plentiful wombs. They do not care for the trivialities of greedy kingdoms. They will be of no use to us.”
Once they reached safely beneath the boughs of the trees at the edge of the Hwerydh Forest, Aeronwy dismounted. “Here is as good a place as any to make camp. We will be out of the cold wind, and mainly hidden from raiders. But we should take turns keeping watch in case of another ambush.”
Neither Brân nor Gawain volunteered.
Aeronwy sighed. “And, seeing as you two are useless, I will keep watch first. Brân, start a fire.”
Gawain spread out the furs and mats to sleep on, and then collapsed atop his own.
“Yes, sleep,” Brân said as he piled twigs onto the new fire. “No sense in wearing yourself thin.”
s he looked out the window at the clamor below, Madoc smiled for the first time since his father had died. Soon, he knew his troubles would be behind him. With the conspirators dead and gone, he could truly settle into his rule as king.
Dozens of pavilions had been raised during the past two days for the celebration of the coronation. Servants worked through the night to sweep all of the snow from the streets to prepare for the festivities. Though morning had only just broken, crowds of people shuffled through the streets to shop. Merchants already prepared their stalls with their wares, imports from Ordanis, Helygen, and even Eurig were brought to market. Whores stood on many a corner, waiting to lure away men from the bustle of barter with their own wares on display.
The banners that lined the streets were dyed red with madder, far cheaper to produce than the purple dye Madoc’s father had so loved. Tristram had recommended the gesture as a way to show that the new king cared for his people’s suffering, and would not spend lavishly on himself while they starved. A broad, newly-woven tapestry hung from the castle wall, dyed with the same red, while the sigil of House Denorheim was changed to that of a corsac fox—another sign of the new rule Madoc promised.
The splendor of it all overwhelmed him.
“Your Majesty?” called his trusted advisor, knocking on the door.
“The hot milk for your bath has been prepared.”
Madoc followed him into the adjoining room. Steam from the bath filled the air, as well as the heady aroma of bergamot and nutmeg. Warmed honey and herbs were mixed in to both clean and symbolically renew him for his new role as monarch. A bath fit for a king. He slipped in and took comfort in the hot milk as it cocooned him in warmth.
“My lord?” said a mousy blonde servant girl at the door. “I was sent to bathe you.”
“Come in,” Madoc said with a smile, motioning her over to him.
She walked slowly, her head bowed, carrying a tray of linen cloths and soap made of thyme oil and lye, fresh from the castle’s kitchen. She sat the tray on a small table next to the basin, and kneeled on the floor next to him.
He studied her features for a moment before sitting up. “My back,” he said.
She dipped a linen cloth into the bath before taking soap to it and rubbing it between her palms.
Madoc closed his eyes, relaxing, relishing her gentle touch. Soon, after the tournament celebrating his coronation, he would stand before the crowds, his new subjects, and officially accept the crown, as well as deliver some expected justice. While the feast and the tournament were exclusively reserved for nobility, his speech was intended for all in attendance in the square of Castle Rotham.
A hanging was always a popular affair.
Madoc glanced at the servant girl. He had not seen her in the castle before. Tristram had procured several new servants, both men and women, to pick up the slack for the festivities. They would, most likely, be relieved of duty not long after, but if he decided to keep this fine girl on, he certainly could. He was king now. Nothing happened in the castle without his say-so.
“Here,” he whispered, grabbing the