Authors: Elizabeth Cole
The tone of the argument grew, breaking through the genial atmosphere of the feast. But Cecily didn’t truly register what was happening until two figures came to their feet.
“What is going on?” Pavia asked, just as worried.
Within seconds, a circle had formed in the crowd, as people backed away from the figures in the center of the great hall. Rafe and Alric had both drawn daggers, and were about to take their argument to a distinctly dangerous level.
Octavian, stood as well, but he only hovered uncertainly. Alric and Rafe had years of history, and whatever feud had just burst out was beyond Octavian’s ability to mediate.
Still, he tried. “This isn’t the time or place…” he began, putting his hands out to each knight in an attempt to bring them back to reason.
“It’s as good a place as any!” Rafe snarled, pushing Octavian out of the way to focus on Alric. “I’ve had enough of your comments, Alric! You never granted me the honor I was due. It’s time we had it out. The survivor can go his merry way.”
“If I never granted you honor, it’s because you never did anything with honor if you could avoid it,” Alric snapped back.
“I am the best of us.”
“Only at fighting! At all the rest, you’re like a child.”
“Well, a fight’s what you seem to want. Shall we?”
“Yes, let’s fight it out,
. So much for your oath.”
Cecily had not the slightest idea what they were talking about, but she watched anxiously as they moved toward the high table, where the floor was clearer.
Next to her, Theobald also watched this exchange, leaning forward with an interested gaze. Both men were known to be excellent fighters in single combat. Alric had a few inches on Rafe, but the smaller man was deadly quick.
Cecily watched in horror. When she saw that her uncle had no intention of stopping it, she took a deep breath and rose from her seat so precipitously that the carved wooden stool rocked back loudly, almost falling. The sound was enough to pull most gazes toward her.
“Stop,” she warned the men. Her voice was too soft to carry, so she repeated herself in a stronger tone. “Stop at once. Do you hear me? How dare you bring violence into this hall!”
Rafe looked back at Alric, but spoke to Cecily. “He’s insulted me once too often. My apologies, Lady Cecily, but this is a matter between men.”
Alric said nothing, only watching Cecily with those dark eyes.
Cecily, seeing that her plea had no effect, crossed her arms. “As the lady of the manor, I forbid any fight or bloodshed on this night.”
Theobald sat back in his carved chair, his gaze falling on the two men, and then Cecily. “Listen to my niece, for she is higher in rank than either of you knights. And she has requested that you not duel.”
“I demand that you not duel,” Cecily corrected. “What madness could possibly lead you, who both survived a five year campaign that has taken comrades of yours to God, to come all the way back home to spill each other’s blood? And in front of women and children? We have laid a feast in your honor, to welcome our men home. This is how you would repay us?” Cecily’s voice grew darker and angrier as she spoke. Her fury was as genuine as it was surprising to nearly everyone who watched her.
Rafe apparently saw a number of advantages to acceding to Cecily’s demands, because he stepped back from Alric and simultaneously lowered his dagger. “If this is your wish, my lady, then so be it.”
Cecily sighed in relief, her rage disappearing as quickly as it had come. She smiled at Rafe. “I thank you, sir.”
“So quick to back off,” Alric muttered. But Rafe only smirked.
“I would never offend a lady by forcing her to watch a scene of violence,” Rafe said, bowing low to Cecily.
Cecily smiled at him, then looked over at Alric.
He scowled, but said, “I will obey. But don’t think yourself absolved, Rafe.”
Cecily watched anxiously until Alric sheathed his blade. The two knights glared at each other, but the immediate threat was over.
“So much for peace,” Pavia noted in a voice low enough that only Cecily heard. “What has come between them, I wonder?”
“It’s a pity,” Theobald said casually, once the normal tone of conversation resumed. “I always wondered who the better man would be.”
“And this is how you find out, Uncle?” Cecily returned. “What sort of omen would it be for our own knights to kill each other?”
“Still,” Theobald mused, watching the scene with a thoughtful, almost worried expression, “those two will someday come to mortal blows. I feel it in my bones.”
Cecily excused herself once the
main meal was over, though the entertainment would continue long into the evening, thanks to the musicians earning their pay in the corner of the hall. The vast quantities of ale and wine consumed were starting to take effect on the guests. The noise grew to a din, laughter mixed with songs and lewd comments. Couples began to slip away into the shadows.
She was quite done with it, and yearned to get out of her finery and into more practical clothing. Just escaping the overheated, smoky hall was a relief. She hurried through the sparsely lit passageways to her chamber.
There, Agnes helped her out of the elaborate gown, and put away all the gold jewelry. But when she gestured for Cecily to remove her shift as well, Cecily said no.
“Where’s my green dress? I need to go to the gardens before I retire.”
“Again! You spent all day there.”
“There’s more work to be done, and it can’t wait till morning,” Cecily explained. “I won’t be long.”
Her companion huffed in disapproval. “You should just sleep in the gardens for as much as you’re out there.”
“But then the fair folk will come take me away,” Cecily teased her nurse.
“Aye they would!” said Agnes. “Carry you off to their hills, and we’d never see you again.”
“What would they need me for?”
“The fair folk always like a beautiful young mortal like yourself.”
Cecily only laughed. “They wouldn’t dare spirit me away from the gardens. They’re too close to the manor.”
“Don’t mock the fairies, girl,” Agnes warned. “They are not to be trusted.”
“I’ll tell Father Anselm you said so.”
