by Jane Fletcher
disclaimers: contains explicit sexual content - nothing terribly graphic, but very definitely lesbian.
The sums wouldn’t add up, no matter which way they were stacked. Long, painful hours of juggling numbers were merely a futile paper-chase. The two people scouring the ledgers finally sat back and stared at each other, frustrated and angry. White-haired Perrin, the clerk, was the one to state the obvious conclusion. ‘Some people are going to starve this winter.’ The lines on his face looked deeper than usual, etched by more than mere age.
The other person present in the castle treasury launched herself out of her chair and stalked across the room. Lady Rowena, Earl of Northwold, was younger than her clerk by many decades. From her mother she had inherited a light bone structure and agile grace, from her father a dark complexion, quick wits, and a province. Of her family’s renowned temper there was little trace, schooled out of her by experience, but even she had limits. Her body felt as taut as a bowstring. She wanted to hit something, or someone, hard enough to relieve her frustration.
From the window she had a clear view over the castle walls to the packed streets of the town, full of ordinary folk who looked to her to protect them. ‘Some of my people are going to starve this winter,’ she amended sharply.
‘My lady…’ Perrin began hesitantly. ‘Maybe if we send details of our accounts to the Queen… she will see we cannot afford to pay these new taxes… and will… reconsider.’ His tone had become so doubting by the end that there was no need to bother with contradicting him. They both knew Queen Cyrilla would not repeal one penny.
‘I could simply refuse to pay.’ Rowena suggested; her brown eyes still fixed on the roofs below.
‘No.’ Perrin’s voice rose in alarm. ‘No, my lady. The Queen will just strip you of your title and put someone else in to bleed Northwold dry.’
‘But if I try and collect this tax there will be an uprising in the province. Then she’ll send in her troops to slaughter half the population and arrest me for failing in my duty to keep the peace. Either way I lose the title.’ Rowena turned away from the window, bitterness giving way to pain.
It had been three years since her father died, passing to her the responsibility of being Earl of Northwold – three years of trying to dodge the inevitable, three years of knowing her efforts were doomed. She had been nineteen when she inherited the title, now she felt like ninety. Each month had drained away more of her energy, more of her dreams. Her hopes had faded too. First to go was the hope that Queen Cyrilla would one day see sense and stop pushing the country into civil war. The Queen’s tyrannical behaviour seemed designed to provoke resentment; it was no surprise rebel bands were springing up everywhere. Rowena could only pray that when the serious fighting started it was as far from Northwold as possible, but each new demand from the Queen made it harder to keep the lid on local discontent.
At first the sound of someone at the door was a welcome distraction. Rowena turned her head as Captain Delwyn entered. Since her childhood his well-muscled presence had been a source of reassurance, like the walls of the castle. One glance at his expression, however, and Rowena knew things were only going to get worse.
‘My lady. Marshal Hubert has just arrived at the gates, seeking sanctuary.’
Things had got worse. Rowena’s stomach clenched involuntarily, but she stifled a grimace and said, ‘Where is he now?’
‘He awaits you in the great hall.’
Rowena left Perrin with an apologetic shrug and headed for the stairs. Delwyn stayed at her shoulder. ‘Why does the marshal need sanctuary?’ she asked, bracing herself for the answer. Seeking sanctuary implied Hubert wanted protection. Regardless of who he wanted protecting from it brought conflict to the gates of Northwold castle – although some scenarios were worse than others.
‘He was in an ambush. The battle went his way, but some of the other fighters escaped and he fears they will pursue him.’
It was the answer she feared. Rowena’s footsteps jolted to a halt. ‘He was attacked in my lands?’
‘Not exactly; he was the one doing the ambushing. Apparently he was on the trail of a group of rebels and finally caught up with them ten miles from town.’
Rowena gave a quick nod and carried on down the stairs. ‘Were there many casualties?’
‘He didn’t say about the rebels, but three of his soldiers are dead, and another couple badly hurt. There are only four able-bodied ones left.’
‘I agree.’ Delwyn’s tone was grim. ‘Brave men dead and Hubert doesn’t have a scratch on him.’
Again Rowena stopped short and glared at her captain. ‘Hubert is the Queen’s marshal, and we are the Queen’s loyal subjects.’
Privately Rowena agreed Hubert would be greatly improved by a few major perforations, but she couldn’t be seen to condone such remarks if Northwold was to be steered away from rebellion. Despite the reprimand in her voice, Delwyn’s expression was stony rather than contrite, and Rowena could tell there was some other angry emotion bubbling away underneath.
