Author's Note: This is a story based on the English Ballad, Lord Randall. I pretty much invented all the characters though. Forgive my butchering of English geography, but I didn't have a lot of resources when I wrote this. This is set in the early 11th century . . . I think. There should be around three chapters total—not my normal monolithic stories.

Lord Randall

Chapter 1

Randall extended his sword so it pressed ever so slightly into the other man's neck. A trickle of blood began to run down the blade, but Randall ignored it, fixing his dark eyes on the other man's face. He let the man stew a while, saying nothing as he watched the other repeatedly swallow, his hands and muscles flexing again and again, but not daring to move, lest Randall run him through with his sword.

"One reason," Randall said softly, deliberately. His eyes narrowed, and he let one eyebrow rise as he continued to speak. "A good reason, I think not, but give me one reason why I should not divorce your head from your body and think no more of it?"

"She's just a common wench, Randall," the man said quickly. His eyes met Randall's again, and he hurriedly went on. "She's probably done this sort of thing dozens of times by now."

Randall kept his gaze on the man for a moment, then look over his shoulder, down at the cowering girl, who was diligently trying to cover the areas that had been ripped out of her dress. "This sort of thing?" Randall echoed, letting his voice grow hard. "Do you mean to say that other men, other fiends such as yourselves have tried to rape this poor damsel?" When the man tried to speak again, Randall pushed the sword forward a little more. "Another word ill-spoken of you, and I shall have your head. It is only the great concern and love I have for your family that keeps you breathing." At that, the man shut his lips and swallowed most obviously.

"What do you say of this, little one?" Randall asked the girl, who was slowly getting to her feet. She appeared to understand that Randall was her protector now, and she now looked more angry than afraid. She appeared to be only around thirteen or fourteen years old, a fact that made Randall want to end this man's miserable existence once and for all. For this lad was at least twenty-five years of age, older by at least five years than Randall himself.

The damsel looked at Randall, then walked up to the man, and spat on him. "If I had had a dagger, mi' lord, I woul' have done th' job miself."

Randall nodded at her, although the girl had a distinct country dialect, she seemed to have some education. She also probably knew that unless she had a champion, this man, son of Henry the Duke of Clarence would probably walk away free to do the same thing to the next peasant girl he came across.

Randall let the sword drop from the man's throat. "You know my name, and I know that you are the son of the Duke of Clarence, but which one are you?"

"I am Edward, the third-born to Henry of Clarence. And yes, I know that you are the Lord Randall, Maquis of Essex," he said this last with a hint of a sneer, but Randall ignored it.

"For your trouble, and your profanity of the laws of chivalry, we shall have a contest, you and I, to determine whether or not you are fit to hold your station. You are a noble, and also a knight. If I win, you will renounce your station. If you win, then you may keep your station and your reputation. Because you are the accused, you may name the time and the weapon."

Edward thought for a moment, his eyes flickering back and forth. "Let the time be now, and it shall be a duel of first blood by the sword. The witnesses may be the town."

Randall nodded and saluted him grimly with the hilt of his sword. Edward was a wise fool. He knew that if he waited any amount of time, the news of what he had done would spread, he also knew that the sword would be the best weapon to choose. All noblemen had some proficiency with the sword, and then were less likely to kill each other in a match—at least not by accident. By choosing the sword, all would be able to tell if Randall killed him by breaking his word that the contest would be until first blood. Then Randall would be disgraced. But Randall had no intention of losing.

Randall turned swiftly, walking with long strides out of the door and into the sunlight. He took off his jacket and handed it to the girl trotting beside him. She put it around her shoulders and craned her neck to look up at him. "Why didn't ya just kill 'im?"

"I am not in the practice of murdering others," Randall said, he looked at the girl with raised eyebrows. She blushed a little, then shook her head.

"But now he migh' hurt ya, or betray ya and try to kill ya," the girl protested, but Randall shook his head in response.

"No, if my motives are pure, and I fight for a just cause, I believe that our Lord will grant me victory. I have beseeched His name, and I believe that He will not fail me."

