Authors: Teresa Medeiros
Swallows darted like shadows between the massive beams. Ardendonne's hall seemed a cottage dwelling compared to this, and Revelwood fit only for swine and dogs. Sunlight drifted through the open door. Carved chairs and tables littered the floor with no apparent pattern to their arrangement.
Rowena picked her way along the wall, dodging table legs and chair backs. Her foot caught in the foreign fabric of an Oriental rug. By the time she reached the kitchen, Marlys was cheerfully polishing off the last of the porridge.
"Too late, love," she said at Rowena's crestfallen expression. "Dreadfully sorry." A smile gleamed between her matted strands of hair.
Rowena slid onto a bench and folded her hands on the empty table. A wizened man close to seven feet tall ducked through the kitchen door with an armload of wood. Rowena scooted backward as he dumped the wood on the table in front of her.
"Gridmore," Marlys grunted. "Dunnla's husband. He is as blind as she is deaf. If I were you, I should move. He thinks you are the fire. You've probably been stoked well enough after a night with Gareth."
Gridmore turned on Rowena, poker in hand. Rowena ducked and slid down the bench. He jabbed at the air a few times before the poker found the hearth.
Marlys lapped at the inside of her wooden bowl. "My mind reels at the vision of their antics in the marriage bed. Mayhaps she folds him up and slips him in the cupboard each night."
Marlys jumped guiltily as Dunnla shuffled up behind her and bellowed, "Eating again, Lady Marlys. I see you've finished yesterday's porridge. Sir Gareth ordered some fresh made for Lady Rowena."
Dunnla clunked a bowl on the table in front of Rowena. Marlys's visible eye glared at her as Rowena dipped a spoon into the steaming goodness, not caring if she burned her tongue. She swallowed the creamy mush and licked her lips, refusing to bite back a grin. Marlys slammed her spoon on the table, sending bits of barley flying.
Throughout the next few days, Rowena came to regret every spoonful of that porridge. Marlys proved to have a long memory.
Her writing lessons consisted of Marlys pacing beside the table while Rowena struggled to form the letters of her name on scraps of parchment. Marlys would pause only long enough to tweak Rowena's ear or poke her with the tip of the quill when she thought Rowena stupid. Rowena fancied herself terribly stupid. Her arms remained dotted with ink and her ears bright red all the day long. Trying to peep beneath Marlys's hair earned her an especially vicious jab. Rowena always jumped when Marlys jerked out her dagger to scrape another blunder from the page. Suppose the churlish creature confused quill and blade and stabbed her?
One afternoon after Rowena had spelled her own name
for the third time, Marlys boxed her ears and drove all the parchments into the floor with a sweep of a gauntleted hand. "I'm weary of teaching a lackwit to write. The time has come for you to learn something useful."
Afraid to even speculate on what Marlys might consider useful, Rowena tripped after her charging path down the stairs and into the beckoning sunlight of the list. Marlys's hunched shoulders disappeared in a crude wooden chest set against the bailey wall. She rummaged through the chest, humming a melody of grunted curses. Rowena ducked as a rusty helm went sailing past her head. She picked it up, running her fingers over the crusted visor.
Marlys reappeared, wielding two long poles, their ends blunted by a conflict long forgotten. "These would never do for a proper joust, but they'll do for you. We'd best abandon the list for the forest. If Gareth finds me tilting instead of teaching, there will be a beating in it for both of us." She leered at Rowena through a matted cloud of hair.
"I've yet to see him lift a finger to you."
Marlys hooked a finger in the neck of Rowena's kirtle and shoved her face at her. "I suppose you think 'twould benefit me if he did?"
Rowena cleared her throat awkwardly. " 'Tis late in your life for Gareth to chasten you. Mayhaps your papa should have done it when you were but a babe."
"My father never had the time to beat me. He was too busy fawning over his precious son." Marlys slung her toward the barbican. "Onward, insolent puppy. We shall rout the Saladin's armies and spill the heathens' blood before this day is done."
Caught in the spirit of Marlys's playacting, Rowena marched forward, giving the sharpened wooden sticks implanted around the castle a wide berth.