‘What else is there?’ she asked.
Delwyn swallowed. ‘Marshal Hubert has a prisoner with him. One of the rebels he captured. He claims she’s a leader of some sort. That was why he thought he might be pursued. He thinks her supporters will try to rescue her. He came here so he won’t be disturbed while he questions her.’
Rowena swore under her breath. The slight emphasis Delwyn had put on the word ‘questions’ left no doubt of the form the questioning would take. Torture was something she was not prepared to tolerate under her roof, even if it meant direct confrontation with the Queen’s representative.
‘I don’t need this right now.’ Rowena muttered. In fact it was the last thing she wanted on top of everything else.
‘Lady Rowena…’ Delwyn’s voice sounded a little strangled.
She looked up. What else could there be? ‘Yes?’
‘The prisoner. It’s Tamsin, Garth’s daughter.’
The memories bounced around in Rowena’s head as she completed the journey to the hall in silence. Garth had been one of the castle guards, his rank senior enough to get lodgings in the castle with his family. He had died in the same pointless bloodbath as Rowena’s father; by all accounts standing over his lord’s body, defending the old Earl to the last.
Tamsin was three years or so older than herself. As a very young child the age gap was sufficient to ensure the two weren’t playmates. Rowena hadn’t particularly noticed her, just an awareness that she was around the castle. Then, as they got a little older, Tamsin’s name cropped up more often, usually in trouble, although the adults seemed amused rather than annoyed. Older still and Rowena knew Tamsin was the accepted leader of the gang of teenaged children in the castle. Stories of Tamsin’s antics were gasped and giggled over, however she still had no direct impact on Rowena’s life.
It all changed one day, not long after Rowena had turned twelve. On a lazy summer afternoon her ears had caught the excited buzz from a gaggle of older children, their voices tinged with nervousness. Out of curiosity she’d followed them onto the drawbridge over the moat. The other children had stood around, clearly waiting for something. Rowena had hung in the background, wondering what the fuss was about; then several had cheered and pointed. Following the line of the outstretched fingers she had turned her head and seen Tamsin climbing out of the top floor window of the east tower.
‘What’s she doing?’ Rowena had asked the nearest child.
‘Tamsin has bet Karl she can jump from the east tower into the moat.’
Rowena’s eyes had gone back to the sight of the girl balanced high on the thin ledge. Surely it was impossible? Not so much because of the distance involved, but the outer curtain wall was in the way. Tamsin was far too low to clear it from a standing start, however that had not been her intention.
Tamsin had edged around the top of the tower until she’d reached a projecting gargoyle and then pulled herself up on it. Another few seconds and she’d made it to the conical roof of the tower. By the time she’d scrambled to the tall spike, crowning the centre, shouts from the children had attracted the attention of several adults, but there had been nothing they could do to intervene. Tamsin had paused for a moment, the wind rippling the hem of her thigh length tunic and loose leggings, then she launched herself down the roof. Three lengthening strides and then off into the air. She had cleared the curtain wall by a yard and hit the moat with a splash that sent sheets of water cascading over both banks.
Cheers from the children had been silenced by sharp words from the adults. By the time Tamsin had swum over and climbed out folk had appeared on all sides, attracted by the commotion, but Rowena had been unaware of anyone else. Her eyes had fixed on Tamsin, mesmerised, drinking in details: the wet hair plastered on Tamsin’s forehead, wetter clothes hugging her body, the badly-concealed grin on her lips, eyes glinting with unrepentant mischief even as Tamsin’s furious father caught hold of her collar and dragged her away.
Seven years had passed since Rowena had last seen Tamsin. A lot had happened during that span. Other, more serious, events had been overshadowed and driven from her memory, but that moment on the drawbridge was one thing Rowena would never forget – the first time in her life that she’d fallen in love.
Clusters of people dotted the great hall. Rowena forced herself to ignore them, restraining the urge to seek out Tamsin. Instead she focused on Marshal Hubert, who was standing sullenly at the front of a small band of blood-splattered soldiers. Typical of the man, he burst into speech with no regard for politeness the second he saw Rowena and her captain enter. ‘Lady Rowena. In the name of the Queen I must requisition the use of a secure section of your castle for a few days. I will require nothing else from you except normal provisions for me and my troops. You need not concern yourself with other details.’ He paused as if considering his own words and then his lips twitched in an expression that bore little resemblance to a smile. ‘I’m sure you have much to do and I would not want to impose on your time.’
