As Ella left the training paddocks to return to the castle she could not help but grin to herself. She was exhausted from the training. His tall, muscular stature and commandeering style of attack was perfect opposition to push her techniques to the limit. As a slender, light-weight woman, an observer’s money would be on him every time, and yet she had managed to hold her own for three bouts. She had not been able to win out-right, but each time they had been forced to stop for an impasse.
But that was not all, she had to admit. As soon as she had seen him, a flicker of recognition had piqued her interest. And there was more, that electric charge that she had felt every time he had met her eye. During the fight it was easier to ignore but even then, the occasional brush of skin on skin or his body close to hers… She was too naive in the ways of the heart. She knew that to some of her handmaidens this would have been nothing, nothing at all. She thought again of the way he had looked at her as they parted, wondering, and the grin grew wider. Huntsman. She hoped they would be able to fight again.
“Good practise my lady?”
Her guards had appeared on either side of her. Since the start of the war, her father had assigned Joe Mailer and Cain Ren to trail her everywhere she normally went alone. It had been awkward at first but the war had been going for years now and they were comfortable in each other’s company.
Joe was a large, gruff man with cropped greying hair and five daughters. You would not be able to tell by looking at him that he could sew delicate buttons back onto dresses, but Ella had learned first hand that he was more than a tough visage. Cain was leaner, but still muscular, about thirty years old with ginger hair to his shoulders. He was quiet and watchful, and sometimes exchanged witty glances with the Princess when people around them were being dull. She was exceedingly fond of both of them.
Her handmaids were ready for her return to her quarters, prepared with a hot bath and a clean dress. Ella felt a little guilty as she slipped into the steaming water. She wondered if her training partner would have the luxury of a hot bath now. Probably not, he was probably still working in that heat, instructing some of the other guards maybe, possibly even some of her friends.
Ella had grown up with no sisters and two older brothers, who were already play fighting while she learned to walk. By the time she was four she could hold a wooden sword and chase the boys around the castle grounds with enough noise to vex her father. He had exiled her screaming battle cries to the outer courtyard, where she had met the children of her father’s guard. Over the years, Ella had grown much more ladylike, but she was not too high and mighty to share a wink with any of her former playmates. Those who were left here in any case; many of them had volunteered for the army when the war started.
Turning her mind back to more pleasant thoughts, Ella let her gaze wander around her room. The large tin bath stood by the fireplace in her bedroom, facing her four poster bed. The drapes were dark crimson and gold, the royal colours. Her dressing table stood by the window, overlooking the inter courtyard, where the ladies of the court often gathered. Through a door was her private parlour, for her embroidery or singing practise. Only her handmaidens, a couple of tutors and her family were allowed entry to these rooms.
Ella thought for a moment about what a novelty it would be to introduce someone new to her private suite. Would she be embarrassed by the faded rug or the painting of her childhood pony? She looked around with fresh eyes and realised she was picturing a certain guard entering her bedroom. He would stand there, smiling at her personal objects, reading the titles of her books maybe, then his eyes would turn to the bath. Ella felt a deep blush emerging as the sound of her maids returning startled her from her daydream.
“Your presence is requested by the King and Queen your highness,” May called through the door. “Are you finished with your bath?”
“Y- yes,” Ella replied, having to clear her throat to get the word out. Where had that come from?
May and Louisa entered, continuing a conversation they had been having outside, and helped her out of the tub to dry and dress. Ella liked to listen to their patter. Louisa, the older of the pair, had been fixating on a man recently, a gardener that May thought she had seen flirting with someone else. She smiled at their drama, even as Louisa took out her frustration on Ella’s corset ribbons.
Hurrying to the King’s parlour, she paused for a moment to straighten her dress and smooth her hair, before nodding to Joe to open the door for her. He and Cain would wait outside until she was ready to go.
“Ella, darling,” her mother called from the floor. She was sat on a large pillow in the middle of the rug, playing with two adorable little kittens. Her father sat nearby with a book, pretending to read but obviously engrossed in the cats’ behaviour.
“Oh mama, they’re so sweet!” Ella cooed, rushing forward to her knees.
“Hold one if you like,” her mother smiled. She was actually Ella’s stepmother, but as her real mother had passed away when she was a baby, she had always referred to Juliet as mama. With her large, dark eyes and pale skin, the two almost looked related, apart from her mother’s hair, which curled in thin, blonde ringlets to her shoulders.
Ella carefully picked up one of the fluffy kittens. They were so young they could barely walk. “Where did they come from?” she wondered.
