A popular story in Pherae was that of the brown bear and the lady. A lady of a small barony went everyday into her garden. From afar, a great brown bear watched her and fell deeply in love with the clever, kind woman. One day, when his love was greatest, he ventured into the garden and asked, "Lady, lady, will you marry me?"

And of course the lady said, "No, no, you're not the man for me. I will wait for my love, my long-lost love, stolen by the sea."

Elle's favorite stories were a far cry different from this melancholy tale. She didn't mind it, of course, since it was her two sisters' special favorite. Their nurse, Corrie, was inveigled to repeat it again and again for special gifts, like a spare girdle or jam tart.

Today there was no time for stories, of course. Elle's sister Tatiana, only seven, was putting up a fuss that shook the rushes on the castle floor. She hated baths and as the youngest she was horrifically spoiled.

"Tati, Tati," Corrie begged, trying to hold the squiggling girl in the tub as though she was a dog.

"No! No no no!" Tati screamed. Elle plugged her ears, unable to see her needlepoint straight.

"Shut your mouth!" Caterina swore angrily, shivering in her light dressing gown. "Roland's wounds, Tati!"

"Kitty, don't yell at her, you're bigger than that!" Elle reprimanded but her words were not heard.

"Tati," Corrie begged. She was a simple woman with stringy brown hair in a coif that Elle had put in herself. Corrie was like a mother and a sister in one—she was hardly older than Elle.

Tati shrieked pathetically. Anyone but her nurse and sisters would have been moved to tears, but the marquess and his entourage waited in the hall. Tati was a hindrance. Elle longed to go down by herself. She was bathed and dressed in her best gown—blue with a light colored shawl. But the dress was too short by four inches and everyone could see the long white shift, which caused Elle grief. Corrie assured her that with her pretty face no one would think to look at the hem of her dress.

Tati's violet curls hung straight down her back, soaked now. She screamed harder. Elle colored, wondering if Marquess Lucas could hear the little banshee all the way in the hall.

Without saying anything, Elle stabbed her needle into the piece she was working and folded it up. She'd tolerated Tati long enough and stormed out, deeply embarrassed by her sister's immature wailing. Her own purple hair was still quite damp. Elle thought of a quiet place, one that Corrie could easily find her in.

Elle ran away to the courtyard of the manse, empty now that the horses and men had been installed properly. They did not live in a proper castle, being too small of a barony to allow for that. A young man that she did not recognize stood waiting there off to the side. He had the look and bearing of a knight, but turned away when he saw her. Elle smiled and thought that this light-haired fellow might be a member of Marquess Lucas's ranks. She put her hands behind her back and sidled up to tease him—her favorite pastime was to make young men uncomfortable. She was good at it, too.

She circled around until he had to look at her. "My name's Elle."

"W-well met, Elle," he stammered. Elle decided that he was too adorable to let go.

"Well met, Sir Knight."

At this point he ran out of things to say. All young men her age were so malleable, it seemed. She was only fifteen, but looked a little more mature, with a long lovely ivory neck and sophisticated expression. Elle bit back a very childish giggle and kicked at a pebble or dirt clod on the ground.

"Well? Aren't you going to tell me why you're here?" she asked. He was turning pink.

"I'm waiting for my lord to return," he said with more conviction. Oh no, she was losing him!

"Ooh, who is you lord, Sir Knight?" Elle said, her voice gushing a little too much for her taste.

"The son of Marquess Pherae," the knight said, both unsure of the pronouncement and yet proud of his duty. "He—"

"Marcus! I've returned."

Elle almost pouted before she looked to the direction of the voice. But when she saw the young lordling, she almost forgot herself entirely.

Young women, especially at Elle's unpredictable age, are given to believing themselves deeply in love at first sight. She flushed—she hoped that it was at least becoming—and cast her long-lashed eyes downwards. "Milord," she said reverently. It coincided with Marcus—that was his name, right?—and they spoke at the same time, the same word.

