Read The Dark Knight Online

Authors: Tori Phillips

The Dark Knight

His eyes widened when he saw her and the naked blade she held.

“Missed me?” he asked with a half smile. His gaze searched hers for the answer.

Her knife clattered to the floor; its blade rang against the stones. With a cry of “Sandor!” Tonia threw herself against him. The bulk of his body and the warmth that emanated from him soothed her fears.

Time stood still.

He did not speak, but his hand slid down her spine, exploring each hollow of her back. His touch was oddly soft and caressing. A delicious shudder heated her body. Tonia knew that she should fight against her growing desire to move closer to him. A lifetime of prudence counseled her to resist. It was not too late to turn away and put him back in his place. She was a chaste virgin dedicated to God; he was a wild, unpredictable Gypsy….

The Dark Knight

Harlequin Historical #612

Praise for Tori Phillips’s previous titles

One Knight in Venice

“…filled with intrigue, excitement, romance and imaginative characters. Truly superb!”

—Affaire de Coeur

Lady of the Knight

“Ms. Phillips weaves an adventurous story…a good, fast-paced read.”

—Romantic Times

Three Dog Knight

“Readers will be held in thrall…a gem of a tale.”

—Romantic Times

Midsummer’s Knight

“…a fast paced plot…fully and funnily Shakespearean…wonderfully written…”

—Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

#611 MY LADY’S PLEASURE

Julia Justiss

#613 THE COURTSHIP

Lynna Banning

#614 THE PERFECT WIFE

Mary Burton

T
HE
D
ARK
K
NIGHT
T
ori
P
hillips

Available from Harlequin Historicals and
TORI PHILLIPS

Fool’s Paradise
#307

*
Silent Knight
#343

*
Midsummer’s Knight
#415

*
Three Dog Knight
#438

*
Lady of the Knight
#476

*
Halloween Knight
#527

*
One Knight in Venice
#555

*
The Dark Knight
#612

To my great-nephew, Tyler Andrehsen, Dinosaur Trainer, Pirate Captain and Romance Hero-in-training!

Prologue

“Have I not here the best cards for the game to coin this easy match?”

—Shakespeare’s
King John

The Gypsy Encampment on

Hampstead Heath outside of London

April 1553

“R
emember, Sandor, no blood is to be shed—not a drop when you kill the
gadji.
” Uncle Gheorghe paused while he coughed up more green phlegm.

Sandor Matskella looked down at his hands, hands that were expected to snuff out the life of an unknown Christian woman somewhere in the north of England. “I am a horse master,” he murmured. “What do I know of executions?” Now that he had learned the reason for his uncle’s urgent summons, Sandor wished he had been too far away to have answered.

Uncle Gheorghe made a wry face. “Bah! It is of no consequence what you know or do not know. You are young, strong—and healthy. That is all that is necessary. As you see, I am not able to rise from my bed. You will do the deed in my place as the crown’s executioner. You must—I have already spent the Constable’s gold.”

“And
he took our Demeo,” snapped Aunt Mindra from her place by the fire. “That
gadjo
has thrown my boy into one of his deep pits in the Tower. He will hold Demeo among the rats to insure we keep our part of this contract.” She spat into the flames. “May the dogs eat the Constable’s heart and lick his blood.”

Sandor shuddered at his aunt’s curse. “What crime could a mere woman commit that the young English King requires her death?”

Uncle Gheorghe shrugged, then coughed up more phlegm. “Who knows? Who cares? It is enough that the death warrant is signed, sealed and delivered to me. Demeo is their hostage. The sooner you return from the north, the better it will be for him—and for all of us. Our people tread a slender rope here in England.”

“I want my son back before he is polluted by those Englishmen or he dies of a fever in that foul place,” Aunt Mindra snarled.

Sandor nodded, though he loathed the burden his uncle had placed on his shoulders. “I will leave within the hour,” he answered in a low tone. “Young Demeo has the heart of a bear. He will return to your fireside as good as he was when he was torn from it.” A little smile crossed Sandor’s lips when he thought of his wily cousin. “I expect he will return with a wealth of winnings from the pockets of the
gadjo
who have the misfortune to guard him.”

Uncle Gheorghe’s eyes, dull with fever, glared at him. “It is no laughing matter when the Constable himself delivers an order for an execution. Make haste to this Hawksnest Castle in the north. Kill the old woman and be done with it. But attend to every jot and tittle of the warrant. No witnesses—it is to be a secret execution. And no blood spilled. The Constable was very clear on that particular point.”

“Why?” Sandor
furrowed his brow.

His uncle croaked a laugh. “It is a
gadje
whim, I expect. They employ the Rom to do their foul deeds for them so there will be no blood on their soft white hands. As to the woman, you can smother her but I think the garrote is better. You have the strong hands to do it properly.”

Sandor rubbed his palms together. What did he know of killing? He had butchered a chicken or a pig often enough, but never a human being. Certainly not a woman. “I will use the garrote,” he answered, hoping that his face did not betray the revulsion in his gut. “The quicker the better—for her.”

“Mayhap she will be wearing a gold chain,” Aunt Mindra mused. “Or pearl earrings. Bring me her jewelry to pay for my tears for my son.”

Her husband nodded. “Aye, that is your right, Sandor. As her executioner, you are allowed a few privileges.”

