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Her Knight’s Promise by Chula Stone – Sample

Her Knight's Promise by Chula StonePrologue

May 15, 1346

Alyna tugged at the lock of her hair that had snagged on the pine bough on her way up the tree. She cursed until the long saffron strand tore free, then giggled, wondering what Sir Walter would say if he heard her using such language. She knew it wasn’t fitting for a young lass such as herself to know such words, but since her mother’s passing four years earlier, Alyna had taken to spending more and more time sitting on the low thatched roof of the stables and watching the soldiers as they drilled. Who could help learning their ways, including their highly entertaining vocabulary? She was proud of her tomboyish skills in archery and climbing, but hoped to take them further, relishing the thought of how proud Sir Walter would be, if she only had the chance to learn.

Cinching her belt tighter over her tunic and leggings, she settled onto the branch and looked down at the forest floor some thirty feet below as she contemplated her next move in the battle to win her guardian’s permission to train with the soldiers. She could try pleading with him again, knowing that her large blue eyes and sweetly dimpled smile always melted his heart. But she also remembered with a terrible pang the anguished look in his eyes when he had to deny her any request. He hated to disappoint her quite as much as she disliked causing him distress, so she abandoned any thoughts of using her nascent feminine charms to get her way.

She had, after all, only just turned ten years old and understood little about the things Cook and the serving girl talked about when they thought she wasn’t listening. She had taken note when Cook had told her that it pleased Sir Walter when she smiled and sang for him, but that wouldn’t be sufficient to win the favor she so desired. In fact, reminding the old knight that she was a girl might work against her. She enjoyed music and sewing somewhat, but they seemed to her to be such solitary pursuits. Sir Walter and his men seemed not at all interested in the clothes anyone wore, nor in how to prepare the food they ate. She spent her days listening to their talk of battle strategy and fighting tactics.

What she wanted more than anything was not allowed for a girl, so perhaps it would be best if she showed her guardian that she already had some facility in the skills she wanted to hone. Out of the bag she kept tied to her belt she drew a short paring knife that Cook had meant to dispose of when the handle had broken. Alyna had patiently worked on it here in the pine glade until the new handle she made for it was smooth and the blade no longer jagged and dangerous. After that, she had come every day to practice throwing it at various targets until she was proficient. If she could just find a way to demonstrate her abilities to Sir Walter or even his captain, Rab, she might gain their permission to attend the daily training sessions and learn to fight with sword, lance and knife. The men might even be proud of her. How wonderful that would be, to win a rare smile from her guardian!

She wondered idly if her mother had known how to protect herself. If she had been taught skills with a sword, she might have been able to fight off her captors all those years ago. She might not have spent the last years of her life as a hostage. Her mother’s story had not been Alyna’s idea of a decent fate and yet, her memories of her only living parent were ones of light and laughter, usually here along these piney trails. Her mother had loved life at the castle, loved its people, its halls and the countryside around it, but especially the pine trees, their scent and the sound of the needles as they crunched under foot.

It was here Sir Walter had carried her mother on that last day, her face so pale, her body so thin, her breath coming in slow shallow sips. No one had seen Alyna follow them into the woods and perch in the branches of a tall tree so she could keep watch. Undetected, she had marveled at the peaceful contentment in her mother’s gaze as she looked around her. Somehow, Alyna had known it was best not to be found out, so as darkness had fallen, she had sneaked back to the keep, treasuring in silence her last secret memory of her mother.

Slipping around and keeping out of the way had always served Alyna well. Perhaps it would do so again. She considered the possibilities carefully. It was her task to bring buckets of water from the well to fill the cask from which the men drank to refresh themselves on the training field. She could easily linger where she might be able to hear what Rab was saying and even practice a few of the drills behind the piles of swords or stacks of lances. If she did that often enough, the men would soon grow used to her presence. Eventually, she would worm her way closer and closer until she was drilling with the men unheeded and even accepted. If she worked hard, they wouldn’t bother to chase her away.

