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The flickering light of the torches and beeswax candles in the great hall of Castle DeLac threw huge, moving shadows on the tapestries depicting hunts and battles hanging on the walls. A fire blazed in the long central hearth, warming the chill of the September evening. On either side of the hearth, knights and their ladies sat at the tables closest to the dais where Lord DeLac, his daughter and the most important guests dined on a sumptuous repast. Hounds wandered among the tables, snatching at the bits of food that fell into the rushes covering the flagstone floor, while a weak-chinned minstrel, dressed in blue, warbled a ballad about a knight on a quest to save his lost love.
Sir Rheged of Cwm Bron didn't care about the feast, or the ballad, or the other guests. Let the nobles spend the rest of the evening amusing themselves with banter and drink, dancing and music. He would rather be well rested for the tournament on the morrow.
As he rose from his place, straightened his black tunic and started for the door leading to the courtyard, he ran another measuring gaze over the knights who would compete with him in the melee, a contest more like a true battle than a tilt in the lists. Some of them, like the excited young fellow dressed in bright green velvet, or the old knight already dozing over his wine, could be dismissed outright, being either too young to have much experience or too old to move swiftly. Others had clearly come more to enjoy the feasting and entertainment than to win the prize.
Rheged glanced again at the prize resting on the high table, a golden box embossed with jewels. That was what had brought him here, as well as ransoms for arms and horses from those he defeated in the melee. Since he was a veteran of many a real battle, a melee was more familiar to him and, he thought, a better test of true skill.
While he strode down the side of the hall, whispers of the other knights and nobles followed him like the wake after a ship at sea.
"Isn't that the Wolf of Wales?" one drunken Norman nobleman slurred.
"By God, it is!" another muttered.
A woman's voice rose above the minstrel's music. "Why doesn't he cut his hair? He looks like a savage."
"My dear, he's Welsh," another nobleman drawled in equally disdainful reply. "They're all savages."
There had been a time those whispers and insults would have infuriated Rheged. Now it didn't matter what they thought of him, as long as he triumphed on the field. And if his long hair made them think he would fight with all the fierce determination of a savage, all the better.
Taking a deep breath of the fresher air, Rheged stepped into the courtyard and looked up at the cloudless sky. The full moon lit the yard as bright as day, yet there was a hint of rain on the wind. It would be a light rain, though. Likely not enough to postpone the melee.
A door opened in a long, low building to his left that was attached to the hall, sending a shaft of golden light onto the cobblestones. The noise of clattering wooden bowls, chopping and the querulous demands and orders of a harried cook told him it was the kitchen.
A slender, shapely woman in a dark gown and lighter over-tunic, carrying a large basket, slipped out of the kitchen into the courtyard. As she nudged the door shut with her hip, he recognized Lady Thomasina, his host's niece, dressed in nunlike garments, her long, dark braid swishing down her back like a living thing. When he was introduced to her upon his arrival, he'd been impressed by the bright intelligence gleaming in her brown eyes. Later it became clear that she ran the well-regulated household, and not Lord DeLac's beautiful daughter, Mavis, although that should have been her responsibility.
Rheged watched as Lady Thomasina crossed the yard to the wicket gate, the smaller door inside the huge double gate. Despite her relatively plain attire, Lady Thomasina had a dignity and a graceful carriage that no garment, however costly and well made, could enhance.
She spoke a few quiet words to the guards, who opened the wicket. Then he heard voices that sent his mind racing back to his childhoodthe grateful words of the poor and hungry who would receive the remains of the feast.
"Thank you, my lady!"
"Bless you, my lady!"
"God save you, my lady."
"There is plenty for all," she replied. "Come closer, Bob, and take something for your mother, too."
There would be no bruises or black eyes from scrambling for the scraps, or bellies left empty here, tonight.
Once upon a time, he had been among the beggars waiting at a lord's gate with starving bellies and desperate hope, anxious to get even the smallest bit of bread or meat. The person doling out the remainsalways a servant, never a ladyhad usually dumped the food on the ground like so much refuse and looked at those eagerly awaiting as if they were worth even less.
Leaning back against the wall, his eyes closed, he tried to shove the memories of those days of hunger and need, loneliness and desperation into the back of his mind. Those days were long ago. He was a knight now, with an estate of his own. It wasn't a rich one yet, but in time, with effort
He opened his eyes to find Lady Thomasina standing in front of him, her empty basket over her arm, her brown eyes regarding him with grave concern. "Are you ill?"
