Léofe bolted the door behind her, shivering and drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders as the early dawn's chill penetrated her thin clothing. She had put off her town errands for too long, and now she was sufficiently punished for the delay. Frost decorated the house and the dead gardens, and it would not melt until the sun had properly risen. Which was unlikely to occur until she had walked the six miles into town anyway.
Her one condolence, which she grimly appreciated as she stamped across the yard - was that her father had taken the time to patch her winter boots - again. She had been wearing them each winter for the last eight years or more, and they pinched something terrible, but it was better than bare feet and the patches were sound. She drew in a deep breath before blowing it into a foggy mist in front of her face, adjusting the basket she carried higher in the crook of her arm. Despite the cold, her walk was peaceful, and the silence of the hilly ground comforted her, for the birds were at last completely absent for the season. She had arrived at the faded dirt track that led into the village just as the sun was breaking the horizon, and just as she saw a trio of riders approaching her at a fast trot.
Blast and damn! Was there to be no peace after all? She skittered to to the left, leaving plenty of space between the path and herself, lowering her head as she quickened her steps. The heavy stamps and snorting breaths of the horses seemed too loud, the clanks of the riders' armor almost vulgar in the desolate autumn. She had almost passed them completely when fate decided against her, after all.
Her heart nearly stopped, and she whirled around to see the prince rein in his gelding towards her. She felt rooted to the spot, being nearly and suddenly surrounded by three very large horses with three fierce warriors - or rather, two warriors and one prince, the last of whom was wearing an expression of surprise, and she felt - not one of displeasure at seeing her.
"Good morning, my lord," she said, bowing quickly. "Please do not cease your ride on my behalf."
He waved her comment away. "It is nothing. What brings you into such an unforgiving journey at such an early hour?"
"I am travelling to town, is all," she said, very aware of the scrutiny of his companions. "I mean to set my father and I up for the winter, when we cannot go to the village for supplies at all."
"In this cold? Surely not!"
"It is my own fault," she admitted. "I have put off the trip for far too long. I am justly rewarded."
The prince briefly exchanged a glance with the man to his right, who shrugged. "Allow me," he said to her. "I - or we, rather - would be happy to escort into town and return you safely home, that your journey may be considerably shortened."
She flushed. "Please, sire. There is no need. It is not so far a distance, and I have made the journey before."
"I will hear no argument!" He was smiling at her now, and her resolve weakened. She adjusted her strategy.
"Er - while I would be very thankful for any assistance, I cannot, er...travel in such a situation on my own. There is little enough gossip in Isenburg; any minor scandal might send many a matriarch into an early grave."
One of the men chuckled, and she sent him a withering stare. Her reputation was not to be laughed at! But the prince was still smiling as he spoke again. "I admit to not quite believing you to be a woman of such concerns, mistress."
She pursed her lips, debated what sort of scathing remark she could make in the presence of his men without expecting some sort of royal retribution. "It is not my concerns that matter, my lord, nearly as much as the concerns of others, in whose good graces I hope to remain," she forced through gritted teeth.
"I imagine that having a marshal sponsor you might do the trick," he said, and he guided the gelding until it stood right next to her, and she was looking straight up into the prince's face, feeling massively dwarfed, not in least by the gilded golden armor he wore. He held out a gloved hand.
Ride with the prince! Was he mad? Perhaps - but not nearly as mad as she would be if she accepted. She considered this for only half a moment before taking the prince's hand and pulling herself on top of the horse, settling herself in front of him, holding her basket in her lap rigidly. Anyway, everyone in the village thought she was mad already.
"Relax," he said to her in a low voice, and with his men falling in behind them, he nudged the gelding into a gentle trot. His arm that held the reins was very close to her waist, and she found it hugely disconcerting. "You are perfectly safe, both riding Thunderbite as well as in my company. And as for my men - they are friends, really, I should have introduced you."
"Oh, I am sorry," she said, only taking in some of his words and attempting to sit less stiffly. She bounced slightly, and the prince chuckled again.
"One might think you have never ridden a horse before, Léofe."
