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Publisher Kelly Grant
eBook Kindle Edition
Pledged to served the Knights of the Burning Flame, fifteen year old Caterina struggles to learn control of her talent for knowing the Truth of all things. When an injured young woman is brought to the Abbey of the Blessed Heart for healing, Caterina must find the strength to confront the evil that arrives with her.
Fifty years later, mercenary captain Septimus Rovero is furious when he is ordered to escort a novice, Matteo, on a winter journey to the vanished abbey. What should be a simple task rapidly unravels and things descend into chaos as the pair learn of the evil at the Heart.
1365 - The Valaresso Estate, near Orsino
Caterina stared at herself in the polished silver mirror as her mother's maids fussed about her. She saw reflected there a thin, flat chested girl, almost fifteen years of age, who was laced into a grey gown that was too tight and whose eyes were red and swollen from weeping. The girl's eyes and her face were as grey as her gown, her expression queasy. She tried to take a deep breath, to compose herself before more tears came. The older of her mother's maids, Anna-Maria, hissed at her, "Oh do keep still, Caterina!", spitefully stabbing her with a hairpin. Caterina stiffened and tried not to move as her brown hair was pulled and jerked into an elaborate braided crown. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Her mother, the Lady Constanza Valaresso, sailed into the room trailed by two of her servants who carried her fan and a box of candied fruits. Her dark chestnut-coloured hair was beautifully coiffured, her gown of wine coloured silk cut in the latest fashion, but her face was thin and pinched, with a sour expression.
"Aren't you ready? For Trinity's sake, Caterina. It's a betrothal, not your funeral. Get some blusher on her, Ninetta, we can at least try to make her look pretty."
"You can rouge me up like a whore for all I care, mother," said Caterina bitterly, then gasped in shock as her mother stepped forward and slapped her across one cheek.
"You watch that tongue. Gods above, why did you curse me with this disobedient girl?" Constanza knotted her hands together and rolled her eyes heavenwards. "Carlos Sforza is here with his men and his mother and he's impatient to have the betrothal documents signed." Constanza gestured the maids away from her daughter and picked up the hair pins herself. She moved behind Caterina, looking at her in the mirror critically. She wasn't gentle as she jabbed the pins into Caterina's hairstyle.
"This alliance is important to your family, Caterina. You are not expected to understand why, only to obey your father, and me." She selected an earring from a tray held for her by the maid Anna-Maria, held it up next to Caterina's face then rejected it, tossing it back down. Caterina heard her mother sigh, then say to the maids and servants, "Out, out all of you. I will speak to my daughter alone."
Caterina swallowed as her mother's cortege made their curtseys and slipped out of the room. Her cheek hurt where it had been slapped, but mostly she felt numb. She'd felt that way since her father, Lord Rodriguez Valaresso had informed her that Count Carlos Sforza had asked for, and been granted, permission to take her as his wife.
"Count Sforza's neither old, nor ugly," said her mother. She laughed humorously. "He'd certainly like to be richer than he is, which is one of the reasons he wants to marry you. More importantly, he is cousin to Angelico Buonavente. You do remember him, I trust?" said her mother, thin lipped. "And Vincenzo Buonavente, his brother?"
"Yes, I know. The man Fillip fought ..."
"The boy your brother Fillip killed. Over some stupid game of cards. And for this we have a blood feud with the Buonavente, when our alliances are few and weak." Constanza slapped down the remaining pins and opened a jewellery box. "I have thanked the Gods every single day since Count Sforza approached your father for this alliance. It can not come too soon. Once you are wed, the blood debt will be forgiven, and Fillip can come home." Her mother spoke from over Caterina, looking at her in the mirror as she selected a necklace of gold and rubies. She looped the chain around Caterina's neck, and was pleased to see it gave the girl some colour. "Carlos is young, Caterina. Only twenty six. You might feel scared now but you won't find being a wife to him that bad, I promise you." Her mother smirked knowingly, but Caterina felt her skin crawl, and an urge to reach up and rip away the blood coloured stones.
"He's young, and he's already had two wives. He starved the first and poisoned the second," she said tonelessly.
"Caterina! That's... that's nonsense." Constanza was breathless with shock at her daughter's blunt statement of what was rumoured. "You ..You will not say such a thing to him." She shook Caterina by the shoulders. "You will not breath a word of those ...lies."
