By: Roberta Gellis | Other books by Roberta Gellis
Published By: Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc.
Published: Nov 26, 2009
ISBN # 9781419921643
Available in: Epub, HTML, Adobe Acrobat, Mobipocket (.prc)
Categories: Romance>Historical Medieval
Third in the Royal Dynasty series.
Fenice d’Aix and Aubery of Ilmer both had unhappy first marriages. Both had guilty secrets related to those marriages, but each found in the other what had been lacking in their first union. Each longed for the passionate love offered by their new partners. Nonetheless, neither dared expose their hidden secrets lest they lose everything.
The hidden deceptions make Aubery’s political duties more hazardous. Having failed twice in his attempts to kill Aubery, an old enemy decides to violate and then murder Fenice as his only fit revenge. Fenice’s abduction makes truth a necessity between Fenice and Aubery. But it is not until he loses Fenice that Aubery’s pride bends enough to allow him to declare his love…almost too late.
An Excerpt From: FIRE SONG
Copyright © ROBERTA GELLIS, 1984, 2009
All Rights Reserved, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.
The small fire sang softly, its voice made up of the guttering of the flame, the hiss of moisture released by the heat, and an occasional pop as a log broke and fell. Fenice huddled close to the hearth. The fire´s song had always brought her comfort, which she needed desperately just now. Her throat closed with fear, but she pushed it back and stifled the wail rising in her breast. That was over-she was done with helpless wailing. Now she must act. A sob of pure terror escaped her. No, not now, not yet. Surely not much time had passed. Surely the new year of 1253 had not yet begun. For a little while longer, it would be better to think about the fire.
But despite her determination, thoughts of the past year pressed in on Fenice. It had begun so well. She had been happy when her stepmother, Lady Alys, and her father told her that Delmar of Fuveau had been chosen to be her husband, and she had been so proud when she understood that her father had purchased Trets, a large, rich farm, to be her dowry. It had frightened her a little when she read the marriage contract and discovered that she would be her husband´s sole heir if Delmar should die before they had living children, but Lady Alys explained that the provision was included only to cover every eventuality. After all, Lady Alys had said, Delmar´s mother and Uncle Jean-Paul were already old and not likely to outlive him, and even if they did, surely Fenice knew Lord Raymond would not be unkind to them. Moreover, Delmar was the only surviving child. There were no brothers or sisters or nephews or nieces to care for the property.
Fenice shivered. But now Delmar was dead. He had died before she had even conceived a child. That was why Lady Emilie had thrust her into this convent, Fenice was sure of that. Somehow, Lady Emilie thought she could keep Fuveau in her own hands if Fenice herself were out of the way. And that was why, Fenice knew, she must not sit here weeping. But with that knowledge the icy fear returned, and Fenice made a desperate effort to fix her mind on the dancing flames.
Why did she love it so? Despite her Provençal blood, she did not much feel the cold. Perhaps it was because she had been forbidden a place near the fire when she was very young, not for fear she would be hurt, but because her serf mother wanted her in dark corners, out of sight of her noble grandmother, Lady Jeannette.
Lady Jeannette would blame her for everything, Fenice knew, but how could she be blamed for her husband´s death? She had not been with Delmar when he caught the fever, and his mother had not permitted her near him all the while he was sick, although she had begged and pleaded to be allowed to nurse him. Suddenly, Fenice began to weep. Poor Delmar, poor, poor Delmar, to die so young, before he had had a chance to live and to be a man. The tears rolled down her cheeks, leaving bright streaks on the velvety skin. It was so sad he should be dead, and even sadder that she should weep for him, that she should feel so little loss herself. Perhaps her grandmother was right, that the serf´s blood in her veins made her coarse, that she could not feel the finer sentiments, such as love.
Why, oh why had her father ever desired a common serf woman? Better far, Fenice thought, had she never been born. Although she hardly remembered her mother, Lucie, who had been sent away from Tour Dur when Fenice was seven to be married honorably to a huntsman whom she had long loved, Fenice had not been spared full knowledge of her mother´s low origin. Her grandmother had dwelt particularly on the fact that Raymond had purchased Lucie for a few copper coins.
Yet, Fenice asked herself, had she not loved Delmar when they were first married? Certainly she had joyed in him and in her service to him those first months when they had been alone on her own tiny estate, which was no more, really, than a large farm with a fortified manor house. Still, she was proud of it. It was hers. Hers? Nonsense. Trets was not hers. It was the marriage portion her father had given with her. It was meant to add to the estate of his grandchildren.
