Dinner at Delatoro

by Janet Boyd

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A love story set in the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, Darkover

"Marry Luisa Sangrian? You must be mad, Alaric." Gareth Castamir gaped at his friend in dismay. "She's some sort of kin to me and I tell you now her temper is the talk of the Kilghard Hills. Take the sister ... Sibella, I think her name is ... she at least is a quiet girl."

"Gareth, the King has given me Shadowcrag in the Hellers to restore and hold for him. The place is almost in ruins. I can't take a soft pampered bride there. I need someone who has spirit and is not afraid of hard work. And I want sons with Comyn blood. There aren't too many families willing to marry of their daughters to a mercenary captain, no matter how rich he may be. But Dom Rafael has agreed to a match with Luisa."

"Of course he has! The Sangrians are famed for their bed temper and the girl's inherited a disposition like a kyorebni. Do you know how many families have refused her for their sons?"

"No - nor do I care. I've seen her and she is strong and healthy. That's enough for me."

Zandru's Hells, you're a stubborn man! Granted she is a good housewife ... keeps the Estate running smoothly from what I hear ... but to live with such a virago? Don't do it, my friend."

Alaric laughed, "I've battled clingfire and banshees. One small female should not be too hard to manage."

Gareth shook his head ominously, "Wait 'till you know her better. I warn you, the girl is a hellion. I myself saw her break a platter over Diego Albua's head when he dared to criticise a dish she served. Dom Rafael roared at her and she roared right back. Any proper woman would have been in tears, but not she!" He began to laugh. "It was quite a scene. Diego sitting there like a stunned rabbithorn with blood and soup dripping down his face, Sibella in hysterics, Dom Rafael purple with rage and the servants too frightened to move until Luisa snapped them into action."

"And what were you doing?" Alaric's mouth quirked.

"Nothing. I didn't want a bowl of stew in my lap."

"Well, if she tries it on me she may get a shock. I'm no rabbithorn."

"Oh, that's just one incident. There are stories without number about her doings."

Alaric booted his horse into a canter. "My mind is made up. If she will have me I'll agree to Dom Rafael's terms."

Following him, Gareth said, "Watch the old devil! He'll trick you if he can. But he won't find another husband for Luisa, that's certain. The only thing is the girl's so contrary she may well refuse you herself."

"I'll meet that when it happens. Come on, man, I want to reach Delatoro before dark."

The two riders increased their pace, heading down the narrow trail to the river flats.


In the Great Hall of Delatoro, Luisa Sangrian and her father glared at one another. They were much alike, both crowned with red, tightly-curling hair and both looking on the world through vivid glass-blue eyes.

Luisa said furiously, "Why can't Sibella marry Diego? I may think he is like uncooked dough, changing shape at every touch, but she loves him. They have been pledged for years and you seemed to accept it. So why this change of heart?"

"Use you head, girl. There's a truce - temporary I'll wager! - and many men are looking for wives ... men with more wealth than Diego will ever have."

"Pah! Mercenary soldiers fat on some one's misery. Don't you care for our happiness, father? There's Gabriella wed to that foppish oaf in Thendara and Amalie living the life of a brood mare in Caer Donn. Three children in three years and another on the way, may the Goddess help her! At least give Siebella what she wants."

A look of guile wiped the rage from Dom Rafael's face. "Very well. She can go to Albua - on one condition."

Luisa gave him a suspicious glare, "What condition?"

Her father smiled blandly. "You will marry Alaric of Shadowcrag."

"Me? What are you talking about? I have never met the man."

"Oh, yes, you have. He was here two ten days back to buy horses."

"You mean that tall dark fellow with a face so sour it nearly turned the milk? Why, I didn't even speak to him."

"Nevertheless he was greatly taken with you, only I told him Sibella was the older and must be wed first. The king has gifted him with a Keep in the Hellers and he needs a wife, preferably with Comyn blood, to help him restore it and to bear him sons."

"He would! You men think of nothing but bedding a woman."

"Luisa!" Dom Rafael bellowed, "Mind that tongue of yours."

