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An Ill-Made Match (Vawdrey Brothers Book 3) by Alice Coldbreath (1)


 

The Royal Summer Tournament at Caer-Lyoness

Roland gazed through his visor at the noble’s box, and saw her straight away.  Eden Montmayne.  In a sea of fluttering pretty gowns she sat there all in black, like a crow sat among a crowd of doves.   Why then, did his traitorous pulse pick up to see her there?  He spat into the dust.  Doubtless it was that bloody dream he woke from in the early hours, breathless and hard with need.  The same dream he’d been having for a six-month now.  His loins didn’t seem to care one whit that she was a sour-faced bitch with more airs and graces than the King and Queen combined.  He shook his sweaty hair from out of his face as his squire led his horse toward him, decked out in his colors of red and black.  So intent was he on his horse, that the blow to his shoulder from behind made him wheel round in surprise.  But it was only his comrade-in-arms, Sir Ned Bevan.  “Bev,” he murmured.

“You’ve seen her then?” his friend said, with a nod in her direction.

Roland stiffened. “What of it?”

“Well, I’m just guessing that’s who you’ll be giving the Summer Queen’s crown to when you beat de Bussell.”

Roland nearly choked on his own tongue.  “Her?” he spluttered.  “Hardly!  Why in god’s name would I give the tribute to her?” 

Sir Ned blinked at him, taken aback by his vehemence.  “Steady on Roly,” he said in bewilderment.  “Everyone knows she’s the most beauteous maid in all Karadok.”

Roland stared at him a moment.  Then glanced back at the box to see Eden seated next to Fair Lenora, her cousin.  He hadn’t even noticed Lenora sat there, with her blinding beauty.  Because the only one he could focus on was Eden Montmayne with her nose stuck in the air and her mouth pursed up like a maiden aunt!  What the fuck was wrong with him? 

Luckily Cuthbert arrived with his horse, so he turned from his confused friend to mount the large charger’s back as his squire passed him up his lance.  The crowd grew louder with excitement and Bavol moved his feet uneasily and tossed his head. 

“Steady boy,” he murmured.  The fact was, he couldn’t dismiss the Lady Eden nowadays, not now he knew how that sharp tongue tasted and made desire curl low in his belly.  Unable to stop himself he glanced in her direction again.  She rarely graced the tourneys with her presence.  Too low-brow an entertainment in her book, no doubt.  Well, he’d give her something to look at, better than her pet poets, he vowed with a curl of his lip.  He’d let her see him in all his glory, lifting the victor’s cup. 

 

*

“He’s looking at you again,” said Lenora matter of factly.

Eden froze.  “Whoever do you mean?” she asked though she knew full well who her cousin was referring to.  Roland Vawdrey, the bane of her existence.

“Roland Vawdrey,” said her cousin, speaking aloud the name that Eden had deliberately left unspoken.

Eden repressed the urge to scream.  “I’m sure he’s just looking at you, dear,” she forced herself to say, though her breathing quickened.  She steadfastly refused to look in the direction her cousin was placidly gazing.

“No, he isn’t,” said Lenora tranquilly.  “He hasn’t looked my way once, since you kissed him.”

Eden had to bite back the childish retort that sprang to her lips. I didn’t kiss him, he kissed me!  Only the ruthless self-control she had exerted over herself from a young age saved her.  Taking a calming breath in and out, she focused on the hazy blue sky and ignored the fact she was sat watching jousting, which she hated, specifically Roland Vawdrey jousting, who she hated even more.  And that she was starting to perspire, which was her biggest hatred of all.  Discreetly, she lifted her veil from the back of her neck to allow the breeze to cool her.  The midday sun was really starting to make itself felt.  Briefly, Eden considered explaining to her cousin just how much she disliked anyone referring to that solstice eve when Roland Vawdrey, in answer to a jester’s forfeit, had kissed her, tasting of spiced wine and hot sin.  But that would mean confessing that she thought of it at all, and Eden never liked admitting to weaknesses.  So instead, she folded her lips and did her best to look indifferent, as the two great hulking brutes thundering toward each other on their destriers, and collided with a great clash of lances.  The crowd roared as their lances splintered on impact.   Eden winced faintly at the thud of bodies hitting the ground.  They’d both been unhorsed, she noticed with distaste.  What happened in that event?  Eden never attended the lists if she could get out of it.  She watched now as they both rose from the dust, groping for their long swords.  Eden sighed.  Really?  As if they hadn’t wrought enough damage on each other’s body’s.  Roland Vawdrey was suddenly beating down on the other’s sword with a sudden burst of furious strength.  The other knight, Eden had forgotten his name, who had seemed for a while equally mighty, fell to his knees under such a vicious onslaught.  His sword was knocked from his nerveless fingers and Roland stuck his own blade-point under the wretched loser’s throat.  They both turned their heads toward the royal box where the King and Queen sat watching.  “Rise!” bellowed the King, coming to his feet and standing with his hands on the edge of the box.  He nodded to the crowd as they drummed their heels against the wooden stands.  Both combatants were now on their feet.  “You’ve much improved de Bussell,” said the King.  “But you’re not yet strong enough to rival the best.”  The King’s gaze swept the crowd.  “I give you your champion and mine.  Sir Roland Vawdrey!”  The crowd roared.  Roland swaggered toward the royal box and the King passed him down a golden chalice and a purse of gold as prize.  Then the final item – a floral wreath for the champion to bestow on the most beauteous maiden in attendance.

His own lance broken, Roland had to take up another to loop the flower-ring over.  Eden’s eyes narrowed as she saw him walk toward the noble’s box where they sat, and she inched away from her cousin’s side, so he could hold up the floral tribute to Lenora.  Sure enough, the lance tip hovered before her fair cousin and composedly, Lenora slipped it from the end with a smile and a wave to the cheering crowd before slipping over her pretty blonde hair.  Roland had already turned his back and walked away as soon as Lenora put her hand to it.  He did not wait to see her crowned.  Eden glanced at her cousin to see if she was put out, but she looked as serene and placid as ever.  In Eden’s opinion Roland should have waited for Lenora’s smile.  He ought to have bowed when he offered tribute to the prettiest maiden in all Karadok.  But no, he was an arrogant boor to the very last!  Eden’s lips pinched tight.  She had no idea why the crowd adored him so.  Doubtless it was those Vawdrey looks that were to blame.  The black brows and the strong jaw, the warm brown eyes and that curling dark hair.  And there was the fact the crowd liked a winner.  Otherwise, she told herself with a sniff, she could not account for it.

“He only gives it to me because I’m the prettiest,” said Lenora.

Eden looked up in surprise.  For a second, her cousin’s voice had sounded almost wistful.  “Of course you are,” said Eden at a loss.  “It’s your due.”

“No, I mean-” Lenora broke off with a frustrated sigh.  “He doesn’t-”  She bit her lip.  “Never mind.  It doesn’t matter.”

“Are you feeling well?” Eden asked her cousin.  “Only it is very warm today and Uncle Leofric said-.”

“Yes, don’t fuss,” said Lenora reaching across to clasp Eden’s hand.  “You know I like to watch the jousting.”

“I have no idea why,” grouched Eden.  The idea her serene cousin liked to watch sweaty men grapple in the dirt was bizarre to her.

“Because no-one expects you to converse with them,” said Lenora.  “And I love the anonymity of a crowd.”

“Anonymity?” repeated Eden in surprise.  “You’ve just been crowned the Tourney Queen!”

Lenora shrugged.  “Look around you,” she said calmly.  “Does anyone look like they care?  All focus is on the combatants not me.  This,” she said pointing to the floral wreath in her hair, “Is merely one of the trappings of the tournament, and soon forgotten.”

Eden scanned the audience.  Her cousin was wrong.  It was only in the noble’s box that no-one batted an eyelid at her crowning.  In the masses below, she spied many a woman casting an envious or admiring look Lenora’s way.  But perhaps her cousin meant that no men were looking at her?  In that respect, she was quite right, for once no men were staring.  They were all looking at their idols who were now receiving runner-up tokens.  She saw one mother pointing Lenora out to her child.  She fancied she could almost hear her words.  ‘Look at the beautiful princess, my darling’.  The little girl waved, but Lenora was oblivious. 

Eden elbowed her.  “You’re wrong.  Wave to that small child.”

Lenora raised a surprised hand.  “Where-?” she asked.  Eden pointed her out.  Lenora waved obligingly and the small child jumped with excitement turning back to her mother.

“Lenora,” said Eden heavily.  “You really need to make more of an effort to connect with other people.”

Her cousin looked startled.  “Why?” she asked.

“Because…”  Eden took a deep breath.  “Try to understand.  That woman probably had to work for weeks to earn these few hours of respite from hard labor.  They queue for hours too, to occupy those spectator seats.  This is a treat for her daughter, to see the pretty ladies on display, and the noblemen compete.  She will remember this day through the rest of her life.  And the moment when you waved at her will be the high point.  It’s such a small thing to you, but-She broke off when she heard the embarrassing throb of emotion in her own voice.  “The childhood of a peasant is very short-lived,” she said brusquely.  “That little girl will be expected to earn a crust before ‘ere long.  Surely you do not begrudge her a mere wave of your hand.”

Lenora’s eyes were wide.  “I never thought of it that way,” she said, and leaned forward to look down from the box.  To Eden’s surprise, Lenora raised her hand again and gave a hesitant wave and a nod.   “Should I throw them some coin?” she asked nervously.  “I have my alms purse.”

“You might start a stampede,” said Eden, ever sensible.  Instead, she beckoned to one of the royal pages who lined the steps.  He darted forward obligingly, in hope of a tip.  “Lady Lenora would like to bestow some coin on that child and her mother,” she said pointing them out.  “And will give you a penny for your pains.”

The page held out his palm obligingly and Lenora tipped her alms purse into it. 

“That’s rather a lot,” said Eden looking at the pile of coins.  The page was now cupping it in both his hands.

“I want them to have it,” insisted Lenora.

“Send the purse then,” said Eden.  “’Twould be easier for them to carry.  Wait,” she said eyeing Lenora’s gold brocade purse with tasseling.  “My purse is much plainer,” she said reaching for her own black purse, which was suspended from her belt.

“No, give them mine,” said Lenora.  “They can keep it as a memento of this day.”

They would probably sell it, thought Eden, but held her tongue as the page skipped off.

Lenora put her hands on the edge of the box and watched the page deliver her purse.  She smiled and nodded again. 

Eden watched the woman’s astonishment and delight at the gift.  She curtseyed and then hid the purse about her, without opening it.  Sensible woman, thought Eden approvingly.  She would do much better to open it in privacy at home.  “Now they will remember that the princess was benevolent, as well as beautiful,” she said aloud.

“I’m not a princess,” Lenora pointed out. 

“To that child you are,” Eden answered.  She kept her face forward, though she could feel her cousin’s gaze on her profile.

“I wish I was like you, Eden,” Lenora burst out at last. 

“Me?” she turned her head at that, and the force of feeling in Lenora’s words.  Her cousin was not known for speaking her mind.

Lenora nodded.  “I’m selfish,” she said unhappily.  “And, I don’t really like people.”  She turned her troubled gaze on Eden.  “I’m not a good person,” she finished.  “Not like you.”

Eden opened and closed her mouth.  “Nonsense,” she scoffed, but Lenora was holding up a dainty hand.

“I did not mean for you to placate me,” she said quietly.  “I just wanted to – to be truthful for once.  You probably know me better than anyone, except for Grandmother.  Yet even you…”

“What?” asked Eden, feeling lost in the conversation.

“Don’t realize… what an empty shell I am.  Or perhaps you do, but you do not wish to own it,” she added painstakingly.

“Lenora… You are too harsh on yourself,” said Eden awkwardly.  While it was true that her cousin could be vacuous, she was never unkind. 

“Am I?” 

“Yes,” Eden insisted.  “And I don’t approve of… people just making statements like that and then moping about it a day or so before reverting to their old ways,” she said, rallying herself.  “If you wish to be less selfish, then espouse a cause.  If you don’t like the people around you, then…” she cast about.  “Try spending time with someone else.  Someone you admire.”

“I already spend more time with you than anyone,” Lenora pointed out mildly.

Eden, who had never before realized she was an object of her cousin’s admiration, blinked.  “Someone who could benefit from your society then,” she persisted doggedly.

Lenora sighed.  “I tried sponsoring one of your impoverished artists before, and they just fell in love with me and made things awkward.”

That was true enough, thought Eden.  Men fell in love with Lenora at a glance.  Her cousin gave them no encouragement, but it happened all the same.  “How about taking up the cause of a lady then,” suggested Eden heartily.  “You never trouble to make any female friends of your own, and I believe that to be a great mis-step.  Female friendship is a great source of solace, comfort and joy.  You could befriend some newcomer at court and help her on her way…”

“Oh but I’m hopeless with women,” objected Lenora matter-of-factly.  “They are not merely content to sit and look at one’s face.  They expect you to have… opinions and stories to tell.  And I have none,” she said with a little shrug.

Eden looked at her cousin critically.  “Of course you do,” she argued.  “That’s an absurd thing to say, Lenora.”

Her cousin shook her head.  “No, it’s the truth,” she said calmly.  I have nothing to offer as a friend.  It’s because my growth was stunted.”

Eden’s jaw dropped.  “Whatever do you mean?” she demanded.  “We’re – we’re the same height for heaven’s sake!”

“Not my physical growth,” Lenora corrected her.  “It’s like that wise woman told me that time outside Hallam Abbey.  Don’t you remember?”

Eden suppressed a snort.  In her opinion, Lenora set far too much store in what fortune-tellers told her.  She always had.  “Was that the one who said there was a curse on your pretty face?” she asked sarcastically, as she eyed the crowd.  They were starting to disperse now and filter out of the stands.

Lenora flinched.  “Yes,” she said hollowly.  “That was her.”

“Well, I hardly think-“

“She said you and I were two branches of an old and venerated tree.  Though my branch was higher up with superior views, your branch was flourishing and putting forth leaves, while my branch was stunted and withered and bore no buds.”

Eden rolled her eyes.  “Lenora-”

“Don’t you see?” said Lenora again, lighting up with unaccustomed enthusiasm.  “I’ve thought it through, and she was right!  All anyone ever told me as a child was how beautiful I was and how well I would marry – at least a duke or an earl, if not a prince!”

“Well, yes,” agreed Eden.  “But I don’t see-”

“There you have it,” said Lenora, sitting back in her seat.  “That kind of talk stunted me,” she shrugged her shoulders.  “All that was ever expected of me was to sit and look pretty.  While you were devouring books and your studies, I stagnated.  It stunted me.  I never… grew, as I should.  At the end of the day, I’m only half-made.”

Eden stared at her cousin.  Where had this come from?  She had never heard Lenora speak in such a way.  “I – but, if that’s the way you feel then there’s still time Lenora,” she tried to reason with her.  “There are still books to read and dancing masters and music lessons and-”

“No,” her cousin said simply.  “No, there isn’t.  The opportunity is quite gone.  My father expects me to marry before my twenty-first birthday.  He would be appalled if I told him I wanted to engage tutors and to study at this late stage.  Beside,” she said hopelessly.  “My mind is quite formed, and it is just a sad blank.  I have no conversation.  I have only this,” she pointed to her face.  “The wise woman was quite right about that.  Only, now I think we must have mis-remembered her words.  I don’t think she said there was a curse on my pretty face.  I think said that my pretty face was the curse.”

Eden tried and failed to hide her concern.  She had never dreamed that Lenora had such thoughts, or, if she was truthful, that she was even capable of thinking such things.  Lenora was, well… not a deep thinker.  She mostly seemed to daydream her days away and seemed happiest of all left in peace with her cat or with old decrepit suitors that posed no threat.  That she could have been having such thoughts, was disturbing to Eden.  She struggled to think of what to say. 

“Do not fret yourself, cousin,” Lenora told her, placing a hand on her sleeve.  “I did not mean to pose this as a thorny knot for you to unravel.  There is nothing to be done about it now.  I must simply tread this path that has been laid out before me.  I must,” she said. “Marry well and soon.”

 

**

 

It was some three hours later that Roland, accompanied by his squire, returned to the Vawdrey quarters in the summer palace.  He booted the door open and dropped his arms inside the door with a large clatter.  Cuthbert started gathering up the various pieces of his armor and making a pile of it.  They were both surprised when they noticed a quiet, tall figure sat at the table examining the pile of trophies and cups stacked there.

“Oswald!” exclaimed Roland, straightening up.  “Didn’t see you there.”

“This place,” said his older brother turning with a frown.  “Is starting to resemble a miser’s cave.”

Roland snorted and flung his latest acquisition onto the pile.  “I haven’t got around to getting this lot melted down yet,” he said airily.  “Besides, you and Mason haven’t stayed here in months.”

“So you and Cuthbert have been letting the place go to merry ruin!” Oswald tutted.  “It’s frightening what the lack of a civilizing influence can do.” 

