With neither title nor land, Rhys could not win the hand of Gwennelyn of Segrave. But he would always have her heart. The two are kindred souls...Rhys, a knight with far too many notions of chivalry for his own good. And Gwen, a lover of minstral tales, waiting to be swept away. But Gwen is betrothed to another man, and Rhys fears he will lose her forever. Until a suprise offer comes his way—bringing Rhys and Gwen a second chance at love...
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STARDUST OF YESTERDAY
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
THIS IS ALL I ASK
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU
ANOTHER CHANCE TO DREAM
THE MORE I SEE YOU
IF I HAD YOU
MY HEART STOOD STILL
FROM THIS MOMENT ON
A GARDEN IN THE RAIN
DREAMS OF STARDUST
MUCH ADO IN THE MOONLIGHT
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE
WITH EVERY BREATH
TILL THERE WAS YOU
ONE ENCHANTED EVENING
ONE MAGIC MOMENT
ALL FOR YOU
ROSES IN MOONLIGHT
The Novels of the Nine Kingdoms
STAR OF THE MORNING
THE MAGE’S DAUGHTER
PRINCESS OF THE SWORD
A TAPESTRY OF SPELLS
GIFT OF MAGIC
THE CHRISTMAS CAT
(with Julie Beard, Barbara Bretton, and Jo Beverley)
(with Casey Claybourne, Elizabeth Bevarly, and Jenny Lykins)
VEILS OF TIME
(with Maggie Shayne, Angie Ray, and Ingrid Weaver)
(with Elizabeth Bevarly, Emily Carmichael, and Elda Minger)
LOVE CAME JUST IN TIME
A KNIGHT’S VOW
(with Patricia Potter, Deborah Simmons, and Glynnis Campbell)
(with Madeline Hunter, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Karen Marie Moning)
TO WEAVE A WEB OF MAGIC
(with Patricia A. McKillip, Sharon Shinn, and Claire Delacroix)
THE QUEEN IN WINTER
(with Sharon Shinn, Claire Delacroix, and Sarah Monette)
A TIME FOR LOVE
“TO KISS IN THE SHADOWS” from TAPESTRY
Another Chance to Dream
Table of Contents
No author is an island, as it were, and that was never truer than with the writing of this book. The author most gratefully acknowledges aid from the following exceptional individuals:
Elane Osborn, for such fabulous title inspiration;
Dr. Kirk Lorimer, who never fails to enthusiastically ponder the gruesome possibilities of medieval wounds and their complications;
Gail Fortune, editor extraordinaire, for consistently giving the author the freedom to follow her heart;
and Matthew, who gave up vacations and other precious free time to be the author’s hands while those hands were tending to the needs of a little one.
THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1200
She was going to die.
It was a pity, though, to die so soon, seeing that so much of her life remained before her and that ’twas only now she’d had her first taste of true freedom. But there was no denying the direness of her current plight. Who would have thought it took such skill to ride a horse? Perhaps she should have spent more time in the stables learning of horses and less time loitering in her mother’s solar working heroic designs on fine linen. That she could scarce tell one end of a horse from the other should have told her that she knew too little about them to handle one with any skill.
Too late now for regrets. All she could do at present was cling to the saddle with one hand and the horse’s mane with the other and watch as both the surrounding countryside and the more noteworthy events of her life rushed past her with dizzying speed. Her sins, too, seemed determined to present themselves to her with all haste—likely before the horse either ran her into a tree or managed to scrape her from his back and leave her in a broken heap on the wild grass.
Stealing. Aye, there was that grievous folly for which she would unfortunately have no time to make a penance. At the time, though, thievery had seemed her only choice. She’d needed a sword to aid her in her new choice of vocation and ’twas a certainty no one would have given her one had she asked for it. It had taken her a pair of days to study the inhabitants of her fiancé’s keep intently enough to decide on a likely victim. Fortunately the hall was in enough disrepair and the knights drunken enough for the most part that filching a sword had been an easy task. She half suspected her prey had laid it beside him in the marshy rushes on the great hall floor and then thought he had lost it in the filth. Obviously the like had happened to others, for the lout had only cursed heartily, received condolences from his fellows, and then gotten on with his business.
As far as repenting went, perhaps she also should have done so for the bodily damage she’d done to a pair of knights and a serving wench as she’d struggled to get herself and her newly acquired sword to the stables without being marked as who she truly was. One wouldn’t have thought merely walking about with a blade strapped to one’s hip would have been so hazardous to others nearby.
Lying. She squirmed in discomfort, but what else could she have done? ’Twas perfectly reasonable to have won booty while dicing—never mind that she’d never thrown a die in her life. And if she were going to win some beast while gambling, why not Alain of Ayre’s finest stallion? The stableboy had swallowed her tale readily enough and seemingly been impressed with her wagering skills.
Besides, lying and stealing were perfectly acceptable traits in a mercenary. Indeed, she suspected such talents were more than desirable; they were necessary. Perhaps they would make up for her lack of ability with a sword.
And, of course, with a horse. Her teeth snapped together as she bumped along furiously on the back of her racing steed. A pity the reins were naught but a fond memory as they dangled well out of her reach. They likely would have aided her in controlling the beast.
Her third sin fought mightily for her attention, but she ignored it. Yet the harder the horse’s hooves pounded against the earth, the more the very sound of the word seemed to echo in her head: covetousness. She coveted a man and that surely was something to repent of. Never mind that his very reputation should have sent any sensible maid fleeing for cover. ’Twas said he wanted nothing to do with wedded bliss, though she believed otherwise. But it had been a handful of years since she’d seen him last, so ’twas possible things had changed. She had cause to wonder. He should have returned from France long ago.
But the man hadn’t, so she was left with speculation about not only the state of his feelings for her, but the truth of the tales circulating about him. She had decided to take matters into her own hands and seek him out. And if the rumors were true that he no longer wanted a wife, perhaps he wouldn’t be opposed to having another sword to guard his back. And if it took her even as long as a pair of months to hone her skills so she could offer them to him, then so be it. She would have Sir Rhys de Piaget, whether he willed it or not.
His battle prowess was a desirable thing. His foul temper could be ignored. His singlemindedness could eventually be turned from swordplay to her. Convincing him to wed her might entail tidying her person up a bit and unlearning the warrior’s skills she currently sought to acquire, but she felt certain she would manage it. No matter the perils of pursuing him, no matter the rigors of living as a mercenary while her swordplay improved, it would be worth the effort if he were the prize.
It certainly was preferable to the hellish future she’d left leagues behind her at Ayre.
She stiffened in fear as a low fence of rocks appeared suddenly before her. Her mount, however, seemed to find it much to his liking if the equine glee with which he sailed over it was any indication. Gwen was reunited with the saddle, accompanied by a mighty clacking of her teeth. She realized immediately that dwelling on her destination was a dangerous activity, given that all her attentions should have been focused on her mount.
She raced through the countryside, feeling as if an eternity had passed since she’d managed to get herself into the saddle outside Ayre’s gates. Perhaps speed was a boon. By the time Alain realized she had fled, she would be well on her way to Dover. Surely it would be a simple thing to sell her betrothal ring and find passage to the continent. If not, more lying and stealing would likely be called for. ’Twas a good thing she’d had her first taste of both while still on familiar ground. She suspected she could do either now without so much as a twitch.
