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The Hounds Keeper

By EGStone All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

Chapter 1

She couldn't speak. Or maybe, she just wouldn't. No one was sure. Because in all her twenty-two years, she had not uttered one word. People who say they were there at her birth claimed she was silent, even then. Others say she screamed like any other child until her mother silenced her with a dying word. The young boys in the town claimed she spoke to her dogs in their own tongue and that she was a witch with hound blood running through her veins. Of course, that did not stop them from coming to her for tips on dog training.

Eleana Tarell, for all her enigmatic silence, was the best hounds keeper in the civilised nations, and she belonged to the BelleView Estate, a vast tract of land with nearly twenty thousand acres. She trained dogs, and had trained dogs, since she could walk, learning the tricks from her father and inventing a few of her own out of necessity to her silence. It was claimed that there had never been a dog she could not train. All the proof anyone needed was the dog that walked at her heels at all times. He was a skinny black and white dog, who looked to be of racer blood except for the powerful shoulders and larger muzzle that gave him the look of a hunter, which was his name. He wore a leather collar with a brass name plate and placidly followed his mistress around, obeying her every command.

With her silence and her penchant for dog training, Eleana was an intriguing character. She had developed a way of communicating with those around her, using her facial expressions and hand gestures to express herself. It was a language no one understood without having known her for some time and Eleana found it easier, when communing with strangers, to simply remain stoic. She was well liked by those at BelleView, and served its lord with a fierce loyalty that bespoke an almost daughterly affection for him...

"El," the young kitchen drudge called out, running across the yard to the kennels, his feet bringing up puffs of dust as he ran. The kennel building was fairly large with enough space inside for thirty dogs and three outdoor training areas, and Eleana was happy to use every bit of it. She was outside, three dogs romping around at her feet, Hunter laying quietly in a patch of sun on the grass. Eleana was on her knees, her trousers quickly getting dirty. The kitchen drudge called out again and Eleana looked up, raising her palm to the dogs with a slight flick of the wrist. Immediately, the hounds went silent and stopped playing, sitting in a neat row, their tongues lolling out.

Eleana looked to the boy and gave her half-shoulder shrug that translated as 'what'. The boy, with his ragged mop of hair and slightly torn shirt, his own trousers rolled up nearly to his knees, his feet bare, looked at the Hounds Keeper with admiration. Even with her dirty trousers, she was a vision.

Her figure was slim and lean, testimony to many long hours running around with her dogs. Instead of the dresses that women wore, Eleana went in trousers which hugged her legs, and a shirt, which was slightly too large and billowed around her frame, the sleeves rolled and loose. Her hair was a brown which was reminisce of the forests and hung over one shoulder in a long braid. But most striking were her delicate features and slim neck, her eyes large and a calming green. She was perhaps not as beautiful as many women of fashion and court, but her beauty was simple and earthen.

The drudge blinked himself back to reality, "You're wanted in the library." Eleana scowled and threw up her hands, standing and tugging back on her boots, pointing to three dogs at her feet then to the kennel and snapping. They went inside without question. Eleana tugged the door closed then tried to brush off some of the dirt from her dark trousers. "Quickly," the boy added, then darted off back to the main house.

Eleana sighed and started across the yard, Hunter standing and following at her heels. The main house was a grand sight and the envy of the surrounding counties and the pride of the towns under the BelleView flag. It was tall and large, the pale stone of which it was made seemed to have been perfectly made to fit the shape of the house. Around the back, near the entrance to the garden, climbing vines trailed up the wall and framed the large windows of the room that overlooked the tall hedges and the distant forest. The grounds were maintained beautifully but there was still that essence of the wild which no gardener could tame, nor did they want to do such a thing. There were marble columns out front which supported the overhang, and each door in the house was made of time-darkened walnut.

Eleana knew the house better than most every other servant that lived there; she had been born and raised at BelleView and had spent much time running around the house, playing with the dogs and training and simply being an energetic child, much to the delight of the current lord who could have no children. Perhaps that was why their affections were so like father and daughter.

