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Seven Noble Knights: A Saga of Family, Betrayal, and Revenge in Medieval Spain
by J K Knauss

Published: 2017-01-16
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Spain, 974. Gonzalo, a brave but hotheaded knight, unwittingly provokes tragedy at his uncle's wedding to beautiful young noblewoman Lambra: the adored cousin of the bride dead, his teeth scattered across the riverbank. Coveting his family's wealth and power, Lambra sends Gonzalo's father ...
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Introduction

Spain, 974. Gonzalo, a brave but hotheaded knight, unwittingly provokes tragedy at his uncle's wedding to beautiful young noblewoman Lambra: the adored cousin of the bride dead, his teeth scattered across the riverbank. Coveting his family's wealth and power, Lambra sends Gonzalo's father into enemy territory to be beheaded, unleashing a revenge that devastates Castile for a generation.


A new hero, Mudarra, rises out of the ashes of Gonzalo's once great family. Raised as a warrior in the opulence of Muslim Córdoba, Mudarra must make a grueling journey and change his religion, then chooses to take his jeweled sword to the throats of his family's betrayers. But only when he strays from the path set for him does he find his true purpose in life.

Inspired by a lost medieval epic poem, Seven Noble Knights draws from history and legend to bring a brutal yet beautiful world to life in a gripping story of family, betrayal, and love.

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Excerpt

Part One, Chapter X

For two days, Gonzalo Gustioz found solace in sleep during the night and the day in a windowless room. On the third day, he was awakened by Almanzor’s slender hand on his shoulder. Gonzalo opened his eyes to discern the chamberlain and the two guards who had brought him to the cell.

“Good morning, Don Gonzalo,” said Almanzor.

“Is it?” he replied, painfully reentering a world in which he had been betrayed by his closest friend—a man who planned to have his sons slaughtered.

“We have been unable to verify whether the contents of the letters you carried have any truth in them,” Almanzor continued. “I’m moving you to a more comfortable cell.”

Having no news of his sons, Don Gonzalo found no comfort in anything. “Did you send your generals to Almenar, as the letter asked?”

“The generals he mentioned are very far north and I’ve heard nothing of them this month. If they’re in Almenar, it isn’t because I sent them.”

The guards led him into the sunlight, which was so bright he couldn’t make out the details about his situation within the palace grounds, but they walked for some time and climbed two sets of stairs. His new room reminded him of the place where he’d eaten the rice dish before meeting Almanzor. It had a bank of tile benches and many pillows. The window had two archways connected by a column and through it, he saw green leaves and heard a fountain’s patter and the cooing of the waking doves. His muscles relaxed.

“Thank you, Almanzor. You are merciful indeed,” Gonzalo said, but when he turned around, no one was there. The door had been shut and locked, but his senses had been too dazzled to hear. He lay down atop the pillows and expected to lose consciousness quickly, but sleep did not come. He sat up and thought that this impotent imprisonment without knowing what his sons were doing was worse than death. Almanzor’s mercy had made Ruy Blásquez’s revenge all the more sharp.

He heard the key in the door this time, and responded loudly, “I will not eat or drink anything. It’s better to take it away now.”

Rather than leaving, the person at the door came through holding a plate and a goblet. “Why will you not eat, my lord?” she asked.

Gonzalo hadn’t expected a female, especially not one who spoke his Latin so well. Her body looked wispy under a blue silk blouse that hung loose around her waist like a tunic. Underneath, she wore loose breeches made of the same material, drawn in at the ankle and showing her golden slippers. Though she wore her hair cut in the front like the other servant girl he’d seen, in the back the tresses fell long and loose like the tail of a well curried black horse. The arms that bloomed out of the elbow-length sleeves looked barely strong enough to support the weight of the items she carried. Gonzalo stood before her, speechless.

“You must eat to keep up your strength, my lord. No one can know what is to come,” she said.

“Very well,” he said, bewitched. He sat on the bench and waited for her to bring the items to him. “I will eat and drink only enough to keep myself from dying and offending God with my desperation.”

“My name is Zaida,” she said as she crossed the room. Placing the victuals beside him on the bench, she sat down so that Gonzalo couldn’t help but look into her almond-shaped eyes, as green as the leaves outside the window. “I’ve been personally selected by Almanzor to comfort you in your misfortune. Tell me, what has befallen you that is so terrible that you hardly wish to live?”

