At the moment, Gawin was lounging back in Royce’s chair at the center of the table, his arm draped over the back of Aunt Elinor’s chair in a comic imitation of the way Royce was sitting with Jennifer. "Your grace," he said, imitating the clipped tone Royce used when he expected instant obedience, "there are those of us at this table who are wishful of an answer to a puzzle."
Royce quirked a brow at him and resignedly waited for the question.
"Is it fact or falsity," Gawin demanded, "that you’re called the Wolf because you killed such a beast at the age of eight and ate his eyes for your supper?"
Jenny bubbled with irrepressible laughter, and Royce sent her a mock-offended look. "Madam," he said, "do you laugh because you doubt I was strong enough to slay such an animal at such a tender age?"
"No, my lord," Jenny chuckled, sharing a knowing look with Godfrey, Eustace, and Lionel, "but for a man who prefers to skip a meal rather than eat one that is poorly cooked, I cannot ken you eating the eyes of anything!"
"You’re right," he grinned.
"Sir!" demanded Gawin, "an answer if you please. What part of the beast you ate matters not. What does matter is your age at the time you slew it. Legend puts you at everything from four to fourteen."
"Is that right?" Royce mocked drily.
"I thought the story was true," Jenny said, eyeing him quizzically. "I mean the part about you slaying a wolf as a child."
Royce’s lips twitched. "Henry dubbed me the Wolf at Bosworth Field."
"Because you killed one there!" Gawin decreed.
"Because," Royce corrected, "there was too much fighting and too little food to keep flesh on my bones. At the end of the battle, Henry looked at my lean frame and my dark hair and said I reminded him of a hungry wolf."
"I don’t think—" Gawin decreed, but Royce cut him off with a quelling look that clearly said he’d had enough of Gawin’s antics for the evening.
Jenny, who’d been carefully concealing the recurring pains assailing her, glanced at Aunt Elinor and nodded imperceptibly. Leaning close to Royce, she said softly, "I think I’ll rest for a little while. Don’t get up." He squeezed her hand and nodded agreeably.
As Jenny arose, so did Aunt Elinor, but she paused beside Arik, her hand on the back of his chair. "You have not opened your present, dear boy," she told him. Everyone else had exchanged gifts today, but Arik had been absent until supper time.
Arik hesitated, his big hand atop the small, silk-wrapped item beside his trencher. Looking sublimely uncomfortable to be the focus of so much attention, he awkwardly unwrapped it, glanced at the heavy silver chain with a small, round object dangling from it, then covered it with his hand. A curt, uneasy nod expressed his "profound gratitude," but Aunt Elinor was not put off. As he started to arise from the table she smiled at him and said, "There’s dried grapevine blossom within it."
His heavy brows drew together, and even though he spoke in his lowest tone, his voice boomed. "Why?"
Leaning close to his ear, she whispered authoritatively, "Because serpents loathe grapevine blossom. ‘Tis a fact."
She had turned to accompany Jenny, and so she did not see the odd thing that happened to Arik’s face, but nearly everyone else at the table noticed, and they gaped in fascination. For a moment, Arik’s face seemed to stretch tight, and then it began to crack. Crevices formed beside his eyes and pouches developed beneath them. The straight line of his stern lips wavered, first at one corner, then the other, then white teeth appeared…
"God’s teeth!" Godfrey burst out, nudging Lionel and even Brenna in his enthusiasm. "He’s going to smile! Stefan look at that! Our Arik is—”
Godfrey broke off as Royce, who’d been watching Jennifer, thinking she’d intended to sit by the fire, suddenly lurched out of his chair, still holding his tankard of ale, and strode swiftly to the foot of the stairs leading up to the gallery.
"Jennifer," he said, his voice sharp with dawning alarm, "where are you going?"
A moment later, Aunt Elinor looked down from the gallery above and cheerfully replied, "She is going to have your baby, your grace."
The serfs in the hall turned to exchange smiling glances, and one of them dashed off to spread the news to the scullions in the kitchen.
"Do not," Aunt Elinor warned in direst tones when Royce started up the stairs, "come up here. I am not inexperienced in these matters, and you will only be in the way. And do not worry," she added breezily, noting Royce’s draining color. "The fact that Jenny’s mother died in childbirth is nothing to be concerned about." Royce’s tankard crashed to the stone floor.
Two days later, the serfs, villeins, vassals, and knights who were kneeling in the bailey were no longer smiling in anticipation of the arrival of the heir to Claymore. They were keeping a vigil, their heads bent in prayer. The baby had not come, and the news filtering down from the frantic serfs within the hall had been increasingly bad. Nor was ft regarded as a good sign that the duke—who rarely set foot in the chapel—had gone in there four hours ago looking tormented and terrified.
Faces lifted in hope as the doors to the hall were flung open, then they froze in alarm as Lady Elinor went racing into the chapel. A moment later, the duke burst past the doors, running, and though no one could tell from his haggard face what news there was, it was not regarded as a good omen.
"Jenny," Royce whispered, leaning over her, his hands braced on either side of her pillow.
Her blue eyes opened, smiling sleepily at him as she whispered, "You have a son."
Royce swallowed audibly, smoothing her tousled curls off her cheek. "Thank you, darling," he said helplessly, his voice still raw from the two days of terror he’d lived through. He leaned down and covered her mouth with his own, his tender-rough kiss eloquent of love and profound relief that she was well.
"Have you seen him?" she asked when he finally lifted his lips from hers.
Standing, Royce walked over to the wooden cradle where his sleeping infant son lay. Reaching down, he touched the tiny hand with his finger, then he glanced over at Jenny, his brow furrowed with alarm. "He seems—small."
Jenny chuckled, recalling the heavy broadsword with a ruby embedded in its hilt that Royce had ordered made as soon as she had told him she was with child. "A little small at the moment," she teased, "to wield his broadsword."
Amusement lit his eyes. "He may never be able to lift the one Arik is having made for him."