The rain that had ushered Rowena to Caerleon marked the dying breath of summer. The nip of autumn sweetened the air. Leaves were beginning to crisp at the edges in flagrant hues of orange and yellow. Marlys led them to a fern-filled glade rich with the scent of damp earth and summer's decay.
Rowena gathered her kirtle between her legs and tied it around her waist. Marlys slammed the ancient helm over Rowena's head. She was lost in the salty tang of metal and old sweat. Before she could reach for the visor, a mighty buffet set her head to ringing with the hellish echo of bells. She sat down abruptly.
She jerked the helm off, her hands trembling. Marlys stood a few feet away, the lance turned across her body like a shield.
Her laugh was the low ripple of a deep flowing stream. "Did I truly look so stupid when you bested me from behind?"
Rowena rubbed her ears, glaring at Marlys through narrowed eyes. "Infinitely stupider."
Snorting with laughter, Marlys pulled on her own helm. The lance in her hands came shooting at Rowena. Rowena caught it in one fist. She banged the helm on the ground, loosening the visor before she donned it. She barely had time to raise the lance as a shield before Marlys charged her, knocking her flat. She rolled to a crouch and Marlys roared past again. The side of her lance caught the side of Marlys's, deflecting the blow. Marlys was on her again before she could drag in a heated breath.
The afternoon wore on with Rowena doing little more than dodging and falling. Triumph sang through her blood each time her lance slowed Marlys's charge for the barest instant. At Marlys's command, she jerked down the visor and peered through the narrow slits at a world divided into the dappled shadows of the forest and the dark figure of Marlys hurtling toward her. She was staggering to her feet once again, every muscle aching, when she saw Marlys freeze. The tilt of her head locked on the forest behind Rowena.
Marlys jerked off her helm. "Good day, brother dear. We thought you'd gone pillaging the peasants."
Rowena spun around and curtsied to the nearest tree.
Gareth's voice came from somewhere to the left. "I was forced to subdue my love of rapine and mayhem when I heard the clash of two mighty dragons in the forest. You've been up to mischief. I don't suppose 'tis Dunnla you've got under there?"
Gareth plucked off Rowena's helm, sending her golden hair spilling around her face. She bobbed another curtsy. "Good day, Sir Gareth. I pray we have not displeased you."
"God forbid," Marlys muttered.
Gareth tucked a strand of Rowena's hair behind her ear. His eyes sparkled beneath his dark brows. "Are you harmed?"
Rowena shook her head.
"Then you have not displeased me."
Marlys groaned into her helm.
Gareth's fingertips slid beneath the sleeve of Rowena's kirtle to probe a purpling bruise. A frown darkened his brow. He pointed a finger at Marlys. "You, on the other hand, have displeased me greatly."
Marlys sank into a mock swoon. "Pray do forgive me, milord. I tremble at the mere thought of your displeasure."
Rowena's giggle deepened into a cough as Gareth turned his frown on her. "You both ought to be sent to bed without supper for your dangerous play."
Rowena's face fell.
Marlys swaggered up to Gareth. "Don't you think I'm a bit old to be sent to bed without my broth? If you send Rowena to bed, she will at least have you to nibble on." She patted his beard with her cracked nails. "Why do you flush, brother dear? Do you resent your honeyed scabbard learning to pierce you back?"
Gareth caught her wrist in his hand. Her fingers curled into claws, then went limp. He dropped her hand.
"Damn you to hell, Gareth." Marlys's low mutter sent a shiver down Rowena's spine. "The devil take both of you." She scooped up her lance with a vicious jab at the air and loped into the forest.
Rowena shook her head. "I fear your sister bears no fondness for me."
Gareth snorted. "Marlys has never been fond of anyone but me." At Rowena's quizzical look, he added, "Is her tender regard for me not obvious?"
They both laughed. Tension seeped from Rowena's spine.