"Well, it's true. Did you tell him we have no laran in our family?"

"That's not so, daughter. You yourself wear a starstone."

"And a lot of help it is! The best I can do is light a fire or feel a vague empathy with someone in distress. I have no power worth cultivating - none of us have. The leronis told you so."

"She also said it could manifest in your children."

"Who would want it to? Didn't you tell me the Sangrian gift was defensive ... to force madness on any who laid hands upon you in anger? A terrible thing to lie hidden in your blood. Perhaps it has rebounded on us and that is why you and I rage at one another."

"Rubbish, girl, you don't understand these maters. In any event, Alaric does not ask for laran in a wife."

"No, I heard you - he just wants Comyn blood. To my mind he asks for a great deal. After all, what is he? Some ill-gotten bastard from Avarra knows where ... can he even speak Casta?"

"Enough!" Dom Rafael thundered. "You would try the patience of Saint Valentine himself, Luisa. Now, will you take him or not?"

His daughter swung on her heel, wide skirts belling round her ankles, and walked to the door. She put one hand on the latch and looked back, "I'm going to the water meadows and I'll give you my answer when I return."

"Very well." Slyness peeped in Dom Rafael's blue eyes. "You have until the evening meal. Alaric arrives tonight."

Luisa froze then said sarcastically, "Oh, thank you! You are always so considerate, father. To give me a whole afternoon to decide my future - how generous!" She went out with quick angry steps while Dom Rafael grinned after her.

He was pleased. It was not often he could best his turbulent daughter. But this little trick of threatening Sibelle's happiness if Luisa refused to obey him had worked very well. He had never really had any intention of discarding Diego Albue, but if Luisa believed it she would be more amenable. And it was especially important to him at this time that both daughters leave Delatoro.

Luisa made her way to the stillroom and found her sister waiting. Sibella rushed to take her hands, "What happened? Will he let me marry Diego?"

"Here, carry this basket. We're going to the river. Yes, he will agree ... provided I marry that mercenary who came here to buy horses."

Sibella's pretty, rather vapid, face crumpled. "Oh, no! How can I expect you to sacrifice your own happiness for mine?" Tears sprang to her eyes.

"Don't be stupid. It's probably the only chance I'll have to get a husband. No one wants a shrew like me, and, to be honest, I had hoped to aviod marriage altogether."

"But you can't, preciosa. There is no alternative for girls of our caste."

"There are those women who helped the King ... the Sisters of the Sword, or some such name. I could join them."

Sibella clutched at her in fright, "No, oh, no! They must be horrible - rough and dirty. Besides, you can't use a sword."

"How true, sister mine. Father has me trapped. he wants me out of the way and this is his chance. He knows I won't see your happiness ruined."

Sibella looked blank, "But why would he want you to leave, Luisa? Who will run the house and the Estate for him? He can't be bothered to do it himself."

"Open those pretty eyes, my girl. Our loving father needs a son and our sweet, newly widowed cousin Deonetta, is willing to give him one. But she won't come to a place which alreay has a mistress and she certainly does not want two grown daughters, especially since one of them is me, thrust upon her. So, you marry Diego, I'm bundled over to the mercenary and there we are - a nice empty niche for dear Deonetta to fill."

Sibella's eyes filled again, "Oh, I wish mother was still alive. I miss her so."

Luisa put her arms round the slender drooping figure, "Never mind, chiya. You will have your Diego soon."

"Yes, thanks to you, preciosa. There was never such a wonderful sister." Sibella embraced Luisa fondly.

"I love you, too." Luisa gave the other girl a brisk pat. "Now, hurry. We've got company for dinner and I need waterplants to dress the meat."

The Delatoro Estate bordered the Kadarin at one spot and here there was a lush growth of sharp-tasting plants and a small herb garden. In a corner, sheltered by bushes from the winds of the Kilghard Hills, stood a wooden shelf supporting a dozen hives. Delatoro honey was famous for its distinctive flavour and Dom Rafael was proud of the hives, which had been there since the house was first founded.

A path led from the meadow across a shallow ford and then up, disappearing among the trees of the thickly wooded slopes above.