"He stinks of death," said Caterina softly, staring at herself in the mirror. "He thinks a smile, tailored clothes and a handsome face will hide what he is, but he's a monster. He intends to betray us, mother. My marrying him isn't going to save Fillip."
Constanza Valaresso stood trying to get her breath, one hand clasped against her bosom. She sagged onto a daybed and fought to compose herself. When she could speak, her voice was brittle.
"You can not possibly know any such thing, Caterina. You're just a selfish girl who doesn't want to grow up. I am fed up with these ... these delusions of yours. I should have let your father whip it out of you, as he wished to." Constanza squeezed her hands into the folds of her gown, white-knuckled. "Thinking you can somehow tell what people have done or are going to do. It was annoying in a child, when all it did was frighten the servants or make them disloyal to us when you ferreted out their secrets, but carry on this way and you will find yourself friendless in your husband's house, or worse. What if he should accuse you of witchcraft?" Her mother managed to get to her feet, lips set in thin line of dislike as she stepped to the door. "Count Sforza can stink of fish to you, for all I care. Be ready to come down to sign the betrothal contract when I send up the servant to you."
The moment was upon her and yet she hadn't woken up from the nightmare. The Justiciars from the Sforza and the Valaresso households were dressed in black velvet and stood to either side of the altar in the Valaresso family chapel. They were both elderly, white bearded men. Justiciar Benedict had taken the long plumed quill from out of Count Carlos Sforza's hand and was holding it out to Caterina, leaning a little forwards over the documents spread on the altar with his finger pressed to where she must sign.
Caterina's father, Rodriguez Valaresso stood to her left side, his iron coloured hair cropped short and his face weather beaten. He wore his black enamelled armour, to emphasise to his intended son-in-law that, though he was in his fifties, the head of the Valaresso family was still a martial man.
Carlos Sforza stood to Caterina's right. He must have bribed one of the servants to learn what Caterina would be wearing, and had matched her grey dress with a grey velvet doublet, breeches of dark grey silk patterned with light grey stripes and grey slippers. His silver hilted rapier, sheathed in black leather, was worn slung low across his left hip and the overall effect was very handsome. Carlos' mother, a straight backed woman with ash-blonde hair, stood next to Caterina's mother, clad all in black. To all appearances she gazed proudly at her son but when Caterina caught her eyes for a moment, she saw something trapped and frantic within them. This was a woman who knew what her son was, and was terrified of him.
A bead of black ink ran down Caterina's shaking fingers. Carlos Sforza picked up a folded blotting cloth from amongst the scribe's tools resting on the altar and took her hand. He dabbed at her fingers, catching the bead before it could spatter onto the betrothal document.
"There," he said, "but perhaps you should sign now before more ink stains those lovely hands?" He smiled gently, to reassure her that he was not at all impatient with her nervousness. The young Count of Sforza's expression indicated to all those gathered there that he already found Caterina quite endearing.
Caterina felt a cold chill sink through her at his touch, as if the poison he had handled had slipped into her veins through her skin. Carlos Sforza was surrounded by the stench from the corpse of a woman he had abandoned in a tower room to starve to death, her body left to bloat in the summer heat. Caterina felt ill and disoriented, her head swimming.
"I can't," she whispered, shaking like a leaf. She looked around her, round eyed, sweating in her tight fitted dress, for someone to save her. "I can't."
Her mother glared at her, mouthing "Sign it!" Her father took the pen from out of her nerveless fingers, and gestured to one of the servants to assist Caterina to a seat. "Nerves, Count Sforza," he assured the young gentleman smoothly. "She doesn't eat for days in order to look her best, then wonders why she feels faint." Rodriguez Valaresso raised his eyebrows and smiled at Count Sforza as if to say "Daughters, what can you do?", but the sideways look he gave Caterina was grim and enraged. He bent over the parchment himself. "If you'll permit, I can sign on her behalf."
Carlos Sforza bowed slightly to his would-be father-in-law, showing there was no offence. "Of course ..."
There was a disturbance at the entrance doors of the chapel. Some of the servants had been permitted to sit at the rear of the building, to witness the happy event. The Sforza steward was speaking in a loud voice and, from his frustrated tone, being ignored by whoever he was haranguing.
