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Winter's Flame (Seasons of Fortitude Series Book 4) by Elizabeth Rose (1)


 

 

 

 

 

Ravenscar, England 1372

 

Resilience is the seed of emotional strength!

 

The den of the devil wasn’t as hot as the fires of the forge once Lady Winter finished stoking the flames. Sparks shot up around her, warming the small, dark smithy. Smoke billowed up into the air, the white tendrils disappearing through the vent hole in the roof.

“Wallace, more coal,” she called out, instructing the blacksmith of Ravenscar who had, at one time, been a mentor to her back in Hetherpool where she lived most her life.

“Winter, this is no place for a lady,” scolded her younger sister, Autumn, from the doorway of the smithy. Autumn’s red hair looked vibrant in the midday sun. She’d been married yesterday to the Beast of Ravenscar and couldn’t be happier. Lord Ravenscar turned out to be noble, trustworthy, and a caring knight - not a beast after all.

“Autumn, you are not one to speak,” said Winter. “You, too, are a lady but yet you lived in poverty with nuns because you wanted to help others with your healing touch. Helping Wallace and the town of Ravenscar get back on their feet is something I want to do.”

Wallace emptied a bucket of coal into the fire and spread it out with an iron shovel. His bald head glistened with sweat from the heat in the dark, little shack. Winter noticed him squinting and wiping his brow. His large stomach protruded over his belt. He looked so much older than she’d remembered. And very tired.

“I still don’t agree with this,” scolded Autumn. “The town isn’t a safe place for a noblewoman. The smithy is the last place a lady wearing a gown should be. It’s too dangerous.”

“Nonsense!” Winter wiped her hands on the leather apron she wore over her gown. Reaching above her head, she grabbed on to a rope and pulled it hard. It was connected to the bellows that blew air over the flames. The fire glowed a bright red as the flames caught. “I’ve removed the sleeves of my gown so that the tippets won’t catch on fire, so you needn’t worry.”

“You’ll ruin your fine clothes with the soot in this filthy place.” A fine coating of soot covered the workroom and even the floor. Still, Winter didn’t mind. Her heart soared to be able to work in the forge once again.

“Lady Winter, I have gowns that were once Evelyn’s,” said Wallace. “They are in a trunk in the back room. I couldn’t bring myself to give them away after she died recently from ill health. They are, by no means, the gowns of a lady but should fit you. You won’t need to worry about ruining your clothes.”

“Thank you, Wallace,” said Winter. “And I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s death. She was such a sweet woman.” While Winter held compassion for the man, she wasn’t one to dwell on misfortune. Her sister, Autumn, was the one who was better with comforting the sad or ill. “Hand me that poker, please. I need to stoke the flames.” Winter held out her hand, waiting for Wallace to collect the poker that was leaning against the wall right next to him. He looked directly at it but acted as if he didn’t see it.

“I’m sorry, Lady Winter, I need to sit down.” Wallace hobbled over to a chair and collapsed atop it, bending over and rubbing his hands over his face. Something was wrong. She needed to find out what was bothering him. Fetching the poker for herself, Winter continued to stoke the flames. Then, using a glove, she picked up a sword in the making and laid it atop the hot bed of coals.

“I hope you’re not ill, Wallace,” said Winter, exchanging glances with her sister who stood in the doorway.

“Ill?” Autumn’s concern outweighed her hesitance to enter the smithy. “I’m a healer; perhaps I can help.” Hurriedly, she made her way over to Wallace. Laying her hand on his forehead, she checked for fever. “It is extremely hot in here, so it is hard to tell if you have a fever. However, I don’t believe so.”

“I’ll be all right,” the man told her. “I just miss my son, that’s all.”

“That’s right, you have a son named Josef that is not much older than us,” said Autumn. “Where is he? I haven’t seen him around town or at the castle since I’ve been in Ravenscar.”

“Please, don’t tell me he died, too?” Winter took off the blacksmith’s glove and made her way across the room to join them.

