tagRomanceThe Banquet

The Banquet


Elsabeth sat at her vanity, idly brushing her long, chestnut curls, wishing she was anywhere else but in this room, in this castle, on this day. She glanced over her shoulder at the stiff folds of shining fabric covering her narrow bed.

Why is mother insisting that I be excited about this banquet? It was sure to be overpopulated with arrogant sons of fat, lesser nobles able to talk only about themselves; perfumed dandies seeking to curry favor with the court; loud, sweaty knights spouting endlessly of battles; and simpering girls eager to latch on to anyone they think might marry them.

As daughter of the baron's senechal, she was not quite a noble, but not quite a servant, therefore fitting in nowhere. The servant girls instantly ceased their gossiping when she approached, dipping perfunctory curtsies before scurrying off. The girls of noble birth snubbed her as beneath their station, as if she wanted to spend her time in their stiflingly dull company in any fashion.

Father was too busy looking after the castle, managing all the servants, and making sure that duties were fulfilled and the daily castle needs tended to. Everyone always had his ear for something. Everyone but her. As one of the baroness' ladies-in-waiting, Mother was too busy plotting who she could marry her off to in order to improve the family's station.

She sighed. At least she had the day off from embroidering and teaching the castle pages music and dance. She loved teaching the lessons, but each day was a near mirror of the one before.

Today at least would be somewhat different. A party had arrived the day prior from a manor several days journey away, bringing some important news or other, and the Duke had ordered a banquet for today in their honor. Maybe there at least would be some fresh news from somewhere else or perhaps even some new books.

She looked in the mirror critically, turning her head to the left and right. Her hair shone from brushing and her cheeks were lightly flushed with pink from a walk in the sun that morning. A light dusting of freckles spanned her nose and cheeks, much to her mother's horror. She refused to wear the sun hats, they were constantly shoved at her when she went out for a walk or to ride horses, much as she refused to ride side-saddle, as was proper. Another loathsome word.

Her skin was smooth and soft, not quite so sickly pale as her mother preferred, but certainly not "burned brown like a washerwoman," as her mother lamented. Her arms were slender, but strong, and her hands were slightly broad, more like her father's than her mother's, with long fingers. She liked being able to do things she wasn't supposed to, as long as she was out of her mother's sight, and her father liked knowing she was doing them despite her mother's protests.

At 18, her body was more that of a woman than a girl, and she ran her hands down and around the soft, generous swell of her breasts, lifting them up to the ridiculous heights they would reach when squeezed into her corset, squinting and poking her tongue out between her naturally plump, rosy lips.

Her hands continued over her broad ribs, tucking in at the waist before running down and over her "generous" bottom, which her father teasingly called her "gift from Grandmother." Her legs were shapely, but not overly long ending in feet that would never be called dainty, but were lovely and well-proportioned.

She'd had her share of "suitors" if you could call fumbling squires hoping for a squeeze and a kiss in the corners of dark hallways during a banquet "suitors." She'd rebuffed them all firmly, but kindly, making noises about chastity and honor and prevailing on their chivalry. It wasn't that she was a prude, but she surely wasn't going to become one of "those" girls whom the squires practiced on before moving on to "proper" unions with the daughters of nobles. Bollocks to proper. She laughed aloud. She could just hear Mother, "You've been hanging around stablehands too much, miss!" The stablehands were more fun than the sewing circle.

She turned away from the mirror and toward the small tower window, guessing the sun was hovering at about midday. She stood up and pulled on her everyday surcoat over her underdress, and slid her feet into her slippers. She opened the door to her small chamber, glancing left toward her parent's chamber next door before quietly slipping out and softly closing her door. She quickly tiptoed around to curving wall of the tower to the stairs, moving swiftly but carefully down to the wide vestibule with passages that led away to the kitchen, out to the courtyard, up to the main stairs leading to the Duke and Duchess' chambers, and into the great hall.

She padded softly to the kitchen, dodging harried kitchen wenches laden with bowls and baskets preparing for the banquet and poked her head around the corner. Serah, the fat cook, was fussing here and there over bubbling pots, pinching and tasting and pronouncing whether all was fit to serve. She glanced over and saw Elsabeth sneaking out from the doorway and reaching for an apple from a brimming bowl.

