Leonie ducked under the sweeping branches of a charm tree and sighed as the shade cooled her head. She would find a comfortable spot to sit and read, and with luck, she'd be able to memorize enough Latin to please her father. She'd just spotted a mossy rock when she heard a soft bleating. The runaway lamb!
She followed the noise until she came to the forbidden stream. The lamb's bleats sounded as if they came from the thicket on the other side. She stood on tip-toe and tried to see it, but the fern and nettle grew too densely.
She set the book and basket down, kicked off her wooden clogs, and holding her skirt high, she began to wade across the stream. She didn't think it would be so deep, or the pebbles so slick. Her feet slipped, she lost her balance, and she fell into the icy, fast running water. No one had taught her to swim, and as the water closed over her head she thrashed and took a huge breath to scream. Water clogged her nose and mouth and she choked. The swift current snatched her feet out from underneath her; her dress, soaked, pulled her under and she couldn't get to the surface! Her life flashed before her eyes and it seemed ridiculously short and useless. She'd never done anything worthwhile or interesting, she'd disobeyed her father, and now she drowned.
Blackness enveloped her, and she prepared to die, when suddenly something yanked her arm nearly out of its socket and pulled her out of the stream.
"Are you all right?"
Leonie opened her eyes. She lay on her back in deep grass. She could see nothing but grass and sky for a moment. Then a spasm shook her and she coughed up a prodigious amount of water. Strangling and choking, she rolled over on her side and managed to get her breath back.
"Shall I go get help?"
Leonie sat up and looked around. Her eyes fell on a young man. "You!" she cried.
The shepherd drew back, a startled expression on his face. "Do you know me? Have we met?"
How could she explain? "No, not exactly. I saw you this morning as you walked with your sheep. Have you come looking for the lamb? I heard it in the forest, and that's how I came to fall into the stream."
The shepherd nodded, his eyes round, and Leonie wondered if he were shy. Having never met anyone new before, she hoped she made a good impression.
She sneezed and quickly wiped her nose on her wet sleeve. So much for making a good impression. "Excuse me, I must look terrible," she said, pulling a long piece of river weed from her hair.
The young man shook his head. "Oh no, you are as beautiful as a summer's day." He flushed, and cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound like a bad poem. I'm usually better at conversation."
Leonie had never talked to anyone except the people at the castle, or on rare occasions, father's imposing visitor--Sir Wulfe, a magician who frightened Leonie and Ann with his bulbous, disconcerting eyes. She didn't know anything about conversation, but good manners had been drilled into her since birth. She got to her feet and curtsied. "I'm very pleased to meet you, sir." Her wet dress didn't quite give the impression she would have liked, and her hem dragged in the muddy grass.
The young man stood and bowed. "The pleasure is all mine, my lady. What's your name?"
"Leonie," she whispered shyly. It was both exciting and frightening to finally talk to someone from the village. She hoped she wouldn't ruin it by being silly.
"Mine is Renaldo. Pleased to meet you, Leonie." He frowned. "Here, take my cloak. You're shivering."
Leonie wanted to tell him she shivered because she'd never met a stranger before, but her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth. His hands brushed against her shoulders as he draped his cloak over her, and the sudden warmth made her head spin.
She swayed and would have fallen, but he caught her. "You look very pale," he said smoothing her hair from her face with a gentle touch. "I think I ought to take you home. Where do you live?"
Leonie looked around, searching for a familiar landmark. "I live in Castle Veil," she said. "It's nearby the stream I fell into. My father said I mustn't ever cross over, but I heard your lamb and..." she tried to pull away but the young man's hands had tightened on her waist.
"Castle Veil?" his voice sounded strange.
"Do you know it?" Hopefully he could point her in the right direction. Instead, the young man let go of her and took a step backward. "What is it?"
"Are you an enchantment?"
"No, of course not. I'm Leonie." Clouds blocked the sun and evening came. Her wet dress now felt like ice. "Please help me," she cried.
Renaldo looked at her, and she saw pity in his gaze. "I beg your pardon, Lady Leonie. It's just that I have heard of Castle Veil, and I've seen the magician. I'm afraid the reputation of your dwelling is not a kind one. Your mother was well loved, but your father inspires more fear than confidence, though his healing is above reproach."
"How do you know about my mother?"
Renaldo was silent a minute, then he said, "I know about your mother because my father sometimes mentions her. It seems..." he gave a little laugh, then said, "It seems he courted her, but she married the magician. My father says that once she married him she was never seen again." His voice ended on a questioning note.
Leonie felt an odd stab of loyalty toward her father. True, he was strict, but never cruel. "It wasn't our father's fault. She died in childbirth."
