Six year old Ellen curled up on her father's lap, ignoring the talk going on around her. It was early yet, and the celebrations had yet to begin. The Duke of Ravencliff doted on his eldest daughter, to Gwennyth's disapproval, but as much as Ellen loved Gwennyth, the woman was only a nurse and had no authority to say anything about what her father did.
When the weather was fine, Ellen's father often took her up in the saddle before him, when he went riding. Oftentimes he would sneak her an extra sweet when he thought Gwennyth did not see. The old nurse insisted Ellen would grow up to be spoiled by all the attention, but her doting father seemed not in the least worried about it.
Ellen used both hands to push back wayward chestnut curls from her small oval face. Her fair skin held a light blush, while gray eyes sparkled with contentment. She toyed with the end of her braid for a few moments, as she watched the activity in the hall, then tossed the braid back over her shoulder, out of her way.
She laid her head against her father's chest, and lovingly stroked the smooth embroidery in his finely woven wool tunic. She pressed her ear against his broad chest, listening to his strong heartbeat, and for a moment enjoyed the rumble of his laughter deep within. She smiled at the comforting sound, which sometimes made her laugh. How long had that sound been silent? How long has it been since Papa really laughed, like I remember? Ellen silently answered her own question. He stopped laughing when Mama left us. I know he misses her so much. But he has the three of us. Mayhap he will laugh again like he used to.
A few words softly spoken caught Ellen's attention. She leaned back in her father's arms to get an upside down view of Molly gathering a sleepy Kitty into her arms.
Gwennyth says Kitty is most like Mama, she has Mama's golden hair and blue-green eyes. She made Mama and Papa very happy, always like sunshine. Papa says Kitty is fey and brings back happy memories for him. He says Kitty will always remind him of Mama. She watched Molly carefully step down from the dais as Kitty wrapped a small chubby arm around the maid's neck, and gave a contented sigh. When they disappeared around the curve of the staircase, Ellen turned her head and noticed her father looking down at her, one eyebrow raised. She smiled, and was rewarded with a light kiss on her forehead, as he helped her sit up again.
She turned slightly, to better view the goings on in the great hall. Lady Margaret stood near one corner of the large room, speaking with the musicians. It seemed as if Aunt Margaret had been at Ravencliff forever, when in reality she arrived just after her sister's death. Ellen had few memories of her mother, but Aunt Margaret often told stories, keeping Lady Anne's memory alive for her children. Ellen had, on occasion, heard grownups talk about Margaret's husband, how he had followed King Richard on crusade to the Holy Lands. Too many years had passed, they said, for him to still be alive. Aunt said her husband went on crusade and has not come back. I wonder if he went away like Mama did. Papa likes Aunt Margaret and says she's good to us. I like her, too.
Ellen studied the four musicians and noticed they bore similar resemblance to one another. She thought it must be a father and his sons. Their clothing was of fine wool, better in quality than most servants, but not as fine as the nobility. Shades of forest green and brown were muted, since only nobles were allowed to wear bright, rich colors. The lively carols and ballads they played provided a festive background for the guests partaking of the sumptuous meal. Between tunes, the servants brought food and drink to the musicians, and they refreshed themselves, then continued to perform to the best of their skills. Later, they would have stories to tell. There were also a bard, acrobats, and a play to be performed. They had arrived earlier in the day, ready to perform in exchange for a meal and shelter for the night. Ellen's favorite part was when the servants took down many of the tables to make room for dancing. She faintly remembered watching her parents join other couples, sharing their joy and laughter--or perhaps it was something Aunt Margaret had described often enough, that Ellen could imagine the scene. She dreamed of one day doing the same, sharing love and laughter with a handsome young knight. Sadness overcame her for a moment, as she secretly wished to see her father take part in the festivities once again, but she knew better than to bring it up.
Ellen's eyes narrowed and she shook her head in protest to her father's gentle offer of a piece of roast venison. She was more interested in the activity around her, and wanted to watch everyone else eat, drink and laugh. Servants scurried about the hall, replacing platters of venison, game birds, and pork. Fruit tarts, pies and puddings rounded out the elaborate meal. Goblets were kept filled with spiced wine, for honored guests, while the villagers enjoyed quality ale.
