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Authors: Band of Iron

Geoffrey Condit

BOOK: Geoffrey Condit
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Band of Iron

 

 

Geoffrey D. Condit

 

Copyright © 2014 Geoffrey D. Condit

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1500657178

ISBN-13: 1500657174

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

I’d like to thank my writing teacher, Nina Pykare, veteran novelist, for her wisdom and friendship.  A big thank you to my son, Thierry, for his technical help, constant interest and support.  Thank you for my wife, Kathleen, for her unwavering belief and sustained encouragement over many years.

 

 

Special thanks to Kathleen and Thierry for the cover design.  A thank you to Frances M. C. Hoffman for modeling her hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

 

    Catharine Clifford topped the small rise, and reined in her Spanish horse to face Henry Stafford, the Second Duke of Buckingham.  “You must be mad!”

    The duke controlled his restive black gelding with practiced ease.  “My lady, you forget yourself.   Perhaps you tire from our journey.”  His sardonic gaze raked her.

    A breeze whipped Catharine’s chestnut hair across her face, and she brushed it away.  Panic gripped her throat, but she kept it from choking her voice.  “I am well aware of my position, Your Grace.”

    “I think not.”  He smiled, face pitted and hard.  “You are the daughter of a Lancaster noble attained and without honor.”  His wintry pleasure chilled her.

    Catharine’s face ached from the effort to control her anger.  “You insult my family ... ”

    “My dear,”  Buckingham said in a soothing voice,  “arguing is pointless.”   His steel studded glove reached into his green velvet doublet, and pulled out a scroll.  “King Richard, Third of the Name, agreed to my proposal.”

    Catharine crushed the reins in her hands, cursing him silently for his power over her.

    Buckingham said,  “Your wardship cost me six hundred pounds.  I intend to see my money well spent.”

    She wished she could risk slapping his self-satisfied face.  But she said,  “Now, give me your real reason.”

    “An old debt to be paid.”  Buckingham’s smile froze, edged with bitterness.  “Your father has long been a thorn in my family’s side.  He spoke out against my father to Queen Margarite of Anjou, wife to Henry VI, the real ruler of Lancaster.”   His mouth twisted, and his eyes filled with anger.

    “My father is an honest man!”  she said.  Frustration stuck in her throat, almost strangling her.  God strike him dead!

    “In hiding with Henry Tudor in Brittany.”   Buckingham’s contempt stained the air.

    “Your Grace ...”

    “We waste time.  Catharine, as Ward of the Crown, you’re to be married within the hour to Sir Peter Trevor, Baron Trobridge.”   Buckingham signaled to his master-at-arms, and spurred his black gelding forward.

    Catharine found herself encased in a wall of horse flesh, and mail clad men-at-arms wearing the Stafford Knot.  Dwarfed on her nervous  jennet, she snapped her reins, and urged her horse forward.  Fear replaced anger.  Fear of the unknown.  Her stomach tightened against a desperate sinking feeling.

    When one of Buckingham’s men turned his insolent eyes and shifting lips in her direction, she slashed her riding whip across his face.  Blood trailed from his forehead to his chin.  His scream shivered in the air.

    Buckingham cursed.  His master-at-arms sent the injured rider back.  A new horseman moved up to take his place.  Buckingham turned to his master-at-arms.  “Twenty lashes for the man’s insolence to Lady Catharine.”   He turned in the saddle.  “My dear, do try to enjoy our last hour together.” 

    “You tricked me into this ride,”  she said, voice slicing the air.

    Buckingham leaned back with a laugh.  “I did indeed.  This hunting party proved a perfect pretext.”   His laughter went high and unsteady, then stopped abruptly, his smile unpleasant.  “Your husband-to-be has an infirmity.   But I’ll let you discover it on your own.”

    “Revenge, Your Grace?”   Catharine couldn’t believe his callousness.  “Wasn’t it enough that you lied about my father’s activities to cause King Edward to have him attainted an outlaw?”

    “Never enough!”  Buckingham’s face grew red.  “I will see him ravaged by the consequences of High Treason, and rolled steaming into an unconsecrated grave.”

    “So you also seek revenge on his children?”  Catharine shuddered within, but held his gaze.

    “You’re not stupid ... for a woman.  I have sworn a holy oath that your father’s house shall be obliterated from the earth.  My agents even now hound your brother.”  Buckingham’s brown eyes glittered, and his thin lips worked with satisfaction.

    Anger flooded through her.  She wanted to slash his face, open it to the bone with her riding whip.  To hear him scream ...   Her hand tightened on the whip.  She couldn’t.  “You are the most craven of men,”  she got out.

