RHIANNONby Roberta Gellis
Possessing an unusual combination of shyness and wildness, Rhiannon is the raven-haired daughter of a Welsh prince. Notorious for loving and leaving the most beautiful women in the realm, Simon is the handsome nobleman and youngest son of Lady Alinor of Roselynde.
When the two meet, romance sparks and burns into a love so strong that it endures battles, betrayals and their own fiery passions. While rebellion rages across medieval England and divided loyalties claim their hearts, they risk everything for eternal love.
“It will kill Papa!” Joanna hissed, holding Simon, her little brother, by the wrist as hard as she could.
“And I will die of frustration myself if I do not speak my piece. The barons must not tolerate King Henry’s behavior,” Simon snarled, but his voice was low, and he cast a glance over his shoulder toward the stairwell where his father and mother might appear at any moment. He looked in vain for a sympathetic face among his gathered relatives.
Restraining Simon was like clinging to a living version of the black leopard painted on his shield. Joanna could feel the ripple of steel-hard sinews under the skin and the quivering tension in his whole body, but he did not pull loose. His eyes were full of flickering green and gold light, and his beauty could have stopped a woman’s heart. He had Ian’s face and Alinor’s eyes, Joanna thought, and until this visit, Joanna would have said he had the best of both their natures.
“Ian is not so frail as that,” Adam rumbled. There was a defensive note in his voice, however, and his eyes, too, went to the stairwell. He adored his stepfather and, simultaneously, resented the implication that Ian was aging and secretly feared that any exertion might in fact be a strain for him.
“That is not what Joanna means,” Gilliane said. Her voice had none of Joanna’s whiplash quality, but there was a silken strength in it. Fourteen years of happy marriage to Adam had changed her from a fearful, anxious girl to a very strong, though quiet, woman. “You know what kind Ian is,” she continued. “What he has sworn, he will abide by. You will break his heart, Simon, if you openly defy the king.”
“Why?” Simon asked passionately. “I have not even sworn to Henry. But cannot you all see that he intends to make you slaves?”
Gilliane, too, was wondering what was wrong with Simon. Not only was his disposition usually very sweet, but he had never cared a bit about politics. There was a wild streak in him—not in the usual sense of drinking and gambling, but in disregarding practical matters. Unlike the rest of his family, he was totally uninterested in land and had little sense of possession. He did not wish to be encumbered by the management of property. So, usually, he did not care what the king did, but after Henry had dismissed the Earl of Pembroke’s deputy from office—which he had no right to do—Simon had come roaring out of Wales to demand that his family defy the king.
“I have sworn to him, and I am still of your mind, Simon,” Adam growled. “There can be no question of oath-breaking if we refuse to go to this summoning. The king has broken his oath first. Does he hold by the great charter that he has sworn to more than once? Well, Geoffrey, what have you to say?”
Geoffrey, Joanna’s husband, had been sitting in one of the deep window embrasures, staring out into the beautiful garden of Roselynde keep. Roses made a blaze of color against the wall, and their perfume, mixed with the sweeter, stronger scent of the lilies that edged the beds, came up to him on the soft, sun-warmed breeze of June. He was only six years older than Adam, but his face was graven with deep lines of worry, and his eyes, golden in laughter or rage or passion, were dull mud-brown.
“What can I say?” he replied to Adam’s prodding. “The king has broken that oath and others, yes… But he is no John, Adam. There is no evil in Henry. He wishes to be loved. He desires to do good.
Simon made a strangled, furious sound and Geoffrey’s eyes moved to him.
“I cannot blame you for your anger,” Geoffrey admitted, “but what can I do? There is a close blood tie between us—he is my cousin—and he has cherished me and mine. William and Ian are in his household, and he is as kind and indulgent to my sons as a fond uncle. Can I turn on him like a mangy cur and bite the hand that has fed me?”
