After years of turmoil, Roderick Cherbon has left the Crusades to return to the home he loves. But the wars have changed him, and the heir who thought to heal his father's injustices has become a vicious beast of a man, scarred inside and out. He will speak to no one, see no one; he leaves the shadows of his ruined keep only under the darkness of night. And even in death his father mocks him: to retain his land and title, Roderick, the Beast, must marry. Lady Michaela Fortune is reviled for her poverty, ridiculed for her dreams, and preyed on for her soft heart. Humiliation and want dog her beloved family, and her pride is an indulgence she can ill afford. Cherbon and its shattered lord offer a solution. But to court a man who has fallen so low, Michaela will need all her grace and beauty to harbor any hopes of taming the beast. . . Praise for The Warrior. . . "A spirited tale rich in intrigue, betrayal, ancient magic, and a love destined to overcome all odds." --Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author "Grothaus definitely has talent and a true feel for the era." -- Romantic Times
Release date: October 24, 2009
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 353
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Taming The Beast
The damned incense hung eternal, like death, cleaved only by the baneful dirge of screams and curses. Each clang and ring of metal—tool on tool, tools falling into bowls and against remnants of armor and ruined weaponry—was piercing. Sonorous Latin droned from the colorless lips of the robed men who mindlessly haloed the long, plastered room as if puppeted by the enormous crucifix hung at the far end. Bodies thrashed on pallets, fighting to free themselves from the hands of the surgeons who sweated and strained and worked like the dogs their patients swore them to be.
Surely this could be no faithful hospital.
For Roderick, it was Hell’s antechamber.
Sobs roiled within the fiery incense as well, as if attempting to dampen the cloying stench of rot and disease merely by the weighty emotion of upward of 150 men. Men like himself, laid like so much half-butchered meat in a smokehouse. The choking smoke was death, in Roderick’s swollen and bruised mind. He could feel its close, burning char against his already-fevered skin, licking away at his sanity, slurping up his very life.
He waited his turn with the surgeon, who would come soon, Hugh promised. Very soon.
Roderick would have added his own screams to the miserable din—he certainly had pain enough to warrant them—but after three weeks of worsening agony, he had no strength left to utter the feeblest whimper. From the ill-fated battle at Heraclea, Hugh had brought him, returning them both to that grand city of Constantinople—and ultimately its hospital—against Roderick’s protests.
“In Constantinople you will be cured,” Hugh had promised repeatedly. “You must only persevere until Constantinople. You must, Rick, you must!”
And Roderick had, although how, he knew not. He wanted to die. To escape the pain of his injuries. To avoid returning to his father in England a failure.
Yes, that was the worst of all, the thought that made Roderick’s functioning eye well with thin tears—Magnus Cherbon, awaiting his son’s return with hopes of the same treasure and holy favor that Magnus himself had received on his own pilgrimage. Roderick could hear his father’s condemnation already: Worthless failure! Weak, weak, weak! From your mother’s damned womb you were like her. Weak! No son of mine. A disgrace. Roderick had heard the words so many times, they were verse in his memory.
A tear at last escaped Roderick’s left eye and rolled dumbly down his cheek to leap from his face onto the rough blanket beneath his head. The tear left behind a wet path as cold as the hatred it represented.
“He comes, Rick! Look!” Hugh grasped Roderick’s left shoulder and squeezed, his voice sounding as if he was putting on an air of excitement for a very young child. Roderick’s left shoulder and arm were the only places where his friend could touch him without causing further agony, having been saved by the stout English shield strapped to Roderick’s forearm.
Roderick let his head fall to the left, thankful that the surgeon did not approach from the other side of the room, lest Roderick’s injured face—bloated and stitched up like saddle leather by a young Saracen boy—prevent him from anticipating the man’s approach. Roderick felt the crude courses of thick gut pull in his swollen flesh all the same—from the bridge of his nose, over his cheekbone, across and beyond his right temple. His view of the long hospital chamber was reduced to a horizontal sliver through his left eye, and he could see nothing at all through his right. Perhaps it was no longer even in its socket; Roderick could not bring himself to ask Hugh. His nose was broken badly, his cheekbone likely fractured as well. Since he’d been dragged from his mount during that bloody slaughter, the only sound in his right ear had been a dull roar, like an ocean tempest beyond the cliffs of his old home, Cherbon.