Cuthbert grinned, but Roland scowled, throwing himself down into a chair opposite him. 

Oswald picked up the latest gold trophy.  “You won then?” he said, examining the prize.

“Who else?” asked Roland arrogantly.

Oswald tipped his head.  “I had heard, that some of the northern barons had lately entered the lists.  And were not to be taken lightly.”

“What of it?”

“Sir Garman Orde’s the best of them,” piped up Cuthbert, settling himself down on a footstool with a polishing cloth.  “He’s beaten Roland twice this year so far.”

“And how many times have I beaten him?” asked Roland belligerently.

“Twice,” answered Cuthbert serenely.

“Three times!” Roland corrected him hotly.

“Twice,” insisted Cuthbert.  “You were disqualified at Kellingford.”

Everyone was disqualified at Kellingford,” Roland explained to his brother. “Total farce.  Whole melee was declared null and void.  I beat him though.”

“Not officially,” said Cuthbert.  “Lord Kentigern’s good too.  He beat Roland at Roget’s Ford.”

Roland exhaled noisily. 

Oswald’s eyebrows rose.  “Dear me!” he tutted.  “The playing field seems to have levelled off of late.  Perhaps I’ll have to start attending again.  It got rather tiresome just watching you win.”

“I bet,” said Roland sarcastically.

“Garman Orde didn’t compete today,” carried on Cuthbert helpfully.  “So Roland had an easy win.”

“De Bussell is considered to be a fair competitor,” Roland told him in exasperation, before turning back to his brother.  “Remind me why I let you persuade me to take this little swine as a squire, again, brother?”

Oswald smiled.  “You’re twenty-five years of age Roland.  It’s only right that you start taking on some responsibility,” he said.  “Even you agreed it was high time.”

“When the devil did I say that?” frowned Roland.

His brother waved a hand airily.  “I’ve come about that little matter you wished me to approach Sir Leofric Montmayne about…”

 “Oh yes,” said Roland hurriedly, he darted a gaze at Cuthbert who was bent over the armor and seemingly absorbed in his task.  “I forgot about that.  Did you speak to the old man already?”

His eldest brother regarded him impassively.  “Yes,” Oswald agreed lightly.  “I spoke to Sir Leofric of your matrimonial prospects.”

“And?”

“And,” his brother replied unhurriedly.  “He agreed that with your country estate, good name, connections and fine lineage you have much to offer as a prospective bridegroom.”

“Oh,” said Roland blankly.  He’d been girding himself for more of a battle as a younger son, without title.  He had expected Lenora’s Father to need more buttering up.  Still, he thought eyeing his brother, Oswald’s negotiating skills were meant to be second to none.  “I’m obliged to you,” he said grudgingly.

“Not at all,” smiled Oswald urbanely.  “Merely doing my duty, as head of our house.  I must say though,” he paused.  “You don’t look particularly happy at the prospect of winning her hand.”

“Course I am,” bristled Roland.  “Just didn’t expect it to be so… easy, that’s all.”  He brooded a moment in silence.  “What happens next?”

“Sir Leofric proposed that we travel to his place Hallam Hall in a month’s time for a betrothal banquet, with appropriate fanfare.”

“A month’s time?” echoed Roland, feeling again, rather unpleasantly jarred at the prospect.

“Too long?” tutted Oswald.  “Dear me, I forget how ardent you young lovers can be…”

“Not too long,” Roland interrupted him impatiently.  The small smile playing about his brother’s lips told him the bastard was well aware of his feelings on the subject.  “Young lovers, my ass.  I’ve walked in on you and Fenella more times than I can mention.”

 Oswald grinned.  He was totally unabashed by his passion for his own wife.  It was downright indecent in Roland’s opinion. 

“Will you come?” Roland asked abruptly.  “To the betrothal feast?”

His brother looked shocked.  “To see the last of us brothers married?  Of course!  Mason will too, I have no doubt.” He clapped a hand on Roland’s shoulder. 

“I was thinking of Fen’s condition,” Roland pointed out.  Fenella, Oswald’s wife, was currently big with child and due any day now.

“Fenella’s presence is unlikely,” his brother conceded.  “But we will cross that bridge when we reach it.  Hopefully my heir will have made an appearance by then.  If not, my head will be entirely gray.”

Roland glanced at his brother’s hair, but it looked black as any Vawdrey’s to him.  “All is well though?” he asked with a flicker of concern.  He had grown fond of his sister-in-law.  He had even been to visit her at the large town-house she and Oswald had purchased in Caer-Lyoness.  They had a matching one in Aphrany, the winter capital.  For some reason, they seemed to prefer town life to the living quarters afforded to courtiers in the royal palaces.  The old family seat, Vawdrey Keep, Oswald had gifted to Roland six months previously.

“So she assures me,” said Oswald.  “She’s as contented as ever.  It’s me that’s harried to death with worries.”

“You don’t need to be worried, milord,” Cuthbert said, raising his head and dropping the metal gauntlet he had been cleaning.  “I already did her a reading with the bones.  Nothing but good omens for her delivery.  Twin golden suns with long rays and no shadows.”

“So she told me, Cuthbert,” said Oswald.  “She was much reassured.”

“Cuthbert,” said Roland severely.  “How many times do I have to tell you?  You’re a knight’s squire now.  You can’t be running around reading palms and telling fortunes like some old hedge-crone.”

Cuthbert spat onto his breastplate, and then calmly polished it with his cloth.  

Roland narrowed his eyes “Is he trying to be impudent?” he asked his brother.  “Because I can’t quite make up my mind.”

“Don’t annoy him,” recommended Oswald quietly.  “His Granny’s a witch.”

“Wise woman,” Cuthbert corrected him, not even looking up from his task.

“And he has excellent hearing,” added Oswald.

Roland rolled his eyes.  “You’re no more superstitious than I.”

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mother Ames,” said Oswald.  “She’s still journeying up for Fenella’s lying-in, isn’t she Cuthbert?  Only I thought she’d have arrived by now.”

“Aye, she’s well,” said Cuthbert looking up.  “She’ll be here by Wednesday.”

“Wednesday next week?” echoed Roland.  “What if Fen drops tomorrow?  She’s big as a house!”

“Next week,” repeated Cuthbert sagely, nodding his head. ”She’ll be here in plenty of time.  You’ll see.”

 

**

 

One month later, Hallam Hall, seat of the Montmayne family, Vetchfield

 

“I thought you’d be wearing the blue gown,” exclaimed Eden in surprise as her cousin turned from the looking glass in a dusky rose damask.  “Is the blue not your current favorite?”

Lenora shrugged.  “It doesn’t really signify.”

Eden regarded her beadily.  “It’s your betrothal feast,” she pointed out.

“I thought you might wear the blue,” said Lenora, with a studied casualness which made Eden’s spine stiffen. 

“Me?” They hadn’t worn each other’s gowns since they were girls, and then not in public.  “Why on earth would you think such a thing?”  Eden looked down at her own gown, which was her customary black.  “I am very well as I am.”  Her gaze sought out Hannah, the maid she and Lenora shared and she rose her eyebrows speakingly.  Hannah shrugged, as she started to comb through Lenora’s blonde locks. 

“Of course you are,” agreed Lenora calmly.  “I just thought, as it was a celebration you might make an exception.” She shrugged.  “Will you at least let me lend you my pearls?”

“Your pearls?” echoed Eden.  “Certainly not.  I am very well with these glass beads.  It is you who will be the focus of all attention, as the bride-to-be.  I am merely your attendant.”

“I’ll just braid the front sections and leave the back down loose, like the pretty maid you are,” said Hannah with satisfaction. 

“Will you pass me up Griselda?” Lenora asked Eden, ignoring her maid’s words and holding out her arms for her cat.

Eden looked down and found Lenora’s white cat rubbing herself against her skirts.  She scooped her up and deposited her on her cousin’s lap.

“Where are her kittens?” asked Eden.  “Did you leave them at court?”

“Oh no,” said Lenora looking shocked.  She waved a vague hand in the direction of her bed.  “They’re all sleeping.”

Eden glanced over and saw the four little balls of fur snuggled up inside Lenora’s best hat.  “I hope you weren’t planning on wearing that pearl-encrusted toque,” she said dryly.

“Oh milady,” tutted Hannah, following the direction of her gaze.  “You didn’t ought to let them ruin your nice things.”

“Leave them be Hannah, they’re quite comfortable there after the long journey home,” said Lenora.  “Unless you wanted to borrow it, Eden?”

“No, thank you,” said Eden feeling bewildered.  It wasn’t that her cousin wasn’t usually generous with her possessions, for she was.  Lenora didn’t have a selfish bone in her body.  It was just that she wasn’t usually so persistent when she got an idea in her lovely golden head. 

Eden regarded her cousin, feeling troubled.  This last month, she had really tried to encourage Lenora in the pursuit of more substance, but it had all come to naught.  All of her suggestions for personal improvement had been rejected.  Especially when Lenora’s Father, Eden’s uncle had proposed this wretched match with Roland Vawdrey.  The whole of the Montmayne household had been overtaken with talk of the betrothal and nothing else.  It was all very frustrating to Eden.  She felt helpless.  Why did Lenora not struggle against this awful fate she saw unfolding for herself?  How hard could it be to reform your ways and turn your life around?  Finally, Eden had been forced to accept that Lenora was determined on this course of action, and would duly marry the King’s champion.  But now she found herself feeling irritated by even Lenora’s attitude toward this! 

In Eden’s book, if you have committed to something, then it should be completely.  This was the attitude that had made her the best dancer in all of Karadok.  It had also made her a fine musician and songstress.  She had applied herself to her lessons as if her life depended on it.  There were no half-measures for her.  So this lackluster attitude of Lenora’s was infuriating.  Where was the excitement that a bride-to-be should exhibit?  Why didn’t Lenora care to wear her best dress or jewelry?  Eden wished now that she had not backed right off about this betrothal.  Mayhap her cousin did not wish to marry the boorish Roland Vawdrey after all? And she had offered her no moral support.

“It’s not too late, you know,” she said, dropping down onto a seat opposite Lenora.  “If your heart is not in this betrothal… I could speak to my uncle and explain-“

“Oh no,” said Lenora, opening her blue eyes very wide.  “This is absolutely the right step.  I am convinced of it.”

“Really?” asked Eden skeptically.  Then she decided to bring out the one thing she knew Lenora felt strongly about.  “What about your prediction from that street hawker in Bonebartle?  How does Roland Vawdrey fit in with that?”  If Lenora’s composure and placidity had one weak point, it was her devotion to superstition.  And cats.  “Have you even asked Sir Roland how he feels about cats?” Eden added slyly.  “Only I had heard he didn’t care for them.”

Lenora turned very red.  “Did you really hear that about the cats?” she whispered.  Eden experienced an inner struggle with herself.  Reluctantly, she shook her head. Lenora breathed out.  “You yourself told me that prediction was a great piece of nonsense,” Lenora said rallying bravely.

“You know I set little store by such things,” Eden replied, lamenting her own honesty. 

“And in the last ten years, I have never yet met a knight whose emblem was a weeping heart.”

“So, you’ve given up waiting for him?” Eden asked her.  “When you were twelve you vowed you would marry none other.”

“Eleven,” Lenora corrected her, but her eyes were dreamy again and she was stroking the purring Griselda.  Eden could tell the opportunity had passed, and she was to be lumbered with Roland Vawdrey for a family member. 

With a bitter taste in her mouth, she made her way down to seek out her uncle and find out if there were any particular duties for her that evening.  Officially, her grandmother would act as hostess, but Lady Dorothea Montmayne had been sticking to her rooms all day, and had refused to be prized out of them, even for the arrival home of her two granddaughters. 

After only one day, Eden was already feeling the strain of being back at Hallam Park.  And she hadn’t even seen Lenora’s mother, her aunt Gwenda yet.  They had arrived back the previous night to prepare for the betrothal party, but from what Eden could see, Hobson, the steward had everything well under way.  The kitchens were well stocked, extra staff had been brought in to serve at the tables and the hall had been scrubbed from top to bottom.  She wished her uncle had not insisted on her attendance at all.  She had been raised as Lenora’s companion, that much was true, but surely being a bridal attendant at the wedding would suffice, as far as duty went?  Did she really need to drink a toast to Lenora’s ill-advised betrothal?  Everyone knew she thought Roland Vawdrey was a poor choice of bridegroom, and she really hadn’t wanted to leave the summer court.  Several events were coming up that the Queen would be depending on her to organize.  Without her there, Queen Armenal would invariably fall back on her new favorite Jane Cecil.  Eden pressed her lips together with vexation when she thought of it.  She had worked so hard for her position at court!

She found her uncle in the Great Hall, which was being decked out for the feast.

“My mother’s being awkward, Eden,” her uncle fretted, hurrying over to her.  “I am depending on you to ensure she behaves herself tonight.”

Eden shot a look at him.  No-one could make Lady Dorothea do a thing against her will, as well he knew.  “I will do what I can, Uncle,” she assured him.

“Good, good,” he said.  “Is my daughter yet dressed?  The Vawdrey party will be arriving around sundown.”

“Yes,” said Eden.  “She was having her hair arranged when I left her.”

“And my wife?”

Eden grimaced.  “I have not yet seen my aunt,” she admitted.  “But Paulson said she had taken to her rooms with a headache and did not wish to be disturbed until strictly necessary.”  In her youth Aunt Gwenda had been a golden beauty like Lenora.  She found it hard to see her daughter the center of attention, even though she thought it her rightful place.  It was probably for this reason that she was seldom at court. 

“And has my brother Christopher arrived with his demon spawn, your cousin?” Uncle Leofric asked with a shudder.

“I have not seen hide nor hair of Uncle Christopher or Kit,” Eden replied.  Kit was her fifteen year old cousin who would inherit Hallam Hall on Sir Leofric’s demise.  His Father, Uncle Christopher was Uncle Leo’s younger brother and an insufferably pompous bore.  Every chance he got to crow that it was he and not his older brother who had sired a son and heir, he took it.  Thankfully Uncle Christopher’s wife was not coming to tonight’s betrothal feast as she had fallen out badly with Lady Dorothea and been banned from Hallam Hall the previous winter.

Her uncle fidgeted.  “Is that the gown you’re wearing?” he asked, looking her up and down with a wince.  “This is an occasion of joy, child.”

“Is it?” said Eden dryly.  She could not imagine what he was about, marrying her beautiful cousin off to Roland Vawdrey.  At the very least, she had thought Lenora would marry foreign royalty.  What was the point in squandering her beauty on a mere third son? 

Her uncle gave her a sharp look and she returned his gaze unflinchingly until he at last, looked away.

“Roland Vawdrey is a fine match,” bleated Sir Leofric.  “He has excellent connections and is the King’s own champion.”

“What about when his sword arm fails?” asked Eden.  “What then?”

“And why should it fail?” her uncle bridled.  “His sire was a fine, strong man, well into his sixties.  No-one would dare challenge him!  He was a great bear of a man.”

“Does Sir Roland even realize the jewel you are bestowing on him?” Eden asked pointedly.  “He is arrogant and proud.  To my knowledge he has not sought out my cousin once to woo, or have some private speech with her-”

“And why should he?  That is most proper!” blustered Sir Leofric.  “Whispering with ladies in corners is not the act of a gentleman, but of a scoundrel!  I am shocked, Eden.  Shocked at your attitude!  You speak to me of pride and arrogance,” he railed.  “But you are the one who needs to bend your neck!  Since you have been at court this last three years you seem to have grown a good deal too pleased with yourself I think!”

Eden drew herself up, but remained silent.  Her uncle had turned quite purple.  In the main, her uncle’s moods were fairly even, he usually only blustered and shouted when he was feeling ill-at-ease about something.  In truth, he was under a lot of stress and his wife, Eden’s aunt Gwenda usually only added to his burdens, rather than supporting him.  That was usually Eden’s role.  She felt a pang of conscience at making things difficult for him now.

“Well!” he huffed.  “I have said enough, I think.  I hope you will consider my words.  Since your father died, I have tried to do my best by you, I think you will admit.”

Eden felt herself stiffen under the mention of her ne’er-do-well father.  “You have, Uncle,” she agreed in her most colorless voice.   

“Have I not sponsored you at Court and raised you in my own home?”

“You have provided for me most handsomely, Uncle.”

“There now,” he said, climbing down off his high horse.  “I hope you know I am fond of you, child.”

“Yes, Uncle,” she said, for it was true.  In his own way Leofric Montmayne had acted very handsomely by the wife and daughter of his younger brother Godwin.  No-one could claim any differently in all conscience.

“Run along now,” he advised.  “For Hobson has everything well under way here.  Make yourself useful by rousing your grandmother from her self-imposed exile.  Unless,” he added doubtfully.  “You wish to try and raise your aunt.”

Eden could think of nothing she would like less.  Instead she hurried off in the direction of the North tower. 