“And what will you do when he bites you?” Simon challenged. “Has he not turned on those closest to him already? Did he not call Hubert de Burgh ‘father’ on one clay and imprison him in chains in a deep vault the next?”
“Henry will not turn on Geoffrey.” Ian’s voice, deep and slightly hoarse, came across to them from the entry-way.
Everyone tensed a trifle. Gilliane rose from the window scat opposite Geoffrey and drew Alinor forward to sit with her, while Geoffrey smiled a similar invitation to Ian. Now Ian looked around at the assembled faces. The profusion of black curls was gone and his olive skin was sagging somewhat over his jowls and throat, but the luminous dark eyes were as warm and bright as ever and the good bones beneath the aging flesh showed where Simon had inherited his looks.
“Blood is a sacred tie to Henry,” Ian reiterated. “He will never strike at Geoffrey, just as he has never acted vengefully toward Richard of Cornwall.”
“Sit down, Papa,” Simon urged.
“Do you think I am exhausted from walking down the stairs,” Ian teased, “or do you want me to sit so I will not collapse with shock when you tell me you want all of us to join Richard Marshal’s party?”
Joanna frowned furiously at her half-brother, and Ian smiled at her, slipped an arm around her waist, and kissed her brow. Alinor laughed. She had grown somewhat heavier with the years and her black hair was now iron gray, but her acerbic personality had not changed and her eyes snapped and sparkled as clearly as Simon’s.
“Perhaps it is time you presented your lord with a new young one, Joanna, and stopped trying to be a mother to Ian and to me,” Alinor remarked, smiling. “We are neither blind nor stupid. We hear quite well—even what is not said aloud.”
“Then I assume you have heard that Henry is become insufferable,” Simon snarled.
“It is not so much Henry himself as the Bishop of Winchester and that bastard of his,” Adam said, trying to smooth over the vicious tone in Simon’s voice.
“Peter of Rivaulx is said to be Winchester’s nephew,” Ian corrected absently, while his mind was obviously elsewhere. Then he sighed and went to join Geoffrey. “Winchester has been too long out of this country. He seems to have forgotten everything he once knew about the English.”
“No,” Geoffrey said softly, “no. He has not forgotten. He remembers very well. He always hated the fact that power in this realm was divided by right between the barons and the king. He was as strong for the king’s uncontested right in John’s day as now, but John was so hated that Winchester realized any effort to curb the barons would bring war. In the end John tried it, of course, and it did bring war,”
“You would have thought Winchester would have learned something from that,” Simon remarked caustically.
“Yes. I am disappointed in him. We were good friends once,” Ian mused.
“Oh, he loved you well. You were always faithful. Why should he not love you? And you always see the best in everyone, my love,” Alinor said. “Those who desire power seldom see the truth and never learn.”
“That is true and not true,” Geoffrey amended. “Winchester assigned the wrong reasons of the resistance toward John. He thought it was because John was hated for himself.”
“Well, he was,” Adam put in, his mouth set in grim lines.
“Yes, which made men spring to arms faster,” Simon cried passionately, “but even had they loved him, they would not have permitted the king to trample on their rights, seize their property without reason or justice, and set himself above the law. Nor will they endure it now.”
“Nor should they,” Ian agreed, “but Henry is not John, and there is no reason to fly to arms. I did not take up arms against John, and I certainly will not offer violence to the king who trusts me and to whom I swore when he was a child.”
“There is no question of taking up arms,” Joanna said quickly. “Even Richard Marshal has no intention of taking up arms. We are only discussing what to do about this summons to a council on the eleventh of July.”
“What is there to discuss about that?” Ian asked.
“Whether to go or not—that is what there is to discuss,” Simon snapped.
“Do not be a fool!” Ian responded sharply.
“Are you afraid to defy him?” Simon taunted.
“Simon!” Alinor exclaimed. “You shame me! I knew your father should have used his belt on you more often, and if he did not, I should have. Thus are we justly rewarded for our indulgence.”
