The Earl of Gunthar threw up his left arm at the blur of movement and felt the sting of a blade cut its way into his flesh. He shot his right hand out to grasp his attacker's wrist. The man cursed as Gunthar forced the steel clear of his arm. Gunthar swept both their arms into an upward arc, then abruptly snapped them down again, at the same time giving his attacker's wrist a sharp twist. A loud crack sounded and the dagger clattered to the floor. The man fell to his knees and Gunthar finally saw his attacker's whitened face.
Nay, scarcely a man at all, a boy no more than nineteen, at most, twenty.
Gunthar's men belatedly swarmed to their master's defense. His marshal, Sir Roger Tollerton, hauled the youth to his feet, while the others closed in around him, blocking him from Gunthar's view.
Gunthar heard shouted oaths of anger. At least a half-dozen fists raised, a few of which fell with resounding thuds before Gunthar shouted, "Enough. Let him be. Stand back, I say!"
His knights dispersed at his command, all save Sir Roger who continued to hold onto the struggling youth.
"Who are you and why did you attack me?" Gunthar demanded.
The youth glared at Gunthar from his one good eye. An ugly purpling bruise had already swollen the other shut. The youth looked angry and defiant and a little scared. But he pressed his lips obstinately together and refused to answer.
"My lord," Laurant said, rather nervously, "he is Etienne de Brielle, the younger son of Sir Damian."
"Ah." Gunthar eyed the youth with comprehension. "Then your father sent you here."
"Nay," Etienne spat, "English dog! My father is too weak and my brother has not the courage. But I have sworn to avenge our wrongs, and next time--"
Laurant stepped forward and slapped him. "Insolent whelp. There will be no next time. Take him away."
"Wait. My lord, perhaps you should see this."
Lord Challons, one of the Earl's vassals, spoke. His eyes were as bright as the jewels adorning his scarlet tunic. He scooped up the fallen dagger and held it out for Gunthar to see.
Gunthar examined it from where he stood, the blade stained with his own blood. On the pommel was carved a most wondrous creature. From the waist up a beautiful woman with flowing hair, the nether part twisted sinuously into the subtle, undulating coils of a serpent. A tiny, forked tongue darted from between the creature's lips and a pair of winking rubies for eyes completed an unsettling portrait of demonic evil. One knight who stood near enough to share the vision muttered an oath and crossed himself. But Gunthar recognized it for what it was.
"Where had you this dagger?" he demanded, irritation lending an edge to his voice. The youth, who had been staring slack jawed at the weapon, snapped his mouth shut. "Nay, don't play mute with me, boy. Prince Richard makes gifts of these to those who pledge his cause. Are you one of his, then?" The youth glared at Gunthar. "Or perhaps you merely stole it--"
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