Northern Wales, between Carreg Du and Afon Bryn May, in the Year of Our Lord 1139
Rhonwen spied the rabbit and froze. Why didn’t it run? Warily she peered about, scanning the quiet glade for some predator, whether man or beast. When she spied nothing she turned her narrowed gaze back to the rabbit and slowly set her willow basket down. The hare made a little leap, then thrashed madly about in the bed of newly unfurled ferns, before coming to an exhausted halt.
It was caught in a snare.
Again Rhonwen glanced around. Stealing from someone else’s trap was never right. In these lean times it was a crime. But it wouldn’t be the first time she’d done it. Nor, she feared, would it be the last. There were times when honor came in a poor second to hunger.
She approached the rabbit slowly, murmuring soothing words. “Come, now, brother rabbit. Let us see what has hold of your foot.” You shall make a very good stew, she added to herself, and her stomach rumbled agreement. It had been a long, lean winter, and she’d forgotten how it felt to be fully sated with food, especially good food like rabbit stew.
With deft hands she released the hare, then tucked it into her basket. She would take care of it elsewhere. For now she must slip away before whoever trapped these woods caught her.
The sun was hidden behind a layer of slate-gray clouds, yet she knew it neared the western horizon. She’d gone farther afield than usual today, and it was getting late. Down one rugged hill she went, half-running, half-sliding on the dark grit stones. She would cross the river on the fallen tree, then head straight for Carreg Du, and with any luck, she’d be home well before dark.
But luck was not with her. She was almost to the river when a stone whizzed by her left ear. “Return my rabbit, else the next one lands on your head!”
A child’s voice. He was angry, but he was only a child. She didn’t slow down.
The next stone grazed her shoulder. Still she ran, across a rocky clearing, through a stand of pale green willows, dodging and twisting, then straight for the river. She had nearly reached the crossing.
Then her foot slipped, she fell, and when she scrambled up, a rock caught her squarely on the cheek.
“Ow! Oh!” She lost her footing and fell again, this time in the rock-strewn shallows of the frigid waters. Her basket went flying and in a moment the rabbit was freed. As it dashed away, tail flashing in fright, the boy ran up, panting and cursing all at the same time.
“That’s my rabbit!” He flung one last fruitless stone at his disappearing dinner. “That was my rabbit and now it’s gone—and all on account of you!”
He glowered down at Rhonwen, a ragged scruff of a boy, dirty-faced and with the look of a wild creature. Rhonwen’s heart thudded from her exertions as well as from guilt and fear. Then her fear eased and frustration set in. She’d been caught red-handed. The rabbit had escaped. Her cheek hurt terribly, and the cold water was chilling her to the bone. This skinny boy had best not anger her further, else she would drown the nasty little beggar.
Suddenly her eyes narrowed and her nose wrinkled. “Don’t tell me,” she said, rising to her full, fourteen-year-old height. “You’re Rhys ap Owain, aren’t you? I’d recognize your filthy
face and nauseating stench anywhere.” She shoved past him. “Get out of my way.”
He was shorter than she, and slighter also, for he was a mere child while she was nearly a woman. But he was no more intimidated by her now than he had been as a foulmouthed little boy.
“And you’re the bitch Rhonwen,” he spat. “The thievin’ bitch of Carreg Du.” Before she could grab it, he snatched up her basket. “You took my rabbit, so I’ll have this basket in payment.”
“That’s mine! Give it back.”
When she ran at him he danced away. “Give me back my dinner and I’ll give you back your basket.”
“You filthy little bastard,” she swore. “I’ll teach you to be careful who you throw stones at!” But try as she might, she could not quite catch him. He dashed and whirled along the brown riverbank with her in close pursuit, but always just a hairbreadth behind him. Once she caught the tail of his tunic, but it ripped, leaving her with a handful of filthy wool.
She glared at him, her chest heaving with her effort. “You haven’t had a bath since the one I gave you five years ago, have you? No wonder you live in the woods. No one could bear to have you under the same roof with them!”
“I live in a fine house. A fine, snug place,” he countered. He waved the basket at her. “Meriel will be glad to have this basket. But she’d rather have had the rabbit—”
Suddenly he looked off to the right, and Rhonwen made her move. She launched herself at him and, with a grunt, he went down. Using her greater weight to advantage, she grabbed for the basket. But he was stronger than he looked. Though he let the basket go, he rolled over and pinned her. She tried to knee him in the groin, but he evaded the blow.