Simon had crimsoned so much that tears came to his eyes, and he knelt down before his father. “I am sorry, Papa. You know I did not mean that—not that you are afraid for yourself.”
Ian touched the unruly black curls of the bent head. “I know what you meant, and I am not ashamed that I fear for my loved ones, When you have what I have in this family, you will also be less daring. But that is not why I said you were a fool, Simon.”
“What your father meant,” Geoffrey remarked dryly, “was that absenting ourselves from the council can accomplish no purpose beyond angering the king. We have already used that method to no purpose. Now, since Henry will be enraged in any case, it is reasonable to tell him what we think in plain language and anger him that way. If there is to be a measure of bravery, Ian’s way is more courageous than sulking from a distance.”
“You are right about that,” Adam put in, his eyes brightening. “I was half-minded to go back to Tarring and tell my vassals to close themselves into their keeps, but I like Geoffrey’s notion much better. First I will tell the king what I think of him, his ways, and his new favorites, and then I will seal my keeps.”
“You will need to seal them if that is the way you go about it,” Gilliane pointed out tartly.
Alinor laughed. “Sometimes you remind me very much of your father, Adam. He could be horribly honest at just the wrong time, so that he ended by running his head into a stone wall.”
“But not about managing a king, beloved,” Ian reproved.
“Oh, yes,” Alinor insisted. “He crossed the last Henry so unwisely that he was told to go sit on his lands and not stir lest worse befall him.”
“That Henry and this are not to be compared—unfortunately.” Geoffrey sighed. “The one was a man— sometimes overhasty, greedy, and unjust, from what I have heard, but a real man in every sense. This one is a spoiled child who never grew up.”
“Such a man is not fit to be king,” Simon said, lifting his head. “Richard of Cornwall, however—”
“Do not let Cornwall hear you say that,” Ian ordered sharply, “or he will kill you where you stand. Henry has many faults, but lack of love for his brother and sisters is not one of them, and they return that love full measure. Richard of Cornwall may stand up in full council and roar at the top of his lungs that his brother is a coward and a fool, but he loves Henry dear, very dear. He will never rebel against him. That door is closed, Simon.”
“Yes, it is,” Geoffrey agreed forcibly. “I tell you that if Henry died in battle against rebels, Richard would pursue them until the last man was dead. He will not take the throne while Henry lives, and he would never forget or pardon any man who had even the remotest connection with those who caused his brother’s death.”
“I know it,” Simon said ruefully. “I do not know why my tongue is running at odds with my head today. I just feel that if I cannot do something, I will burst.”
“The only thing you could do in the mood you are in is harm,” Ian remarked wryly. “Why do you not go back to Wales? This is a most beautiful season in the hills. No doubt Llewelyn can find a nice little war for you if you feel you must break heads.”
“No!” Simon exclaimed, and stood up abruptly.
Ian looked very much surprised. He had, with his overlord’s approval, ceded the Welsh lands Llewelyn had bestowed upon him to his son as soon as Simon had won his spurs. It was a happy arrangement for everyone. The Welsh lands needed closer attention than Ian had been able to give them since he had married Alinor and taken up the responsibility of defending her huge estate. Simon was so wild that he would have made endless trouble for his parents idling about the rich, smooth-functioning estates in England. Llewelyn was glad to have a strong, eager fighter to lead Ian’s men. Alinor and Ian, although they worried about him a little, were delighted to have their son usefully occupied instead of making mischief.
Wales and Simon suited each other as a hand fits a glove. There was something feral and untamed about Simon that was more at home in the untouched forest and precipitous mountains of northern Wales than in the tilled fields and softly rolling hills of Sussex. The young man had always loved the Welsh estates passionately—which was why Ian gave those to him rather than the northern lands—and Simon was always happier there and in Llewelyn’s court with its barbaric undertones than in England. Thus, Ian was startled when his suggestion was rejected so violently. In the past Simon had been delighted to be sent to Wales.