The two girls put down their baskets and began to pick the small tender shoots which tasted so good when boiled with the meat. Luisa, who did not mind getting her feet wet, removed her boots and waded into the shallows to reach another type of leaf which the women used to relieve stings or burns.

She had just begun to strip the juicy stems when she heard Sibella cry out in fear. Turning, she saw with a shock of horror that two hulking bearded men menaced her sister. Without hesitation she scrambled out of the water and attacked the nearest bully. Taken unawares, he sprawled against his companion and both men crashed to the ground.

"Run, Sibella! Get up to the house and send help. Go!"

Terrified, Sibella picked up her skirts and bolted. Left alone with the bullies, Luisa watched as they struggled to their feet, backing warily away as they advanced on her. She knew she was in danger and the threats they uttered left her in no doubt as to the form it would take.


High on the slopes. Alaric and Gareth came to a gap in the trees where a forest giant had fallen, creating a sort of window on to the meadow far below.

Gareth leaned forward in his saddle. "What ... look, Alaric, there's a girl in trouble."

"Yes, I see. We're too far distant to give help but ... wait! There's another girl coming out of the river. The men have not seen her yet. Gods! She's knocked them flying! Her friend has run for it ..."

Gareth interrupted, figeting in excitement, "She's edging back from those brutes. Zandru's Hell's, those bastards are trying to flank her! They'll trap her in those shrubs." He pounded a fist on his saddlehorn with frustration.

Alaric made no reply. He was too intent on the drama below. He saw the slight figure move slowly back before the advance of her assailants and cursed under his breath. Even if they risked breaking the horse's necks he and Gareth could not get there in time to save her. Unless help came quickly from the house, she was doomed. he recognised the men for what they were, discards from some army, now turned bandit.

A movement caught his eye and he saw that a pair of horses grazed close by. So - they were mounted. It would be all too easy to grab the girl and ride away. Once across the Kadarin it would be impossible to trace them. She had very little chance and his stomach roiled to think her fate. Too often he had seen what happened to women caught in the aftermath of war.

Gareth broke into his gloomy thoughts. "Alaric, what does she think she's doing? A piece of wood against their knives? She must be crazed with fear."

Alaric saw that the girl had armed herself with a branch but instead of using it against her attackers she suddenly turned and ran towards a row of small cone-shaped objects on a bench behind her. Flailing her stick she knocked them off the shelf and then crouched on the ground huddled in her long skirts, her head buried in her arms.

For a moment he stared blankly, then he let out a shout that sent both horses sidling and nearly unseated Gareth.

"By Aldones, those are beehives! She's set the bees on those oafs."

Down on the meadow both bullies were slapping at their faces and arms and Alaric grinned as he imagined their curses. The girl, immobile, attracted no attention, but the hopping, stumbling men were prime targets for the enraged bees. Even from this distance it was possible to see the buzzing cloud around them.

Gareth whooped, "What a ruse! We could have used her in our troop. And, look here comes help. She is safe now."

Figures armed with a variety of weapons poured into the meadow but the bees were now thoroughly aroused. This fresh menace to their peace was put to route as savagely as the first. The watchers on the hill could see that the bullies now cowered in the stream, only daring to life theri heads for a quick gulp of air. The rescuers, obviously at a loss, hovered in the background and between the two groups lay the small still body of the girl.

Alaric relaxed, leaning back in his saddle. "No one can do much until they settle. We had better get on our way. I want to reach Delatoro before dark."

They moved off down the steep trail, coming to the meadow as dusk was falling. A few men, wearing masks of thin translucent cloth, were replacing the hives on theri old shelf. The bees had clumped in large bunches on the shrubs nearby and already a band of sullenly buzzing sentinels were investigating the entrances.

Light shone from the house but no one greeted the travellers as they stood in the doorway of the Great Hall. Women were running to and fro with basins of water and bandages and a babble of noise came from a group near the fire.

A girl's voice rose above the others, "If you spill any more of that salve on me, Sibella, I shall stink for a tenday. For Avarra's sake, put it away." The speaker sounded more irritated than hurt.

