THE LİÈGEOİS’ COLLAPSE had been brewing for over fifteen years. Victor de Flambre, a commander of Liège’s rebels, anxiously awaited news of the arrival of help from the Burgundian duke. It was now a cold, dreary January day, and he and his men had been bombarding the town of Maastricht with over fifteen-hundred cannonballs since November. Victor’s men were tiring, and they didn’t seem to be making any progress. He decided to withdraw, recoup, and resume the siege a few months hence. But the rebels were far from finished with Maastricht. They continued their siege again in July, meeting with strong resistance still. Although a rash and unpredictable ruler, John of Bavaria wasn’t to be taken down so easily. When word came that John of Burgundy was on his way—presumably to help the Liègeois—Victor rallied new hope. He was in for a surprise. The morning of September 20 th dawned cool and breezy. Victor sat on a fallen log near one of the cooking fires, its scent heavy on the air. Over the anxious snorting of the destriers being saddled and suited for battle, Victor heard the pounding of hooves. The scout galloped into their midst with news the commander loathed to hear. “My lord, the Burgundian duke is in Liège.
” “Ah, thank Christ, at last.” De Flandre spat on the ground as he rose heavily to his feet. This siege had stretched on far too long. Since last fall, he’d only been able to return home to his young bride in Awans for a short respite in early summer. A reprieve far too short, and far too long in coming. “No, my lord. The news is not good.” The scout’s high-pitched voice marked his youth. But there was something else to it that sent itchy fingers under the admiral’s skin. Fear.
The boy continued quickly. “Burgundy comes not to aid, but to set siege against us.” Victor staggered back a step, his boot making a sickening sucking sound on the wet turf. “This is not possible.” He narrowed his eyes at the scout, whose foam-flecked courser pranced in a semicircle before him, flinging mud with every footfall. “’Tis true, my lord. The duke has been in negotiation with the prince-bishop for several days, but it did not bode well. Even as I headed out, Burgundy’s artillery was pommeling Tongeren.” The scout’s youth and obvious terror caused the commander not to question the message. He did not believe this was not a ploy to draw the rebels away from Maastricht.
This was, by God’s bones, a horrific twist of fate. They were so close to capturing the city. With Burgundy’s help, it could all be over in day. Now, what he had expected to be a gift from heaven turned out to be a curse from hell. TWO DAYS LATER, Victor and his army perched on a rise overlooking Othée. As the sun rose high in an almost cloudless September sky, dread overwhelmed him as he scanned the impressive forces spread out on the opposite rise. Thousands of men awaited him. A huge mass of foot soldiers, flanked by archers and cavalry on both sides, stood in the midday sun. Flashes of light sparked blindingly off those lucky enough wearing armor. Victor advanced his men until they were no more than three bow shots from the enemy before the bedlam ensued.
The Burgundians began their assault from a distance, with iron balls shot from their hand-held coulevrines—far more destructive than a rain of arrows. Victor signaled to return the gunfire, but the rebels were grossly outnumbered. The Duke’s army held their ground. The stalemate didn’t last for long. The Burgundians attacked, sending a torrent of cannonballs and arrows raining down over the rebels. His men’s carefully practiced formations wavered as panic overtook them. All around him, Victor heard the screams of horses and watched helplessly as his men fell by the dozens. From his position in the left cavalry flank, he witnessed a literal decimation of his infantry as the enemy swept forward through his front line. Over the mayhem, shouts made their way to Victor’s ears through the ranks at the rear. The news made his blood run cold.
Apparently the Burgundians had broken up, sending hundreds of cavalry and infantrymen around his forces—to attack from behind. Just then he heard an ominous whoosh. He turned to find a cavalryman’s mace had barely missed taking off his head. Victor was ready when the Burgundian swung a second time. He ducked and raised his sword to parry the blow. Successfully twisting his blade in the chain, he yanked the weapon from the big man’s gauntlet. Sliding his sword free, Victor gritted his teeth and lifted it again, poised to run his opponent through. But he never got the chance. Something fell out of the sky. Twenty pounds of roughly molded iron, its weight amplified by its acceleration from above, landed square on the top of Victor’s helmet.
