The evening was cool, with the clouds holding a promise of rain, so the crackling fire in the hearth was most definitely welcome in Elinor's chilly bedroom. Her dark eyelashes fluttered tiredly as she gazed out the windows, the fire flickering orange onto the glass. Elinor's fingers skillfully wove a needle in and out of the fabric she was currently working on, but her mind wandered elsewhere. Elinor did not even notice when her fingers slipped and the sharp needle prodded her left thumb until it was too late.
"Ow!" she hissed, bringing her thumb to her mouth in an attempt to ease the pain. Elinor admitted that trying to divert her mind with embroidery was a terrible idea in her distracted state, and she promptly set the wooden hoop on the floor. Instead, she clasped her shaking hands together and stared at the fire, making out swirling shapes and attempting to swallow the lump in her throat.
It had only been an hour since her mother and father had come to her room requesting that she come to speak with them in two hours. Elinor had wondered why they had not just told her the news right then, or it would have spared the girl much anxiety. But they were the king and queen after all, so she figured that any argument she posed would be invalid.
Again, she flicked her eyes back toward the window, where she could see that rain was beginning to fall. Being the daughter of the king and queen did not always mean that she was mindful of goings-on, contrary to what people thought. Elinor found that she barely ever knew what was going on, quite honestly. While her parents made plans for the future of the kingdom, Elinor found that she busied herself with her studies, embroidery, voice and instrumental lessons, and anything else a princess was expected to do. The grounds were particularly beautiful to take a walk in, and strolling through the castle gardens made for a pleasant pastime. However many times she attempted to busy herself, she had still not gotten the hang of it, especially when there was important news and she was forced to wait at the king's convenience.
Elinor sighed impatiently and reached around herself to finger her long hair, which had somewhat straggled out of her braid. A lady is patient, she reminded herself, closing her eyes to keep focus, breathing deeply. She is calm and collected. A lady never squirms or jumps at unexpected…
Elinor stood up so fast her chair toppled backwards. She whipped her head around to the door, where her lady-in-waiting stood covering her mouth, as if to suppress a giggle. The princess collected herself, although there was a slight twinge of pink in her cheeks. "Yes, Netta?"
"I just thought I may keep you some company," the girl replied, a hint of a smile still present on her lips. "I can imagine the suspense must be insufferable."
"And why should I feel suspense, my friend?" Elinor asked, feigning confidence. "This is just a little chat with my mum and dad, nothing more."
Netta's eyes widened sizably, as if she had given away a huge secret. "So you don't know? Oh…forgive me, Elinor. Disregard everything I've said…" The girl curtsied briskly and turned to leave, but Elinor was in the doorway in a moment to block her way.
"Oh, no you don't!" she demanded. "What do you know?"
Netta fiddled with one of her long, blonde braids, avoiding eye contact with her mistress. "It is nothing, really. Just a bit of gossip amongst the other servants is all…"
Elinor took her friend by the arm and forcefully led her to the chair by the fire. This was the only way to relieve her anxiety, and she was going to squeeze every last drop of information out of her lady-in-waiting. "Tell me, Netta."
Netta shook her head. "Like I've said, it is only a bit of gossip. The other servants in the kitchen were talking of your father planning to meet with the other clans."
Elinor blinked in surprise. It was quite lucky that one of the servants happened to be her best friend, and even more lucky that the servants were quite the eavesdroppers. "Netta…do you think that this could mean…?"
"War?" Netta finished in a hushed voice. "I don't know, Elinor. There have been a lot of speculations, but why else would your father want to meet with the other clans all of a sudden? We have not been in contact with them for years."
"Then it makes no sense for there to be a war," Elinor declared. "What kind of disagreements could have possibly risen up?"
Netta picked up Elinor's wooden hoop off of the floor, studying the intricate stitch. "You know I am awful at remembering relations between countries and clans, Elinor," she scolded playfully.
Elinor assumed Netta had changed the subject – a usual harmless blunder – but she was slightly grateful for the distraction. "Nonsense!" she said, squeezing her friend's hand. "I sometimes wonder why I have to know these things as well."
"You are the princess, Elinor. If you are going to run the country one day…"
"Don't say it, Netta," Elinor warned, shaking her head. "Please."
Netta stroked her friend's hair gently. "You will be a great ruler, Elinor. You are the smartest, kindest person in the entire kingdom."
Elinor sighed. Ruling the kingdom one day was probably the very last thing she wanted to think about. The pressure in her studies was overwhelming, and becoming ruler hindered on her lessons – at least according to her mother. "Thank you, Netta. But I would rather focus on the troubles at hand."
Netta nodded. For as many times as the topic had come up between them, it was still a touchy subject. The conversations usually ended the same; with Elinor voicing her doubts and Netta doing her best to comfort her. But no matter how many reassurances Netta forced upon the princess, there was always a nagging voice feeding her doubts.
