"Eleanor, please pay attention."
She glanced briefly at her instructor, who was attempting to teach her more than she really wanted to know about geometry. What she really wanted to concentrate on was outside in the castle courtyard.
Prince Constantine was teaching his page, a sweet-natured boy named Franco, how to properly use his sword. They were using wooden batons, and the boy wasn't doing too badly, except that he tended to stand still while trying to deflect the prince's jabs, which again earned him a sharp reprimand.
"You have to keep moving, Franco," she heard the Prince growl. "What, should you just stand there, flailing about while your opponent runs you through? Move, dammit! This isn't a bloody game!" He emphasized his point by smacking the boy on the hip with the broad side of his baton, and Eleanor winced for Franco's sake. At least the boy remained on his feet, however, and he took another stance, shield held diagonally while he shifted from side to side. Constantine went at the boy again, and this time Franco moved out of the way and tried jabbing at the older man, but his thrust was expertly deflected. Franco kept moving, never making actual contact with the prince with his sword, but at least he was managing to parry well.
Dr Franz rapped on his lectern, and Eleanor jerked slightly, looking up at the stern little German. The man had been brought from the university in Bologna with the express purpose of teaching von Hesse's ward, and had at first been appalled to be teaching mathematics to a girl. However, when she demonstrated remarkable skill on the subject, he had settled into the job and came to relish instructing a prodigy. Not that she really enjoyed learning about angles and the circumference of circles, but it all came naturally to her, as with languages. She had a head for numbers, but no enthusiasm for them at all.
"I ought to put a curtain over the window," Dr Franz said, looking a little annoyed. "You have far too much interest in martial matters."
Eleanor glanced out the window and felt her cheeks warming. It wasn't martial matters so much that she was interested in. It was Constantine.
He had stayed at the castle after the Frost Fair, and Count von Hesse had persuaded him to remain there until the snows melted and the passes were clear. His knights had gone on ahead to Havor, where they would remain until fall, and Constantine decided to keep Franco with him, deciding the boy would benefit from one-on-one training in a quieter setting. He spent most of his mornings training the boy in swordfighting and archery, then would take the nooning meal with the household before going hunting with von Hesse or, more often than not, relaxing by the fire in the Great Hall, making arrows or dozing.
Constantine was not an outgoing man by any means, but his quiet, grave manners were appealing to Eleanor, and she found him to be a match for her intellectually, even though he had not endured as rigorous an education as she. His learning had come from experience and she believed he knew far more than what was in books.
She admired him a great deal. He was intelligent and articulate, and seemed to have little trouble talking to Eleanor, despite the difference in their ages. She enjoyed hearing him talk about his travels around the Continent, even though he usually avoided telling much about his more violent exploits on battlefields. She particularly liked his quietness. He was a man who never wasted his words or his actions, and there was a watchfulness about him that Count von Hesse said was a quality any man would desire. "Still waters run deep," von Hesse had said once, of Constantine, and he was right.
Plus, Constantine was extremely easy to look at.
She shifted in her seat, looking down at the papers Dr Franz had given her to study, hiding her blush. She had no access to boys her own age, except Franco, and she had no interest in him besides a mutually polite friendliness. von Hesse never allowed eligible men—much less boys—anywhere near her, yet he seemed to have no misgivings about Eleanor sitting in the courtyard in the evenings, talking to Constantine while he repaired his clothes and armor. The prince listened to her chatter and answered her questions with remarkable patience, and she was happy to regard him as a friend. He even seemed to be pleased to have her around.
It was those silly thoughts she had sometimes about him being more than a friend that made her feel her cheeks warm and caused her to become forgetful. She wasn't sure what being more than a friend with him, or any man for that matter, might entail but she knew it led to marriage and babies. She knew two girls her age in the village who were already married and one had even just given birth to a baby. von Hesse, on hearing that bit of news, had looked horrified and had muttered something about the cruelty of some fathers.
"…the Pythagorean theorum to me, Eleanor."
"What?" She stared at her instructor, bewildered.
"The theorum, Eleanor. The Pythagorean theorum." Dr Franz looked exasperated and moved to block her view out the window.
"In a right-angled triangle, the area of the square on the hypotenuse-the side opposite the right angle, that is—is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides."
He handed her a piece of paper with several equations on it. "Figure these, please—draw the diagrams."
