Read an Excerpt
Cheapside, LondonAugust 1295
Crowds of people had been waiting all morning for the procession that was now approaching, and a wave of cheering billowed on the warm morning air. The blast of trumpets vibrated on an elusive breeze, stirring dozens of colourful banners that adorned the stands on either side of the lists, and echoed in miniature by the pennons fastened on the end of the lances carried by the knights who would be competing in the tourney.
Resplendent in full armour, the knights gleamed silver-bright in the sunshine, helm-less that they might be seen by the adoring crowds, who had their well-loved favourites, and their loathlings. Above the noise of cheering, the jingle of harness and clop of many hooves upon the dusty road as they entered the stadium, there was also the sibilant hiss of jeering. It was well known that some knights won by ruthless methods other than skill, and whilst all knights must possess a brutal aggressiveness or lie slaughtered upon the field of battle, the manner in which it was applied was a matter hotly debated.
At the head of the procession rode the marshals and the constables, dressed in their frogged livery and full of smug satisfaction at their own importance, for it was they who would keep order, it was hoped, when male tempers raged hot and uncontrollable. Yet they were not held in adoration as the knights were, who each followed behind his own herald. At the forefront of the twenty knights invited to compete this week rode the champion of England, and the people's darlingTroye de Valois.
His chestnut stallion danced, swinging his noble head as Troye held the reins with skilful yet casual ease. His dark hair hadrecently been cut short to the nape of his neck, so that in the hot summer sun he did not sweat unduly within his great helm. The crowd cheered even louder at his passing. Harlots hung from balconies and windows, eager to catch his attention. From their fingertips fluttered flower petals and ribbons cut from their chemises, for there was nothing more erotically alluring than a handsome man graced with a pair of broad shoulders and clothed in a masculine aura of strength, courage and danger.
Troye narrowed his eyes against the sun and the adulation, in equal measure. He had no doubts that once his rear end landed too often upon the dusty ground, he would be darling no more. At thirty-one he harboured no illusions about the younger men eager to bring about his downfall, and he smiled with rueful acknowledgement, waved his hand in salute, thanking the people of London for their praise, and yet prepared for their inevitable rejection.
Turning his horse into the stadium, he lined up with the other knights before the gallery of spectators, dominated by the King's dais, bedecked and swagged with colourful bunting and garlands of ivy and ribbon rosettes. The sun slanted sideways, burnishing his deep tan and accentuating the hollow cheeks of his lean, handsome face.
In the stands, a fair-haired beautiful woman, Lady Joanna, called to her daughter, a smaller version of herself, with dark auburn hair tied back with silk ribbons.
'Eleanor,' her mother complained in a weary voice, 'do stop jumping up and down and craning your neck like a swineherd. It is most unladylike.'
'But I cannot see Rupert,' Ellie responded, sitting down upon the bench and trying to peer through the dust and the glinting armour and the crowd of horses, with blushes and youthful awkwardness disguising her interest in one knight who was not her kin. And was he not the most handsome, the most strong, of all knights? Her heart glowed and fluttered as she gazed upon the face that been naught but a memory for so long.
'He'll be well to the back,' said her father, reclining in his chair and leaning over to pick up her mother's hand and kiss her knuckles.
Ellie rolled her eyes skywards, exasperated. Why couldn't her parents be like normal people? They were for ever kissing and cosseting, much to her embarrassment.
'What is that look for, demoiselle?' demanded her father, with a small smile touching the corners of his mouth, 'Your mother is worried. Might I not comfort her with a kiss?'
Ellie folded her arms over her waist and hunched her shoulders, looking away as she muttered, 'In private, aye, but not here, where everyone can see.'
'There is naught wrong with a little affection,' rebuffed her father, and then added quickly, all too aware that his daughter was no longer a child, 'between married couples, that is.'
Lady Joanna smiled at her husband, and murmured in her low, serene voice, 'Leave her be, Hal. She chafes that it is her brother who rides in the joust and not herself.'
'Hah!' snorted Lord Henry, 'that will be the day! 'Tis sport for men, not maidens, and you would do well to remember that, young Ellie.'