“Joanna, have you been advertising my imminent demise again?” Ian asked his daughter-by-marriage, half-exasperated, half-laughing. Nothing Joanna did was ever really wrong in his eyes, especially not the anxious care of him that so clearly demonstrated her love. “I know my lungs were affected again last winter,” he complained, “but I am hale and hearty now. There is no reason for Simon to hang over me, expecting me to fall on my deathbed at any moment.”
“No, I did not ‘advertise your imminent demise’!” Joanna protested indignantly. “Anyway, the way Simon has been acting, he is more likely to throw you into your deathbed than help you out by his presence.”
“I simply do not wish to go to Wales now,” Simon said in a more controlled voice. “I have been thinking it over and I, too, believe that Geoffrey is right. We should go to the council, and we should make clear our displeasure at the king’s behavior.”
“Yes, but not in that tone of voice if you wish Henry to moderate his actions,” Geoffrey pointed out. “I do not say that Henry cannot be forced, but if he is, he will remember and hold a spite. On the other hand, if he can be convinced by soft words, the same end can be achieved without making him hate us.”
A chorus of women’s voices agreed and went on to suggest methods of leading the king away from his folly, but Simon did not hear. When his father said the word Wales, a face had risen into his mind’s eye, a voice had sounded, not in his ear but on his heartstrings. Rhiannon! Rhiannon of the Birds—she whose bare feet twinkled like silver in the dew-starred, moonlit grass of a high valley, whose silvery white hands drew silver songs from the silver strings of her harp, whose streaming hair was perfumed with the wild flowers and mosses and rich earth, whose lips tasted of wild strawberries from (lie high pastures warmed with the spring sun. Rhiannon! The only woman he had ever loved—and she would not have him.
* * * * *
Simon could not remember a time when he had not tumbled females. Even before puberty, he hail wielded his tool with great satisfaction to himself and his partners, if with little effect in the procreative sense—and never had he been refused. In fact, it was rare indeed that he needed to ask. The girls and women had always come after him. Nor did he refuse any—young and old, pretty and ugly. Simon gave them the best his magnificent body could produce. But he did not offer, did not even think or speak of love—and he warned all his lovers that he would be inconstant.
The permanence of marriage held no appeal for Simon. His need for gentle warmth, for steadfast, unwavering affection was well supplied by his parents, his half-sister and half-brother, and their spouses. The unquestioning adoration of children, the need for heirs to the land that would be his when his father died, was also provided by his nieces and nephews. Simon already had his eye on one of Adam’s younger sons who seemed to him to him to have the temperament to deal with the northern barons.
Yet, when he had first seen Rhiannon singing to her harp in her father’s hall, before he had even exchanged a word with her, he had been conquered. It was not her beauty, although she was beautiful; many more beautiful women had lain in his arms without touching his heart. Perhaps it was the wild tale she sang, full of enchantments and tragedy, that had sent love’s dart into him. She looked a part of that ancient tale herself. Her gown, heavy with gold and jewels, was a hundred years out of date; her hair, black and shining as the sleek feathers of a raven, flowed unconfirmed by veil or net or wimple down to her knees. Jewels hung in her ears and bound her brows. Simon had never seen a woman who appeared so wild and free.
“Who is she?” Simon had asked Prince Llewelyn when Rhiannon’s song had ended.
“My daughter,” the Lord of Gwynedd had answered, smiling, “or so I believe. Her mother is not a woman with whom a man would argue—or trifle—not even I. I say I do not believe in such things, but Kicva is a ‘wise woman’. Kicva’s father, Gwydyon, was bard to my court in those years, and she came to me and said she wished me to sire a daughter on her. It was no burden; she was a lovely thing. Later she brought Rhiannon to me from time to time that I should know her and she me, but she never asked for anything nor would even take what I offered freely. Of course, they were not in need. Gwydyon was a real power in the hills and Kicva also. Rhiannon… I do not know. She is stranger than her mother in some ways.”