She caught sight of something dark out of the corner of her eye. She hazarded a second glance only to find that a man was riding toward her. She would have stiffened in horror, but she feared to move, so she contented herself with a small squeak which was immediately lost in the rushing of wind around her. Merciful saints above, had Alain noticed her absence this quickly and sent someone to fetch her? Or was it instead another mercenary, bent on stealing her blade and her horse?
Ah, so the first test of her mettle would come sooner than she had thought. Perhaps ’twas just as well. Like her vices, her skill with the sword could be first tried while she was still on English soil.
If she could have stopped her horse long enough to draw her sword, that is.
“Away with you, oaf!” she shouted as the man drew alongside her. Then she realized it was more the tone her mother might have taken with a recalcitrant servant. She immediately attempted something more mercenary-like.
“Leave me be, you . . . you . . .” She racked her poor brains for something appropriately vulgar, but soon found herself distracted by the amazing display of horsemanship going on alongside her.
Without so much as a pucker of concentration marring his brow, the young man leaned over, reached out a gloved hand, and swept up her reins. A sharply spoken word and a healthy tug brought her horse to a gradual, graceful, and quite dignified stop. Gwen was so grateful for the cessation of motion, she couldn’t find her tongue to speak. That, and she was too busy running it over her teeth to make certain all of them still resided in their proper places.
Satisfied they had survived the journey thus far, she bared them at the man and held out her hand for her reins. Then she pulled back her hand. Dirty as she might be, she looked passing tidy compared to the man facing her. Touching him was not something she was sure she wanted to do.
He’d been traveling, and for a great amount of time, if the condition of his worn cloak told the tale true. He would have been better off to have shaved his cheeks more often, for his beard was ragged and scruffy. Shaving also might have helped scrape away a bit of the dirt that adorned his features. Indeed, the whole of him could have used a good scouring.
She considered. A mercenary, and obviously a good one by the disreputable look of him. A pity she hadn’t the time to sit and have speech with him. He might have offered her advice on how to comport herself.
She sighed regretfully and turned her mind back to the task at hand, namely recapturing her reins so she might be on her way again.
“Release my mount, you fiend,” she commanded in her huskiest tone.
“Your mount?” the man drawled. “Why is it such an idea stretches the very limits of my imagination?”
“Perhaps you use yours less than I do mine,” she said, sending him what she hoped was an intimidating glare.
“Horse thieves are hanged, you know.”
“Won him dicing,” Gwen returned, finding that this time she hadn’t even flinched while spouting that bit of untruth. Indeed, she was beginning to think perhaps learning the skill of dicing would be a good addition to her repertoire. Who knew what sorts of things she might acquire thusly?
“From whom, lad?”
“Alain of Ayre, not that ’tis any of your business. Now, give me those bloody reins!”
The man only shook his head with a smile. “Alain is many things, but so poor a gambler he is not. No boy would have bested him so thoroughly as to have relieved him of this piece of horseflesh.”
“Then you know little of me,” she said, eyeing her reins and wishing her horse would in his shifting but shift a bit closer so she might make a more successful capture, “for I am most skilled not only with dice, but also with the sword. And,” she added, “I am a bloody good horseman!”
She leaned over and snatched the reins from his hand.
And with the next breath, she found that her horse was no longer beneath her.
As she lay with her face in the dirt, she wondered if she might have executed her move with a bit more grace. She was too winded at first to notice that she no longer held on to her horse’s reins, or that her horse was no longer close enough to step on her and crush the life from her. She could hear the man shouting at her, but it took her several moments before the ringing in her ears cleared enough for her to understand what he was saying.
“—trampled, you fool! Saints above, since when do the lads in England know so little about horseflesh? Bloody hell, but you’re just as much trouble as I suspected you’d be. Damn that chivalry; I should make ignoring it more of a habit. As if I had time to aid some fool youth who’ll find himself hanged inside a fortnight just the same!”
The tirade went on as Gwen managed to heave herself to her feet. She looked about her for her mount.
“There!” the man said, gesturing impatiently back the way she had come. The bay was nothing but a speck in the distance. “He’s gone home to Ayre, likely to look for someone who has the skill to ride him!”
Gwen considered her situation. Horseless and bruised, she stood little chance of walking all the way to France. She eyed the young man before her, then looked at his very well-behaved mount. There appeared to be only one course of action. She twitched aside her cloak, put her hand on her sword hilt, and planted her feet a manly distance apart.
“You cost me my horse,” she said. “I believe I’ll have yours in trade.”
That, at least, was enough to stop the man’s tirade. He blinked at her in astonishment.
“Surely you jest,” he said, seemingly overcome by the very thought.
Gwen took courage at his expression. Obviously she presented a more intimidating look than she’d dared hope. Perhaps it had to do with the unruly swing to her shorn locks. She hadn’t been half satisfied with the work her eating dagger had done on her tresses, but plainly the raggedness lent her a dangerous air. The soot she had liberally smudged on her face no doubt added to her sinister appearance. Perhaps she would need to do less lying and stealing than she’d feared, if her aspect would daunt those about her. That she should intimidate someone even dirtier than she gave her a fresh surge of courage.
She motioned him down with a wave of her hand. “I’m in earnest. Dismount, if you will, lest you force me to draw my sword.”
A corner of the man’s mouth began to twitch under his scruffy beard. Fear, Gwen noted with satisfaction. Aye, this was much easier than she’d thought it would be.
“Let me see if I understand you aright,” the man said, leaning on the pommel of his saddle. “You wish me to dismount and hand over the reins of my horse. To you.”
“To you, who could not control that pitiful beast from Ayre’s stables.”
Gwen gritted her teeth. “He is a very fine horse. Powerfully spirited. Besides,” she added when the man looked less than convinced, “even the most seasoned of mercenaries has the occasional run of ill luck.”
The man snorted, then began to cough, his eyes watering madly. Gwen toyed with the idea of felling him while he struggled to regain control, then reluctantly let go of the thought. It wouldn’t be sporting to do in a man who was obviously having such trouble breathing.
“By the saints,” the man said, gasping.
Gwen folded her arms across her chest and frowned. “You’ve no need to fear. I’ll do you no harm if you’ll but dismount now and let me be on my way. I’ve many leagues to travel before the sun sets.”
He wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his glove, smudging a bit of the dirt in the process, snorted yet another time, then seemed to master his fear. “Is the whole of Ayre coming after you, or just Alain?”
“Likely the whole garrison,” she said impatiently, “so as you might imagine, I’ve little time to waste. Now, do you obey me or must I draw my sword?”
The man swung down with another muffled exclamation of fear. At least Gwen thought it was fear. He was still wiping his eyes and his shoulders were shaking. There could be no other explanation for his actions.
He took off his soiled cloak and tossed it over his saddle, then stepped a few paces away from his mount. Gwen took a moment to indulge in envy that he possessed a mount who remained where he’d been left, then turned her mind to other matters—namely the man standing before her wearing a sword that seemingly didn’t get in his way when he moved. Then there was that ruby the size of a child’s fist in the hilt of his sword. Who was he? How had he come by such a sword and a mount that any knight would have groveled to own?
