"Not a mass, but a confession," the steward put in, not realizing that Royce had deliberately misunderstood his reasons for sending for Friar Gregory. Turning to the boy’s mother, Sir Albert said, "I assumed that your miscreant son would naturally want to avail himself of the Church’s final sacraments?" unable to speak through her tears, the woman nodded helplessly.
"No!" Royce snapped, but the hysterical mother screamed, "Yes! ‘Tis his right!—His right to have the last sacraments before he dies!"
"If he dies," Royce drawled coldly, " ’twill be from suffocation at your hands, madam. Step back and let the boy breathe!"
A look of tormented hope crossed her face, then wavered as she looked around at the grim faces of the crowd, and she realized no one shared her fleeting hope for a reprieve. "What are you going to do to him, milord?"
"It’s not my decision," Royce replied tightly, his anger renewed as he considered the names they’d hurtled at his wife yesterday. "Inasmuch as it was my wife who suffered at his hands, ’twill be up to her."
Instead of being relieved, the mother clapped her hand over her mouth, her terrified eyes riveted on Jenny, and Jenny, who could no longer stand seeing the poor woman tortured with uncertainty, turned to the boy and said quickly, and not unkindly, "What is your name?"
He stared at her through tear-swollen eyes, his entire body shaking. "J-Jake. M-my l-lady."
"I see," Jenny said, thinking madly of how her father would handle such a thing. Crime could not go unpunished, she knew, for it would breed more crime and make her husband seem weak. On the other hand, harshness wasn’t in order either, especially given the boy’s tender years. Trying to offer the child an excuse she gently said, "Sometimes, when we’re very excited about something, we do things we don’t mean to do. Is that what happened when you threw the dirt? Perhaps you didn’t mean to hit me with it?"
Jake swallowed twice, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his long, skinny neck. "I—I—" he looked at the rigid face of the duke and chose against lying—"I always hit what I aims at," he admitted miserably.
"Really?" Jenny said, stalling for time and thinking madly for some solution.
"Yes, mum," he admitted in a glum whisper. "I can hit a rabbit ‘atween the eyes with a rock and kill him dead if’n he’s close enough to see. I don’t never miss."
"Really?" Jenny repeated, impressed. "I once tried to hit a rat from forty paces and I killed it."
"You did?" Jake asked, mutually impressed.
"Yes—well, never mind," she amended hastily at Royce’s look of dry rebuke. "You didn’t mean to kill me, did you?" she asked, and lest the foolish child admit that, she added hastily, "I mean, you did not want the sin of murder to stain your soul for all time?"
He shook his head emphatically at that.
"So it was more a matter of the excitement of the moment, wasn’t it?" she urged, and to her immense relief, he finally nodded.
"And of course you were proud of your skill with throwing and perhaps even showing off a bit for everyone?"
He hesitated and then nodded jerkily.
"There, you see!" Jenny said looking around at the taut, waiting crowd and raising her voice with relieved conviction, "He meant no serious harm, and the intent is as important as the crime itself." Turning back to Jake, she said severely, " ‘Tis obvious some form of atonement is called for, however, and since you are so very good with your throwing arm, I think it should be put to better use. Therefore, Jake, you’ll spend each morning helping the men hunt for game for the next two months. And if there’s no need for fresh meat, you’ll come to the castle and help me here. Excepting Sundays, of course. And if your—"
Jenny stopped in shock as the boy’s weeping mother threw herself at her feet, wrapped her arms around Jenny’s legs and wept, "Thank you, milady, thank you. ‘Tis a saint yer are. Bless you, thank you—"
"No, don’t do that," Jenny pleaded desperately when the overwrought woman picked up the hem of Jenny’s skirt and kissed it. The husband, cap in hand, came to retrieve her, his eyes shining with tears as he looked at Jenny.
"If your son is needed to help in your own planting," she said to him, "he can perform his… er… penance in the afternoons instead."
"I—" he said in a choked voice, then he cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders, and said with touching dignity, "will keep yer in my prayers ever’ day of my life, milady."
Smiling, Jenny said, "And my husband, too, I hope."
The man paled, but he managed to look the fierce, dark man standing beside her in the eye and to say with meek sincerity, "Aye, an’ you, too, milord."
The crowd disbanded in eerie, wordless silence, casting surreptitious glances over their shoulders at Jenny, who was wondering if perhaps two months had been too long a time. On the way back into the hall, Royce was so silent that she cast him an anxious glance. "You looked surprised," she said apprehensively, "when I mentioned two months."
"I was," he admitted with ironic amusement. "For a while, I thought you were going to congratulate him on his excellent aim and invite him to join us for supper."
"You think I was too lenient?" she said with relief as he opened the heavy oaken door of the hall, standing to one side for her to precede him.
"I don’t know. I’ve no experience in dealing with peasants and maintaining order. However, Prisham should have known better than to talk of a penalty like death. ‘Twas out of the question."
"I don’t like him."
"Nor do I. He was steward here before, and I kept him on. I think ’tis time to look for another to replace him."
"Soon, I hope?" Jenny urged.
"At the moment," he said, and Jenny missed the wicked gleam in his eyes, "I have more important matters on my mind."
"Really, what are they?"
"Taking you to bed and then eating supper—in that order."
"Wake up, sleepyhead—" Royce’s lazy chuckle brought Jenny awake. " ‘Tis a glorious evening," he told her as she rolled onto her back and smiled languorously at him. "A night made for loving and now—" he nipped her ear playfully "—eating."
By the time Royce and Jenny came downstairs, many of the knights had already finished eating and the trestle tables had already been dismantled and propped neatly in their appropriate place against the wall. Only those knights who were privileged to dine at the main table on the dais seemed to want to linger over each course.