"Well, I hope you're right," she muttered under her breath. "I'm gonna get mi' father."

"Wait, damsel," Randall called to the girl before she ran off. "May I know your name?"

The girl dipped a curtsy. "Talia," she responded, then sprinted off to find her family.

Randall continued walking to the appointed place. Before he arrived in the center of the village, he saw the crowd gathered—none looked too pleased. Randall went over to the innkeeper in who's lodge he was staying in and spoke to him in a low voice. "Good sir, may I employ someone to fetch my shield?"

"With a good will, sir," the man replied in a low, rumbling voice. He nodded to the stable boy, who instantly ran off to fetch the shield. "We are all in your debt."

"No," Randall said, looking over to where Edward stood, making a few passes with his sword. "You are all my people, how could I not defend you?"

The innkeeper snorted as the boy returned. "Very easily my lord, very easily." With that, he stepped back to give Randall room. He began his stretches and warm-ups, trying to concentrate on getting his body limber and ready for the contest. He kept his eyes on the older, and more powerfully built Edward. Randall was not quite twenty; he was not as experienced or quite as strong as the older man—but he was most definitely faster.

When Randall saw that Edward had finished, he got to his feet and walked to the center of the small square. The villagers quieted down, but Randall could sense their hatred of Edward growing. Finally, an older knight stepped out of the crowd and glared at both of them, but more intensely at Edward. After an eternity, he spoke. "Do your duty to your lands and to the laws of chivalry! Begin!"

Randall and Edward saluted each other, then Edward lunged forward. Randall caught his blade on his shield near his side then swung his sword up and around, angling his own blade toward Edward's throat. Edward jumped backwards and swung his sword across, smashing into his shield with a force that jarred Randall's hands and arms all the way up his shoulders. Randall then ducked under Edward's next swing, spun around, blocking that strike as well. He reversed his strike, and arced the broadsword back toward Edward's neck. Edward cursed, throwing himself backwards and out of the way while holding his sword up between them. He rolled backwards, then got back to his feet in a guard position.

Randall wasted no time, lunging forward, he slashed upward with the sword, forcing Edward to block again. Then he sent the sword downward in the reverse of that strike, making Edward block a third time. Cursing, Edward dropped his shield—the man's left arm was useless. Relentlessly Randall drove Edward backward with quick and furious strikes and slashes. Finally he whipped his blade around Edward's, causing the blade to fly of Edward's hand, and giving his a long slender slash on his forearm.

Randall raised his sword in a salute again, then turned away from Edward and toward the villagers. A cheer went up among the villagers, which quickly faded into a gasp of horror. Talia found her voice and shouted. "Watch out!"

Randall spun swiftly, instantly raising his sword, but a hard metal object slammed into his temple and eye before he could react. Randall collapsed to the ground, as the sky around him went dark. He felt his body smash inert into the ground, but as much as he tried, he couldn't force his body upward. The pain in his skull was too great. He tasted dirt and blood on his lips. Randall rolled himself over, and tried to force his eyes open. He could just barely make out Edward's form above him, sneering down at him. He kicked Randall's sword and shield away from him, and retrieved his own sword.

Edward laughed aloud. "Now you will find your death, Randall, someone should have killed you long ago, as they killed your father. Yes, a right and noble family you are, but full of mischief, like this nonsense with the wench. Hear me, people of the town!" he said, turning abruptly to them. "If you attempt to harm me after I kill this one, my father will send his armies to decimate your town and families."

"You are a coward, Edward of Clarence," Randall said in a weak voice as he managed to prop himself up on his elbows. The world was still spinning, and it pained him when Edward spoke, but he was determined to speak. "You are a coward, and you shall burn in hell for all eternity for your deeds. Kill me now, but yours is a greater punishment."

Just as Edward was about to strike down with his sword, Talia ran to the edge of the crowd and hurled a small bundle at Edward. A moment later, Randall sneezed, something that threatened to drive him unto unconsciousness. But catching on, he closed his eyes.