“Nay, my son didn’t die. He’s . . . living on the border now.” Wallace stood up and forced a smile. “Shall we put a weapon on the fire? The coals should be hot enough now. It’s good to have you here, Lady Winter. And you, too, Lady Autumn. I feel as if I have friends again.”

Winter flashed a concerned glance at Autumn. Wallace was acting strangely. “Wallace, I already have a sword on the fire. Didn’t you see me put it there?”

“Oh, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” Wallace wiped his brow with a rag.

“Wallace, you fool!” A big, burly man entered the smithy, ducking so as not to hit his head on the doorframe. He held a horseshoe in one hand. Another man followed him into the shack with a large knife in his grip.

“Brom?” Wallace rushed over to meet the man at the door.

“We’re angry with you,” said the other man.

“Robert,” Wallace said softly. “I’d like you both to meet Ladies Winter and Autumn.” Wallace extended his arm toward the women.

“Ladies in the forge?” Brom asked in surprise. He bowed slightly to greet them.

“Brom - you plow the fields for Lord Ravenscar, don’t you?” asked Autumn.

“I do, my lady,” he answered with a quick nod.

“Robert, I remember you as well,” continued Autumn. “You are the town’s butcher.” She was the lady of the castle now. Although she hadn’t been there long, Autumn knew many of the villagers.

“I am,” said the man named Robert.

“What brings you here today?” asked Winter curiously.

“Wallace shoed my horse – on the wrong foot!” Brom shook his head. “This is going to cost me a good day’s work in the field. I need it fixed now.”

“And my knife isn’t sharp enough to cut through butter,” complained Robert, waving his blade in the air. “What is the matter with you, Wallace? Your work has gone downhill ever since that border lord took your son.”

“What border lord?” asked Winter curiously.

“I’ll fix everything,” said Wallace, reaching for the horseshoe. Winter wasn’t sure if his nerves got in the way, but the blacksmith dropped the horseshoe, almost hitting himself on the foot.

“I’ll take the knife,” said Winter, reaching for it before Wallace cut off an extremity next. “Gentlemen, you can go back to work. Everything will be fixed today.”

“It better be,” grumbled the butcher, heading out the door.

“I’ll be waiting outside with my horse,” said Brom, glancing once again at the girls. “This is no place for women, let alone a noblewoman.”

“Thank you for your concern,” said Autumn. “But we are not in any danger being here, I assure you.”

Just as she said that, the girls’ brothers came through the door, blocking the entrance with their three tall, bulky forms. Brom stepped aside and let the men enter, nodding to them as he hurried from the room. “Good day, my lords,” he said, taking off at a near run. Seeing the bastard triplets of the king close up was enough to scare off any commoner. Winter chuckled. The triplets might look and also act threatening at times, but they all had a soft side to them.

“Was he causin’ ye trouble?” asked their redheaded brother, Reed. “Just say the word, and I’ll string him up by his ears.”

“Aye, I’ll teach him not to be in here bothering my sisters,” said Rook, his hand already on the hilt of his sword at his side. Rook had black hair, while the third brother, Rowen, had blond hair. They all had the same bright blue eyes and noble features, just different colored hair. They were half-English and half-Scottish. However, Reed was the only one of the three of them that dressed, talked, and acted like a Scot.

“No one was causing us trouble,” said Winter. “Autumn and I are not in any danger and don’t need your help. We are here of our own will.”

“We promised Ravenscar we’d keep an eye on you two during your visit to town,” said Rowen, speaking of Autumn’s new husband. He walked over and looked at the forge. “Winter, that sword is glowing it is so hot.”

“Oh! I almost forgot.” Winter hurried over, snatching up a pair of long iron tongs and slipped a blacksmith’s glove over her opposite hand. She then used the tongs to pick up the sword. When she turned around, she stopped abruptly, as Reed was standing right in front of her.

“Reed, move your sorry arse, or were you trying to get branded?” said Rook, sitting on a wooden chair and stretching his long legs out in front of him.

Reed threw his hands in the air. “Dinna scald me. I was just lookin’,” he told Winter.

