Ascent - Of Elves and Men

an excerpt



Chapter One

Barton House, Aisling.

Late Middle Ages.

Barton was a lone building of grand construction within a high-walled settlement, otherwise bereft of grandeur. The ground, as one entered through the open gates, was not soggy with mud from the rains that poured over the land. Instead, there was a layer of hay strewn over the ground, disturbed by horses and carts, but soon put to rights again by the boys who worked the upkeep of the town. The village of Aisling had been first built as an outpost for a king who had soon forgotten it, and peopled by a family line in the king's royal esteem. No one ever said what the family had done to get there.

Chickens were the first things to notice his presence, as Benedict approached taking the straight road through the village to get to Barton. It was as a traveling bard that he wandered in. Aisling was perfect for him. No one would look to find him here, so far from the kingdom. He rode through on horseback and garnered a glimpse of the people in the village as they had a chance to peer up at him. Few had ever seen a bard before. Many of the children stopped whatever chores their parents had set them in favor of staring until Benedict passed, or their parents cuffed them over their ears. Benedict rode on.

Arriving at the fore of Barton, there was a footman who offered him a hand down from the horse he rode in on, cupping his hands for the bard's foot to step into. Once Benedict had dismounted, he was informed that the horse would be taken to the stables, and rubbed down from the travel.

There was a moment of obvious interest from the footman, but when Benedict smiled and blithely did not answer, the footman didn't press and Benedict did not volunteer. The sight of Barton itself from close up had already gained the bard's attention.

Despite the tales he had heard, Benedict had not accurately imagined the square expanse of the stone-made foundation. He advanced slowly at first, stepping under the threshold to the house, until he walked into the main hall, and toward the family who resided there.

They were having their afternoon meal as his eyes met theirs.

Benedict's first motion was to make a bow, a large, flourishing bow, bending from the waist, taking his hat off his head and almost touching the ground with his forehead. He smiled as he stood up once again, settled the hat atop his head, and began to speak.

"My lord, my ladies, I have with me a merry number of stories from the world that I would share with you, and a harp, if you will, that I can play in accompaniment." He had a lute also in his backpack, but that was easier to hide from view, at least for now. It was always better to surprise your hosts with amusement that had not been promised up front.

His hosts received him well, with smiles and applause, and an invitation to continue, now, if he wished, but after he had partaken some refreshments, if he had need.

One girl's eyes lingered on him, a girl with hair as pale, he assumed, as straw would have been before the people had trampled on it. To her, he gave a most charming smile, and flourished again as one of the servants led him out of the receiving hall, and toward the kitchens, where he would be supplied with something to eat as an offer of good will.

Barton's upstairs, like the rest of it so far, was quite wealthy in appearance, considering how far from the nearest city they were. He felt quite pleased at the servant's slow pace.It gave him a generous view of Barton, where he expected to stay for as long as his welcome extended.

"Do you like what you see?" the servant asked, slowing his walk further so that Benedict could take more time.

Blinking, Benedict drew the servant's face into his vision and nodded his head. "It is not quite what I had expected," was his honest response.

"Barton has been in the Crewe family for almost 100 years," the servant replied. "My grandmother worked here when she was a child, her children did the same, and all of theirs. It is a very well cared for home." It may have been that the servant took Benedict's words as some criticism of the fine manor.

"So I can see." He meant this to be a clear compliment, and hoped the smile he gave made that clear.

The servant relaxed, and they continued on past tapestries of faded color and dust that spoke of the ages they had been lining the walls. Benedict only stopped to look at the first few of them. They were obviously of an older design, kept now for sentimental or other reasons, but after his recent travels to the city, they began to all look the same, hung up only to differentiate from stone walls. The bard took a breath in, glad beyond words to see that there was a worn sheepskin on the floor of his room, as well as another on the pallet.

"Is it to your liking?" the servant asked, conscientiously.

Benedict stepped inside. It smelt fresh here, and the reason for that was the hole in the wall that was supposed to act as a window. The lightly damp smell of the room added to that freshness. His room might not be such a boon if it came to rain with a punishing wind. But until that time, it would do quite well.