"My eyes!" Edward shrieked, clawing at them desperately. "My eyes!" Randall heard the clank of the sword as it dropped to the ground and lunged for it, reaching out his hands and groping desperately for the sword. His fingers closed around the hilt, and he dragged it toward him.

Randall opened his eyes. Edward was not a foot from him, still tearing and scratching at his eyes. With a tremendous effort, Randall dragged himself to his knees, then threw himself forward, shoving the sword under Edward's arms and into his heart. Edward clamped his hands over the blade, blood pouring from his mouth and from the wound. He fell backward and Randall collapsed on top of him.

†††

"I can hardly believe it," Timothy admitted, shaking his head at Randall. His unruly reddish-blond hair was tousled and his hazel eyes held a hint of amazement. "And the Duke of Clarence didn't have your head on a silver platter?"

Randall shook his head as he continued to groom his horse, one of the best Spanish steeds by the name of Armadura. He smiled a little wearily. "How could he? I went to Court, asked for an audience of all the nobles, and presented my tale, ending with begging the good Duke and Duchess of Clarence for their forgiveness. I said that some sort of madness had come over him, but I could not forsake my beloved laws of chivalry. They had no choice but to forgive me and commend me." Randall gave Armadura a few more strokes, then stood up. "I believe the Duke of Clarence was sincere—his lady I am not convinced about, nor his oldest son."

"Henry?" Timothy asked with some disgust as he rapidly curried another horse. "Aye, I've heard worse tales of him than all the rest combined. Compared to Henry, Edward was as meek as a kitten."

Randall shook his head in sorrowful amazement. "I cannot comprehend how an honorable man such as the Duke of Clarence has sons such as those. Only the one seems to have any notion of honor and chivalry."

"If it isn't the father, look at the mother," Timothy said a touch cruelly. "They say that the Duke has always regretted marrying her—even though she has given him three sons and six daughters, and has remained faithful. Wonder why he would say a thing like that?"

Randall let out a sigh. "Enough tales of court and intrigue? Shall we hunt?"

Timothy grinned. "Certainly, mi' lord."

Randall winced, "You are more a friend to me—I have asked that none address me by that. Especially my closest friend."

Timothy, the chief hostler of Essex gave his friend and lord a serious stare. "Randall, it is my great honor to be your vassal—and all others within these walls. There is no dishonor in calling one 'lord' who actually deserves the station."

"True, my friend, very true," Randall murmured, deep in thought. The two led the horses out of the stable and into the barnyard. Just then, Randall's mother came riding in, her thick brown hair flying in all directions. The horse skidded to a stop, then reared up slightly, tossing her head exuberantly. Randall stepped forward and caught the bridle, waiting for his mother to dismount.

"I wish you wouldn't ride the two year olds, mi' lady," Timothy said unhappily as he took the bridle from Randall. "I won't let mi' lads ride 'em—can I talk you out of it."

"No Timothy, I'm afraid not," she said in her low, quiet voice. The Lady Nalami laid a slender hand on the horse's neck. She quieted instantly. "I love them too much—and I have yet to ride a horse that is too much for me, I know that much."

"That's because there isn't a horse alive that's too much for you, my mother," Randall said with a grin.

Nalami brushed down her dark brown hair with a soft sigh. "Your father loved horses too, my son—that was one of the ties that bound us together." Nalami smiled absently, then begin leading the horse back into the barn where a servant took the reins. Then thanked him graciously, then turned again to look at Timothy and Randall. Nalami was a tall woman, and taller than Timothy by two inches—Timothy himself was a head shorter than Randall. She looked into both of their eyes and finally spoke. "Your father loved life, Randall, all forms of it, and he loved people—because they were made in the image of our Lord, I think. So he saw them all as the same. You have inherited that my son, may it be that the Lord wills you not inherit his fate as well."

"But it would be an honor to do so," Randall said firmly, catching his mother's eyes. He silently told her that there was no way he would let up on his pursuit for justice.

"You are an honor to have for a son as you are, my son," she chided gently. But then she straitened her back and raised her head. "But you are correct, such a death would honor you and the service you do for your Lord." With that, she swept off toward the castle on the north end of the marquisate.

