The Knight

The Knight

Virginia Brown

March 2019
ISBN: 978-1-61194-943-8

Two star-crossed lovers test the boundaries of love.

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Set against the backdrop of Glastonbury Abbey in the twelfth century, two star-crossed lovers test the boundaries of love and find much more than they ever dreamed possible.

World-weary Sir Stephen Fitzhugh doesn’t believe in the legends. If not for the lure of regaining his castle and lands taken by a deceitful earl, finding the Holy Grail would mean nothing to him. But the earl offers to return Stephen’s estate in exchange for the fabled cup, so Stephen journeys to where it is rumored to be hidden—Glastonbury Abbey.

Aislinn of Amberlea is the late abbot’s niece, and holds the key to the chalice mystery. Lovely and spirited, she believes the cup must remain at the Abbey. But will she be able to withstand the irresistible charm of the rogue knight who’s come to find it?

The search for King Arthur and the Grail uncovers more than ancient legends. And they soon learn that danger and passion can lead to searing choices….

"Like stepping back in time, fresh and exciting.” —Rendezvous

"Virginia Brown’s novels sparkle with adventure, humor, and sizzling romance!”—Romantic Times

Virginia Brown has written over 50 novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, Career Achievement Award for Adventure, EPIC eBook nomination for Historical Romance, and she received the RT Career Achievement Award for Historical Adventure, as well as the EPIC eBook Award for Mainstream Fiction. Her works have regularly appeared on national bestseller lists. She lives near her children in North Mississippi, surrounded by a menagerie of beloved dogs and cats while she writes.


"In Medieval England, a knight's search for the Holy Grail leads him to a beautiful, beguiling, and charming young woman. Reading a book by Ms. Brown is like stepping back in time, fresh and exciting." -Rendezvous

"THE KNIGHT is an exciting medieval romance . . . known for her fast-paced delightful historical romances, Virginia Brown comes up with a diamond . . ." -Harriet Klausner

"Virginia Brown's novels sparkle with adventure, humor, and sizzling romance!" - Romantic Times


Chapter 1

With the Quest of Sangrail all you of the Round Table shall depart, and never shall I see you wholly together again.

Le Morte d’Arthur—Malory

LATE MARCH WINDS howled around forbidding towers that bristled in jagged teeth on the horizon: Essex Castle. It crouched atop a spiny ridge of hill as if preparing to pounce upon the fields below. Tendrils of etherous mist curled like dragon’s breath around knobby stone feet of the keep.

Stephen Fitzhugh paused in encroaching shadows cast by the mas­sive fortress; thin, filmy wisps of fog slithered in long fingers along the road. Damp air seeped through chinks in his armor, found holes in his wool mantle, chilled exposed skin. His head was bare. His dark hair was a wet, clammy fringe over his forehead and on the back of his neck. A battered helmet hung from a strap on his saddle and banged against the side of his horse, which was dancing from one hoof to another, snorting disapproval.

"I feel much the same, Nero.” Stephen bent, soothed his restive mount with an idle pat upon the damp neck, fingers clumsy with the cold. Then he sat back, surveyed the castle with eyes as black as the approaching shadows. It was as he remembered it: brooding, menacing. As menacing as the earl who had summoned him to this bleak pile of cursed stones. Too many memories were lodged in the chinks and cracks of this fortress.

He nudged the weary destrier forward. The dull smack of hooves on wet road was loud in the eerie silence cloaking fields and grassy verges. It would be night soon, and no one would be allowed to enter once the castle gates were closed.

Stephen answered the guard’s challenge with his name and was granted immediate entrance.

"You are late, Sir Stephen,” was a guard’s growling comment as he rode across the wooden drawbridge and into the dense shadows of the gatehouse. "The earl grows impatient.”

"It is a long journey from York,” Stephen said curtly.

The harsh grating of the portcullis dropped behind him; groaning pulleys and chains that lowered the iron teeth of the gate sounded like the priests’ tedious descriptions of the portal opening to hell, albeit a hell composed of icy gusts and howling winds.

It was no warmer inside the castle as eerie drafts moaned plaintive songs down stone corridors, and echoes like muted sobs drifted in the dim-lit passageways.

The Earl of Essex did not glance up when Stephen was shown into his solar, but continued to study a huge leather-bound book opened on the table before him. The only sound was the scrape of Stephen’s boots and the warm hiss of a fire that burned in a large brass brazier. Heat spread out to lessen the chamber’s chill, a welcome respite from the cold.

Stephen stood where the steward had left him just inside the door. Irritation prickled along his spine and tightened his mouth as the earl continued to read and ignore him. Curse the old vulture for his arrogance. It would give Stephen great satisfaction to leave immediately. It was a bitter gall that he could not.

Finally the earl looked up with penetrating dark eyes that burned like banked coals beneath a shelf of heavy brow.

"You tarried overlong in getting here, Sir Stephen.”