A pity she wouldn’t have answers to those questions. Already she had wasted more time on him than she had to spare. She planted her feet more firmly in the dirt and dragged herself back to the task at hand.
“I can see you wish not to cooperate,” she said. “You leave me with no choice but to do you bodily harm.”
He lifted one shoulder in a negligent shrug. “’Tis a chance I’ll have to take. I have yet need of my horse.”
“As you will then. It pains me to do this,” she said, gritting her teeth as she struggled to remove her stolen sword from its sheath, “but you are obviously a stubborn”—she huffed as she twisted herself to one side for better control—“soul with perhaps a less developed desire for long life than another.” She jerked the sword free triumphantly, then almost went sprawling from the movement. She let the sword rest where it seemed to want to—point down in the dirt—and hunched over it as if she’d meant to be doing the like. “One last chance to spare yourself.”
“You are too kind.”
“Aye, ’tis a trait I’m seeking to rid myself of,” she agreed, grasping the sword and pulling it upright. “It only hampers me in my mercenary endeavors.”
“I can see how it might.”
Gwen felt a small twinge of unease at the fact that the man had not yet drawn his sword. It seemed passing unfair that she should cut him down where he stood, but surely she had offered him ample opportunity to save himself, hadn’t she?
She lifted her blade and brandished it. Saints, but she should have been hefting other things besides sewing needles these past few months. The blade wasn’t that heavy, but to untried arms it was very awkward. With a grunt she got the blade upright and pointing in the man’s direction. She gave him her most menacing glance and waved her blade meaningfully at him.
He shook his head. “I should have remained abed this morn.”
“Too late for regrets now,” Gwen said, swinging her sword carefully. It moved more easily than she’d hoped, but it certainly was reluctant to give her any ideas on where she should cut first.
“Go to, would you?” he asked politely. “I am in haste, with much to see accomplished before the sun sets.”
“I am going to,” Gwen said, through gritted teeth. “This sword is heavier than those I am accustomed to.”
“Perhaps if you waved it with more enthusiasm, you might manage to nick me here or there.”
“I know that,” she said, beginning to wonder if he thought her less skilled than he should. She took a swipe at him. It almost sent her sprawling, but she managed to regain her feet before the blade overbalanced her into the dirt. She shoved the remains of her hair out of her eyes and frowned at him. “Are you ready to cry peace yet?”
“Not quite yet.”
“Then fight me,” she said. She lifted her weapon against him again. “You haven’t even drawn your swo—”
Sword, she meant to say. Somehow, though, the word was lost in her astonishment at the feeling of her blade leaving her hand. She stared in fascination as it flipped end over end up into the air and then came back down, flashing in the sunlight. The man caught it neatly with his left hand. He resheathed his own sword—the one she hadn’t even seen him draw—then assessed hers with a practiced glance.
“Damascus steel,” he noted with admiration. “You’ve a good eye, at least.” He impaled her sword into the dirt next to him. “From whom did you filch it?”
“I won it d—”
“—dicing,” he finished with a sigh. “Lying is a sin, you know. As is stealing.”
“Desirable traits in any ruthless mercenary,” she corrected him. “Now, as you have made off with my sword in such a dishonorable manner, you leave me with no choice but to take my knife to you.”
He clapped his hand to his head with a groan. Taking that as a very good sign, Gwen fumbled in her boot for her dagger. She drew it forth with a flourish, hoping it had come out as if she’d planned the whole exercise to come down to this.
The man didn’t move, so she took her courage in hand and stabbed the air in front of her with as much fierceness as she could muster.
Stabbing the man before her was, however, quite another matter.
The man shook his head sadly and clucked his tongue.
Perhaps if she merely impaled him in his sword arm it would wound him enough that he would be unable to wield his blade, but it wouldn’t finish him off. It occurred to her that she would likely be finishing off a great number of men in her future as a hired sword, but that would perhaps come later when she had more stomach for the deed. For her first conquest, a mere stabbing would have to do.
She lifted her knife and commanded her body to fling itself forward.
Her arm, and her feet for that matter, wouldn’t cooperate.
“Too bloody much time at a tapestry frame,” she muttered under her breath. She took herself in hand and tried again. She forced the blade to descend and felt a faint satisfaction when she saw it heading directly for the man’s upper arm.
And then quite suddenly she found her wrist captured in a firm grip and her knife removed from her hand. And then the man paused. He looked at her and frowned.
“Have we met?”
Saints above, this was all she needed, to be recognized and carried back to Ayre.
“Nay. Never,” she said, gritting her teeth and trying to pull her hand from his. “’Tis my fierce mercenary mien that has confused you. I’ve no doubt you’ve seen like expressions on many fighting men’s faces.”
“Nay,” he said, staring at her intently.
He looked at her shorn hair, tucked her knife in his belt, then clamped a hand on her shoulder to hold her in place. Before Gwen could protest, he reached out and started to clean her face with the hem of his tunic sleeve. Apparently that didn’t satisfy him, for he licked the fingers of one hand and rubbed industriously on her cheeks.
“What do you—” she spluttered.
He whirled her around so the sun shone down on her face. She blinked against the brightness of it. He reached out suddenly and tucked her hair behind her ears. Then he went still and his jaw hung slack.
“Gwen?” he gasped.
Aye, she almost said, then it occurred to her that no one loitering so far from her own keep should have known who she was. She frowned up at him.
“And you would be . . . ?”
He smiled dryly. “Ah, how soon they forget, these fickle maids. Though I will admit,” he said, reaching out to tug on her ear, “that though you don’t look much cleaner than the first time we met, you smell much more pleasant.”
And in that moment she knew.
“Merciful saints above,” she breathed. “’Tis you.”
“Aye, chérie, ’tis I.”
Gwen frowned. She hadn’t intended to be covered with muck the next time she saw the man before her.
She opened her mouth to begin to ask the scores of questions she had to put to him, then she caught sight behind him of a company of horsemen in the distance. Alain of Ayre’s white stallion was easily recognizable in the lead. Gwen closed her mouth around her queries.
“Alain comes,” she said simply.
“Damn,” he said, looking over his shoulder. He looked back at her. “You’ve been at Ayre?”
He frowned deeply. “We’ve much to discuss, I can see. But later,” he added, with another look over his shoulder. “Perhaps he won’t recognize me in my current state.”
“We couldn’t be so fortunate.” She looked up at him appraisingly. “Obviously we’ll have to invent a ruse for why we’re together.”
The man’s eyes widened, then he began to back away. “Nay, not that.”
“We mustn’t. I’m not recovered from the last time—”
“What other choice do we have?”
He shook his head firmly. “We have several—”
Gwen knew there was nothing else to be done. With a regretful smile, Gwen drew back her arm and then let fly her fist . . .
Straight into Sir Rhys de Piaget’s nose.
Rhys rode in the rear of his foster father’s company and gaped at the castle that rose up before him. He had seen a great deal of England and France given his tender age of ten-and-four, and considered himself mature and fairly jaded, but all he’d seen as he traveled over Segrave’s land had left him almost speechless. He wondered if Segrave looked magnificent simply because of what he’d left behind him at Ayre. Bertram of Ayre was not poor by Rhys’s standards, but his modest wealth and small keep paled to insignificance when compared to what Rhys had seen that day.
