Knowing Yourself - Sample Chapter
Chapter 1England, 1174
If you cannot find the truth right where you are,
where else do you expect to find it?
Kay’s mouth fell open at the deliciously sinful display of stunning male physiques, her eyes thoroughly examining each man in turn, admiring the thick, corded muscles of their arms; the finely chiseled lines of their jaws; the finger-twiningly-dense hair dancing in the autumn wind - red, blond, brunette, black, tawny gold. A sensual thrill coursed through her, flushing her with tingling warmth. She could choose any man in that group to be her husband and he would instantly, willingly, loyally come to her side. The awesome power intoxicated her to her very core.
She turned to Em, nudging her blonde sister with playful delight as they peered through the thick tapestry curtains of the coach window. “Are you sure I can only keep one of them?” Kay joked in a low voice. “It might be useful to have a spare husband around, in case of trouble.” Her eyes were drawn to the tawny mane of hair a second time, her gaze sliding down from his shoulders; her breath caught as she sized up the thickness of his biceps.
Her voice grew hoarse. “I am sure I could find all sorts of uses for a back-up knight with that kind of build.”
Em put a hand over her mouth to muffle the flurry of giggles that began to erupt. She adjusted her position slightly to account for her large, round abdomen, visible evidence of the child she had been carrying for the past six months. “It took our father long enough to convince you to use this process in the first place,” she chuckled in merriment. “If he realized you were now enjoying it, I am sure it would put his mind at ease.”
Kay shook her head. “I still do not agree with the principle of it,” she commented more quietly. Her eyes drew slowly along each man who stood on the keep steps, the group being presented with a final set of instructions by an elderly man with sparse grey hair, his elegant brown cloak concealing a frail frame. She knew her father, Lord Weston, was doing his best to present a strong front to his future sons-in-law.
Kay kept her eyes on his slowly moving figure. “I turned down the previous suitors because I found them sadly lacking. For father to force me to choose from one of these five men seems outrageous. What if none of them end up being what we need to defend Serenor Keep?”
Em’s mouth grew into a wide smile. “Surely, sis, you have to believe one of those men would be suitable to stand by your side?”
Kay had to admit that the group had far exceeded her expectations. Her father had sent word the length and breadth of England in his search, bringing in five worthy, eligible bachelors who were interested in control of the seaside tower. All five men had agreed up front to put themselves in the hands of this selection process – to vie against each other for Kay’s hand in marriage. Now they were being told the particular rules of the game.
Suddenly all five men’s heads turned sharply to stare at the coach, and both women instantly pulled back into the dark interior, their hearts pounding, looking at each other before bursting into a fresh round of laughter. Kay had to take several deep breaths before she could bring herself to speak again.
“I think they have just been told they cannot see what I look like until I have made my final decision,” she chortled merrily. “By their reactions, they were none too pleased at that little tidbit!”
Em’s shoulders were shaking with mirth as she leant back against the embroidered seat. “Still, you have to admit Father hit on a stroke of genius there,” she countered. “By having me play at the shy target of their attentions, you can roam free as my maid servant, watching the men close up, seeing how they talk about the keep and each other behind my back.”
“Are you sure you are ready for this, to be sequestered in the top level of the keep for perhaps several weeks?” asked Kay, her voice becoming more somber. “If none of the men can see you, but they need to occasionally speak with you, it is the only way to maintain the charade. Surely you will get claustrophobic after a few days in that tiny apartment.”
Em shook her head. “I am looking forward to it,” she confided to her younger sister. “Between Eric’s whirlwind courtship, and our wedding, I have not had five minutes by myself. I am about to become a mother - a full time job if ever there was one.” She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “This may be the only vacation I get for decades; the only time to be by myself, to luxuriate in quiet, to sit, to read, to just think. I am going to enjoy every second of it.”
“Will you miss Eric?” asked Kay, pressing.
A wistful look came over Em’s face, and she looked towards the thick, dark curtains which shaded the window, laying a hand against them for a moment. “Yes,” she admitted quietly. “He has been my rock, been by my side for so long now that it was extremely hard to part from him.” A faint smile lit her face. “Still, it is only for a few weeks, and as they say, absence makes the heart grow more fond. I will keep a journal for him, and he is doing the same for me. It will be interesting to share those once we are reunited.”
She drew her gaze tenderly to her sister. “Besides, this looks to be our final outing as siblings. I will have my home here, with Eric, and you will have yours out at Serenor. I am going to enjoy spending time with you for these next few weeks and will find it hard to be separated when the time comes.”
Kay gave her a nudge. “I am sure we can visit, once we are both old, married women, but I agree completely. This will be our chance to play at dice, to share confidences, and to have one last gasp of freedom before we are both chasing after children.”
