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All Fools' Day, Leeds Castle in Kent, England
It was the time of year for the Miracle Plays, which was good, because she needed a miracle to break the boredom of her feeble existence. She moved listlessly across the battlements. The sun was unusually hot that spring day, even hotter than the King's temper.
Edward was her guardian, and guard her he did, particularly since he had somehow discovered her plan to ride in the squire races that were scheduled for after the play. Since the day before, she'd had little freedom. She had been forbidden to go near the stables and banished to her chamber for the whole evening while the King raged on about her faults.
She exhaled a huge sigh, then crossed her arms in frustration and continued to pace the stone wall. She might as well have had her ankles chained together and been locked in the bottom of the donjon. Or...fed only bread and water like the German and Welsh captives the King kept for ransom.
She reached the end of the battlements and spun around swiftly. Her braids came loose from their tight knots above her ears and she impatiently slapped them out of her face, then paced back in the opposite direction.
Women were supposed to be content only sitting in the stands watching, while they waved their silly silken favors. A woman was supposed to wait until some knight chose to honor her with his attention.
Sofia hated to wait for anything. She truly believed that if one stood around and waited for something special to happen, it never did.
After her mother's death from desperately trying to bear a son and heir, Sofia waited for her father to come home. He was all she hadleft; she was all he had left. She was not yet four at the time, but she could remember it clearly, almost as if twelve years had not passed. She remembered the way she stood at the creneled walls, then at the arrow slits in the tower. Her ankles had rubbed together and been bruised after standing on her tiptoes for so long. Her neck had ached from the strain of stretching her chin high enough to be able to watch the horizon, to search the green hills for the first glimpse of her father's pennant waving over the crest of the hill.
She waited all those long and lonely hours for him to come home.
He never did.
Word finally came to Torwick Castle that he was too distraught to come home to a puny daughter when death had so cruelly taken his newborn son. His heir. And his wife.
So while she was frightened and lonely and waiting futilely for him to come home to her, he rode farther north, farther away from her.
A fortnight later he was mortally wounded in the siege at Rochester. He lived for only a few days, long enough to send messages to Edward, then Crown Prince.
But not long enough to send words of any kind to his only child. No good-bye. No deathbed wish. Nothing. Sometimes Sofia wondered if he had even remembered that she existed.
She learned early, and in the cruelest of ways, the true value of a woman. She also learned that sitting around and waiting was much more painful, more futile, than seeking out what she wanted. She could stomach failure. She could not, however, watch the world and all she wished for pass her by.
She stood still, frustrated and tense, because there was so little she could truly do. She turned and propped her elbows on the wall that was so far above the rest of the world. She rested her chin on her damp palms and gazed heavenward as if there were magical answers waiting for her there.
But there were no answers. Only a sky so brilliant blue it hurt your eyes to look at it and a few puffy clouds that moved as slowly as the hours of the day, almost as slowly as her long and boring existence.
After a moment she pulled the silver ribbons from her hair and tucked them into the bodice of her blue silk gown, then she began to unweave her braids because it gave her something to do with her hands other than to tap impatiently on the stone. Soon her hair was loose and fell heavily down past her shoulders and over her back. It was free. Free. The way she was not.
She looked down below her because there was nothing else to do. Immediately she spotted the King and Queen taking their seats in an awning-covered dais near the stage erected for the Miracle Plays.
One could not miss the King because he was so very tall. His golden hair caught the sun and shone so brightly sometimes it made people think he was some kind of god. But Sofia knew he was not a god.
The people called him Longshanks; she called him merciless.
His whole purpose on this earth seemed to be nothing more than to make her life truly miserable. She watched the Queen sit there serenely because the poor sweet woman had no idea she was wed to an ogre of the worst kind.
She loved Queen Eleanor, who was kind and did not raise her voice at Sofia even when she was not pleased with something she had done. Certainly it was not poor, dear Eleanor's fault that she was married to a tyrant with a will as strong as a castle wall and a head that was probably just as thick. Marriages were made for reasons of politics. Her cousin was fortunate that Eleanor was so good and kind she could not see his vile faults.
Sofia glared at the King and hoped his scalp burned from it. Her pride was aching and her memory echoed with his angry words from the night before, when Edward had scolded her in front of his guests.
You, Sofia, are bound to drive me mad with your foolishness. What you need is a husband to teach you humility and obedience!
In recent years she had heard that speech too many times to count. 'Twould be like trying to count the grains of salt in a cellar or the number of angels that could dance on the head of pin.
As if a husband could make her obey him. She was no slave. She was Sofia, and someday they would all know she was worthy of being called more than just a woman.
Later, when she'd had her ear pressed to their chamber door, she heard him lamenting to the Queen:
Eleanor, Sofia's antics are a disgrace. Tell me why in God's name she cannot spend her days stitching tapestries or at some other female entertainment.
As if sitting around listening to women's chatter while she was poking a needle into a piece of cloth was entertaining.
When Edward had suddenly opened the door and she had rather inconveniently fallen inside, caught once again eavesdropping, she'd asked him if sewing were so entertaining, then why did she never see men doing it? Edward's neck had turned the color of blood before he bellowed that sewing was not men's work. For just a breath of a moment, she had actually thought his liver might go up in flames.
