Roswyn felt his eyes on her again. Her smile froze in place, and she missed the ending to Lady Marianne's witty tale, leaving her behind the tide of laughter that swelled around her. She didn't look. She couldn't meet his gaze. Thought of the dark haired baronet made her stomach pleasantly queasy, and her hands gently shake, but she knew that he was a danger to her.
Her father was well respected in his position as a Captain and chief huntsman to Sir Guy of Gisborne, and thanks to that reputation Roswyn had gained her own position as companion to the Lady Marianne, maternal cousin to and ward of the King himself. However, her role as companion and the social circles it moved her into were what had brought her to the attention of Sir Guy, and into the situation she now found herself facing.
The baronet was a charming and amiable man, and Roswyn could certainly not fault his appearance: from his dark, enthralling eyes and his strong jawline, to his broad shoulders and tall frame that carried off a cloak so finely. However, as a baronet, she knew perfectly well that the daughter of a man-at-arms, no matter how respectable, was not a suitable match. So his continued and obvious interest in her was worrying, to say the least.
Her required presence alongside Lady Marianne was both a blessing and a curse. Her Ladyship's presence meant that Roswyn was never unchaperoned (although it would never occur to anyone else to believe it was she who required a chaperon rather than Lady Marianne) - however she was also far more likely to enter into Sir Guy's company when with her lady, due to their shared society.
She made herself focus back on Lady Marianne, refusing to be drawn into meeting the baronet's gaze. Despite the quiet nature of that evening's gathering (one of the noblewomen of the court holding a small get together of only thirty or so, rather than their usual engagement of a feast or a ball), Lady Marianne still looked breathtaking: her red-gold hair was swept up, the small pearl-topped pins nestled in it softly catching the light, and she wore a dress of pale silvery-gold silk that made her look like an angel descended from Heaven. Roswyn, with her dark, unruly curls that still managed to escape from her, much simpler, upswept coiffure, and her forest green velvet, aimed only to sit in the background and bathe in the glow from her Ladyship - but even dressed much more demurely than the stunning Lady Marianne, she appeared to have once again captured Sir Guy's attention.
She felt a masculine presence approach, and she held her breath. He took a seat on the long lounge beside her, and she could feel the heat emanating from his entirely too close body. Still, she didn't look.
"My Lady, all amusement and gaiety aside, I'm sure even your beautiful self would have to admit the Saracen to be a different breed entirely should you ever have the misfortune to meet one," came the deep, husky voice that Roslyn was sure she could feel vibrating through the seat beneath her. Her stomach lurched, in a strange mixture of excitement and fear.
Of course. Her Ladyship often liked to air controversial and contentious opinions, purely for the reactions they drew, and her current favourite was to propose that perhaps the Saracens were simply misguided, and could be reasoned with to give up Jerusalem. But in the presence of Sir Guy, who had fought alongside the now captured King Richard in the Crusades, she could hardly expect such an opinion to be shared, however amiable the reception might be.
"But, Sir Guy," replied Lady Marianne, her smile saccharine, "I have had occasion to believe the same of you, so it is not a large leap of faith to believe that the Saracens may also be better men than they first appear."
A few titters amongst the seated ladies were hastily smothered. Lady Marianne was well known for her strongly worded opinions - of people as well as events - and whilst her ranks protected her from backlash, it did not protect others.
Sir Guy inclined his head with a wry smile, seemingly conceding defeat to the Lady's wit, but Roswyn noted the tightness of his jaw that belied the impression. She shifted uncomfortably.
"My Lady, would you care for some further refreshment?" Roswyn asked Lady Marianne. The Lady's bright gaze focussed on her, her smile becoming more natural and genuine.
"That would be lovely, Roswyn. A glass of wine would be very much appreciated."
Roswyn rose, and dipped into a low curtsy before moving away.
"Wait, I shall assist you, madam. Her Ladyship's comfort is always foremost in my mind."
Then, he was there, at her elbow. They moved in silence to the refreshments, his presence like a dark, suffocating cloud beside her. Roswyn couldn't look at him. She felt his hand on her elbow like a burning firebrand, but could not afford to draw attention to them both by pulling away. She bit the inside of her lip, and felt her lower jaw gently trembling.
On reaching the sideboard, resplendent in a variety of hors d'oeuvres and fine wines, he withdrew his touch, and moved to lift a fine plate and begin filling it. Roswyn selected two goblets, and hesitated before addressing Sir Guy.
"Would you care for some wine, also, sir?"
He looked up and met her gaze, and the intensity behind those dark eyes left Roswyn fighting an urge to step back.
"I think you know what I would care for this evening, madam."
Roswyn looked down at her hands, and reminded herself to breathe.
