Although Catherine de Brione is being forced to wed the Norman lord Guy of Rivaux, she has vowed never to give him her heart. That belongs to the dashing Brian FitzHenry, who had held her in thrall since childhood. But she had no inkling of the fire her new bridegroom could rouse within her . . .
As the turmoil of intrigue and battle, danger and deception erupt around her in eleventh-century Normandy, Catherine finds that the daring and passionate man she was so eager to leave is now the man she can’t bear to lose.
Fire and Steel is a thrilling historical romance from an author whose “unexpected plot twists keep the reader turning pages” (Publishers Weekly).
“A superb storyteller.” —Heather Graham, New York Times–bestselling author of Come the Morning
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Late Summer, 1106
The great keep of the Condes loomed ahead of them, silent and forbidding, its new twelve-foot-thick walls rising nearly sixty feet above the rounded motte. It stood an aloof guardian to the cluster of wattle-and-daub houses that lay just beneath the wide river-fed ditch. The lead rider reined in, halting the thirty men who rode with him, and looked upward in admiration. Behind him, his squire and his captain muttered oaths as they too stared at the tall fortress.
"Jesu, but 'tis hot," Guy of Rivaux complained aloud as he removed his heavy steel helmet and wiped his sweat-drenched black hair back from his face with the sleeve of his blazoned surcoat. Squinting to stare again, he sighed. "Aye — we'd best hope that the Lady Eleanor lets us in, for 'twould take a year and more to starve the Condes into submission."
"My lord, your helm ..." William de Comminges, his captain, sat uneasily in his saddle and darted his eyes toward a nearby brake of trees.
"Nay." Guy shook his head and pointed downward to where deep mud-dried ruts bore testimony to the recent movement of the machines of war. "'Tis as Curthose said — the men have gone save for those that guard the walls, and we are out of range from there."
"My lord, I like it not," Alan of Poix muttered as he edged his horse closer to Guy's. "Not even Belesme could breach that outer shell."
Guy turned his attention to his squire. "Nay, but God willing, Alan, we'll not have to try. We bear Normandy's banner and Normandy's writ," he reminded grimly, "and she cannot know why we are come."
"My lord ..." De Comminges hesitated to repeat his argument against what they would do, but he felt compelled to remind his young lord once again of the risk they took. "If anything happens to the girl, Lord Roger will not rest until we are dead."
Lord Roger. There was so much respect and admiration in the old man's voice that Guy wished anew he'd not come — wished that somehow fate would have cast him on the other side in this senseless war between the Conqueror's surviving sons. Aye, for when it was done, good men stood to lose their lands if not their lives, while those who broke their feudal oaths would likely profit.
There was no question where Roger de Brione's heart lay in the bitter quarrel. Although he favored the younger brother, Henry, now King of England, he held lands from Robert Curthose too, and therefore chose not to fight for either of them. He'd quoted Holy Scripture about rendering unto Caesar, and he'd sent his Norman troops to Curthose and his English troops to Henry, but he himself had gone to wait out the war on the Welsh border, protecting his English lands from the marauding Welshmen. Henry, who counted Lord Roger as much a friend as any, had understood, but Curthose had not.
Guy himself had no such choice to make — everything he had he held of Robert Curthose, and he'd had to place his hands between the duke's to swear fealty for his patrimony. And now he would have to fight for the feckless Curthose or be forsworn. He accepted that as the price of being Count of Rivaux, but it went against his heart to do what he had been sent to do now.
"If 'twere me, my lord," de Comminges mused aloud, "I'd just say she refused to yield the girl. Let Curthose come himself and take the little demoiselle hostage. 'Tis he who fears her father, anyway." He leaned over to spit into the dirt. "Nay, but I'd not bring my lord of the Condes' wrath down on my head. Curthose is the fool in this." Casting a sidelong glance at Guy, he could see the young man would not waver. It was to be expected, he admitted to himself, for Guy of Rivaux did not take his oaths lightly. William, who had trained the boy in the skills of war, could take pride in everything about his pupil. Aye, but when he was scarcely seventeen, Guy'd won his spurs of knighthood. He'd had to take the field of battle to save his bitter, unloving father from the Count of Mortain's fury when that lord had been exiled from England. It had been an act of rare courage for a boy but lately trained in war, as William remembered fondly, reliving again how Guy had plunged into the thick of the melee to lift his fallen sire into his own saddle. Had it been William's choice, he'd have let the old man die, for he'd never seen a worse parent in his life. But Guy, armed only as a squire, had taken his father's sword and literally slashed their way back to safety, rallying Rivaux's troops and driving de Mortain from the field. Jesu, but the boy'd known no fear that day. And, as young as he was, he'd fought like a seasoned warrior ever since, holding at bay those who sought to encroach on Rivaux lands after the old count died.
Guy was silent, his mind troubled by the task before him. Finally his eyes met William's, and he shook his head. "If I would not have come, he'd have sent Belesme."
