. . .
The next few days were very busy with preparations, yet wonderful, having my father home. After hours of preparatory work, we played games, I told him stories, and sang songs Mother taught me. It was almost like old times, except without Jarrett. I had sent word that Father was home and we were to hear from him or see him soon. I enjoyed my father’s company, but I could see the sadness linger in his eyes.
I do not believe he enjoyed being home. He would follow me with his eyes, squint in pain, then avoid looking at me for hours at a time. It stung, but I knew why, and I had grown accustomed to it, even understood it. I reminded him of Mother. Every night he was home I kissed his cheek, embraced him for a long time, then bid him goodnight. Once in bed, I would shed a few tears for him, pray for him, and slip into sleep.
The fourth day after Father’s return, I had decided late in the morning to go out and enjoy the warm weather. Everything was basically done, and my father had said, “You’ve done quite enough for the morning,” then added with a crooked smile, “Also, I will not have your nose in a book when the King arrives. I know how difficult it is to tear you away.” He winked and with a wave of his hand, shooed me outside.
I wandered around our grounds and found myself on the outskirts near the forest. I leaned up against a tree and rested on the lush ground, careful to keep my skirt from wrinkling too much. Tara had taken extra care to make sure I looked my best.
I rolled my eyes a little before closing them. I wondered when Jarrett would come . . . or if he would. We had yet to receive a letter from him, and I knew one was due. I longed for word from my brother, missing him, especially at the moment. I took a deep breath and let the smell of the trees take me back to cherished childhood memories.
Jarrett’s young voice returned to my mind. “Come on, Evie. I need you to be my damsel in distress! You can be the captured princess that needs saving!” He waved his wooden sword around, making swishing sounds, his 6- year- old form standing in an almost perfect fighting stance.
My nose scrunched up in a disapproving scrunch. “What if I don’t want to be a princess?”
His little jaw dropped. “You need to be a princess! So I can be the brave knight, slaying the dragon and saving you from the tower!”
I looked into his face, my young mind giving into his logic. I shrugged. “Fine, but next time I get to save you.”
He made a face. “That is not how it works.”
“Then next time I get to be the dragon, and you can save Mother.”
He beamed. “Deal!”
We continued these games almost daily, taking our roles very seriously. We even made me a tower out of stones; a very short tower that I stumbled off of frequently. I was never a graceful princess.
We played out Jarrett’s dreams of being a knight for years, until that fateful day. The day Mother died, Jarrett ran out of the house, sobbing. I heard the door slam and raced out after him, tears of my own on my cheeks. I found him in the forest, not far from where I was currently located.
He was sitting, curled in a ball, leaning against a tree. He did not look up as I approached. “I didn’t save her. I couldn’t save her.”
Tears ran down my cheeks as I knelt beside him. “Not eve the bravest of knights could have stop this.”
He grabbed me and pulled me into a clutching embrace. We cried together for hours until I helped him back to the house. He leaned on me heavily and I whispered, “The forest spirit now rescues the weary hero.”
Jarrett’s dreams of becoming a knight faded as he grew. He decided he wanted to make a difference in another way, more with words than with battle. He chose a profession in law and council instead of knighthood. I truly believed he would make the difference he longed for and be a force of good.
A gruff clearing of a throat threw me back into the present day. My eyes shot open and I scrambled to my feet. A well-built, older man was mounted majestically on his horse. Decked in fine clothing, he had several armored guards around him. I blushed furiously and made a deep curtsy. The King had arrived.
One of his guards spoke. “Pardon us, my lady, but are we near the Merchant Nicholas Astley’s residence?”
I nodded and curtsied again. “Yes. I am his daughter, Evalien Astley. If you would, Your Majesty, I will lead you to the stables so we may care for your horses?” I looked up, respectfully.
