Catarina Margherita DiGalucci

The day my life started changing

Once I was a sweet little girl. I wore pretty dresses and had curls in my hair and on festivals my mother put some make up on my face. I played with dolls and rode on ponies. All in all I was a sweet little innocent thing. That all changed on the day my mother died.

It happened on a day my father was away on a business trip, my mother and I were at home, because merchanting was men's business, the road was rough and no place for frail women. A woman should stay at home and take care of business there. Now I would scoff at such a notion, but it must be said, my mother was a frail thing. At the balls her posture was the envy of all the other women. They were all jealous that my birth had not ruined her figure.

Anyway on that particular day some men came by, claiming that they wanted to talk to my father and that they had some business to discuss. My father was due the next day and since the men claimed to come from far away, my mother offered them hospitality. We had enough men servants in the house to not feel particularly threatened by male company.

At diner that night, all was well. My mother had arranged for a feast to appease the men that my father wasn't at home and that they would have to stay for a day to wait. It seemed to work. The men were courteous and praised our hospitality. My mother beamed and made small talk with them. Unfortunately our table also had a good selection of wines and though they didn't show it right away, we think that one of the men might have had too much wine. Either that or they had planned the whole thing in advance. Maybe they even feigned drunkenness to cover up their plans. It doesn't really matter what the case was, the result was the same and my life would be changed forever.

We had arranged for some of our best guest rooms to be made ready for the men, my father might want to make a good deal with them after all. Late at night they all went to bed and we weren't suspecting them of anything. Back in those days I had the habit of sneaking out of bed and into the garden where I had a secret hut. Especially on warm days I would go out there and pretend to live in it, spending the entire night there, only to sneak back inside just before daybreak. I think the staff knew, but they also knew where I were and since the garden was enclosed, they didn't see any harm in it and didn't mention it to my parents. My father must be very glad that they allowed it, for it saved my life. That night it was a very beautiful night and I had snuk out again. I never saw what happened, but I did see the result. That morning when I got back in again, there was no sign of the men anymore and my mother was dead. Some of the personnel were dead too, they had probably gotten in the way, trying to defend my mother. My mother's death must have been horrible and she didn't seem to have defended herself, but then without the attackers there to see if they had wounds or not, it's kinda hard to know for sure. Some of the personnel had probably ran away during the night, cause some of them were never found. I can just imagine them coming across my dead mother and fleeing in terror. My father wasn't mild on the servants who were there that night and had survived where my mother hadn't. My own lady servant had either died or ran away, I can't quite remember anymore, but when she didn't come to fetch me in the morning I went to her room and when I didn't find her there, I ran to my mother to complain. Only to find the mess in her room and see her lying beside her bed on the floor in her own blood. I screamed my lungs out and ran as fast as I could, yelling all the way down to the kitchens. Fortunately for me and my sanity the kitchen maid was a practical one. She comforted me and hugged me without panicking herself. She promised me all would be well again once my father arrived that afternoon and she fed me cookies and warm milk. That was the last morning I spent as a gentle woman child.

When my father came home, he freaked out. He spent the next week crying over his dead wife. I never even knew how much he loved her until that day. When I saw my father that distressed, I vowed that no man would ever cry over my dead body that way, and that if ever I died in such a way, they would at least find my killers alongside me. Because that was one of the most horrible things for my father, nobody knew who the men had been and where they had come from. I could only barely give him a description of what they looked like and most of the servants who could have given a better description had either died or gone missing. While my father grieved, I started badgering the remaining male staff to teach me to defend myself. At first they told me I was too frail and that I would have to train hard, hoping to scare me off. But I spent whole days running around the garden in circles to get stronger and tried every kind of exercise I had seen my father do when practicing with his rapier. When they saw I was serious, they helped me along and guided me in the exercises. I had not been doing much good so far, since most of the exercises I remembered where quite different from what I thought them to be. All that week I went to bed with sore muscles. I hadn't done anything that resembled fighting or defending myself, but I still felt good about myself. You must remember that I am from a rich family and the most taxing activity I was used to doing was horse riding, and I hardly ever did that for any long period of time. At the end of the week I had built up a bit of a condition, I could now run ten laps around our garden without getting winded. After that first week the staff convinced my father that my mother needed burial, it might not have been summer any more, but the days were still warm and ice to keep the body well was very hard to come by and therefore hugely expensive. I think that the downfall of my father as a merchant began even then. The burial was hastily arranged and two days later my mother was interred in the family grave in the church yard. All during that time my father hardly looked at me.

After my mother was buried my father called me into his study to talk about our future. He said that he didn't want to marry another woman, not even to raise me. Instead he would find tutors who could educate me in courtly manners, running a household and helping him in his business like my mother had done before. When I told him that I wanted to learn how to defend myself he brusquely told me that that was nonsense and that he would simply hire guards for me for when he was away. When I found that insisting and throwing a tantrum didn't help I simply pretended to go along with his wishes, thinking to continue my lessons when he was gone and that he could hardly stop me from practicing what I had already learned.

Following in my mother's footsteps

In stead it turned out that he intended me to follow in my mother's footsteps quite soon, he hired three different tutors to bring me up to speed as quick as possible. Together they kept me busy from sunup to sundown. The first lesson of the day started right after breakfast and if I didn't get out of bed fast enough, I wouldn't even get any breakfast. My tutors were nothing if not punctual. The first lesson of every day was bookkeeping. The tutor was a sour elderly man who did not tolerate dawdling or chattering. I was required to spend at least three hours poring at letters and numbers, learning to read and do maths. Of course I had already had some reading lessons and some math, but the lessons hadn't been as harsh as these were. It seemed like I simply couldn't get anything right, no matter how hard I tried.

After that first lesson there was time for lunch, which on some days was also breakfast, so most of the time I was ravenous. I had never known how famishing mere reading could be. After lunch there was another long lesson in the matters of the household. I still envy my mother and how easy she could make running the entire household seem to be. There were so many things the lady of the house had to think of. The lessons were hard, but nowhere near as hard as the bookkeeping lessons were, and I soon got the hang of it. The teacher, a matronly lady who used to run the household of an elderly man until he married a young lady, was strict but fair. If I did things right she would praise me, even when that praise consisted of no more than three words most of the time.

Part of that lesson was overseeing the arrangements for diner, so diner could hardly be seen as a break in the lessons.

And finally right after diner, I had a lesson in courtly manners. For this lesson my father had hired a courtly minstrel, which I thought an odd choice. The man was quite handsome and quite a lot younger than my father. He was quite young enough to steal my heart. But he probably thought me way too young, or my father paid him enough to make him not want to loose his job over starting an affair with me, either way, he didn't make any advances. He taught me to play the harp, and how to dance, he taught me etiquette and how to converse at court. His lessons were quite entertaining most of the times, even though there were tons of stuff I had to learn.

After that last lesson of the day I would collapse in my bed as exhausted as if I had been running around the garden all day. After about a month my father had everything back to a semblance of normality again. He had replenished the staff and made sure I knew enough of his business to at least keep most of the customers satisfied during his absence. That first trip wasn't going to be a long one, but I was very nervous. I hadn't forgotten about my plans to learn to defend myself and besides now being responsible for the entire household, I wasn't happy that he was now leaving again with me still unable to even wield a knife in my own defense. During his absence my teachers gave me some slack to arrange matters around the house and business. I soon found that I could delegate most of the tasks to the staff and that I hardly had any real work to do. However as soon as one of my teachers found out I was idling, they would set me some task or other. And so after the first week when my father came back, I still hadn't found time to start some defense lessons, but I had found some loopholes to make some time for myself. The next time I would simply have to come up with excuses to go into town, or to be by myself for a while. I still didn't know where to find an instructor though. The entire staff had been instructed that my father meant for me to be a lady. I had also found out that dresses just wouldn't do for training clothes, so some better suited garments would have to be found.

I considered stealing some from some staff member or other, but couldn't do it. The servant in question would probably be punished severely over loosing part of his outfit and it might not even be replaced. So instead I took up needle work and scavenged every piece of fabric I could lay my hands on. I started with a pair of trousers, figuring that one of my own shirts might be remodeled into something useful. I put together pieces of fabric until I had something that roughly resembled some trousers and put a draw string through the top to keep it up. It looked horrible, but allowed me to move around much more agile than my dresses did. This project had taken me over two months, since spare time was still scarce as my teachers were still doing their best to keep my every hour occupied.

The next project was remaking a shirt into something acceptable, most of my shirt had long flowing sleeves, which was very pretty, but not very practical. This was a bit easier, since all I had to do was take of some decorating lace and take in the sleeves. After about two weeks I had a couple of clothes that made me look like a street rat. I didn't have any shoes to go with it though, so I decided that I would have to learn to walk barefoot. So every night before going to bed I would take a stroll through the garden barefoot. My long gowns hid the fact that I wasn't wearing any shoes and I don't think anybody could even imagine I would be doing such a thing. That first night I only took a short stroll, because my feet were hurting all too soon and I couldn't afford to have them blister or bleed. But every night I forced myself to stroll for a bit longer and my feet were soon developing some horn. I was very glad that I wasn't usually bathed by a servant.

Slowly life as lady of the house began to become a routine as the servants started accepting me as such and got used to each other and how the house was run. I had to give less and less orders, as my father had chosen our servants well. Which meant that my tutors were trying to claim ever more of my time again. And then came the day I had an argument about how to run the house with my household teacher. She had taught me well and by now I was no longer just following her orders, but had formed a mind of my own about how things should be done. I had tried quite a few things out, starting with her lessons and slowly developing a style of my own that worked with my household. And then there was a certain issue that we didn't agree upon. She said I should flog a servant that had dropped a tray of eggs and I thought we should just give the servant a chance to try and pay us the money back over a period of time. The matter was brought under the attention of my father and he told her that I was the lady of the house and was to decide on the matter. Over time more such issues arose and after about the fifth time we disagreed loudly, my father dismissed her saying I had learned enough and was now well in control of the household. This matter made him realize that he might have to evaluate my progress in the other areas as well, since the teachers would never say I was ready as that would mean the end of a steady flow of income.

As a test he gave me a rather tight budget and ordered me to arrange a ball. I would have to deal with every aspect of it, including the finances and he warned me in advance that the budget was all I was going to get. I started by making a list of all the things that would have to be arranged, like the food, the decorations, and the invitations. Then I specified the budget that could be spent on every item. It was a very tight budget and I couldn't make the ball as nice as I would have liked, but I made do. Instead of ordering large floral decorations, I had our gardener make them himself, instead of buying a new gown for myself I added some lace and stones from old jewelry to an old gown. All in all I only just got round, and I wondered if people wouldn't think we had been peevish. I decided my charm would just have to disarm them and hoped my lessons had been enough. Finally the invitations were sent out and the night of the ball was approaching. The last hand was laid on decorating the hall, finishing my dress and some servants were practicing their musical skills with my minstrel teacher. They missed a note here and there, but they played a lively tune. My teacher said no one would notice and I prayed he was right.

At last everything was finished and the guests arrived. I was awaiting them in the ball room and greeted each of them personally. I didn't see any of them whispering, pointing and snicker, so I guess they were properly impressed. The servants were going round with drinks and snacks and the band was playing softly in the background. Then I took up my harp and played a popular ballad about a young girl mourning for her lost lover. It went perfectly and here and there I saw a lady surreptitiously wipe away a tear. They all applauded when I was done, so I guess the charming part worked. After that the dancing started and I started off with my father. But soon the dance took me along to dance with pretty much every man on the dance floor. I had a wonderful evening and my guests seemed to amuse themselves as well. After a long night of dancing, talking, drinking and eating, the last guest finally left and I collapsed into bed exhausted.

Subverting my guards

The next morning, or rather afternoon, since it was almost lunch time before I came out of bed, my father summoned me to his study again. He informed me that my tuition was finished and that he would dismiss my teachers. By then I was thirteen years of age. After that my life got a little bit easier. My daily routine was no longer disturbed by lessons, but I now had to oversee the entire household, a task that had been shared by my household teacher before. My father expected me to think of things like hosting parties for his business partners, even when they showed up unexpected. But unlike before I now had some spare time to fill with things of my own interest. I took up exploring the city in order to find myself teachers to learn how to defend myself. I started out in my nice clothes. Of course I never went out alone, that would have been unheard of for a young lady. I took along a couple of guards. Soon I found out which guards liked talking about the city and living in it, even though the subjects weren't always fit for a young lady, and I made it a point to ask them along more often and to give them small rewards when they told me a good tale. Soon they considered themselves my personal bodyguard. After a couple of months when my bodyguard was fully formed, I told them I would like to see the rowdier parts of the city and borrowed a set of clothes from them. They taught me to walk like they did too. At first they took me to the bars that were only moderately rowdier, merely the pubs that weren't frequented by the wealthy, but whose clientèle still consisted of decent folks. When I asked them to take me to one of the bars they would frequent with their friends they replied that they dared not. The chances of me getting hurt there were just too great. Which led me to ask them to teach me to defend myself. They were loath to comply, since the orders of my father were not entirely forgotten. I told them that we could go somewhere in the town, or in the countryside around it for my studies and that no one would ever need to know. I had them completely in my thrall by then and the disliked displeasing me almost as much as disobeying my father. What swayed them was that I told them that if I was old enough now to run the household, I was old enough to make such decisions on my own and that I felt I no longer needed my fathers permission for such a thing. And so I took up riding again. I spent long days touring the countryside, making sure to sometimes when we didn't practice to bring some of the other guards along. Just so there wouldn't be any strange stories and rumors. By now I had some money of my own and could buy some practical clothing in a shadier district, where I wouldn't be easily recognized. The clothes I had made for myself were too laughable to even show my bodyguards. The first lessons they gave me were some rudimentary fencing lessons. They were no fencing masters themselves, but they knew the basics. I would have loved them to teach me to fight bare handed, since I wouldn't be having a weapon near me at home, but they were loathe to touch me. So we compromised on teaching me to fight with a knife, since a knife was something I could get my hands on much more easy than a rapier. One of my guards cut some wooden knives that we used. After that we spent many an hour sparring with the wooden knives.

On my fifteenth birthday my father gave me a beautiful knife in an arm sheath that was more use for fighting than for other more ladylike purposes, saying that I was now old enough for a real weapon instead of a wooden toy. It turned out that he had known all along. He probably hadn't stopped it so he would know exactly what I was doing, instead of having me go off gallivanting with people he couldn't control. I thanked him and gave him a hug.

After that I took to practicing in the yard, since we didn't need secrecy any more. After another year, my guards couldn't teach me anything new. We kept sparring, but I won quite a few fights. One day my father came out into the yard, handed me a rapier and told me to defend myself. He beat me squarely, but was still impressed with my capabilities. The next day he summoned a fencing master to continue my education. If I'd thought my previous teachers were hard on me, I was wrong. They were very mild compared to my new teacher. He took up all my time in between my daily chores. Not that I minded, I loved fencing. It was a good thing that fashion dictated long skirts and sleeves, because my arms and legs were bruised all the time. The training weapons weren't sharp, but they were made of metal, so every hit was a bruise, more or less. Even despite the padded clothing we wore. After about a year of training, I finally felt I would be able to defend myself from possible intruders. Not that I was a good fencer, but I knew I was good enough to keep a man from hurting me. Especially a man who wouldn't be expecting a woman with a weapon.