The more she considered the idea, the more sure she was that it would work. Her position in the castle was strange and precarious anyway. No one would mind her learning and practicing as long as she kept out of the way and made herself helpful. Before Sir Walter could realize that he ought to object, it would be too late. With a satisfied nod, she began her descent, determined to put her plan into action.

She would train as a soldier.

She would make Sir Walter proud of her.

And she would honor her mother’s memory by protecting the home her mother had loved.

Chapter One

June 2, 1354

“The forest at last,” noted Sir Jurian with a grin. “I’ll certainly be glad to ride in the shade for a while. No wonder this county is called the ‘sun’s home.’” His horse’s leather saddle creaked companionably as the warm breeze nudged the tree limbs around.

“I’d even be glad of a little shower, my lord. It might cool things off,” replied the archer riding near him. As he gestured to the cloudy sky above them, he sniffed the air. “Could be rain in the offing.”

“I hope it holds off until we arrive at the keep. These dusty roads will turn to a muddy swamp and I don’t want to meet my bride looking like something that crawled up out of a privy.”

“There’s no bride for you to meet yet, my lord,” the older man reminded him, tugging thoughtfully at his grizzled beard.

“Ah, but there soon will be,” Jurian answered confidently. “What good is being the heir apparent to the Baron of Mansueton if it doesn’t mean that one can find a wife without any difficulty? And I’ll treat her like a princess, I promise you that. Whoever Sir Walter can recommend will not regret the bargain. “

“Seems a strange way of doing things, my lord.”

“It’s the way of the world for some of us, my good man. No use complaining about it. If I fell in love with a girl first but we weren’t allowed to wed, where would I be? With all the other languishing poets in the court, crying into their ale and being unfaithful to their wives. My father advised me long ago to wed first, then fall in love with her after. I’ve taken it to heart and intend to try my best.”

“But haven’t you ever heard the saying, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ my lord? You’ll want at least some choice in the matter of a bride won’t you? And that’s just what you won’t have if you insist on rushing this thing.” His horse gave a snort as if to agree. “See, even old Arrow knows you don’t want to rush a wedding.”

“Looks like I might be rushing more than a wedding,” Jurian countered. His voice suddenly stilled as he made a downward motion with his left hand to attract the archer’s attention. With his right hand, Jurian silently indicated the trees where every so often a telltale rustle or unusual bulge betrayed the presence of men waiting. He knew what sorts of men waited in trees and for what purpose. It would take a bold scoundrel indeed, he mused, to attack as large and well armed a party as theirs.

The road that led through the dense forest had been scrupulously kept clear of creeping vines and underbrush too near the lanes, but the dense foliage of the oaks and maples still provided excellent cover for attack or ambush. Jurian gave a swift silent signal to the rest of his men, who suddenly and secretly sprang to alert. Jurian couldn’t see them tense behind him, but he could feel the tension in the very air around him, like a bowstring drawn tight. The next moment it was as if some invisible knife had cut the bowstring with a twang. “My lord Jurian? It is you!” A tall man leaned out of the tree several yards ahead of Jurian. His hand waving, he hissed urgently, “Don’t shoot. It’s me, Rab. You remember, don’t you? Head archer for Sir Walter.”

“Yes, Rab, I remember you well. How fares your master?” Jurian enquired, suddenly concerned.

“Not well at all, I fear,” Rab declared as he swung himself off the tree that overhung the road. “And isn’t that why I’m out here in these woods? Tilltham has been overrun by Musarts.”

“What? They’ve taken him hostage?”

“Not exactly, my lord. You know how it is, when a smaller neighbor lives cheek by jowl with a more powerful and numerous clan in a remote area. The larger neighbor can take advantage and that’s what Vincent Musart is doing. He’s sent his sons and their friends to visit, but while they’re in the keep, they run amok and do as they like. And they’ve closed the gates against us. We can’t get back in. We’re a small garrison, my lord, as you well know. We’ve tried to figure a way to get the gates open again, but with us outside and our weapons mostly inside, there wasn’t much we could do.”

“How long have you been shut out? And how did you get caught out?”

