Cover of Lord of Midnight

Excerpt from the medieval romance,
Lord of Midnight

Chapter 1
London, August 1101

With the rhythm of a tolling bell, men pounded stake after stake into the dry summer ground. Others trailed behind, tying ropes to mark off a grassy circle. A court battle, a battle to the death, would draw a fair crowd, and a crowd must be controlled.

On the dais, the carpenters' hammers beat a more urgent rhythm. The platform must be ready soon, ready for the king and his officers. It was a plain structure, without canopy or trimming for no ladies would attend. Today, this field would become a court of law, where men defended their right with their bodies.

It would also be a field of execution.

Shadowing the grassy circle loomed the White Tower, reminding all that the Norman kings were mighty, and not to be opposed. As proof of it, the recent rebellion had led here, led to this court of death.

Even before the pounding stopped, the first spectators trickled out from nearby streets and lanes, flowing around the ropes to seek the best viewpoints. Many still munched their breakfast bread, or swigged from pots of ale.

Vendors came too, crying ale! pies! and fruits! Entertainers tumbled to pipe and drum. Fortune tellers read palms. Mountebanks offered nostrums and charms against all ills.

Though no noble ladies would attend, there were women among these common folk, both gawkers and money-makers, for courtly rules did not apply to them. Some had brought stitching or spinning to do as they waited. Many had brought children.

"Morning, Truda," one woman said to another, distaff deftly catching her spun thread. "Not be much of a fight, they say."

"Older against younger, aye. But you never know, Nan. Older ones are canny."

"Heard he wasn't much of a fighter, this Clarence of Summerbourne."

"Nah," Truda scoffed, shoving the last of some honeyed bread into her mouth then wiping her hands on her apron. "Why'd he be here if he weren't a fighter? But he probably didn't look to face the king's champion."

"Then he shouldn't have challenged the king's right, should he? Still," -- and Nan piously crossed herself -- "God will speak. If he has the right, he'll win, even against a stronger man. Of course,, he hasn't the right," she hastily added, glancing around.

"Course not!" Truda crossed herself too, as much for protection from earthy powers as hellish ones. Quietly she added, "Don't know about this business of God speaking, though. My Edwin lays out any man he thinks insults him, and I wouldn't say he was always right. He's just bigger and stronger."

"Ah, but do they both call on God first?" Nan waved her distaff to make the point. "That's the trick, Truda. God can't be attending to every little thing, now can He? But when He's called upon...."

"Oh, I see. It's the calling..." Truda broke off to step aside and rain slaps upon a bunch of writhing boys. She separated her own tow-headed urchin. "I told you, Willy. No fighting or you go straight home!"

"But he called me a-"

She boxed his ear. "No fighting, or I'll toss you in the ring and you can take on the king's champion."

The lad pulled a face, but he sat down at his mother's feet and began pulling grass out of the dusty soil.

"Need rain," said Truda. "Cisterns are getting low."

"Hard to get decent water," agreed Nan. "There's clouds over to the east, though. Look promising, but I hope they hold off a while...."

They contentedly discussed the summer weather until Truda's son pulled on her skirt and asked, "Mam, is that the king?"

By then, all the spaces along the rope were taken two or more deep, and people nearby, caught by the lad's words, looked over. The men climbing onto the dais were only bringing benches, however, and one big heavy chair.

"No, lad," Truda said, "but that's his chair, see. He'll be here soon."

"And when'll the fight begin?"

"When they're good and ready. Shut up."

But the lad tugged on her skirt again. "Why are they fighting, Mam?"

"I told you. One of them says the king has no right to be king. That the king's brother should be king."

"So why isn't the king fighting him instead of watching?"

"Because kings don't fight these sorts of battles, love. They have men to fight for 'em."

The lad pulled up another clump of grass. "Don't seem fair," he muttered. "I 'as to fight me own fights."

Truda slapped his head. "Don't be so cheeky. As if there'd be anything in common between your affairs and those of the king's!"

A sudden hush settled as the first noblemen strolled out of the Tower. In tunics and braies, they could be any man except for the rich colors, and the gold and jewels twinkling in the dull sun.

"Mam, is that-?"