The impact crushed the metal, caving it inward to bear upon his skull. He heard the collision of metal on metal, but never felt any pain. For a moment, he was floating, and all sounds of the battle around him ceased. Then his body jarred mercilessly as he hit the ground. Time stood still as he lost touch with his arms, his torso, his legs. His world darkened rapidly, from the edges inward. As death claimed him, his life’s blood flowing in warm rivers over his face, all Victor could think of was that last night in his lady’s bed. A night when the last de Flandre had been conceived—a child who would never know the brave warrior who was his sire. Chapter One February 1436 Ghent, Flanders THE MİSSİVE ARRİVED by courier, a messenger on horseback, one who was clothed more elaborately than a common peasant. Eva sat on her usual perch, a stool in the chilly back corner of the tailor shop just off the Market Square.
She usually did not pay any mind to the muffled clatter of hooves on cobblestone. This was a common occurrence along this narrow but well-traveled street. It was only when the clopping ceased at the shop’s front door that she laid her needlework in her lap and looked up. Her mother also left her work to meet the messenger inside the door. A cold blast of winter wind followed the man inside to flutter the garments hung along the wall, its cold breath seeping under the worktable. Eva shivered and tucked the folds of her woolen skirt more tightly under her. A messenger’s arrival was not uncommon in the tailor shop. Many times the bourgeois sent orders this way. If Marisse had fashioned garments for the patron before, she already had their vitals recorded, their patterns made. Requests for new garments often arrived by missive, especially in winter.
It was only when her mother gasped and held a hand to her throat that Eva rose and, her steps uneven, hurried to her side. “What is it, maman?” Marisse pointed a finger at the seal holding the rolled parchment closed. “This is . a royal seal. Is this from—?” “Yes, Madame Geretsz. The missive is from the duke.” Affording Marisse a small bow, the messenger turned on his heel and left, the heavy oak door thunking closed behind him. She turned wide eyes on Eva. “Philip has not contacted me in many years,” she whispered. Her mother’s words sounded like an apology.
And so, they might. Eva knew of her own—and her mother’s—history. Her real father knew as well. After all, after Marisse conceived Eva, it was Philip who had arranged for her mother’s betrothal to Andries Geretsz, the Flemish tailor with whom Philip had done much business. It was only Eva’s siblings, her younger stepbrother and sister, who didn’t know the truth of their sister’s lineage. At five and six years of age, they were too young to yet understand their mother’s past. Marisse had once, for a short time, been a mistress of the duke, Philip III of Burgundy—one of many. Philip the Good. ’Twas how Eva came to be. With trembling fingers, Marisse slid her thumbnail under the seal, carefully, trying not to crumble the wax bearing the seal of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Even now, Eva could sense her mother’s reverence. She wasn’t sure how that made her feel. Was it respect for Marisse’s loyalty? Mayhap. But in all good conscience, how could Eva respect what it was that her mother had been to the powerful Burgundian? A mistress. Nothing more. Eva was among Philip’s countless bastard children, though not one granted the title. She laid no claim to anything from her father’s court. Some of his illegitimate daughters were recognized, but not Eva. Eva of Utrecht, at just shy of sixteen winters, had accepted her fate. She knew no nobleman, no knight of honor would ever ask for the hand of a bastard, especially one swept aside by a powerful Burgundian duke.
Especially one who, born with a club foot only partially corrected by the healers, had been left with an uneven gait. She would remain a seamstress, a tailor’s daughter, until some man —a local craftsman, or mayhap even a commoner—decided he needed a wife. If ever. A missive from the Duke himself, however, could signal a change. A glimmer of hope sparked in Eva’s chest. She watched, waiting patiently as Marisse read the words inscribed on the parchment. She was surprised to see her mother’s eyes fill with tears. When she finally looked up, Marisse’s voice cracked with the words. “Philip is sending for you. You are to attend the May Day Festival at his castle in Coudenburg.
He orders, in this message, for an exquisite gown to be fashioned for you of the finest silk, at his expense.” In a rare display of affection, Marisse embraced her daughter. Was she happy for her? Or simply relieved she would no longer be burdened with a bastard daughter for whom she’d have support until some man took pity on her crepled offspring? ’Twas relief, Eva was quite sure. THAT NİGHT, EVA lay in her bed as the winds rattled the windows in her tiny, shared bedchamber above the tailor shop in Ghent. Her thoughts spun like a leaf in the gale. Why now, after sixteen years of ignoring—or perhaps denying—her existence, had her true father decided to acknowledge her? Did he have plans to provide for her future after all? Eva dared not even hope. She had accepted her lot, the daughter of tailors, destined for a commoner’s life. Still, she possessed pride. Eva was comely, with a river of golden-blonde hair so long she often sat upon it, and womanly curves developing already beneath her plain chemise and kirtle. She had mastered the craft of plying cloth into exquisite garments, producing stitches so fine they were almost invisible.