A different voice, soft and distressed, said, "But you must be in terrible pain, chiya. Your poor hands are terribly swollen."

Gareth shot a glance at Alaric, "So they were not servant girls we saw."

"Apparently not. Dom Rafael is at fault if he permits his daughters to roam without escort." The mercenary was frowning.

A figure stood up from the huddle round the fire place, pushing free of the people surrounding her. "Enough. You will smother me." A head crowned with fiery curls turned, "Father, we have visitors."

Dom Rafael hurried forward, "Forgive my lack of hospitality. We have had some excitement here. you are both most welcome."

Gareth said, "We saw the whole thing but were too high on the slopes to give aid. But we were hardly needed." He bowed to the redhead.

"No, Luisa dealt with the matter. But I wish she had not tumbled all my hives - one or two would have been sufficient."

Alaric said shortly, "That she had the wit to think of such a trick in the circumstances is remarkable. A resourceful girl ... I admire her courage." He did not care for Dom Rafael's casual attitude to his daughter's safety.

Behind him a voice said, "Thank you, but your praise will not divert my father from his grievance. Bees, you must understand, Dom Alaric, are of far greater value than females."

"My lady." Alaric bowed to the girl looking up at him. "Are you much hurt?" His eyes rested on the bandages swathed round her hands.

"No, a few stings, that's all. My clothes protected me and I had the sense to lie still. The bandits had the worst of it. One is dead from the venom and we doubt if the other will survive the night."

"Such scum deserves no mercy. They would have shown you none."

Dom Rafael said, "Waste no time on them. here is Sibella with wine. You must be thirsty after your long ride."

Alaric accepted the goblet offered to him and sat down beside Luisa, prepared to learn something of the girl he intended to marry. But before he could say more than a few words there was a commotion at the door and a tall thin man came rushing into the room.

"Dom Rafael, I have heard the news. Where is Sibella? Is she hurt?"

"Diego!" Siebella flew to meet her lover. "Oh, I have been so afraid!" She nestled into his embrace and burst into tears.

Alaric felt an elbow poke his ribs, "If you expect such behavious from me, my lord, you are sadly in error. Why my sister cares for that chinless wonder is beyond me. I will fawn on no man." Luisa gazed at him defiantly.

Under cover of the noise made as Gareth and Dom Rafael both talked at once and Sibella sobbed gently on Diego's shoulder, Alaric said, "I do not expect it. I will be honest with you, my lady. The King has given me Shadowcrag Keep in the Hellers to hold for him. The place is almost derelict but it has a strategic position which makes it worth restoring. However, the villagers won't work for me because I am not of noble birth. I need a woman who can command their respect and cope with what will be, for a time anyway, a hard life. To help there is only Azan, who was housekeeper before I came - and she is growing old."

Luisa gave him a sudden heart-stopping grin, "Which means the floors are thick with dust and you were never served a decent meal. Ancient servitors are a plague. They do little or no work but expect to be praised as if they had. I'll retire her to the stillroom. She can't do any harm there."

"Er ... there is no stillroom."

"I see. What other charming surprises have you hidden in your sleeve?"

"Think of the worst you can imagine and then double it. That is Shadowcrag."

"Hmm, I see why you need a wife." She threw him a sharp look. "Why me, vai dom? I'm sure Gareth has told you of my temper."

"Frankly, yes. But you seem to me strong and healthy and a bit of spirit will be more help in the Hellers than any amount of softer graces. Will you have me, my lady?"

"Perhaps, I too, have requirements. I have no fear of work or a lack of comfort, nor do I ask that you love me. How could you when we barely know each other? But I would expect you to consult me on matters which concerned us both and to treat me with consideration. If you think to turn me into a brood mare, like my sister, Amalie, then go now for I will never wed you, not if my father beats me bloody. I will share my life with you, vai dom, but I refuse to be your slave." Luisa stopped and drew a deep breath as she waited for Alaric to reply.

"Good." His rather stern face lit up when he smiled. Gently he took her bandaged fingers. "I think we shall agree very well."

