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An awkward misfit loathed by his autocratic grandmother, nine-year-old Fulke FitzWarin leaves his family to be fostered in the household of Jocelin de Dinan, lord of Ludlow. Fulke is to train in knightly arts but to succeed he must overcome the deep-seated doubts holding him back. Hawise, Jocelin's youngest daughter, befriends the young Fulke. As they grow up, an implacable enemy threatens Ludlow and as the pressure mounts, their friendship changes until one fateful day they find themselves staring at each other across a divide. As the menace to Ludlow intensifies, Fulke must confront the future head on...
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"A star back in Britain, Elizabeth Chadwick is finally getting the attention she deserves here,"-USA Today. Chadwick is the bestselling author of over 20 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, Lords of the White Castle, Shadows and Strongholds, The Winter Mantle, and The Falcons of Montabard, four of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Awards.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
St. Peter's Fair, Shrewsbury, August 1148
On the day that Brunin FitzWarin encountered the men who were to change and shape his life, he was ten years old and wandering the booths of St. Peter's Fair unchaperoned.
Mark, his father's serjeant, who should have been keeping an eye on him, had allowed his attention to be diverted by a brimming pitcher and an alewife's buxom daughter at one of the refreshment stalls. Growing bored with the adult dalliance, Brunin had meandered off to explore the booths on his own. He was a lanky child with an olive complexion and eyes of so deep a brown that they were almost black, hence his nickname, his true appellation being Fulke, the same as his father. His five brothers were fair like their parents. Brunin, it was said by the charitable, was a throwback to his grandsire, a Lorraine mercenary of doubtful origins. Those less generous muttered that he was a changeling child, a cuckoo laid in the nest by the faery folk of the Welsh hills.
He passed a cookstall where soft oatcakes were being smartly turned on a griddle and sold to passersby. A woman had bought several and was dividing them among her swarming offspring. She reprimanded one child with exasperation, but a moment later ruffled his hair. Catching Brunin's wistful gaze, she smiled, tore a side from a remaining oatcake, and offered it to him as if coaxing a wild thing. Brunin shook his head and moved quickly away. It was not the oatcake that had caused his yearning look.
"Jugs and pitchers!" a trader shouted in his ear. "Pottles and pots! Finest wares of Stamford and Nottingham!" The man waved aloft a green-glazed jug with the design of a grinning face carved in the spout. A pugnacious housewife was haggling vigorously with his assistant over the price of a cooking jar.
For three days every summer, traders came to Shrewsbury and arrayed their wares in the shadow of the great Benedictine abbey of Saints Peter and Paul. Even the unrest of the civil war between the supporters of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda could not dampen people's enthusiasm for bargains and rarities. Brunin's father said that, if anything, the unrest made the fair even more popular because men could meet allies and discuss common ground while seen to be engaged in legitimate pursuits.
That's where his father was now, talking to old friends, and that was why Brunin had been put in Mark's charge. They were supposed to meet FitzWarin at the horse market when the abbey bell rang the hour of sext. Brunin was to have a new pony since he was rapidly outgrowing the small Welsh bay that had served him since he was six years old. Spider legs his grandmother had called him last week, as if his sudden growth spurt was a sin.
The language of trade assaulted his ears from all quarters. The Latin and French of wealthier stall-holders were familiar to him. Here and there, a Welsh voice soared above a babbling undercurrent of English. Brunin spoke a smattering of the two latter tongues-but never in his grandmother's hearing unless he deliberately wanted to annoy her.
The cloth stalls were heaving with women who eyed and fingered, discussed, longed for, and occasionally bought. Brunin's mother had a silk dress of the same shimmering red-gold as one of the bolts draped over a booth counter. He had seen it in her clothing coffer, but she rarely wore it. She had told him once with blank eyes that it was her wedding gown.
Brunin paused at a trader's cart to fondle a litter of brindle hound pups. The trader also had a pair of tiny dogs with long, silky fur and colorful ribbons tied around their necks. The sound of their yapping hurt Brunin's ears. He tried to imagine his father entertaining such lap rats in his household and grinned at the image. FitzWarin was strictly a hound man, the larger the better.
Ambling toward the horse market, Brunin wondered if he could steer his father's eye in the direction of a pied or jet-black pony this time-something that would stand out from common chestnut and brown. Of course, unusual colors cost more and if the price was not reasonable, his father would refuse to buy.
