Legacy of the Blade Series Book One
Lord Corbett Blake needs to find a worthy wife so he can bring back honor to the family name. But three times now his brides have died before reaching the altar. Still, he knows he needs to find one fast, or the king will take away his lands and title.
Devon has been raised in secret in the monastery, but now the lord of Blake Castle has found her and brought her to the castle as his servant. While she is intrigued with Corbett, she is also not used to being a servant and the things he expects her to do.
Can a maid servant and a lord push aside their passion for each other and do what is expected of one of their status?
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Devonshire, England, 1351
The heavy iron bars that protected St. Basil’s groaned with protest. Two Benedictine monks clad in black robes kept their heads covered as they slowly pulled open the gates of the monastery.
Corbett, lord of Steepleton, tugged impatiently at his leather gauntlets and shifted in the saddle atop his black steed. He felt the eyes of St. Basil’s cathedral staring down at him. Gleaming shards of colored glass made up two huge windows, a rare and precious gift bestowed upon the church by his late father, Lord Evan Blake.
The monks moved slowly, dragging the heavy rails over the dusty cobblestone entrance-way. Corbett willed the men to move faster so he could be done already and away from this place. His horse threw back his head and whickered, leaving a trail of frosty air in front of him. The sun was just coming up in the distance, peeking through the trees, bringing life and color to the land leading up the cliffs of Steepleton. Blake Castle sat high in the distance, towering over the monastery and little cottages of wattle and daub that dotted the fields of crops and livestock. The dusty road spiraled through his demesne, past the manor house of his bailiff and up to the castle.
“Lord Steepleton,” came his squire’s voice from directly behind him.
Corbett turned his head slightly to speak with his fair-haired squire of twenty summers who sat mounted on his own horse with the Blake banner in his hand.
“Delwynn, I’ve asked you time and again not to call me Lord Steepleton.”
“Many pardons, Lord Corbett. I think I will never feel at ease with this familiar way you’ve asked for all of Devonshire to address you.”
“I strive to make my people feel more at ease while in my presence. I’m not sure how I’ve attained my horrid reputation of being so black-hearted, would I could change it.”
“Aye, m’lord. Not to mention a good disposition may help you find a woman before ’tis too late.”
“I’ve got more women than I want, squire. What I need is a lady. Now stop the idle chatter and lift my banner higher. We’re amongst commoners and I demand the respect of a lord of my position.”
Corbett watched the flag atop the long pole fluttering in the cool breeze. There flew his family crest, an argent eagle on an azure field. The bird’s wings were spread, talons ready to attack. He almost felt talons of his own under his gauntlets as he thought of the dream that had brought him here. He hated this mission but had to do this, or be haunted the rest of his life.
He turned back toward the gates. A ray of sun hit the stained glass of the cathedral just as he edged his steed forward. He couldn’t help but fasten his gaze on the glowing reds and oranges, the winking ambers that only reminded him of the fires of hell. A threatening sight considering he sat there feeling no better than the devil himself.
The tack trailing down the sides of his stallion jingled as he edged his way forward. Shod hooves echoed on the stones behind him and with a quick tug to the reins, his horse obediently stopped short.
“What troubles you, m’lord?” his squire asked, his hand gripping tightly to the bannered pole. A blond curl fell over one sleepy eye, and with a puff of air from his mouth he blew it away.
“Why do you say that, squire? Do I look to you like a man who harbors guilt?”
“I said naught of guilt, m’lord, but spoke of trouble only.”
Corbett realized his own accusations had betrayed him. Guilt indeed, along with a bit of premeditated trouble, had been haunting him for some time now. And he couldn’t help but feel somehow he was to blame.
Three times King Edward III had chosen Corbett’s betrothed, and three times the ladies died before ever making it to the altar. He wondered inwardly if his own thoughts were the true cause of their demise.
His squire leaned forward in the saddle, leather creaking as he did so. He spoke with concern. “I know you must be in mourning, m’lord. But the plague has left England and cannot take with it another of your brides.”
“Mourning?” Corbett almost laughed at the mere thought. King Edward’s idea of a wife for him consisted of a twice-widowed elderly woman, an abnormally overstuffed flirt and the fourth daughter of a no-land lord. True the latter was comely, but hadn’t a dowry worth two shillings. Nay, he would have a virgin to bear his heir, someone who would obey and cling to his every word and with a dowry fit for a king.
