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England, c.1217 AD
"All in all, a good winter," Sir Garwain said to his old friend as they sat in the Great Hall of Thorne Castle. "One can only hope that the harvest will be better this year than last."
Sir Vincent Thorne was only half-listening to his old friend as he watched the two young people begin to move across the room in their direction. "Indeed."
Garwain grunted. "Of course, you have nothing to complain of, my old friend. Your farms were the only ones to prosper last year."
"Only because I insist that the tenants switch crops between them so that the land is not used for the same thing every year. I have tried to tell you that, Garwain."
Garwain followed Vincent's gaze. "Ah. The young lovers," he said as they came within earshot. "You would never realize it by his apparent lack of interest when here, Vincent, but my son is an amazing manager when we are at Charington Castle."
"Perhaps he has -- other things -- on his mind when he is here," Vincent speculated, his brown eyes shining as they looked at his raven-haired daughter.
"I should hope so, sire," Rebecca said with a smile. "We see each other so infrequently--"
"That will change," Garwain assured the girl, also smiling. "And you should take more of an interest in the running of this estate as well, my son. There will come a time -- far in the future, one would hope -- that you will have need to manage it for Rebecca," he told the young man at her side. "Once you and she are married--"
"At which point Rebecca and I shall be able to be together every day," Stephen Charington pointed out, "and I will be betterable to keep my mind on other things. I came to ask your permission, Sir Vincent, to take your daughter for a ride. It is such a lovely spring day."
"Enjoy yourselves," Vincent wished, his smile widening. As they moved away, he noted again how perfect a couple they were -- Stephen, tall and fair, and Rebecca, also tall, with her raven's wing tresses.
"How old is the Lady Rebecca now?" Garwain asked.
"You know very well that she will be eighteen in a month's time."
"Of course," Garwain admitted. "My son is counting the days until she can become his wife."
"It seems only yesterday that she was born," Vincent said with a sigh. His wife had died in the child's birth, never knowing her daughter. And Garwain's wife had died of a fever a year later, leaving her husband to raise their son alone. "I suppose we have not done too badly, have we?"
"No," Garwain agreed. "Not at all."
Stephen dismissed the groom back to the stable, and now sat at Rebecca's side, watching as she placed pigments on the parchment she took everywhere with her. "I should have expected this, I suppose. I shall have to get used to it once we're married."
"Expected what?" she asked, looking at him.
"That although we spent a month apart, all you can do now that we are together is to make pretty pictures."
"Pretty pictures?" she questioned, her dark eyes flashing with anger. "Is that all you think about my painting, Stephen Charington?"
He laughed, leaning nearer to place a quick kiss on her red lips. "I love making you angry. Your eyes almost glow," he told her, looking into those eyes. "They are like twin deep pools that a man could lose himself in."
"And do you want to lose yourself?"
"Oh, yes, my love. Most assuredly." He moved back only enough so that she could return her pigments to their case, and once she was done, he started to pull her closer, but she surprised him by pushing away and rising to her feet in one graceful motion. She ran across the glade, her laughter following, beckoning. "Why, you little vixen," Stephen called, in immediate pursuit. He caught up with her, and pulled her into his arms, intending to stop her laughter with a kiss, when he realized she had gone very still. "Rebecca?" He realized she was staring at something behind him and turned.
A magnificent black stallion, ridden by a stranger, had come to a stop across the glade. Even from that distance, Stephen could make out the man's black hair and dark-as-night gaze. "It is only a stranger, my love," he tried to reassure Rebecca as the rider turned his mount in their direction.
Rebecca did not speak, merely stood as if transfixed. Normally a friendly woman, her reaction troubled Stephen. She appeared frightened. And it took a great deal to frighten Rebecca.
The stranger reined his horse to a stop within feet of the couple, his eyes fastening on Rebecca. "Excuse me, am I going in the correct direction for Thorne Castle?"
When he realized she was not going to answer, Stephen responded. "Straight through the copse, my good man. Do you have business with Sir Vincent?"
"Perhaps," he said. "Thank you for your assistance. Good-day." That black gaze was even more piercing at close range, and Stephen found himself wanting to protect Rebecca from its sight.
He moved to place an arm around her shoulders. "Good-day, sir."
Rebecca watched until horse and rider had vanished on the forest path, then drew a shuddering breath. Seeing Stephen's look of concern, she tried to smile, knew that she failed.
"What is wrong, Rebecca? I have never seen you react in that fashion to anyone -- stranger or not."
"I could sense..."
He knew the story, had sworn never to tell anyone -- especially not his superstitious father. "What did you sense?"
"Evil," she said, shuddering again. "There was a -- darkness -- about him. Hold me, Stephen. Please hold me."
