"Everyone knows this entire contest is just an excuse for Lady Kalina to marry Sir Lawrence. I don't know why the rest of the men even bother to try."
"Participate in a hunt but not actually hunt? It would offend their pride."
Anise kept her head down and walked slowly through the tents and tables sprawled out on the lawn of the estate. The gossip filled the air around her, just as much a part of the festivities as the smell of roasting pork or the flap of colorful pennants. She struggled to balance with each step she took.
"The Baron has no sons. He's hoping to leave the title to Sir Lawrence."
"Clearly. The man's been grooming that boy since he was a squire, turning him into the perfect miniature version of himself."
"...Only much more handsome."
"Shh! Don't let Kalina hear you saying that..."
Kalina must be so happy, Anise thought to herself. She's the envy of all the women here.
Though they were sisters, Anise and Kalina held markedly different places in life. As the eldest daughter of a Baron, Kalina lived a life of glamor and finery at the glittering center of high society. Anise, however, was officially the Baron's ward. The product of an affair with a maid, she wasn't recognized formally as his daughter, though everyone knew she was.
As she rounded a corner near the stables, an enormous shadow fell across her path. She looked up, squinting at the sun. It was bright, and she couldn't see his face, but she didn't need to. His size announced him well enough.
Sir Linden Dathis. Anise immediately shrank back. There was no mistaking him. Taller than every man there, wielding an axe that weighed more than her whole body, Sir Lindenformed a terrifying figure. I've never been this close to him before... I wonder if he's as hideous as the rumors say.
Realizing he had an audience, the man turned. The sun made his tell-tale red hair gleam as if he were backed by a bloody halo.
Anise realized it had been several moments and she had yet to say anything.
"S-sorry, um, Sir Linden... I d-didn't see you there..." She winced. As if anyone could miss him. She tried again. "Are you... participating in the hunt today?"
His voice was so deep it felt more like a low rumble rather than spoken words.
"Ah, th-then... I wish you luck."
"Thank you, my lady."
Anise hurriedly bobbed a curtsy and all but fled, walking quickly to the pavilion with her uneven gait.
I feel like I just escaped death... She laughed at herself, shaking her head. No. Sir Linden is still a knight, no matter how terrifying he is. He wouldn't harm anyone, certainly not here.
The rumors painted Linden Dathis as being more beast than man, the son of a woman from the savage Northern mountain tribes, fathered by a giant. Or was it an ogre? He was a wall of muscle and iron that had slaughtered hundreds of monsters and enemies who threatened their lands.
...Realistically, he was taken in as a squire when he was a young boy, and had trained and lived as a soldier among the Baron's men his entire life. He earned his knighthood after defeating a basilisk that had threatened the estate.
Anise remembered that day clearly. She stood with her sisters as the enormous brute of a man walked into her father's hall -- boots still muddy -- and dropped the head of a giant snake at the Baron's feet.
Kalina had thrown up. Twice.
"Anise?! What took you so long!" She heard her sister Violet calling to her. "Hurry or you'll miss the knights!"
With a soft smile at her sister's enthusiasm, Anise did her best to move faster. She walked with a limp since birth, and the unevenness of the ground outside made it even more difficult. And father forbade me from bringing my cane, she sighed to herself.
The Baron's three daughters stood in a row near the edge of the colorfully-decorated stage. Baskets of red and yellow flowers were beside them. The girls had spent the last few days weaving them into chains and loops. Before the hunt, each of the men participating would come before the pavilion on their horses and bow their heads to accept a favor from them.
It was all Violet could talk about. She was eager to see the handsome men, their armor glinting in the sun as they accepted her favors... "It's just like a novel..." She sighed dreamily.
Kalina rolled her eyes, but smiled. "And are you a princess, then, destined to marry a handsome prince?" she teased.
"Well, you have Sir Lawrence, which leaves all of the rest of them for us!"
Anise shook her head, smiling, and ran her hands over the soft petals in the basket before her. She expected to do a lot of standing around, letting Violet have all the fun.
Besides, no one wanted the favor of a Baron's illegitimate ward. There was no luck in that.
Sir Lawrence was, naturally, the first to approach. His gold hair shone brilliantly, the perfect complement to Kalina's own coloring.
They look like a matching set of commemorative salt and pepper shakers, Violet had said once, and the image was a hard one to shake.
"Lady Kalina," Sir Lawrence beamed up at her. "Would you do me the honor of blessing me with your favor?"
His white horse was dressed in red, matching the hint of color peeking out beneath his armor. The red was such a perfect match for Kalina's dress, it had to have been coordinated beforehand.
He bent his golden head to her and Kalina draped a string of flowers around his neck and shoulders. "Of course, Michael," she said softly enough that only he and her sisters could hear.
That one word from her had him practically glowing, as if her favor truly had brought him strength and fortune in a way that was tangible and real.
"I will bring you a prize worthy of you, my Lady."
With that, he kicked his horse into a gallop and sped off triumphantly towards the field, his men falling in line behind him.
Violet nearly swooned.
"Oh, Kalina, he's perfect. You're so lucky..."
Their eldest sister's cheeks were softly pink, a shy smile on her lips. "He is, isn't he?"
While the court gossip might claim otherwise, Anise knew her sister had strong feelings for Sir Lawrence. Their father had seen to his training personally, and everyone at the estate knew his hope was for them to marry.
As young girls, the three of them had snuck through the garden to watch the knights train, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Anise could still remember the wide eyes of her older sister as she watched him train as a boy.
She's been preparing her whole life to love him, Anise thought with a tender smile. I wonder if he grew up wondering what she was like, the way she and Violet used to invent stories about him.
A line of knights followed, each one speaking to the sisters before bowing their heads. Violet placed the flowers on each of them... the knights didn't even bother to ask for Kalina's favor. Everyone at the hunt knew where her attention lay.
Anise had gotten lost in her thoughts, but Violet dragged her back. "Anise! Anise, you have to do this one. Please please..."
The other two sisters took a large step back, leaving Anise standing alone at the edge of the pavilion, surrounded by flowers, as the final knight came to receive his favor.
Unlike Sir Lawrence's elegant white steed, this horse was dark, enormous, and armored. Where Kalina's knight had gleamed in the sun, this knight's armor seemed to swallow light entirely, dull and black.
While every other knight had looked up at the three women, Linden Dathis was right at eye level.
And for the first time, Anise saw the man's face.
A large white scar cut across his face. The injury just narrowly missed blinding him. His eyes were pale gray beneath heavy brows, piercing as he stared at her.