“My name is Gonzalo Gustioz of Lara. I’m the lord of many towns. I left my wife Sancha in Salas to seek money in Córdoba, and now I fear I may never see her again.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

“I don’t understand it myself. I believed I was carrying some letters demanding repayment of a large debt Almanzor owed my brother-in-law, but instead, they carried betrayal, asking Almanzor to kill me and meet my seven sons on a battlefield.”

“You have seven sons, all warriors? Tell me what they’re like.”

Images of the sons who had been the source of his greatest pride and most profound frustration flooded Gonzalo’s mind: Muño Salido teaching Suero archery while Martín talked his way out of the lesson in order to finish an epic chess match with Don Leovigildo de Valdavia, who even with his Muslim advisors, could not best the boy; Count Fernán González serving as godfather at Fernando’s baptism, the water running over his transparent newborn skin; Gustio and Rodrigo arguing over girls, and Gustio winning through blunt force; Diego’s first steps, his first words, his first siege, the first triumph of so many; and young Gonzalo. His lips could hardly keep up with the words clamoring inside of him.

When he at last paused, Zaida said, “I hate Christians because I, too, had seven warrior sons and a fine, handsome husband, and although they were not at fault, and I had never committed a crime, a Christian lord took them all away from me over the course of one day.”

“Was the Christian lord called Ruy Blásquez?” Gonzalo said bitterly. He looked up from his plate, from which most of the rice, fish, bread, and eggplant was gone, and studied her, knowing she was too young and too slight to have borne seven sons.

But one surprise followed another when she replied, “Yes, that was the Christian lord. His name makes my heart rot with hatred.” A tear appeared in her eye.

He reached up to keep it from falling onto her silk, and felt the shock of his rough hand on her cheek, softer than even his new pillows. The tear glimmered for an instant, then broke over his finger.

“So, you understand my pain?” he whispered.

She nodded, turning her demure gaze back to his face.

“And Ruy Blásquez is an unstoppable demon?”

She mutely stood to avoid the empty plate and goblet and leaned in to embrace him. Her jasmine scent seeped into his clothing and his nose. “I cannot hate all Christians,” she said, “now that I know one of you feels the same pain I have carried.”

Gonzalo sobbed helplessly. Zaida held him steady with unexpected strength as he shook and coughed. “Yes, my lord, weep. It is your only defense against despair.”

More exhausted than he could have imagined, and well fed, Gonzalo slept until the evening hours. Muted light came in the window and with it the trilling, swooping song of a night bird. A crashing sound, and the bird fell silent. He had not fallen back to sleep and was drowsily listening to the doves in the morning again when Zaida came to the door to bring another breakfast of eggplant and leeks with rice and bread to scoop up the spices.

“You must be hungry, my lord. You didn’t wake all day, so I couldn’t bring you supper.”

He recognized her voice. His eyelids were so swollen that she appeared as a bright blur. “Zaida, do you know what happened to that bird last night?”

She came toward him. “I do. We call that bird nightingale, but in your language it is known as Ruy Señor. I cannot bear the sound of its song because I know Ruy Blásquez sent it to torment you and me. I threw a stone at it, intending to kill it, but it flew away.”

“Zaida, the bird shouldn’t suffer for its name,” Gonzalo said. But knowing what the songster was called, a chill passed through him. He wished he had the strength this wisp of a Moorish girl had. She sat down next to him and for moment he thought she wore nothing at all. Focusing through his surprise, he saw that in fact she was covered head to toe with transparent veils made of some fabric like a spider’s web, which wasn’t much different than being naked. He turned away. “What are you wearing?”

“My lord Don Gonzalo, we are bonded by the betrayal of the demon Ruy Blásquez. I want to comfort you with whatever happiness you can take from me. Perhaps you can replace my fallen husband and seven sons, and I can replace your wife and your seven sons.”

She stood and planted her feet before him so he could not help seeing the outline of her body. He held out his hand to stop her, and when her smooth belly met his flesh, he shuddered with pleasure. In his mind, he saw Sancha combing and plaiting her long brown hair the morning after their wedding ceremony. She looked back at him with a coy smile that made his heart leap. He spoke quickly. “Only Sancha can comfort me in the way you suggest. My sons need no replacing. When they hear what’s happened to me, they’ll come for me, abandoning Ruy Blásquez and Almenar.” Predicting a happy outcome brought a grin to his face.

