Poitiers, France — 1174 A.D.
The stolen armor fitted her poorly — a minor annoyance if she were lucky, a fatal encumbrance if not. The chain-mailed hauberk weighed Alienore down, like the doubts she dared not acknowledge. As for the helm, seated perilously low, she could barely see through the eyeslit.
But at least the faceplate disguised her identity — and that must be her paramount consideration.
“Milady, will ye mount?” Luke squared himself to boost her into the saddle.
“Quietly!” she whispered, pulse quickening. “I am no lady this day.”
God’s mercy, let the lad misspeak when we enter the lists, and I am disgraced.
Whether the squire guarded his tongue or nay, she would be fortunate indeed to emerge unscathed from this debacle: stolen armor, a squire bribed to secrecy, and a half-wild charger borrowed from a trusting friend.
But she would not lose her courage now. A lady’s honor stood at stake.
Outside the stable, the clear blast of trumpets split the air. Tightening her jaw, Lady Alienore of Lyonstone gripped the pommel and sprang up.
Mounted, with the familiar shield bumping against her thigh, command settled over her like a garment. When the trumpets blared again, she spurred Charlemagne into the milky light of day.
Beneath slate-colored skies, jewel-bright pennants snapped and fluttered in a cruel wind. Piles of dirty snow stood sullen around the tilting yard of Poitiers. The battlements soared overhead, looming like a calamity over the crowd near the tourney field.
Dismay swept through her to behold the unruly rabble. Her breath exploded white as Alienore reined in.
“Jesus wept!” The oath slipped from her. Dear God, let no man challenge me over the armor.
Cold sweat broke out against her brow. She prayed her hazardous dead-of-night incursion to the armory still went undetected. She had taken nothing she would not return. But her fate must be as God willed it.
Squaring her shoulders against the knife-sharp cold, she reached for the lance. Luke swung it into her hand with a reassuring slap. With an ease honed by training, she swept up the wicked point and couched the spear against her saddle.
Swallowing her reservations, she spurred her warhorse to a canter. They thundered onto the field.
Before her towered the royal box, dominating its surroundings. The Plantagenet standard billowed in the wind, scarlet blazoned with a trio of golden leopards. Beneath the canopy glittered a dazzle of gold and crimson. Eleanor of Aquitaine, by God’s grace Queen of England, her splendor undimmed by the disgrace of captivity.
Despite her fear of discovery, Alienore’s heart swelled with love and pride. The queen would understand what compelled her to act. The queen understood defense of honor, but she could never condone a public scandal. Nay, if Alienore were unmasked, she would lose her place for certain.
For she was no mere lady, but the queen’s privy chancellor — the only woman to stand among the queen’s council of ministers. How they would all rejoice to see her unseated!
A wave of heads turned as Alienore cantered along the barricade. Snatches of conversation drifted to her ears, carried by the frigid wind.
“…rides without a standard and hides his face. Who can say what man he is?”
“Heard of such a one in England…itinerant knight, too modest to reveal his name. He champions distressed damsels — the ones no other knight will defend.”
A woman’s malicious laughter floated on the wind. “Depardieu, the lady Rohese must be wearing out her knees in gratitude for this one!”
“That was how they came upon her, aye?” A man guffawed. “On her knees! And the man half-naked, I heard.”
When she halted before the royal box, Alienore stared straight ahead — not at the spiteful faces of Aquitaine’s courtiers, but only at the blinding blaze of her queen. Exerting her unwomanly strength, she hoisted her lance toward heaven in salute.
A commotion nearby drew her like a lodestone, nerves already screaming with tension. A lady was floundering onto the field, fiery curls spilling against an ermine pelice.
Ah, the lady of the hour, for whose honor I find myself in this dangerous dilemma.
“God lend you grace, monsieur!” Rohese de Rievaulx cried, running across the frozen ground. The stallion shied violently, and Alienore fought to hold him — a friend’s foreign mount, and new to court. With a shaft of alarm she missed her own steed, but that horse was too well known on this field.
She stared down from her towering height at the victim. Her cousin, her own dead mother’s very image — Marguerite de Rievaulx come again, and it twisted her heart to see it.
“Good my lord.” Rohese gazed up through tearful eyes. “Will you not bear my favor into battle? You have earned it by your courage, for no other would ride to my defense…against him.”