Elle thought him to be a little older than she, perhaps by four or five years, and extremely handsome, despite the garish red hair. He wore a dark blue to counter it and a thin gold diadem for rank. She curtsied and wished his eyes upwards so as not to see her short hem. To her great joy, he seemed as speechless as her.

"Erm—Marcus, is this an acquaintance of yours? I didn't know you knew anyone in Tilany," the lordling said, speaking as though he was trying to swallow something very large at the same time.

"I am Lady Eleanora, milord, the daughter of Baron Tilany," Elle said meekly.

"Well met, Lady Eleanora," the young lord said. His peer stood silent. Elle couldn't have cared less for his thoughts now. "I am Lord Elbert."

"Well met, Lord Elbert," Elle smiled in her most endearing fashion, holding up her head so her most attractive feature—her long white neck—was most prominent and not, for instance, her out-grown gown.

Marcus stared at the ground behind her as she and Lord Elbert went inside together. Elle could hear him walking three steps behind them.

..0..

Elle lay on her back, waiting for her sister to fall asleep. Kitty slept like a log but getting there took time. Elle was impatient to see Elbert again, although he would not again be in Tilany for some time after tonight. For a fortnight, her father had housed the Marquess's son and knights and now they had to move north towards the capital once more. Corrie's voice floated over the crackle of the fire. She was telling Tati the story of the brown bear again.

"So the brown bear came once again into the lassie's garden and again asked her 'Lady, lady, will you marry me?'" Corrie said, thickening her voice to be the bear. "And again she replied, as proud as she had before 'No, no! You're a bear, not a man! Not the man for me! My lover will return and skewer you—my long-lost lover, lost at sea!'"

Not lost at sea, Elle thought, pulling the blanket on her side of the bed. Kitty had started snoring so she figured it safe. But he is going far away.

..0..

Elle stood up. The new gown she'd made fell satisfactorily to her heels, but she would have to get used to holding it up now. The material Elbert had sent her was a fine blue. She hoped deeply that he would be at her gate, however unlikely.

Elle was alone in the bedroom she shared with her two sisters. Corrie had taken the both of them to the town nearby to go buy a ribbon each—Tati and Kitty were horribly jealous of the attention Elle was receiving from both her parents and her suitor, who remained "secret." In the letter, he had asked her not to disclose his identity just yet—although she knew, of course. Elle spun around to see how it flowed. The dress twirled like a flower around her legs.

"Very lovely," her mother said proudly from the door.

Elle laughed sharply, shocked for a moment at Baroness Dallana's sudden appearance. "Mother!"

"My daughter, there is someone waiting for you in the garden," Dallana hinted. "It is beautiful under the fruit trees at this time of year, so I sent the lad there. You shouldn't keep him waiting much longer."

Elle yelped and rushed past her mother, almost tripping. She hiked up her new skirt a little. Yes, this would take some getting used to. Her mother was right, Elle thought, letting herself into the side garden. It was very much like a small farm in itself, with rows of vegetables and orchards. The pink flowering trees did make it lovely, though.

To Elle's disappointment, it was Elbert's vassal waiting. Oh, mother must have confused him with Elbert. Understandable.

"Well met, Sir Marcus," Elle said cheerfully, anyway. He must have a letter or a message for her.

"Well met, Lady Ell—eanora," Marcus said, fumbling over her name strangely. It was too long, like she always thought. Eleanora was a cumbersome name to say over and over again.

The silence between them was uncomfortable. Elle frowned. "Do you have a message for me?" she said, deciding to get straight to the point.

Marcus nodded quickly, as if he was remembering something. "L-Lord Elbert hopes that you made use of his gift."

"You're looking at it," Elle said proudly.

"He will be pleased," Marcus said. "And this is for you."

He handed her a folded envelope, a little worn from delivery. Elle accepted it eagerly, curtseying awkwardly. Her foot caught on the hem of her skirt and she lost her balance. Marcus caught her halfway from the ground. Elle held very still for a moment before standing on her own again.

"Thank you, Marcus," she said, bending her head so he could see her face flush red from embarrassment. She couldn't see if he was flustered as well or not. "I'm a little clumsy today, aren't I?"