My wedding day

I was sixteen years old by that time, and of a marriageable age. Therefore the suitors came by almost daily. As a blond haired woman, I was much sought after. We gave many a ball in honor of one suitor or another, but there was never one that pleased me. They all tried to please me, but I could see they tried to please my father even more. Not one of them cared for me, they all wanted either the family fortune or a trophy. I rejected each and every one of them. Some accepted the rejection gracefully, but a small few kept coming.

My father had become a weary man ever after my mother died, but it got much worse during that period. Despite helping him with his business, I never did any finances, so I never knew how much trouble we were in. And the parties I was forced to throw for my wannabe fiancées didn't help either. But as I said, I never knew. One day in early fall, my father announced out of the blue that he had chosen me a husband. Back then I was furious. He hadn't promised me that I could pick my own husband with so many words, but I had always assumed I could, since they hadn't betrothed me before. Now I'm guessing he chose one for me, because the man had some money of his own and could therefore take care of me and because it would mean an end to the expensive balls and diners we were throwing. The man he had chosen me seemed kind enough, and he wasn't ugly either. I guess my father truly had picked the best man he could for me. The man was named Rodrigo Giordani and he came from a wealthy family. His estate was near our own, so we could easily combine them when I inherited the family lands. Rodrigo was a handsome, dark haired man, with a small mustache on his upper lip. He was slightly taller than me, meaning he wasn't very tall for a man, and he was about thirty years old.

Our wedding was a grand affair and everybody who was anybody had been invited. My father had ordered a whole gaggle of seamstresses to make me a new wedding gown in the brightest white, bedecked with white Flemish lace and white pearls from Morocco. He had also ordered a gold smith to make me a silver tiara with real diamonds and more pearls. I must have been the most beautiful girl in town at my wedding. I heard quite a few sighs that day from women of all ages.

Rodrigo had an extravagant knee length gown pleated to the hem in a rich blue, with half circle sleeves pleated to the armhole in a very dark green. Under that he wore a white shirt, with a separate fitted dark green hose laced to the hem. His outfit was dotted with black and green stones. In retrospect I think I could have lived a year of the cost of my dress alone now. The entire wedding must have cost more money than I'm ever going to see again. We went to the church in a beautiful black carriage drawn by four black stallions. Arriving at the church we saw that my husband-to-be had also arrived by just such a carriage. Or rather, I saw it then, my father probably already knew he would. We had been quite a spectacle on the way, pretty much the entire town had come out to see us go by. And quite a few bystanders had to jump aside in order to get out of the way of the hooves. After we got off the carriage, my father led me up the isle to the altar. All the way from the door to the altar were little boys and girls in white dresses throwing white rose petals for me to walk upon. At the altar we kneeled, my soon-to-be husband was on my left-hand side and my father on my right side. There was a beautiful sermon about the wonders of marriage and then our actual wedding ceremony began. The entire service was wonderful, despite having mixed feelings about actually getting married, I enjoyed the day so far. After being officially wed, the church service went on for another while, but when it was finally over, I got on my husbands carriage to be taken to his home. Our servants had already brought all my belongings over there. Rodrigo lifted me out of the carriage and carried me all the way to the ball room, where he gently set me down. One by one all the guests poured in, bringing gifts great and small. I got new dresses and Rodrigo got new suits. He even got a beautiful rapier that really got me jealous, even though I was careful not to say so. My father had warned me about mentioning my hobby to my husband. He had chosen me a gentle man, but an old-fashioned one. I was very glad of the warning, I might not have thought breaching the subject through carefully otherwise. We got many pieces of jewelry and from one rich horse breeder, we even got a pair of fillies. Of course he hadn't actually brought them to the wedding, that would have caused quite some sensation. Instead he merely promised us a pair. We got many more gifts that I can not even remember any more. After receiving the well wishes of half the town, the actual ball began. My husband and I opened the dance of course and soon many couples followed us. My husband was replaced by my father, who asked me in a whisper if I was happy. I told him I was today and that I would find out about the future soon enough. My father was in turn replaced by pretty much every suitor who had ever courted me. When it became dinnertime, my husbands servants served a magnificent twelve course meal. First there was a soup, with several kinds of bread. Followed by a course of beef. I especially remember the tiny sausages that were shaped like cows, even though you needed a bit of fantasy to see it. For those who didn't have the fantasy, the meal was presented by a bard who had nice stories about each of the dishes. It was followed by courses of fish, veal, lamb, poultry and many, many other courses that I can't even remember. The highlight of the entire meal was the ox, filled with a boar, filled with a swan, filled with a duck, filled with pigeon, filled with vegetables. Of course there were also one or two dessert courses, with fruits and sweets aplenty. I think I ate enough to feed a poor family for a week. That meal lasted the entire evening, so it was well into the morning before our last guest left. The ones that were leaving anyway, there were quite a few who were staying for a while, since they came from far away.

And then came the wedding night. My husband asked me if I had expected to consummate the wedding right away. I of course replied that I didn't know and returned the question. He told me that he was too drunk and too tired to do anything, so he just held me and we fell asleep.

Making new friends

The next day we all went on a hunt in honor of the wedding. Even thought the hunt was also meant to replenish the larder that we had almost repleted with our extensive diner. I didn't know anything about hunting, since my father had never hunted. He told me it was because my mother disliked it. She had always said my father was in enough danger on his journeys and that he didn't need to add to that by hunting some dangerous animals like boars. Since he didn't like hunting very much either, he complied to her wishes. I learnt that it was quite alright for a lady to hunt with falcons or even a bow and arrow. The falcons frightened me with their cruel beaks and claws, but the bow and arrow interested me. Now that I couldn't take up fencing anymore, I was hungry for any weapon I was could use in public. The hunt wasn't a very practical time to take it up, but I kept it in mind for a later time. The hunt took almost all week. They caught hares and stags, boars and partridges, foxes and rabbits, and many other creatures. The ladies who weren't hunting were gathering acorns and mushrooms. Or rather our servants did and we followed them giggling and chatting amongst ourselves. At night we'd have a huge roaring campfire, with lots of smaller ones around it of course. Over which we would roast some of the meet to eat directly, and afterwards we roasted apples and potatoes in the embers. As it got late every night, we slept late every morning. Everybody was having a good time, including me. Yet despite the beautiful autumnal weather and the large group of people and the excitement of the hunt, I wasn't completely happy. I was surrounded by women of my own age, but I didn't share any interests with them. While I was aware of fashion and tried to comply to it to fulfill my role as lady of a wealthy house, it didn't really interest me and I had never tried to start a new trend. Neither was I much of a gossip, I simply wasn't interested in what count this or other had done to lady whatshername. For the first time in my life I realized I didn't have any friends and seeing all these ladies enjoying each other's company, I started missing it. Despite always being the only child in our house, I had never been lonely before. There had always been some servant or my mother who'd play with me and recently my tutors and duties had been keeping me busy. So I was delighted when I found a frail-looking female archer, who delighted in showing her skills off to me. Despite her being somewhat below my station, as she was a bastard born girl of some minor nobleman, who was named Eva after the seduction of her father by her mother, I absorbed her every word and let her talk and talk about her favorite subject. I once asked her if she didn't enjoy the company of the other ladies, but she confessed that she simply didn't care for the things they talked about. We spent the rest of that week in each other's company and I was devastated when she had to follow her noble father back home again. I invited her to come visit me one day and even offered her a place in my household as one of my ladies in waiting. She said she'd think about it and that she would certainly come to visit me as soon as she could, but warned me that it all depended on where her father went. As she had no standing of her own, she couldn't extend the same invitation, but I could read the longing to do so in her eyes. I confided that I would badger my husband that we should visit his friend, her father, someday soon. That cheered her up a bit and we hugged and said farewell.

The next few weeks were spent by Rodrigo and me getting to know each other, and me getting to know his household. On the first day I was introduced to the entire staff and my head was spinning with all the names. I immediately made a list, since there was no way I would remember them all without quite a bit of practice. The names I had forgotten were eagerly supplied by my new chamber maid, named Alessa. She was quite a talkative thing, who was about my age. She also helped me learn the way through my new home. It was quite an old building and had many rooms that were built later than the original building, meaning there were lots of hallways leading in circles, dead-ends leading nowhere, hidden passageways, spiraling stairways, dark basements and soaring towers. After about a week I knew them all, at least all the ones that were known. I bet there were a lot more secret passageways that nobody remembered. Not only did my maid like talking about the other staff and the house we were living in, she was also very knowledgeable about my husbands family and their history. This I was very interested in, since it might teach me more about my husband and who he was. Every night, before I would go to bed, she would tell me a new story, starting with the story of Rodrigo's father and going ever further backwards in time. And when her stories were finished, I told her what few I knew of my own family. Insofar as one could be friends with a servant, she was my friend.

The first night after we came back from the hunt, my husband came to my bedroom at night and announced to me that he wanted children and that he wanted them as quickly as possible. He was apparently finally rested and sober enough to make love to me, as they so euphemistically call it. I obediently followed him to his room, took off my night gown and lay down on the bed naked. He climbed on top of me, pushed my legs apart and entered me. Nobody had prepared me for anything like that. It was pure torture and I started sobbing quietly, knowing that this act was required of me but unable to stop the tears. Fortunately for me, he was done quickly, rolled off me and immediately fell asleep. I got out of the bed, woke my servant and had her prepare me a bath. She had one look at me and first went to get some cloth to staunch my bleeding, which I hadn't even noticed, but wasn't very surprised about. She then prepared me a bath with soothing oils, scrubbed my back gently and washed my hair. After helping me get dry she took a brush and got the tangles out of my hair. I could see she wanted to say something, but the distance between us was apparently too great and she thought better of it. I was too distressed to press her on it. After she was done with my hair, I put on my night gown and went to my own bed again. I was very glad that in the next week my husband didn't want to 'make love' anymore. I could almost pretend it hadn't happened.

After about three weeks in my new home, Rodrigo came to me again, summoning me to his bedroom. I followed him trembling, trying very hard not to think about the pain I was sure would follow. As indeed it did. And as the last time, I woke my servant, she staunched the bleeding and helped me bathe again. But this time she did indeed speak up after some hesitation. Asking me what had happened, and why I let it happen. She told me that there were ways to make things easier and more pleasant and that she could teach me, if I would permit her of course. I had grown up very sheltered, and had heard that all sexual actions were evil unless in wedlock. But by know I would do anything to prevent that pain, and I agreed. She told me that first I needed sleep and to heal and that she would begin teaching me after I had healed.

Two days later when the pain was almost gone, instead of telling the usual bed time story, she began telling me about the ways of a man and a woman in bed. First she told me what I already knew, which turned out to be next to nothing. The next thing she told me was how to make things easier on myself. How to use my fingers to make things go a bit smoother. I liked those lessons a lot, and practiced quite a bit. Both on myself and on her. After all, she had shown me that making love was actually worth the name if done properly, it was only fair to show her that I loved her too. Her next lesson was about how to pleasure a man. We couldn't practice that for real of course, not without me committing adultery anyway, but we practiced on each others fingers. And I relied on her promise that my husband would actually enjoy that.

Rodrigo didn't come to make children for two whole weeks after that last time, and by the time he came for it again, I was a lot more knowledgeable about my body. And probably about his too. This time when he came to collect me, I told him I would only join him in his bed if he would let me seduce him first. He was a bit surprised, but the word seduce intrigued him enough that he granted me permission.

In his bedroom I pushed him onto the bed, shoved up his night dress and pleasured him in the way Alessa had shown me. He gasped in surprise and tried to get up. I gently pushed him back again and reminded him of his promise. After only a little while he started panting and with a groan he was finished. Now that his urgent need was satisfied, I slowly undressed myself and sat on the bed on my knees. I caressed my entire body until I was slick all over with both our fluids. Then I started arousing him again, insofar as he wasn't already aroused, and straddled him. This time there was none of the pain of before and all of the pleasure I had come to know. He gasped and panted and was once again done very quickly. After I rolled off him, he put his arms around me and asked me why I hadn't done that before. I lied that I hadn't had the guts before, not willing to get my friend in trouble after all she had done for me. He murmured sleepily that he demanded that from now on it would always be like this. After that he fell promptly asleep and I freed myself from his arms to go back to my own bed. I woke Alessa once again, but this time I pushed her down on my bed to thank her for her lessons. It wasn't long before I had her gasping and panting too, but it took me a lot longer to get her shuddering in pleasure. After which she treated me to the same. Only I was shuddering a lot sooner. When I asked her how it could be that it took me such a long time to please her and if I wasn't pleasuring her well enough, she laughed softly and said that she had merely had more practice and that it took her a lot of effort to sustain the moment for so long. She told me that she would teach me that as well. We spent the entire night in each others arms and she had me shuddering and gasping for breath many times. The sun had already come up before she left my bed again and I went to sleep.

In the days that followed I was called to my husbands bedroom many times, some days even twice. And if I thought I had already learnt a lot about our bodies, we explored them even further and learned a lot of new ways to give pleasure. But no matter how many times we spent on his bed, as the months went by I didn't show any signs of pregnancy.

Going off to visit friends

After about two months I started pestering him about visiting his friend whose daughter I had befriended. It was another month before Rodrigo found the time to free himself of his business and we could leave. In the mean time we had already sent letters informing them of our impending arrival. I had even sent Eva herself a letter, even though I didn't know if she could read it. My husband frowned at that, but kept his comments to himself. The moment Rodrigo had assented I had started planning. What clothes to bring, what kind of gifts for our hosts, which servants to take along, what carriage we would be traveling in and which horses would draw it. I even went to the city to buy myself a bow and some arrows. To that purpose I visited several fletchers and bowyers to get some objective information on which bow and what kind of arrows to buy, as I was afraid that my wealthy appearance might lead them to sell me the most expensive bow and arrows they had, instead of the ones I would actually be able to use. After I had made several visits I had the vocabulary to tell them what I wanted and I visited the one I had heard the best reviews of. I bought a beginner's bow and a quiver filled with arrows that weren't too expensive, so that if I lost a couple of them, it wouldn't be too hard to replace them. I also bought a leather quiver for Eva with some beautiful embroidery depicting a hunting scene.

As soon as my husband told me the actual date we'd be leaving I started packing. By then I had already made a list of what was to come with us and what was to stay behind. I started making a list of instructions for the servants that stayed behind. Most of which concerned the rations to preserve the larder and instructions on how I wanted to find the estate when I came back. I had the carriage we wanted to travel in cleaned inside and out, and had servants riding the horses that were to draw the carriages to have them fit enough to survive the journey in good condition. When the day of our departure came, all was ready and we left early in the morning to make a good head start. The trip would last several days, as his friends didn't live nearby. Once again, half the town came out to see us off, as we made quite a spectacle. There was our carriage, drawn by four horses, a column of twelve guards, four servants on mules and a couple of spare horses, in case something happened to on of the horses. As it was a beautiful winter day, that first day after lunch I changed into my riding costume and mounted one of the spare horses. Rodrigo did the same and we enjoyed ourself by chasing each other for short spans, before waiting for the carriage to catch up with us. Our guards had split up in two groups, so one could keep up with us, and one group could stay with the carriage. That first day we encountered no trouble, just a few peasants with their carts who got out of our way quickly. Our early start meant that we had covered quite a bit of ground and had made it to an inn that night. We rented a room for ourselves and another for some of our guards. Two of our servants and the rest of our guards could sleep in the hayloft above the stables and our remaining two servants, one of whom was Alessa, were to sleep in our room with us on cots. We didn't go to sleep right away, but had our diner in the common room at a table near the hearth. Our servants and guards had a table of their own, near our own table. We had soup and bread followed by an excellent piece of roast, while our servants, including the guards of course, all had bread and stew. While they drank beer, we had some wine from the innkeepers private stock, that wasn't great, but good enough to accompany the food. After diner, we were entertained by some local singing girl, and I wouldn't be surprised if the innkeeper had asked her to come sing that night, just because we were there. She had a lovely voice, but she was visibly nervous. I had one of my servants bring her a couple of small coins and nodded in appreciation when she looked in our direction upon receiving the money. We went to bed and to sleep immediately after that.