Zaida backed away and held her arms over her breasts. “I understand. Your wife is very lucky.” She turned and left, her feet skidding across the smooth floor. Gonzalo ate his breakfast wondering what Sancha must be doing and waiting for his sons to arrive at Medina Azahara and deliver him. It was so like them to keep him waiting. He paced around the chamber, watching the sunbeams fall through the leaves outside his window, wondering if there was something he could do to speed his sons on their way.

Zaida returned about midday when Gonzalo’s back was turned to the door. “A midday repast for my lord, who seems to be in much better spirits.” He nodded, turning away from the window. She was dressed more modestly in a similar outfit to the one she’d worn the first day. She set down the plate and goblet and joined Gonzalo at the window. “Do you see those trees farther out toward the horizon?”

He could see nothing beyond the green grove outside his window, but he nodded anyway.

“Those are almond trees. They bloom with white petals in the winter. Abd al-Rahman, the father of our present caliph and the great leader who built Madinat al-Zahra, put those trees there so his favorite wife wouldn’t miss the snow from the Sierra Nevada so much.”

“He did that for his wife?” The sentiment in one so powerful awed Gonzalo.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, her name was Zahra, and all Madinat al-Zahra was built for her.”

“What a bewitching place you live in,” he exclaimed, taking her hands in his. She leaned toward him, but he released her hands and backed away.

“Do you like to look at the grounds?” she asked, clearing her throat. “Perhaps I can ask Almanzor if we might take walks around the gardens.”

“I would like that. This room is spacious and beautiful, but I’m beginning to wonder what I will do until my sons come for me.”

Zaida stood and lifted the plate, revealing a chess board. She extracted black and white pieces from pockets hidden under her tunic and began setting them in order. “Do you know how to play, my lord?”

“I know a simple version of this game,” he replied. “But my son Martín knows games that take days to complete, and he tells me they come from your people.”

“Travelers from Damascus and Baghdad bring us new ways to play and even write treatises on it,” she told him. “It’s the noblest game and the best way to spend the time you have here.”

Gonzalo sat back and ate his midday plate while she finished setting up the pieces and described the rules of her favorite Baghdad version of the game. He couldn’t follow it. He noticed she had combed her fringe back and pinned it into the rest of her hair. If she were wearing a tunic, she could’ve passed for a Christian woman. When she lowered her gaze, intent on one or another of the pieces on the board, it seemed as if time had gone backward and Sancha herself was before him.

Probably sensing his bewilderment, Zaida started the game over with the rules he knew. He won within an hour’s time, and suspected she had let him win. Her enigmatic smile would neither confirm nor contradict his protests.

Days later, when he’d finished his morning meal, she took his hand and led him out of the chamber. “You must promise not to try to escape,” she said.

His sons thought he was here, so here he would stay. “I can’t imagine making it all the way through Andalusia by myself again,” he told her by way of promise.

They wended along narrow pathways through shady cypress trees and date palms and paused to look at the fading rose blooms and many flowers he couldn’t have named. Most of the time, Zaida held his hand, because the sunlight was so bright Gonzalo could hardly open his eyes to find his way along the paths. She brought blooms close to his face, to smell them, she said, but it was also the only way he could make out their shapes. He didn’t admit that he couldn’t see, but she took her cue from his stumbles and missteps. The next time they went walking, it went without saying that she should lead, grasping his hand. More than once his foot strayed over the edge of a deeply sunken garden plot, and she pulled him back to prevent his fall.

They passed burbling fountains that displayed bronze sculptures of frogs and deer or extravagantly robed people upon closer inspection. Feeling a cooling breeze on their faces, they crossed over a bridge that ended up on a lower level and stopped in the shade of a wall. Now Gonzalo could see that it spread out before them and then made corners.

“This is the caliph’s mosque,” Zaida explained. “I can take you inside if you like.”

He was curious, but he said, “No, thank you. I don’t think it would be right.”

Zaida turned back into the glare and led Gonzalo back to his cell. The following day, she brought his meals as usual and they played an hours-long game of chess. She let him win again. She wore a long dress similar to the kinds of frocks the Christian women wore in Castile and León. After she had gathered the pieces and stowed the board, she caressed his shoulders, making him feel warm and accepted. “Rest well, my lord,” she said. She kissed his cheek and lit a candle, which filled the room with radiance such that he couldn’t see her leave.

