I heard hounds barking and horses trampling through the woods since I arrived in my secret little herb garden. A hunting party most likely. They never venture this far; the woods here were too dense for many men to get through and the stream that flowed on the opposite end of the forest was where most of those poor creatures they were after resided anyway.
I wasn’t alarmed until I heard hooves getting closer and closer. It was a wandering sort of walk, not like it was trying to sneak around or be quiet enough to hunt. Within moments I heard a horse break through the brush and then stop. There were no sounds of dismounting, so either the rider was just sitting there staring at me and the meadow or the horse had escaped from its master. Either way, it didn’t concern me. I always keep a small kitchen knife hidden away in my stockings when I come out like this. And my horse was close enough that I could get to her before anything got very serious.
I’ve never actually had to use the knife, and I’m not sure I could if the situation arose. But a small threat could get me the time I needed to escape if need be.
But, this horse was not coming any closer and neither was its rider. Subconsciously, I began humming an old tune to calm my nerves and give my guest the idea of my not knowing they were there. Casually, I bend more into the bush and turn my head slightly to get a better look at my new visitors.
Stopped just at the edge of the meadow, about fifteen feet from where I crouched, sat a young man atop a beautiful white mare. The man was probably around my age from what I could tell. His slightly wavy brown hair and tanned skin gave him a very handsome appearance, from what little I could see. His dark green tunic seemed beautifully embroidered in gold, marking him as someone of money. Yes, he was very handsome indeed. But, there he sat staring at me like he’d never seen a lady or a meadow before.
I sat back on my feet and took a deep breath, just as the young man started backing his horse out of the clearing. I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason I found myself raising my voice and saying, “Well, are you going to just stay there like a spying child or are you going to introduce yourself?”
The young man stopped his horse and, as I turn my head, he gives me a sheepish sort of smile. Probably surprised he got caught and that I said something at all.
“My apologies, lady, for sneaking up on you. It was by accident that I found myself here with you and I hope I didn’t frighten you!”
The man sounded sincere. Obviously well-educated from the way he spoke. Very well-mannered.
Yes, definitely came from money.
“You’re perfectly alright. I can share my little meadow with you. Although, I’m not sure what there is to do here since I’m guessing you ditched the hunting party.”
They guy smiles and eases his horse slowly closer. “I’m guessing the dogs barking gave us away.”
“If only the animals were as smart as I am.”
The stranger laughs, the smile reaching his dark blue eyes. His laugh is a little rough and he almost looks surprised at the sound coming out like it didn’t happen very often. “If only. Though, to tell you the truth, I don’t care much for hunting. I only came to do a little exploring and let the lads have some fun.” At this, he dismounts from his horse and, grabbing the reins, walks it over to where I’m now standing instead of crouching. “I’m Theo by the way.”
“I’m Ella.” Apparently, I wasn’t afraid to introduce myself to a complete stranger. “Well, Theo, you picked a great place to stumble on to. This happens to be one of my favorite spots.”
Again, that dazzling white smile that makes his blue eyes shine. “Ella. What a beautiful name. Almost as beautiful as it is out here. I understand why this is a favorite of yours. I would be out here all the time if I could. Are there any other places I should stumble upon?”
I’m pretty sure I was blushing. “Well, of course the stream is very nice this time of year and in the summer. But, on the other side of the stream is a nice lake. There are huge rocks everywhere and even in the middle of it big enough to sit and lay on. I used to go there all the time as a little girl.”
“Maybe, one day, you can take me to this lake of yours Ella. It sounds lovely. And, seeing how you have such great taste in meadows, I can only think that your tastes in lakes will be equally as lovely.”
I know I was definitely blushing at this point. “You’re not from around here, are you Theo?”
“The woods? Of course not. I live in the palace so I don’t really get out much.”
“I just meant the village! But, the palace? I bet it’s like a whole other world out here. Why do you live there?”
Theo gives me a small smile, a question in his eyes that he doesn’t end up asking. “Well, my father works there and I’m to follow in his footsteps one day.”
“That sounds wonderful. I can only imagine how beautiful it is there. Do you like it in the castle?”
His eyebrows raise up in surprise. “You know, I think you’re the first person to ask me that. Truthfully, I think I once was. Much has happened in the last several years. Now the castle seems more like a prison and less like a home.”
“Well, Theo, if you want my advice, I’d say that happiness is one of the most important things out there and we all deserve to find it. If you don’t want to follow in your father’s footsteps, then perhaps you should talk to him. Or, if you must, which is what the look on your face is telling me, then perhaps you can find something to brighten your life up a bit. Something to bring the happiness back into your life.”
Theo laughs again, this time not a roughly unused laugh as before. It was a very calming sound, wrapping around the meadow like the soft breeze blowing through the trees. “Ella, you are unlike any woman I have ever met. And I’m very thankful for it, and your advice. You are quite right in your musings. Now if only I could repay you for your kindness and advice.”
“I look forward to that day, Theo.”
In the distance I can hear men yelling and dogs barking while horses make their way through the trees, slowly coming closer. Theo’s smile slightly fades as he glanced over his shoulder and then back at me.
“That will be my hunting party looking for me, I’m sure. I’m sorry, but I must leave you before they cause too much of a ruckus. It has been a pleasure, Ella. I hope we can meet again soon.” He reaches over, his hand extended to take mine. I gently place it in his and he lifts it to his mouth and kisses my hand before surrendering it back to me. With a smile he turns and mounts back onto his horse. He nods his head in a bow and I give a small nod and curtsy back before he spurs his horse off into the trees, disappearing into the thick underbrush and leaves in a matter of moments.
Even though I’ll probably never see him again, I can’t help but smile and continue my humming as I finish up with the herbs and flowers, put them in the saddlebag and head back to the estate, in the opposite direction of my new acquaintance.