The crier announced the start of the tournament, signaled by a gentle drop of the Queen’s handkerchief. Oxford spurred Agincourt down the list and leveled his lance at his opponent. The powerful chargers galloped at breakneck speed. Lee aimed his lance at Oxford’s chest, but the Earl deflected the thrust, striking Lee in the shoulder. His opponent reeled backwards but quickly steadied himself. The crowd cheered as the competitors returned to opposite sides of the tilt-yard.
When the signal was given, the foaming steeds snorted and swiftly obeyed their masters’ commands. Oxford controlled Agincourt with eloquent grace. He turned and leveled his lance as the sun blazed off his golden armor, threatening to blind his opponent. Despite the glare, Lee charged ahead, aiming a powerful blow to the Earl’s chest. Instead of resisting the oncoming force, Oxford allowed his body to roll with it. The crowd held its breath as he reeled, recovered and turned his horse. They applauded, knowing the mighty blow could have killed a less agile warrior.
Like wild bulls testing each other’s strength, Lee and Oxford charged again. Oxford struck his adversary’s lance and broke it, hitting Lee squarely in the chest. The force of the blow, coupled with the weight of his armor, sent Lee crashing to the ground. Sensing victory, Agincourt circled the fallen warrior, allowing the Earl to pin the defeated nobleman to the earth with his lance. The contest was over.
Lee was carried from the field. The spectators cheered as a brief intermission was called. Broken lances were hauled away as the lists were prepared for the next set of contenders. Refreshments were served to the royals while purveyors of food and drink hawked their wares among the swelling throng of commoners. No one seemed to notice the shifty-eyed opportunists who left the crowd to have a closer look at the gold-leaf bay tree.
Oxford savored the crowd’s adoration. He removed his helmet and walked up the steps to the Queen. Drenched with sweat, he knelt before her and smiled into her loving eyes. The courtiers and ladies applauded. Wriothesley shot to his feet and eagerly congratulated him. Oxford tried not to let his glance linger on his son’s features or betray any signs of fatherly affection; he would save his sentiments for his sonnets.
He couldn’t help noticing for the first time that the boy’s angular face, keen eyes and auburn hair bore an uncanny resemblance to Eliza, right down to the slender fingers that removed his gauntlets. Oxford was astonished that no one else had noticed this; or perhaps they had, but wisely kept their thoughts to themselves.
He quickly looked away. He smiled at his brother-in-law Robert, who returned only a sour expression, and nodded towards Lord Burghley. A herald approached with his prize on a velvet cushion. The Queen took it onto her lap and smiled.
“Arise, my Lord of Oxenforde. I trust you will not give away this diamond writing tablet as callously as you discarded the last one I gave you.”
“I have learned my lesson since then, Your Majesty.”
“Remember that you learned it in the Tower. Shame on you, for giving my gift to your mistress. It was rude and inconsiderate – beneath the manners of a commoner.”
“Indeed, it was. I humbly beg your pardon.”
“Ah, but you are accustomed to begging my pardon after doing precisely as you please, isn’t that so?”
“I’m a rascal, Eliza. You’ve often said you like it when I’m on my knees.”
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