 

**

 

Eden found Lady Dorothea Montmayne ensconced in her private rooms and surrounded by her tapestry looms.

“What say you to this match?” her grandmother asked, after suffering a kiss on the cheek by way of greeting.  “Will he do for her?” she asked.  “Is he enamored of her?”

Eden sank down into a seat and pondered how to reply diplomatically.  “He admires her beauty greatly,” she said at last.

 “My own instinct tells me he is not the one for her,” continued Lady Dorothea with a sigh.  “He is handsome to be sure.  But I predict they would be living in separate abodes by this time next year.  Lenora barely tolerates court.”

Eden looked up, startled.  “Oh but…”

Dorothea turned a gimlet gaze upon her.  “You think because she is the toast, she enjoys the adulation?”

Eden frowned.  It seemed their grandmother was far more insightful where Lenora was concerned than she had been.   “She rides out,” she said stubbornly.  “Her company is much sought after…”

“She does not enjoy the society of young men,” said Lady Dorothea dismissively.  “She never has.  She dislikes being fawned over or pawed.”

Eden hesitated.  “I do not think Roland Vawdrey is the fawning type,” she said slowly.  “His admiration has barely taken any physical form that I have seen.”  She thought a moment.  “I am not sure they have even spent much time in each other’s company,” she said with a helpless shrug.

“And yet, you are sure he admires her?” asked her grandmother sharply.

“Of course, he asked for her hand after all,” pointed out Eden, feeling uncomfortable.

“There are some men,” said the older woman.  “Who see a wife merely as a possession.  They want the most sought-after, the most beauteous, the most admired.  They do not see her as a help-meet or even as a person, simply as a way of triumphing over others.”  She looked at Eden shrewdly.  “Could it be that the youngest Vawdrey is such a one?”

“I barely know him,” Eden said, not adding that what she did know, she did not like.  “I am not qualified to answer such a question.”  She cast about her.  “His older brothers both seem happily wedded.  Mayhap, once married to Lenora, he would come to appreciate her finer points, her sweet nature…”

“Pffft!” Lady Dorothea interrupted abruptly.  “Not he!  He is his father all over again.  Did you ever meet Baron Vawdrey?”

“Not that I remember-”

Her grandmother’s lip curled.  “He was a great churl of a man, much given to shouting and railing.  He rode roughshod over both his wives, and was more considerate toward his hounds than his spouses!”

Eden sat quietly a moment.  “Then what is to be done?” she asked hopelessly.  “Lenora insists this is the right step for her.”

“She said that?”

“Yes, not even an hour ago.”  Lady Dorothea seemed much taken aback by this.  “Don’t misunderstand me, grandmother,” Eden said painstakingly.  “She was far from enthusiastic…”

“Lenora is never enthusiastic about anything,” cut in her grandmother despairingly.  “Except for soothsayers and cats!”  Sadly, this was nothing but the truth, and Eden could make no argument.  “Well, there is precious little we can do,” she said heavily.  “Except watch events unfold.”

“At least,” said Eden perking up.  “This is a betrothal and not a wedding feast.  There will be some time afterward for both parties to recant.”

“True enough,” pondered Lady Montmayne.  “And after the betrothal, they will be expected to associate more closely…”

“And familiarity may breed contempt on Lenora’s behalf,” finished off Eden hopefully.  They exchanged a look.

“That is the most we can hope for,” said her grandmother at last.  “Though it pains me to say it.  And my son is strangely determined on this course.”

Eden looked up sharply.  “My uncle could not have coerced Lenora,” said Eden with a frown.  “She would have told me!”

“I did not mean that precisely.  Perhaps he has heard some inside information,” she shrugged.  “That young Vawdrey is to be granted a peerdom?  And he feels he is stealing a march by snaring him now before it is common knowledge.”

“Do you really suppose that could be it?”

“Stranger things have happened, and I would not be at all surprised,” intoned her grandmother.  “The King has promoted many a man for stupider reasons than being a good fighter.”  Eden murmured in agreement.  “And let us not forget that his brother is in a position of great power.  Both his brothers,” she added.  “The Vawdreys are not a family to be trifled with.”  She shrugged.  “Perhaps, after all, Leo knows what he is doing allying us with them.”

Eden eyed her doubtfully.  In her opinion, Roland Vawdrey was nothing more than a well-muscled brute.  He had an insensitive nature and a callous, shallow outlook on life.  But what was the point in voicing that opinion now?  Women married such men all the time.  Very likely her opinions were out of step with general thought.  She knew the King’s Champion to be much admired among the court ladies.  She just wished to goodness he wasn’t marrying her cousin!

 

**

 

Three hours later, the betrothal feast, Hallam Hall

It was very strange, thought Roland frowning down at his plate.  His head was swimming although the last course had not yet been cleared, and he held a half-full cup of wine in his hand.  He was commonly known to have the constitution of an ox, and could drink into the early hours before he got addled.  This stuff they were serving was damnably strong, though.  He tried to reckon up how much he had consumed, but kept losing his train of thought.  He knew he had something he urgently needed to impart to his brother Oswald, who was sat at his right, although it kept slipping sideways out of his mind.  Catching sight of the ladies who were setting up their instruments for the entertainment, he remembered it again.  “Oswald,” he said with urgent conviction, and reached across to catch hold of one of his brother’s silver buttons.

Oswald looked at him in politely enquiry.  “Yes Roland,” he said, angling his face toward him.

“Can you hear me?” Roland asked, suddenly doubtful.  His own ears felt very muffled. 

“Perfectly,” his brother assured him, although he did inch closer.  “What is it?  You look troubled.  Be at ease.  You are among family and friends.”

Roland held up his finger.  “Wrong one,” he said, forming his words carefully.  “She’s the wrong one.”

“Well, well,” said Oswald looking amused.  “Alcohol is generally held to muddle the senses, not clear them.”

Roland frowned at him.  “What?”  His gaze returned to where Eden Montmayne was in the act of strumming her harp with her slender, white fingers.  He didn’t really like skinny wenches, but for some reason, she drew his eye like no other.  He liked the way she moved too, so gracefully, and almost… sinuously.  ‘Twas a pity she wasn’t dancing tonight instead of playing at her harp.  The odd thing was, that he couldn’t hear any music, although all around him the other guests were tapping their feet, or nodding their heads as though in enjoyment.  “Think I’m going deaf,” Roland said aloud.

“Try not to shout, brother,” Oswald murmured in reproof, as heads turned to look at them censoriously. 

Roland looked up to find Eden’s annoyed face glaring at him across the rom.  “Why do I want her so much, answer me that if you’re so clever,” he said thickly.

Oswald’s mouth twisted into a smile.  “How refreshingly candid you’re being, Roland.  Although you have left it a little late in the day.”  He leaned forward to look at their other brother on Roland’s left.  “Mason, can you hear him?”

“It’s too late for cold feet now, Roland,” said Mason bracingly. 

Roland turned his head and nearly pitched forward onto the table. 

“Steady,” warned Oswald, his hand suddenly at Roland’s neck, pinching him there.

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Mason.  “He can’t be sotted already.”

“Ah, but he is,“ murmured Oswald.  “It must be nerves.”

But that couldn’t be right, thought Roland.  He’d drunk no more than his companions, and everyone knew that Oswald had no head for drinking.  He caught sight of Eden and Lenora side by side again, and felt frustrated.  “Can’t do it,” he said shaking his head.  “Wrong one, damn it.  Need to call it off.”

“My dear Roland,” tutted Oswald indulgently.  “You’ll be getting a reputation as a jilt at this rate.  After all, this is not the first prospective wedding you’ve cried off.”

Mason’s head turned to spear Oswald with a vicious glare.  “You’re speaking of my wife,” he scowled.

“I didn’t even know Linnet,” Roland objected unevenly, throwing out a hand which thudded oddly against the table leg.  He felt like he had pins and needles all over.

“What possible objection could you have to this one?” Mason asked.

“She’s not Eden,” Roland slurred and fell forward face-down onto the table-top.

 

**

 

Something was tickling Roland's nose.  He scrunched it up and blew out of his mouth to try and dislodge whatever the irritation was.  It drifted away before settling again across his mouth this time.  With an annoyed murmur he tried to reach up to drag it away, only to find both his hands were already occupied, palming the charms of his current bed-mate.  He glanced down in surprise to find one handful of buttock and one of breast.  She was lay sprawled a-top of him and was gently snoring into his chest.   His eyebrows shot up as he tried and failed to remember how this one had ended up in his bed.  He must have gotten steaming drunk he realized, as his last memory was sat between his two brothers at the betrothal feast.  He must have picked up some serving wench, he thought uneasily, though he had done precious little of that in recent months.  Not since that witch Eden Montmayne had kissed him and tied his libido up in knots.  He frowned down at the top of his companion’s hair, which was black and shining, but he didn't remember a damn thing.   Eden’s hair was black, he thought uneasily.  Maybe that was why this one had caught his eye.  He released her perky breast with faint reluctance and reached up to brush her long hair from his face.  It was straight and long and smelt faintly of roses.  That was when he felt the first frisson of alarm.  Most serving wenches did not smell of flowers the morning after.  He reached down and gently lifted her hand from where it lay on his mattress.  Slender and soft with clean rounded pink nails.  Holy fuck.  He'd bedded a high-born lady yester e'en.  If she was married, he'd cuckolded some poor bastard and if she was a virgin, even worse!  He lay staring at the ceiling in horror a moment as he absorbed this.  Pray to the gods she was a horny widow who had fallen into his bed like a ripe plum!  But even widows could be troublesome he thought with distraction as he released the soft hand and absently re-cupped her breast.  What if she demanded he made an honest woman of her?  He'd finally pledged his troth to most beauteous woman at court - Lenora Montmayne.  It would not go down well if he’d swived some friend or relative of hers at the betrothal feast!  He cleared his throat and the wench gave a muffled groan which made his dick perk up with interest. 

“Thirsty,” she whimpered and lifted her face to gaze at him through blurry blue eyes.  He knew those eyes, though usually they were sharp as gimlets.  He knew those delicate features too. 

Fuck.

They both stared. 

The moment stretched. 

Then an insistent hammering started on the door.

Eden yelped, and he sucked in a sharp breath, as they drew closer to each other in mutual confusion.  Roland slid his hand from her bosom around her back to cradle her body against his.

There was a splintering sound, and then suddenly the door burst open and they found themselves confronted with their host Sir Leofric Montmayne, his brother Sir Christopher, Roland’s own two brothers and an astonished looking man he vaguely recognized as the steward. 

“Ah there you both are,” said Oswald.  There was a glint in his eye that Roland didn't care for. 

Eden gave a strangled scream and bounced off him, dragging the covers up to her neck and exposing his naked body and very hard cock.  For some reason, when he had realized his naked bed-partner was Eden Montmayne, it had gone from half to full stand.  He sat up with a muffled exclamation and dragged a cushion over his crotch.  

Oswald coughed, and Sir Leofric made a strangled noise in his throat.  The steward’s eyes opened so wide they almost fell out of his head.  Sir Christopher’s face turned an outraged purple color as Mason rolled his eyes. 

Oswald looked like he was struggling to keep his face straight, the bastard.  “Tsk, tsk brother!” he said shaking his head.  “I didn't like to speak out of turn Sir Leofric, but I could see how things were brewing when I saw them together yesterday.”  He gave a heavy sigh.  “Roland has seduced your poor niece.”

“You - you - Blackguard sir!” shouted Sir Leofric.  “If I had not seen this with my own eyes I would ne'er have believed such infamy!”

His words seemed to rouse his brother Christopher’s ire too.  He took a hasty step forward and pointed at Eden.  “You’ve certainly shown your true colors and no mistake!” he wheezed.  “The apple never falls far from the tree.  You have nurtured a viper in your bosom Leofric.  She’s nothing but a little wh-!“

Mason’s arm shot out and pinned Sir Christopher to the doorway.  “Who the fuck is this again?” he asked Oswald over his shoulder.  He dwarfed the other man, who was dangling feebly from his fist.

“I forget,” said Oswald.  “Some cousin of yours?” he asked Sir Leofric, turning to him.

“My brother, Christopher” said Sir Leofric awkwardly. 

“Tell him to shut the fuck up,” said Roland from the bed.  “I’ve got a pounding head.”

“Yes, do,” said Oswald.  “His shouting isn’t really contributing to the matter at hand.”

“Shut up your racket, Christopher,” said Sir Leofric irritably.  “You’re not master here, I am.”

Sir Christopher opened and shut his mouth like a fish.  “Very well,” he uttered on a wheeze.  Mason released him and he landed on his feet with a yelp.

“This is an outrageous business,” agreed Oswald cutting in smoothly.  “You have every right to be incensed at his behavior, Sir Leofric.  Let us not sink to his level, however.  Let us remember that we are gentlemen.”

Eden who was sat rigidly at Roland’s side, tried to speak.  Roland thought she said ‘uncle’, but then went off into a coughing fit.

“Get your bride-to-be some water, boy,” said Oswald mildly. 

Roland's head snapped up and they locked eyes a moment.  He experienced the oddest feeling of …. He didn’t know how to describe it.  Something blooming in his chest.  He’d never felt anything like it.  Whatever it was, it seemed laced with something very close to relief.  He exhaled noisily and climbed from the bed, dropping the cushion.  There no longer seemed a reason to shield her from his nakedness.  After all, she was going to have to marry him now.  He sauntered over to where his clothes were neatly folded onto a chair.  Dragging on his braies, he then turned to a small table with a glass pitcher full of water and some cups.  He downed a cup himself before pouring a second for Eden.

Oswald, he noticed was talking in a persuasive and smooth voice to Sir Leofric.  “Shall we repair into the adjoining room to thrash out the details, my dear Sir Leo,” he said.  “After all, the damage is now done.  Let us attempt to pick up as many pieces as can be restored.”  Sir Leofric mumbled something, passing a shaking hand over his brow, before allowing himself to be ushered into the sitting room.  He looked a broken man.  Mason turned and followed them.   

Roland crossed swiftly to the door and shoved out Sir Christopher and the steward who were still stood there still staring.  Then he shot the bolt.  He was surprised to see it hadn't bust off its hinges at the ill-treatment it had suffered.  He turned back to look at Eden who was as white as the sheet she was wrapped in.  “What happened?” he said simply.

She drew in a sharp breath.  “Are you saying you don’t remember either?” she asked shakily.

He narrowed his eyes at her before returning to the water jug and picking up the cup he'd poured out.  Walking over to her side, he sat heavily on the bed beside her, holding it out. 

Eden released the edge of the sheet she was white-knuckling to take it, and then took a deep draught.  Her hand trembled as she drained the glass.  He took it from her and set it down. 

“Did we...?” he let his gaze travel over her shrouded form.

“Do not speak of such things,” she begged.  “How could this have happened?”

Roland’s brain felt like muddled fog, interspersed with pin pricks of pain.  It hurt to try to think.  He also had a raging thirst.  Fetching the jug of water, he returned to the bed, filling both their cups again.  “I don’t remember a damn thing,” he admitted, rubbing his temple.  He stole a sideways glance her way.  Eden was sipping rapidly at her water, a pained expression on her face.  Her hand was shaking so badly, she was sloshing water onto the bedsheet which wrapped around her. 

“I remember… playing my harp, and speaking afterward to my cousin,” she said, sounding bewildered.  “She handed me her wine to drink, as she didn’t like it.  I don’t remember much else.”  The last part was nothing more than a whisper. 

“Do you remember me at the feast?” Roland asked.  A thought had pierced through the mist for a moment, but then just as quickly disappeared.

“I remember you talking loudly through our performance,” said Eden with a hint of resentment.  “I thought I should give you a piece of my mind.”

“Looks like you gave me a piece of something else,” he said.

Eden sat up.  “Are you being crude?” she asked uncertainly, clearly unfamiliar with the vulgarity.

He ignored her, glancing around the room.  “This is my room, Eden,” he said and noticed her start when he spoke her first name.  “Which means you accompanied me back to my bedchamber.”  She clutched her cup so tightly, he reached across and prized it from her death grip.  “Ring any bells?” he asked.

She turned bright red.  “No,” she said in a strangled voice, but looked suddenly guilty as hell. 

“What?” he asked.  If she remembered being underneath him, and he did not… Well, it hardly seemed fair, that’s all.

“I think – I think I remember you kissing me,” she said staring past his left shoulder.

Suddenly, Roland felt parched again.  He poured more water.  “And?” he asked huskily.

She gave her head a quick shake.  “Maybe… holding me,” she added quietly.  “Unclothed.”

Roland spat out his mouthful of water.  “Well,” he said.  “That’s that, then,” and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

Eden’s scarlet face gazed back at him with horror.  “Yes,” she said helplessly.  “That’s that.”

There was a discreet knock on the door, and Roland crossed the room.  It was Oswald.

"I believe we have now come to a suitable agreement," said Oswald from the doorway. “The priest will be here within the hour.”

