"…I still cannot believe the outcome of the match, can you? The whole castle had been going on and on about Macbeth all of last night and then, what's this? The handsome Fergus Underhill of the Underhill clan swoops in out of nowhere and wins the archery challenge! Elinor, did you see how large his bow was? Well, I suppose it had to be, judging by his enormous hands!"
Elinor pretended she was listening to her enthusiastic friend, but Netta had been going on and on for at least two hours now, speaking of nothing else but the events of the day. Truthfully, Elinor was having a very hard time keeping her eyes open. But Netta just looked so fervent in her replay of the archery match that Elinor could not bring herself to remind Netta that she was supposed to be brushing Elinor's hair for her dinner with Fergus tonight. Netta talked with her hands, waving the brush around and completely losing her place in Elinor's long auburn hair, so she took a new piece and began brushing distractedly.
"So trained, they were! Their focus and drive…all to marry you," she shook her head and smiled dreamily. "So, Elinor," Netta continued, leaning forward so she could catch her friend's reaction. "Be completely honest with me, now. Which of the suitors do you fancy the most?"
Elinor bit her bottom lip, conflicted. She did not want to spoil Netta's well-intentioned fun, and yet she could not bring herself to flat-out lie, either. "You see, Netta…"
"…because, personally, I rather fancy Macbeth, but I'm sure you knew that already."
"But of course Underhill is incredibly handsome, in a rugged sort of way…"
"Surprisingly enough – now don't think me mad! – Macintosh seems a right handsome fellow when you disregard all that silly face paint. I do believe that if he cleaned himself up, he would make a very nice…"
Netta immediately fell silent, eyes wide with surprise at Elinor's sudden outburst.
"Netta…I don't fancy any of the competitors."
Elinor had meant it to sound casual, but Netta's reaction concluded that this statement was nothing short of outrageous. Her mouth hung slightly open and her eyebrows had roosted at the top of her hairline. "You don't think…none of them?" The way she said it made it sound like Elinor had expressed her hatred for small, adorable animals.
"Well…no." There was a moment of shocked silence, though Elinor thought it to be utterly ridiculous. "Now, Netta, don't look at me like that. May I remind you that I never asked for any of these men to compete for me?"
But Netta's face remained stubbornly puzzled. "Surely you must fancy one of them, Elinor. You are having dinner with Fergus Underhill tonight, for God's sake!"
"I know," she said rather lamely.
"Well?" Netta placed a hand on her hip. "Then you should be happy. You should be glad that these men are fighting tooth and nail for your hand. You should rejoice in the fact that Underhill looked so pleased to win that…"
"I never asked for it!" Elinor replied, voice rising in volume. She quickly composed herself. "Does the princess ever have a say in anything? Of course not! I don't…I'm not ready to fall in love."
"Don't be ridiculous! It's not about love, Elinor. It's about which of the men is best suited to rule the kingdom, and they are proving it to you through the Games."
Feeling frustrated, Elinor sighed heavily and leaned back in her chair, allowing Netta to finish brushing. But she did not feel the familiar tugging of the comb on her scalp. "Netta…?" Netta was standing contemplatively, stroking the teeth of the brush with her thumb. She looked up at Elinor with darkened eyes.
"You are ungrateful, Elinor."
Elinor blinked her brown eyes. "What…?"
"You have everything," Netta continued, her voice hardening. "Everything you could ever want! You have been offered some of the bravest men in the kingdom and you turn up your nose at all of them! This isn't about you, you know. Do you see the way Underhill looks at you? Like you are the only person in the room? And you have treated him like he doesn't matter in the slightest."
Elinor was speechless. This was not the cool, collected Netta that she once knew – the kind lady-in-waiting who stood patiently for an order and always followed through. "Netta…I didn't mean…"
"All you think about is yourself," Netta continued through clenched teeth. "You don't care that these men are willing to throw themselves down to protect you…"
"It's not because of who I am, Netta! It's because I'm a princess. No one would think twice about regular Elinor."
Netta raised an eyebrow and suddenly chucked the hairbrush onto the bed, staring at Elinor coldly. "Then maybe you don't deserve to be princess." And then, she turned on her heel and stormed from the room, blonde hair swishing behind her. Elinor sat dumbfounded in her chair as she watched her friend depart.
Needless to say, if Elinor was not in the mood to have dinner before, she certainly wasn't now. Not only did she have to fix her own hair (which looked so awful that her mother sent her back upstairs so a maid could repair the damage), but ever since her spat with Netta, the horrible ache she had in her stomach would not go away. Her words continued to echo around Elinor's skull even as she made her way down the stone steps to dinner.
"You are ungrateful, Elinor."