"I don't know how you got past the guards, but you can't come in here! You'll have to make an appointment. Whatever it is will have to wait, there's a family matter taking place here. Take your hands off me! How dare you! Come back here! Somebody, call the guards!"
A sandy haired man, wearing partial plate armour and chain mail strode boldly up the centre aisle with his helm tucked under one arm, ignoring the steward who was yapping at his heels like a small dog. Caterina's father straightened from the betrothal document, angry at the interruption and impatient to have the betrothal signed and witnessed. Carlos Sforza only looked curious, though he rested one hand upon the silver hilt of his sword. One of the Sforza guardsmen stepped closer to his master, anticipating trouble. Caterina, half sagging in the grip of one of the servants, wondered if this was someone come to call Count Sforza out. A relative of the women he'd murdered, perhaps?The man reached their gathering and presented himself with a courtly bow to each of the gentleman, and to Caterina.
Rodriguez Valaresso stared at him, face dark with outrage. "You are interrupting a betrothal. Who the hell are you? What do you want? Do you carry some message?"
The steward hovering at the man's elbow, hissing, "I told you!" and tried to steer the intruder away. Caterina watched as the man shrugged their steward aside, as calmly as flicking off a fly.
"I am Ser Arland d'Baude, a knight of the Cleansing Flame of Elarias. My purpose here is service to my God. I would have five words of speech with your daughter, with your kind permission. I carry no weapons and will depart immediately after I have spoken to her."
Constanza Valaresso nearly choked. Her mother's frightened expression became vindictive as she turned it upon Caterina. Constanza had never heard of the Knights of the Cleansing Flame, but just from the name they sounded like the sort of order that tracked down evil doers and naughty children who, gods-alone knew how, had discovered their mother's affair with the family steward, among other secret things.
Roderiguez Valaresso stared furiously and Count Carlos Sforza went at first red, then his face drained of colour. He suddenly seemed eager to put as much space between himself and the knight as possible.
Dazed by the interruption, Caterina shook herself free from the servant, stumbling slightly as she moved forwards to address the knight. "You have something you want to say to me, Ser?"she asked faintly.
A shaft of afternoon sunshine entered the chapel through a high window and shone down upon Ser Arland, and though his armour was plain and rather battered, for a moment it was bathed with gold and to Caterina, the knight glowed within an aura of light. That could have been attributed to a fever of relief and the imagination of a sixteen year old girl, for certainly no one else in the Valaresso chapel saw any such glow.
Ser Arland d'Baude assessed Caterina for a moment as the guardsman arrived at the chapel door and clattered into the aisle. He nodded slightly to himself at whatever he saw in her. His dark brown eyes met and held her grey ones, completely open and inviting her to look within him. Hardly trusting herself, Caterina stepped a little closer to him. The knight was perhaps twenty three years of age, with some scars to his face and hands that spoke of battles fought. His armour was dinted and repaired, and he valued its tested strength rather than being ashamed that it was not bright with enamels. Caterina quivered, and inhaled the air. Ser Arland smelled of cinnamon and she had always loved the scent of cinnamon.
Eyes never leaving hers, Ser Arland d'Baude spoke his five words to her.
"Caterina Valaresso, will you serve Lord Elarias?"
Her heart lurched in her chest. All her life Caterina had been instructed in the doctrine of the Church of the Trinity, but to her family a show of piety towards the gods was simply part of the politics of power. She had never felt anything like a calling, and any such thing would have been mocked by her parents unless there was an advantage to them in it. What would it mean to make such a promise to this unknown knight? Perhaps it was only relief at being offered any avenue of escape from the Sforza marriage, but there was no doubt in Caterina's mind as she answered him.
"Yes, Ser d'Baude. I will serve."
"Swear it," the young knight instructed her, and Caterina gulped, then said "I so swear it."
Ser d'Baude nodded as if he had never expected any other answer and then turned and bowed to Caterina's stunned father and mother.
"My business is settled. Caterina and I will depart at once." He looked severely at the guardsmen who was approaching, weapons drawn, intent on intervening. "If you insist on interfering, though I have no weapon, I assure you that I can kill you and I will, if necessary." He nodded towards the two Justiciars who were present and standing as shocked as Caterina's parents and would-be husband. "The choice is hers and she has made it. She is within the Law, and no one may break her holy covenant with Lord Elarias."