She sighed and went to work, the numbers and images flashing in her head as she studied each equation and drew the corresponding pictures of angles. She had read von Hesse's mathematics books long ago and every page, every word and every solution came up easily, like pictures in her memory. Her recall was flawless, and she had frightened and awed every one of her tutors since the day von Hesse had decided she ought to get the best possible education to be obtained.
The only subject that gave her any trouble—or actually caused the castle chaplain any trouble—was theology. She read a portion of the Bible every morning before Mass, and had memorized virtually all of it, and she often had far too many questions for Father Ulrich's comfort. Father Ulrich was a kind, compassionate and good-humored man who never failed to at least attempt to answer her questions, and while she knew that her own ideas could get her burned at the stake as a heretic, he would never report her to Rome. Still, he often said she was far too curious and that her curiosity and disagreements with the Church on various doctrines could get her into trouble some day. Nonetheless, she enjoyed her daily theology lessons—they were certainly less stressful than learning to read Greek.
She handed the paper back to Dr Franz, knowing her answers were correct, and waited to be excused. The professor read her answers before finally nodding absently, gesturing for her to leave the schoolroom, and she eagerly dashed out. Betsy would be appalled to see her running down the hallway, but the housekeeper had gone down to Turon to visit her youngest daughter, who had just had another baby. She scrabbled downstairs, raced across the Great Hall and went out into the courtyard, ignoring the chilly air, and watched Constantine as he shot an arrow directly into the bulls' eye pinned to a roll of hay.
He was handsome, though perhaps not conventionally so. He seemed to have no control over his dark hair, which was kept short, and he wore no beard, which was unusual for a knight. His eyes were startlingly green, and he was tanned from a life spent in the sun and wind. Unlike many knights, he was not heavy and bulky, being naturally lean and wiry, like a wolf, with wide shoulders and strongly muscled arms, and he kept himself in prime condition by daily practice with his sword and bow. Eleanor knew his arms were scarred, and that when he was tired he limped, the result of a jousting injury as a teenager.
She sat down on the steps and watched Franco practice his archery. The boy wasn't bad, but neither was he extremely good, his main failing being a lack of self-confidence. He wasn't quite strong enough for a full-sized longbow, so Constantine had made a smaller version for him, with modified arrows, but today the prince was trying to get the boy to use the man-sized bow. Franco looked a little dispirited when his arrow missed the mark, and he rubbed his sore shoulders.
"All right. I think you've been tormented enough. Go on and get something to eat."
Franco shuffled away, head down, and only brightened when he saw Eleanor. "Hello, Lady Eleanor."
Everyone called her that these days. von Hesse had issued an edict to the entire household that Eleanor was to be called Lady, as she was his ward. Her tutors were not so required, and Constantine never called her by her title, but she didn't mind. She never called him 'Highness', after all, even though he was the second son of a king and she was only a peasant.
"Franco, I think you're doing very well," she said, hoping to encourage him a little and caught Constantine's vague shrug. Franco, besotted with Eleanor from the day he had met her, smiled happily and went inside, heading for the kitchen to charm the cook out of some shortbread biscuits.
The prince tossed the bow and arrows into a cart and came over to sit down on the steps beside her, and she wrapped her arms around her knees. "How did your lessons go today?" he asked her.
"Quite well. But I'm tired of mathematics. I never want to hear the name Pythagoras again."
"I'm afraid I've never heard of him at all, so advantage me." He pulled his gloves off and flexed his fingers.
"He was a Greek mathematician and philosopher."
"No wonder I never heard of him. I learned my letters and numbers, a dash of history and geography, a good dose of theology and martial strategy and a little philosophy. That seemed to satisfy my tutors well enough to let me leave for Havor at thirteen."
"And you rarely seem to go home at all."
"Wanting me to leave, are you?" he asked, with a teasing smile.
"No! I… I mean, no, of course not. You just don't seem eager to go home." She felt her cheeks warming again. She didn't want him to leave. Ever.
He shrugged. "Eh, well, I've not much to go home to. I mean, I'm close to my brother Philip, but he's got his own matters to deal with, and I'm not close to my parents, so… "
She was silent for several moments, and he waited, knowing she had a question brewing. Strange girl, he thought. She often said she was guilty of chattering on, but that wasn't true—she was a thinker, and thus considered carefully before she spoke.
