It was well into the evening before supper began. Rowena sat with Kit while the king, queen and her uncle held court at the high table along with the Lord of Hexham.
The true festivities of the tournament were scheduled to begin tomorrow with a Squire’s melee and joust.
Those who were to participate wore scarlet tunics emblazoned with their lord’s coat of arms. Druce sat in the midst of the youths who continued to brag that though their lords might not best Lord Stryder, the boys could certainly best his squire.
Rowena felt badly for the boy who was being teased and she hoped on the morrow Druce trounced them all.
Not that she should have such thoughts. Still, she hated to see the fear and uncertainty on the boy’s face.
“Where is your brother?” she asked Kit. Neither Stryder, his men nor his “friends” had been there all night.
Kit shrugged. “I haven’t seen him since I left the two of you at the chapel.”
Rowena frowned, wondering what kept the man from eating while her gaze drifted around the other nobles present.
As soon as the meals were finished, the tables were cleared and moved for dancing.
Elizabeth and Joanna joined them, but not for long. They quickly went off to find partners for the dance.
Still there was no sign of Stryder.
“He won’t come at this point,” Kit told her as he led her toward the floor. “Once he hears music, he retires for the night.”
“But we were to meet for lessons.”
Kit frowned at that. “I know how much you want your freedom, Rowena, but I beg you not to press him on the issue.”
He nodded in approval as he led her through a lively dance.
Stryder ground his teeth as he heard the music coming from the hall. He hadn’t meant for his meeting with Nassir, Christian and Zenobia to last so long. But he had promised Rowena they could practice.
He had hoped to make it to the hall before the revelry began. How he hated to watch dancers and hear music.
Even now he could hear his mother mocking his father whenever his father was gone. The man is as clumsy as a plow. I know not how he can be so uncoordinated off the battlefield while he is so successful on it.
His father had never known of her mockery and though he hated to dance, his father had done so in hopes of making Stryder’s mother happy.
The only time she’d ever been happy was when she visited Kit’s father.
Banishing the memories, he forced himself into the hall. He had given his word and above all else, he would not breech it.
Stryder froze the instant he saw Rowena in his brother’s arms. Something painful shot through him so unexpectedly that it took his breath.
She was beautiful. Her cheeks reddened by her exercise.
The dance ended. She and Kit stayed on the dance floor while the group made ready for the masketelle
All the women drew straws to be the first lady to wear the mask. The idea of the dance was for the masked lady to be twirled around and then set free to find her dance partner for the rest of the night. They would lead the dance and on the morrow, they would reign as the “king and queen” of the squire’s tournament.
The lady chosen would reign until the knights held their tournament and the victor named the Lady of All Hearts who would then bestow the prizes on the victors and be the guest of honor at the banquet held on the final night of the tournament.
Under the supervision of a matron, the straws were quickly drawn and compared.
“Rowena de Vitry is our first queen,” the matron pronounced.
The silence was deafening. Normally when a lady was chosen, a cheer went up for her.
The black feathered mask was brought forward and secured to Rowena’s head while the minstrels began to play. The women twirled Rowena around.
Normally the men would be surrounding her, elbowing and shoving for a chance to be picked.
Indeed, many stepped back. Rowena stumbled about with her arms held out while the men did begin to elbow and prod one another.
“You brave her tongue,” one man said to another.
“I can do without a shrew. Not even her lands are worth her prattle.”
Laughter rang out.
But in her honor, she didn’t cry or run. She merely stood there in the center of their mockery with her head held high.
Kit started forward.
“Aye, you take her, Christopher. She can’t unman you anymore.”
Stryder’s vision turned dark. Deadly.
Rowena wanted to die in shame. It was all she could do not to tear the mask off and run. But she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
Worst of all, she felt for poor Kit who had tried to help her. The last thing he deserved was to be mocked for his kind heart.
The laughter of the crowd died as she felt someone near her. Expecting it to be Kit, she was completely startled when strong arms pulled her close to a hard body.
The minstrels began playing again. There was no sound now from anyone in the hall as her unknown champion led her through a dance. His steps were flawless and commanding.
“Stryder?” she whispered.
“Aye, my lady.”
Her heart shattered at the sound of his deep voice. And that succeeded in loosening a single tear from her eye. She was thankful for the mask that absorbed it.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
He paused in the dance to pull the mask from her. She shivered at the sight of him standing there, looking down at her. “Ever at your service.”
She smiled as he pulled her back into his arms and finished the dance.
Once it was over, he led her toward the door. Stryder paused beside a group of men. Handing her the mask, he turned to one knight and slammed his fist straight into the man’s jaw.
“My brother is ten times the man you are, Hugh,” he snarled at the knight on the ground. “And the next time you question that, I’ll make sure you leave the tournament field with nothing but skin upon your back.”
Turning on his heel, Stryder captured her hand and led her from the hall.
Rowena’s eyes were wide from what he’d just done.
“I know,” Stryder said in a tired tone. “I am ever the barbarian.”
Rowena offered him a chiding smile. “Nay, you are not. I only wish you had punched him harder.”