Em offered a wink, then reached beneath her seat, drawing out a stoppered, blue glass bottle. “Then, I think it is time for us to celebrate,” she chuckled, pulling out the cork and handing it over to her sister. “A toast to our futures!”
Kay took a long pull, and suddenly the coach gave a gentle jerk as it moved into a quiet rhythm. The sound of numerous men on horseback swelled around them, and a sudden tremor of nervousness shot through her. It was all in motion now. There was no turning back, no second thoughts. By nightfall they would be at the keep, and the games would begin. She would have to give herself over to one of these men.
She thought back to the line of strong shoulders she had examined. Perhaps things were not so bad. She took another swig and smiled. Not so bad at all.
* * *
The hours drifted by in a lethargic haze of merry expectations and teasing. By the time the coach pulled in for an afternoon stop, the women were flushed with laughter. A familiar low growl sounded by their window.
“Ladies, it is Leland,” he called through the curtain. “I have sent my lad, Eli, to escort the five gentlemen over the ridge and a ways up the road. He will ensure they stay there until we catch up with them. You will have a chance to stretch your legs unseen.”
Before he had finished speaking, Em was up and moving, throwing open the door of the coach, taking his proffered hand and stepping out into the sunlight. Kay was only a moment behind her, and they stretched with relish, looking around them at the rolling meadows, at the blue-grey mountains in the distance.
Kay smiled in amusement as she turned and looked over Leland. He was wearing a priest’s restrained habit – a long, black, simple tunic without any adornments. His ever-present sword was nowhere to be seen. She shook her head in merriment.
“How are you going to survive the weeks up at that small chapel, Leland?” she asked, her eyes sparkling. “This is quite a demotion from captain of the guard!”
Leland’s thick brown brows came together over a well-weathered face. “I consider it a duty of the highest order to look after you two,” he responded, his eyes moving between the two women. “Serenor will have only a skeleton staff on hand. Your father wants the potential lords to be able to settle in without having many there to contest their orders and ways. We need to see how they will act when they feel like the ‘man in charge’.” He smiled fondly at the two women. “Still, I will be glad to be watching from the hill, keeping an eye on things.”
Kay found her eyes scanning forward, over the rise to where the men were waiting. “They will be like five stallions, fighting for control of the herd,” she mused with a chuckle. “It will certainly be something to see.”
The women spent another few minutes stretching and enjoying the fresh air, then Em gave a long, loud yawn. “I think I am about ready for an afternoon nap,” she admitted. “How are you feeling?”
Kay rolled her shoulders. “Like I want to meet these men for myself,” she grinned. She moved to the back of the coach, unhitching her horse and throwing the reins over his head. She mounted with smooth ease, drawing up alongside the vehicle. “Rest well, sis.”
“You behave yourself,” smiled Em back at her. “Remember, you are a maid servant now. None of that sassy backtalk, or I shall have to punish you.”
Kay grinned widely. “I will be the epitome of quiet grace,” she promised serenely. Both sisters burst into peals of laughter, and then Em climbed into the coach, drawing the small wooden door shut with a solid thunk. Leland pulled up alongside Kay, and with a nod the coachman shook out the reins, getting the horses into motion again. The group slowly made its way along the peaceful dirt road, the hoofbeats keeping time with the warbling of birds and the gentle whisper of the autumn breeze.
Kay found herself unconsciously smoothing down her simple burgundy dress, and she wondered if the dark braids of her hair were still neatly in place. She grinned wryly as they crested the hill. It did not matter, of course. To the five men waiting down in the valley she was naught but a serving girl. They were anxiously awaiting the woman in the coach, not this slender horsewoman who rode with the middle-aged priest. Still, she had her pride, and she wanted to make a good impression. It would serve her best if the men tolerated her presence so that she could overhear their conversations, learn more about them in their unguarded moments.
The men had remained mounted and were lined up along the side of the road, watching her approach with interest. She nudged her horse with her calves, moving into a trot, and Leland matched her action, staying at her side until they reached the quintet.
Leland nodded to the group. “Gentlemen,” he rumbled, “This is Kay, the lady-in-waiting to Keren-happuch. As Lord Weston has indicated, Kay here will be your main means of contact with Keren-happuch other than your allotted daily half-hour of conversation with his daughter through a curtain.”
Leland turned to face the woman at his side. “Kay, let me introduce you to the men vying for your lady’s hand.”