The next day the sky was a leaden gray, that promised rain somewhere in the day. We got on the carriage and leisurely rode on. Before we could even stop for lunch, the sky opened and the rain came pouring down. We had lunch in the carriage and kept on going. Our servants looked miserable, but their was no way they would all fit in there. We pushed on until late in the evening in order to make it to the next inn, since our servants might not survive a night out in the rain. Some of them would at least get sick. So we made sure they all had a dry spot for the night in the hay loft and that they were all filled up with hot broth. Alessa was already sniveling and we had them bring her some mulled wine. The last thing I need was for my maid to become ill while we were out on the road. The next day was just as bad as the last, so we took Alessa in the carriage with us to keep her warm and pushed on to the next inn. Fortunately being dry all day helped her overcome her cold and it staid with a bit of sniffing, but didn't grow any worse.

On the fourth day of our journey, we ran into some brigands. Our guards made short work of them, but I was glad I had the knife my father had given me tucked up my sleeve, for there were some intense moments when it seemed our guards might not win the fight after all. Every one of the bandits was killed and all our guards had to show for it were a couple of gashes on arms and legs. After futilely checking the bodies for any signs of identity, they put the bodies in the ditch beside the road for the scavengers to feed on, and we moved on. This time there was no inn by nightfall, but we did come by a cloister, so we begged lodging there. The good brothers took us in for the night and though the meal they served was a simple one, with only watered wine to quench our thirst, it was a hearty one that filled the belly and warmed the cold traveler. I was given a cell with my two servants and my husband and the other servants and guards were quartered in some other sleeping cells, as men and women were always kept apart in this house of god, no matter the marital status. We didn't complain, since we were tired and wanted to make an early start on the final day of our journey. The brothers also had their physician look at the gashes of our guards. He cleaned the wounds and bandaged them and declared that none were dangerous, there were merely a few that would turn into scars, but most wouldn't even leave that much evidence. The next morning we thanked the brothers for their generous care and donated some money for the maintenance of their chapel, as they wouldn't hear of us paying for our lodgings.

The last day of our journey was uneventful and even the clouds broke up again, showing a little sun every now and then.

Learning to hunt

Early in the afternoon we arrived at the house of our friends and were taken in hospitably. Our horses were stabled and taken care of, our guards were stationed in the town's barracks and we ourselves were taken to the nicest rooms our friend had, probably his own rooms. It wasn't long before I found out that Eva didn't actually live with her father but had a small cottage in town of her own. She wasn't married, since her father didn't want to give her a dowry, and she made her own living by growing some plants in her garden and hunting with her bow for meat. Her father sent out a servant to tell her that she was requested to come to his house to entertain his visitors. That night they served a feast meal in our honor. It wasn't as lavish as a feast meal in our own house would have been, but it was still a very nice meal in five courses. Eva was seated opposite me, but the table wasn't so wide that we couldn't talk anymore. On my left was my husband, who was seated beside the lady of the house, who didn't look very pleased that I had brought Eva into her house, but for the honor of having me and my husband in her house, she would tolerate it. She wouldn't allow her to stay overnight though, but I hadn't even asked that of her, she merely pointed it out to me bluntly. I politely thanked her for her endurance, and informed her that it would only be for this one evening. Even though I had hoped Eva would be with me every night, I didn't want to alienate the lady of the house, because if I did, she might not tolerate my coming there again. And if Eva didn't want to become my lady in waiting, I might never see her again, as she clearly didn't have the means of coming to visit me.

The next day, I went out for a stroll through the town, first to collect Eva and then merely wandering around chattering, while Eva told me about the town and living there. She knew pretty much everybody in the town, be they poor or rich and had stories about pretty much every one of them, even though I had to drag the stories out at first. I was expected back for lunch, but we agreed to meet each other again after that. Lunch was a boring ordeal, where my husband and his friends talked business and the lady of the house merely talked about her children, which was a kind of a touchy subject, as I still showed no signs of pregnancy. She on the contrary had three, two little girls and a boy, and they were her pride and joy. She kept on talking about how brilliant they were, and even the tales of their tricks on their teachers were a statement on how clever they were. It became boring pretty soon. From what I heard they sounded like a couple of spoiled brats who got their every wish, no matter what. I was very glad they weren't present right then. When lunch was over, I put on my new hunting outfit, took my bow and arrows and the gift for Eva, and left. Eva was enchanted by the new quiver, she kept on touching it and saying how I shouldn't have bothered, how I shouldn't have given someone as lowly as herself such a noble gift. But when I jokingly made as if to take it away again, she got such a hurt look that I hurried to explain I hadn't been serious about taking it back. Fortunately she saw the joke and we laughed together, and she promised me not to tell me anymore how I shouldn't have given it to her. She immediately put her arrows in it and we set off for a patch of land that she always used for archery practice. After about an hour or so, my fingers, arms and shoulders were sore and Eva was very happy that I had brought my own arrows, since there were quite a few that we simply couldn't find anymore. We ate some cookies I had brought and rested a bit before continuing our lessons. After that I only lost one more arrow, I still didn't hit the target every time, but at least my arrows were now going in the direction of the target at least. Just before I went back for diner, I reminded Eva about my offer and told her that it still stood and that she should think about it. She'd have a lot more time to teach me archery then, was what I tried for a lure. But she countered it by saying that she had no experience in waiting on ladies at all. I told her that she'd learn that a lot quicker than I would learn archery and that she still had a couple of days to think on it. In the following days we kept on practicing my archery, but it was nowhere near good enough to join in any actual hunting. After four days the actual hunt began, but I left my bow and arrows at the house, since they'd be useless to me as Eva would be joining the actual hunt and wouldn't have time for teaching anyway. So I spent my time with the ladies who weren't hunting again. And hung around the fire when the stories about the hunters' prowess were told. After two days of hunting we returned to our friend's house. That evening I went into the town to visit Eva for the last time to try and talk her round into coming with us. But she refused, saying she didn't think she could live locked up in a mansion and that she enjoyed her freedom too much. I told her I'd miss her and that she could always change her mind, all she had to do was write me a letter and I'd come and pick her up right away.

Our journey home was uneventful, except for some rain.

Baby trouble

After about a year, I started praying at all hours for a child. Not that I especially wanted one, but my husband needed an heir and by now I had come to, if not quite love, be fond of him at least and I wanted to please him. Besides praying we also tried quite a few other things. We had many a midwife come up to tell her tales about how to get pregnant, but no matter what we did, I didn't get any children. We spent a fortune on fertility charms, spells, potions and pills. But absolutely nothing worked. After two years Rodrigo started blaming me. Not that he had any bastards to prove that it wasn't his fault, but it was simply the way it was. If a couple couldn't get kids, the woman was to blame. I tried absolutely everything. Making love at certain times of the day, of the week, of the month and of the year. Right after my moon blood, exactly halfway between bleedings, and even during my bleeding. We made love in pretty much every position imaginable and in every part of the house. By now making love to Rodrigo was no longer fun and I was back to the pain and humiliation of the first two times. And this time I couldn't even turn to Alessa for comfort, because if we would be found out, our act of love might be taken to be the cause of my infertility and I didn't even want to try to imagine the punishments we'd both have to undergo.

And then one day, it got worse. Rodrigo had had a bad day in the office and I had ordered diner to be served, only it wasn't what he had wanted. He had wanted roast boar, but I had ordered the day before to have a meal of grilled chicken to be served. And suddenly something snapped in him. When I told him we didn't have any boar prepared he hit me. It came so suddenly that I didn't even raise a hand to protect myself. For a moment I was too stunned to even speak. And by the time I had found my voice again, he had marched away, leaving me with a diner of chickens. I waited for an hour, in which the chicken got cold, but he didn't come back. I wasn't hungry anymore, so I had the chickens sent back to the kitchen and went to bed. Angry at myself over not having spoken at him. As a punishment I locked my door every night for a week. He never even apologized for it. Two weeks later I hadn't had his favorite shirt cleaned in time for a feast we were going to attend. And once again he hit me in the face. He hit me so hard that my lip cracked and started bleeding. This time the fury gave me my tongue in time to shout at him that if he ever hit me again, he'd bleed too. He gave me a contemptuous look that clearly showed his disbelief, went to his room to put on something else and left for the party without me. With my lip already starting to swell, I didn't even care. Once again, he found the door to my room locked for a week. After that it went downhill as he started drinking. He was drunk more often than not, and the few times I let him into my bedroom he was often too drunk to perform. A month went by without violence, as I tried very hard not to give him any excuse, but then one day he drunk so much, that we ran out of wine. He hit me again, but his bad aim made him punch me in the nose, which promptly started bleeding. This time I was ready for it and I drew my knife and gave him a gash on his arm, slashing his shirt in the process. He was absolutely horrified at the sight of his own blood, and this time it was I who left him standing. Not caring if he was too drunk to have the gash taken care of or not.

By now I wasn't even sure if remaining child-less was even still the only problem. But it was the main source of problems. That night, I locked my door and ordered Alessa in my bed. I didn't care what happened anymore. After making fierce love to her, I talked to her about my doubts and even talked about finding another man who resembled my husband somewhat to try and have a baby of another man, just to have a wretched baby and be done with it. I simply didn't care anymore. Soon after that I fell asleep.

A dark stranger

A couple of weeks later, I found out that Alessa had been seriously thinking about my idea. In what little spare time she had, she had scoured the town, looking for men that resembled my husband. When she presented me with her list, I thanked her, but reminded her that a man from around these parts, posed too great a risk. But it did set me thinking. And I announced to my husband that I would be taking a trip. Alone. Maybe it was the gash on his arm that was still hurting him, as he had indeed waited till the next day and sobriety to have it tended to. Or maybe he was already too drunk to think clearly, whatever the case he agreed. I told him I would go to our friends village, but that I would stay in the town inn, so I wouldn't bother them with my presence. I started packing immediately and left early in the morning without even waiting for my husband to wake up. I took a couple of guards and mounted my horse. I set a brisk pace, since I didn't want Rodrigo to change his mind and come after me. I didn't stop for the inn either, since we reached it a lot earlier on the day, unencumbered by mules and carriage as we were. Instead I pushed on till it was almost dark. I had two of the guards gather some firewood and had them set guards all through the night, as I hadn't forgotten the bandits we killed on our previous journey. I wasn't naive enough to believe that since we killed them there would now be no more bandits. The following days were uneventful and the weather staid good. We made the journey in three days this time, as I kept pushing on.

We arrived at our destination late on the evening of the third day and banged on the door of the inn, to have the innkeep open up. He got quite grumpy until I showed him some coin. That eased him up a bit and he gave us a room without further fussing. Alessa joined me in the room and the guards went into the stable with the horses, wit h the order that one was to guard our room at all times. I slept like a log that night and didn't wake up until it was already nearly noon. I took a late breakfast of some bread and went out to see if Eva was home. It turned out that she wasn't, so I went to her shooting range by myself, careful to take the path she had shown me, since if you came from that side, you could be reasonably sure you wouldn't be pierced by stray arrows. I notched an arrow to practice my aim. I didn't let go until it felt right again, which meant I had notched, drawn and slowly released the bow string many a time before I actually let the arrow fly. It paid off, cause the first arrow made the target. Nowhere near the center of the target, but at least it hit the target. As I went to collect the arrow, I heard someone approach and turned around. And there was Eva, standing with her mouth open. She clearly hadn't expected to find me here. I told her that I wouldn't disappear if she shut her mouth, and we both laughed. We went to her cabin and had a lunch as late as my breakfast had been. We started talking about what had happened since the last time we had seen each other. So I told her all about my baby trouble and the wicked idea of taking another man to my bed that wouldn't go away. And how I had come here to escape from it all for a little while. She confessed that it wasn't that hard to find a willing man here, but it wouldn't do for me to accept such an offer, let alone to offer to the men she was talking about, what with me being a highborn lady. So we came up with a plan to send my guards to the barracks for a week, after having created the illusion of the highborn lady leaving again. She'd be waiting for me a little along the road with her spare clothes. I would change into them and would come back with her as a cousin on her mother's side who needed to escape some trouble at home. And so it happened. I sent my soldiers to the barracks on the pretense that I had contacted my husband's friend and that they had insisted I stay with them. I did indeed pay them a visit, but it was more or less a surprise to them. That night I got on my horse, left town, and came back as Eva's niece. The next day we went searching for a man who met my criteria, which wasn't all that hard, since Rodrigo's looks were pretty common around here. We invited some of them over to the shooting range and spent a pleasant afternoon practicing our shooting. I didn't make an advance, since Eva had warned me the men would have to ask, women weren't allowed to be that bold. Which was a good thing, cause I wouldn't have dared anyway. The next day the men came back and this time Eva invited one of them men to go hunting some rabbits with her, as we needed some food. I stayed behind with the man who offered to stay with me and we continued working on my shooting capabilities. The afternoon grew hot quickly and the man took off his shirt. He was rather handsomely bronzed by the sun. But still he made no advance on me. Eva and her man came back with a single rabbit and we went home again. Eva skinned the rabbit and inquired about my afternoon. I told her exactly what had happened, which was pretty much nothing. The next day, the men came over again, and this time Eva went out on a hunt for some deer, which would take until evening. That afternoon, when it got hot again, just before lunch, I suggested we would go sit in the shade of the trees to eat our lunch. But still the man made no move, and I began to wonder if he was just shy, or if he wasn't actually interested in me. It wasn't until much later that I found out that he had never been with a woman before and was merely nervous as hell. Since he didn't make a move I made one. Not much of one, but a move nevertheless, I loosened the drawstring of my shirt a bit, which made a tiny bit of skin show. During lunch I saw his eyes wander to my chest again and again, and just before we went back to shooting, I loosened it a little more in a way that he could actually see a bit of cleavage if he were to look over my shoulder. Then I started shooting really bad, and my lure succeeded. He went to step behind me to guide my arms. And despite the fact that he tried to keep his eyes at the target I saw them straying again and again from the corner of my eye. He also tried very hard to make as little physical contact with me as possible. Which didn't really work, as I kept leaning back into him. As he stepped up in front of me to show me how he drew the bow string, I stepped up to him, pressed myself close to him and looked over his shoulder. This time it was his turn to completely miss the target. He tried again a couple of times, but my distraction proved too great. He confessed that I was distracting him and I suggested we take a break and have a cool drink in the shade again. Once in the shade I poured him a drink and continued to feed it to him. Even though he was clearly aroused, he still made no move. So I sat down very close to him and asked him to pour me a drink too, after all it was only fair, since I had poured him one. He complied, but then tried to give the cup to me, which I refused. Forcing him to feed me the drink as well. Every time he brought the cup to my mouth for me to take a sip, I made sure I ducked a bit, so he'd have a good view. But then the cup was empty and I began to despair that he would never make a move. Fortunately he proved me wrong, since he put down the cup and gently brushed my leg in doing so. He leaned over me to where the bag with our food was lying, pretending that he was hungry and merely wanted some bread. But he made sure to brush against me. As he was coming back up, he pretended to loose his balance and fell on top of me. We started laughing. When we stopped, he looked me in the eye for a moment and then finally kissed me. I kissed him back hungrily. One thing led to another and soon we were rolling around naked. When the air cooled, we got dressed and shot each other guilty glances. We were already back at practice when the other two returned. They claimed they hadn't been able to find any deer, but I thought I saw a bit of leaf in Eva's hair. That night we had wild stories to tell each other. Even the telling of what had happened aroused me, but I didn't dare make a move on Eva, afraid I'd loose her friendship with my freakish ways. Alessa had been sent to the next inn in my clothes with two guards who had insisted on following me, who we had drugged so they wouldn't know where I went, so I couldn't spend my lust on her either. And since Eva and I shared a bed, I didn't even dare dreaming to release myself. But Eva noticed the blush that crept up my neck as we discussed the day, and confided that talking about the act aroused her too. So we continued our story by showing instead of telling. That night I felt wonderful again, for the first time in many weeks. Two more days of so called training followed, before I had to go home. I didn't tell my lover who I was or where I was going, not even that I was going at all. Eva would tell him I had gone back home again, and that was that.

