It was raining again. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in the early spring, days upon days of driving rain or misty dreariness that eventually would let up for a moment of crystal clear sunshine glittering off of diamond raindrops on the slowly greening landscape. The problem was that the constant wetness was still infused with the chill bite of winter that could only be thwarted by a large fire in every hearth.
As a child I used to sit by the great hearth in the kitchen watching Elsbeth as she worked her well muscled arms and highly practiced hands pounding out meat or kneading dough for bread. She was the only person who came with me from Morwich when my mother died, leaving me under the care of my father’s brother. All of the other staff stayed at my father’s estates, managed by my uncle until I came of age. I would sit neatly at the edge of the hearth, drawing pictures in the cinders with kindling twigs, watching Elsbeth and the other kitchen maids work.
When I grew older and more dexterous, Elsbeth taught me to cook and bake, adding my own handiwork to the food that graced the table of my uncles’ house. Over time I learned every aspect of feeding an entire keep, nobles to servants, and eventually I assumed the responsibility of planning every meal. This included stocking the store rooms every fall for the long winters. I soon became so proficient at this that I began to learn other aspects of running my uncles house. By the time I was fifteen I was running my uncle’s household as if it were my own and my aunt merely delegated what she wanted done and I was the one who saw to it that her every request was met. She and her two daughters spent most of their days in the women’s quarters doing who knew what, which was fine with me. I liked being in charge of things and it gave me great satisfaction at the end of every day when tasks were done exactly how I wished it. The change of days and seasons became a normal cadence to me, my mind already planning the next season’s preparations even as we started a new season’s work.
Winter season was always the worst for me, sitting out the bitter storms and bleak coldness. I hated being idle, it bothered me to the core. My aunt would complain when I paced the women’s quarters during the first true storms of winter, as if I were a caged beast. She would insist that I sit and practice my lessons, now that the busy seasons were over and I had the time to learn. My cousins, Egren and Zarene, would plead with me as well, begging me to stop pacing and twitching. Eventually, as the deepness of winter set in, I would calm down to more sedate tasks. It was at this time my aunt would teach me my lessons: politics, languages, literature, and so on.
To be honest, I did like learning and reading was my favorite past time. I could sit for hours in my favorite window seat, wrapped warmly in furs, my aunt and cousins embroidering by the fire, and just loose myself in the written words upon a page. I suppose it was my love of literature that resurrected my woefully spotty education for, while I lacked in regular lessons during the spring, summer, and harvest seasons I made up for over the winter reading. I had slowly worked my way through my uncles’ extensive library, out pacing my own cousins within one season. Once I finished covering all of the literature my aunt thought most useful to a young lady, I began on more heavy subjects, like philosophy, economics, and politics. I found some subjects very boring and waded through them out of a sense of obligation and extreme boredom. Others I found much more interesting like history and geography. They would fill my head with images of ancient heroes and faraway places that I secretly longed to see, even though I knew in a practical sense would never happen. Travelling and adventuring was not the place of a young lady, especially one left to the mercy of only her skills and reputation to ensure her a good home. I kept at it, though, for those images were what got me through the dreary, dark, icy depths of wintertime.
I had one major complaint about winter, after I had settled down into my winter routine, and that was the approach of early springtime. The snow would melt quickly, forming mud and wetness during the day, but still freeze over at night, making travel out of doors extremely treacherous. This early cycle of thaw and freeze did not bother me, as the fields were not yet ready for tilling. What got under my skin and brought out the pacing beast that lay dormant all winter was when the daily snowfall changed over to rain, soaking the already spongy earth so that the fields were flooded and the roads were still nearly impassable. I knew the rains would only last a few weeks, as the sunlight was starting to win its way through the clouds, but I grew impatient. I anticipated the few short months of spring and summer in which I had to prepare the entire keep for the next winter season. The farmers would joke with me, teasing me as I paced the kitchens and hallways, drumming my fingers on the window ledges as I watched the deluge outside.
This particular season was significantly worse. News of my uncle returning from abroad sent the house into a frenzy of activity. My aunt, cousins, and every able body within the keep were hard at work readying the place for his return. It was a credit to my abilities as a noblewoman that most of the keep was already in neat and tidy order. Midwinter I would organize the household in a cleaning frenzy, my own inactivity rattling my nerves once more. Even so, every room in the keep was scrubbed top to bottom until even the stones and wood beams in the eaves of the great rooms shone like polished silver. The banners and accoutrements designating our household as being in direct service to the King were brought out of storage where they had rested the nine years my uncle was away.
Less than a week ago my uncle sent word that he was bringing with him the royal court, all of the young nobles who had fought beside the new King abroad. He, too, was returning home having established peace with our neighbors, either by force, or negotiation. The old King had died three years into the campaign, cut down on the same battlefield where my father and three brothers had been taken. The Prince, at that time accompanying my uncle as they negotiated a treaty of alliance in another country, was left to continue reinforcing or expanding the boundaries of our kingdom while I was left an orphan. Over the last six years, according to the letters sent home by my uncle, the new King had proved himself more than worthy of his throne on both the battlefield and at the negotiating table.
