Léofe was not entirely sure that she had any nerves left at all. Everything in her that kept her sane - her nerves, her quick wit, her experience - had taken leave of her completely as soon as the prince wrapped his arms around her.
"It is a simple motion," he was saying, though she was only half listening. The warm breath on her ear was far more interesting.
"Is it," she murmured.
"Yes. Pull the cord back so that you are nearly touching your ear - steady on! Keep the handle from moving; your shot will be more accurate that way."
Léofe obediently pulled back the rubber, aiming the stone towards where the prince had directed her.
She started at his suddenly loud voice and dropped the rubber. The stone skittered across the grass only a few yards in front of them, and she blushed. How embarrassing! The action had caused some interest for Brego, who trotted over from the feed trough and sniffed the stone with a suitable measure of disdain.
"Bad luck," Léofe said quickly. "I will be sure to practice more."
"Good! I am gratified to hear that you are so devoted to learning the art of the slingshot." the prince's white teeth shone in a wide smile, and she blushed again. He was standing awfully still, Léofe thought, with his eyes fastened on her. Probably she was imagining the tenderness in his eyes. Her mind had been taking some audacious liberties since the prince had rode in only a quarter-hour earlier.
"Anyway," she said. "Should your men not have returned from their patrol by now? We need to begin shortly if you are to depart by sundown."
The prince seemed to jolt from a stupor. "Yes, they should," he said, voice stern. "I will search them out presently."
It was to be the day that Brego began his war training. It would require all hands available - the prince and Léofe had already discussed this, both being experienced with such a task. Gerdhelm was already heaving pots and pans from their kitchen, for himself and Léofe to make plenty of noise, and Erkenbrand and Allred would be taking a break from their regular patrolling to act as attackers. The prince had only had a few token rides with Brego, and today was to be the real test. Either Brego would take to the commotion, keeping his head and obeying his master, or he would act out insanely and the prince would have to find a new horse. But that was so unlikely it was hardly worth considering.
Léofe knew that Brego was going to make a wonderful war stallion. Horses had personalities, and one who had lived around them could always know which horse was best suited for which lifestyle. For all of Brego's lazy affection for both her and the prince, fire ran in his blood.
War training was a dangerous game, not least of all for Erkenbrand and Allred, who would be closest to Brego's hooves as they alternated between riding and attacking on foot. Léofe had never trained in that manner before, and as her mother had died and her father been lamed under horses' hooves, she felt rather apprehensive. What if the prince was thrown? A lump lodged itself in her throat, and to calm herself she scratched Brego's neck as they waited for the prince and his men to return.
A heavy, gilded saddle was thrown over Brego's back, startling Léofe into taking a step back. The prince grinned at her from the other side of the stallion. "You are spoiling him," he said.
"Yes, I am. If this is to go disastrously, I would prefer that he have a recent and happy memory to recall."
"There will be no disaster," the prince told her. "Erk, Al and I have done this several times before. And I know you have the sense to get yourself gone if Brego charges you."
"Of course," she snapped. "But there is always an off chance that something horrific might happen."
The prince had come around to her side of Brego, tightening straps. He paused in his work, and reached out to gently lift Léofe's chin. "Worry not, my dear," he said quietly. "I will keep you safe."
I do not worry for myself! I worry for you! she wanted to shout. But she could not - the lump in her throat had swollen at his words. His dear? He considered her to be dear? She followed the prince and Brego into the corral, taking her place on the fence with her bells and pans in a haze. My dear, he had said. Perhaps he harbored affection towards her!
That would be impossible, Léofe told herself bitterly, watching uneasily as Erkenbrand toted a long oaken staff towards where Brego was waiting with the prince on his back. The prince could never love her.
"Half-penny that Erkenbrand gets kicked in the chest."
Léofe turned to see Allred's smiling face. "I will take it," she said, grinning back. "And another half that Brego will falter when I call for him."
Already Erkenbrand was trying to push Brego to the left, while the prince was commanding him to go right. The stallion was snorting and prancing backwards, giving the prince a difficult seat. The sun had disappeared behind a blanket of clouds, and to her apprehension a trickle of rain began to fall. Bema! What luck.
It would be a long two days.
"And that was when she threw dung in my face!"
Gerdhelm's loud bellowing laugh at his own story was matched only by Erkenbrand's gusty tones. Allred and the prince laughed far more politely, and Léofe merely sat without saying a word. She had begged stories about her dead mama from her father often before - especially when she was younger, but listening to Gerdhelm's garbled account of their courtship now only made her melancholy.
They all sat around an open fire, enjoying a meal of hearty oatmeal hot cakes and cured sausage. The training had gone well (in Léofe's opinion, which she considered highly), but the hours of shouting and running had made them ravenous.
"Obviously she did not think so ill of you," the prince's mild tone brought Léofe back to the conversation. How was it she had developed such an ear for his voice? It seemed entirely implausible to her, though she had such little experience in matters of the heart. It was all so odd.
"It was the final time that she resisted my suit," Gerdelm said with a smile. "We married only about a month later. And Léofe was born the next spring."
Four grinning faces turned to her, and Léofe blushed in the attention. "It is not so unusual," she said haughtily. "And I do not see why you should leer at me, it is not as if I had any say in the matter."
