Authors: Teresa Medeiros
When Marlys reached out a hand to capture a wheaten strand of Rowena's hair, Rowena had to resist the urge to jerk it back. The golden strand curled around a fingernail tipped with a crescent of dirt. Marlys stared at it for a moment, then drew it across the tip of Rowena's nose in a gentle caress. Rowena swallowed the urge to sneeze.
"Pretty," Marlys pronounced, her lip curling in a sneer.
Gareth rose to stand behind Rowena. "Hands off, little sister. She belongs to me. Not you." He did not touch Rowena. He did not have to.
"Where did you come by such a find?"
"I won her with a throw of the dice in a game of hazard."
Marlys lifted the one eyebrow visible beneath her hair. "Original. Tell me—does she always dress like a boy, or have you acquired some new tastes on your journey?"
"I don't have to answer that question. Especially not for you."
Marlys circled them both. "Does it talk, or only hit?"
Rowena was beginning to feel like a Christian caught between two lions. "I talk," she said, a shade too loud.
Marlys ignored her. "Does it have a name?"
A pride she'd long forgotten infused Rowena's clipped words. "Its name is Lady Rowena Fordyce."
A current so deep and swift that Rowena might have imagined it passed between Marlys and Gareth. The tiny hairs at the nape of her neck stood erect.
Marlys snorted, granting her the courtesy of addressing her directly. "You look like no lady I've ever seen."
"She might say the same for you," Gareth retorted smoothly.
Marlys screwed up her face in a childish gesture of defiance. She stuffed two fingers in her mouth and whistled shrilly. A piebald mare trotted into view, as shaggy and heavy-footed as its mistress. Marlys settled herself on the horse's back with a tremendous clinking.
She tossed her head at the nag. "Did you win that, too, or was he a penalty forced on you for losing?"
Gareth mounted. "The jade was Blaine's twisted idea of a jest. We had to travel slowly to keep from killing the poor beast." His disparaging glance seemed to take in Rowena as well.
"Pity you didn't." Marlys kicked her mare forward.
A kindred sympathy for the nag welled up in Rowena. She stroked the beast's nose before mounting to follow them into the deepening dark.
As they reached Caerleon, the rain began, pelting them like fists from the sky. Rowena had a dim impression of a sloping drawbridge, a shadowy courtyard, black and towering stone. Strong arms circled her waist. Gareth pulled her off the nag and bustled her through a yawning door.
She stood breathless and dripping inside a vast well of darkness. She gazed upward but could find no roof to mark an end to the barren blackness. Only when her breathing steadied did she realize the darkness was only darkness because of tiny pinpoints of light trailing down each wall. Tapers. Tapers in a hall that demanded torchlight for any vision at all. A chill touched her damp clothes as Gareth moved away.
A sharp clang and a hearty volley of curses marked Marlys's progress through the hall. "Dunnla!" she bellowed.
A splash of light wavered into the hall. At first Rowena thought the torch had walked out of the wall itself, but a harder glance showed her an old woman with a crooked back entering the hall from a narrow corridor. The torch she carried almost brushed the floor. That would have been disastrous, for in the wake of the light she cast, Rowena discovered the stones were covered not by floor rushes, but by opulent Oriental rugs, embroidered edge to edge in a never ending sea of luxury.
The woman bobbed out of the darkness with a toothless smile and crooked a finger at Rowena. Rowena bent forward. The stale smell of boiled sage brushed her nostrils as the woman touched her lips to Rowena's ear.
"Welcome!" she roared.
Rowena leaped backward, striking her shin on some immovable object. Gareth had to bend double to kiss the old woman's papery cheek. She beamed up at him.
"Dunnla is mostly deaf," he explained. "She thinks we all are."
"Aren't we, though, after being bellowed at since we were babes?"
Marlys's voice thundered back to them on the heels of an echo. There had to be a roof above them somewhere. Rowena was forced to stagger back as Dunnla swung around, nearly igniting Rowena's braies with a sweep of the torch.
Gareth caught the corner of Dunnla's shawl, making a tiny leap himself to keep from being torched. Rowena started to giggle but stopped when Gareth pointed at her.
