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When her father and twin brother are murdered, Lady Catrin Fitzalen sets out to learn the truth about the awful rumors. Were...
When her father and twin brother are murdered, Lady Catrin Fitzalen sets out to learn the truth about the awful rumors. Were they killed by the king's own champion, the vicious King's Raven? She will do anything to protect her remaining family, including switching places with her cousin when the king forces the pious girl into marriage with his wicked champion.
The King's Tournament, near Shrewsbury
"Let me pass!" Lady Catrin Fitzalan, sides heaving from her haste, glared at the tall, imposing knight who barred her way.
How dare he block the path? Gilbert waited for her at his tent where he made ready for the king's forthcoming mêlée.
Yet the knight said nothing, his mail-clad legs spread in a determined stance. Why did she think he glowered at her through the sights of his visor? The back of her neck prickled with unease, for here stood a fearsome creature in full battle armor, broad of shoulder and chest. Unlike other combatants at King Edward's tournament, he wore no crest upon his great helm or coat of arms upon his black surcoat.
Drawing a shaky breath, she gathered her nerve. "If I were a man, I'd force you out of my way!"
The brute raised his leather gauntlet and pointed it toward the red silk scarf she gripped in her hand. "If you were a man," he said, his voice light and teasing, "I would not find myself seeking your favor."
Surely, he mocked her. Her chin came up and she clutched the scarf tightly. Did he think she'd part with the precious favor on the day of her brother's first tournament? She and her cousin Olwen had spent hours on its creation, each embroidering a Rothmore golden lion rampant on opposite ends of the silk garment so Gilbert might wear it on his sleeve this special day.
"You will gain no favor from me. Stand aside," she ordered.
"Then you will not pass this way, and your true love will not have it either." His words hissed through the breathing holes in his face guard.
Catrin swayed, frustration simmering into anger. Heassumed she was going to meet a lover. "You presume too much, knave!"
"My lady, you dishonor me."
He leisurely removed the helm from his head, revealing harsh and rugged features. As custom, his upper lip was clean-shaven. Black eyebrows drew into a frown above the bridge of his straight, hawkish nose. She could see no more of him, for he wore a mail coif with a ventail wrapped under his chin.
Yet, she couldn't tear her gaze from his glittering, wickedly beautiful eyes. He'd a wild-blooded look about him that stole her breath away. For an instant, she'd thought him threatening. What else must account for the strange flutter in her chest?
"As God is my witness, I mean you no harm." His eyes sparkled and a smile now tilted one corner of his mouth. "I only ask for part of your favor, a simple silken token to carry with me into the lists, for I have no maiden fair. Will you honor me, my lady?"
Dare she believe the sincerity of his request? His flattery? Catrin bit her lip, looking for a way to escape. She'd no more time for banter. The tournament would soon start and she must deliver the scarf to Gilbert.
She glanced at the knight again. The amused light in his eyes darkened. The tingle of attraction surprised her.
"Oh, very well," she said, abruptly making up her mind. "Gilbert waits. I have no time for your foolish game." She tore the scarf in two and thrust half of it toward her tormentor. "Take this!"
Bowing as any chivalrous warrior might, he accepted the jagged piece of silk without a word and stepped aside.
Catrin picked up her skirts and bolted from him, sprinting as fast as she'd run during childhood days in the fields near Clun Castle.
Gilbert! Stand still!" Catrin dropped her hands, impatient with her twin's shifting from foot to foot.
Dressed and ready for the tournament, Gilbert wore a red surcoat emblazoned with the Rothmore coat of arms--a golden lion standing on one hind foot with a foreleg raised above the other and the head in profile. He cradled his great helm under an arm.
Gilbert's squire stood beside him, holding the reins of the spirited destrier in one hand and the tourney lance in another.
"You will be proud of me this day," her brother boasted.
"I always am proud of you, my lord," she said, with a grin, her heart filled with love.
He winked. "Get on with it then, sister, for I have important men's work to do."
"Hush, you ungrateful boy," Catrin said in a playful tone.
As long as she could remember, she'd cared for Gilbert. Their mother had died in childbirth with them, and as soon as she could walk, she'd taken on the role of mother. Gilbert had always been such a capricious child. Yet, now he was a man full grown, recently knighted and, since the murder of their father, a powerful earl in his own right.
She tied the torn scarf around his mail-clad arm. Lifting up on tiptoes, she kissed his cheek. Dear God, I love him.