“If you three are going to be in here, you need to stay out of my way.” Winter laid the sword on the anvil and picked up a hammer. “I have work to do.” Holding the sword down with the tongs, she started hammering out the sides of the blade to bevel the edges. The clinking sound of metal on metal filled the air.

“Amazin’ she can hammer with her left hand,” said Reed.

“I’m left-handed,” Rowen reminded him. “Only the most talented in our family are.”

“Bid the clootie, ye’ve got to be jestin’,” said Reed. “Everyone kens those who use their left hands are naught but spawns of the devil.”

“Interesting,” said Winter, hitting the sword with more force. A loud clanging noise filled the air. “After all, triplets are also said to be spawned by the devil.”

“That’s right,” agreed Rook. “So, what does that make you, Rowen? Double cursed?”

“I’ll show you what that makes me if you’d like,” growled Rowen, not happy with either of his brothers’ remarks.

“It’s stuffy in here,” said Rook, springing to his feet. “I’m going to take a walk down to the baker’s and see if he has any fresh bread I can eat.”

Winter smiled and nodded her thanks to Rowen as Rook left the room.

“I’m going to the cordwainer’s shop to see if he can make some shoes for Conall and Dougal,” said Autumn, speaking about Reed’s new twin sons.

“Shoes? For my lads?” asked Reed in surprise.

“If I don’t, you’ll have your sons walking barefoot through the Highlands in the snow someday,” Autumn told him and left the building.

“Reed, go keep an eye on her,” commanded Rowen. “I don’t like her being in town unescorted. Ravenscar won’t like it either and will have our heads if we let anyone so much as look at her.”

“I’m no’ afraid of Ravenscar, even if he is a beast. I’ll fight him with my bare hands if I have to.” Reed’s hands balled into fists as he spoke.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Rowen warned him. “Benedict is married to our sister, and we have an alliance with him now. You need to restrain your desire to always want to fight.”

“It’s the Scot’s blood in me. I canna help it.” Reed raised his hands in the air and shrugged.

“You haven’t got a drop of Scottish blood in you, so stop it,” said Rowen. “Now go, before every fishmonger in town is following Autumn like a lovesick boy.”

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’,” said Reed. “Besides, when I get back to Scotland, I want to be able to tell Maggie the shoes for the lads were my idea. I’ll let the cordwainer ken what to make.” He ducked as he went through the door.

“Come on, Winter. I’m taking you back to Ravenscar Castle.” Rowen gestured with his head to the door.

“I’m not going.” Winter flipped the sword over and continued to bang on the other side to bevel the edges evenly. Rowen’s large hand reached out and grabbed her by the wrist, stopping her from using the hammer again.

“Don’t do this, Winter. It’s not proper for a noblewoman.”

“I don’t care,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at Wallace. “He needs me.”

“He’s a blacksmith. He can do his job without the help of a girl.”

“You think so?” she asked. “Watch this.” She looked up and called out to the blacksmith.

“Wallace, can you bevel the edges on this sword while I talk to my brother?” The bastard triplets of the king were really her cousins, not her brothers. However, they grew up for the first twelve years of the boys’ lives thinking they were siblings, so that is how they always addressed each other.

“Aye, of course,” said Wallace heading over. Winter handed the hammer to him, and then stopped him before he almost rested his hand on the red-hot sword.

“You’ll want this glove,” she told him, taking it off and handing it to him.

“Of course. What was I thinking?” He slipped the glove onto his hand, squinted and hit the sword. His aim was off. The sword fell from the anvil. She pulled him out of the way, and the sword went clattering to the ground.

“Rowen, will you leave us for a moment, please?” asked Winter.

“Aye,” said Rowen, his eyes shifting from the blacksmith to the sword on the floor and then back to Winter. “I’ll be right outside the door.”

“Thank you.” Winter waited until Rowen had exited the room before she reached out and took the hammer from Wallace. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Wallace dabbed at the beads of perspiration on his forehead.

“I don’t know what you mean, Lady Winter.” He bent over to get the sword, but her hand on his arm stopped him.