Segrave’s walls were sturdy and in good repair. The land surrounding the outer walls was cleared of all trees and other growth that could have provided shelter to an enemy. And, amazingly enough, the folk here seemed to be using the moat for defense. At Ayre the water was simply a place to fling refuse, leaving the keep’s inhabitants suffering as much as any foe who might find himself tripping into the moat. Though as far as defenses went, Ayre might have the advantage when it came to filthy water keeping an army at bay.
The drawbridge came down smoothly and settled gently into a fitting that was seemingly fashioned just for the receiving of it—nothing like the crude bridge that welcomed a body to Ayre’s unkempt courtyard. Rhys spared a moment to admire such fine construction, then reined in his mount and looked back over the way he had come. As interesting as the keep might have been, it surely didn’t compare to the fields he had just crossed.
By the saints, the land was beautiful.
It had been all he could do to keep himself in the saddle that morn. What he had wanted was to be wandering through those fields, bending to feel the warm earth slide between his fingers, smelling the grasses and flowers. He had wanted to walk over every inch of it, feel it beneath his feet, and lose himself in the dream that such a place might be his.
Rhys turned to look at the man who had spoken to him. He jerked to attention out of habit. “Aye?” he asked.
Montgomery of Wyeth, the captain of Bertram’s guard, smiled. “Little lad, you’re staring the wrong way. The beauty of Segrave finds itself inside the walls, not out.”
Rhys shook his head. “Your eyes fail you, Captain. Nothing can compare to what I’ve already seen.”
“Ah, the wisdom of youth,” Montgomery said, not unkindly. “Have I not told you enough tales of the maid of Segrave to pique your curiosity?”
“What is a maid but a means to land?” he asked. “Besides, she is very young.”
“She has nine summers,” Montgomery said with a knowing smile, “and she shows every promise of inheriting her mother’s considerable beauty. Come, young one, look on her and see if I don’t have it aright.”
“As you will,” Rhys said reluctantly, and he wanted to add, What good will such a thing do me? Gwennelyn of Segrave was so far above him in station he stood little chance of ever being in the same hall with her, much less being allowed to gape at her. Besides, she was a child. He had no interest in children.
Her land, however, was a different tale entirely.
But there was also no sense in lusting after what he could never have, so he followed Montgomery across the drawbridge and into the bailey. Lads came to take their horses. Rhys dismounted and started toward the stable, but then halted when he heard his foster father call to him. He turned to find Bertram approaching.
“Let them, son,” Bertram said. “You’ve no need to see to such things now.”
Rhys inclined his head respectfully. “Thank you, my lord, but I prefer to tend my own mount.”
Bertram looked at him for a moment in silence, then shook his head with a smile. “As you will, Rhys. Come join us in the hall when you’ve finished. I’ll introduce you to William of Segrave, as he asked specifically to meet you. I suppose he wishes to see for himself how a lad knighted so young carries himself.”
Rhys nodded and made his way to the stables. He was accustomed to, if not fairly uncomfortable with, the notice his knighting had garnered him. By the saints, it wasn’t as if he’d asked to be knighted at the battle of Marchenoir, especially having just reached his fourteenth summer. But who had he been to say nay to Phillip of France? Especially considering his family’s relations with the French monarch. Though he had chosen a different path from his father and grandfather, he was still a de Piaget and Phillip considered him his.
By the time Rhys had tended his horse, he’d ceased thinking of political intrigues and Segrave’s soil, and turned his mind to the filling of his belly. Perhaps William would exchange an introduction for a hearty meal. Rumor had it that Joanna of Segrave laid a fine table indeed.
He hadn’t taken two paces from the stables when he heard a horrible noise coming from the pigsty. He looked about him, but no one seemed to find it out of the ordinary. Men carried on with their tasks, though some of them were smiling. Rhys shrugged and started across the bailey to the hall, but found himself stopping but a pace or two later.
Those were not sounds that normally came from a piggery.
He found that his curiosity was a more powerful force for once than his desire for a full belly. He turned about and made for what sounded like a beastie from the forests venting its anger. He rounded the corner of the stables and came to a dead halt. There was indeed a body making those horrendous noises, but it wasn’t something foul from the forest.
It was a girl.
She sat in the muck and wailed for all she was worth. Rhys suspected that she might have tried to make an escape, for there were smears upon the gate in the shape of hands, and there were indentations in the muck where evidently she had stomped about in frustration. Not being a practiced judge in these matters, Rhys couldn’t tell how old she was, though he supposed her to be of a fair age. She was not a girl full grown, though certainly old enough to have escaped the sty on her own. Perhaps there was more to it than what he could see. Rhys approached carefully.
The girl looked up at him and, blessedly, stopped wailing.
Rhys leaned upon the gate and stared back at her. “Trapped?” he asked.
She only blinked, then nodded, her chin beginning to quiver.
“Someone lock you in?”
She nodded again. “Geoffrey of Fenwyck.”
Rhys knew of Fenwyck, but nothing of his son. Obviously a lad of little chivalry, but a fair amount of imagination judging by the cleverness of the knots binding the gate closed. Little wonder the girl hadn’t been able to let herself out. Why she hadn’t climbed the fence he didn’t know, but that was a girl for you. The reason she found herself therein, however, was another matter entirely. Rhys leaned on the fence and looked at her speculatively.
“Why’d he do it?”
The girl scowled. “In return for my locking him in the tower chamber I suppose.”
Rhys felt one of his eyebrows go up of its own accord. “That took some doing. Is he so foolish then?”
“Nay, ’tis that I have a very practiced imagination. My mother tells me so often.” She seemed to take her declaration as simple fact, for there was no look of boasting hiding under all that mud on her face. “I saw him filch a bottle of my sire’s finest claret. When he threatened to toss me in the dungeon if I told, I took the empty bottle, put it in the chamber, and sent a messenger to tell him that yet another bottle awaited him there.”
Rhys stroked his chin thoughtfully. This was not a normal young girl he faced here. He wondered how many white hairs she had given her sire already.
“I assume you’re here,” Rhys mused, “because he knew you arranged that. Did you turn the key in the lock yourself?”
“Aye,” she said, and there was pride in her face this time. “He deserved it, the wretch. He told me but yestereve that my ears stick out from my head most unattractively and that no wimple ever stitched would hide them.”
Rhys put his hand to his mouth and chewed on his finger to keep from laughing. The child wore no wimple at present, and he couldn’t help but agree with Fenwyck’s description of her ears. But ’twas passing unchivalrous to say so. And he suspected he would do well not to irritate her. She spoke with the tongue of a woman full grown, and Rhys suspected her schemes were just as ripened. Best to remain in her good graces.
He undid the gate and looked at the captive.
“You’ll have to hurry, lest the piglets escape as well.”
Said piglets were rooting enthusiastically at her skirts. At least the sow was nowhere to be seen. Credit young Fenwyck with some sense about that.
The girl, however, only sat and looked at him.
“Well, come on,” he said, gesturing to her. “You’re free now.”