Then a pang of guilt struck Fenice. What she had thought about Trets was true, of course, but Lady Alys said it was hers, that her father had given it to her for her use, for her security, and that not to accept it as such was to denigrate her father´s love. Of course, Lady Alys agreed that Trets must not be mistreated for extra profit during Fenice´s lifetime, that it should be turned over intact or improved, however, the estate, Alys had said firmly, was a mark of Raymond´s love for his own daughter, not for any putative grandchildren.
As she thought of Lady Alys, Fenice sat up straighter, seized a poker, and prodded the low-burning logs. The flames leapt up, crackling cheerfully, enlivened by her attention, just as Fenice felt strengthened and enlivened by her remembrance of Lady Alys´s care and love. If ever there was a living refutation of the tales of wicked stepmothers, Lady Alys was it. Fenice adored her father, more than that, she worshiped him almost as a god. But like God, Raymond was most often a distant being. When he noticed Fenice, he was kind. He would kiss her, praise her, and give her gifts. But his notice came infrequently.
Lady Alys, on the other hand, had protected Fenice from her grandmother, taught her all the skills and duties of a fine lady, and insisted she was a lady, that Raymond´s blood was the stronger and thus dominated her heritage. And Lady Alys had read over Fenice´s marriage contract with her and explained clearly the meaning of every provision. Not only was Trets hers, now that Delmar was dead, Fuveau itself, in law, was also her property.
In law. Fenice sighed. In law, she had been the mistress of Fuveau from the day she married Delmar, but there was not a servant in it who would obey her. Her mother-by-marriage, Lady Emilie, had seen to that. Alda, Lady Emilie´s maid, had told Fenice to her face that she was no better than the servants, being serf-born herself, and there was no way Alda could have known except from Lady Emilie, nor would she have spread the tale all through the keep without permission.
Tears filled Fenice´s eyes again and spilled over. Even Delmar had begun to turn against her. The memory cut like a knife so that even the fire song could not comfort Fenice, and she wept aloud.
"My child." The gentle hand of Sister Anne touched her shoulder. "I thought you were growing resigned. No feeble woman has the right to contest the will of God. It is a sin. You must cease to weep for your husband. He had warning and time enough to confess and be absolved and to make such suitable gifts to the Church that he is surely safe in the bosom of his Maker. We all pray for him. He is at peace and at rest. It is time for you, too, to make your peace with God."
Hastily Fenice wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. Peace with God, she thought bitterly. It was not God´s will she wished to defy. Nor was it for her soul´s sake that her mother-by-marriage had thrust her into this convent the very day after Delmar died, while she was still stunned by her loss. It was because Lady Emilie believed that during the worst of Fenice´s grief she could be induced to take the veil. Perhaps if grief did not make her seek the consolation of a religious life and she continued to resist, she could be forced by methods other than persuasion. Likely Lady Emilie thought she could keep the lands if Fenice became a nun.
I will go to hell before I give her that chance, Fenice thought. There was no mention in the marriage contract of Fenice´s taking the veil. True, that was always an option left open to a widow, a safe harbor if she was not welcome in her children´s homes and was too old to marry again, or a whip to make her welcome lest she give her estate to the Church, But if Fenice did not choose to "give herself to God", the fate of the lands was clearly spelled out. In the event that Delmar should die before any child was born of the marriage or that no child survived him, Fuveau as well as Trets would go with Fenice back to her family.
This was not the most usual disposition of an estate, but Delmar had had no brothers or sisters, and his mother and his Uncle Jean-Paul, who had raised him and cared for the lands, were no longer young. Delmar had been healthy, there had been no reason to think he would not live to a ripe age, particularly since he hated fighting and was most unlikely to take part in any tournament or war. In any case, Raymond was Delmar´s overlord, and when Raymond proposed the arrangement, Delmar had not objected. Of course, he could not imagine dying, but even if he could, he trusted Raymond to be generous to his Uncle Jean-Paul and mother.
Fenice wondered whether Lady Emilie had known the provisions of the contract. Lady Emilie could not read or write, another reason for hating Fenice, who could, but Delmar might have told her. Fenice wondered if that was why she had been thrust into the convent rather than "succumbing" to the same fever Delmar had taken? If she died, Raymond would immediately make claim to the properties.