From her perch on her father's knee, Ellen giggled aloud when one of the first time servers created a scene. A thoughtless male dinner guest waved a drumstick about as he chatted with those around him. Three scruffy, yellow hunting hounds trotted from seat to seat, searching for a handout. Muzzles were raised and noses twitched at the appetizing scents or roasted meat. One of the animals spotted the drumstick being flailed about in the air, jumped up and snatched it from the unsuspecting hand, then wheeled around to make his escape. At the same time, a maid leaned toward the guest to offer more bread. The excited hound hit the bottom of her basket, knocking it out of the horrified servant's hands. Loaves of bread were sent flying in all directions. Nearby guests dove to save the breads, laughing and shouting as the mayhem occurred. The boasting diner sat with an empty hand in the air, a lap full of bread and a confused look on his face. The red faced diner burst into loud guffaws, as the hapless serving girl darted away toward the kitchen, her face flushed with embarrassment. Ellen felt her father's arm suddenly tighten about her waist as she almost fell from his lap, laughing and holding her sides.
This Christmas brought guests to Ravencliff for the first time since her mother, Lady Anne, had died three years earlier. Old and close friends of Lord Hugh renewed bonds of friendship, and spoke of past adventures. There were also a dozen men from across the border. Scotsmen. The strangers were plainly dressed in yards of plaid wool. Much of it was gathered about their waists and held snuggly in place with belts. The other end draped loosely over one shoulder where a brooch of some sort held the gathered material together and kept it from falling off. Knee-high soft leather boots were cross-tied. The men kept to themselves and spoke only in their own strange language. Despite their obvious dislike for being in an English castle, they helped themselves to the bounty being served, while their leader sat next to Lord Hugh.
Ellen did not understand what the strangers were about, and at the moment didn't care. She sat quietly, enjoying the warmth of her father's finely woven wool tunic and the scent of pine clinging to the material. She felt secure and loved in the comfort of his strong arms, where the chill of the hall was kept at bay.
Ellen scanned the west end of the great hall, and found her brother, Gordon, sitting at a small table before the hearth. He was paying close attention to one of the household knights explaining the basics of chess. Gordon picked up and studied the chess pieces as the knight explained the moves each one was allowed to make, fulfilling its purpose in the game. Ellen watched the knight move the pieces to demonstrate his instructions. She saw Gordon's eyes narrow in that way he had of concentrating when he was determined to recall every word of instruction. Gordon looks a lot like Papa. They have the same yellow hair, like new gold coins, and their eyes are blue-gray. He likes to tease me, but I get even by following him about. Most times he does not mind; other times he gets angry and calls me a nuisance and chases me away. Still, he is a good big brother and looks out for me, should I end up in trouble.
Ellen's gaze wandered to Lady Margaret as she returned to the dais to sit at Lord Hugh's left. They spoke quietly for a moment, as Margaret's eyes brightened with anticipation. Not since before the death of her sister, Lady Anne, had the folk of Ravencliff seen such boisterous activity and celebration. Three years was more than long enough to return to normal life. Even then, it was difficult to know what was normal anymore. Earlier in the day, Lady Margaret had spoken with Ellen and others, insisting all past sadness be put away, and everyone enjoy themselves during the holiday.
Ellen did not know the man sitting to her father's right. He and her father shared amusing comments, none of which drew Ellen's full attention. She was too busy watching the servants bustle about the large hall. A blazing hearth at opposite ends of the room kept away the winter chill. Small bunches of scented pine and holly were tied together and hung on any wooden beam that would hold it. Thick bayberry candles were left on tables as decoration, as well as for their scent. Ellen thought someone had mentioned earlier that bayberry had been her mother's favorite. She narrowed her eyes and frowned at the red candles. She sniffed and rubbed at her nose, trying to rid it of an itch caused by the strong scent. She preferred the smell of pine floating about on a draft of air in the great hall.