Alienore dared not speak. Even through the helm, Rohese would know her, would glimpse the hazardous truth. She would realize Alienore had found no knight to defend her from this appalling scandal —
Behind her the rumble of hooves built like an avalanche, a measured cadence that shuddered the ground. Rohese flushed as her defiler took the field. She thrust her scarf into Alienore’s gauntlet, and hastened behind the barricade.
Guarded, Alienore pivoted for her first glimpse of the opponent. He had made his entrée at court while she was away, about the queen’s secret business in Bordeaux. When she returned last night, chilled and sagging with weariness, Rohese waylaid her with the sordid tale.
This nameless cur from nowhere had assaulted Rohese, bent upon stealing her virtue. When they were discovered, the rogue dared to claim the lady encouraged his advances. And such was his sinister repute that no knight would challenge him, nor champion the lady.
So honor demanded that Alienore take up again the perilous disguise she had left behind when she fled English soil — no matter the terrible risk.
The villain swept into sight. The breath froze in her lungs.
He was an apparition straight from the abyss — a massive black warhorse with red-rimmed eyes, plumes of vapor shooting from its nostrils, bearing a rider like one of Lucifer’s fallen angels. The knight’s pointed helm threw sparks against the vault of heaven. Pale breath leaked around his lowered faceplate.
Above this sinister vision, a raven cawed and circled. As the charger thundered toward her, his three-beat gait sounded the knell of doom.
All is lost, all is lost, all is lost…
Superstitious fear swept down her spine, and made her skin crawl. St. Swithun save her, he could be Beelzebub or the Devil himself, come to claim a damned soul. He did not even carry a Christian name to Aquitaine, only a letter of commendation from the queen’s son, singing fulsome praise of the black knight called Le Corbeau — the Raven.
Beneath her, Charlemagne pranced as the foe thundered toward them. At the last instant, the black stallion juddered to a halt. Up and up he reared, baring yellow teeth and screaming with rage, as her mount tore the ground. Then the stallion thudded down, and pivoted toward the royal box.
With razor-sharp precision, the Raven uncouched his lance to salute the queen. A tomblike chill emanated from him with each chuffing breath.
Dispassionate, Eleanor of Aquitaine surveyed them from her high-backed chair. Her clarion voice rang out.
“This contest is highly irregular — between two knights who claim no name. We are not accustomed to abide hidden purpose at our court in these uncertain times. Lord Raven, we overlook your origins from gratitude, for the service you rendered our son. Your challenger, however, bears no such mark of favor.”
Alienore nerved herself for the risk of speech, and pitched her voice low.
“May it please Your Grace, I beg your indulgence. A lady’s honor is at stake — the honor of Rievaulx.”
Armor chimed as the black knight shifted, pushing out a harsh breath. The queen’s stern eyes passed over him and fixed Rohese de Rievaulx. The damsel drew her hood close, and concealed her heightened color. In silence, Eleanor of Aquitaine studied the mismatched knights — ebony and argent — before her.
Alienore lifted her gaze to her sovereign’s face. Reddened with cold, worn by care and the birth of ten children, still her queen shone pure and fair — a beacon of honor gleaming in a wrongful world. Staring into those assessing eyes, Alienore implored her in silence for support.
“A lady’s honor.” The queen mused. “And a good English knight by your speech.”
Alienore held her breath while her sovereign considered.
“Very well, monsieur,” the queen said. “Three passes with the lance and one course with the sword. To first blood, nothing more.”
Alienore released her breath with shuddering relief and bowed her head.
“And you, Lord Raven.” The Queen of England surveyed the black knight coolly. “You are a stranger to this court, but your reputation precedes you from Outremer. I will have no stouthearted English lad meet his death by your blade this day. Do you comprehend me?”
In silence the Raven bowed, a courtesy of surprising grace. Then he wheeled his black and galloped across the field. The ground trembled beneath his passage.
All is lost…
Heart pounding, Alienore pivoted Charlemagne and cantered to her place. She knotted the reins around her pommel, swung her lance forward to point at the black knight’s heart. Above, the raven still circled, sending a chill cascading down her spine. An expectant hush descended.
The trumpets blasted the cry to combat.
Before Alienore could instruct him, her charger surged forward, building speed like a battering-ram as he thundered down the field. Bracing her lance, she guided the horse by seat and legs as she crouched behind her shield — protected yet still vulnerable. An unlucky blow could still pierce her, and drive the steel links of her mail into flesh, with death by the green rot the certain result.