She started to rise, then her feet slipped out from under her and she fell back into the muck with a very wet splatting sound. Her chin began to quiver. When tears started to leak from her eyes and forge a trail of cleanness down her cheeks, Rhys knew he had to do something. It was tempting to hasten the other way, but the noise in his head made by his sword kept him where he was. That and the weight of all the lectures he’d heard from his foster father over the years. A chivalrous knight would remain and rescue the maid from her plight. Rhys sighed. He wasn’t overly fond of the thought of layering his boots with muck, but there was obviously nothing else he could do if he intended to live up to the standards Bertram of Ayre had set for him.
He stepped into the pigsty. With another sigh he reached down and pulled the girl up and into his arms. He forced himself not to complain when she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. And as he stepped from the pen, he came to a conclusion.
Chivalry was a messy business indeed.
He set the girl down outside the piggery, then shut the gate. Then he turned to her and used the sleeve of his tunic to wipe away some of the mud that was smeared over her face. She looked up at him with pale, tear-filled eyes.
“My gratitude,” she sniffed.
“’Twas my pleasure,” he said, trying to ignore her smell, which had now become his smell.
She looked down at her gown. “’Tis ruined,” she said sadly.
“Perhaps if you let it dry.”
“’Twas my finest stitchery,” she said, showing him the hem of her sleeve. “See?”
He meant to obey, but made the mistake of looking at her and truly seeing her. And for the first time in the extensive experience fourteen years had given him, Rhys felt himself grow a tiny bit weak in the knees.
The girl had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.
“See?” she repeated.
It was with effort that he dragged his eyes down to her sleeve. He looked at the mud-encrusted fabric and nodded gravely, as if he actually could see the stitches worked there.
“Terrible tragedy,” he managed. “Truly.”
“I should be avenged. The knave should pay for his dishonorable assault upon me.”
Well, obviously this one had been listening to too many chansons, but Rhys refrained from saying so. ’Twas a simple matter to remain silent, actually. The girl had rendered him speechless.
“I’ll need a champion,” she said, looking up at him appraisingly.
“Um . . .”
She looked down at his sword. He could feel the metal heat under her gaze. It came close to burning a stripe down his leg even through the sheath.
“You’re young to be wearing a sword,” she said.
Then her eyes widened. “By the saints,” she breathed, “you’re Rhys de Piaget. My father told me of you. You were knighted but a pair of months ago for saving Lord Ayre’s life. Why, you’re a knight of legendary prowess!”
She wiped unconsciously at her face, leaving a large swath of mud running down her cheek. Then she seemed to remember her ears, for she reached up to rearrange her hair about them. More dung was left behind.
“My mother’s minstrels already tell tales of your skill.” She looked at him worshipfully. “You could be my champion.”
Rhys blinked. This was Gwennelyn of Segrave? Lays had been written describing in intimate detail the beauty of her mother’s face and her goodness of heart. Bards, players of instruments, and artisans all came to kneel at the feet of the former lady-in-waiting to Queen Eleanor and offer up to her their finest work. Rhys had not been so distracted by his swordplay that he hadn’t listened now and then to the rumors of the woman’s beauty, or the rumors of how the promise of that beauty rested heavily on Joanna’s daughter.
Was everyone blind, or was he himself so distracted by the overwhelming stench of pig manure that clung to the both of them that he couldn’t see what others had been raving about?
As he contemplated that, he found himself torn between looking at the muck now in Gwen’s hair and squirming under the weight of her assessing gaze.
“Aye,” she said with a smile, “I couldn’t ask for a more chivalrous knight to restore my honor to me. Already I can imagine how the battle will go.”
So could he and it would finish with him trotting off to her father’s gibbet. But before he could tell her that Geoffrey of Fenwyck was a baron’s son and mere knights did not go about challenging baron’s sons, she had taken him by the arm and started back to the hall.
“Challenge him after we sup,” she advised. “I’ll have a wash so that I might look my best while I watch you dispatch him. You will dispatch him, won’t you?”
One thing he would accord her; she had the most stunning pair of aqua eyes he’d ever seen. How could a man, even a young man such as himself, say nay when finding himself lost in them?
He tried to shake himself back to some semblance of reason. He reminded himself that she had no more than nine or ten summers and that it could not matter what she thought of him. He would never have a one such as she, so disappointing her should mean nothing to him. Yet when she turned the full force of her shining eyes on him, he found words rushing out of his mouth he surely hadn’t intended.
“Aye, I’ll challenge him,” he blurted out.
And then he knew that the only course of action left to him would be to draw his sword and fall upon it. As if he could actually dare such cheek. By the saints, he should have clamped his lips shut!
“You will?” she asked with a dazzling smile.
“Ah . . . I’ll demand an apology,” Rhys amended quickly. Perhaps he could shame the fool into giving Gwen one.
“Will you use your sword?” she asked breathlessly.
“If necessary,” Rhys said, feeling the urge to drop to his knees and pray for deliverance from his own wagging tongue. “But first I’ll give him a chance to comport himself well without violence.”
“If you think it best,” she said, sounding somewhat disappointed. “Though I would surely like to see him poked a time or two for his crimes.”
Evidently her disappointment was not so great that she was ready to release him from his errand. She took hold of his hand and dragged him back toward the keep. Rhys searched for a means of escape, but saw none until he happened to glance upon Sir Montgomery. Montgomery stopped the sharpening of his sword to look at them.
“Escorting our lady to the hall, Sir Rhys?” he called.
“He is my champion, Sir Montgomery,” Gwen returned promptly. “He’s going to avenge my bruised honor. Plans to use his sword if he has to.”
Rhys threw Lord Bertram’s captain a beseeching glance, but Montgomery only smiled.
“Well done, lad,” Montgomery said approvingly. “Trot out that chivalry as often as possible. Keeps your spurs bright, as Lord Ayre always says.”
Rhys wondered what Lord Ayre would say when he found out his foster son had been talked into taking to task the son of one of the most powerful barons in the north of England. Likely something along the lines of, “Best of luck to you, you chattering fool,” as he headed back to Ayre, leaving Rhys to be carried off to Fenwyck and left to rot in the dungeon. Considering Fenwyck was a good two weeks’ travel north from Ayre, Bertram could rest easy knowing he’d never have to hear Rhys’s dying screams.
“I’ll deserve it,” he muttered. “Never should have picked up a sword.”
“You said something?” Gwen asked.
Rhys shook his head. “Nothing of import.”
“Then let us be about our business,” she said enthusiastically.
Rhys sighed and let her pull him toward the great hall. He should have contented himself with the keeping of a field or two instead of lusting after knight’s spurs. It would have been safer. It also might have been safer had he paid more attention to filling his belly than to rescuing a fair maid in the mud—only to find himself Gwennelyn of Segrave’s champion.
But in his heart of hearts, he found that being chosen as such was quite possibly the sweetest pleasure he had yet had in his fourteen years. Foolish or not, he felt his step, and his heart, lighten. Gwen turned on the threshold to look at him and he gave her his best smile. He suspected that even his mother had never had such a smile from him.
Gwen smiled in return, and the sight of it smote him straight to the soul.
Aye, he found himself feeling that there was much indeed he would do for the girl before him.
“A favor,” she said, patting herself.
“Another one?” he asked with a gulp. By the saints, serving this girl could take up a great amount of his time.
“Nay, I meant a favor for you to wear upon your arm. ’Tis how it is done, you know,” she informed him.
