Copyright 2003 by Elizabeth Delayne
Brock stood in the tower window that overlooked the king's forest. Dawn was breaking over the horizon in a pale pink and yellow. The colors met with ominous rain clouds coming in from the east.
The Black Knight, his armor dark as sin, moved from the shadows on the trees, no longer hidden within, but if Brock had not known he was there, he would not have spotted the hidden, dark form. Billingdor's men had already left and were breaking the fast below. Brock had learned that another watch had replaced them long ago. The king's forest wasn't just guarded by the Black Knight and his hounds--at least, not anymore.
He had learned in the last few days since Ashton's departure to respect the army under Bilingdor. The men were strong, brave, and dedicated with the honor of true knighthood. They had come from their own families, homes built on neighboring lands to help serve Bilingdor in his time of need.
Brock drew in a deep breath and prayed out loud over the land below. "Holy God, be with us in these times. Heal the wounds of Arlington."
He thought of Ashton, of Lila and Sara and how he remembered them last at the castle. He prayed for each, though he to whom his heart belonged. The dark haired lady, faithful friend, beautiful rose of the gardens of Bilingdor.
The dark storm clouds remained over the horizon. He turned away, knowing that battle was still to come and winced as he forgot to favor his leg.
Her name was on the edge of his mind with every breath he took. He could only pray she would be safe, he could only hope she would forgive him over time.
He could only close his eyes and remember the smile. He had climbed up the woodwork at the tournament not even a month ago, dazzled by her.
Shaking himself, Brock took the stairs back down to the main floor slowly. By the time he reached the main chamber, Bilingdor had rid himself of his armor and was seated at the table breaking the fast himself. Father Bryan was to his left. He looked up, spotted Brock in the doorway, and waved Brock in as he turned back to answer the priest.
As he sat at the table, Bilingdor turned to him. "You fair well, Sir Brock?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I saw you out in the tournament field, working with your horse."
"It is proving difficult to ride with this injury."
"You wish to leave us soon."
"There is a war waging." Even as he said the words, he reached across himself and his hand closed absently at his left side. He felt nothing but air. Soon, his sword would be back at his side where it belonged. "I wish to be of use to my king."
"Your time will come, lad," this came from the aging priest. "We have use of you, yet."
Brock looked at Bilingdor, who lifted his eyebrows in sad acknowledgment. "The battle has ranged close to the village. We must get supplies to the people. Father Bryan has been within the people, organizing a place to care for those in need. He needs help getting supplies delivered."
"You would like for me to deliver them."
"To go with the delivery. Insure it's safe passage," the priest answered. "There is a family within the village I would think you would like to meet. The father was in the infantry that went to fight of Alex of Edinburough. He was by a sword early in the battle. He is gravely ill."
"Ashton's father," Brock deciphered when he looked at the priest. "Where is he?"
"He was brought home to his family, as the fighting was nearby. We would like to bring them within the walls for care if at all possible."
"Her family has been dear to the service of Billingdor. As she has taken up arms to fight within her own right, we shall honor them with home and care within these walls until she returns." Billingdor explained. "We need you to escort them back here with Father Bryan. The father will not be able to make it on his own."
Brock nodded. "When shall we leave?"
"As soon as you have had your fill of food. We will not find such sustenance on today's journey."
Alex strapped the armor to his horse himself. His squire was away in preparation for the coming battle. He ran a comforting hand over his Bartholomew's side and spoke softly, reminding his dear friend that they had waged battle before and won. Reminding him that it was his job, as a trusty steed, to ride fast and with honor.
And he remembered the way Lila done nearly the same thing.
Alex shook the memory. He refused to allow himself the luxury when peril was so vigilant. A small portion of troops under him had been following a portion of Fowler's army, though not the lord himself. It would only be a skirmish compared to what would come if Fowler was not stopped.
They would fight, hidden in the woods. The archers would take the first, valiant strike, the infantry would move in then. As it was one good archer was worth ten infantry men—they would not participate beyond their initial strike—at least, not until the victory was great.
He would wait along with his troops in the quiet of the woods, then follow the courier that rode on to Fowler. His job was not just to win the battle but to find Lila—the niece of the king. The conqueror of his heart.