"No, Willy. The king'll be wearing his crown. And if you're not good," Truda added, "he'll have your head chopped off."

The lad scuttled back an inch or two, and pressed closer against his mother's skirts.

Now, men-at-arms in chain mail and conical helmets marched out of the Tower and spread to take their places all around the rope, long spears rooted in the ground. No one could be permitted to interfere in a court battle.

"Not long now," Truda said.

The nobles began to gather along a section of rope that had been kept for them, but a few split off to mount the dais and sit on the benches to either side of the chair.

"The ones up there will all be important men," Truda said softly to Willy. "Earls and such. A bishop or two. They'll see that everything's done right." She turned to Nan. "Can't say as they look any too happy about it."

"Heard tell this Clarence is a popular man. Perhaps they don't want to see him die."

"But he has to."

Nan nodded. But then she leaned close. "What I heard -- from my sister's husband's cousin, who's a guard up there -- is that they left his door unlocked this past week, hoping he'd hop it."

Truda's eyes opened wide. She whispered back, "You mean, they think he might win?"

Nan shook her head. "No. They just don't want to see him die."

A blare of trumpets silenced them. Truda pulled her son up by his collar. "There, lad. There's the king!"

Henry Beauclerk, youngest son of the Great Conqueror, now King of England himself, walked out of the White Tower, gold crown upon his curly dark hair, rich purple cloak brushing the ground. He strode toward his chair on the dais, followed by four men who took position standing behind.

"Isn't that FitzRoger?" Nan muttered. "The tall one in green. He's the king's High Champion. But unless he's fighting in wool, he's not fighting today."

"They're not going to have the fight?" Truda said -- too loud, so a nearby man-at-arms turned his head.

"Oh, they're fighting, mistress. Don't worry."

"So who's fighting for the king?" Nan asked him.

"New champion," the man answered, eyes forward, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. "Renald de Lisle's the name."

"Oh." Nan sorted out a tangle in her thread, a tangle caused by a distracted moment. "Shame that. I hear he's the best -- FitzRoger. I'd have liked to see him fighting for blood."

"Newly married," said the guard, even turning a bit to wink. "Likely worn out."

Both women chuckled, but stopped as the trumpets blared again. The king was in his seat, his cloak pooled about him.

Summoned by the trumpets, a man walked out of the Tower -- a man of metal, clothed all in chain mail. A wide leather belt was the only break, and from it hung a scabbard.

An empty scabbard.

"Why don't he have a sword, Mam?" Willy asked. "Aren't they going to fight with swords like you said?"

"'Course they are. His squire'll have it." Truda squinted at the attendant who bore shield and helmet, but no sword. "What do you think, Nan?"

Nan spun her distaff, frowning. "Dunno, Truda, and that's the truth. I've only seen one other court battle like this, and they both wore their swords."

"Oh, yes. Went on all day, that one did, and he surrendered in the end.... What was his name?"

"Can't remember. Don't matter now, does it? Lost his eyes and balls. He'd have been better off dead."

Willy stared up. "Why'd they do that to him, Mam?"

She ruffled his hair for comfort. "He lost, see. So he was proved to be a traitor. But he didn't die like he was supposed to, so they had to punish him. That's what happens to traitors."

"Not to most of this last lot," muttered Nan, moving her lips close to Truda's ear again. "They say there were so many mighty men rode out to support Duke Robert that the king couldn't be harsh to them all. He's thrown a couple out, but most, he just fined and sent home."

"Aye," breathed Truda. "I heard. So why...?"

But they both fell silent to watch the other man come out. He was dressed as the first except that his scabbard contained a sword. He stood nearly as tall as the champion, but even with mail, lacked his breadth. In fact, Truda thought, he looked as if the armor weighed him down.

The two men stood facing the dais. The trumpets sounded a last time, commanding silence.

The king leaned forward. He did not shout, but Truda could catch his words. "Clarence of Summerbourne, will you renounce your error, swear fealty, and accept my mercy?"

The slender man stood straighter. "I cannot, Henry. You do not have the right."

The king jerked so sharply it was as if he were hit. Then he raised a sharp hand and his crier stepped forward.