The red-head spoke up immediately. “I am Uther,” he announced, sweeping himself down into a flourishing bow. He wore a flamboyant turquoise tunic with yellow piping along its edges, and his emerald cloak was pinned at his massive neck with a broach with five different colors of gems. His eyes slid down her form with interest, and his grin had widened by the time he met her gaze again. “I am looking forward to spending time with you.”
“I am sure you are,” agreed Kay with a gracious smile, turning her gaze easily to the next man in line.
“Alistair is my name,” stammered the brown-haired man, nervously brushing down his neatly tailored grey tunic. Kay wondered if he had spent time in front of a mirror with a ruler, his creases were so sharp and perfectly aligned. He sat up straight in his saddle, holding his reins at an exact right angle. “I heard from the soldiers at the keep that you will be taking daily prayer with Father Leland each morning at the chapel?”
Kay’s eyes flashed to Leland’s, and she bit back a smile. She would certainly be visiting him each morning to bring news, as well as to get in some sword training away from prying eyes. The prayer story seemed a perfect cover for her activities.
“Yes,” she confirmed, her eyes dropping in demure propriety. “Rest assured that I will be back in ample time to chaperone the morning talks you each have with Keren-happuch. I would not let my personal time interfere with that.”
“I find it admirable that you set aside time for prayer,” continued Alistair, color rising to his cheeks. “It is a mark of quality in you, and reflects well on your Lady.”
“I will be sure to let her know that,” promised Kay with a quick nod, desperately holding in her merriment at the likely reaction her sister would have to the news.
“I am Jack,” stated the third man sharply, his eyes moving from Kay up to the coach which was slowly drawing close to them. He wore a well-tailored white tunic, and the crisp cut of his blond hair matched the frosty gaze in his eyes. “I am not sure I like the rules of this game. I like to know exactly what the prize is I am playing for.”
The man at his side grinned. “You are welcome to resign, if you do not enjoy the odds,” he suggested. “Galeron here,” he added to Kay, his eyes twinkling. His black hair lay in curls against his head and his bright crimson tunic was matched by a long, flowing cloak of the same color. He gave a gentle bow to her. “I, for one, am intrigued by the conditions, and look forward to our contest.”
“Glad to meet you,” welcomed Kay with a smile. She turned her gaze to the final man.
He waited quietly, patiently, his green-grey eyes a peaceful pool, and yet she could see the strength in his arms, the firmness in his thighs where they pressed against his horse’s flank. His tawny hair fell to his shoulders in thick waves, and the sword on his left hip seemed well used, well cared for. He wore a leather tunic, a simple design tracing along the edges.
She found herself speaking first. “I am Kay,” she murmured, subdued by his presence, by the calm way he held himself. It was as if he had all the time in the world, and speaking with her was the only thing on his mind.
“I am pleased to meet you,” offered the man with a smooth bow. “My name is Reese.”
The coach had reached them, and the men automatically fell in before it, setting into easy motion. Kay and Leland tucked in behind them, with Eli moving to Kay’s other side, his fresh blond curls bouncing lightly around his young face.
Kay turned to the lad with a smile. “So, what do you think of our adventure?” She had known the page all her life, and while he was a few years younger than her, they had spent many enjoyable hours sparring together.
“Are you kidding?” he responded in incredulous glee, his wiry frame tense with excitement. “To spend several weeks as the sole pupil of Leland? I could not have dreamt up a better assignment!”
Alistair’s quiet voice echoed faintly back from the group ahead. “Now there is a lad with his priorities straight,” he intoned with relish. “You hold with your religious ideals, boy, and you can achieve great heights.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Eli, giving Kay a wink. “I will do my very best.”
“More boys should be like him,” continued Alistair, turning to Uther, his voice growing slightly louder. “Too many waste all day solely on physical achievements; they neglect their mind and their spirit.” He glanced on either side of him. “Not only the men. I hear tell that some women in this region are familiar with the use of a blade. Can you imagine?”
Uther gave out a loud, guffawing chortle, throwing his head back, his red hair shining in the autumn sun. “A woman, using a blade?” He glanced down the line of men, his smile wide. “There is one use for a woman in regards to a man’s blade, and she would be the sheath!”
The line of men chuckled at the joke, and Kay saw a twinkle even in Reese’s quiet calm. Her spine stiffened. She and her sister had been training in both dagger and short sword since they were young, and were quite able to defend themselves if necessary. The skill had been expected of them, between the bandits roaming the mountains and the nearness of their rivals, the MacDougals. A dozen retorts sprang to her lips, and she cut them back with sharp effort. She was a maid servant now, not one to be reprimanding the men.
Her head snapped to the side. “Leland, I am going to ride ahead. I feel the need for some fresh air.”
