Test of the Sword

Laura gazed at him in shock once he finished speaking, then her face went a furious red. "Absolutely not!" she growled, slapping her hand down on the wooden table loudly, her long black hair swirling around her face. The dress she wore flowed around her slim body, the blood red cloth highlighting her tanned skin.

"It's a good match," her father said mildly, a little frown on his face. Gregory Moore, the Earl of Hawksmoore, was a big man, nearly six foot tall, and his arms showed the muscles that were granted by years of using a sword. His own black hair was streaked with silver, but it only gave him a faintly dignified look.

"You must be kidding," Laura crossed her arms as she sniffed in disgust. Looking at him scornfully she said, "You know Matthew's reputation.. he's a letch and a cad!"

"I'm confident that you could handle him," Gregory sounded almost amused by her attitude. His expression becoming more serious he said, "Daughter, you've spurrned the advances of too many gentlemen... soon I fear you will not be marriagable at all. That's why I have worked so hard to get this match for you..."

Laura opened up her mouth to say something in reply then paused, carefully considering her words. "Far too many of those who came calling were after the fortune grandmother left me," she said, "not for any traits of mine. And Matthew is the worst of the lot.. I could practically see him dreaming of how he would spend the money."

"He is not so bad as that," Gregory offered a bit weakly.

Laura firmed her voice as she rose from her chair, leaning against the table as told him with a steely determination, "I intend to marry in my own time, father, not now."

Gregory narrowed his eyes as he looked at his daughter disapprovingly, "And I must insist that you do so now.. and as your father I have that right."

Laura pressed her lips together in anger, her eyes narrowing. "We will see," she said grimly, turning and striding out of the crowded study.

"Don't you dare walk away from me, child..." Gregory started to protest but she cut him off by slamming the door shut behind her. The guard by the dor jerked in surprise then relaxed, pretending he hadn't heard or seen any details of the argument.

'Damn him,' Lautra thought, striding the halls of the great keep, her boot heels ringing on the stone floors.

Laura's plan had been going so well, too... if she could reach eighteen before marrying her inheritence would be hers, unbound by any restrictions from a father or spouce. With that in mind Laura had discouraged suitor after suitor, determined to live free, and she had almost succeeded. But by law her father could marry her off...

"Wait a moment," Laura murmured aloud, a fragmented memory nudging at her mind.

Turning from her walk back to her suites Laura headed to the great library instead, and specifically to the section with the books on the kingsdom's laws. The modern scrolls and documents were in racks to be easily accessed, older law bound up in books on the shelves. Wracking her memory Laura worked back through the books, eventually blowing the dust off a book that was old even amoung the aged texts.

"Now let's see," Laura murmured as she flipped through the stiff parchment sheets, eventually finding the passage that she wanted. "I was right," she smiled, the beginings of a plan already forming in her mind.

The next afternoon her father's main hall was filled with guests, men and women from their allied families along with important individuals in the kingdom. And of course Matthew Brown was there, standing with his crowd of cronies, all of them seemingly cut from the same mold, the red to their cheeks and dull eyes the signs of hard drinkers. The royal guests gave Matthew and his friends some distance, their contempt cutting to the still merrily drinking band.

'Oh father,' Laura thought from where she stood to one side, sipping at a glass of water, 'did you have to invite them all?' A soft rose gown swirled around her slim body, chosen as much for ease of movement as for it's beauty. She sat in a chair by her father's side, visible to all, and only those who knew her well would be able to see the tension simmering in her eyes.

"I have a joyous announcement to make," Gregory's voice boomed out, his deep rumble cutting off conversation as he stood, his fine tunic gleaming like the smile on his face. Carefully he didn't look to his daughter, instead gazing out at his noble peers confidently.

'And here we go,' Laura took a steadying breath, readying herself to act.

"As you know my lovely daughter Laura Moore has remained unwed for some time now," Gregory said mildly, "despite her beauty and charm. Now, however, I am hasppy to say that she had been engaged to the noble house of Brown..."

"I object!" the voice cut him off.

"Laura!" Gregory's voice sounded choked as he turned to stare down at her with barely contained anger.

Smoothly Laura rose, straightening her skirt to buy herself time to still her wildly pounding heart. Giving her father a mildly sympathetic glance Laura turned to the crowd and declared, "Matthew is a drink and a cad, and by the old laws I challenge this betrothal." There was a stir of shock in the mob as she continued boldly, "I demand the test of blades to determine his worthyness."