She put on her stern face, but her eyes twinkled. Elsabeth tried to look contrite, but laughed out loud as Serah came bustling over swinging a wooden ladle. "Out, you naughty thing," she cackled behind her as Elsabeth ran out. "I don't need your mischief today."

Her contraband apple safely tucked in her dress pocket, she stealthily approached the stairs to the nobles' chambers. She casually looked around to make sure no one was about before dashing halfway up the stairs and taking the little traveled hallway to the castle's small library. She'd read most of the books in there already, but she thought she would pass her time before getting ready by flipping through one of her favorites. She pushed open the door and ducked into the chamber, little bigger than her own bedchamber, and closed the door behind her. She peered about in the semi-gloom. Who had closed the curtain? she thought crossly. She walked the dozen steps to the window and drew the drape aside.

"Well, hello there," a voice rumbled from behind her. A stifled yelp escaped her as she spun around to see to whom the voice belonged. There, draped across a reading couch, was a dark-haired young man, about her age, finger marking his place in an open book. A soft smirk decorated his full mouth and his almond-shaped eyes glinted in the sun from the now-uncovered window. He was dressed in a loose tunic and close-fitting trousers tucked into calf-high boots.

"Who are you? What are you doing in here?" Elsabeth demanded of the stranger, collecting herself and standing as tall as she could, her shoulders drawn back and her chin high. "You should not be in here."

"Pardon me, my lady, I was not aware this was your private library," the young man said, a slight mocking tone in his voice, one eyebrow lifting high. "I beg your forgiveness."

"Well, there's no need to be rude," Elsabeth replied hotly. "You frightened me. I have never seen you before and I did not expect anyone to be here at this hour. And you did not answer me, who are you?"

"My lady, I am Bannor, one of the cohort from the Barony of Halford. And you, my lady?"

"I am Elsabeth, daughter of the senechal of this castle," she said. "I just came in to get a book to pass the time before the banquet. I am sorry to have disturbed you, Master Bannor."

She tried to retreat quickly out into the hall and back to her quarters, but he jumped to his feet, holding out his hand to stay her departure.

"Wait, lady Elsabeth, I am sorry to have given you a fright, please allow me to atone for my ill behavior and leave the library to you for your leisure."

Bowing low, he raised his eyes to peer through the fringe of his hair as it hung over his brow, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips. Before she could reply, he caught her hand in his, pulled it to his lips, then slipped out the door and was gone.

The breath exploded from Elsabeth's lungs as she collapsed into an overstuffed chair. She didn't know if her heart was pounding from the fright she'd suffered or from the effect of those eyes, the green of spring leaves shot through with the brown of freshly turned earth.

Forgetting the book, she hurried out into the hallway, glancing both ways to see which way the young man had gone, but there was no sign of him. He was gone.

Back in her chamber, Elsabeth's mind returned again and again to the young man in the library, despite her efforts to turn her thoughts elsewhere. She lay on the bed and attempted to rest in preparation for the festivities ahead, but the scene replayed over and over behind her closed eyes.

Finally she gave up, rising to prepare for the banquet. Soon her mother would appear, haranguing her to quicken her preparations. Elsabeth stripped out of her surcoat and underdress, pulling out the forgotten apple and placing it on the vanity. She poured water from a pitcher into a bowl, dipping a cloth into the water and squeezing the excess out. She ran the cloth over her body, stroking her flesh and leaving gooseflesh in the cloth's wake. She ran the cloth over her breasts, her nipples standing at attention. She wrung out the cloth in the water, and turned her attention to the soft mound between her legs and to her bottom, making sure her body was clean and soft. After she was finished bathing, she ran a soft, dry cloth over her body, then stroked her wrists, neck, and stomach with bergamot oil.

She slipped on her golden underdress, then slipped her corset over her head, beginning to tighten the silken cords on her own. Right on cue, a sharp knock sounded on her door and her mother swept into the room.