She scowled, though she knew he could not see it. "I have not ridden for several years, as a fact," she said. "My mother would let me ride the more docile horses as a little girl, but after she died Papa put a stop to it." A silence followed her statement, and she decided that the prince would be now quite aghast. A horse trainer that never rode! She knew the irony in her occupation as well as anyone, but her familiarity with it had long left her with only a mere sense of acceptance. Though she never let go of the hope that one day - when the farm was hers, she could ride at her pleasure.
"How did your mother die?"
The unexpected turn of conversation startled Léofe. "She was thrown from a horse when I was nine years old."
She could almost hear his half-smile. "Then your papa has a very valid reason for disallowing you to ride. Quite within his rights, too."
"Oh, don't you side with him," she muttered. "Next you two will be conspiring to put a stop to my cursing."
Léofe could almost hear his grin; it was so obvious."I rather like that you curse. I am not quite sure I have ever heard a lady curse before; it is actually quite enlivening."
"Well, I am certainly not a lady," Léofe felt obliged to point out. "But as Papa would tell me - you could be a matchless lady, little goosey." She felt that her impression of her father's grumbling was uncanny, and obviously the prince agreed, for he laughed behind her.
"Cursing aside, I am quite decided to never take the upper hand with you. I do not have such a constitution that I could bear your insurrection."
She frowned. And their conversation had been going so well! She did not understand these odd comments the prince made, nor his intention behind them. Fortunately, the crest of the hill where just beyond Isenburg stood came into view, and she was spared a response as the trio slowed for a shepherd, who was trying to hurry his sheep across the track.
Isenburg was mercifully yet horrifically empty in the grey dawn, and as the prince helped her to dismount Léofe realized a tactical error that had not been considered. "The markets are not open for buying yet," she hissed at him. "I knew I should have walked!"
He merely met her wrath with a raised eyebrow, and she flushed. To repay the prince for his selfless deed with spite! She suddenly realized that he might succeed where her father failed to scare proper manners into her. "I am sorry," she said, her tone moderated. "I - I should not have -"
He smiled, and she lost what she had been about to say within the sensual curve of his lips. "Think not of it," he said lightly, scratching Thunderbite's neck. "Even the best of us are often beset by grouchiness in the early morn."
Oooo! She could have stuck her tongue out at him, proving to him just how unladylike she was and how much he irritated her, but she suppressed the urge. Grouchy in the morning! It was unlikely that he ever had to rise before dawn to muck out stables; he was hardly one to pass judgment. And she had been perfectly pleasant on the ride. Or at least, she thought she had been.
Léofe perched herself on the steps of the town inn, determinedly ignoring the prince and his guards as they picketed their horses near a water trough. They spoke quietly to each other for a moment, and then the prince and one of the soldiers disappeared into the inn, their heavy boots making the floorboards beneath her shudder.
"Well, lassie," the remaining guard was watching her, and after the door to the inn shut, he sat beside her, taking up the rest of the steps with his incredible bulk. "It is only you and I, now."
She scowled and scooted further away.
"That face of thunder is not going to frighten me away, lass. Théodred gave me strict instruction to keep you safe."
"The prince presumes much," she said, unwillingly drawn into responding.
"He considers the safety of his people most highly."
"Indeed," Léofe said dryly. "Even above their own pride, it would seem. As if a person cannot care for themselves."
A look of astonishment crossed the man's face, and then without warning he burst into bellowing laughter. Affronted, she could only stare at him as he guffawed, and it was upon that scene that the prince returned. Léofe looked at him with incredulousness, willing him to understand her thoughts. You left me with this buffoon?
But the prince only smiled, and presented to her a wrapped cloth, and another to the man. "Erkenbrand, would you mind composing yourself? You have given Mistress Léofe quite a fright."
"Apologizes, sire," Erkenbrand said, though his grin was still firmly in place. "And my most sincere apologies to you, mistress."
Léofe sniffed down her nose at him.
"Why do you not enjoy your repast while you do a brief survey?" the prince continued to his man.
"An excellent idea, sire," Erkenbrand stood, brushing off his trousers and walking away, still chuckling.