Gareth's laughter faded to a rueful smile. "Marlys loves and hates me with equal passion. On the sixth anniversary of her birth, she cut off all her hair so as to look more like me. My father took no notice. He only patted her on the head and ordered her a new kirtle. She cut it into a kite and flew it from the highest tower." He shook away the memory. "Come. I shall walk you back to Caerleon. With that helm under your arm, you might be mistaken for a robber baron and carried to the lord of the castle for justice."
Rowena started down the path, unable to hide the half-skip the autumn day put in her step. "And is the lord of the castle a merciful man?"
"On the contrary!" Gareth exclaimed. "I hear he is a dreadful wolf of a man who would as soon roast a robber baron as hang him."
"And if that robber were a baroness?"
Gareth's voice lowered to a husky growl. "Why he'd gobble her up in a single bite!"
"Why 'tis just what Marlys said—" She spun around to witness the guilty slide of Gareth's gaze from her legs to her face. She had forgotten the immodest slant of the kirtle tied between her thighs.
Her cheeks burned as her fingers stabbed at the knotted skirt in what she hoped was a subtle effort to free it.
"Be still." Gareth's hand closed over hers. She stumbled to a halt. He knelt on one knee before her, his deft fingers tugging at the knot. "We shall have you garbed as a proper lady in no time."
If his open smile was an attempt to calm her, its effect was the opposite. Her muscles contracted as his knuckles brushed her stomach, heightening the flames in her cheeks. She stared at the top of his head, counting two gray hairs amidst the shaggy black.
"How many years are you?" she asked softly.
"How many years do you think I am?" He leaned back, resting an elbow on his knee.
"I do believe you are older than Big Freddie."
Gareth's grin deepened the tiny crinkles around his eyes. "How old is Big Freddie?"
Rowena's blush disappeared in a frown of concentration. Gareth crouched patiently at her feet while she counted on her fingers. Finally she said, "Older than all of us. So how many years does that make you?"
With one finger, Gareth dislodged the knot. The skirts of the kirtle came tumbling around his hands. "Too old, I fear. Thirty-three."
Rowena flitted forward on the path. Gareth cupped his chin in his hand, watching her. Sunlight burst through the uneven branches of an ancient oak, gilding her hair into waves of coarse gold. She skipped from one side of the path to the other. Her hands darted out to caress the rough bark of a walnut tree. She crumpled a thinly veined leaf between her fingers, then spun around, smoothing her skirt in a fit of demureness.
Her question came to him on the wings of a cooling wind. "Thirty-three years, Sir Gareth. Is that dreadfully old?"
He lowered his eyes before she could read the expression within them. "Sometimes, Rowena, it feels it."
She waited for him to rise, then danced on, her exuberant flight defying the deepening shadows as determinedly as the last fall of sunlight warmed the top of Gareth's head.
In the days following the jousting lesson, neither Marlys nor Gareth sought her company. Rowena threw herself into a life of leisure. Despite boundless enthusiasm, she did not excel at it. She would start out for a gentle meander in the forest and return mud-stained but grinning. Dunnla would look the other way as she thumped a skinned hare on the hearth, grinning sheepishly. Gareth would lift an eyebrow at the freshness of the meat on days he did not hunt and murmur something about the "prevalence of poachers in his woods." Dunnla would only smile and nod, feigning blindness as well as deafness, while the serving girls exchanged knowing giggles. Rowena took to tagging after Gridmore, who was too blind or too polite to chasten her.
She knew little of noble life. Papa had squandered away her mama's fortune long before she was born. But she could sense the unnatural isolation of Caerleon. There should have been knights and squires and pages and servants enough to meet all of Gareth's needs. Instead, he dressed himself, armored himself, and made do with a few scores of servants in a castle that should have had a thousand.
As her loneliness deepened, her thoughts turned again and again to Revelwood. She sat by the fire in the solar one night, hugging her knees and thinking how Little Freddie would have enjoyed the steaming blancmange Dunnla had served for supper. A fraction of the rice and milk Gareth had left unfinished on his manchet would have filled the boy's stomach for a week. Angry tears stung her eyes. She was nothing at Caerleon but another mouth to feed. As little attention as any of its inhabitants paid her, she might run away and not be missed for days.