She ran up the steps to the back entrance of the house, making sure to try and get as much dust off her trousers as she could, more as a concession to the housekeeper and her staff than personal looks. Hunter waited until she opened the door then trotted after his mistress. Eleana wove through the house, using back stairs and servant's entrances to reach the library. The library, much like the great house, was spectacular, with volumes on many subjects and maps of foreign lands, books to be read purely for entertainment and two complete encyclopedias of different publishers. It was also the favourite haunt of the lord of BelleView; he would often spend entire afternoons in the library, sitting in a well-worn leather armchair or at the desk he had situated near a window. This day was no different.

The lord of BelleView was Henry Northwood, an old man who had once fought in the army but now preferred to spend his time in quiet. His family had been at BelleView for generations and had planned to be there for many generations more. Northwood, though, was childless, wifeless and old. He was hunched over and his hair had all but vanished from his crown. His brow was often lowered in thought and his lips were pursed with displeasure or concentration. He was a grand figure, worthy of being at BelleView. But he had no money.

"Eleana," he said, voice wavering with age. He smiled at the Hounds Keeper as she came in, a broad smile on her face. Hunter wagged his plume of a tail and looked up at his mistress for approval to greet the lord. She gave it with a twist of her fingers and the dog bounded forwards, nudging Northwood's hand with his cold nose. "Hunter, stop, that tickles," the old man chuckled, though both he and the dog knew he did not mean his words. After he rubbed the dog's ears for a bit, Hunter retreated back to the side of Eleana.

"Someday, child," Northwood said, raising an imperious finger at Eleana, "that dog is not going to ask your permission to go to a man. That will be the man you are going to marry."

Eleana laughed, her body shaking but no sound coming out of her rounded mouth. If you didn't know her, it was an eerie sight, her face lit up with mirth but the silence speaking of solemnity. Hunter looked up at her and wagged his tail slightly. Eleana reached down and touched Hunter's head, which was at at level with her hips.

"I'm serious, dear child," Northwood said with a smile. Eleana rolled her eyes and shrugged her disbelief and the old man chuckled drily then broke off into a slight cough. He took a shuddering breath and raised his hand in command, "Enough. I did not call you here to talk about you getting married, though I should hope to live that long."

Eleana sighed dramatically and looked at her lord with a smirk. She hadn't so much as exchanged kisses with a man since she had been much younger. It was common knowledge among the household that she was far too focused on her dogs to look at a man. And a few had tried. "Eleana, really. I wanted to talk to you to tell you something. I have sold BelleView."

Eleana recoiled visibly, her eyes widening in shock. She shook her head emphatically then moved forwards, going to her knees at the foot of the armchair, her hands on the knee of Northwood, her eyes searching his face imploringly. Hunter whined at the sudden distress of his mistress. She shook her head and pointed to Northwood then at the ground; he was staying at BelleView.

"There is no money left, dear one. You know as well as I that when I inherited the estate, the money of my family was nearly gone. Since then, I have tried to bring BelleView back to the grandeur that it once had, but I have not been successful. My investments have not done well. I had no choice but to sell," Northwood said, putting his wrinkled, aged hand on Eleana's and giving a slight squeeze.

She shook her head desperately, and to Northwood's surprise, tears began to fill her eyes. He tried to smile her distress away but failed and leaned down to hug her instead. Eleana's arms wrapped around him and she shook with silent sobs. "You'll be fine with the new master. He's a very wealthy man from the city who just recently lost his wife. He seems to be a quiet, intelligent sort of chap and he's far younger than I am. He'll be able to go riding and hunting and you'll have a better time of things with him," Northwood tried to console Eleana. She pulled back and glared at her master. She jabbed herself in the chest with a finger then pointed to Northwood.

"You can't come with me, child," Northwood said, his voice suddenly containing the commanding tone that was his right as lord. He softened as Eleana sank back on her knees, Hunter's head in her lap. "Your place is here. Your father gave you this post and chose to move to town, to better give you a chance to live here. Your hounds are here and your life is here."