"Here," she said, pulling the ribbons out of Elsabeth's hands and spinning her around. With swift jerks, she tightened the corset until Elsabeth's waist stood in sharp contrast to her hips. Slipping her dress over her head, Elsabeth silently released the breath she had been holding in to assure she would be able to breathe when he mother was finished. The deep crimson of the brocade fabric brought highlights out in her hair, and the velvet trim of the sleeves and hem brushed the floor and her fingertips. The lace décolletage of her golden-colored underdress peeked above the tight bodice of the dress, accentuating her breasts. Her mother reached into her pocket and withdrew a necklace of gold and pearls, draping it gently around her neck and fastening it under the thick coils of her hair.

"Oh, Mother! It is beautiful! Grandmother's necklace!" Elsabeth exclaimed. She knew how much the necklace meant to her mother and was touched that she would allow her to wear the piece.

"My dear, you are nearing your 19th birthday and you need all the assistance I can give to attract a suitable husband," her mother said, quelling any sentiment the moment may have held.

Suppressing her irritation, Elsabeth simply replied, "Thank you, Mother." She knew the less she argued, the quicker her mother would leave to see to her own preparations for the banquet. Sure enough, her mother made her excuses and swept from the room as quickly as she had barged in.

Sliding her feet into velvet-accented slippers, Elsabeth stood, and turned left and right, examining her reflection. That will do, she thought. Rather than wait for her parents and have to listen to a steady stream of negative chatter from her mother, Elsabeth left her room and made her way down to the great hall.

The great hall was a hive of activity. Servants finished setting the long tables with platters, bowls, and goblets, polishing knives and spoons and placing them on the linen napkins. Young pages spread the floors with fresh rushes and hay, releasing their green, sweet scent into the air, as servant girls decked the tables with fresh greenery and flowers.

She saw her father across the hall directing a number of squires in positioning additional tables and large heavy chairs to accommodate the many guests who would soon be pouring into the castle for the festivities. She made her way past the scurrying servants, trying to keep out of the way, and approached him. "Hello, Father," she called from a few feet away. He turned at her voice and smiled, as he always did on greeting her.

"Ah my dearest, you look lovely," he said, hugging her. Unlike Mother, he always had a kind word. "You are ready early, I thought young ladies were supposed to be fashionably late. But not my girl."

She laughed. "How could I help you if I were late? What can I do?" she replied. "I know you have more than you can handle and I promise to be inconspicuous so no one will be the wiser..."

Grinning broadly, her father said, "As a matter of fact, you can. Go to the brewer and tell him we will need another five casks of mead for the banquet, we have received word from four more households who will be attending. And you know these nobles, any excuse to drink us dry."

Planting a quick kiss on her father's bearded cheek, she made her way out of the hall and down the hallway past the kitchen, downward to the storage cellars. Burly servants rolled large casks past her as she shrank against the wall. "Master Roland," she called into the cellar, raising her voice to be heard over the rolling casks. "Hello?!"

A round, ruddy face popped around the corridor, "What now?" he bellowed. "Ah, Miss Elsabeth, to what do I owe this pleasure." The portly brewer bowed low, his bald head shining with sweat.

"Oh Roland, always gallant," she giggled. "Father says to fetch five extra casks up to the hall, we have more households coming to drink all your mead."

"Zounds! Lucky we are coming to the harvest so I will have more wheat and honey coming in to brew, else these scoundrels would leave us dry!! Thank you for the message dear. Make sure you don't sneak too many goblets of my brew yourself or you'll cease to fit in those lovely frocks," he winked, his belly bouncing with laughter.

"I won't," she laughed, making her way back up the corridor. Through the high windows, she saw the sun sliding slightly westward down the sky and guessed the early birds would be arriving soon. She hurried to take her place near the front entrance of the castle to assume her duties of directing guests toward the great hall.

Two hours later the great hall was echoing with laughter and excited voices as the last of the guests arrived from outlying manors and took their places at the long tables, helping themselves to the bread and cheese, fresh and dried fruits, nuts and savories heaped in bowls and arranged on platters on each table. Servants hurried among the guest filling and refilling goblets with mead and spiced wine sweetened with honey.

