As Evelyn came upon the rear courtyard, she could hear it ringing with the noise of swords and shields. While the soldiers clashed, Owen and the other squires were rushing to and fro, prepared at a moment’s notice to retrieve a dropped shield or sword, or to hand over a new weapon. These battles might have been practice bouts, but they were certainly not games of enjoyment. It was all serious business, meant to prepare them for the art of war. Evelyn shuddered at the prospect of Owen in combat. She’d heard talk…a kind that wasn’t meant for her delicate ears…of the butchery that occurred on a battlefield. Crushed skulls, decapitations, severed limbs. It was enough to turn her stomach, and she hurried past them, trying to turn her thoughts in a happier direction as she made her way into the house.
Emile, her father’s Steward, had a small counting room just off the great hall, and Guy could often be found there looking over household business. She peeked in to look for him, but found the room quiet and empty. She smiled, not the least bit surprised to find it so deserted, and turned to the stairs, quite certain of knowing where her father would be found. Of late, he had taken to conducting business in the solar next door to his bedchamber. He’d had a desk placed there so he could look over accounts and remain close to his wife at the same time. Sometimes, if he finished early, he would sit and read to her.
Evelyn recalled how only yesterday, she’d stood in the hall and listened to him as he read Homer’s Iliad. Cassia had complimented the sound of his voice, saying how very much it pleased her. There had been a pause, and then the sound of him saying something soft in response. Evelyn hadn’t quite heard what he’d said, but it had made her mother laugh, and that was a sound she dearly loved to listen to, however it came about.
Giving a small knock, she heard her father bid her to enter…and she saw him there with Emile, both of them bent over books and papers. Guy glanced up for a moment, and seeing her, he gave her a little smile.
“There you are, my girl. Back from your explorations, are you? Your mama and I were questioning your whereabouts.”
She went to him, giving him a kiss on the forehead.
“Where is Mama?” she asked.
Instantly she saw his expression dim, the way it always did when he had just lost an argument to his wife. He gestured toward the open doors of the terrace.
“She is there with your sister, taking a bit of sunshine. She insisted on it, even though I fought for her to remain abed. But you know her stubborn nature.”
She nodded. “As we all do.”
And in thought she added, Your nature I knowest better. It is doubtful you fought long with her.
Everyone knew that Guy of Gisborne was easily swayed by the women in his life…his wife above all…even though he pretended to put up a valiant fight. But out of respect for him as a man, no one gave voice to their knowledge. They all knew who truly ruled the family…and quietly, Evelyn stepped out in search of her.
Cassia and Thea were both there, each of them resting on specially crafted chairs. Long ago, during Cassia’s first pregnancy, he’d had a cushioned lounge chair made for her to keep her from suffering the discomfort of typical furnishings. When Thea became pregnant, he had a matching chair made for her as well. Now they sat opposite each other, sharing the work of embroidering a blanket. As Evelyn approached, Cassia looked up. She smiled, her dark eyes bright.
“Hello, darling daughter. Where have you been? It is nearing suppertime. Had you tarried much longer, you might have been late.”
Thea, not looking up from her needlework, chimed in with one of her usual disparaging remarks.
“Likely she was busy chasing fairies or some other childish nonsense, and she forgot the time.”
Evelyn was not put off by her sister’s comment, for she was quite accustomed to her snarky way of saying things. Even at her worst, Thea’s words always had an underlying sense of sisterly affection. For that reason, Evelyn’s reply was calm and cool.
“I was hardly chasing fairies, sister. I was out gathering a gift for Mama.”
Giving over the basket of flowers, Evelyn was pleased to see her mother smile as she held a blossom to her nose.
“Thank you, my love. They are beautiful.”
It was just the reaction she had hoped for…and she suddenly recalled what else she had seen, other than the lavender.
“Oh Mama, I saw the most curious thing just a while ago.”
Thea lifted her head. “You see, Mama? I knew she could not have a quiet, simple walk. Always some flight of fancy takes hold of her mind, and she must share it with us all.”
Cassia smiled. And yet, her tone was motherly and firm.
“Theodora, do not be unkind. Besides, the span of life if far too short for constant seriousness. I can always do for an imaginative tale.” She smiled up at Evelyn, who pulled a stool close and sat down.