Rowena’s eyes glittered angrily. She was not going to let herself be bullied while standing in the hall of her own castle, and the first thing was to show Hubert just who was in charge of the proceedings. Rowena nodded to her herald standing at one side, signalling to commence the meeting at the proper place, by announcing the titles of all present and expressing their love and loyalty to Queen Cyrilla. Hubert fidgeted irritably, but he was on very weak ground, and he knew it.
With the formalities complete Rowena took over, her voice loud enough to be heard by all present, her tone one of crisp politeness, ‘Marshal, please accept the hospitality of my home, and my deep regrets for the misfortune you have suffered on my land. I will arrange for healers to tend any of your soldiers who are injured.’ Hubert opened his mouth, but she went on before he could repeat his demands. ‘I also understand you have taken a prisoner. I will see that she is held secure until a magistrate can begin an investigation into her crimes.’
Now Hubert got a word in. ‘I need to question the prisoner myself.’
‘That is something for you to discuss with the magistrate.’ Rowena said, knowing full well no magistrate would allow unsupervised access to a suspect awaiting trial.
‘She is my prisoner.’ Hubert said angrily, but he had advanced to within an arm’s length and lowered his voice so that few could hear his words.
‘She is a prisoner of the law, in accordance with the Provisions of Highford.’ Rowena kept her voice loud as she cited the great legal charter, signed by the Queen’s grandfather. Cyrilla had never been so blatant as to revoke the Provisions, though it was well known that neither she nor her marshals paid any heed to it – as long as there were no witnesses. However the charter still stood in theory, and Hubert could not challenge anyone for standing by its procedures.
‘As liege-lord of the province, you could overrule the magistrate and grant me permission.’ he hissed.
This time Rowena matched his low tone. ‘But I won’t.’
Hubert glared at her for a full minute while chewing his lip, then snapped, ‘Under the Provisions a royal marshal can demand that a case of treason be tried under the direct jurisdiction of Her Majesty. I am making that demand… " he paused for emphasis, "…now. I will leave with the prisoner tomorrow, however since I now have insufficient troops to resist any rescue attempt I formally request that you provide me with an escort.’ He met Rowena’s eyes in challenge. ‘I believe I am entitled to that under the Provisions.’ He turned on his heel and marched out of the hall.
Only once he had gone did Rowena look towards the corner of the hall where the prisoner stood. Tamsin was dishevelled, bruised, mud-covered and grinning, just like Rowena remembered her. As always the image of a wolfhound came to mind; jaunty, almost comically untidy, until you saw it on the hunt. This time Tamsin’s hunt had gone badly wrong; not that you could tell from her manner. Hubert had not dented her nonchalant defiance – yet. Rowena’s heart thumped as their eyes met for a second before the guards led Tamsin away to the dungeon.
The evening meal was unpleasant. Hubert, under the guise of general conversation, managed to refer to the fate of Rowena’s father four times, getting progressively more explicit; however it was no secret that the Earl’s death had been little short of murder. The Queen had ordered Rowena’s father to lead the hopeless campaign with less than a twentieth of the troops needed. Most of the army had been killed, the rest were taken prisoner, none were ransomed – the completely legal way the Queen had rid herself of the only noble who had dared raise a voice against her. It had not even cost Cyrilla a penny; she’d recouped any financial losses when she fined Northwold for its ex-earl’s ‘incompetence’.
As soon as was seemly Rowena left the table and went to her rooms. Captain Delwyn was waiting there. She had a fair idea of what he was going to say even before he opened his mouth.
‘My lady, you can’t grant Hubert’s request for an escort or you’ll…’ Delwyn broke off, hunting for a word.
‘I’ll have an uprising on my hands?’ Rowena suggested.
‘No… at least not aimed against you. But there is a lot of support for the rebels in town. My guess is that as soon as the party is out of sight of the castle someone will slit Hubert’s throat and set Tamsin free – probably someone from the escort he thinks is going to protect him. Garth was popular with the troops, and we all know what will happen to Tamsin if she disappears into the Queen’s dungeon.’ Delwyn shrugged. ‘In itself Hubert’s death wouldn’t upset me, but it will have repercussions, and…’
This time Rowena cut him off. ‘I know – it could be the spark to set all Northwold ablaze. I’ve spent the evening trying to think of a way out.’