Eleana bit her lower lip and pressed an open hand over her heart and looked at Northwood. She put her other hand on his heart and tried to smile. Northwood knew, though he had never seen her make the gesture before, that she was saying 'I love you'. He reached out and stroked her hair gently, brushing a loose strand behind her ear. "Dear one, you are the closest thing to a daughter I have ever had. If I could stay, I would. But there is no more money," he said.

Eleana opened her mouth in a silent plea and Northwood wanted nothing more than to draw her into his arms again. Instead, he straightened and turned his head away so as not to meet her desperate gaze, "Go. What's done is done. In one week, your new master will be here and I expect you to be on your best behaviour. I will be gone in the morning."

That was an obvious dismissal and Eleana pulled back, stung. She thrust down the lump of pain that was growing in her chest and stood, a righteous anger filling its place. Gesturing sharply to Hunter, though he was already at her heel, Eleana turned and marched out of the library, only sparing a backwards glance when she reached the door. She let her resolve waver for a moment as she looked at Northwood, then turned away, making her way swiftly through the house. She reached the yard before breaking into a run, barely able to contain the tears that filled her eyes.

Eleana burst into the small cottage that was attached to the kennels and flung herself onto her bed, shoulders shaking as she cried into her pillow, never once making a sound. Hunter pushed his nose under Eleana's hand and she shifted so the dog could climb onto her bed, pushing his body against hers, as silent as his mistress as she cried into his silky fur.

Exhausted from the despair that she had experienced, Eleana soon fell asleep, and when she woke, Henry Northfield had gone. The change that settled over the household was immediate. Most of the staff was curious about the new master, but the sadness and anxiety over loosing the old one prevailed. The kitchens worked in near silence, preparing only simple foods for the staff. The housekeeper made sure that the house went through a thorough cleaning and the gardeners sullenly walked through the grounds, pruning half-heartedly. Eleana, though, changed completely.

Where she had usually been seen wandering around the grounds, playing with her dogs, an easy smile on her face, she was now absent. She wandered the forests instead, relishing the freedom from people and leaving her free to sulk alone. Her dogs did not seem to notice the change; they were always happy to have new places to see and smell, but Eleana's change was obvious in Hunter. He would often walk close to her, his nose pressing into her hand, trying to get her to be happier. She was a normally solitary creature, only venturing to the house for meals, but now no one saw her unless they looked for her. She got her food from the towns, walking there and back nearly every day just to have something to do.

That was how, on the day the new master was set to arrive, Eleana managed to be nowhere to be found. She had Hunter and a large hunting dog, Baron, at her side, the bigger dog happily sniffing around while Hunter kept close to his mistress. Eleana carried a small package of food in her arms and walked lazily back to the house, deep in thought and resentful at herself for the fact that she was beginning to feel less betrayed by Northfield. She wanted to be angry with him, to hold him in contempt, but she could not. She understood that he could not keep the estate, she only wished she could have gone with him. But to leave BelleView was nigh unthinkable.

As the trio reached the estate, Eleana noticed a commotion at the front door and silently cursed herself. How could she forget that the new master was coming that day? Northfield had said one week, and while she had avoided the other servants, it was impossible not to notice their fervent activities. She frowned and signalled Baron to heel with a sharp pat on her thigh. The big dog did as he was told and Eleana grudgingly marched up the drive to the house, looking with disdain at the carriage, shining and black, and the two great horses that pulled it as well as the stallion that walked behind, obviously the personal riding horse of the new master.

The household was outside, standing in an arranged formation, all wearing their best clothing. Eleana checked herself and grinned with mischievous pleasure. She was wearing her old trousers and a patched working shirt, her braid the only thing particularly neat about her. On a more worrying note, she looked at the dogs at her side. She could care less about what she looked like to the new master, but her dogs were another matter.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, caught sight of Eleana as she walked up the drive and looked at the new master as he climbed out of his carriage. He didn't seem to notice the figure who was still moving as he took in the stillness of the scene before him. The servants, arranged prettily, seemed to hold their breath as they surveyed their new master and as he surveyed them. He was of average height, and younger than any had dared to hope; they would have been surprised if he were more than thirty. His clothing was simple but elegant, with fitted black trousers and leather boots that came to just below his knee. His shirt was glimmering white and the sleeves billowed around his arms with the slight wind. A grey silk vest was all the suit he had and a blue silk scarf hung around his throat.

