Twin Passions(4)

By: Miriam Minger

Acting quickly, the thane lifted her onto his saddle and covered her with his woolen cloak. Although sodden, it would offer her some protection from the cold rain. Cursing to himself, he knew there would be hell to pay for this misadventure. "Outwitted by a chit of a girl," he muttered darkly. The Lady Gwendolyn was well known for her willful exploits, but this time he feared she had gone too far. Signaling to his companion to grab the reins of her mare, he kicked the heaving sides of his steed and headed for the stronghold at a full gallop.

Nestled within the heavy cloak, Gwendolyn could feel the warmth slowly returning to her aching limbs. The burly thane's arms about her were reassuring, and she attempted to dispel the memory of the nightmare vision from her mind. I can tell no one, she thought dazedly, or they will think I am mad. Yet, in her heart, she knew her vision had been real, though she could not explain it.

Reining in their horses at the timbered gate of the stronghold, the thanes waited impatiently for the heavy doors to swing open. Great torches, sputtering in the rain, lit up the night as loud shouts heralded their entrance into the main yard.

Gwendolyn felt herself being taken into the waiting arms of another thane. Then she was carried across the yard into the great hall. Blinking from the brightness, she felt a twinge of guilt at the anxious faces of those gathered around her. Her eyes came to rest on the figure of her mother rushing toward her.

"Quickly, we must get her warm at once," Lady Bronwen ordered, taking immediate charge of the situation. She gestured for the thane to follow her, and a serving maid who also stood nearby. Holding a thick tallow candle in front of her, she led the way up a wooden staircase to Gwendolyn's chamber.

"Lay her down on the bed," she said evenly, setting the candle in a large brass holder. The thane hastily obeyed, then stood aside, not knowing what to do next. His eyes widened as Lady Bronwen began unceremoniously to strip the drenched clothes from Gwendolyn's shivering body. She looked up at him, a faint smile curving her lips. "You may go now."

"Aye, my lady." He nodded, red-faced. Without a backward glance, the sheepish thane beat a hasty retreat down the stairs.

"Go to the kitchen and fetch some meat broth and herbs," Lady Bronwen said softly to the young serving maid. The girl bobbed her head and scurried out of the room, close on the heels of the departing thane. Lady Bronwen turned back to Gwendolyn and helped her into the bed, gently pulling the warm blankets up over her delicate shoulders. She looked kindly at her daughter, her gentle eyes speaking a message of concern, yet also a mild reproach.

Overcome by her mother's tenderness, Gwendolyn felt hot tears burn her cheeks. "Mother, I . . ." she began hesitantly, but the words stumbled on her tongue.

"Hush, lamb, we can talk of this later," soothed Lady Bronwen. She moved away from the bed and lit several small oil lamps about the chamber. The faint rustling of her linen tunic and mantle was the only sound in the room.

"Here are the herbs and the broth, my lady!" the serving maid whispered breathlessly as she entered the bedchamber. She had run all the way to the kitchen and back, anxious to please her kind mistress.

Lady Bronwen nodded her thanks, then took the bowls from the girl and set them on a small wooden table by the bed. "Go now and find Leah. I have need of her," she said over her shoulder.

"Aye, mistress," the serving maid replied, hurrying out the door once again.

Stirring the herbs into the steaming meat broth, Lady Bronwen offered one of the bowls to Gwendolyn. "Here, lamb, but drink it slowly."

Gwendolyn cupped the bowl in her hands, bringing it shakily to her lips. She took a sip, savoring the richness of the beef broth. After several more sips a gradual warmth began to spread through her, stilling at last the shivering spasms that wracked her slender body. Feeling her eyelids growing heavy, she handed the empty bowl to her mother. Lying back against the soft down pillow, she could no longer keep her eyes open. Gradually she felt herself drift into a comforting sleep.

Tucking in the soft woolen blanket, Lady Bronwen gazed down at her sleeping daughter. How could such an angelic-looking young woman cause so much trouble? she wondered, shaking her head. Indeed, Gwendolyn's fair features shone with almost unearthly beauty. Her brows arched delicately, her nose was straight and slender, her cheekbones high and graceful. Her lips, lush and rosy, were curved in the faintest of smiles, and her emerald green eyes, closed in sleep, were thickly fringed with dark lashes that fluttered ever so slightly against her creamy skin. The only feature that gave a hint of her true temperament was the stubborn set of her chin.