“My lady! He comes.”
Ignoring the anxious shout of her handmaiden Jane, Cynthia of Abertaine stared out at the distant hills. The morning breeze caught her hair, sending the golden strands dancing around her face. She brushed them back with her hand and tucked the tendrils behind her ears even as her blue eyes continued to scan the horizon. The morning sun had not yet burned off the mist that clung to the low lying fields, making the area surrounding the castle look draped in magic. In the foreground, a rider cut through the haze on his way to the village.
If only that rider would be Sir William retuning, Cynthia thought, then the madness would stop and calm would return to Leybourne Castle.
Cynthia! Please! Come in from the balcony. He…”
The sound of a light scuffle roused Cynthia from her reverie. Even before she turned, she knew who would be there.
“If you wish to jump, I’d suggest the north tower. It’s higher.”
Any time she heard it, the sound of Lord Simon’s voice grated on her, but today it was particularly revolting. “I would not give you the pleasure,” Cynthia countered, “or the satisfaction of a legal claim to this manor. William will be here soon enough to claim both his bride-to-be and his home.”
“A man who leaves his property unprotected just to ride off to take up the foolish charge of an irrational king is either mad or has been bewitched by a heathen Druid,´ Simon scoffed.
“Neither,” Cynthia said, quickly rising to William’s defense. “William set off to join Arthur’s knights in their noble cause by his honor.”
Simon laughed. “Arthur’s noble cause is nearly at an end. Even as we speak Mordred gains allies.”
“You among them.”
“Indeed.” He loosened the clasp of the cloak across his shoulders and let it fall to the floor in a dark purple puddle. Turning slightly, he kicked it carelessly in Jane’s direction. When Jane hesitated in gathering it up, Simon took a step toward her and raised a gloved hand, angling it to her face.
Cynthia quickly stepped forward. “Lay a hand on her and I swear you’ll wish you had not awoken this morning!” Disgust darkened her eyes.
Simon looked from her face to Jane’s. Both were set with a defiance and determination that made him slowly lower his hand. His gaze raked first across Cynthia’s body and then Jane’s. “I tolerate the child only because I desire the woman. Perhaps one day soon you both will wish you could watch the sun rise from my bedchamber.”
Cynthia ignored the innuendo of his words and walked to the fallen cloak. She snatched it from the floor and held it out to Jane. “Take this down to the kitchen and have one of the maids brush it clean. We wouldn’t want Lord Simon to tarry longer than necessary.”
Reluctantly Jane took it from her. “I don’t wish to leave you alone with him.”
“Lord Simon will be leaving anon,” Cynthia replied.
Jane nodded and quickly left the room.
Simon waited until the heavy chamber doors closed before speaking. “So, I see a fire burns in the lady.” Slowly he removed his leather gloves and circled Cynthia as he slapped them repeatedly into the palm of his left hand. “I am very good at taming wild stallions. Passionate women are no different, I’m told.”
“Then I would indeed make use of the North Tower.”
“As you wish,” he said, no vestige of caring in his voice.
As he moved around her, Cynthia watched him carefully. A tall man, he was well proportioned and solidly built. With his dark curls and equally dark eyes, many ladies undoubtedly even considered him handsome. But she knew his heart and no measure of comeliness could disguise what lay there.
“A woman of substance would serve me well,” he continued. “Are you ready to acknowledge that Sir William is dead and you have no protector?”
“Nay,” she said firmly, trying to step around him. “Sir William will return home and I will honor the covenant made by my father.” The conviction in her words hid the doubt in her heart.
She was a child when her father betrothed her to William. The next day they both left to join the knights of Camelot and swear their swords in allegiance to Arthur. She was twenty now and a woman, and had only seen William once since that day. He’d returned when she was fifteen to bring her father’s body back to the pyre after his death in battle.
William had treated her well, more like a sister than a wife-to-be, but still making it clear to all that when he returned from the quest, she would be the lady of the household. And from that day, no man in court dared treat her with the insolence Simon had shown today, or dared to look upon her with the desire she saw in Simon’s eyes.
