England, 15th Century
“Black Knight, pledge thy loyalty and love to me and no other!” Queen Isabel Trenowyth demanded.
“I cannot, Your Grace,” the Black Knight replied, ignoring her haughty tone while holding back his jet-black Andalusian from prancing too close to the queen and her court. “My heart belongs to another.”
“Another? Thou wearest the colors of this kingdom. My kingdom.” Isabel snorted, her proud face suffused with rage. “Thy heart canst belong to no other in this time or in any other time.”
“Thou speakest the truth. I wear the black and gold colors of Heartsease as a knight by my own pledge, sworn to protect the castle walls and its people, nothing more, Your Grace. I cannot give my heart to one who on a whim hast so many knights on bended knee.” The Black Knight backed his snorting stallion a little farther from the anger of Queen Isabel. He’d vowed to protect Heartsease and its lands for longer than the queen’s reign; he’d never promised to be her lover.
“Of course, there are other willing knights of Heartsease who would give me the pleasure I request. It is what thou hast refused me all these years which I seek. I have offered thee everything, and now thee shall have nothing.” Isabel waved him off like a finished piece of meat.
“The tournament shall continue.”
A sneer marred her otherwise beautiful face. “Ruin him, Sir Thomas!” Queen Isabel commanded of the Black Knight’s opponent.
Sir Thomas backed his gray mount away from Queen Isabel until he reined in solidly beside the Black Knight. The line had been drawn, and the Black Knight knew Isabel would not take lightly a refusal from two of her knights.
“My Queen, I cannot. I have given my life to protect the people of thy kingdom. Heartsease is the place of my birth and that of my family before me. Our alliance to thy father before his death is long and unquestionable. It will continue as such. On this day, I refuse to take the Black Knight’s life to ease thy pride and bruised heart,” Sir Thomas replied, loudly enough for half of Heartsease to hear him.
“Thomas, thy protection of me is admirable but not needed,” the Black Knight rebutted under his arnet to his childhood friend and then turned to the queen. Her furor over Thomas’s refusal was evident and so would be her vengeance. He couldn’t allow Thomas to face her wrath.
“I refuse Sir Thomas’s protection and challenge him to Joust a’ Plaisance.”
Queen Isabel thought for a moment before coolly signaling for the Chief Marshall toapproach her. A wicked smile crossed her lips as she whispered into his ear. A look of dismay soon turned to pleasure as the Chief Marshall faced the Black Knight and Sir Thomas.
“These are the queen’s terms of the challenge set forth. If the Black Knight loses, he will remove the coat of arms signifying his alliance with Heartsease and be banished from these lands for all time. If he should be the victor, then Sir Thomas will be stripped of knighthood and work the land as his father before him. In addition, the Black Knight shall do the queen’s bidding day and night as Queen Isabel so chooses.”
A hush fell over the list as all in attendance waited for the Black Knight’s answer to the cruel request. If he accepted this challenge and lost, he’d be forced to leave his homeland forever. This was the place of his birth and the birth of his beloved Catherine. His victory would bring shame upon Thomas and his family and devastate them, and he’d be at Isabel’s mercy for the rest of his days. Either way, he was doomed. The queen left him without a true choice.
The Black Knight backed his black steed, turned, and then trotted around the list toward William, his young squire. Passing along the rail, he paused long enough to take up the lace-andpurple-ribboned offering from Catherine, the beautiful daughter of Heartsease’s dressmaker. He leaned in toward the raven-haired, blue-eyed young woman, his heart already hers. She smiled and tied the token around his lance, making him her champion.
“How can I help but not fail, Catherine,” he whispered to the lovely but plainly dressed maiden.
“I know not, but thou wilt find a way to right this wrong,” she said, a trusting smile brightening her worried face. Touched by her faith in him, he rode off to the east end of the list, doom flittering down his spine. The only honorable way out would be to lose, even though it went against his nature, and he could possibly lose Catherine as well.
“Sir Reynold?” William queried.
He gave his squire a confidant smile, seeing the fear in the boy’s eyes. “I will not allow the queen to dictate my life any longer, my young friend. If I must leave my home and country to save Thomas’s family name, I will.” Reynold dismounted and handed the reins to William.
“The queen would rather see thee dead, sir,” William commented, leading the stallion alongside Reynold toward their tent.