“Nigh onto two days, but no more than that. All the local gentry are due here soon to welcome you, but that’s still a day or two off. I’ve sent two runners to Calvale and DePusant to see if they will come to Sir Walter’s aid, but no help has arrived.”

“Well, now it has,” Jurian declared stoutly. Dismounting, he gave the signal for his men to make camp. While they set up tents and got the horses settled, Jurian conversed with Rab. “But you never answered my question. How did you get caught out, so many of you without your weapons?”

“Trickery, my lord. The Musarts claimed they wanted to take back their hostage. After this many years, it was surprising but not unthinkable. Sir Walter wants good relations with his neighbors so he invited the Musart family and its entourage to negotiations outside the keep.”

“Prudent,” answered Jurian briefly. It was the customary way to begin such negotiations. “So you set up a tent, I suppose? And they came?”

“But how they came, my lord. Just five of them, mostly family. Only two guards, or so it seemed. We relaxed. I’ll admit it. There was a fair over at Market Dornley. We allowed some of the men to go. Next thing you know, doesn’t a runner come dashing up? All sooty and sweating he was, like from a fire, so we believed him.”

“You mean Sir Walter believed him, don’t you?” Jurian could see where this was leading.

“Well, my lord… did any of us argue with him? No, we did not.” He hung his head. “I went out with the lads to fight this supposed fire. Nobody around here benefits from harm to Market Dornley.”

“But there was no fire?”

“Not much of one. A little barn, away from town, lots of smoke but no real danger. So back we come and what do we find? The drawbridge up, the gate closed and a plague flag hung. We haven’t got plague, my lord. I swear it. If we have it, the Musarts brought it with them. Anyway, we can hear them laughing and singing. The only danger in that castle is to Sir Walter’s wine cellar. They’re drinking him dry.”

“How can you hear them, Rab?”

“We’ve got… ways, my lord. You haven’t spent much time in Tilltham, have you? Well I have. I was born here and know every secret tunnel and cave and… well, there are ways to get messages in and out. It’s hard but it can be done.”

Jurian noted the man’s hesitancy to speak freely. “Loyal to your master all the way. Good for you. Keep your secrets then, for the time being. I suppose you have a plan.”

“A plan, we have. It’s a rope that we haven’t got. And the men and tools to build the siege ladder.”

“You intend to lay siege to Tilltham?” Jurian couldn’t believe his ears. His personal tent had been made ready, so he motioned for Rab to follow him in and waved him to a cushion that Sture had set on the tent floor.

Hesitantly, Rab sat down across from Jurian. “No, my lord. No siege. Just the ladder and a long bit of rope. We’ve got in mind a bit of trickery that should meet the case.”

“Why didn’t you just go purchase the rope from Market Dornley?”

Again, Rab ducked his head. “No jingle, my lord. Not enough coin between us to get the job done. And we… we hated to admit what had happened. As yet, we’ve kept it under our hats, so to speak, trying to get back in before Sir Walter is shamed. That’s what Musart is really after. There’s been bad blood between him and my master for years.”

Jurian nodded. Pride was a curious thing. “We’ve rope, an ax and men who know how to use both. Tell me your plan and we’ll see what we can do.”

Under cover of darkness, they crept up to the foot of the tallest tower. Jurian was just wondering if they thought to scale the wall with the rope without grappling hooks to fling over the crenellations when Rab seemed to disappear from view. The next moment he saw a hand come up out of the stony uneven ground. Making a sharp turn as the hand was directing him to do, he twisted and turned down a series of seemingly impossibly placed steps cut into the living rock.

“Tunnel, my lord.” Rab’s voice drifted to him on a puff of damp, musty air.

“Yes, I had figured that much out for myself, Rab,” Jurian agreed, trying to be patient. “But who dug it? And more importantly, where does it lead?”

“It’s been here time out of mind, my lord. Legend has it the tower was built over the steps and the cave they lead to. No army can use it for invasion. Too small and the going is too difficult, as is the way into the castle. It takes a very small and brave body to climb down the secret passage inside the walls of the tower and meet us at the bottom. I’ll take the rope down. Then in about an hour, we’ll hear the signal.”