“It was no imagining, Mama. A pursuit flew by me in the fields. ‘Twas a young man chased by hounds and horsemen. He seemed to be quite desperate in his escape. Do you thinkest they captured him?”
Cassia shrugged. “Most likely so. Sadly, one lone man is hardly a match for eager hounds and horsemen.”
Thea huffed. “Probably he has been caught and is now jailed. Should he be a criminal, I say good riddance to him.”
Evelyn thought about the young man, wondering who he was and what had become of him. In all likelihood, it had not been a kind end. She knew not why, but the idea of it troubled her in some way…and though she knew Thea would probably tease her for it, she chose to give him her own choice of fate, even if it was only imaginary. She sighed, sitting straight and dignified in her seat, her tone taking on an air of stubbornness.
“I believe I shall make up a grand ending for him then. A prettier scenario than to end up in chains, or worse, torn to pieces. Perhaps he leaps over a high stone wall, too tall for dogs or horses to scale. He flees into the sunset, leaving his pursuers frustrated and bitter while he lives to be free for another day.”
Thea slowly rose to her feet, struggling with the weight of her belly. As her maid came to assist her, Thea sighed and shook her head, speaking to her sister.
“Dearest Evie, you might truly be the silliest girl in all of creation.” She went to her mother, bending down to kiss the top of her head. She gave a weary sigh. “Apologies, Mama, but I am quite tired. I think I shall rest before supper.”
She left them then, and as she did, Evelyn took up the seat her sister had abandoned. Bringing her feet up, she hugged her knees to her chest and rested her chin on her kneecap. She sighed, sinking deep into thought.
“What a pity that the world has no desire for women writers and poets. Methinks I would be a great success.”
Cassia smiled, nodding in agreement.
“Indeed. But do not be forlorn, dearest. You shall always find an audience with me.”
Moving close to her mother, Evelyn gave her a warm hug. Her mother’s arms were so soft, the scent of her so familiar and comforting. She was aware of no longer being a child, but she was certain she would never tire of seeking her mother’s embrace. It was a part of her life she could not imagine relinquishing, even for the proprieties of adulthood.
“I love you, Mama.” She felt her mother’s hands stroking her hair. Cassia’s voice was calm and loving, as it always was.
“My dear girl. I love you too.” A few moments passed in comfortable silence. Then Cassia spoke eagerly.
“Will you play for me after supper? I have not heard your music for some time, and it would please me greatly to hear you perform.”
Evelyn sat up, her eyes wide with the prospect of pleasing her beloved mother.
“Of course I shall play for you. I will go now and bring my lyre.”
“That would be divine,” Cassia said with a smile. “But first, I wonder if you would do something else for me.”
Evelyn nodded. “Of course I will.”
“Run along and speak to Marie…inquire if there are any apples to be found in the larder. The babe and I are longing for a bit of fruit, and we are not inclined to wait for supper.”
Evelyn smiled. And hurrying out, she went to see to her mother’s favor.
The kitchens were considered unfit for a young noblewoman. Crowded, noisy…dirty and always awash with various smells, such rooms were the domain of servants, and one would not expect to find a woman of rank wandering there. Evelyn knew her father frowned upon it. There were rules and expectations for all members of the household, and for the most part, she was obedient. But on occasion, for one reason or another, she slipped down to the lower levels of the manor…as she did now.
The supper preparation was in full force. Cooks, maids and pages rushed to and fro. Steam hissed. Fires burned high in the hearth. Despite the recent building of new chimneys, there was still a slight haze of smoke that hung over the entire space…and Evelyn waved her hand before her face as she searched for Marie, the housekeeper. It was she who saw Evelyn first, and after giving a respectful curtsey, her expression grew concerned.
“Lady Evelyn, you must not be about with the servants. The Master will not be pleased to know of you here.”
Evelyn interjected quickly, not troubled by the thought of punishment. “Mother desires fruit. Have we a supply of apples?”
Marie shook her head. “No, milady. The last were used in the supper. But I will send a boy straight away to the orchard.”
Evelyn gave a wag of her head. “No, no. Do not concern yourself. You all have much to do here. I will go and fetch some.”
