Authors: Teresa Medeiros
Irwin flinched and snuggled deeper into Gareth's mantle. He drew the wooden trencher close to his chest only to have it plucked out of his hands as Gareth paced behind him.
Gareth poked at the salted fish and cheese with interest. "Where did those cheeky bastards get fresh grapes this time of year? Is Rowena fond of grapes?" - Irwin opened his mouth to answer but it was Big Freddie who said, "Never had them. There were no grapes at Revelwood by the time Ro was old enough to taste them."
Gareth pursed his lips as if deep in thought. "What think you, Little Freddie? Would grapes make your sister happy?"
Little Freddie leaned back on the bench and crossed his arms. "Do you care?"
Their eyes locked in silent battle.
"Water's boiling," grunted Big Freddie.
"So it is." Gareth bustled to the hearth. He wrapped a rag around his hand and unhooked the pot, leaving it to cool on the hearth. He plunked the trencher down on Big Freddie's thighs.
"Watch those grapes, won't you?" he whispered with a sidelong glance at Irwin. "I must see to my mount."
"No need," Big Freddie replied. " Tis been done."
"Many thanks. Would you do something else for me?" Gareth could almost see Irwin's ears perk up. He leaned closer to Big Freddie's ear and whispered, "Ready the mounts for the journey to Caerleon."
Big Freddie stared straight ahead. "Yours and Rowena's?"
Gareth tucked a small log under one arm, latched the kettle over one finger, and held out his palm. Big Freddie surrendered the trencher. Gareth gave Irwin an infuriating wink as he started up the stairs, balancing his treasures with elaborate care. It was not until he rounded the first curve of the enclosed staircase that his throat warbled into song.
Rowena hugged the pillow to her stomach, murmuring Gareth's name into it. The pillow made no response. A sound like ivory chittering against ivory brought her tousled head up and her bleary eyes open. It was a long, puzzled moment before she realized it was her teeth chattering. She rolled over and sat up on her knees, enduring the protest of her stiff muscles with a grimace. She peeked beneath the coverlet, searching her body for some cryptic sign of Gareth's possession.
His crest was not emblazoned upon her chest. His brand upon her was an invisible chain binding her to him by the faint tenderness between her legs, and the quickening of her breath as scenes of the night flashed through her mind in a dazzling procession. Her teeth stopped chattering abruptly. She fell forward, burying her face in the coverlet with a shriek of laughter.
A growl of hunger tugged her upright. The curve of her hollow belly seemed to be touching her backbone. She drew the coverlet up around her shoulders, suddenly chilled to the bone. Had Gareth forgotten his pledges already? He had promised to banish both hunger and cold from her life. Had his oath only been pretty words designed to satisfy the lust that had driven him to take her again and again in the night, sometimes tenderly, sometimes savagely, until they had collapsed into each other's arms in stuporous slumber? What did he promise Lady Alise for a taste of her favors? she wondered. A bag of gold? A cluster of pearls? How he must be laughing at her! Poor Rowena Fordyce, won by little more than the promise of a basted ham and a stoked fire.
Despair darkened her eyes as she surveyed the abandoned chamber. Perhaps the dark lord had already fled his handiwork, leaving her at the mercy of the next randy group of knights to stumble upon Midgard. Her brow folded with consternation. She could almost hear their bawdy ditties like the echo of ghost songs far away.
The bawdy ditty grew louder. Her bleak musings consumed her so neatly that when the door flew open, she blinked at Gareth as if he himself were a ghost. The smile that curved her lips was like the sun breaking through a bank of thunderheads. She held out her arms to him. Gareth stopped, his song dying on an indrawn "breath. A look crossed his face that Rowena could not interpret. She had the eerie feeling she was seeing the ghost of a younger Gareth, shy and almost uncertain of his welcome.
When he did not move to accept her embrace, a wave of kindred shyness washed over her. She pretended to stretch, surveying him from beneath her lashes.
"The color suits you, milord," she said lightly, referring to the length of fine wool draped over one brawny shoulder. "The shade complements your hair."