Roland heard a groan, but wasn’t sure if he’d uttered it, or Eden.

Oswald smiled urbanely.  “You’re welcome,” he said.

 

**

 

Eden spoke her vows through lips that felt numb.  She was in the midst of a nightmare, a living nightmare.  She simply could not believe that this was happening to her.  The past two years she had worked so hard at her advancement at court.  She had practiced her harp until her fingers bled.  Read so many books her eyes felt strained.  Sat so many hours attending the Queen that her back ached.  And all for naught!  She had trampled her own carefully earned reputation and honor into the dust!  And for what?  One or two overly-strong goblets of wine and a mad impulse to find out what came after Roland Vawdrey’s kisses?  She shuddered at the thought, glancing at his handsome profile.  For in the secrecy of her own heart, she had been curious.  Far too many times her errant thoughts had returned to that midwinter kiss.  Her cheeks burned at the recollection of her foolishness.  In the privacy of her own bed, she had let her fingers trace her mouth and remembered the sensation of his firm, well-shaped lips on hers.  Stupid girl!  Well, she was certainly paying the price now. She would have cried, if her pride did not force her to hold her head up high.  Here she was, a once righteous and virtuous maiden of impeccable repute, now completely besmirched.  How her rivals at court would delight in her disgrace!  She thought fleetingly of the Queen’s newest favorite, Lady Jane Cecil.  Jane’s star would certainly ascend now, without Eden there to check her progress. Eden’s stomach lurched.  And what would Queen Armenal say, when she heard that the attendant she always relied on, had behaved so ignominiously?   Stealing her own cousin’s bridegroom? The thought of it made her feel sick.  How could she have behaved so wickedly?  

There could be only one explanation, and the thought of it made Eden so horrified she felt faint.  She had always been an uneasy sleeper, tossing and turning, mumbling snatches of conversation in her sleep.  From a young age, her cousin and the servants, anyone who prized their uninterrupted sleep had refused to share sleeping quarters with her.  There had been periods during her life, when in times of trouble or anxiety, she had been a prolific sleep-walker.  After her parents died, and she was first brought to live with her aunt and uncle.  When she had first entered into womanhood.  Many a night she had woken in the middle of the Great Hall, surrounded by pitch black.  And once she had even awoken up to her knees in the dark water of the ornamental lake on the south lawn.  She asked herself now, candidly, could she have slept-walked herself into Roland Vawdrey’s chamber?  The thought made her stomach lurch alarmingly.  But she had not done it for the whole three years she had been at court!  Not once!  But, whispered a voice in her head, she was now back at Hallam Hall.  The scene of all her previous somnambulant forays.  She would of course, have known full well which bedchamber he’d been put in, the best guest chamber.  She could walk herself there now blind-folded.  But even in her sleep, she asked herself, how could she have behaved so improperly?  Had her slumbering conscience been unable to prevent her from acting immorally?  What if her sleeping self had wondered what came after Roland Vawdrey’s kisses?  Unbidden, the images had flashed into her mind’s eye when Roland Vawdrey had asked her if she remembered anything of the night before.  Lying in his arms.  Feeling his warm body against hers.  So, it must be true.  She had acted with wicked abandonment.  She felt herself sway slightly, and hurriedly corrected her stance.  And what of Lenora?  What would her cousin think of her?  They had been raised together from childhood.  Eden thought of her as a sister.  Would Lenora hate her now? 

Her tumultuous thoughts were rudely interrupted, when Roland Vawdrey reached across and took her hand in his.  She almost jumped out of her own skin.  Before she could snatch it back, she realized he was merely following the priest’s instruction, so she lowered her accusatory gaze.  Luckily, her hands and feet were afflicted with a strange case of pins and needles, so she couldn’t really feel his large hand engulfing hers.  Still, she could scarcely believe she was even now being bound in matrimony to the greatest boor in all Karadok!  Roland Vawdrey was the opposite of every virtue she admired in a man.  He was a swaggering, uncouth brute!  If he hadn’t been steaming drunk, he would never have given her a second glance!  Eden knew only too well how highly Roland prized physical beauty, to the detriment of all other accomplishments.  She knew too, that he thought her a stuck-up prude with too much book-learning.  She’d heard him say as much to his group of laughing cronies.  She swallowed, grateful that he’d had no humiliating recollection of her from the night before.  Please gods, let that continue!  She made a vow to herself that he had any flashbacks, she would vehemently deny there was any truth to them!  Grudgingly, she had to admit to herself that Roland had behaved rather well about the whole business, all things considered.  He hadn’t even tried to worm out of his way out of his obligation to marry her.  No recriminations or accusations had fallen from his lips.  Other than pointing out she had been in his chamber, he’d not tried to allot any blame for their shocking predicament.  She darted a glance at his blank face, but his eyes were half-closed and he looked pretty grim.  She hurriedly looked away.  They both were so far from the ideal couple on their wedding day, that it was painful.  She glanced down at the wet patch on her hem, which smelled like spilled wine.  She had quickly dressed in her gown from the night before.  Other than the wet hem, it seemed none the worse for wear, despite the fall from grace its owner had suffered.  She had scrubbed it vigorously, but that was one of the many virtues of wearing black.  It never showed any stains.  She had to dress and braid her own hair, as her uncle did not send Hannah to attend her.  She had been ushered straight from the room of her disgrace, to the chapel adjoining Hallam Hall.  The ceremony was rushed through with none in attendance save her Uncle Leofric, and Roland’s brothers, the Duke of Cadwallader and Earl Vawdrey.  Eden wondered with a pang if her grandmother or Lenora had been told of her downfall yet.  She’d bet Uncle Christopher would be complaining bitterly to anyone who would listen.  At least he had not been allowed to attend, so that was one saving grace. 

As soon as the priest pronounced them married and stepped back, Eden swiveled smartly on her heel and started back up the aisle alone, her head held high.  She did not wait to see what Roland intended to do, but was instead was intent on her escape.  In the vestibule she heard a footfall behind her, and thought for one horrible moment that her bridegroom was pursuing her, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she found it was only her Uncle Leofric and halted.

“Where do you think you’re off to, young lady?” he puffed.

“My room,” said Eden.

“Oh-ho!  Your room, is it?” he huffed.  “I think not.  Your place lies at your husband’s side now, my girl.”

Eden gasped.  “He will not – neither of us want that uncle!” she protested.  “We have gone through with the formalities for decency’s sake, but should now surely be permitted to go our separate ways.”

Sir Leofric drew himself up to his tallest height.  “I had not realized,” he said coldly.  “That it was your place to decide what is considered decent behavior under my roof.”

Eden felt her cheeks flame.  “I apologize uncle, I did not mean-”

He waved a hand, angrily brushing aside her words.  Eden swallowed a lump in her throat, seeing the Vawdrey party approaching.  Roland was walking between his two brothers.  They did not pause when they drew level, but simply carried on making their way out of the church. 

“You’d best run after him, my girl,” her uncle told her.

“Please uncle,” Eden begged.  “Don’t make me do that.”

“He intends to leave us within the hour.”

“Good!” she burst out angrily.  “I would happily never set eyes on him again!”

“Ungrateful girl!” her Uncle scolded.  “Is this the thanks I get for pleading your cause with Lord Vawdrey?”

Eden caught her breath.  “I- no.  What do you mean?”

“Do you imagine he was ecstatic, to see his brother palmed off with the poor relation, rather than the daughter of the house?” he asked harshly.

Eden felt her mouth tremble.  “No,” she whispered, and lowered her gaze.

“Or perhaps you think I was happy, to rob my own child of her prospective bridegroom, and give him to the cuckoo in our nest?”

Eden’s eyes flew to meet her uncle’s.  Suddenly it was hard to breathe.  She felt herself turn light-headed. 

“Run after him, now!” her Uncle thundered at her.  “If my Lenora forgives you for supplanting her, we will send your possessions on to follow you.  You will take no horse, nor stitch of clothing with you now, save for that you wear on your back.”

Unable to look anymore upon his unyielding expression, Eden grabbed up her skirts and ran from the dark chapel into the light. 

 

**

“I think it would be expedient,” mused Oswald in that infuriatingly calm manner of his.  “If we Vawdreys made ourselves scarce.”

“Suits me,” grunted Mason.  “Damned awkward business, all said.”

Roland shook his head to clear it, and took a few gulps of fresh air.  His lucidity came and went in the oddest manner. 

“He looks fit to drop,” Mason observed critically.

“I am here,” Roland complained irritably, focusing on his brothers faces with an effort.

“Of course you are,” agreed Oswald who was a smooth-faced bastard at the best of times.  “What say you, brother to leaving now?  We can do no more here this day.  Indeed, our tarrying would probably only prove problematic to the Montmaynes.”

“You mean after Roland seduced the bride’s cousin?” put in Mason sarcastically.  “Funny that.”

Oswald gave a sad sigh.  “What’s done is done, brother.”

Roland scowled at Mason.  “If it comes to unscrupulous bridegrooms then you’re not one talk!”  After all, it was well known that Mason’s wife was betrothed to him originally.

Mason snorted.  “You’ve swaying on your feet,” he pointed out.

“Now, now,” said Oswald hastily, “Let us not fall out amongst ourselves…”

“And neither are you!” added Roland, pointing a finger at his oldest brother, though for a minute Oswald seemed blurred and he had to move his finger to track him.  “Stop moving, damn you,” he murmured.  He couldn’t remember at this precise moment, what Oswald had done to trick sweet Fenella into wedlock, but he remembered it was dastardly! 

“Oswald’s standing stock still,” thundered Mason.  “What ails him?”

“He’ll be right as rain this time tomorrow,” Oswald replied soothingly.  “There, there.”  Roland found himself bolstered on one side by a firm shoulder. 

“Is he still sotted?” piped up a curious voice. 

Roland groaned, recognizing his plaguey squire was now making an appearance.

“Ah Cuthbert,” said Oswald sounding relieved.  “I need you to go and pack up your master Roland’s things…”

“Already done it, milord,” said Cuthbert, kicking a pack he’d dropped at his feet.  “His and mine.  Could see the way the wind was blowing, couldn’t I?”

“Well done, lad,” said Mason, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Cuthbert, if you would only remain down here with Roland whilst Mason and I collect our own belongings and then we can be on our merry way.”

“Will he be able to ride?” asked Cuthbert.

“I am here,” repeated Roland wearily, raising his head from Oswald’s shoulder.  He hadn’t even realized it, but he must have been dozing off.  He felt terrible.

Cuthbert’s arm threaded around his waist.  Lucky the boy had put on some muscle this last six months or he would never have been able to support him.

Oswald extricated himself.  “We won’t be long.  Now Cuthbert, you proceed slowly with your master to the stables and ask the groom to saddle our horses.”

“Aye milord.”

“Now, what else?” mused Oswald, tapping his chin thoughtfully.  “I have a feeling we have forgotten something…”

A discreet cough sounded nearby, and Roland blinked blearily to find Eden Montmayne hovering nearby.  She was white as chalk and wearing the most uncertain expression he had ever seen on her face.  Usually she wore a look of irritating superiority.  He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about this mortified look.  It didn’t suit her. 

“Ah yes, of course,” beamed Oswald.  “Our party of Vawdreys would not be complete, without its newest member! Come join us, Eden.  We are rounding up our numbers.”

Now, Roland did feel a certain malicious satisfaction when Eden blanched at this.  After all, why should he be the only one feeling like death warmed up?

The next thing Roland knew, he was being jolted out of a stupor by his brother Mason.  “Wha-?”

“Up with you,” his brother grunted, hauling him off a hay bale.  “We’re ready to depart.”  Before he could respond, a bowl of water was thrown in his face, making him gasp.  “Look lively, lad,” his brother recommended. 

“You bastard!” 

“Up you get,” Mason said, pushing him toward his horse.  “You’re to have your lady up before you.”

Roland glanced round at that and found Eden looking almost as exhausted as he felt.  She was leaning against one of the horse’s stalls, looking fit to drop.  “Where’s her cloak?” he asked with a frown, as he swung himself up into the saddle.  His head spun, but he managed it.  Just. 

“Her uncle has declared, in time-honored fashion, that you’re to take her with the clothes on her back, and nothing else,” responded Oswald drolly.

“Has he, by the gods,” muttered Roland without much heat.

“She’ll have to share yours,” Oswald told him cheerfully and lifted Eden up in his arms.  She made no protest, and Roland felt a prickle of annoyance at that.  Before he could voice it, Oswald was approaching him with her.  “Here you go,” he said.  “Your lawfully-wedded wife,” and hefted her up onto the horse before Roland.  He closed his arms around her at once.  To Roland’s surprise, she melted right into him without even a murmur.  Hers was the slender and lithe body of a dancer.  He felt a flicker of recognition that had him cursing his faulty memory anew.  That she should remember something of their tryst, and he not at all, struck him as extremely unjust. 

“Think you can manage not to drop her?” asked Mason, leading his own horse out of the stall.  “Maybe she should go up before me?” he said turning to Oswald.

“No,” Roland found himself saying, with more force than he’d expected.  “She sits up before me.”

“Very proper,” said Oswald.  “You see, Roland?  You’re acting like a husband already!”

 

**

 

It was a two-day journey from the Montmayne seat to Caer-Lyoness, the King’s summer palace, but they had not ridden for much more than a couple of hours before Roland realized he was not fit for the journey.  And he was not the only one.  At one point they had stopped so their party could relieve themselves.  Eden had disappeared scarlet-faced behind a mulberry bush.  Five minutes later she had still not reappeared.

“Maybe she’s given us the slip?” suggested Cuthbert scratching his head.  “Shall I go and look?”

“You most certainly will not!” Roland flared.  He himself had gone in search of her, and after fruitlessly calling her name, had proceeded cautiously, only to find her curled up fast asleep in the dirt.  When he had shaken her awake she had looked so startled to see him that he had almost expected her to slap his face. 

She was wilting in the saddle before him now, and truth be told he was not much better.  The arm he had wrapped around her waist was the only thing he felt certain of, and the jolting horse beneath him.  He was just wondering how to broach the subject with his brothers, when Oswald pointed out an inn along the road.  “That’s where we’ll put you lovebirds up for the night,” he said with satisfaction.

“What?” Roland turned in his saddle to squint at his brothers.  “Where will you be?”

“We’ll carry on to Caer-Lyoness,” said Mason.

“We need to pave the way before your return, Roland,” said Oswald with a meaningful look.  “Break the news at court. Smooth things over as it were with the King.”  Roland blinked at him.  “You’re his champion, after all,” Oswald reminded him.  “It’s a courtesy to ask permission before marrying.”  He glanced at Eden quickly and lowered his voice.  “The Queen will also need appeasing.”

Roland frowned.  “The deed is done,” he said.  “What purpose is there to cutting up rough about it?”

Oswald waved a hand airily.  “You know how royals are.  As you say, it is mostly tokenistic, but you may have some forfeit or penance to perform before the Queen is reconciled to her favorite’s wedded state.”

Roland glanced down at Eden’s dark head, resting against his chest.  She’d never dream of doing such a thing, unless she was in a deep slumber.  “If there’s a price, I’ll pay it,” he said with casual indifference. 

“Admirable,” responded Oswald briskly.  “Now, let us get you settled into your own chamber forthwith.  Once we’ve got you settled, we can go and spread the happy tidings.”

Roland peered at his brother suspiciously, but there wasn’t even an ironic inflection in his voice.  You could tell Oswald was a leading courtier and powerful politician, damn his eyes.  “What will you tell everyone?” he asked with sudden unease.

“That your affections were engaged elsewhere, and the plans were duly altered,” his brother replied swiftly.

Mason snorted.  “We’d best get in fast, before that dolt Sir Christopher starts spreading his version.”

“That is my intention,” said Oswald dryly.  “Never fear, we shall have Fenella and Linnet espouse Eden’s cause at court.  They will be keen to admit their newest sister-in-law into their circle.”

“Fenella is not long out of the delivery bed,” Mason reminded him.  “After bearing your twin sons.”

“Well, I was expecting Linnet to carry out the lion’s share of work at court,” admitted Oswald.  “But Fenella is lately receiving guests at home.  Lady Schaeffer visits with us almost daily.  She is proving to be a most devoted godmother,” his tone was rather dry. 

Mason laughed.  “You needn’t sound so happy about it.  Now you’ve children of your own, you’ll find it much harder to monopolize your wife’s attention.  You’d best get used to it.”

“I don’t mind sharing her with my boys,” said Oswald.  “But Hester Schaeffer always swore she detested children!  Now I find her fawning over them at all hours!”  Mason chuckled again.  “Meldon’s even worse!” complained Oswald, about his aged manservant.  “I caught him singing to them the other night.  Singing!

Roland found his eyes drifting shut as his brothers rambled on about domestic matters, involving their offspring.