“You’re going blind, aren’t you?” she asked.

He stood upright and sighed. “Aye,” he admitted. Then he walked over and sank atop a chair, holding his face in his hands. “It’s been happening for quite a while now. That was the reason I left Hetherpool in the first place. I thought a fresh start somewhere else was all I needed.”

“So, you came to Ravenscar?” asked Winter in surprise. “The former lord had a horrible reputation. I’ve been told everyone was so frightened of him, that eventually trade ships stopped docking here and that is why the town is dying.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say I tried to use the situation to my advantage. I didn’t think I’d have a lot of work here and that would enable me to hide away. It also allowed me the time to finish training Josef in his apprenticeship. He is good, Lady Winter, but his heart was never in his work. He didn’t hone the skill of the trade the way you did with only half the training.”

“No one knows you are going blind?” asked Winter.

He shook his head. “I’ve kept it a secret. Only my wife and son knew. But since Josef left, I haven’t been able to do the work by myself. And without Evelyn here to cover for me – I’m afraid people are catching on that something is wrong.”

“What did the butcher mean when he said a border lord took Josef?”

“It’s true,” he said, leaning his elbows on his legs. “When the first Lord Ravenscar was still alive, he did a lot of things that were horrible, just like you said.”

“What did he do to Josef?” asked Winter, bracing herself for something terrible.

“One day, Ravenscar boasted to the border lord, Sir Martin de Grey of Northumberland when his ship was docked here. His ship was one of the last ones to come to our town for trade. When I first came here, I told Ravenscar about my reputation of being the best blacksmith in all of England.”

“It’s true,” said Winter. “You are.”

“Nay. I was, but not anymore,” said Wallace sadly. “I used that story so Ravenscar would let me stay. Had I known he’d one day use it against me, I never would have told him.”

“What do you mean? Did he ask you to make a sword for him?”

“Nay. Not for him. Sir Martin de Grey heard the story as well. He came to Ravenscar to commission a sword of the highest quality forged for him,” said Wallace. “He brought the metal and wanted me to craft it for him. Ravenscar made the deal without consulting me first.”

“What kind of deal?” Winter sat down next to him and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Sir de Grey came to Ravenscar with unique steel – Damascus steel.”

“Damascus steel?” she repeated excitedly. Damascus steel was costly and not seen often. It had a wavy surface pattern produced by hammer-welding strips of steel and iron. With repeated heating and forging, the strips melded together making the incredible pattern.

“Aye. He paid Ravenscar well for my services.”

“What happened?” asked Winter. “Did he like the finished sword?”

“You tell me.” Wallace got off the chair and headed across the room. He opened a trunk and lifted out a block of untouched metal. “This is it.”

“You never made it?” asked Winter, coming over and running her hand over the hunk of steel. She had never seen Damascus steel before, and it was amazing. “I don’t understand.”

“Sir de Grey was leery of Ravenscar. He demanded something in exchange that he would hold on to until he received his sword.”

“Your son?” asked Winter, feeling sick to her stomach by the thought.

“Aye.” With downcast eyes, Wallace nodded. “Ravenscar gave him my son, Josef. That was months ago. Evelyn fell sick right afterward – heartbroken, I believe. She died a few weeks later. I haven’t been able to do much work. With my bad eyesight, I’m afraid my career is over. Now, I’ll never get my son back.”

“Nay, don’t say that. You were once the best blacksmith in all England. You can’t just give that up, nor can you let your son down.”

“Without my wife and son, I have no desire to live. I’m afraid it’s over, Lady Winter.”

Sadness stabbed at Winter’s heart. This man was a good friend of hers, and she would not let his life end up this way. There was no other choice. She would do anything she could to help him.

“Get up,” she said, springing to her feet.

“What?” He looked up with a weary expression on his face.

“We have work to do.”

“We?” Wallace slid out of the chair with the wood creaking under his weight.