Leland nodded across her to Eli, and in a moment she and the blond were cantering down the road, then stretching into a liberating gallop. The wind rushed through her hair, pulling the braids loose, and she was swept away in the motion, in the sure reaching of her steed’s muscles beneath her, feeling his joy in the race. Beside her, Eli’s face was wreathed in smiles, and they thundered towards the horizon, towards the meeting of the pale blue sky and fresh green carpet beneath.
She was going home. Not the home where she had been born, not the sturdy, large, noisy castle of her youth. She was heading towards the final outpost against the tossing waves, where she had been conceived, where she had spent every spare vacation, holiday, chance of escape. The round tower high over the ocean, the sturdy encompassing walls with their walk, the quiet bailey within, holding all one could need during a snowy winter or a languorous summer. She loved every season there, every time of day, every second. It was waiting for her, up ahead, if only she could ride more quickly.
Eli reined in alongside her, and she reluctantly pulled in to match.
He looked back over his shoulder. “We really should not get too far from the main party,” he pointed out quietly. “You know as well as I do -”
Kay nodded in understanding, wheeling her horse in a circle, heading back towards the caravan at a gentle canter. Time drifted by as they rode, and it seemed too soon when they saw the group ahead, pulled up into a trot, moved past the five men to wheel easily in place alongside Leland.
Leland looked over their flushed faces. “Have a nice ride?” he asked Kay with mild curiosity. “See anything interesting?”
“No bandits, no MacDougals,” reported Kay with a wide smile, giving her steed’s neck a pat. “Just a nice chance to stretch the legs.”
Jack’s sharp voice came back to her. “You rode well, for a girl,” he snapped, turning his head with a crisp motion, his blond hair ruffling in the wind. “It is important for women to handle themselves rationally in case of trouble. I assume your lady can ride as ably?”
“She rides just as well as most men I know,” retorted Kay, piqued by the tone of the comment. “My lady is an avid horsewoman.”
“Good for her,” agreed Jack, nonplussed by her reaction. “Unfortunately, I will not have a chance to see her in action myself before this little game has played out. I will have to rely on your word for it, assuming you speak truly.”
Kay’s throat tightened in outrage. “My word is my honor,” she growled, her spine stiffening. “You would dare imply -”
Galeron shook his head, his black curls dancing. “My, you are feisty for a maid servant,” he interrupted, glancing back at her. “It speaks well for Keren-happuch’s nature, that she has such an able companion at her side.”
Kay pursed her lips, taking in a long, deep breath, settling back into her saddle. Galeron was right. She had to draw a tighter rein on her feelings and emotions if she were to get through this ordeal. She glanced at Eli and saw the twinkle of amusement in his young eyes. She nodded with a quick movement to the left, and in a moment the two had drawn their horses aside, circled them around and come up behind the coach, where they could no longer hear the men talking.
Eli flashed a bright smile at her. “Before we left, Leland wagered that you would not last ten minutes with them before one of the men riled you,” he teased. “They certainly seem an arrogant bunch.”
“Not all of them,” pondered Kay. “They do seem to be quite different from each other. I suppose I will have to see, over time, what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
“Maybe, if you do not spend the weeks in shouting matches,” smiled Eli. His eyes sparkled. “You may yet find yourself spending more and more time in ‘prayer’ with us up at the chapel.”
“I may at that,” agreed Kay, her face brightening. “I suppose there is always that option, to hide out with you and Leland.”
Eli shook his head in merriment. “If your father heard about that, he would tan all of our hides for stretching this process out longer than it needed.”
“He made the rules, not me,” countered Kay with a laugh. “I can take as long as I wish – and my decision is final.”
“Well then,” mused Eli, giving his steed’s mane a fond pat, “I will enjoy every moment of this vacation!”
Kay found herself relaxing into the ride. She and Eli stretched out into a canter several more times over the afternoon, racing ahead with the hawks, returning reluctantly to the slow-moving group.
Soon the road came up along the cliffs against the ocean. She took in a lung-filling breath, relishing the salt air, the crisp freshness, the even rhythm of the swells as they moved out as far as the eye could see. She could not hold back – she spun out into a gallop, Eli at her side. Together they rode until she drew that familiar jolt of pleasure, coming over the ridge, seeing the keep’s tower in the distance, the protective curtain wall, secure and strong and safe.
Home. She was home.
She thundered ahead, her heart soaring, an absolute sense of peace filling her with every hoofbeat. A lone white birch came into view, planted to the right side of the path, and she drew in, slowing to a canter, then finally a walk. She settled into a stop by the tree’s side. Her horse edged alongside the slender trunk, nibbling at the grass tufting at its base. She patted the birch’s bark fondly, her hand tracing the numerous small indents in its leathery skin, her eyes looking forward to the keep before her. Several men were on the walls now, and one swept his hand in a long wave. She put both hands up above her head, returning the welcome, her heart filling with joy.