When I came to the inn Alessa had been staying in, we loaded the soldiers that she had kept drugged for the entire duration. I didn't know if they would fully recover from that, but Alessa thought that they would. Now all I could hope for was that their mates wouldn't start asking questions leading to my husband sending a letter to his friend. Then my ruse would be blown. Fortunately by the time we went to collect the soldiers from the barracks they didn't ask any questions when their comrades claimed they had been smitten by a fever for a couple of days. And the guards who had been 'ill' didn't want to confess that they hadn't been able to do their duty. So I got home again and I don't think anybody ever mentioned the strange illness of two of my guards.

Defeating the demons

I arrived back home just after noon, and found out that Rodrigo had kept right up with his drinking, and that some servants had had wine flagons thrown at their heads. I determined then and there, that his drinking would be over and I told him that he would have no more wine or beer for as long as he was violent. As he was drunk, he didn't have the strength to resist as I ordered some guards to take their ill master up to his room and lock him in there. After about an hour or two his shouting and roaring had subsided a bit and I went in with a cup of goats milk. Of course the first one went against the wall. I left him raging and locked the door from the outside again. After another hour I went in again with yet another cup of goats milk. This time I told him that if he planned on smashing it again, he might as well tell me up front, because I would simply take it away with me to save us the waste of perfectly good milk and crockery. As he started roaring once again, I turned and left. This time I left him stewing for another two hours. By now I know he must be parched. And indeed this time he grudgingly drank the milk, only to smash the mug afterwards. I warned him that if he did that again, I would leave him parching for the entire next day. Which set him roaring again, but I dashed out before he could come at me. Just before I went to bed I brought him some diner with another mug of milk. He was starving now as the alcohol was slowly leaving his blood. He still wasn't completely sober, but as a precaution I had brought two guards in there who I knew would obey me in case he gave me any trouble. But wonder of all wonders he was sober enough to see reason and ate his meal like a good little boy. He drank the milk and neatly set the mug back on the tray with his plate, asking me if I was satisfied now. I told him I would be if he kept it up like this. The next day I brought him his regular breakfast on the normal hour he had breakfast. He once again ate it all, this time without complaining. And so it went for lunch and diner as well. For the next day I gave the wine master strict orders to lock the cellar and not to open it for me and me alone, no matter what the master of the house demanded. I think I saw some of his relief shining through his normally stiff demeanor, the wine cellar had been rapidly emptying out with Rodrigo drinking such huge amounts, without attempting anything to restock them, as that was usually something I took care of. The next morning I opened Rodrigo's door and invited him for breakfast in the dining room. He seemed almost surprised that I let him out again. I informed him coolly that he still wouldn't be having any wine or beer, until he had proven that he could act like a responsible adult again. For two days I kept him completely sober and gave him only milk and tea. On the third day after leaving his room I allowed him some watered wine over diner. As he had stopped complaining about it, I rewarded him by visiting his chamber that night. The next morning he looked visibly better. All that week I kept him on watered wine for diner only. When that went fine, I told him he could have normal wine again, but that I would give the wine master strict orders to limit the amount he was allowed and that if he would threaten the man in any way, he would be set on watered wine again. The wine master I ordered that the master could now order wine again, but only half a carafe a day. Which meant only two goblets. But by now Rodrigo knew I was serious and only asked for a single goblet at diner. That night I visited his chamber again, as I needed to make love to him quite a few times, just in case I would prove to be pregnant. It wouldn't do if he would count out the days before a birth and would find out that we hadn't slept together in the period the child would have been conceived.

Without his knowledge, I gradually increased the amount that the wine master was allowed to give him. And after a month I poured him watered wine for lunch again, as he hadn't asked for more than a single goblet every night. He gave me an odd look, but accepted the wine. That night as I lay in his arms, he confessed to me that he had come to like the taste of milk and tea and tried promising that he would never drink too much again. I shushed him up before he could make such an impossible promise, as he hadn't attended a party yet and I knew how it was virtually impossible to not get drunk at a party. And indeed the next day we got an invitation to attend a social gathering at some duke or other's party.

As I had known, there were no non-alcoholic drinks at the party, and the wine wasn't watered. No self-respecting duke would do so at a party. But to my surprise, Rodrigo contained himself masterfully and stopped before he had too much. We went home early on his request, and I complied graciously, since I could see the longing in his eyes. That night we had spectacular sex, which he probably understood for the reward it was.

The baby

After about three months my spirits sank, as I didn't have morning sickness yet, and by every account I knew, I should have had that problem by now if I was pregnant. As I hadn't grown noticeably fatter either, I had pretty much given up hope of being pregnant and started wondering if it was perhaps after all my fault that we couldn't have children. After all what were the chances of two men being infertile against the chance of one woman being unable to have children. Rodrigo of course knew nothing of these thoughts, but did notice me growing morose. As I had helped him fight his demons, he tried to help me fight mine now. In retrospect, the moroseness was probably cause by the pregnancy, but I didn't know I was pregnant then, and so believed it was the lack of pregnancy I was feeling. Because I felt bad, I started eating more, not because I was hungry, but simply because I craved putting something in my mouth.. While I was eating I felt a little better. Although that feeling vanished right after I had eaten until I burst, then I felt guilty again. And so it was that I didn't pay any attention to my gaining weight. I simply thought it was all the food that got stuck on my belly and breasts. Rodrigo didn't see any harm in me eating, so he didn't lock me up without food the way I had locked him up without his alcohol. And then after a couple of months my belly started aching every now and then. When we called for a physician he examined me, he bled me, touched my belly and pronounced that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was merely crying out for attention. For a couple of days I believed him, but the weird feelings in my belly didn't go away, and so we called for the herb woman from outside town. She too touched my belly and started laughing. She proclaimed that there was nothing wrong with me, unless you considered being pregnant a disease. I couldn't believe my ears, she even said I was pretty close to term. The weird feelings I had felt were merely the baby turning around and kicking me from the inside. She reassured me that my breasts looked fine and that they would have enough milk to feed the baby myself if I wanted, and that my hips were made for having lots of babies. She thought the birth would be a relatively easy one, although she warned me that it might not feel that way when the time came. We thanked her for her good care and invited her over for diner. She accepted, but said she would have that diner in the kitchen with the servants, because she didn't belong with the high people such as us. In our relief that there was nothing wrong with me and that we would finally have a child, we laughed and told her that of course that would be alright. I made sure to inform our staff that she would have a hearty diner and that she would get some leftovers to take home too.

That night we had a quiet party, just the two of us. After diner Rodrigo carried me to bed gently and touched my belly to feel the flutterings of the baby's kicking. By my calculation if the baby had truly been conceived at the time I was with Eva, it would be about another month until it was born. I didn't tell Rodrigo that of course, I wasn't a complete fool. We hurriedly had a carpenter make us a crib that we put in my room.

But then two weeks before I had expected the birth, I got contractions. At first I thought the were mere cramps, but as they didn't go away when I drank hot tea with honey, and instead only grew worse, I had Rodrigo fetch the midwife and the herb woman. I wanted to be absolutely sure that everything went right. By the time both women arrived, I was breathing heavily. They chased Rodrigo off, ordered some hot water and towels from our servants and tucked up my night dress. Fortunately the women already knew and respected each other, so there was no bickering over the best way to give birth as some male doctors might have bickered over the best treatment. Instead they were calm and efficient, propped some pillows behind my back so that I was sitting up a bit, put some blankets underneath me to keep the bed reasonably clean, and advised me to keep on breathing and to wait a bit longer with pressing. I was huffing and puffing and generally feeling miserable, when suddenly my cramp could enormous. I cried out in pain and they told me to start pushing. Wave after wave of misery descended on me and I tried my best to push when they ordered me to, but it seemed to last for hours. Until finally a thin wail tore through the air. I felt a sudden relief until one more wave of cramp got over me and then the women declared that it was over. I stopped bleeding fairly soon and they told me I had given birth to a beautiful baby girl. They said she had a pair of powerful lungs and that they expected her to live, even though she seemed a bit tiny and frail. They cut the umbilical cord and rubbed the baby dry before finally handing her to me.

Once in my hands I found out that they were right, she was indeed a beautiful baby girl. After they cleaned me up, removed the now dirty towels and helped me into another night gown, they let in Rodrigo who had been outside my door the whole time. Despite the child being a girl, he was so happy that we finally had a child that he didn't even mention it. He didn't even mind that I wanted to choose the second name for our little girl and didn't look surprised when I wanted it to be Eva, in honor of my friend. He chose the first name that we would call her by and named her Giovanna after his mother. Quickly after that I fell asleep with the babe at my breast. She was already happily suckling.

When I woke up, Rodrigo was still sitting beside me, just there to make sure I wouldn't drop the child in my arms. I felt a bit better now and, holding the child in place with one arm, patted on the bed beside me to motion him to come and sit there. When he did, I placed the little girl in his arms. And when I saw the look of love in his eyes, I decided that I didn't care if the child was his or not. If I could help it he would never know of my transgression, even if it meant never going to see Eva again.

A few days later, when I had regained my strength, we went to church to have Giovanna baptized. The priest gave us a beautiful ceremony and Giovanna was very solemn in her little christening dress, even when they splashed the cold holy water over her head. Rodrigo and I were very pleased with that, as surely it was a good sign that she would be a very wise and devout woman when she grew up. I had never before seen a child who didn't cry when splashed with water, while being carried by a stranger.

We had decided that I would try feeding her myself, since my breasts were so heave with milk now, that it hurt if I didn't feed her in time. The midwife had also said that that would be best for the child's development. Besides, we didn't know anybody who was nursing a child at that moment, so finding a wet nurse wouldn't have been easy. It meant that I couldn't attend all social gatherings, since breast feeding in public was not done for a lady of my standing. And so during that first year, I didn't get to attend any of the hunts or day long festivals and balls. The first few months I was even glad of that, as little Giovanna kept me awake many a night with her cries for food and attention. But when that eased out as she ate less meals, I started to begin missing the things I had always taken for granted. The things I had before even cursed at times.

When our little girl turned one, we threw a big birthday party, even though she was too small to enjoy such a thing. But it was time to show her off to our friends and acquaintances. We made sure that the festivities wouldn't start until after she had had her last meal for the day. Everybody knew she would soon after the ball started be put to bed, and so they all were on time, which was a unique event in it's own right in a society where it was quite the fashion to not come first. After they had all oohed and aahed at her for a bit and had offered their gifts, I took her to bed. The poor little thing was exhausted. Eva was there as well, having come with her father, and offered a small bow with a quiver of arrows. She told me that they were for when the girl was old enough to start learning to use them. She came with me when I went to my bedroom to put the child to bed. We chatted a bit and I once again repeated my offer that she could come live over here. But once again she refused. Before we went out into the fray again, I gave her a quick hug and she hugged me back, whispering a thank you into my ear as she did so. When I inquired what she was thanking me for she told me that it was for everything. For being her friend, for naming my child after her, for offering her a job without getting angry over the refusals, and even for keeping offering again and again. I told her not to mention it again, as it was the least thing a friend could do.

The ball went on until midnight, but I was already in bed before the actual end, using feeding Giovanna as an excuse to get some early sleep. Rodrigo hosted the ball on his own after that, and I didn't hear any complaints afterwards, so I guess all went smoothly. We had made that decision up front, after all. In the morning all of the guests were either gone or leaving again, so I didn't get a chance to see Eva again.

As time progressed we watched our little girl learning to crawl, and soon after that learning to start eating normal food. On the advice of our midwife we had waited for about a year before we started on fine grained bread and porridge of oat meal and goat milk. We listened to her first words and we saw her first steps. Now that she had been born, Rodrigo had stopped talking about having children and had even stopped coming to my bedroom. The only times we slept together were when I went to his room instead. As a test I had refrained myself from going to his room for four months and never once did he come to me. It almost made me wonder if I had done something wrong. I would have thought he would have wanted a son still, but apparently he thought one child was enough. And so I aimed all my attention on our little Gianna. She was growing up quickly now, and now that she could walk, nothing was safe from her anymore. I had to have all things that were fragile or otherwise breakable by her hands put away in storage, because otherwise the chances of breakage when I wasn't paying attention were too great. At her first birthday she had gotten dolls, and wooden toys that I deemed safe for her to play with and those had been given to her. There was one doll in particular that she loved very much. It was a simple thing made out of flax and straw, with buttons for eyes and nose, but she didn't care about that. She literally dragged it everywhere with her. And then came the day that the nose fell off. Giovanna was inconsolable. In order to comfort her a bit, I had the physician come and put a bandage around the face of her doll. The physician had no children and frowned a bit, but he did as he was ordered. That night I took needle and thread and took the doll out of her arms. She whimpered a bit, but didn't wake up. I took a new button and sewed it on as a nose. I put the bandage back and put the doll back in Gianna's arms. She immediately hugged the doll tight, relaxed and went right on sleeping, never having woken once. The next morning, after breakfast, I suggested we have a look at little Mimi, Gianna's name for the doll, her nose. And look at that, the nose had healed! When Giovanna remarked that it wasn't the same, I told her that it had been scarred from the injury and she went on to comfort pour little Mimi.

She also like to play with her brightly colored wooden blocks. At first she merely moved them around, but then she found out that you could stack them, after we had shown her about a thousand times. She spent entire days just stacking one block on another and then toppling the tower if it hadn't already fallen over. Rodrigo could spend hours just looking at her if she was at her blocks, he would just sit there with a smile on his face and watch her.

When she was two years old, our little girl had stolen everyone's heart. She trundled all over the place, chased by some servant or other, shrieking with laughter when they pretended they couldn't catch her. At other times, she was doing the chasing herself, trying to catch one of the cats that prowled around the place to catch mice. She could never catch them of course, except for the old tom that had had his days and was now spending his old age lying in the sun on the kitchen sill. As soon as she was strong enough to lift him, as he was a huge old cat who'd been a good hunter in his days and was now coddled by the entire kitchen staff, she lugged the poor thing all over the place. He didn't look particularly comfortable in her arms, but he never made a move to escape.