"It was my pleasure, milady," he said quickly.

Elle distanced herself. "I would be honored if you would stay here until tomorrow before going back to . . ."

"Kathelet," Marcus supplied. "Lord Elbert is there in his father's place. He entrusted me to deliver, erm, that, to you, milady. But I could not stay knowing that my lord is missing a part of his retinue, however small."

"You sell yourself short, sir," Elle said truthfully. While women weren't supposed to watch the small tourney that took place after dinner, Elle knew a spot on the roof of the manse where she had a bird's eye view of the whole spectacle. Marcus had gone undefeated in both sword and spear until Elbert stepped up. "But I'm sure Lord Elbert would be displeased if I did not act as a good hostess to his most trusted vassal. You will put in a good word for me, won't you?"

There. She had control of her face now, and hopefully it was as pure white as the rest of her.

"Of course, Lady Eleanora," Marcus bowed respectfully. She couldn't tell if he was sharing her joke or not. "I would be happy to help you in any way I can."

..0..

"Tatiana, you're too old for this," Eleanora admonished. Tatiana, thankfully, had grown out of screaming, but her resentment towards baths had hardly changed.

"I hate being cold," Tatiana whined. She crossed her arms over her forthcoming breasts as Corrie scrubbed and scraped at her dark hair.

Eleanora rolled her eyes from her bed and reached into her bosom to pull out her last letter from Elbert. His handwriting was a poor substitute for him, but at least it was something. The words, although mostly just normal letter-fare, seemed to be almost poetry to her. Sometimes she read them aloud and the music of the sounds entranced her—how eloquent he was!

Officially, now, the Marquess's son had courted her for a good three years and showed every intent of asking for her hand in marriage. Eleanora's father was overjoyed at the prospect, although a dowry would be difficult to scrape together. Eleanora kept each latest letter close to her heart. By the time the ink had smudged thoroughly, a new one arrived. She was very much in love.

This time, the house was preparing for Elbert's arrival. The rumor was that he would propose to Lady Eleanora at last. Of course she would accept, but she'd drive herself insane with waiting before that.

Elbert called her Eleanora instead of Elle and when he did he made the normally cumbersome name very romantic and beautiful. Gradually, even Corrie stopped using the old nickname.

Eleanora leaned her head back and sighed. Caterina careened into the room. She had big feet for a fifteen year old, hardly the delicate blossom that Eleanora had been, and was clumsy to a fault.

"Lord Elbert's messenger is here!" Caterina announced. Eleanora was on her feet in a flash. Her hem now reached her feet, as was proper. Elbert had sent her the fine material and she had sewn it herself. The two of them shared a favorite color—blue.

Sir Marcus waited for her in the courtyard, looking for all the world like he was about to jump on his horse and ride off again as soon as he was done.

"Lady Eleanora," Marcus bowed respectfully.

"What news do you bring, Marcus?" Elle said eagerly.

"Only good kinds, milady," he said, smiling thinly. Marcus served as Elbert's go-between when he was required elsewhere. He lowered his voice. It was midday and the yard was not entirely empty. "Tell me, Lady . . . do you love Lord Elbert?"

"What? Of course," Eleanora replied, confused. Marcus had a strange look on his face. She found it difficult to read him sometimes—half the time she saw him he was courteous and respectful and the other half red-faced and stammering. This was new.

"Truly?"

"Truly," Eleanora repeated, affirmatively. The seriousness of it took her wrongly. She made an attempt at levity. "Do birds fly?"

Marcus didn't laugh. Now he was confounding her utterly. She decided not to care. Some men just didn't make sense.

"Milady, this is for you. Lord Elbert says to tell you with any luck he will be here in three days."

As Marcus rode away, Eleanora let out a shriek of joy. Everyone who heard it jumped in fear—it sounded like an animal had just been gored.

..0..

The soon-to-be Marchioness left her soon-to-be husband's table early for sleep. She'd just come off the road hours ago and she was exhausted. Eleanora was unsuited to travel. Marcus had offered to show her the way to the room that would be hers until the wedding. Eleanora accepted, welcoming the familiar company before Elbert's servants were foisted upon her. She thought she would continue doing her own laundry and sewing, but her future mother-in-law—insane woman!—had thoroughly forbidden it. Eleanora now had a young handmaid that was preparing the bed.

