Raven’s Rise – Elizabeth Cole

THE SOUND OF CLASHİNG SWORDS rang out, followed by hundreds of ecstatic cheers. A man dressed in full chain mail armor with a yellow surcoat fell to the ground, his knees sinking in mud. He swung his sword upward to parry yet another blow, but it was too late. His opponent’s stroke masterfully knocked aside the blade, sending it flying into the mud beside the yellow knight. “I yield,” the yellow knight gasped out. “You win, Sir Rafe. Again.” The triumphant knight wore blackened chain mail armor and a white surcoat with a black raven blazoned across the chest. His round shield was striped red and black, and the horse he rode earlier was black as well. Such a remarkable vision would have caught everyone’s attention if he’d been doing nothing more than traveling the path through the normally sleepy village of Ashthorpe, which lay in the very heart of England. But seeing him in the midst of an attack was spectacular. It didn’t matter at all that this attack was—ostensibly—for show. The crowd cheered wildly throughout the whole joust. The battle was part of a festival with a special tournament hosted by the local lord to celebrate the tenth year of his reign. More than a dozen professional fighters came to compete, and it seemed the whole population for miles around came to watch.

The black-clad knight glanced at the crowd, then raised one hand in an acknowledgment of their adoration. The cheers increased and he smiled, as if pleased. In truth, he felt nothing. Absolutely nothing inside. He’d defeated his opponent, true. But Rafe always defeated his opponents. In every tournament and joust and show battle he’d participated in over the past two years, he’d come away triumphant. And after each one, he searched for any sort of pride within himself, and found none. As for the crowds, he was beginning to hate them as well. They were always so eager to see blood at these spectacles.

These same folk who claimed to despise battle and war, largely because of the taxes and the disruption to their daily lives, were nonetheless happy to watch men risk wounds and death in a field for their entertainment. And what does that make me? he thought. After all, no one was forcing him to fight in these tournaments. He’d once served a lord, but had forsaken him, along with his old life. Now all he had was his sword. He had to make a living somehow. His current way of living meant that he had to put on a show, to impress the spectators. He strode over to his fallen opponent, who was still lying on the muddy ground. Rafe pointed his sword toward the man’s neck, emphasizing how easy it would be to kill him. The other man went still.

A voice boomed out, “The Knight of the Raven is the victor!” More cheers. Rafe looked toward a small, raised platform. The baron of Ashthorpe, who organized the event, sat in comfort, surrounded by several other people of enough importance to rate an invitation. “My lord, what is your wish?” Rafe called out. It was a formality—but one that gave the lord immense satisfaction, since it let him play God. “Mercy, Sir Rafe,” the baron called back. “Let him live!” “As you command, my lord!” Rafe bowed, then sheathed his sword. He turned back to his opponent and offered a hand. “Need a bit of assistance to get on your feet, eh, Louis?” The other knight grimaced. “Go to hell, Rafe.

” Nevertheless, he took the proffered arm and scrambled to his feet. “I had you until I slipped in that damn patch of mud.” “Of course you did,” Rafe said with an easygoing grin. “It had nothing at all to do with the fact that you’re not as good at fighting as I am.” “You’re lucky.” Rafe snorted. “Lucky or not, I’ll be taking the spoils today. Don’t worry, I’ll see that your contributions go to a worthy cause.” Louis’s expression soured further. “I’d call you greedy, but you take even that small satisfaction from your victims, don’t you?” “You can complain to the church, if you wish.

” It was customary at tournaments and jousts for the winner to claim what the loser owned—which meant that Rafe would walk away with Louis’s horse and equipment he’d used today, as well as the prize purse offered by the baron. Such stakes ensured that only knights who were confident in their skills would enter a tourney. It also meant successful fighters were rewarded with the means to keep fighting. Horses, weapons, and armor were very expensive. Since Rafe won so often, he quickly found himself overburdened with a particular kind of wealth. His solution was political as well as practical—he offered much of his winnings to the local church for the purposes of charity, and he gave away many small coins directly to the spectators. His growing reputation as a generous, open-handed man meant he had a following. Local clergy who otherwise objected to tourneys—viewing them as frivolous or dangerous or both—were more than happy to receive the benefits of Rafe’s donation. Local commoners crowded around him in hopes of receiving a handout, and women were impressed by the stories of Rafe’s supposedly unselfish nature —which was something he very selfishly took advantage of when opportunity knocked. He saw an opportunity now, as he walked from the field to the platform.