When she got three years old, we hired a tutor for he, as it was time she started learning how to be a lady. The tutor we had chosen for her, was a nice young lady whose father had fallen on some bad luck, so she could really use the money we were paying her. And of course after a couple of months she wouldn't have left if we had stopped paying her, as our Gianna had won her heart as she did with all people. She taught Giovanna how to be polite and when to be polite. She was also taught that she couldn't drag the cat around in her nice clothes, since that would get cat hairs all over them. She plaid all kinds of games with her, like tag and hide and seek, but also make belief games with her dolls. They spent time drawing pictures and cutting out pretty shapes. And then Rodrigo bought Gianna a pony. Which meant that from that moment on, Gianna spent at least half the day in the stables, while her tutor taught her how to take care of her horse, what to feed it and most importantly to Gianna, how to ride it. There was no way to punish Gianna more effectively than to tell her that she couldn't ride her pony for a day. It wasn't something we had to do often to our delight, and most of the times we only had to threaten with it to make her stop any behavior that was out of line.

Those first three years after Gianna was born were a very happy time in my life.

A new game warden

But as Gianna depended on me less and less, I grew lonely again. Rodrigo was away on business more and more often, Giovanna spent most of the day with her tutor and her pony, I only had Alessa for company. And though she was good company, I still longed for something more. I considered sending Eva another letter to beg her to become my handmaiden, but I knew she'd just refuse again, so with some trouble I crumpled up the letters I wrote. Alessa told me to find a new hobby one evening and together we tried to find me some pleasurable pastime that would keep my mind from brooding too much. Knitting and embroidery were not my thing, and fencing was out of the question. And I didn't like horse riding either, even though I did that a lot more often these days, just so I could spend some time with my daughter. I tried my hand at painting, but I didn't have the patience or the talent for it. And other than that, there wasn't much to do in the little town we lived in. There was no theater where I could spend my idle hours, we had no minstrel to amuse me either. The only thing that came to mind was the hunt, since there was a large forest nearby that would be perfect for it. But we didn't have a game warden to organize such events. And then I got the idea of asking Eva for that position. Since Rodrigo had just returned from a profitable trip, I asked him about it over diner. He frowned at first, but when he saw my pleading look, he promised he'd think it through. I knew him well enough not to start pressing him.

The next morning at breakfast he told me to go ahead and write Eva a letter asking her to be our game warden. He'd thought it over and had decided that he would be doing our friend a favor by giving her a respectable position, even if some people would frown on a woman for a game warden. He'd also be doing our friend's wife a favor, by removing the hated bastard child from her vicinity. He confided in me that that might be even more worthwhile, because she would remember and urge her husband to accept some deals that he might not have considered otherwise. I gave him a big hug and a kiss and rushed off to have the letter written and sent out as quick as possible, all thought of the rest of my breakfast forgotten.

After I had sent my letter the days crawled by. I knew it would be at least a full week before I could even receive a letter back, and that if she didn't send a letter, but accepted the offer and came herself, it would take even longer. I tried to keep myself busy as well as I could, going out riding with Giovanna, helping Rodrigo with his administration, mending clothes, overseeing the cleaning until I drove the servants mad. I think by the time a week had passed, everybody in the house was wishing that I had hand delivered the letter myself. But then one of the guards I had sent to stand on the lookout outside the town walls, came rushing back to tell me he had spotted a lone rider. He wasn't sure that the rider would come our way of course, but the rider seemed in a hurry. I walked out to the gate, the one giving entrance to our garden compound, not the one in the city walls, and just as I arrived a lone rider came dashing up the street. He was indeed headed for our place. My heart was on the verge of sinking as I saw the rider properly, that was no man, it was a woman. And before I could even finish the thought that she looked very much like Eva, Eva was already hanging around my neck. I staggered a bit under her weight and the speed of her dive off the horse, but managed to remain standing and hugged Eva fiercely. She kept thanking me and I couldn't even override her to tell her to stop. After about five minutes or so, she stopped and we walked inside. I took her to her new quarters myself, and though I had refrained from making them any more luxurious than they were supposed to be they were still a lot more than she was used to. Which meant that I was in for another five minute thanking session. In order to cut it short I clamped my hand over her mouth and told her to stop thanking me, because she was doing me a favor and I should be thanking her. In response she hugged me and promised not to thank me more than once for something. Or that she would at least try to stop herself from doing so. After a couple of days when she had found her way around the house and had gotten to meet most of the other members of the staff, I asked her about organizing a hunting party. She told me that the day we could hold it would depend on the size of the party I wanted to bring. If I merely had a group with less than five members, we could set out right away. But if I wanted a group of over fifty persons to have a good day, she would need at least a month to prepare. I told her that I first wanted to go practicing once more, before I would publicly humiliate myself. And so she made me a couple of targets to practice on. The first day she helped me train my aim again, but after that she went off to scout the woods. I kept right on practicing, until I hit the targets more times than not. After about two weeks she came back again, and proclaimed that she now knew most of the tracks in the wood and that she had a good idea where the animals hung out. She spent the next two days catching up on sleep and food. But then we set out on my first ever active hunt. The idea was that we wouldn't return until I had shot something for myself. Meaning we brought supplies for a week and camping gear, because we didn't expect me to be lucky on the first day.

My first hunt

And indeed all that first day we spent tracking the wild. Early in the evening we caught our first glimpse of the deer, but we couldn't get close enough. We made a small fire and put our bedrolls beside it. Just before we went to sleep, Eva banked the fire to make sure there wouldn't be any accidents that would cost us our lives. The next morning we went after the deer again. Just before noon, Eva left me alone for a while to try and spy on the deer to see where they were exactly, so we could try to stay upwind of them in our approach. After about an hour she came back to take me to the place she had found. We made a long detour so we wouldn't scare the deer away and approached them as quietly as we could. Eva pointed out where I should place my feet, so I wouldn't step on any snapping branches that would betray our presence. I was quite thrilled that I made it unheard in one attempt. Of course we still didn't have any deer lying at our feet yet, but I was still quite proud. Eva drew my bow for me, to make sure I didn't let the bowstring make any snapping sounds and she drew my arrow out of the quiver too. I slowly nocked the arrow and chose a nearby animal that presented me it's flank as a target. Suddenly the ears of the dear started swiveling and they lifted their heads. I immediately froze, even holding my breath. Which I slowly released again almost immediately, knowing that I probably couldn't hold it until the deer had calmed down again. After about a minute they started grazing again and I drew my bow again. I calmly took aim again and didn't release the arrow until I thought my aim was perfect and my prey stock still. The twang of my bowstring as I released it startled the animals, and I hit my prey in the hind, instead of between the ribs. Eva had seen which animal I aimed for and immediately when I released my arrow, she had sent an arrow after it, to put the animal down. The rest of the herd scattered and my chances were blown for the moment. Eva said we wouldn't catch this herd anymore, at least not today, so she started to teach me how to skin the deer. It was a gory piece of work and I was soon covered in blood. I bet I ruined the skin too, but Eva said it wasn't bad for a beginner. When the skinning was done, half of the afternoon had passed already and Eva guided me to a stream to wash my clothes and myself, before the sun lost too much of it's strength. The stream she led me too was cold but clean and we scrubbed each other vigorously, after which we aimlessly started splashing each other for no other reason than the fun of it. We didn't spend too long on that, because Eva warned me that if we didn't get out now, we wouldn't get dry before it got cold, so we lay down on the grass in the sun. I tried to nap, but I was too excited by having almost shot the deer. After about five minutes I gave up, opened my eyes and plucked a grass stalk. Eva still had her eyes closed, so I very gently tickled her on her ribs with the stalk. She swiped at the stalk, but didn't open her eyes. I tickled her again, this time on her knee. Once again she slapped her knee, but didn't make another move. The third time I tickled her between her breast and that did open her eyes, since there was no grass stalk long enough to reach there. I laughed at the almost panicked look in her eyes, but soon turned to squealing as she jumped on top of me and started tickling me fiercely. I had to beg for mercy and promise to never do it again before she let me go again. I was quite out of breath, but also dry again, so we put on our clothes again and started out for a place where we could make camp. We walked for quite a while, mostly to get closer to the herd again, just so they wouldn't put too much distance between us. As it got too dark for Eva to track, which was quite dark, we set up camp again and fell asleep in no time. All the physical exercise had worn me out. The next morning Eva woke me up just before dawn. We covered the camp fire with sand, put our stuff in our packs again and had a piece of bread and cheese on the go. I wondered where Eva had left the deer meat and the skin, but refrained from asking, since she wasn't talking either and I had no idea how close we were to the herd. I most definitely didn't want to scare them off before I got a shot at them. All that morning I worked very hard to make as little sound as possible and learned from experience which branches would snap if you stepped on them, which leaves rustled the loudest and which mosses damped the sound of your steps the best. I still must have made a sound like an ox blundering through the forest, but I got better with every step I took. At one point I must have made no sound for a couple of steps cause Eva looked behind her to check where I was and looked surprised to find me right behind her. We didn't see the herd that day, but we did encounter a herd of swine. When she saw them Eva urged me to walk slowly backwards and put herself in between me and that herd. Afterwards she told me we were lucky that there weren't any young in that herd, since we might not have survived otherwise. Swine were nice prey, but only when hunting in groups or with very experienced hunters. I didn't protest since I had seen some of the tusks on the animals and they looked fierce indeed. We walked on until Eva saw no more signs of boars before we made camp. It was almost dark by then and I collapsed immediately. I got up to chew on a piece of dried meat for a while and to lay down my bedroll, but I was asleep even before we had a fire. The next morning I was ravenous of course and ate the bread and cheese I would have eaten the night before if I could have stayed awake. We were after the deer again with first light. I had been so tired before that I hadn't thought of asking Eva about the deer we killed before, and as soon as we were on the track again, I didn't dare make a sound. We found the deer pretty soon that morning. Eva took me back out of hearing distance and told me that I should aim a little bit more to the chest of the animal, so I had more of a chance of hitting it where I wanted to. We went to within shooting distance of the deer and this time I did indeed aim for the shoulder. And despite not killing it right away, the deer did collapse. I immediately nocked another arrow before it could get up and feathered it with a second arrow. This time the deer was lying still. Eva told me to go forward and slice the neck if necessary. But it turned out not to be necessary anymore. My second arrow had penetrated the flank and pierced the heart, killing the animal. This time Eva had me skin the animal on my own, only giving me verbal assistance. It went rather well, but I was still covered all over in blood. Eva sent me to a nearby stream and when I came back with my clothes in my hand, there was no trace of the meat or the skin. This time I did remember to ask her what she had done with it and she pointed upwards. And there was the deer meat, wrapped in the skin, hanging from the tree. She explained that it was stored that way to prevent other wild animals from getting to it. Although the scavenger birds could still reach it of course. I lay down in the bright afternoon sun to dry, wondering why Eva had hung the meet so high if we were going to be going back in a couple of minutes. But apparently she had other plans. Despite the thrill of having made my first kill, I was tired enough to be sleeping in no time. I dreamt about the deer and in my dreams I killed the biggest stag in the herd, after having made the kill I was besieged by all the other women and men of the hunt and they carried me round on their shoulders. In the dream there was also a large encampment and they carried me to the largest tent, where I found my husband waiting for me. He was wearing nothing but a loin cloth and was visibly aroused. He tore of my clothes and started making wild love to me. After he was done, the lovemaking changed pace and became very gentle and caring. And then it suddenly dawned on me that I was sleeping, but that the dream didn't fade as I slowly woke up. Opening my eyes I found Eva who also wasn't wearing any clothes anymore. She was stroking my body all over. As soon as she saw I was awake, she kissed me. We made love all afternoon, before moving onwards for an hour so we wouldn't be too near the deer meat. There we made camp for the night. Eva made a little shelter against a big tree and some bushes out of fallen branches and mud. We put the fire in front of the opening, though not too close of course, and our bedrolls inside. That night we enjoyed each others company again right up until the moment exhaustion took me over and I fell asleep. The next morning Eva woke me up early and we went back to where our second kill was hanging in the tree. It was in reasonably good shape, apparently the scavenging birds hadn't been very hungry or they hadn't found it yet. We hung the deer by it's legs from a branch that we carried between us. Moving went a lot slower now, because I wasn't used to carry such an extra weight and was getting tired soon. We only barely got halfway to our first kill that day. Eva had told me to eat as we were walking, knowing I would be asleep as soon as I put down my bedroll, so when we stopped my belly was already filled. And indeed I went to sleep immediately, leaving Eva to all the work of preparing our camp for the night. The next morning Eva let me sleep in a bit, as she went off to retrieve the deer she had hung up about a mile back, so we wouldn't be surprised by howling wolves around us. And so it was that the sun was already gaining strength as I woke up. We left soon after that, as Eva wanted to make it to the first deer today. All my muscles were still store from the last day, but I tried to keep my complaining to a minimum. We trudged onwards with the deer on it's pole in between us. About one mile before we would have reached the first killed deer, Eva bade me to make camp as she moved on to go bring the second deer to it's fellow in it's tree. I had to fight to keep my eyes open, but still felt guilty over having her do all the work, so I made a small fire, put down the bedrolls and cut off two pieces of bread, two of cheese and two of dried meat. I immediately started eating, since I knew I would otherwise fall asleep. When Eva came back she looked grateful and praised my work. She started eating and we both went to sleep as soon as we were done.

The next day we started out for home again, but this time there were two dear in between us on two poles. I tried very hard not to think of the two days of walking back home we would have to do and the two deer we would have to carry. And tried very hard to convince myself that I would be able to keep up the pace so we would actually be home in two days. I don't remember much of the three following days, as indeed we didn't make it in two. The days became a misery of screaming muscles, too little sleep, and sore feet. Just before we left the forest, Eva announced that we'd be spending the night there, even though we could have easily made it home. When I asked her why, she said I could use another night's sleep so I wouldn't come walking home looking miserable. It was my first kill I was supposed to come back triumphant. And so for the last time, she hung up our meat, as I made camp. When she came back she had cut two small pieces off the meat and we roasted them above the fire on sticks. The meat tasted divine, I had never tasted better venison in my life, even though it was charred around the edges a bit from impatient roasting.

Home coming

The next morning I did indeed feel a bit better after the long night's rest. And I pretended I wasn't still hurting as we walked the last few miles. We went into the town by the back alleys, since it wouldn't do for everybody to see the lady of the manor all crumpled up and carrying her own meat. Some people still saw us of course, but I smiled benignly at them and though they looked surprised and there would certainly be gossip, I didn't care. Some looks even seemed to show a bit of admiration, although that might have been my imagination at work. We took the meat straight into the kitchen by the back door and I gave Eva the hides and the antlers. They weren't much, since we had shot a female and a young male, but they would be worth something still. She thanked me for it and after that we both went to our own rooms to get a bath and some clean clothes. I had ordered a bath and was just watching the servants fill the tub with hot water as Rodrigo came storming in. Demanding an explanation as to why I had gone out with nobody but Eva and why he had heard reports of me carrying two bucks through the village, in stead of having brought some servants to do that for me, or at least to have sent back for some servants to come and collect our kill. What I had done was unheard of and brought shame to his family name. I calmly informed him that firstly, it was one buck and one roe, and secondly I would not be doing it again any time soon, as I had found out that it was a lot of hard work. The next hunt would be a properly organized hunt. And I also explained to him that I had done this to see if I was actually capable of joining in an organized hunt. I did not want to bring shame to his family name by organizing a hunt without being able to bring down even a gentle roe. My calmness seemed to infuriate him even more and I could see his hands shaking with restraint. It took him some real effort, but he managed not to hit me, no doubt remembering what I had done the last time he had hit me. He raged about the whole village having seen me do servants work and that now everybody would start gossiping about me and that woman, and how inappropriate it was for a woman of my standing to treat a lowlife like her like that. That broke my calmness. Suddenly I was shouting at him too, about how Eva was no lowlife and that he would take such a remark back. I would not tolerate him demeaning our servants like that. Apparently he hadn't expected me to be angry. My sudden shouting took him aback, and he was visibly surprised and confused, maybe even hurt. But I didn't stop there and went right on shouting at him, taking advantage of the fact that his mouth was open but no sounds were coming out. I yelled that he should have thought of all that in advance, so he might have informed me of his opinion. I also shouted that I had simply been too tired to even think of sending for our servants, and besides should I have sent Eva ahead to fetch the servants and then come home alone, I didn't think so. And no matter what he had thought, I had had fun for the first time in a very, very long time. And if he didn't stop badgering me about it, I would do it again and often. I even threatened I would come parading through the center of the village so that truly everybody could see me. When I was done raging, I asked him if he had anything more to say and that if he didn't he could leave me alone so I could bathe in quiet. When he just kept on gaping at me, I turned around, dropped my clothes and got into my bath. That snapped him out of it and he turned around and stalked off, still fuming.