The guests were dressed in velvet and brocade clothing of bright colors, looking to Ellen like brilliantly plumed birds. A few ladies wore finely wrought chains with pendants of gold or silver. Intricately designed girdles encircled slender hips and showed off the simple gowns.
Ellen turned her attention to the eastside of the great hall, and spotted a young stranger alone in a corner. She sat up straighter to get a better look. Servants hurried back and forth across her line of vision, and she wiggled in her father's lap to get a better view. The stranger's clothes looked to be made of fine wool, dark in color, but with no embroidered decorations. No one paid attention to him as he kept his eyes sullenly focused on the activity. Without looking away, Ellen tugged on her father's tunic. "Papa..." When there was no response, she tugged again, harder, demanding his attention. "Papa, is that the boy Gordon found? The one sitting alone in the corner?" She stretched out her arm and pointed toward the young lad.
Lord Hugh and his guest glanced about the room. "That is my son, David," Alex Ross replied softly, settling his gaze on his offspring "I could not convince him to join us. He prefers to be alone and sulk."
"He looks angry." Ellen crossed her arms over her chest, unaware she was mimicking the solemn boy.
"Aye, child. An English soldier killed his mother. He is filled with sorrow and anger and would rather not be here."
Ellen said nothing more and continued to study the boy a moment longer, wondering what she could do to change his mood. She understood something of what he was feeling. While her loss was not recent, neither was it forgotten. The corners of her small mouth turned up in a bright smile. She knew what she should do. Ellen slipped from her father's lap, then grasped a cup of watered wine between her two small hands. "Where are you off to, girl?" her father asked sternly.
"He must not be angry, Papa, it is a happy time." She kept a firm hold on her goblet and carefully stepped down from the dais, then wove her way through the maze of tables, in an attempt to avoid guests unexpectedly leaning back on their benches, laughing. Space between tables was narrow at best and difficult to get through. Servants hurried about, removing empty platters and refilling goblets. Several times, Ellen stopped in her tracks to avoid colliding with a servant who was unable to see her. Stacks of bowls set on trays hampered visions of anything lower than the tray. Sometimes a sharp retort from a harried servant was cut short when they realized who had bumped into them. A quick apology and a glance at the dais with the hope the duke had failed to notice, sent the red faced serving girls scurrying away to the kitchens with their loads.
Ellen reached the far corner of the room, set her cup on the table, and stood opposite the boy. She rested her elbows on the table, then propped her chin in her hand and studied him, as he shifted uncomfortably on the bench, then crossed his arms over his narrow chest and glared at her. She was not at all bothered by his cold appraisal of her.
"What you staring at?" he asked crossly.
Ellen thought back to the earlier meeting when Papa, the Scots leader, and a few of his men had met in private in Papa's chambers. Sometimes voices had been raised in anger, but Papa's was never one of them. She heard mostly muffled words from the nursery where she'd been playing with her sister. Ellen had overheard some talk of holding the boy hostage against the Scotsmen's good behavior. After more heated words, the other men left the room, leaving Papa alone with the leader for a few minutes, and the conversation quieted to whispers. She had heard about the boy, who remained rather secluded in an upper chamber, but had not seen him in the two weeks since his arrival. Only her brother had kept him company.
Aunt Margaret always knows what to say when she greets the guests. Ellen released a small sigh and experienced a seed of doubt. Mayhap this was not a very good idea after all. He looks so angry. Determined, she refused to let it get the best of her. Ellen, squared her small shoulders and stood straight and tall. Her features reflected a determination to do her duty as she saw it. I am here now. It would be rude to walk away without a word. "Jillian," she called to a passing servant.
The maid turned quickly. "Yes, my lady."
"A cup of wine for our guest, and a small padded stool, if you can find one," she ordered in her best grownup voice. She recalled one of her father's men had broken a leg during the summer. If he had felt better with his foot propped up, why should not the boy be made more comfortable as well? Ellen's hands rested on her narrow hips as she spoke to the serving girl.