"You can't!" Matthew huffed out in dismay, his dirty blonde falling into blue eyes that were wild with anger and dismay.

"Yes I can, actually," Laura said calmly, "while old, the law is quite explicit." She looked up at a certain nobleman and nodded to the silver haired man, "M'lord?"

Eddings was a old man, but his back was straight and his bearing regal as he felt all gazes fall on him. The Count was the king's expert on law, and his being here wasn't a coincidence.. Laura had added him to the invitations as soon as she decided on embarking on this dangerous strategy. Studying her warily he agreed, "Anyone can challenge a betrothal by the old laws.. and there have even been instances of brides doing so in the past, as well." He dropped his voice as he said to Laura directly, "Well played, child."

"Thank you," Laura half smiled.

"Do you seriously intend to face Matthew with a sword in your hand?!" Gregory demanded. "It's madness!"

"I will if I must," Laura answered him calmly. She turned to look where a shocked Matthew stood nearby them and said to him flatly, "It won't be necessary to fight if you choose to withdrawl your proposal, sir."

A muscle in Mattlew's jaw jumped as he clenched it in anger, gazing at her with an expression of mixed rage and dismay. "After you have publically shamed me like this?" he demanded. Shaking his head furiously he said, "I'll happily draw your blood with my blade till you withdrawl your foolish challenge, bitch."

"So be it," Laura kept her voice even, despite the strength of the insult. "When do you want to do this?" she asked politely.

Feeling the eyes of the crowd on them both Matthew said boldly, "In the morrow, then. Let's settle this as soon as possible, my future bride." He would have looked more imposing if he hadn't been sweating in fear and his face marked with the pain of a hangover.

"You'd best arrange for a second," Laura replied in barbed tones as she turned to go, "to tend to your wounds once you yield."

"Hoyden..." Matthew growled.

Laura fought back a smile at being called a undisciplned woman, excusing herself before leaving the busy hall nearly silently. She returned to her quarters, walking along the cool stone halls until she reached the rooms, unlocking the door with the large, ornate key. Entering the room she smiled, "It's done, m'love."

"Are you sure about this?" the woman asked.

"I am, Sala," Laura nodded to the foreign noblewoman respectfully.

Sala D'artanian rose friom where she sat on the side of the bed, her dusky arms circling Laura with an easy familiarity. The brown haired woman searched the taller Laura's eyes a moment then kissed her lingeringly. "I don't want you to be hurt..." she sighed after they drew apart, her white dress swirling around her long legs.

"I'll be all right," Laura reassured her, reaching out to stroke the silky hair back, her other arm circling the other woman.

"Is there no other way?" Sala asked softly.

Laura gave her a wry smile. "If we were in your homeland I could just challenge my father on this, but here... no. So instead I'll stop the lecher, not necessarily the lesser of two evils," she explained with a little grin.

"What is your father thinking, wedding you to that wastrel?" Sala shook her head, leaning up against Laura's body comfortably.

"He needs me married to control my title," Laura admitted, "and fortune, too." With a frown she added disaprovingly, "My beloved father likely thinks he can keep a tight reign on Matthew and through him me."

"Gregory doesn't know you very well," Sala looked up at her with gentle adoration.

A grim smile tugged on Laura's lips, "He'll learn."

The morning sun shone down the courtyard as the figures emerged from the building, gathering on the dusty grounds. A crowd of observers had already gathered, eager to find the best spots to see the show and witness an event what would likely become local history. Even better was the prospect of spilt blood and violence, too. Most were nobles, but a few servants were there too, eager to see their lady fight.

"Lord Eddings," Gregory nodded reluctantly, "thank you for agreeing to oversee the duel." A pause, "But I was wondering why you chose to do so, sir?"

Lord Eddings smiled slightly, her lined face softly lit by the morning sun, "I was there when it started, I'd like to be here for the end." A sudden smile, "And I'm always glad to see someone who plays the game well."

"You approve of what Laura's doing?" Gregory sounded disbelieving.

"She is daring, capable and strong willed," Eddings flashed a smile, "she'd make a better lord than that fop Matthew would."

There was a long moment of silence then Gregory reluctantly nodded, "Point."

To be continued....