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Authors: A Rose in Winter

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BOOK: Shana Abe
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She pressed her ear to the crack but heard nothing unusual from the guard. Her breath came out in a silent rush; she leaned against the door for strength until her knees quit shaking.

A guard, indeed! One of her father’s men, looking none too pleased to be pulled away from his supper. A serious strategic move on the part of Henry, but she wasn’t beaten yet. He obviously expected her to try to bolt, but in honesty Solange hadn’t considered anything that drastic. Damon held the key to right this problem. But how to get to him?

Solange went over to the bed and sat down, reconsidering her options. She drew her legs up to her chin and wrapped her arms about them, trying to warm herself in the cold air. Another breeze drifted past the leaded glass window.

Her lips pursed thoughtfully, but she had already made her decision. It was her only choice, really. She hadn’t climbed out there since one moonless night a
few years before, when she had almost fallen to the cobblestone courtyard below. She had grabbed a loose stone as a handhold and it had nearly meant her death. No one but Damon ever knew of it, but the incident had put enough fear into her not to venture out that way again.

She imagined the stones had not grown any tighter over the past few years, but circumstances were desperate and so was she. She bit her lip for courage.

This time she was careful to tuck two pillows beneath the covers before she left, just in case.

The view from the window was breathtaking. Her chambers occupied not quite a full fifth of the upper floor of one of the four walls of the castle. Directly below her was the usually raucous inner courtyard, which bustled with village folk and nobles alike during daylight hours. At night it was deserted except for an occasional soldier on guard duty, making lonely rounds.

Beyond the castle gate was the meandering cluster of squat buildings that made up the village, a sizable one by common standards. Past that spread the gracious landscape of England in its full beauty. Even in winter Solange saw wonder in the frosted grass, the bare limbs of the trees softly glowing in the moonlight. The line of the forest trees was cut back unevenly, giving tantalizing glimpses into the darkened world beyond.

It was a world Solange had visited many times, but never enough to satisfy her love of nature and of all living things. The wild forest paths were as familiar to her as her own face, but she always managed to discover a new marvel whenever she went out.

Of course, Henry knew nothing of this. To the best of his knowledge, his daughter spent her time doing all the proper things a young gentlewoman should. Occasional reports of her absences reached him, but whenever he bothered to summon her for questioning, she always assured him she was off reading, in private.

At least Henry himself had scoffed at the notion of keeping his only child uneducated and had hired a tutor specifically to teach both her and his ward to read not just English but Latin, in addition to the regular studies of science, mathematics, and religious philosophy. It would prove to be one of the few occasions in his life when he broke with tradition, but nevertheless it remained a godsend for Solange, who, along with Damon, had already devoured most of the scrolls, manuscripts, and books available in the castle.

The meetings between Solange and her father were invariably the same. She would be summoned to his private study, alone. The marquess remained seated behind an enormous table of mahogany, framed on either side by two giant royal family crests draped from the fringed tapestries behind him. The crests held dancing green and yellow lions and griffins—all with fearsome teeth—on a background of royal blue. It was an intimidating effect for any visitor, and Solange was not immune to it.

The study always reminded her of the things she was expected to become; things that held infinite rules that all circled back on each other, as inescapable as a Celtic knot.

Her father would ask why she never arrived for Lady Matilda’s sewing lesson, or Lady Josephine’s
singing lesson or whatever it was. Solange would wait for her list of transgressions to end, then state simply that she had been reading and had forgotten about the lessons.

Henry would rub his beard and then nod absently. He would tell her for the thousandth time that although the ladies of the castle didn’t approve of her literacy, he didn’t see anything wrong with it. Then she was dismissed. Until the next time.

Tonight the forest looked blackly obscure, even to Solange. A shiver overtook her as she leaned uncertainly out the bower window. An examination of the stones below her revealed nothing. The moonlight created harsh shadows that left the rock looking pitted and scarred, manifesting the illusion of niches in the wall where actually there were none.