"Yes." Luisa was uncharacteristically hesitant, "I ... it is possible." before she could say more Diego broke away from Dom Rafael and came to kneel in front of her.

"You saved Sibella! How can I thank you?" He leaned forward and siezed her hands and Luisa let out a shattering scream.

"Clumsy oaf! Get him away from me, Sibella, before he does more damage."

"Oh, precosia, I am so sorry. Diego, her poor hands are swollen with bee stings. You should not have touched them." Sibella wept again.

"The man's a fool. Remember I told you so when you regret your marriage, sister."

"Nonsense, Luisa." Dom Rafael said curtly. "Pay no attention, Diego. She does not mean what she says. You will stay to dine with us, won't you?"

Diego, backing nervously away from Luisa, nodded, "I thank you, Dom Rafael. If it is not an intrusion I would like that."

Luisa muttered rebelliously, "I won't!" but only Alaric heard her and he merely grinned. "Don't you laugh, my lord. I swear if you invite Diego to Shadowcrag I'll slam the door in his face!"

"Am I to take it that means you will accept my offer?"

"I suppose it does." She looked as if her own words astonished her.

"I am truely glad." Alaric smiled warmly. "And we will make it part of the marriage vows that Diego will never set foot in the Keep excet at your invitation. But for tonight you must bear with him."

Recovering her tartness, Luisa said, "Unfortunately! All we need now is Deonetta."

She was to have her. There was once more a bustle at the doors and then Dom Rafael was leading a pretty fair woman to the fire. She had rather prominent blue eyes and a small hard mouth, just now stretched into a smile.

"Ah, Gareth, it is a long time since you have visited Delatoro. It is nice to see you again." She turned to eye Alaric, "And you must be Lord Alaric. Rafael has spoken of you. But what is this, Luisa? have you had an accident in the kitchen, my dear?"

"No, Lady Deonetta, they are bee stings."

Sibella hurried to recount the story of Luisa's bravery and Deonetta shuddered.

"How dreadful! But you were always courageous, Luisa, not a nerve in your body. I could have never coped .. my constitution is too sensitive. Even listening I feel faint."

"Do you? Yet I have seen you strangle rabbithorns to feed your hawk. That did not affect you."

Deonetta flushed and Alaric caught a gleam of pure spite in her eyes as she glanced at Luisa. "Ah, chiya, we all know how strong you are. But do not let it blind you to the frailty of others. Rafael, you must be wondering what has brought me here at this hour. May we speak privately?"

They moved away and Luisa said softly, "She came because she knew you would be here, Dom Alaric, and she wants to be sure I accept your offer. She won't marry father until I'm out of her way."

Alaric grimaced, "I begin to think Gareth was right. he warned me Dom Rafael was sly as a wolf. Now I understand why he entertained a request from a mercenary."

"Just so. He wants a son and he has had only girls. I pity Deonetta if she produces a daughter - you will hear him bellow from here to the Hellers!" Luisa struggled to her feet. "I'd best get to the kitchen or there will be no dinner."

She vanished into the rear of the Hall and Alaric shortly heard raised voices and the sound of increased activity. Women began to set the long table and a delicious smell of roasting meat filled the air. Diego sniffed deeply and licked his lips while Sibella fed him nuts from a shallow bowl. Deonetta was sitting talking to Dom Rafael and gareth came to sit beside his friend."

"Well, have you changed your mind?"

"No, I'm more than ever set on the idea of marrying Luisa. She is willing so the sooner we can wed the better it will be. She will make me a good wife, Gareth." There was a note of warning in Alaric's voice and the other man heeded it. He made no comment on the Sangrian temper but offered his best wishes in a tone whose sincerity brought a flush of pleasure to the mercenary's dark features. He would have said more but Diego moved over to join them with Sibella still clinging to his side.

"Dom Alaric, we have not met formally. I am Diego Albua and my Estate marches with Delatoro lands. I hear you are to match with Luisa which will make us brothers for Sibella is promised to me."

"Yes?" Alaric drawled. "It is said one may choose one's friends but one's relations are thrust upon one."