She sat gazing at the keep for a long while, a sense of calm filling her while slowly the sound of hoofbeats grew behind her, infiltrating into her being. She waited patiently as the group drew up alongside her.
“Serenor,” she stated simply, gazing at the keep with love. She drew her eyes reluctantly from its grey walls, turning to look across the men at her side.
Uther’s eyes lit up with delight, his red face flushed, and Kay’s breast sparked with hope. Maybe the men would adore the land as much as she did!
The red-head licked his lips with relish. “They have a feast laid out for us, surely,” he commented with growing interest. “I am starved!” He spun his eyes to meet Kay’s. “Tell me that all the serving wenches are as comely as you, and I shall be forever in your debt.”
“They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so you should be all set,” she snapped in disappointment, her eyes moving towards his protruding belly.
Uther guffawed, patting the roll with a smile. “A pillow for the head, my lass,” he teased, giving her a sly wink.
Alistair nodded in approval. “The keep,” he observed in a thin voice, “is much like the monastery in Aird Mhór, Ireland where I spent many years in training. Aloof, isolated. I like that.”
Kay relaxed slightly, her eyes moving along the line of men. She did enjoy the quiet here, although … aloof? She found her home to be well settled in its landscape, not held apart from it. She would have called it snug … safe …
Jack’s icy eyes swept the rolling hills which surrounded the keep, his eyes resting on the white birch trees which lay ringed in a loose semi-circle every few hundred yards. “Good defensive layout, and these trees …” He rode over to the one Kay had stopped at, eyeing its trunk. He nodded in satisfaction. “About two hundred yards.”
Alistair looked more carefully at its bark. “The tree is diseased,” he scoffed. “It should be taken down immediately, before it can infect the others with its wasting.”
Galeron chuckled in amusement. “No, my dear monkish friend,” he corrected gently. “Those are arrow marks.”
Alistair looked back at the keep again, shaking his head. “An arrow, from that distance? Unlikely.” His eyes came back to the trunk again. “Besides, those are not simply gouges in the bark. They look like black mildew.”
Reese had been staring at the keep, a distant look in his eyes, and only now did he turn his head to gaze at the birch. “Flame arrow,” he remarked easily, glancing at the marks. “Someone enjoys night shooting, I imagine.”
Uther rolled his eyes. “It matters not,” he grumbled, turning away. “Let us get going, dinner is waiting!”
The group ambled into motion again, and Kay’s eyes were glued on the keep; she could see nothing else as they rode down the slope, the structure growing ever larger in her vision. There were the top floor windows, looking into the private chambers which would be Em’s only world for the coming weeks. Below that were the public rooms – the main hall, the study, the sitting room. The ground floor held the barracks, the pantries, the rooms the men would be occupying. Then down below ground, the storage chambers, the cell or two where drunks would sleep off their intoxication.
As they drew near the moat, Leland waved the men back, and they pulled aside, allowing the coach to move forward with Kay on one side, Eli on the other. The main doors of the curtain wall were pulled closed behind them as they passed into the bailey, and Kay was off her horse in a moment, running lightly up to the coach, pulling open its door.
Em blinked sleepily at the evening light, stretching wearily before taking Kay’s hand and descending out from the coach. “That was blissful,” she sighed with a smile. “The gentle rocking, the peace and quiet, I could not have asked for better.” She rolled her shoulders and looked around her. “Now I am starving,” she admitted.
“We will get you up to your quarters, and see about sending up food right away,” promised Kay, tucking her arm beneath Kay’s. Eli came promptly around to Em’s other side and together they escorted her toward the main gate, offering friendly waves to the guards and servants who they passed along the way. They turned right at the main barracks, taking the spiral stairs at one side of the room, moving slowly upwards.
A buxom blonde with long, cascading curls met them in the main hall. “Greetings, ladies,” she welcomed, dropping a curtsy as they paused for a moment. Her smile widened as she looked over Em’s rounded belly. “Why Mary Magdalene, you look ready to pop!”
Em gave her an amused look. “Now, Anne, you know for the coming weeks I must only be referred to by my sister’s name – Keren-happuch. If this is to work -”
Anne blushed deep crimson, and she put her hand over her mouth in dismay. “Oh, and we were told that repeatedly over the past days, too!” She looked between the two women. “I promise, I will not make that mistake again.”
Kay’s eyes twinkled. “You better not,” she teased gently. “With all the effort we are putting into this deception, it would be a shame to have it ruined by a stray word.”