Timothy stared after her for a moment. He took off his hat and bowed to her retreating form. "Aye, to have a queen such as that!"

Randall tugged his horse a long, stopping inside the supply room to get two hunting bows and quivers of arrows for himself and Timothy. "Yes, but she'd be so bored," he remarked, letting amusement tug at his lips. "And more looked down upon than she already is."

"Aye, but it'd be entertainin'!" Timothy exclaimed, raising his bow to punctuate his words.

Randall smiled, then gave a clear sharp whistle which echoed over the land. Moments later, a small pack of dogs came racing around the house to end in a pile at Randall's feet, all clamoring for attention.

"Quiet!" Randall said, sharply, but not cruelly. The dogs were silent, but their tails thumped. They were bloodhounds, the best dogs in the land to hunt deer or fox, and were intelligent enough to go after wild birds such as pheasant or grouse. Randall mounted his horse and made off quietly toward the woods, Timothy directly behind him.

The two dismounted at the edge of the woods, leaving the horses to grave after taking of their bridals. They were still in Essex, and the horses were branded, it was unlikely that someone would be anywhere near by to even think of killing them. The two sent the dogs forward, then trekked silently and slowly through the woods, avoiding the brush. Timothy halted—then reached out a hand and laid it on Randall's arm. Randall carefully looked for the sight of one of his dogs. There is was, hunching down next to a bush. Randall nodded, and Timothy let out a whistle.

The dog leapt forward into the bush, barking and growling. A moment later a mottled bird came shooting out diligently trying to find wing. As Randall raised the bow and pulled his hand hack toward his ear, Timothy whistled again and the dog dove sharply off to the left. Randall released the arrow, it whizzed across the forest and caught the grouse in the back of the skull, killing it instantly. Randall heard another twang of a bowstring. Timothy had shot down a brightly colored pheasant.

"Good sport, sir," Randall said eagerly as they went forward. One of the spaniels dropped the grouse at Randall's feet, then raced off to retrieve the pheasant. Randall put the bird into the game bag, then continued walking.

"Almost no sport," Timothy replied with a quick smile at Randall. "The dogs do all the work."

"Only with pheasant or grouse," Randall objected softly gesturing toward the panting dog. "A deer or any intelligent animal would hear him a mile away!"

"Or smell him too!" Timothy jested in return. "Birds of this sort seem to be fair stupid," he admitted. "Like chickens, I do say. Aye, my sister enjoys killing chickens! She says they are too stupid to live!"

Randall choked to cover his laughter. "Yes, but your sister said that to me once, after giving me a good thrashing for pulling her hair! She beat me black and blue with a stick—and imagine me coming home to tell my father what had happened to me!"

Timothy laughed out loud, then suddenly sucked in his breath. "You hear that, lad?"

"Yes," Randall replied, instantly serious. "There it is again." What they had heard was the high pitched yelp of a hurt dog. The noise came back, and Timothy pointed to the west.

"that way," he said, and the two took off, charging through the underbrush in the direction of the noise. They stopped to catch their breath and reorient themselves. At last, Randall could see the dogs, and he put on an extra burst of speed, outdistancing Timothy with his longer legs. He skidded toward a stop at the edge of the dried out creek bed the dogs had chosen to fight in.

Randall put an arrow to the string, whistling sharply to call the dogs off. They lunged away from the wallowing animal, leaping up onto the creekbed as the other could not.

"What is it?" Randall shouted to Timothy, who shook his head in disbelief. "Whatever it is, it's killed two of my dogs."

"And it's making such a God-awful noise," Timothy said, wincing in pain. He drew his knife and threw it at the animal. It arced end over in and slammed into it's neck. The animal let out a deranged howl, but did not fall. "Hell's fire! Shouldn't you be dead now? See if you can kill it, eh?"

Randall nodded, then put two arrows to the string at once. After leasing them, he added another, and the combination of the three arrows made the four foot high animal stumble over and crash to the ground, still breathing heavily but sporadically. Randall drew his hunting knife and jumped over the side of the creek bed; Timothy followed after a moment. He squatted down a good two feet away from the dying animal, knife at the ready.