When William left the next day to return to Camelot, she had hoped he would return again quickly. But she had not seen him since, and all word from him had stopped nearly a fortnight ago. Although she was fast becoming concerned, that was something Simon would ever see.
Simon stepped in front of her cutting off any escape. “Come now, Cynthia. Do you tell me you wait for a ghost and that you do not get lonely?” He reached out and touched her face with the back of his hand, a gesture so intimate in nature that it made Cynthia step backward. His hand shook as he lowered it. “The money left by your father for your care is fast running out and, being unwed, you have no claim to any assets here. It would be wise for you to take a husband.”
Cynthia did not know what angered her more; the reminder that she was nearly penniless or the choice he seemed to be offering her. Both were equally disturbing.
“I can make my own way,” she said icily. “I need no help from the likes of you.” She saw anger explode on Simon’s face the minute her words were out.
“My patience is wearing thin,” he said, grasping her shoulder and digging his fingers into the soft flesh he found there. “Soon you will have no choice.”
Cynthia clenched her teeth in anticipation of the pain as she jerked her body backward. As she did, the shoulder of her gown gave way, allowing her to escape his grasp. She rushed out of the room and down the stone stairs to the safety of the rapidly filling courtyard.
Simon watched her leave, anger and arousal warring inside him. As always Cynthia managed to heat his temperament as well as his body.
Someday he’d bring her to task on both.
Just as Jane put her hand on the door of the castle keep when Simon grabbed her from behind. His purple cape fell from her hand as she struggled to free herself. “Let me go,” she said from between clenched teeth, wincing at the way his fingers dug into her flesh.
“Your lady was not very cooperative today, wench. Perhaps you will be more so,” he countered.
Simon jerked her forward by the arm, his face a leer. He leaned forward intent on closing the distance between them when the distinctive hiss of an arrow slicing the air passed his ear. It hit the stone wall next to his head with a ping before falling to the ground.
With a curse, he released Jane and stumbled backward. He steadied himself and turned to find the archer. Ten paces behind him stood Cynthia with another arrow readily aimed in his direction.
“My Lord, I pray you were not grazed,” Cynthia said in a firm voice, her gaze lined perfectly down the shaft of the arrow. “I fear my sense of balance is a bit off today.” She shifted the bow to the right and then quickly returned it to aim.
Simon looked to where she had gestured. A target-draped mound of hay with four arrows dead center sat in front of the stonewall. His eyes flared.
Cynthia pulled the arrow tighter. Light spangled along the taut bowstring like the rays around the edge of the sun. She dropped her gaze to the garment at his feet. “My Lord, I see that your cloak is ready.”
One side of Simon’s mouth pulled into a sneer. “One day I will teach both you and your handmaiden your places.”
“But today you will retrieve your cloak and leave us,” Cynthia said.
“You have little time left to be so bold,” he countered. Snatching up his cape, he spun on his heels and stalked off.
Jane let out a breath she did not realize she was holding and walked to Cynthia. “Thank the Almighty your aim is as true as it was the day you won the tournament in the village.”
Cynthia lowered the bow and allowed the string to slacken. She shook her head. “Nay, it is not. I was intending for his head.”
* * *
Constantine had ridden long into the night to deliver the terrible news and was not eager to find the lady whose heart he would surely break. As he cleared the forest surrounding Leyboune Castle he pulled up on the reigns and brought his horse to a halt. The Castle was dark save for some light coming through the arrow-loops on the towers and from guard posts on the wall walk.
Constantine leaned forward and patted the horse on the side of his neck. “Easy boy,” he said as the horse took a few steps backward. “I agree. Too late to disturb the lady tonight. This news will keep. You need rest, and so do I.” He pulled back and the reigns and the horse turned. Gently, he heeled the steed in the ribs and headed back into the woods.