She was with Fowler and away from the battle. That much he knew. It was time to move.
He tighten the stirrup, repositioned the horse's faceplate to cover his eyes. It would not do for Bartholomew, even as brave as he was, to see the commotion around him during battle.
Then Alex turned and faced Barister of Cordine, his second in command. His old friend's countenance was stern, ready for battle. They had trained together, fought together, and had traversed all of London over the last weeks following Fowler.
Barister had heard it all—the agony of his heart, the anger in his soul—and there was no one Alex trusted more to win the battle at hand.
"The troops are ready."
Alex looked through the trees and watched archers from his troops wrapping their hands with leather. Such technique protected from the cording that they drew back with arms of daily preparation and training.
"Have the scouts sent word?"
"Everything is unfolding as we last thought. The Barbarians under Fowler are headed this way."
Alex was strapped into his armor over a laborer of time as he heard the grunts of men preparing for battle. He watched the men, in the early light, sharpening their swords, pacing under the overburden of the trees. Careful to be patient and make little noise.
Family men, Alex realized, men like his father had been. Men, because of their placement on the land that were sworn to fight for and defend their king. A king they had never met.
And in the midst of it all was Lila.
Alex climbed onto his horse and took his helmet. "We move now," he commanded and pulled the heavy helmet over his head and left the face plate up. Time would come when it would be drawn down and he would move in.
It was almost like music, the workings of a village. The voices that carried over the din of trade. Pots and kettles knocked together. Beads shifted, bells jiggled, people walked by trudging on their way. Brock could hear the cry of babes, the sound of horses, the shouts of venders. The smell was foul.
He'd been too long within Lord Bilingdor's walls.
He had his hand on his sword and his eyes scanned the crowed. He walked in the clothing of peasants on streets where the dust lifted from the dirt below. Under his cloak he carried a large parcel of food and supplies. Father Bryan walked to that side, though a length away. Another guard, carrying another parcel, flanked the priest.
They moved without speaking. No need to draw more attention to himself then necessary.
Father Bryan lifted his hands when they reached the small dwelling. It was an Inn, two floors high, with two windows on each floor.
"Here we are."
"You bring supplies?"
The high pitched voice came from a man who jumped in their path. He was small, eagle-eyed, his face crinkled with the years. The cloak he wore was grey and tattered.
"If we have," the priest spoke calmly, "then you shall wait for your share."
"I want my share now."
His voice had changed, deepened, darkened.
Brock and the other guard drew their swords. The man flinched, but did not step back.
"Move aside," Brock ordered. He met the mans eyes and lifted his chin. Defy me he challenged, and see what happens.
Father Bryan held up his hands once again. Brock slowly lowered his sword, but kept it pointed toward the old man.
"Let us pass, Troublesome. I always leave you a share, do I not?"
The little old man looked to the priest and held up a knotted aged hand that he pointed at Brock. It shook visibly. "You bring with you strangers," he accused, his voice once again high pitched.
"I bring friends," the priest said, still calm.
"Times are dark."
"That they are."
"The land has been scorched before. Beware of the dragon's fire."
The man moved away, though not without studying the long sword in Brock's hand. Father Bryan ushered them forward as Brock lowered his sword to his side. "Troublesome's harmless. Just an old man, forgotten in his age."
"Troublesome?" The other guard asked.
"Someone long ago gave him such a name—in cruelty or ignorance, we don't know. He refuses to give it up and we know not what he was called. Bilingdor knows of him. Keeps him safe. The locals watch after him well enough. Lady Lila has stated that he remain protected."
Brock managed to smile. "Then the lady's request should be kept."
The female's voice came from the back as Brock followed the priest inside. The woman who came out was aging, her hair white at the edges, but she had strong blue eyes. Like Ashton's.
"Margarette, I would like for you to meet a man you will come to know with some greatness. This is Brock, a knight formally under the crest of Galladin."
"Aye—these times are dark," she agreed, acknowledging the fall of William even the peasants had heard of. "And if this is greatness that stands within my hall then the who of England is in trouble."