It was going to be a perilous climb, no doubt, but she only had to go down one floor to get to an unguarded room. Right below her chambers was the library, which would almost certainly be empty at this hour.

She hooked one leg over the sill and then paused, listening. She could swear she heard horses, several of them, running for the gate of the castle.

The guard below heard them too, and summoned help to open the gate.

Solange pulled her leg back in quickly, then ducked down to watch the courtyard unseen.

Men were greeting one another in cheerful tones, although she couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. The horses clattered through the open gate and onto the cobblestones, snorting and prancing about
impatiently. It was a hunting party, from the looks of it.

One rider had a familiar posture, ramrod straight in the saddle but without stiffness, powerful and in control of his giant sorrel gelding.

Damon! She raised her head farther, confirming it was he. No one else seemed such an innate extension of his horse but Damon, a naturally gifted rider.

He turned his head and looked up toward her window, the moonlight bringing to bold relief the planes of his face, the waves of hair curling down to his collar. Solange remained where she was, willing him to see her, unwilling to draw the attention of the other men.

He didn’t see her.

He dismounted with the other men and disappeared into the castle, talking with the others. A group of stableboys led the horses away.

She withdrew from the bower and ran lightly to the door, again pressing her ear to the wood.

The volume of the party in the hall decreased momentarily, then swelled anew. That would be the mark that the riders had entered the hall, and were probably now reporting to her father. Over it all she could hear the restless footsteps of the guard, moving away from her door.

Slowly, so slowly she closed her eyes and measured the time and space with her whole body, Solange pried the door open a scant inch. A rush of heated air pushed through the opening, lifting wisps of hair off her forehead, warming her cheeks. She pressed her face against the crack.

She couldn’t see the guard. Her narrow field of vision
included just the wall opposite, and part of a burning torch. The door opened enough to let her see with both eyes now; she tilted her head sideways to get a better angle.

There he was, standing down the hall at the top of the stairs. He obviously wished to be down there with the new arrivals. The guard shifted from foot to foot, then leaned over curiously to hear better.

He threw a glance over his shoulder and Solange pulled back swiftly. This corner of the door was in shadow, and there was no noticeable light coming from her chambers. The guard, who had been well into his fourth cup of ale before he was ordered up there, noticed nothing unusual.

Solange silently counted to thirty in Latin, then braved another look.

He had taken several steps down the stairs. He was visible only from the knees up, his back to her.

She saw her chance. Before she could reconsider, she slipped out the door and shut it gently behind her. The guard still did not turn. As soon as she heard the familiar click of the latch closing, she dashed down the hall in the opposite direction from the guard, running on her toes for silence. There were no cries of alarm, no sounds of pursuit.

She paused, panting, at the entrance of a narrow tunnel that burrowed through the spine of the castle, all the way around. It was old, and seldom used. Solange knew it by heart, which was fortunate tonight, since the length of it was utterly black.

The darkness didn’t bother her. She walked forward
confidently, supporting herself on both sides with her arms outstretched against the stone walls.

Damon’s chambers were in the wing adjacent to hers, one floor down, but not too far away. Several times she had to clear away the cobwebs that stuck to her face, and more than once she stumbled over an uneven stone in the floor. Nothing broke her pace, however. Damon was close, and so salvation was near.

Finally she reached the narrow stairs leading down to the outer rooms of the main hall. Here and there torches began to appear again, leaning away from her in their gutters, following the draft.

“Almost there, almost there,” she chanted under her breath. Ahead loomed a giant hallway that led to the main artery of the castle. She moved cautiously now, observing the flow of people passing by the opening, intent on their own business. An occasional burst of drunken laughter rebounded down the tunnel. It seemed even the torch flames shivered.

Here! She had reached Damon’s door. Her fingers clenched on the latch and squeezed. It was locked—no, only stuck, for the door moved slightly when she put her shoulder to it.

