Rexanne Becnel is one of our favorite historical romance authors. Whether you're looking for Regency, western or even medieval romance, she's guaranteed to have written a novel you'll fall head over heels for.
In Rose of Blacksword, a medieval romance featuring a marriage of convenience, Becnel introduces us to Lady Rosalynde of Stanwood. After her brother's passing, Rosalynde insists on returning home to tell her father. Her aunt and uncle begrudgingly agree to let her go, with an entourage of knights, her maid, and their young page Cleve as escorts. But when their group is attacked by ruffians, only Rosalynde and a badly injured Cleve escape.
Though the pair make it to a nearby town and Rosalynde seeks the mayor for help, she must wait until he's finished with a public hanging. It's then she learns that it's also the traditional day for handfastings, a chance for trial marriage that lasts a year and a day. We all know where this is going—see for yourself in the excerpt below!
“D’ye wish to look ’em over, ladies?”
“Aye!” The roar came from men and women alike.
“Show ’em afore you condemn ’em—whether it’s to be to the hangman or to the wife!”
To Rosalynde’s utter dismay, the entire assemblage seemed now to want some hapless girl to wed one of the condemned men. This would take forever, she fretted. And to make things worse, it appeared the mayor would not last much longer. By the time she did get to speak to him, he would be quite lost to drink! She stared around her in despair, wondering if she could find someone else in authority who could help her. Surely there must be someone else.
But there was no one else, at least not still possessed of all his wits. To the last man, every villager was well steeped in ale or wine, celebrating the annual festivities despite their lack of understanding of the custom’s source. It had always been done so, and it always would be. And as they probably did every year, they were all becoming completely and blindly drunk.
She tried to get through the crowd but it seemed hopeless. Then a chant started and she cringed with the cruelty of it all. “Bring ’em up! Bring ’em up!”
Between the awful noise, her helpless situation, and her worry for the ailing Cleve, Rosalynde almost burst into tears. Had the entire world gone mad? Were there nothing left but murderers and hangmen and bloodthirsty spectators? She clapped her hands over her ears and once more tried to escape. But she was perversely shoved even nearer the front, closer to the narrow stairs that led up to the gallows.
Then the tone of the crowd changed and she looked about in renewed panic. A group of village men had maneuvered the cart nearer the stairs and removed the back rails so that they could drag the three prisoners out. Rosalynde saw the group of men rear back, as if heaved all at once by a force too mighty for them to oppose. But then they quickly surged forward again to capture their quarry. She heard a cry of pain, and more than one vicious oath. Despite her determined disinterest, she could not help but raise up on her toes and crane her neck to see better. But everyone was now peering avidly toward the scuffling at the cart and she could not see past them.
Then the crowd suddenly drew back and Rosalynde was nearly toppled from her feet. By the time she regained her balance and glanced up, the condemned men were being herded up onto the gallows.
Rosalynde was overcome with unexpected compassion as she watched the repellent scene. Before she had been too consumed with her own miseries to worry about anyone else’s troubles. But as she watched the first man ascend to the platform, she was overwhelmed with pity. He was a crude young fellow, dirty and mean-looking. But for all that, he was quite clearly terrified. The second man was older, with a mouth that fell open in fear, showing blackened stubs for teeth. Tears ran freely down his cheeks, leaving clean rivulets upon an otherwise filthy face.
She clutched at her cloak as she watched them shamble to stand beneath the waiting nooses, a burly guard on each side of them. Their feet were linked by heavy lengths of rope. Their arms were bound behind their backs. It was only by reminding herself that they were very likely murderers, of the same ilk as the deadly gang of cutthroats that had attacked her and her unsuspecting group yesterday, that she was able to fight back tears of sympathy.
Then there was another disruption at the stairs, and, with a loud outcry from the crowd, the third man was dragged up onto the gallows.
Rosalynde’s eyes were as round and staring as everyone else’s when the fellow found his footing and then shook his would-be captors off. Like the others he was bound hand and foot. But unlike those other hapless men, his bindings did not begin to lessen the threat he presented. Like a cornered wolf, beleaguered yet no less dangerous, he held the nervous men at bay, seeming almost to dare them to approach.
