Cursing under his breath, Tommy stomped down the hall. Just being in the shrew’s corridor was enough to set his teeth on edge—no wonder he had waited so long to give her back her bloody tokens. And having her shouting after him, calling him a coward was not helping his mood. Maybe his method of returning her tokens had not been the most—knightly—waiting for Andras, Einion and Padrig to be long gone, then walking quickly to Mairwen’s door, dropping the tokens, knocking and trying to make it out of the corridor before she opened the door—but still, there was maintaining one’s honor, and then there was stupidity, as he had once told Will. Of course, Will had only shot back that there was bravery and willingness for adventure, and then there was stupidity.
The setting sun slanted in from an open doorway to his right—one of the solaria. Tommy wondered why the door had been left open, most of the time unoccupied rooms had the doors shut—he turned his head automatically.
He stopped in his tracks.
She was doing nothing—just standing there, her back to him and in shadow, but he recognized it nonetheless. She seemed to be looking at the lowering sun; the sunlight lit up the wispy bits of her hair, setting a golden halo burning around her face. Tommy leaned against the doorframe, saying nothing for a long time … watching her even though there was really nothing much to watch …
But eventually he realized he had to say something … because if he did not, she would only turn around and jump—probably screaming—when she saw him, and that would only lead to problems. Instead he asked, “Like sunsets?”
Lynn did start, but she managed to turn without screaming—she let out a slow breath when she saw him. “Oh—Tommy.”
He smiled, stepping forward—then pausing long enough to turn and shut the door behind him. Her eyes had widened when he turned around again, and though she did have a smile, it was shaky.
Tommy tried to look reassuring as he stepped forward. Lynn held her ground, though she swallowed. “You didn’t answer my question,” he teased, stopping before he got her too nervous—at least for the moment.
“Question—oh. Sunsets.” She looked over her shoulder – the rosy light dyed her dress a pale pink. Tommy thought the color became her much more than the perpetual white she wore. She shrugged and looked back at him. “Well enough, I suppose.”
He took a small step forward—Lynn stiffened like a frightened rabbit. He stopped. “You seemed quite transfixed.”
“Oh—well—it’s a way to be alone.” Lynn turned closer to the window, walking absently, as if the light distracted her—Tommy followed, matching her step for step, except his stride was longer … therefore, when she looked at back at him, he was closer. She swallowed, edging along the wall.
Tommy considered following her—but he let her be—for now. “Why do you need to be alone?”
“Doesn’t everyone need to be alone sometimes?” she asked softly.
He paused, biting his lower lip—before offering the supreme sacrifice. “Do you want me to leave?”
“I—” She broke eye contact, looking down at the ground. “You probably should.”
Tommy’s heart dropped—before he took a deep breath and stepped forward, deliberately in Lynn’s space. He thought he saw her stiffen, but he could not stop his hand, lifting up to softly stroke her cheek. “I didn’t ask if I should—I know I should—I asked if you wanted me to.”
“If you know you should go—why are you still here?” Lynn asked the ground.
“Because if you spend your life doing all the things you should do, you’ll never get time to do the things you want to do—and I’m not going to live my life like that.”
She looked up—her eyes shining, blinking rapidly. “What if what you want—isn’t right?”
“Then you need to make a choice—but Lynn, I can’t ever see you wanting something that’s terribly wrong—so do you want me to go, or do you want me to stay?”
Her eyes held his for a moment—then broke away. “Stay,” she admitted to the floor.
He smiled. “Good.” His hand tangled into her hair—he was about to pull her a little closer, but he could not miss the way he could almost hear her bones lock …
Tommy sighed. “Lynn—Lynn, look at me.” Obligingly, she looked up. “I can understand that you’re—nervous—but believe me, all you would have to do is say no, and I would stop.”
Lynn’s lower lip began to quiver. “It’s not—I’m not worrying about what would happen if I said no.”
He blinked, taking a step back. “Then—what are you worrying about?”
“I’m—worrying about—what would happen if I said … yes.”
Tommy stared at her for a moment—but a moment was all he got, for she pushed past him and hurried out the door before he could even breathe again.
“Busy, Dad?” Tommy asked, throwing himself onto one of the chairs opposite his father’s desk.
The king looked up, blinking in surprise—he made a show of looking out the window, tracking the sun in its ascendancy. “Isn’t it a bit early for you?”
“Eh—not that early—besides, I had to get to you before the vultures descended.”
“Ah—you need something.” Arthur’s tone was almost grudging, but it was in a mocking, sarcastic way. He pushed his papers aside. “What is it?”
Tommy shifted uncomfortably. “Well … I just was wondering—I’ve got a bit of a problem with a girl …”
“Vaughan’s daughter cutting up rough?”
“Vaugh—oh. Mairwen. No, it’s nothing to do with her. I’m done with that.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “You sure that’s wise?”
“How would it not be?”
Arthur leaned back, tapping his fingers the desk. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned … or,” he added, looking at one of the letters with a sigh, “a woman, period.”
Tommy leaned forward, trying to read the letter upside-down. “It’s from Morgan,” Arthur said helpfully, “about the friend your sister wants to bring …”
“Jess,” Tommy murmured. “You know … Dad … if some knight were to dally with Jess … what would you do?”
Arthur’s eyebrows arched. “It would depend entirely on the knight in question—and to what extent the dallying went.”
“Uh—” Tommy tried to think of someone a little similar to him, at least as far as relations with the ladies were concerned. “Dai.”
His father gave a grim chuckle. “She wouldn’t put up with him long enough for me to worry.”
“Hmm—good point—Will then, she’s always liked him.”