Relieved was a better word to describe his feelings about that particular problem. And trouble was the exact word to describe what would happen to him if he didn’t find a wife soon. No wife – you lose your land and title. And then Blake Castle shall be given to the baron’s son, Lord Malcomn. King Edward’s warning was branded in his mind. Corbett would do anything to keep Blake Castle now that he was lord, including marrying someone he didn’t love. But she must be worthy. She must be a noble. She must be someone who would clear the sullied Blake name and bring respect back to his family.
Corbett had been Lord of Steepleton for three years now, and he would be damned before he gave up his lands to his foster brother Malcomn. But his time was running out. He’d been granted the right to choose his own wife as King Edward refused to send another lady to her death by insisting she marry the cursed black-hearted lord of Steepleton, as he’d been tagged.
The bells of St. Basil’s brought Lord Corbett’s attention back to the matter at hand.
“Wait outside the gates for me,” he instructed his squire. “I’ll speak with the old mid-wife and we’ll be on our way.”
“Aye, m’lord.” Delwynn backed his horse away, and Corbett ventured inside.
As the gates squeaked closed between them, the cry of his raven cut the moist morning air. The raven’s cry was known to all but him as the call of death. He held out his left arm clad in black leather and continued to ride, not wanting to look upward. He’d never quite forgiven God for letting his father die two months after he was stripped of his title. Corbett couldn’t help but think his father’s death is why his mother died as well. He was convinced she died of a broken heart, leaving her newborn twins to the nursemaid who’d stolen them and boarded a ship abroad. The ship sank, and with it the occupants. His baby brother and sister never had a chance.
But as cruel as God was to him, he at least still had his sister and best friend, Wren. Or so he had thought. When Wren disappeared in the woods years ago, never again to be found, Corbett knew God was still punishing him. The only thing he could do was to right the wrongs of his father.
But he didn’t belong anywhere near the place of God nor did he want to be. He felt uncomfortable and resentful inside the monastery’s walls. He should have sent a messenger in his place.
But the dream told him he had to come there himself. It had been so vivid. The girl with the long mahogany hair and emerald green eyes had appeared to him again, begging him to find her. One too many times he’d seen her suffer. One too many times she’d reach out and call for his help before she slowly faded and he awoke in a sweat. Last night was different. Last night her surroundings weren’t so foggy. This time he recognized Saint Basil’s cathedral behind her, staring down at him as if to tell him she was hiding within.
He watched a shadow as it moved along the stone walls of the church and closer to his own heavy heart. The restless voices in his head were almost a comfort to the vow of silence that was strictly enforced inside these holy walls from dawn until dusk. He wondered how his uncle, Brother Ruford, could endure the life of a monk. Ruford was the last living male Blake besides Corbett. A waste as far as he could see. But the man wasn’t cut out to be a warrior and Corbett knew inside the monastery’s walls was the only place for such a gentle man. Now it was on Corbett’s shoulders to carry on the Blake name.
The gliding shadow descended upon him. With a flap of wings, a large raven landed with practiced stealth and made its perch upon his arm. Several monks with scrolls in hand walked the cloistered pathways, scattering out of sight and blessing themselves at the sight of his scavenger bird.
The bells continued to chime as he made his way to the little shack that lay concealed inside the monastery behind walls of its own. She had to be hiding in there. It was the only place he hadn’t gone since he ruled as Lord of Steepleton. And the old midwife had to be a part of it all somehow. He could just feel it was true.
Corbett turned his head slightly toward the bird on his arm. “Let’s go get her, shall we?”
The bells of St. Basil’s were ringing when morning mass was already finished and mid-day prayers didn’t start for hours. Devon knew this could only mean one thing. Someone of importance had entered the monastery’s walls.
She dropped her basket of herbs and gathered up her cotehardie, running to the old garden wall. Climbing the trellis effortlessly, she poked her head over the top and scanned the cloistered walkways of the monastery with eager eyes.
Clinging to the twisted vines, she tried to see past the columns of stone to the front gates, but couldn’t. Inwardly, she cursed the way she’d had to live for the last eight and ten years. Safe inside the walls of the monastery, yet imprisoned from the rest of the world.