"I am sorry for him," the prince said, taking the vacated seat. "Erk is overly jolly at times, and usually at the expense of others. His wife has cured him of it in most settings, but away from home he is much worse."
"I see," Léofe said, though she did not. Her attention was focused now on the bread and cheese that the prince had brought her. She almost felt guilty that he obviously considered himself obliged to feed her, but the smell of the freshly baked bread won out. They ate together on silence for several minutes, and when she was unable to endure the awkwardness between the any longer, she blurted, "What is a survey?"
"Erk and Allred have both gone to see that there is no danger in the area. They have actually accompanied me to your farm before, but that you have not seen them is a mark of their skill."
"Do they watch for enemies or do they watch you, to see that the heir does nothing rash?"
"Enemies," the prince said with a smile. "I have not required a sitter for many years, though Erk was up to the task when it was needed."
"Why were you on that road?" Léofe asked. She did not want to imagine the sort of trouble a handsome prince was liable to cause; the images of busty women and barrels of ale disquieted her.
"I wanted to see Brego and put him through his paces."
"Oh!" she sat up straight and reddened slightly. "Then you certainly should not have come with me! You should have continued on!"
"Brego will not be missing me so much, surely," the prince said. "I did not send him a message to alert him for my arrival."
His words were so dry that Léofe nearly missed them, and after a stunned moment she laughed. "I shall hurry my errands. I see that the miller is open now; I shan't be but a moment."
The prince stood as she did, and with a respectful nod while trying to avoid his gaze, she turned away. The miller greeted her jovially, and was pleased to take an order so early in the morning.
"Three barrels of flour, if you please, Eadberht, delivered by the end of the week," she said, pulling a pouch of coins from her vestibule.
"Happy to, Léofe," he mumbled, scratching his belly. "Though I am sorry to say the price of flour has increased. Four silver a barrel."
"Four silver!" she cried, aghast, and she stared at him. "Surely not!"
"Take it up with the economy, not with me," Eadberht said.
"Two barrels then, and delivered whenever you drive our direction," she said hotly, and slammed the coins on his desk.
"I hear Irwin hasn't lowered his prices at all," he said, not meeting her gaze.
"Irwin! I would never buy from him. I have been warned nearly every year of my life that he doesn't sift his grain for maggots," she growled.
"I am sorry, lass."
Léofe stared at him for a moment, and then swiped her coins back into her pouch before storming out of his mill. She was in fact too angry to notice the broad expanse of armor in front of her as she walked along in frustration, and so was knocked backward and her shoulder made contact with the prince's chest. No danger of falling though - he grasped her shoulders quickly, steadying her footing though her heart suddenly quickened.
"Forgive me," he said. "I thought you would see me."
"No matter," she muttered, and twisted away from his grip.
"Is your business complete?"
"No. I am buying elsewhere today." A thought occurred to her, and she whirled around to see the prince following her. "Please do not accompany me to this store, if you please; I cannot afford the prices they charge for nobility. And for some odd reason, you being near me makes me somehow worthy of those prices."
The prince looked startled, and then nodded and took a step back.
"Thank you," she said, surprised at his compliance.
"I shall see you back at the inn."
Irwin was only slightly more helpful than Eadberht, though Irwin's cantankerous mood was regular for him at least. Léofe took the time to sift her hands though the barrels she purchased, looking for the ones with the fewest bugs. Her stomach turned at the sight of the writhing maggots. But she had no choice. Irwin agreed to send a boy with her grain to the farm in four days' time, and she left after paying him exactly what Eadberht should have charged.
Her mood was not improved by this, though she tried to be in good spirits as she walked around the markets to buy lard, wool, currycombs, and lye. The merchants were used to Léofe, and agreed to send the wares with Irwin's boy. She tried not to look over her shoulder towards the inn, where she knew the prince was standing stiffly by the steps and watching her. Why was he doing that, anyway? It seemed perfectly odd behavior for a prince. Her last purchase as a flask of poor quality brandy for her father with the leftover pennies, which she tucked in her basket with her handkerchief. Kicking the dirt road that ran through the town, she walked slowly back to the inn, willing herself not to meet the prince's eyes.