    “Craven, my lady?   No, through.”  A fleck of foam touched the corner of his lips.  “You see, as we speak, a man talented with herbs and alchemy seeks your father’s dishes.”   He laughed, delighted with himself.  “I’ve been told two tasters have died in your father’s service in Brittany, and he has not been able to secure another.  Only a matter of time.”

    Catharine’s insides grew cold, but her anger raged on.   “You hire lackeys to spoil other peoples’ lives.   And for what?”

    “Careful, my lady.  I have allowed your loose tongue only because of the words you shall soon speak.”  Buckingham blocked her jennet with his gelding, and he pointed toward the castle.   “Trevor’s Mist.”

    A vast fortress with great walls sprawled endlessly before them.  Double curtain walls and watch towers ringed a good sized town.  And something she’d never seen before, a palace surrounded by a green meadow beyond the great keep.  The palace seemed like something from a fanciful dream.  But what terrors lay within it?

    “Remarkable.”   The duke shook his head in wonder.  “The palace was built by the seventeenth Baron after a visit to Italy.  This is a distinguished family you are marrying into, Lady Catharine.  They trace themselves on one side to Alfred the Great, and on the other to Geoffrey Plantagenet, father to Henry the Second.”

    A family of a hundred legends, thought Catharine.  Everyone knew of the Lords of Trobridge, the Trevors.  Born to two royal lines, their men served Saxon, Norman, and Plantagenet Kings as battle captains and counselors.  Their women were sought by every royal and noble house in England, Scotland, and the Continent.  Known for their tempers, education, and beauty, these women forged powerful and wealthy alliances.  Trevor wealth, legendary in the extreme, funded great trading and counting houses in the Low Countries, extending to Venice, and Genoa, trading in the Levant and the Middle Sea.

    “I know of them, Your Grace,”  Catharine said in a low voice.  Memories.  She was seven, in her best gown, as a smiling man handed her a gold locket in the inner bailey of Skipton Castle.  Her plight-troth, Sir William Trevor.  Dead now these many years.  Executed as one of the thirteen battle captains beheaded after the Battle of Tewkesbury with their lord, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

    Buckingham broke her reverie by pressing the gelding against her jennet.  “I haven’t forgotten you were almost married to a Trevor.  That gave me the idea.”

    “But why?  They are easily as well placed as yourself, and far wealthier.”

    Buckingham laughed again.   His brown eyes lit with glee.  “Isn’t  it wonderful?  You finally have a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.”

    “I know you want to destroy my House.”  Realization hit, and Catharine found it hard to keep her voice even.  “You mean to destroy not only my House, but the House of Trevor as well!  You want their wealth.”   The enormity of the idea stunned her.

    “My, my, what wicked thoughts have invaded your naughty head, Lady Catharine.  Come, we mustn’t be late for your wedding.”

 

    Sweaty horseflesh, choking dust, and creaking leather assailed Catharine’s senses.  Sunlight danced off burnished helmets and chain mail blinding her eyes.  Six hooded falcons surrounded her, riding like silent statues on the leather gloves of retainers.  The hunting party clattered over the drawbridge, and halted in the spacious inner bailey of Trevor’s Mist.

    Blue and yellow sparks showered from the clashing sword blades where two men fought back and forth, daggers and swords seeking.   Their breath came in quick gasps, linen stuck sweat drenched against corded straining bodies.

    Catharine, seated on her horse beside Buckingham, watched.  Sword play fascinated her.  Her heart beat faster. The duelers ignored everyone but each other.  Streaks of blood stained their shirts where they’d scored and ignored the pain.  Vast energy poured out of the younger man.  Cat quick, he advanced on his bearded opponent, and in two moves sent the other’s dagger flying.  The bearded man changed to a two handed grip on his sword, and began chopping.  Catharine sucked in her breath.

    Catharine’s breath caught in her throat when the younger man charged under one powerful downward chop, and on his knees, trapped the sword next to its hilt on the crucifix of his sword and dagger.  Wrenching his opponent’s weapon free, he threw it to one side.  The bearded man stood back and bowed.  The younger man stood, returned the courtesy and handed the weapons to a servant.   He turned to Buckingham.  “Your Grace.  Harry.  Splendid day for a hunt.  What brings you to Trevor’s Mist?”

    His voice startled Catharine.  Deep.  Pure music, and the sound rolled into her.  Mother Mary, what a voice.  I could have it sing in my body forever.  She had a hard time sitting in the saddle.