He drew her into his arms, hoping to keep whatever she feared at bay, to protect her.
The stranger was sitting with Sir Garwain and Sir Vincent in the Great Hall when Rebecca and Stephen returned. Her father beckoned them over. "Dameon, allow me to introduce Sir Garwain's son, Stephen, and my beloved daughter, Rebecca."
His dark gaze again fixed upon the young woman who stood at the young man's side, and Dameon said, "These were the two young people about which I told you."
"Yes," Stephen confirmed. "He stopped in the glade to ask directions to the castle."
Rebecca lifted a shaking hand to her forehead. "If you will excuse me, I am not feeling well."
Vincent and Stephen were immediately concerned. "Are you ill?" Vincent asked.
"No, I am... fatigued. I will ask Genevive to bring me a cool cloth. I will be all right," she reassured him, trying to smile. "Thank you for the ride, Stephen."
"It was my pleasure," he responded, holding her hand for a long moment, then releasing it to watch her climb the curving stairway.
"Did she appear ill while you were riding?" Vincent asked him.
"No. She was quite well until -- he paused, aware that Dameon's dark eyes were now on him. "Until we returned."
"She will be fine, my boy," Garwain assured his son. "Females often become ill for no reason. Is that not correct, Vincent?"
"Not Rebecca," her father said. Then, recalling that he was ignoring his newly arrived guest, he turned to Dameon. "You were about to tell us the reason for your visit?"
"Yes. You have all heard about the young woman in the village who died a week ago?"
"Such a tragedy," Garwain said, shaking his balding head. "She had only just married as well."
"Yes," Vincent confirmed. "She had been Rebecca's maid until she wed."
Dameon's black brows rose in surprise. "I was unaware of that," he said. "There have been other -- incidents -- in the area, and some of the village folk have begun to fear that there is evil at work. They tended to ignore it until the young woman's death, as many are wont to do--"
"Such nonsense!" Vincent exclaimed. His comment was echoed by Stephen.
But Garwain, to his son's disgust, was interested. "What kind of evil do the good people think is about, my good man?"
"They do not know," Dameon said, spreading his hands. "But they sent for someone knowledgeable regarding such things."
"You?" Vincent asked, suddenly concerned for the young woman up in her room.
"I have had some success in discovering the source of evil when it strikes out, Sir Vincent."
"There are no such things. It is still nonsense. People create their own evil out of fear or hardship," Stephen insisted. "Excuse me, I think I shall retire to my chamber."
Dameon watched the young man climb the stairs as Garwain shook his head. "Forgive my son, Dameon. He does not yet understand the way of the world."
"There is nothing to forgive," Dameon assured him.
Sir Vincent rose. "I must go and make certain that Rebecca is well. I shall return."
Rebecca was cold. Even with the fur robe she had donned, the bedchamber was still cold. She went to the hearth and knelt, stirring the ashes from last night's blaze, but there were no embers left to spark anew. Calling for a servant would take too long, she thought with a sigh, and focused her energy on the kindling she had placed in the grate. Just as it caught, she heard her father's quickly drawn breath. "What are you doing, child?"
She turned to see him close the door with quick, nervous movements. "It is cold in here, Father. There were no embers. I thought that it would be acceptable -- just this once."
"What if I had been a servant? Your maid?"
"I sent the fool away, Father," she told him with a scowl. "She fusses too much. Who is that man?" she asked suddenly, placing the last log on the fire.
"He is the reason you must not do anything else such as this," Vincent told her, indicating the now roaring blaze. He told her why Dameon was there, saw her frown.
"Why is he at the castle? And, if he did not know that Abigail was my maid--"
"It is only natural that he would come here seeking a place to stay, child." He placed his hands on her shoulders. "I cannot turn him out."
"I know. But I do not trust him, Father. There is something -- dark -- about him."
Vincent was more concerned about the danger to his daughter than in how she perceived the man. "Will you give me your word that you will do nothing else that could create trouble while he is here?" He did not like asking her that; he normally did not try to prevent her using her God-given gifts, but there were many who would see them as gifts from the Dark instead. Especially now that Dameon was here, looking for someone with just such abilities. Vincent had seen this sort of hysteria before, would not allow his daughter to fall victim to it. "Your word, daughter?"
She smiled at last. "I give you my word, Father. Where is Stephen?"
"He went to his bedchamber."
"Oh. I think I shall go up to the parapet before the sun sets." She slipped off the fur robe.
"I am pleased that you are feeling better," he told her, his eyes not as shadowed by fear.
Rebecca stood near the edge of the stone balustrade, surveying the land around the castle. This was her sanctuary, her place to hide when things became unbearable. She caught a movement on the lawn below, and looked down to see Sir Garwain and Dameon walking, deep in conversation.
Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Eddy