“Is she married?” Even as he asked, Simon wondered why he had done so. It had never mattered to him before whether an attractive woman was married or not. Those who were ready to betray their husbands, Simon took without a thought; those who loved their men, he did not pursue. But in the infinitesimal pause before Llewelyn answered, Simon knew it was of great importance to him, and his breath sighed out in relief when Llewelyn shook his head.
“God knows I have presented enough men to her,” Llewelyn said, “and I am willing to dower her with lands as well as what she will have from her mother. Rhiannon will have none of it. They are not marrying women. Gwydyon did not marry Angharad, Kicva’s mother—or, more like, she would not marry him.”
“That is very strange,” Simon said. The ruses his unmarried mistresses had used to attempt to trap him into marriage were myriad. He had not thought the single state was ever a woman’s choice, except those who professed the celibacy of a religious life. “Did they have many lovers?” he asked.
Llewelyn laughed. “I never had the courage to ask Kicva, to tell the truth, and Rhiannon just laughs at me and says it is not my business when I ask her why she will not take a husband.”
“But as her father it is your right—”
“With Rhiannon it is easier to name a right than to enforce it. I do not provide for her. I cannot even command her comings and goings.” Suddenly Llewelyn shook his head. “Do not reach for Rhiannon, Simon; you will get your fingers burnt.”
“Do you forbid me, my lord?” Simon asked, his breath catching again with a strange anxiety. “I mean you no dishonor.” His eyes wandered to Rhiannon where she stood talking to her half-brother Gruffydd.
Llewelyn’s eyes followed Simon’s and then moved back to the dark, incredibly handsome face. “That is something new in you,” he said thoughtfully. There was a pause while Llewelyn considered what Simon had proposed half-unconsciously. “Certainly I would not oppose such a marriage,” he went on, “but your father and mother might not welcome it.”
“My father would not object, my lord,” Simon said eagerly. “He loves you well and would be glad of another bond with your house. My mother, I think, would welcome any marriage I was willing to make and—” his eyes wandered to Rhiannon again, “and she would understand Lady Rhiannon better than most other women. She is old now, but her spirit is still strong.”
Llewelyn smiled reminiscently. He knew Alinor well. “That is true, but I fear they will never meet despite the ease with which we seem to have decided this matter. I do not believe you will ever get Rhiannon so far from her hills. You may try for her with my blessing, but remember I have no power to give you more. Rhiannon is a law unto herself. I fear you will have only grief from her.”
Simon had not believed him, nor had he noticed the sly glance that touched him and moved away. It would serve his purposes very well, Llewelyn thought, if Simon married Rhiannon; he should have thought of it himself, but at least he had applied the right spurs now that his brain had been jogged. He watched with mild amusement the confident carriage as Simon crossed the hall. This would be a struggle worth witnessing.
There was no reason for Simon to lack confidence. No woman except those whose hearts were already given had ever refused him. When he approached Rhiannon he was more concerned that he would be disappointed by her on closer acquaintance than that she would not welcome his attentions. At first, indeed, it seemed as if he would succeed with her as easily as he expected. When he came near, Gruffydd looked up from his half-sister’s face and said rather nastily, “Here is our tame Saeson.”
It was a remark calculated to raise animosity in both Simon and any full-blooded Welshwoman, but Rhiannon knew her half-brother and turned to look at Simon without apparent reluctance. A slow, appreciative smile dawned on her face.
“Heavens, how beautiful you are,” she said. “A veritable work of Danu.”
“I might say that as well for you, Lady Rhiannon,” Simon rejoined, but his voice did not hold the light laughter with which he usually addressed and flattered women.