He was a big man—huge, Rosalynde noted—with massive shoulders and powerful arms. His tunic had been ripped and partially torn away, and as he strained against the stout hemp ropes, his every muscle and sinew stood out in sculpted detail. He was a full head taller than any other man on the platform, and for the space of two heartbeats Rosalynde wondered how such a fine specimen of a man could ever have come to so poor an end.
The crowd was silent, in awe of the man who, even as he approached his death, could be so fearsome, so intimidating. Then the man straightened a little, and with a contemptuous glance at the men who’d tried to hold him, he moved of his own accord to stand beneath the third noose.
There was in that move an odd sort of nobility. Where the other men were broken and afraid, he was proud and brave. Clearly he did not wish to die, but he seemed to have accepted his end with the dignity of a prince, Rosalynde thought. He did not meet any eye after that, but only stared grimly toward the horizon.
“Now there’s a bloke worth having,” Rosalynde heard a woman somewhere near her murmur.
Yes, she silently agreed. There indeed was a man worth having. If only he’d been at the river with them yesterday. If only he’d been there to stop that pair of ruffians from manhandling her and chasing her as a thief! She was so desperately frightened, yet he seemed afraid of nothing. Not even death. If only she could hire him to see her home.
On that wishful thought she suddenly froze. He could get her home if he was free. And she could set him free if she would agree to be handfasted!
She shook her head in confusion, aghast at such a preposterous idea. Claim him for her husband in this heathen ritual? She must be mad to even think such a thing. And yet a part of her was mad, she admitted to herself, as she stared wildly around her, still fearing to be caught by the two bullies. She was mad with fear and mad with desperation. Could she afford to wait for another way home?
She stared up at the man once more. He might be a criminal, but there was something oddly noble in his bearing. She was convinced he could get her home safely. But would he? And could she take such a foolhardy chance?
She was still staring at him, dumbfounded and wondering what he looked like beneath the week-old beard and long hair plastered damply to his head, when she realized the mayor was again speaking.
“… the three prisoners. Tom Hadley.” He pointed to the miserable young man at the end whose head hung down pitifully. “Tom Hadley for thieving and murder, on the King’s Road to London. Roger Ganting for hunting within the Bishop of Shortford’s preserve and for attacking the Bishop’s guard and killing one man.”
The mayor started to move nearer the big man but then clearly thought better of it. “And then this fellow, known only as Blacksword since he has not revealed his Christian name—very likely he’s not even Christian! Blacksword, also for thieving and murder. On the King’s Road to London, on the highway to St. Edmonds, and in the village of—” He stopped abruptly when the man slowly turned his head and gave him a cold stare.
“The—the village of Lavenham,” the mayor concluded quickly. Then he took another step back from the menacing prisoner. “They’ve all been tried and found guilty. Now we’re to see ’em hanged.”
“Wot about the han’fastin’?” a man beyond Rosalynde called.
“Aye! Where’s the maid willin’ to rescue one of these fine upstandin’ lads from the noose?” an old man shouted.
Rosalynde did not pause to reason out what she did next. She had heard the charges against him, yet she harshly cast them from her mind. She had been horrified at the suggestion that some maiden be handfast wed to one of this murderous group. Yet now she clung to the idea as her only salvation. She had been disgusted by the crowd’s perverse interest in seeing these men hanged or else wed to some unlucky woman, and yet.… And yet the logic that prompted those earlier emotions fled when she once more spied the drunken visage of the man who’d chased her. If she did not act right now, she might not get another chance to save herself and Cleve.
As she raised her voice and fought her way forward, she knew he was the only man strong enough—and sober enough—to help her and Cleve. He was the only man with a reason to take her seriously. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Surely out of gratitude he would see her safely to Stanwood.
“I will be handfasted!” she cried, shoving her way past a stout village woman and her half-grown son. “I will have him to husband!”
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The Rose of Blacksword
“This is a great story, well told—a page turner. . . . Lots of action, mystery and adventure with an exciting ending.” —Regan Walker, author of the Agents of the Crown series