She flicked a glance at the priest, but her eyes remained bitter. "Don't mind me, Father Bryan. I am but an old woman. Careful of whom I trust."
"You must be Ashton's mother." Brock noted. "A shimmering star is a beauty as it can always be located in a crowd of the ordinary."
"And you must be the knight who seared my daughter's heart." She leveled her gaze at him and turned away, untouched by his gallant talk. "Don't look so surprised. I hold position within the castle. I've known who you are since the fool hardy moment you climbed the tourney's walls."
She reached for a pack that Father Bryan carried. "Her father came home wounded, they brought him here—so I came to be with my beloved and nurse him back to health. Come on back and bring your wares. We shall make the divisions."
Father Bryan sent Brock a smile then followed Margarette to the back room. "How is your husband?"
"Fairing well. The fever has departed. Your prayers are very welcome here."
Following the priest's lead, Brock set his parcel on the long table in the back room. Margarette reached for it and drew it close, looking toward Father Bryan. "You brought this man into my house. I assume it means that he now has honorable intentions."
"It would do to excuse him from his earlier dealings." Father Bryan looked toward Brock. "He fell ill—was brought back to the castle ready to die. If his words were harsh and not thought about, then surely there was room for error."
Margarette turned to look at Brock. She looked very much all the more like Ashton. For a moment, it was as if the years had passed for him alone and he was long married to his love, still together. He felt his heart beat hard against his chest and took in a sudden breath.
But this was not his love, but her mother.
"She saved your life, you know."
He swallowed over the lump in his throat. "I know."
"She ran clear from the forest, hurt and bleeding herself. A local man found her, not far out from here. He knew her, knew her by name, and he brought her here, home. Before her father left for the battle, he saw his daughter come home bleeding and broken. She only could think to get back to you."
Brock closed his eyes.
"But—if the emotion was true that was on your face as you watched the coach carry her away, then maybe I should give you a favor." He opened his eyes, found that hers had not softened as her voice had. "Daniel—her father is through that door. Go talk to him. Tell him you are Ashton's knight. And let him know your voice."
Hidden within the quiet of the forest, Alex watched the Fowler's scouts ride by. They were high from victory. Sloppy—not watching the woods, deep within, where an army waited for the troops that were sure to follow them. Their laughter bounced off trees, the only sound against the quiet morning.
No birds cackled, no one moved.
"Prepare the archers."
Even as a whisper, Alex's voice rang out as an order. His hands held Bartholomew's reins as the trusted horse shifted beneath him. Their own lookout had signaled back with two distinct cries. He watched as the archers crept forward to the edge of the woods and drew their arrows in a smooth, soundless movement that danced in one long wave through the underbrush. They set their bows vertical to the sky and made their mark. Strong arms drew back arrows.
He heard the army approach, the metal of their knights in armor, the trudging footsteps of the infantry. They were not a disciplined group. Their shouts and hysterics gave way their position.
Fowler—William—neither was with them. This much he was sure of.
The archers waited as the barbaric army partially passed—large men in ragged clothing and snarled beards. Tall men, carrying swords and spears, their armor nothing more than the leather hide skin on their bodies.
Alex held up his hand. The eyes of the archers watched him through the corners of their eyes, muscles straining against the taunt bows. Behind them, his own infantry waited, swords and shields lowered to rest their arms, feet braced for attack. They were peppered through the trees, partially hidden in the forest.
When the leading men of Fowler's troops were just past his own, when the bulk of his troops were marching in the close range of his archers, he dropped his hand.
Just slight opening of hands and arrows sliced the air. Men howled, grunted. Some fell.
And the battle began.
The cries and shouts were designed to confuse as the arrows showered the army and the forest beyond. The barbaric warriors of Fowler charged, his own archers fell back and the infantry moved in.
Swords clashed, wood splintered.
Alex drew down his head plate and lifted Bartholomew's reins. He rode, catching the sight of another rider, one of his men not in armor, that rode out ahead of him. He followed until he saw the third rider up ahead. And then another. Two couriers sent to warn Fowler or William. Either would do.