Close up she was even more impressive, although actually less lovely. Her nose was a trifle too long, her mouth too full and wide for absolute beauty; however, it was not possible for Simon to think of such things. Her eyes did not drop as a modest maiden’s should; they seized him and held him boldly. They were large, almond shaped, tipped upward at the outer corners, and of a clear green—a color Simon had never seen except on a cat. More intriguing still, she examined him with the frank, slightly contemptuous appraisal that a feline bestows upon humans. No blush mantled her cheeks, although her skin, denied the sun which tanned it in milder weather, was white as snow.
“Oh, you might say that and any number of other pretty things, I should think,” she answered, laughing. “I imagine you are a great master at saying sweet things to women.”
“I tell them what they wish to hear,” Simon said, stung by her amusement. “What do you wish to hear? That your singing still sounds within me? That the bright glance of your eyes has blinded me to all other beauty? I will say it, and it is true. I am no liar—even to women.”
“How can you tell a woman what she wishes to hear and yet be no liar?” Rhiannon asked. There was no sneer in her voice. She sounded genuinely interested in the solution to such a paradox.
“Deep within, each woman knows her own beauty. There is always something lovely in a woman, unless her soul is corroded beyond hope with evil. The ugliest may have a sweet smile or a soft skin or a warm, gracious voice. Women are not fools. They may seem to desire and to accept untrue flattery, but if you praise what is truly beautiful in them, you will strike them to the heart.”
The laughter vanished from Rhiannon’s face and the contempt from her eyes. She stared unwinking at Simon, then shuddered slightly. “You are a very dangerous man, very. It would behoove me to have no more to say to you.”
“Are you afraid?” Simon’s eyes sparkled with challenge.
Simon laughed. “Your father has just told me that I should not reach for you lest my fingers be burnt. In response to that, I asked for your hand in marriage.”
“No!” Gruffydd spat. He had been listening to them with a steadily blackening scowl, and now he exploded. “My sister will not be sold to a Saeson. I will bestow her on a suitable man in Wales when I—”
“I will be sold to no one,” Rhiannon interrupted sharply. “I will marry where I choose, when I choose, and not at all if I choose. You have no right to bestow me any more than does Lord Llewelyn. Do not be a worse fool than you can help, Gruffydd. You are allowing this Norman-English-Welsh matter to unsettle your thinking. Not all Cymry are paragons of virtue and not all Saeson are evil.”
“Perhaps not all Welshmen are perfect,” Gruffydd snarled, “but I still prefer to live and breed within my own kind. I say my sister will not go to a stranger—”
“What a fool you are!” Rhiannon repeated in an exasperated voice and, in defiance, placed her fingers on Simon’s wrist. “Let us go,” she urged.
“I am sorry,” Simon said as he led her away. “I did not mean to make a quarrel with your brother. Nor, I hope, will you misunderstand me. Your father neither sold nor bestowed you. What he said was that I might try for you with his blessing, but that you were a law unto yourself and he had no power over you.”
A fault blush of pleasure tinted Rhiannon’s translucent skin, but it receded at once. The green eyes lifted to Simon’s. “Oh, you are clever,” she exclaimed. “You are a very devil for seeing into my heart.”
“I have seen nothing,” Simon denied, but that was not really true. Unlike most other men, Simon was intimately acquainted with passionately independent women, and he understood a great deal. “I have only repeated to you your father’s words to me,” he went on. “He also said you would bring me only grief. But I am not afraid. It is not possible to know joy without daring sorrow—and I see in you a hope of joy such as I have never known.”
“No doubt you see that same hope in each woman you pursue,” Rhiannon remarked, the laughter coming back into her eyes. “To say that you hope would be no lie. Each time you would only need to confess that your hope had not been fulfilled.”
“I see someone has been warning you against me,” Simon sighed. “The half of it is not true at all, the other half much exaggerated. Were I what is said of me, I would need seven of everything a man uses to make love and the ability to send each to a different place at one time.”
Rhiannon burst out laughing at the mock plaintiveness in Simon’s voice and the spurious, outraged innocence of his expression. “You are wrong,” she told him. “I have read what you are in your face. I do not even know your name.”
