As I lay in the dewy grass of the meadow the birds persuaded dawn to swell into morning, chasing the amethyst, coral and periwinkle from the sky with their lilting song. My horse stamped and snorted as she contentedly grazed the lush green grass. Suddenly the mare’s ears pricked forward toward the forest, a stone’s throw from our position. Training my own senses in the same direction, I detected the rhythmic sound of footsteps, however, no creature appeared. I quickly glanced at my horse who was frozen, intently watching. She then let out a soft whicker as if she were greeting another horse and returned her attention to the sweet clover beneath her. I strained to see into the mist of the wood, certain I had heard footfalls, and I thought I saw movement between the birches. In the distance, the morning bell tolled the start of the day and I sighed knowing it was time to return to the castle, lest my parents send some poor messenger to hunt me down. Again.
Whistling for Sage, my horse, I stood, brushed myself off and sprang onto her bare back before gathering my reins and nudging her into a gallop. We flew over the gently sloping meadows and down the track through the orchards before entering the sprawling grounds surrounding the castle. We clattered into the courtyard and I sprang from Sage's back before she could even come to a halt. Tossing the reins to a waiting groom, I patted my steed and jogged toward the servants' western access door, hoping to sneak back to my apartments.
“Lady Serena! Where HAVE you been?!” My lady-in-waiting, Thea, met me at the door where she had clearly been waiting.
“Just took Sage for a bit of exercise beyond the orchards,” I answered her gently, “I couldn’t sleep any longer.”
“Bad dreams again, milady?” Thea’s brow creased with worry.
“I think haunting would be a more accurate description...” I trailed off as I thought again of the shadowy figures, glinting silver eyes, and storms that had filled my unconscious head mere hours ago.
“Well! Never you mind those silly dreams, they’re just dreams aft’r all,” Thea trilled and then she smiled mischievously, “your father is already asking for you and the castle is all abustle. The servants say tis for the arrival of a special guest for you, milady.”
My mind snapped back to the present. A “special guest” could mean only one thing: my father had arranged for the visit of another suitor. I sighed and started in the direction of my father’s study and was quickly chastised and redirected to my own chambers.
“Your mother gave me strict orders to make sure you look like a lady today,” she frowned disapprovingly at my tunic, breeches, and muddy boots, “you know your father does not approve of you dressing in this manner already. You are very lucky he allows it for your time with the horses. Let us not give him a reason to confine you to skirts entirely!” She continued to prattle on about dresses as we made our way to my chambers.
Thea motioned vigorously for me to hasten into the bath, where I found my tub steaming with lavender and eucalyptus-scented suds.
“Milady, you know I mean no offense, alas, you smell like the stable,” Thea chuckled, “I shall fetch you a dress while you fix that!” She closed the door and I quickly undressed and let myself sink into the warm water, desperate to relax for a moment and clear out the dark remnants of my dream, which still lingered in the recesses of my mind.
The murmur of deep voices and light notes of my mother’s mirth floated to my ears as I hurried down the main staircase. Rounding the corner at a clip, pondering what the next hour would hold and not quite paying as much attention as I should have been, I bounced off a wall of a man and stumbled backward. I would have fallen, if not for the quick arm around my waist keeping me upright. I quickly looked up and my gaze was met by a pair of steady, deep blue eyes. Clearing my throat, I regained my feet and murmured a thank you.
“Oh, my most beautiful daughter! You look simply divine in that gown, my darling!” My mother sang, beaming and glancing at my father and the stranger.
“She is, indeed, a gorgeous creature,” the stranger agreed in a voice deep enough to rival my father’s. A tingle of attraction went down my spine, yet I stiffened a bit, resenting being described as one might compliment one of our horses.
My father was quick to cut the flattery with reality, “Yes, very beautiful, but not always the most graceful as it would appear.” His sharp look signaled a warning for me before creasing in a diplomatic smile, “This is my eldest daughter, Serena. Serena, this is Lord Gareth of House Meliorn.”
I bowed my head and Lord Gareth took my hand in one of his large paws and kissed it respectfully. My mother, looking Lord Gareth up and down, clapped her hands and smiled before suggesting we retire to a parlor for refreshments.