The harsh voice was but a disinterested whisper. Stephen did not bother to reply.

Essex continued: "Do you know why I have sent for you?”

"I do not, my lord.” Stephen did not glance away from that piercing gaze, but held it until his eyeballs felt scalded, until he felt seared to the bone, a flush of heat scouring him from spurs to brow.

Essex sat back in his chair and folded his hands atop the massive book. The parchment rustled beneath his touch, a dry whispery scratch that sounded oddly ominous.

"I have information that may lead to one of the greatest prizes in all Christendom. Are you interested?”

Regarding him warily, Stephen dipped his head in acknowledgment. "Perhaps, my lord. I would have to know more details.”

A short bark of sardonic laughter erupted from the earl, and his eyes narrowed slightly. "You are as cautious as I remember you, Fitzhugh. In some men, a virtue. In others—a vice. Which be you, I wonder. Would you slay a dragon if it be asked of you? Or would you flee with your arse afire, as I have seen so many men do in the face of danger?”

"As you just said, my lord—you remember me as a cautious man. I have not changed overmuch since last we met.”

Irritation prickled along his spine at the earl’s close regard, as if he still saw a greenling youth or novice knight instead of a man now spurred and proven.

Essex smiled slightly, a tug of one lip upward that could indicate humor or contempt.

"Yea, it seems that you have not changed. I require a man who knows when to be cautious and when to risk all. A man who has little to lose but his life. I have a task. It will earn you a king’s ransom if you succeed—the lands and keep of Dunmow.”

Stephen’s breath filled his lungs to aching. There was a ringing in his ears. A king’s ransom! Unexpected reward—a fitting compensation after years of struggle, of battle and the stench of death that remained long after the clash of swords and screams of the dying had faded into silence. But Dunmow! Could it be true?

His released breath formed a faint misty cloud in front of his face as he asked tersely, "And if I fail?”

"It will cost you all.”

Not unexpected. But worth the risk.

Dunmow... dare he hope?

"What is the task you would have me undertake to earn Dunmow, my lord earl?”

Essex rose from behind the table. A once powerful man, age had stooped his shoulders. It lent him the awkward grace of a lame horse as he leaned forward, hands splayed atop the crackling vellum beneath his gnarled fingers. He caught Stephen’s eyes, held them, his tone hoarse with suppressed excitement.

"Bring me the Holy Grail.”


Chapter 2

FOR A MOMENT Stephen stood rigidly still, staring at the earl’s face, the craggy features sharpened by the dim flickering light from a branch of candles and the brazier. Then he blew out a harsh breath that sounded even to his own ears like a vicious snarl.

"You mock me with a paltry jest, my lord. A child’s trick. A mad­man’s quest!”

"Nay, Sir Stephen.” Essex straightened abruptly. On his lips, the title of Sir sounded derisive, a reminder of how long it had taken Stephen to earn it, of the years he had spent in brutal conflict where the only re­wards were those he had forcibly wrenched from others. Concessions to his prowess were hard-won, yet now grudgingly yielded.

Essex’s thick brow lowered over his eyes. "I am not a man to indulge in whimsy or jests, as you surely must recall from our years of acquaintance.”

"But to find the Holy Grail... it is a farce. A tale concocted for the credulous.”

"So. You do not believe there is a chalice?”

"Not as the tales that are told, nay, I do not. A cup with the power to restore life to the dead—to give men immortality? A Holy Grail said to be used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper? A myth, my lord. A simpleton’s fable.”

"So you regard me as a simpleton, Fitzhugh?”

More cautiously, curbing his wayward tongue, he said, "Nay, my lord. Never that. But it is possible to be duped.”

"Then you consider me easily duped.”

Stephen recognized the anger, understood it. "No, my lord earl, I do not. But when a man wishes to believe, he may be convinced to believe in illusions.”

"You are a man without illusions, I perceive.”

"As you above all would know well. What few illusions I once had have long been proven false, my lord. I believe in only what I see, and not half of that.”

Essex smiled. "Whether you believe in it is of no interest to me, Sir Stephen. Indeed, it may well be to my benefit to send a man who cannot be fooled by sentiment or superstition to bring back the most sought-after prize in all of Christendom. I care not if you are a heretic. I leave the state of your soul to the priests.”

"Fitting, I suppose, as you damned me long ago. It is easier to leave the salvation of a lost soul to others.”

"Now you mock me. I will not tolerate insolence from a knight errantwhose only purpose in life is to serve his master. Best that you recall your station, Fitzhugh, before I lose my patience.”

Stephen did not reply. Angry resentment burned in his throat, tight­ened his chest. Curse Essex! A man of intrigue and power, as likely to sentence a man to immediate death as to kill him with years of in­dif­ference. Did Stephen not know that well by now?

Continuing as if the conversation were amicable, Essex said, "You will bring me back the chalice.”