“Roland!”  He opened his eyes.  “We’re here.  Pass her down.”  Mason had his arms reaching up for Eden, and begrudgingly, Roland eased her off the horse and into his brother’s grasp. 

“Where’s Oswald?” Roland asked, dismounting and peering around, as Cuthbert led the horse toward the stables.

“Gone in ahead, to secure you a room.”

“Oh.  Pass her to me,” he said, but Eden was already struggling to be put down.  Mason set her on her feet and Roland passed an arm around her waist.  She suffered this, but he noticed the faint color that spread to her cheeks.  At least her pallor was improving. 

They made their way toward the inn, and for Roland every step was an effort.  He recognized Eden was not doing much better than him.  She almost tripped on the threshold, but his arm steadied her.  Oswald greeted them, directing them toward the stairs.

“One moment, sirs!” cried a concerned looking patron rushing forward.  “But the lady is not ill, is she?” 

“Ill?” repeated Oswald in seeming surprise.  “No, no, my good man.  These are newly-weds and only suffering from an excess of good spirits.” 

The landlord peered at them doubtfully one after the other.  “Your pardon, sirs,” he said after letting his eyes roam over their pale, tired faces.  “Only I did hear,” he whispered hoarsely.  “That’s there’s summer plague in some parts.”  He glanced nervously over his shoulder.  “An honest businessman can’t be too careful.”

“Understood,” Oswald agreed genially and slapped him on the back.  “But as you can see their countenances are completely unblemished.”

“Indeed, milord, indeed,” he said with a bow.  “I can see that now.”

“What they desire from you, good sir, is some washing water for their travel dirt, some repast for their empty stomachs and the key to secure their room.  We shall be leaving their squire to attend to their horses.  No doubt, you can supply him with bed and board when he comes in.”

“Very good milord,” the landlord said, drawing a large key from his apron. 

“Excellent.”

They trooped up the stairs, Roland practically hauling Eden at this point, and though the slight wench should have been light as air, she felt to Roland like a sack of grain at this point.  Mason carried in his belongings, and Oswald swiftly unpacked for him as Roland set Eden down on the edge of the mattress.  She looked a little green around the gills.  It crossed his mind that she might imagine he was going to demand his conjugal rights, but nothing could be further from the truth at this point.  He would be as harmless as a kitten in the bed beside her! 

A chambermaid knocked on the door, and entered with a jug of water and a basin for washing.  She left and another maid appeared with a trencher of bread and cheese which she set on the side, and then departed.

“Now,” said Oswald.  “Let me hear you turn the key in the lock behind us,” he said, inserting it into the door.  “This seems a respectable establishment, but you can be none too careful.”

Roland moved to the door and placed his forehead against it, as Mason and Oswald walked out onto the landing.

“I have left you directions on the side,” said Oswald nodding to a dresser by the window.  Roland glanced at it in surprise.  When the hells had his brother had time to write him a missive?  “Don’t bother trying to read it now, you need to sleep.  Twelve hours should do it.  Maybe a little longer,” he added with a shrewd glance at Roland’s face.

Roland shrugged tiredly.  He knew Oswald had always suffered after imbibing, but that seemed a little precise even for him.  He yawned.

“Oh and congratulations,” said Oswald, squeezing his upper arm. 

“Get some sleep,” recommended Mason, with a nod.

Their footsteps didn’t move away, until he’d closed the door and turned the key, locking them in.  When he turned back, Eden was already curled up on the bed, her arms wrapped around herself, her eyes closed.  Was she cold?   He couldn’t even muster the energy to undress, but instead flung himself down on the bed beside her, as sleep closed in and everything turned mercifully dark.

 

**

 

Eden woke suddenly, in the midst of a bad dream where she had been falling from a great height.  Her heart was racing and her mouth dry.  She lay blinking a moment as her senses returned.  Everything seemed in confusion.  As her eyes accustomed to the darkness, she realized the shadowy room was laid out all wrong.  She could make out the great chest and the small table, but they were in the wrong place and where was the cupboard by the door?  Feeling the breath of a companion on the back of her neck, she realized she must be sharing a room, with her cousin maybe?  Of course, she was back at Hallam Hall!  Then the body at her back shifted and muttered a smothered oath.  The whole bed creaked.  That was not her dainty cousin.  The moon at the window slipped out from behind a cloud, and she saw the illuminated room in all its simplicity.  Unpleasant memories crowded into her brain and with a feeling of dread, she turned her head and gazed on the sleeping face of Roland Vawdrey.  Her husband.  She felt nauseous.  It hadn’t been a bad dream after all. 

Panicked, she started to inch her way off the mattress, only to find a brawny arm anchoring her to his side.  His arm was wrapped her waist!  Eden felt herself break into a sweat.  It took every effort not to lose her composure altogether, as she levered his heavy arm off her.  He muttered again in his sleep, and she held her breath.  When he rolled onto his back, she slipped off the bed and crouched on her knees beside it until he quieted.  Then she creeped over to the washstand and poured a trickle of water into the bowl, enough to wash her hands and face.  The cool water felt good against her fevered brow.  Her gown was all twisted and uncomfortable.  It wasn’t meant for sleeping in, she thought ruefully, as she unlaced the front and then her wrists to facilitate washing.  The moon was still high in the sky, she realized, glancing from the window.  It would not yet be time to rise for several hours.  She hesitated, biting her lip.  Should she take it off?  She glanced over at the bed.  Roland Vawdrey was lying still, the rise and fall of his chest steady.  He had one arm bent now and draped over his face.  He would likely continue oblivious if she stripped down to her shift, and she would be a lot more comfortable.  Making a swift decision, she loosened her laces further, until she could maneuver the dress up and over her body.  With economical movements, she wriggled out of her gown, until she could drape it over a chair and then removed her stockings and add them to the pile.  Returning to the bowl of water, she added some more and then washed her neck and armpits.  Cloths had been left out for their use, though there were no soap leaves.  She could find no comb on the shadowy dresser, so instead she quickly tidied her hair into one long braid over her shoulder.  Then she turned back to gaze at the bed.  Could she climb back in without disturbing its sleeping occupant?  Apparently she hesitated too long.

“Come back to bed, for lord’s sake,” Roland grumbled.  “If you need to take a piss, the pot’s likely under the bed.”

Eden stiffened.  Did he imagine her some chambermaid to speak to her thusly? 

When she didn’t move, he rose onto one elbow to scrutinize her.  “Eden?”

“I thought you were asleep,” she blurted.

“Hardly,” he said.  “You wriggle around in your sleep, like a worm on a hook.”

Eden felt her face redden.  “I was having a nightmare,” she told him coldly.  Would she have walked again if he had not anchored her?  The thought made her break out in a sweat.

He made no reply, and the moon drifted behind a cloud again, plunging the room into darkness.

“You’ll take a chill,” he said gruffly.  “Get under the covers.”  He rolled onto his side, turning his back to her. 

Eden approached the bed with reluctance.  “Separate chambers would have been nice,” she muttered, as she slid under the sheets. 

He snorted.  “Bit late for that.”

“It’s never too late for niceties,” she corrected him, folding her arms around her waist.  She lay still, staring up at the shadowy ceiling.  Now they had spoken, she had a terrible fear she would not find sleep again. 

He rolled onto his back, and Eden shrank back from the physical contact in alarm. 

“Well, if you’re feeling so inclined,” he said.  “I wouldn’t deny you.”

Eden stared at him, unable to make out his features.  “What do you mean?”

“We are married,” he reminded her.  “And you spoke of niceties,” he let his words sink in, as he patted the mattress.  “We’re in the marriage bed…”

Eden breathed in a sharp breath.  “That is not what I meant!  And you know it!”

He gave a sigh, and to her alarm, the bed lurched.  As she tensed, she realized Roland was climbing out.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting comfortable,” he said irritably. 

The moon drifted again, and she saw he was still fully clothed too.  Something he was swiftly remedying by stripping down to his own under garments. 

Eden screwed her eyes shut in alarm, turning her head sharply.

“We were both naked as babes this morn,” he reminded her, obviously aware of her discomfort.

“Do not speak of it!  Do not think of it, even!” she implored him.

He huffed out a breath, and she felt the blankets lift.  Now he was climbing under the covers, she realized with horror.  Eden lay rigid. 

“Relax,” he told her.  “You’re wholly resistible.  I’m not about to force myself onto you.”

She took a deep breath.  Of course.  She fell far short of his standards regarding women.  She expelled a relieved breath.  “Are you going back to sleep?” she asked after a moment or two of tense silence. 

“Why?  What are you offering?” 

“I just thought we should have some discussion,” said Eden, turning her face on the pillow to face him.  The moon had appeared again, shining bright.  Roland was alarmingly close.  And his chest was bare.  Eden tried not to stare at the smattering of dark hair on that muscular expanse of tanned skin.  Even so, she was sure her eyes were wide. 

“I’m listening,” his voice sounded a little thick.  Maybe he was tired, she thought distractedly, though when her gaze darted to his, he looked alert enough.  He propped himself up on one elbow. 

She wished he wouldn’t do that.  In an effort to be on the same level, she struggled into a seated position facing him.  Noticing the direction of his gaze, she hurriedly pulled the blankets up and over her chest.  Her shift was made of the very finest linen and was quite thin.  Though why Roland Vawdrey should have any interest in her bosom was beyond her.  She was quite sure it was nothing special.  Still, it was practically in his face, she conceded.  And everyone knew men were base creatures when it came to the flesh. 

He looked away a little guiltily and cleared his throat.  “Let’s hear it then,” he said huskily.

Eden eyed him suspiciously.  It dawned on her that he was probably remembering that very morning when she had woken sprawled on top of him.  His hands had been in such shameful places that she felt herself turn scarlet.  “I want you to stop thinking about that, Roland Vawdrey!” she whispered primly.

“I told you, I can’t even remember it,” he retorted, sounding indignant.

“You remember where your hands were, I suppose,” she snapped.  “When we awoke!”

His gaze darkened.  “Aye,” he said hoarsely.

“Well…” said Eden lamely.  She had thought he’d have the decency to deny it!  “I want you to forget all about it!”

He snorted.  “I’ll forget it alright.  When you give me something better to remember, wife.”

Eden gasped.  “Don’t call me that.  Why are you making everything so hard?”

A strange look passed over his face.  “I could ask you the same thing,” he said shifting about under the sheet.  “Though I doubt very much you’d know the answer!”  Eden regarded him suspiciously.  He groaned.  “Just say what you need to say, Eden.”

“Very well, I will,” she said with dignity.  “What I have to say is this.  We have, one way or another, ended up in this predicament.”  She gulped and plucked at the bedsheet.  When she looked back up, he was watching her closely, though he uttered not a word.  “The only sensible thing we can do now is find a way to make this situation bearable, with as little disruption to our daily lives as possible.”  She forced herself to meet his gaze.  “Would you agree?”

He tipped his head to one side.  “That doesn’t sound very realistic.  There’s bound to be disruption.”

“Why?  Think about it,” she urged him.  “We both have so much to occupy our time already at court.  Why need we let this… this fleeting lapse of judgement, ruin the lives we have so carefully carved out for ourselves?”  He frowned.  Before he could give voice to his disagreement, she placed a palm on his chest.  “Think about it first, Sir Roland,” she said imploringly, though in truth, she wished she sounded slightly less breathless.  His chest felt warm and naked.  She pulled her hand back, but he had caught hold of it by the wrist before she could withdraw altogether. 

“Just call me Roland,” he said in a rough voice.  He closed his eyes briefly and cursed.  When they fluttered open again, she was startled by the expression they held.  Turning his face away with a muttered oath, he released her hand and she quickly placed it on the mattress beside her, out of harm’s way. 

Truly, men were slaves to their physical impulses, she marveled.  Her proximity alone was enough for him to let his precious standards slip!  “The fact remains,” said Eden a little squeakily.  “That we need a strategy to tackle this…”

“Marriage?” supplied Roland gruffly.

“Peculiar set of circumstances,” Eden carried on painstakingly.  “You must agree?” 

“There’s bound to be a lot of talk,” he conceded.  “However our families try to suppress it.”

Eden thought of court gossip and felt her stomach lurch.  “Precisely.”  She pursed her lips.  “Did your brother tell you exactly how he intended to break the news to the King?” she asked wretchedly.  “Only I wasn’t able to give him my full attention when he mentioned it earlier.”

“Well no, you were asleep in my lap,” Roland pointed out.

Eden glanced at him with annoyance.  Manners were completely squandered on Sir Roland.  Then another thought occurred to her.  “Don’t you think that’s a little odd,” she said with a frown.  “How we’re both unable to recall the events of last night?”

“Well you at least remembered something,” he said sounding resentful.

“Yes, but… nothing substantial.  Like how we ended up-”

“In bed together?”

“That predicament,” Eden persisted doggedly.  “I mean, it’s so unfathomable!”  Her thoughts shied away from her suspicions of sleep-walking into his bed.  The idea it could all be her fault made her feel profoundly unwell.  Oh gods, he had said she was wriggling around her sleep…

Roland snorted.  “It’s not that unusual,” he objected.

“To you maybe!”  Eden wheezed.  “What lady would be fool enough to sacrifice her good name for… for…” words failed her, as she faced up to the fact this was all her fault.

“A quick tumble?” he suggested.  She broke out in a cold sweat.  “Eden?”  Roland swore and disappeared a moment, when he reappeared, he shoved a basin at her chest. 

She pushed it away.  “I’m not going to be sick,” she uttered faintly, and lifted her head to stare at him, as the horrifying realization set in that he was probably far more of a victim in all this than she was.  Should she confess her deepest fears that she was likely to blame?

“You’re sure?” Roland asked her doubtfully.  “You look sick as a dog.”

Eden folded back against the pillows, exhausted by her own bitter self-recriminations.  She nodded her head distractedly. 

“Why are you staring like that?” Roland asked her, as he replaced the basin on the stand.  “Like you’ve seen a ghost.  I’m flesh and blood, I assure you.”

And muscle, thought Eden gazing at him despairingly.  Lots and lots of muscle.  She wished he’d put some clothes back on.  “I suppose it’s just starting to sink in,” she said, feeling oddly disconnected from events.  “That we’re well and truly… married.”  She whispered the offending word as if it was a profanity.

Roland shot her a quizzical look.  “Not the fastest on your feet, are you?” he asked, sliding back into the bed, but mercifully sticking to his own side.

Eden lay brooding over this.  “Are you saying you’ve adjusted already?” she asked a little testily.  She found that quite difficult to believe somehow. 

“Men are better at reacting to circumstances,” he boasted with an arrogance that came near to banishing Eden’s nagging guilt.  “And you’re the one who said it need not change things overmuch,” he reminded her.  “Anyway, what’s the point in lamenting over it?  What’s done is done.”

And then she was back to feeling guilty again.  He really was facing up to this with a lot more equanimity than she would have done if she was the injured party.  Of course, that would all change if he knew she was the cause of their disgrace and downfall. 

“Go back to sleep,” he told her with a yawn.  “There’s about five hours till dawn.  We’ll decide what course of action to take then.”

“Very well,” she murmured, closing her eyes.  Strange to say, she thought she probably would sleep now.  Not that awful dark sleep that engulfed and dragged you under like a frightening wave.  But a more refreshing, natural sleep this time.  She would feel better in the morning, she told herself.  And more able to cope with this awful turn of events.  After all, she could hardly feel any less.

 

**

 

Roland awoke to the sensation of sunlight on his face.  The birds were singing outside the window, and he was feeling languorous and well rested.  For once, he wasn’t a mass of aching limbs and muscles.   Slowly, he became conscious of a warm body tucked into his side.  A warm body that curled into his, in slumber.  His eyes flickered open and he gazed down at the dark head resting on his stomach.  Eden was a cuddler.  He had no idea why that amused him so much.  Maybe because her personality was so prickly and aloof.  One of her arms was wrapped around his hip.  He could feel her breath against his belly button.  It was strangely stimulating.  That could be an issue, he thought, feeling a stirring in his loins.  No doubt his bride would not appreciate such a rude awakening as his hard cock in her face.  More’s the pity.  He sighed, trying to get his rampaging urges under control.  At least there would be no breaking down of doors this morning, he thought, remembering the previous with a frown.  That day too had started this same delightful way, to him waking with a sleepy Eden on top of him.  She had not been so frosty when she first awoke, as he recalled.  At least, she had not recoiled from him until their kinsmen had appeared in the doorway, blustering and posturing.  He lay contemplating the fact, when suddenly she lifted her head and gazed blearily up at him. 

He cleared his throat.  “Morning.”

Eden dropped her head, then seemed to realize what her pillow comprised of.  His body.  She drew back in alarm and blinked at him.

“Remember?” he prompted her confused face.

To his irritation, she rolled over, showing her back to him.  Well, good morning to you too!  After a moment’s pause, she craned her head back at him over her shoulder.

“Still here,” he said wryly. 