"Conduct yourself well," he replied, "and I might let you borrow it."
Gareth shoved the log into the waning fire and dumped his other burdens on the table. He crossed to the bed and dangled a kirtle of the most exquisite shade of rose in front of Rowena's freckled nose. She reached for it, but he jerked it back with a smirk, his gaze sharpening as the coverlet slipped off her creamy shoulders.
Rowena drew the coverlet up over her nose, her eyes mischievous slits of blue. "Conduct yourself well and I might let you borrow it," she said, her voice muffled.
The kirtle slipped to the floor as Gareth dove on her. Feathers flew as he rolled over, pulling her on top of him. As they settled into the soft tick, the coverlet enveloped them both. Gareth's hands were warm against her bare waist.
His eyes sparkled. "Such insolence. Little do you know what dangers I braved to procure these treasures for my lady. Three dragons I faced, breathing fire and retribution down my neck."
Rowena lifted her hips in a halfhearted attempt at escape. "Might the dragons have been christened Irwin and Freddie and Freddie once again?"
"They might." Gareth took advantage of her struggles to slide himself into a position that would have been worse than compromising were it not for his woolen hose.
Rowena grew very still. "You did slay these said dragons with your mighty sword?"
"Alas! I was unarmed. I was forced to bear the brunt of their surly looks and dastardly mutterings with the most sheepish surrender. My mighty sword was spent, sorely taxed by a winsome damsel who mocks my meager gifts with the crudest of jests."
Rowena flattened her palms against his chest with a tantalizing wiggle. "Your mighty sword shows signs of life."
Gareth's eyes narrowed into lazy slits of passion. "You, winsome damsel, could stir a dead man to life."
He cupped her head in his hand and drew her face down to his. When she finally straightened, her hands were trembling and her breathing unsteady. "Is that the only gift you brought me? Or are there others?"
Gareth smiled wryly. "Ever the pragmatist."
He shoved her off of him, sending her tumbling to her rear with a squeal. She crouched in the folds of the coverlet as he crossed to the table to fetch his offerings.
Bowing, he set the iron pot beside the bed, pretending to struggle beneath its weight. "Your bath, milady."
Rowena frowned. "A trifle small, is it not?"
"Whine not or I will stuff you in it myself."
Rowena studied the ten-inch pot and wisely shut her mouth.
He presented the trencher to her with a flourish. A spark of interest lit her eyes.
"These gems were wrested from a ravenous dragon, indeed, with flapping ears and a most indignant stare."
"Indignant no doubt because you pilfered his cheese."
Gareth sat down on the edge of the bed, caressing her hair. "And his betrothed."
"No doubt you were paralyzed with shame." Rowena shuffled through the succulent slabs of fish and cheese.
"Only when the smallest dragon pierced me with his stare. Had it been a blade, 'twould have severed my lecherous head."
"As you were wont to sever his own last night." Rowena's fingers squeezed a grape until it squished out of its skin onto the bed.
"Hardly. I find myself growing quite fond of the lad. He is a foe to be reckoned with when armed with kettle or knife."
Her mouth fell open. "You had no intention of killing him?"
Gareth popped a grape in her mouth. "None whatsoever.
Her mouth snapped shut. "You tricked me." He sighed. His fingers toyed with the silky flesh of her cheek. "Must we flog this point to death? How many times must I win you to convince you that you belong to me?"
Rowena swallowed the grape whole. "You did not win me last night." She calmly pushed his hand away. "You turned the dice in your mantle. You cheated."
Gareth stood, his features hardening. "The last man who said that to me got a lance in the throat."
"For what? Telling the truth?"
Gareth's foot lashed out, overturning the pot. "So I cheated! Would you have preferred I let that nasty wretch Percival carry you abovestairs? Or killed him for even daring to look at you?"
"But how do I know you did not cheat Papa out of me to begin with?"
Her serenity only infuriated him more. "Contrary to your exalted opinion of me, I am not given to cheating idiots. Or murdering boys."