Swelling to fill her vision, the black knight loomed like a disaster before her. The rumble of hooves drowned out the clamoring crowd. Then the deadly length of his lance was arrowing toward her. She braced for impact.
At the last moment, she twisted aside. The two horses hammered past without consequence. The first course, and both spears had missed their mark.
She wheeled her charger for the next pass. Jittery, Charlemagne fought her, tossing his head and whinnying. She had barely settled him when the trumpets screamed. Without waiting for her signal, the angry stallion plunged forward.
As they charged down the field, Alienore struggled to hold him on a level course. Her arm and shoulder burned beneath the lance’s weight. Grimly she fixed the black knight with her point.
Too quickly, he was upon her, dark spear whistling as it split the air. He would skewer her dead between the eyes —
She ducked behind the shield, barely deflecting his blow. The shock of impact slammed through her. He had grazed her, but her lance caught him squarely. As the black stallion swept past, his rider swayed in the saddle.
Her breath exploded from her lungs as relief coursed through her. With God’s grace, this dangerous contest would end now, with her disguise still secure.
Yet when she wheeled her mount, she saw with sinking disappointment that the Raven retained his seat. Calm as a man at prayer, he sat in his saddle and watched her.
Her chest tightened with dread. By her faith, he should have fallen. Was it uncanny skill that kept him in the saddle, or the Devil looking out for his own?
She struggled to couch her lance. Charlemagne reared beneath her. She longed for the reins, but had no hand to spare for them. When the trumpets blared, the horse lashed out with his rear legs, almost unseating her, before plunging into the fray.
Her sword arm ached from the weight of her lance. Her shield arm tingled from the blow. The unfamiliar stallion weaved and veered, forcing her to hold him with tensed thighs and determination.
Squinting through the eyeslit, she riveted her lance on the looming knight and braced for impact. Her blow glanced off his lifted shield —
Then the hammer of God whelmed her square in the chest, lighting her breastbone on fire as he struck. Her desperate grip on the saddle dislodged. The world tilted and fell away beneath her. The lance was slipping from her fingers…her shield flying wide…the ground rushing up to meet her…then the sickening slam of impact as she landed on her back. Her head thudded against the earth, making her ears ring.
Long seconds passed as she lay dazed, gasping for air. Gradually her vision cleared, reduced to a skewed slice of daylight. Blind, she groped to reseat her helm. When she could drag breath into her lungs, she levered herself up on one elbow.
Across the field, the Raven sat on his charger and watched her. A stable-lad was running to catch her horse. And there was Luke, trotting toward her with her sheathed sword.
Alienore groaned. Every bone in her body throbbed. But that was nothing, she knew, to the sustained distress she would endure later.
The honor of Rievaulx — my mother’s name, my mother’s honor — is at stake.
Somewhere in the stands, Rohese was depending upon her. All hope was not lost. She could still best him at the sword, by far her strongest weapon. Doggedly she struggled to her knees, the world reeling around her.
The Raven sprang down and tossed his reins to a swarthy Saracen in a blood-colored turban. The squire presented his master’s blade — a deadly crescent of Damascus steel with a jagged tip. Fire smoldered in the hilt from a slitted topaz, like a dragon’s eye.
Alienore unsheathed her broadsword and raised her shield, thanking Luke with a nod as he melted away. The black knight stalked toward her.
God’s mercy, he was unnaturally tall. She towered over most men, but this one made her feel small, even fragile. In his coal-black armor, he moved with sinuous grace, like the panther in the queen’s menagerie.
Just beyond the range of combat, he halted. Through the pointed helm, she sensed his eyes upon her: winded, muddied and battered from her fall. She straightened her shoulders and saluted him with her blade. Not that his honor required it, but she would adhere to the rules of combat in the queen’s presence.
Negligently, he tossed his shield to the ground — a silent declaration that he would not need it.
Breath hissed through her teeth at the insult. A rumble of disapproval rose from the viewing stand. So they favored her now, these fickle folk of Poitiers. This Raven must be disliked as much as he was feared.
Holding herself erect, she cast her own shield aside. A sprinkle of applause acknowledged her gallant gesture.
She braced for assault, but he seemed content to wait. Although she preferred to defend while she took a man’s measure, she would derive more than satisfaction from humbling this one. So be it.