Before Marie could protest, Evelyn hurried past her…rushing out the kitchen door that led to the wheat fields and the orchard beyond. She saw nothing wrong with seeing to some tasks for herself. Her mother encouraged it, often reminding her that one should never lose themselves in complacency. When all was said and done, rank meant very little…
Whether rich or poor, we are all born of dust, just as the scriptures say. And unto dust shall we all return.
Such an earthy outlook on life suited Evelyn just fine. It pleased her to be kind to others, be they wealthy or poor. And her spirit was more fulfilled by those things that came of the earth than of those created by human hands. The garden and the orchards were of particular delight to her. Years ago, on a journey to Rome, her mother and father had learned of several species of plants and trees, some of which they had brought back with them. Now the grounds had olive and apricot trees, along with the native pears and apples, and the grape vines that provided wine for the manor. It was a bounty of nature that felt like paradise to her, and it was her hope that someday, when she had her own home, she could replicate such splendor for her own children.
As she looked about, spotting the apples that had fallen…deciding which were good and which were not…she felt a sudden sense of being watched. She glanced about, suspecting it was Owen playing a trick on her. He’d been known to do that on occasion. But she could see no one. There was no sound. And yet, her senses were aware of a presence. Something caused her to slowly look up…and there, sitting high in the crook of a tree, was a young man. Evelyn dropped her apples, taking several fast and fearful steps backwards. The young man did not seem troubled. He smiled down at her, carelessly biting into the fruit in his hand.
“Good day, mademoiselle. What, pray tell, is a young woman like yourself doing out here all alone?”
Fearful, and yet wanting him not to see it, she took another step back as she answered with as much courage as she could.
“This is my father’s estate. He is the Earl of Gisborne. He has soldiers at hand and I need only to scream to bring them to my aid.”
He raised a curious eyebrow, his mouth curling in a slight grin. “You think I mean you harm?”
His grin became full, and he shook his head. “Not in any way. I find absolute delight in the delicate creature that is a woman. ‘Twould be most shameful to sully one of God’s most glorious creations…particularly one so lovely as yourself.”
She had never heard a man speak as he did. His words were pretty…even bold in their way. Men had called her beautiful at times, but always with a careful air of politeness. This compliment was nothing of that sort. It was, to be quite honest, rather audacious. And it left her unsure of how to respond…until it dawned on her just who she was now looking at.
“It was you I saw running, was it not? Through the brook, just a short time ago?”
He cocked his head. “You were witness to the beasts on my heels, determined to make a meal of me?”
She gave a small nod. And then she asked, almost without thinking…
“What manner of criminal are you, sir?”
He took a last bite of his apple, tossing the core aside. Then he jumped down from his perch, his actions athletic and graceful. He looked harmless enough. To be truthful, he was quite nice looking. He was not overly tall or muscular…not at all intimidating in his stature. His face was soft and boyish, with kind eyes and a winning smile. Still, one could never be certain of strangers, and Evelyn took a further step back, fearing he might make an approach. But instead of drawing closer to her, he leaned a shoulder against the tree, looking at her with an air of great self-assurance.
“Milady, I am the finest kind of criminal. Wiley and quick as a fox. I have been pursued countless times since I was a lad of thirteen. Six years have gone since, and they have not got hold of me yet.”
Her eyes grew a bit wider…nervous, yet full of curiosity. “Are you a thief?”
He sighed. “Aye, I must confess you’ve hit upon it. I am a notorious rascal, so it has been said. All that I need, I take. Food, money…and many a heart. Is yours spoken for?”
Her cheeks turned pink at his bold question. But he only chuckled.
“You are shy, milady. Your face flushes with a lovely color that becomes you.”
Unable to look at him any longer, she cast her eyes on the ground…but then she raised it when she heard the distant sound of dogs. He turned his head, hearing the sound as well. Then he turned to her again, smiling.
“Pardonne-moi, mademoiselle. But methinks I hear the sound of a warning in the air. Time for us to part company.”
Before she could reply, or truly even think, her hand was raised by his. His lips softly pressed her knuckles. A bold gleam shone in his eyes…his soft, deep brown eyes.
“Bonne journée, une jolie.”
And then he fled, vanishing among the trees. She watched him go, unsure of the feeling coming over her…the feeling of being utterly bewitched.