Someone was coming.

A man and a woman appeared at the end of the hall, holding each other close. Their coy laughter carried, and she knew that she had to disappear now. In desperation, Solange heaved at the door with all her might. It opened. She fell inside, then whirled and shut it just as the couple passed.

They walked on down the hall, his low tones mingling with her giggles until they could be heard no more.

Solange leaned her head against the wooden planking, breathing heavily from an equal combination of exertion and fear.

After a moment she turned, taking in the details of the room, noting the low fire, the simple arrangement of Damon’s few belongings scattered neatly throughout. The familiar goodness of the surroundings began to seep into her system, calming her.

Damon kept his room deliberately spartan. There were, for example, none of the plush luxuries that decorated her own, like the sumptuous curtains and tapestries, the polished oak bed frame, the numerous carpets she loved with colors so deep and vibrant they seemed to eat up the chill from the stones beneath them.

No, nothing very much like that here, although he could have had those things if he so desired. But Damon preferred his surroundings more stark. Even so, Solange could appreciate the easy harmony of it. And there were a few drops of whimsy here and there.

Here, on the table by the window where he liked to study, was a collection of colorful stones laid out in a straight line from one end of the tabletop to the other. Solange recognized each one of them, since all had been her gifts to him over the years. No two were alike—some crystalline, some fancy colored, striped or spotted, others plainer, yet all contained a beauty she had been compelled to share with him. He had received each one as a solemn treasure, always discussing the merits of each as she found them.

He kept them by the window, he told her, because when the sun laid across them they lit up his room like a symphony of nature.

There, by his pillow, was the linen handkerchief she had embroidered for him with his name over a year before. In honesty, Solange thought it a pitiful example of needlework, but at the time she had been proud enough to present it to him. It was almost embarrassing to look at now, the sloppy stitches, the uneven lines. Yet he kept it always by his pillow.

And here, on a group of sturdy tables placed against the far wall, was his vast collection of herbs, all neatly jarred or kept from the light in leather pouches. There were well over two hundred of them, a botanical array that added the spirit of decoration to his chambers, if not the intent.

Propped up outside each container was a stiff piece of vellum folded in half, naming the leaf or flower or root within. She had labored over the labels for weeks, writing both the Latin and English names, attempting careful little drawings on the edges to illustrate each herb.

She noticed absently how faded the ink had gotten. She must see about starting some new ones for him.

The dwindling fire drew her to crouch by the hearth. She was sweating and shivering all at once, holding her hands out to absorb what she could from the sullen flames. But the shaking would not leave her body.

Solange stared blankly ahead, seeing not the cherry glow before her, but the empty, colorless eyes of the earl. Her father’s words reverberated all around her, announcing her marriage to this person … her marriage …

You will become the wife of Redmond
 …

And the earl’s chilling smile, his quiet voice:
You will be there
 … 
I promise
 …

Her teeth began to chatter convulsively, but she didn’t notice.

The door to the chamber slammed open, hitting the wall with a startling
crack!
Damon strode into the room still wearing his riding cape, rage apparent in every step. He kicked the door shut behind him, not seeing her small form by the fire.

He looked magnificent. Gone was the shadow of his youthful years. Solange saw a man coming toward her, a man with a bitter look she was unaccustomed to seeing on his face.

She stood.

For a moment Damon was dumbfounded. He halted abruptly, simply staring at her, then squinting, attempting to see if she was a trick of his will.

Solange stood awkwardly, as if unsure of her welcome. She was wringing her hands together, something she did only when she was unusually nervous. The slender elegance of her figure was outlined by the firelight.

He didn’t know what to do, what to think. The news of her engagement to Redmond was being toasted again and again in the great hall, and he had been turned away by the guard at her door when he went to confirm the story with her. His stomach was a sick ache; he couldn’t believe she would refuse to see him.

BOOK: Shana Abe
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