Caterina's father finally reacted. He waved away his guards, but moved towards Ser Arland, full of his outrage. "This is not the end of this," he promised. He drew himself up, tall and broad and full of fury. "Caterina has given her promise to the Sforza. An "I do" given to a Count of the House of Sforza rates just a little higher than one given to a hedge knight, and I think you'll find that the Justiciars of the Patriarchal Court will agree with me."
"Why stop at the office of the Justiciars? Why not take up your daughter's decision with the Inquisitor General himself?" said Ser d'Baude, still calm but with a gleam in his eyes.
Roderiguez Valaresso blanched. "Why the hell would I do that?" he demanded to know.
"Because," said Arland, unable now to hold back his satisfied smirk, "It was the Lord Inquisitor who told me to come fetch her."
Matteo's feet were freezing inside his boots as he hurried his way up the steep cobbled street towards the gates of the villa. The cold ate at his toes, despite the thick stockings his mother had, to his embarrassment at the time and eternal gratitude now, insisted on giving him during their last meeting. He grabbed at his cloak with one hand and hitched his robe with the other, striding over a puddle of slush. The wind whipped around the woollen garments, flinging his cloak up into his face, slipping its icy fingers through the weaving of his undergarments. Maliciously it teased at the hem of his cassock, swirling around his long, stocking clad legs, threatening to lift his robes flapping over his head. Trying to keep his robes decorously down, he arrived at the imposing gates of the palace of the Count of Pavia, looking bedraggled as a wind tossed crow.
Freezing winds swept over the city with the arrival of the first snow of the season; barely a soul stirred in the hilltop city. The gate guards knew the novice by now, well enough to wave him through and retreat to a warm fire in the gate house without even asking him his business.
Matteo crossed quickly through the first small courtyard, his footsteps muffled over a soft covering of snow as more of it whirled slowly down. He kept his head bowed, within his cowl and close to his chest, preserving warmth. Crossing to the second gate he could nevertheless see the soldiers were still at their posts on the battlements over the vaulted arcades. The heavy, fur lined cloaks they wore over their light armour couldn't keep them from the brunt of the wind. Matteo felt pity for them, stuck up there in the battlements, stamping their feet in their boots. The icy wind gusted and spurred him into strides as rapid as his robes permitted and he passed through the second gate.
He was now properly into the citadel. Its stables were on his right, storehouse and barracks on the left, a wide courtyard with ornate fountain in the centre. Beyond that, on the far side, six broad flagged steps rose between reposing lion statues taking him up to the great bronze banded doors of the Count's dwelling. It was all very impressive eight months ago, when he'd arrived in the warmth of spring, fresh faced from the Abbey of St. Benefice. The courtyard had been full of the bustle of women turning the house inside out for its spring cleaning, and the Count's newly arrived mercenaries had been strutting about, idle, their polished armour and the crimson cloaks the Count of Pavia had gifted them bright in the sunlight.
It was the first days of winter now, and he knew that the grand fountain of stippled marble with its leaping dolphins was little more than an ornate trough, used for washing the laundry and hauling water and bathing babies. The sheen had rubbed off his first image of the mercenaries, too, whom he'd discovered were a combination of loud, foolish and drunken when they were not threatening and bullying their way through the streets of Pavia.
He hastened up the stairs, struggled against the wind a moment to open one half of the bronze banded doors, until a guard within gave it a shove that nearly knocked him back down the stairs. "Watch yerself," the guard grumbled, as Matteo scrambled to keep his feet. "And make yer mind up, in out. Worse than the damned cat."
The novice wanted to protest that it wasn't his fault his long legs were growing faster than his slight frame, giving him a scuttling, awkward gait. For the past couple of years he'd been prone to tangling himself around air or stumbling over cobwebs, frequently upending whatever happened to be around him, including people.
Matteo decided to ignore the mercenary's scowl, deliberately forcing his frown into a big smile of thanks instead. Patience with others was one of the Virtues and since coming to the household of the Count of Pavia, it was a rule he'd had plenty of opportunity to practice. He straightened himself out and brushed snow from his clothing before continuing on his way.
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Kelly Grant is an Australian author of fantasy fiction. She has a Ph.D. in Art History, specialising in Roman, Medieval and Renaissance Italy. When not writing, she keeps busy freelancing as a multimedia producer and working in her ceramics studio. Two children, a husband and three cats occasionally get some of her attention.