1370

The north of England

Young Edward of Lochinvar felt a wave of relief as Netherby Hall came into view before him. As always, the journey from his home in the northwest had been a long one. But, the young knight considered the trek one quite worthwhile.

Now that his destination was in sight, he could barely remember the rigors of the trail…the rivers he and his squire had forded, the unrelenting pace he'd set for himself to get here in good time. All that mattered now was the journey was finally over.

His seventeen-year-old heart proudly bore the weight of his newly earned knighthood as he urged his steed to move faster.

Netherby would have to see that he was no longer a boy. Edward was not just the insignificant younger son of Lord Lochinvar any more, but a man grown. A man who had loved Netherby's only daughter since they had played as children together.

Ellen

The name tumbled out of Edward's rosy, still-boyish, lips without his even meaning for it to.

When exactly had the hoydenish young girl he used to tease turned into such a beauty? Edward wasn't sure. But, he knew he loved the Lady Ellen, and always had… even before he'd noticed she was no longer the child he had once known.

He closed his eyes and pictured her as he had seen her last, during Yuletide festivities the year before. He remembered her deep brown eyes looking at him from under modestly-lowered lashes when others were present, as was fitting. Young ladies of her standing did not flirt… at least they were not supposed to.

But how those same dark eyes had sparkled in those brief moments when they had been alone… just as her lips had glittered moistly in the moonlight after he'd gathered his courage to kiss her!

Edward had almost spoken to her father then, but Ellen forbade him with a tortured frown. "Nay, my sweet Edward… You know Father is protective of me. He will say we are too young… That you have nothing yet to offer."

"Nothing but love," he had murmured to her in the moonlight.

She had smiled and turned her face up to his for another kiss. "You know that is enough for me… But Papa and my brothers see it differently."

"I know," he had sighed with a sinking feeling in his breast. He had known she was right, of course. Netherby would never consign the hand of his youngest child, his darling only daughter, to a penniless, and, as yet, unknighted, second son of a minor Border lord.

But the passing of months had changed things. Edward's bright blue eyes sparkled just thinking about it. He was a knight now! His sword pledged to the great Duke of Lancaster. And he was off to win his fame and fortune fighting in France with the Duke and his heroic brother, the Prince of Wales.

Certainly Netherby could have no objection to his daughter marrying a man such as that…

And so Edward had come to Netherby's hall to ask for Ellen's hand before he was due in Plymouth to join the army. He had no idea how long he would be gone, but it seemed prudent to present his suit before leaving. Given the long-standing friendship between his father and Netherby, certainly his present circumstances could be overlooked in favor of the riches of plunder he was sure to bring home.

He dared not leave the matter unspoken until he returned from France. Ellen Netherby may have been Edward's sweetheart since their childhood, but other men might not recognize that special bond and approach her father with suits of their own.

He could not take that chance. For Edward knew Ellen was his as surely as he was hers. Their whispered promises to each other the winter before were proof enough of that.

He took a deep breath as he entered the keep at Netherby and then boldly asked the steward if he might see the lord.

The man eyed the young knight with skepticism. "Sir Henry? What would you be wanting with him, lad?"

Edward raised his chin. "That is between me and Sir Henry. Now, will you announce me?"

Humor rose in the steward's eyes. "Aye? Well, I'm afraid I cannot, young sir. The good knight is not at home."

Edward's heart tightened with disappointment. So far, things were not going as planned. This steward seemed to have no respect for his knightly status, seeing instead only his youth. And Sir Henry was not at home.

He took another deep breath and said as calmly as he could, "Is your lord expected soon?"

"Oh, aye… In a week or so. He's off on an inspection of his holdings."

Edward felt despair setting in. A week! And Netherby's holdings were extensive enough that the young knight knew it was hopeless to go off in the countryside trying to find the man.

In a week's time, he knew he should be well on the road to Plymouth where he was expected by the end of June… And that meant he would have no chance to speak with Netherby about Ellen.

He racked his brain, looking for a solution. Dare he approach one of Ellen's three older brothers? Were any of them at home? He decided to try, feeling even more intimidated by that prospect than he had been of approaching the father. Ellen's brothers were all just enough older than he, that he had idolized them as a child, even as he had his own brother.