Em smiled. “In the meantime,” she added, “I am in fact ready to eat a horse. Could you bring up some food to the solar?”
Kay nudged her sister. “Not horse meat,” she corrected. “With all the trouble I put into raising them, I hardly want them ending up on our menu.”
Anne giggled. “Tonight is rabbit stew,” she informed the duo. “I will have a large bowl up to you in just a moment!” She turned and scampered down the stairs, and was lost to sight in an instant.
Kay and Eli retook their positions on either side of Em, and moving slowly and steadily, made their way with her up the second flight of stairs towards the top floor. An alert guard was waiting on the landing, and smiled in greeting as she came up to the small space. He pulled open the door for her, and in a moment they were securely closed into the solar.
Kay immediately went to the bank of windows overlooking the front gates and gave a large wave with her arms. There was an answering motion from above the gates, and with a shuddering movement the wooden doors pulled open, allowing the six men to ride in and dismount. Kay turned from them, watching as Eli helped her sister settle onto one of the couches in the large, well-appointed room.
Em pulled off her boots, then her socks, stretching her toes languorously before lowering them to dig them into the thick fur carpet. “Ah, here we go, my vacation hideaway,” she smiled, looking around her at the tapestries, the many windows, the shelves with codices and musical instruments. She turned to Eli. “You will bring up my clothes and journals? Normally, I would be fine to handle that myself, but …” She looked down at her stomach wryly.
“Of course, M’Lady,” confirmed Eli with a smile. “It is no problem at all. You just relax; I am sure your food will be up to you shortly.”
He headed out towards the stairs. Kay plunked herself down alongside her sister, stretching out her own feet, looking around. Em was right. The solar was peaceful, quiet, a perfect resting spot. The three bedrooms behind them were warm and comfortable. This would work out quite wonderfully.
She sat for several long minutes, unwinding after the day on the road, watching as the sunset sent long fingers of dusky hue in through the tall windows.
Em finally turned to smile at her younger sister. “I will get the curtain set up for our morning talks later,” she mused, “but in the meantime, you should probably head down to enjoy dinner with our honored guests.”
“I was thinking I could keep you company up here,” murmured Kay, her shoulders dropping slightly. “I am worn out by the newcomers already, and could share in your peaceful isolation for a while.”
Em shook her head in amusement. “Duty calls,” she reminded Kay. “It is time for you to start learning just what makes these men tick. Knowledge is power, after all!”
Kay sighed, but she stood. Em was right. The sooner she began sorting out the men, the sooner she could start deciding who to eliminate from the list. She gave her sister a fond pat on the shoulder, then moved over to the sturdy door. Pushing through, she nodded to the guard, then made her way down the spiral toward the great hall.
Anne was just heading up with the meal as she reached the hall, and Kay smiled at the blonde, then headed through the maze of tables. The servants and soldiers all waved in friendly greeting as she moved across the busy room. She gave an inward sigh of relief that any spoken greetings were of her nickname, “Kay”. While her sister might still be treated formally by the staff, she had been at the keep for so long, and gotten to know the inhabitants so well, that her familiar Kay nickname was the only name ever used for her. It would serve her well in the coming adventure.
Her throat tightened as she came up to the head table. The five men had already taken their seats along its length. Uther was sprawled in her father’s chair, his red hair shining in the torchlight. He was tugging on Jessica’s arm, pulling the brown-haired serving maid against him, whispering something into her ear.
Alistair was staring around him with wide eyes, his gaze going to the high ceilings above, across to the tapestries lining the walls, the trio of windows opening out over the bailey below. He took a cautious sniff of the mug of ale, then drank in a long draw of the brew, his face relaxing into a smile.
Jack looked up sharply as she approached, his eyes scouring her. “Should you not be with your mistress?” he snapped, his voice rich with condemnation. All five eyes went to meet hers with varying degrees of interest and curiosity.
Kay found herself blushing at the implied accusation of wrongdoing, and bit her tongue to hold back on her initial feisty response. She carefully arranged her features into a quiet, dutiful look. “My mistress requested that I consume my dinner at your side. In that way I can answer any questions you might have and familiarize you with the keep and its environs.”
Galeron nodded in approval. “Of course my dear,” he agreed, running his hand idly through his dark curls. “I have countless questions to ask you.” He withdrew a small wood-framed wax tablet from a pouch at his side, as well as an iron stylus.
Reese pulled out the chair at his side. “Perhaps she could get some food into her first,” he suggested in a low murmur. She nodded her thanks, moving into the spot, sighing as she sat at the far end of her own table.
It was only for a few weeks. She could get through this.