Fenice suddenly realized why she had been forcibly sent to the convent and was now being kept there, and became aware that she was being watched very closely by the older nuns. She had not tried to leave the convent, in fact, she hardly remembered being out of this chamber, but would she have been prevented if she had tried to leave? Had Lady Emilie told the nuns some tale of a disordered mind? Of grief so excessive that were she to leave the convent, she would end her life? Or were the nuns knowingly assisting Lady Emilie to keep what did not belong to her for some share of the lands?
That was a dreadful thought to have about the holy sisters, but the household of the lords of Aix was very secular, and the deficiencies of the Church were freely discussed there. Fenice had heard far more of the rapacity of the pope and his priests than of the charity and holiness of their spiritual leaders. Yet the nuns had been very kind. They did not sneer at her. She had been installed in the very best guest apartment, and lay sisters had been assigned to serve her. But were they serving her or acting as her wardens? Fenice wondered. They did act as spies. If they had not, how could the nuns have known each time that fear and despair overwhelmed her?
"Lady Fenice, you are not attending!"
This time the nun´s voice was sharp, and Fenice became aware that Sister Anne´s voice had been rising and falling in the background while her own mind wandered. "I am sorry, Sister Anne," Fenice said.
"You must listen with your heart as well as with your ears," Sister Anne pointed out, more gently now. "In that way you will find true consolation, consolation that no earthly grief can trouble, for God is constant, never failing in support to those who give up their whole hearts and minds to Him. If you would join yourself to God, you would feel no grief or pain for any thing."
Suddenly a notion came to Fenice. For herself, she did not care. In a way it would be a great relief to become a nun, to be one anonymous shadow among many, performing some preordained daily round of work and prayer. No one could pick her out from the others to point at her and call her baseborn. But she could not seek that safe haven when it might cost her beloved father not only the lands he had given her but a larger, richer estate, too. Not when it would leave that estate in Lady Emilie´s greedy hands.
"Sister," she said, "no matter how strong my desire to seek consolation in the bosom of God, I cannot do so without the permission of my father and stepmother."
"But how can you believe that they would oppose a step so holy and beneficial to you in both body and spirit? Do they not love you? Would they not wish the best for you in the flesh and in the soul?" Sister Anne seemed shocked. "Surely they must know you to be here and that you came with the intention of joining our order."
"What?" Fenice breathed.
"Do you not remember?" the nun asked gently.
"In truth, I do not," Fenice said, barely forcing the words through stiff lips.
Fenice was badly frightened now. Before this, although the nuns had repeatedly urged her to become a novice, no one had implied that the matter was settled. It seemed certain to Fenice that her recalcitrance had been reported to Lady Emilie, who had found "witnesses"-among whom would surely be a priest-who would swear that Fenice had taken a holy vow to take the veil. The Church considered such a vow as binding as a betrothal. It was, indeed, a betrothal to Christ, whom one married symbolically on becoming a nun.
God knew to what else a corrupt priest might swear, Fenice thought, as a surge of panic tightened her throat. She had not seen her seal since she came into the convent. Had Lady Emilie got the priest to write a letter to her father and Lady Alys to tell them what she had done and that she did not wish to see them? Could her father be taken in by such a letter, not written in her own hand?
A shudder ran through her, for she realized that that was not impossible. The last time Raymond had seen her and Delmar had been during a brief visit to Trets when he had informed her that there was trouble in Gascony and that he was going there. At that time Fenice and Delmar had been at the peak of their happiness together. The first uneasy awkwardnesses of marriage had passed. It seemed that every hour each discovered something new and wonderful about the other. That was before they had moved to Fuveau, before Lady Emilie had made Delmar ashamed of his marriage, before Fenice had come to realize that Delmar was not only gentle but weak. Thinking back, Fenice saw her own joy, her freedom from the shadow her grandmother cast over her, and her pride in being mistress of her own house.
Her father might think that, so soon and so suddenly bereft of her love and her joy, she might be sickened of the world and turn to God. He would not approve, but he would be too kind to oppose her desire. And doubtless her father thought her young and foolish. Perhaps he believed she did not understand about the lands despite Lady Alys´s explanation, so that she did not realize she would be cheating him.
Sister Anne had answered her, but Fenice had not heard the reply. As the immediate shock passed, her panic also receded, and Fenice saw a little hole through which she might escape any immediate demand that she join the order. She shook her head.
"I do not remember," she repeated, "and I owe too much to my father to take the veil without his word of approval in person or, at least, a letter from him."
