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A moment later, a young man on a pony trotted up and dismounted. He looked like a squire, a kind of apprentice knight. "Your lord is coming," he said.

Tom stood up. "You mean Lord Percy?" Percy Hamleigh was one of the most important men in the country. He owned this valley, and many others, and he was paying for the house.

"His son," said the squire.

"Young William." Percy's son, William, was to occupy this house after his marriage. He was engaged to Lady Aliena, the daughter of the earl of Shiring.

"The same," said the squire. "And in a rage."

Tom's heart sank. At the best of times it could be difficult to deal with the owner of a house under construction. An owner in a rage was impossible. "What's he angry about?"

"His bride rejected him."

"The earl's daughter?" said Tom in surprise. He felt a pang of fear: he had just been thinking how secure his future was. "I thought that was settled."

"So did we all—except the Lady Aliena, it seems," the squire said. "The moment she met him, she announced that she wouldn't marry him for all the world and a woodcock."

Tom frowned worriedly. He did not want this to be true. "But the boy's not bad-looking, as I recall."

Agnes said: "As if that made any difference, in her position. If earls' daughters were allowed to marry whom they please, we'd all be ruled by strolling minstrels and dark-eyed outlaws."

"The girl may yet change her mind," Tom said hopefully.

"She will if her mother takes a birch rod to her," Agnes said.

The squire said: "Her mother's dead."

Agnes nodded. "That explains why she doesn't know the facts of life. But I don't see why her father can't compel her."

The squire said: "It seems he once promised he would never marry her to someone she hated."

"A foolish pledge!" Tom said angrily. How could a powerful man tie himself to the whim of a girl in that way? Her marriage could affect military alliances, baronial finances ... even the building of this house.

The squire said: "She has a brother, so it's not so important whom she married."

"Even so ..."

"And the earl is an unbending man," the squire went on. "He won't go back on a promise, even one made to a child." He shrugged. "So they say." Continue this excerpt...

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