Read Once a Knight Online

Authors: Christina Dodd

Once a Knight

BOOK: Once a Knight
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O
NCE A
K
NIGHT
CHRISTINA DODD

To Carolyn Marino,
my first editor and a lady who,
through her daring and lack of interest
in romantic conventions,
consistently publishes the best stories
and collects the most prestigious awards.
Many thanks.

Once a prince, always a prince.

Once a knight is enough.

—O
LD
E
NGLISH
P
ROVERB
(O
R IF IT'S NOT, IT SHOULD BE
.)

Contents

1

I saw the whole thing from beginning to end, and…

2

“Are you the legendary Sir David of Radcliffe?”

3

The damned witless woman had left without him.

4

Alisoun was awake again. David stared toward the hammock strung…

5

We squires were in the training yard that day, and…

6

Under Alisoun's guidance, Sir David stumbled into his chamber. Alisoun…

7

“What's wrong with Sir Walter?” The spindle slowly spun and…

8

“You summoned me, my lady?”

9

Sir David erupted out of my lady's solar. He didn't…

10

As Alisoun approached the training area, she asked, “Why are…

11

David had had dreams like this before. A woman came…

12

The little cocoon of warmth around Alisoun made her want…

13

The night before, I'd fallen asleep a miserable, unhappy boy.

14

“You're thinking of him again, aren't you?”

15

David watched Alisoun leave and didn't know whether to worry…

16

The solar filled with a silence that lapped up and…

17

Someone was sneaking through her bedchamber. Someone who wished her…

18

David ran toward Bert, and the thump of her small…

19

“God's teeth, man, you've got to do something about Lady…

20

Bert scuffled her feet in the dirt of the training…

21

I have lived in castles all my life, and I've…

22

Alisoun jumped to her feet, but Osbern moved more quickly.

23

I hated to stay, but what was I to do?

24

The banners flying from the ramparts of Osbern's castle gave…

25

“How's my babe?”

Medieval England
Northumbria, 1252

I saw the whole thing from beginning to end, and I pray you note that there aren't many alive today who can say that. Most people, when they hear about it, say it's a legend, a romance, one of those foolish stories women make up to entertain themselves. I give you my vow, I saw it all, and whatever you have heard, it's the truth
.

Better than that, whatever you've heard isn't half the truth
.

The first of it I remember was the picnic. Oh, there were other incidents, but I was just a lad, a page in Lady Alisoun's household. I slept with the other pages, trained with the other pages, prayed with the other pages, and painfully penned a letter to my grandparents once every moon which Lady Alisoun read. She read it, she said, to see if I was improving in my lessons
with the priest. I believed her then, but now I suspect a different truth—that she read to see if I was happy in her care
.

I was, although my contact with her was limited to that once-a-month discussion of my progress toward squirehood. I knew I could become a squire. Lots of men and youths were squires. But I aspired to greater things. I aspired to the holy knighthood. It was the greatest honor I could ever achieve. It was my dearest dream, my greatest challenge, and I concentrated my whole attention on my studies, for I was determined someday to be a knight
.

So it took that dreadful picnic to alert me that trouble brewed in Lady Alisoun's household
.

The first shout came after lunch, when the young men and women of the village and the castle had scattered into the forest that surrounded the open meadow. I would have been with them, but pages were subservient to everyone, and I had been commandeered to help the serving women repack the baskets while the men lounged in the lazy aftermath of a huge meal. Anyway, someone, I don't know who, yelled, “Lady Edlyn's been taken!

That caught my attention at once, for at fifteen (four years older than me), Lady Edlyn was kind, beautiful—and unaware of my existence
.

I adored her
.

The shout caught Lady Alisoun's attention, too. She stood up quickly. Quickly!

No one who lived outside of George's Cross could understand the significance of that, but it brought silence to the meadow. Every eye clung to Lady Alisoun's tall figure, alarmed by her haste
.

Lady Alisoun never did anything quickly. She did everything deliberately, calmly. Every day, she rose at
dawn, attended Mass, broke her fast, and proceeded to the duty of the day. Every year, she celebrated Twelfth Night, fasted at Easter, supervised the lambing in the spring, and went to Lancaster in the autumn. She was the lady, our lady, the one we timed our lives by
.

I'm making her sound old—to me, she was old—although looking back, I know she couldn't have been more than twenty-four or twenty-five. Yet Lady Alisoun didn't look old. She just looked perfect, and that was why that one hurried, unwary motion told us so much
.

