“Do you know what people are going to think if they see us together after what you said on Sunday?”
“I’m not planning to see people. We’ll see cows.” He sighed. “Besides, one advantage of having a sterling reputation is that no one thinks the worst of you. Even when you’re thinking the worst of yourself.” His gaze slipped again, down to her waist, below, and then slid up to her face. “I must ask one question. Have you ever cut your hair?”
Suddenly, the disjointed nature of his conversation began to make sense. “No.”
“Hmm,” was all he said.
“I need to go put my hair up. Get half boots and a spencer.”
“Yes,” he said absently.
“I’ll just slip out the back, while you’re waiting, and fetch a pig to serve as chaperone, too.”
“She breathes fire,” Jessica clarified. “The pig, not me.”
He looked up, shaking his head. “My apologies. What were you saying?”
“If I had challenged you to a debate and taken my hair down, would you have been able to string together one coherent sentence?”
His eyes rose to meet hers ruefully. “What do you think?”
She clucked sympathetically. “Never mind.”
But in her upstairs room, with her maid pinning her hair into a ruthless bun, she could make no sense of it. Sir Mark liked her. This didn’t surprise her; men usually liked looking at her. She was accustomed to that much.
But he was not like other men. He wasn’t indifferent, not in the least. But for all that he claimed to be attracted to her, he’d rejected her advances. What kind of man did that? If he didn’t plan to take her to bed, what did he want from her? And if he did want to take her to bed, but refused for chastity’s sake…why was he throwing himself in temptation’s way?
She had uncovered no answers by the time she descended the stairs one last time. He didn’t offer her any. Instead, he guided her up the lane, away from the water. From her cottage steps, if she listened carefully, she could make out the distant clack of wool-mill machinery. The rumble was soon swallowed up by the sound of the country. It was never silent; the rustle of wind through leaves was punctuated by the call of birds and the hum of insects.
Up a hill, over a stile, across a pasture, thick with purple-flowered thistles that crunched under her half boots. He followed a trail that did not seem to be outlined by any path. They went down one hill, crossed a narrow brook by means of a wide wood plank and then marched up the incline on the other side.
“I hope you know where you’re going,” she told him after jumping down from the fourth stile.
“We’re going to Friar’s Oven. We’re almost there.”
“I’m not sure if that name is supposed to sound ominous or delicious,” Jessica said.
They were walking through a cow pasture. It sloped gently downward, toward a short rise. Over the top, she could see a long blue horizon.
“Neither,” he said. “These cows have the best view in all Somerset.”
They reached the upward slope again in a matter of minutes. There were a few large rocks strewn about, rose-gold in the morning sun; then a few more. Just as the grass gave way to stone, the rock turned to cliff, falling away at their feet. An immense valley lay before them, and Jessica caught her breath. Somewhere in the distance, she caught a glimmer of blue river.
Morning mist still clung to the valley floor; she could see only a hint of emerald. And in the middle of the mist, a terraced, conical hill rose. Through the fog, she could make out a stone tower on top of that hill.
“That,” Sir Mark said from behind her, “is Glastonbury Tor.”
She didn’t know what it meant. A wild wind blew off the valley, fluttering her skirts behind her, whipping a tendril of her hair free.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“What is it for? Defense? Worship?”
Sir Mark came to stand beside her. “They say King Arthur is buried at Glastonbury.”
She turned to him. “Is he really?”
“Oh, yes. Queen Guinevere died in Amesbury. On nights when there’s a new moon, they say the road between Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury is lit by the torches of her bier.” He pointed into the mist, as if sketching out a ghostly path.
“It is not.”
“My brother and I snuck out here one night when we were young to watch for it. But we fell asleep.” He gave her a wicked smile. “That must have been the moment when she passed by.”
Jessica had lived the past years in London. It had never really struck her before how new the city truly was. After all, it had been burnt to the ground not two centuries past. The buildings out there were terribly modern—new stone, recent construction. But out here, there was something positively ancient in the air. Stones had been set here a millennium before in inexplicable patterns. Battlegrounds had lain fallow and had been turned to the fields beneath her feet centuries before the foundation of her house in London had been laid. It was not quite magical, but perhaps it was a touch mythic.
“They also say,” Sir Mark mused on, “that if you can see Glastonbury Tor, it’s going to rain.”
Today, the honey-warm stone of the tower was outlined in marvelous precision. She didn’t want to think of rain, not on a day as marvelous as this one. “What a shame,” she breathed. “And if you can’t see it?”
“Then,” he said thoughtfully, “it’s already raining.”
She burst out laughing. “You,” she said, “are very bad.”
“I’ll own as much.” He stared at the tor a while longer and then shook his head. “Guinevere,” he said pensively, “should have held out for Lancelot.”
“She married too soon, you see. It wasn’t Arthur she wanted—she just didn’t know it yet. He seemed like an acceptable fellow—King of all Britain, big army, bigger sword—and so she said to herself, ‘Well, I suppose a king will do.’ She should have waited for Lancelot.”
“But then who would Arthur have had?”
She waited for some acerbic remark from him—something like, a wife who was not an adulteress.
But he scratched his chin pensively, looking off into the mist-filled valley before them. “The Lady of the Lake,” he finally said. “That’s who I would have picked, had I been him.”
“The Lady of the Lake? She’s not even human.”
“Mrs. Farleigh, imagine that you are a man, and a king, and you must choose a wife. On the one hand, you can have a beautiful woman—a very nice one, too—who will respect and fear the power that you wield. One the other, there’s a woman who is a bit frightening, but she has already given you an ancient sword and a scabbard. She’s made you stronger, more powerful. Deep down, you respect the power she wields, and fear it exceeds your own. Whom do you choose?”
“Any man would choose the first—the beautiful woman who fears you. What man wants a woman who overpowers him?”
“A man who is sufficiently strong in his own right need not be jealous of power in others.” He glanced at her. “I know ugly men who insist on ugly wives, believing that they will not stray.” He shrugged. “For myself, I’ve always wanted a beautiful woman.”
She let out a little laugh. “Because you are so beautiful yourself?”
“Because I intend to win her affections to me, mind and soul.” And then, as if in an afterthought, he added: “And body. I definitely look forward to winning her body.”
“Is that why you haven’t married, then?” she asked. “Because no woman is good enough for the great Sir Mark? You have confessed to the sin of pride. Is this just more of it?”
“Not quite.” She smiled at him and walked a few paces away before turning, her skirts whirling around her ankles. “I don’t understand you. You want. You desire. You lust. You also believe in chastity. But this is no impossible dilemma, Sir Mark. Find an acceptable girl
, marry her and assuage your lusts to your heart’s content.”