Diego looked blank. "Eh? What does that mean?"

Sibella cut in hurriedly, "It's just an old saying. Tell Dom Alaric how grateful we are to him."

"What ... oh, yes. If it were not for you, we could not wed."

"It is true, vai dom." Sibella answered Alaric's questioning glance. "Father would have forced me to marry you only you asked for Luisa."

The mercenary's dark brows snapped together and he seemed suddenly formidable. "I take no woman by force, my lady. Do you tell me Luisa is being constrained to accept my offer?"

Despite her nervousness, Sibella had to laugh. "Luisa? Constrained? You can't believe that having known her even so short a time."

Alaric relaxed, "No, I can't see her submitting to any order unless she agreed to it."

Diego nodded solemnly, "It is a sad failing in dear Luisa."

Hiding his amusement, Alaric said, "You sound as if you have suffered at her hands, my lord. What did she do to you?"

Diego leaned closer and whispered - not without a nervous glance at the kitchen - "You will scarcely believe it but she broke a plate full of stew over my head." His weak chin quivered in remembered outrage.

"Shocking! I shall make a point of forbidding stew to be served at Shadowcrag."

A voice behind them said acidly, "There is stew on the table now and if you have any complaints, Diego, you may keep them to yourself." Luisa scowled at the startled man.

Deonetta floated across, "So forceful! Are you ever at a loss, Luisa?"

Luisa grinned maliciously, "Seldom. And as my future mother you should be pleased."

Deonetta's composure snapped. "Your mother? I would sooner care for a banshee! You are a rude, unpleasant girl with a face as ugly as your disposition. Small wonder the only husband your father could find for you was some jumped-up mercenary scum. You deserve no better." She was almost screaming as she finished.

Alaric stood to his not inconsiderable height and bowed. "A mercenary I certainly was, my lady, but not even the worst trull in the army's tail boasted a tongue as vicious as yours. If you do indeed mean to wed this woman, Dom Rafael, accept my commiserations. Luisa and I will not be visiting you." He turned his head deliberately on a white-faced, raging Deonetta and smiled at Luisa. "Lead me to that stew. It smells wonderful."

Gareth was grinning widely and Sibella, in tears again, clung to a bewildered Diego. Dom Rafael, looking harried, spoke soothingly to Deonetta and was spat at for his pains.

"I'll not come her until you get rid of that bitch! Do you hear me, Rafael?"

His own quick anger flared, "The whole house can hear you, woman. Perhaps Alaric has done me a favour - I have no wish to take a virago to wife."

It calmed her as nothing else could have done. She saw the rich prize of Delatoro receding from her grasp and caught at the frayed rags of her temper.

"No, of course you do not. I am overtired, that is all. Otherwise I would never have snapped at out dear brave Luisa." Deonetta forced a smile and linked her arm in Dom Rafael's. "Let us go in to dinner."

The food was excellent but the meal was hardly a success. Alaric spoke only to Luisa and she was delighted to abet him. Gareth and Dom Rafael tried hard to keep the conversation general but with Deonetta sulking and Sibella tearful, it was not easy. Diego was the only one unaffected. He applied himself to his dinner with single-minded greed.

Watching him dispose of a heaped plate, Alaric said in awe, "You would expect him to be fat if he always eats like this. But he is a thin man. I wonder why?"

"Who knows?" Luisa shrugged. "We grew up together and he had never altered. He was thin as a child, too, though even then his appetite was enormous. I should not tease him so much but his stupidity irritates me. How Sibella bears with it is beyond me."

"Forgive me, but I think your sister is not as quick-witted as you. Obviously she loves Dom Diego and, to give him his due, he seems to care for her. They have as much a chance of happiness as any one. Perhaps better than those two ..." Alaric glanced at Dom Rafael, still trying to placate Deonetta, and lifted an eyebrow.

Luisa followed his gaze, "She will drive him mad but if she produces a son he will forgive her everything. But if she does not ... then Avarra help her! My father is quite capable of taking a barragana and flaunting her in Deonetta's face."

Alaric was looking amused again. "I don't know about your temper, my lady, but it is certain you speak directly."