At that, she huffed out a breath and sat up.  Roland let his eyes wander over her disheveled state.  She looked good all mussed up.  Frankly, he wouldn’t mind being the cause of such disarray.  She rubbed her eyes and swung her legs over the side of the mattress.

He watched as she opened the casement window and threw the water from the basin out before refilling it from the jug.  Every move she made was graceful and decisive.  She washed her face and hands and dried herself off with a cloth, before turning back to him.   “Do you have such a thing as a comb?” she asked.

Roland nodded toward his pack.  “Help yourself.”

She balked a bit at going through his things, but when he simply placed both hands behind his head and stretched out on the bed, seemed to realize he wasn’t going to get it for her.  “Where should I look?” she asked, unfastening the cords with nimble fingers.

“I’m not very tidy when it comes to packing,” he admitted as she flung open the lid and winced, casting him a reproachful look.

“I did warn you,” he smirked.

She peered inside.  “Is it wood or bone?” She lifted out a pen-knife and discarded it, then a dice-cup, followed by a pack of cards.  “Ah, here ‘tis.”  She turned it over in her hands before sitting in an uncomfortable looking wooden chair and loosening her hair braid. 

He guessed she did not want to sit on the bed and pulled a face.  His stomach rumbled.  “I’m hungry,” he commented and supposed he must be feeling much improved. 

Eden glanced over at the table by the window.  “There’s the bread and cheese the servants left last night.”

Roland eyed it with disfavor.  “It looks stale.”  He rose from the bed and walked over to pick up a hunk of the bread.  It was hard as a rock.  “It must have been stale when they brought it in,” he said with disgust and crossed to the basin to wash. 

Eden did not respond.  Her hair was now a black shining veil down to her waist almost.  He tried not to stare, but in truth he found it hard to tear his eyes away from her.  She was too pale and slim to be comely, but for whatever reason, she pleased his eye this morn.  Elegant.  It was never a word he thought he’d use to describe a woman, but that was the only one that fitted her.   She sat in only her shift, in a common tavern chamber, and still managed to look like a queen.  Her eyes were a deep royal blue.  How had he never noticed the color before?  He wanted to object when she started to neatly braid her hair again, but managed to still his tongue.  Instead he looked about him for his clothes and set about getting dressed.  He’d almost forgotten Oswald’s letter, when he noticed it out of the corner of his eye.  When he’d fastened his tunic, he walked over to the window and perused its contents, turning his back as Eden donned her black gown. 

Dear Roland, Oswald had written.

Hopefully this letter finds you mostly recovered from the after effects of your nuptials.  Few know so well as I, the unpleasant repercussions that have to be endured before one is restored to full health.  After some deliberation, I believe it would be better if you allowed me to prepare the ground for you at court for a month or so before you and Eden return.  By that time the talk of your marriage should have died down somewhat.  You can also be assured that I will do my best to reconcile the King and Queen to your unsanctioned union.

I can put it about that you have taken Eden on a tour – perhaps to compete in a tourney or two along the way and display your prowess in the field to your bride.  You might even decide to journey as far as Vawdrey Keep, to show Eden the property she is now mistress of by rights.  I am sure you know best how to conduct yourself in a manner that your new wife will find agreeable.   

I remain, as always, your affectionate brother

Oswald     

Roland’s eyebrows shot up as he read the letter through twice and then passed it wordlessly to Eden, who had finished dressing.  He watched her gaze travel over the page.  Her eyes widened and then grew thoughtful as she neared the end of the missive. 

“Perhaps your brother is right,” she sighed, as she passed it back to him.  “These scandals are usually only a three-day wonder, after all.”

He murmured some agreement as his mind ticked over.  There was a tournament close by that he had meant to attend once the betrothal feast was over with.  It was being held at Sir Aubron Payne’s estate in nearby Tranton Vale.  He had his armor and weaponry, provided Oswald had not taken any of it back with him to court.  Somehow he doubted that his brother had taken such a mis-step, after suggesting as much in his letter.  In any event, he could check with Cuthbert after they had broken their fast.    “Shall we venture below stairs and see if we can find some repast?” he suggested absently, and held his hand out to her.  Eden looked a little flushed as she took it, and he led their way out of the room and down the stairs in search of food and his squire.

 

**

 

Eden started her third piece of toasted bread with a slightly self-conscious air.  She hadn’t realized just how hungry she was.  Glancing at Roland wolfing down his second plate of roasted fish, she comforted herself she was not the only one suddenly ravenous.

“Regaining your strength, like as not,” commented the landlord’s wife with satisfaction as she tucked her hands behind her apron.  “Millie, bring another dish out for these gentlefolk,” she bellowed in the direction of the kitchen.  “Starting to get a bit concerned about you, we was,” she confided, with a shake of her head. “I mean, we knew you was newlyweds, but there’s overdoing a thing you know.”  Eden shot a startled glance at Roland who looked as blank as she felt.  “Depend upon it”, I says to my man.  “Poor little maid will be as wan as a bowl of curds by the time he lets out of that there bedchamber!””  Roland’s mouthful of cod was suddenly choking him and the good lady thumped him obligingly on his back.  “Better sir?” she asked solicitously.  “You needs to learn to control your appetites,” she said with a sly wink at Eden.  “I’m sure your good lady wife will agree to that.”

Eden sat up very straight.  “Quite,” she said in a stifled tone, unsure how else to stem the tide of the woman’s words.

“There now, don’t take on, that squire o’your’n explained how it was to us,” said the landlady cheerfully.  “How mad the young sir was for you, that he wouldn’t rest until he’d stolen you out from under your uncle’s hand.  Even if it meant he had to ruin you first.”

Now it was Eden’s turn to nearly choke.  Her eyes watered as she swallowed her dry mouthful of toast. 

“Cuthbert told you that, did he?” asked Roland grimly.  “What an obliging lad he is.”  His head turned sharply as sound of a whistled tune growing closer.  “Speak of the devil,” he muttered.

This must be Cuthbert, thought Eden, who had only the vaguest impression of Roland’s squire.  He was a good-looking youth, she thought, though clearly not a Vawdrey with that head of golden hair and clear blue eyes.

“Good morrow”, he grinned, sauntering up to their table.  “Risen finally, have we?”  He gave a bow, that was more of a nod in Eden’s direction. 

Roland glanced at the window in surprise.  “The hour is surely not more advanced than eight,” he frowned. 

Cuthbert cleared his throat.  “Aye, true enough, but you’ve missed a full day and a night in entirety.”

“What’s that?” Roland asked thunderstruck.

“Today’s Wednesday,” said Cuthbert.  “And the pair of you took to your bedchamber on Monday e’en.”

Eden’s eyes widened in astonishment.  She had been unwell, and exhausted from grief and guilt which might account for her deep sleep, but all Roland Vawdrey had by way of excuse was a sore head from too much wine.

“Well,” Roland said after a moment’s pause.  “I’d better settle the bill.”

“Nay, good sir, for his lordship paid that.  Your kinsman.  The one who spoke so fair,” beamed the landlady.

“Oswald,” said Roland hollowly.  “But surely he only paid for the one night?”

She shook her head so hard her chubby cheeks wobbled.  “No indeed,” she replied.  “He said as you’d be with us at least two nights, before you’d be ready to leave.”

“Did he, by gods?”  He turned to Cuthbert.  “You have all my armor still?  My brothers did not take it with them to Caer-Lyoness?”

Cuthbert shook his head.  “It’s all here.”  He looked from one of them to the other.  “Are we bound for Tranton Vale?”

Roland looked at her.  Eden shrugged helplessly.  “Aye,” he said.  “We are.”

 

**

 

When Roland had said that Tranton Vale was in the locality, it was still a good four hours hence.  Oswald had kindly purchased her a horse from the inn, so she now had her own steed, a rather nice sandy colored mare she had promptly named Christobel.  They rested the horses at the mid-way point and Eden sat on a felled tree trunk, worrying about Lenora and if her cousin despised her now and blamed her for stealing her bridegroom.  I need to marry well and fast, Lenora had said.  Who would she wed now that Eden had stolen her husband of choice?  So deep in thought was she, that she almost jumped when Roland sat down beside her.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he murmured.

Eden doubted he’d care for them.  She glanced over at where Cuthbert was tending the horses.  “When we reach your friend, the host’s, place…” she started hesitantly.

“Sir Aubron Payne’s,” he supplied.

“I do not think I’ve ever met him.”

He winced, “He’s not really what you’d call a courtier.”

“I see.”  She mulled this over, guessing the tournament crowd were not going to be her usual kind of people.  The only tourneys she had attended had been very few and far between, and they had always been royal tournaments either held at the winter or summer court.

“What were you going to say?” Roland prompted her.  His eyes looked a little wary.

“How are we going to approach this?” Eden asked him forthrightly.  “I mean, are we going to admit that we were forced to marry or…?”  her words trailed off.

“We don’t have to say that,” Roland said after a heavy pause.

“What other reason would we have?” she asked, turning to him doubtfully.

“We could say that you were madly in love with me,” answered Roland with an audacity that took her breath away.

Eden nearly choked on her own tongue.  “No-one would believe that for an instant!” she replied more shrilly than she’d intended.

“We could say you came to me, confessed your ardor, and I took pity on you.”

Eden felt her color ebb away.  “I see.” She said stiffly.

Roland Vawdrey lolled back on the log, stretching his long legs before him.  “Or maybe I could say I wanted another taste of that pert mouth of yours.” 

Eden sat up even straighter, staring fixedly ahead of her.  “If you do not mean to take this seriously, then I see no point in continuing this conversation.”

“Everyone could tell I enjoyed your kiss on Solstice Eve,” he said calmly.

Eden’s color flowed back.  “You kissed me,” she pointed out, wishing she didn’t sound quite so petty.

“Maybe we should try it again.”

“I thank you, but no.  I have no desire for your pity, or your kisses.”

He was silent a moment.  “Has no-one ever teased you, Eden?” he asked.

Thrown, she turned to look at him.  “Is that what you’re doing?”

He pulled a face.  “I’m attempting it, but not getting very far.”  She screwed her eyes up and tipped her head to one side.  “Not even as a child?” he asked incredulously.

“I was a very serious little girl,” she answered briskly.  And besides, she’d had duties.  Running around fetching and carrying for her Aunty Gwenda.  Keeping Lenora amused. 

He frowned at her.  “You can tell you haven’t any brothers,” he said at last, his answer surprising her.  

“I have a cousin, Kit,” she said.  “He will inherit Hallam Hall on my uncle’s death.  But he is somewhat younger than myself and Lenora.  We did not see much of him growing up.”

He made no comment on that, but instead stared into the distance.  Eden turned her own attention back to the view and they sat side by side, in almost companionable silence for a few minutes. 

In the end Roland spoke again.  “We’ll just tell them I had a change of heart,” he said abruptly.

Eden started.  “What?”

But he was already coming to his feet.  He held his hand out to her, and without thinking, she took it and he pulled her to her feet.  Holding it fast, he drew it through the crook of his arm and led her back toward the horses. 

Eden pondered his words uneasily for the next stretch of the journey.  If he meant to tell everyone he’d simply decided on her instead of Lenora, then it was vastly unlikely anyone would believe it.  For starters, her cousin was dazzlingly beautiful.  Quite apart from that, she was also the heiress to a considerable private fortune.  As for herself, she was neither an heiress or a beauty and possessed nothing that would have caught a man like Roland Vawdrey’s eye.  Eden knew she had her good points, but none of them would have served to tempt a man like the King’s champion.  He had no interest in the arts, or ingratiating himself in intellectual circles.  When she had thought of marriage in some distant, hazy future, she had imagined her husband as a diplomat or polished courtier who might attend the Queen as she did.  Not as the King’s champion, who earned his gold through brawling with other knights.  She huffed out a sigh, before noticing that Roland’s squire was watching her curiously.  “Cuthbert, isn’t it?” she asked, pulling herself together.

“Aye milady.”  He drew his horse on a level to hers.

“Have you been Roland’s squire long?”

“Only for a six-month,” he answered.  “Before that I was his brother’s squire.  And before that, the Duchess of Cadwallader’s page.”

“The Lady Linnet?” asked Eden in surprise.  “So, you are acquainted with all the Vawdrey family, then?”

He nodded.  “Oh aye,” he said airily.  “I’m well in with the family.”

“And how do you like being Sir Roland’s squire?”

“Well enough,” he answered cautiously.  “I get to see a good bit of the country, travelling from tournament to tournament.”

She nodded thoughtfully.  “I daresay, most knights do not travel with their ladies,” she said, thinking about future tournaments, when she could remain at court while Roland trampled his unfortunate rivals.

Cuthbert appeared to consider this a moment.  “Depends,” he said.  “Plenty of them take their doxies, but wives only tend to come to the bigger events.”

Eden’s eyes widened, but before she could press him for any more detail, Roland called something from ahead and Cuthbert spurred his horse on to join him.  Doxies, thought Eden.  So, her life had come to this.  If someone had told her she would be consorting with doxies before the month was out, she would never have believed them! 

They did not arrive at Tranton Vale until midday, and approached Sir Aubron Payne’s timbered manor house by way of a moat.  The sun was bright and the clouds clearing from a blue sky. 

Cuthbert twisted in his saddle to look around at her.  “Looks like a good day for it,” he called back as attendants approached Roland.  Eden smiled weakly and wondered if the activities would have already begun. 

When he’d finished giving their names to the attendants, Roland turned his horse to bring it alongside hers.  “Do you want to go up to the house first or straight to the field?” he asked.

“Why would I want to go up to the house?” Eden asked him blankly. 

“To…” Roland waved a hand vaguely.  “Change your dress, or arrange your hair,” he suggested looking uncertain himself.

“I don’t have anything with me,” she reminded him.  “And besides, I do not know the host’s family. ‘Twould be most awkward indeed to thrust myself upon them, with no introduction.”

“You’re in the country now, Eden,” he reminded her dryly.  “Court manners will be wasted on these folk.”

“I’ll come to the field with you,” she said decisively, not caring if he was embarrassed to have her trailing behind him.  She suddenly felt filled with a sort of horror of letting him out of her sight.  After all, he was the only person she knew here.  The idea of having to tell strangers her new married name brought her out in a cold sweat.  Strangely enough, instead of looking irritated by this news, Roland looked if anything, rather pleased.  She would never understand him, she thought, as he directed the attendants to which baggage they could take up to the house, and which would be accompanying him to the field.  She wondered sourly whereabouts she ranked in his list of possessions?  Rather lower than his horse and his armor, she fancied, though perhaps marginally higher than his hair comb. She followed behind him on Christobel, as they rounded the house and headed toward a large field that was fluttering with brightly colored tents in the breeze. 

Cuthbert bobbed around on his saddle, pointing out various standards and pennons.  “Lord Kentigern’s here!” he exclaimed with satisfaction, gesturing at a large banner of a portcullis against a blue background.  “I thought we would not see him till Vettell.” 

Roland nodded absently but was clearly scanning the colors for someone else’s.  “There,” he said, pointing to a tent set to the far left.  “There’s Bev and Attley’s pavillion.” He set off in that direction and Eden surmised these were his friends Sir Edward Bevan and Sir James Attley.  She knew them by sight, but did not think she had ever exchanged more than three words with either of them.  Her heart sank a little at the prospect of Roland breaking the news to his closest acquaintance, but she braced herself and urged her horse forward nonetheless. It must have been their standards he recognized, for the tent flaps were down and no-one was in sight except for a sulky-looking boy with a head of coppery curls.

“Ancel’s still around then,” Cuthbert said as if he took no pleasure in the fact. 

“Who is Ancel?” asked Eden, when Roland took no notice.

“Sir Ned’s new squire,” Cuthbert answered without enthusiasm.  “There he goes,” he added with a snort, as the boy slipped around the side of the tent and scarpered.  “Scared he’d be asked to help rub down the horses, likely as not, lazy beggar!”

Eden did not get the chance to respond, for Roland had swiftly dismounted and before she knew it, was plucking her out of her saddle. 

“I can dismount myself,” she objected rather breathlessly, as he set her down in front of him. 

“Newlyweds, remember?” he murmured, crooking an eyebrow at her. 

Were they supposed to be playing a role? Eden wondered with a frown.  If so, he had not filled her in on the plan!  Before she could voice any reservations, he had wound an arm around her waist and was steering her toward the opening of the tent.  “See to the horses,” he flung over his shoulder at Cuthbert.  Eden took a deep breath as the woven jute fabric was brushed aside and she found herself pulled through the entrance. 

Inside the tent, all was in disarray.  Eden’s eye fell first onto the wooden table strewn with armor, and then on the two surprised males in a varying state of undress. 

“Roly!” shouted the taller one jovially.  “Didn’t expect to see you here, you young brute!”  His eye wandered idly to Eden and then widened.  “What the-?”

The blonder one yelped, and scurried behind the other side of the table to secure the ties on his braies. 