A mug of ale was set down before her and she reached for it with weary relief.
“Let us say grace,” intoned Alistair in a monotone. Kay let the air out of her in a long, soundless sigh, but dropped her head, lacing her fingers together.
Alistair’s voice carried out over the hall. “Dear Lord, let us be thankful for our safe journey today, and our arrival in this place of godliness. We seek every day to do our duty to You, to act with honor and courage. Let us always find the peaceful solution to problems and act within Your wishes. Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed Kay, picking up her tankard again, draining down half of it in a long draw. Then Anne was at her side, laying down a bowl of rich stew, and the scent was heavenly. She dug into it with enthusiasm, its warmth filling her, nourishing her.
“So, tell us about the keep,” instructed Galeron, placing his wax tablet carefully on the table before him, taking up his stylus. “Four floors with a round tower construction. Good defensive structure. The curtain wall can be walked along its entire circumference?”
“Yes,” agreed Kay between bites, watching as he wrote. Reese reached over to pass the basket of rolls, offering her one, and she took the warm bread with a smile, nodding her thanks. “The round tower was put in about eighty years ago; it is harder to undermine, and more easily able to deflect projectiles. We are on the central floor here.”
She tossed her head towards the spiral stairs at the front of the room. “Your rooms are down below, on the ground floor. Tomorrow morning you will see the top floor, when you have your meetings with my lady.”
She still found it hard to call her sister by her own full name, the unwieldy moniker of Keren-happuch her father had saddled her with. She and her sister had barely been able to talk when they had agreed to call each other simply by their initials, K and M.
“How many soldiers are in residence?” continued Galeron in a friendly tone, making notes.
“We have a constable, then four shifts of five men each for the walls,” listed Kay, taking a bite of her roll. “Three men to guard the solar, and four shifts of four men to ride the roads.”
“You knew that rather easily,” offered Galeron, his eyes rising to meet hers.
She ate another mouthful of her bread, savoring the melting butter. “I like to know who is ensuring my safety,” she responded with a smile. “I make it my business to be aware of what goes on around me.”
He nodded. “So that makes … thirty nine men?”
Reese shook his head. “Forty,” he corrected in a low tone.
“Oh, right,” agreed Galeron, re-checking his notes. “With the constable, of course.”
Jack took a pull on his ale, his eyes cold. “That seems rather light for such an important outpost, does it not?”
The muscles in Kay’s jaw clenched. Patience, she reminded herself. She let a deliberate breath out, relaxing by force of will. She could do this. She gave the excuse, as her father had instructed. “As we are in harvest season, a portion of our men have been sent out to guard the villages while their crops are being gathered and brought to safe storehouses.”
Reese chuckled at her side. “I am sure the excess men’s departure was hastened by our impending arrival here,” he murmured under his breath.
She glanced over and caught the twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Yes,” she admitted, a smile growing on her face. “That did have something to do with it.”
Alistair’s face wrinkled in confusion. “What? Did you think we would be so foolish as to launch an attack on someone, if we had troops at our disposal? We are peaceful men!” He began nervously fumbling with his mug, turning it in place.
Galeron glanced up from his writing. “No, Alistair,” he corrected with a lenient smile. “Kay means that we are already five powerful dogs battling for the lead of a pack. Lord Weston undoubtedly wanted us to have as few external challengers as possible. That way we would only have each other to crash up against.”
Uther gave out a merry shout, raising his tankard high. “Less competition for the wenches!” he triumphed, drawing Jessica down onto his lap as she passed, laughing as she pulled from his arms and scampered nervously back towards the stairs.
Kay looked down, taking in a spoonful of stew, then another, focusing on her food. It was only the first night. She would get used to them, used to their way of acting, grow more tolerant of their questions.
Galeron’s voice needled into her thoughts. “So,” he prodded, “on to the beasts. Do you have any horses of note here?”
Kay’s resolve dissolved in an instant. She could not take any more. She was quite proud of her steeds, and to hear them flippantly dismissed as beasts … she swallowed one more spoonful of stew, grabbed another roll from the basket, then stood.
“I think I will retire for the evening, gentlemen. I will be out at the chapel at dawn, but I look forward to spending time with you and Keren-happuch starting at nine. Each of us will spend a half hour together.”
Jack’s eyes were sharp on hers. “Who goes first?” he snapped, his blond hair seeming to bristle in the firelight.
Kay’s mouth folded into a wolfish grin. “I leave that to you five to work out,” she chuckled, her spirits lifting. “That should keep you busy for a while.”