"I'm afraid that wine is all that is on offer this evening, sir." She knew it was daring, and impertinent, but Roswyn's impetuosity often got the better of her sense. And she had to be clear: she could not afford the scandal that would be attached to any liaison between herself and this man. And false impressions could damage as much as truth in the whispering world of the court.
He did not reply. He said nothing as they bore the refreshments back to the waiting Lady and her party, and did not address her again during the lively conversation that followed. He did not meet her gaze as he offered to escort Lady Marianne to her waiting carriage at the gathering's close, and directed his attention purely to the Lady. All but for one whispered line as he handed Roswyn up into the carriage behind her Lady.
"If it is not on offer, then I shall take it."
Finally, Roswyn was able to retire. Lady Marianne had lingered late at that night's ball, and had gossiped for a long time after in the confines of her apartments whilst Roswyn had brushed out her beautiful red-gold tresses. As she finally left her Lady's company and withdrew to her own room, Roswyn let out a long sigh. She unpinned her hair, letting her dark curls fall down her back, and lifted a brush from the dresser, brushing her hair with long, soothing strokes.
It was there, relaxing in her bedside chair as she readied for bed, that she heard a noise. At first, she thought the shutters had merely rattled with the wind, but a second rattle from the window had her rising from her chair and crossing the room. She opened the window, and then the shutter.
Outside, perched on the wide window ledge, was a hunched figure in a dark, hooded greatcloak. Roswyn gasped, drawing back from the window and falling naturally into a fighter's stance, as the figure climbed into her chamber. She lifted a candlestick from the dresser, ready to defend herself from her attacker, but froze as the intruder lifted the hood of his cloak. Recognition flooded her.
"Is that..." she hesitated, then broke into a smile, "Will?"
He was a tall, thin man, who would once have had bold, dark hair, now streaked with grey. His face was lined in a way that suggested he knew how to laugh, and did it often, and his eyes were soft. But his expression was out of Roswyn's understanding of his character - worried, and scared. Neither was he in the colours of his master, Sir Guy, or wearing his usual shirt of mail. Instead he wore a dark green greatcloak over similarly dark tunic and trou, obviously for travelling.
"Aye, it is indeed," replied Will, his voice trying, but failing, to sound pleased to see her, "But there is no time for reunions now. You must get yourself packed, and we must away."
Roswyn's brow furrowed. Will, her father's best friend and second, and like an uncle to Roswyn herself whilst growing up, was usually a light hearted man full of fun. And was most definitely not known for sneaking into young ladies' chambers after dark. Something was very wrong, and she was afraid to ask.
"Is it… my father?"
"I will tell you all on the way, Ros. But for now, we need to be away as quickly as we can. I will secure a rope to the window for you, if you can change and pack as quickly as possibly."
Roswyn wanted to object. What about her hard won position as Lady Marianne's companion? Fleeing in the night would destroy her reputation utterly. But Will would never have asked her to drop her life and run unless there was a good reason. So she trusted him.
She dressed quickly in an old, nondescript gown, that would never have seen the light of day alongside her Ladyship, and looked out her warmest cloak, which interestingly was also the one with the least embroidered embellishment. She packed three dresses, all practical rather than beautiful, and a spare cloak, before looking out what provisions she could. Luckily, she often ate alone when Lady Marianne was not gracing social events, so there was a meagre store of simple items in her chamber. She quickly packed them, and filled the waterskin that Will offered her from the large jug on the sideboard.
"Right, down that rope there, Ros. I'll bring your things. Just you go carefully now."
Roswyn frowned and swatted at him, and he let out the first true laugh since he'd arrived. He knew as well as she the hours of practicing she'd done with her father (and with Will himself) as a child - climbing, running, fighting with sword and staff, and, her favorite, archery. She had put aside her secret skills on rising into society, instead learning the skill of dueling with words, and hadn't touched a bow or dagger for three years now. But a simple climb down a rope should prove no problem.
She climbed onto the ledge, grabbed the rope with both hands, and swung out, beginning her descent. It was not as easy in skirts as it had been as a child in doeskin trousers, but it was far from impossible. She smothered a laugh. What would Lady Marianne think of her now?
There were two horses tethered and waiting for them in the darkened courtyard below. Will hurriedly tied her belongings to the bay gelding before jumping up onto the chestnut himself. Roswyn threw her hands up in frustration.
"I take it you forgot that I cannot ride astride in skirts, Will?"
"Old habits die hard, Ros - I've never seen you ride side-saddle, and can't imagine it even now. Tear your skirts if you must - I won't tell a soul."
With a sigh, Roswyn tore at the side of her skirts, giving her some room to lift her foot to the stirrup. Her body obviously did not have the strength it had in youth, as she found herself heaving into the saddle, rather than gracefully mounting. Her bay shuffled on the spot, away from her wriggling weight, making it more awkward yet. Will laughed.
"I never thought I'd see the day you couldn't mount a horse, Ros!"