‘Couldn’t you explain to Hubert that if he tries to take Tamsin away his life is in danger?’
‘I doubt he’d believe me, and I don’t really want him to return to the Queen with the idea my soldiers are all rebel sympathisers.’ Rowena forced a weak smile to her face, but she knew it did nothing to disguise her worry.
‘If I can help in any way you know there is nothing I would not do for you.’
Rowena nodded; there was never the slightest doubt of Delwyn’s loyalty. Rowena suspected her father had not included him in the doomed campaign so as to leave someone to keep a guarding eye on her. ‘I know. And if I think of anything I’ll send for you.’
After Delwyn went Rowena wandered over to the window and stared at the thickening dusk. The nearby forest was being swallowed by the night; the hills were fading as purple smudges on the horizon. Rowena’s eyes drifted over the view as she toyed with memories of Tamsin. For years she had nursed her desperate crush, but never admitted it aloud, although she had expended a lot of effort in manipulating ‘accidental’ encounters.
From the time Tamsin was old enough to lift a saddle she’d worked in the castle stables. Rowena had managed to get Tamsin assigned as the groom who cared for her own horses. At least Rowena assumed she’d fixed it – she couldn’t remember quite how, but nobody questioned orders given to servants by the heir to the province. It was one of the ironies that as they got older, and their difference in age ceased to matter, their difference in rank became more important. The social gap between an earl’s daughter and a stable-hand widened to a chasm, but at least Rowena had a good excuse to go and talk to Tamsin whenever she wanted. Rowena had visited the stables every day for that year. She prided herself that she perfected the art of looking calm and talking rationally while her pulse was racing and her stomach was bouncing around like an acrobat at a fair.
When she heard the news that Tamsin was leaving the castle she was devastated. The month after Rowena’s fifteenth birthday a merchant from a nearby town offered Tamsin work as groom. The night before Tamsin left to start the new job her friends from the stables and barracks had thrown a drunken going-away party – a raucous affair, even by the standards of the castle. In the seclusion of her private quarters Rowena had stood, her heart tearing inside her, straining her ears to pick Tamsin’s voice out from the distant laughter and singing. Finally she had summoned her courage, selected a small broach from her jewel case and had gone to talk with Tamsin one last time.
The uproar in the stable dormitory had quietened slightly when Rowena entered, but most present were too drunk to notice the earl’s daughter. Tamsin had seemed in a better state than most. As soon as she’d spotted Rowena in the chaos she’d cast a worried glance at the spectacle her friends were making and shepherded Rowena out into the deserted stable-yard. Noise from the party boomed around the enclosed space, yet it seemed peaceful by comparison with the scene they had left. The air was cool, moonlight cast a monochrome sheen over the cobbles. Rowena had mentally prepared a trite farewell to accompany her parting gift, but after all her practice she’d stumbled over the words and clumsily shoved the broach at Tamsin.
Despite the drink Tamsin’s voice was steady as she politely accepted the gift. Rowena was embarrassed by her own lack of composure and would have backed away immediately. However Tamsin kept hold of her fingers, and bowed to press Rowena’s hand gently to her lips. Rowena had gasped at the touch – she couldn’t help herself. At the sound Tamsin had looked up.
‘I will miss you, my lady.’ For once Tamsin’s expression had been utterly serious.
‘And I… I will miss you too.’ Rowena had winced to hear how feeble her own voice sounded.
For long seconds neither moved, then the familiar impish grin returned to Tamsin’s face as she took a step forward, put one arm around Rowena, and kissed her again, this time on the mouth.
Rowena’s whole sense of reality had dissolved, only to surge back into place as a door was flung open with a crash and three stable-hands had literally fallen through. The new arrivals weren’t sober enough to have any awareness of what they had interrupted, but Tamsin had jumped back. Then her legs had given way and she had joined her wine-fuddled friends, giggling on the cobbles – which was when Rowena had realised Tamsin was far more drunk than she’d initially thought. Rowena had said goodnight and returned to her rooms, and not seen Tamsin again until Hubert brought her into the great hall.
As Rowena’s thoughts returned to the present her expression became more resolute. The frown creasing her forehead deepened and then cleared. At last she had a plan; one that should keep Northwold safe. Her quarters were at the top of the west tower. It was a little bit higher than the one on the east, and a little bit further from the moat, but not by much.