Ellie sighed. 'Yes, Father.' Her reply was dutiful and full of respect, for she had much love and admiration for her father, yet she burned and fretted against the restrictions of her sex, for more reasons than were apparently obvious. How she longed to run to Troye de Valois and throw her arms around his neck and tell him how much she loved him! Suddenly, unable to contain herself any longer, she leapt to her feet and pointed, with an excited shriek, 'There he is!' She ran to the rails and waved. 'Rupert! Rupert!'
Her brother steadfastly ignored her, his eyes averted as the cavalcade rode by, exiting from the stadium, yet he felt a blush creep up his cheeks as the other knights made ribald comments about the pretty red-haired wench clamouring from the stands.
''Tis my sister,' barked Rupert with a scowl, 'so shut your mouths!'
This only brought forth more raucous crows and teasing quips, and some serious speculation that resulted in sudden overtures of friendship, in the hope of making an introduction to a wealthy young heiress who was not only of noble English blood, but beautiful too. Rupert, though only eighteen years old, had a sensible head on his young shoulders and was wise to their stratagems. What he knew of these knights, having fought and caroused alongside them all this summer past, in Scotland and Gascony, left him in no doubt that they fought hard, and played harder. The thought of such men making close acquaintance with his little sister somehow made him bristle and leap to protect her. Besides, it was not his say-so regarding Ellieany honourable intentions must go through his father first.
While the knights retired to their arming tents in the field beyond, the crowd was entertained by the heralds, who gave eloquent, and often extravagant, introductions, relaying to all and sundry not only their master's name and country of origin, but his ancestry, heraldic banner, victories and character. Only knighted nobles were allowed to participate in the joust and this was part of the glamour that attracted the commonfolk: for them the knights were men not of their ilk, but demigodsstronger, faster, braver than any mere mortal manor so they wished to believe.
Ellie sat bored and fidgeting, fanning herself in the sultry afternoon heat while the speeches droned on, sucking on a lemon sherbet that too quickly melted and left her with sticky hands. She was desperately eager to see Rupert and speak with him, remind him to keep his guard steady and not to look away too soon, naïvely convinced that without her advice he would fail. Conveniently she forgot that so far he had survived quite well without her. This was his first summer on the tournament circuit, and it had taken some persuading to convince her mother to make the journey to London to watch him compete. Lady Joanna had not wanted Rupert to participate in the joust in the first place, and sought to avoid the spectacle of her son being attacked at all cost. Yet she had been worn down by the pleadings of her husband and her daughter and had seen the necessity and opportunity of making a suitable match for Eleanor amongst the great gathering of nobility.
On Ellie's other side sat her Aunt Beatrice, her dark hair streaked with silver and yet her brown eyes and soft skin still beautiful despite her middling years. 'Shall I go and find Uncle Remy for you?' asked Eleanor artfully, seeing how her aunt darted frequent and worried looks to the entrance.
'Nay ' Lady Beatrice patted her hand ' he will be in the arming tent giving Rupert some last-minute advice, no doubt, and 'tis no fit place for a lady. He will be here anon.'
Ellie pursed her lips in frustration, and slumped inelegantly on the bench, disgruntled with her lot in life and earning a reprimand from her mother, who was ever mindful of the fact that beautiful, unmarried and privileged girls like Eleanor were constantly watched and appraised.
Ellie was roused from her maudlin mood when a blast of trumpets heralded the first joust of the day. At this stage of the tournament it was the young, inexperienced knights who rode first, and Rupert was amongst them. Eleanor looked up as a pair of boots pounded on the wooden steps and along the narrow gangway of the gallery. Her Uncle Remy ran lithely to where they sat, casting a smile on his wife as he sat down, and leaning forwards to reassure Lady Joanna that all would be well for Rupert.
'Did you tell him to keep his guard up?' asked Eleanor urgently. 'He tends to look away too soon.'
'Aye,' laughed her uncle, his blue eyes bright with a teasing glint. 'Don't fret, little one, he is a man full grown and this is not his first joust.'
'Though 'tis the first I have watched,' complained Lady Joanna, her lips pinched white in a worried grimace.