She did not escape as easily as she had hoped. Sister Anne spoke sadly, and then sharply, of the sins and the punishments for lack of faith, for breaking holy vows, and for putting worldly considerations before those of the spirit. She spoke with fervor on the sin of vanity, accusing Fenice of loving her own physical beauty more than the beauty of the soul that would come from veiling her loveliness as a sacrifice to God. She named Fenice´s features one by one, the thick, dark hair that hung to her hips, her soft, creamy skin, her light eyes, pale and bright, her full lips, even her short, rather broad nose, and described how each would decay with time and bring her nothing but grief, while devotion to God would give her greater and greater joy with each passing year. Fenice did not argue, but she did not yield, either. She had learned early to endure in silence, and at last the nun departed.
Free of the distraction of needing to listen lest she fall into some trap of clever words, Fenice grappled with the practical aspects of the situation that she faced. Now she realized she had been a fool not to complain of how she had been treated in Fuveau. Perhaps if Lady Alys had been at Tour Dur, she might have ridden to Aix for a visit, but Lady Alys was with Raymond in Bordeaux. And, Fenice admitted to herself, even if Lady Alys had been at home, probably she would not have confessed her unhappiness. She had been so ashamed, ashamed of the base blood that made her mother-by-marriage and others scorn her, ashamed of Delmar´s inability or unwillingness to stand up for her, ashamed of the weakness that made her unable to fight for her own rights. Again and again Lady Alys told her that that was her flaw, not her mother´s blood.
Her rights... Fenice stared sightlessly into the flames, which barely flickered above the glowing embers of the nearly burned-out logs. The fire´s song was stilled, but the red eyes of the embers stared back accusingly. The trouble was that Fenice could never really believe she had any rights. Lady Alys spoke truth. That was a serious flaw. If she had not been so timid and doubtful, her father would not be in danger of losing Trets and Fuveau.
Fenice´s soft, full lips firmed and thinned. She and her rights might be nothing, but the rights of Raymond d´Aix, heir to Alphonse, Comte d´Aix, would not be flouted because of any weakness of hers. She must act, and it could not be the simple act that had frightened her so much before, writing a letter. If, as she feared, the nuns were in alliance with Lady Emilie, no letter she wrote would ever reach its destination. She herself must escape from the convent.
Fenice rose a little stiffly from the low chair on which she had been sitting, for she had been almost motionless for longer than she realized. She walked slowly to the single chest that stood under the one window of the chamber and lifted the lid, but she had hardly begun to feel through the clothing in the chest before one of the lay sisters appeared.
"What is it you seek, madam?" the woman asked.
They were watching her, Fenice thought. A maid should come when called; she should not intrude on her mistress without being asked. "My box," Fenice replied, although she was quite sure the box that held her seal, the trinkets of gold and gems her father and Lady Alys had given her over the years, and the pearl necklace and arm bands that were Delmar´s wedding gift had not been sent with her. Not even all her clothing was in the chest, only a few of the oldest and plainest gowns.
"There was no box that I remember," the lay sister replied, looking honestly concerned. "I laid your things away myself. What was in the box?"
"Very little of importance except for a miniature of my father," Fenice said mendaciously, for her seal was of great importance. It could serve as a substitute for her signature on official documents.
"There is our Lord on the cross," the woman said, gesturing. "That image should give you more comfort than that of any earthly being."
A sudden fury seized Fenice at the thought that the love of God should replace her love of the father who, instead of spurning and ignoring the daughter of a serf woman, had cherished her, given her property, and married her with honor to a nobleman.
"I was not seeking comfort but the answer to a worldly question," Fenice retorted sharply, and turned away to take her cloak and hurry from the room.
The rage held her until she was out in the winter garden, pacing the paths. As her fury faded, she bit her lips with chagrin. The sharpness of the tone and the keenness of the reply had betrayed her. It was stupid to have shown any change in behavior from her past listlessness. The lay sister would report her actions, and they would watch her more closely than ever if they suspected that she had recovered from her shock, especially since she had probably already demonstrated a more definite resistance than usual to Sister Anne´s suggestions about joining the order.
What she should have done, Fenice now realized, was to say the loss of her box did not matter and go back to her seat by the fire. As she thought about the last weeks, it seemed to her that she had spent nearly every waking moment sitting and staring into the flames, listening to the fire song. Yes, and going over and over in her mind her griefs and injuries, and pitying Delmar and saying to herself that she must act. She drew her cloak more closely about her, cold with fear as she became aware that her unguarded reactions had probably already hurt her.