Gilbert was yet a boy, playing at being a man. One day he'd compete with the best knights in the land.
"Be safe, my lord brother."
He laughed, impatient with her. "Aye, Catrin, you need not fear."
She gave him a quick hug for luck before he turned from her.
A short time later, Catrin elbowed her way through the crush of bodies assembled on the edge of the lists, a level and cleared field the king's men had fenced to make it ready for the mock combat to come. Trumpets blared and a hush of anticipation settled over the crowd.
'Twas a fine autumn day, sunny, with a chill in the air. Everyone was in high spirits, because of King Edward's triumph over the rebellious Welsh. Tomorrow the king would execute Daffyd, the traitorous Prince of Wales, but today Edward licensed this tournament "for pleasure" so his barons could celebrate.
For the first time since the death of her father on Lammas day, a twinge of expectation filled Catrin. How could it not? Gilbert was so anxious to prove himself.
A yeoman guard at the foot of the steps let her pass, and Catrin climbed to the temporary scaffold facing the list. Inching forward through the noble throng of finely clad and perfumed ladies, she claimed a spot at the railing.
Warriors mounted on specially trained destriers dotted the field below. King Edward's household knights formed a line on the right and on the left stood the ranks of competing barons. Vivid pennants of vermilion, blue, and white fluttered in the wind. Lances painted every color caught the afternoon sunlight, flashing bold and bright.
Catrin's pulse raced. She leaned against the rough railing, attempting to catch a view of her brother, but even with identifying crests and personal coats of arms, she found it impossible to locate him.
Knights held their straining horses and couched their lances. Suddenly, the herald sounded a trumpet and a man cut the long cord separating the opposing forces. The free-for-all started with a thunderous charge and shrill cries of "Huzzah!"
"Where is Lady Olwen?" Lady Isadora Fitzalan questioned over the din of cracking lances.
Catrin tensed at the sound of her stepmother's voice and gripped the railing. Long held resentment settled hard within her heart. Before she spoke, she prayed for Christian charity, hoping to temper the unholy dislike for the woman who'd come to live at Clun Castle as a sixteen-year-old bride eleven years earlier.
"She chose to remain at the pavilion," Catrin answered as evenly as possible, not looking at the older woman.
"More than likely closeted with her prayer beads," Isadora retorted.
Catrin now turned to glare at her stepmother. She bit her lower lip to hold back harsh words. The former Isadora Mortimer, young second wife of her father John Fitzalan, Earl of Rothmore, was of high birth, and carried herself erect and with grace as if she were Queen Eleanor.
"You know she fears for Gilbert's safety," Catrin said. "Olwen cannot bear to see him hurt and so is saying prayers for his well-being."
"'Twould be better if she were more concerned about her own welfare," Isadora said. "She needs a husband, else Edward will select one for her."
"He will do that no matter, my lady. We are royal wards," Catrin reminded her and rudely turned away.
Left and right, riders tumbled from lathered horses. Knights who remained astride drew swords, calling for those downed to accept surrender. Others rushed to their comrades' defense. Yet Catrin didn't spy Gilbert. Concern weighed her heart. The herald sounded retreat, thus ending the rough-and-tumble mêlée. King Edward's men had won the day.
The spectacle was not over. From the end of the list, a lone knight galloped to the middle of the field and reined his big, black destrier in circles, challenging one and all. 'Twas not uncommon for an unknown knight to ride alone into the lists.
A buzz of curiosity erupted from the crowd, for the black knight bore neither crest nor distinction upon his person. Tipping his lance to the stands where King Edward and Queen Eleanor watched, he acknowledged them.
Catrin stiffened her back. Her heart skipped once, twice. When no one accepted his challenge, the knight spurred his horse around the edge of the stockade, the great animal's head bobbing with each prancing step. Billowing with every jarring motion was her silky red scarf, now tied to the anonymous knight's right arm.
Catrin touched her cheek in shock. Her heart quivered. 'Twas the persistent knight of the path! She sucked in a sharp breath, secretly flattered.
"The King's Raven." Isadora spat his name like a curse.
Catrin gasped and glanced at Isadora. "He wears no badge. How do you know the King's Raven?"
"'Twas said he would compete today as king's champion."
Her stepmother's words sank in and a slow dread crawled through Catrin's heart turning it cold. The King's Raven was reputed to murder in cold blood, ravish women, and then plunder his victims' possessions for his own gain. To think she'd given her favor to this black-hearted beast.