Misfortune had brought them together. Gonzalo marveled at the close bond they had formed in such a short amount of time. He had never been friends with a woman before, and above all, it was extraordinary that she should understand him so well, being Moorish. He went to sleep thinking he would miss her when he returned to Salas.

It was not Zaida who came to his door in the morning. Silhouetted in a ring of light was a shape so tall and imposing it could only be Almanzor.

Sensing his sons nearby, Gonzalo sat up and said breathlessly, “My lord, have you come to grant me your ultimate mercy and release me from this captivity?” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

How did you experience Seven Noble Knights? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to get into it?

Did Seven Noble Knights take you outside your comfort zone?

What major emotional response did the story evoke in you?

Do you think the title Seven Noble Knights does justice to the novel?

Characters

Which character did you feel the most empathy towards?

Did you like the characters and, if not, was that important?

Were there any characters you loved to hate?

Did any character remind you of someone you know?

Why does Doña Lambra take such offense at her wedding, even after the count resolves the issue legally? Are her later actions justified?

Why does Gonzalico lash out at Little Page?

If you were Almanzor, what would you do with Don Gonzalo?

Should Justa have escaped with Adalberto? Does Justa deserve to be happy? What would happiness look like for someone in Justa’s position?

What would you have done if you were Mudarra?

Why do the ghosts appear to Mudarra and Doña Sancha?

If you were Doña Sancha, would you have forgiven Ruy Blásquez? Do you agree with her decisions about about her brother’s and sister-in-law’s fates?

Why do you think Justa and Blanca Flor flee near the end of the novel? What would you have done in their position?

Do you think Blanca Flor will ever see Mudarra again? Would she want to, after what he did to her mother and father?

What do you think the use of multiple points of view contributed to the story? Could the story have been told from a single character’s point of view?

Setting

How did the environment affect the story? Do you think this story could happen anywhere other than medieval Spain?

How might the events of Part One be different if they had taken place in the twenty-first century? Part Two?

When Don Gonzalo rides to Córdoba, he imagines how the Christians can take over the land he’s in, which has been under Muslim control for close to three hundred years. Does he feel at home when he arrives at Medina Azahara? What makes for a good claim to land?

Which location was your favorite? Why?

In Barbadillo today, there’s a statue of Doña Lambra, and the crest of Salas de los Infantes shows Mudarra and Don Gonzalo holding a ring with the seven brothers around the border. Which town’s memorial seems most appropriate? If you were the mayor of one of these towns, what kind of memorial would you create for visitors?

The Ending

Did the main characters change by the end of the book? If so, how?

Was the revenge satisfying? Do you think Doña Sancha and Don Gonzalo got it right, or do you sympathize with Mudarra’s confusion?

Were you satisfied with the ending? What do you think the future holds for Mudarra, Doña Sancha, Justa, and Blanca Flor?

Did Seven Noble Knights leave any questions open-ended that you would like to know the answer to?

Had you read reviews before reading Seven Noble Knights? If so, did you agree with the reviewers?

If you could ask the author a question, what would it be?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

“I thoroughly enjoyed reading this historical novel! … One part of this wonderful story upset me so much that I had difficulty falling asleep that night.”—Nancy from Goodreads

“This appealing novel seems a bit of Romeo and Juliet overlaid with Spanish Christians and Moorish Muslims. It is a story of vengeance and young love set in a uniquely fascinating setting within medieval Europe. …there are several very well-done short combat scenes.The contrast between the technically advanced but decadent opulence of Córdoba and the relatively simple but proud character of Christian Spain is fascinating. I look forward to the sequel and will happily recommend this book.”—Thomas J. Howley, Historical Novel Review

“Let Seven Noble Knights welcome you to historical fiction! …it’s a rich saga populated with characters you will grow to love (and a few you will love to hate). The ancient empires of Spain are a beautiful backdrop to the struggles of humankind across all generations of all lands: romance, revenge, war, and adventure.”—Pushcart Prize nominee Reneé Bibby, The Writers Studio

“According to Seven Noble Knights, medieval family values were not to be trifled with. … Knauss’s writing gets us involved with her characters, despite their extremely bloody behaviour. …puts us into the time, place and social mores so that we see the action from the point of view of someone of that era. …at times cinematic, her descriptions are convincing.”—Author Seymour Hamilton

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