When summer came, it was unbearably and unseasonably hot. Léofe was miserable. Her bed stood beneath an east facing window, and she would wake in a sweat nearly as soon as the sun broke the horizon. Even the horses were sluggish, and she had to hurry to finish her chores before noon so that she could retreat into the shade of the house for the afternoon.
On one such morning she woke later than usual, having been awake most of the night with a laboring mare. A filly had been born only a few hours earlier, but had not begun to breathe properly. Newly born horses died only seldom; her experience had brought many around to life when they would have died otherwise. But she had not been able to help this time. She had woken her father just before dawn, begging him to dig the grave at once so that she could seek her own bed before the day started. It seemed that he called for her to wake just as her eyes had closed, the images of the filly's unmoving body and the pained shrieks of its mother that echoed in her mind keeping her tense and alert.
Léofe sat for several minutes on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands, torn between the warm sun on her back and the anguish in her heart. Gerdhelm called again, his loud shout echoing in the house. He was not usually so abrasive, so she guessed that they had buyers. She moaned and pulled herself up, and over to the washstand, splashing lukewarm water on her face and wishing dearly it could have been cold. Anything to lessen her misery. The heat, the grief, and now she was likely to lose a friend. This day was not shaping to be a good one.
"Léofe!" Her father limped through the doorway, barking out her name as she lingered at the washstand. "Dress nicely now, the prince has come to spend the day with Brego."
The prince had returned! Léofe sighed and wondered if now her day was going to be better or worse for it. "Why should I dress nicely?" she asked. "You said yourself that he is here for Brego. I doubt he will even look my way."
"It is a courtesy, goosey."
"But my clothing will only get ruined," she continued to protest. "I have chores."
Gerdhelm considered her for a moment. "Hurry and finish your chores, then come in and change before the midday meal."
Léofe had not thought it possible, but the stable loft was even hotter than the house. It must have been the sweaty horses, she decided, who were all lying around, flicking their tails lazily at the flies. She scooped up the hay with a pitchfork and tossed it down into each stall, many years of practice ensuring that nearly all of the hay landed right in the feedboxes. She paused after finishing with one side of the stable, wiping her sweaty brows and wishing dearly for a blizzard.
A clopping of hooves near the stable door, and her attention was drawn to the prince, who was followed by an unhaltered Brego. "Perhaps your mistress is in here," the prince murmured to the horse, though not so quietly that she could not hear. "You must beg her for an apple, as I haven't the foggiest idea where they are kept."
"In the cellar," she called, tucking the pitchfork under her arm as she began to climb down the ladder. "I can fetch one if you would like, sire."
He showed only the merest trace of surprise to see her, and at his unexpected scrutiny Léofe was suddenly very aware of how much she was sweating. She blushed, though she was certain her face was already quite red enough to disguise it, and made a mental note to keep her arms down.
"I would be most grateful, mistress," the prince said, inclining his head.
Léofe heaved up the pitchfork onto the other side of the loft (why the attics were not connected, she had no clue), and then blushed again as she realized she had already forgotten to keep her arms down. Dunce! she told herself. Dunce, dunce, dunce!
The door to the cellar was located outside the barn, and she hurried into its cool, dark depths - lingering only for a moment to breathe in the clean air - before she returned to the stable with her apron full of apples. "I brought extra," she said. "I thought you might enjoy one as well, sire, as you have been in the sun with Brego all morning."
"That is very kind, mistress," he said, and she was rewarded with a half-smile. She could have sighed happily at the sight of it, but she still felt too miserable. The prince picked a pair of apples from her loot, surrendering one to Brego's eager lips while he bit into the second. Léofe did sigh at that - before the prince came along, Brego had only eaten from her own hands. She stared for a moment more, at both horse and master, before the master turned to her with a questioning look. "Pray do not let us delay you further," he said.
"Oh! No, you were not delaying me at all," she said. "I am only a bit tired. Enjoy your apples!" She half-ran away, tossing an apple into each stall clumsily, when she would have normally taken the time to talk to each horse. She hid her flushed face as she climbed into the loft, and resumed her work.
Thankfully, within a few minutes the prince and Brego were gone again, presumably to the water trough outside. She stopped her motions, and then sighed again. What was it about that prince that made her act so ridiculous? And her feelings did not sit quite right either.
Léofe finished with the hay, and then drew water from the well to fill the outside trough, as well as the troughs in each of the stalls. She would have to ration out the oats for the evening meal - their stores were running low. Perhaps before their own supper she could clean the house a bit, if the prince showed a desire to stay for the evening meal as well. She washed her hands with the last of her hauled water, throwing it outside on the yellow grass, and then walked back to the house, swinging the bucket at her side. As she came around the barn, she stopped dead in her tracks at the sight that greeted her from the fenced training grounds, catching her breath.
The summer heat had obviously gotten to the prince; he had shed his tunic and was leading Brego through his exercises with a bare torso. He was tanned from the sun, with his hair pulled back she could easily admire the contours of his muscled back. Great Bema above… A stirring through her body jolted Léofe. She could not claim to know much about the nature of love between men and women, but she had a notion that she was experiencing some semblance of it. Brego was trotting around in a circle, and even as she stood the prince turned in her direction. He waved in her direction, and she gaped at his chest before closing her mouth with a snap. Could he have seen her ogling? She would be so embarrassed if he had! She picked up her skirt and high-tailed it to the house, blushing all the way.
Léofe still felt red as she rolled a pie crust for supper. Gerdhelm had informed her that indeed, the prince intended to stay for supper. Just her luck! At least she had found an old clean dress, even if it was threadbare and barely reached the top of her ankles. She gently lifted the crust and placed it in a skillet, and while she wiped her hands her father nudged her away from the stove.