Three serving girls burst from the woods and ran toward Lady Alisoun as if drawn to a lodestone. “A man…a man! He grabbed her!

One silly village woman screamed, and Lady Alisoun spun and bent a stare on her. Silence descended at once; Lady Alisoun expected proper behavior from all on her estate, and for the most part, she got it
.

Then she asked the girls, “Who grabbed her?


A man…a man,” one girl gasped
.

But Heath, my lady's chief maid, pushed forward and punched the girl in the arm. “Speak. What man?


A stranger
.”

I heard Alisoun's personal maid, a woman with a babe at her breast, mutter a raw prayer
.

Sir Walter called, “A strange man took Lady Edlyn?

He didn't rise from his seat to ask the question, or act in any way concerned, and I again realized how much I disliked him. For all his superior airs, he was nothing but a knight, elevated by Lady Alisoun to the role of her steward. He was supposed to secure her estates, but today he could scarcely unwrap himself from his woman long enough to show respect
.

Looking around, I saw the same dislike mirrored on everyone's face
.

We held our breaths, waiting for Lady Alisoun's reprimand. She might be the epitome of a lady, but she could reduce a grown man to tears with a few well-chosen words
.

She didn't do it this time. She just looked at Sir Walter through those funny-colored eyes, judging him in her mind. I suppose you could wonder how I knew that, but I did, and so did Sir Walter, because that stocky lowland knave scrambled to his feet so fast his woman fell backward and hit her head against a rock
.

Served her right, the slut
.

Once Sir Walter stood on his feet, a mad rush ensued. He organized search parties, sending the villeins to different parts of the forest to look for the Lady Edlyn. I wanted to go, too. I hopped up and down on one foot, waggled my hand, finally spoke up, but he denied me the honor of joining the search. I should stay with the women, he said, sneering in his offensive manner
.

He didn't like me because he didn't think I knew my place. Actually, I did know it. I didn't keep to it, but I knew it
.

Sir Walter himself insisted on going with the trackers to the place where Lady Edlyn had been taken. They would seek her and had the best chance of locating her. Sir Walter wanted to be in on the find to impress Lady Alisoun
.

When the searchers had dispersed and their loud calls to each other faded, Lady Alisoun sent the women who carried babes or tended toddlers to the protection of the castle. She sent the contingent of remaining men-at-arms to protect them, too, and big, dull Ivo tried to argue with her about that. He didn't want to leave her, but years of obedience had left their mark, and before long, I found myself alone with Lady Alisoun
.

She sat alone on a rug in the middle of the open
meadow. She wore white trimmed in blue. It wasn't practical, but that day she served as symbol to her people. She was the old earth goddess and the Virgin Mary all in one, rallying hope for a prosperous summer after two long years of drought. Her white wimple folded back to reveal a blue cap beneath. Her white cotte showed glimpses of her long blue shift through the lacing. When she raised her long, trailing white sleeves, they fell back and the blue lining showed. No one thought of her as being pretty or otherwise. She just was; the lady. She sat with her back straight, her expression serene, her hands relaxed in her lap
.

I didn't say anything, and neither did she, so I started once more cleaning up the mess left by two hundred people celebrating the return of spring. All around, clumps of trampled spring grass gave off a fresh scent. Toppled baskets spilled onto the ground, and ants hurried to scavenge the contents
.

Lady Alisoun ignored me for a while and I almost forgot about her. After all, I was eleven and I had been left with a surfeit of leftover food. And not just everyday food, either. All the women had used the last of their premium provisions for this special meal and made honey loaf and honey sweetmeat and honey mead. I ate cautiously at first, putting the food back into the baskets with only a taste here and there. Then the birds and the woodland creatures started approaching, drawn by the odors of food and the absence of almost everyone. If I didn't eat it, they would
.

Specious reasoning, of course, but as I said, I was eleven
.

Suddenly Lady Alisoun asked, “Do you remember my cat?

I had been dipping my fingers in a stray pot of honey and conveying it to my mouth, so her query
caught me by surprise. My start of guilt must have been conspicuous, but she didn't reproach me. She waited while I licked my fingers, gulped and replied, “Aye, I remember her.” She didn't say anything else, so I replaced the cork on the pot and ventured, “She was a nice puss
.”


Remember how she always brought the mice and piled them at my feet?” Lady Alisoun shuddered. “And I had to show my gratitude by personally picking them up and carrying them to the pantry
.”

