Whenever he planned a siege or went into battle, he always considered everything that could possibly go wrong, but when it came to today, to Claymore, he'd foolishly trusted everything to chance, assuming it would all come out all right.
On the other hand, Royce decided with an irritated sigh, in a battle his smallest order was anticipated and carried out without question or argument. In a battle, he did not have Jennifer to contend with—Jennifer, who argued or questioned him about everything.
Blind to the beauty of the place he'd been yearning to see for eight long years, Royce wondered grimly how it was possible that he could intimidate knights, nobles, squires, and battle-hardened soldiers into doing his bidding with a single glance, and yet he could not seem to force one young, stubborn, defiant Scottish girl to behave. She was so damned unpredictable that she made it impossible to anticipate her reaction to anything. She was impulsive, headstrong, and completely lacking in wifely respect. As they rode across the drawbridge, he glanced down at her stiff shoulders, belatedly realizing how humiliating the scene in the valley must have been to her. With a twinge of pity and reluctant admiration, he admitted that she was also very young, very frightened, very brave, and extremely compassionate. Any other woman of her rank might well have demanded the boy's head, rather than pleading for his life as Jennifer had done.
The castle's huge courtyard was filled with the people who lived or worked within its walls—a veritable army of stable grooms, laundresses, scullions, carpenters, farriers, archers, serfs, and footmen, in addition to the castle's guards. The higher-ranking members of the castle staff—bailiffs, clerks, butler, pantler, and a host of others—were lined up formally on the steps leading into the hall. Now, however, as he looked about him, Royce did not fail to observe the cold hostility being directed at Jennifer by nearly everyone, nor did he intend to leave their reaction to her to chance. So that every single person in the crowded bailey would have a clear view of Jennifer and himself, Royce turned to the captain of the guard and nodded curtly toward the stables. Not until the last knight had disappeared into the crowd, leading their horses to the stable, did Royce dismount. Turning, he reached up and caught Jennifer by the waist and lifted her down, noting as he did so that her pretty face was stiff, and she was carefully avoiding meeting the eyes of anyone. She didn't try to smooth her hair, or straighten her gown, and his heart squeezed with pity because she'd obviously decided it didn't matter how she looked any more.
Aware of the unpleasant murmuring rising from the crowd in the bailey, Royce took her arm and led her to the foot of the steps, but when Jennifer started to walk up them, he drew her firmly back, then he turned.
Jenny surfaced from the pit of shame she felt and shot him a desperate glance, but Royce didn't see it. He was standing without moving a muscle, his face hard and implacable as he gazed steadily at the restless crowd in the bailey. Even in her state of numb misery, Jenny suddenly felt as if there was a strange power emanating from him now, a force that seemed to communicate itself to all. As if a spell were being cast over them, the crowd grew silent and slowly straightened, their eyes riveted on him. Then and only then did Royce speak. His deep voice rang out in the unnatural stillness of the bailey, carrying with it the power and force of a thunderclap.
"Behold your new mistress, my wife," he pronounced, "and know that when she bids you, I have bidden you. What service you render her, you are rendering me. What loyalty you give or withhold from her, you give or withhold from me!"
His harsh gaze slashed across them for one breath-stopping, threatening moment, and then he turned to Jennifer and offered her his arm.
Unshed tears of poignant gratitude and awed wonder shimmered in Jenny's blue eyes as she looked up at him and slowly, almost reverently placed her hand upon his arm.
Behind them, the armorer clapped his hands slowly—twice. The smith joined in. Then a dozen more serfs. By the time Royce had guided her up the wide steps leading to the hall doors where Stefan and Friar Gregory were waiting, the entire bailey was thundering with steady clapping—not the sort of uninhibited, spontaneous salute that marks heartfelt enthusiasm, but rather the rhythmic response of the spellbound who are awed by a power too potent to resist.
Stefan Westmoreland was the first to speak after they entered the great, cavernous hall. Clasping Royce's shoulder with warm affection, he joked, "Would that I could do that to a crowd, dear brother."Meaningfully, he added, "Can you grant us a few moments? We have something that needs discussing."
Royce turned to Jenny, excusing himself for a minute, and she watched the two men walk over to the fire where Sir Godfrey, Sir Eustace, and Sir Lionel were standing. Evidently they'd all come ahead to Claymore along with Stefan Westmoreland, Jenny realized.
Her mind still dazed by Royce's incredible thoughtfulness in making that speech, Jenny pulled her gaze from his broad shoulders and looked about her with dawning awe. The hall in which she stood was immense, with a soaring, timbered roof and smooth stone floor swept clean of rushes. Above, a wide gallery, supported by richly carved stone arches, wrapped around on three sides, instead of only one. On the fourth wall was a hearth so large a man could easily stand in it, its chimney heavily embellished with scrollwork. Tapestries, depicting scenes of battles and hunts, hung upon the walls, and someone, she noted with horror, had actually placed two large tapestries on the floor near the hearth. At the far end of the hall, opposite where she stood, was a long table set upon a dais and cupboards displaying goblets, platters, and bowls of gleaming gold and silver, many of them encrusted with jewels. Although only a few torches were burning in wall holders, it was not nearly as dark and gloomy as the hall at Merrick. And the reason, Jenny noted with a gasp of admiration, was a huge round window of stained glass, set high in the wall beside the chimney.
Jenny's preoccupation with the stained glass window was abruptly cut off by a joyous semi-shriek from above:
"Jennifer!" Aunt Elinor cried, standing up on tiptoe in order to see over the shoulder-high wall that enclosed the gallery. "Jennifer! my poor, poor child!" she said, and disappeared from sight completely as she rushed along the gallery. Although Aunt Elinor could not be seen, the echo of her happy monologue could easily be heard as she headed for the steps leading down to the hall: "Jennifer, I'm so very glad to see you, poor child!"
Tipping her head back, scanning the gallery, Jenny started forward, following the sound of her aunt's voice as she continued: "I was so worried about you, child, I could scarcely eat or sleep. Not that I was in any condition to do either, for I've been bounced and jounced clear across England on the most uncomfortable horse I've ever had the misfortune to sit upon!"