On a warm summer's evening, a very angry twelve-year-old boy was leaning against a chestnut tree, tearing a leaf into small pieces and muttering to himself. He was dripping wet. Running toward him over the grass came a smaller girl, her skirts, which were extremely grubby, hitched up to her knees. Some distance behind her, panting, came a large elderly woman whose ability to move at any speed other than a bustling walk had long since vanished. The elderly woman was also hampered by a large bundle and the fact that she was shouting as she went, "Ellie! Eleanor! MISS ELEANOR!"
The girl took no notice. The boy, however, stopped scowling at his shoes and scowled at the approaching parties instead. The girl stood in front of him, wiped her hands on her skirt, and demanded, "What's going on, Will? The courtyard is in an uproar, and Gavin's nose is pouring blood."
Will glared at her. "I hate him."
"I hate him, too," Ellie agreed, although this was not strictly true.
She always tried to hate Will's older brother for Will's sake. But ever since she'd caught Gavin crying over a little dog of his that had died, she had found this quite hard. Gavin certainly could be mean. Catching her watching him as he mourned his dog, he had loudly ordered the corpse to be thrown into the moat. However, when Ellie ordered the body to be retrieved from the water, she had, rather unexpectedly, found Gavin beside her. She thought he would be angry. Certainly, he never spoke a word, and after the dog had been properly buried by the two of them in the animals" graveyard, he stalked off without a backward glance. But about a month later she found a small, delicately carved wooden dog on her pillow. She had kept it in a pocket ever since and, for some reason she could not really account for, never told Will about it. Without either she or Gavin saying a word, she just knew that Gavin wouldn't either.
Ellie tried to offer some comfort. "Gavin's a horrible bully," she said a little more forcefully than was strictly necessary. "But I still don't know what happened. How did you get so wet?"
"I'll tell you what happened, Miss Eleanor," said the nurse, who had caught up and, despite being very out of breath, seized William before he could escape. "But first things first. Now, Master William, let's be having you." She pulled an extremely uncooperative Will toward her and tried to wrap him in a rough blanket. "What a to-do!" she said as she began to fuss over his clothes.
"Well?" demanded Ellie, almost stamping her foot with impatience. The nurse waited to reply until she had finished tut-tutting over the state of William's shirt, which was torn in several places.
"Well, Miss Eleanor," she said at last, "Gavin saw Master William riding that great big stallion of Sir Percy's and called for everybody to come and look. That's all." William found it difficult to protest from underneath the blanket, but a voice squeaky with indignation made some muffled comments, and a pair of elbows dug into the nurse's ribs.
"It's no good, Master William," said the nurse, quite unmoved. Her bulk easily flattened the boy against the tree as she, with dexterity born of long practice, removed his wet tunic and handed him a dry one. "You'll catch your death if you don't change." She then neatly hooked William's legs from under him, whipped off his shoes, and removed his leggings. "Here. Put these on."
There was a scuffling and a flurry of activity. Oaths were uttered. The nurse raised her eyebrows. Eventually William emerged, his brown hair tousled and his humor blacker than ever.
"That's not exactly what happened," he retorted, furiously shaking himself free from the nurse's grasp. "Gavin did call for everybody to come and look at me riding Sir Percy's horse, but only to make fun of me. "If you want to see what a flea would look like on a dragon," William mockingly imitated his brother, "'come and look at Will.' And it was not only the knights who laughed," he went on, aiming a kick at the pile of wet clothes, "it was all the servants, too. Anyway, I got my own back if his nose is bleeding. Good."
"But how did you get so wet?" repeated Ellie. There was a short, rather painful, pause.
"Gavin threw me in the horse trough."
"A very bad boy, that Gavin," observed the nurse, wringing out William's sopping tunic and folding it neatly. "A very bad boy indeed."
"He threw you in the horse trough?" Ellie tried to compose her face and think of something appropriate to say. "Maybe he will go to hell."
Will looked at her pityingly. "You don't go to hell for that kind of thing."
"Yon might," said Ellie defensively. "How do you know?"
Will sighed. Here he was being dressed by an aged nurse and listening to a silly girl talking nonsense.
"I'm going to get Sacramenta," he said, trying to salvage some dignity out of the situation. "She needs to go out. And nobody can say I look like a flea on a dragon on her."
The nurse was exasperated. "But it's nearly dinnertime, Master William," she said. "We've company. Your father will be angry if you are gadding about on that horse instead of sitting down at the table."
"I don't care," said William, and began walking back toward the castle. Eleanor was unsure what to do, but then ran and skipped along beside him. The old nurse watched them both, picked up her bundle, and sighed. The children were growing wilder each day. They missed a mother. She pulled out a bottle from under her skirts and took a small sip. Then she tucked William's wet clothes firmly under her arm and set sail for the laundry.
William, with Ellie beside him, strode along in silence for a while. Then, in the distance, the little girl spied a line of monks in white habits filing slowly into the woods that stretched away to the west of the castle.
"Look," she said, "there are those monks who are building the new monastery. They must be coming away from their meeting with your father." She glanced side-ways at William, then continued, "I saw one of them squatting behind a tree this morning. When he saw me, he didn't know what to do, so he began chanting the Rule of St. Benedict with his eyes tight shut, as if his not being able to see me meant I couldn't see him."
Will seemed to take no notice, but Eleanor went on anyway.