Roland side-stepped in front of Eden, obscuring her view.  “Why the hells aren’t you two dressed at this hour?” he complained.  “I’ve been up for hours!”

“Not really fair Roly,” protested Sir Edward.  “Bringing spectators into this area before noon!”

“Did you bring all your prospective in-laws?” asked Sir James with pointed disapproval.

“She’s not a spectator,” answered Roland mildly.  “She’s my wife.”

Eden, who was still stood behind his bulk, closed her eyes, even though she couldn’t see their reactions.  The stunned silence that greeted his words, spoke volumes.  Roland picked up an overturned goblet and poured some ale from a jug into it.  He took a swig, and then passed it back to Eden.  So thirsty was she, that she happily drained the rest of the cup. 

“Y-your wife, you say?” stammered Sir James, still clad only in his white linen underclothing. 

“Aye,” agreed Roland, taking the empty cup back off Eden and calmly re-filling it.  She shook her head when he re-offered it to her.  He tossed back the contents in one gulp.  “Take a drink with me.” he suggested to his dumbstruck friends.  “And you can toast our health.”

“You surely jest?” ventured Sir Edward. 

Eden, thinking she had cowered long enough, stepped around Roland to stand squarely at his side.  His hand slid around her waist to draw her closer still.  She suffered this without comment and returned Sir Edward’s stare.

“But…. Surely that’s the wrong one?” pointed out Sir James in a hoarse whisper, looking from one to the other. 

“I changed my mind,” shrugged Roland, and sat down easily on one of the benches.  His heavy hand on her hip, compelled her to follow him down until she was sat squarely in his lap.  Eden flushed.  “Pour three cups, sweetheart,” said Roland, seemingly oblivious to the shocked disbelief in the room.

Eden sat frozen a moment, but then reached for the tray of cups in the middle of the table.  Sweetheart?  She could feel at least two pairs of eyes trained on her disbelievingly, as she awkwardly poured the foaming ale into three goblets.  She pushed two of them in the direction of his friends and then picked up the third, which she offered uncertainly to Roland.

“We can share,” he said.  “Bev, you toast us first.”

Sir Edward, picked up the cup and cast about him wildly.  Considering he was dressed in a pair of green woolen hose and had a bare chest, Eden was impressed when he cleared his throat and struck a dignified pose.  “To the bride and groom, worthy among your friends,” he said gravely.  “Your very good health.”

“Hear, hear,” joined in Sir James hastily. 

Eden took a sip and passed the cup to Roland who drained it. 

“Another,” he said to Eden, and she picked the jug back up as the other two slammed their cups down on the table.  After she’d poured again they all turned to Sir James Attley.

He straightened up and raised his goblet.  “Drink!  May you live your wedded days in plenty.”

This time, Roland took one swig, then passed the cup to her.  Eden took a hearty draught and then passed it back to Roland for him to finish.  He slammed it back down on the table when it was done.  Eden wiped her mouth with her kerchief in the absence of a napkin and looked up to find his friends still blinking at her, as if not quite able to believe their eyes. 

“It’s… er… the Lady Eden, isn’t it?” asked Sir Edward, giving her an awkward bow.  “Your servant, Sir Ned Bevan.”

“We just call him Bev,” Roland added.

“Sir Edward,” said Eden, who could not imagine addressing him as Bev or even Sir Ned any time soon.

“And I’m Sir James Attley,” said the other who now pulled on a tunic and was looking a lot less discomforted.  “At your service.”

“Sir James,” said Eden coolly.  She inclined her head, unable to curtsey from her current position in Roland’s lap.

“Bit of a turn up for the books,” said Sir Ned, with a questioning look on his face. 

“As you say,” Eden responded dampeningly.  She hardly wanted to encourage this line of enquiry.

“If we’d known it was to be a marriage feast, we’d have accompanied you, Roland,” piped up Sir James plaintively.

“Didn’t know myself,” shrugged Roland.  Eden felt her face grow tight.  As if aware of her tension, Roland’s hand slid from her hip to her lower back and rubbed her there reassuringly, as he spoke.  “It was a spur of the moment thing.  You know how impulsive I can be.”

Eden tried not to notice the way Sir James’s gaze was riveted to Roland’s hand massaging her lower spine, or the skeptical look on Sir Edward’s handsome face.  Instead, she concentrated on breathing steadily and not going into hysterics.  She’d known this part would be excruciatingly embarrassing, and it was nothing less than she deserved, she told herself savagely, for getting herself into this mess in the first place!  Her cheeks burned, and she could only imagine how pink her face must appear. 

“What’s the order of events today?” Roland asked calmly.  While Sir James eagerly filled him in, Sir Edward donned the rest of his clothes and Eden found herself able to breathe easier.  Roland’s hand continued to circle at the small of her back, until she found herself relaxing back against him.  To her surprise, when Sir James had finished the run-down of events, Roland turned his head and kissed her cheek.  She gave a slight start, but managed not to squeak. 

“Time for us to go and find our hosts,” he said.  “I’ll introduce you to Sir Aubron and find you a vantage point to watch from.”

“Will you compete?” Eden asked in dismay at the idea of being left in the company of strangers. 

“Aye,” he said.  “But don’t fret.  Sir Aubron’s bound to have some womenfolk you can sit with.”

 

**

 

Sir Aubron Payne turned out to be a portly man in his fifties with high coloring and a very fluffy head of iron grey hair.  He was delighted that Roland had brought his new bride along to his tournament.  “Delighted, my dear Lady Vawdrey,” he enthused, bowing over her hand.  “Allow me to introduce you to my wife Elizabeth and daughter Gunnilde.  We would be very honored if you would sit along with us and watch proceedings.

“I would be very happy to,” Eden lied, eyeing his giggly wife, who looked far younger than his daughter, and seemed to be making eyes at Roland.

“You must sit with the family tonight at the high table, Sir Roland,” said Lady Payne, reaching across to touch the back of his hand flirtatiously.  “In the position of honor, as befits the bridegroom.”

Eden watched as he absently rubbed his fingers on his tunic.  “I’d rather sit with my friends,” he said, rather bluntly.

“Of course, he would, young rogue,” broke in Sir Aubron cheerfully, before turning to Eden.  “But your tender young bride might prefer to sit with us, rather than among the rank and file.”

Roland did not look best pleased with this suggestion.  Before she could accept the well-meaning offer, he said abruptly.  “My wife sits with me.”  He drew off to one side, tugging her along with him.  “You’ll sit with the Paynes a while now, and I’ll collect you after the melee.”

Eden nodded, feeling the gazes of their hosts burning into the back of her head.  “Yes, that’s fine.”

“And will you watch, wife?” he asked with a gleam of challenge in his eyes.

Eden was taken aback a moment.  “I thought that was the plan,” she said.  “Sir Aubron said they have set up benches along the far field-”

“I meant,” Roland interrupted her heavily.  “Will you look for me in the field?”

Eden’s puzzlement grew.  “Well, I doubt I’ll even know anyone else here,” she pointed out.  His brows snapped together abruptly, and he frowned at her a moment.  Eden blinked back at him, wondering what mis-step she had taken now.

“Just give me a token, Eden,” he said abruptly.

“A token?”  What for?

“A kerchief or a sleeve or something.”

“A sleeve?” Eden repeated.  “I only own two in the world and I am hardly likely to give one of them to your safe-keeping!  I’d be walking around with one cold arm for days!”

He rolled his eyes in exasperation, before startling her by tapping the brooch on the front of her bodice.  “Give me this.”

Eden considered arguing.  She only owned two good pieces of jewelry.  A bracelet of turquoises her grandmother had given her, and this pearl brooch which Queen Armenal had graciously bestowed on her.  “Don’t lose it,” she said with a sigh, as she unpinned the brooch and held it out to him. Now in all likelihood, it would probably end up being trampled into a muddy field before the day was out!  Instead of taking it from her, he held out his arm for her to pin it to.  Eden considered a moment, and then whipped out her kerchief, wrapped it around his arm and then used the brooch to secure it in place.  She was just surveying her handiwork, when his finger under her chin tipped her head up so he could meet her gaze.  “Now,” he said in a murmured undertone.  “Get on your tiptoes and give me a good luck kiss that our audience will appreciate.”

Eden forced herself not to stiffen, though it wasn’t easy.  Instead she lifted slowly up onto her toes and puckered her lips in anticipation.  Roland looked down at her a moment, with an unreadable expression.  Just when she was considering asking what he was waiting for, he leaned down and took her lips in a strangely tender and lingering kiss, his hands resting lightly on her hips.  When he drew back, she swayed a moment, trying to catch her breath.  His grip on her tightened and he didn’t release her until she was steady on her feet once more. Eden braced herself, waiting for him to make some comment, or tease her for her reaction, but he did neither.  Simply took hold of her elbow and steered her back toward their hosts. 

“I know I can trust you to keep a watchful eye on her,” he said, and took his leave of them.

Eden could only hope her face was not as red as it felt. 

“I’ll take Lady Vawdrey along to the seated area, father,” said Gunnilde Payne eagerly.  She was an amiable looking girl of about eighteen, with tow-colored hair and rather large teeth.  Eden let herself be led away, grateful to escape Lady Payne’s avid stare.

“What a piece of luck for us that Sir Roland brought you along to our tourney,” she enthused.  “So far nothing interesting has happened except for Lord Kentigern breaking Sir Renlowe’s nose in the preliminary joust.”

“Oh dear,” murmured Eden, who’d never heard of Sir Renlowe.  “Poor fellow.”

“And I didn’t even see that,” admitted Gunnilde, sounding aggrieved.  “For my stepmother sent me on an errand to fetch her second-best veil.  She fancied the sun was catching the back of her neck in her new steeple-hennin headdress.”  Eden clicked her tongue sympathetically, though in truth she could not imagine the girl had missed much, by being spared such a spectacle.  “They do say it spurted blood like a fountain,” Gunnilde confided in a rush of ghoulish fascination.  Belatedly she noticed Eden’s disapproving expression.  “I hope you do not find me unduly bloodthirsty, Lady Vawdrey.  You see, I have heard it said that a knight has not proved his mettle until he’s suffered a battle scar or two,” she added hastily.

“I see,” said Eden politely.  “I was not aware of that fact.”  Seeing Gunnilde’s eyes widen, she added, “As a rule, I do not follow the tournaments.”

“Oh,” said Gunnilde, with dawning understanding.  “Oh!  So, you’ve come to our little tourney to learn the rudiments?” she asked, looking pleased.  “To ensure you do not embarrass yourself at one of the royal events?  Never fear, Lady Vawdrey,” she said, seizing Eden’s hand and patting it reassuringly.  “I can help you with that!”

The girl looked so happy to be of service, that Eden didn’t have the heart to tell her she didn’t care a rush about tournaments.  “That is very kind of you,” she answered instead and was repaid with a radiant smile. 

“Will this spot do, do you think?” Gunnilde asked, gesturing to a section right in the middle of the length of benching and in the front row. 

“I’m sure it will do very well, thank you.”  They sat down next to one another.  “How close will the knights be to us?” asked Eden with trepidation as she eyed the wooden barriers.  At Caer-Lyoness the spectators had been on raised platform seating that seemed well away from the violence.  Here it seemed a lot closer. 

“Oh, you needn’t worry on that score, Lady Vawdrey,” Gunnilde assured her.  “You’ll be able to see the whites of their eyes from here.”

That was what she was afraid of!  “Call me Eden,” she responded, after a moment’s pause.

Gunnilde flushed.  “Thank you,” she said looking unspeakably flattered.  “And I would be very honored if you would call me by my given name also.”

Eden inclined her head to show she was agreeable.  “Do you think it might be advisable to move to the second row, Gunnilde?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder.

Her new friend looked shocked.  “Oh no!  We couldn’t do that, Enid!”

“Eden,” she corrected her, but Gunnilde had her hands clasped before her as if in prayer, and a faraway look in her eye. 

“I’m sure your good knight and true will be looking for you.  And when he sees you here, he will be inspired to great feats of valor and chivalry!”

By knocking someone off their horse with a big stick?  It hardly seemed to make any sense to Eden, but she forced a smile and nodded her head nonetheless. 

“It was just wonderful to see how highly he regards you,” said Gunnilde shyly.  “I would love to have someone view me one day with such a gaze.” 

Eden struggled to keep her face blank at these startling words.  She wondered if Gunnilde would think Roland so respectful if she’d heard him bluntly tell her to use the chamber pot that morning.  “Are you betrothed, Gunnilde?” she asked instead politely. 

Gunnilde blushed and shook her head.  “No, for Father has had other things on his mind of late with his own re-marriage.  I had hoped… but alas, it was not meant to be.”  She huffed out a sigh and Eden deduced she had lost her heart to someone along the way.  It was not that surprising when you considered how fanciful the girl was.

“Indeed?” asked Eden encouragingly, leaving an inviting pause for confidences.

Sure enough, Gunnilde plucked at her skirts a moment, before taking a deep breath.  “Mother always said I was informally matched with our neighbor Sir Giles Conway’s eldest son, Arthur.  The Conways should be attending today’s festivities, so you may even meet him later on.”  Gunnilde patted her hair distractedly.

“But no mention has been made of a contract since you have come of age?” asked Eden with a small frown.  “How old is Arthur Conway?”

“Two and twenty, so high time he took a wife,” Gunnilde supplied readily.  “But their family came into some money unexpectedly and they have expectations now at court, and so…” She winced.  “Stepmother says I am no longer sufficiently grand enough for the Conways.”

“Expectations?” asked Eden, her ears pricking up.  “Do the Conways now have connections at court?”

“Yes indeed,” nodded Gunnilde.  “For Arthur’s sister has lately married Sir Christopher Lelland, a very prominent man.  And they do say that he may sponsor Arthur, which would be a very grand thing for the Conways.”  Gunnilde’s voice had dropped to a reverent whisper. 

Eden’s mouth twisted.  She knew Sir Christopher Lelland.  He held the position as an usher in the King’s retinue.  She supposed, around these parts they might think him an elevated member of court, though he did not move in the first circles and was rather staid in reputation.

“I know of Sir Christopher,” said Eden cautiously. 

“Oh!” Gunnilde reddened.  “I hope you do not think I spoke out of turn…”

“Of course not,” Eden assured her.  “You have said naught amiss.”

“I wonder if he and his new wife are still staying with the Conways,” wondered her new friend aloud.  “If so, you may even see him here today.”

Eden’s heart sank at the idea of crossing paths with a fellow courtier.  Still, it had to be done.  And no doubt several of the knights attended court.  “Have you met Sir Edward Bevan and Sir James Attley?” she asked.  “They are both friends of Roland Vawdrey’s.  My husband,” she added belatedly, trying it out.  It sounded stiff and awkward on her lips.

“Not officially,” replied Gunnilde, who had not seemed to notice.  “But I saw them when they arrived yesterday, for my brother Hal and I were watching from the ramparts.  They both looked so very handsome and distinguished.  I am sure I would be far too tongue-tied to ever utter more than two words together in their presence!”

“Nonsense,” responded Eden briskly.  “You need not be shy and must have some conversation with them at this evening’s feast.  You are a young woman with a great deal of presence and rational conversation.  I will be glad to introduce you myself.”

Gunnilde gasped.  “Would you?”  She bit her lower lip.  “Your pardon, I did not realize that you were so well acquainted with royal court.  Is that where you met your husband, the King’s champion?”

Eden nodded.  “Yes, for my uncle Sir Leofric is a member of the King’s bedchamber, and I myself am lady-in-waiting to Queen Armenal.”

The girl’s jaw dropped.  “L-lady-in-waiting? To the Queen herself?” she stammered.

“Yes,” answered Eden.  “Though I may not be, when I return.”  She winced.  “The Queen’s ladies are supposed to ask permission before they marry.  And I did not.” 

Gunnilde was staring at her now, with so much astonished admiration that Eden was a little alarmed.  Belatedly she remembered how romantic the girl was in her notions. 

“To risk losing your position at court, for love,” breathed Gunnilde, covering her mouth with her hands.  Her eyes filled with tears.  “It should be made into a ballad!”

“It is largely just a matter of courtesy these days,” Eden hurried to reassure her.  “And the Queen will likely not care overmuch.”

“I think you’re wonderful,” said Gunnilde in a choked voice.  “I really do!”

To Eden’s relief, she spotted a crowd of people heading their way and realized more spectators were arriving.  “It seems we have company,” she said brightly. 

Gunnilde wiped her eyes and blew her nose.  “Oh no,” she whispered.  “Tis the Conways already.  Is my nose very red?”

“It looks fine,” Eden assured her.  “I think I see Sir Christopher.  Which one is Arthur?”

“The fair one with the lordly bearing and the blonde moustache,” said Gunnilde, with a very clear bias. 

Arthur Conway was of middling height with wavy blonde hair and moustache.  He had a slightly self-conscious swagger in his walk, which Eden thought might have been for Gunnilde’s benefit as he seemed to look everywhere, except directly at her new friend. 