“Be still. Be still!” he hissed, catching her hair in a painful grip. Rhonwen yanked a handful of his hair and tried to shove him off her, but her wet skirts tangled in her legs.
“Stop it, Rhonwen! There’s English upon us. English soldiers!”
With those two words everything changed. Of one mind the two of them scrambled backward, into the meager shelter of a stunted alder tree growing beside a jagged black boulder. Though they considered one another enemies, when it came to English soldiers, the Welsh always stood united. So they huddled together, as still as the rabbit had been in the snare, and stared at the group across the way. They could not run, for the Englishmen would see them and five of them rode massive steeds that could trample two children to pulp.
Worse, Rhonwen knew she was old enough that enemy soldiers might devise a very different fate for her. Her newly budded breasts, of which she was so proud, would be her undoing should the English vermin spy them. So she pressed herself against Rhys’s side and ordered her racing heart and trembling limbs to a calm she did not feel.
The soldiers paused on the opposite side of the river. Men and beasts alike availed themselves of the cold, refreshing waters. Their voices carried but fitfully across the rushing stream.
“’Tis him,” she heard Rhys mutter.
“Him? You mean Randulf FitzHugh, Lord of Rosecliffe?”
“Nay. His brother. Jasper FitzHugh. The one ’at killed my da.”
Rhonwen glanced at Rhys. Like him, her father had also been killed by the English. But her father had been a good, hardworking man. By contrast, Rhys’s father had been every bit as awful as the English. Though a staunch Welsh loyalist, he’d been greedy and cruel, neither a good leader nor a particularly good father to Rhys, as she recalled.
But this was not the time to point that out. Jasper FitzHugh was their mutual enemy and, though she’d not laid eyes on him in several years, she had no trouble picking him out now.
He was tall with longish brown hair and the handsome face of the devil come to lure the unsuspecting to sin. All the women of the village spoke of him, but only when their menfolk were not around—and when they thought no children could hear. But Rhonwen made it her business to know everything about everyone, and she knew enough about Jasper FitzHugh to damn him in her eyes forever.
Bad enough that he was English. They were all monsters.
Bad enough that he was a man. They were all bullies.
To be fair, however, neither of those facts was entirely his fault. God had made him English and a man.
Beyond that, however, he was the worst sort of man, hard-drinking, wenching, gambling. Some said he’d been meant for the Church, but that the good fathers wouldn’t have him. His soul was that black. He outfought both Englishmen and Welsh, and he was indiscriminate in his use of women. Mostly Welshwomen, as the few Englishwomen at Rosecliffe were married.
She studied him, trying to understand why any Welshwoman would stoop so low as to cavort with an English knight. A Welshman, even one as ill-humored as her stepfather, was always a better choice than an Englishman, no matter how comely his face and finely formed his body.
“One day I’m going to kill him,” Rhys swore.
“I’ll help you,” she murmured. Then she added, “But only if you take a bath.”
“I don’t need a bath. And I don’t need a girl to help me neither.”
Down at the riverbank Jasper FitzHugh scanned the rocky valley. He was anxious to return to Rosecliffe Castle. He’d heard that Sir Lovell, the master builder for Rosecliffe, had two daughters soon to arrive. Jasper hadn’t had an Englishwoman since the feast of St. Crispin’s, six months previously. Of course, he’d have to be careful. Rand wouldn’t look kindly on him deflowering a young virgin. But surely one of them would already be experienced between the sheets.
He lifted a wineskin from his saddle and took a deep draught of red wine. But as he wiped his mouth, his eyes narrowed. Someone was watching them, someone hiding beside a jagged boulder halfway up the hill.
Casual in every movement, he angled away from the others as if to relieve himself. When he glanced at the boulder again, however, he made out two heads—but not men. They were too small. Children?
He bent over to scratch his ankle and picked up a stone. Then, with a lightning move, he heaved it at the hidden pair.
They scattered like hares, a boy and a young woman. A girl, judging by the dark, unbound hair streaming down her back as she scrambled up the hill. His men whooped and laughed at the sight.
“Shall we nab ’em?” Alan, one of the knights, called out.
Jasper shook his head. “There’s no reason. They’re just children and harmless enough.”
Alan snorted. “They won’t always be children.”
No, they would not. But in this Jasper agreed with his brother: As frustrated as he was by the boring routine of his life, only a fool would make war purely for the thrill of it. “There’s naught to be gained by terrorizing Welsh children, save to stir up their elders. And that is not our aim. Enough of this,” he added. “Let us be on our way to Rosecliffe. I’m heartily tired of the company of men. I want a woman.”