“Of course,” he said, wondering if he should have spent more time paying heed to Bertram’s minstrel.
Gwen continued to pat until she pulled forth from some unidentifiable portion of her mud-encrusted gown a thick ribbon. Rhys could only speculate upon the color. He thought it might have been green. It likely still was, under all that dirt.
She tied it around his arm with great ceremony, then smiled up at him again. “Now you are truly mine. Coming?” she asked, taking him again by the hand.
How could he say her nay? He loosened his sword in its sheath and cast one last prayer heavenward before he ducked into the great hall behind his lady.
Gwen lay next to her mother in the large, comfortable bed and found, for a change, that the events of the day were far more interesting than the happenings she usually made up in her head to put herself to sleep.
“Gwen, please stop squirming.”
“Oh, but, Mama, was he not wonderful today?”
Her mother sighed, but Gwen recognized the sigh. It was her I-wish-this-girl-child-would-fall-asleep-but-even-so-that-won’t-stop-me-from-listening sigh. It was a sound Gwen was very familiar with. She’d overheard her mother say that she had only herself to blame, that it was her fault that Gwen’s head was so peopled with characters from chansons and bardly epics, so she as well as anyone should pay the price. But it had been said gently and followed by a loving laugh from her father, so Gwen knew her parents weren’t displeased with her.
But now she had a very live, very brave champion to think on, and that was better than anyone from her imaginings.
“He didn’t even have to use his sword,” Gwen said, relishing the moment yet again. “Just his reputation and the drawing of his blade was enough to set that Fenwyck demon to trembling.”
“Would he have bloodied Geoffrey, do you think, Mama?”
“Likely so, if he’d had to.”
“Was he so serious then, think you, about avenging my bruised honor, Mama?”
Her mother laughed and hugged her close. “I think he was very serious, my girl. But do you not think you earned a bit of Sir Geoffrey’s ire? You did lock him in the tower.”
“He told me my ears were overlarge.”
“Only after you pointed out to him that he has a gap in his teeth.”
“He’s vain, Mama, and I couldn’t bear him swaggering about. Besides, he tweaked one of my plaits when your back was turned. Sir Rhys would never have done such a thing.”
“Is he not wonderful, Mama?”
“Aye, my Gwen, he is. But do you not recall that you are betrothed to Alain of Ayre? As fine a lad as Sir Rhys may be, he will not be your husband. Perhaps you would do well not to think on him overmuch.”
What Gwen didn’t want to give thought to was Alain, so she agreed quickly with her mother, turned away, and pretended to go to sleep.
In truth, she dreamed with her eyes open of a gallant lad who had taken his life in his hands to challenge a man at least six years older than he. Gwen could still see the steadiness of Rhys’s hands as he rested them upon his sword hilt, telling all who watched that he had the courage of a score of Geoffreys of Fenwyck. She had no trouble recalling the fineness of his dark hair as it fell to his shoulders, or the noble tilt to his chin and the regal shape of his nose.
And he had such marvelous ears.
She sighed in pleasure before she could stop herself, then coughed, lest her mother think she was dreaming instead of sleeping.
If only he could offer for her instead of that foul-tempered, lackwitted Alain of Ayre. Then would the truth of her life be as glorious as what she imagined up in her head.
Was there a way? Rhys was but a knight, true, but would not his glorious deeds count for something? Could her father not be persuaded that Rhys was far more desirable as a son-in-law than Alain? She was discerning enough to know that land and alliances would decide whom she wed—indeed, such things had already decided the matter. But could that not be set aside this once? Her father denied her nothing. Perhaps he would continue the practice with this. She would ask him first thing.
She yawned and closed her eyes, and then she dreamed in truth.
Of a splendidly chivalrous young man with serious gray eyes and a bright, sharp sword.
Rhys had watched the rest of the keep seek their beds, yet he found himself standing guard near his lord. He wasn’t in truth a member of Lord Ayre’s guard, but he volunteered for the duty willingly. Bertram had given him much; it seemed the least he could do in return. Being near his lord tonight was especially soothing, given the busy afternoon he’d had. He’d come away the victor, but it hadn’t been without price—namely his peace of mind.
No sooner had Gwen washed her face and brushed the mud from her hair than she had reappeared, waiting for him to do something. Rhys had entertained one last hope that perhaps her mother might have talked her into reason, but he had found said mother sitting beside his championed lady, watching just as expectantly. His promise to avenge resting heavily on his shoulders, he had taken his cheek in hand and approached Geoffrey of Fenwyck with as much seriousness as he could muster.
Fenwyck’s son had laughed at him at first. It had taken a great deal of courage to stand there and not flinch, but Rhys had done it. Then he’d drawn his sword and rested it point down in the rushes before him. It was but a borrowed sword, as Bertram had only recently ordered another to be fashioned for him, but a sword was a sword when it came to the finer matters of chivalric duty. Evidently Geoffrey had seen that the point was sharp enough and that Rhys’s determination was firmly fixed, for he had stopped laughing and started blustering about. His bluster had soon turned to uncomfortable silence when Rhys had invited the older lad to have a go in the lists. Uncomfortable for Geoffrey, that was. By that time Rhys had begun to feel that his reputation for fierceness on the battlefield might indeed serve him well.
It had certainly earned him a look of worship from Gwen after the deed had been done.
By the saints, but it was enough to make him believe there was something to Bertram’s lectures on chivalry after all.
William rose, startling Rhys from his reverie. He waited until Lord Bertram had risen as well before he fell in behind them. He stopped outside Segrave’s solar and stood with his back to the partially open door. And much as he tried not to, he couldn’t avoid hearing the conversation going on inside.
“You missed the excitement this afternoon, my friend,” William said. “While you were napping, your foster son was going about correcting injustices.”
Bertram laughed uneasily. “He didn’t challenge your entire guard, did he?”
“It wasn’t my guard he was taking on, ’twas that rascal who locked my Gwen in the piggery.”
“Who else? The boy’s a menace.”
Bertram whistled softly. “A full score of years he has, yet he’s still causing the maids to weep. It doesn’t surprise me that Rhys took him on.”
“Indeed he did. He swaggered up to Fenwyck’s get just as boldly as you please and told Geoffrey he’d throw him into the piggery if he didn’t apologize to Gwen. He added that he would escort him there by way of the lists if necessary.”
“Ah, that’s my lad,” Bertram said, his voice full of pride. “I take it young Fenwyck did as he was bid?”
“Ungraciously, but aye. Young Rhys’s reputation is the stuff of legends already.”
Rhys stood straighter. He couldn’t help himself. That William of Segrave should compliment him was something indeed. He fingered the ribbon he wore on his arm. His first favor, and from a lord’s daughter no less. He had lived up not only to her expectations, but her father’s as well. ’Twas something to be proud of.
“He’ll be a fine man,” Bertram said quietly.
“Aye,” William agreed. “A pity he’ll have no land. He would make a good husband and lord.”
There was silence for a goodly while. Then Bertram spoke.
“He would make a fine husband just the same. Especially to a girl whose antics would terrify the bravest of men.”
“Bertram,” William said with a half laugh, “you insult my sweet Gwen. She’s merely adventurous.”
