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In The King's Service
By Margaret Moore
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSir Blaidd Morgan, knight of the realm, trusted friend of Henry III, champion of tournaments and reputedly able to whisper a woman into his bed, drew his horse to a halt and wiped his nose with the back of his gloved hand. Water dripped from the soaked hood of his woolen cloak, and his boots were spattered with mud. The scent of damp leaves arose from the wood on his left; on his right, some cows stood in a meadow beneath the shelter of an oak, looking as miserable as he felt. At least now, through the teeming downpour, he could make out a village and a castle just beyond.
"That has to be Throckton Castle, thank God," he said to his equally drenched squire. "I was beginning to fear that we'd taken the wrong fork a few miles back and would have to bed down in the forest for the night."
His squire pulled the hood of his cloak farther over his head. "I thought you Welsh were used to the rain."
"Used to it, aye, Trev, I am, and because of your father's ideas about training, too. But that doesn't mean I like it."
Blaidd and Trevelyan Fitzroy's fathers were old friends, and Trev's father, Sir Urien, had trained Blaidd in the arts of war, which included drilling in all kinds of weather.
Sixteen-year-old Trev nodded at the fortress looming in the distance. "I thought Lord Throckton wasn't an important man, but that's quite a castle."
"It's more impressive than I thought it would be, too," Blaidd confessed.
On closer inspection - or as close as one could get from this vantage point through the rain - it seemed amassive creation, with inner and outer walls, an impressive gatehouse and a large keep in the center. Blaidd hadn't seen many castles to rival it, and he wondered if King Henry would be equally as surprised to learn the extent of Lord Throckton's fortifications, or if he already knew. That might explain the king's suspicions.
"Not every important man goes to court," Blaidd noted as he nudged his black gelding, Aderyn Du, to awalk. "Our fathers don't. It's likely to have some comfortable accommodation, though, thank God."
"Do you think Lady Laelia will be as beautiful as they say?" Trev asked.
Blaidd gave his companion a brotherly grin. "Prob-ably not, but there's no harm in looking."
"We've come all this way because you only want to look?" Trev asked, incredulous.
Blaidd wasn't about to share the real reason Henry had sent him, so he grinned wider. "What else should a chivalrous knight do but look? I've heard enough tales of Lady Laelia's beauty that I decided it was worth a journey to see if they were true. My mother is truly starting to despair that I'll never find a wife and settle down."
"So if Lady Laelia's as beautiful as they say, you'll marry her?"
Blaidd's deep bass laughter sounded above the rain and the squelching of the mud beneath their horses' hooves. "Beauty's not the only thing a man should think about when it comes to marriage."
"I suppose not," Trev replied dubiously.
"So you've thought about it before, then?"
Aderyn Du skirted a large puddle in the middle of the rutted road. "Aye, of course," Blaidd said. "But I've never found the right woman."
"Is that why you've been with so many?"
Blaidd slid the youth a wry look. "I haven't been with that many. I'll not deny I like women's company, but I'm not quite the amazing lover gossip paints me."
"But Gervais says - "
"Your brother has no more knowledge of what I do with my nights than you do."
Amore subdued Trev remained silent as they rode across a stone bridge leading into the village. Blaidd was rather glad of that. He didn't enjoy discussing his relationships with women with anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old.
Because of the rain and the spring runoff, the river was high, the water frothing and splashing as it hit the bridge's foundations. This bridge was a finer piece of engineering than Blaidd had expected to find in a place this far to the north and west of London, too.
Mercifully, the rain began to abate and he could better note the state of the village. It was comprised of several cottages of wattle and daub and thatch. Shops and stalls, many with living quarters above, lined the green.
He'd seen villages in worse repair, but he'd seen plenty better, too. The village church wasn't much, either, leading him to suspect that little of Lord Throckton's income from his tenants' tithes was given away in charity. More likely it was spent on stones and mortar and master masons for his castle.
The green was deserted, but Blaidd felt he was being watched nonetheless. No doubt the unseen villagers were speculating about who they were and why they had come.
From Blaidd's mount and his accoutrements, his bearing from years of training as well as the broad-sword slapping his thigh, they would surely guess he was a soldier, at the very least. The presence of a squire and the device on his shield would reveal that he was a knight. Anything else would be pure speculation.
The rain stopped completely as they neared a larger building that looked to be an inn. Blaidd was thinking he wasn't sure he'd fancy spending a night there any more than on the open road, when a blowzy, dark-haired, unkempt woman appeared in one of the un-shuttered windows on the second level. She leaned so far out of the window that her ample breasts, barely covered by her loose shift, seemed likely to be completely exposed at any moment.
She brazenly grinned at Blaidd, then whistled. In the next moment, several other women, equally slat-ternly, appeared at the other windows.
"Ain't he a fine, bold one now?" the black-haired one said in a loud voice. "I bet he's bold in bed, too."
The women cackled like chickens, and another declared, "Lovely weapon you've got, m'lord, I'm sure. I'd love to see it up close."
"I like the pretty young one," another called out.
Blaidd glanced over his shoulder. His face red as holly berries, Trev stared straight ahead. Blaidd stifled asmile that was both amused and sympathetic as they drew abreast of the building.
Excerpted from In The King's Service by Margaret Moore Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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