"I do believe it's a wild boar gone rabid," Randall said, staring at the long tusks and foaming muzzle. He shook his head and looked over his shoulder to where two of his dogs lay, gored by the tusks. Randall rose to his feet, sobered. "At least it wasn't a fox, though."

Timothy stared at him, then back at the large animal, aghast. "Foxes are a little bit easier to kill, I'd say."

"True enough, but if the fox had bitten one of our dogs, we'd have to kill them—they always get sick after they've been bitten and then you have to kill them anyway—or the sickness will do it."

Timothy winced. "All right, I see your point. We had better burn this then, and bury the dogs."

"All right," Randall said, his tone dejected. "Let's get to work."

†††

Cynarra's father paced angirily around the long table in the waiting hall, his hand clenched in a fist at his side. He was a tall, stocky man, sturrdy and muscular. "Do you know what that boy of yours has gone and done now, Cynarra? Killed the Duke of Clarence's son, all right. Over some peasant girl."

Cynarra looked up and met her father's eyes with her silver-gray ones. "He saved a woman from being raped—as the laws of chivalry command. I would hope that you or any man would have so much regard for a woman to do so if we were not of a noble house," she said, fighting to keep her voice calm and level. She was seated perfectly poised, her back straight and her hands clasped graciously in her lap.

Her father stopped his pacing to stare at her, giving her an exasperated sigh. "Yes, yes," he admitted impatiently. "No one said Randall did anything wrong by stopping Edward, but did he have to kill him?"

"He broke the laws of the contest, my lord, Barak," Cynarra's mother said gravely. "It was his right, and from Randall's tale, he did not have much of a choice at the time." She gave a slightly sardonic smile. "No one accuses him of being a liar."

"That's half the trouble," Barak muttered under his breath.

When her father was soft for a moment, Cynarra spoke again, keeping her voice carefully devoid of a challenging note. "It seems you cannot speak against him this time, my father." Her voice was gentle and cool, but she didn't mind letting just a hint of satisfaction enter in to her voice.

Her father shook his head, placing his hands on the table and leaning forward in front of Cynarra. "My beautiful girl, why him? Why not any one else? There are some more handsome, more rich, more intelligent, more kind, stronger—why do you wish this fool with a death wish?"

Cynarra let her eyes flash at her father. "I do not believe Randall has a death wish; others simply wish to kill him."

Barak rolled his eyes and thrust away from the table, an action that shoved the heavy oak over by an inch or so. Cynarra raised an eyebrow. At times it seemed that her father did not know his own strength. She fought a smile as she recounted Randall dryly admitting that Barak could quite easily break him in half over his knee.

"You see!" Barak yelled exasperatedly, stabbing a finger at Cynarra. He cast a glance at his wife, frustration written all over his features. "It is that smile that makes all the trouble. You would defend his honor until the end of the earth. Do you know what that man is trying to do?"

Cynarra was beginning to lose her temper. She reached up to tug on one thick black lock of hair. "What he thinks is right?" she suggested, a tad insolently.

"Don't be pert," her father told her, somewhat amused. Then he grew serious. "He wants to give the commoners the same rights in the law as we have. So we'd be equal, they would have just as much say in the law and defense of England!"

Cynarra smiled slightly, bringing up her hand to rest her chin upon it. "That doesn't sound so bad to me."

This time her father became truly angry. He slammed his fist down on the table. "Women! You never appreciate the entirety of the situation! Do you truly want that uneducated rabble controlling England? Haven't you seen what happens when we have an idiot like this John on the throne? There's talk now of making him sign a law to abide by English law. But as for Randall," Barak laughed bitterly, "there's a new scheme a foot for him, and it's nothing to do with signing papers."

Cynarra felt her eyes widen slowly, and she barely noticed when she jumped to her feet, knocking her chair over. "What?" she whispered, feeling sick. "What?" When her father remained silent, she spoke again. "Answer me!" she bellowed.