When at last Rupert brought his caparisoned charger on to the field and faced his opponent, it was his sister who leapt to her feet, shouting encouragement along with the common-folk who cheered from the far side of the lists. Until, that is, her mother gripped her wrist and jerked her down, with a swift admonishment to sit still and be quiet. Her father and her uncle laughed, and then they too were leaping to their feet and shouting as the ground thundered to the pounding of galloping hooves and the air vibrated with rowdy cheering.
Rupert was drawn three times in the list, and three times he vanquished. As the sun dipped in the afternoon sky and the joust came to an end at seven in the evening, there was much rejoicing in the Ashton camp. Ellie and her family retired to their pavilions, pitched in the meadows beyond Cheapside. It was inexpensive and convenient accommodation, compared to the taverns of London that were infested with disease and thieves, but still it lacked in homely comforts. Lady Joanna and Lady Beatrice supervised the boiling of hot water and the cooking of supper upon vast cast-iron cauldrons set on open fires. Rupert had his own tent amongst the competing knights, on the far side of the same crowded meadow. Ellie endeavoured to slip away and to rush to her brother, eager to hear from his own lips how it had felt to be victor three times today, and eager to have news of Troye de Valois.
It was no easy task and was full dark by the time she managed to make the feeble excuse of visiting the privy, and then change her course for the knights' encampment. The cool evening air and the darkness threw a cloak over the field that in daylight she had few qualms about traversing. Now she trod warily, leaving behind her the comforting domestic noise of clattering spoons and gossiping serfs, to encounter the coarse laughter and strident music of the revelling knights. This was a foreign world, and Ellie feared her father's wrath should he find out where she had been. She picked up her pace and jogged her way between the striped pavilions, but in the dark and the dancing shadows thrown by the flames of open fires she felt disorientated and struggled to locate Rupert's tent.
A hot sense of panic began to prickle over Ellie, as leery glances from several groups were cast her way, and she pulled up the hood of her dark blue fustian cloak. It must be here! she thought, gazing about in bewilderment. As she paused to look around her, seeking the red-and-yellow stripes of Rupert's tent and the banner of the house of Raven, three knights seated on tripod stools about their campfire called out to her.
'How much?' they shouted, waggling a purse of coins.
She stared at them, bemused, and then turned and hastened onwards, deciding to call out to locate her brother.
'Rupert!' Her voice sounded thin and reedy, and was swallowed up by the noise all around her. 'Rupert!'
'Ho, little lady!'
Two fellows lurched around the guy ropes and pegs of the nearest tent, bumping into her as they stumbled with drunken awkwardness. Her hood fell back and Ellie gave a small cry of alarm as an arm snaked around her waist.
'Mind your step, my beauty!'
Rough fingers jerked her chin up and she cringed against such violation, for no man, except her relatives, had ever touched her. The stink of wine fumes wafted from their mouths and Ellie pushed at the arm holding her.
'Well, now, you're a pretty little wench if ever I did see one! How much? For both of us.'
There was that question again, and Ellie gasped, as now it dawned upon her their meaningthey thought she was a harlot! With an angry exclamation she shoved again at the man nearest, and was surprised to find that he did not yield. An entirely new experience, to have her command thwarted.
'Let me go! My brother will kill you'
This was met with uproarious laughter and suddenly the two men exchanged a glance, nodded in agreement and dragged her off into the dark shadows of an alley way behind a row of tents. Her scream was cut off by a sweaty hand clamped to her mouth and the wind was knocked from her ribs as she was flung down upon her back, hitting the hard ground with a thump. Quickly she recovered and fumbled at her waist for the dirk she had concealed there, whipping it out and pointing its gleaming silver tip at the man who had straddled her.
'Let me go! Now!'
To her dismay her demand was met with only more laughter. Cruel fingers crushed her wrist, so that she yelped and was forced to drop the dirk.
'Shut up!' hissed the man, all merriness gone as he now panted with excitement and struggled to unlace his breeches, 'This won't take long and we will reward you well enough.'
He turned to his companion, 'Hold her hands, Will, while I get this poxy knot'
His friend seemed uneasy, 'She don't speak much like a whore, maybe she is a lady'