The clip clop of hooves on the cobblestone walkways sounding closer, Devon’s heart skipped a beat as she thought of life outside those walls. She thought about the marvelous sight of Blake Castle in the distance, and wished she could live like the titled ladies and eat food fit for the king himself. Even the beggars who waited at the castle’s gates for the discarded trenchers, old stale crusts of bread, had seen more of the world than she had and even seen what lay inside the castle’s walls.
She saw his slight shadow on the ground in the late winter sun before he even rounded the corner. It looked to be a man atop a horse, a bird perched atop his outstretched arm. At first she guessed the visitor to be a falconer or perhaps a traveler, as the monastery provided shelter for those who asked.
The rider emerged and made his way to her own little hut of wattle and daub. Her heart raced as she saw the man’s bird was not a falcon at all, but a raven. This was the lord of Blake Castle, and he rode directly toward her hut as if it were his intent.
She’d heard descriptions of him from the old mid-wife Heartha, and some of the monks, but their words did no justice to his image. The wind blew strands of his long black hair up into the air, and around his chiseled face. His jaw was set and his lips firm and sensual. His back straight, he rode with his head held high. Just as she’d expected a lord to ride.
As he moved closer, she couldn’t help but notice his brilliant blue eyes shining in the sun. Though they had a faraway look about them, she couldn’t help but see mystery beckoning to her as well. His lashes, black as the night, matched the dark bushy brows dipping slightly as if he were concentrating, or perhaps thinking of his destination.
She stifled a gasp as he passed by, so close she could have reached out from the vines that hid her, and touched him. Her pulse raced at the excitement of being so close to him. The muscles of his arm rippled beneath his perched raven, and she could only wonder about the muscles hidden beneath his dark tunic. She couldn’t help but drink in his physique and the way he filled out his tight hose as she let her eyes run the length of his long, sturdy legs. A long black cloak trailed down his back and over his mount majestically, the hilt of a shining sword at his waist clearly visible beneath.
Her head filled with a fantasy, one of her many that kept her sane throughout her sheltered life. She imagined herself sitting atop the battlements – nay, in the tower of a castle – her knight in shining armor approaching to ask for her hand in marriage.
The raucous laughter of the raven brought her back to her senses. Though the lord of Blake Castle was handsome and wealthy, he was said to be heartless and cruel. His bird turned its dark eyes toward her, its silken black feathers taking on a purplish glow. Then with a flap of its wings it left its master’s arm and headed right for her.
Devon released her grip on the wall and fell to the soft earth below just as the raven skimmed the top of the trellis and flew up into the morning sky. It shrieked a guttural call, then disappeared from sight somewhere over the vast sea.
“Old woman!” The deep timbre of his voice rang out in command from the other side of the wall.
The door to the hut slammed open, and Devon watched in amazement at how quickly Heartha moved toward her. The old midwife was the only family Devon had ever known, ever since the sorcerer, Orrick, brought her as a baby to Heartha.
“Stay hidden,” Heartha commanded.
“Please,” begged Devon. “Let me meet the lord of Blake Castle.”
“Nay, child. Ye’ll stay here until I discover his intent.”
“Midwife, show your face or I’ll be forced to knock down your door and enter!”
Heartha turned to go but Devon grabbed the woman’s feeble old shoulder. “Let him enter, Heartha. Let me finally meet someone besides monks.”
“Nay, child, I cannot. I promised Orrick to keep ye hidden until his return.”
“Eight and ten years is a long time to be locked away from the rest of the world.”
“I don’t know what th’ sorcerer’s reasons, but I promised ta keep ye safe.” Heartha put her hands on her hips as she spoke. “I’ve raised ye from a squalling babe ta th’ woman ye now are. I’ve managed ta bring ye this far, and I’ll not lose ye the way I lost my only daughter, Wilona.”
“You’re not going to lose me, Heartha. Besides, you said Wilona fell down a set of stairs. There are no stairs in our courtyard, so you needn’t worry.”
Heartha secured her wimple which had loosened in the breeze. “Ye have sanctuary here child because of a boon granted to me by the arch-bishop when I saved him from his illness. Be grateful for that and do not question God’s ways.”
Devon followed Heartha to the garden gate, but stayed hidden as the old woman disappeared behind it. She dug into the pocket of her worn cotehardie and pulled out the old metal amulet that Heartha had found in her swaddling as a baby. She pressed it to her heart and made a wish. The same wish that she’d made nearly every day of her life. To find out who her parents were and where she truly belonged.