"You cannot be certain," Catrin said.
"Lord Leighton told me."
Guy de Hastings, Lord Leighton. Catrin disliked the family's pompous neighbor. The baron had brought her father's body home to Clun Castle, claiming to have witnessed the murder. Strangely, Lord Leighton was too far away to prevent it. His failure hadn't stopped him from accusing the king's champion, yet he presented no proof, nothing but his word, which was oft maligned.
Many wondered aloud if he'd committed the crime. Others pointed out the baron would not bring the earl's body home if he murdered him.
With no other witness and no proof, King Edward believed his favorite champion, not the feckless baron. Thus, the king had dismissed Leighton's indictment and the matter was dropped.
Except by Catrin. She clamped her teeth together, fighting frustration and a simmering anger. Justice had not been served. Her father's murderer went unpunished.
A stir among the spectators grew into a cheer. Catrin's attention shifted to the far end of the lists. Another lone knight entered the field, signaling acceptance of the challenge.
Catrin's heart stopped. The Rothmore coat of arms.
"What does Gilbert do?" Isadora demanded.
Always Catrin had defended her brother and now would be no exception. She stiffened, setting her jaw. 'Twould not do for Isadora to see her sudden fear. "Gilbert vowed to make me proud today," she said softly.
Trumpets blared again. The challenge was now met. Almost directly in front of her, the black knight settled his destrier, collecting the horse with one hand and holding him back as he readied the steed to run the course. Then he lowered his lance over the left side of the horse's neck and tucked the butt end of the weapon under his arm. At the far end of the field, Gilbert did the same.
"He's no match for a seasoned knight," Isadora remarked. "The foolish lad will be unseated."
Catrin held her tongue. She feared the same and even worse, but refused to acknowledge her concern. Her pulse quickened. Would that she held Gilbert in her hands right now, for she wanted to box his ears!
The spectators twittered in expectation. Then silence fell. Catrin only had eyes for her twin. Gilbert leaned forward in the saddle, tucked his chin and raised his shield. He pushed his feet forward in his stirrups and charged. The crowd shouted.
Catrin's gaze darted to the black knight who'd urged his horse forward. She swallowed fast and hard, sickened by the power of the rushing steed and his rider. Gilbert stood no chance. His opponent rode with more experience and confidence. Even at a distance, the disparity was evident.
"Wait ... Wait..." she muttered under her breath, straining forward as if she could will her brother's patience.
At the last second, the seasoned knight moved first, thrust forward, rising in his stirrups, and struck Gilbert's shield, the full weight of man and horse behind his single blow. The force jerked her brother's lance upward and knocked the boy backward off the horse. He landed in the dirt. The crowd cheered.
Catrin's fingers bit into the wood of the railing. She couldn't go to Gilbert, although every fiber in her being drove her to run across the field to his defense. She'd not dishonor her brother. Nay, he'd accepted the challenge. Now let him suffer the consequences.
Still, she held her breath until Gilbert struggled to his feet.
A hue and cry arose. "The earl uses no coronel!" someone said in warning. "His lance is not blunted!"
"The young earl fights unfairly!" another shouted.
"Look," Isadora exclaimed, "The crowd speaks the truth."
The implications of Gilbert's actions chilled Catrin. She lifted her hand to her lips, knowing full well her brother's actions dishonored them all. By fighting without the properly fitted tourney lance, he'd tried to kill the black knight, the royal champion.
And struck a symbolic blow against King Edward.
The crowd shouted when Gilbert drew his sword. Standing his ground, the boy menaced the black knight, who rode forward calling for his surrender.
God save him! Gilbert carried the mighty, razor-sharp sword of the Rothmore earldom. What was her foolish brother thinking?
Revenge! She knew in her heart Gilbert sought vengeance for their father's murder. No wonder he boasted about making her proud.
The king's champion slid from his horse. In a slow and deliberate move, the older knight drew his tourney sword from the sheath on his saddle and turned to face Gilbert. Her brother charged as squires and tournament judges rushed forward to stop the fight. Spectators gasped.
'Twas no contest. With one swift motion, the champion disarmed Gilbert, sending the Rothmore war sword sailing high into the air.
The family's disgrace was complete. Yet Gilbert lived. The King's Raven had spared the life of the brother she held most dear.
Catrin shut her eyes for a moment and gave thanks. Too many of her family she had loved and lost. What would she do if she lost another?
Posted October 4, 2011
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