"I'll fill it," he said, brandishing a knife at a pile of vegetables. "Make the table pretty, won't you?"
She was hard-pressed to find anything green outside, but when the three of them sat down together she felt unreasonably proud and incredibly self-conscious. There were cattails from the stream, and a few violets she had found underneath the shade of a tree, both placed meticulously in their second nicest drinking cup. The best cup was currently in the prince's hand as he drank, admiring the sight of the shining clean house.
"It is quite pleasant to be in a home," he said as Gerdhelm sliced into the steaming pie. "It is no secret that we soldiers grow tired of tents and wilderness."
"Oh aye, I imagine so," Gerdhelm said, placing a large serving in front of the prince. "But we remain grateful for the safety you give us to practice our trades and raise our families."
The prince gave him only a polite smile, and Léofe did not think it quite reached his eyes. His face seemed impassive. "You must not think our house is so clean all the time," she said quickly, in an attempt to distract both men from what she thought had been an awkward silence. "Papa lazes around quite a bit, poring over his old studbooks, and he normally lets the chores go to waste."
"Oi, miss!" Gerdhelm mumbled. "Don't speak so disparaging of your pa!"
"I do believe she was teasing you," the prince cut in, smiling slyly at her. "However much time you devote to your business, it is well invested. I do not hesitate to say that your farm is the best run that I have come across."
Gerdhelm blushed slightly. "I might have agreed with you once, sire. But the raids have dampened the enthusiasm of those that might buy our stock."
"How often do the traders come through?"
Léofe ate her pie in silence, alternatively ignoring the conversation and listening closely whenever the prince spoke. He had such a wonderful voice - deep and vibrating, but gentle. His odd way of speaking must have come from tutors and academics, something that was very absent in the nearby village. She glanced at him as often as she dared through the cattails that stood between them. And everytime, without fail - her heart skipped a beat. She could not quite decide if she was foolish or if her infatuation was not so hopeless, for from his wry looks she deduced that the prince did not ignore her.
She cleared the table of dishes when her father asked her to do so, and was about to make her escape back to the stables and the only place where she knew her own feelings, but the prince stopped her.
"I brought a sweet treat to share," he said, motioning for her to sit again. "We had a man come to Edoras a not two weeks ago bearing imports from the southern fiefs of Gondor."
Léofe could only sit stiffly, twisting her fingers in her apron. Why does he not let me leave! She felt that staying longer would be more detrimental against her peace of mind. The prince pulled a small wrapped package from a pocket, and opened it to reveal something yellow and candied, which he placed on the table.
"They call it ananas," he explained. "It's quite sweet, and delicious. Please help yourself - it is the least I can do to repay your generosity to me."
"I thought that all trade stopped with Stoneland," Gerdhelm commented, picking up a piece of the ananas and looking skeptical.
"It has slowed, certainly," the prince said, chewing thoughtfully on his own portion. "But trade has not ceased. I believe that is a simple rumor, spread by those who do not support the old alliances."
Léofe placed the ananas in her mouth, and her eyes widened. She had never tasted anything so flavorful and bright, and immediately reached for more. The prince saw this, and laughed.
"I am gratified to find that you enjoy the ananas so," he said, and she looked up to see his eyes twinkling at her. He had very nice eyes; not only a beautifully brown color, but kind as well. She blushed, feeling shameful of her trembling in his gaze, but rather shameless as she ate more of the fruit.
"I must go," she said, and stood. "I need to exercise the horses."
"I will do the cleaning then," Gerdhelm said. Léofe smiled at him, which he returned gruffly.
The prince was now standing as well, and his eyes were fixed on Léofe. "I wish to see Brego again before I depart. May I walk with you, mistress?"
"If you would like," she said, not daring to look him lest he see the flush creeping up her neck. The prince pulled the door shut, and held out his arm to her.
"Mistress," he said, and she felt that he was daring her to accept. Which she did, with her chin lifted and a haughty pull on her lips. Anything to disguise how the feeling of his muscled arm beneath the palm of her hand was pummeling her! They began walking towards the stables. "I must thank you personally and profusely, Mistress Léofe, for you and your father's hospitality to me today."
"You are welcome to come at anytime."
"Yes, I imagined you might say that," he said, and she was surprised to see discomfort in his features. "May I ask you a personal question?"
She frowned in response.
"That is, you are not obliged to answer. I only wish to know if I have offended you in any way, that I may repair the damage done."
"No," she said softly. "There has been no offense."
"Then I wonder what it is that causes you to hate the very sight of me."
And she had been trying so hard to keep her feelings in check! "Er…" she said. "I only dread the day that you take Brego away. I do not exaggerate when I say that he is my best friend. But I did not conceal this from you at our first...that is to say, second meeting."
They had reached the stable doors, and the prince dropped her hand, reaching for her shoulders to turn her to face him. The setting sun blazed a glorious light in his face. "I never intended to cause you pain," he said quietly. "But please allow me to make reparation. If I have taken from you your best friend, might I fill that void with my own friendship?"
No! Léofe wanted to scream. She did not want friendship from him! She wanted to jump into his arms and kiss his lusciously full lips to brand him as hers alone. Her knees were shaking slightly, and she thought she might have fallen were it not for his sure grip on her arms. "If you would like," she said, voice trembling slightly. She bit her lip. "I am sure that if you feel that your offer properly pays the debt, then it is. Though I wonder what use a prince has for the acquaintance of a maid that spends all her time with horses."
Now his lips were pressed close together; her comment had obviously displeased him in some way. But he did not address it. "Very well," he said. "Then I shall take your leave now. Farewell, mistress. I will return again in two weeks."