"Thank you," he said sincerely.

The servant nodded, as though his words were nothing more than expected. Leaving Benedict to his own space and thoughts, the servant stepped back from the room.

***

It did not escape Adelaide's notice when the servant her father had sent up with the bard came back alone. That could only mean that Benedict, the bard, was alone in his room now. His face had been quite pleasing to her, and it had also not escaped her attention when he had given her that private little smile meant only for her, which told her he found her attractive too.

There was only one thing that Adelaide decided she had any want of. She smiled and ducked her head demurely. She waited none too patiently for her father to finish giving Guy the list of things he required him to do before the sun went down. Lord Crewe always tried to instill in her the importance of patience, and Adelaide knew he would not be forgiving if she ignored that in favor of her own personal wants. Pursing her lips, Adelaide's gaze watched Guy's form as he nodded, then turned away from the table to tend, no doubt, to the gardens surrounding the estate, or something equally trivial.

"Father, I wish to lay down." She did her best to flutter her lashes innocently, and smiled at both her mother and her father. "May I be excused?"

Lord Crewe nodded his head fractionally, and that was the only allowance Adelaide required, before she pushed back her chair, careful not to let it scrape too loudly over the stone floor in the large hall. She smiled over to her parents once more, then picked up her skirts and headed for the stairs.

She took great care in smoothing the folds of her skirt over her legs, and then lifting her hands to ensure that there were no large imperfections in her perfectly straight and blonde hair. Only after she was sure that her appearance was at its very best without her stepping into her bedroom on the way, Adelaide took a calming breath, and pasted a welcoming smile to her lips as she approached the open door to Benedict's temporary room in Barton.

"Well met," she said, in her most velvety of tones. "I don't believe we had a chance to be properly introduced downstairs. I am Lady Adelaide." There was a smile on her lips, as she hoped dearly that his hand would not prove too unwashed against her recently bathed skin.

Benedict looked up from where he'd been unpacking his belongings, and ensuring that there was no damage caused to any of them along his travel. So far, it appeared as if everything had survived unscratched. He was honestly surprised to find that the younger lady of the house had followed him up to his room.

"Ah, of course." He stood, then walked a couple of steps to her, and bowed low in front of her, before slipping his hand into hers gently. "My name is Benedict, the bard."

Adelaide's smile was generous. She did so like it when men showed her the proper attention. Also, she was quite pleased to find that his hand felt soft inside of hers, almost like a true gentleman, without any of the hard calluses that dictated too much lowly work in the elements. She wanted to hold onto his hand for much longer than was proper. Benedict withdrew his hand, however, before the point when propriety might have been questioned.

"To what do I owe this honor?" he asked kindly, referring to her presence in his room.

"I wished to make sure you had settled in," Adelaide returned. "And that the servant referred you to the correct room."

"You have so little faith in your servants?" Benedict asked curiously. Her statement seemed at odds with the pride the servant had taken in his work.

Adelaide shrugged a lithe shoulder, as though it did not matter to her one way or another. "It is only a servant," she replied easily.

"Only a servant," Benedict repeated. He contemplated that for a moment, then nodded. "Of course."

"Not like you, of course." Adelaide stepped forward once more, with her smile again at the ready.

Benedict looked at the lady Adelaide for a moment, before he settled down on the bed he had been given, and began to unlace and pull off one of the boots he was wearing. "Does your father know you are up here with me?" he asked of her, curiously.

"He thinks I am in my bedroom," she answered him, quite honestly. "And you are a proper gentleman to think that I should probably go there now, are you not?"

Hardly a proper gentleman, Benedict thought to himself. "Perhaps that would be for the best," he replied, as gently as he could. It would not do for him to alienate the daughter of Lord Crewe.

Adelaide was not offended in the least by this. In fact, she was pleased, watching as he pulled the second boot from his foot. "I am glad you are staying here with us, Benedict, the bard."

Benedict tipped his head at her, and then she flounced from his room, her skirts disappearing around his door, and the lingering scent of the perfume that she wore behind.