The sound of sword on shield rang through the courtyard.
"Good, Milady, very good! But next time, don't go so far over. You might lose your balance," said the Swordmaster.
"I might lose my balance? Is that what you afraid of, Swordmaster? Or that I might accidentally cut your head off?" I replied. I never lose my balance. Never. I have the finest Swordmaster in all of France, all except at the royal palace, of course. I have the talents and a father with the money that will get me what I want to improve my talents, even though those talents may be impractical. You see, I am a woman of seventeen in a house of noblemen; I am not likely to ever get in a swordfight, whether I want to or not. I practice anyway, and I improve each day, moving from raw talent to the skills of a practiced swordsman, or swordswoman, as the case may be.
"Lady Hilda! His Lordship would like to see you!" Roland called, running toward us. Roland is our stable boy, messenger, and one of my most trusted friends. We have known each other since we were babies; Roland's mother is our housekeeper and married to the keeper of the stables (which is why Roland is the stable boy and good with horses). Roland is a year older than I, but that doesn't make much of difference in our friendship.
Roland finally got to us and started to take my sword, but I refused his help. "I can get it myself, Roland."
"I am sorry, Milady. Your father said it was sorely urgent, and you must come right away. I saw the king's carriage not far off; you might want to get into a dress before he arrives." He had said this all in a rush as he was still trying to take my sword and shield from me.
I looked down at my armor, sparring shirt, and trousers and sighed. It got so tiring hiding everything from the world, a world that would only ever see me as the pretty daughter of a nobleman, or the petty wife of a worthy earl, or duke, or whomever my father chose for me to spend my life with (Though I do have more of a say in my marriage than most since Father knows that I won't stay with a man I don't approve of for too long. Or more, they won't stay with me and my sword for too long). I finally gave in to Roland's insistent tugging.
"Well then, help me get this thing off!" I shouted. I did not want to be late to see Father. Roland began to help me remove my armor, letting me get most of it off. I was still a girl.
When the metal suit was finally off, I rushed to my chambers, the closest to the courtyard, screaming the whole way for Olivia, my first, and favorite, maid.
In my chambers, I met Mary already there to replace Olivia, who was nowhere in sight. As she undressed and dressed me in one of my formal gowns, she said in her quiet voice, "Olivia is gone, Milady. She is visiting her sickly mother and brother in the next village over." Why had no one told me? Why had Mary not told me sooner? Olivia was like a mother to us both. How long had Olivia been gone? When would she be back? All of these questions stirred, mixed, and waited on my tongue to be asked, but now was not the time. Now, I was to see Father.
Father was a nobleman, as well as a merchant, a fine friend of the king, and completely crazed for whatever money was to be had. That was why I was curious why he wanted me just as the king's carriage was fast approaching our estate.
"Ah, Hilda! Good of you to get here so fast, and you changed into just the perfect dress!" said Father lovingly when I got to the drawing room.
"Roland saw the king's carriage coming. I thought that you would want me to look my best for His Majesty."
"Good, good, that is exactly right," he continued, looking distracted and nervous. Father is never nervous, unless he is afraid an important business matter might go wrong. Even then, it is seldom that he is nervous enough to wring his hands, as he was doing, anxiously, now. The nervousness was contagious; I found myself fidgeting, especially because Father was looking at me with an intensity that was hard to ignore.
"Hilda, I need to tell you something before His Highness' carriage arrives. Um…" his hands were wringing faster and a tremor came to his voice. He said, "Prince Charlemagne and his father are coming here to, well…for, um…well, I'll just explain. Sweetie, whatever happens, remember not to get angry; this is for your own good." By now, I was both scared and dying to know what was going on. Father had not called me "sweetie" since I was five. I had never known Father to stutter, falter, or wring his hands as I had seen in this single conversation.
"My Lord, His Majesty and the prince are here to see you," come from Mary, though I only faintly heard it, my own thoughts and questions drowned them out.