Guards were stationed outside Rowena’s audience room. They snapped to attention when she opened the door. ‘The prisoner Marshal Hubert brought here today; I wish to talk with her alone.’
One of the guards immediately trotted away. Before long he returned with Tamsin. Rowena did not attempt to dissuade the guards from tying the prisoner into a chair – it was good for the sake of appearances. While waiting for them to finish she returned to the window overlooking the moat. Night had fallen, lamplight rippled on the dark water. Other beams threaded the streets of the town. Beyond them the forest and hills were only shadows in the blackness, but she knew they were there. Northwold. Her family had ruled it for generations; now the province was her responsibility, and she would willingly give her life to protect it, if need be.
Once the guards had gone Rowena turned around, fighting to restrain the memory of the last time she’d been alone with Tamsin. For a minute the two women held each other’s gaze, then Tamsin arched an eyebrow and said, ‘It is good to see you again, my lady. However if you have brought me here to offer me my old job back I’m afraid I won’t be able to accept… much as I would like to.’
‘And I see you’re still unable to take anything seriously.’ Despite her words Rowena could not keep the smile off her lips. She had never been able to resist Tamsin’s irrepressible good-humour.
‘I’m going on the assumption that being serious won’t help me much in the circumstances,’ Tamsin paused and subjected Rowena to a slightly more shrewd appraisal. ‘Although perhaps I should wait until you say what you want with me.’
The same as I’ve always wanted with you, the thought shot through Rowena’s head although she would not voice it aloud. Instead she replied, ‘I want you to escape. I’m hoping you’ll be able to repeat your leap into the moat.’
For a second the surprise showed on Tamsin’s face, before she dropped her eyes to her bound arms. ‘Not like this.’
‘I had planned on untying you first.’ Rowena matched the tone of dry humour.
Tamsin raised her eyes again to meet Rowena’s. ‘Why?’
‘Because, if I don’t, the consequences will see a lot of my people dead.’ Rowena knelt and began loosening the cord. ‘You can tie and gag me in your place. With luck your escape won’t be discovered until morning.’
‘Hubert won’t be fooled. He’ll guess you helped me.’
‘Probably. But he won’t be able to prove it and there’s no way for him to know that I’ve seen you make the leap into the moat before.’ Of course Hubert would not need proof. Although it was unlikely that he would make a direct accusation, Rowena had no expectation of anything other than a swift summons to Cyrilla’s court, from which she would not return. Rowena’s voice was tight as she went on, ‘At worst, nobody else will be blamed.’
Tamsin shook her head, as if to clear it. ‘I’m still not sure why you want to do this.’
‘This whole country is on the brink of civil war. I want to keep Northwold out of it for as long as possible. If I let Hubert take you away it will upset the local hotheads. If I stop Hubert it will annoy the Queen. Either way it will lead to something nasty.’ Rowena finished with the rope and stood up.
‘You really think you can keep Northwold out of it?’
‘That’s what I’m aiming at.’
‘Is it what your father would have done?’ Tamsin’s question was pointed.
‘No.’ Rowena turned and paced back to the window, gathering her thoughts. ‘He would have made a stand and a lot of people would have been hurt because of it.’
‘That frightens you?’
Tamsin’s expression hardened. ‘I wouldn’t have put you down as a coward.’
That stung. Rowena spun around. ‘I wouldn’t worry if it was just my neck…’ she paused. ‘My father wouldn’t keep quiet so the Queen arranged his death; that was the risk he chose to take. However he wasn’t the only one to suffer; the soldiers who followed him ended up just as dead, your father among them, and they never had any say in it. I don’t want to be responsible for the slaughter of people who rely on me.’
Tamsin walked over to stand close by her. ‘I know who to blame for papa’s death, and it isn’t the old Earl. When I heard about what had happened – that was what finally pushed me into joining the rebels.’
‘I envy your freedom to act. If there was just myself to consider, I’d have gone looking for revenge as well.’
‘You can’t sit on the fence forever.’ Tamsin said softly.
‘Of course not. But I have to take each day as it comes and do what I think is for the best.’
‘I’d have thought part of the job of being Earl was planning for the future.’
‘I don’t need you to…’ Rowena began to snap angrily, before biting back her words.