His clothes were fashionable and expensive and showed good taste, but his obvious charm came from the pensive and thoughtful and almost sad look on his face. He was handsome and his dark hair lay in waves across his forehead. But for all of this, it was plain he was distracted, distraught even. He looked around him but did not seem to see the splendour of BelleView.

Mrs. Graham, since the new master didn't seemed inclined to say anything, spoke, making sure to smile, "We welcome you to BelleView and hope that you shall be happy here in your new home."

The housekeeper's words seemed to startle the man out of whatever line of thought he had been pursuing and he started as if in shock. Cautiously, he gave the waiting staff a half-smile, the expression making him seem all the more sad since it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thank you," he said, his voice soft and deep. "I am Richard Byrrns and I believe we shall get alone quite well. You shall have to keep reminding me of your names for a while, so we can get acquainted. And please, if you wish to know something, ask. I want us to understand one another."

There was a slight pause then a young, wisp of a maid stuttered, "P-please, m'lord, is there no mistress?" The maid's words seemed to strike Richard and he shuddered visibly, closing his eyes and taking a slight step back. He struggled to hide the anger and grief that filled his chest, but faced the maid with a calm exterior.

"No," he said softly, sadly. "My late wife died of lung-rot, a year ago. I moved out here to get away from her memory and the demands of society. Never speak of her again." By the time he had finished speaking, his voice was trembling with anger. No one said anything further and all turned away slightly, as if afraid to meet his eyes.

Though it had been a year since his wife had died, Richard still grieved for her and that much was obvious to anyone with eyes. The tension that filled the air did not diminish as the new lord turned back to his carriage and whistled. A great black form flew from the coach, body trembling with excitement, tail wagging. The dog was all that Richard had kept of his old life; the dog was slim and well-muscled, a mix between hunter and fighter, the muzzle more pointed and larger after the fighter breed in him. "Smoke, come," the new lord of BelleView said, but the dog was already racing off to go and investigate the three figures that were now nearly at the carriage.

The dog was obviously not as well trained as Eleana's hounds and a young footman let out a startled gasp as Smoke lunged for Baron, either in play or in aggression it was not sure. Richard watched with slight horror and more annoyance than anything. Who was this person to walk up the drive of his new estate, calm as could be, wearing clothes far to tattered to be useful, two dogs at his side? But the figure turned as Smoke raced forwards and Richard saw that it was a girl. When his dog tried to snap at Baron, the girl turned into a wolf.

Eleana saw the rogue dog coming forwards and her trained eye told her this dog was used to fighting. Its build and surety told her that, but more than that were the fine scars that laced its muzzle. She didn't have time to order her own dogs away, so instead she trusted that they would stay where they were. Eleana stepped between Baron and Smoke and flicked her wrist at Hunter and Baron, ordering them to sit. They sat.

Smoke tried to lunge around Eleana, obviously excited and while he was probably just wanting to play, he could have just as easily been trying to attack to assert his dominance. But on the BelleView estate, there was only one alpha, and that was Eleana. In a flash of motion, she dropped to her knees and curled up her lips, showing her teeth to the black dog, eyes locking with his. Smoke's own lip curled and his hackles rose.

"Smoke, no," came the cry from the wayward dog's master, but he was too late. Eleana kept her stare with the dog and advanced, snapping her teeth as she did so. Smoke growled and his instincts told him to attack where training told him to stand down. Here was a human, acting like a dog, trying to claim dominance. He should assert his own claim. But nor could he attack a human. In his moments of indecision, Eleana lunged forwards, one hand going to the dog's throat while the other slammed into his shoulder and made him fall to the ground, paws sliding from beneath him.

Eleana swung her leg over the dog and, keeping her eyes locked with his and a hand at his throat, rolled him onto his back, staring him down. Smoke, startled and suddenly afraid, whined, flashing his teeth in a sorry grimace of submission while he broke eye contact and whined again. Eleana kept her teeth bared and leaned down, putting a slight pressure on the dog's throat, her teeth nearly touching the black nose. Smoke whined again and showed her the whites of his eyes, obviously accepting her position as alpha. To seal the bargain, Eleana opened her jaws and bit down gently on the dog's muzzle.