Her parents seemed shocked at her vehemence. Then her father spoke, softly, gravely. "Before I tell you anything, you must swear on your life that you will tell no one of this."

Cynarra felt dizzy. She shook her head. "If it is against Randall, I must tell him."

Barak stared silently at her until she slammed her fist against the table. "Fine, so be it. I sware on my life I will tell no one."

Barak slowly nodded at her, then spoke. "There is talk of accusing Randall of arousing the people to rise in revolt of the king, to start a new kind of government, a democracy like the Romans of old had."

"You mean treason," Cynarra said, slowing dropping down into her seat. She felt tears sting her eyes as she bit her lip. "They will kill him for that."

"Worse," her father said bluntly. His sharp green eyes looked at her, concerned but stubborn. "They will march on the Marquisate of Essex, burn the fields, torch the stables, kill all suspected of collaboration—which will be nearly everyone. Nalami of Essex would probably be killed or worse, married off to some French ambassador."

Cynarra put her head in her hands as her father continued speaking. Everyone knew that King John was out of favor with the French King Phillip, the second, Augustus. "Randall would either be taken captive and executed, or more likely with our monarch's propensity to ignore the law, simply be cut down on his own land. The land of Essex would be sown with salt and deserted. And come now, girl, I know you are intelligent. You have seen the Marquisate of Essex. The place is a blasted fortress. Randall could pull the whole county in those walls, put archers on the walls, and hold out for months! Worse, he has a few allies, they would hear of it and come to his rescue. You know as well as I have that he's made friends with some of the French and Belgium noblemen across the channel. They'd come to his rescue in a flash—especially if that meant having the prestige of starting a civil war in England! That's hundreds of lives lost there, maybe a thousand or so."

Cynarra leapt to her feet, raging inwardly. "So what? Is that your idea of justice? Of righteousness? Don't you care? A lot of people are going to die!" With that she ran around the table, attempting to flee. Her father grabbed her arm as she passed him, and shook her.

"Listen to me! You can stop all of this!" Barak fairly shouted at her. "All of it, calm down!"

"And just how," Cynarra managed to gasp out between clenched teeth, "am I supposed to do that?" She put a hand to her throbbing forehead and closed her eyes, trying to stop the flood of angry tears from coursing down her face. She felt sick in every possible way—mentally, physically, spiritually. She unclenched her jaw and glared fiercely at her father through red-rimmed eyes.

"Threaten him," Barak suggested flippantly. He released her and gave her a measuring glance. "Threaten him with your love if you must, anything, say you can't abide with conversance with commoners, and this nonsense must stop, or something to that degree. I know you can do it, all women were born actors and tricksters."

She glared at her father with renewed anger and the glimmerings of hatred. "And how would that change anything?" she asked, her voice low and grating. "What could that possibly accomplish?" She stared at her parents confused faces for a moment, then laughed harshly. She swept out an arm dramatically toward them, then placed it on her breaking heart. "Oh, did you think I'd try to talk him out of something I agreed with—with all my heart—only to save his life? Well you're right, I would," she spat at them. "I'd do anything if I thought it would do any good. But it won't."

Cynarra drew herself up painfully. With icy cold, clipped words, she spoke. "Lord Randall of Essex is committed to his cause until death. No love of anything save the Lord will stop him, not love of life, nor love of me. And for this, he will die." Before she lost control again, she spun around and walked quickly out of the room. When she left their sight, she raced down the hall and up the stairs to her room, sobbing inconsolably.

†††

"You are very quiet, Cynarra," Randall said softly. He tore off a chunk of bread from the loaf and stared intently into the other's beautiful but grave face. The two sat at a wooden table in one of Earl Barak's garden courtyards.

Cynarra looked up, her perfectly elegant features set off by an elegantly braided coronet of hair which was securely pinned to the top of her head. "I am sorry," she said softly and wearily. "I am very tired."

"It seems we both are," Randall said, a touch of brooding in his voice. "I do not like hunting that kills two of my dogs," he said, gesturing at the animals lying near or around his feet.