If it were not so insulting to be ordered to achieve the impossible, the implied assurance that he could do so would have been flattering. Stephen weighed his options and decided that compliance might earn him coin even if not the elusive reward of Dunmow.

"My lord, if I undertake this task, I will require coin for my efforts.”

"You are in no position to barter, my cockerel. Dunmow will be your reward for success. You have always thought it your right. Now is your chance to earn it.”

Stephen’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, a gesture that did not go unnoticed, and his tone was gruff. "I decline your generous offer, my lord earl. My empty purse and belly decree that I seek elsewhere for more immediate and certain reward.”

"Curse you for a fool! This is certain—more certain than any man has ever come to finding it...”

Essex stared at him, eyes burning brands in a sallow face devoid of humanity, empty of compassion for his fellow man, for even those who served him with loyalty, if not love and admiration.

Yet behind those hooded eyes lurked fierce conviction.

Stephen frowned and moved slightly, sword a muted clink against his mailed hip. "Do you claim to know where this chalice lies, my lord?”

"Yea, that I do. But first I would have your reply.”

Silence lengthened, stretched into tension unabated by the earl’s fierce gaze. Coals hissed in red slumberous eyes beneath lids of gray ash in the brazier, emanating heat that did little to dispel the sudden chill that gripped Stephen. A fool’s quest indeed—he would be mad to agree.

His cold hands opened, closed, aching in the damp chill that per­vaded the chamber. He exhaled raggedly.

"Yea, my lord earl, I will pursue this illusion.”

A satisfied smile etched deep furrows into the thin cheeks. "Ah, I thought you might, with the proper inducement to stir your interest. Do not look so affronted. All men are the same. Nobility is not inherited, it is a prize of war.” He leaned forward, gnarled hands propped into fists on the table’s surface, his voice lowered to a hoarse rasp that summoned brief images of hell’s gates yawning open.

"Information has come into my possession that the answer to the mystery of the chalice lies with the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey.”

Despite his rancor, curiosity stirred. "And the abbot is willing to divulge such a secret, my lord?”

"Ah, the abbot is dead.” At Stephen’s muttered oath, the earl’s smile only widened. "Peter de Marcy, who was for a time appointed by the king to care for the abbey after the good abbot’s death, was a man of great... curiosity. He came into some information that was most intriguing, but alas, he died before able to impart it to me. A pity. I paid him well yet received little reward for my coin.”

"Have you assurance that de Marcy was not just after your money, that he did have this information?”

"I am astounded that you would even ask such a question of me, Sir Stephen.”

Essex, whatever else he may be, was not a fool, not credulous enough to swallow a fantastical tale more suited to be told over a cup of wine. Perhaps it was not a fool’s quest after all. The earl’s tone was too emphatic.

Essex drew in a heavy breath, reached for a silver-wrought goblet of wine and water with a hand that shook in a faint tremor, and drank deeply before he looked again at Stephen.

"Take care, Fitzhugh. The last man to pursue the Grail to Glastonbury died in the same fire that destroyed the abbey. I do not wish to waste more time and men in such a manner.”

"Nor do I wish to be wasted in such a manner, my lord earl.”

Stephen’s dry tone was lost on Essex, who had turned to gaze again at the book still open upon the table. A draft ruffled the pages in a sound like dry reeds rustling in the wind, and the branch of candles flickered madly, light and shadow an eerie dance across the chamber walls. A soughing wind curled around castle walls, seeped through heavy velvet draperies over the windows, stirred turbid shadows with the pungent stink of moat. It carried with it the taint of perilous promise, and Stephen shifted, his sword clanking dully against the edge of the brass brazier.

Essex looked up with a start. Crimson splotches muddied his face, and his mouth was a bloodless slash as he reached for a sheet of vellum, drew it to him, and lifted a quill. Ink stained the point, gleaming as he dipped it into the pot, then scratched a few lines across the clean, spare curl of parchment. When it was sanded, he sealed it with a blob of melted red wax, then pressed his ring into it. Drawing a small purse from the folds of his tunic, he tossed it to Stephen, who caught it in one hand. Coins rattled softly as he looked up at the earl, who watched him with a faint smile acknowledging this compromise.

"Do not fail me, Fitzhugh.” Essex held out the sealed message. "This is for you. It holds the key to the mystery. Guard it well. There is another letter here for the prior of the abbey. Give it to him when you arrive.”

As Stephen took the proffered letters, he suddenly realized why the earl was so insistent upon the Grail’s discovery. Death rode his bony features, a pale spectre, an implacable foe that could only be conquered with the promised salvation of a fabled chalice.

It was Death the earl heard rattling at the windows and recognized in the shadows yawning beyond the waning light. It was Death he hoped to vanquish by the grace of a cup held over a thousand years before in the hands of the man known to the Christian world as the Son of God.

Even as Stephen understood it, he pitied both the earl and the futil­ity of misplaced faith.


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