One of the watching noblewomen stood up as Rafe approached her. She was absolutely gorgeous, with rich dark hair and a knowing smile. “Sir Rafe,” she said, clapping her hands together as he got closer. “Well done! You surpassed all expectation.” “All thanks to you, my lady Sybilla,” he replied, touching the pale green ribbon tied around his upper arm. “Your favor gave me strength to endure.” “Is that so, sir knight?” She took a deep breath, causing her chest to strain against the tight bodice of her gown. “I had heard tales of your skill, but tales are nothing compared to seeing such a magnificent fighter with my own eyes.” Rafe bowed, then said, “To please a lady is all the payment I need.” She leaned over the railing, under the guise of reclaiming the favor she’d offered at the start of the tournament.

In a low voice, she said, “If a lady’s pleasure is the payment you seek, find me tonight after the feast.” He kissed her hand and gave her a smile, though not a promise. Rafe didn’t give promises to anyone. He left Lady Sybilla, collected his winnings from the baron’s seneschal, and headed out of the tourney grounds and toward the village. All he really wanted was sleep. However, he was soon surrounded by local people congratulating him, praising him, and wishing him good health. They all had their hands out, some more desperately than others. Rafe thanked them for their kind words, and pressed many small coins into many palms. Most were copper, but a few silver coins were mixed in, glinting in the sunlight. Rafe reached his hand in the pouch once more and dropped a few coins in a young man’s outstretched hand.

“Bless you, sir!” the recipient cried out, his pale blue eyes bright as the sky. Rafe saw the reason for the lad’s astonishment. Rafe had by chance pulled out four silver coins. “It’s nothing,” he said to the lad, before he was swept along. The crowd barely slackened when he reached the first buildings of the village. Only when he got to the inn where he was staying did he get a chance to breathe. Rafe always took care of his armor and weapons himself, which was a bit unusual. He could afford to hire a boy to act as page and all-around servant. But Rafe had his reasons for traveling alone. Thus, he had to attend to all the details of maintaining his tools of the trade.

He cleaned and sharpened his sword and daggers. He laboriously scraped the debris from the tiny rings of his chain mail, cursing the previous foul weather that turned the tournament grounds to mud that day. This winter lingered. It was after Candlemas, when the weather should be growing warmer. Or perhaps he’d traveled far enough north that he could no longer rely on his old reckoning. In truth, Rafe wasn’t always sure what shire he was in. He finished cleaning his tools. Only his clothing, including the surcoat decorated with the sign of the raven, did he entrust to others. One of the maids who worked at the inn came by to take all the dirty clothing. Rafe handed her an extra coin.

“Joan, see that these things are returned to me by this evening.” “Tomorrow is not soon enough?” she asked, a little pout on her lips. “When are you leaving? Surely you will stay the night.” From the way she looked him over, it was evident that the maid hoped to provide more services in the dark hours, in order to increase her income. Had Rafe given her the impression he was interested in such services? Probably. Though he was trying to be a better man than he used to be, he continually failed to rise above his sinful tendencies in one department—women. He loved women. He’d never been in love with a woman, but he loved them as the glorious creatures they were. He loved how they were shaped, how they kissed, how they felt under his hands. He flirted incorrigibly with nearly every pretty one he met, whether or not he had any actual intention of taking her to bed.

A beautiful woman was his weakness. The maid was still looking at him, expecting an answer. “I’ll probably stay for a while,” Rafe told her, “but make sure the clothes are cleaned by tonight, all the same. I like to be ready for anything.” “Ready for anything,” Joan echoed with a saucy grin. “Indeed, sir.” She left, but her lingering glance suggested Rafe would see her again before the night was out. Rafe washed himself, dried off, dressed, and went downstairs to the tavern room to eat a hearty meal. Then he drank. His mood was dark for a man who’d won glory and gold that day.