"Don't you miss them?"
"Not really, Eleanor. Like I said, I'm not close to them." He stood up. "But I'm afraid I do have to go soon. I have to take Franco up to Havor and collect my knights."
She stood and clasped her hands together, looking rather glum. "Oh. Will… will you be coming back through the valley?"
"Probably not. Or if we do, we won't be tarrying long. I don't think I can do two winters in one year here. My bones just won't take it."
She smiled slightly and quietly went inside. He paused in the courtyard, looking around. This castle—it was about the closest thing he had ever come to a home, and the only place he had ever stayed where he felt entirely included and welcome. Besides which, there was that sweet, lovely girl to talk to…
He pushed aside the unwelcome thought of the other reasons he had for enjoying her company. She was thirteen, for God's sake, he told himself angrily. He was not a man who indulged in messing around with young girls, and in fact felt shy and awkward around women in general. Except for Eleanor, that is. He never felt awkward around her, and he attributed that to her youth and off-limits status (von Hesse was clear on that subject), but however much he told himself that, he knew that she was already growing into a breathtaking beauty, and what would he do then? Would he get as nervous around her then as he did with any other woman? Unlikely, he realized. He felt calm in her presence, but things about her were changing and he wasn't sure he could handle those changes very well.
Muttering to himself about being such a fool, he went on inside.
Harris, Count von Hesse's English butler, greeted him at the entrance to the Great Hall. Servants were rushing in and out, carrying platters of meat and warm, fresh bread. Eleanor was helping Betsy set plates on the long table, and Franco was getting in everyone's way, as usual. Finally, Harris banged his staff on the floor and the servants, except for Harris, scrambled out of the hall. Count von Hesse entered, wearing his best clothes and the jeweled chain that indicated his rank. Constantine took his seat at von Hesse's right hand, with Eleanor directly across, with Franco beside her. von Hesse said a brief blessing and Harris poured out of the wine. Eleanor, who didn't like wine at all, drank water.
"Dr Franz tells me you did well on your lessons today," von Hesse said, tasting his roasted beef and nodding his approval for everyone else to eat.
"Yes, sir," Eleanor answered, tearing a piece of bread in two and nibbling on the crust.
"Quite sick of geometry now, hm?"
She looked at him cautiously. "Yes…"
"Good, because he's wanting to go home. He misses his family." He ladled out some hearty stew for her, then for Constantine and Franco. "Meanwhile, I've decided to hire a French lady to come down here and teach you proper manners."
"Manners?" Eleanor looked a little put out. "I have manners!"
"Not proper manners. Granted, you don't climb on the table and spit on the servants, but you're lacking in deportment, I think, and I intend to take you to Court next summer, so you must be able to behave correctly without needing to think about it. A proper lady does not throw snowballs at other girls, for instance, no matter how sorely provoked she might be."
She looked less than delighted, but could not argue with the Count.
"I'm sure you'll learn quickly enough," von Hesse said encouragingly, catching Constantine's furrowed brow. "Manners are merely a means of making sure other people are comfortable, and you merely need a bit of polishing in that regard, Goosey."
She said nothing more and tucked into her meal, eating her stew and bread in silence. When she had finished, she and Franco were allowed to leave the table to the adults and their after-dinner wine and talk. Constantine accepted a cup of rich, red wine from Harris and sat back in his chair. "You intend to take her to Court next year?"
"For what reason? To show her to King Michael? I doubt he'll acknowledge her, any more than he did her mother."
"That's not entirely why," von Hesse answered, looking troubled as he swirled his wine in his cup before taking a sip. "I want to see how she takes. If she can handle it all." He leaned forward. "You know, when she was younger, I thought of seeing her married to some local worthy—a burgher from Turon or suchlike, or a well-to-do farmer, but she's too smart for that and I've taken too much pains to educate her—she's too outstanding to enter the drudgery of a common man's wife. I keep thinking perhaps she's worthy of a man with a title, and there's a few very decent noblemen in Styria. There's the Duke of Luvon and the Count von Pressburg… they both have sons that are not much older than Eleanor and the information I have heard of them has been encouraging."