Gerdhelm rolled his eyes as Erkenbrand guffawed again. The prince smiling benignly at her, and she groaned inwardly as she realized what she had said. If he had admired her before, her tasteless commentary was certainly not helping her cause.
"I would not dare leer at such an expert gambler," Allred cut in with a smile. "I shall beware placing bets with this miss in the future!"
Her papa sent her a questioning look, and Léofe quickly turned her gaze from him. He had forbidden her from gambling years ago after she had embarrassed her uncle at a Midsummer's celebration.
"Perhaps your loss was your own fault," the prince said lazily. "You should know not to bet against a woman when her horse is the subject matter."
At this Erkenbrand laughed even louder, and the tension disappeared as Gerdhelm stood to take empty plates. Léofe stood as well, taking over for her father so that he would not have to walk back to the house. "Thank you, goosey," he murmured to her after passing over the dinnerware, and he sat back down heavily. The training was wearing him out, she thought suddenly. Her papa was not used to using his bad leg so much, and she decided to speak to him about sitting out tomorrow.
She turned back to the fire. "You might find your bed now. Dawn comes early," Gerdhelm said, pulling out his pipe.
Their voices faded into the distance as she walked slowly back to the house. Sent to bed like a child! She blushed to imagine what the prince might think of her now. That she was far too young for his interests, she supposed. Though there was a certain amount of truth to that, she thought dully. She did not know exactly how old the prince was, but he did have wrinkles around his eyes.
Her infatuation with him was becoming hard to bear, she decided as she slipped into bed after cleaning the dishes. It was high time that she forgot him, like the childish obsession it was.
Léofe was awake with the dawn, and dressed hurriedly to get to the yard as soon as possible. From the way the men had been talking about their intentions the night before, they would have been up and about for hours already.
But the three snoozing forms in the great room, compounded by the snoring from her father's curtained bed, proved her wrong. She pursed her lips in annoyance, and searched out old bread from the crock before creeping out the front door to tend to her chores. Still, she could not help but wonder which of the forms had been her prince, and whether he snored. This was likely her only chance to find out. But she curbed her impulse and drew up water from the well with a frustration that fuelled her strength.
The sun had risen and was already warm when she finished with her chores, and the late sleepers finally left the house. Léofe paused in watering their sparse garden, and watched as the prince and Erkenbrand shared a joke. Her heart seemed to tug her in his direction, and she firmly squashed her thoughts.
"Time to go, goosey," Gerdhelm had followed the men out. "We have a hard day ahead of us."
Léofe acquiesced, climbing the steps and handing the pail of water towards him. "Stay behind today, Papa, I beg of you. No stallion is worth your health. I shall take your place today."
Her papa seemed to hesitate for only a moment before he accepted the pail. "Thank you," he said gruffly. "I appreciate your hard work, Léofe. You have lifted many a burden from my shoulders."
Startled that he called her by her name, Léofe felt a rush of emotion and leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. "Do not be late with luncheon!" she teased, and ran to the stables to fetch the bells.
Brego was learning fast, and already could stand his ground against the twin attacks of Erkenbrand and Allred. He was also quite adept at following the prince's orders, which saved the attackers' necks as the fire of fighting began to take hold of Brego. Léofe watched her dear stallion fondly, hoping with all her heart that he would still love her even after the war training. She sighed, and lifted her fingers to her lips and whistled loudly.
Just as she expected, Brego snorted and shifted in her direction, resisting when the prince pulled him in the opposite direction. Léofe allowed her a small smile, and called out his name. Brego became more agitated, and when she whistled again he reared. She was surprised to see the prince glaring at her once he regained control. What wrong had she committed? He had asked her to help with the training, after all, and if Brego could not obey his master's command over her own, he was hardly fit for war. Though it did give Léofe a small sense of satisfaction. The prince spurred Brego, and he trotted over to her, and Léofe reached out her hand to scratch Brego's nose as they stopped at the fence where she was sitting.
"Badly done," the prince said, his eyes dark as he looked down at her. "Very badly done."
Her face heated. "My sincerest pardon," she replied, her chin held high and disdain dripping into every word. "I was under the obviously mistaken impression that I was here to - what were your words? To make noise as to acquaint Brego with the clamor of battle."
His nostrils flared ever so slightly, and Léofe looked coolly back at him. "You are in the right," the prince finally said. "I apologize for losing my temper."
She could have laughed. That was losing his temper?
"I am afraid my anger is because you startled me as well as Brego. I did not expect you to whistle so...shrilly."
"Next time I shall be gentle as a spring rain," she said. "But it seems to me - although I have no expertise in this area - that you might need to work with Brego a bit more, sire." The prince was amused by her winning smile, and nodded to her before turning Brego back into the middle of the corral.
Badly done indeed, Léofe thought to herself crossly. For all her promises of reform, her heart still beat out of control whenever the prince looked at her.
He paused, and then turned to face her once more. "Would it be too much, Léofe, if I asked you to call me by my given name? So few people do, it would be, I think - a mark of the friendship we share regarding Brego."
Regarding Brego. Of course, that was all their friendship was. "Very well," she said. "It seems that you are taking liberties with my name already. It seems to fit to return the favor." But even her comment lacked its usual verve. Why must it hurt so?
He was smiling widely at her. "Whistle as shrilly as you would like, Léofe. After all, we are here for Brego's sake."
"For Brego's sake. I shall do as you wish...Théodred."