“You told me yourself that just a se’nnight ago you found her preparing to scale the outer wall to assure herself that your defenses against such a thing were what they should be. The girl thinks far too much for her own good!”
William’s chuckle was enough to make Rhys begin to sweat. If he found that bit of mischief amusing, what other things was Gwen about that he indulged? Saints, the girl would kill herself before she reached a score of years.
And he found, unsurprisingly, that the thought was deeply distressing to him, the saints pity him for an impractical fool. As if anyone would care that he felt the sudden compulsion to make sure she didn’t dash her dainty toes against a sharp rock.
“William, she deserves someone who will appreciate that.”
“One would think, my friend, that you would rather me give Gwen to him than your son.”
“Rhys has many things Alain lacks.”
“And he lacks what Alain has, which will be a barony in time. I cannot wed my daughter to a simple knight, Bertram.”
Bertram sighed heavily. “I know, William. I know.”
And that, it seemed, was that.
Rhys swallowed with difficulty, surprised by how much such simple words pained him. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had the same words hurled at him all his life, and by those with certainly purposefully crueler tongues than Segrave’s. He should have been used to the sting by now, but he wasn’t. For a moment he had actually believed that he might be looked on as more than just a knight.
He should have known better than to allow himself to hope that he might have a baron’s daughter, or any other woman of such exalted station. He’d heard the truth of the matter and straight from William’s lips.
Rhys sensed eyes upon him and looked up to find Sir Montgomery watching him. He stiffened.
“How long have you been there?” he demanded.
“Long enough,” Montgomery said quietly.
“Must you always lurk in dark corners?” Rhys snarled.
Montgomery only clapped a hand on Rhys’s shoulder and urged him down the passageway.
“I’ll remain,” he said, and the tone of his voice warned Rhys that he would accept no argument. “Go sleep. You’ll want to be in the lists early.”
Rhys would have gone to the lists then if he could have, to relieve the feelings of shame that coursed through him. Of course he’d known he could never have someone like Gwennelyn of Segrave. Hadn’t he told himself as much as he rode through the gates that morning? He wouldn’t have her and he wouldn’t have her land. Instead they would be given to Alain of Ayre, a young man whose thoughts ran no deeper than to which falcon to choose for his day’s hunt. Gwen’s soil would turn into a wasteland under his care. For all Rhys knew, Gwen herself would turn into the same with Alain as her mate. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do to amend either.
A pity that he wanted to.
By the saints, desire was a bloody awful thing.
He set off down the passageway, and as he did so, the ribbon she had given him fluttered with the movement of his striding. He fumbled at it, then found that he couldn’t release the knot. By the saints, who had taught the girl to tie things so securely? He worked at it with frantic intensity. He pulled, then yanked, cursing the favor and its giver. Finally it came loose and he cast it to the ground, the stinging in his eyes blinding him to where it had fallen. He walked away, leaving it behind him in the passageway.
He cursed the day he’d ever gazed into those aqua eyes and prayed the day would never come when he had to look in them again.
It was very much past the wee hours of the morn when Rhys crept back up the steps. The torch had burned low and the passageway was empty. Rhys inched his way along the wall, stopping at the place he thought he’d been before.
The ribbon was no longer there.
He leaned back against the wall and swore softly. Then he gathered his wits about him. It had been a foolish idea, just as foolish as all the hopes he had entertained that day. He made his way back down the great hall to return to his sleeping place. On the morrow he would rise before dawn and train. He felt confident in the lists, secure in his abilities and proud of his performance. He was safe there. It was a far safer place to be than anywhere near Gwennelyn of Segrave.
Aye, deciding to keep as much distance from her as possible might be the most rational decision he’d made all day.
It would likely serve him just as well in the future.
Gwen peered into her mother’s polished silver goblet, trying to see if the wimple sat properly on her head. Upon closer inspection, she discovered a pair of smudges on the white fabric near her ears.
“By all the bloody saints,” she exclaimed, “who dirtied this?”
“Gwen,” her mother chided, “such unattractive words to come from your mouth.”
“My finest wimple is ruined.”
“Perhaps if you wore them more often,” Joanna said, “you might become more acquainted with their state of cleanliness, or lack thereof.”
“I am endeavoring, Mother,” Gwen said with as much patience as she could muster, “to make a good impression.”
“On Lord Bertram?”
“Who else?” Gwen lied. Her future father-in-law could have seen her covered in leavings from the cesspit and she wouldn’t have cared. Nay, there was only one whose good opinion she craved.
And the bloody lout hadn’t looked at her once since he’d arrived.
She couldn’t understand it. He had departed the keep with Lord Bertram the day after he’d challenged Geoffrey of Fenwyck those six years ago, which was unexpected, but she had assumed he’d done it not to cause Fenwyck’s son further embarrassment. That was far more than Geoffrey deserved, the wretch.
She had been at the gates to watch Rhys ride away. She’d exchanged no words with him, but certainly a good long look. His eyes had been clear and bright and his jaw set strongly as if he sallied forth to do more heroic deeds to delight her. She’d recognized the look that hid all emotion. All fine champions did so, lest prying eyes discover the innermost feelings of their hearts. It was a ruse they put into play, and Gwen had been greatly cheered to know Rhys was doing the like. It could only mean he had given his heart into her keeping. She had nodded to him gravely, then escaped to her mother’s solar to imprint upon her memory her last sight of the man she was certain she loved.
It had troubled her occasionally to find Lord Bertram arriving without Rhys in the ensuing years. It had troubled her even more to see Alain arrive with his father from time to time, but she had comforted herself with the knowledge that one day Rhys would come for her and claim her as his own. That made enduring Alain’s poor manners and feeble-minded conversation less difficult than it would have been otherwise.
And then today had dawned. She’d been loitering on the battlements, observing her father’s archers and wondering how difficult it would be to filch a bow from one of them to learn their skills, when what had she seen but Ayre’s banner coming toward them. She’d groaned at the sight of it, but remained on her perch that she might see if she were to be burdened with her betrothed’s presence or not.
And then she’d seen who rode in Lord Bertram’s company.
She’d almost fallen off the walkway in surprise.
Her mother had kept her busy in the solar for the whole of the day. Gwen had sewn tunic sleeves shut, hemmed sheets too short, and stitched a three-footed falcon onto her father’s finest surcoat. Her mother had finally put her to playing the lute to entertain Segrave’s ladies, but even that had proved too taxing a duty. Gwen couldn’t for the life of her remember her notes.
He was below.
She could hardly breathe for the excitement that coursed through her.
Then she’d finally been allowed to go to the great hall and partake of a meal. It had been a very long meal, and Rhys had sat at the table below her father’s for a very long time.
If she’d dared, she would have walked up to him and demanded an explanation. Concealing his feelings was one thing, yet even that demanded the occasional stolen glance filled with love. What had she had from the champion of her heart?
Not a bloody nod. Nary a wink. Not even a twitch of an eyebrow when she’d accidentally knocked a pitcher of wine over into Lord Bertram’s lap.
Events were not progressing as she had planned.
Which was why she found herself on this, the second morning of Sir Rhys’s stay in her keep, digging through her trunk for a suitable wimple to cover her ears. Perhaps he had thought better of wanting to champion her because he had spent too much time dwelling on the state of filthiness she’d found herself in the last time they’d met. Not so this time. She fully intended to show him that she could keep her clothes clean, her demeanor demure, and her ears covered. He couldn’t fail to be impressed by that.