That night he was drinking heavily again and for the first time in three years he got himself drunk. That was also the first night in three years he came to my room again at night, but I was still angry at him and didn't let him in. He roared at me to open up the door, but I didn't even deign to respond. After a few minutes he left and I fell asleep again. The next morning he didn't get up until well after noon. We didn't talk to each other the entire day, he tried to use servants to pass on messages, but I told them all that if he had something to say to me, he could do so himself. I refused to lower myself to that sort of games. After three days he gave up and apologized for shouting at me. He told me he still didn't agree with what I had done, but that if he had paid me any more attention he might have known in advance and that he could have stopped me then. I accepted his apology and told him the next time I would organize a proper hunt with lords and ladies, servants and pack mules, tents and wagons. He even thanked me for complying to his wishes of all things! That night we had a feast with several dishes made of the venison we had brought home. There was a large roast, a tasty stew, and even some kind of mousse. Rodrigo told me that I had shot the right deer and Gianna informed me that from now on she always wanted meat that her mommy had shot. I told Gianna, that that would not be possible, as mommy had a lot more things to do than hunting, and that I wouldn't always be so fortunate. She thought about that for a minute and announced that she would study harder so that she could take over some of my tasks so I would have more time for hunting, so we would at least have venison more often. I laughed and gave her a hug, saying that if we only ate venison from now on, we'd soon run out of deer in the forest. This made her frown and I could see her trying to work out a solution for that problem, but as she couldn't, she said nothing and kept on eating.

The big hunt

Soon after that, I gave Eva the order to organize a large hunt. We made a list of people who were going to be invited and set a date two months from then, and after that I left it to her. She reported on her progress weekly and told me about the carts and tents she had acquired, and the places to spend the night she had found. How they were the perfect kind of clearings in the forest, that were situated neatly beside a stream and had rather accessible paths leading to them. A week later she told about the servants she had beating the paths a bit wider, so the carts could reach the clearing more easily. Over the following weeks she told about the herd of deer and the flock of boars she had been following. About the pheasants whose roosting places she had found, about the new weapons she had acquired and a thousand other little things. During that time I was practicing my archery, buying a new hunting outfit for myself and for Rodrigo, and even one for Gianna and her teacher, after discussing with Rodrigo if Gianna was old enough to join us. He saw no problems as long as we brought the teacher along to keep an eye on her. She was almost four after all and would love riding around on her pony all day. I made the invitations and sent them out, waiting anxiously for the replies. And then the day came when the first guests would arrive. I had the servants air the guest rooms for those who would arrive a few days early, like my father. And indeed my father was the first to arrive. I welcomed him warmly and showed him his rooms. After that came Rodrigo's mother, a shriveled old lady that I had only met at our wedding and Gianna's first birthday. I welcomed her respectfully and showed her to her rooms personally too. She thanked me for the warm welcome and told me she would rest in her rooms until diner. I told her that if she needed anything she would only have to ring the bell and a servant would come to heed her wishes. She thanked me again, and I left her. Those were the only two guests who arrived that day. That night the five of us had diner. It was only a modest diner, compared to the ones that were to come, but the food was good. Gianna chattered with her grandparents about her lessons and her pony and how much she anticipated the coming hunt. She was speculating about all the animals she would see, looking forward the most to the squirrels. Her teacher had given her the assignment to find as many animals as she could and to describe them to her every night. After diner I took Giovanna to bed, while Rodrigo sat with our parents by the fire, enjoying some mulled wine. When I came back his mother had gone to bed already, and the two men were sitting quietly by the fire. I now finally had the time to talk to my father again, and I asked him how he was faring all on his own. He told me he had hired a housekeeper, but that it wasn't quite the same as when I, and before that, my mother had been around. He even confessed that he might start looking for another wife again, to keep him company at night and to help him out with business a bit. I told him I would keep my eyes open for him during the hunt, and he laughed and said his eyes were still functioning just fine, but he thanked me for the gesture anyway. I didn't know what else to say, and we sat in silence for a while. Soon after that I kissed him and Rodrigo goodnight and went to bed, as tomorrow would be another long day.

The first guests arrived early in the morning, which indicated to me that they had actually arrived late last night, but had taken a nearby inn, instead of inconveniencing us. I welcomed them and had the servants show them their rooms. One by one the guests came in and were shown to their room. They all enjoyed themselves by chatting with each other in the large hall, some of them hadn't seen each other in quite a while. And others had seen each other only last week, but they still enjoyed chatting, gossiping and doing business. That night we had a modest diner again, as the great feast would take place after the hunt, and if we had too large a diner know, we'd have to outdo ourselves again later. The next day the last guests poured in and everybody was busy packing what they would bring on the hunt, horses were checked a last time, carts were mended if they needed it and everything was made ready for the big day tomorrow. We had announced that we would be leaving at day break, even though that gave us some groans from the people who were used to sleeping late. That night we chased everybody off to their rooms for a good night's sleep. Some simply took a bottle of wine up to their rooms to continue their reveling there, but most were wise and went to bed.

At dawn the next day, most people were ready to leave. I left some servants behind to show the latecomers the way, and we set off for the clearing Eva had chosen for our camp. Eva and some servants had gone ahead the day before to put up the largest of the tents, so we would have a place to gather in, in case it would start to rain. Fortunately the weather was good and we didn't really need the tents that day. Despite the fact that we arrived at the camp at noon, the hunt itself didn't start until the next day, as most people were still preparing themselves both mentally and materially. Mending bows, waxing bow strings, having some favorite arrows refletched, having horses reshod and other assorted activities. This was the usual course of events however, so it didn't worry me. Eva went round dividing people into groups based on their interests. Some wanted to hunt deer, some wanted to hunt boar, and others would use their falcons to hunt for rabbits. The best, or worst depending on who you asked, bowmen wanted to hunt for quail, and others would go hunting with hounds and would like to bring in some foxes, and finally there was a large group who would stay in the camp or would simply go riding. That night Eva briefed everybody about the events the next day, she introduced the other gamekeepers who would be leading the different parties. All of the others were male, which pleased our guests. Eva was probably in for a rough time, trying to prove herself to our guests. We had discussed it, and decide that she would lead the deer hunt, as that was the party I would be in. My presence might give her the authority she needed in case of conflict. Rodrigo and my father had taken up spears and would join the boar hunt. I was rather nervous for them, as it wasn't uncommon for men not to survive the boar hunt. But since the hunt had been my idea in the first place, I didn't voice my objections. Instead I forced the worries from my mind and focused on making sure the hunt went well. I checked on the cook fires and made sure all the tents were in order. I arbitrated in fights over who had seniority over whom when it came to dividing the tents, and generally made sure that everybody had a good time. The late comers were hailed and were told that they got to choose between the tents that had been left over, which led to another couple of rows that I settled by telling the latecomers that they had indeed come late, and that they would have to live with the consequences. Which made me a hero to the minor nobles who had been early, and very unpopular among the ones who had come late. That evening we had a huge camp fire to roast the meat on and to sing songs around. At least the men who had consumed more wine and beer than was good for them. Giovanna came to me to tell me about all the animals she had already seen that day and I put her on my lap to listen to her. She told me she had seen doves, and falcons, and horses and hounds, mules and even a bunny rabbit, when her teacher had taken her for a stroll. I praised her for her sharp observations and good memory and then took her to her teacher to be taken to bed. She went eagerly for a change, since she couldn't wait for the next day and all the animals she would see then. Not to mention riding her horse again. Despite the fact that her eyes were almost falling shut of their own volition she kept on chattering all the way to her bed.

My group left the next day at dawn, I had brought the new bow Rodrigo had given me for this occasion and a quiver full of arrows. There were about ten people in our group and we had another ten drivers with us, who would chase the deer in our direction so we could shoot them more easily. If I hadn't been such a bad archer, I might have felt less of a thrill, since I had loved the feeling of actually stalking the prey. But as it was I was merely hoping to have an arrow hit at all, since the targets would be moving this time. When we came to the field Eva had chosen for this hunt, we positioned ourselves in a line on the southern side of the clearing as the wind was coming from the north that day. The beaters made a large outflanking movement to get behind the deer, and we settled down to wait. After about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, we heard the stamping of hooves and the sticks of the beaters, we lifted our bows and nocked our arrows, waiting until we could see the deer. The deer were very cooperative that day as they came right at us, only veering off at the very last moment, to avoid running into us. I managed to fire three arrows, of which two struck home, felling a young buck. All in all we had downed five deer, and the mood was jubilant. Some minor arguments broke out about who had been the ones to make the kills, but Eva settled them by pointing out that the arrows that were in the animals would tell us, since every one of us had marks on his arrows to denote whose they were. My buck indeed had only my two arrows and I went off to search for the missing last arrow. I found it lodged in a tree and pulled it out. I cleaned my arrows and put them back in my quiver. Everybody else was performing the same actions and when we were ready, the beaters had put the animals on poles to carry between them. We walked back to the camp as victors, boasting about our prowess.

Back at the camp, we found that the bird and rabbit hunters had returned before us, as they hadn't had to move quite as far as we had. The boar and fox hunters had not yet returned. The servants were extremely busy, skinning, roasting, smoking and a quick first tanning of the hides. The smells that wafted through the camp made me realize how hungry I was. Despite the fact that I had only had to walk a relatively short distance and had done nothing but waiting once there, I was still very hungry. Just as I went to ask a servant if there was any cheese I could nibble on until diner time, Giovanna returned with her teacher, filled with wild tales of chasing this animal or other and how she had almost caught a squirrel with her bare hands, asking me if she could keep a squirrel if ever she caught one. Looking at her teacher for some indication on how wild her claims of capturing a squirrel were, I told her she could keep the squirrel for a pet if ever she caught one. Her teacher shared a smile with me. Gianna didn't see and went right on talking about what she had seen that day and what she would do with her squirrel once she caught it. We spent the afternoon fantasizing about her squirrel and how she would teach it tricks. Right up until the fox hunters came in. They were rather disappointed as the fox had eluded them. But to raise their own spirits, they were boasting how they would catch it for sure the next day. After that they admired the animals that had been caught that day by the others. Just before diner the boar hunters came in, tired, hungry and dirty and without a boar. Fortunately also without wounded men. They had been tracking the boar all day, but like the fox it had eluded them until it was time to return for diner. Diner consisted of a rabbit stew, that had been put on as soon as the first rabbits came in. The meat was still a bit stringy as it had been left to hang for a couple of days. There was also venison roast and grilled quail. It turned out that Giovanna had also spent part of her day berry hunting with the servants as there were berries for dessert and they credited them to her. She took a proud bow when everybody applauded her for her 'hunting' results. The next day I went with the quail hunters, not because I didn't think the deer were no challenge anymore, but merely to mingle with our guests. Most of the guests had a fixed preference as to what they hunted and didn't change groups much. So I did change groups, in order to grace them all with my presence. The group was the smallest of all the hunting parties, there were only five hunters, not counting myself and the gamekeeper. This day the gamekeeper took us to another flock from the day before. Hunting quail turned out to be relatively easy if you could aim. The prey was a lot smaller than deer, but also a lot likely to run away. If you didn't come too close and didn't make any sudden movements, the quail would assume you hadn't seen them and would keep perfectly still. Of course it happened quite a lot that somebody's bow string would make a little bit too much noise or an arrow would miss and the entire flock would fly up, only to settle down again, a little further on. I fired almost all the arrows in my quiver and was very proud when I hit a single bird. Two or three of the hunters were actually good and captured a bunch of birds, the others were no better than I was. All in all we captured fifteen birds that day. We were the first party to return that day. About an hour after we came back the rabbit hunters returned as well with a string of killed rabbits. The next to return was Giovanna, who had scratches on her hands and her teacher who wore a worried frown. When one of the servants cleaned Gianna's wound and bandaged it, her teacher explained that they had spent most of the day feeding squirrels, when Giovanna suddenly grabbed one. The wild creature had scratched her in order to get free again. She went on to tell me that maybe we shouldn't have encouraged the young girl in her fantasies, as she didn't seem to realize we were not being serious. I agreed with her, but also reassured her that I wouldn't come back on my promise to Gianna, no matter how jokingly it had been made. Once her hand was bandaged, she came skipping my way to proudly tell me about how she had actually caught a squirrel, but that it had escaped. I explained to her that squirrels were wild animals and that I had not been completely serious the previous day when we were talking about all the tricks she would teach it. I hastened to add, that I was not doubting she could do it, but I did warn her that the squirrel would not be very cooperative and would be happier out here in the forest. She looked at me, still a bit disappointed and told me she would think about it some more, before she would try to catch one again. Which was relief enough for her teacher. Soon after that the deer hunters returned and I went off to talk with Eva about how it had gone. She told me that all had been well and that it had been enough for the group that I had deferred to her then on the subject of the hunt. Everybody had seemed to accept her now. I was glad of that, as it meant I would be able to join another group again the next day. The next group to return were the fox hunters who had indeed captured a fox today. Their hounds were belling happily as they entered the camp. Giovanna sprinted off to look at the fox, cause seeing a dead fox was better than not seeing a fox at all. And so the boar hunters were once again the last group to return. And once again they didn't have any boar. Eva went off to talk with the gamekeeper, as it wouldn't do to return empty handed the next day, as it was the last day of the hunt and people would be very disgruntled if they hadn't had their fun. Eva talked to me that evening and told me that with my permission she would join the boar hunt on the morrow. I told her that she was the game warden and that it was her decision to make. She thanked me and asked leave to look for trails that evening. I granted her the permission, but asked her to be back in time to catch some sleep, it wouldn't do if people got hurt because the game warden hadn't had enough sleep to make the right decisions. She promised and ran off, barely taking enough time to snatch a bit of food. I put the matter from my mind and joined the other hunters around the fire and the food. That day the rabbit stew tasted a bit better, as they had used some rabbits of the day before. Today there were also some mushrooms in the stew, since the servants had found a trove of chanterelles. Eva came back just before dark and reported that she had found a herd of wild pigs, it would be easy to track them from there the next morning, if they turned out to have moved overnight. I handed her a chunk of meat and some bread and cheese so she could eat before she fell asleep and went to sleep shortly after that. The next morning I decided to go with the boar hunters as I would like to see them capture their boar as they kept on boasting. This group consisted of ten men, meaning Eva and I were the only women in the group. We brought two servants who carried two large sacks of spears. I had brought my bow and arrows, even though they wouldn't be used. I just figured that some way of defending myself and the others was better than none, as I didn't fancy taking on a wild swine with just my knife. Rodrigo didn't look too happy that I was joining the boar hunt, but I assured him that I was only coming to watch, I would stay behind and would try to make sure I would have somebody in between me and the boars at all times. That assured him a bit, and as I hadn't complained about him going to hunt boars, he swallowed his complaints now. Eva led us to a place that was about a mile away from where she had seen the boars late last night and then went on alone to scout the way, as one person had more chances of approaching the boars unnoticed and if noticed was less threatening to them, so they were less likely to attack. She came back in fifteen minutes telling us the boars were still where she had last seen them. And we discussed a strategy on how to approach them, or rather Eva and the men did, I was merely listening. In the end they decided to come at the boars en masse, since there were not enough of them to split the party up without a severe risk of people getting hurt. And so they did, moving forward in a sort of inverted wedge, that the boars could storm through, and that would give them the best shot at stabbing one of them. I strung my bow and followed them at a distance, not too great, since I didn't want to risk a boar breaking through their group and then confronting me, but large enough that I didn't run any immediate risks. I nocked an arrow, just in case. The men moved as quietly as they could, trying not to scare the boars away. My training with Eva proved quite useful now, as I think I made a lot less noise than most of the men did. When they got within sight, the boars spotted them and broke up. Some of them moving away from us, others moving towards us. One boar with huge tusks who bore many as scar, charged us. The first men threw their spears, but the boar hardly seemed to notice. The men stepped aside and the second men threw their spears, but still the boar kept coming. As it got awfully close now, I aimed and loosed my arrow. I quickly nocked another one and had it follow the first one. By now the third couple of men had also thrown their spears. By now the boar was bleeding profusely from his wounds, but they didn't slow him down at all. The first men had taken up new spears and joined the fourth team in throwing. And then it had reached us. Everybody stabbed the spear and tried to move so that the boar would go through the wedge instead of attacking somebody personally. And then Rodrigo made a bold move. He stepped practically in front of the boar and planted his spear through the beasts eye. His huge mass kept him moving, but he was definitely dying now, if not dead. Eva had been standing aside the whole time, to keep an eye on the other boars, but they were all gone when I looked up again. She told me that even the ones who had been coming in our direction had turned around when they saw the old boar attacking us. In falling down the boar had crushed some of my arrows, but I collected the ones that had caught him in his back and head. Rodrigo praised me for my coolness. The men tore their spears from the carcass and the servants went to hang the beast from a pole to carry it back with us. After a quick check we saw that we had been mostly successful in keeping the monster away from us. There were only some minor scratches on one man's legs. We went back to camp, slowly because the boar was heavy, and we didn't want to out pace the servants carrying it. Because we couldn't go very fast, we were again the last party to return, but we were still back much earlier than they had been the days before. That night we had another revelry over the fire and the stories were even more boastful than the nights before. At one point I even heard somebody exaggerating my role in the killing of the boar. He was proclaiming that I had feathered the beast with more arrows than the men had been able to throw spears. I could only laugh at that story, and shake my head, as long as the story correctly painted Rodrigo as the actual hero, I didn't care how inaccurate it was.

