Chris sat beside his new queen. King Orrin and his wife, Queen Evelyn, sat on the other side of her with their grandson, William. Mary was a good woman—too stubborn, and opinionated for her own good, but a woman he thought he could actually get along with. If she’d turned out to be one of those simpering dainties the other lords had always tried to foist off on him, he would’ve refused to marry her and Camelot be hanged!
Seeing her boy had pained him, though. He knew she had a son, but hadn’t realized how much the boy would remind him of Adam. Adam would’ve been his age. They did a lot of things alike, too. At least he wouldn’t have to see the boy too often. Young William would be living with his grandfather in order to begin his training for the crown. He was Prince Stephen’s only child and with Stephen’s death, became the only heir to Orrin’s crown.
Chris turned his attention back to the action. His knights were enjoying the competitions. Vin had easily bested everyone in the archery contest. Nathan had had his hands full with the knife-throwing contest, but had managed to take first place after a close battle. The joust was nearly over. Buck had entered the competition, but was knocked out early by sheer bad luck. He would be sore for a bit, but otherwise unharmed.
The crowd suddenly became excited about something besides the joust. They were all looking back the other way. The people parted as a large black horse moved through the throng, headed towards Chris. It was a magnificent-looking animal, poised and intimidating—a perfect companion to the mysterious knight astride him. The man’s faceplate was down, hiding all but his eyes. He carried no banner to signify his allegiance. His blood-red gentleman’s cloak and finely-made shield likewise bore no coat of arms. He wore a gleaming black armor with elaborately tooled designs on it. Whoever he was, he had to be wealthy and highborn to command the skills of such a metalworker. Good jousting armor was very expensive. Not even Chris’s armor was so showy. The man also had two other horses tied behind: one for his belongings and one for everyday riding. Both horses were smaller than the man’s warhorse, but just as finely ornamented with fancy blankets, ribbons, and such. He also had three young squires with him, all brightly dressed, as well. Yes, this man was definitely a highborn lord—one who liked to show off his wealth. Chris had no use for finery for finery’s sake. The man may impress the crowd, but he didn’t impress Chris.
The dark knight stopped before them, his bearing almost regal. “I’ve come to petition the king. I wish to join your coterie of knights.”
“Like I tell anyone who wants to be a knight of the round table, we don’t do this for thrills or for personal glory.”
“Then how about for profit?”
Chris glared at him. “If you’re in it for the money, then maybe you should join a mercenary band. My men receive an income from the royal purse that’s decent enough, but they’d do it for nothing if it came to that. They’re in it for the greater good.”
Ezra hadn’t meant it like that. What was supposed to be witty banter had been misinterpreted as greed. He’d misstepped and angered the man instead. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I did not make myself plain. I was speaking of a friendly wager.”
“I wager I can unseat any man among you in a joust. If I am successful, then I win a place among you. If not, then I will trouble you no more. I’m sure your knights would enjoy wagering a few coins on the outcome.”
The king’s eyes bore into Ezra as if he were trying to peer into his very soul. Ezra sat rigid upon his horse, betraying none of his discomfort. This was a risky proposition on his part. What if he didn’t win? Since they didn’t know his identity, perhaps he would be able to return later at Lord Ezra Standish’s appointed time with none the wiser. He’d never be able to wear his ornate jousting armor again, though. At least he had his regular battle mail and leather tunic that he could present himself in later if he lost. And his “squires” were just nearby village boys he’d paid well to attend him for appearance’s sake. They could be well recompensed and returned home with no trouble. Queen Maude had sent no servants with him because she said King Christofer would take pity on a fellow knight who was in need. But Ezra could not bear the thought of appearing before these men so humbled. He was no pauper seeking favors to be accepted out of pity.
But what if he lost? He sighed inwardly. Apparently, he hadn’t thought this whole thing through. It truly was an idiotic idea. What had possessed him? He’d only wanted to test himself against these men. Ezra hoped Lady Morgan did not get wind of this.
Buck laughed outright. He liked this knight’s style. “Chris. Let me do it.”
“You sure, Buck?”
“I want to see what the little runt can do.”
Chris nodded. Buck was probably one of his best jousters—even injured. “It’s all yours.” He nodded to the dark knight. “I accept your wager.”