Only now her plans were dashed by the discovery of dirt on her finest wimple. How was she to make a good impression with a filthy headcovering? She was in mid-contemplation of a selection of curses when she felt her mother’s hands on her head.
“Here, my love,” Joanna said gently, removing the soiled cloth, “you’ll wear one of mine.”
“Nay,” Gwen protested, “you know I’ll only ruin it.”
“For such a tidy girl, you do manage to wear a great deal of dirt,” Joanna agreed placidly.
Gwen didn’t bother to argue. She did find herself smudged quite often, but it came from the places she went and the things she investigated. She needed fodder for her own tales and ’twas a certainty she wouldn’t find it in her mother’s solar. Women’s gossip, no matter how entertaining, was not interesting enough for the elaborate lays she wrote out in her head. But her father’s armory was. Never mind that she had never hefted a sword in her life. She needed no hefting for creation.
She stood still as her mother fussed with tying the wimple under her chin and tucking her hair under the cloth. And she found it very difficult to meet her mother’s eyes, lest she see the plots and schemes lurking therein.
Gwen looked at her mother reluctantly. “Aye?”
“Your course is set before you, my girl.”
“Would that I could alter it,” Gwen muttered.
“I had no choice in the wedding of your father,” Joanna reminded her, “and see you how well that has turned out?”
Ah, but her sire was a far different man than the volatile, selfish Alain of Ayre. That his temper was matched only by his stupidity made him a very disagreeable prospect indeed.
But with any luck, he would be searching for a new bride very soon. Sir Rhys would see to that. Gwen had faith in him.
Now, if she could just convince him to agree with her.
“I must go down,” Gwen said, feeling the need to escape from her mother’s assessing glance. “It will show Lord Bertram that I will be a good chatelaine if I am there to tend to our guests.”
Her mother sighed. “Be careful, Gwen.”
Gwen fled before she had to hear any more. She had the feeling what her mother didn’t know, she’d guessed. Had she been so obvious then, over the past six years? She’d lived for every scrap of news about Sir Rhys and made any bearer of such tidings repeat over and over again what they’d heard. She’d reminded her parents that she was composing heroic lays as a tribute to Queen Eleanor’s fondness of them, and it only served her to hear of the gallant Sir Rhys’s remarkable adventures. He had gone on many errands for Lord Bertram and somehow always managed to extricate himself in the most glorious of ways from impossible situations, using his sword and his wits with equal skill.
Gwen stopped at the bottom of the steps and hung back in the shadows where she could observe the occupants of the great hall, yet remain unseen herself. It was yet early in the day and the men had returned from their morning business to break their fast. Gwen had given much thought to the timing of her entrance. Sir Rhys would have to acknowledge her as he left the hall after finishing his meal. And if he did not do so then, she had other plans to plant herself in his path and leave him with no choice but to look at her. What she would say to him then, she didn’t know. She prayed something would come to her. For now, it was enough to have him look on her and see her.
Even by the light of torches on the walls, she had no trouble finding him. There were many who sat at her father’s lower tables, but none who set the very air about them to trembling merely by being there.
He sat with his back to the fire, his helm on the table next to his arm, and a dark cloak pushed back over his shoulders. The torchlight shone on his dark hair and glanced off his perfectly chiseled features. His clothing was simple and unadorned, though as Bertram’s favored foster son he likely could have bedecked himself as lavishly as did Alain and his brother Rollan. Gwen decided then that he had no need. Not even the simpleness of his garb could hide the nobility of his bearing and the beauty of his face.
And to think he was a mere knight with nothing to his name but his sword and horse.
By the saints, ’twas no wonder Alain hated him so. He was everything Alain wasn’t.
He ate quickly, speaking gravely to those about him only when he was spoken to. Gwen watched him finish long before those around him had satisfied themselves, rise and beg leave of Lord Bertram to depart the hall, and make his way out the door. He was gone before Gwen had realized that her initial plan to put herself in his path before he left the hall had failed miserably. She would have to exert better control over herself. Gaping at the man while he escaped the web she set for him would get her nothing but fodder for her dreams at night. She fully intended to have more. Her parents might have intended her for Alain of Ayre, but she had a different idea.
Even if it entailed wedding only a knight.
But that wouldn’t happen until she had speech with him, and that surely wouldn’t occur until she had found a way to attract his notice. She certainly wasn’t going to roll about in the pigsty again to have it. She was a woman now. Though she’d been but a child the last time she’d encountered him, she’d known then he was what she wanted. Now that she was grown, surely he would take her desire for him to be her champion more seriously.
She walked from the hall as quickly as she dared, hoping her father would think she had ignored his calls to come sit and eat due to a sudden loss of hearing on her part. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found that no one was following her from the great hall. She might succeed after all.
Sir Rhys had gone to the stables. She knew this because it was his habit to check on his mount after the morning meal to assure himself it was being treated well. And after his visit to the stables, he would return again to the lists, where he trained for several hours a day. Surely he wouldn’t mind interrupting his habits this once.
She ran toward the entrance to the stables, fearing she might have missed him already. She had almost reached the opening when her toes made contact abruptly with a sharp stone. She greeted the pain with a most unladylike expression and hopped about on one foot, clutching her offended toe with her fist.
She hopped, of course, directly into Rhys de Piaget’s substantial chest.
He caught her by the arms. She looked up, her pain forgotten. Indeed, she had to remind herself that breathing, not standing there gaping at him like a halfwit, was the best way to make a favorable impression.
She lowered her foot as casually as she could. She made no move to straighten her garments, for that might have induced him to release her and that she couldn’t have.
“Hurt?” he asked.
Ah, but he did have such a rich voice. Surely the stuff of any maid’s dreams.
He frowned. “Are you unwell?”
It was all she could do not to fling herself into his arms and blurt out her love for him right on the spot. Instead, she shook her head and prayed she looked even the slightest bit dignified while doing so.
“Well, then,” he said, releasing her abruptly and taking a step backward. “Good morrow to you, lady.”
He was halfway across the bailey before she managed to gather up enough wits to realize he had once again escaped her clutches.
“Sir Rhys, wait!”
He didn’t stop. Gwen couldn’t credit him with rudeness, so she assumed perhaps too many victims screaming for mercy had ruined his hearing. She hiked up her skirts and dashed off after him.
“Sir Rhys, wait,” she repeated breathlessly when she caught up with him. His ground-eating stride did not slow, which forced her to keep running alongside him. “Won’t you stop and have speech—”
“Have things to do,” he said curtly, increasing his pace.
“But,” she said, breaking into a full run.
“No women in the lists,” he threw over his shoulder as he fair sprinted to his destination.
What People are Saying About This
PRAISE FOR NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR LYNN KURLAND
“Both powerful and sensitive…a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs
“Stepping into one of Lynn Kurland’s…novels is definitely one magic moment in itself.”—All About Romance
“Clearly one of romance’s finest writers.” —The Oakland Press
“A sweet, tenderhearted time travel romance.”—Joyfully Reviewed
“[A] triumphant romance.”—Fresh Fiction
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