I couldn't help but grin at the memory
.


I miss her,” Lady Alisoun said
.

Tapestry had died a few weeks before, but I had paid little notice. After all, the castle bounded with cats and dogs, and if I wished to cuddle a creature, I had them underfoot at all times. But Lady Alisoun had been special to Tapestry, and now I realized Tapestry had been special to Lady Alisoun. Stuffing the honey pot into a basket, I wiped my sticky fingers on my tunic and tried to think of the proper thing to say
.

Lady Alisoun didn't wait for me. “Did you hear how she died?

I had. It disgusted me to think that someone could be so cruel, and now fury seized me. That person had hurt Lady Alisoun in the process
.

She fixed me in her gaze this time, and repeated, “Did you hear what happened to Tapestry?


Aye, my lady.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve, then went back to work filling the baskets. Mumbling, I said, “Someone skinned her alive and nailed her to the castle gate
.”


Sir Walter thought it an accident that it was my favorite cat
.”

I stopped and stared. “Wasn't it? Because if someone knew it was your cat, that means it would have to
be one of us who lives with you, and none of us would do that, my lady
.”

She accepted my assurance with a courtly nod. “Nay, not someone who lives with me, but someone who knows me nonetheless. I wonder…” She stared at the forest around us. “Because Edlyn was wearing my cloak when she went into the woods
.”

I couldn't think of a reply. I couldn't think of anything. All I could do was realize—Lady Alisoun and I were alone out here. George's Cross Castle was a good two leagues due south. George's Cross Village was a good three leagues south and east. My lady was in danger. In fact, she sat on the top of the hill, exposing herself to danger, probably as an enticement to whatever villain stalked her, and I served as her sole protector. I had dreamed of the day I would defend a lady in peril, but I had hoped to have more than a pot of honey as a weapon
.

The birds stopped calling. The bushes rustled. I leaped to my feet, a stout stick in my grasp. A man sped out of the woods toward Lady Alisoun. I rushed between them, intent on defending her—and Sir Walter knocked me aside with a blow to the head
.

Through the buzzing in my ears, I heard, “Get out of my way, you little bastard
.”

I struggled back up, ready to claw and bite as I always did when someone maligned my birth, but Lady Alisoun's cool tones stopped me
.


You will not ever call him that again, Sir Walter
.”

I swayed, waiting, hoping he would defy her
.

But he didn't. Instead, he answered easily, “Of course not, my lady, if it displeases you. But I bring weighty news! We found her
.”

He sounded as if he had done something great, when actually, if he'd been doing his duty in the first place, Lady Edlyn wouldn't have been taken at all. Lady
Alisoun knew it, and he knew it, too, for when she fixed him in her gaze, he flushed uncomfortably
.


She's not dead,” he added with a little less exuberance
.


I hope not.” She stood, ignoring his hand outstretched to assist her. “For your sake.” The shouting was converging in one place in the forest, and she started toward it. “How badly is she hurt?


Not—” he cleared his throat, “—badly
.”

He stared after her as if undecided about his next strategy, but I sprang over the remains of the ruined picnic to follow her, and he barreled after me. He tried to grab me and place me behind him on the trails that wound through the underbrush, but I proved too nimble for him. Skipping aside, I managed to clear the thicket and get ahead of Lady Alisoun, and from then until we reached Lady Edlyn, I busied myself with pushing aside the low hanging branches and helping her over the rough spots
.

Vying for her attention, Sir Walter said loudly, “As you feared, a man took her while she played games with the others.” His voice got deeper and more authoritative. “She's too old for such silliness. She should sit with the women
.”

Well, I recognized his tactics. I'd tried it once or twice myself! Shift the blame onto someone else and confuse the issue. What he didn't know was that Lady Alisoun hadn't accepted it from me, either. She said, “When I need your advice on the noble girls I foster, Sir Walter, I will certainly ask for it.” She released a branch too soon, and it slapped him in the face
.


Good shot, my lady,” I mumbled, but she pretended not to hear. She hurried toward the sounds of excited conversation ahead of us
.

One thing for Sir Walter, he didn't take a hint. He
came thrashing through the brush like a bear flushed from its den, growling like one, too. “My lady, I insist
—”


Later, Sir Walter
.”


But you know what I think.” He managed to get ahead of her and planted himself in the path between her and me. “If you had never taken them in, this would have never happened
.”

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