‘Perhaps I can give you information to make things easier.’ Tamsin’s voice became more urgent. ‘Duke Nevin of Leaward is back in the country. I was on my way to meet him, to tell him the rebels have decided to back his claim to the crown. The war has started. All you have to say is which side Northwold is on.’
‘Duke Nevin’s claim is not good.’ Rowena pointed out. ‘He’s only eighth in line to the throne.’
‘I’d have said his claim was very good. Numbers two to seven were taken into ‘protective’ custody two years ago and haven’t been seen since. Nobody gives much hope of seeing them alive again, so it just leaves Nevin and Cyrilla, and she’s disqualified on grounds of insanity.’ The edge on Tamsin’s voice held bitter sarcasm. ‘Nevin managed to flee. He’s been travelling around, gathering support in nearby kingdoms – none of them are keen on Cyrilla as a neighbour. They can’t lead an invasion, it might have the effect of uniting people behind Cyrilla, but if Nevin establishes a foothold here they can send assistance. If Northwold declares for Nevin it is just what is needed.’
‘Northwold has always been loyal to the crown.’ Rowena said firmly
‘Northwold has always stood for what was right.’ Tamsin corrected. ‘Do you know what Cyrilla is doing with all the new taxes? She’s building a temple to herself, with a huge golden statue behind the altar. She has prisoners sacrificed there. She thinks she can turn herself into a goddess.’
‘That’s just rumour.’
‘Oh no it isn’t. I’ve seen the building site.’
Rowena stared out of the window, although it was now too dark to see anything. ‘I don’t want to see Cyrilla stay in power, but I cannot play games with the lives of my people. You can tell Duke Nevin that, as far as possible, Northwold will neither help nor hinder his bid for the throne.’
‘You can’t just…’
Rowena cut her off sharply. ‘No. I dare not take the risk.’
Tamsin’s jaw clenched, but at last she said, ‘And that’s your final word on the matter?’
‘A pity.’ Tamsin joined Rowena staring out of the window. ‘Thanks anyway for the chance to escape; I wasn’t looking forward to the chat with Hubert.’
‘Do you think you can make the leap?’ Rowena asked, grateful for the chance to change subject.
‘Not sure. But even if I fail I’ll almost certainly end up dead and unable to reveal where Duke Nevin is.’ Tamsin rested her hands on the sill and leaned out slightly, craning her neck to see the sky. Only stars glinted in the darkness overhead. ‘If you don’t mind I’ll leave it a couple of hours until the moon rises. I’d like to be able to see the edge of the roof when I jump.’
‘Just as long as you’re gone by morning.’
Tamsin sighed and nodded. There was silence for a long while, then she flicked a sideways glance at Rowena. ‘I think I owe you an apology.’
‘My going-away party… kissing you in the stable yard.’
Rowena managed a casual shrug, but her stomach did a flip. ‘Oh that. You were drunk.’
The wry grin returned to Tamsin’s face. ‘Maybe not quite as much as I pretended. It seemed a good cover at the time, but over the years… sometimes I… I’ve wondered…’ Abruptly her speech disintegrated. She drew a deep breath before continuing more firmly. ‘I know I caught you by surprise but, looking back, I’ve often wondered whether I imagined that you responded.’
‘I… I…’ Rowena couldn’t force her voice to work, but she knew it wasn’t necessary; her face must have said it all. The flip in her stomach had become a string of cartwheels.
‘You mean I’d been in with a chance back then and didn’t know it? And you the Earl’s daughter!’ Tamsin grinned ruefully.
‘You never acted as if… I didn’t think you…’ wanted me. Rowena’s breathing was not working well enough for her to finish the sentence aloud, but Tamsin seemed to hear the missing words.
‘Oh yes. I can’t remember when I stopped seeing you as one of the little kids in the castle and started seeing you as someone worth watching, although I do remember the wrangling I did to become your personal groom. Then I found it just a bit too much of a strain. In the end I left the castle because I was afraid I’d say or do something and end up in more trouble than even I could cope with. I was just a stable hand; I never thought you …’ She broke off, laughing softly. ‘Oh, the missed opportunities of one’s youth!’ She hesitated for a second before raising a hand to cup the side of Rowena’s face.
Rowena was shaking, but she had regained a slight degree of self-control; enough to say, ‘You didn’t really think I was interested in the horses when I came to see you, did you?’