The hunting night

The next morning we went back to our house with all the meat loaded in carts. Some of it had been smoked and some of it had been put into barrels of brine for the winter. We came home in a long line, weary, but very satisfied. As soon as we arrived the servants started heating large kettles of water for the baths. Some people had to wait almost until diner before their bath water was finally finished, because we only had so many kettles to heat the water. When everybody was refreshed and rested a bit, the hunting feast started. Every animal we had killed was in at least one dish, and many were in several. The highlight of the feast was of course the boar, that had been stuffed and then roasted whole. Everybody was telling stories about how wonderful the hunt had been and how marvelously lucky I had been, since every party I had joined had had good results and I had been responsible for quite a lot of meat myself. From those stories I concluded that I might be expecting a lot of invitations to join other hunting parties. Gianna was telling her stories of all the animals she had seen to anyone who was willing to listen to her. She was also loudly proclaiming that the deer her mother shot tasted the best of all, which had everybody who heard her say it laughing. All in all, everybody was having a good time. Halfway through diner though, Giovanna fell asleep, but as we had promised she could stay for the entire meal, we didn't take her to bed. Her teacher merely put her on some straw and cushions in a corner where nobody would step on her and let her sleep there. Despite the fact that the meal lasted until almost midnight, I still wasn't feeling tired. In fact I was still very much awake even after Alessa had helped me get undressed and changed into my night gown. After lying in my bed for half an hour, tossing and turning, I decided to pay Rodrigo a visit. I glided to the halls, listening to people snoring and talking. I even heard some grunts and giggles behind some doors. Apparently I wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep yet. At one point I even thought I saw somebody else sneaking through the halls, but he was gone when I got to the place where I thought I'd seen him, and there was no trace of him around the corners that I could see. So I continued my nightly journey. The only reason I was being quiet was that I didn't want to wake any sleeping persons, as I had every right to be visiting my husband. His door was unlocked, so I sneaked in, not wanting to wake him rudely if he was sleeping. But what I heard were not the sounds of a sleeping man. The oaken door had silenced the sounds, but what I heard now was the sound of my husband enjoying himself. I silently padded close to the walls to a place where I could hide behind a wall hanging from where I could have a good view at the scene on his bed. When I came to the place where I could see around the curtain that was hanging at the foot of his bed, I was in for a shock. It wasn't a lady he was having fun with. Instead I saw the handsome young gamekeeper that had been on the boar hunting party before Eva replaced him. I moved forward until I reached the wall hanging that was my destination and watched transfixed. While Rodrigo was usually done with me pretty soon, this escapade went on and on. And soon I was imagining that it was me Rodrigo was riding. And then I imagined that I was making love to the gamekeeper instead. It wasn't long before I was soaking wet and I had to stop myself from reaching down and pleasuring myself. In fact I had to work rather hard at not moaning or making any other sounds as it was. After looking at them for what seemed like ages, I came to my senses and decided that Rodrigo wouldn't be best pleased if he found out that I had been watching them. Very quietly I stalked back to the door. Freezing when I suddenly heard Rodrigo yell out, but it was only part of their play. As I reached the door I got jealous, why had he never had that much pleasure from me? I had tried everything I knew, even tried to have him teach me new tricks, and as far as I knew I hadn't seen anything that we'd never done before. So why then couldn't I give him that much pleasure? And so instead of going to my own room as I had planned, I went to Eva's room instead to have some fun of my own. I knew it wasn't wise with so many people walking around the house that night, but I simply didn't care. Eva opened the door immediately when I knocked, but didn't let me in right away. She was looking rather flushed and confessed that there was someone in her bed. For a second I considered going back to my own room and waking Alessa for my fun, but she'd been sleeping pretty fast when I left and the last few days had been rough on her too. So I gathered my guts and asked Eva if her man, or woman I hastened to add, would mind sharing. She blushed a deep red and said she didn't know. She closed the door and left me standing. My mouth fell open in astonishment From all the reactions I'd expected, this wasn't one of them. But before I could gather myself and turn around the door opened again and a handsome young man was standing there, with nothing but a sheet around his body. He looked me up and down for a minute and wordlessly invited me in. Eva apologized for having me wait, but she could hardly have let me in on a naked man without giving him a say in it.

I had never shared a man with another woman before and it was a whole new experience. We took turns riding him, and having him ride us. We kept the poor guy awake the entire night. At one point we both used our tongues at the same time and he was practically screaming. I never even knew who it was. Early in the morning I crept back to my own room, crawled into my bed and slept until noon. When I woke up my entire body was aching, both from the exercise of the hunt and of the previous night. I didn't tell Rodrigo what I had seen.


The next time Rodrigo was out on a business trip, I searched his room. I had never done that before. Not even on my haunts around the house when I had just came to live there. At the end of the first day, I found what I was looking for, a secret passage leading away from his room. As it was the main bedroom I had already guessed it must be there, seeing how riddled with passages the rest of the house was. I followed it all the way to what seemed a dead end. I pushed every brick and prodded every hole with a stick, until I found a tiny little hook that I could pull downwards to open another secret door. I was very astonished to find myself very near my own room. When I got out of the passage the door closed behind me and I spent the entire next day trying to find out how to open the door from the outside. But to no avail. I spent every available minute in that corridor trying to find a way to open the door, but I couldn't find anything. In the end I went through from Rodrigo's room again, and had a look at the mechanism from the inside. But there was absolutely nothing I could see that indicated how it could be opened from the outside. In the end, I asked Alessa if she had ever heard anything about a secret passage that ran from the main bedroom. She told me shad heard rumors that Rodrigo's mother had used it to spy on her husband when she suspected him of sleeping with other women, but she hurried to say that she never knew if it was true or not. And so I simply wrote his mother a letter, not really caring if she would take the matter up with Rodrigo himself. I had a suspicion that if the story was true, she would tell me without letting me know and if she would tell Rodrigo about my request, I could always tell him I had heard rumors about a passage leading into his room and that I was merely trying to make sure that there were no security flaws that we didn't know about. When Rodrigo came home, I still hadn't had a letter. In fact I didn't hear anything for months. It wasn't until Rodrigo had gone on his next business trip that his mother came by personally for a visit. We talked about my letter and I confessed that I was suspecting that Rodrigo was having an affair, as he never came to my bedroom anymore. She sighed and took me to the place where I knew the secret passage was ending. Then she took about ten paces to the right and pushed on the bracket for the torch that was on the wall there. And behold the door opened. We went into the passage and she showed me that not only was there a door that opened behind the curtain, where I had found it, but also that you could move a few paces beyond that door and that there was a spy hole there, that was camouflaged very cleverly with a painting. After showing me that we went out again and had some tea in my sitting room. She made me promise not to make a public fuss about the affairs of my husband as that wouldn't do anybody any good. I solemnly vowed that I wouldn't and we left the subject and chatted amiably about all kinds of things like the weather, the progress Giovanna was making in her lessons, and the local gossip. She staid a couple of days and we went out riding in a carriage around the countryside. I would have preferred being on a horse, but her frail health wouldn't allow for that. We also went out looking at Giovanna riding her pony and watched her trying to lure the squirrels out from the garden, where she had found out they were also living. We even held a small tea party organized by my little girl. After three days, Rodrigo's mother announced she was going home again and we said goodbye.

When he came back Rodrigo was very surprised that his mother had been by and even more that she had left again without waiting for him, but I told him that she wasn't feeling too good and wanted to go home again. If he really wanted to see her, we could go and pay her a visit, if he liked. But as I had thought he didn't feel like going on a trip so soon after he had come home and he declined. That night after everybody had gone to sleep I went to his room by the secret passageway, thinking that he would probably like a bit of company for the night, since I didn't think he'd be sleeping with another man out in the open field or in an inn. And my intuition proved me right. When I got there he was alone and preparing himself for bed, but just before I was going to turn back to my own room I heard the door open and in came the young gamekeeper. I watched the gamekeeper take off his clothes slowly and graciously in what seemed like a very slow dance without music. I dropped my smallclothes without taking my eyes off them. As their dance began and grew wilder over time I began pleasuring myself. When I came to the point where I could barely retain a scream, I stopped, put on my smallclothes again and returned to my room, where I finished what I had began. I returned there every night and found out that the gamekeeper came most nights. I also noticed that they were so absorbed by each other that they didn't even notice when I did make a sound. I experimented carefully by making slightly louder noises, but they never heard me over the noise they made themselves. Then one night I got bold and opened the door from the inside and stepped behind the curtain. Every night I took a step closer, and not once did they see me. Until finally I was actually standing at the foot of the bed behind the curtain. Of course I couldn't see anything from there, but that didn't matter. The thrill of standing there made it unnecessary to actually see anything. The next night I gathered all my courage and peaked around the curtain. To my great shock they were almost at the foot of the bed, but fortunately they were both looking at the head of the bed. I hesitantly put out a hand and touched one of their legs. And then withdrew my hand like lightning, afraid of my own boldness. Scared of being found out. When they didn't respond, I hurried back to my own room. The next night I decided to try another approach, and simply walked in the door, dropped my night gown as if I had meant to spend the night with my husband, pretended to be shocked by the sight and started crying. At first they were too shocked to do anything, but then Rodrigo came to me and tried to console me. He confessed that he had always been attracted to men and not to women. When I started crying even louder, he helped me put my night gown back on, and led me back to my own room. He even had the gall to tell me he wouldn't be bothering me at night anymore. Which finally made me cry for real. When we were in my room again, I asked him about my needs and what to do with them. He was actually confused. I told him that making love was something I needed too and that he now doomed me to cold and lonely nights, as I couldn't turn to other men, since they might get me pregnant. Which came dangerously close to admitting the one thing I had sworn to never tell him. He sat down on the bed beside me in silence and the moment stretched on and on. And when I finally looked at him, I saw a tear dripping from his eye, followed by a shuddering sigh. And then he left me sitting there unfulfilled and lonely, with the knowledge that he might never sleep with me again. And that's when I started crying for real, long sobs that left me gasping for breath as my nose got stuffed. I felt doomed to take my comfort from my friends, but all I wanted at that moment were the strong arms of my husband, the man who had sworn to protect and comfort me. It was true that he had never sworn to have sex with me, but from the man who had beaten me because I couldn't get a child, I had expected a bit more. I cried and cried until I fell asleep crying.

The next night he surprised me by coming to my room again, but all he came to do was bring me the recipe for moon tea to stop me from getting pregnant. And that brought the tears right out again. It made it all so final. He didn't particularly mention I could sleep with other men, though. I guess that was still too much for him. And once again he left me. I put the recipe in the bottom of my jewel box and went to sleep again, or at least I tried to. I didn't get much sleep that night, and what sleep I did get was filled with dreams about being abandoned and punished.

Another child

The next morning I didn't get out of bed. I really didn't see the point of doing so. I was feeling tired, broken and sick. When I tried to get up to visit the toilet, I felt a wave of nausea, and I only just made it to the chamber pot before I threw out whatever was left of last night's meal. I emptied my gut and my bladder and rang for a servant to come and empty the chamber pot. I crawled back into bed and staid there. In the afternoon Alessa came to bring me some weak broth and to my surprise I found that I was actually hungry. I ordered her to bring some bread as well. I ate it all and crawled back into bed, even though I was no longer feeling sick, just miserable. In the evening she came again to bring me my diner and staid to tell me a story in the hopes of cheering me up. I went to sleep early, and consequently woke up early again too. But as I got up, thinking it was time I got out of bed again, another wave of nausea hit me. After emptying my stomach again, I felt too weak to get up and crawled back into bed. In the afternoon I was fine again and got up after all, thinking I couldn't stay in bed forever wallowing in self pity. Rodrigo looked at me questioningly, but didn't actually ask, so I pretended not to notice his looks and ignored him. This pattern of being sick in the morning and eating to catch up for the missed breakfast in the afternoon continued for a couple of weeks until it finally went away. By now my stomach started bulging noticeably, but it still didn't hit me that I might be pregnant again. I merely thought it was because of all the eating. Right until Alessa asked me when I would tell my husband that I was pregnant. At first I was merely gaping at her, and then I realized she was right. Still feeling angry at him, and dreading to tell him about this child that he would know couldn't be his, I told her he would find out when it was born if he didn't figure it out himself.