“As you know, Serena, Lord Gareth is the second eldest son of Meliorn House, and as his father is getting on in years he wishes to see Lord Gareth marry before retiring and relinquishing control of the estate to his sons,” my father began before the butler could even finish pouring the tea. I sipped my tea meekly as he continued, “I imagine a marital alliance with House Rourke would be most agreeable for House Meliorn.”
I nearly choked on my tea, not because I was surprised at the words, rather because Lord Gareth had been here for less than a quarter of an hour and my father was already discussing the business aspect of the visit. My mother smiled at me, my father gazed at me expectantly and Lord Gareth’s brow furrowed slightly. Not a moon had passed without the visit of a prospective husband for three quarters of a revolution now! I knew because I was keeping track, and just like clockwork a new suitor arrived at the end of each month. I had been eligible for marriage for nearly three years and my parents were becoming increasingly frustrated with my lack of interest in the subject. I would turn one and twenty at the end of the first month of the new revolution, under the selenelion. Only three moons left of this year. I knew my father was disappointed I hadn't chosen a husband yet. It made him furious. Most ladies were married within ten to twelve moons of reaching eighteen years. I could never determine why he was so upset about it. My mother...well, she had been looking more and more perplexed by me as time passed and I remained fulfilled by stacks of books, scenic rides and rigorous training.
While he simply wished I was a boy, my father wasn't a man lacking sense and knew I was highly intelligent, capable of handling the business efficiently, not to mention a prodigy with the horses that made our house famous throughout the kingdom. He was proud of me, if only for my competency concerning the business. As the eldest, I would inherit House Rourke, but only if I was married. My father also wanted a guarantee. A second son of a large house, such as Lord Gareth, was preferable because he would not be tied to House Meliorn as the eldest son is. However, his inheritance would add a nice cushion to our coffers, and we would gain additional trade benefits in the south.
“My dear, we should allow these two to acquaint themselves without our pressuring presence, do you not agree?” My mother, bless her soul, addressed my father in a conspiratorial tone.
With an armed guard stationed at the door, my parents left us alone. The absence of my father was much appreciated and I finally took a deep breath before I ate a couple of the finger sandwiches from the platter between us.
“Lady Serena, you must forgive me, but I have found you absolutely enchanting at court functions when our paths have crossed over the past couple years and could not resist your father's invitation to become better acquainted,” Lord Gareth apologized, before adding “I have found Rourke mounts to be superior above all others in the realm. Your father mentioned you are a natural with the horses and responsible for running the training program already, which is impressive for someone of your age.”
I smiled and paused for a moment, carefully considering my answer. Lord Gareth Meliorn was a very handsome, tall, broad-shouldered, sandy-haired man, perhaps three or four years older than my nearly 21 years. He seemed to be well spoken and decently respectful. He certainly found me bewitching, as his eyes had hardly left my face. I smoothed my cream-colored skirts and leaned forward, placing my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. He smiled, his eyes flickering to my chest and quickly back to meet my gaze.
I had met Lord Gareth many times at court, but had never had the opportunity of engaging in one-on-one conversation. I had always admired him for obvious physical reasons, but had never been able to truly measure his mental attributes or discern his nature.
Nor have I ever heard an unkind word about him, I ruminated for a moment.
“Thank you for your kind words, Lord Gareth, but beauty is not an accomplishment. On the other hand, the horses are. Would you like to see them?” I took him by surprise when I stood suddenly.
“Actually that would be wonderful, as I am interested in purchasing a new steed for my eldest brother. A wedding present, you see. His wedding is imminent, as you know.” He smiled knowingly, “I hope to see you there, Lady Serena.”
Of course, the entire Rourke family would be attending the wedding, as would each of the other 23 noble houses, including the royal family.
“You shall indeed,” I answered, “and as I am sure you are already aware, we will be gifting a Rourke steed to the betrothed couple . Perhaps today you can help me finalize the choice and even better, make sure the animal compliments whichever of our horses you choose today, as the animal I had in mind would probably suit your brother's betrothed better than him.”
With that, we exited the room and headed for the stables while Lord Gareth humorously described details of the wedding, which was only a month away.