The dread name hung between them. Young Alan involuntarily raised his hand to cross himself, while William conceded the truth of Guy's words. No man, however hardened to violence and war, could want a child to fall into Robert of Belesme's hands. God's blood, but there were no simple answers in these quarrels between the Conqueror's sons. William spat again. "Aye, but I doubt Lord Roger will see it that way, my lord. And what are we to do with a small girl when there's an army to be raised?" It was a question that Guy had asked himself over and over without answer. He'd no wish to be nursemaid, not even to one of the greatest little heiresses in Normandy. At nineteen, he'd a far greater taste for fighting than for shepherding a child to Rouen. Aloud he answered simply, "We take her to Curthose, and then we call up my levies."
"But there's no time."
"We leave in the morning, press on to Lisieux by nightfall, and have her in Rouen in the duchess's care in three days."
"Three days?" Sweet Jesu, but we travel fast." Alan whistled softly, shaking his head. "Can the child keep the pace?"
"She'll have to." Guy squinted into the bright sky, noting that the sun had reached its zenith already. "We waste time we do not have." Clicking his reins, he nudged his horse forward. "Have the approach sounded."
As a boy in Rivaux's red livery pulled out of line to raise his horn to his lips, William reminded his master again, "You'd best wear your helm ere we get into archers' range."
"Raise Normandy's standard above mine!" Guy shouted down his line before turning to his captain. "Nay —'tis hot, and I would have Lady Eleanor know I come in peace."
"Some peace," William snorted. "We are come to take a child hostage so that her father will not fight against Curthose, when 'tis more like that 'twill guarantee he will."
But Guy had already spurred ahead, his mail glinting hotly in the bright summer sun, his bared head glistening wetly, as both banners unfurled above him and Normandy's leopard paced restlessly across the bright silk.
The girl lay prone on the narrow stone bench, her fingers plucking aimlessly at the hairy stalks of pennyroyal growing in the neatly defined bed, her thoughts lost in self-pity. She should have been born male, she reflected bitterly, for then she'd not be treated so. She would not have been left behind with naught but her mother, three sisters, and a few old men for company. She'd have gone with Brian then, gone to fight on his father's side in this quarrel that had ruined her life. At least then she could have been with him.
Abruptly she broke off a stem and flung it viciously to the ground. Sweet Mary, but it did no good to wish for what could not be. Brian was gone, mayhap never to return to the great keep where he'd been fostered, and she had only an unwanted betrothal in her future. Sitting up, she dug mutinously with the toe of her soft kid shoe, trying to uproot the broken pennyroyal stub from the dry dirt. She didn't want to wed Robert of Caen — could not believe her father had agreed to the match — not when it was Brian FitzHenry she'd wanted. And it did no good for others to tell her that the king's favorite son was the better choice, she thought sullenly, for should not one royal bastard be the same as the other? And why could they not see, King Henry and her father, that 'twas Brian that she loved? But nay, they would not listen to her wishes in the matter, not the father who'd married for love or the king who would settle her inheritance on Robert of Caen. For once, she'd wished she were not her father's heiress — that Aislinn had been born the eldest child. That gave her pause. Nay, but she would not want to lose her position as the Demoiselle of the Condes to become merely the Lady Catherine. And, much as she loved Linn, she still got a measure of satisfaction in being a year older.
"Still in mourning for Brian, Cat?"
Catherine de Brione looked up, her reddened eyes sullen, her chin jutting stubbornly. "'Tis no concern of yours if I am," she muttered.
Unperturbed, the younger girl plopped down beside her and leaned to pick up the discarded sprig. Sniffing it, she settled back comfortably and rested her head against the stone wall behind them. Cat eyed her suspiciously for a moment before deciding that Aislinn meant no malice.
"'Tis so hot, Cat," Linn complained. "I cannot think how Maman stands it when she is so far gone with child."
"She's used to it — we've all been born in the heat."
"You know, you should not vex her so with your temper, Cat — not when 'tis not her fault that Brian left."
"She could have stopped Papa from telling King Henry that I would wed this Robert that I know not." Plucking another sprig of pennyroyal, Cat broke the leaf and licked it, savoring the minty taste. "And 'tis not seemly that you should chide me, for I did not think you overjoyed to take Geoffrey of Mayenne either."
"Nay, but I have considered the matter," the twelve year-old girl admitted slowly, "and I know that Papa would not give me a bad husband. Besides, I know that 'twill be years before I have to leave the Condes." Turning light brown, almost golden, eyes to Catherine, she smiled encouragingly.
"Come, Cat —'tis not so terrible for you. Papa says that your Robert promises to be a great warrior."
"He is not my Robert!"
"But he will be one day."
"Did Maman send you to speak with me?" Cat demanded angrily. "For if she did, you waste your words, Linn."
"Nay, she did not, but she wearies of this. 'Tis most unfair of you to worry her when her time nears." Pausing to smooth the soft fabric of her gown over her knees, Aislinn looked away for a moment. "You know, Cat, you can be sharper-tongued than an alewife when you do not get what you want," she observed quietly. "There's none here that thinks Brian is for you."
"I love him — and he loves me!"
"Does he? Cat, he is but sixteen, and two women here have borne his bastards within the year. What if he is too like his father — would you take a husband who would fill your household with his by-blows?"