“The help you told me about. Inside the castle? Is it reliable help? I won’t lead you all into an ambush just for the sake of Sir Walter’s pride.” Jurian wanted to protect the old man, but really, this was going a bit far. In the dark like this, they were liable to catch an arrow or a dagger from friend or foe alike before they could declare their intentions.

“More than reliable. We’ll make our way to the drawbridge while our smallest lad takes the rope to where it’ll be picked up. Then we go on to the drawbridge.”

“Why didn’t we go there direct?”

“We would have to wait out in the open if we didn’t use this tunnel,” Rab admonished his leader. “This way.”

“I should have known,” shrugged Jurian. The blackness within the tunnel was a palpable thing. He longed to strike a spark just to have a glimpse of the place where they waited, but all he could learn was what he could feel. Stone walls, sandy floors and the occasional drop of water either falling from the ceiling or running down his back as he leaned against the cold uneven surface as best he could. It was a tense and uncomfortable hour, but eventually the signal came. Three raps, a pause and three more raps above their heads had all the men, no more than a dozen but seeming like more in the cramped space, rolling quickly to crouch at the ready.

He would have felt better had Rab not been so cagey about the details of the procedure. All he would say was that at the signal, they would have to haul on the ropes with all their might to lower the drawbridge just a few feet as there was no side gate to allow for entrance. Jurian couldn’t imagine that they would be able to perform the task in silence, but he found himself proved wrong. The rope, weighted by a stone, dropped into their midst from an opening in the ceiling. It was at that point that they had to come out into the open and pray no guards saw them and raised the alarm.

Good strong lads and well-trained soldiers pulled as one man, lowering the bridge more silently and quickly than Jurian had ever seen done. It was then that the ladder came into play. Two men ran swiftly and silently out of the woods carrying the long thin ladder. They leaned it up from the moat to the opening at the top of the drawbridge so that the soldiers could climb up and slip inside the crack. Each man in turn scrambled up and then slid down the steeply angled bridge into the shelter of the gate tower. As they had planned before, Jurian left the men of the castle to fetch weapons from the guards as they took them from behind and overpowered them. His task was to climb into the third room along the second level of the fortress. When he arrived without mishap at the point in the lane where Rab had told him to begin his climb, he found an old barrel conveniently placed to help him ascend. Once on the roof tiles of a covered walkway, it was no difficulty at all to make his way from one ledge to another, thus reaching the window he needed. Prying the window open with his sturdy short sword, he let himself inside.

There was Sir Walter, dressed and ready for action. Well, almost ready. He had fallen asleep by the glowing coals, his head to one side, his white hair and beard making him stand out from the dark background. Jurian went over and covered his mouth with his hand so he wouldn’t cry out and rouse the house. “It’s me, Sir Walter.” When he was sure it was safe, he released his hold.

“Welcome to Tilltham, my lord.” Sir Walter’s tone was ironic but the humor Jurian remembered was still there. “I’ve been expecting you. Everything going according to plan?”

“Judging by the silence outside, I would say so,” Jurian answered.

“I’ll have to take your word for it. I wouldn’t hear Gabriel himself blowing the last trump if he tried it in the courtyard,” Sir Walter grumbled. “But if all is proceeding as it should, then you might as well have a seat. We’re to just wait here until it’s over.”

“You know even that detail?” Jurian was truly in awe of this inside man Rab had spoken of.

“And why shouldn’t I? Rab sent word of everything. Care for a sip of wine to wet your whistle after your climb? I thought the barrel was a nice touch.”

“How did you know about the barrel?”

“Do you think it was there by coincidence? It was left for you. I told Al you wouldn’t need it, but—”

“There’s the signal. It must be all over.” Jurian went to the fire and lit a reed, transferring the light to the nearest candle as the door was flung wide by Rab.

“Welcome home,” boomed Sir Walter, taking Rab by the hand. “And never was a sight more gladdening to my eyes.”