Invisible. This had defined Eva’s existence since the day she was born. It was how she’d remained to her father, the Duke, since she was nothing more than a bastard child—and one with a disfigurement. Even her stepfather preferred to ignore her existence, as she remained a constant reminder to Andries Geretsz of his wife’s sins. Philip had arranged the marriage. Andries had accepted Marisse and her infant bastard daughter, but that didn’t mean he loved Eva as he did his own children. Now Philip had summoned Eva to the grand May Day celebration at his luxurious palace in Brussels. In truth, she’d never ventured beyond the gates of Ghent. Eva couldn’t put a name to the many emotions swirling through her—shock, excitement, anticipation, but also a healthy dose of fear. Eva was not trained in the ways of the court.
She did not know what to expect, or how to act. Floating on the top of all these emotions was one Eva had experienced very little of in her short life—hope. Although far from worldly, Eva heard the other girls’ chatter at the Market Square. She knew that dancing was among the festivities at the May Day feast. Day to day, Eva got along pretty well with her twisted foot. It remained hidden under the hem of her kirtle and, if she took her time when walking, no one was even aware. But dancing? Impossible. Eva had heard of these great celebrations. Philip III had earned the moniker “the Good” for a reason. He hosted the most extravagant feasts of the day.
Most were open to the public, although neither Marisse nor her stepfather had ever dared attend. A shroud of shame, one which did not belong to her, had lain like early morning fog over Eva’s life as long as she could remember. She despised it. She also resented it. Eva did not know what Philip had planned for her. An arranged marriage? A spark of excitement stirred. Mayhap her dream of finding love with a titled knight wasn’t so impossible after all . There it was again, rearing its sinful head. Pride. One of Eva’s biggest flaws, beside and in spite of her physical deformity, was hubris.
More likely, based on her mother’s reputation with the duke, Philip had less honorable plans for his bastard daughter. Would he put her to work as a kitchen maid? A handmaiden to one of the court’s nobler ladies? Mayhap he planned to give her away to one of his courtesans as a mistress. Eva’s stomach soured and she turned on her side, pulling the rough woolen blanket up over her head. She had over two, long months to wait before her questions would be answered. At least, in the meantime, she would gain an exquisite gown of the finest silk, a gown befitting one far above her common status. Would she get to choose the fabric, she wondered? Or had her sire designated the specifics in his missive? A week later, Marisse took hold of Eva’s arm and led her to the workroom at the back of the shop. A large wooden table stood in the center, the place where the cloth was laid out to be measured and cut. There, on the smooth oak surface, lay a bolt of silk. Pale green, woven in a delicate pattern of acanthus leaf swirls, the brocade was the most beautiful Eva had ever seen. Atop it lay coiled yards of ribbon so brilliant, they appeared to be spun of pure gold.
Marisse lifted the ribbon, letting her fingers entwine with the loose ends of Eva’s long tresses. “It will go well with your hair,” she said, her eyes shining. “And the silk matches the color of your eyes. Perfectly.” Those eyes now filled with tears. Eva spoke through the painful knot in her throat. “I will be away for my name day, Maman.” Marisse’s eyes shone too as she rubbed her daughter’s arm. “Do not despair, Eva. My hope ’twill be the most wonderful name day you’ve had in your life.
” Again, Marisse embraced Eva as a lump lodged in her throat as large and rigid as a stone. * “I HAVE NO desire to exhibit the talents of our fine falcons to a crowd of strangers, drunk on the Duke’s wine.” Mathieu de Flandre, head ostler and falconer at the Coudenburg castle, spoke with conviction, knowing all the while his own opinions meant little. He served as squire to Simon La Laing, Admiral of Flanders. Mathieu honored his lord, a good man whose roots grew close to his own. They were both men of Flanders, a region under Burgundian rule for the past two decades. Some of the Flemish had made the best of it, like Simon. He had been knighted under Philip’s elite Order of the Golden Fleece. Mathieu had accepted his fate, honoring the House of Valois. Although his father had died before he was born, fighting to protect Liège from the Burgundians, history was already written.
Mathieu was now under Burgundy’s rule, and felt blessed he’d been accepted as a squire to the admiral. ’Twas as far as he intended to go. His dreams of knighthood, once his life’s goal, was so no longer. “Oh, come now, Mathieu. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t relish the opportunity to show off your talents—and those of your fine hunting stock—to all of the eligible young women at the May Day Feast. You near thirty winters, do you not? And still have not taken a wife.” Simon waited for Mathieu to tighten the girth on his palfrey’s saddle before taking the reins and continuing his lecture. “Philip has sent invitations far and wide for this year’s festival. I’m sure there will be many ripe flowers—all coming here, on display for your perusal. Ready for picking.