Tamsin shook her head slowly, her expression one of bemused irony, and then the humour faded, replaced by something far more intense. Rowena felt like a fool but could only stare back, then Tamsin got closer, much closer. Her lips brushed Rowena’s once gently before returning, more forcefully. The touch melted Rowena’s paralysis. She wrapped her arms around Tamsin’s back, pulling their bodies hard together. Her lips parted at the first touch of the probing tongue, allowing it to enter her mouth in a soft exploration. By the time they broke from the kiss they were both breathing harshly.
Tamsin swallowed and said, ‘I’ve just thought of a really good way to stop ourselves getting bored while we wait for moonrise.’ Her eyes darted around the audience room, finally fixing on the rug before the hearth, however Rowena moved first, leading the way to the door of her bedchamber.
For a while Rowena was lost in the sense of unreality. It was a childhood fantasy come to life. She was swamped by memories of the times she had watched Tamsin brushing the horses, imagining what those capable hands would feel like on her own body; the nights she had lain awake, wishing Tamsin were there; the teasing dreams that always ended too soon. Rowena felt detached, unable to believe in this new illusion, but then Tamsin was there in her bed, and imagination was utterly routed by the overpowering touch of skin on skin.
After being in love with Tamsin for so long Rowena half-expected real-life to be a disappointment. But it wasn’t. Tamsin knew what she was doing, and did it very well. Her hands and mouth moved with a gentle confidence, not too rushed, not too assertive. Rowena came around her fingers, in pulsing bolts of pleasure. For her part Tamsin was easy to make love to. Her body responded to each touch, letting Rowena know exactly what she wanted and leaving no doubt about how much she was enjoying it.
At last they collapsed together between the sheets, sated. The raging ache between Rowena’s legs had mellowed to a warm flowing peace, making her limbs feel as if they were filled with liquid gold, heavy and soft. Her head lay on Tamsin’s shoulder. Opening her eyes she saw faint bars of moonlight falling across the floor. Rowena caught her lower lip in her teeth. It was past mid-night and time for Tamsin to go, but it was so tempting to lie a minute longer and listen to the rhythm of Tamsin’s heartbeat and the soft whisper of breath through her lips.
The sound of knocking on the door of her bedchamber awoke Rowena. She jerked upright. Walls and ceiling were slashed with harsh daylight; birds sang outside the window; dawn was long past. Rowena groaned as memory returned in a rush.
Tamsin stirred beside her, half rose then fell back, covering her eyes with her hand. ‘Oh no.’
From the tone Rowena knew Tamsin was just as horrified by their stupidity as she was – it wasn’t what either of them had intended.
‘My lady?’ The voice outside the door belonged to Delwyn.
Rolling out of bed, Rowena pulled on a gown and called out, ‘Enter.’ grateful that at least it wasn’t Hubert demanding to learn what had happened to his prisoner.
Tamsin sat up, tugging a sheet around herself and subjecting her discarded clothing to a bitter glare. If Delwyn was surprised by the scene when he came in he hid it well. ‘Lady Rowena. The marshal is anxious to be on his way and has been asking after his escort and the prisoner.’ Delwyn’s eyes flicked in Tamsin’s direction and, despite the situation, a trace of humour touched his expression.
Rowena grimaced and walked passed him to stare blankly at the wooden panelling of the wall. She had just run out of all options – so much for her plan. For a moment she almost gave in to the temptation to grant Hubert’s request for an escort. She shared Delwyn’s certainty that by midday Hubert would be dead and Tamsin would be free, and then by next month Cyrilla’s troops would be on the rampage for vengeance and war would be breaking out across Northwold. But Rowena would be able to console herself that she personally had done nothing to provoke the slaughter.
One of her father’s sayings echoed in her head ‘When you are Earl of Northwold, doing nothing is also a decision you must answer for.’ It was time to do something. No matter what decision she made some of the people she was responsible for would be killed – either as soldiers on the battlefield or cut down in their homes. If nothing else she could ensure that none of her people died pointlessly.
Rowena turned to Delwyn. ‘I want you to take enough guards to arrest Hubert and put him in the dungeon, along with any of his soldiers who object. Then take down the Queen’s standard and see if you can find a Leaward flag to put in its place.’ To her surprise Rowena felt a rush of happiness. She had been forced into making the choice, unwillingly. Yet, despite this, for the first time in months she felt as if she was in control – perhaps is was just that finally her head, heart and instincts were united. She turned to Tamsin, who was staring at her. ‘And I would like you to perform an errand for me. I want you take a message to Duke Nevin…’
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