But the steward gave him no hope in that direction, either. The eldest was with the father, inspecting holdings, while the other two had already left home for Plymouth, where, they too, were to sail with the Duke of Lancaster at the end of June.

Edward felt foolish. How stupid it had been of him to think that this task would be so easy! His shoulders slumped as he sat in his saddle and thought.

Somehow, he had to make the best of this situation. He did not like to think of what would happen if he was gone for years and did not announce his intentions towards Ellen beforehand. But what was he to do with both her father and brothers gone?

The fluttering of a light fabric caught his attention out of the corner of his eyes. He lifted his gaze over the steward to where a slim figure of brown-haired beauty stood, her gown flapping around her legs in the breeze.

Edward sucked in his breath sharply as he watched Ellen walk up to them, her dark eyes alight with the smile she could not openly show, but that only he could see playing at the corners of her lips.

Her lips.

Would that he could leap off his horse, take her into his arms and show those twitching lips a thing or two! But, of course, such a thing was impossible. He forced himself to sit still and meet her dancing eyes.

"Sir Edward, I see," she said, putting emphasis on his new rank, as if she knew how important the honor was to him.

Of course she knew how important it was. He had told her of his dreams of knighthood hundreds of times. "To what does Netherby Hall owe the honor?" she asked.

"My lady Ellen," Edward answered gallantly. " 'Tis my honor alone, to behold your beauty."

Ellen drew her face into a most-definite smirk for just a moment before bowing her head graciously. In childhood, her friend had never spoken to her that way, and part of her found his new manner amusing, even while the other half of her thrilled down to her toes to hear the handsome young man say such a thing.

He was no longer the skinny, blond-headed imp he once had been. Indeed, his shoulders were quite broad, giving promise that his tall and muscular young body would fill out even more before he was done growing. He was chivalrous; yet sincere, in a way that many a knight was not.

Indeed, Edward of Lochinvar had grown quite handsome, but Ellen had not missed seeing the good-humored light in his eyes that proved to her that her friend and sweetheart had not changed in the ways that truly were important. He was still her Edward.

"Good sir, I must regret to inform you that my father is not at home," she said, trying to put aside her feelings and act the part of mistress of the hall in her dead mother's place, lest her father's steward see something untoward in their interaction.

"So your steward has been telling me, demoiselle," he nodded. "… But in his absence, might I request a moment of your time?"

Ellen caught his eye. "Since Father is unavailable… that would be acceptable," she ducked her head in a gesture the steward took as maidenly modesty, but actually was meant to hide her smile.

Edward, too, quenched a grin as he slid off his horse and tossed the reigns to his squire.

The steward harrumphed at the youth's brazenness… bothering the young lady with a concern he had originally brought for her father, but the man had long served Sir Henry and knew the Lochinvar family well. This young Sir Edward and the Lady Ellen had known each other since they were practically babes in the cradle, despite the length of distance between their homes. He supposed it did no harm to leave the pup with his young mistress for a moment.

"Shall we walk a bit?" Edward asked Ellen, bowing and offering his arm. "It is such a fine day, it seems a shame to talk inside."

Ellen demurred and the two set off together in a sweep of the keep. "What are you about, Edward?" she asked softly when they were far enough away from the steward so as to be sure they were not overheard.

He wished Sir Henry's man were not watching them so closely, for Edward wanted nothing more than to answer Ellen's question by firmly kissing her. But the steward was following their progress around the keep. He had to content himself with a straightforward answer. "I've come to ask to marry you," he said simply.

"Edward!" she gasped.

"Well, why not?" he grew back, slightly defensive. "I'm knighted now… with hopes of earning great treasure fighting against France. How can your father object to me as a suitor now?"

She shook her head in exasperation, and changed the direction of their walk to take them behind a full cart and out of sight of the steward. "You don't have your fortune yet, you goose!" she exclaimed, letting her arms encircle his neck.

"But I do have my spurs," he replied, landing kisses near her hairline in between his words. "I was hoping that and the promise of war booty would be enough to convince him… I cannot sail to Aquitaine without some kind of pledge for your hand."

"You have mine, you know that," Ellen answered.

"Aye," he said. "But the daughter of Sir Henry of Netherby would not dare marry without her father's permission, would she?"