"Right away, my lady." Jillian hurried away, ducking her head to hide her amusement. The young servant returned shortly with the requested items and a small tray of fruit tarts, which she placed on the table between the children, then hurried about her duties.
Ellen gave the stool a push, then ducked, to follow it under the table. She took one step forward and trod on the hem of her gown. The motion almost toppled her into the stool. She quickly backed out, grabbed fistfuls of her skirts, and raised them above her knees. White knitted stockings covered her thin legs, but Ellen gave no thought to propriety. Kneeling on the reed covered stone floor, she ducked under the table again, and pushed the stool ahead of her. When she reached the opposite side, Ellen released the hold on her skirts and straightened up, forgetting there was little room, and rapped the back of her head against the underside of the table. "Ow!" She was uncertain, but she thought she heard a snort of laughter, close by.
She moved the small stool beside the boy's leg and felt him jump when she raised his ankle and set his foot on the stool. Once she was satisfied with the placement, she crawled toward the bench and stretched up into the space just beyond the edge of the table, until she was leaning over the seat. Ellen twisted her small body about, then braced her hands on the seat and boosted herself up to sit on the bench. "That should give you more comfort." She heard more muffled laughter and looked at the boy. His arms were still crossed over his chest as he tried unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. His chin rested against his chest and his eyes were tightly closed. Ellen watched him peek at her then turn his face away, trying to control his laughter. "Surely, it was not that amusing," she muttered. She smoothed her skirt and sighed when she caught sight of dust and stains from the stone floor and broken reeds. Aunt Margaret would not be pleased.
Ellen stared at the boy's curious gaze when he looked her way again. His sullen expression had all but disappeared as one corner of his mouth turned up in wry amusement. He barely managed to suppress a grin, and Ellen had difficulty hiding one of her own. "You look like a gypsy." His dark looks fascinated her. Black hair and even darker eyes gave him a mysterious aura, and easily hid his thoughts.
His smile disappeared and he frowned at her.
The silence stretched out between them for a few moments and Ellen sipped her watered wine, not sure what to say next. He did not make it easy for her. "I lost my mother, too," she finally blurted out, then realized she had failed to introduce herself.
"Did you?" The boy seemed reluctant to say much of anything in response.
Ellen rubbed a hand against her face, brushing back strands of hair, which had escaped her braid. "You were fortunate to know your mother. Mine died when I was three. I barely remember her, now."
The boy said nothing.
"My name is Ellen. Are you going to stay with us?"
"Yes," he groused, turning belligerent again. "My father says I am to stay here as a hostage to guarantee good behavior. Only the duke's son has said anything to me while I've been shut up in that room."
"What does it mean to be a hostage?" Ellen had heard the term before but was unsure of its meaning.
"It means I must stay here, so my people will not raid the duke's lands. If they do, he can do whatever he pleases with me."
"Oh." Ellen thought about it for a moment. "I do not think I would like to be anyone's hostage." She quickly changed the subject. "Gordon is my brother, you know."
"Ah. So you are that Ellen, are you? My name is David." His mood lightened.
Ellen did not like the sound of his comment. Had it been a mistake to approach the Scot leader's son? If he had come become well acquainted with Gordon in the last two weeks, there was no way of knowing what her brother had told the boy about her. She reached for her goblet and took a sip. "What has my brother told you?" She looked up at him slyly, trying to read his features, and half expected him to laugh at her again. Did he find her amusing? Did he believe everything Gordon had told him?
"He said you are always following him about and getting into trouble. Now that I see you, I have to wonder how much trouble you really get into. You're just a wee sprite."
Ellen's hand flew to her mouth to stifle an escaping giggle. No one ever called her a sprite before. "Gordon gets angry with me sometimes," she said in a conspiratorial whisper. "Papa says Gordon should look out for me when he goes about the bailey. I like to go to the stables with him. Has Gordon told you about the new foal, born just this morning?"
Before long, she and David had their heads together in conversation. The dish of pastries disappeared as they talked about horses, snow and winter games. They paid little attention to the activity around them.