Hooves thundered on the ground as the horses charged forward. Lances met chests, splintering on impact with a sickening crunch that sent shards of wood cascading wide across the lists. The riders reeled in their saddles, wheeling their mounts round to face each other once more. The crowd roared, stamping feet, pounding fists against the wooden fences that separated them from the contestants. In the high stands the women gasped in alarm, clutching each other's hands in excitement and suspense. To watch was agonizing, but not a watcher, high or lowborn, could bear to tear her eyes from the spectacle before them. None more so than Joanna Vernon.
"Sir Roger leads. Sir Godfrey must unseat him or deliver a hit to the head to win," muttered a woman to Joanna's left.
"Sir Godfrey will win," her companion vowed. "He has twice the experience of Sir Roger."
Joanna smiled to herself. Roger Danby would win the joust. Joanna's certainty was iron hard. It was true that today's encounters were only between knights unseasoned by battle but Sir Roger was the best and brightest, and his skill on horseback was the talk of Yorkshire. He told Joanna so whenever she mentioned her fears for his safety, laughing at her protests. Then he would declare there would be no more talk of jousts as he silenced her with kisses, more demanding each time they met.
Joanna's heart fluttered at the thought and she forced her eyes back to the arena. At either end of the tilt the knights lifted their visors, wiping sweat from their brows as squires brought them fresh lances. Sir Roger's chestnut stallion pounded the dirt fiercely, tossing its head, as eager to be off as his master.
Heralds sounded trumpets and the knights lowered their visors once more, hefting their lances in readiness for their final encounter. A hush descended on the crowd as the flag was raised. Joanna bit her lip anxiously. In the three years she had watched Sir Roger compete she could not remember him ever becoming unseated. Even so her hands twisted around the linen scarf she held in her lap, tightening it around her fist until the blood pooled in her fingers.
The flag dropped and the knights charged towards each other, roaring through their exertion. Sir Godfrey's lance smashed into Sir Roger's chest but the younger knight rolled his shoulder back and the lance remained unbroken. At the same time Roger's weapon caught his opponent square in the chest, shattering on impact. The crowd surged en masse to its feet in a deafening roar and Joanna let out a breath she had not even been aware she was holding.
Sir Roger was victorious. He had won a purse of five pieces of gold and his place in the following day's competition.
The two knights trotted back along the tilt, hands raised in salute to Sir Bartholomew Clifford, Sheriff of York and the king's representative at the tournament. Sir Roger raised himself in his saddle, his eyes sweeping the crowd. Joanna leaned forward on the low wooden bench, hoping to catch his eye, knowing he was unlikely to spot her, seated as she was with the other wives and daughters of the guild merchants towards the rear of the stands.
She peered along the rows to the central stand where the noble ladies sat, dressed in a dazzling rainbow of silks and velvets and she felt a pang of longing. Perhaps this would be the year Sir Roger would ask for her hand in marriage and before long she would be Lady Danby. If he continued to win tournaments he would soon have the riches he claimed were all that had prevented him asking so far.
The thought of Sir Roger as her husband, with all that would entail sent heat coursing through Joanna's limbs. The early morning frost had melted quickly and it was a surprisingly warm day for March. She shifted uncomfortably, pulling at the sleeves of her thick woollen dress, wishing she had not brought such a heavy cloak. The riders left the lists to loud cheers and the next pair of contestants entered. Joanna sat back, her mind wandering as the bout passed by almost without notice. Only one man claimed her interest and he would not be competing again until tomorrow. When sun began to sink below the treetops she left the stands, threading her way through the rows of stalls, past trinket sellers, food vendors and entertainers.
Despite the unexpected heat of the day the ground was muddy underfoot with the constant tread of hundreds of people. Across the river, spread around the walls of the castle, were the pavilions where the competing knights were camped. Sir Roger would have returned by now. Joanna's heart fluttered once more.
She would see him at the banquet that was to be held in the Common Hall that evening but then they would scarcely get a moment alone and she did not want to wait that long. She crossed the Ouse and instead of taking the road that led back to the city, made her way among the throng of people heading towards the mass of brightly coloured tents.
"What is your business in camp?"