“I beg your pardon, Lady Rhiannon. My name is Simon de Vipont, and I am son to Lord Ian and Lady Alinor of Roselynde. I was knighted by King Henry last Christmas and did fealty to your father for the keep at Llyn Helfyg, Crogen keep, Caerhun, and Dinas Emrys at the May Day festival. How is it that you were not there, my lady?”
She did not answer him at once, but stood staring. “You hold Dinas Emrys that looks over the Vale of Waters?”
“Yes. It is the most beautiful place in the world, is it not? From the keep I can look down Nant Gwynant until I feel the soul drawn out of me into the blue distance.”
“You love it,” Rhiannon said. It was a statement, not a question.
“The best of all my holds,” Simon confirmed. “Although each is dear to me in a special way.”
“Do you hear nothing in the winds that play around Emrys rock?” Rhiannon asked, her eyes fathomless.
“Perhaps, but nothing that I need fear,” Simon replied. “I am no unwelcome conqueror to this land—in spite of what Gruffydd said. Llewelyn gave the lands to my father out of love and trust. I was squire to William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and served in south Wales, but my heart has always been here—which is why my father ceded the lands to me while he yet lives. But you did not answer me, Lady Rhiannon. Why have I never seen you in your father’s court before?”
“Because, I suppose, you came in spring or summer. I am seldom at any keep then. I go to my mother’s place, Angharad’s Hall, in the hills, after the New Year’s festival in March. Why are you here in the dead of winter, Sir Simon?”
“The lands are mine now, and I must oversee them in all seasons. I will be here in Wales always—except at such short times as I visit my family.”
There was an odd expression in Rhiannon’s face, approval mingled with apprehension; however, all she said was, “You say so, but you will soon tire of our barbaric ways and hie you back to the softer air of England.”
Simon laughed. “No one can know the future, but it is very amusing that it is foretold so differently for me on each side of the border. My family sent me here because they believed I could not be content with the tame ways of Sussex. Now you tell me I will soon tire of the wild ways of Wales. I do not think so. I do not think I will ever wish to leave my lands, except for some small times to be with those I love.”
“You are too young to know what you believe,” Rhiannon said sharply, as if she were trying to convince herself.
“Ah, grandmother,” Simon teased, “your gray hair and wrinkles make me sure the wisdom of great air infuses the words you speak. How old are you, Rhiannon? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“I am one and twenty, and women are always older than men.” She paused, bit her lip, and said even more sharply, “And when did I so shame myself that I have descended from Lady Rhiannon to Rhiannon alone?”
“I beg your pardon, my lady.” Simon bowed deeply and without mockery, but his eyes still twinkled with mischief. “No affront was intended. You so enchanted me with your time-won knowledge of men that for a moment I lost my sense of propriety and spoke as a man to his loved one, without formality.”
“You never had a grain of propriety to lose,” Rhiannon snapped, but the corners of her mouth turned upward. “Do you not know it is highly improper to ask a woman’s age? And do not bother to find another smooth reply. I am not your beloved—”
“Yes, you are,” Simon interrupted. “You may refuse to love me, but you cannot stop me from loving you.”
At which point, Rhiannon gave in and began to laugh again. She put out her hand. “Come, let us be friends. I would like to be the friend of a man who does not fear the voices in the winds around Dinas Emrys, and who has firmly decided he is in love with me after half an hour’s acquaintance.”
But Simon would not take her hand. “I do not wish to be your friend,” he said seriously. “I want to be your husband. This is not the time or place for passionate declarations, so I speak lightly, but I have never said those words to any woman and I have—as you said—known many.”
“In the names of Danu and Anu, if this is not a jest—why?”
“I do not know,” Simon replied with perfect honesty. “I only know that I felt for you, while you were singing, and feel now, what I have never felt before.”
Rhiannon took his hand and held it between hers. “Today, you feel; tomorrow, you will forget. It was the strangeness of my song and my dress, perhaps. Love comes and goes, but friendship endures.”
