While Daniel and Lord Aidan had been speaking, a pair of guards had escorted Rebekah, William, and Roland to the head table. In order to accommodate Lord Aidan's order that they be seated near Daniel, others were required to shift down to make room for them, and the grumbling, particularly of the three forced from the outer edge of the high table down to the benches, was audible even to Daniel, though Lord Aidan did not react to it. In a moment everyone had resettled, and the servers began their work again. Daniel noticed that even though the diners at the head table were served individual platters, the food thereon seemed only a little superior to what was being passed around the lower tables, and they arrived at more or less the same time. Again, Lord Aidan's egalitarianism bordered on the scandalous.
As he ate, the lord was engaged in conversation with the man on his right, so Daniel looked to his left, where Rebekah had been seated. "Are you alright?" he asked.
"A little better now," she answered, though she still showed little appetite.
"Well, at least we know the reason they wanted you dead, now. Armand knew your character. He must have known you would never go along with the plot, so he arranged for the bandits to kidnap you."
She nodded. "I'm trying to decide whether that's better or worse than just killing me himself to start with."
Daniel shrugged, feeling more at peace now than he had since taking the sword that morning as he noticed some of the younger men around the lower tables pantomiming his defense of Lord Aidan with impassioned slashes of soup spoons or meat bones. "What's the difference?" Daniel asked. "Armand is going to be locked up for the rest of his life if Lord Aidan doesn't have him executed. If any of the rest can show they were only cooperating for fear of their lives, I'm sure Aidan will show mercy. You and William got free of them before you could be dragged into it. It was touch and go for you with the bandits, and for all of us after that, but all's well that ends well, isn't it?"
"Somebody's quite pleased with himself, I think," Rebekah quipped.
Daniel blushed and looked down, realizing that he had become rather proud after using the blade purely in defense, then resisting its urge to kill Armand. Rebekah's frankness humbled him. "I'm only glad you are out of danger," he replied.
"Oh, no," Rebekah said, "don't get gloomy on my account. You should be quite pleased with yourself, if you ask me. You saved a man's life just now...and mine, too, earlier today. I don't know that I thanked you for that." She leaned suddenly over the arms of their chairs and pressed her lips quickly to Daniel's cheek. "Thank you, Page Daniel," she added as she moved back onto her cushion.
Rebekah's kiss had been soft and warm against his skin, but the air quickly cooled on the subtle moisture it left behind. Daniel hadn't really stopped blushing from the moment before, and now he was sure he was red as blood from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. He cleared his throat. "Is Roland any better?"
Rebekah looked past William, tearing into his dinner at her left, to where the old monk was sitting. "Still sour as old cider," she said, "but he looks less terrified, now."
"I told you none of us were going to die," Daniel asserted.
Rebekah's eyes shifted once again to Roland's scowling countenance before she countered, "Night's not over yet, Miller."
After an hour the meal wound down and Lord Aidan asked his herald to call the first audience. Daniel tried his best to listen to Aidan's earlier advice and attend carefully to everything that was said, but the petty requests and grievances of merchants little interested him at best and disgusted him at worst. Many complained loudly about conditions that Daniel and his family wouldn't have dared dream of. At last Lord Aidan called an end to the banquet and the business, and the guests began to leave.
A pair of servants led Daniel and the rest of his band to chambers in the guest quarters of the lord's keep, and within minutes he was settled down on what he believed must have been the softest bed for a hundred miles in any direction. Daniel could scarcely believe that only a single day had passed since he spied the sword in the clearing that morning. Was it possible that so much danger and fear and change had been packed into a single passage of the sun? Just thinking of the events wearied him, and a profound exhaustion swept through his mind.
Daniel awoke some hours later, confused at his strange surroundings lit only by moonlight through the single window in his room. Slowly the events of the previous day uncoiled in his mind, and with equal measures of excitement and dread he remembered where he was, and why. Though darkness still prevailed, he unwound his taut muscles and forced himself out of the bed. After making use of the chamber pot in the corner, he dressed and lifted the sword in its scabbard and belt from the peg where he'd hung them above the bed. As he wrapped the belt around him and cinched it, he was struck by how natural the weight at his hip felt, as though he'd been carrying a blade all his life. It had never crossed his mind to leave the room without it.
Unsettled in his heart, Daniel decided to go to the stables and check on Karl, the noble horse who'd had as much of a hand, or hoof, at least, in saving his life the day before as Reuben had. Daniel made his way to the main doors of the keep, where the guards allowed his passage without a word, then followed his nose to the corner of the grounds where the horses were kept.
Daniel had peeked into the fourth stall, looking for Noble Karl of the Fleet Four Feet, when a movement to the right caught the corner of his eye. Someone was creeping about the shadows of the stable.