“Beware what thou sayest, young William. In this court, even the ground hast ears,” Reynold cautioned his bold squire, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Lest thou take care in those words, or it could be thee riding Abraxas and carrying a lance against thy father instead of me.”
“What of my cousin?” William tethered Abraxas to a post outside their tent. “What will become of Catherine if thou art no longer here to protect her?”
“Catherine knows I’d not bring shame on thy family name. I will find a home and send for her when the time is right.” Reynold walked into his tent to prepare for his joust against Thomas, his blood brother and childhood friend. “Wherefore Isabel hast chosen this course now is beyond my knowledge, Will. Her jealousy runs deeper since her father’s death.”
“Some say that Isabel hast consulted the stones. They say the stones have foreseen thy failure and disappearance from Heartsease, Reynold,” Will said in a hushed tone, as if afraid to be heard by anyone but himself. “Father is fearful that Isabel plays with the darkness of life to rid thee of thine. Her witch is powerful in the black arts.”
Reynold handed his arnet to Will, shook his head, and took a deep breath. It confirmed his own thoughts. “I have heard the same words whispered behind tankards of ale. It is more than my life she yearns to rid me of, it is my will to refuse her advances and physical pleasures.”
* * * *
Reynold pulled himself into the saddle and waited for Will to hand him his shield and cronel-tipped lance. Much was at stake in this event. At the other end of the list, his oldest and closest friend waited for their time at the joust.
They all had grown up together—Thomas Astley, Catherine, Isabel, and he. Thomas was the son of a farmer, and his cousin, Catherine, was the dressmaker’s middle daughter who was more of a tomboy than a girl. As a child, Isabel hadn’t known the difference in their positions in life.
Her father, King David, had allowed her to play with the children of Heartsease. She’d been a big-hearted girl, filled with passion and love. Reynold had been the king’s eyes and ears even as a boy, up until the king’s death when Isabel was but an enthusiastic girl of sixteen. Something inside her changed that day—something dark and evil.
At one time in Reynold’s life, he had thought he loved Isabel. These past years with her ruling cruelly as queen made him realize that Catherine, and not the selfish woman Isabel had become, had his heart.
After years of fulfilling the promise he’d made to Isabel’s father as he lay dying, Reynold continuously refused the provocative suggestions Isabel presented him on a regular basis. He’d promised the king he’d defend Heartsease and look after Isabel, not become a bed toy for her to play with like so many others. Isabel proved to need no looking after; she had plenty of willing knights to defend her honor and visit her private quarters.
The sound of trumpets brought him back to the present and the task awaiting him. His plan was a simple one that he’d have to conceal from Will. If he didn’t, the young squire would find a way to inform his father of Reynold’s planned deception.
Reynold spurred Abraxas ahead and entered the list at the east end at the same time Thomas did from the west end. They’d been through this many times before on the practice field. Abraxas stomped in eagerness to charge, and Reynold spurred the stallion forward.
Galloping toward Thomas on the opposite side of the tilt, Reynold felt the jolt of the lance against his chest. He’d hit Thomas but not enough to knock him off his mount.
Gathering himself, he repositioned the lance and charged toward Thomas again. As they met in the middle of the tilt, Reynold lowered his weapon at the last moment and felt the jolt of Thomas’s lance hit him squarely in the chest, causing him to teeter in the saddle. The cheers of the crowd echoed inside his arnet, vibrating in his ears.
One more pass, and it would be over.
Ignoring Will’s questioning look, Reynold spurred Abraxas around and charged his lifelong friend for what he prayed would be the last time. When the two passed, Thomas lifted his lance, missing Reynold by inches. Knowing in that instant Thomas was no fool, Reynold fell sideways, allowing Abraxas to drag him to the west end of the list.
The pain shooting through his body was nothing compared to the satisfaction of knowing Thomas would continue his life as a knight. His plan may not have worked to perfection, but his honor to Thomas was held intact. Reynold would find a new life—a lonely one but a life nonetheless.
The words came through the blackness trying to take claim to his mind. Abraxas suddenly halted, and Reynold felt himself lifted off the ground. Someone took his foot from the stirrup and pulled the arnet from his head.
Focusing, he gazed into the eyes of his raven-haired love. He had indeed found his place, at last, in Catherine’s arms.
Will Reyn escape the clutches of his Queen or will she find him again? And what of Catherine, the dressmaker, who's in love with the myth of the Black Knight of Heartsease?
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