She lunged forward, thrusting. His crescent sword swept around in defense. Steel clashed as his blade whined along hers, deflecting the blow. She danced back and parried toward his flank. Again he pivoted to repel, his notched blade whirling through the air.
She sought to find his rhythm, darted forward and back. His style and equipage were unfamiliar — eastern blade and a Saracen squire. Was he one of those so-called Old Settlers, descendant of a knight from the First Crusade, dwelling in Jerusalem for generations? Did he worship God with the heathens, keep a harem of veiled women, and call that a holy life?
Whatever he was, he possessed uncanny skill at arms. Quick as she attacked, he was quicker to defend, his sword tumbling in whistling arcs to parry. He made himself the axis she pivoted around. He became the quiet planet around which her blazing sun revolved.
Already she was overheated under the armor’s dragging weight. Her breastbone throbbed where his lance had struck, dull waves of pain rolling through her. Slick wetness trickled between her breasts — sweat or blood, she knew not which.
Undaunted by her flurry of blows, her opponent emanated an unnerving chill. She burned, but he was ice, frosted breath hissing from his faceplate. Yet her anger was mounting at his indifferent defense. The buzzing in her ears was growing…her heart laboring for breath…her sword-arm burning as she swung her blade against his casual parries.
She gathered all her strength for a final gambit. His scimitar carved the air as it swept up to defend. Summoning all her agility, she crouched and swept around. Her broadsword dropped with disarming swiftness.
One blow, first blood, then victory —
A blinding flash of silver pierced her vision. Somehow his blade intervened, moaning as it slid along hers. With a twist, his point dislodged her sword, and found the seam between her gauntlet and sleeve. A tendril of fire licked along her forearm.
As her sword tumbled from her fingers, his long leg hooked hers. A gentle nudge sent her flailing backward, a cry bursting from her lips. Unable to regain her balance, she landed flat on her back — for the second time that morn. In a heartbeat, his blade rested against her throat.
“Yield,” the black knight rasped.
A dark fog crept around the edge of vision. Through a tunnel of blackness, she discerned him, silhouetted against the leaden sky. Lady Alienore of Lyonstone sprawled on her back in the dirt before Eleanor of Aquitaine and the entire royal court.
Yield? In her mind she saw not Rohese’s pleading face, but Marguerite de Rievaulx as her mother lay on her deathbed, weakly protesting her innocence to the daughter who longed to believe her. No knight had come forward to defend Marguerite from the scandal that killed her and disgraced the family name.
“Never!” She defied him, heart pounding against her ribs. “Varlet, do your worst. I do not fear you.”
Laughter scraped behind the black faceplate. “Then, boy, you’re a fool.”
The Raven dropped to one knee. Alarm knifed through her. He gripped her hauberk in a careless fist, hauled her head and shoulders from the ground. She dangled from his grip like wounded prey.
Through the eyeslit, she glared straight into his shadowed helm. Uncanny golden eyes glittered as they fixed her, feral as any beast.
“Who are you?” She fought for breath.
If he intends to slit my throat here in the dirt, then at least I will know his name! I will meet my fate without flinching…this time.
“Why, boy, did no one warn you?” He uttered a jarring laugh. “I’m the Devil.”
Overhead, a raven cawed, and a chill swept down her spine.
Suddenly his tawny eyes narrowed. As Alienore stared into that sinister gaze, an unnerving notion bloomed. Somehow, through no device but the Devil’s own knowledge, could he sense it was a woman who defied him, refusing to yield to an outcast’s honor?
Without warning, he dropped her, then rose to tower over her like an avenging angel. Pivoting toward the queen, he pulled off his helm. From her vantage, Alienore could see only a gleaming rope of sin-black hair swinging down his back. Her pulse raced as she waited to be unmasked, or worse.
He addressed the court in Norman French, voice rasping, rough gravel under velvet.
“’Tis small pleasure to trounce a half-grown boy, tripping on the tails of his father’s armor. Let the lady send a new champion, or two — or a hundred. I care not.”
The black knight stalked from the field, breath billowing around him like smoke from the netherworld.
Alienore’s face burned as she struggled to her feet, a trickle of blood dripping from her arm. Her disguise was intact. Yet, deep within, a slow wrath kindled. With all the resolve of a knight and an earl’s daughter, she stoked it like a forge-fire.
Her family’s honor stood twice insulted by that knave — her own precious honor, her most prized possession, which she’d sacrificed all to protect. Grimly, before God and St. Swithun, she swore she would have justice.