To reach the horse fair, Brunin had to cut down the thoroughfare where the weapon smiths had set out their stalls. The sight of the shining sword blades, the axes, daggers, hauberks, helms, and sundry accoutrements of the warrior's craft seized both his sight and his imagination. Here was a knife in a tooled leather sheath just like the one Mark wore at his hip, here a sword with a grip of red braid and an inscription scrolled in Latin down the blade. Brunin's mouth watered. Sometimes he would draw his father's sword from its scabbard and pretend that he was the great warrior Roland, defending the pass at Roncesvalles against the Infidel. His grandmother had caught him once and thrashed him for leaving sticky fingerprints on the polished iron. He had been more circumspect since-and, mindful of her words, he always cleaned the sword on his tunic before putting it away.
A nobleman and his entourage arrived at the booth where Brunin was eyeing up the weaponry and began inspecting the swords. Brunin watched the lord heft the blade that the craftsman handed to him.
"Good balance," the lord nodded. "Grip's a little short. I don't want to lose my finger ends in battle." He swiped the sword through the air, testing the feel, following through with a deft backswing before handing the weapon around for an opinion.
"That can be changed if you like the blade, my lord," said the trader. "Or there's this one." He presented another sword, this one scabbarded in tactile, rose-colored leather.
Captivated, Brunin moved closer and was immediately pushed aside by a fair-haired squire attending the noble. "Out of the way, brat," he sneered. "Get back to your nursemaid."
Brunin flushed. The youth was wearing a tunic of blood-red wool and had a knife at his belt not much smaller than Mark's. One hand hovered close to the hilt as if he were thinking of drawing it. Eyeing the implied threat, Brunin began to feel queasy.
"He's lost his tongue," grinned a younger, stocky youth in blue. "Unless he's Welsh and doesn't understand us. He looks Welsh, doesn't he?"
Brunin lifted his chin. Every muscle was stiff with the effort of holding his ground. "I'm not W-Welsh," he said.
The lord ceased examining his second sword and glanced around. "Ernalt, Gerald, leave the boy alone. Let him look if he desires." His tone was tolerant. "What's your name, boy?"
Brunin delved for his manners. "Fulke, sir," he said, using his formal birth name. "Fulke F-FitzWarin..."
The humor faded from the man's eyes. "Of Whittington?"
"And what might you be doing strolling the booths on your own?"
"Waiting for my father," Brunin answered.
The noble raised his head and gazed around as if expecting to see Brunin's father among the crowd. "Then perhaps you would do better not to wait in my vicinity," he said. His voice had lost its warmth. "If your sire is as careless with his lands as he is with his son, he may well end up losing both." Turning his back on Brunin with a deliberate air of dismissal, he handed the sword to the craftsman and set about discussing terms.
Brunin was bewildered. He did not understand the sudden change, but knew enough to realize that his presence was unwelcome and that it must have something to do with his father. He started to walk away and received a hefty shove in the middle of his back. Stumbling, surprised, he turned to find himself facing the blond squire and his companion.
"Know what happens to a cub when it wanders too far from the den?" the blond one asked in a voice straining in the space between boy and man. He drew his knife.
Brunin swallowed and his queasiness increased.
"You think he's afraid?" The stocky boy gave Brunin another shove, a predatory glint in his eyes.
"Of course he is."
"I'm n-not!" Brunin contradicted. Something strange was happening to his bladder, as if the blond squire's blade was sawing through his ability to control it.
The youth thumbed the tip of the weapon and then ran his finger lightly across the edge. "You should be, whelp," he said. "Perhaps I'll cut off your little tail and send you home to your pack with a stump, eh?" He sliced the steel descriptively under Brunin's nose.
Brunin flinched. He knew it wasn't manly but couldn't help himself. He wished he were back at the guest house with his mother and brothers and even his grandmother. He wished he were still with Mark and bored stiff.
The squire in blue grabbed Brunin's arm. "Shall I hold him down?"
"If you like."
Terror shot through Brunin like a molten wire. Drawing back his foot he kicked his captor in the shin and, twisting, bit the hand that was gripping his elbow. The youth yelled and let go. Brunin took to his heels. Winding among the booths, he was as swift and pliable as an eel between rocks, but his pursuers were fast too and there were two of them. Brunin darted toward the stall where he had left Mark supping ale and cozening the girl but, to his horror, the young serjeant was no longer there.
The girl scowled over the counter at the wild-eyed, panting boy. "He's gone looking for you." Her tone indicated that she was furious at having her flirtation curtailed. "You're in trouble, you are."
He didn't need to be told. "Please..." he croaked, but it was too late. The squires grabbed him one either side and held him fast. When the girl looked askance, the fair-haired one winked at her. "Young rascal," he said. Reassured, she turned away, abandoning Brunin to his fate.
He fought the youths with every shred of strength in his narrow body, but he was no match for their adolescent brawn. Their fingers bruised his flesh as they dragged him across the fairground. A hard hand cupped his mouth to stifle his yells, and when he tried again to bite, he felt the cold burn of the knife at his throat. A sudden, shameful heat flooded his braies and stained his hose.