Marcus was oddly silent. Eleanora had thought he'd become colder to her in the days leading up to her wedding, but not enough to totally ignore her.

"Marcus, is there anything wrong?" she asked. The question sounded perfectly rational to her.

Marcus whirled around to face her, a strange and frightening expression on his face. "Yes, milady. There is something wrong."

Eleanora took a step back. Marcus must have seen the fright on her face, but did nothing to alter the intensity of his words.

"Lady Eleanora," he said. "Forgive me. I must speak my mind before it becomes entirely shameful to do so. You are promised to my lord—my lord who loves you and is loved by you in return—but I love you as well. I have always loved you, milady, even when it became clear that I could not have you. If it had been any other man than my lord and friend, Elbert, who is almost a brother to me—I would have struck him down in an instant. I . . ."

The words trickled to a halt there, leaving Eleanora stunned. She opened her mouth to speak but could not assemble two words of a response. Marcus bowed.

"I know it is wrong of me to say this so close to your wedding day, which is to be of utmost bliss," Marcus apologized in a low voice. "I will ask Lord Elbert to be absent that day and leave it to your discretion to inform him of my confession. Unless you can no longer stand my presence, I will continue to escort you to your chamber and then leave."

"I . . ." Eleanora felt her throat go dry. How had she not seen this? Marcus spoke so passionately—this . . . "I will allow you to continue. I am tired."

"Of course, milady," Marcus said, trying not to look at her.

He made good on his promise. Marcus had been put on patrol that day at his request. In return, Eleanora never told Elbert that she had almost reconsidered their marriage.

..0..

In Pherae, there is a popular story about a lady who was three times asked by a brown bear to wed him and three times refused him. Eleanora had grown fonder of the story as time went by. When Eliwood had brought Ninian to live with them, the new mother-in-law had shared all her folklore with the young bride, who, Eli confessed to his mother one night, was not from this world. Ninian didn't care for the story particularly. She liked happier tales.

Unsurprising, considering her history.

Eleanora took to watching the ocean in her advancing age. Pherae had a port city, like any territory on the coast, and while it wasn't nearly as famous as Badon's, the sight was just as comforting.

"Thank you for the escort, Marcus," Eleanora said, accepting his assistance as she dismounted. She smiled. Time had taken a toll on both of them. When she looked in her handmirror she saw little wrinkles around her eyes and forehead—made worse, of course, by grieving. She wore blue once more for the first time since Elbert's funeral. Eli had been happy to see her wear it. Not surprisingly, it was his favorite color too.

A stablehand came to take her horse. Marcus almost shooed him after from his until Eleanora put a hand on his shoulder. "Won't you stay? I would be honored to have you as my first guest in my new home."

"No, milady," Marcus said, truly apologetic. "I must return to the Marquess. Kathelet is in violent uproar and Lord Eliwood requires me as soon as possible to maintain the peace. It is of the greatest priority, next to your safety, of course."

"Very well," Eleanora acquiesced. "Until we meet again, Sir Marcus."

"Until we meet again," Marcus replied, preparing to leave once more.

Eleanora's home was on a hilltop overlooking the sea-faring city. She could see almost everything from her gate. A cold wind made her shudder in the bright of noon; after all, it was almost wintertime. A strange thought crossed her mind—floating as they so often did these days.

The third and final time, the brown bear intruded in on the maid and roared, "Lady, lady, marry me! I will shred you to pieces, a thousand pieces, should you refuse again!"

Unafraid, she stood to her full height and stared him in the eye—"No, no! You're not the man for me, bear, you're not the man for me! I've told you three times that I will wait for my lover to come for me!"

"Lady, lady, I love thee," said the bear sadly. "Your lover is dead, drowned at sea. I've seen his body, washed up on the beach. But you have three times refused me. Thusly, I will honor you and from now on leave you be."