She had hoped to gain a respite by insisting on obtaining her father´s permission to take the veil, but now she might inadvertently have given the signal for a forced induction into the order. If they suspected that Lord Raymond would not give his permission, might she wake up some morning to find herself with her hair shaved off, dressed in a nun´s habit? The sisters were skilled in medicine, she could be drugged...
Then her common sense woke to combat her fear. Was it possible to force someone to take the veil? One did not become a nun directly. There was a novitiate through which one must pass before final vows, and Fenice was sure one could abandon one´s novitiate and return to the world, although it was not common to do so. Nor did she believe it was possible to keep her drugged long enough to satisfy the rules. Was not the novitiate a year or more in length?
A flicker of movement near the wall caught her eye. A lay sister seemed to be passing from one building to another, but to Fenice´s frightened perception, her movement seemed surreptitious. She was certain the woman was spying on her. One small part of her mind told her she might be watched secretly out of kindness, for fear that in her despair she might sit too long in the cold or act in other foolish ways to her own harm. Still, the awareness of being always under someone´s eye heightened her anxiety. How could she be sure there were not special dispensations for inducting a nun without a novitiate? How did she know that such a dispensation was not already in the mother superior´s possession?
She had been weak and idle too long already. She must not play with her father´s right to Trets and Fuveau. She must leave this convent at once.
The firm decision woke a terror more acute than that of being forced into the order. If she left the convent, she must go to Tour Dur and face Lady Jeannette, and Fenice was quite sure her grandmother would rather have her take the veil, or be dead, than take her back into the household. Lady Jeannette would not care about Trets and Fuveau. She had even sneered at Lady Alys for attending so closely to the management of the keep and lands of Tour Dur itself. It was because Lady Alys was only the daughter of a simple knight from a barbarous country, Lady Jeannette said. Had she been the daughter of a great nobleman, she would not have lowered herself to such common tasks. A true lady should occupy herself only with finer things, like music and poetry and art.
Fenice burned with shame at the memory of her grandmother´s attacks on her daughter-by-marriage, but Lady Alys herself was not wounded. She laughed behind Lady Jeannette´s back, although she always treated her with the greatest formality and respect and even called her "madam" rather than "mother". What was important, Lady Alys said, was that the estates were profitable, and Lord Raymond and Lord Alphonse were not constantly interrupted and plagued to death by Lady Jeannette´s demands for attention when they needed to do important business.
Suddenly Fenice stopped dead in her tracks, realizing that she had seen the gate to her salvation. It was not to Lady Jeannette that Fenice must explain about Lady Emilie´s attempt to keep Trets and Fuveau, but to her grandfather, Lord Alphonse. Her grandfather would not blame her for what had happened. He was as kind to her as was her father. He would caress her and sympathize with her. And he would understand the value of the estates. There would be no need to plead with Lady Jeannette for permission to send a messenger to Bordeaux and be told that a serf woman´s bastard could not possibly have anything important enough to write to merit a special messenger. Lord Alphonse would send the letter at once.
In her joy, Fenice almost forgot that she would have to get to Tour Dur before she could speak to her grandfather. She hurried back to her chamber, thinking of packing what she would need for a journey, only to be brought up short by seeing still another lay sister carefully folding the clothes she had disarranged when she looked through the chest. Suddenly, it came to Fenice that she could not simply say she wished to leave and expect to be escorted to Tour Dur. Fenice stood staring, her expression so fixed that the lay sister scrambled to her feet and ran over to support her. "You must struggle against this grief," she murmured. "You should not have gone out. The garden is sad at this time of year. In the spring it will give you joy."
The woman´s words now made everything clear. So Fenice was expected to be there in the spring, was she? Silently she released herself from the supporting hand and turned toward her chair near the hearth. The fire had been built up again with fresh logs and was singing merrily, popping and crackling. But although Fenice seated herself and looked into the flames, she no longer needed to lose herself in the fire song. This latest shock had done her almost as much good as her realization that it was her grandfather rather than her grandmother with whom she must discuss her affairs.
There was now no need to explain to the haughty and disapproving mother superior why she did not intend to become a nun. All she needed to do was to steal away and go home. And then Fenice asked herself, steal away from where? Go home in what direction? Fenice realized that she had not the faintest idea in which convent she was. All she knew was that it could not be close either to Fuveau or Tour Dur, for she knew the nuns in those holy houses, and none of these was familiar to her.