"Perhaps something gentler than fighting would win your lady’s heart," Jenny put in sympathetically.
Royce listened more attentively, hoping for some clue as to how to soften her heart.
"Like what, my lady?" asked Gawin.
"Well, there’s music and songs…"
Royce’s eyes narrowed in discouragement at the thought of having to sing to Jenny. His deep baritone voice would surely bring every hound for miles to yap and nip at his heels.
"You did learn to play a lute, or some instrument, when you were a page, did you not?" Jenny was asking Gawin.
"No, my lady," Gawin confessed.
"Really?" said Jenny, surprised. "I thought ’twas part of a page’s training to learn to play an instrument."
"I was sent to Royce as a page," Gawin advised her proudly, "not the castle of a married lord and lady. And Royce says that a lute is as useless in battle as a hilt with no sword—unless I mean to swing it around over my head and launch it at my opponent."
Eustace sent him an ominous look for further damning Royce in Jennifer’s eyes, but Gawin was too intent on the problem of Lady Anne to notice. "What else might I do to win her?" Gawin asked.
"I have it," Jennifer said. "Poetry! You could call upon her and—and recite a poem to her—one you particularly like."
Royce frowned, trying to remember poems, but the only one he could recall went:
There was a young lass named May
Ever good for a toss in the hay…
Gawin’s face fell and he shook his head. "I don’t believe I know any poems—Yes! Royce told me one once. It went, "There was a young lass named—"
"Gawin!" Royce snapped before he could catch himself, and Jennifer’s face froze at the sound of his voice. More quietly, Royce said, "That’s not the—er—sort of rhyme Lady Jennifer had in mind."
"Well then, what should I do?" Gawin said. With hope that his idol would think of some more manly way of impressing the lady, he asked Royce, "What did you do the first time you wished to impress a lady—or were you already a knight and could show her your mettle on the field of honor?"
With no hope of being able to further observe Jennifer in secret, Royce walked over to the group and propped his shoulder against the chimney piece, standing beside her. "I was not yet a knight," he replied ironically, accepting the tankard of ale the serf handed him.
Jennifer caught the look of amusement that passed from Stefan to Royce and was spared having to wonder about the details by Gawin who insisted, "How old were you?"
"Eight, as I recall."
"What did you do to impress her?"
"I… er… staged a contest with Stefan and Godfrey so that I could dazzle the maiden with a skill of which I was particularly proud at the time."
"What sort of contest?" Lady Elinor asked, thoroughly engrossed.
"A spitting contest," Royce replied succinctly, watching Jenny’s profile, wondering if she were smiling at his youthful foibles.
"Did you win?" Eustace laughed.
"Certainly," Royce declared dryly. "I could spit further than any lad in England at the time. Besides," he added, "I had already taken the precaution of bribing Stefan and Godfrey."
"I think I’ll retire now," Jenny said politely as she stood.
Royce abruptly decided to tell all of them the news, rather than keep it from Jennifer now that the subject had already arisen. "Jennifer," he said, matching her reserved courtesy, "the annual jousting matches that take place here have been turned into a full-fledged tournament this year. In the spirit of the new truce between our two countries, Henry and James have decided the Scots will be invited to participate." Unlike a joust, which was a contest of skill between two knights, a tournament was a mock battle, with both sides charging each other from opposite ends of the field, wielding weapons—although of limited types and sizes. Even without virulent hatred between the combatants, tournaments were so dangerous that four hundred years before, the popes had managed to have them banned for nearly two centuries.
"A messenger came today from Henry confirming the changes," Royce added. When she continued to regard him with polite lack of interest, Royce added pointedly, "The decision was made by our kings at the same time the truce was signed." Not until he added, "And I will be riding in them," did she seem to comprehend the import of what he was saying. When she did, she looked at him with contempt, then she turned her back on him and left the hall. Royce watched her walk away and, in sheer frustration, he got up and went after her, catching her just as she opened the door to her bedchamber.
He held the door open for her and followed her inside, closing it behind him. In front of his knights, she’d kept her silence, but now, in private, she turned on him with a bitterness that nearly surpassed the night of William’s death: "I gather the knights from the south of Scotland will be attending this little soiree?"
"Yes," he said tightly.
"And it’s no longer to be a joust? It’s a tournament now?" she added. "And of course, that’s why you’re going to ride in it?"
"I’m going to do it because I’ve been commanded to do it!"
The anger drained from her face, leaving it as white as parchment and just as hopeless. She shrugged. "I have another brother—I don’t love him as well as I loved William, but he should at least give you a little more sport before you kill him. He’s closer to your size." Her chin was trembling and her eyes were shining with tears. "And then there’s my father—he’s older than you, but quite skilled as a knight. His death will amuse you. I hope," she said brokenly, "you’ll find it in your heart—find it possible," she amended, making it clear she didn’t think he had a heart, "not to murder my sister. "She’s all I have left."
Knowing she didn’t want him to touch her, Royce still could not stop himself from pulling her into his arms. When she stiffened but didn’t struggle, he cupped her head, holding it pressed to his chest, her hair like crushed satin in his hand. Hoarsely, he said, "Jenny, please, please don’t do this! Don’t suffer so. Cry, for God’s sake. Scream at me again, but don’t look at me like a murderer."
And then he knew.
He knew exactly why he loved her, and when it had happened: his mind snapped back to the glade, when an angel dressed like a page had looked up at him with shining blue eyes and softly told him, The things they say about you, the things they say you’ve done—they aren’t true. I don’t believe it.