Cecily Lockton was, with little doubt, the most beautiful girl in the county. Her skin, though not fair, was clear and glowing, with high cheekbones and wide-open brown eyes that glistened when she talked. Her body was slim and hard from working, her fingers deft, and even her rough dresses and clunky shoes could not hide a certain grace in her movements. She looked the part of the ingénue—beautiful, sweet, and unsuspecting—with a dash of something less expected, almost queenly. She was the sort of woman you remember after seeing her for just a moment. Cecily’s friends, though pretty and amiable, paled in comparison. Ever since she had grown old enough to be noticed by boys, then by men, she had broken more than her share of hearts. No one was good enough for Cessy Lockton, or it was said by the jealous youths who had fought for her favor and lost.
While some were surprised that a girl as fine-looking as Cecily Lockton was not trained as an undermaid or serving maiden, her friends knew that delicate, indoor work would never suit her. Since she was a child she had spent every possible daylight hour outside, streaking through the fields as fast as her legs would take her, swimming in the mill pond (against strict orders), or climbing an especially difficult tree in order to see the world from unimagined heights. Try as she might, it was impossible for her mother to teach her the finer arts of carding, spinning, and weaving. When Cecily was about six years old her mother found her playing behind their cottage, sticking the stem of a bedraggled daisy into the mud in a naive attempt at transplantation. That was a day or two before the girl was entrusted to Old Rivens’ care, and she had taken to gardening as if born for it. She was still the only young woman working in the gardens, but Rivens would have it no other way. “Got to have brains as well as a back, to do this sorta work. Cessy’s a pretty lass, but she’s not afraid to get ‘er fingers filthy and do the job of a man, and I wouldn’a trade her brains for three burly young lads.”
Her mind was always working. No matter whether she was digging in fields or sweeping streets or mending trellises, she could not stop her wild imagination. As a small child she had sat upon her father’s lap and heard him tell what he knew of the Old Tales, again and again, with new elaborations every time. Grand ladies of the court, fierce battles with giant sea creatures and menacing ogres, brilliant philosophers who won the battle at the very last second…. He had been the first to fill her head with adventures. The Tales had not died with Cecily’s father, but she had gone on repeating them to herself day after day, staring at the horizon as she did so. The world beyond Whitcrowe seemed like reality to her, and her life in the village only a shadow. Her friends, her work, the very food she ate, all seemed to be only whetting her appetite for something yet more real. At other times she forgot her wild yearnings and she contented herself with the business of the everyday. She would spend a day by the riverside, or discover an especially gorgeous blossom in a forgotten corner of the garden, or sit talking with her mother until the smoky fire died down low, and then she would decide to be content. But the night always gave way to morning, a golden morning that shimmered with dew and her heart would beat again.
Nothing seemed to happen in Whitcrowe. It was a village that barely deserved the name, just a cluster of cottages thatched with black heather that had grown up around the castle keep to serve as a home for the cooks, stable boys, and gardeners who kept the grand place running. The real town was Camberton, which was only half a mile down the steep castle hill, but still seemed to be the end of the civilized world to most of the cotters. And so when the unfortunately loud conversation in the garden became common knowledge, Cecily and half the castle with her became steeped in excited wonder about what had been overheard. From the cold and windy battlements to the warmth of the great hall, in the depths of the laundry and the darkness of the kitchen, from the fields to the chamberlain’s house, assumptions and suspicions flew. The kitchen maids discussed the enigma while at work and carried their deductions home to their husbands and fathers. Though Cecily had clearly heard the words “boy” and “nephew,” Stephen Jambe convinced half the town that an illegitimate son of Lord Geoffrey’s was coming to live at Granton, and Theda Spichfat (the butcher’s wife) insisted that it was the princeling himself coming for a state visit all the way from the Eastern border. Cecily, being a private kind of person, kept most of her own imaginings to herself, only voicing her surmises over a cup of tea with Bess or when she and Rivens took a short rest in the middle of the day. She thought it must be some dreadful little boy child of Geoffrey’s sister’s that no one had ever heard about, and he was coming for an extended stay—if not permanently.
But even the most fascinating rumors must die away when starved for further information, so when weeks and finally months passed without any fresh news the discussion subsided and the cotters moved on to other matters.
Cecily soon found something to occupy her thoughts. On a rainswept October evening, after hours of working in the cloistered laundry of the earl’s castle (she would have preferred to hack at datura roots under he sun all day), she felt the great relief of walking home. Dark and cold though it was, Cecily felt that days like this seemed to purify the air—the rain washing filth and misery away. This land had always been her home and, though it was often dull and dreary, she had come to love its moods. The damp set up an ache in her poor mother’s bones, but Cecily delighted in the wild beauty of dark and mist.
Her journey home led Cecily down the one real street in her village, which was teeming at this time of day with the cotters coming home from their work in the fields, castle, stables, orchards, and shops. They were simple peasant folk, living simple lives. They asked no questions and needed no answers. They had lived there for hundreds of years—working, quarreling, loving—and knowing nothing else. Cecily smiled a greeting to everyone she passed, except Odo, a bulky young man with bristly hair who thought he deserved a kiss from her just because he could lift a sack of wheat higher than any other boy in town. She darted behind the corner of a house to let him pass by, then sloshed through the mud to the door of the tiny cottage she shared with her mother. She heard the clank of spoon against cauldron and smelled a bubbling barley and parsnip stew.
Edited from emmy rossum, a photo by yotambientengosuperpoderes on Flickr.
Road, Isle of Skye, a photo by Laurel Fan on Flickr.