Catherine tossed her glossy dark mane of hair back and lifted it away from her damp neck. Arching her head backward to profile a face that everyone said rivaled her beautiful mother's, she answered confidently, "My lord will not stray from my bed unless I will it."
"Sweet Mary, but you have a good opinion of yourself, Cat. To hear you tell the tale, only plain ladies' husbands are faithless, but —"Aislinn stopped in midsentence, her face suddenly intent on listening to the sound of the horn. "Cat, there are riders!" Their small quarrel forgotten, Catherine climbed to stand on the bench. "Help me that I may see," she ordered imperiously as she boosted herself up on the low garden wall. "Jesu, but 'tis not tall enough." Jumping down, she ran for the gate, calling back over her shoulder, "If I reach the tower first, I wear your bells in my hair tonight!" For answer, the younger girl lifted her skirts from her ankles and ran in pursuit, her excitement over visitors crowding out any worry that their mother might be displeased. She was no match for Cat's longer legs, and the steps were too narrow to allow passing, so she had to content herself with elbowing for the better position in an unmanned arrow slit. Kneeling in the deep cut-out, both of them watched eagerly as the column came closer. The sun glinted off the helmets with blinding intensity, but they could make out the red-and-gold banner of Normandy flying above.
"'Tis the duke!" Aislinn breathed in alarm.
"Nay. He'd not come with so few." Cat squinted against the bright reflection, straining to identify the men. Her eyes took in the second pennant, also red, but with a huge black bird blazoned across it as though swooping for a kill. "I cannot tell yet who it is, Linn," she admitted finally as her eyes dropped to the rider in the lead. "But they do not mean to fight, for the one in front is unhelmed."
The horn sounded again, and apparently old Ralph, the keep's seneschal, was satisfied enough to order the bridge lowered. The ropes strained to raise the iron-and-wood portcullis that protected the entrance in the outer wall, and the iron chains creaked against their pulleys as the long wooden bridge slowly swung into place over the deep river-fed trench.
The column halted, poised for crossing, as the girls watched curiously. The lead rider pushed back wet hair with his arm, affording a look at his face. Beside her, Cat heard Aislinn gasp in admiration.
"If 'tis Mayenne, I'll go now. Did you ever see the like of him?"
"Nay," Catherine admitted. "And 'tis not Mayenne, I'll warrant, for unless my eyes fail me, I think that may be the hawk of Rivaux that flies above his head." Turning back to her sister, she reminded, "And I get to wear your bells at supper."CHAPTER 2
Catherine crossed the open courtyard eagerly, her face flushed from the heat as she outran her mother's page. Taking the narrow, winding tower steps to her mother's solar two at a time, she paused at the first small landing to smooth her blue samite overgown down against the shimmering red undertunic. She hoped fervently that her mother would not remark that she'd chosen to wear her best gown. But then, it had been a fortnight since her father had left and there'd been no reason to wear it since. Giving her thick hair a lift off her neck, she let it fall forward over her shoulders so that it hung like a heavy curtain over her breasts. Brian had always admired it worn thus, and mayhap the stranger would note it also.
Carefully cuffing back the wide-banded sleeves to reveal the fitted red silk underneath, she wondered why she'd been summoned. How Aislinn had envied her, Cat reflected with satisfaction, when 'twas discovered that the visitor was indeed Guy of Rivaux. And though she'd never seen him before, it was exhilarating to think that she would greet one whose exploits were already sung in halls from Rivaux to Maine. Nay, but there were some things that made being the eldest worthwhile, for the page had said, "He would speak with the Demoiselle only," when Aislinn had demanded to come. Her only regret was that she'd not had time for Hawise to weave her sister's bells into tiny braids over the back of her hair. Biting her lips to redden them, she finished the climb to the solar.
She found her mother in earnest conversation with the guest, but both fell suddenly silent at the sight of her. And, judging by Eleanor of Nantes's stricken expression, Catherine knew something was very wrong. For a fleeting moment her heart sank like a rock within her breast.
"Catherine, come make your obeisance to my lord of Rivaux." Nodding to the young man standing beside her, Eleanor added proudly, "My lord, this is my eldest daughter, Catherine of the Condes."
Guy stared, bereft of speech, at the girl who dropped to her knees before him. Somehow, he'd expected the Demoiselle to be a small child, but Catherine of the Condes was already taller than her famed mother — and she was equally as lovely. Looking down, he found it an effort not to reach out to touch the shining crown of rich, deep brown hair and assure himself she was real. And when she lifted her eyes to meet his, he had to suck in his breath. Jesu, but in all of his nineteen years he'd never seen any to compare with the girl before him. Her face was perfectly oval, her features delicately chiseled, firm and straight, her cheeks lightly blushed, her teeth white and even, and her chin well-defined. But it was the eyes that drew him, eyes so dark that pupil and iris were nearly one in appearance, eyes that were fringed with thick black lashes that curved luxuriously against pale, almost translucent skin.
"Demoiselle," he managed finally.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fire and Steel"
Copyright © 1988 Anita Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
*A wonderful continuation of the series...book 3