King Bairn’s mouth turned up in an amused half-smile. He looked at me for a moment before nodding his consent. I curtsied once more in acknowledgement before turning and leading them onto our grounds. I was highly self-conscious and aware of their eyes on the back of my head. I hoped my hair had not come out of the intricate knot Tara had insisted on subjecting my hair to. His Majesty did not need another reason to think that I was crazy.
I led on attempting some light small talk, quietly wondering how in the world I could have been so wrapped up in memories as to not hear several horses’ hooves! I remembered how the thick forest seemed to swallow many sounds, but still . . .several horses would catch attention. The stable hand saw us approaching and rushed to his duty. A couple of the royal guards helped him by leading their own horses.
I waited quietly for the King and his men to stretch their legs a bit and indicate they were ready to follow me to the house. The King observed me several times, but I avoided looking directly into his eyes, until he approached me.
“Evalien, is it?”
I made a slight curtsy while I nodded. His lips curved into the half smile again. His features were still strong as well as his build. His hair was what gave away his age. Now a silver gray, a few streaks of black gave away that it was once thick, dark, and shiny. “How old are you, my child?”
I dared a careful look at his face. “Twenty- four, my liege.”
His dark eyebrows raised in surprise. “Really?”
I nodded and looked down again. “Yes, my lord.” I was far past the ideal age to be married and the surprised look on his face served as another reminder of that fact.
He seemed to consider this a moment before he offered me his arm. “Well, Lady Evalien, daughter of Nicholas, lead me to your father. I believe he has something for me.”
I smiled lightly and I gently took his arm, walking with him to the house, his guards trailing us closely. We conversed very little, as it was not my place to begin conversations. It was just as well. I had little idea as to what to say to a king.
My father greeted us at the door, raised his eyebrow when he saw me, and bowed low before the king. Our few household servants behind him bowed and curtsied as well. The king inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Welcome, Your Majesty.” My father rose, beaming.
I released the king’s arm as we approached. He extended his hand to my father’s in greeting. “Hello Nicholas. I believe you have been keeping something for me.”
Father smiled and bowed slightly again. “Would Your Majesty like to see his new stallion or would you like to rest and enjoy some refreshment first?”
The king took my arm again. “Lead me to the refreshments.” I obeyed and followed my father into our large sitting room. There, trays of light snacks, such as breads, fruits, meats and cheeses were laid out. We waited for the king to be seated before we, too, sat. Our servants served us the food and drink while we conversed.
“Nicholas, I commend you on your taste. Your home is elegant, even out here in the wild. I must say, the hunting grounds are wonderful. You will join us and show us your favorite spots, will you not?”
Father inclined his head with a smile. “Of course, Your Majesty. It would give me great pleasure. I will admit, though, it has been some time since I have been on a hunting excursion.”
The King’s laugh rumbled in his chest. “Then this shall be a treat for you, and for myself. I may bag more game than you!”
The hunting conversation continued, and I let my mind wander, not very interested in what was being discussed. I sat as I should, and was quiet, and hopefully looked lovely, as was my duty. However, I was not attentive, as was also my duty. I sat very still, but I must have had grass in my hair, because I kept feeling Tara pull on it lightly each time she walked by.
The king finished his refreshments, and scratched his trimmed silvery beard as he suddenly turned his eyes to me. “Do you ride, Evalien?”
I blinked, forcing myself back into the conversation. I nodded. “Not very often, my liege. It is not something I am very skilled at. But yes,” I smiled at him, “I do and I enjoy it.”
He smiled. “Well then, you will accompany us on this ride. I am in need of a female to test out my new stallion. He is for my daughter, you see.”
My lips parted, mouth opening in protest, but I knew better. I shut it again, quickly. My father gave me a stern look before turning to the king. “Of course she will. Your Highness will allow her to change into a suitable riding outfit, then?”
The king tipped his head slightly in agreement. “Of course.”
Knowing that was my cue, I stood, curtsied, and made my way back to my room. Tara followed quickly behind me, not trusting me to keep up the appearance she worked so hard on earlier.
