“Stop it, I warned you two once already! You’re ruining your clothes and the Masons will be here any minute!”
Eliza Ryland pulled Jack and little Francesca apart as they began to wrestle each other again. They were standing in the main hall of Castle Anderfell awaiting the arrival of their guests from Nevaria and the two children just couldn’t sit still for a minute. Their giggling ceased immediately as their mother scolded them. Eliza pulled them to either side, putting herself in between.
“He started it!” Francesca complained. Her dark brown curls fell in little shoulder length ringlets. She frowned up at her mother, her chocolate-brown eyes filling with tears. Eliza tried not to laugh at how cute Francesca looked when she made that face. Four years old and she was already a little heartbreaker. Francesca tugged uncomfortably at the beautiful pale pink dress her mother had picked out for the occasion.
“Don’t pull your dress like that, dear. You’ll ruin it and you look really pretty,” Eliza said as she watched the expensive fabric stretch.
“But I don’t want to be pretty!” Francesca replied, “I don’t like wearing dresses, Mother!”
Eliza chuckled. Francesca preferred to run around in shirts and breeches all day like her brother. She hated girly things, preferring to play fight with Jack, swinging the little wooden swords their father, George, had made for them. Messing around in the dirt with lads of the Anderfell nobility at social gatherings was another of her favourites. More often than not she would come home covered in muck from head to toe.
“You look like an itty-bity princess,” Jack teased her, leaning around his mother and smiling cheekily at his little sister.
“Shut up, Jack!” Francesca moaned, “I don’t want to be a princess!”
“Jack,” Eliza warned, giving him a stern look. The boy was seven years old and getting taller by the day. In a few years he would be trained as a squire, preparing him for life on the battle field when he was older. As Eliza looked down into his boyish face which so resembled his father’s, she found it hard to believe her sweet little boy would one day lead armies into battle. The thought was rather unsettling.
Jack looked up at his mother innocently.
“Sorry,” he said. Teasing his little sister was one of his favourite pastimes. Francesca leaned around her mother and stuck her tongue out at him. Jack returned the gesture. Eliza rolled her eyes. She was used to their antics. They normally got on so well but occasionally they would bicker or one of them would begin to torture the other to get a reaction.
“I want you both on your best behaviour today, understood?”
“Yes, Mother,” they droned simultaneously. They had heard the warning so many times before and never once had they heeded it. The last time the Masons had visited, young Nathaniel left with a bruise on his shin from Jack, while Catherine and Thomas had hair covered in ink thanks to Francesca pouring it over them from the top of the stairs. George had scolded them both and sent them to their rooms, taking away their wooden swords as a punishment. After several days of being ‘good’, they were returned to them on the condition they would never do it again. They always promised they wouldn’t, but both parents knew it wouldn’t be long before one of them was caught scribbling on library books, jumping on the bed or messing around in the armoury.
George entered the main hall then. Earl Mason was at his side, his latest conquest on his arm, with his children and numerous guards in tow. He was around the same height as George, his black hair greying slightly premature. Raymond Mason had fought alongside George against the Luskian occupation, under King Marks. It was hard to believe it was sixteen years ago that they had drove the Luskians out of Anderfell. He and George had been inseparable ever since, George being one of the few who knew how to handle Mason’s abrasiveness.
“Eliza! How wonderful to see you again. You look as dashing as ever,” Earl Mason exclaimed in his drawling voice as he neared. Eliza smiled.
“It’s nice to see you, Raymond. Welcome to our home once again,” she replied graciously. Mason placed a kiss on either of her cheeks. He gestured to his lady friend.
“This is Lady Sophie of Nevaria. I count myself lucky to have her on my arm tonight,” Mason said, chuckling.
“Thank you for inviting me into your castle, Lady Ryland,” Lady Sophie said graciously, bowing. Her voice was snide and the look she gave Eliza unsettled her. She found she disliked the woman immediately. Her manners took over though and she forced a smile onto her face.
Earl Mason ushered his three children forward then. His eyes fell on Jack and little Francesca then.
“God, they’re all growing up fast,” he said with a chuckle. “It won’t be long before your son and mine are competing against each other in tournaments, George!”
George laughed. “I think you forget my daughter as well, Mason.”
“Aww yes,” Mason sneered, turning to look down at Francesca. His face was full of loathing. “The little Ryland spitfire. Maybe you should stick to wearing dresses and looking pretty like my Catherine. Leave the fighting to the boys.”