"Hear ye, hear ye! Lord Clarence of Summerbourne, having taken up arms against the king, and proclaimed to all that our just King Henry has no right to the Crown of England, stands here accused of treason. Clarence of Summerbourne, how plead you?"

"Not guilty!"

"Who stands to support this accusation?"

"I, Renald de Lisle." The voice rang clear around the area, strong and firm. "I claim the right as champion of Henry, rightful King of England."

Even as the crier opened his mouth to recite the next part of the procedure, Lord Clarence cried, "I protest! I demand that the king himself defend his cause!"

Whispering astonishment ran around the circle and the men on the dais turned to speak to one another. Then the king beckoned the crier and spoke to him, and silence fell.

The crier straightened and bellowed, "Lord Clarence of Summerbourne stands here today as representative of the king's brother, Duke Robert of Normandy, supporting Duke Robert's false claim to the throne. It is right and proper, therefore, that the king, too, have a representative. However, King Henry here declares that if ever his brother Robert comes to challenge him in person, he will stand against him right willingly and prove his cause on his body."

At this, a great cheer rang up from all present.

"Now that'd be a fight!" said Truda.

Nan chuckled. "But one that'll never happen. Duke Robert landed, but as soon as he saw his troops were outnumbered, he took a sackful of money and scuttled back home."

The trumpets sounded again to command order and silence from the crowd.

The crier unrolled another scroll. "This being the first occasion upon which Renald de Lisle will act as champion, the king gives him this sword." A servant stepped forward, bearing a naked blade. "A sword of finest German steel, gift of the emperor, the hilt set not with a jewel, but with a stone from the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. May it fight always with honor."

The champion walked forward to kneel before the king and accept the sword.

"If the champion loses," Truda asked, very quietly indeed, "what happens then?"

Nan's eyes shifted all around and she leaned very close. "As I understand it, God will have said that the king can't be king."

Truda blessed herself. "Lord a'mercy!"

The champion returned to face his opponent and both men put on conical helmets, lacing them under the chin, and took up their long shields.

"Do you call upon God," the crier demanded, "to use your bodies to prove justice and right?"

"I do!"

"I do!"

A priest stepped forward. No, not a priest but a bishop in his glittering robes and tall miter. He presented a golden crucifix for each man to kiss. Then he sprinkled holy water on each man's bowed head. Finally, he dipped a thumb in holy oil and anointed them, so whichever died would have received the Last Rites.

When he stepped back, the crier announced, "May God show the truth of your cause!" and the king raised his hand.

As Lord Clarence of Summerbourne drew his gleaming sword, a cloud skittered across the sun, stealing any touch of brightness from the moment.

It was slow at first. The men swung and blocked with shield or sword, but despite thud and clang, they were just testing each other. As they worked their way across the circle kicking up dust, the rhythm became almost monotonous.

In a show fight the crowd would be jeering by now, calling for more action, but nothing here was for show. One of these men would die today, and if they wanted to tread the path warily, that was their right. A battle like this could take all day, and be decided in the end more by exhaustion than by warlike skill.

Truda didn't think Lord Clarence would last all day. Something in the way he moved already suggested weary muscles.

Then, as if contradicting her thought, he surged forward. His blows rang harder, striking sparks from that German blade and from the iron around the champion's shield.

Sir Renald held his own but no more, retreating steadily. Then he changed the rhythm and began to drive Lord Clarence back.

The accused man stumbled. The crowd gasped and the champion swung backward against the edge of his shield. Instead of beating it aside, however, the sword bit deep, right through the metal band and into wood.

And stuck.

As the crowd gasped again, Lord Clarence seized his moment. He aimed a swinging blow at his unbalanced opponent, a blow designed at the very least to crack ribs. At the last moment, Sir Renald's shield turned it away, but awkwardly, leaving him wide open to a thrust.

But in the same movement he kicked Lord Clarence's shield to free his sword, and leaped back out of danger.

Like one body, the crowd let out a breath. The two men paused to gather themselves.

"Oooh," said Nan. "That was a nasty moment."

"I've never seen a sword cut through a shield like that," said Truda. "German steel? Lord Clarence had best watch out. That sword could cut through mail."