    Without warning, the duke’s black gelding laid back its ears, and nipped Catharine’s jennet savagely on the shoulder.  Her horse reared, screamed, and plunged.  Catharine, hands tightened on the reins,  She fought for control.

    The younger man rushed to catch the jennet’s bridle, pulling her away from the gelding, turning her in increasingly tighter circles until he stopped with the horse’s head turned into its body.  His soothing melodious words and gentle hands calmed the injured creature.  The horse’s trembling eased and vanished.

    Catharine looked down into the man’s interested golden eyes. and generous smile.   Then she caught the sight of the savage scar running the length of his face, ruining features that had been handsome.  Despite this an almost instant attraction swept her.  Appalled, she recoiled and sat higher in the saddle, a rush of heat rising in her face.  

    Buckingham’s laughter broke the tension.   “Peter, let me introduce you to your future wife, Catharine Clifford.”  He waited for Peter’s reaction.

    “A tasteless joke at the expense of the lady,”  Peter said.  “How thoughtlessly cruel, Harry.”

    His melodious voice curled Catharine’s toes.  In the turmoil, both fascinated and repelled, Catharine could only sit and watch the two men duel with words.

    Turning away, Catharine caught the duke’s glance.  He smiled knowingly, reached into his doublet, and handed Peter the scroll.

    “His Grace, the King, has decided that a marriage will benefit both your Houses.”  He sat up in the saddle and stared at the Baron, pleased expression on his pitted face.

    Peter’s lips tightened, making his scar pucker.  He unrolled the scroll and read it.  “At your suggestion, I’m sure,”  he said, golden eyes lighting with contempt.

    Buckingham’s smile faded, and his nostrils flared.  “I am here at the express wishes of His Grace, the King.”  He raised his arm toward the great church that sat on a small rise before the town.  “Summon your priest and your people to witness.  I have state business to attend.  You waste my time bickering.”

 

    Standing before the doors of the soaring stone church, Catharine stared down at a thousand pairs of curious eyes.  A borrowed white veil, weighted by a thin circlet of gold, sheltered.   A heavy loneliness wrapped her in a cloak of anguish.  Catharine closed her eyes.

    She had been allowed a short time to wash herself and change into the white cambric dress which has been hurriedly found.  A perfect fit, one of the maids had exclaimed, making Catharine break into stormy tears.  Then composing herself, she knew  the truth of it.  The dress fit as though made for her in every detail.  The soft cloth clung to her slender figure.  She’d accepted the white veil, and gold circlet, and was surprised when a maid tried several rings to find the best fit.  All done with a cheerful efficiency she did not feel.

    Then she was alone in the chamber.  Moments later a single knock sounded on the arched chamber door.  A young girl with bright gold hair and deep blue gown entered to hand Catharine a bouquet of rosemary, ivy, and the blue flowers of love-in-the mist.  The girl, obviously no servant, smiled, touched her shoulder, and left.  Catharine’s hands clutched the bride’s flowers.  She knew the meanings.   Rosemary for remembrance of marriage vows.  Ivy for love, growing despite all odds.  And Love-In-Mist for purity, for being true.  The sheer innocence of the act brought tears.

    Now, opening her eyes to the low roar of the people below, she caught the satisfied smile on the duke’s face.  He stood to one side with his standard bearer.  Cap in hand, he cleared his face of expression and waited.  God rot his soul!

    Sir Peter Trevor, in a fresh white shirt, burgundy leather doublet, dark brown silk hose, and soft half boots stood before his people.  He raised his hand for silence.  The low roar of voices died.  His deep voice, pure music, rolled out. “Our King has commanded me to marry.  He has sent our new lady in the escort of our Lord Constable, the Duke of Buckingham.”  Low surprised voices ran through the crowd.  “Her name is Catharine Clifford, daughter of Sir Humphrey Clifford, Lord Sevin.  She is a Ward of the Crown.”

    Catharine heard their voiced amazement:  “Lancaster.  Black Clifford.  Regicide.”   The words swept through those gathered.  Her uncle was notorious, infamous for the cold-blooded murder of seventeen year old Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland, and Prince of the House of York.  The stain of that brutal murder had tarnished the family name for over twenty years.  She closed her eyes for a brief moment and opened them.  A thin pale hand patted her shoulder.  She jumped and forced a smile at the old priest.  Catharine struggled to thank the aged man, but found her voice would not work.  Panicked, she wondered if she would be able to speak her marriage lines.  Courage, she thought.

BOOK: Geoffrey Condit
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