He sighed with relief, "Good, and Mary, could you come here?" Mary went to Father, and then went off to do his bidding. This, again, I barely noticed as I was so lost in my thoughts. What could this mean? Why was Father anxious about a visit from the king? What was it about this visit that was so different from all the rest?
The valiant prince, as pompous as ever, and the regal king, both in all their traveling finery arrived shortly.
"Your Highnesses, it is a pleasure to have you here," Father said, bowing.
"Your Highnesses," I repeated with a curtsy, as usual. It was strange. The king went straight to Father, but Prince Charlemagne had eyes only for me. We had not seen each other for a year; the prince had gone to visit with the prince of England. He had grown taller, and he seemed…handsome. I had never thought of Prince Charlemagne as handsome before. I had always seen him as a chubby, too-curly-haired, pompous jerk. But now…he had thinned out as he grew taller. His hair had grown out as well; it wasn't too curly, just curly enough. He still looked haughty and pompous, though.
His eyes continued to stare at me. Why was he still looking at me? Oh no! I didn't put my hair up! It must be a mess! I raised my arms up to try to tame my feral locks of hair when suddenly the prince blurted out.
"No! Don't put it up. It looks good down," Prince Charlemagne said quite unexpectedly, startling everyone in the room, even himself. He didn't sound rude or arrogant, only fascinated with the wild curls which framed my face. I left it down; I didn't want to put it into the bun I had intended anyway.
Father cleared his throat, "Hilda, could you come here please." It was not a question; it was a command that I dare not disobey! I walked through the drawing room and then on to the study where Father indicated I should go. Father followed me and closed the door. He never closed the study door, for it was so thick and heavy that it took both Father and I to open it back up again. Whatever conversation we were going to have, Father did not want us to be heard. "Now Hilda," he began, "I will tell you what this is about. Prince Charlemagne has asked for your hand in marriage." I knew what Father was going to say next, though I still dreaded what I would hear. "And I accepted."
How could he do this to me?! I had not seen Prince Charlemagne for a year, and suddenly he wants to marry me? I am seventeen years old! I want to do more with my life than sit on a dusty throne all day long next to my arrogant jerk of a husband! How could he make me marry the PRINCE! He always thinks he knows what's best for me, but he only knows what is best for him and his moneymaking schemes! I sat silently fuming for a long time.
"Hilda, I remind you, I have already accepted his offer, I cannot go back on my word to His Majesty; that would be treason. I knew you would not like this. I have arranged for you to stay at the castle until the wedding so you can get to know the prince better before you become man and wife," he finished. I shivered at the thought at being a wife to anyone, prince or not.
"I will accept, if only that I have no choice," I finally agreed, as I knew I must. Father would never go back on his word, especially if it involved money or his friendship to the king, and this had both.
"Then your things are packed and ready to leave when you are," was Father's response. Suddenly so many things came into place. I was the reason Father was nervous. I was the thing he was afraid would ruin his plans. Now I knew why this visit was different from all the rest: I would be going back with them. I knew why Father called Mary and exactly what he said to her. She was to pack up my things so that I could not think anymore about the matter and leave with the two royals as soon as possible. I would not back down if I didn't have the time to think about staying. I knew why Olivia was away, or should I say sent away. She is rational and might have talked me in to staying where I belong. Olivia is cautious and would not have allowed me to do this. She was the mother I didn't have, the guardian who cared for me through everything. Olivia would never let me submit to this insanity, while Mary did as she was told and would regret it later. Olivia probably left early this morning and was returning as soon as possible after I was gone; our house staff was of limited supply because of my selective talent choice, my shameful hobby, my disgraceful passion. Few can contain the secrets of noblemen and even fewer could be trusted with a deception such as mine.
"Now that everything is settled, could you help me open this door?" Father said, concluding the conversation. I helped push the door as far as Father allowed me. So as to make me seem more feminine, Father refused my help as soon as we came into view of Their Majesties, forcing me to stand back and watch him struggle with the door like the lady I was pretending to be.