There was a path open enough for him to see his way in the moonlight. It sliced its way uphill through the forest to a crest where he could see the glimmer of the village lights. Then it turned downward again until he rode out of the forest and onto a more level plain in which sat rows of houses and shops.
He slowed the horse to a trot and followed the sound of loud voices and bawdy laughter to a large double building near the village center. Dismounting, he spied a lad of what he guess was about ten years, and motioned for him to approach.
“Do you know a place where my horse can rest and be fed?” he asked the boy.
“For a price,” was the reply.
Constantine reached into his saddle pack on his horse and pulled out a black velvet purse. From inside he took a coin and flipped it to the boy.
After catching it with both hands, the lad took the coin between two fingers and held it up. His eyes widened. “’Tis gold.” He looked up at Constantine. “Stolen?”
“Nay. Earned. Is it enough?”
The lad nodded. “Aye. Enough to bed the steed for many nights.”
“How much then for a man?” He handled the boy the reigns.
The lad tossed his head. “If you have more, there’s food and drink inside. And a place to stay if the owner takes a likin’ to you.”
Constantine patted the horses rear quarter as it passed. “Then I shall make sure of it.”
* * *
Cynthia’s mind was filled with fright. As each day passed without word from William, Simon grew bolder. It would only be a matter of time before he tried to make good on his threat. She vowed that she would be prepared when that happened.
Jane came in with a tray with milk, cheese, peaches and grapes. “You haven’t eaten all day. You are the lady of the manor and must keep up your strength.” She set the tray on a small table.
“You’re right,” Cynthia said, taking some grapes. “This place is my home insofar as I have one. Remember when I first saw you? You were standing outside the watching me through one of the arrow slits. Every time I caught your eye, you’d duck back behind the stonewall. It became a game.”
Jane smiled. “Each time I peeked around the stones, you’d be closer. Then all of a sudden, when I looked into the opening, you were right there.”
“And we both laughed so hard that we cried!”
“That day changed my life, saved my life. I had no family, no home. You took me in, and now I have both.”
Cynthia glanced out the window. She could see Simon in the middle bailey with a small contingent of his soldiers. “It was once peaceful here.” She looked back at Jane. “And I swear, it will be that way again.”
* * *
The Boar’s Head Inn was alive with the anticipation of the May Day celebration. Men and women gathered around crude wooden tables sampling the latest batch of ale. Constantine sat at the back finishing a plate of carrots and fish, watching the interaction of the villagers.
He looked up. The innkeeper’s wife prepared to pour more ale into the wooden cup in his hand. Constantine straightened and declined with a polite shake of his head, the motion freeing the medallion around his neck from.
The women set her pitcher of ale on the table. “I know these markings,” she said fingering the pendant. “You be a knight?”
Constantine took the medallion from her hand and tucked it back inside his tunic. “Perhaps.”
“Then you best be keepin’ that to yourself. ‘Tis dangerous for a knight,” she glanced around the inn, “a knight alone here in the manor.”
Constantine raised his cup, wishing to continue to engage the woman in conversation and knowing it would cost him a penny and some ale to do so. ”Then I hope, good lady, that you also will be keeping my secret safe.”
“I make no promises,” she replied, filling his cup. “Lord Simon has pledged his sword to Mordred and would not take kindly if he thought I be harborin’ one of Arthur’s knights.”
“Aye. Lord of the manor and all the lands surrounding for a hundred miles.”
Constantine raised a dark eyebrow. “I was told these lands belong to Sir William Kent. Did I take a wrong turn in coming?”
The innkeeper’s wife shook her head, her brown hair dancing around her round face. “Nay. Once was his. No more. Lord Simon come and took it all.”
“And the lady of the manor?”
“Poor child. Lady Cynthia puts up a good front, but she’s a prisoner. Nowhere to go and no means to get there if she did have a place. Much like all of us.”
“I have a message for her, from William.”