His head injuries were serious, Roderick knew. But his arm was so much worse—his right arm, his sword arm. And his left leg…
The surgeon neared Roderick’s pallet, his long leather apron and tunic beneath stained a terrible and ghastly black. Two pale, thin lads bobbed along in the surgeon’s wake, carrying his instruments in flat, shallow baskets. The man’s white hair was long and thick to his shoulders, some strands escaping the tight knot of leather at his nape, and the ends looked as if they’d been dipped in blood. His eyes were deep set and wintry, his mouth hard and nearly invisible. He walked quickly, the hands swinging at his side looking as though they had been stolen from a Saracen—stained a deep, deep brown, his fingernails in black relief.
A squealing fear raced up Roderick’s spine at the surgeon’s approach, and he prayed with everything left of his soul that he would die before the learned old man reached him. He’d never imagined fear like this, and it caused Roderick to scream and thrash and beg for reprieve inside his broken shell of a body.
But outside, that shell did not so much as twitch.
“What is it?” the surgeon asked of Hugh, reaching out his nightmarish hands and speaking even before coming at once over the pallet. Hard fingers probed either side of Roderick’s forehead, roughly turning the splintered skull in a starburst of fresh agony. “Head wound, yes?” Hands with the strength of Goliath pressed his shattered right arm. “And arm, I see. Both stitched as well as can be. Fever, yes?”
Hugh seemed to at last regain his voice at the brusque questions and statements, given with little apparent sympathy. “Yes, yes, maestro. Fever, yes. The stitches seem to be holding well, but his fever has steadily worsened since Heraclea. I think perhaps it is his leg—”
Before Hugh could finish, the old man swept down upon Roderick’s left leg and jerked up the stained covering. Roderick fancied he could smell his own wound on the breeze the surgeon created, although his nose had been too swollen to take air in more than a fortnight.
Hugh stepped toward Roderick’s feet and continued. “Perhaps the lance which pierced him was tainted with p—”
“Poison, yes,” the surgeon interrupted. “And through the thickness of his calf, no less. I’ve seen it often enough. Nasty trick.” The surgeon dropped the blanket back over Roderick’s leg and flicked his fingertips to the lads hovering behind him, indicating the boys should move on. They trudged past Roderick’s pallet without a glance.
The old man looked at Hugh. “He’ll die.” Then the surgeon stepped directly into Roderick’s line of sight, putting angular cheekbones before his face. “Awake, yes? Good. You’re going to die, my man,” he nearly shouted, as if he knew Roderick’s hearing was not in its finest capacity. “Do you understand?”
Roderick wanted to nod and thought his chin may have twitched downward. He was so thankful that the man would not be touching him with those black fingers. He let his eye close.
“No!” Hugh shouted. Roderick didn’t want to open his eye again, but the sounds of a scuffle prompted a distant concern for his friend. Hugh appeared again in the narrow slit of Roderick’s vision, having seized the surgeon by one arm. “No, he can not die. There must be something you can do.”
The old man pulled his arm free with a cold look of warning. “The poison’s been in him too long. Had I been at his side when he fell, perhaps. But now, any potion would be wasted on him—like pouring it upon the ground, and we have not enough as it is. He’ll be cold by the morrow’s light. I am sorry. Good day.”
“No!” Hugh shouted again, and this time nearly pulled the surgeon off his feet. “You must try to understand—he saved my life. Anything you can do—”
“Good sir, you see the men lying about this chamber, yes?” the surgeon demanded. “Think you their lives are worth less than this man’s?”
“Yes,” Hugh answered immediately. “Yes, I do.”
