Tower Rhydd, Wales
Glimmering in the dying firelight, the jewels in the ring winked a deep blood red. Beckoning. Seducing. Begging to be taken by trained fingers.
From his hiding spot behind the velvet curtains, Trevin wet his dry lips, rubbed the tips of his fingers together, and tried to quiet his thundering pulse. At fifteen he was a thief and a good one, an orphaned waif who stole to survive. Never had he attempted to snatch anything so valuable as the ring left carelessly on the window ledge. But he was desperate and the jewels and gold would fetch a good price, mayhap enough to buy a decent horse since his efforts at stealing one had gone awry. Painful welts on his back, the result of the farmer lashing him with a whip, still cut into his skin and burned like the very fires of hell to remind him that he’d failed.
But not this time.
Now he would have the means to escape Rhydd and his sins forever.
He listened but the lord’s chamber was quiet. Aside from the occasional tread of footsteps in the hallway, the rustle of mice in the fragrant rushes tossed over the stone floor of the castle, or the hiss of flames in the grate, there was no sound but the pounding of his heart.
Noiselessly he slipped between the drapes and stole across the rushes to the window where he plucked his prize and stuffed it swiftly into the small pocket sewn into the sleeve of his tunic for just spoils as this. Holding his breath, he started for the door only to hear a breathless woman’s voice coming from the hallway.
“In here, Idelle. Quickly.”
Trevin’s knees nearly gave way as he realized the lord’s wife was on the other side of the oaken door. He had no choice but to duck back behind the curtain and hide himself in the alcove where Baron Roderick’s clothes were tucked. Help me, he silently prayed to a God who rarely seemed to listen.
The door swung open and a rush of air caused the fire to glow more brightly. Golden shadows danced upon the whitewashed walls.
Trevin dared peek through the heavy velvet and watched as Lady Gwynn yanked her tunic over her head, then tossed it carelessly onto the floor. With a bored sigh, she, now clad only in her underdress, dropped onto the bed.
Trevin’s groin tightened at the sight of the lacy chemise against Gwynn’s skin. Idelle, the old midwife and a woman many proclaimed to be a witch, shuffled into the room and closed the door behind her. Half blind and a bit crippled, Idelle held some kind of special power and even though her ancient eyes were clouded a milky white, she seemed to see more than most people within these castle walls. ‘Twas said that she had the uncanny gift of searching out a man’s soul.
“‘Tis the time,” she said in a voice not unlike that of a toad. Carefully she set her basket of herbs and candles on a small table. She laid each wick upon a red-hot coal from the fire until all the beeswax tapers were lit. Once the flames were strong and flickering in the breeze, Idelle reached into a pouch in her basket and dropped a handful of pungent herbs over the table. Some sparked in the candles’ flames and the scents of rose and myrtle blended over the odor of burning oak.
“Then let’s get it done.” Squirming upon the coverlet Lady Gwynn lifted her chemise over her legs and hips. Trevin was suddenly much too hot. Higher and higher the chemise was raised until the sheer fabric was wadded beneath her breasts.
Though he knew it was sin, he could not drag his eyes away from her near naked body. White and supple in the quivering firelight she rolled toward the old woman.
Trevin clamped his jaw tight. He couldn’t resist eyeing her flat white abdomen, the slight indentations between her ribs, and the nest of red-brown curls that seemed to sparkle in the juncture of her legs.
His throat turned to dust. So this is what a noblewoman looked like beneath her velvet and furs. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to run one of his callused fingers over that soft irresistible skin.
“There ye be, lass. Now, let me see what ye’ve got.” Idelle knelt at the side of the bed and her fingers, knotted with age, moved gently over the younger woman’s smooth belly. Groping and prodding, she murmured something in the old language, a spell mayhap, as it was common knowledge that she prayed and offered sacrifices to the pagan gods of the elders, just as the man who had raised him, the sorcerer Muir had. “By the gods, ‘tis no use.” With a sigh, she shook her graying head. Sorrow added years to a face that was barely a skull with skin stretched over old, bleached bones. “‘Tis barren ye be, lass. There is no babe.”
“Nay!” Gwynn cried, but lacked conviction.
Sadly, Idelle clucked her tongue. “‘Tis sorry I be and ye know it.”
“And wrong you be! Oh, please, Idelle, tell me I am with child,” she insisted desperately.
“Hush! There is a child. There must be!” Stubborn pride flashed in the lady’s eyes as if by sheer will a baby would grow within her womb. “Oh, dear God you must be mistaken!” She whispered, though her chin wobbled indecisively.