"All you think about is yourself."
"You have everything, and yet you turn up your nose…"
Elinor swallowed the lump in her throat. Never had she had such an argument with her lifelong friend. It was so unlike Netta to snap like that.
Although – Elinor realized with another jolt in her stomach – perhaps Elinor had never really paid attention to her friend's feelings.
Of course Netta was right in the sense that Elinor simply did not care about finding a husband she had no say in marrying. And though Elinor was honestly not even a tiny bit pleased with her situation, she knew that it was necessary. After all, if Elinor had to wait until she was ready for marriage then the kingdom would be waiting at least a hundred years or so. Perhaps Netta had a right to be angry with Elinor.
And maybe Elinor really didn't deserve to be princess.
"Now that you look presentable, take your seat," said a voice, jerking Elinor out of her thoughts. She swallowed and sat at the long dining table beside her mother, who was sitting at one head looking quite edgy as her birdlike eyes darted around the table, as if trying to find fault in the silverware. Her mother did not bat an eye at Elinor's sulky countenance, obviously too focused on making sure that the evening would go according to plan. To Elinor, the table settings looked fine. The best flatware had been chosen (silver plates and golden goblets) and the intricate tablecloth was ironed to perfection. Both Fergus and his father would be sitting across from Elinor, which made her squirm inwardly. She would be face to face with Fergus for who-knows how many hours, and she wasn't sure she could keep up a lighthearted conversation for that long…especially since she felt as though she should be throwing herself off the top of the castle.
"Be polite to yer champion," the king nodded in Elinor's direction. "The Underhills are a very respectable clan."
"Shoulders back now," the queen insisted as the Underhills were summoned and entered through the large oak doors. "Big smile…that's right."
Elinor stretched the corners of her mouth as far as they would go and imagined that she resembled a very pained-looking buck-toothed squirrel. Had she mentioned that the last thing she wanted to do was socialize?
The two Underhills were now striding towards the elaborate table, already joking and laughing between themselves so easily that for a split moment, Elinor wished that she was among them and not sitting politely table between her parents. The men with the wild red hair bowed low before the royals when they had reached the table.
"Yer majesties," Underhill said graciously. He smiled so his bushy beard turned upwards. "An honor to sup with yeh."
The king nodded in return, albeit a little gruffly. "Our congratulations go to young Fergus for winning the first task."
Fergus bowed his head, though Elinor could see his cheeks reddening slightly.
The queen seemed pleased at his modesty and shot Elinor a look as if to say "take note of his humility," but Elinor had pretended not to notice. Fergus and his father took their places at the table and were poured mead immediately. Elinor took this distraction as an opportunity to glance around at the servants to see if Netta was among them.
"Drink up," the king encouraged to the men, holding his own goblet aloft. "Cheers."
The Underhills grinned broadly and let out grunts of gratitude as they took large swigs from their cups. They were immediately refilled by a passing servant. Elinor was still glancing around at the servants, trying to catch sight of a pair of blonde braids swishing about. All she wanted was to tell Netta how sorry she was for the fight – she didn't think she could bear the pain in her chest any longer. As she scanned the hall, her eyes happened to pass by Fergus' (which was not too surprising, considering they were sitting directly across from one another). Elinor gave a little jump and fashioned her face into another forced smile. "Ah…how did it feel to win the match, Fergus?" (Her mother was listening closely.)
Fergus' blue eyes sparkled animatedly as he, presumably, recounted the task. "Exhilarating! I had been practicing all morning for this task, yeh know."
"Well, it certainly showed," Elinor replied politely, still wishing her mother would join the men in conversation.
"Aw, you're too kind, Princess," Fergus said. "I thank ye."
This response somewhat surprised Elinor. Whenever she had given compliments away like this, the recipient would almost never accept, usually turning the conversation back to her. "Well, I couldn't have done it without the thought of you, Princess," or "I was barely even trying, Princess." Though Elinor knew she should have always been flattered with the false modesty, she almost never was. To her, it seemed as though everyone was weaseling around their accomplishments for the sake of making a royal feel good about themselves. But Fergus had worked hard for his goal, and he didn't seem to have any problems acknowledging his victory and graciously accepting any compliments he had earned.
"So, Princess," Fergus was saying now, leaning across the table as if to make their conversation more personal. Elinor knew her mother did not approve of the elbows on the table, but she didn't mind closing her mother off from the conversation. "I hear yeh play the mandolin."
Elinor nodded. Music was actually one of her favorite pastimes, and she was rather surprised that Fergus had brought this up. After all, no one had ever mentioned it. "Yes…I do enjoy it."
Fergus' face broke out into a smile. "Then I must hear yeh play."