Constantine's hand gripped his goblet of wine more tightly, but he kept his thoughts to himself. von Hesse continued, not noticing the shadow that crossed the prince's face. "Considering her heritage, and her education, she would be a great asset to a worthy husband. I can see her doing well at Court, and she would have a great influence on a husband who already has some political sway. Think of that, Constantine—my sweet girl as someone to contend with at Court."
"Right. I can see that, too." Constantine put the goblet down, the wine souring in his mouth, and he had to force himself to swallow it. "Of course. She… still doesn't know about her mother's family?"
"I see no reason to tell her. She doesn't need to know. If King Michael won't even acknowledge her, what good is it to plant such a seed in her mind… to have her think she's somehow unworthy, as her poor mother did? Forbid it Almighty God. No, she's better off not knowing. Let that sniveling little worm never know what a treasure he has in his granddaughter."
"King Michael isn't that awful, Frederick," Constantine said. "I mean, yes, he's got plenty of flaws, but he married a fine woman who improved him a good deal and he got three sons from her. I hear his oldest son is married with two children of his own."
"Yes, a daughter named Eleanor, of all things, and a son named Peter." von Hesse huffed and drank down the last of his wine. "I'm sorry to hear you're leaving, Constantine. It's been rather nice having you and Franco about. Betsy's on her best behavior, you know. With you gone, she'll be scolding me again."
"Someone needs to," Constantine smiled slightly. "We leave tomorrow."
von Hesse nodded and ordered another glass of wine. Constantine refused a refill and excused himself from the table. He went back out into the courtyard, and wasn't surprised to see Eleanor slipping silently along the wall, heading toward the stables. He followed her, not making a sound, and almost laughed when he saw her grabbing a saddle and bridle from the tack room and going to the stall of her favorite horse—von Hesse's aging but elegant old war horse, Atlas. She had to stand on a mounting block to get the horse prepared for a ride, but she was a strong girl, having no trouble lifting the heavy saddle. She cajoled the horse into accepting the bit and after making sure everything was done properly, she swung up into the saddle, sitting astride in a most unladylike manner.
"Going riding, Eleanor?" her called mildly from the stable door. She squeaked in alarm and frowned at him.
"Someone needs to put a bell on you," she said, annoyed.
He remembered Leopold DeForet saying the same thing, once, and shrugged modestly. "Being able to walk quietly is a good trait, particularly when hunting."
"Well, I am going hunting, actually. I want to get a brace of grouse for the cook—he said we're running low." She pulled her hood up over her head, gave him a cool nod, and rode away, letting the horse set his own pace, her bow and quiver of arrows slung across her back. The huge black gelding began trotting as soon as they were out of the gate, and Constantine watched her ride away, not fearing for her safety—she was an excellent horsewoman, and Atlas was as quiet as an old sheep: he would no more throw her or try to run away than he would try to play the lute.
Morning Mass was over, and Father Ulrich dismissed everyone from the chapel with his usual warm 'May God bless and watch over you, in your goings and your comings, and give you peace'. Constantine, having already packed up his belongings and prepared his horse, paused in the Great Hall to say goodbye to his host. Eleanor, standing beside von Hesse, wasn't saying anything, but she was wringing her hands. Franco said his goodbyes, looking less than happy at leaving behind such a pretty girl, but he went out to the courtyard and mounted his horse. Constantine shook hands with von Hesse, then turned to Eleanor.
"Perhaps… perhaps you might write to me," Eleanor said suddenly, startling von Hesse.
"Write? I can assure you, Eleanor, I won't have anything interesting to say in a letter. Besides, my handwriting is awful and my spelling is atrocious."
"I'm sure whatever you say would be very interesting," she countered. von Hesse stared at his young ward for a moment, then looked at Constantine. Eleanor, her cheeks pink, was staring at the floor. He couldn't bear to embarrass her, however, and clapped the prince on the shoulder.
"Be safe, Constantine, and may God bless you."
Constantine nodded, and playfully tugged on a loose lock of Eleanor's dark hair. She looked like she might start crying, and he immediately regretted putting off her request to write. "I would write to you, Eleanor. If… if I could find anything to write about. I'd have to have Franco correct my spelling, too, and his is probably worse than mine."
"Know you're welcome back here any time, Constantine," von Hesse said, clapping the prince on the shoulder again, hoping to clear the awkwardness of the moment from the air. He looked at Eleanor. "I've an appointment I must not be late for, Goosey. Go on upstairs and get on with your Greek lesson."