Try as he might Trevin couldn’t draw his gaze away from her. She pushed her chemise upward to the juncture of her arms and for the first time in his life he saw a noblewoman, a beautiful lady, naked. He’d caught glimpses of serving wenches and whores, of course, but never before had he seen the wife of a baron. His mouth drew no spit as he looked upon the sweet roundness of her breasts. Her nipples were small and pink, reminding him of rosebuds. His damned manhood, always at the ready, became stiff.
“Touch me again. Try harder to feel the babe,” Gwynn pleaded, though she seemed resigned, as if she understood her fate.
Regret drew Idelle’s old lips into a knot. She laid the flat of her hand beneath Lady Gwynn’s navel, closed her sightless eyes, and whispered a chant. Upon the bed, the naked woman lay perfectly still.
With a sigh, Idelle removed her spotted fingers. “There’s nothing.”
“What will I do?” Gwynn asked, swallowing hard.
“I know not.”
“Mary, sweet mother of Jesus, help me,” Lady Gwynn whispered from her bed--the lord’s bed. If the baron had any idea that a poor stable boy--nay, a thief--had seen his wife naked, there would be hell to pay. Trevin would probably be drawn and quartered, his spilled guts fed to the castle hogs. He shuddered at the thought but still could not draw his wayward gaze away.
Her eyes were wide with fear and she bit into her lower lip. The candles near the bed gave off black smoke and the tiny flames reflected in tears drizzling from her eyes. Saint Peter, she was a beauty. “If I bear not a son, my husband will kill me.”
Trevin’s heart gave a jolt. He’d heard stories of the lord’s cruelty, but to kill this woman--this beautiful wife?
“Nay, he would never—”
“Don’t lie to me, Idelle.” Gwynn sat bolt upright on the bed, her pointed chin thrust forward, her chemise lowering over those perfect breasts. Frightened, she curved the fingers of one hand over the midwife’s scrawny arm. “There must be a child.”
“I’m sorry, m’lady, ‘tis ripe ye are, that I know. Aye, but—”
“I will bear my husband a son!” Gwynn’s pretty face twisted from desperation to sly expression that reminded Trevin of a wolf coming upon a wounded lamb. “I . . . I . . . slept with my husband each night before he rode to battle,” she said softly, as if to convince herself, “I tried, oh, how I tried . . .”
“‘Tis a pity, to be sure.”
“And I did what you advised,” Gwynn added, as if her childless state were the old midwife’s fault. With one hand, she gestured to the beeswax candles dripping near the bed. “I added myrtle, oak, and rose to candles. I drew fertility runes in the sand and lied to Father Anthony when he caught me practicing the old ways.” Her eyes slitted and a cunning expression overcame her perfect features. “Then, to atone, I prayed on my knees on the cold stone floor of the chapel for hours upon hours, hoping God would answer my prayers. I did everything I could and yet you dare tell me there is no babe.”
Idelle frowned and rubbed at the sprinkle of whiskers upon her chin. “I’ll not lie to ye, m’lady.”
“For the love of Saint Jude!” Gwynn hopped off the bed and walked barefoot through the rushes to the small window cut into the chamber wall. Moonlight streamed through the opening and fell upon her beautiful, angry face while casting a silver sheen to her fiery hair. “You must help me.”
Idelle clucked her tongue while worrying her gnarled fingers. “I tried. By the gods, I tried, lass. But sometimes when a man and woman lay together, a child eludes them.”
“But why?” Gwynn asked, frowning and tapping her fingers in agitation along the whitewashed wall.
“God is punishing me, though ‘tis the baron’s fault.”
Idelle lifted a graying eyebrow. “His fault?”
“Aye, but he will kill me if I give him no sons,” she said again, turning and resting her head against the sill. Trevin cringed. If not for the shadows, she would see him. “Was not his first wife, Katherine, found dead in her bed” --she waved a hand at the pile of furs on the curtained mattress-- “this very bed after six years of marriage and no children?”
“Strangled, they say, or suffocated.”
“The Lord denied it, even unto Father Anthony.”
“And his second wife, Rose, drowned when she, too, was unable to give him a babe.”
“‘Tis true,” Idelle agreed, rubbing her knuckles until Trevin thought she might work the skin off her bones.
Gwynn sighed loudly. “Lord Roderick is a young man no longer. He wants sons and I, Idelle, will give them to him, one way or another.”