Two guards stood in front of the gateway with pikes crossed, admitting some visitors, refusing others. They gazed stony faced at Joanna as they barred her progress but she was prepared for that. She indicated the bulky leather bag tucked under her arm.
"I have a delivery for Sir Roger Danby."
"I bet you do," one of the guards said with a leer to his companion. "It's a little early in the day for that sort of delivery isn't it."
Joanna felt a blush starting around the back of her neck. She glared at him. "I come from the establishment of Simon Vernon, of the Guild of Smiths. You dare to suggest…" she began hotly.
The guard cut her off and held out a hand. "I'll see it gets passed on."
Joanna clutched the bag tighter. "I think not!" she said haughtily. "I have promised to deliver it to Sir Roger myself."
The guards rolled their eyes but let her through the gates. As she walked off their suggestive comments echoed in her ears and her cheeks coloured. Naturally there would be many women of questionable morals trying to gain access to the camp but to be considered one of them was mortifying.
She ducked around the side of the nearest tent and as soon as she was out of sight she stopped walking. Locks of her honey-blonde hair had come loose in the heat. She smoothed them back behind her ears, sighing at the unruly single curl that refused to be suppressed by her plaits. She pulled her narrow sleeves down until her wrists were covered and checked the neckline of her gown was sufficiently demure so as not to cause comment. With a final adjustment of her cloak buckle she was satisfied. The guard's insinuations had been unfair and unfounded. She looked exactly what she was: a respectable member of a merchant's household, not some cheap doxy!
Joanna continued on her way, hefting the bag higher under her arm. Her mood lifted and she hid a smile. She hadn't exactly lied to the guards. She was from Simon Vernon's workshop, though it was unlikely her uncle would claim knowledge of her presence if he was questioned. And she had promised to deliver the package to Sir Roger's own hands, even if the promise was only to herself.
The camp was almost as busy as the tournament ground had been and once inside no one paid Joanna any attention. Everyone was far too busy with their own affairs to look at one more person engaged on an errand. She found Sir Roger's tent towards the back of the encampment, flying the blue pennant emblazoned with a green boar. It was one of the smaller dwellings, as befitted a bachelor knight from a modest estate but Joanna knew in her heart that one day Sir Roger would take his place among the greatest knights in England.
The tent was empty save for Sir Roger's page; a dull witted boy of seven or eight who sat in the corner playing jacks, so Joanna made her way to the courtyard where makeshift stables and workshops had been assembled. She had almost given up hope of finding Sir Roger when, through a sudden parting in the crowd, she saw familiar black curls and caught a glimpse the line of his jaw just as he turned his head away.
A thrill of anticipation rippled through Joanna as she eased her way towards him. It had been too long since they had seen each other, almost four months since Sir Roger had last been in York before returning to his estate for the winter. Despite the urge to run to his arms Joanna stood back and gazed in admiration the man who claimed her heart.
Sir Roger was facing away from her, sharpening a sword with long, slow strokes. He had naturally removed his armour and thickly padded woollen tunic, but instead of the closely fitted doublet of fine wool he favoured he was dressed in britches and a long, shapeless tunic that reached almost to his knees, drawn in at the waist with a thick belt. As Joanna watched he laid the sword on a trestle table then rolled his head from side to side and stretched his arms high. Impulsively she crept forward. She slipped behind him and reached on tiptoe to whisper in his ear, her lips close enough to brush his neck.
"Greetings, my lord, I've been searching for you."
He stiffened then turned to face her and Joanna found herself gazing up into Sir Roger's eyes…
…in the face of a complete stranger.
Her mouth fell open in shock and she stumbled backwards away from the man, dropping her bag. Explanations and apologies tumbled from her lips.
"I didn't know… I thought you were… I mean… I'm sorry!"
The man folded his arms, his lips curling into an amused smile that Joanna felt could turn into a sneer at any moment. She took another step back, her head spinning with confusion. Overcome with embarrassment Joanna's voice tailed off. She covered her face with her hands in an attempt to conceal the blush that was turning her pale complexion scarlet and peered through her fingers.
It was little wonder she had mistaken the man for Sir Roger. From behind they shared the same build and unruly curls and facing her the resemblance was still strong. She noticed for the first time that what she had taken for a belt was a long leather apron tied about his waist. Whoever he was, the stranger was no knight. Her heart was pounding so loudly she would swear it must be audible.