"He's got the right idea, though. Break some bones and it won't matter if the champion's bigger and stronger and has a German sword. He'll be a dead man."

Truda stole a look at the king, whose fate apparently hung in the balance here. He sat still as a statue, hands relaxed on the arms of his chair, face almost contemplative. She liked that. A king should have dignity even in the face of disaster.

Especially in the face of disaster.

A clang told her it had started again and she turned back.

Lord Clarence must have been encouraged. Now he swung mightily, pushing the champion back under a torrent of blows. Truda found she had her knuckle between her teeth.

Trouble for kings always meant trouble for lesser folk.

But then Lord Clarence's furious swinging turned wild. Now he looked like Willy and his friends, playing with sticks and swinging without much plan or skill. The champion still had his strength. In a move that even she could see was graceful, Sir Renald turned the fight. Steadily he forced Lord Clarence to retreat.

The accused man staggered, as if his legs were failing, and his sword drooped on a weary arm. Instead of surging for the kill, the champion checked his swing. Truda thought his lips were moving. What could there be to say at this point?

Perhaps it was a taunt, for with a hoarse, defiant cry Lord Clarence revived and swung.

Sir Renald blocked that wild blade with his shield, beating aside his opponent's shield with his fist. Then he impaled Lord Clarence through chain mail right to the heart.

"Oooooooh." The sound wove around the circle even as the traitor crumpled, dead before he hit the ground.

The champion collapsed to his knees, and for a moment Truda thought he'd been injured as well. What would that say about the right of the king to the throne? But then the man blessed himself and started to pray.

Chatter rose from the field like a flock of starlings.

"Bit short," said Nan, tucking her spinning into a bag.

"Is he dead, Mam?" asked Willy.

"Yes, love. And the king is proved to be the good and just man we know him to be."

"Didn't last long."

"Long enough, Willy. Long enough to kill a man."

Truth to tell, it had been a strange sort of fight. Even as she steered her son to follow the crowd back to market stalls and houses, to breweries and smithies, she glanced back at the tableau in the dust.


"Yes, love?"

"I thought mail was supposed to stop a sword."

"It is, love. It is. I've never heard of someone being killed that way before. Normally it's bash, bash, bash until one's too bruised and broken to keep going. Neater this way, though...."

Something about the scene around the body made her pause.

Lord Clarence's attendant was on the ground, his master in his arms. He'd taken off his lord's helmet and pushed back his mailed hood so he could stroke the sandy hair. During the fight, clouds had gathered, weighting the scene with shadow, but now a chance beam of sunlight picked out the group.

Picked out Sir Renald, still kneeling in prayer. Picked out jewels on the clothes of the three standing nobles who'd gathered, forming a backdrop to the men on the ground.

Why, it looked just like the picture on the wall of St. Mark's, the picture of Christ taken down from the Cross! Truda hastily blessed herself in case she'd thought a sacrilege.

The champion must have dropped his sword, for one of the other men picked it up. It was the High Champion -- the one called FitzRoger -- with his dark hair and rich, dark clothes.

He cleaned the blade on a cloth which turned scarlet, then presented it to the kneeling man. The blade looked strangely dark, as if it ate the dull light. Everything froze, as if it was a painting, but then the victor pushed wearily to his feet and took the sword. After a moment, he kissed the hilt and pushed it into his scabbard. Then he turned and walked over to the dais where the king awaited.

"Well of course," said Truda, half to herself. "It's that stone from Jerusalem. It was a miracle him being able to kill that way, that's what it was."


She looked down. "Stop pulling my sleeve like that!"

Willy let go, but jiggled around. "There's a pie-man over there. Can I have a pie on the way home? Can I?"

"No, you can't!" But then she shook her head. "We'll buy a few and take them home for all to share. Come on. Let's hurry."

The rain had started, plopping heavily to make dark circles in the dusty ground. In one spot, it began to form a crimson pool.

And thus starts a tale.
Renald de Lisle has hungered for earthly rewards and now he has them
The honor of killing a gentle man.
The gift of a precious sword with which to do it.
The dead man's rich estate.
The dead man's loving daughter.
A love he had never thought to feel for any woman.

With gifts such as these, no wonder he has midnight on his soul.

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