Finding nothing more to say, and not wanting to cause any more discomfort to his host or to Eleanor, Constantine went out into the court and swung astride his horse—now better shod and in a better mood—and rode out of the castle gate, followed by Franco. Halfway down the hill, Franco caught up with him and rode abreast. "That Eleanor Reeve—she's such a pretty girl. I'm sure any man would be happy to have her as a wife some day."
Constantine glanced at his page, resisting the urge to knock the boy off his horse for his impertinence. "Speak respectfully, Franco, of a young lady."
"I am. I am respectful. She's very pretty—the prettiest girl in the Turon Valley. Perhaps all of Livonia. That's hardly disrespectful. It would be disrespectful to say she was stupid or ugly, which she isn't, of course.
The prince and his page drew back on their reins when they saw the woman coming up the hillside. She was wearing a thick black cloak, and was using a long, gnarled branch as her staff, and Constantine figured she was quite elderly. She looked up at them, then, and Constantine was surprised by her clear blue eyes and her fair, smooth skin. She wasn't very old at all—perhaps in her late forties, and quite a striking beauty. "Madame," Constantine said, nodding his head respectfully. "Do you need assistance?"
"No, young man. I am fine. Just walking."
"Up this hill? Are you going to the castle?"
"Nay, nay, I'm just a peasant. I'm going into Gravonia, to see some of my kin."
"It's a better time for traveling, I will say," Constantine told her. "But you'd best hurry. Winter is just a few months away."
She smiled, showing that she still had all her teeth. "I will hurry as best I can, my lord. I'm familiar with the winters here."
Constantine nodded again and they rode on down the hillside. The woman continued on, straightening her back and picking up her pace a little, watching and listening for any sound. She made good time as she walked, not at all winded, and stopped when she saw the castle rising up to the east. Chips of quartz and pieces of obsidian, mixed into the mortar, caused the vast structure to glitter and shimmer in the morning light. The castle was indeed like something out of a fairy tale, and she had spent her youth, in the valley, looking up at it and dreaming of living in such splendor.
She shook herself out of her reveries—she had an appointment, and she was determined not to be late. The person she was meeting was a stickler for punctuality, and would not tarry for her. He had only agreed to meet her after a good deal of pleading on her part, after all.
Finally, she arrived at the little grove in the forest, just below the castle bailey, and waited. This place was familiar to her, and she knew it was familiar to him, as he had come here often to meet someone else, long ago. Was she too late? Looking about her, worried, she sighed and sat down on a fallen log, cursing herself for having stayed in Turon for breakfast.
She started, jumping to her feet, and drew in her breath when she saw Count Frederick von Hesse standing at the edge of the grove. He stepped toward her, and she remembered the first time she had seen him, long ago when he had started coming around to see her daughter in secret. As if he thought she hadn't known about their meetings, both at her parents' home in Turon and here in this little sunsplashed grove in the woods below the castle.
"My lord," she said, curtseying gracefully. "It has been too long."
"Don't try that with me, woman. What do you want?"
"To see my granddaughter."
"When hell freezes over. King Michael's behavior was bad enough. Yours was… reprehensible!" he snarled. "You've been nothing but trouble to everyone in your entire family since the day you lay down with that grasping fool!"
She sighed. This again? "I make no excuses for my… dalliance with the king. But as I said to you long ago, when I told him I was with child, he cast me out and I had nowhere to go. I had to leave her…"
"You abandoned your own child and ran away with bloody gypsies!"
"I left her with good people—my parents didn't hold my sins against her. And I visited her often… " Catherine looked down, remembering the last time she had seen her daughter, just months before her murder in Teslo. She had seen the child then—a beautiful, sweet, strong girl with a striking resemblance to the Trueblood family, with a good deal of the Livonian royal house showing in her even then. Catherine had stayed near Turon since then, living in the gypsy camps and had been relieved beyond measure to learn that Eleanor had survived the destruction of Teslo ten years ago. She longed, more than anything, to see her granddaughter now, as her own parents and her daughter were dead.
Yet von Hesse still despised her. She supposed that only proved he was as human as anyone, title or not. But his lack of compassion was hard to swallow, considering he was known for his fairness.