Roswyn shimmied herself into the saddle, pulling her puffed up skirts around her, and slipping her feet into the stirrups. Feeling an experienced seat, the bay settled.
"Well, old man, are we off?"
With a lightning quick grin, Will led the way at a smart trot through the courtyard. Roswyn assessed his choice: trotting on the cobbles warned anyone nearby of their passing, so Will must be anxious to get away quickly. She squeezed the gelding with her calves - faster.
There were only two sentries at the castle gate, who looked up on hearing their noise. Will reined in sharply.
"I have no time to waste, sirs! I am a physician, and this goodwife has called me out for her child at home, very ill with the scarlet fever. If he should live, I'm sure an extra coin can be spared from my fee on my way back."
The guards nodded, and opened the gate without hesitation. With a nod from Will, and a grateful smile from Roswyn, they quickly left the home of Lady Marianne behind them.
They reined the horses down to a walk a few miles out of the castle. Roswyn guessed that they had many miles yet to go, and no fresh horses.
"I notice we are heading north, rather than south. I assume my father is to meet us?"
Roswyn spoke tentatively, unsure how to prompt Will with his explanation. She was worried for her father. Why was Will here, instead of him? And what possibly could make the road north safer than Lady Marianne's protection?
"Quite frankly, he won't be, Ros. I… well, that is to say, I'm very sorry, but by now it is likely that your father is dead. Sir Guy's men found evidence that your father has been committing fraud, and stealing from his master's coin-purse."
Roswyn's mouth went dry, and she felt her breathing catch. Dead? The man who had read to her, played with her, taught her to shoot and fight and ride and climb, held her close and then sent her away for a better life? She wrapped her trembling hands in her gelding's mane.
"He would never, Will. And you know that."
"Of course he didn't. I don't even think Gisborne thinks he did."
Roswyn felt her voice catch as she replied: "Then why? Why… lose your Captain of arms if you don't think he committed the crime?"
Will didn't meet her gaze. His shoulders hunched, as if he felt a visceral pain.
"Because young ladies need protection, whether from their family or their social standing. In one strike, you lose both, Ros; your father dead, who could have called out for you, and his suspicious actions forcing Lady Marianne to drop a companion whose connections are concerning as well as low born. You wouldn't have had a week more under her protection, and from the moment the news arrived you would have been watched. We had to leave first, if we wanted away unseen."
Roswyn didn't understand. Or, maybe, she didn't want to. Her father was dead… and because of her.
"First thing they'll look for is a woman on the road. We can make camp once the sun starts to rise - and make as much distance as we can before then."
She didn't reply. She thought if she did, she might vomit. There was a hard knot in her chest that burned like acid, and her stomach felt like it had dropped out through her feet. But there were no tears. How could she not cry, when her father was dead?
But not yet, he'd said.
"Will, why aren't we going south to rescue my father? You said yourself he may not be dead yet. We could free him and take him with us!"
Will sighed, deeply, and his lined face looked pained.
"Perhaps I could have saved him. But, Ros, there was you to think of. I visited him in his cell, to plan an escape - but all he wanted was your escape. And I had to be swift to reach you before the news did. Taking you back there would be like handing you over to Gisborne, and by the time I've made you safe he will be long dead. Gisborne won't tarry in killing him."
There had to be a way. Somehow. But Roswyn couldn't see it. She should send Will away at once, but a lady alone on the road would soon come to harm.
A lady alone…
"Will, you will go back and rescue my father."
"Don't be so -"
"You will try, Will. In the meantime, I will continue north alone. I imagine you were heading to Nottingham? I know how much respect the old Sheriff held my father in, despite Sir Guy stealing him away - and the Earl of Huntingdon has some connection to Lady Marianne I believe, so there would be twice the protection. Plus I knew that country well enough as a child. If I disguise myself as a peasant boy, then my journey will go unnoticed by anyone who might be looking for me. Meanwhile, you can head south, and then we will have tried to save my father at least, even if it should come too late."
Will looked torn. He deliberated a moment, his face twisted in doubt, before he replied.
"I don't want to leave you, Ros. How would I fell if you were killed, or captured? I may then lose you both."
"There is nothing you can do for me, Will. If he finds me, you alone won't stop him from taking me. However, you might well save my father's life. I know you think me strong willed and hasty, but in this I cannot see any other path where we have done all we might."
Will closed his eyes, his face screwing up in pain. He took a deep breath, and opened them, meeting Roswyn's wide eyed, plaintive gaze.
"Alright. I'll try. But be careful, Roswyn. None of your rash decisions whilst I'm not there to keep you safe from the consequences."
Roswyn beamed at him.
"Thank you, Will!"
She reined her horse towards him, and gave him an awkward, one-armed embrace over the saddles. Will laughed.
"Alright, but first we have to put some more distance between ourselves and the castle, and then we have to sort your disguise."