"I beg your forgivenes."
Seeing her watching him, the man ran a hand through the tangle of black curls that fell to just below his ears. He looked Joanna up and down with open interest.
"No forgiveness needed. I thought Lady Fortune was finally smiling on me but alas it seems not," he said with an exaggerated note of regret. "It's been so long since I have had such a greeting that I believe I should be thanking you for the experience! Perhaps I will do as a companion?" he suggested.
The guards' earlier comments flooded back. Did this man also take her for some sort of whore? Given her immodest greeting it would not be so hard to believe he had come to such a conclusion. Another hot flush of shame heated Joanna's cheeks, spreading across her chest to a neckline that suddenly felt much lower than before.
"I don't know what sort of woman you think I am but I can assure you that you are mistaken," she said stiffly, folding her arms defensively across her breasts. "I was looking for someone in particular."
"I gathered that. Now, I wonder who you're searching for," the man mused, running a thumb across the short stubble that peppered his jaw. His voice was deep, with a slight trace of accent, though Joanna could not say where it was from. "Would you care to wager a cup of wine that I can guess the identity of your quarry?"
"I would not!" Joanna said, shaking her head firmly. With as much dignity as she could muster under the circumstances she dropped a brief curtsey. "Once again I beg your pardon. Good day." She picked up her bag and spun on her heel before her heart pushed itself from her breast.
"Try the alehouse," the man called after her lightheartedly as she fled. "Jousting gives a man more than one kind of thirst after all."
Joanna wrinkled her nose in disgust at his implication. She half ran back through the camp, past Sir Roger's tent towards the gate. With her head lowered she paid no attention to her direction and collided roughly with someone.
Hands gripped her shoulders and she looked up to find herself in Sir Roger's arms. She let out a sigh of relief.
Sir Roger smiled down at her in surprise, looking so like the man she had just left that for an instant she suspected some sort of trickery or witchcraft.
"Joanna, what a surprise! I did not expect to see you until tonight at the earliest," Sir Roger exclaimed. He pressed her hand warmly then drew her arm under his and led her back towards his tent, regaling her with an account of the tournament she had just witnessed. She pushed her thoughts of the stranger to the back of her mind.
Sir Roger pushed back the curtain covering his tent doorway and ushered Joanna inside. He snapped his fingers at the page and tossed him a coin.
"Go buy yourself some sweetmeats," he instructed and the boy ambled off unable to believe his good fortune and dropped the curtain down behind him and leaving them alone.
Once the boy had departed Sir Roger pulled Joanna to him, his hands at either side of her waist. "You shouldn't have come here alone, it isn't proper," he breathed huskily.
Joanna glanced at the doorway but Sir Roger did not appear to notice her uneasiness. He kissed her, his lips firm against hers. His hands began to slide from her waist downwards to spread across her thigh and Joanna pulled back.
"I brought you a gift," she said with a smile to hide her nervousness. She wriggled from Sir Roger's clutches and rummaged into her bag until she produced a cloth wrapped bundle and handed it to Sir Roger who unwrapped it eagerly revealing an ornately decorated belt buckle.
Your uncle made this?" he asked holding it to the light.
Joanna nodded and rubbed her fingers lovingly over the incised leaves and swirls. "Though I chased the pattern."
Sir Roger took her hands and drew her close. "It's beautiful. I shall think of you whenever I wear it."
Joanna blushed with pleasure. Sir Roger moved in to kiss her, his tongue attempting to part her lips. Sir Roger's passion was more intense than it had ever been and the guards' mocking words whispered in Joanna's mind. This was the very boundary of acceptable behaviour before they were married.
"Perhaps you might thank my uncle in person tonight, and speak to him about, about other matters," she began shyly.
"Perhaps," Sir Roger agreed, his lips closing over Joanna's. Once again his hands moved from her waist, one down towards her buttocks, the other sliding towards her breast. Joanna's brow wrinkled and she began to shift away from his reach, turning so she stood between him and the doorway. She should leave.
A cold draught blew around her neck and a deep, familiar voice spoke. "Roger I was wondering…"
Joanna stiffened. Sir Roger released her abruptly and stepped back. She spun around to face the speaker, heart sinking as she knew who stood behind her.