Ezra waited patiently while the other man went off to be armored. He sat rigid in the saddle, scanning his surroundings. The crowd waited anxiously for the joust and Ezra felt himself being caught up in their excitement. This waiting was excruciating.
Finally, twenty minutes later, his opponent rode out into the list. The man nodded to his many female admirers. Ezra was going to enjoy humiliating him in front of his little entourage.
“The name’s Sir Buck of Wilmington. I’d like to know the name of the man I’m going to knock flat on his back.”
“Confident are we? Well, I prefer to remain anonymous for the nonce. I hope that doesn’t bother you, Sir ‘Buck’.”
“No. A nameless man falls off his horse as hard as a regular one. Now let’s get this little show started, friend. I don’t want to keep the ladies waiting.”
“Heaven forbid.” One of his squires handed him his lance. He lifted it into position. Sir Buck did likewise. Their horses stamped their feet in anticipation. The crowd grew still as they waited for the king’s command.
They shot off towards one another. The crowd roared with enthusiasm. Buck was always beloved by the people at tournaments, but a few of them were rooting for the bold and mysterious newcomer today. Ezra heard their cheers and was encouraged by them. He felt his pulse pound as he rushed headlong towards his opponent. Caution. Caution. He could not let emotions get in the way. He had to be smart, watchful.
Ezra’s lance struck against Sir Buck’s shield with a resounding thwack just as the other man’s lance clanged against his armor. Buck jerked back, but righted himself quickly. Ezra, however, wobbled greatly to the side before righting himself. Ezra castigated himself for being too preoccupied with his offense instead of his defense. He’d been so intent on the other man’s movements at first that he’d almost ignored his own. He could’ve lost his seat on that pass.
Their horses ran out to the edge of the list, turned and headed back for the second pass. Ezra kept his shield better positioned and took a mere glancing blow. He was able to strike a fine hit on Sir Buck’s helm. As their horses rode away from each other, Ezra almost laughed with glee. Now he had him! A knight always gave his vulnerabilities away with some tell-tale sign. Armsmaster Rorick taught him that. A good knight was one whose weakness was barely perceptible, but an even better knight was the one who could recognize it.
He’d been more careful this time—even scoring points for the blow to Sir Buck’s helmet. Points didn’t matter, however. He’s boasted that he could unseat any of the knights, not outscore them. But now he knew Sir Buck’s weakness. The other man was very good. Ezra had almost missed it. It had taken that second pass to be sure.
Just before their lances made contact, the other knight had thrust with his lance arm to put extra strength into his blow. This caused his other arm to twist the opposite way, pulling his shield aside. His shield did not move much, but enough that Ezra thought he could now strike a good blow to the man’s torso.
They were now headed towards each other again for the final pass. Ezra kept his lance in the same position as before, not giving away his plan. Just before the blow, he saw it. Ezra jerked his lance up, catching Sir Buck in the shoulder. The impact sent the man backwards from his horse.
The cheers were deafening as Ezra slowed his horse to a trot. He turned to see that, yes, the other knight was on the ground. Sir Buck was already sitting up, however, as several squires rushed over to tend to him. Ezra lifted his lance in a victory gesture that made the people cheer even louder. The feeling was incredible. He couldn’t describe the thrill of such a moment. He trotted his horse around the list, playing to the crowd before he made his way to the king’s box.
His squires hurried to him with a small stepladder to assist him. Once he’d dismounted, he took off his helmet and walked over to before the king. He bowed on one knee.
Chris scowled. He didn’t like accepting this unknown man, but he would keep his word. “You can rise now. Since you’re going to be one of my knights, you’ll have to tell us your name. I’m not about to go around calling you ‘Knight’ all the time.”
Ezra stood from his kneeling position—no small task since he still had most of his armor on. He inclined his head towards the king. “Your Majesty, Lord Ezra Standish of the Orcades, at your service.”
The crowd gasped. They’d heard of him. Wasn’t he King Lot’s foster son? Their joy at his win diminished quite a bit. Relations between Camelot and the Orcades were not good. Most of them had heard the stories about how King Lot had tried to manipulate the other lords against their king. King Christofer was very popular with his people.