"God's bones, the weakling's pissed himself!" the stocky youth jeered.
His blond companion snorted. "What do you expect of blood like his? The wonder is it's red, not yellow." He showed Brunin his smeared fingers then dragged them down the boy's cheek.
"If you cut out his liver, I'll warrant you half a mark that it would be the color of buttercups."
"Half a mark? Done."
"Boys!" The voice was peremptory and stern. Through a stinging blur of tears, Brunin saw the dark figure of a Benedictine monk blocking their path, arms folded high on his chest, and expression stern. "What are you doing?"
"None of your business," sneered the older youth.
The monk raised one thin silver eyebrow. "I can make it so very quickly indeed," he said coldly. "Let him go and be on your way."
The stand-off was short. Bravado the squires possessed in bucketloads, but they were lads, not grown men. Faced by the charisma and authority of the Church, they grudgingly capitulated and, pushing Brunin to his knees, swaggered off. At a distance, the blond one turned.
"Your liver's mine, piss-hose!" he shouted. "And I'll come back for it!"
Brunin stared at the dusty grass inches from his eyes. A dark drop of blood plopped from the knife wound and ran down the stems to soak into the soil. He could hear his breath sawing in his chest and breaking over his larynx in hoarse sobs. He wondered if he was dying and wished that he were already dead.
"How now, child." The monk stooped and raised Brunin to his feet. "What had you done to them to make them set on you?"
"Nothing," Brunin gulped in a quavering voice and sleeved his eyes. He felt sick and his legs wobbled like a foal's.
The monk gently tilted Brunin's head to one side so that he could see the cut on his throat. "No more than a nick," he said, "but it could have been nasty indeed." He clucked his tongue and spoke more to himself than Brunin. "Every year, with the revenues, this fair brings us these squalid troubles, the more so since men quarrel over who rules the kingdom." He drew Brunin gently toward the abbey precincts. "Come, child, let us find some salve for that scratch and a place for you to sit a moment." His gaze was shrewd. "If you are not a foundling, which I judge not by the cut of your tunic, someone will be looking for you."
Fulke FitzWarin, lord of the castles of Whittington and Alberbury and more than fifteen estates in the counties of Shropshire, Staffordshire, Devonshire, and Cambridgeshire, took a drink of wine, rolled it experimentally around his mouth, and swallowed. He handed the cup to his companion. "What do you think?"
Joscelin de Dinan sniffed the brew and, under the anxious eyes of the hovering vintner, set the rim to his lips. "Not bad," he said, wiping his mouth. The creases at his eye corners deepened as he smiled. "Certainly I wouldn't be insulted if you served it to me."
FitzWarin grunted with amusement. "Useful to know I don't have to broach my best wine to satisfy you then." He raised his forefinger to the vintner. "I'll take thirty barrels. You can haggle the price with my steward." He set the cup under the spigot of the sample barrel and refilled it. Around them the crowds ebbed and flowed in rapid tidal surges. The vintners' booths were always busy and it was best to visit them early while there was plenty of choice.
It was good to be out in the sun-soaked morning with no more pressing business than the pleasure of talking to old friends, restocking the wine supplies, and the later prospect of exploring the horse market and weapon booths.
"Your steward?" Joscelin raised his brows. "Not your mother?"
FitzWarin laughed and pushed his heavy hazel-brown hair off his forehead. "Doubtless she'll have her say but for the moment her mind is fixed on buying cloth and thread for sewing. Sometimes there are just more pies than she has fingers." His mother's reputation was legendary among the baronial community of the Welsh Marches. It was said by many, sometimes to his face, that the lady Mellette was a match for any dragon that happened out of Wales. She was five years past three score but had more stamina than FitzWarin's wife who was less than half her age.
The men enjoyed a few more samples. Joscelin wanted some Rhenish and FitzWarin bought a firkin of sweet, potent mead.
"There is something I have been meaning to ask you," FitzWarin said as they sauntered companionably away from the wine booths. His feet were steady, his balance good, but he could feel his tongue wanting to run away with him. Joscelin's cheekbones bore a red flush that made his smoke-gray eyes gleam like polished flints.
"As long as it is not about my daughters," Joscelin said, only half in jest. With two stepdaughters, two girls of his own blood, and no son, Joscelin de Dinan was constantly being petitioned by men who desired a future stake in the strategic castle and prosperous town of Ludlow.
"No." FitzWarin shook his head. "It is about my son...my eldest," he qualified, for he had six. "It is past time that he began his training. The lad's ten years old now. I was wondering if you....
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