"Are you given to murdering women?" The words slipped out before Rowena could bite them back.
A strange smile quirked Gareth's lips. Rowena shivered as he ran his forefinger down the length of her nose, then kissed its tip. "Only time will tell, my love. Only time will tell."
He left her then, still steeped in the echo of his careless endearment. She sat with her cheek against her knees, pondering his words and aching for his touch until Irwin banged on the door and gruffly announced that the horses were ready for their return to Caerleon.
Marlys swung from bough to bough like a graceless ape. At the top of the ancient oak, the branches grew more fragile and farther apart until she was forced to scuttle up the trunk. The rough bark tore a chunk of flesh from her knee, but she hardly felt it. The last slender branch she reached for came away in her hand. A few years ago she could have scaled the top branches with no more than a creak to betray her. With a mutter of disgust, she hunched into the thin lacing of branches, hating the weight of her womanhood.
The tree cradled her like a nest, its naked branches shielding her black-garbed figure. Marlys rested her cheek against the damp bark, loving winter because it made no promises it could not keep.
The morning rain had melted the snow to muddy patches. Land and sky curved into a bowl of unremitting gray broken only by the faraway towers of Ardendonne. Blaine's scarlet pennons rippled in defiant splendor against the meek sky. If her father had lived, Marlys knew she would have been mistress there. Even now, it was only Gareth's grace that saved her from such a fate.
As a child she had fled often to this tree, escaping the rebukes of a nurse who would chasten her to "act more like a lady and less like a wild thing," escaping the mild disappointment in the eyes of a father who had wanted only sons, escaping the inescapable allure of a brother who could displease no one. In its branches she found a grace unbound by the fetters of childish clumsiness. When the hawks skimmed past on invisible sheets of air, she would dream of going with them, soaring away from Caerleon, gliding over the meadows to a place where no one chided or yelled or tweaked her nose to tenderly bait her as her brother was wont to do.
The sky was empty on this day. The hawks had sailed to that better place without her. A cramp tightened her ankle. She rubbed it absently, and lifted her head to find black dots creeping across the meadow in the distance. Her pulse quickened as she counted under her breath. Five horses. Four riders. Nay. As incongruous as Folio's prancing gait against a quilt of dun came a splash of yellow hair against a field of black. The black was her brother's chest. The yellow hair, Rowena's. Marlys dug her nails into the tree bark, driving cold black silt beneath them.
She could not see Rowena's smile, only the adoring tilt of her head toward the man who held her. Marlys wanted to throw back her head and howl. She watched them cross the meadows, her eyes hot and dry, until they disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
She shimmied down the tree trunk. Near the bottom, her heel caught on a branch. The sharp crack warned her too late. She fell backward as the branch gave, hardly recognizing the frightened cry as her own.
She lay in the leaves for a long time, feeling their wetness seep into the back of her tunic. When her breath returned, the sobs came with it, deep and shuddering with an edge that sliced her gut. When they were spent, she sat up and scrubbed the tearstains from her face with her hair. The rain beat over her in windy sheets as she sprinted toward Caerleon to welcome her brother and his lady home.
Rowena sank into the linen-lined tub with a sigh. Warm water lapped at her chin. A faint smile curved her lips as she remembered her first bath at Caerleon. This night there would be no Dunnla to scrub her skin raw. The beaming old woman had tactfully disappeared after filling the tub and booming something that sounded like "bacon home" in Rowena's ear. This time she bathed not in the kitchen but in the privacy of Gareth's chamber.
A fire roared on the hearth, its warmth ballooning through the chamber. Rowena dragged her fingertips lazily through the water. Her eyes fixed on the great bed, remembering the nights she and Gareth had lain like statues, afraid to touch one another for fear they could not stop. Only when exhaustion had claimed them had their bodies sought out the warmth of one another. They had awakened most often with their limbs entwined, the sweet smell of sleep an intimate bond between them. Tonight would be different. When Gareth returned from his tour of Caerleon, he would find her tucked between his furs, damp and clean and hungry for his touch.