"Where is my aunt?" Jenny asked them as Royce seated her beside him at the center of the table.
Sir Eustace tipped his head to the archway on his left. "She’s gone to the kitchens to instruct the cooks to prepare a greater quantity of food for tomorrow. I don’t think," he added with a grin, "that she realized what monstrous appetites we’d have if offered tasty food."
Jenny looked around at the platters on the table, most of which were already empty, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. "It is—tasty then?"
"Fit for the gods," the knight exaggerated with a grin. "Ask anyone."
"Except Arik," Sir Godfrey said with a disgusted look at the giant, who had systematically stripped an entire goose down to the carcass and was finishing the last few bites.
At that moment, Aunt Elinor bustled into the hall, her face wreathed in a smile. "Good evening, your grace," she said to Royce. "Good evening, Jennifer, dear." Then she stood at the foot of the table, beaming her complete approbation at the occupants of the table, the empty platters, and even the serfs who were clearing away the debris. "Everyone seems to have had a veritable feast on my dishes."
"If we’d known you meant to come down and enliven our meal with your presence," Stefan said to his brother, "we’d have saved you more."
Royce gave his brother an ironic glance. "Really?"
"No," Stefan said cheerfully. "Here, have a tart, ’twill improve your disposition."
"I’m sure we have something tasty left in the kitchen," Aunt Elinor said, clasping her small hands in sublime pleasure at this reception of her efforts. "I’ll have a look while I get my poultice. Tarts will improve anyone’s disposition, except Arik’s."
Casting an amused look at his fellows, Stefan added, "There’s naught that can improve his disposition—not even pine boughs."
The mention of pine boughs made all the others grin as if they were sharing some particularly delicious joke, but when Jenny glanced at Royce, he seemed as perplexed as she. Aunt Elinor provided the answer as she bustled in with a serf carrying platters of hot food as well as a small bowl and cloth. "Oh my, yes, Arik and I brought back all sorts of them today. Why, by the time we returned, his arms were positively laden with lovely branches, weren’t they?" she said brightly.
She paused to cast a puzzled look at the knights, who were suddenly seized with fits of strangled laughter, then she picked up the bowl and cloth from the serf’s tray, and to Jenny’s alarm, the elderly lady began advancing on Arik with her poultice. "You didn’t have a pleasant time today, did you?" she crooned, putting the bowl beside Arik and dipping the cloth in it. "And who can blame you?"
Emanating compassion and guilt, she glanced at Jenny and said sadly, "Arik and I encountered the most evil-natured spider I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet!"
Arik’s expression turned thunderous as he watched her dip the cloth in the bowl from the corners of his narrowed eyes, but Aunt Elinor continued blithely, "The vile little creature bit poor Arik when he did nothing at all to provoke it except to stand beneath the tree where it had its web. Although," she added, turning to the glowering giant and shaking her finger at him as if he were six years old, "I think ’twas very naughty of you to retaliate the way you did."
Pausing to dip the cloth into the bowl, she told him sternly, "I could understand why you smashed the web with your fist, but I do not think ’twas sensible to blame the tree as well and cut it down with your axe!" She tossed a bewildered look at Sir Godfrey, whose shoulders were shaking with mirth, and then at Sir Eustace, whose shoulders were also rocking and whose blond hair was nearly in his trencher as he tried to hide his laughing face. Only Gawin looked truly alarmed as Aunt Elinor said, "Here, dear boy, let me just dab this on your fac—"
"NO!" Arik’s meaty fist slammed on the heavy oaken table, making the platters dance. Shoving away from the table, he stalked out of the hall, his body rigid with wrath.
Stricken, Aunt Elinor watched him march out, then she turned to the occupants of the table and sorrowfully said, "He’d not be so very testy, I’m sure, if only he’d eat according to my suggestions. ‘Twould solve his bow—his digestive," she amended hastily for the sake of the diners, "problems. Which I thought I explained to him very clearly today."
After supper Royce fell into a discussion of manly topics with his knights—topics that ranged from how many additional men should be assigned to help the castle armorer with his added burden of repairing the helmets and chain mail of the men-at-arms who’d returned with Royce, to whether or not the big catapult on the battlement had an adequate supply of stones laid by.
Jenny listened attentively, loving the quiet authority with which Royce spoke and generally enjoying the unexpected pleasure of being part of a family of her own. She was thinking how warm it felt and how strange, when Royce called a halt to the discussion of catapults and turned to her with an apologetic smile. "Shall we walk outside? ‘Tis a pleasant night for October—much too pleasant to spend it discussing things that must seem very boring to you."
"I haven’t been bored," Jenny said softly, unconsciously smiling into his eyes.
"Who would have guessed," he teased huskily, "that the selfsame woman who once tried to carve my initials on my face with my own knife would be so agreeable a wife?" Without waiting for an answer, Royce turned to the knights as he politely helped Jennifer arise. After reminding them to assemble in the bailey after breakfast for a practice session at the quintain, Royce escorted Jennifer from the hall.
After they left, Sir Eustace turned to the others and said with a grin, "Have you ever known Royce to indulge in moonlight strolls before?"
"Not unless he was anticipating a nocturnal visit from the enemy," laughed Sir Lionel.
Sir Godfrey, the eldest of the group, didn’t smile. "He’s been expecting one since we arrived here."
Where are we going?" Jenny asked.
"Up there to see the view," Royce said, pointing to the steep steps that led up to the wall-walk, a wide stone ledge adjoining the castle wall that ran through all twelve of the towers, enabling the guards to patrol the entire perimeter of the castle.
Trying to ignore the guards, who were posted at regular intervals along the walk, Jenny looked out across the moonlit valley, the breeze blowing her hair about her shoulders." Tis beautiful up here," she said softly, turning to him. "Claymore is beautiful." After a minute, she said, "It seems invulnerable. I can’t imagine how you ever managed to seize it. These walls are so high and the stone so smooth. How did you manage to scale over them?"