Chris rose from his throne, a murderous glare on his face. “Why did you issue such a foolish challenge? I’d already accepted you as part of my truce with your father.”
“You accepted me to keep the peace with my foster father. You had no real choice.”
And what if you’d lost and I’d sent you away? Was this all part of some scheme to make me lose face? An excuse for Lot to say he was insulted and break the peace? You gambled all our lives on your little ploy.”
“I abhor gambling and as such, leave nothing to chance.”
Chris stood up. Josiah put a calming hand on his shoulder. “I think our young knight merely wished to prove himself so you would accept him on his own merits.”
Ezra gave a slight bow. “Just so.”
The king calmed somewhat, but still directed a look of anger and mistrust at Ezra. Ezra wondered how he had read the situation so poorly. He was sure the most fearsome knights in the country would appreciate a show of skill rather than accept someone who’d been rammed down their throats. He would have to watch his step with these men. They were unpredictable—especially their leader. The king was a simmering cauldron of suppressed rage.
Buck tried to smooth things over with his usual jovial manner. “Well, it doesn’t matter how he got the position, he’s one of us now. Come on over here and meet the others.”
Much to Ezra’s surprise, the man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him over to where the others had gathered. “This here is my cousin and squire, John Daniel. He likes to be called JD for some reason. He’s a peculiar boy. He even knows how to fly and swim.”
“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you? Horse throws a man just once and lands him in a trough and everybody remembers it forever. And I’m not a boy, Buck! I’m taking my oaths today to become a knight. You can’t keep calling me ‘boy’.”
“You’ll always be ‘boy’ to me, Boy.”
JD rolled his eyes with a sigh. “It’s nice to meet you.” He clasped Ezra’s arm.
Buck cuffed JD on the back of the head before turning to one of the others. “This is Sir Vincent—Vin to his friends. He’s the devil with that bow of his. Eagle eyes and lightning hands.”
Vin blushed and ducked his head. He also took Ezra’s arm in greeting.
“This big man here is Josiah the Merlin—wizard, soothsayer, adviser, knight, father-confessor, and pretty much anything else you need.”
Josiah bowed his head. “At your service, Brother Ezra.”
“And this is Nathan. He’s a skilled healer, but he’s also pretty handy with those knives.”
Ezra could only stare. He’d never seen such a dark-skinned person before except in books he’d read. Maude had told him that the dark people were brutal savages from far off lands who butchered and ate their enemies. And the man was good with knives? Ezra realized he’s stared longer than was polite because the savage now had an angry glint in his eye. He forced himself to look away, but he could still feel the man’s presence no matter where his eyes roamed.
“You’ve already met me—Sir Buck. I’m known around here as the greatest knight of them all.”
Vin smirked. “More like the greatest blowhard of them all.”
“You’re just jealous of my prowess—and I’m not just talking about my ability with a sword. You wish you had my animal attraction.”
JD shook his head. “We’ve heard it all before.”
“Well they don’t call me Buck because it’s my given name, Boy.” He winked at Ezra.
Ezra gave Sir Buck a slight nod, unsure what kind of response was expected. “Well, Sir Buck, Sir Josiah, Sir Vincent, Sir John Daniel, Sir Nathan. It is an honor to meet you all.”
Chris walked up to the group. Ezra bowed low to him. “Your Highness.”
Chris held up a hand. “You can stop with the honorifics and boot-licking. If you’re going to be one of my knights, the first thing you need to learn is that we don’t stand on formality here in our own court. We usually address each other by our Christian or family names—no titles. I may be king and I may lead these men, but when I’m with the warriors of the Round Table, I’m just another knight. We’re all equals here.”
He was perplexed by the king’s words. No rank? No titles? Standing was an important thing among the nobility. Weren’t they proud of the fact that almost all of them had earned titles and land despite having come from humble origins? “Be that as it may, Your Majesty, I was raised differently. I prefer to give others the respect due their titles and stations. I would feel remiss in my obligations as a lord and a gentleman if I were to do otherwise.”
Nathan stiffened at Ezra’s words. So his high-and-mighty lordship didn’t consider them gentlemen because they didn’t respect rank? This just proved his assumptions about the snobbery of the man.
Chris took Ezra’s words as a sign that the man was determined to be contrary and abrasive.