Elinor was quite amazed that her mother had not interrupted for a full five minutes, but now she did. "You see, Fergus, Elinor is not yet ready to perform in front of an audience just yet. She still has much to learn before she is capable of that."
Fergus' eyebrows furrowed in a puzzled way. "I surely wouldn't mind, yer majesty. I'm sure she plays wonderfully."
Elinor glanced down at her hands, feeling her cheeks redden. He really was being too kind…but somewhere in her mind Elinor knew it was all a façade. She was the princess, he was a competitor…this was just how these things went.
"Perhaps not today, Fergus," the Queen said in finality. "Now tell us of all your accomplishments! I have been dying to hear of the story of your bear hunting!"
Seemingly hesitant, Fergus began to tell the Queen of how a bear entered his village and had taken the life of his grandfather. Fergus had then tracked the creature for three months in the misty mountains before slaying it and bringing back its head for the village. He spoke with gusto and many excited hand gestures (though he almost knocked over Elinor's goblet at one crucial point in the story). Elinor almost found herself grinning at Fergus' enthusiasm – his eyes were as wide as dinner plates as they recounted his adventures. Even the king had stopped his conversation with Underhill to listen to the story. Fergus truly was an excellent storyteller. Elinor could not tear her gaze away from his mouth that was moving at a mile a minute. The descriptions of his escapades made her chest swell with the delight practically dripping from Fergus' words. The way he described his adventures made Elinor want to go out and have one of her own: to grab a horse and ride off into the misty mountains, perhaps in search of a wisp or a forest nymph to guide her on her way.
The story ended abruptly when the food arrived and was set before the guests. Elinor could not help but feel slightly disappointed as she reluctantly picked up her fork and poked at the tomatoes in her salad. It was then when she happened to look up, finding Fergus' eyes on hers. For no reason that she could imagine, she felt her heart skip in her chest, but did not look away for at least two full seconds. He blinked and suddenly gave a very small chuckle. But what was so humorous?
Her eyes soon returned to her food.
Dinner dragged by with forced conversation and fake laughs, just like any other formal dinner Elinor had ever attended with her parents...
…except that Elinor rather enjoyed sitting across from Fergus that evening. He was interesting to watch – his expressions and reactions were entertaining, not to mention he would lean in and whisper a joke or two when Elinor's mother wasn't looking so she had to hide her laughter behind her napkin. He was quite easy to chat with, and made the dinner even more bearable.
"That was delicious!" Underhill sighed happily, stretching his arms over his head and leaning back in his chair, belching loudly. Fergus cast Elinor an amused glance and she promptly giggled at her father's reaction to this sudden outburst.
"Er…we are glad you enjoyed yerselves," he tried, clearing his throat. "Why don't we have a drink by the fire, eh?"
"Sounds promising!" Underhill replied, standing and stretching again. "Fergus, why don't yeh show the princess yer new stallion, eh? Bet she'd like that."
With a nod of consent from the king, Fergus offered his hand to Elinor and began to lead her out of the hall. As she held to his forearm, she realized just how drastically different their sizes were. She was tiny compared to his stature, and her little hand wrapped around his thick arm so it almost disappeared in the folds of his deep blue tunic. They made their way out the front doors to Elinor's enormous relief. The cool air felt heavenly against her warm skin, and the smell of forests and horses was a welcome change of pace from the scents of food and strong perfumes.
"Thank goodness," she heard herself saying. She quickly put a hand to her mouth – had she said something so rude out loud?
But to her surprise, Fergus let out a booming laugh that echoed around the courtyard. "I tell yeh, princess, if I had to sit another moment listening to my father prattle on about the proper way to hunt squirrels, I would have had to throw myself out the window."
Elinor laughed, but did not cover her mouth. She felt more at ease now that her mother was not glowering over her shoulder and whispering suggestions into her ear. It helped that Fergus was easy to speak with.
He led her across the courtyard and into the Underhill camp, where large tents were erected beside flags printed with the Underhill crest. There were still fires burning and people huddled around them, speaking in booming voices – no doubt telling more war stories. But before they could draw any attention, Fergus led Elinor to the outside of the camp and into the shadows where the horses were standing. He untied a rope and led one of the horses towards the princess. It was a massive animal and much larger than Fergus. It had a deep bay coat and coal-black hair that fell in front of huge black eyes. Elinor's mouth fell slightly at the size of it as it clip-clopped closer to her.
"This here's Drosdan," Fergus stated proudly. "He's a bit of a ninny, but he's still young yet. Go ahead, he won't hurt yeh…"
Elinor held out a tentative hand and the horse sniffed it curiously; breath warm on Elinor's icy skin. She reached out further and stroked his velvet muzzle. "He's beautiful."