She cocked her head to the side, watching Gareth's hands dart through a foreign dance. Dunnla bobbed up and down sending shadows billowing over Gareth's face. From somewhere in the darkness, Rowena could hear the harsh sound of Marlys's breathing. With a final curtsy, Dunnla gave Gareth a shove. He cast Rowena an unreadable look before making his way through the invisible chaos of the hall without a single pause or bump.
Rowena was still staring after him when she felt a tug on the leg of her braies. Dunnla started toward the corridor with Rowena's leg in tow, oblivious to the fact that the rest of her was still rooted to the floor.
"What does she want?" Rowena whispered. "What did he tell her?"
Marlys's voice boomed out of the darkness. "He told her to feed you well and bring you to his chambers."
Rowena felt herself drawn irresistibly toward the corridor. The worn homespun of her braies groaned a protest as Dunnla tugged harder.
A deep ripple of laughter underscored Marlys's words. "He also told her to ensure you had a bath."
Rowena lurched forward to keep from falling. She threw a look over her shoulder, but saw only gleaming white teeth bared in a hungry smile. Somewhere in her mind she heard once again the cry of the wolf in the forest.
Even a tray of cold mutton, so fresh the grease beaded on it like drops of nectar, failed to cheer Rowena. The name Marlys had called her set up echoes that grew louder each moment against Gareth's pointed lack of denial. The scene played itself over and over with a different outcome each time.
"Whore?" Gareth would answer in a booming bass. "Nonsense. I thought she might help us plant barley this spring" or "Silly girl! Does she look like my whore? I've won her to help Dunnla in the kitchen" or best of all, "Bite your tongue, sister. This fair child is a lady. How dare you insult her by branding her with false names?" These imagined replies were always followed by the dissipating of Marlys's bravado and a heartfelt apology with Gareth, preferably on bended knee, kissing her palm.
e image of her forceful captor on his knees at her feet brought her back to reality with a jolt.She was still picking at the meat with her knife when Dunnla entered the kitchen dragging a round wooden tub twice her size.Rowena watched glumly as heated water was poured into the splintery vessel. As Dunnla stripped her and cheerfully tossed her clothes in the fire, Rowena prayed Gareth would not wander in for his supper. A puff of black smoke and her garments were gone up the chimney like her life at Revelwood.
She sank into the steaming water up to her chin and her hair floated to the surface in a tangled skein. The warm water loosened the lump in her throat. If Gareth had truly intended to use her for his pleasure this long year, why had he left her untouched last night? He had even gone so far as to give her his dagger to protect herself. Had it been only her supposed dirtiness he feared? Now he wanted her clean. And in his chambers. As Dunnla scrubbed her face with a melting ball of soap, the hot, greedy feel of Sir Blaine's lips on hers seared her memory. Marlys's accusation darted in a vicious circle between her ears.
When Dunnla raised the bucket to rinse her hair and screeched, "More?," Rowena thought she said "whore" and burst into tears. The night blurred as Dunnla extracted her from the tub with a sympathetic cluck, dried her, and dropped a clean white bliaut over her head. The tunic was long and shapeless, with no waist to speak of. Its fine linen brushed like feathers against her skin.
Before she realized what was happening, Rowena was standing barefoot outside a massive oak door banded with iron. Her damp hair fell around her shoulders. As Dunnla waddled away, Rowena touched the door, then drew her hand back. She could run now, but where would she run to? The castle with its dark mazes held as many terrors as the encroaching forest.
A low voice shot out of the darkness, giving Rowena no less of a start than if Marlys had jumped on her fully armored from the rafters. "Why do you hesitate? Are you afraid?"
She peered into the shadows. Marlys sat with her back against the wall, her knees drawn up in a casual sprawl.
An uncharacteristic streak of stubbornness prompted Rowena to reply, "Nay. I am not."
Marlys took a long swig from a grubby wineskin before drawing the back of her hand across her mouth. "He gobbles up little country girls like you just to whet his appetite." Rowena smoothed the unfamiliar skirt to hide the trembling of her hands. Marlys corked the wineskin and laid it aside. "He has not touched you, has he?"