“They belong to Margo, in the kitchens. Her cat had a litter of ten if you can believe it! She is making arrangements to give them away but there are more than anyone expected. I asked if we could play with them for a while and she was more than happy to bring them up.” Her mother beamed up at the King and Ella caught a secret look between them.
“Ella,” her father started. “There is something we need to discuss with you. A couple of changes to be made.”
The Princess sighed down at the kitten in her lap, “You are just a little distraction aren’t you?” She turned back to her father, “May I ask what you are changing that you feel the need to bribe me with these sweet little kittens?”
The King’s brow furrowed, “I know you enjoy practising your riding and sword craft along with your singing and everything else you do. However, we are starting to feel that it is time for you to really focus your attention elsewhere.”
Ella raised her eyebrows. She turned to her mother but she was still babying the other kitten. “More important than being able to defend myself. With a war going on?”
“Oh come now Ella,” her father chided her. “You know you are better than most of the guards out there now, and since Sir Ren has put his back out, I thought it was the perfect time for you to, well, reign it in a bit.”
Her eyebrows climbed higher. “Interesting choice of words. And what do you propose I focus on instead?”
“Don’t make me spell it out!” He moaned. He hated these types of conversations. Battle plans, budgets and politics he could handle, but this was women’s talk.
His wife chimed in to help him out. “We just want to make sure that you make a good match, Ella! You need to ensure you are to be well looked after, that you’ll have brought strength to the kingdom, done your part…”
She looked hopelessly at her stepdaughter, who had placed the kitten down and was rising now, shaking her head. She turned to her father imperiously, “You would like me to stop playing the soldier and start playing the dutiful wife, is that it? You are bored with entertaining your daughter’s fancies and would like to employ her to the kingdom’s advantage by selling her to the highest bidder.”
“That is enough Ella,” he snapped. “Stop being so melodramatic. I know it’s scary to think of leaving your home but we are not talking about sending you away, not necessarily. In fact, I think with the position the kingdom is in it is very important to choose wisely, and from nearby. I propose to hold a few balls in the coming months, and maybe invite a few friends from abroad.” He turned his most royal gaze upon her. “You will attend and be courteous, as a representative of our house. In the absence of your brothers, I depend upon you for this task.”
Ella stared at her feet. She could not deny her father in this, it was her duty. But perhaps a compromise could be made. Maybe she could keep some small semblance of control over her own life.
“I have found a new practise partner today father,” she said in a small voice. “If he is willing, perhaps I could still train a few mornings, just for the exercise…” she trailed off hopefully.
He sighed and rubbed his knee thoughtfully. “I suppose, a little exercise would not hurt.”
Her mother had pursed her lips but said nothing.
“Who is this fellow you have been fighting then?” he asked, relieved to change the subject back to safer ground.
She smiled, and blushed a little too but he did not seem to notice, “They call him Huntsman. He carries an axe even larger than Sir Ren’s.”
“Is that so?” the King responded, but she could tell he was still distracted.
“I am sorry father, for what I said. I know you don’t plan to sell me off.”
He paused awkwardly.
“Ah,” it clicked. “Is there something else you wanted to discuss?”
“Well this one is out of my hands, but I felt it my duty to inform you. As you know, we will be sending another wave of fresh soldiers to the border within the next few months. Cain Ren has put his name down, no doubt following his father’s footsteps and aiming for a knighthood of his own. He’s a good man, that one…”
But Ella was no longer listening. Her friend Cain, her loyal guardsman, would be leaving soon for battle. It did not seem possible. So many of her friends had left and now him too? She went and slumped into an armchair by the fire, stunned into silence.
Her father prattled on, “I’m rather surprised he had not signed up before, a fit young man such as him. I’ve seen him in the practise rings and he is pretty good.”
Pretty good? A man’s life would hang on pretty good. A few callous thoughts about her father passed through Ella’s mind, but she knew that he was just trying to help. He had not signed Cain up, it was Ella he was concerned for. He knew she was not selfish enough to order him to stay. She glanced towards the doors, behind which she knew her guards would be waiting for her.
Her mother came to sit on the arm of the chair and started stroking her hair. “I know it’s a lot to handle sweetheart. But nothing is going to change straight away. The garrison will take months to supply itself before he leaves, and in the meanwhile you’ll have balls and distractions…”
Ella moved away from her mother’s ministrations, and took her hand instead. She nodded to herself. She would do her duty, of course she would. There was just a small voice inside her screaming ‘it isn’t fair!’ but life wasn’t fair, and she was the Princess. She would play her part.