“Well, I do not,” the surgeon shouted, and Roderick silently agreed with him. The surgeon turned to go, but Hugh grabbed at the man’s hand once more, this time falling to his knees behind him.
“Please, maestro, please! I beg of you.” At the reedy catch in Hugh Gilbert’s voice and the sight of him pressing his lips to the surgeon’s bloodstained hand, Roderick let his eye close once more. He could not bear to see the man plead for a cause so hopeless and unworthy.
“Do you not think I would save him if I could?” Roderick heard the surgeon say in a quieter, slightly gentler voice.
“Please,” was Hugh’s only reply.
Roderick heard a curt sigh, and then, “Boy!” After the pattering of quick footsteps and a rustle-clink: “This will ease his pain. It’s all I can spare, I’m afraid. Small dose at first, yes? Only from the fingertip, lest you wish to show him mercy and kill him outright. He may stay until he’s dead, and then he must be moved. I need the pallet.”
The surgeon’s steps fled impatiently from Hugh’s “God bless you, maestro. Thank you, thank you!”
In the next moment, Hugh’s breath huffed a cool, hammering breeze on Roderick’s fevered and throbbing face, and Roderick heard the pip of a small cork. “Here we are, Rick—what I had hoped for. Open up now.” He felt Hugh’s rough finger push inside his lips to scrub at his gums. A tingling warmth filled his mouth and then Hugh’s finger returned. And again.
Was his friend trying to kill him? Roderick opened his eye as best he could while his head started a slow, buzzing spin.
Hugh’s face swam before him, milky and pebbled with sweat, as he tried to fit the stopper back in the small, colored glass bottle with fumbling fingers. “Come on, come on, for fuck’s sake!” The cork at last slid home and Hugh slipped the vial away inside his tunic.
“Hugh?” Roderick tried to whisper, but he heard only a gurgling “oo” blurt from his lips. It was enough to get his friend’s attention.
“It’s a lot, I know,” Hugh rushed as he reached over Roderick, gathering together into a rough sack their few belongings scattered on either side of Roderick’s pallet. “But you need it—we’re getting out of here, Rick. I’m taking you to—”
“Oh,” Roderick choked.
“Yes.” Hugh stood and disappeared from Roderick’s line of sight, but his words were still painfully clear as Roderick felt the rough blanket he rested on lift his head and shoulders. “Try to sleep,” Hugh said with a whoosh of effort. “It will—”
But the rest of his friend’s statement was lost to Roderick as Hugh jerked on the blanket and began pulling it like a makeshift gurney. Roderick’s body started, and the white pain that exploded from the rough movement, combined with the sizzling, dazzling substance Hugh had slipped into Roderick’s mouth ensured that he did, indeed, sleep.
Roderick didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious, or how far Hugh had dragged him, but he didn’t think it had been very long or very far, for the acrid taste of the hospital’s incense was still thick and gritty in his mouth. He heard the voices before he could try to open his remaining functioning eye, which refused to cooperate at that moment, any matter. As it was, whatever drug Hugh had given to Roderick was affecting his already-disadvantaged hearing, distorting the voices and, in spots, blanking them out altogether.
He felt no pain—indeed, he was largely numb, save for the uncontrollable trembling which had seized him. Perhaps he was cold. Or fevered. Roderick could not tell.
A quieter voice beyond the black curtain of Roderick’s awareness now deteriorated into a sob, and then Roderick heard Hugh.
“I wanted to come to you first, but I didn’t know—”
“No, no,” a woman said. “I understand. I am glad you’ve brought him, although I doubt I can help him.”
The voice, low and sweet and lilted, filtered through Roderick’s brain in a familiar pattern. He knew this speaker. Who? Who…? Aster? Ophelia? No…
“You gave him too much, Hugh.” The woman spoke again, closer to Roderick this time. He could feel her warmth near his left side. “He may not wake.” A brief image of dark, sloe-eyed beauty draped in purple silk flashed through Roderick’s memory, but was gone before he could grab it properly.