” He winked as he settled into the saddle. “I shall be gone for several days, Mathieu. I trust you will keep all well in order here at the castle?” “Of course, my lord. As always.” Mathieu watched Simon ride off, considering his words. He had no intention of securing a wife— at least, not for quite some time. He was young, a man just now approaching his prime. Yet he had nothing to offer a bride. His goals for the future remained hazy, uncertain. Mathieu was a man torn.
His pride and ambition had once driven him down the road to knighthood, following his late father’s lead. ’Twas a road on which he had already advanced a great distance. His conscience, however, caused him to question this goal. For one, knighthood would place him within the very same army of warriors who had killed his father. He had also witnessed knights in action as they oft passed through his city of birth, their mission supposedly to maintain loyalty of its citizens. Some of the warriors, however, seemed to thrive on savagery, with little regard for the virtues of chivalry. Absently, his hand went to his cheek, running his fingers down the length of the scar that marred his face. No matter that the healer had done a fine job of stitching. The puckered, pink line running from his temple to the corner of his mouth remained as a constant, visible reminder, fortifying his decision. Although he had decided not to pursue his sword and spurs, Mathieu still believed in the code of chivalry.
Knighted or not, he vowed to adhere to these virtues. A wife? No, not even remotely in his plans. But a tryst with a pretty young thing with a low tolerance for the Duke’s freely flowing libations? Yes. Oh, yes. That might definitely be worth taking out one of Simon’s gyrfalcons, even a peregrine, at the May Day Festival to show off to the ladies. What Mathieu hadn’t figured on, however, was the duke’s directive for him to act as chaperone. When Simon returned after nearly a fortnight, dusk was settling over the manor. The Admiral had reportedly been meeting with some of the duke’s merchants in Bruges. Mathieu barely finished helping the admiral down off his mount and taking the dust-coated reins from him when Simon began without so much as a greeting. “Philip is sending you on a most important mission, Mathieu.
You must take with you a most gentle palfry and travel to Ghent. In the days before the May Day Festival . there is a young woman there you must retrieve. She is to be brought here to Coudenburg.” As he unsaddled his lord’s sweaty horse, anger and resentment rose in Mathieu’s chest. He was no escort, no lowly courier to be sent on missions such as these. He was a squire, the ostler and falconer here at Coudenburg. And he had many preparations to oversee at the castle for the festival —” “I know what you’re thinking, Mathieu.” He’d never been good at hiding his emotions, no matter how hard he tried. Although he kept his tongue, he snapped the girth leather free and yanked the saddle from the horse’s back with a little more force than necessary.
Simon knew Mathieu fairly well. The admiral had become somewhat of a father to him these past years. Sometimes it seemed as though the man could actually read his mind. “Mathieu. Do not despair. This mission is no common task, but one the duke honors you to complete. The lady you must retrieve is a very special one, indeed.” A lady. Harumph. Probably just another one of the duke’s mistresses.
The ostler grabbed a handful of straw and began the rubbing down the sweaty horse’s coat. Steam rose from its body in the cool of the early spring evening. Mathieu knew of Philip’s escapades, as did all of his dukedom. Not that the duke bothered to hide his transgressions. Rumors abounded about Philip, and although Mathieu realized not all could possibly be true, he highly suspected those regarding his “weakness of the flesh” bore truth. The Duke had, in fact, brought a number of ladies to stay with him at Coudenburg. Not all of them had been one of the wives he’d taken over the years. While Mathieu completed the horse’s rubdown—a rougher one than usual, but the palfrey didn’t seem to mind—Simon was conducting his walkthrough of the stables, as he always did after an absence. This, too, curdled Mathieu’s ire. It was as though Simon didn’t trust him to keep things at the castle exactly the way his lord desired.
Still, Mathieu knew he was lucky. He had only come into the position of squire by good fortune and the benevolence of the duke and his admiral. He had not been born into a family of noble blood— at least, not noble in the eyes of the Burgundian court. He had not, as was customary, begun his training as a young boy. Still, to be doubted? After all this time? To his knowledge, he’d never let the admiral down. But inspection was apparently not the purpose of the admiral’s walk through the stables this evening. La Laing emerged with a thoughtful expression, pulling on his short dark beard, his mouth pursed. “Germaine, I think, would be the most suitable mount for your charge.”