Francesca frowned up at him. “I’m going to learn to fight like my mother,” she answered, with a strength and determination that seemed to defy her tender age. The Masons laughed but George and Eliza looked down at their daughter proudly.
“You can’t tell my fierce girl anything, Mason,” George said. Francesca looked up at her father, wondering what he meant. He smiled and winked at her affectionately. Her frown turned to a small smile, as Mason tried to hide the look of disgust on his face. He didn’t believe in women soldiers. His views were quite harsh in Anderfell, where men and women were generally considered as equals in matters of military. Mason looked away from Francesca and jumped into a rambling conversation with George about nothing in particular. Eliza ushered the children into the dining hall as the men talked. Dinner was already waiting for them.
“Eat up, children. Jan will be along in a while...and behave!” she added, eyeing Jack and Francesca in particular. They both smiled innocently back at her like little angels. Eliza exited the dining room and left them to it.
As soon as her mother was gone Francesca giggled to herself. She picked up a pea from her plate and placed in on her spoon, aiming at Thomas. She pulled the spoon back and let it go, watching the green pea fly through the air and hit him hard on the head.
“OW!” he complained, his hand rubbing the sore spot. Francesca and Jack burst out laughing. They loved to play pranks on the Mason children. The Masons gave them dirty looks.
"I’m going to grow up to be a princess,” Catherine said turning to Francesca. ”You’re going to be jealous of me.”
Francesca made a face at her. Catherine was the same age and they had never got on.
“My sister is going to be a soldier like me,” Jack informed Catherine. “We’re going to slay dragons and become heroes and great adventurers!” He turned to his sister and put his arm around her proudly. She smiled up at her older brother. They were the best of friends now.
Nathaniel laughed. “Girls can’t slay dragons! They’re too weak.”
“Take that back!” Francesca shouted, leaning over the table at him.
“No!” Nathaniel replied. “I’m older than you. You can’t tell me what to do!”
“You’re only nine,” Jack said laughing, “I bet I could take you on!”
Nathaniel frowned. “Let’s go then, Little Jacky Jack.”
Jack slid off his chair and wrestled Nathaniel to the floor. The other three children gathered around to watch. Francesca stood up on her chair.
“Get him, Jack!” she shouted, watching as her brother pinned Nathaniel to the ground. They rolled around, tangled up. The other three began to throw food at them, laughing loudly.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Suddenly the door to the dining room opened. Jan’s face turned furious when she saw the scene.
“What do you think you are doing?” she screamed, “Break it up, break it up!”
Nathaniel and Jack let each other go and went back to their seats, their faces roaring red and their hair standing on end from the tussle. Jan turned to Francesca standing on her chair.
“Sit down, young lady! Don’t let me see you standing on that chair again!” Francesca sat herself back down, looking stony. She hated when Jan scolded her. It was becoming a regular occurrence these days.
“Eat your dinner and then it’s off to bed with you all. Don’t think I won’t tell your parents about this!”
Jan sat herself at the head of the table and watched over the children, making sure they got up to nothing else. It wasn’t the first time she had caught Francesca and Jack misbehaving. They could become quite hyper at times. It was her job to keep a watchful eye on them. She made sure they ate every last bite of their dinner (even the vegetables much to Francesca’s dismay) and whisked them off upstairs to bed.
Every night Jan told the children stories until they were asleep. The stories always had useful lessons behind them. She hoped as Jack and Francesca grew up they would heed their meanings and strive to be the best they could possibly be. As Jan got up to leave she looked down at little Francesca as she slept and smiled to herself. The girl would grow up to be something special, Jan was sure of it. She extinguished the torch on the wall bracket and exited the bedroom, closing the door softly behind her.
“Ready, set, GO!”
Francesca’s long dark hair flew wildly behind her as the wind hit her face. It was her eighth birthday party. She was racing Jack, Darragh and a few of the squires who had been sent to serve under Earl Ryland. She could feel the air burn in her lungs as she pushed herself to beat the group of boys beside her. As they neared the finish line she and Jack began to break away from the pack. They battled hard, competitive as always. As Francesca neared the rope she stuck her head out, crossing before Jack. The spectators cheered. Both she and Jack fell to the grass exhausted.
“You win sister,” Jack admitted, holding a stitch in his side. Francesca laughed.
“You’re not going to say I cheated this time?” she joked. Jack shook his head.
“I didn’t think you had the other times, I just wanted a rematch, but you still beat me!” he said.
Francesca groaned. She reached over and punched his arm. He rolled over laughing as she began to attack him.