"I will not let you see her," von Hesse told her. "I will not allow anyone or anything to harm that sweet girl. She deserves to be happy, and you'll make her miserable."
"How? How and why would I do that?" she cried. "I loved my daughter and I love that girl, too. Frederick, she is my granddaughter…the only family I have left."
"And you are nothing to her, and that will remain the same forever, do you understand me? Stay away from her, or I will ruin you. Not that you aren't already ruined."
Catherine's temper flared then, and she struck back. "Didn't you ruin my poor daughter? Didn't you bed her when she was sixteen years old? What, you thought I didn't know? It was right here in this damned grove, no less! And she still chose to marry John Reeve, even after that—even after she told me how she felt about you, and I thought she was a fool for loving you, but she didn't want to be bound to some damned nobleman who would cast her aside in the end, just like Michael did to me. She chose a peasant with common red blood over the high and mighty Count Frederick von Hesse, and I was glad to hear it!"
"Get off my land and do not dare come here again!" von Hesse shouted at her, infuriated. "Go! God damn you for your cruelty and your selfishness! Go on, you… you harpy!"
Furious, Catherine Trueblood stalked out of the grove, overcome with painful memories and not wanting him to see her tears. She stomped blindly down the hill, her vision blurred, listening to the leaves crunching beneath her feet as she remembered her simple, happy youth in Turon. She easily recalled the day she met King Michael—he had been Crown Prince of Livonia at the time, and the handsomest, most dashing man she had ever laid her eyes on. She remembered how he had courted her, visiting her secretly in the woods on the other side of the river. She would never forget the night she had let him persuade her to lie with him, and the nights after that, but those pleasures were soured by the day she had happily told him of her pregnancy… and the excruciating pain of his fury and his cold rejection.
She slowed and finally stopped, turning around to look up at the castle. She closed her eyes, thinking for several moments before making a decision, and resumed her trip back to Turon. She was going to see her granddaughter, whatever it took, and not even Count Frederick von Hesse would stop her.
The Turon Valley was noted for its savage winters, but it was even more renowned for its glorious springs, warm, verdant green summers and crisp, colorful falls. When the winter snows melted away by the end of March, flowers of every type and color covered the valley, filling it with their perfume. Spring planting began in earnest, with farmers working from dawn until dusk to get fields fertilized and seeds planted. Wheat, barley and hopps grew in abundance in the valley, and even the poorest farmers benefited from the vast harvest in the fall.
Eleanor enjoyed going down to the Count's rich fields to help out with spring planting almost as much as she enjoyed helping with autumn harvesting. Betsy insisted she wear a hat to shield her skin from the sun, but other than that she got to be outside in the fresh air, running around barefoot in the soft dirt, carrying bags of seeds to the workers, occasionally helping to plant, and riding the workhorses up and down the long rows. She ate her meals with the peasants, enjoying their simple diet of bread and vegetables and wild game, and she had made close friends among their daughters.
She was sitting on the back of a hay wagon, trying to teach her friend Alice Melville how to read. The other girl, however, was more interested in the boys in the village to concern herself with such 'frippery', as she called it.
"But reading is a good thing, Alice. When you can read, you can learn about things. About… about the world." She gestured toward the freshly turned fields and caught the scent of horse manure when the wind shifted. All right, so maybe that wasn't the best example. Maybe the world beyond the manure-covered fields… good Lord, they did stink.
"I only want to learn about William Winters. He talked to me today!" Alice said, briefly fingering the handmade wooden card Eleanor was showing her. It displayed numbers and the letters of the alphabet in illuminated text, with each letter represented by an exquisitely drawn animal of some kind (with 'X' represented instead by a St. Andrew's Cross and 'Z' by the Prophet Zechariah).
"Oh? What did he say?"
"He said 'hello'!"
"Such a riveting conversation!" Eleanor teased. She knew Alice was dead gone on William Winters. He was, to Eleanor, something of a dolt. He also ran about with a group of uncouth, stupid boys his own age and she could see little in any of them that indicated they were a good influence on him.
"He's never said one word to me before. I'm going to ask him to come to the May Day festival next week. Aren't you coming?"
"I think so, if the Count will let me. He keeps talking about hiring a governess for me, from France, so he may want me to brush up on my French. As if I really need to. My French is better than his."