Ardis? No, that wasn’t it either….
“Oh, God!” Hugh cried, and Roderick could hear the very depths of his friend’s misery. He felt a distant sympathy for the man, obviously in a pain which Roderick could blessedly no longer feel. “I knew not what else to do! He was in such agony—I thought moving him with any less would kill him.” A shuffling of feet and then Hugh’s voice sounded closer, hushed though, as if speaking a quiet blasphemy. “I think he wants to die.”
“Then he likely will,” the woman said. “Without the will to live, there would be little I could do were his injuries even half.”
Those sloe eyes again, and music. Dancing…
“You are his last hope, Aurelia,” Hugh said, his words nearly a gasp. “Our last hope.”
And then the half picture of the woman’s identity blossomed in Roderick’s mind—Hugh had brought him to Aurelia, to the owner of the most exclusive brothel in Constantinople. Lovely, lovely Aurelia, whom he had not seen since he and his company had arrived in the city so many months ago….
“I will do what I can, of course,” Aurelia said. “But first we must see if he can be awakened. I have word from his family in England, left for him by a messenger only last week. Perhaps the news might rouse him.”
A fuzzy rage tried to fight to the surface of Roderick’s fevered brain. His only family in England was his father, and a distant cousin. Roderick wanted to hear no message from his hateful sire, and he certainly didn’t want to return to Cherbon. But the anger stole too much energy from him, and so he let it go when he felt Aurelia’s soft, small hand on his left arm.
“Roderick,” she called softly into his ear, and the song of her voice was like a deep pool of warm water. “Roderick, can you hear me?”
He could hear her, but could command no movement from his body to indicate such. He could also hear the misplaced sound of a babe crying somewhere else in the room.
The hand on his arm squeezed. “Roderick, open your eyes and look at me, my lord.”
Leave me be, Roderick said in his head, willing the woman—and Hugh—to let him slip away while the pain was still absent. The crying sound intensified.
He heard Aurelia sigh. “I must tend to Leo soon.” Her words grew louder in his head, but she had not raised her voice, perhaps only drawing closer to him—yes, he could feel her breath now on his neck.
“Roderick, hear me, my lord: A messenger brings word from England. Your father is dead.”
Your father is dead.
Your father is dead.
The last word—the most important word—seemed to echo in the vast cavern of Roderick’s mind. And for a span of time—a second, an hour—Roderick let it swoop and circle there, as if testing its sincerity.
Magnus Cherbon was dead?
The pain was trickling back into his body now, in stomps and crashes and screams. Roderick could feel his muscles cramping and seizing. He struggled for clarity, for just one moment of lucidness before the torrent of white-hot misery dragged him under and drowned him. His eyelid seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
Aurelia’s dark hair and doelike brown eyes flickered into focus before him. She looked older, thinner, more tired from when he’d seen her last. Then, she had worn rouge and kohl, and tiny golden bells in her hair. Now, she was dim, wrapped in a shawl, her eyes shadowed naturally, and sunken.
“Roderick?” she asked, hope and surprise in her whisper. Over her shoulder Hugh Gilbert’s face also appeared, and elsewhere in the room the infant wailed insistently.
“’Ome,” Roderick heard himself rasp. “’El me, ’Eel-ya. Go…’ome.”
Roderick suddenly wanted to live.
May 1103Tornfield Manor, England
It was a lovely feast, save for the pointing and whispering. And the way she was repeatedly jostled out of line when she tried to join in a dance. Or that wretched woman who had stuck out a slippered foot and caused her to fall into a serving maid, spilling half the puddings and breaking most of Lord Tornfield’s beautiful little painted bowls.
As if she needed assistance making a fool of herself.
So now, Michaela Fortune hid herself away near the musicians, where she could be close to the music that would drown out the hateful things being said about her. And, seated on the stool, she could hide the glommy white stains of pudding spilled down the skirt of her only good gown. Here, she could become lost in the melody and hum along if she wished, and she could convince herself it was truly a lovely feast, when what she wanted to do was find that miserable woman with the spastic foot and snatch at her hair.