When Prince Charlemagne found him struggling, he aided Father getting the door open the rest of the way. "He seemed to be doing fine with that door. Why did it become so difficult?" he said absentmindedly.
The question caught me off guard, but Father was ready for it. "The rug started there," he answered, and indeed it did. Father's answer was perfectly logical and completely true, but it wasn't the entire truth.
Father and I stepped back into the drawing room. Father and the king conferred a little more while Prince Charlemagne came up to me, saying, "I did not want to do this either you know, my father put me up to it as well."
"How did you…?"
"Your eyes gave you away when you looked at your father," he looked down, as though ashamed, "and when you looked at me." This was going to be a strange visit to the castle; one that I will never be coming back from.
"Am I allowed to bring a servant, to help me feel more at home?" I asked. I wanted someone who knew me for me, not from a reputation or a pretend attitude. While the prince thought about my question, I wondered whom I could bring. Roland couldn't go; his father was too old to run the stables by himself. He was needed here. Olivia was gone and would not be back before I left; Father would make sure of that. It would have to be Mary. No one else knew me like those three, not even Father.
"Yes." Prince Charlemagne's answer snapped me out of my thoughts. "Yes, you may bring a servant, but only one." I already knew that, but there was no point in saying it, so I kept silent while I rang the servant bell.
Roland's mother, our housekeeper, came in to answer the bell's call, dressed in one of her best uniforms and apron. "Yes, Milady?" she asked.
"Please tell Mary to pack her things as well as mine. She is to come with me to the castle," I told her.
"Right away, Milady," she replied as she went off to follow my orders.
I gave everyone hugs as I said good-bye. That is, until I got to Roland.
I felt since we were such good friends that he deserved to hear the news from me, not from the rumors that were bound to spread. Though, to tell the truth, I was dreading it. I found him in the stables, grooming the horses like he always did when he was anxious.
"What happened, Hilda? You look terrible, like you are being forced to stop practicing with the Swordmaster," he said before I even got a chance to speak. I had not thought of this yet, but it was probably true. I needed to act more feminine to the royal family, as well as the court, if I was ever going to marry the prince, but that was not what I was here for.
"No, it is worse," I started and the whole story tumbled out. As I told the events that had happened, I was terrorized to find that I was crying. I never cried, just like I never lost my balance. But there I was with hot tears spilling down my cheeks as I told my terrifying twist of fate to our stable boy.
I hate people who cry, and I hated myself for crying, for crying in front of someone, anyone, especially Roland.
I finished my sad tale, trying hard to stop the water flowing from my eyes and onto my face, yet I barely succeeded.
"I wish I could go with you and Mary," Roland said, trying to console me. I could tell he was as horrified at the tears I had just shed as he was the nightmare I had just told. What I couldn't tell was if he meant the words he had said.
By the time I had finished my good-byes it was evening, and the king and prince decided to stay the night at our estate. Prince Charlemagne got the vacant chambers closest to my rooms that were reserved for guests and the king the closest to Father's.
As it turned out the closest part of the estate to my living quarters was an adjoining set of rooms made for my "court friends", though I had never ever been to court enough to make any friends and the rooms were never used for that singular purpose, if I had ever had any friends stay in those rooms, it would have been Mary or Olivia. Those adjoining rooms were mostly used by a select group of rich earls and dukes that Father approved and hoped I might take a fancy to, though to these snobs I did not ever like I made clear that they were not, in any circumstances, to even peek into my chambers because I would be watching and it would not be a pretty sight if I caught them. This time, however I was so worn out from my predicament that I forgot to give Prince Charlemagne my threatening speech, sometimes with a sharp dagger poking out from the safety of my skirts.
Roland had asked if I wanted to talk to him more in my chambers after bed, but I told him I would be fine. That was another thing, Roland would come visit me by climbing up a sturdy plant growing outside the window of the empty chambers, but only if he could get there without being noticed. Of course, he had to ask me first.
I am sure Father sent the prince to those quarters for a purpose, as he does everything for a purpose.