“They haven’t hurt you, have they, my lord? They haven’t dared offer you insult?” Rab clutched at the sword in the sheath hanging at his side. Jurian noted with interest that this head archer must also have some training with other weapons as well.

“No insult to my honor, Captain. They treated me with the utmost respect when they bolted the door from the outside and proceeded to drain my wine cellar. Al told me that.”

“Al saved the day and no mistake,” Rab replied.

“I must meet this Al,” Jurian remarked sincerely. “But first, we deal with the Musarts.”

“But Al is a Musart, my lord.” Sir Walter rubbed his snowy beard with the back of his hand as if in deep thought. “That’s what complicates this issue so. As I understood it, this plan was designed to let the Musarts make their escape with little interference from us. Rab, perhaps you’d better go make sure no more bloodshed than necessary ensues.”

As Rab departed hastily, Jurian and Walter followed him more slowly out into the passageway and down the grand staircase into the main hall. “Do you fear what the guards might do in their vengeance? I’d not blame them for wanting a bit of their own back for this terrible trick.”

“Not so much the guards as Al,” Walter replied. “Hot-headed, impulsive, and loyal to a fault. That’s our Al. Combine all that with a wickedly accurate aim with a short bow and a surprisingly aggressive style of swordsmanship and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Ah, speak of the devil.”

Two guards in Walter’s livery dragged a struggling form backward into the great hall. Jurian was struck by the size of the form, or rather its lack of size. He realized he shouldn’t have been surprised. To perform the feats necessary for their plan to work, their inside man had to be more boy-sized. Crawling around those tunnel entrances, climbing up and down roofs unheard, sneaking around corridors unnoticed. All that would require a small body and unfortunately that reckless optimism found most commonly in the young. Still, Jurian marveled at Walter’s willingness to risk the lad.

“Here, gently now with our hero. He may need a good thrashing for disobeying orders, but I want to reward him first. He did save Sir Walter after all,” Jurian declared stoutly.

“He?” shrieked the form. When the guards released the form, it whipped around, dislodging a dark felt hat from which tumbled masses of long saffron hair. “What new idiot is this you’ve brought into the keep, Sir Walter?”

Walter sighed. “Lord Jurian, may I introduce to you the hero of the hour and my hostage, Alyna Musart?”

 

“So Al is Alyna? Alyna Musart? I don’t understand.” Jurian stared open mouthed at the girl, for female she obviously was once one looked at her closely. The chin was not just free of stubble but decidedly petite, the mouth sweetly formed, the eyes cornflower blue beneath shapely brows of the same glowing saffron hair. They had repaired to the circle of chairs set close to the enormous hearth to refresh themselves with a celebratory breakfast during which Jurian had leisure to study the girl and ask about her antecedents.

Walter seemed happy to explain as he consumed vast amounts of bread and cheese. “Her father was killed in battle when the Musarts helped themselves to a few too many of my lord’s sheep on their way through our lands without permission. I hate to call it raiding since her lady mother was along, but that is what it would be considered today. Her mother was captured and gave birth a few months later.” Walter made a vague gesture with his hand when Alyna covered her face and looked away. “Nothing to be embarrassed about, girl. Everyone gets born. The problem with this birth was that the Musarts didn’t want Alyna. Her father was dead and they were just as happy not to have to give her a dowry or provide for her. Their loss was my gain. Alyna has been an asset in every way from the day she was big enough to bend a bow until this very minute. As you saw for yourself, there is no more resourceful, courageous, able person in my retinue. Your retinue, I mean.”

Jurian considered. “Have you no wish to take your rightful place in the Musart clan? What say you, my lady?”

Alyna turned to glare at the guards who had given loud snorts of laughter upon hearing her thus addressed. “No one calls me ‘my lady’ and neither should you. Of course, I would never return to those foul beasts.” She spat and pronounced a vile curse Jurian had never heard coming from a woman before.