Joan’s question had stuck in his brain. When are you leaving? Soon. He was always leaving soon. That wasn’t how it used to be. He once lived at a manor called Cleobury, the closest thing he had to a home. But he made a mistake, and now Cleobury wouldn’t ever be home again. Since he’d left two years ago, Rafe hadn’t lingered in any one place for more than a few weeks. The feeling of being hunted kept him moving. All that travel, all those months on the road, tourney after tourney, had now brought him here, to a lowly tavern in a town whose name he couldn’t even remember. He took a long drink of ale.

Despite his unsocial stance, arms crossed and his body hunched over the bar, people persisted in speaking to him. Most were congratulations, which he accepted. Some were offers of drinks, which he accepted more warmly. Then someone had to bring up politics. A thick-set man leaned next to him and started talking. Rafe didn’t mind that much till the man said, “What do you think of the news from the south? The tide seems to be turning in Stephen’s direction.” Rafe put his mug down. “Where are we right now, friend?” “This is the village of Ashthorpe.” “So we’re not on a ship?” The stranger looked very confused. “Um, no.

” “If I’m not on a ship, then it’s no matter to me how the tide turns.” Rafe glared at the stranger. “Let a man drink in peace.” “You’re for the Empress, then?” the man pressed, evidently not getting the message. “I’m for finishing this ale without interruption,” Rafe said. He put his hand to the hilt of his dagger. That cleared the matter up. The stranger turned away, muttering something under his breath. Rafe ignored him and applied himself to getting drunk. He was doing quite well, on his fourth or fifth ale, when another interruption came.

“Beg pardon, sir knight,” a voice said. “God’s wounds, not another one.” Rafe turned in his seat, ready to chastise whoever dared intrude on his solitude. He confronted a man about his own age…well, actually somewhat younger. Twenty at most. He stood strong and broad-shouldered, but with a certain hesitation in his bearing. Rafe looked him over, trying to guess his occupation. Farmer turned soldier, probably, like so many others in this anarchic kingdom. “What is it?” The man gave a little bow, causing straw-colored hair to flop over one eye. “My name is Simon Faber.

Apologies for disturbing your evening, but I have a proposition for you.” “I don’t gamble,” Rafe said, already half-turned back to his drink. “It’s a job for hire.” “I don’t need money.” “But I do,” Simon said. Rafe looked back, feeling a spark of curiosity in spite of himself. “You take it then. Why even tell me? What is the job?” “A lord in this shire needs to hire an armed escort for a journey. A family member must travel some distance and must be protected along the way, with the state of the country being so uncertain. I have two friends I trust—” Rafe took a long sip of ale.

Two friends was two more than he had himself. Yet another mistake for which he had only himself to blame. The reminder didn’t help his mood. “—but the lord will be more inclined to give the job to an established name,” Simon continued. “I fear he’ll not consider me. But if you were at the head of the group, Sir Rafe, he’d hire us without question.” “So,” Rafe said slowly. “You want me to help you get a job escorting some pimply-faced noble for miles through the forest, all by using my reputation as a fighter to secure the job, and in return, I expect, you think I’ll give you and your friends all the pay, because I’m such a charitable soul. Correct?” Simon’s faced reddened slightly, and Rafe knew he’d guessed correctly on that last part. “Your generosity is spoken of.

You give most of your winnings to local churches, and Lord Otto would surely trust a good Christian such as yourself.” Rafe smirked into his mug. He wasn’t a good anything. And escorting nobles around the country was hardly in his field of expertise—in fact, the one time he’d done it in the past led to his downfall. Then again, what else was he going to do? He could find yet another tournament. Humiliate yet another opponent. But what was to be gained from that? “Where’s this lord live?” Rafe asked. Simon’s eyes brightened. “North of here, half a day’s ride.” “Then tomorrow we’ll go and see him.

Meet me here, about an hour after dawn.” “I shall, Sir Rafe.” Simon paused, then added, “Um, will you be sober by then?” Rafe lifted his mug in a mock toast. “If God wills it.”

.

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