"I don't see why he thinks you need to read so much and speak a bunch of languages. Doesn't it make you tired, always having to think?"
Eleanor shrugged. She was used to it. She wasn't sure how she could endure a life where she didn't think, much less read about anything. Still, sometimes she envied her friends—their lives seemed far less complicated. Their days consisted of working in the fields, learning to cook and sew and run a household, and eventually they would marry and raise babies. There seemed to be little about their lives that was overly complicated.
Her life was getting more complicated by the day. Count von Hesse seemed stressed lately, and even more over-protective than usual. He insisted that when she went to the village, she go straight to the home of one of her friends in town and stay with her friends at all times, with no spontaneous excursions to the woods or to other places in town unaccompanied. She was to scrupulously avoid all contact with anyone she didn't know already, and as soon as the sun began to set she was to return immediately to the castle. Once home, she had her evening meal and her Greek and Hebrew lessons before prayers, a bath and bedtime.
Another complication had come upon her two weeks ago, when she had woke up to find blood on her blanket. She had been terrified at first, until Betsy told her that she was officially a woman now, and that she would bleed from down there every month until she was much older. She had only said that it meant that Eleanor could have babies, which had given her nightmares until Betsy elaborated that she wasn't going to have a baby now. Later, she meant—after she was married and her husband did some kind of mysterious something to her, which Betsy had not elaborated on but had instead become strangely brisk and changed the subject.
The bleeding, and cramping, had stopped after four days, and Eleanor thought it best to not think about it any more until next month. It had all been very unpleasant and extremely embarrassing. All the changes in her body were embarrassing to her, in fact. She was alarmed to find her breasts getting larger, for instance, and she was prone to burst into tears for no reason at all, but fortunately Betsy had told that was very normal. Not that those strange feelings didn't alarm her any less, much less the dreams she had started having, and she would never tell Betsy about that.
Tucking her old card—which her mother had used to teach her her letters—into her cloth bag and saying goodbye to Alice, Eleanor started home, hearing the bells from the church in Turon ringing for evening vespers. She picked up her pace, wishing she could have ridden Atlas instead of walking, but von Hesse had begun to refuse to let her ride alone any more, declaring it too dangerous.
Still, she had no trouble making good time up the hill. She wasn't even winded when she came to the stone bridge that spanned the Albis River, near the high waterfall called—rather unimaginatively, in her opinion—The Drop. She paused in the middle of the bridge, looking down at the churning water below. Further up the river, villagers would come up to swim when the weather got too hot, and beyond the deep swimming hole was another dizzyingly high waterfall that spilled down into the Turon River. Eleanor stood in the spray of water from the The Drop, closing her eyes, before going on toward the castle. She wished she had time to stop for a few minutes, to make sketches of flower species she didn't recognize, but the Count would have a fit if she arrived in the Great Hall after the sun dipped behind the horizon.
She was right on time, even if she had to hurry a bit once she got into the castle keep, but her heels were on the stone hearth as Count von Hesse stomped into the room. He gave her a searching look and went to the table, sitting down heavily. Harris, who hadn't had time to bang his staff on the floor, bowed to Eleanor, who quickly took her seat beside the Count. There were no guests at the castle tonight, so the meal would be a quiet one. Much like the meals of the past month, what with the Count being touchy.
"And what sort of trouble did you get into in town, Eleanor?" he asked.
"None whatsoever, sir. I helped turn the soil in the fields."
"Really? Did anyone approach you?"
"Only Alice and Mary and Martha."
"Any young men pester you?"
"Good." He began cutting into his piece of roasted chicken. "You wore your hat?"
"I did, sir."
She hated wearing a hat. She knew she looked silly in one, but if Betsy ever noticed her starting to turn brown she would have reported that to the Count, and Eleanor knew she would be subjected to translating ten chapters of the Book of Job from Latin into French as punishment. It was thus best to just wear the bloody hat.
He seemed satisfied and began eating. Eleanor picked at her chicken, eating only small bits at a time. The Count shifted in his chair, cutting at his meat and mumbling under his breath. He mumbled when he was upset about something, and he had been doing that all month and frankly it was driving her mad. What had she done? Was he still upset with her about throwing a snowball at that awful girl back in February? She knew now that the girl, named Madge Rowlings, was a well-known bully in town and frequently picked on other girls she deemed unworthy of anything other than abuse. Eleanor had encountered her one other time since the incident at the Frost Fair, and the girl had quickly retreated. Apparently, Count von Hesse had spoken to Madge's father, who had given the girl a sound thrashing for attacking the ward of the richest and most powerful man in Livonia.
