As he closed the door of her solar, she ran to her clothes chest. She'd been expecting something like this--and dreading it. Her father, Sir Grey, had been gone for nearly four years. He'd departed eagerly, anticipating battle after young King Edward invaded Scotland. But he'd been disappointed. Edward II, roving around hunting rebels and finding none, had returned to England. Arabella grimaced as she pulled an assortment of clothing from her chest. The King hadn't the manner of his father, the Hammer of the Scots. Her father had written to say he would accompany the 'young milksop' to London to celebrate the birth of the young Prince and find a husband for her. Arabella untied and pulled off her surcoat. While they were gone the Scots rebel, Robert the Bruce, laid siege to several castles and took Edinburgh. He even dared raid into Durham, approaching so close to Kestlemere that Arabella's steward had panicked.
But now the King had come again, so it was said, to conquer the Scots once more, and Arabella had received no word from her father. He must be dead, she thought. Whether in battle or in a drunken brawl, she cared not. What mattered was postponing whatever arrangements he'd made for her until she could finish her own. She knew the kind of company he'd been keeping, and she didn't trust any so-called knight flying his banner. Swiftly she stripped off her kirtle and put on the clothes she'd been keeping for this day.
Standing in front of the burnished shield she used as a mirror, she considered her face. She'd filled out since she last dressed the part of a boy. Her lips were too full and her skin too smooth. Calling upon her gift, she set about disguising these afflictions.
By closing her eyes and dredging deep within she was able to summon a power bequeathed to her by her mother. Some might say it was devil's work--some had said as much to her mother. Her reply had ever been, 'By their fruits ye shall know them.' Arabella was not wholly sure her mother would approve of the fruits her daughter labored for this day.
However, that did not deter Arabella from her efforts. With delicate thought she thickened her brows, thinned her lips, put a shade of down along her upper lip and roughened her skin. She contemplated the result critically. It wouldn't fool anyone who knew her, only the eye of one who didn't know what was really there. She prayed that it would be sufficient.
Arabella joined the crowd around the steward in the bailey. Slowly they made way for her as they recognized her.
"Lady?" The steward turned and frowned at her. His face was growing slack with soft living and drink, but he'd lost half his right foot in her father's service and had been awarded the steward's job for life. "Lady, you said you would not wear those clothes again. Your father forbade it."
"My father isn't here," she said, haughtily. "And will not be again, belike."
The steward crossed himself with a gasp. Arabella ignored his distress, fluffing out her tunic and giving thanks for the cloak's dagged edges. She'd grown in unfortunate places and hadn't thought to disguise her body as well as her face. She adjusted her hood over the long, bronze braids coiled at the nape of her neck, twisting the liripipe tail and throwing it over her shoulder.
"Nevertheless," he began sternly.
She sighed with exasperation. He wasn't a smart man, nor a good steward, but he'd done his best to see to her protection. "Sir Hume, these may be true knights, or they may be knaves who have raised his banner at his death knowing he leaves behind no male heir. Do you wish to see me deflowered by such and our holdings looted?"
He looked horrified, whether by the idea, or by her saying it, she wasn't sure. A scullion raced in and informed him that the knights had entered Kestlemere's bailey, and he limped hurriedly to attend the six horsemen.
Arabella followed with the crowd and looked up at the leading knight, who rode a magnificent black horse. He was younger than she'd expected, and was wearing a mail hauberk and coif, both dented and dirty.
He removed his coif and hung it on his saddle, revealing dark hair stuck flat to his head with sweat. It was late June, and although the days weren't yet hot, the sun was warm and the smell of the herbs in the keep's garden filled the air. The knight was taller than she guessed, and she was a tall woman--one of the reasons she'd always been able to pass for a boy when she wished.
As he swept the bailey with a look, the piercing blue of his eyes startled her. It wouldn't be easy to fool such a one as this, she thought with dismay. She pushed nearer to hear what her steward was saying. It would be just like him to give her away without a thought. Or perhaps with a thought, for he must think of his own future that might depend on the whims of this new knight.
"Pleased we are to welcome our lord's representative," Hume said, offering a cup of wine.
The knight ignored this courtesy. His clean-shaven face was shiny with sweat. When he raised his head Arabella could see a kink in his long nose and a layer of grime around his strong neck.
He looked around searchingly. "My lord told me he had a daughter. Where is she?"
"Lady, there are knights approaching."
Arabella looked up from her weaving. "My father?"
The boy looked worried. "They don't fly your father's banner, but the watchman could see his horse."
Arabella stood abruptly. "Leave me."
"I really liked the strong female lead character. Part historical fiction, part fantasy with a hot love story equals a great story!" --Lorene on Goodreads