“Is that his mother and sister with him?” Eden asked looking at a middle-aged matron in blue and a younger woman with a rather large headdress on, and an even larger air of self-importance. 

“Yes,” said Gunnilde, sounding a bit crestfallen.  “Muriel and I used to be great friends, but in recent years… well…” her words trailed off miserably.  “Not so much.”  They waited as the Conway party approached.

“Goodness, is that you Gunnilde, child,” said Lady Conway as they drew near.  “I would hardly recognize you.  You look quite changed.  Have you been ill?”

Gunnilde flushed as she bobbed a curtsey.  “I have not,” she said with a quiet dignity that impressed Eden. 

“She doesn’t look ill, mother,” frowned Sir Arthur Conway.  “Looks very well, i’faith!”  He made a bow to Gunnilde and then to Eden. 

“May I introduce our neighbors,” Gunnilde started her introductions. “Sir Arthur Conway and his mother Lady Conway.  And this is his sister, Lady Muriel…”

“Gracious me, you silly child!  You seem to forget I am lately married!” cut in Muriel Lelland with a high, rather false laugh.  “I have not been Muriel Conway, for at least a month and a half!”

Eden took an instant dislike to Muriel who must be of a similar age to Gunnilde.  She guessed it was her recently married status that caused her to now act so condescendingly to her childhood friend.  Eden slipped her arm through Gunnilde’s in a silent show of solidarity. 

Gunnilde started.  “Please allow me to introduce my friend Lady Eden-“

“Yes, yes,” cut in Lady Conway rudely.  “Hurry now, girl!  My dear Son-in-law approaches, and you will both need to move along the bench.  Muriel and her husband are sure to be the most distinguished guests here this day and deserve the best spot.”

Eden pursed her lips and looked over her shoulder to see Sir Christopher and an older man approaching.  When she had turned back two bright spots of color had appeared in Gunnilde’s cheeks.  “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” she answered in a surprisingly loud voice.  Before she could continue, a cry from Sir Christopher Lelland interrupted her.

“By all that’s holy!  Is that you Lady Eden?” He swept a very graceful bow.  “I hardly expected to see the Queen’s favorite sat among our humble company this day!  What a pleasant surprise!”

A silence had fallen over the rest of the Conway party, who simply turned and stared at Eden in open-mouthed horror.

“Yes, it is,” said Eden in a composed voice, she gave a curtsey, but did not release Gunnilde’s arm.  “May I introduce my friend, Gunnilde Payne to you Sir Christopher?”

“Delighted,” he said, giving Gunnilde just as reverent a bow as he had to Eden.  “Have you met my wife?”  He held his hand out to Muriel, rotating his fingers hurriedly.  She rushed over to his side. 

“Just this moment,” said Eden.  She looked coldly at the scarlet-faced Muriel, before resolutely turning her back on her.  “Shall we be seated, dear Gunnilde?  I mean to point out anyone of interest to you.”  They sat themselves back down in their original seats as the Conway party stood about in mortified confusion.

“But whatever has happened?” Eden heard Sir Christopher asking his wife in an urgent undertone, as he led her to one side.  Muriel Lelland was wringing her handkerchief and remonstrating with her mother in a slightly hysterical manner.  Luckily Eden could not make out the babbled words. 

“I think you’ve had a lucky escape,” she murmured to Gunnilde.  “Though Sir Arthur does seem to be the best of the bunch.  Imagine having to contend with his mother on a daily basis.”

“I can’t believe they were so rude,” Gunnilde whispered back.  “I can only apologize, I was mortified!”

“Tis not for you to apologize,” Eden told her, squeezing her arm.  “Why Gunnilde, you’re trembling!”

“Tis with anger,” her friend admitted.  “My stepmother was right all along.  They do think themselves far superior to the likes of me.  I can’t believe I was so foolish as to still…” she choked on her words.

“Do not let it spoil your enjoyment of your father’s tournament,” Eden urged her.  “After all, you are a great admirer of knightly prowess, are you not?”

Gunnilde dabbed her eyes with her scarf.  “Y-yes,” she gulped.  “You are right.  And I have so been looking forward to it.”

“Sensible girl,” said Eden approvingly.  “Now, tell me, who are this party of people approaching?”

Happy to be distracted Gunnilde pointed out the guests, who were made up of various pillars of local society.  These included the Abbot from nearby Tranton Abbey, a few well-heeled merchants from the nearest city of Greater Tranton, and assorted friends and neighbors.

“Your family must have lived here in Tranton Vale for a good many years I think?” Eden asked, taking care to keep the conversation flowing.  That way her new friend did not have the chance to feel awkward before the festivities started. 

“Oh yes,” Gunnilde told her happily.  “My great-grandfather built Payne Manor.”  She chattered away happily, explaining the improvements various generations had made to their home.  “Here comes Father now,” she broke off a few moments later as the family party approached.  “That’s my brother Hal,” she said pointing out a lad of about fourteen who bore a strong resemblance to Gunnilde with his yellow hair and amiable manner.  “We must be getting close to starting for the day.”  She waved.  “Hal!  Father!”  She stood up to show them where they had saved them seats.

Hearing someone click their tongue disapprovingly to her left, Eden turned her head sharply and narrowed her gaze at Lady Conway who turned red and looked away.  Awful woman, thought Eden.  Just then, she caught sight of Arthur Conway, who was gazing rather wistfully at Gunnilde.  He did not seem to find anything amiss with the way her friend was bouncing on her toes in excitement, and beaming all over her face.  Her sweetness would no doubt prove a strong contrast to his own mother and sister who were extremely sour-faced. 

A blast was given by a rather motley crew of buglers.  Eden turned her head and found knights on horseback had entered the field and were arranging themselves into two lines, facing each other.  A murmur of excitement ran through the crowd.  Hal Payne sat hurriedly down on the other side of her.  “We only just arrived in time,” he said sounding out of breath.  “Father would keep talking to that prosy bore, Father Clements!” 

“Hal,” Gunnilde whispered urgently, leaning around Eden.  “Father Clements is a highly respected and moreover venerable-”

“Yes, yes, for the lords sake don’t start with that now!” said her brother hastily.  “Hello,” he said belatedly, realizing he had not met Eden before.  “I’m Hal.  Would you like some marchpane?”  He was unwrapping a piece of cloth in his lap, which was full of sticky treats.

“This is the Lady Eden,” said Gunnilde, leaning forward again with a frown.  “Show some respect.  She’s married to the King’s champion.”

Hal’s eyes nearly started out of his head.  “That one?” he asked, pointing to middle of the line in the group to the left.

Eden was grateful he had pointed him out.  She recognized Roland’s black and scarlet shield at once.  “Yes,” she agreed, noticing with a start her kerchief wrapped around Roland Vawdrey’s arm.  Never had she thought to see the day when Roland Vawdrey wore her favor on the field!  On his other arm he wore a yellow scarf along with all the other knights in his formation.  Looking to the other group, she found they all wore blue scarves.  “Is the melee the mock battle?” she asked, trying to remember the last tournament, without much success.  “Is that why they’re in two groups?”

“Mm-hmm,” agreed Hal Payne, his cheeks bulging with sweets.  Looking at his sticky fingers, Eden was suddenly glad he had not offered a handshake.  The bugles sounded again and suddenly, the horses were all spurred forward and the two sides rode at each other, levelling their lances.  There was a thundering of hooves as the two lines charged each other.  Eden winced at the clash of lances against breastplates.  For a moment all seemed in confusion as several bodies hit the ground and rolled around perilously close to the horses hooves.  Eden held her breath, as she sought Roland out.  After a moment or two, she found him still sat astride his horse.  She breathed out, and noticed that the lines seemed to be slowly re-forming and galloping apart again, before wheeling around to face one another again.  A bunch of squires ran forward from the edges of the pitch.

“What are they-?”

“The squires are allowed to re-furnish their masters with lances up to three times,” Gunnilde told her obligingly. 

Eden looked back and sure enough found the squires were passing up lances to those knights that were still seated.  It seemed Roland had held onto his lance as Eden noticed Cuthbert’s blonde head glinting in the sun on the sidelines.  Rather than running forward with the rest of the company, he was still lolling on the edges, as if he had not a care in the world.  When the squires fell back and the horses started forward again, Eden let out a strangled cry.  “But what about the men who are fallen?”

“They’ll be fine,” Hall assured her, licking his fingers.  “Look, even now they’re drawing their swords.”

Eden looked, but while that was true of a most of them, at least two of their number being dragged from the field.  One of them merely looked dazed and was mumbling.  The other though was being dragged by his heels and looked to Eden’s eye, completely dead to the world. 

“Oh poor Sir Renlowe!” exclaimed Gunnilde, and Eden surmised this must be the unfortunate who had suffered a broken nose the day before. 

Why on earth would he not retire from the lists after suffering such an ignoble defeat the day before?  The crash of lance against shield, made her jump, dragging her from her thoughts.  Again, several bodies were rolling in the dust.  Eden’s eyes sought their crests to make out who was who in the bewildering throng.  “I can’t quite-“

“He’s there,” said Hal, pointing a finger to a knight on horseback. 

“Oh yes,” she said relieved, before frowning.  “Though he’s lost his lance this time.”  Her gaze swept to Cuthbert, who was looking alert now and already had a replacement in his hand ready.  The horses were reforming and galloped toward the other side of the field where the squires were already running forward.  “How long does this go on for?”

“Until they’re all unseated and there’s a clear winning side,” shrugged Hal. 

“Well, how long does that usually take?”

“Depends,” said Hal, selecting another sticky piece of marchpane with great deliberation.  “I did hear tell of one melee that went on for three whole days.”

“What?” Eden could not keep the note of horror from her voice.

He grinned.  “But there were over four hundred knights competing in that one.”

Eden breathed out with relief.  To her eye there were no more than twenty on each side today.

“There’s a fair few knights on the ground now,” Gunnilde pointed out, nudging Eden in the side. 

Eden looked and indeed there were.  They had been hacking and slashing at each other a few minutes ago but now they had fallen back to gaze at the enemy line with their swords held ready for the next charge.  “It seems very dangerous to be in the thick of it like that, amidst all the charging horses.”

“See how they’ve started forming into groups,” pointed out Gunnilde.  Surely enough, they were now stood in threes and fours.  “They’ll start trying to pull the knights off their mounts now likely as not.”

“What?”

“You’ll see,” said Gunnilde complacently.

“Surely you jest?” quavered Eden.  She was sure there had been none of that at the Royal tournaments. 

Gunnilde shook her head, her eyes glued on the field.  “See that one there,” she said pointing to a large knight in black armor. His helmet was horned and somehow quite monstrous to look at.  Her voice lowered to an awed whisper.  “That’s Lord Kentigern.”

“I think I heard someone mention his name earlier, but I don’t think-?”

“He’s one of the Northern Lords, and a very fearsome fighter.  He was apparently of great renown in the North, but only just earning his fame in these parts.”

Eden gazed at him in some trepidation.  He was on the opposing side to Roland.  Then her eyes turned back to the side of the field where the fallen knights had been dragged.  To her horror, she found they were being bound hand and foot by the squires.  “Whatever are they doing?” she asked faintly.  “Surely they should be having their wounds being treated to, rather than being handled so roughly?”

Hal glanced at her face and then the direction of her gaze.  “Oh, them?  They’ll be ransomed tonight at the feast.”

Ransomed?”  Eden stared at him.

“Aye, for prize money,” he explained calmly.

Eden, suddenly realized that these rural tournaments were a lot more rough and ready than the court ones she had attended. 

“Eden,” said Gunnilde, shaking her arm.  “You’ll miss the next charge!”

Roland had wheeled his horse around again and looked poised to charge.  To Eden’s trepidation he looked exactly center in the line-up now which meant his direct counter was the ferocious Lord Kentigern.  Eden felt a sense of foreboding stealing over her.  Roland’s tall, muscular physique was impressive, but Lord Kentigern looked like the stuff of nightmares.  Eden found her fingernails biting into her palms, and had to force herself to uncurl her fingers.  This was brutal!  How could people find this entertaining?

“There’s a hair on this piece of gingerbread!” complained Hal, sticking out his tongue. 

“It’s probably your hair,” tutted Gunnilde.  “Father keeps telling you to get it cut.”

Eden winced as the shields and lances met in a loud splintering and a dust cloud went up from the horse’s hooves.  Her eyes blinked at the ensuing confusion.  “Is he down?” she muttered, her eyes scanning the chaotic scene.  Then she spied Roland’s horse, and it was rider-less. “Oh!” she covered her mouth. 

“His horse has trampled him!” squeaked Gunnilde in dismay.

Eden gasped, seeing Roland’s prone form lying under his horse.  A few of the previously unseated knights were darting forward, ready to pounce on him, but Bavol tossed his head and lunged at anyone who approached, snapping his teeth together as if he would bite.  “Nay, wait,” said Eden.  “I think he is protecting his master.”

Hal whistled.  “I believe you’re right.  That’s one good beast.”

“What is his name?” said Gunnilde, clapping her hands together.

“Bavol,” Eden told her, grateful she knew at least one piece of Vawdrey trivia. 

“Most noble steed!” choked Gunnilde, dabbing at her eyes again.

Eden watched Roland roll onto his side, and then swiftly climb to his feet.  He paused a moment to pat Bavol’s neck and then drew his sword.  Slapping his horse on the rump, he dispatched him to the edge of the field.  She watched him roll his shoulders as if testing for injury, as two knights on foot simultaneously charged him.  He beat their attacks aside as effortlessly as if he were swatting mere flies.  Then, suddenly, they fell back and were re-forming their ranks again as the last remaining mounted knights wheeled their horses about.  Eden watched Roland gesturing with his hands as he spoke to his allies.    “Is that his friend?” she muttered aloud, as one clapped him on the shoulder.  She was speaking to herself in truth, as it was unlikely that her companions would even know.

“The yellow stag?” asked Hal, withdrawing a list from his belt and unfurling it.  “Sir Edward Bevan of Knollesley,” he read aloud.

Eden nodded.  “That is he.”  At least he was among friends, though she would rather he was still on horseback than in the midst of the fray.

“They’re about to come around again,” said Gunnilde, bouncing in her seat. 

Eden felt a sense of dread as the horses charged.  Roland looked perilously prominent to her eye and positioned too far forward.  Suddenly, she realized he was poised to spring and to her disbelieving eye, she watched him, leap up and drag Lord Kentigern from his saddle.  “He’s mad!” she uttered faintly, as Hal yelled and cheered in her ear.

“Not for nothing is he the King’s champion!” the boy whooped, leaping out of his seat.

Lord Kentigern came crashing down like a lead weight, and the two of them rolled around in the dust as Kentigern’s massive horse reared and plunged like a crazed thing, eyes rolling with fear.  Sir Ned Bevan ran forward and caught it by the head, pulling it away with dogged determination. 

“Oh that was well done indeed!” marveled Gunnilde.  “What did you say his name was Hal?”

“Bevan, Sir Edward Bevan,” her brother replied, sinking back down onto the bench. 

Eden was sat ramrod straight, her hands clenched so hard together she had lost all sensation in her fingers.  Roland sprang to his feet, and drew his sword, waiting as Lord Kentigern staggered about, shaking his head jerkily as if to clear it. 

“That grotesque helmet surely does not help?” murmured Gunnilde.  “Why, it has probably turned from back to front and he cannot see!“

“Good!” fired back Eden, surprising herself along with her friend.  “Why does he not attack him now?  While he is incapacitated?”

“Because he is the King’s champion perhaps?” suggested Gunnilde, looking taken aback.  “It would hardly seem chivalrous…”

“Chivalrous?” blurted Eden hotly.  “How is any of this remotely chivalrous?  Just strike him!” she shouted furiously, leaping out of her seat.  “What are you waiting for?” As if he had heard her anguished cry, Eden watched Roland’s helmet snap up to look in her direction.  She drew a ragged breath.  Surely he had not heard her?  Clapping her palms to her over-heated cheeks, she dropped self-consciously back down into her seat. 

Hal chuckled, but Eden did not have the chance to feel any more embarrassed as a terrific clanging of blades could now be heard above the clamor.  She re-focused on the fighting and found Roland and Lord Kentigern were now trading blows with their broad-swords.  In her opinion Roland should have forced his advantage while he still had it.  Lord Kentigern looked to wield a freakish strength.  Even though Roland was giving as good as he got, who knew how long he could keep this terrible pace up? 

“The knights are coming back around!” yelled Hal excitedly. 

Eden felt sick to her stomach as she looked from the two combatants, to the charging horses.  How could they be oblivious to the fact they were about to mowed down by a mass of horses’ hooves?  She closed her eyes.  The crowd bayed and Eden felt herself go hot, then cold all over.  Feeling her hand squeezed tight, she realized Gunnilde had hold of her nerveless fingers. 

“All is not lost,” her friend was assuring her.  “Look.  They still stand.”

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