“Both endure when they are true. It is an easy enough matter to prove. Let me attend you. If I weary of your company, I will soon drift away from it.”
There was a silence while Rhiannon seemed to consider this proposition. Simon could not read her expression; her green eyes were empty as clear water. After a moment she smiled very slightly and said, “Very well, since that is your desire, and because you amuse me. But I warn you now that I do not believe I will ever marry any man. To give my heart and soul into another’s keeping—no! Now I have warned you. If you wish to play with fire, do not cry when you are burnt.”
There was neither winner nor loser of the challenges exchanged—or, rather, both lost and won equally. Simon attended Rhiannon at court and escorted her to Angharad’s Hall, her mother’s home, which left him open-mouthed in surprise. It was just as Rhiannon had named it, a hall, built of wood, much like a large barn but with windows and hearths, hard to find but otherwise indefensible. Later, in the early spring, Simon took her to Dinas Emrys.
That she should come alone to his keep, without a maid or any other protection, shocked Simon a little, even his mother was not so bold and free. Yet he found it was impossible for him to take advantage of the situation. At court he had pursued her with words of love and glances of longing. Under her mother’s roof, he had made open declarations of his honorable intent to Rhiannon and to Kicva, whom he found not at all fearful, but worthy of respect. At Dinas Emrys, where Rhiannon was utterly in his power, he could find neither words nor looks to express the desire that burned ever more fiercely within him.
Yet it was there that trouble crept into Rhiannon’s eves. At court she had fenced with him, laughed at him, and teased him with love songs. At her mother’s house, she treated him as if he were a companion of the same sex—not that she expected him to weave and sew, but that she seemed to lose awareness of his maleness. Loose in the hills, Rhiannon was more man than woman. Barefoot, she coursed the deer with her mother’s hounds, as sure a shot with the longbow as any huntsman; she tickled fish in the streams, and snared hares in the brush. She butchered and skinned her prey, cached what was too heavy to carry, and even cooked over an open fire and slept rolled in her cloak on the ground if they where too far from home.
At Dinas Emrys, however, for the first time since their initial meeting, Rhiannon looked more often at Simon than he looked at her. She stood long on the walls gazing out over the Vale of Waters during the day. At night she climbed up again to listen to the wind as it whispered and moaned and howled. The men of Simon’s guard, Welsh born and bred in that country, wild as the rocky crags, lowered their eyes and bowed to her when she passed, and there were both fear and admiration on their faces when Simon stood by her on the walls as she sang—and the wind answered.
Here again she wore the barbarically rich gowns and hung her neck and ears and hair with gems. Here she sang for the first time in Simon’s hearing of Rhiannon of the Birds and her sorrow and her joys—how she married Pwyll, Prince of Dyfedd, and how she was accused of murdering her son Pryderi. And when she sang of the love between Pwyll and Rhiannon, how he stood by her even when she was accused of murdering her own babe, she looked at Simon—and there was trouble in her clear eyes. But later, when the song was done, she told Simon she wished to leave the next day.
Although he was bitterly disappointed, he could not urge her to stay where he was master, and he bowed and asked, “Where shall I take you, my lady?”
“I will go alone or with what escort you care to send with me, but not with you,” Rhiannon answered, and for the first time since they met, her eyes were lowered before him. “You have won the contest, my lord, and I must seek safety from you in flight.”
“That is a bitter winning to me, Lady Rhiannon,” Simon said. “You know I have not grown weary of you. I cannot urge my suit here where you have no recourse, no protector, but you must know that you have become more precious, more desirable, not less. The more I have of you, the more I crave.”
“You are stubborn; you have recently seen no others. Go back to England, my lord. I will play this game no longer. So much comfort I will give you as this—you are dangerous to me. If I have the power to hurt you, as you have to hurt me, you are better off in England. I will not marry you. Remember, I bade you not cry if you were burnt. Now let me go and do not pursue me.”