Rowena searched her memory. "He threw me up against a tree because I sang a song that displeased him."
Marlys rose and swaggered toward her. Before she could even gasp, Rowena found herself pushed against the door. Bullying must be a family trait, she thought dryly.
"What was the song? Tell me the words," Marlys rasped.
Struggling not to shiver, Rowena repeated the words she could remember. Marlys's mouth tightened in a grim smile.
She pushed her face closer to Rowena's "Go to him. Hide your fear well. He hasn't murdered any of his women—not lately, anyway." She threw back her head in a burst of wild laughter, reached past Rowena, and threw open the door. Rowena was thrust backward into the chamber. The door slammed in her face.
For a long moment she stood with her forehead pressed to the hard wood, afraid to move. Exhaling a deep breath, she finally turned. At first glance, the chamber appeared empty. A cheerful fire crackled on the long hearth, easing the dampness of the rain pounding against the shutters. Candles flickered in iron sconces, dripping wax down the stone walls in melting cascades. A bed frame sat against one wall, devoid of ornamentation, yet, ostentatious with its fine mahogany canopy and massive size. Rowena tiptoed toward the bed.
Gareth lay on his back, one leg thrown outward in surrender to exhaustion. His dark lashes rested on his cheeks. Rowena crept forward, biting her lower lip without realizing it.
Sleep did nothing to diminish his size and strength.
The hand flung out beside his bearded cheek could have crushed her as if she were no more than a gnat. His mouth was closed as if even in sleep there were thoughts to guard and secrets to keep. Dark hair furred the muscular expanse of his chest, trailing into a single line that flowed toward his hips and the thin sheet draped there. Unlike his back, his chest was unmarred by nicks or scars. The men who had bested Sir Gareth of Caerleon had bested him from behind. He stirred and Rowena took an involuntary step backward, fearful the camlet sheet might fall away and reveal more of his slumbering form than she cared to see.
Her feet were cushioned in unearthly softness. She glanced down to discover a pile of furs heaped beside the bed. Gareth must have kicked them away when the warmth of the fire reached the bed. He stirred again, moaning hoarsely, then was still. Rowena looked at the bed, then back at the floor. Her thigh muscles ached from the long hours of clinging to the slippery nag. With a small sigh, she sank to her knees and curled up in the nest of furs.
Rowena had been asleep for a long time when Gareth rolled out of the bed and sank his heavy frame into a carved chair in front of the hearth. He rested his chin in his hand and studied the girl slumbering at his feet. Hair that had grown limp during their dusty journey now shimmered as thick and ripe as wheat around her face. The kiss of fire gave her skin a rosy flush. Her fist was curled against her parted lips like a child's.
Gareth stirred restlessly at the thought. Lindsey Fordyce's hair had once been as thick as this girl's, his eyes as blue. Only days after Gareth's father had brought home his vivacious new bride, Fordyce had followed, swearing his fealty and skimming like the golden-haired tail of the sultry-eyed comet who would sweep their lives clean, leaving desolation in her path. The years had not been kind to him. At Revelwood his hands had trembled as if palsied. Dissipation had spun its web into the bags of flesh beneath his eyes. 'Twas no wonder the man had eluded him all these years. Gareth had been searching for a powerful baron with a fortified stronghold, not a strutting wastrel burdened with a crumbling castle. Within Fordyce's pudgy frame, Gareth had not found even a hint of the dapper, jovial knight who had taught Gareth how to dice and bragged ceaselessly each time he journeyed to his castle in the north to tuck another babe in his wife's belly.
Of its own volition Gareth's gaze followed the smooth planes of Rowena's bliaut down to her flat stomach. What would she do if she awoke to find his lips pressed to hers? he wondered. A faint smile curved his lips. Like Blaine, he would probably taste the bite of her fist against his jaw. That would not be a hindrance. It would not have been a hindrance for Blaine if he had not intervened. He could subdue her with one hand, leaving his other hand free to plunder the ill-gotten gain of his wager with Lindsey Fordyce, Baron of Revelwood.