"I am sorry if I have caused you trouble with the merchants," he said abruptly as she approached, and she started.
"It is nothing," she said, though it was a lie. Thinking about the maggots, she shuddered. "I am ready to return now, if you are willing."
"Certainly." He took her basket from her, helping her to dismount Thunderbite before mounting himself, and returning her wares. She settled in, tucking the shawl around her shoulders, trying to disguise her discomposure from being touched so intimately by the prince. She was startled once more as he let out a shrill whistle behind her.
"Bema! Warn me next time," she snapped, turning to glare at him.
He was hiding a smile. "Of course, mistress."
Erkenbrand and Allred came into sight; one from the east and one from the west, greeting the prince with cheerful reports of peace. Finally the trio pressed forward, and Léofe let out a sigh of relief. At least her shopping was done until the spring!
The sun had risen high in the sky now, though the wind remained chilly. Villagers passed the soldiers with wary eyes as they rode, clearly unhappy with a reminder of war in their town, though a few of the younger ladies gave shy smiles. Léofe could only roll her eyes in return. The strains of music began to reach their ears, and when they turned onto the path that led to the farm, they came across an impromptu jig that had manifested in the blacksmith's yard.
"Care to stop?" the prince asked behind her, sounding amused.
"No, thank you, we can continue" she said, fear embroiling her as she recognized several of the revellers. "Please continue, damn it!"
Her words carried across the revelers, and one stocky boy turned and caught sight of her, a grin obstructing his features. "I thought I recognized you! Oi, Léofe, come and have a jig! And afterwards -" He did not continue his sentence, but rather thrusted his scrawny hips in a lewd suggestion.
The attention of some of the other dancers was now fixed on her, and Léofe flushed a deep red, both for the boy's words and that the prince had witnessed it. He seemed to have stiffened behind her, and she did not doubt for a moment that any respect the prince may have had for her was now utterly gone.
"Shove off, Erik!" she snapped. "Just because you can only convince a maid to bed you with coin does not mean you got to sully the names of us intelligent ones!"
"'S not true," Erik said, though his face was turning puce. "I could bed any maid I wanted!"
"Then why haven't you? Prefer the maids with danglers?"
The musicians - a harpist and flautist - now stopped playing, and those that remained dancing stumbled to a halt. "At least I'm not a gutter snipe!" Erik hollered in the newly descended silence, spit flying from his mouth. "Or a half-coin whore!"
Anger blinded her, and with a snarl Léofe swung her leg over the horse's back, fully intending to pound Erik's face in. But strong arms held her in place, and she looked into the prince's face. He was as incensed as she, but he at least was wearing a carefully controlled mask.
"As much as I would enjoy the sight of you pummelling that rat," he said quietly to her, "such action might be ill-advised. Erk?"
"Right behind ye, sire," Erkenbrand was flexing his bare arms in the direction of the boy. Erik, now noticing that his victim had three very large men ready to defend her, took a stumbling step backwards before falling on his rump, looking terrified. Allred was fingering the sword at his waist, with a manic glint in his eye.
"I believe the lady recommended that you - what was the term? Shove off," the prince said, his voice carrying. The attention turned to him, and whispers shuffled through the crowd - prince, prince, prince. And Léofe had thought that she could not blush any deeper. Evidently she was wrong. Her discomfort must have been palpable, for immediately the prince's gloved hand gently pressed into her stiff spine, and surprised, she relaxed under his touch. Why was he doing such a thing, anyway?
"As you were," the prince said to the group, and after a moment of high tension, the musicians began playing once more. Once the dancers began again, and the people hovering around the soldiers dissipated, the prince leaned in close. "Are you quite sure you do not care to dance, mistress? We could cause quite a scandal, you and I."
The temptation of dancing with the prince, and of being able to touch him nearly overrode Léofe's own sense. "I am sure," she said.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, and it was with a sigh of relief that she dismounted Thunderbite and retreated into the house after thanking the prince profusely and, she hoped - adequately enough that he would not bother her again.