Elsabeth entered the hall, finished with her duties, and slipped into her chair at a table at the edge of the hall. Her father sat the center of the table, her mother to his right, and the various household managers arranged down the table according to rank. Her seat was between her mother and her mother's favorite household lady in waiting. It was where she was expected to sit, but the one place she least enjoyed as, her mother and Lady Noraleen enjoyed gossiping together, leaning over her as if she weren't there, making snide comments about country ladies' dresses, the unattractiveness of their daughters, their sons' lack of manners, anything they could think of to criticize. That Elsabeth could ignore, but the pokes and pinches accompanied by whispers from her mother or Noraleen for her to sit up or to smile or to nod at some young man or another whom they thought appropriate of her attention.

Starving, having not eaten her apple earlier and only a small piece of bread that morning, Elsabeth reached for a chunk of cheese and bread, only to have her mother jerk her arm back. "Don't eat that!" she hissed. "You'll look like a farmhand stuffing yourself. If you must eat, eat this." She placed a few dates and figs and a small pasty on her plate.

Angry, Elsabeth snatched the pasty and shoved it in her mouth in spite, grabbing her goblet and taking a large swallow of wine to wash it down. She followed it quickly with the figs and dates, an another swallow of wine. Glaring at her, her mother's mouth drew into a tight line. "I'm sorry mother, but I don't intend to starve so you can pass me off to some idiot noble's son," she retorted.

Sighing, her mother whispered back, "Fine, eat, but please for god's sake, slow down before you choke yourself and embarrass me."

The first course was served, a stew of capon with onions, allspice, and wine, with more bread. While the diners enjoyed the course, a minstrel played harp while a storyteller relayed a long tale of the Baron's exploits in war.

Next, large servants carried out enormous platters, each bearing a whole roasted boar surrounded by roasted apples, turnips, potatoes, onions, and pears seasoned with herbs and garlic. As servants carved the roasts and served the guests, musicians played and the guests at lower tables got up and danced as they waited for the food to make it around to them.

Yawning from the wine, Elsabeth turned her head when she heard a loud burst of laughter from a table near the Baron's head table. There were gathered the members of the party from Halford, in whose honor the banquet was given. At the center of the table was the young man from the library, Bannor, dressed in a green brocaded surcoat trimmed in gold over fitted trousers and high leather boots. Keeping his table entertained with whatever tale he was telling, his eyes remained on Elsabeth, moving away from her only long enough to keep his tablemates convinced he was interested only in his story, before returning to catch her glance. Blushing, Elsabeth looked away, busying herself with arranging her napkin on her lap and arranging her knife and spoon next to her plate.

Glancing up without raising her head, Elsabeth met the eyes she already felt were trained upon her before quickly looking away again. Just then a servant came by, "More wine, Lady Elsabeth?" "Yes, please," she said quickly, snatching her goblet up from the table to give to the servant, surprising the girl, who jerked back and sloshed a bit of wine from her jug onto the sleeve of Noraleen's dress. "Stupid girl!!" Noraleen shouted, jumping up from the table and upsetting her chair. Gasping, Elsabeth stood up, grabbing her napkin and dabbing at the stain. Her mother pushed her hands away, stepping in and taking her friend's arm and leading her toward the kitchen. "Foolish girl, stop spreading it, I have fresh water in my chamber to take the wine out. And you," she said sharply to the servant girl, "Clean this up and then go back to the kitchen where you can't do any more harm."

In tears, the young girl put the jug on the table and dropped down to her knees, mopping up the small spill from the floor with her apron. Elsabeth reached down and took her arm gently, picking her up from the floor. "My dear, it was not your fault, but mine. Please don't cry. All is well. Mother and Lady Noraleen will clean the spot and I will make sure they forget all about this. You go into the kitchen with Serah where it is safe and I will make sure she knows that none of this was your doing."

"Thank you, my lady," the girl sniffed gratefully, scurrying down the hallway toward the kitchen. Elsabeth excused herself and followed. After explaining the incident to Serah, who comforted the servant girl and put her safely to work in the kitchen, Elsabeth left to head back to the table. As she walked by the passageway to the living quarters, a hand darted out, gently grabbed her arm and pulled her off balance into the hallway.

Gasping, Elsabeth stumbled catching herself on a firm, broad chest that smelled of sandalwood and the outdoors. She looked up into the gleaming forest-colored eyes of Bannor, that same smile playing on his lips. "It seems drama follows you, my lady," he said, keeping his arm close around her back, pulling her close to him. "Have you regained your balance?"

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