Turn the other cheek, Michaela reminded herself, as if her mother had whispered in her ear. The meek shall inherit all the earth.
As if to drive home her mother’s tireless lessons on gentleness of spirit, Michaela caught a glimpse of her parents across the hall. Lord Walter and Agatha Fortune stood against the opposite perimeter of the chamber, closely linked together as usual. Michaela’s father’s kindly face was turned to look down upon his wife, as if only waiting for her to express any wish he might fulfill. It was satisfying to see them enjoying themselves—they so rarely left their small holding.
Like Michaela, Agatha Fortune was often the brunt of whispered gossip, although the mother was spared the indignity of the self-conscious clumsiness that plagued her daughter. The older Lady Fortune was dismissed as ineffective and a bit loose in the brains, while the younger was treated with scorn and avoidance.
Sister of Satan.
Or, the very worst of all, Mistress Fortune.
Miss Fortune. A clever play on words, Michaela had to admit, and of all the hated nicknames she had been cursed with, likely the most accurate. Misfortune, oh my, yes.
Her fingers pressed the warped link of metal on the fine chain resting under the bodice of her dress out of habit. For such a tiny object, its burden around her neck was as immense as any oaken yoke.
“Song!” a man’s voice rang out, interrupting Michaela’s self-pity. Alan Tornfield, the Fortune family’s overlord and host of the feast, raised his chalice toward the trio of musicians near Michaela’s hiding place. He was a handsome, mustachioed blond man of one score, ten and five, his wife’s death last year leaving him and their young daughter alone in the modest manor. Michaela had never met the now-motherless Elizabeth—indeed, she’d never so much as spoken directly to Lord Tornfield. This feast was only the second time Michaela had visited the overlord’s home in the whole of her score of years, although she couldn’t recall the first instance, as she had been but a young child herself.
“I must have a song immediately! Who is sporting enough to lend their voice to yon strings?”
The crowd “hear-hear”-ed with enthusiastic agreement, and Michaela cringed as she spotted her own mother leaning this way and that, trying to pick out Michaela in the crowded hall. Michaela closed her eyes, as if it might make her invisible.
She was saved when Lord Tornfield announced his chosen candidate, and Michaela opened her eyes with a relieved sigh.
“Lady Juliette of Osprey, won’t you indulge us?” he fairly shouted, and in a moment a tall, striking brunette dressed in rich green stepped from the crowd, a humble smile on her lovely face.
It was the woman who’d tripped her. Michaela slid her stool more fully behind the curtained backdrop.
“Do you know ‘My Love Calls the Sea’?” Lady Juliette sweetly queried the trio, and the man out in front of the group bowed. In a moment, the song started.
When the woman’s voice came forth, sharp and warbling, Michaela cringed again. By the time the refrain and second verse were through, she checked to see if her nose might be bleeding. She saw several of the guests wince as notes were overshot toward heaven, Lady Juliette nearly screaming to reach such heights. Michaela opened her mouth and forced her ears to pop.
“Oh, make it stop,” she said loudly. No one could hear her any matter over that terrible shrieking. At any moment, she expected Lord Tornfield’s hounds to add their voices to the noise. It would have improved the tone immensely.
At last the torture was over, and Michaela could almost hear the relieved sigh of the guests before they broke out in ridiculously exaggerated applause for the obscenely wealthy Lady of Osprey.
“My God, they must be deaf,” Michaela muttered. Then she gasped as she felt a tug on the back of her hair. Michaela spun around on her stool.
Shadowed by the curtain Michaela also hid behind stood a beautiful girl, perhaps ten years old, with long, shiny blond hair pulled away from her forehead and cascading down her back. Big, wise brown eyes gave her the look of a gentle woodland doe, and her impish smile brightened her otherwise pale face. She was nodding enthusiastically.
“Oh, hello,” Michaela said.
The girl’s smile grew a bit wider. She pointed at the curtain, indicating the guests gathered beyond, then tugged at her ear.