She wasn’t meant to live as a peasant in seclusion, and surely the sorcerer’s words proved it. She’d often asked Heartha to tell her time and again how Orrick stressed she was of noble birth. But he’d also stressed she’d be in grave danger if anyone ever found out. If only Orrick hadn’t disappeared, she would have the answer as to whom begot her.
With her hand on the gate, she prepared to throw it open and announce her presence to the lord of Blake Castle. Mayhap he could help her find her true identity. She grabbed the iron handle and pushed in the latch, but her action was halted by Lord Corbett’s harsh words.
“You’ll come to serve as my head cook.”
Devon peeked around the gate and watched.
“Milord,” answered Heartha. “Ye know I’ve always come ta yer aid, but I’m a mid-wife and healer, not a kitchen maid.”
“Brother Ruford tells me you can cook.”
“Brother Ruford should respect his vows of silence, my lord.”
“He has been serving as my steward since Duncan died last year. If he sees fit to come to my aid, so should you. You’ll take over the kitchens immediately.”
“So I’m now to be your servant?” she asked boldly.
“Head cook is a respectful position. Pack your valuables and be at the castle before sun-up.”
“I have no valuables, milord besides my herbs. I live a life of poverty as do all the inhabitants of this monastery.”
“I wasn’t speaking of coin or jewelry.”
“M’lord?” Heartha stood with her arms crossed over her bosom.
With a jerk of his head he motioned toward the small hut. “The girl,” he answered.
“What girl?” Heartha’s voice quavered.
“Don’t jest with me, old woman.”
“So Brother Ruford has not only broken his vow of silence but his promise to keep my secret as well.”
The corners of his lips turned up in a slight smile and he chuckled. “You’ve spilled your own secret, midwife. Brother Ruford mentioned naught of a girl, but now I see ’tis true. I’ll give you ’til the morrow to gather what you need. Be in the kitchens before dawn to prepare a meal to break the fast.”
“Forgive me milord, but – ”
“I’ve got the visiting baron of Torquey housed in my castle and he’s very ill.”
“Then ye’ll want an herbal remedy.”
“Nay. The baroness is with him and has taken his care into her own hands.”
“Forgive me for sayin’ that the baroness is no healer, milord.”
“You dare speak about the baroness with such disrespect?”
Devon watched Heartha, fists clenched at her sides slowly lower her eyes to the ground. Her answer was not above a whisper.
“Nay, milord. I meant no disrespect.”
“Then I’ll expect you in my service before the break of dawn.”
Devon watched the man toss back his long black mane and flick a speck of dust from his mantle. “I’ll be gone for several days, but ’twill expect a hot meal when I return. Something with meat, as I want the baron to have only the best.”
Devon leaned against the gate and its rusty hinges squeaked. His gaze darted in her direction and she held her breath as his icy blue eyes looked in her direction. She wasn’t sure if he actually saw her, but she now had lost her nerve of presenting herself to him. She silently stepped behind the gate and pushed it closed.
“Shall I bring my granddaughter with me, milord?”
“You shall.” The shod hooves of his horse echoed on the cobblestone as his started away.
“And she’ll be treated well?” Heartha asked a bit louder.
Devon always felt apprehensive when Heartha referred to her as her granddaughter, but knew the old woman almost believed it after all these years. A slight sigh of relief parted her lips at the lord’s answer. Her dream was about to come true. She’d be a visitor at the castle, sleep on fine linens and eat rich foods. Perhaps the lord of Steepleton wasn’t so black-hearted after all.
“Thank ye, milord.” Heartha’s voice seemed cheerier. “I’m sure my granddaughter will appreciate the hospitality.”
“She’ll be in the kitchens with you, old woman.”
“She’s been raised by the gentlest of monks, milord! Surely ye don’t mean to have her mingling with the serfs that come to your kitchens to bake their bread?”
“Serfs?” Devon heard the man’s low chuckle. “I’d expect nothing of the kind from the girl. The girl will bunk with you in the great hall and work at your side preparing and serving food.”
Devon raised a hand to her mouth in horror. She wasn’t to be a visitor at the castle, but a permanent resident – as his servant!
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