But the truth was she had not really cared that he was angry. Life was terribly unjust and someone had to change it. Men could ride across the hillsides freely. Women were supposed to plant their hind ends on plodding mules or in pillion chairs where you wobbled precariously atop a mount that was about as close to dead as a horse could possibly be.
Why, a whole lifetime could pass you by before you even got where you were going.
She, Sofia Howard, did not ride on ancient mules or ride pillion. She had learned to ride astride at age six, when her guardian was off to London to deal with his newly established Parliament, a body of men who would make laws for all the land and probably despotically decree over their wine goblets that women were to have the ugliest of duties like stitchery and meal planning and laundry.
By the time Edward had returned from telling all of London and the rest of the world what they should do, she could already outride his squires. Thankfully, Queen Eleanor stepped in on her behalf and Sofia was allowed to ride as long as she was escorted by one of her keepers a man-at-arms.
Always a man.
Why were there not such things as women-at-arms? Everyone thought men were strong and courageous and honorable. The Church and most men claimed that women were weak creatures.
It did not seem fair that all women must suffer because once, too long ago for it to truly matter, Eve handed Adam one small apple.
What Sofia wanted to know was, if women were so weak, why did strong, brilliant, and honorable Adam, the man, eat that apple?
As far as she was concerned, Eve was only feeding her man. Was that not a woman's duty?
When Sofia said as much to the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was accused of blaspheming and had to spend a fortnight at a nunnery outside of Avon, where she was to pray with vigor for a pious heart, a sweet mind, and a quiet tongue.
Instead she vastly entertained the novices when she made wax candles in the shape of the Archbishop and Mother Superior in flagrante delicto.
But this was not a nunnery. She was still pacing along the upper wall of Leeds. She stopped near the edge of the western steps and braced her hands on a low crenel, peering through the square opening and looking off into the distant west, far on the horizon where she was certain all of her dreams lay waiting for her.
Aye, she thought. Out there somewhere was the life she was supposed to live, while she languished at Leeds under the tyrannical rule of her cousin, the cruel, cruel King of England, who made her behave like a lady just to torture her.
What she did not understand was why she felt so different inside. Different from everyone else. Did the rest of the world not see these things that drove her moods?
Once, not so long ago, when she was perhaps three and ten, she had lit twenty candles, knelt on the cold stones in the chapel, and asked God why.
Why God? Why does my heart feel like it is going to fly right from my chest? Why does my blood turn hot and cold when I'm angry and sad? Sometimes, when I want something very badly or when things move slower than honey in winter, I feel like there is a whole hive of bees just buzzing through me, trying desperately to get out.
God had not answered her. She knew God did not
talk to people. She had not expected a huge voice from heaven to boom overhead and tell her what was wrong with her, but she had secretly hoped for a sign, or a change.
Neither had happened.
She looked down at the scene below, her eyes on her cousin Edward.
She raised her chin and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She wanted to ride across the hills as fast as a charging army. She wanted to practice archery, to hit a target dead center. She wanted to learn swordplay. She wanted to walk outside the castle walls freely and unescorted. She wanted to wear braies and chausses so her legs would have the freedom of movement that a man had.
Now that, Your Majesty, would be true entertainment!
A moment later a raucous cheer drifted upward from below as if everyone agreed with her thoughts. She looked down over the edge of the parapet, scanned the lists outside the castle where the crowds had grown thick, almost cattle-like. They were milling in a huge herd toward the stage where jugglers and acrobats wore their clothes backwards in honor of All Fools' Day, performed magic while musicians played jaunty tunes, then caught copper pennies in their broad-brimmed hats.
Another excited cheer filled the air. She stood high and away from the rest of the castle, her back straight as an elm, her palms flat against the stone wall. The music grew louder and the crowd in the lists laughed and sang. She craned her head slightly so she could better see.
Now people were dancing on the grass to viols and hurdy-gurdies near the stage platform.
She loved to dance, even if it meant she had to hold the damp hands of some young courtier just so she could spin 'round and 'round and 'round, as fast as she could, until her head swam and she felt as if she were a bird, flying, until her breath came fast as the tunes the musicians played.
She spotted Edith, her friend, as well as Princess Eleanor, her young cousin. Eleanor was four and ten and was the eldest of Edward's five daughters and would soon be married to a foreign prince. Everyone was down there amid the day's amusements everyone but the men guarding the battlements.
One more swift glance down and she lost her need to teach the world a lesson by completely ignoring it.
Sofia gripped the skirt of her silk gown and took the stairs in hurried steps, then moved outside the castle gates, over the moat and into the glade, her long black hair floating out behind her like the curling ribbons of a Maypole.
Brightly colored tents of scarlet and green spotted the field behind the stage where the actors would perform their play based on the religious miracles of Christ or the saints and prophets.
She walked along, munching on an apple she'd plucked from a basket. No sooner had she swallowed a bite than her heart suddenly picked up speed and her skin began to tingle as if touched by an icy wind. She spun around swiftly, the apple poised at her lips.