The girls sat together a bit longer, speaking of simpler things like the changing weather, hunting season, and when the next feast was going to be held. The light conversation relieved Elinor a bit, but that relief was soon shattered by a knock at the door and a voice saying, "Princess Elinor, you have been summoned to the throne room."
She groaned inwardly, knowing that her temporary liberation was too good to be true. She nodded unsteadily, trying very hard to restrain herself from reaching up to fiddle with her hair again. Wordlessly, Netta followed her friend out the door and down the long hallway, walking so close that their pinkies touched. It was an enormous comfort for Netta to be there, although it was short-lived when the two reached the large wooden doors, the intricate carvings weaving in and out of Elinor's slightly shaky vision. She shot Netta a look that said "help", but her lady-in-waiting only replied with an uncertain smile. Taking a deep breath, Elinor pushed open the heavy door and entered the room.
Elinor was hit with the familiar wave of the royal smells: thick, perfumed drapes and carpets, heavy smoke from the fireplace, and rosewater. For all of the colorful tapestries hanging on the walls to distract her, Elinor's eyes were immediately drawn to the center of the room where her mother and father sat tall in their thrones, elevated a few steps above the stone floor. Her father looked just as stern as ever, with his strong jaw and long, greying beard. Her mother, however, provided a small comfort as she sat calmly with a serene smile on her face. Elinor took that sign as good news and stepped forward.
"Come closer, my dear," the king said, a slight lightness in his voice. "We have much to discuss."
Elinor moved nearer, keeping her head bowed humbly as she approached.
"Elinor," her mother stated with kind eyes. "How is your embroidery coming along?"
Ah, yes, the formalities. "Very well, mother. I have completed the rose bush gates this past hour."
"Soon, we will have a lovely quilt for your bedroom," the queen smiled, inclining her graceful neck.
"And your studies?" her father asked gruffly, looking as though he could not care less about how her studies were going.
"They are well, Father."
A few moments of silence. Elinor wished that she could just burst out and ask what the big news was for she could scarcely contain herself. Were they truly going to war? And why did this concern her?
Her mother finally relieved her silent suffering, dropping the regulations. "You are growing into a strong, young woman, Elinor. This coming week will be your eighteenth birthday, will it not?"
The girl nodded slowly, a feeling of dread washing over her. She knew that her parents would be talking about her duty to rule the kingdom, she just knew it. She found that she could not bring herself to look at the king and queen. They could not possibly be asking her to take up the crown by her next birthday, could they?
The king chuckled at her obvious reaction, which only made her even more self-conscious. "Do not be disheartened, daughter. We have no intentions of giving away the kingdom so hastily. However, you are coming of age and your mother and I believe that the time has come for you to have a husband."
Elinor's jaw dropped a bit, but she quickly closed it.
"Since we bore no sons, we see it only fitting that you provide us with a new king," the queen explained.
Well, yes, Elinor had always known that. "You…you wish for me to choose a husband?"
Her father made a contradictory noise in his throat. "Not exactly, dear. You will marry a determined man from one of the four clans."
Elinor furrowed her delicate eyebrows thoughtfully. So there was not going to be a war, but a marriage. She questioned which option she disliked more.
"Do not think this is an arranged marriage," her mother said, reading her thoughts. "Your father and I will not be the ones deciding whom you marry. The Highland Games will resolve that." At Elinor's puzzled expression, her mother continued. "We have asked the four clans to participate in The Highland Games for your hand, and they have all accepted. On your eighteenth birthday, the clans will gather here to celebrate, and then The Games will commence!"
The girl took a minute to process everything that was being thrown at her, swallowing hard. "Mother," she finally stammered. "What exactly are 'The Highland Games'?"
"The Games are a series of events for the competing clans," her father jumped in, sounding quite enthusiastic about the whole ordeal. "The winner will earn your hand in marriage and a chance to rule the kingdom by your side."
"And you will be the one who chooses the challenges!" the queen added.
Elinor vaguely remembered the stories her mother used to tell her of brave warriors fighting for a royal's hand in marriage. The tales were long and exciting, with many action sequences to keep the princess up all night dwelling on them. There was always the occasional dragon or troll to keep things more interesting, but Elinor doubted that any fascinating creatures were going to show up to The Games.
"Do not fret, daughter," her mother told her with a smile. "This is an adventure! The sons of the clan leaders will be fighting for you."
After a minute more of reassurances and comforts, Elinor was dismissed from the room. She shuffled into the hall, closing the heavy wood door behind her. The princess did not bother to keep her head up as she shuffled uncertainly back to her bedroom to give Netta the news.
Quick author's note: Thanks to all who are reading! Enjoy, and comments are greatly appreciated! Also, I made the cover art myself, so please go check out my deviantart to see a full-sized version! -