Now that the King had settled all disputes on our borders, he was returning home to establish his place on the throne. I knew without the information in my uncle’s missive that the King would spend the next year travelling through the households of the nobility to reinforce his authority as the new King. Since he had only been a boy when he took over the throne there had been much dissention through our kingdom against him. I had heard whispers from visiting nobility that those who opposed the King were angry at my uncle’s closeness, that my uncle had become the power behind the throne.
My aunt, of course, had done her best to dissuade the rumors. She would often highlight that, while the spoils of war had certainly flowed home on a regular basis, her family was no better off than the other nobles in the country. Although she won some to her way of thinking, there were those who had of late become determinedly against both my uncle and the King. It was a blessing that the King now was returning home and his presence would, according to my uncle, reaffirm his rightful place on a very independent throne.
While all of this held great importance to me in one realm, in the immediate moment the arrival of the King meant only that I had to work twice as hard to make sure my uncle’s keep was not only ready to receive him, but would not put my uncle to shame upon his return home. Which was why, at the moment, I was elbow deep in potatoes. My uncle, the King, and his entourage were expected to arrive tomorrow, so now we were only down to final preparations, like the banquet tomorrow night. I had planned the meal to perfection and now my aunt and cousins were hard at work overseeing other aspects of the meal, like gathering great haunches of meat and ale. I was stuck with the biggest pile of potatoes I had ever seen needing washed, peeled, and diced for stew. Around me the kitchen buzzed with maids and servants obeying Elsbeth’s every command.
I looked up from my pile to wipe my brow, brushing a stray strand of hair out of my face, and that was when I noticed him. The only reason he did catch my eye was that, in the maelstrom of people rushing to and fro at their tasks, he was standing still in the doorway looking about as if completely lost. I didn’t immediately recognize him but a cursory glance at his apparel indicated why. He wore riding pants and leather jerkin, his gloves were folded neatly in his belt but appeared well used, his boots were clearly caked with dust and mud from the road, and he wore a great sword strapped to one leg and a short sword on the opposite hip.
“Sir, won’t you come in?” I immediately stopped my work and approached him.
He fixed me with brown eyes dotted with gold in such a way that I felt myself growing very warm despite the chill spring air that blew through the open doorway. He was very tall and had to duck slightly to enter the teaming kitchen. His features were etched strongly on a very handsome face, although a bit gaunt. He had clearly been travelling a long time, as his clothes had a fine layer of dust on them and his gait, although purposeful as he moved to meet me, was ginger and he held his shoulders slightly stooped with weariness.
“I was told I could find an Elsbeth in this direction who could provide refreshment for me and my men. Would that be you?” He took in my apron tied over what I knew was clearly a noblewoman’s day dress, although not the best in my closet.
“No, I am Ailynn, ward of Lord Rothchester. I was lending a hand in the preparations for tomorrow night’s banquet.” I motioned to a boy running by empty handed and he stopped, “Ian, bring a tray of ale to the men in the yard, please?”
“Yes, M’lady.” He nodded with a cheeky smile and shot off in a different direction.
“Thank you, Lady Ailynn.” The man smiled a look that was so etched with weariness that I felt pity for him at once.
“Please, have a seat, drink something. You look as if you’ve been riding all day.” I motioned him towards a chair set close to the fire which he sank into gratefully as I fetched him a tankard filled with ale.
“More like ten years.” He smiled as he took it, sipping it with pleasure as I moved back to the table and the mountain of potatoes that still loomed above me.
“Did you ride ahead of Lord Rothchester and the royal court?” I asked, to make conversation as I peeled and he sipped his ale. He rested his booted feet on the hearth, turning his chair to the warmth as if he had not seen a proper fire for a long time.
“Aye, ahead of the court, but with Lord Rothchester. My men and I have business we must discuss in private with Lord Rothchester before the royal court arrives.” He watched the fire as he spoke.
“Lord Rothchester is already here?” I was startled, not wanting my uncle to arrive home with the house not completely ready.
“We only just arrived. He and I decided to ride ahead of the rest of the court in order to take the time to discuss a few important matters in as much privacy as possible.” He looked over at me, his face serious as he repeated what he had already told me.
“When will the King arrive?” I took the hint and changed the subject, as clearly this man did not want to go into his business with my uncle any further then he already had. I had no concern with this man’s business; I was more worried about making sure my uncle was proud to return to such a home.
“Soon.” This seemed to amuse him as a smile etched the corner of his mouth as he took another sip of his ale. He gave me a sidelong glance, “I suppose all the ladies are excited that the King is arriving? “
“The whole house is. We are very honored that he would choose to stay with us after returning so soon to his homeland.” I picked up another potato and started scrubbing, “We have all been working extremely hard to make sure our home is as comfortable and welcoming as possible.”
“By peeling potatoes?” he glanced wryly at the mountain that loomed to my left.
“Well, we are expecting the entire royal court, plus needing to feed his guard and any of the military that have chosen to travel home with the King. Potatoes are a staple for doing so.” I teased back.
“I see. That is quite the task you have, I do not think I have seen so many potatoes in my life.” He leaned back in his chair, tipping it gently back on its legs in order to see around the huge pile of potatoes on the table. He looked back at me, eyes twinkling, “What will you do if they are not all eaten?”