She turned and strode to the far end of the room, her feet moving lightly down the spiral stairs. In a moment she was crossing the dark courtyard, reaching the curtain wall, and walking carefully up the stone steps which ran along the front left edge. A heartbeat or two later she was on top of the wall, leaning against the crenellated edging, taking in a long, deep breath of the fresh night air. A large moon hung glowing in the sky, sending a silvery light across the landscape, illuminating the ring of occasional birch trees, the scattering of scrubs, sending a glint off the small stone chapel high on the hills to the far left.
A few minutes drifted by in quiet calm, and her shoulders finally lost their tight tension. Footsteps came from along the wall, and in a moment Jevan was alongside her, his dark guard uniform nearly blending in with the shadows.
He leaned against the wall at her side. “There you are,” he greeted. He gazed down at her, his eyes sparkling with delight. “Had enough of the suitors?”
“You know it,” agreed Kay, looking at him with fond tenderness. She brushed a stray leaf from his short, blond hair, verging on silver in the moonlight. Jevan had practically raised her in this place, and seemed more a favored uncle than a guardsman to her. “It does not matter. I am just happy to be home again.”
He wrinkled his short nose, looking back out over the rolling hills with a steady eye. “We are happy to have you back, Kay, even with your rowdy entourage.”
Slow footsteps sounded on the stairs, and they both turned to look. Reese came up to the landing, then stopped in surprise as he saw the two standing along the wall.
“I am sorry,” he apologized in a low voice. “I did not mean to intrude.”
Jevan swept his arm in a welcoming gesture. “Not at all,” he offered. “We are always happy for another pair of eyes.”
Reese came up to the other side of Kay, leaning against the granite, looking out over the misty landscape. Kay could almost feel his muscles relax as he gazed out over the undulating grass.
He let out a breath. “I had not expected this,” he murmured, his eyes sweeping out towards the mountains in the far distance.
Kay turned her eyes to his in idle curiosity. “Expected what?”
Reese glanced up in surprise, flushing slightly. “The beauty,” he admitted after a moment. “My father led me to believe this a barren corner of the earth, a rocky promontory of grey bleakness.”
Kay nodded, turning to look back out at the quiet distance. “I am sure some would see that,” she agreed without censure. “There are some who would consider it a burden to be assigned for duty out here.”
Jevan’s eyes shone with enthusiasm. “Those we send back,” he chimed in. “We would not have any on our walls who did not share our passion for this keep.”
Kay smiled, nudging him. “There is a truth,” she vowed.
She continued to sweep the hills with her eyes, and suddenly she stiffened. At her side Jevan was instantly following her gaze, peering out into the blackness with a steady frown.
Reese leant forward. “What is it?” he whispered, his eyes searching the shadows.
After a long moment she relaxed, smiling. “A sign of good luck. A stag with a pair of does.”
Reese glanced at Jevan. “Do you see them?”
Jevan shook his head, continuing to gaze out into the mists. “If Kay says she sees them, then they are there. She has better night vision than anyone here. We are always glad to have her with us on the wall at night.”
Reese continued to stare out, and in a moment he tilted his head to one side. “Wait, I think I hear …” His turned his gaze towards the north, and nodded. “There they come,” he added, pointing.
Jevan followed his finger, and a broad smile came across his face. “Good luck indeed,” he congratulated. “Shall I get the bow?”
Kay put her hand on his arm. “Let them be,” she requested. “They bring us blessings, and we should let them pass in peace for the night.”
Jevan’s grin widened. “Jessica will let us have it when she hears we allowed a venison steak to wander past untouched.”
Reese’s face was carefully neutral. “I think Jessica has her hands full with Uther for the evening,” he observed.
Kay shook her head, her mood darkening. “Men,” she snapped in disgust.
Jevan nudged up against her with familiar playfulness. “Not all of us are like that, Kay,” he teased. “Do not lump us all in as one. You would hardly want to be considered ‘just a woman.’”
“That is for sure,” agreed Kay with a smile, shaking off her clouds. She gave Jevan a playful tweak on his short nose, then took one long last look across the darkened hills before turning. “I have an early rising ahead of me, so I am afraid I have to call it a night. Good watching, Jevan.” She turned to face Reese. “So, shall I see you first tomorrow after breakfast?”
A smile grew on his face. “I would not give away our decision,” he countered with a playful glint in his eye. “You shall find out soon enough.”
“O-ho,” she chuckled, nodding. “Well then, until the morning.”
He bowed low to her, and her cheeks flushed. She turned, moving with familiar ease down the stairs. In a moment she was following the steps up the long, spiral coil within the keep. The upper solar was already dark, just a lone, glimmering candle lighting her way across to her shadowed room.
She pulled the blankets comfortably up around her shoulders, and in a heartbeat she was sound asleep.
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