Michaela couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, if they weren’t deaf before, I daresay they are now.”
The girl covered her mouth with both of her hands, and her eyes crinkled merrily.
“I am Michaela Fortune.” She held out her hand and the young girl immediately took it, sinking into a curtsey. “Who are you, pretty one?”
The girl smiled at the compliment then pointed at the crowd again. She drew her pointer fingers away from each other on her upper lip, then placed a hand on her flat chest.
Michaela thought she understood. “Lord Tornfield is your father?” The girl nodded, obviously happy that her pantomime had been successful. “Well, how do you do, Lady Elizabeth?”
The girl curtsied prettily again, and Michaela wondered at her lack of speech. She had heard of mutes, but never met one, and decided not to bring up the matter lest the fragile-looking child be humiliated.
Michaela knew all too well how that felt.
“Are you forbidden from the feast?” she asked instead.
Elizabeth shrugged, and then pointed past Michaela, her eyes wide and her mouth shaped into an O.
It appeared as though Lady Helltongue was preparing to torture the guests with another butchering of voice. Michaela groaned and dropped her head, her hands covering her ears.
“Can one wish oneself deaf, I wonder?”
Elizabeth Tornfield covered her own ears and bent at the waist, her mouth open in a silent guffaw and Michaela giggled. But she and her new young friend were spared from the lady’s imminent screeching by Alan Tornfield himself.
“A moment, if you please,” he interrupted with a handsome bow in Lady Osprey’s direction. “I have an announcement before the festivities continue.” Alan stepped onto the dais that held the lord’s table with only a slight wobble and then smiled broadly at the crowd.
“I feel I must take this opportunity to address the sad news of our liege, Lord Magnus Cherbon’s, passing, more than a year ago.” Not even a murmur of sympathy answered the announcement, and Michaela was not surprised. It was no secret that all within the demesne had detested the Cherbon Devil and his greedy, merciless rule, and most had looked upon his death as a blessing. Elizabeth inched closer to Michaela’s side and peeked around the curtain at her father as he continued his speech.
“Our lands have been without a master for too long a time, and so it is with a happy heart that I follow such sadness with a bit of a miracle: Lord Cherbon’s son, my cousin, Roderick, is expected to return from the Holy Land any day, to take his father’s place at Cherbon Castle.”
At this, excited murmurs raced through the hall. Michaela caught only snippets of exclamations.
“Roderick, Lord Roderick!”
“…not at all like his sire.”
“However,” Lord Alan said crossly over the animated whispering, “due to some rather…devastating injuries he suffered while on his pilgrimage, and dare I say, lameness of body”—the crowd gasped—“as well as terms of the inheritance set forth by Magnus himself, it is possible that the bequeathement of the demesne could fall”—Alan paused, and the crowd seemed to lean forward eagerly—“to none other than yours truly.”
The hall erupted in surprised shouts and applause, and Lord Tornfield’s smile was not a little prideful. He let the praise go on for several more seconds before raising his hands for silence once more.
“While I am, of course, saddened by the losses my cousin has suffered, I feel that tonight is a cause for celebration and merry-making. After all, it could only be a matter of weeks before I am removed to the northern part of our lands.” The crowd responded with a collective moan. “So! Let us make the most of our time together with a bit of sport—a competition, if you will, of song. I shall grant a boon to the most accomplished singer.” The crowd cheered. “We have already gratefully received Lady Juliette’s offering.”
Lady Juliette smiled widely about the guests and gave a saucy wink.
“Who dares challenge her?” Lord Alan looked over those gathered. “Oh, come on. Who will give it a go?”
For the better part of an hour, more than a score of guests, male and female, took their turn in the fun of the challenge. None were truly accomplished in their talent—a few even deliberately mocking themselves by singing bawdy limericks or reciting silly lines of verse—but none were nearly as bad as Lady Juliette, Michaela was relieved to hear. She and little Lady Elizabeth e. . .
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