“Give them to the pigs, to fatten them up for bacon.” I smiled sweetly at him and he chuckled, draining his tankard.
“Thank you, Lady Ailynn, that was extremely refreshing.” He handed the empty tankard to me and bowed.
“You are welcome…”I realized with a blush I had not thought to ask the man his name.
“Martin, of Arrows Field.” He supplied without missing a beat, smiling down at me in such a way that I felt the heat begin to rise in my chest again.
“Martin.” I fought a loosing battle with the rosy blush that I knew was invading my cheeks as I curtsied. His lips twitched as he returned with a short bow, and then slipped out of the kitchen and turned in the direction of the stable yard.
I stood there for a moment, slightly unsure of what I was supposed to be doing, clutching the empty tankard to my chest, my fingers becoming wet with the condensation that still clung to the metal. I turned slowly and forced myself to try and return to my peeling, handing the tankard to the first servant I saw. Elsbeth had magically appeared at the table, her deft hands working through the potato I had left floating in the bowl.
“I saw that, Lady Ailynn. Your cheeks are rosy like fire.” Her eyes sparkled with mischeif as I came to join her. “You think him handsome, do you not?”
“Elsbeth!” I shushed her, picking up another potato and preparing to scrub the dirt off. “I do not.”
“You can’t hide it from me, whether you like to admit it or not. I see that look on your face.” She teased, taking the potato from me, “Your aunt has sent for you, it seems your uncle has returned a day early and you are required to join the rest of the family for dinner. You need to get yourself cleaned up. I’ve laid your blue dress out, but perhaps you should wear the red, you look your best in it. I am sure Lord Martin will be at dinner and you will want to impress him.”
“Elsbeth, stop it, or someone will hear!” I couldn’t stop the smile that itched my lips, returned by the knowing twinkle in Elsbeth’s eye. She did know me better then any other creature in the world and I couldn’t help but consider wearing my red dress that evening to dinner. I smiled at her and left the busy kitchen behind me.
I was determined, however, to prove Elsbeth wrong. Though I did run my fingers longingly down my favorite red dress, I slipped into the blue dress she had laid out for me. I did spend more time then usual brushing out my hair and instructed my dressing maid to braid it in a tiara around my head, the rest brushed until crackling in soft waves down my back. I looked in the mirror and smiled at the reflection I saw there: pretty, but not in a worked up manner. I hoped to make my uncle proud by the demure lady who came to dinner, but also to catch Martin’s eye without looking as if I were trying. The reflection that smiled back at me would certainly do her best.
I tried not to run full out through the hallways in my haste to reach the main hall and I am glad I did not. I was hurrying down a side hallway, avoiding the main ones where the servants scurried back and forth, when I heard someone call from behind me. I turned to see Martin striding down the hallway toward me and I immediately stepped to meet him.
“Lord Martin, I thought I would not see you until dinner.” He returned my smile with a half grin that turned the side of his mouth up in a kind fashion.
“Do not call me Lord, Lady Ailynn. I am not one for proper titles, I find them stuffy in personal conversation.” He wrinkled his brow in distaste.
“Then you must not call me lady.” I returned.
“Unless in proper company.” He finished, standing close to me.
“You are not proper company?” I stepped back, arching an eyebrow.
“I am proper company if, perhaps, more informal.” His mouth twitched at the corners, as if he were fighting a smile.
“Then, since you are informal, but proper, company, would you care to join me for dinner?” I turned back the way I had been heading, indicating he should join me.
“I am sorry to say, Ailynn,” and he smiled as he left out the title, “that despite the most tempting of offers, I must decline. There are many things I need to discuss with Lord Rothchester before the royal court arrives and we are to dine alone so that we can finish our business at a decent hour. I am sorry I have upset you.”
I realized that he had noticed my odd expression, and so I immediately explained, “I am not too greatly disappointed, Martin, I should have expected that you would need to take your dinner privately.”
“Your face makes me think otherwise.” He raised an eyebrow, thinking he caught me in a lie.
“No, it’s just that…” and I could feel the color rise to my cheeks, “No one has ever referred to me as tempting. I would never have used that word to describe anything I have done.”
“Not tempting?” now he smiled outright, as if he found my uneasiness amusing, “Inticing, perhaps?”
I shook my head, feeling like a silly child as I continued to blush.
“Then what word would such a maid with innocent ears choose to describe herself?” Now he was teasing.
“I do not usually find myself in the position of describing myself, Martin, so I could not tell you.” I smiled up at him, I would not allow him to tease me without giving something back. “But I can tell you I will miss your conversation at dinner this evening, as I fear with the arrival of the Royal court, we will not have such a good opportunity in the future.”
“Then I will find some way to make amends for this evenings disappointment,” He held out his hand and I placed mine in it. Gently, he raised it to his lips and brushed the skin of my knuckles against them, his eyes glittering merrily. “I promise.”
“I will hold you to that promise, Martin.” I warned as he released my hand.
“All the more reason to keep it, Ailynn.” He smiled as he turned to leave, “I would not want to disappoint you twice.”