The sour taste of bile rose in Sandor’s throat. He would give his finest mare and her colt to be free of this onerous task, but his obligation to his mother’s brother overrode his reluctance. He balled his right hand into a fist. “I will take this woman’s life quickly, but I see no need to take her dignity as well.”

His aunt made a face. “The condemned is a
gadji,
” she said as if that one fact excused any wicked behavior on his part. “Since she is not a Rom, it does not matter what you do with her.”

Uncle
Gheorghe held out the warrant, written on stiff parchment. The official seal glistened like blood in the firelight. “Take this and keep it with you. If any man stops you on your journey, you will show him this and tell him you are on the King’s business.”

“Let us hope that man can read,” muttered Sandor, who could not.

His uncle passed a small wooden box to him. A brass lock dangled from its clasp. “Once the woman is dead, cut out her heart, wrap it in cloth and lock it in this box together with a bit of her hair and a piece of her gown. That will be the proof that she is dead.”

Sandor curled his lip. “What vile mind conceived this idea?”

His uncle sneered. “Good Christian men who sleep sound in their beds at night. The Constable was most insistent upon this last point.”

“Demeo’s life requires it,” added Aunt Mindra.

Sandor took the box and pushed it deep in his canvas sack so that he wouldn’t have to look at the thing any more than necessary. “You must have been paid well for this pretty piece of work,” he dared to say out of the side of his mouth. When healthy, Uncle Gheorghe possessed a formidable temper.

“Not enough to insure my son’s life,” the older man growled. “Do your duty and be quick about it. The sooner you go, the sooner you return. So go!” He waved his nephew away from his bedside.

Before leaving the camp, Sandor paid a quick visit to his grandmother, the family’s venerated
puridai.
He did not want to begin such a troubling journey without having his fortune read. Old Towla Lalow was the wisest woman Sandor had ever known. She greeted him with a smile when he lifted the flap of her bender tent.

“I knew
you would come, my son,” she said when he kissed her cheek.

He grinned at her. “Your cards told you this?”

She shook her head. “My heart,” she replied, tapping her breast. Then she took her special deck of
tarocchi
cards from a burgundy velvet bag. Though the thick vellum cards were very old, their gilding still gleamed in the lantern’s light. She shuffled her deck, then laid down the cards in a horseshoe pattern, while she sang to herself under her breath.

Sitting opposite her, Sandor waited patiently, despite his need for haste. Time with Towla was never wasted. When she had placed the spread of cards to her satisfaction, she studied them with deep concentration, adding lines to those the passing years had already etched on her face. The fire hissed in the charcoal brazier.

His grandmother pointed to the first card. “Here you are,” she said with fondness.

Sandor snorted. “Prosto, the Fool? Aye, for I go on a fool’s errand.”

Towla shook her head. “Nay, your journey will be a most important one for you.” Then she pointed to the second card. Two Lovers joined hands under a golden canopy.

Sandor only shook his head with a rueful grin. He was going north to kill, not to fall in love. However, he said nothing lest he insult his grandmother and her
tarocchi.

Towla tapped the center card. Sandor sucked in his breath when he saw it was the grim figure of Death.

His grandmother
chortled. “It is the card of great change. Does that frighten you, Sandor?”

He fidgeted. “Nothing frightens me except the devil.”

His grandmother only broadened her smile. “You are wise to be wary of change, my son, and yet, do not hide from it.”

He cleared his throat. “What do you see?”

“You will help others who would never help you,” she began.

He snorted. “That describes every
gadjo
I have ever trained a horse for.”

“You were born lucky in many things, but not in all,” she continued.

Sandor nodded. His parents had died in an outbreak of the sweating sickness when he was a child, yet he had survived unscathed. He had a gift for training horses, almost as if he knew their thoughts, yet now he was commanded to take up his uncle’s employment and become a killer. How was that lucky?

Towla touched the Hermit, the fourth card of the spread. “Your journey will be one inside of you as well as on the road. Use this time wisely to read your soul.”

“And the change that you speak of?” he asked, pointing to the card bearing the black figure holding a scythe.

“Ah!” Towla’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. She pointed to the Lovers. “You will have a friend who is an enemy. You will find life holding hands with death. And—” she tapped the Fool “—you will make a decision that will alter your path forever—if you dare to risk it.”

“Is
the risk worth the effort?” he asked, discomforted by her predictions.

She swept up the cards into a neat pile before he had a chance to look at the fifth card in the spread—the one that foretold the outcome. “That is your decision to make, not mine,” she replied. “Come closer and let me kiss you, Sandor, for we never know when we kiss for the last time.”

“Grandmother, your talk is none too cheerful,” he said as he kissed her.

“Then smile for me,” she commanded. “Ah, your smile would beguile the very angels from their clouds.” She kissed him on each cheek. “
Baxtalo drom!
May your road be lucky.”

“And may I soon return to you,” he whispered. He started to rise, but she put her hand on his sleeve.

“Where does Gheorghe send you?”

He sighed. “To the mountains north of here, to a place called Hawksnest. It is a castle, I think.”

Towla considered his destination. “Sounds cold. Wrap up warmly. Take extra food—and a sheepskin. Methinks you will need them anon, for your journey will be longer than you expect. Whom do you execute for the boy King’s pleasure?”

Sandor cleared his throat. “It is a noblewoman, though why, I do not know.”

A tiny smile curled his grandmother’s lips. “And her name?”

“Lady Gastonia Cavendish.”

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