"Yeah…" Fergus replied, patting the creature on its thick neck. "Seems to like yeh, too." It did appear so, for the horse was nuzzling Elinor's face with its nose, causing her to burst into giggles. Fergus gave a little grunt. "Drosdan sometimes forgets that he's supposed to be a fearsome warrior horse, the great git."
Elinor laughed again, even more loudly this time. She glanced at Fergus and then to Drosdan, figuring that there was a strange resemblance between the two. She pulled a stray piece of straw from the horse's mane, and suddenly, without warning, a feeling of dread washed over her.
Why did that entire ordeal have to happen? And why had it stuck with her, replaying in her mind over and over again? All of the self-doubt and blame came flooding back…
"Do you see the way Underhill looks at you? Like you are the only person in the room? And you have treated him like he doesn't matter in the slightest."
"Princess, are yeh all right…?"
Elinor separated herself from her thoughts long enough to see Fergus' brow furrowed worriedly. Had she really never noticed the way he was looking at her? "Yes…I…"
"…maybe you don't deserve to be princess."
"Really, Princess, yeh don't look well."
She waved her hand airily. "I'm fine, Fergus. I just need to sit down…"
He took her tiny hand in his enormous one and led her to a fallen tree where she gratefully sat, fanning her face to stop the tears from flowing. She needed to find Netta, apologize. But how could she after such a pleasant evening with an amiable man?
Fergus' eyes were darting over her features, worry etched across every inch of his face. "You're unwell. Can I get yeh anything? Water? Glass o' wine…?"
She shook her head, more forcefully. "No, no, I'm all right. Thank you."
"You're crying, Princess."
"What?" Elinor brought a finger to her face only to find that her right cheek was wet with tears. "Oh, dear…"
Fergus inhaled deeply, unmistakable anger burning in his eyes. "What happened, Princess? Who did this to yeh?"
Elinor quickly wiped her wet eyes. "No one…I only…" she sighed in defeat. She would tell him. After all, who else could she confide in? "Well, if you must know, I had a bit of a spat with a good friend of mine."
Fergus' face softened slightly as he leaned in to listen.
"And by the end of the whole thing," Elinor struggled to find the right words. "I doubted very much that I am…capable of so much responsibility." She knew it sounded stupid even as it was coming out of her mouth, but Fergus did not scoff or roll his eyes or tell her off for being insecure.
Instead, he let out a little "hm" and sat with her in thought for a minute, listening to the sounds of the other clan members drinking and laughing and singing into the night. He finally turned to face her, looking serious. "If yeh don't mind me saying, Princess, I was a bit nervous about showing up to this Highland Games thing."
Elinor gave him a bewildered look.
"Now I don't mean to blather on about myself, but I was downright scared, I was. I had heard that the princess of DunBroch was cold and emotionless." Elinor narrowed her eyes, but Fergus laughed as if she was making a joke. "Hear me out! I arrived, a shivering, nervy wreck, until I saw you." Fergus smiled at the memory. "Yeh were just as beautiful as I'd heard, and I was surprised to see that yeh were not mean-looking at all. Yeh looked more bored than anything."
Elinor mouth twitched. "Well, you would be bored, too, if you had to sit next to my mother all evening."
"I imagine so," he winked. "But I knew that I had to speak to yeh, at least wish yeh a 'Happy Birthday' and all. And let me tell yeh, Princess, you were one of the kindest, loveliest people I ever had the pleasure of meetin'."
Elinor cleared her throat. He was making her feel so at ease with his low, rumbling voice and soft eyes, but she could not allow herself to lose her focus. "What are you trying to say, Fergus…?"
"I'm sayin'," he urged. "That you, Princess Elinor, have everything it takes to be princess. You can sit quietly in a hall full of bearded mongrels like me, for pity's sake!"
Elinor sighed. "I know you are trying to make me feel better, Fergus, but…"
"Agh, I know I'm inarticulate," he grumbled. "But don't yeh listen to people who say that you're not good enough. Just by looking at yeh, I can see that you are special, Princess. You're not like any of the silly tavern girls my clan keeps around. You're smart and clever, and yeh have all the skills to be a ruler." He trailed off a bit, staring at his hands. "You're…I believe in yeh, Princess. I really do."
Elinor stared, watching the faint glow of a nearby fire flicker on Fergus' weather-beaten face. He had said it so simply, and perhaps it was just another attempt at flattery. But he had delivered it all so sincerely without any sugar-coating. An enormous weight lifted off of Elinor's chest as she studied him in the firelight. He made her feel like everything was going to be all right.
"I thank you, Fergus," she said at last. "And please, call me Elinor."