Publication Date: September 28, 2020
Publisher: Matador (paperback) & Timelight Press (ebook)
Page Length: 396 pages (paperback) 335 pages (ebook)
Genre: Historical Fiction
For bastard-born Robert FitzStephan, being given Eleanor d’Outremer in marriage is an honour. For Eleanor, this forced wedding is anything but a fairy tale.
Robert FitzStephan has served Edward Longshanks loyally since the age of twelve. Now he is riding with his king to once and for all bring Wales under English control.
Eleanor d’Outremer—Noor to family—lost her Castilian mother as a child and is left entirely alone when her father and brother are killed. When ordered to wed the unknown Robert FitzStephan, she has no choice but to comply.
Two strangers in a marriage bed is not easy. Things are further complicated by Noor’s blood-ties to the Welsh princes and by covetous Edith who has warmed Robert’s bed for years.
Robert’s new wife may be young and innocent, but he is soon to discover that not only is she spirited and proud, she is also brave. Because when Wales lies gasping and Edward I exacts terrible justice on the last prince and his children, Noor is determined to save at least one member of the House of Aberffraw from the English king.
Will years of ingrained service have Robert standing with his king or will he follow his heart and protect his wife, his beautiful and fierce Castilian hawk?
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(In which our protagonists, Robert and Eleanor, meet for the first time)
“Behold your reward,” John the Gascon said a week later, holding in his horse. They were several miles east of Wigmore, about as far away from Ludlow to the west. A shallow dale, wooded on the further side, sheep grazing on the nearest meadows. Closer to the buildings themselves were neat fields and fenced pastures, one of them with several horses. Robert narrowed his eyes: good horseflesh, well above what he would have expected to find in a castle so small it was more of a fortified manor. He sat back in his saddle. He’d never had anything of his own before, and he couldn’t quite hold back the pleased smile at the thought that soon this would be his, all the way from the large hall and the sturdy walls that surrounded the bailey to the barns and the stables.
The rest of their companions caught up, forming a loose half-circle around Robert and John.
“The king was right. It’s not much of a castle,” Edith said.
John scowled at her. “She shouldn’t be here. It’s not right.” Of late, John had been as prickly as a hedgehog when it came to Edith—likely because she’d refused his offer to share his bed instead of Robert’s now that Robert was about to wed. Robert glanced at Edith. These last few nights had been intense, neither of them falling asleep until just before dawn. But John was right: he couldn’t ride into Orton Manor to claim his bride with a woman he regularly bedded in tow.
“Best you return to Ludlow.” He dug into the pouch that hung from his belt and produced some coins. “Treat yourself to a room and a bath, love.”
“Are you ashamed of me?” she asked, taking the coins all the same.
“I am to meet my wife,” he said. “It will be difficult enough what with the gifts I bring her.” He grimaced, gesturing at the cart and the two elongated bundles on it.
Edith’s green eyes studied him thoughtfully. “But nothing will change between us.”
“Nothing,” he promised, ignoring John’s scowl.
Edith nodded once before turning her horse. With her went David, and Robert’s shoulders relaxed somewhat.
John looked him up and down. “You could have worn something else.” Robert shrugged. He rarely went anywhere without his leather surcoat, a garment he’d had for close to a decade. He found a length of leather to tie back his hair and urged his horse forward. “Best get this done, then.”
The cart trundled along the lane, Robert and John riding in front. Well past Lammas, the wheat fields had mostly been harvested, but the barley still stood tall, the peas were drying in their pods and the apple trees in the orchard stood heavy with fruit. A good harvest, Robert thought before breaking off to shake his head. He knew nothing of harvests, of apples or peas. But soon he would. His fields, his orchards—his apples. To the king, Orton Manor was likely not much, but to Robert it was akin to a kingdom.
The villeins labouring in the fields halted their work at their approach, straightening up to take in the visitors—and the cart. By the time they’d reached the rustic drawbridge over the ditch, they’d acquired quite a following, the people of the manor walking silently behind the cart and the two corpses.
Over the bridge, through the gate—a strong, sturdy gatehouse, Robert concluded, the heavy doors set on huge hinges affixed to the stonework—and they were in the bailey. At the top of the stairs leading to the hall stood a group of women, all but one in veil and wimple. The youngest was standing a few feet in front of the others, one hand resting on the head of a magnificent hound. A huge beast, it looked like a cross between one of King Edward’s precious greyhounds and a wolf, its brindled coat shifting from the lightest of greys to a sooty black. No wimple, but her hair was not to be seen, a veil covering all but the tip of a heavy braid and a few tendrils that had come undone. Dark hair.
She walked slowly down the stairs, the hound at her side. From the hall erupted a sturdy tonsured man, his robes flapping round his legs as he hurried after her.