She helped me out of my dress and into riding slacks and tunic. I changed into my boots while she attacked my hair again. “How do you manage to mess up what I work so hard on?”
I sighed. “Tara, you should know me by now.”
“Yes, but all that schooling .. . “ she tsked. “It is exciting, though! Evie, you will be riding with the King!”
I swallowed, nervous. I had not used the skills I had learned in finishing school in quite a while. I knew, for Father’s sake at least, I needed to act my very best. I was not, I admit, very excited to be in the company of royalty, though it was something to remember.
After my boots were on I stayed as still as possible so her skilled hands could finish the magic faster. “Tara, you know the wind will just tear it out again,” I tried.
“Not if you ride like a lady. Plus, my dear, its tighter.”
I could feel it was tighter. I knew my scalp would be hurting later that day. “Well, you know I’m not a fast rider.” I smiled at her. She smiled back for the first time in a couple of days. She had been very worried about everything going well. “Do not try to beat the King’s men . . . no matter how much they flirt and goad.”
I chuckled. “I would not be able to, even if they goaded me. I do not much feel like falling off today. And this is a horse that is not familiar with me.”
She finished and gave me a gentle push. “Go. We should not keep His Majesty waiting.”
I returned downstairs to one of the king’s guards. He informed me that the king and my father were waiting for me at the stables. He escorted me outside where I was greeted with a warm smile from my father, and an approving grin from the king. The king’s grin was not necessarily warm and left me feeling unnerved. I returned their smiles with my own and moved closer to my father.
My father held onto two horses: his own and the new stallion. He led the gleaming chestnut horse to stand in front of me in preparation for my mounting. “He’s kind and gentle, and listens well. I promise he is very well-trained,” he told me quietly. Another of the king’s guards helped me quickly into the saddle as the king mounted his own stallion. My father and a couple guards mounted as well and we started with an easy walk.
My father and the king discussed the stallion while I rode on quietly and slowly, trying to keep my nerves down and speaking in low tones to the horse. He, in turn, seemed to think I was fine and carried me slowly. The king decided to gradually pick up speed, and the others followed. The stallion, despite wanting to copy the faster horses, followed behind slower at my reining him in. I was grateful and let him know by telling him softly.
As we neared the end of the ride I gave him a little more freedom and he cantered, happily, back into our yard. Father and His Highness had already dismounted and were discussing His Majesty’s new purchase. I was helped down from the stallion and I stroked his soft nose in thanks, giving him an apple piece. The stable boy took him and I walked over to stand next to my father.
“So, the maiden finally returns,” the king teased.
I flushed bright pink. “My Lord, I am not very skilled, as I stated earlier.” I looked down. “Nor am I very courageous.”
“Nonsense!” The king chuckled. “You came out on a ride with the king and his men when you did not feel up to the task. That takes some courage.”
I looked up for a moment in surprise. I gave a little curtsy of gratitude.
“So, Evalien, will he suit a woman, especially a high-spirited one?”
I nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty. He obeys commands and will listen even when his spirit longs to be free and ride with the wind. He seemed to understand I was not comfortable with the speed, and was kind enough to oblige. Though, if her majesty would like him to run, he will.”
His eyes shone as I spoke. I felt self-conscious, but forced my eyes on keep contact with his. He observed me, then the stallion thoughtfully, while my father smiled. They must have discussed the something similar while waiting for me.
“Now, my good man, we will be off.” The King motioned for his guards as my father bowed. “It has been our honor to have you, Sire.”
The king smiled, took my hand, kissed it softly, then he and his guards mounted. He turned his new stallion in circles, and then trotted to us with a smile. He inclined his head toward my father and me. “We shall meet soon, I am sure, for we have some hunting to do.”
My father bowed and I curtsied. My father sighed in relief as the company rode off into the trees. “Well, that went well.” I put an arm through his and we both strolled leisurely back to the house. I relaxed gratefully, sure my part had been played, and I could return to life as usual.