Her nurse sniffed. She never respected the priest’s disregard of the supernatural realm.
Cecily felt more like herself once she was wearing her usual attire. Something about the plain wool gown—dyed with heather branches to make a pretty soft green, and always smelling faintly of herbs and soil—made her happy. Then Cecily let her hair down with a relieved sigh, loosing the braids with her fingers so that her hair fell in waves.
“Now the fairies will take you for certain,” Agnes declared.
“I’ll be back in less than an hour,” Cecily said. “You’re not rid of me so easily.”
Intent on her task, she walked briskly down the curving stairwell and through the ground floor hallway toward the courtyard. When a shape moved out from a darkened alcove, she jumped in surprise.
“Don’t fear, my lady,” a voice said. “It’s only me.” Rafe emerged into the flickering light of a sconce, his smile putting her at ease.
She had always thought Rafe was handsome. Even when he was younger, his dark, curling hair and high cheekbones were enough to send many of the local girls into fits of silliness, nearly swooning at his beauty. And those who were not impressed by his face could appreciate his body. Since he was a knight in training, he was in superb physical condition, well-muscled and athletic. He took advantage of his looks quite shamelessly, which was the one thing about him that Cecily never liked. He’d favor one girl for a sennight, then steal a kiss from another.
But surely the years had made him more thoughtful and mature. Time had made him even more attractive. And by his smile, he knew it.
“Did I scare you?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” she said. “You startled me.”
“Then I beg your forgiveness.” Rafe stepped closer and reached for her hand. “I would never deliberately cause a lovely creature such as you any distress.” The kiss he laid on her hand was proper enough, but it also sent a heat through her body.
“It’s quite all right, Sir Rafe,” Cecily said, pulling her hand away.
“I must thank you for your good work earlier,” he went on. “You were right. We should not have brought a petty squabble to your attention, and certainly not at the feast.”
“Petty?” she asked. “You call it petty, yet you would kill a man over the issue?”
Rafe shook his head. “Alric envies me. He has for years.”
“Why should he envy you?” Cecily asked. That made no sense. Alric was not one to dislike another man for no reason. He was one of the fairest people she knew.
“How should I know?” Rafe said. “Maybe he thinks me a threat to his own military reputation. I won several battles for our company, you know.”
“I hadn’t heard,” she said.
“I would tell you all about my deeds, if you like. Some evening soon.”
The look Rafe was giving her made her hot and cold at once.
“But what has that to do with Alric?” she asked, striving to stay on the previous course. “Surely he performed such deeds too.”
“Well, perhaps he’s just jealous that ladies look at me more than him. But is it my fault I’m blessed with this appearance?”
He drew her closer with every word. By the time he finished, she was only inches away from him.
Rafe caught her chin with his free hand, and bent to kiss her directly on the mouth.
Cecily was so shocked that for a moment she didn’t know what to do at all. Her body reacted on some instinctual level to the feel of his mouth on hers. He was far too close to her, his body too hot and too demanding. When his hand trailed to her chest, Cecily put her hands up.
“Please stop that! It’s most improper.” Cecily pulled away, but then found herself trapped between him and the stone wall. How had he turned her around so? “Let me go by.”
“You’re playing games, Lady Cecily. You like it—no more pretending you don’t.” He fingered the neckline of her gown with an intensity that made her queasy.
“Stop it. Let me go by,” she repeated.
“But I don’t want to let you go.”
The sound of a heavy footstep made both Cecily and Rafe look over. Alric stood there, his face impassive. “She told you to let her alone.”
“Stay out of this,” Rafe snapped, his demeanor shifting abruptly, growing darker. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“It does.” The sound of Alric drawing his dagger erased any idea that he was impassive about the situation. “Cecily kept you out of a fight once this evening. If you don’t leave now, she’ll find all that persuasion for naught, because I’ll put a hole in whatever replaced your heart. Your behavior is not worthy of a knight…once again.”
“You exaggerate my actions. We were merely talking. Isn’t that so?” he said, turning to Cecily, who was still staring at Alric. “My lady?” he asked, aware he didn’t have her attention.
“Leave,” Alric said, before Cecily could form any words. “Now.”
Rafe’s lip curled into a sneer, but he left, conscious of Alric’s anger, and the fact that Alric still had a dagger drawn.
“By your leave, Cecily,” he said, his voice softer and more insinuating. Then he walked away.
Cecily waited until Rafe was gone before she spoke.
“I thank you,” she whispered. She was mortified Alric had seen Rafe kiss her, and dearly hoped he wouldn’t think she invited it. “He…he didn’t ask…I didn’t want…”
“May I escort you to your room, my lady?” Alric broke in, saving her from having to make an embarrassed explanation.
She took a quick breath, remembering her task. “If you don’t mind, could you escort me to the gardens?”
He frowned. “The gardens? Why?”
“It’s where I was headed when Rafe waylaid me. I have to go. There are some plants which must be harvested at night.”
Alric nodded in understanding. “Then we go to the gardens. I’ll wait while you work there, and escort you back to your chamber.”
Cecily sighed in relief. She’d been afraid to ask him to do just that, and she feared Rafe would find her again in the relative isolation of the gardens. “Again, I thank you.” She then added, “You always watched over me.”
His iron expression softened at her words. “I didn’t think you remembered.”
Cecily smiled at him, suddenly giddy with happiness. “Alric, you fool. Of course I remember.”