He straightened. "I am never ill. I merely sought a breath of fresh air."
She frowned, her eyebrows drawing together, her full lips turning down at the corners. "You found the hall too smoky or stuffy?"
"No more than most."
"Nevertheless I shall see that more of the shutters in the hall are open." She turned as if she intended to do that at once, and by herself.
"I wouldn't bother. It's going to rain soon," he said as she started to hurry away.
She turned back. "Rain? The sky is clear."
"I can smell it on the breezenot a heavy rain," he hastened to assure her. "Likely just a shower during the night, so not enough to delay the melee."
"I hope not."
"I'm fairly certain." He gave her a little smile. "I grew up where it rains much of the time, Lady Thomasina."
"Tamsin," she said quickly, then just as swiftly added, "That's easier to say than Thomasina."
"Tamsin," he quietly repeated.
She moved the basket in front of her. "I've heard you called the Wolf of Wales," she said, repeating the nickname given to him after his first tournament triumphs. "Are you so ferocious?"
"Not as much as I was in my youth."
"You're hardly an old man!"
"Older than some here."
"Surely that gives you the benefit of experience, as well as reputation."
"Experience, aye, and a reputation has its purpose, although it's not for fame I fight. Unlike your uncle, I'm not a wealthy man."
The moment he mentioned his poverty, he regretted it. She didn't need to know about that, nor did he want her to think the less of him because of it.
"You fight for money." To his relief, she didn't sound appalled or disgusted. She sounded matter-of-fact. Practical. Accepting.
"I fight to earn more, to keep what I have."
She nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "Life gives us all battles to fight and we all try to win as best we can. I wish I could fight some of mine with sword or mace."
"I don't doubt you'd be a worthy foe. The clever ones are always hardest to beat."
"You flatter me, my lord," she replied, and not in the usual manner of coy young ladies.
She said it warily, with suspicion, as if she doubted his sincerity or perhaps wasn't used to receiving compliments.
Thinking it might indeed be the latter, he made a sweeping gesture encompassing the inner courtyard. "It takes intelligence to run a household the size of Lord DeLac's, and there's no doubt in my mind that falls to you. You do it well, my lady. I've never experienced such comfortable accommodations or fine food."
"My uncle is known for the excellence of his feasts."
"Because of you, I'm sure."
He saw the hint of a shy smile. Charmed and encouraged, he went on. "You have grace and beauty, too. That is a rare combination, my lady." He ventured closer. "I think you are a rare woman."
She stepped back and to his dismay, that suspicious wariness returned. "Are you trying to seduce me, sir, with empty words of praise?"
"I meant what I said."
"And now I suppose you will tell me that Mavis is lacking compared to me."
"She looks lovely, I grant you," he replied, "yet I do find her lacking. She seems almost a shadow compared to you. I doubt she concerns herself with anything more than what gown she'll wear or who she'll dance with at the feast."
The lady bristled. "Mavis is not such a ninny and you earn only my enmity if you criticize her."
Clearly Tamsin loved her cousin dear and he hurried to mend his mistake. "I admit I have little knowledge of her, and no doubt she's a fine young woman, but vitality and passion shine in your bright eyes, my lady, and you cannot deny that you take responsibility for the running of the household of DeLac."
His words didn't have the effect he desired, which was to make her linger.
"Thank you for your compliments, sir knight," she said, starting toward the kitchen once more. "If you'll excuse me, I do have many responsibilities, so I give you good night."
"Sleep well, my lady," he murmured in his low, deep voice as she hurried away.
It was all Tamsin could do not to break into a run as she left the unexpectedly grateful and flattering Wolf of Wales.
To think of such a man saying such things to herplain, dutiful, responsible Tamsin! He was by far the most intriguing man she'd ever met, and not just because he was handsome, although he was the sort of man to make a woman look twice in spite of his stern visage. His eyebrows were like black lines above watchful dark eyes, and the planes of his cheeks and line of his jaw were as sharp as a sword blade. He dressed plainly in black, with no jewelry or other adornment.
He needed no adornment to draw attention to his powerful warrior's body, and as for those watchful and intense dark eyes, he obviously saw things others did not, like the way she workedsomething no other guest had ever mentioned.
But she was no fool, just as she was no beauty, no matter what he said, and it would surely be wrong to let him know how much his words had affected her.