“I am first going to help you sharpen the butcher’s knife so that it’ll cut through stone. Then I’m going to go with you to shoe the plowman’s horse.” She walked over and scooped up the butcher’s knife and made her way over to the sandstone sharpening wheel. Sitting down on the seat, she hiked up her gown and put one foot on the pedal that made it turn. There was a bucket with a spigot hanging over the wheel. A basin below would catch the water dripping on the stone that was needed for sharpening the blades.

“Lady Winter, you don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I know exactly what I’m saying.” She pumped the pedal that made the grinding stone spin. Then she unplugged the spigot, and the water trickled onto the stone. As she worked the device, the stone spun toward her. Holding out the knife, she carefully started to sharpen the edges of the blade. “I’m going to help you the way you helped me so many years ago. You taught me the art of blacksmithing even though I should have been sewing in the ladies solar instead. Now, I will repay you for your kindness.”

“Nay, there is no need to do that, Lady Winter.” Wallace rushed to her side. “You are a lady. Please, don’t give my problems another thought. It’s not proper.”

“I don’t care what is proper,” she said, flipping the knife over and sharpening the other side, guiding it with the flat of her hand. The whine of the metal blade rang out as the spinning stone whirred. “I will help you in any way I can and, together, we will get Josef back here at your side.”

“Sir Martin de Grey is due to show up any day now,” Martin told her. “He’ll be angry when he finds out I don’t have his sword ready. There is no telling what he might do to you, me, or Josef.”

“Then we’ll have to get an early start first thing tomorrow morning,” she told him, holding up the butcher’s knife and blowing away the dust. “Here,” she said, pushing the handle of the blade into his hand. “Hurry back after you deliver the knife. I’ll start preparing what we need to shoe a horse.”

“You want me to deliver this?” he asked. “But you were the one who sharpened it.”

“That will be our little secret,” she told him. “No one has to know that I’m helping you. Until we manage to get Josef returned, I’ll take his place at your side.”

“Nay, I can’t let you do this,” he said adamantly. “You are a lady. You belong in a castle with servants at your side. You certainly shouldn’t be in a smoky, dirty shop of a blacksmith, risking your reputation doing the job of a tradesman.”

“Wallace,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Were you ever able to shoo me out of your shop all those years that I stayed and watched and learned from you?”

“Nay, I suppose not,” he told her.

“And neither will you be able to get rid of me now.”

“But when you were younger, my shop was in the courtyard of a castle, not in an old, dirty town. You can’t spend the nights here. It’s not right and I will not agree to it.”

“Then I’ll sleep at the castle,” she told him. “That will make my family happy, too. But I’ll return here every morning. Together, we will get your business back to the way it used to be. Lord Ravenscar has already sent out his messengers letting the neighboring towns up and down the coast know that the old Lord Ravenscar is dead. Once they know it is safe to dock and trade here again, the town will be bustling with people.”

“Well, I suppose . . . just until we get Josef back.”

“Yes. Then he will be here to help you, and you won’t need me anymore. Now, hurry,” she said, turning him by the shoulders and heading him for the door. “We have a lot of work to do.” As she watched him leave and trip just outside the door, she gasped. “Be careful, Wallace. You’re holding a very sharp blade.”

Turning back to the small, dark shop she realized what Wallace and her brothers said was true. It was the last place a lady should be, and it made her want to be here even more. That made her smile. This was so wrong and yet so right at the same time. Excitement coursed through her to be helping Wallace in secret. She made her way over to the trunk and pulled out the block of Damascus steel to get another look at it. It was light and smooth and had an intricate design laid into it. As she ran her hand over it, she felt the strength and agility of the blade trapped inside. She couldn’t wait to start forging a sword out of this steel tomorrow. It was a chance of a lifetime. Placing it back into the trunk, she closed the lid, suddenly having doubts.

There was no way Wallace could forge the blade for Sir de Grey. It was all up to her now. She couldn’t make a single mistake because this was the only chance she would get. No one she knew had access to this very expensive steel that most likely had come from a country far away. Now, the question was, could she make the blade in secret and have it ready when Lord de Grey came calling at the blacksmith’s door?