The light in Ellen's dark eyes dimmed.

Edward bent his head to kiss her full lips. "It's all right, sweetheart. I wouldn't expect you to answer otherwise… But somehow I must convince your father I am worthy… And do it before I need to leave for Plymouth!"

"But he won't even be back before then!" Ellen said in a similar desperate tone. Even as she clutched at her sweetheart's fingertips, she was aware that they had been behind the cart so long that the steward was sure to come looking for them soon. But how could she pull herself away from Edward when he was to leave so soon and things were so unsettled between them?

They were saved from an awkward situation with the steward by a party entering the keep with great commotion. Ellen instantly recognized the voices. "Father!" she cried, looking up at Edward with wonder. What good fortune, that he was back from inspecting the holdings so unexpectedly early! She gave her sweetheart another quick peck to the lips before dashing out from the cart's shelter.

Her quick greeting died in her throat as she saw her father struggling to unload the pale form of her oldest brother from his horse. Harry clutched at his left shoulder and moaned. Ellen could see a rust-colored stain spotting his tunic underneath his hand. She ran over to them in panic. "What's wrong?"

"One of those villeins mistook Harry for the deer he was attempting to poach this morning," her father growled. "Lucky thing it is too, that the old serf was such a poor shot."

Ellen shuddered and agreed. A quick glance at Harry's shoulder proved that it was a flesh wound, but she did not like the thought of her brother's life being spared by so short a measure. She immediately called for the leech and the next minutes were spent in frantic action, seeing that Harry was taken inside and made comfortable before his wound was examined. When she could breathe again, she remembered Edward.

"Father," she ventured. "There's someone in the keep that's come to see you – Sir Edward of Lochinvar."

"Oh?" Sir Henry's eyebrows rose. "What does that lad want? I thought he'd be going overseas soon, seeing as he's one of Lancaster's men, now."

Ellen ducked her head. "I believe he is on his way to join the Duke… But, there is a matter he wishes to discuss with you first…" She dared look up again and saw her father studying her carefully.

Ellen remembered enough of her mother to know that she took after her in a way that none of the boys did. What she didn't realize was that she was at the same age her mother had been when Sir Henry had first started wooing his lady. She had no way of knowing how alike the two of them truly looked, or how her father's heart hardened at the thought of losing her too.

"Aye?" Sir Henry said tiredly, knowing perfectly well what the young knight was likely to ask of him. The looks between Edward and his daughter last Yuletide had not gone wholly unnoticed. "Send him in, then, and then let's have done with it."

Ellen nodded and fairly ran out the door to find her sweetheart.

Sir Henry sighed. For old Lord Lochinvar's sake, he determined to let the boy down easily. Edward's father had once saved his life in battle, after all, and a tight friendship had sprung up between the two men and their families.

If Edward had been Lochinvar's oldest son, he might have even considered the suit, even if it meant parting with his dearest Ellen. But his loyalty did not extend far enough to promise his only daughter to an unlanded, untested young knight who might not even come back from the action in France he, no doubt, was anxious to see.

If Edward came back, there might be room to talk.

Sir Henry was not an unfeeling father, and he had seen the way his daughter looked at the young man.

But he won't have her yet, he decided firmly, and that is what he told Edward when the young knight tremulously stood before him and pleaded his case.

Actually, he did not feel it necessary to give the lad future hopes. No doubt the pup would garner those without any help from him. He simply growled, "There are other men who can offer my daughter much more than you can."

"They cannot love her as I do," Edward swallowed hard. "And success will come my way, I know it."

Sir Henry shook his head. "I can't take that chance, lad."

The blue eyes fell as soon as they determined the older man would not give way… and then Sir Edward's face hardened in a way Sir Henry had not been expecting. His eyes were ice. They were steel.

"So be it," the young knight choked. He turned on his heel and flung open the chamber door. Ellen stood waiting there, hoping for good news. Edward straightened his back and bowed courteously to her. "Farewell, good lady… I'm off for Aquitaine," he said.

He was gone before she even had a chance to gape and ask him what he meant. One look at her father told her all she needed to know. She stood for a moment in the doorway, then flew away to nurse her pain somewhere else.