"Father isn't bad, really, but he'll be cross if I'm late. Will you help me go back home? Afterward, you can go see to your sheep. I'm sorry if I took you away from your job, your employer will be angry if you don't find the lamb."
"I will help you get back to your home, and don't worry about my job. In fact, I'm not really a shepherd." He paused and gave a wry grin. "My full name is Renaldo Hector Alexander Priam of Windtide. I am prince of this land as my father is King. And forgive me for thinking you were an enchantment, for although we know your father, he has never once spoken of having a daughter."
"Two daughters, actually." Stung, Leonie considered her shepherd suddenly turned prince. "I'm afraid our father hasn't taught us anything about how to converse with a prince or what to call one." She raised her chin higher. "I hope you'll pardon my ignorance, but I can't remember all your names anyway," she added. For some reason her vision blurred.
"Don't cry, Leonie. I forget them, too. As a matter of fact, I bet I left one or two out."
She knew he said that just to make her feel better, but it worked. She gave him a watery smile. He gave her a clean handkerchief and put his arms around her. As he stared into her eyes, his face drew nearer.
Leonie knew what would happen next.
She knew it the way she knew she would draw her next breath. Everything about the kiss happened as naturally as breathing. And as soon as their lips touched, Leonie knew that she needed this man the way she needed air to breath, water to drink, and a heart to beat. She closed her eyes, lost in the sensation of finding something she'd been searching for eternally.
When they drew apart their eyes met. It was like looking into a mirror. "You felt it, too," she whispered.
"Yes," he said, and his mouth curved into a smile. He rested his cheek against hers. "When I get back to my home, I will tell my parents I have fallen in love. And then I will ask your father for your hand in marriage. I hope you will agree."
"You'll say yes, won't you?"
"It's too sudden," said Leonie. Everything was going in a rush, as if she rode in a magician's whirlwind. In her storybooks, the princess always felt swept away, and although she was no princess, she understood exactly what the author meant now.
"I know this is sudden, but my mother has been speaking of nothing but marriage to me for months now, so I suppose I've been looking for the right person. Now I have found you."
"It's not like going out to search for a job, you know. You're supposed to court a woman and see if you really like her. We've hardly spoken. How could you have fallen in love with me?" Leonie heard her words and wondered where that sensible person had come from, and how she could shut her up.
Renaldo grinned. "I fell in love with you the minute I saw you weren't a drowning dryad. Don't be worried about my mother. She'll be thrilled when I tell her the good news."
"Well, Father won't be very happy when I go back and tell him I'm engaged to someone he's never met."
"Oh, but I have met him, several times in fact. But don't say anything yet. It will be a surprise. I'll come myself and bring all my minstrels to play music, and a gift for your father. Would he like that?"
Leonie wasn't sure her father would like that, but to her it sounded splendid. "Yes, of course."
"As soon as possible, I will come to your castle and ask your father for your hand. Now, shall I accompany you to your home?"
"I don't know where I am. I've never gone further than the orchards." She hoped he didn't think her too stupid. Ann said it was best she just smile and keep her mouth shut when meeting new people.
Renaldo didn't call her an idiot, as Ann would have. Instead, he took her hand and led her to the highest point in the meadow. He pointed to the valley, and there, nestled among the orchards and gardens, was Castle Veil. From here it seemed very tiny, and she realized with a start that it wasn't truly a castle, but a large manor house rather in need of repairs. The roof sagged, and the shutters drooped mournfully from the windows. Bob kept the gardens neat, though, and the fences around the orchard all stood straight, although rambling briar roses had overgrown them. Now, in the autumn, the briar rose's pale pink flowers had disappeared leaving place for vibrant red rose hips.
Gloria, their red and white spotted milk cow, stood against the orchard fence waiting to be milked. As Leonie watched, Bob came down the well-worn path to lead her to the stables. Renaldo took her hand and said, "Looks like you'll have fresh cream with your dinner tonight."
She could see the silvery ribbon of the stream, and to her relief, she was on the right side of it. All she had to do was go down the path through the meadow, cross a small copse of woods, and she'd be in the far orchard, minutes from her home.
Renaldo insisted on accompanying her to the orchard, and for a minute they stood, arms entwined, as the sun touched the horizon. The evening breeze rustled the leaves in the orchard. Summer touched its end, the sunflowers bowed their seed-laden heads toward the ground, and the grass turned yellow in the pastures.
"Remember what I said."
"As soon as possible you'll come back." Soon would seem like years, she knew, and already her heart broke at the thought of leaving him for a minute. But her father waited in his study, and the sun turned red. Her lesson would soon start, and she hadn't learned a thing. With a sigh she gave him one last kiss, then pulling gently from his grasp, she ran barefoot across the orchard toward her home.