Her gaze lit on him the moment she turned, a tall and richly clothed knight with a strong build and an unreadable face. She cocked her head and frowned. Odd, how she had felt his presence before she ever saw him.
She glanced back.
He stood a head above the milling crowd, his features partially hidden by the wavering shadows cast from a royal pennant that flew overhead. His arms were crossed so she could not read the design on his blue tabard.
She stepped up and onto a shallow wooden bucket someone had dropped nearby, pressing her ankles together and rising on her tiptoes just a bit so she could better see his face.
And see him she did!
The apple fell from her suddenly limp hand and plopped on the ground, forgotten.
The breeze died suddenly, as if the midday sun had just upped and melted it away. The pennant hung still, its angled tip like a sign from God, an arrow that pointed directly to the knight's dark head.
In the sudden brightness, his face showed clearly: strong, so deeply angular that the dark, icy shadows on his cheeks and creased brow looked as if even the sun itself was not bright enough to melt them.
Beneath a dark slash of thick brows, his gaze wandered lazily over the crowd. He looked bored, expectant, knowing, as if he had seen this all before and found
it not to his refined taste. He wore his arrogance the same way warriors wore their colors, proudly and prominently, a challenge for anyone and everyone to dare not notice.
Sofia found this fascinating, having spent so much time watching grown men grovel at her feet and praise her fine features as if they had no pride at all.
She had truly thought most men were a sorry lot. Until she had looked upon this man. He was not sorry in any way. In fact, she would wager her dowry that the word "sorry" never crossed his lips.
No. He surely would not grovel at her feet. Or anyone else's feet from the look of him.
His gaze flitted around the crowd, ran over her and past her, then stopped, and he turned back for another look.
For the first time in her life she was grateful for the fine features that made men stare at her. She could feel this knight's eyes on her, watching her closely, intently, for the longest time. The day grew even warmer as she stood there. The sun seemed to shine with more intensity. Her blood sped under her skin as if it were in the greatest hurry.
Then the oddest thing happened. Sofia suddenly wanted to disappear into the crowd. 'Twas unlike her, for she prided herself on the fact that she could face anyone's stare with an icy coolness, without feeling any fear, even the King himself when he was furious with her.
But now, when this man looked at her, the skin on her arms prickled with gooseflesh and her lips grew dry from the quick breaths she took. Something inside of her belly crawled 'round and 'round and made her head feel light as if she had been dancing in circles for hours.
He was different; his look was different. For one thing he was young for a knight, perhaps eight and ten, but better than that was his expression. 'Twas not awe at her beauty that made him stare at her, for she knew that kind of look all too well.
No, it was as if he were trying to see inside her mind, right through to that place where she let no one in, that place where dwelt her hopes and secrets, her dreams and her fears, those thoughts no one knew but her.
Some part of her wanted to turn away so he could not see too much, but she knew if she did so then he would win this contest of cool looks. She would appear weak if she looked away first, and too, there was the fact that she truly wanted to keep looking at him in spite of what he made her feel. He was a handsome devil for all his cool and superior look.
He was also the first man who could make her feel something other than disgust in too many months to count. He would not grovel at her feet as other men had.
Men would seldom look at her face for very long; it seemed to have some odd ability to render the most confident and strongest of men into babbling idiots and bowing fools, their expressions rapt and rather like that of pilgrims who traveled the countryside for a glimpse of a miracle and had, to their surprise, suddenly found one.
Knights and lords and warriors looked at her and the next thing she knew they were at her feet, kissing her hem or other such foolishness. She could now spot most courtiers merely by the backs of their heads, since that was all she usually saw of them.
Her sheer stubbornness aided her well, for she refused to look away from this handsome man who made her burn inside. She played a coy game and smiled, a small smile, one she knew could and had sent men panting after her. A come-hither-you-fool kind of smile, but before she could gauge his reaction, someone called her name from behind her and made her blink. Still, she did not turn away.
Not first. She would not be the first to break this spell. 'Twas a challenge between them, one she would win. So she kept looking at him, smiling that barest of smiles.
He cocked his head slightly. Curious, or perhaps giving her something more than a mere challenge.
The stage players began to sing a loud and bawdy song, typical of the Miracle Plays, and the crowd around her cheered, then shifted suddenly, moving forward to catch pennies the actors were throwing from the stage. She was jostled and jabbed and lost her balance. But when her feet hit solid ground, she was still craning her neck to keep up the staring game with the wonderfully intriguing knight.
She used her elbows to try to move back where she could see, jabbing at the crush of bodies swallowing her. But it did no good. She could not see him even when she jumped up and down; there was nothing before her but a mass of bobbing heads.
The song ended and the Miracle Players took their numerous bows. The crowd cheered and applauded and called out to them to do more skits.
God in heaven above...no more, she prayed, still wedging her way through the crowd.
'Twas the first prayer God had answered in months. Suddenly those actors turned and skipped off the stage like leaping lords, the ones warbled about by minstrels during the Twelve Nights of Christmas. The crowd calmed down, then finally moved back and broke up, heading for the amusements of the jugglers and booths. Finally, she could see across the lists.
But by then, the knight was gone.
Copyright © 1999 by Jill Barnett Stadler