When no one took her to task for this behavior, Jurian began to understand. “So, having no real place in the world, you’ve been raised to… what exactly? A page? A foot soldier? Sir Walter, this is—”

“Now, now, my lord, calm yourself. It’s not what it seems. She enjoys it.” Walter’s aggrieved tone amused Jurian slightly, but he had to keep a stern face on it. The old war horse seemed so tough, but Jurian could readily believe he had been badgered into this course of action much against his better judgment by the tender pleadings of the spirited little imp this girl had obviously been.

That same imp came to the defense of the lord she thought to be threatened. “Well of course I enjoy it. I was the one who asked to be trained as a squire.”

“So you are content with your lot in life?” Jurian asked. It intrigued him, how different people reacted to their situations. This girl’s was so odd and yet she sounded and acted quite content in her role.

“I am,” she affirmed, “and have no wish to change it. If that is all, my lord…” She addressed this to Walter, not to the man of highest rank in the room and her ultimate liege, Jurian.

He had to admire her spirit. When Walter looked at him in a sort of apology, Jurian answered as if the girl had obeyed protocol and asked leave of him. “You may go about your duties with the thanks of your liege and all his men. Your courage helped us avoid bloodshed and further embarrassment. I commend you on your resourcefulness and nerve.”

And then, to the surprise of all it seemed, if the looks on their faces were to be credited, Alyna, squire trained in all the standard combat skills of the day, blushed a bright red and gave an instinctive curtsy. Covering her face with her hands, she sprang up from the very feminine posture and ran from the room. In her lad’s clothes, this made an interesting picture that Jurian found hard to ignore. He noticed the other men in the room were all looking pointedly away as she made her exit. He would have to remember to develop that habit if he remained in the keep long. It wouldn’t do to dwell on the sight of that tempting backside clad so revealingly in leggings and not sufficiently covered by the shirt and loose tunic she wore belted over them.

Clearing his throat, Jurian took another sip from his mug and returned to the matter at hand. “I hope my arrival is not a surprise to you, my friend. You received my message?”

“I did and the preparations for your coming may have precipitated the Musarts trick. Still, I hope to speed you on your way to pay the ransom for your good father not only as my liege but in some small token of my appreciation of your actions today. Without your help, our small garrison—”

“Would have met the emergency somehow, I feel sure,” Jurian interrupted him. “This visit was most fortuitous, however and I hope to kill more than one bird with this stone. For one thing, I see your garrison here is too small. I shall assign more men here at once.”

Walter looked surprised but pleased. “I think that would be wise.”

“And to have more men trained by your methods would obviously be beneficial to all my forces. What your men did and how they conducted themselves in the face of adversity was quite impressive. As to how you can help me on my way, there is a matter I must discuss with you.” Here Jurian paused, not quite sure how to go on. When it came down to it, the whole thing seemed slightly ridiculous.

Walter tried to smooth over the awkward silence. “How fares my lord the baron? Is there something amiss? I can contribute to the ransom if some of the funds are perhaps lacking?”

Jurian smiled. So many vassals were treated thus, made to contribute to the upkeep of men much wealthier than themselves but Walter should have known better. He shook his head. “It’s not money I need. It’s a wife.”

“A wife? As part of the ransom? But old Aldis is… well, old and me calling him that is saying something indeed.”

“Not for Aldis. For me. As part of the ransom, he demanded that I marry his granddaughter. I have nothing against the girl, but neither have I any wish to be aligned with that old villain any more than I have to be. He took my father with just this demand in mind.”

“Such things are common. Through her he would essentially gain all your family’s substantial holdings. He would have heirs on more than one continent positioned to aid their kindred in any number of political or martial endeavors. Thus is your fate as a nobleman, my lord.”

“Fate, I suppose, but I’ve… given it a bit of a push in the opposite direction. I told Lord Aldis I was already married. Since I have no other brothers for her to marry, there was nothing he could do but agree to accept gold. He did, however, want to meet my bride. It was in fact a condition of my father’s release.”

Walter gave him a knowing look. “And this bride? Where have you hidden her?”

“She’s around here somewhere,” Jurian gave a vague wave of his hand and a grin, hoping Walter would see that the absurdity of the situation was lost on no one. Then changing his tone to one of grave earnest he said, “She has to be. Have you any recommendations?”

