“I shall, sir.”
He turned to go back to the entrance hall, and I hastened to the Great Hall of Withywoods. The two tall doors stood open, the golden oak planks gleaming in firelight and candlelight. Music and the tap and slap of dancing feet spilled from into the paneled corridor, but just as I drew near the musicians played the last refrain and with a shout the first dance was over. I rolled my eyes at my ill luck.
But as I stepped into the hall, breasting the wave of applause for the minstrels, I saw that Molly’s dance partner was bowing gravely to her. My stepson had rescued his mother and taken her to the floor. Young Hearth had been growing like a weed for the past year. He was as darkly handsome as his father, Burrich, had been, but his brow and smiling mouth were Molly’s. At seventeen he could look down at the top of his mother’s head. His cheeks were flushed with the lively dance, and Molly did not look as if she had missed me even a tiny bit. As she looked up and her eyes met mine across the hall, she smiled. I blessed Hearth and resolved that I would find a substantial way to convey my thanks to him. Across the room, his older brother, Just, lounged against the hearth. Nettle and Riddle stood nearby; Nettle’s cheeks were pink and I knew Just was teasing his older sister, and Riddle was in on it.
I made my way across the room to Molly, pausing often to bow and return greetings to our many guests who hailed me. Every rank and walk of life was reflected there. The gentry and minor nobility of our area were there, finely dressed in lace and linen trousers; Tinker John and the village seamstress and a local cheesemaker as well. Their festive garments might be a bit more dated, and some were well worn, but they had been freshly brushed for the occasion and the shining holly crowns and sprigs that many wore were newly harvested. Molly had put out her best scented candles, so the fragrances of lavender and honeysuckle filled the air even as the dancing flames painted the walls with gold and honey. Grand fires blazed in all three hearths, with spitted meats tended by red-faced village lads employed for the occasion. Several maids were busy at the ale keg in the corner, topping mugs on the trays they would offer to the breathless dancers when the music paused.
At one end of the room, tables were laden with breads, apples, dishes of raisins and nuts, pastries and creams, platters of smoked meats and fish, and many another dish I didn’t recognize. Dripping slices of fresh-cut meat from the roasts on the spits supplied all that any man could ask for, and added their rich fragrance to the festive air. Benches were filled with guests already enjoying food and drink, for there was also beer and wine in plenty.
At the other end of the room the first minstrels were yielding the stage to the second. The floor had been strewn with sand for the dancers. Undoubtedly it had been swept into elegant patterns when the guests first arrived, but it now showed the busy tread of the merrymakers. I reached Molly’s side just as the musicians swept into their opening notes. This tune was as pensive as the first had been jolly, so as Molly seized my hand and led me to the dance floor, I was able to keep possession of both her hands and hear her voice through the melody. “You look very fine tonight, Holder Badgerlock.” She drew me into line with the other men.
I bowed gravely over our joined hands. “If you are pleased, then I am content,” I replied. I ignored the flapping of fabric against my calves as we turned, parted briefly, and then clasped hands again. I caught a glimpse of Riddle and Nettle. Yes, Riddle wore the same sort of flapping trousers, in blue, and he held my daughter not by her fingertips but by her hands. Nettle was smiling. When I glanced back at Molly, she was smiling, too. She had noted the direction of my glance.
“Were we ever that young?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “I think not,” I said. “Life was harsher for us when we were that age.”
I saw her cast her thoughts back through the years. “When I was Nettle’s age, I was already the mother of three children and carrying a fourth. And you were …” She let the thought trail away, and I did not speak. I had been living in a little cabin near Forge with my wolf. Was that the year I had taken in Hap? The orphan had been glad of a home, and Nighteyes had been glad of livelier company. I had thought myself resigned, then, to losing her to Burrich. Nineteen long years ago. I pushed the long shadow of those days aside. I stepped closer, put my hands to her waist, and lifted her as we turned. She set her hands to my shoulders, her mouth opening in surprise and delight. Around us, the other dancers gawked briefly. As I put her back on her feet, I observed, “And that is why we should be young now.”
“You, perhaps.” Her cheeks were pink and she seemed a bit breathless as we made another promenade and turned, parted then rejoined. Or almost rejoined. No, I should have turned again and then … I’d hopelessly muddled it, just as I’d been taking great pride that I recalled every step from the last time we had danced this. The other dancers avoided me, parting to flow past me as if I were a stubborn rock in a creek. I spun in a circle, looking for Molly, and found her standing behind me, her hands lifted in a useless attempt to contain her laughter. I reached for her, intending to insert us back into the dance, but she seized both my hands and pulled me from the floor, laughing breathlessly. I rolled my eyes and tried to apologize but, “It’s all right, dear. A bit of rest and something to drink would be welcome. Hearth wore me out earlier with his prancing. I need a brief rest.” She caught her breath suddenly and swayed against me. Her brow glistened with perspiration. She set her hand to the back of her neck and rubbed it as if to relieve a cramp.