"Have they told you tales of me?" Luisa grinned wryly. "All are probably true. Does it repell you?"

"No. I have no use for women whose mouths are stuffed with feathers. A man of noble birth may look for honied lies from his wife - I prefer your honesty." There was unmistakable sincerity in his voice and the colour rose under Luisa's white skin.

"You are generous, vai dom. Most men would not agree with you."

"Well, I have no high opinion of my fellows. Too many are fools."

"Oh, now you sound like my father. It's one of his favourite sayings." Luisa fell silent. She was feeling a little out of her depth with this tall man who looked so stern yet had such an infectious sense of humour. He attracted her and she had not expected that. In fact, her mental state was chaotic. Why was she so happy? Why did laughter keep boiling up inside her? And this urge to touch Alaric and have him touch her - it was an unfamiliar sensation and she needed to distance herself from it. She was almost grateful when Deonetta addressed her across the table.

"A fine meal, Luisa. This spice cake is delicious."

It was clearly a peace offering and Luisa replied mildly, "Thank you, cousin. I will give your cook the recipe."

"No need, my dear. I shall leave Perro at Merrin and keep Alain on here."

"I am afraid that won't be possible. Alain comes with me to Shadowcrag as part of my dowry."

"What?" It was Dom Rafael, blue eyes snapping. "I have not been told of this."

Luisa surveyed him blandly, "You allowed me little time for discussion, father. But you know it is the custom for the bride to have some of her own people to accompany her to a new home." Her tone was meek but her eyes challenged him.

He was not deceived. "And who else do you plan to take? half the household, I suppose."

"Not at all. Just Alain, Gailen and Maire, and, of course, my nurse, Mathia. Naturally Sibella will wish to make a choice, too."

"She will not! Diego has more than enouogh servants for her needs. But you, Luisa, you are taking the heart out of Delatoro . .. Alain, Gailen, Maire and Mathie! Who's left to run the place?"

"Why, our dear cousin. Isn't that right, Deonetta?"

"Certainly not! Why should I rob Merrin to staff Delatoro? Your selfishness leaves me speechless, Luisa."

The red curls seemed to bristle. "Oh, surely not! That would be too great a felicity to hope for."

Alaric, hugely enjoying the arguement, decided to enter the lists. He bent a frowning gaze on Dom Rafael and said, "You promised me that your daughter would bring a lavish dowry. Am I to understand that you now go back on your sworn word, vai dom? This is not the behaviour I expected from a kinsman of Gareth's."

"No, no, no. You mistake my meaning, Dom Alaric. But Luisa has chosen the most efficient - in fact, the key - people in my household."

"Why should I not, father? After all, I trained them myself. And Dom Alaric has the right to expect that his wife brings some servants of her own."

Deonetta interrupted, "Surely you aren't going to let her get away with this, Rafael?"

He looked at her in irritation, "What else can I do?"

"Beat the undutiful little bitch! And if you lack the courage to do it, I do not. It will be a pleasure!"

Alaric rose to his full height, "My lady Deonetta, you forget that the damisela is my promised wife. A threat to her is a threat to me."

She gave him a vicious look and subsided, muttering something under her breath.

A new voice intruded. Diego, having finished his meal at long last, had grasped the fact that Deonetta wished to beat Luisa. To his mind if the woman meant to harm one sister, she might well extend it to include the other.

He put an arm around Sibella and announced, "I do not care for Lady Deonetta's remarks. You err in taking her to wife, Dom Rafael."

Deonetta swung on him violently, "Who asked for your opinion, idiot? If you know how to put one foot in front of the next it is more than I would vouch for!"

"Don't you dare call Diego a fool! I never liked you, cousin, and poor father will be miserable if he marries you. You are not a nice person." Having surprised herself and every one else by this outburst, Sibella took refuge once more in a flood of tears.

"So!" Deonetta hissed. "Rafael, you have endulged your brats to the point where they lack any vestige of manners. Luisa has always had the reputation of a scold; now I find Sibella is no better. And you have the gall to ask me to this house! I am speechless."