As she entered the kitchen to return her empty basket, Armond, the burly, aproned cook, red-faced after the efforts of overseeing the feast, looked about to have an attack of apoplexy. The shoulders of the exhausted scullery maids slumped from the effort of scrubbing the numerous pots and roasting pans and forks. Middle-aged Vila, who had been at Castle DeLac since her youth, wiped down the long table still snowed with flour that stood in the middle of the chamber. Baldur, the bottler, was excitedly urging Meg and Becky, two of the younger maidservants, to hurry as they headed to the door leading to the hall with more wine.
She followed the maidservants back to the even noisier hall. She swiftly surveyed the chamber and then the high table, where her uncle was comfortably settled with a goblet of wine in his hand. Mavis, attired as befit a wealthy lord's daughter in a gown of scarlet with embroidered trim of delicate blue and yellow flowers, sat with downcast eyes beside him, looking every inch the demure maiden. Later, though, when they were alone, she would have plenty to say about the guests. She could be surprisingly insightful and was very clever in her way, something Sir Rheged, like most men, failed to appreciate. The other nobles at the high tablelords of importance in the south and Londonappeared to be well sated with food and drink. Old Lord Russford at the far end was already dozing in his chair.
Below the dais, several of the younger knights were moving about the hall, speaking to friends and being introduced to the other guests. Some of the mothers with daughters of a marriageable age looked like peddlers hawking their wares at any fair in the land.
Sir Jocelyn was Mavis's favorite of the moment, a handsome young man of good family, and the most expensively attired in emerald-green and bright blue velvet. He reminded Tamsin more of a peacock than a warrior, and he was also one of the most boring young men Tamsin had ever met. She was quite sure Mavis would tire of him soon, too.
Sir Robert of Tammerly was even younger, and not nearly so good-looking, but Tamsin didn't doubt that someday he would be a knight to be reckoned with. He seemed wary and watchful, and ate and drank sparingly, like Sir Rheged. He was very unlike the Welshman in one way, though. Like the others, Sir Robert wore his hair cut around his head as if a bowl had been placed upon it, which only seemed to emphasize the roundness of his face.
Although he was clean-shaven, Sir Rheged wore his dark hairthick and wavy enough to make a woman weep with envyto his shoulders.
She shouldn't be thinking about the one man who'd already left the feast, no matter how flattered she'd been by his compliments.
She spotted Denly, one of the stronger servants, and told him it was time to start taking down the tables to clear a space for dancing. Then she went to have a few words with Gordon, the minstrel, about the music for dancing. She herself never danced, but Mavis enjoyed it.
First, though, she would speak to Sally, a young and particularly voluptuous and overly friendly maidservant lingering at the table where the youthful squires sat.
Until tonight, Tamsin had never understood how any woman could give up the precious possession of her virginity to any man outside of marriage. There was too much to lose, even for a poor girl.
Now, though, when she remembered Sir Rheged's dark eyes and voice, she was beginning to understand how a woman could succumb to desire regardless of the consequences. His compliments had sounded so sincere, she could believe his words were not mere meaningless flattery, but spoken from the heart.
Even so, any pleasure to be gained from giving in to lust surely outweighed the risks, especially for a highborn lady. Bearing a child out of wedlock meant telling the world you were too weak to resist your base impulses. You were a woman of shame.
As for Sally, one of these days, she would probably come to Tamsin in tears to say she was with child and what should she do? Tamsin would see that some kind of dowry was provided and perhaps even a husband, if there was another servant willing to marry her.
But she would deal with that when and if it became necessary. In the meantime "Sally!"
The maidservant with thick auburn hair and a pert little nose knew better than to linger any longer and came forward at once. "Yes, my lady?"
"Open the shutters near the doors. The hall is getting too stuffy."
"Yes, my lady," Sally replied, doing as she was bid and wisely ignoring the obvious disappointment of the young squires.
Tamsin couldn't imagine Sir Rheged ever being like those boys, giddy with excitement over the tournament, trying their best to look manly and to persuade a woman into their bed.
Determined, even ruthless she could see, but never giddy. As for looking manly, she could well believe Sir Rheged had always exuded that sense of contained and controlled power. And when it came to persuading a woman into bed, she wouldn't be surprised to learn women had fought for the privilege.
"Careful, my lady!" Denly called out as she nearly stepped into the path of the servants moving the top of one of the trestle tables out of the way.
"I shall be," she murmured, and not just when it came to moving the tables. She would avoid Sir Rheged of Cwm Bron for the rest of his visit there. It would surely be betterand saferthat way.