Annael. Remember, you are Natael now.”
Annael, no Natael, went through her morning routine and broke her fast. She dressed, putting on her armor and slipping the knife and sword on to her belt. After checking her supplies, she strapped on all she had to her rouncy. Grabbing the lead rein to her destrier she urged the horse towards the direction Tristam would have gone.
Two candle marks later, Natael caught up to his objects. The knight and his men were resting their mounts by a river. Natael walked his horse, holding his hands out in a friendly gesture.
“Greetings, good sirs. Might I join you? I’ve been on the road and would love to have a bit of company whilst I rest my horses.”
Sir Tristam didn’t hear what the stranger said. He was struck dumb by the knight’s beauty and somehow he had the feeling that they had met before. Getting his wits back, Tristam grinned. “Of course you may, sir?”
“Forgive my manners. My name is Sir Natael of Belidev, cousin to Countess Garloun. I am traveling the lands, seeking adventures.” He dismounted to lad his horses to the edge of the river.
“Hello Sir Natael, I am Sir Tristam of Joldt. After your horses are finished drinking, come and sit with us. If you need food, we have plenty.”
Edard elbowed his friend. “Eh Tristam, he’s a handsome one. Did you see how he gazed upon you?”
Tristam didn’t answer. His attention was on Natael. He watched the younger man remove the bits from is horse and hobble them. The two equines lowered their heads to graze.
Natael’s hand brushed a loose strand of naturally curly golden blonde hair from is light blue eyes. The gesture sent an arrow of desire straight to Tristam’s heart.
Annael smiled through Natael’s eyes at Tristam. She saw how the knight looked at her. He wants me; finally, I have his attention. He will be mine.
In Annael’s mind, Tristam and she would be together for the rest of their lives. That she was now a man didn’t matter; nothing would stand in the way of true love.