"What, again?" luisa grinned wickedly. "If it were not for the ceaseless clack of your tongue we might find it easier to believe you."

"Be silent, Luisa." Dom Rafael was so angry that the veins stood out on his thick neck. "Well, Deonetta, you have shown me a new side tonight. What gave you the idea that you could criticise my daughters, I do not know. But I don't like it and, furthermore, I have no wish to marry a shrew."

"A shrew ... oh!" the blue eyes bulged with spite. "I wouldn't take you in a fit, you ... you old man. And as for those miserable brats they will get what they deserve when one marries a glutton and the other a bastard. Fine husbands for the house of Sangrian!" She tittered shrilly and Gareth, who had been silent up 'til now, rose and took her arm.

"Perhaps it would be best if you leave now, my lady. you have said too much already. Vai dom, with your leave I will escort Lady Deonetta to the door."

Rafael nodded briefly and watched until Gareth had led her out before sitting down rather suddenly on a chair.

"Father," Luisa knelt beside him, her bandaged hands resting on his knee. "I'm truly sorry. It was my wretched temper that caused this. Shall I go after her and apologise?"

Dom Rafael looked at her curiously, "Do you care for me enough to do that?" She nodded and he sat up straigher, some of the colour returning to his face. One hand went out to smooth Luisa's red curls, so like his own. "She isn't worth your little finger, chiya." He scowled at her but there was no heat in his voice. "But don't think because you have rid me of one woman I won't go looking for another! I'm beginning to value my daughters more highly but ... I want a son. Can you understand?"

"Of course we can. Just spare a little love for us, too."

"Well, well, you are good girls. Come, give me a kiss and you, too, Sibella." Dom Rafael hugged them both, only relaeasing his hold when Gareth came back into the room.

He was wiping his brow, "May Avarra help the litter bearer who jolts her tonight! You are well rid of that banshee, kinsman."

"I know it. Luisa, bring some wine. We all deserve it, I think."

"Wine?" Diego looked up from a plate of honey cakes. "Something sweet, Sibella, preciosa, to go with these morsels."

In an aside, Rafael said to Alaric, "Never met a man who favoured his stomach like Diego. And no flesh to show for it! But he will be kind to Sibella and that makes up for much. She has not Luisa's quick understanding, you see."

Alaric inclined his head, "I can think of very few who have, vai dom. She is a woman of great resource."

Luisa heard and touched his shoulder gently, letting her bandaged hands rest there while she said, "Father, I'll leave Maire behind. She can run Delatoro for you until you find a mistress for the Estate."

Rafael nodded, "Thank you, chiya." A gleam lit his eye. "I wonder if I could persuade Deonetta's cook to come here?"

Awed, Luisa said, "She would never part with him. You know how she boasts about Perro."

"Are you talking about Deonetta's cook?" Sibella gazed anxiously at her father.

"Yes, chiya, why?"

"Because he is coming to work for Diego."

As one the company turned. Diego met their concerted stare and smirked. "I am not so foolish as some may think. Besides, I enjoy my food and it took only a little effort on my part to discover that Perro was not happy at Merrin. So I offered him a place a Albua." He stopped to inspect a bowl of small ripe plums then glanced up. "He arrives tomorrow morning."

Dom Rafael shouted with laughter. "We shall have to call you the fox of the Kilghard hills. You have out-witted us all. I would give a fortune to see Deonetta's face when she finds out!"

"She'll scream like a banshee!" Gareth lifted his cup in a toast. "Here's to Perro!"

"No." Sibella said firmly, "It's Diego you should thank. He did it all."

"You're quite right, chiya." Luisa put an arm around her sister. "We'll drink to Diego."

Amid the chorus of acclaim, Diego smirked - and ate the last plum.

It's been a long time since these pages have been graced with a tale from Darkover and, I for one, have to admit that it is a wonderful one. It's got a touch of everything, romance, drama and humour - I just love that last line and the image it evokes! But even more, Dorothy has managed to capture that magic atmosphere of the original Darkover tales. You will definitely have to send in the rest of your Darkover stories that you have stashed away!

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