“I hate you, Jack!” she shouted as he laughed. They had raced four times before this and she had won every time. She started to laugh herself as she watched Jack roll around in stitches as she punched every inch of his body she could find. Finally she let her arms drop and got to her feet.
“That was great, Francesca!” her friend Roderick shouted as he approached. He had red hair and was three years her senior, just like Jack. His parents had sent him to squire under George and both Francesca and Jack has become great friends with him.
“Thanks,” she replied, smiling. The other boys gathered around and patted her on the back, giving her the respect she was due. Normally boys played pranks on the girls, but Francesca was considered one of the boys and therefore got treated as such. She stared over to the little tables her mother had laid out for her friends, towards the group of giggling girls in their bright dresses and lovely shoes, their hair tamed into luscious ringlets adorned with bows or ribbons. Francesca found herself thankful that her mother didn’t force her to be like that. She scanned the rest of the garden and found Eliza, talking to a few of the noble women who had brought their children. Her mother threw her a wave.
“Let’s have a sword fight!” Jack shouted. The young squires took their swords out at once. The blades were small and mainly ceremonial. They were blunt to stop them from causing any real damage.
“I wish I had one!” she said longingly, staring at Jack’ jealously.
“Here, have a go with mine,” Roderick said, holding out the handle to her. Francesca’s eyes lit up.
“Really?” she exclaimed. Her friend nodded. She reached out and took it from him. The feeling was indescribable as she held her first real sword. It was heavier than she expected. She swung it a few times, feeling the weight swipe through the air, hearing the swish of her strokes.
“Wow!” she gasped. Jack held up his sword.
“Let’s duel, sister,” he said, getting into his stance. He had been training for a few years now, learning the basics for when he was older. Francesca smiled and relaxed into a stance of her own.
“Be careful you two!” Their father shouted from across the garden as he watched them square off. “I know how competitive you can get.”
The other boys formed a circle as Francesca and Jack faced each other.
“You’re not going to win this time!” Jack exclaimed, “I’ll admit that you can run faster than me, but I’ve been trained in sword play. I’m better than most in my class.”
Francesca’s eyes narrowed. “I know,” she said, “But I’ve been watching you train. I know your moves, brother.”
Jack lunged at her trying to catch her unawares. Francesca held her sword defensively and felt the force of his blade hit hers. As much as she hated to admit it, her brother was stronger than her. He was eleven and she was eight. She could already feel the weight of the small blade tire her arm.
Jack lunged again. This time he over shot. Francesca blocked his swing and tripped his outstretched foot with her own. He fell to the ground.
“That’s not fair!” Jack exclaimed, angry and a little embarrassed, “You’re not allowed to use your feet!”
“How was I to know?” Francesca answered. Jack got to his feet and fell into his offensive stance again. He attacked a lot more now, trying to redeem himself. Francesca backed away, blocking his numerous swings with her blade. Suddenly she felt his sword hit her leg. Her hand dropped to it and her brother rested his sword at her unprotected neck.
“Wham, you’re dead!” he said proudly, “You shouldn’t have let your guard down. That wasn’t bad for your first try though.”
“Again,” Francesca insisted, getting to her feet.
“Let someone else have a turn!” one of the other boys complained.
“One more,” Francesca said grumpily. She hated loosing.
“It’s her birthday, Darragh!” Roderick shouted. The other boys nodded in agreement and they circled around them once more.
Francesca went on the offensive time. She stared into her brothers eyes, trying to anticipate his moves. He swung at her a few times but she easily blocked. The third time Jack attacked she saw his weak spot. He may have been stronger but she was quicker. Dodging his swing she lunged forwards with her sword and poked him in the ribs with hers.
“Ow!” Jack exclaimed. “You’re not supposed to really hit, Francesca!”
Francesca smiled victoriously. “I win!” she shouted as Jack doubled over on the ground holding his ribs.
“Well done!” George exclaimed as everyone clapped. Francesca turned. She didn’t realise her father, and most of the adults had been watching her. She smiled. He walked into middle of the circle and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I think we’ll have to see about you getting a sword of your own,” he said.
“Really!?” Francesca shouted excitedly. George nodded, smiling at the happiness on his little daughter’s face.
“Let me speak with your mother about it, maybe for your next birthday. For now though, give Sir Roderick his sword back,” he replied. Francesca reluctantly handed Roderick back the sword and reached out a hand to help her brother to his feet.
“Good girl,” her father said. “And well done. You are both going to be formidable opponents when you grow up.”
He ruffled both their hairs, brimming with pride at his children and walked over to his wife, leaving them to continue playing their game.