“My lady,” Robert said once she’d come to a halt before him.
“My lord.” She bowed her head in greeting. No one had called him a lord before. It almost made him grin. Lord Robert of Orton, master of all he presently surveyed, including the young woman in front of him. What would his dear sire have to say about that, he wondered, teeth grinding together for an instant.
Robert shook himself free of dark thoughts and dismounted. “I come—”
“I know why you come,” she interrupted. “Our liege has sent me a messenger.” Her voice shook. “He has ordered me to wed you at the soonest—for my own safety.” She looked at the cart, and for an instant her eyes glittered. Her lashes swept down, and he heard her mutter, “Unus, duo, tres,” counting all the way to ten before she opened her eyes again. “Is that…” She cleared her throat. “Are they…”
“Yes, my lady.” John bowed. “We are sorry to bring you such gruesome tidings.”
She nodded, no more. “No mother, now no father, no brother.” She gave a little laugh, a sad sound that caused Robert’s innards to twist. “The king is right: I am without protection, without family.”
“Come, come,” the priest said. “The king has seen to that, my lady.” He gave Robert an ingratiating smile. “Behold your new protector, your husband.”
“Not yet,” she said, her eyes on her embroidered girdle.
“Easily remedied,” the priest said. He straightened up. “And the king expressly ordered that I wed you as soon as possible.”
He had? Robert was in two minds about that. Surely, a young maid deserved some time to get used to the notion of wedding a man she’d never seen before? But then he recalled just how determined his liege was to keep this part of the borderland between Wales and England under his control—he’d never risk having someone abduct this little heiress and force her to wed. He looked away, made uncomfortable by the thought that, from her perspective, this was just as forced a marriage. That was probably why she’d not adorned herself, her kirtle an unembroidered russet.
The priest prattled on and on, repeating it was best to get things done. And so Robert found himself face-to-face with his bride on the threshold of the little chapel that leaned somewhat erratically against the encircling wall.
She was soft and round and so short she had to crane her head back to look at him. Someone had adorned her head with a coronet of herbs, threaded through with pink roses. Big dark eyes in a face that still retained the softness of childhood, a plump lower lip that bore the indents of her teeth—she must have been biting it just seconds before. A child, he reflected, trying to recall just how old this bride of his was. Fifteen? She didn’t look fifteen, but when his gaze dipped lower, it encountered a promising swell over her chest, so maybe she wasn’t quite as immature as he had first thought. He smiled. She blushed, a dusky red spreading over her olive skin, but she did not avert her eyes, studying him as intently as he was studying her.
Idly, he wondered what she might think of him. Of somewhat more than average height, with hair as dark as hers, he was hard where she was soft, all the way from the beak of a nose his father had bequeathed him to his broad chest and lean legs. She stared at him. He shifted on his feet, the soft soles of his boots sliding over the well-worn stone steps. Aye, he knew he was no Lancelot, what with his scars and weather-beaten skin, but neither was she a Guinevere, all short and plump. Fat, almost. Well, maybe not fat, but all the same, who was she to look at him as if she were disappointed? He frowned. She blushed again, but this time she ducked her head, her eyes disappearing behind thick, dark lashes.
Robert held out his hand. Hesitantly, she placed hers in his, a tightly knotted little fist he easily enclosed. He could feel her trembling, slid a finger over her wrist and found her pulse, a rapid beat that had him thinking of a captured bird. An unfortunate comparison, seeing as his little bride was just that: a prize, given to him in recognition of his loyal service to his king. With her came lands and several manors—far more land than he had ever hoped for. He squeezed her hand. She exhaled softly, and her fingers uncurled enough that he could grip them instead.
He liked her voice. Such a small, round thing, and her voice was rich and melodious, even if she stumbled over her vows. The priest did his bit, and already the assembled people were converging on them—she standing very still as she was surrounded by his friends, her retainers. No family for either of them. Sir Stephan de Lamont may have fathered him, even contributed to his upbringing, but Robert had seen him too rarely to have formed any emotional ties to the man, and he’d never known his mother. Her family—he couldn’t quite stop himself from glancing at the cart, now moved to stand in the shade of the stables. He’d killed them both, her father and her brother, but that was not something he intended to tell her, not today. He felt a twinge of pity. Here she stood, Eleanor d’Outremer, all alone in the world.
Well, not entirely alone: she was his now, and soon enough there’d be babes to distract her from the grief she must be experiencing. He tightened his hold on her hand, sweeping his thumb in a soft caress. She looked up at him, and they shared a little smile.
Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England.
More recently, Anna has published The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal and time-slip ingredients. While she loved stepping out of her comfort zone (and will likely do so again ) she is delighted to be back in medieval times in her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk. Set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales, His Castilian Hawk is a story of loyalty, integrity—and love.
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