The branches hit against and thudded off Alex's armor. Bartholomew drove him past his own and up ahead. His heart thudded in his ears, his breath deep rushing wind within his helmet.
When one hit a limb and fell back, he moved on leaving him to his own rider. He pushed Bartholomew until they rode side by side, weaving through the trees. He thrust his armored fist out, keeping an eye on the path, then drew back as they rode in separate directions around a tree.
Bartholomew moved without command back along side the other horse.
This time Alex did not miss.
Ashton's father was a quiet man while awake, troubled in his sleep. He was little more than skin and bones and still a little glassy eyed from the fever.
But when Brock introduced himself, his eyes opened and he met Brock's with a piercing stare. For a moment Brock forgot that the man was blind. Most men of his time, Brock mused, thought very little of their daughters, and rarely set their mind to whom she would marry beyond the thought of payment.
Brock had his own sisters, had seen his own father handle him. As brave as a knight his father had been, he had never looked upon another man with the ardor to strike over one of his own daughters.
Not so with Ashton's father. Weak and in bed, his eyes sliced through Brock. It wasn't just that Ashton was his daughter. She had become his hope that his family line could move up and away from the destitution he lived in. With the simple favor of being chosen as Lila's companion as a child, she alone had moved up in the world.
And her father saw her as his child, his girl. Their was love in his eyes. She had come from her wealthy home to care for him. She had never forgotten where she was born or the people that bore her.
She had her father's faith in God. Here was a man who prayed for his child—for the circumstances she could change. This much Brock new.
They talked very little. Almost as soon as Brock introduced himself, Daniel fell back into a deep sleep.
Margarette had consented to return to the castle with her husband. She left the inn in the hands of her sisters, packed a small satchel and walked beside Brock as he carried her husband.
She told him stories of Ashton's early years, of her first days with Lila at the castle.
Standing on the dark terrace of the largest tower in the center of Billingdor castle, Brock stared off into the night and remembered all that her mother had shared. He closed his eyes and remembered Ashton's sweetness as they'd walked around the rowdy tournament grounds together.
Lost in thought, he nearly missed the sound of armor against stone. He frowned, looking over the land that he knew as the King's forest, even in the dark. All were there or slept preparing for their watch. No one slept in armor or walked the halls within the castle.
Brock turned and braced his hands on the high railing behind him and stared that the darkened doorway, preparing to fight or advert.
The figure that emerged was tall and fierce. Dark armor blended into the shadows.
The legend of the Black Knight suddenly stood before Brock in menacing silence.
The armor made him massive. Tall and broad, with a long sharpened sword fashioned to balance with his height.
Reminding himself of the man he knew to be underneath, Brock pushed away from the wall and stood to his full height. "My lord?"
Billingdor reached up and tugged off his helmet. He face appeared, his beard and hair soggy with sweat. Gone was the man Brock had first known. Only a month had passed, but grief and worry over his niece had brought years onto the knight. He rarely smiled and the boisterous laughter that Brock had heard within the castle upon his first stay, was now only a distant memory.
"We've received word from Alex."
From behind, Father Bryan appeared. He held in his hand a letter. "In a battle near Ardoth, troops captured two couriers of Fowler's that were traveling with a small attachment that was moving to London."
"London?" Brock repeated and looked at Billingdor. "Already?"
"Not for the palace," the knight answered gravely, "but by orders to regain their master's betrothed."
The name fell from Brock's lips.
"And Sara. They are in danger as is the Lord of Wentworth. Alex has sent on a man to warn them, but he would like further guards to be sent on to bring the women to castle Billingdor."
"I shall go."
"Are you ready for such a journey, valiant knight? If we send a man to London he must prove vigilant and get passed those that seek to block aide into the city. Some wait for the guards of Fowler to enter, cowards as they are in their own right, but supporters of the dark dragon who scorches the land. Many were like them years ago and applauded those that marched into London on the night our late king was murdered. The night my brother died."
It was a night that reigned in Brock's memory though he had only been a boy. How could he forget the shouts of terror and the foreboding stories that curse the land for years after.
"I shall ride," Brock enforced, "And bring them back here. I have no other choice."
HEY! and don't forget to e-mail me if you have a comment!
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