“Will,” Arthur murmured. “I wouldn’t do anything—I’d worry more for his virtue than hers.”
Tommy crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back in his seat. This isn’t working—Jessie’s not Lynn—and like Dad said, she’d never put up with a guy like me in any case … “Well—let me ask you this—if you were … attracted to a maiden, and she was attracted to you—you were pretty sure—but she was hanging back because she had an overprotective father who …” He stopped, before he got too insulting, or before Arthur guessed of whom he was speaking. “Who doesn’t even let her talk to young men, even when he’s standing right there.”
Arthur straightened. “Thomas, what are you getting yourself into?”
“Nothing! Why do you assume—?”
“Because I know you, that’s why. And my advice to you is—don’t.” He picked up his quill and pointed it at Tommy.
“Why not?” Tommy demanded – getting angry in spite of himself.
“It’s a foolish idea, that’s why not—even if you manage not to get caught, if this doesn’t work out between the two of you, not only will your fair lady have to deal with that—she’ll have to deal with knowing she betrayed her father, and all for nothing. And I’m not even going to get into what will happen to you if you do get caught.”
Tommy scowled, leaning back in his chair.
Arthur surveyed his son for a few moments … then, with a sigh, drew his letter back to him. “However—this is the sane and sound advice of an old man … I suppose the hot blood of a fifteen-year-old might view the matter differently.”
He sat up a bit. “So—Dad—if you were in my position—what would you do?”
Arthur looked up with a rare grin—in that second he and his son looked very much alike. “Exactly what you’re going to do, of course – go for it.”
Lancelot bent double, panting. “All right, lad—enough.”
Will took a step back, leaning slightly on the practice sword—Elaine, her elbows on the wooden fence, sighed dreamily. Her chosen knight could even best Sir Lancelot in a duel … her mind fast forwarded to the day when he would ride triumphantly through the lists, bearing her favors and unhorsing every knight in a single stroke … then he would dismount to plant a chaste kiss onto the lips of his chosen lady, i.e., her …
Lancelot’s voice dragged her from her daydream. “Where,” he muttered, almost to himself, “did you learn how to wear down an opponent so effectively?”
There was a smile in Will’s voice as he replied, “I had a good teacher.”
“Well—give him my compliments.” Lancelot looked up. “You do realize, of course, that had this been a real fight …”
“I would have been dead in ten minutes—yes, yes, I know.” Will’s voice held a hint of a mock—but Elaine was internally up in arms on his behalf. Will could of course beat Sir Lancelot, and beat him well—she had seen the skill he had used, the ease with which he had wielded the wooden blade, the quickness of his movements—the sweat that had been pouring off him, especially the way it made his tunic stick to his back …
“Eh—twenty,” Lancelot was replying. “You’re quick on your feet—and,” he added with a rueful grimace, “sixteen.”
“I’ll remember that next time you remind me of my youth and inexperience.”
Lancelot gave a glare that was only half-serious—before looking beyond Will and grinning. “Inexperience—huh?”
“Ye-es …” Will looked over his shoulder.
“There’s only one way to fix that,” Lancelot continued with a devilish grin. He grabbed Will’s arm, turning him around. “Go out and get some—experience.” And with that he pushed Will forward, toward the fence—toward Elaine.
Elaine’s face lit up—then fell a little bit, Will looked only nervous, not ecstatic. Meanwhile, Lancelot smiled and backed off. Will swallowed. “Uh—greetings—uh—Lady Elaine.”
“Oh, greetings, Sir William.” She rested her chin on her palm and looked up at him with wide, adoring blue eyes.
Will pulled at his collar, as if he was nervous. Elaine decided to spare him the burden of speaking. “Can you help me?” she asked in a forthright manner. “Oh, don’t worry,” she added, seeing how he stiffened, “it’s not with dragons or rogue knights or anything like that. I just need some … information.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Information?”
“Yes, that—you see—” Elaine stopped. Mairwen, she suddenly remembered, had told her to be subtle—Elaine frowned. This was going to take some thought.
There—she had it. “It’s about a friend of mine—not Mairwen,” she said very quickly. Will just nodded. “She … well, she has a bit of a … thing for your friend—Thomas.”
“Not Mairwen?” Will asked, slightly doubting.
“No, not Mairwen—” She gasped as a stroke of pure genius came to her. “You see, that’s why I can’t tell you her name—Mairwen would be very angry if she found out—well, you know.”
“I think I do,” Will murmured.
“Right—anyway—my friend wants to know … is Thomas—after anyone? Or is he still for Mairwen?”
“Not Mairwen,” Will said with decision.
Uh oh. She’s not going to be happy … “Are you sure?” she pleaded.
Oh dear. “Well—is there anyone else?”
“I—” He paused. “Don’t—know.”
“No,” he said slowly, shaking his head. “I don’t know—really.”
“Oh, no … this isn’t good …” Elaine tried to rest her chin on her palm, but the fabric of her sleeve caught on a splinter in the wooden fence—it jerked, and tumbling out of the sleeve came a small white handkerchief.
It fluttered to the ground—Will bent and picked it up. “Oh, thank—” Elaine started to say—before remembering the trick Mairwen had used in order to get Tommy interested in her. She giggled. “You know—maybe you should keep it.”
“Um—no—no thank you—I don’t think so.” Will handed the handkerchief out to her—Elaine took it and tucked it back into her sleeve with a sigh.
“Well—thank you anyways.”
He gave a small—very small—smile. “It was—no trouble.”
Elaine sighed. “Farewell, Sir William.” Then she turned and walked back into the castle—feeling, for more than one reason, disappointed.