"So I began to recite Our Lady's Psalter aloud until he was finished and couldn't squat any longer. He cleaned himself up with his eyes still tightly shut, but if I stopped, he opened them just a tiny bit to see if I had gone away." She glanced at William again. "It was not easy, I can tell you, reciting Ave Marias looking at a monk's behind."
Will's lower lip wobbled. Then suddenly he stopped walking, threw back his head, and shouted with laughter.
"Oh, Ellie," he said, "you really are a wicked girl. What would Father say?"
Eleanor pulled down the sides of her mouth and made her voice deep and gravelly.
"Sir Thomas would say: "Eleanor Theodora de Barre, you are the despair of my life. How are we to make a lady of you? Who on earth will marry you and run the great estates you have been left?'"
William, his good humor creeping back, took up the challenge.
"Ah, indeed, Sir Thomas," he sighed, now imitating the fussy treble of Piers de Scabious, the constable of his father's castle. "What are we to do with such a pair as Master William and Miss Eleanor? Truly, truly, children are nothing but heartache and nuisance."
The game was a familiar one. Soon the pair were engaged in most unchristian mimicry, and Will's outraged dignity began to feel less raw.
The horse-trough incident was by no means unusual. Like many brothers, William and Gavin were constantly at war. Their father, Sir Thomas de Granville, appeared almost to encourage it, and their mother, who might have exercised a restraining influence, had died in child-birth when William was six and Gavin was ten. Eleanor's own mother, a distant cousin of the de Granvilles, had also died in childbirth-at Eleanor's birth, as it happened-and her father had been killed fighting for the king. Passed for a while from relation to relation, for the last eight years Eleanor had been living with the de Granvilles, and William had become her special friend. However, even at ten years old, Ellie knew that it was for the land she had inherited as well as out of kindness that Sir Thomas had agreed to take her in. Occasionally she overheard conversations between Sir Thomas and Gavin in which her name was mentioned. She was too wise not to realize that her great wealth meant her destiny lay not with William but with Gavin. Elder sons must get the prize of the wife with the worldly goods. Ellie had always thought this very unfair.
But she was not thinking about that now. She had a much more pressing concern, and that was to stop William going out on his horse and missing dinner, since that would annoy Sir Thomas and spoil the whole evening. This was not only for William's sake. If the monks, whom Eleanor loved to tease, had been complaining about her, she wanted Sir Thomas kept sweet.
"Where will you take Sacramenta?" she asked innocently enough as William became silent once more. "She is so fast, you could probably gallop to the river bridge and back and still get something to eat."
"Perhaps," said William. He kicked at a stone. "Sacramenta can gallop, I know." He kicked the stone harder, then began what to Ellie was a familiar complaint.
"But the thing is, ranch as I love Sacramenta, I want a bigger horse, a destrier. I did not look like a flea on a dragon on Sir Percy's black stallion, and I could manage him very well. Nor do I look like a pea on Montlouis. Both those horses would be just the thing for me. Gavin got Montlouis when he was my age, I know he did. So why can't I have one of my own?"
Ellie made sympathetic noises, but since she hadn't ever had even the meanest, scruffiest pony to call her own, she also felt entitled to ask, "But isn't a light, speedy horse like Sacramenta just as good for you at the moment?"
"That's not the point," replied Will. "Of course she's good. But for tournaments, a courser like Sacramenta is just not, well, you know, well, just not ..."
"Not quite strong enough?" offered Ellie.
"That's it. That's it precisely. Sacramenta is lovely, but she is just not strong enough."
"I see what you mean," said Ellie, and went on: "Maybe you could talk to Sir Thomas about it this evening. He is always in a good mood when we have company. If we were to catch him at the beginning of dinner before he gets talking to the guests ..."
William considered. "You mean not go out on Sacramenta and instead put up with having to sit at the same table as Gavin?"
"Well," said Ellie, "if you are polite to Gavin, your father would see how grown-up you are. And don't forget, you did make Gavin's nose bleed with your fist."
William brightened. "So I did. Perhaps that is a good idea. Perhaps it is silly to cause trouble when I want something. Thanks, Ellie."
Ellie nodded as William grabbed her and, in just the way she loved, spun her round and beamed. "Race you back."
He set off with purpose. He was not going to be beaten again today, and Ellie, picking up her skirts and shaking out her auburn hair, ran happily after him. Everything would be sunny again.
William waited for her as he approached the drawbridge, and they galloped over it together, pretending to be horses snorting for their suppers. William told himself that he only played this game for Ellie's sake, but the truth was that horses, whether real or imagined, were his passion and he thought about little else. Whenever he ran, he imagined himself on a big, bold destrier, a warhorse clattering home from the battlefield. Even while William was at his prayers, his mind was in a field or a stable filled with horses that were all his own. The boy had studied the horses in the de Granville stud from birth. He knew more about them and loved them more than any of the servants, even Old Nurse of whom, for all his cursing and swearing, William was fonder than he would ever have admitted.
But now, after the excitements of the day, hunger suddenly overtook him. All he could think about was dinner. Taking care not to even glance at the offending horse trough, he chased Ellie up the stone steps leading to the great hall, hoping against hope that they had missed the lengthy grace so favored by Sir Thomas's chaplain, that there would be roast lamb, and that Gavin had a horrible headache.
Excerpted from blood red horse by K. M. GRANT Copyright © 2004 by K. M. Grant. Excerpted by permission.
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