In another flash, it was all over. Eleana let Smoke up and got to her feet while the black dog danced around her, his tail wagging and his ears half-perked. Eleana held her hand out, an obvious gesture which even those with no understanding of dogs could tell meant sit, and Smoke sat, wagging his tail the entire time. Eleana smiled, pleased with the dog, then twirled her fingers at Hunter who trotted up and exchanged sniffs and tail wags with the new dog. Next came Baron, and once Smoke played friendly with both dogs for a few moments, Eleana flicked her wrist and the dogs went off, running around the yard in play.

Richard had watched all of this with an astonished look on his face, taking in Eleana's ferocity and obvious power over the dogs, in silence. He admired her simple beauty and noted how her worn clothes seemed to fit, not even caring at the indecency of a woman in trousers. But the real surprise came when Eleana let the dogs go and marched resolutely up to the new master, fire burning in her eyes. Her green gaze locked with Richard's blue one and something blossomed in the new lord of BelleView.

Eleana pointed her finger at Richard's chest, her strength making him rock on his heels slightly. Then she gestured angrily to the dogs running around, rolling and playing, and touched her own head. She spread her arms out in an accusing sweep and glared. Richard backed up and held up his hands, inadvertently granting his own submission to Eleana's alpha position, "I didn't know Smoke would do that. I tried to have him trained in the city, but finding a good Hounds Keeper is hard. I'm sorry, uh,-"

"Eleana," Mrs. Graham cut in, stepping out of her place in the array of servants to approach the bewildered lord and the furious master. "She's the Hounds Keeper here at BelleView. Best Keeper in, well, the whole country probably. Trains her dogs to respond to her silent commands as well as voice commands."

As the older woman had come up, Eleana had glared once more at the new master and strode away, commanding Hunter and Baron to heel and sending Smoke to his human, but no longer his master. Richard stared after her in shock and tugged at his vest to try and regain some composure, "She... doesn't like me much, does she?"

"El?" Mrs. Graham peered after the retreating girl and pursed her lips, "I don't think she likes anyone apart from her dogs. Not that she'd tell you if she thought otherwise."

"Why not?" Richard asked, angry at his own curiosity and the emotion behind it.

"She's mute. Hasn't said a word in.. ever, I think. She trains her dogs in complete silence, with her fancy finger twists and wrist bending and such. But she'll communicate when she needs to, using her hands and such. Having a conversation with her, a real one mind you, is as rare as butterflies in winter, but it is a beautiful thing," Mrs. Graham said. She managed to coax the new lord inside and got him set up in the master bedroom.

A tour of the house revealed the three separate wings and more space than one man could ever possibly need. But it was what he wanted, to get away from the city and be alone in his thoughts, mourning his wife and wallowing in his own misery. The servants saw Richard's grief immediately and made unconscious plans to avoid him. Even the affable Mrs. Graham made the tour quick and left the new master alone in the library with a tumbler of scotch, the head butler, called Hayes, close behind her.

Richard drained the scotch in one quick gulp and poured himself another. He was on his third, nursing it in the favourite armchair of the previous owner, before he allowed himself to meditate on what had bothered him since arriving.

See, after a year of complete grief and total self-loathing, Richard had wanted nothing more than to get away from society and the world and die at a young age in peace, the house he left behind a testimony to his late wife, wonderful thing that she was. But, during his unconventional arrival, he had locked eyes with a spirited and angry young Hounds Keeper and loved her immediately. This was absolute and consuming love, which filled his entire body and began to enthral him. The nature of his feelings for Eleana were at once obvious to Richard, having been in love before, though nothing so complete. And that was what bothered him.

He wanted to be loyal to his wife, the late Christina Byrrns, lady of society and fashion, of sense and wit, of quiet obedience and slow passion. He wanted to grieve her, wanted to be able to say that he was loyal and faithful to her his entire life. But she was dead and he was living and now he had met and fallen in love with Eleana, which caused him to break his vow. And he hated her for it.

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