Walter sat back, brow furrowed, hand pulling at his beard. “Now, my lord, you have put me in a quandary.”

“Surely there must be some likely lass. A daughter of a knight with some ambition or perhaps a poor relation of yours. No matter how distant, I would enjoy tying our families more closely together.”

“But you see how we live here. Or perhaps you haven’t. No, I suppose not. Rab would have brought you up by the tunnel under the drawbridge. Well, I regret to inform you that none of the men have their wives or families with them. The only women we have are serving girls and most of them are old.”

“But Market Dornley isn’t far. Surely the men have their families there.”

“Indeed they do not. Many of the men haven’t been able to find wives at all, with conditions the way they are here. Of the dozen knights who rotate through this garrison, only two live within a day’s ride of here.”

Jurian shook his head in dismay. “I had not planned to go far in this land where Aldis’s influence is so prevalent. Word might reach him that… well, I need this marriage to happen discreetly.”

“Of course. And it matters little. None of the knights in question have unmarried daughters who are of a suitable age. That’s much of the reason why I had to allow Alyna to grow up as she did. No women ever around to show her how a woman acts, except at the yearly conclave. That’s hardly enough time for her to learn much. She’s a comely enough young lady, you know.”

“A pity she’s so young.”

“She’s nineteen.”

Jurian looked at him in shock. “But she’s so tiny. She barely reaches my chin.”

“Her mother was no bigger than a sparrow herself. She’s full-grown, my lord.”

“Nothing against her of course, but… well, a man needs to sleep some time or other and with her temper, no sane man would feel safe in his own bed.”

“A man wouldn’t have to worry about her temper once she agreed to a match. She’d realize that she owes allegiance to her husband and for her, it would be a matter of honor to maintain her dignity and never work against him in any way. A woman like her does have many advantages.”

“What might those be?”

“For one thing, she’s a very sensible soul. There’ll be no nonsense about her having fallen in love with another man.”

“That I can well believe.”

“And she’s not one to beg for a dress every day or demand you bring her posies.”

“But I wouldn’t mind bringing my wife posies. It’s part of the game. I brought with me expensive gifts I thought would please a woman. A gold bracelet. A silk pillow. Even some candied plums. How would a man win a spit-fire like that? Gift her with a crossbow?”

“Not a bad idea,” Walter commented.

“But she’s… shall we say, my tastes run to someone with more… well, with a little more shape to her. A little more womanly in general.

From the shadows they heard a choking cough and footsteps beating a hasty retreat.

“Who was that?” Jurian demanded.

“The girl in question, if I’m not mistaken. She has a habit of sneaking around unnoticed. And don’t let those footsteps fool you. She may circle back any moment.”

Jurian scowled. “Eavesdropping can be a dangerous habit indeed. It makes me wonder if a quick trip across my knee wouldn’t do her a world of good. Still, I wouldn’t have spoken so freely had I known she was there. I didn’t mean to insult her.”

“She won’t take offense,” Walter said in a reflective tone. “And I’m afraid she’s our only marriageable girl in residence. The more I think of it, the better I like the idea. I had thought to keep her with me, but I’m not getting any younger. I must think of her future.”

“I’ll not be putting her out in the snow, whatever happens, you old scoundrel,” Jurian assured him with a friendly grin. “She’ll be cared for even after… well, always.”

“Still, the son of a baron. Just the thing. I’ll explain to her the circumstances and how useful her marriage will be as an alliance. She’ll come around.”

“But will I?” Jurian asked gloomily.

“Just give the idea some time to settle in. You’ll see the wisdom of it, I’ll wager.”

“I may have to. If there really is no one else… It’s just that I had planned on falling in love with my wife.”

Sir Walter pushed himself to his feet creakily but his arms betrayed a strength built from years of loyal service and training. “It’s early days yet, my lord. Give it time. Rab, perhaps we’d best make a quick sweep around the whole castle to make sure there are no stray Musarts lying around. We can inspect the damage as we go.”

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