The innkeeper’s wife shook her head. “If William is not deliverin’ it, then I fear he is dead. As you will be also if you try to bring it to her. His lordship fancies her for his wife. Don’t allow her visitors.” She looked him up and down. “Especially ones with eyes like heaven and a body fine enough to take a woman there.” She started to say more when a loud voice rose from behind her.
“Woman, more ale for the thirsty!” Large hands spun her around. “Unless you be wasting it all on that one.”
Constantine rose, noticing the large hands on the waist of the innkeeper’s wife matched the size of their owner. His matted mass of hair hung to his shoulders, blending with the beard that framed his face. A stained tunic and brawny arms distinguished him as either a blacksmith or herdsman, a man worth respecting. He did not want to call attention to himself, but chivalry demanded a lady in distress be rescued. As the innkeeper’s wife struggled against the grip that held her fast, there was no doubt chivalry must be served.
“Good sir,” Constantine said, I was just talking to the lady. I did not mean to keep her from her work.”
The large man laughed. “Lady? Where?” A few of the patrons broke into laughter.
“Right here,” Constantine replied, bowing and kissing the back of the innkeeper’s wife’s hand. He lifted his gaze back to the man holding her. “Are you a bargaining man?”
“What kind of bargain?”
“Let the lady go, and I’ll spot the hard-working men of the manor to a pint of ale.”
The man didn’t hesitate. He spun the innkeeper’s wife out of his grasp and gave her a hardy whack on her backside. “Off you go. You heard the man. Ale!” The patrons erupted into cheers as the man threw his arms around Constantine. “I think you be getting’ the short end of the bargain.”
Constantine grimaced with the pressure of the bear hug. “You’ll need both hands for the ale.”
The large man laughed. Soon the cups were full and the men folk happy.
Constantine took a healthy swig of warm ale and contemplated his predicament. In light of what he had just learned about the manor, it appeared that making a vow in battle would be a lot easier than keeping it. A commotion near the door interrupted his thoughts as two soldiers came into view and headed straight for him.
“Stranger. State your business,” the taller of them demanded.
Constantine drained the last of the ale and set the cup on the table. He slowly lifted his head and locked his gaze with the soldier but said nothing.
The soldier’s hand went to the hilt of the dagger on his belt. “I ask you again, state your business.”
A group of man crowded around them. Constantine knew he would have no allies among the villagers. His mind spun with a means to calm the growing tension.
“I come from Devonshire,” he replied. “Looking for work and a place to stay for a time.”
“Then you best be goin’ back. His lordship hires no vassals for his lands, preferring to administer to his court and his fief, himself.” The soldier’s hand gripped the dagger at his belt tighter.
“I be wantin’ to liven up the place,” the innkeeper’s wife suddenly said from across the room. She walked to a vat of ale and picked up a lute lying on the floor next to it. “Here, minstrel,” she said tossing Constantine the instrument. “Sing for yer supper.”
Constantine caught it, and in a fluid motion raised it to his chest and began to play. Grateful that his mother insisted her children learn the gentler aspects of life along with the skills of knighthood taught by his father, he strummed the beginning to one of her favorite songs. Soon the gentle sound of the lute drowned out the loud voices around him.
He began to sing, his voice mellow and soothing. Walking around the inn, he stopped at tables, the song telling a tale of quests, battles and love. It ended amid cheers.
“Another!” a patron soon shouted.
“A love song,” said another
“Nay, battle songs,” suggested a third.
“Soon enough,” The innkeeper’s wife replied, bringing Constantine another cup of ale. “For your parched throat, minstrel,” she said placing emphasis on the last word.
“I owe you much, good woman,” he said.
“Aye, you do.” As he began to drink she whispered, “You can have the room at back end beyond the curtains until you do what you come to do. But best you do it quickly and be on your way. Until then, another song as payment for the room.”
Constantine began to strum once more, looking around the room. The soldiers had gone. Thanks to the quick thinking of the inn’s matron, his identity was safe for now.