The man stood in the doorway, his hands outstretched in apology. "I'm sorry. I saw your boy wandering off. I didn't know you would have company." He did not sound contrite in the least. When his eyes fell on Joanna they held her gaze and his lips twitched.
Sir Roger gave a long sigh of annoyance. Joanna's eyes flickered from man to man. Seeing her confusion Sir Roger left Joanna's side and stood beside the intruder.
"Mistress Vernon, permit me to introduce my brother," he said in a clipped tone. "This is Henry."
Joanna's jaw dropped at Sir Roger's revelation. She shook her head in wonder as she looked from Sir Roger to his brother and back again. They were of equal height and stature, and side-by-side the similarity she had first seen was even more marked. Both had hair the colour of a crow's wing though Hal's was flecked with lighter glints of brown. Sir Roger's was swept back and tied neatly at his nape and he wore a short, neatly trimmed beard while Hal's fell forward in careless tangles to a jaw rough with stubble.
The resemblance was strongest about the eyes. These were uncannily alike: deep brown, flecked with green and ringed with long lashes set into faces tanned from a life spent outside, but the expressions in them were markedly different. Sir Roger gazed on Joanna with fondness but Hal's eyes appraised her with a dark humour as though he was enjoying her discomposure.
"You never told me you had a brother," Joanna said. She curtseyed. "Good day to you, Sir Henry."
"Half brother," The man said curtly, glancing at Sir Roger. "And it's Hal if you please. I'm no sir."
Taken aback at the harshness of his voice Joanna looked to Sir Roger. His brow was knotted.
"Hal and I share the same father but we have different mothers," he explained.
"What Roger means is I'm a bastard," Hal cut in with a humourless smile. He lifted his head and crossed his arms, planting his feet apart as though daring Joanna to confront him.
Of course that explained how they could be brothers. They were too close in age to make any other explanation possible. Joanna smiled at him uncertainly. When they had met before he had seemed good-humoured, for all his mocking words but now his fierceness was unnerving.
For a moment silence hung awkwardly between them as all three stood motionless saying nothing. Finally Joanna spoke. "I have to go. My uncle will be expecting me home" she mumbled, reaching for her bag. She looked to Sir Roger hoping he would offer to escort her through the camp but he merely smiled and bade her farewell. Hiding her disappointment Joanna held her hand out for him to kiss then nodded her head towards Hal and fled from the tent. She reached the gateway in a rush then stopped as she neared the guards.
One of them smirked at her and glanced at her bag, "Finished your delivery quickly, didn't you. Is your load lighter now?"
"I'll bet someone's is," the other sniggered, nudging his companion in the ribs.
Joanna's eyes prickled with fury and shame. She blinked rapidly and took a deep breath, determined to walk past with her head high.
"I'd advise you to keep your tongues civil in the presence of respectable women or I'll have a word in the right ear and you'll be guarding the middens until the tournament ends!"
Joanna spun round to find Hal striding towards her.
"Mistress Vernon, allow me to escort you back to the city." He smiled and held out an arm for her. Surprised she took it and let him lead her through the gateway.
"If you are as virtuous as you claim to be you shouldn't visit the camp again," Hal muttered as they passed by the guards. "Those oafs won't be the only ones casting slights on you."
"What do you mean claim?" Joanna pulled her arm away from Hal's and rounded on him angrily. "My reputation is no concern of yours and I have done nothing to incite gossip." She flushed slightly as she thought of the kisses she had permitted Sir Roger to take that were far from fitting for an unmarried woman. "Sir Roger and I were doing nothing wrong," she insisted, though her voice was tinged with doubt.
Hal laughed. "What you and my brother do in private is none of my business, but I wasn't referring to that. He leaned closer and murmured in her ear. "When we meet next you can buy me some wine."
"Why?" Joanna asked wrinkling her forehead in confusion.
"Because I was right in guessing who you were searching for when you whispered so temptingly in my ear." Hal's eyebrows knotted together. "And if you value your reputation that is precisely the sort of behaviour I was referring to."
Joanna snorted angrily. "Goodbye Hal. I can make my own way back," she said. She turned and walked away, his amused laughter ringing in her ears.