The Maiden and Her Knight
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He did not belong there.
Seated in the shadows cast by the pillars of her father's hall, the man's unfamiliar, stern face flickered in the light of the torch above him as if he were more spirit than mortal, and sent to sit in judgment on them all.
Who was he to come to Montclair Castle and regard them thus? Lady Allis wondered. He was no great and powerful nobleman, or he would not be alone, with no squire or page to serve him. He was not wealthy, for his clothing was plain, made of wool and leather, not fine silks, brocades and damasks. Most strange of all, he wore his long, dark hair loose about his shoulders like some kind of savage.
He moved his head to look at the high table, and Allis quickly turned toward her father, the earl of Montclair. He sat motionless, staring down at the untouched trencher before him. He said nothing, noted nothing, ate and drank nothing, when she had so hoped hosting this tournament would rally him and restore something of his former vitality.
"Again you do the honors well as the lady of Montclair Castle," Rennick DeFrouchette murmured beside her, his voice smooth and slick as oil.
Although he was tall, lean, rich and good-looking, the baron's handsome features could not disguise the greed that gleamed in his cold blue eyes, or the cruelty in the scornful curl of his lip when he regarded all those he considered beneath him, in status or in wealth.
He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed an unwelcome kiss upon it, while his gaze flicked to her breasts. "Your father is very proud of you."
"I hope so, Baron," she replied with a small smile, playing this game because she must.
Turning away, she surveyed the many trestle tables set up in the hall and covered with white linen, candles blazing in holders upon them, or in stands near the walls. In the hearth, a fire burned, providing light and warmth against the April evening's chill.
"You are a most dutiful daughter."
She smiled once more and fought the urge to tell him exactly what she thought of him. She had heard of his harsh punishments for the least offence on his estate and the danger of being a maidservant in his household.
Even sitting this close to him was enough to rob her of her appetite.
"Yet surely every woman longs to be an equally dutiful wife in her own home," the baron continued, toying with the jeweled rings on his left hand, "especially one such as a man like myself can provide. I would see that your father is well cared for, too."
Watched over as if he were a prisoner, as she would be, and her brother and sister, as well.
Once more hiding her disgust, her gaze wandered to the silent man who studied those around him as if he had never seen Normans before. He must have, or he would not be here.
Judging by the breadth of his shoulders and chest, as well as his muscular arms, this man made his living by fighting.
He must not be very successful. He was older than most of the knights gathered here. A man his age should have earned an estate by now, or at least found a place in a lord's service, unless he preferred the freedom of a life unbound by daily duties and responsibilities. He was free to go where he would, and do as he wished. If she were free, she would tell DeFrouchette to go to the devil.
Merva, full figured and of middle years, her brown hair possessing the color and gloss of chestnuts, sauntered into view. She headed toward a group of young knights closest to the stranger.
Merva was not pretty, but she was frank, earthy and loved to jest with the young men. She liked to do more with the young men, too, and as long as that didn't interfere with her duties, Allis turned a blind eye.
The maidservant laughed, a deep, throaty gurgle that drew the stranger's attention. He smiled a small, secretive little smile that lit his formerly grim visage.
Allis wished she had been the one to inspire that smile, to be like Merva for just a little while -- bold and carefree, making suggestive remarks with a wink and a smile, all but demanding what she wanted. She would walk right up to that stranger and ask him if he thought he was Samson to have such hair. Perhaps he would smile and suggest she be his Delilah. They would laugh and look meaningfully at each other, and share more banter and maybe he would maneuver her into that dark corner and try to steal a kiss -- playfully, of course, and yet how her blood would race ...just as it was now as she imagined being in his arms.
Baron DeFrouchette squeezed her hand, hard enough to hurt. "My lady, I fear you are ignoring me."
She gently extricated her hand from his grasp. "I was looking for my brother."
"He is listening to the squires boast."
She followed the baron's gesture and spotted twelve-year-old Edmond with the young men who were in a knight's service until they themselves were knighted. Not surprisingly, her brother had a rapturous expression on his face. Nothing would please him more than to be a squire and then a knight.
"Your sister is likewise enjoying herself."
He nodded toward Isabelle, who sat nearby, surreptitiously watching the squires. Her fifteen-year-old sister wore her finest gown of rich emerald-green cendal that shone in the flickering lights, and her most precious jewelry, a pendant of gold and emeralds that had been their mother's. Her long blond hair, a shade darker than Allis's, was woven into two braids, and the ends encased in pointed silver casings.