"I have decided to take a trip, Eleanor."
She looked up at him, startled. He never took trips. He hated traveling, in fact, declaring that it was far too inconvenient, that the food in other countries upset his stomach and that the beds were never as comfortable as his own.
"I'm going to France. To Paris, in fact."
Eleanor looked down at her plate of barely-eaten chicken. She had read all about Paris and the French court, and dreamed of going some day.
"Why?" she asked.
"I've business to attend to there. You will stay here."
"When… when are you leaving?" she asked anxiously.
"In another two weeks. Meanwhile, I want you to continue with your usual lessons."
Eleanor hesitated, unsure if she should ask him about the May Day celebration coming up. Finally, swallowing, she dared to broach the subject. "The May Day festival is coming next Thursday, sir. I was hoping… I was hoping I might be allowed to go."
"Betsy could come. She would like to visit her daughter and her new baby. Might I go? Please?"
von Hesse pondered in silence, weighing the benefits and detriments of letting her attend. He looked at his ward for a moment, taking in her blossoming beauty—she was starting to develop very definite curves, and Betsy had delivered unsettling news to him a week or so ago about the girl's physical development—a matter he knew Eleanor would be far too embarrassed to discuss. Worse yet, in the past month three minor nobles in the valley had asked him about Eleanor's availability for marriage to their sons, and he had firmly said no. In fact, he had issued a firm edict to every man in Turon with a son that their boys were to stay away from Eleanor as though she had a skin disease.
"If Betsy will agree to go with you, I will allow it. But you will only stay for the day and return home at sunset. Am I understood?"
His expression softened. She had never given him much trouble in her behavior or demeanor. In fact, she was obedient and sweet-natured, and eager to please, and the idea of her marrying and leaving home filled him with a pain he didn't even know how to describe.
He was pushing her so hard—hiring tutors and university professors to come cram more knowledge into her head, and having her examined weekly to determine what she had learned. Her languages were flawless, her grasp of mathematics was exemplary, her understanding of history and literature was unparalleled and her distaste for the writings of Dante was a sign that she had good sense to boot. Didn't she deserve rewards for doing so well? All that learning, without any benefits to her at all? It was unfair of him, and he needed to relent or the poor child would burn out before she was sixteen.
"Yes, Goosey, you may go. But Betsy will have to go with you. I will insist on that."
She looked like she might start bouncing around with happiness, but she remembered that she was supposed to start acting more like a lady, and restrained herself admirably. She ate her chicken more enthusiastically then. von Hesse finished his meal, feeling unsettled and pleased all at once.
"When I return from Paris, Goosey, I will bring with me a French lady to teach you the feminine graces. I have been a bit remiss in that, I think. Not that Betsy doesn't do her best, I suppose, but… well, I merely think a bit more polishing would benefit you a great deal."
She pushed her plate away. "Oh." She had been hoping he would forget about that notion.
"Don't be gloomy about it, Goosey. You'll have a bit of fun, I think, learning how to dance, and how to walk and sit and stand gracefully, and perhaps even how to cook and sew."
"I'm hopeless at cooking and I only end up sewing things to myself. It's awful!"
"You'll get better. You need only to set your mind to it, lass, and you can do anything. I've never known you to fail at something you wanted to do. So I know you will."
Eleanor sighed, but made no further comments on the matter. Betsy brought in bowls of fruit tarts for them to eat for dessert, but Eleanor lacked a sweet tooth and only picked listlessly at hers. von Hesse told Betsy to sit down, which she did, opposite Eleanor, but not before giving the Count a sharp look. He was accustomed to giving orders and simply being obeyed, without question. Eleanor was accustomed to it. Betsy would rebel until her dying breath.
"You're to take Eleanor to the May Day festival next Thursday."
"I am?" Betsy looked a little surprised. "I didn't know that was on my schedule."
"Oh. Well, then I'll go see if I wrote it down. I should slap myself, being so remiss in not keeping up with my schedule. Silly me. Eleanor, was that on your calendar for next week, too?"
"It is now," Eleanor smiled.