Cynarra's unusual eyes widened in surprise. She sat forward with a sparkle of energy in her visage. "What happened?"

As Randall related the story, a servant came out with a taller pitcher ofa thick liquid, which she poured into two tankards. She then put the pitcher down on the table, near Randall. They thanked her quietly. Cynarra blinked in surprise, and Randall picked up a tankard. "Looks like fine mead, my dear, it is too bad you are have an allergy." He scrutinized the tankard for a moment, then raised a hand to call the servant back over. When he turned his back, Cynarra quickly reached out and shoved the jug over to the edge of the table. As he turned in his seat, the full pitcher of mead wobbled twice, then tipped over, falling off the table and crashing into the ground.

Randall picked up the jug with some amusement. The dogs were all ready licking up the mead off the ground. At Cynarra's slightly incredulous stare, he shrugged. "How clumsy of me, but them, they'll eat or drink anything."

Cynarra nodded a bit nervously as he took another sip of the mead. He then placed the tankard on the table, "how churlish of me, drinking something that offends you." He turned to the servant. "Miss, I believe the Lady Cynarra may not drink mead, if we might have some wine instead."

The young girl curtsied nervously. "Yes, mi' lord. But shouldn't you drink it, sir? My lady won't be offended, and my mother will cry if no one drinks her fine mead."

Randall grinned at the girl, then saluted her with the tankard. "As you say, youngling. Don't worry about the mess, the dogs will clean it up."

As he took a long swallow of his mead, he noticed Cynarra staring at him, looking tense and pale. "What is it?" he asked her, worried.

"Nothing," she replied, closing her eyes briefly.

Randall watched her for another minute, finishing the rest of his mead. He raised his arm again and a servant appeared at his elbow. "The Lady Cynarra is ill and requires to be helped to her room."

Cynarra's eyes flew open and rested on hers. Looking crestfallen, she said, "No, my lord, I am fine—"

"No arguments, Cynarra," Randall said rising to his feet and giving her his arm. "Not this time."

Cynarra looked desperately into his eyes. "Randall!" she whispered fiercely, on the edge of tears.

Now Randall was alarmed. "I have never seen you this out of sorts, Cynarra, you must be ill."

Randall made sure she was safely in her rooms, and headed back down the stairs. He nearly ran into Lord Barak, the Earl of Cornwall.

"My Lord Barak," Randall said with an appropriate bow. "I saw your daughter to her rooms, she looked quite ill."

Barak returned the bow, then shot him a sharp look. "Yes," he murmured. "She has been out of sorts all morning." He seemed distracted for a moment, then gestured that Randall walk with him for the length of the hall. "I am sorry, I know it took you most of the morning to ride here."

Randall shook his head with a grin. "It is my pleasure, a friend and I went hunting, a long ride afterwards was most enjoyable."

"In this weather?" Barak asked with a snort.

Randall grinned. "You mean English weather. Ah, but can you even image the desert after all this fog, overcast, and drizzle? They say some foreigners get depressed and leave after being in England, and it's even worse in Scotland!"

Barak made a face. "Ever been to Scotland, lad? It does nothing but rain. I knew a few Spaniards once, from south Spain, near Seville—they took one look at Scotland, pronounced it 'too cold', and went back home!"

Randall laughed aloud. "Perhaps it is so, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Barak sobered instantly. "No where else in the world to live, lad, nothing like England, nothing like home." He said those last words sorrowfully. Then he looked up at Randall. "You had best be getting home now, Randall. It you want to make it before nightfall."

Randall nodded, and took his leave of the earl. He made his way back out to the courtyard. The dogs were still lying around the table. He whistled for them, then turned away. A moment later, he turned back, approaching the table slowly. Randall squatted down and took his dagger out of his belt. There was a peculiar black liquid on the table. He scraped a little off with his dagger and peered at it carefully.

Randall shoved himself to his feet, then stretched out a hand to keep himself from falling over. He dropped the knife on the ground, trying to steady himself with both hands on the table. He turned around gingerly, looking worried and confused. He made his way back to where his horse was stabled, leaving the dagger on the ground.