Trevin bit his lip. He’d heard the talk whispered by the servants in the solar, scullery, stables, and throughout the barony. Even peasants in the village suspected that Baron Roderick had suffocated his first wife, drowned his second, and took another--this one, Gwynn of Llynwen, a woman of fifteen for the singular purpose of bearing him an heir. A son. Trevin swallowed though his throat was dry as sand.
Through the cracks in the drapes, he watched as the lady’s eyebrows drew together and her gaze moved swiftly over the window ledge. “My ring,” she whispered, distracted for a moment as her fingers ran over the stone and mortar. Trevin’s heart stilled. Guilt pierced his soul. “‘Twas here but a little while ago . . . the ruby my father gave me . . .” She bit her lip in vexation. “I know I put it here. Oh, for the love of Saint Mary, my mind is gone with all the worry about a babe!”
Trevin didn’t dare breathe as she stooped to sweep the rushes with her fingers, as if the jewel had fallen onto the floor. Idelle, too, began searching and the damned ring burned a hole in Trevin’s sleeve.
“How very odd . . .”
“Could ye have misplaced it, m’lady?”
“Nay. Nay. It was here. Right in this very spot. I know it!” She slapped the ledge with her palm and then her gaze inched slowly around her chamber.
Sweat dripped down Trevin’s spine as she stared at the curtains. Trevin froze. Could she see him? Did his eyes reflect in the dim candlelight? Had he moved and caught her gaze? He closed his eyes to slits, mouthed a silent prayer to a God he didn’t trust, and swallowed a lump as large as an egg that had formed in his throat. Sweat rolled down his muscles though the autumn breeze rushing through the window was cold and caused the embers in the fire to glow a scarlet hue that cast bold red shadows upon the walls. Christ Jesus, how had he ended up here-trapped like a cornered fox?
Lady Gwynn sank to the floor. “I cannot worry about the ring right now,” she said, her voice soft and forlorn. “Not when I need not a ruby but a babe.”
“Would that I conjure up a child, but . . .” Idelle shook her head and scratched at the hairs sprouting upon her chin. “‘Tis not possible.”
Standing, Gwynn turned her thoughtful gaze back to the midwife. “You could be mistaken.”
“Oh, m’lady, would that I were.”
“My time of the month is not for a fortnight yet. Only then will we know for certain.”
“Leave me,” Gwynn ordered, dashing away her tears and plopping back on the bed. She tossed her long auburn curls in spoiled disdain. “I’ll hear no more of your heresy, old woman. I’m with child, I tell you as sure as there is a God, I am carrying the son of Roderick of Rhydd.”
“Would that it were so.”
“It is, I tell you. Go.” Gwynn hitched her chin to the door and there was nothing for the midwife to do but gather her basket of herbs, candles, and knives and start for the hallway.
However, at the door, Idelle hesitated and shivered as if the cold touch of winter had invaded her soul. “Lady,” she said, casting a worried glance over her shoulder, “do not contemplate that which is forbidden.”
“I see it in your eyes, child,” Idelle said, her voice a worried whisper. “If you consider trying to trick him—”
“Hush!” Gwynn said, her cheeks flaming. “You speak nonsense and what can you see, half blind as you are?”
“My sight is from the soul. Be not foolish,” the old woman cautioned, as if she could read the dark turn of Lady Gwynn’s thoughts. She cleared her throat and added, “If ye be so troubled, I could send for the priest.”
Gwynn let out a breath of disdain and waved Idelle’s offer away. “Father Anthony and his prayers and penance are not what I need. Why the man asks to be flogged so hard that blood stains his shirt in order that he appear a servant and martyr of God I understand not.”
“Mayhap he has reason to repent.”
Gwynn signed. “He is a man of the faith.”
“Aye, but even a man who speaks the words of the Father is made of flesh and bone.”
“Be that as it may, I’ll not speak to him of this. ‘Twould but cause him to stutter and gulp so hard his Adam’s apple would bob as fast as a hummingbird’s wings in flight.” Gwynn’s smile wasn’t kind. “Please, leave me now.”
“As ye wish, child, but take care.”
Eyes squeezed shut, Trevin counted out his heartbeats as he heard Idelle shuffle from the room. The large door creaked open only to close with a thud and the chamber was silent aside from the hiss and pop of the fire.
Now, if only the lady would lie on the bed and fall asleep, he could make good his leave. The ring would be his and he would leave Rhydd and his past far behind him.
Her voice seemed to echo through the room.
Trevin’s muscles turned to stone.
“Come here,” Gwynn ordered again and Trevin prayed there was a cat lurking in the shadows somewhere that she was calling. “You there, boy, behind the velvet. I know you’re there.”