If he did figure it out he didn't say so, but merely left me dreading the birth of this child. And then came the moment when it was time for the birth, but nothing happened. Another two weeks went by before I went into labor. As it was night and Rodrigo had already gone to bed, no doubt to play with his toy, I had Alessa fetch the midwife. She was there within half an hour and told me that the baby wasn't in the right position. She prodded my belly in a painful way, until she pronounced that he had turned after all. The birth was a long and painful business and I came close to giving up entirely, but Alessa and the midwife kept pushing me on. But when the child was born he wasn't breathing. It turned out that the umbilical cord, that was supposed to have kept him alive, had killed him during birth as it was curled around his little neck and had strangled him. I couldn't even feel sad that the boy hadn't lived as he had the pretty red curls of his father. I told the midwife to take the body and bury it, I didn't want anything to do with it anymore. I had lost a lot of blood in the birth and was very weak. It took almost a week for me to recover again. A week in which I didn't once see Rodrigo, as I didn't leave my room and he didn't come in to check on me. I told Alessa that if he wouldn't ask, I wouldn't tell him. Even thought it was pretty obvious that my belly was a lot smaller now. And he didn't ask, he merely asked when I came to diner again if I was feeling better again and I politely told him that I was feeling much better.

Fencing again

After a few months and visiting countless hunting parties organized by others, I found out that I was once again bored. Hunting like the nobles did was hardly a sport. Usually the prey was driven towards you or it was made impossible for them to escape you. Nobody but the gamekeepers understood the thrill of an actual hunt, but I could hardly join them on their scouting sessions and hunting with Eva was out of the question because of my promise to Rodrigo. I was walking over the market one day, merely to have something to do and maybe to look for some silks for new clothes for Giovanna as she was growing fast, when I spied a beautiful rapier. I picked it up, pretending it was for my husband to feel the balance and weight. The balance was very good and it was just the right size and weight for me too. I asked the merchant how much he wanted for it and laughed at the price he named. I knew that what he was asking was only a little over the price that it should cost, but I wasn't going to tell him that. I offered him half the price and he acted all the outraged salesman who had to feed his children. And then the haggling began in earnest. In the end I got the weapon for a price that was slightly below what I would have guessed it was worth and got a scabbard and frog in the bargain too. You can imagine that I was feeling very pleased with myself. I knew Rodrigo didn't fence and wouldn't like me fencing either, but I needed a bit of action again to keep myself busy, and what with the way he had cast me aside, I was hoping he wouldn't raise too much objections. If he would, I intended to get nasty. Back in the house I stored the weapon in my chest and went off to find Eva. I asked her if she knew anybody who could make me a practice weapon as the weapon I had just bought was really sharp and made of such nice steal that it would be a shame to blunt it for practice. She said she didn't know all that many smiths, but she would ask around and would let me know as soon as she had heard anything. It took her a couple of weeks in which I amused myself by practicing my still abominable archery skills and riding with my daughter. But then she finally reported that she had heard of a good weapons smith not too far away. It was only a two day's ride. I hesitated for a couple of days, but then just informed Rodrigo that I would be going out for a trip with Eva for a few days. I promised him I would behave like a proper lady and wouldn't do anything funny that would be bad for his business. I then went on to inform the staff that I would be gone for a day or five and gave them orders on the meals and all the stuff I still had to say something about in order to get them done. And then I simply got on my horse, picked one out for Eva, informed two guards that they were to escort me and we set off. To go out riding without the intention of being back in a couple of hours was immensely satisfying. To have no other obligations than to find an inn for the night where we could have a hot meal and some supplies for the next day was very relaxing. That night the four of us stayed in a small inn. It wasn't much, but there didn't seem to be too many lice in the beds and the sheets were reasonably clean. The meal was sparse but tasty and filling. The next morning we rode on again. I set a leisurely pace, since I was in no hurry to get there. Which meant we arrived just after lunch on the third day. We first had our horses stabled at the inn and booked a room there for the night. After that we left one guard at the inn to guard our luggage and went off in search of the weapon smith. It was a small town that was basically one square with four streets leading away from it, and just a couple of alleys in between the streets, so we had found him quickly. I looked at the wares that he had lying around in his shop and deemed the smith good enough to buy practice weapons of. I wouldn't have wanted to buy a weapon to give as a present to some nobleman, as most were rather course weapons fit for soldiers, but they would do just fine for my purposes. I asked his wife who was running the shop for him, how much two of the weapons he had lying there cost and if he could blunt them for me. She had been uncomfortable all the time we were there, but now she was practically crying as she explained that these were no weapons for a nobleman. I patiently tried to assure her that no nobleman would be training with these, and when that didn't help I lied that I wanted to buy a pair for my guardsmen to see if they were any good, and that I might be buying more if they were. But it was to no avail, in the end when she couldn't discourage me she ran off to fetch her husband. The man must have seen nobility more often than his wife, cause he was nowhere near as nervous as she. He explained that the weapons I was looking at had been ordered by a minor nobleman and were merely meant as showcases until the man's servants picked them up. I asked him when they would be picked up and if he could make new weapons before then. He told me that he didn't know and that the nobleman would make his life very miserable if the weapons weren't there the moment his servants came by. I asked him where the nobleman in question was living and he gave me directions to a small mansion a few miles out of town. I went to collect the horses and the guard and we went in search of the mansion. I didn't even know if the man would grant me an audience, but I thought it was worth a try. An even bigger question was if the man would be willing to part with his weapons. I had asked the smith the price the man had paid, or rather was going to pay him, and had given him a little tip for the information. As the smith had said, the mansion couldn't be missed as it was located on a hill top with a view of the town. We rode up to the gate and asked the guards politely if we could speak to their master. They asked if we had an appointment and we told them that we didn't. One of them said he'd ask, but told us not to expect anything. It took quite a while before he returned and we spent the time chatting with the remaining guard. I asked him what the hunting in the neighborhood was like and if it would be worthwhile to try and wheedle an invitation out of his master for the next hunt. He told us that his master never went hunting but told us conspiratorially that hunting was indeed good in the country surrounding the village. He advised us that we might try to offer his master a price for the rights to hunt his lands for a while and I thanked him for the tip and said I'd keep it in mind. The guard came back and told us his master was in a good mood and very intrigued as to what a beautiful lady would want from him. He took us to a small sitting room where a rather fat man sat, who was dressed in what used to be very fine clothes that had obviously known better times. He apologized for his clothes as he hadn't been expecting visitors, but hadn't wanted to keep a lady waiting for him while he got dressed. Looking at the state the rest of the room was in I doubted he could have dressed much nicer if he had made the effort. I told him that I had seen the weapons he had bought from the weapon smith and that I was interested in buying them from him. The mention of money made him sit up a bit straighter and confirmed my suspicion that he was a bit short of cash. I offered him a little less than the blacksmith had told me the weapons would have cost the man, pretending I was guessing at the price. The man was visibly interested and even seemed willing to accept my offer, but he put up a show of indignation at the price. He asked a sum that was twice as high and I made as if to leave. He hurriedly called me back and told me he was joking of course and begged my forgiveness over treating a lady like that. Next he named me a more reasonable price that was only a little over what he would have had to pay the smith, and I accepted graciously. I counted out the difference with what he owed the smith, for him right away and he was very surprised. I told him I would pay the rest of the amount to the smith and he had the good grace to laugh. I asked him to write me a letter for the smith with his seal under it that would let the smith know that I was now the new owner, who had to pay the smith what he was owned. He blushed and told me he couldn't write, but he'd send his servant with me who was to have picked up the weapons for him, so the smith would trust me. I warned him never to let a pretty little head bedevil him again and he called me a shrewd woman and a good actress. I told him to prepare himself, because I might come back one day to haggle about the right to hunt on his grounds. He told me he'd be looking forward to it and we said goodbye.

We had to walk the horses back to the town, since the old servant didn't have a horse to take him there and couldn't keep up with our horses even if they merely walked, but the weather was nice and the distance not too great. Eva was chatting with the servant about everything and nothing, but I didn't listen. Instead I looked at the surroundings and enjoyed the sunshine. By the time we had reached the town again the servant was huffing and wheezing, but he made it to the smithy. But there he had to rest for a while before he could explain his master's intentions to the smith, who then gladly handed the weapons over to me as I paid him the amount at once. He thanked me for arranging the matter for him and that he would gladly make me more if these were satisfactory, but that the next batch would take a longer time to produce. I laughed and said I understood and that I would send a servant if I ever needed more weapons and that they would then agree on a date when they would be ready. We left the smithy and went to the inn, where they were just about to start serving diner. I bought us all a round of drinks and gave the guards a pint of beer each, saying that I allowed them a drink, but expected them to stay sober, as we would leave early in the morning again. Diner was a very nice pasta dish, with just some tomatoes, some basil and something that tasted like ground beef, served with some freshly baked bread. After diner, Eva and I went to bed straight away, as the riding and the walking had made me more tired than I'd expected. And Eva was a bit like a soldier, she could sleep the whole day if you let her. At least everybody always said soldiers could sleep on command, I'd never actually seen it myself.

We rode back a little quicker than we had on the way out, since I wanted to be back the next night, so we skipped the last inn we'd taken before and went straight on to the first inn we had stayed in. The next day the weather changed, so I was glad we had pushed on the day before. That night we arrived home, wet and cold, yet I was very satisfied with the whole experience. I planned on traveling around more often. As they had already had diner, I ordered some food for the guards to be brought to wherever they were hanging out and ordered a meal for Eva and myself to be brought to my sitting room. After we had finished with our meal, Rodrigo came to visit me. I was almost surprised to find he had noticed I had come home, but took care not to mention it. He inquired after my trip and I told him all about it. I even showed him the weapons I had bought. He had to swallow for a bit, but didn't forbid me when I said I would take up fencing as a pastime.

I sent a letter to my father asking him if he knew the whereabouts of my old fencing teacher and in the mean time I challenged our guards to mock duels. At first they all let me win, but as they realized I knew what they were doing and they got some serious beatings, most worked a little harder to at least not let me win with a large difference. And then one day, a guard won of me by accident. He was almost shocked that he had, but instead of scolding him as he had expected I gave him a reward. After that all the guards gave me a good workout. Eva was clearly interested, so I gave her a few basic lessons, warning her that I was no teacher and that if ever I got a teacher she would probably have to unlearn quite a few things, but she enjoyed the lessons and soon joined in to the fray. And even though all of the guards beat her easily, she gave it all she got and soon they had to work for their victories.

The fencing match

After two months I gave the weapons I had bought a proper inspection and had our weapons master check them out as well. He agreed that they were of good quality and that we could use a couple of new weapons, and so I sent one of our servants to the smith to order a dozen new weapons, sharpened this time. About a week later he came back, informing me that he would be able to pick up the weapons two weeks later. The price he had arranged was the same price as I had paid the smith before. I was almost surprised that the smith hadn't asked for more, but apparently his business wasn't going so well and he was thankful for all the work he had. When the weapons arrived they turned out to be even better than the practice weapons I had bought before and they were much nicer than the weapons our guards carried at the moment. Since we had at least three dozen guards, I decided that it would be determined by a tournament who would get the new weapons. The top twelve fencers would get a brand new weapon as their duty weapon. They would get two weeks to prepare themselves. From the moment I announced there would be a competition, there wasn't a single moment without the clatter of weapons. It was driving Rodrigo nuts, and I caught an angry glance every once in a while. When I did I would smile at him and tell him that we would have the best guards there were in a couple of months, and we didn't even have to pay them any more money for it. We could even make the weapons trophies that they would have to earn every year. Even though I hadn't announced it yet, we still could as the weapons were ours and would stay in our possession as well, since the livery of the guards was ours. In fact I decided to make it known publicly right away, so there wouldn't be any disgruntled faces later when we took the weapons away. The idea pleased the men, especially those who had no chance of winning the weapons this time round.

And then the appointed date of the competition had arrived. The weapons master had made a schedule of the games that would have to be played. The men had been randomly appointed into six groups. Which had been assured by having Rodrigo make the groups. As he wasn't interested in fencing, he had no clue what the capabilities of each guard were. They would all have to play five games, after which the three best players would get to go on to the next round. After the first round they would get a day's rest before the next round, when the men would be put into three new pools according to their results the day before. Every new group would have two numbers three, two numbers two and two numbers one, the people who had been in the same group before would now be split up. Of those groups the first four would get to carry a brand new weapon for a year.

The weapons master and I were referees and thought we only went to five points, some of the matches still took quite a bit of time. After the first full day of fencing we had seen forty fights. Which meant we still had fifty to go. And so after three very long days, we knew who would go to the next round. I spent my day off riding through the country and sleeping. The next day it was back to business as the guards were eager to get started again. Since we only had forty five games, we squeezed them all into one day. Which pleased the guards immensely and was very nice for the weapons master and myself as well, as we were by now utterly sick of watching others fence. To get it out of our system the two of us took up weapons after I had handed out the prizes. I told the men to work hard throughout the year, because I would be thinking of another system for the next competition and it might be based on their results during the year. They all saluted me and cheered me on in my own match. I felt almost sorry for my opponent, were it not for the fact that he was almost as much spurred on by the men cheering me as I was and gave me quite a workout. When I had narrowly beaten him, I thanked him for all his hard work. It then hit me that because he had to judge, he hadn't been able to compete and therefor had no new weapon, despite being the best fencer we had.

I went in for diner and while I was eating, I called for a messenger to order another weapon with the specific instruction to make this one a bit better looking than the rest. Two weeks later I officially handed the new weapon over to it's new caretaker. All the men cheered their superior and congratulated him with his new trophy. After the game I didn't fence for a whole week, as I'd had quite enough of fencing for a while.

A new pupil

Giovanna had seen quite few of the matches and after gathering her courage for a week, as she knew her daddy would not like it, she came to me one night just before going to bed and asked me if she could learn to fence too. I told her I would think about it. In my heart I had of course already decided, but I thought it was time that she learned she couldn't have everything when she asked for it. Two months later was her fifth birthday and I planned to have a practice weapon made just for her. A week after she had asked me I took her measures, claiming it was for a new dress that she would get for her birthday, something I was also planning to give her. But while measuring, I also took measure of her arms and her legs, to see what the length of her weapon should be. Once again I sent a messenger to the smith with my specifications and an order to make the weapon blunt, as it was a practice weapon again. This time the smith needed a little more time as he had some other orders waiting to be made, but the weapon would still be done in time for Gianna's birthday, so I didn't mind. It seemed that word of my orders had gotten out and business had picked up quite a bit. The new weapon arrived two weeks before the birthday party and I stored it away where she wouldn't find it unless she went looking specifically.

Her fifth birthday was going to be a big party again and I had been organizing it for over a month to get it all arranged. On the morning of her birthday I presented her with her new dress, which was a pretty pink thing with tiny little pearls sewn onto it. After the dress she also got a miniature version of my fencing outfit and there was a glimmer of real hope in her eyes when she opened it. I had convinced Rodrigo that he would give her the new weapon, to show her that he didn't mind her taking lessons. Of course he really did mind, but after a heated discussion he agreed. And you should have seen the little girl as she saw that it was her father who was giving her her first training weapon. After the birthday Rodrigo thanked me for insisting that he should give her the weapon, he told me he would do anything to see that look in her eyes and that he should have trusted me.

But the biggest surprise of all, both for Gianna and for Rodrigo and me was when my father had his gift brought in. He had finally found my old fencing master and had guessed that I might start teaching Giovanna the art. Giovanna actually flew around his nick to kiss him. When she let go she looked at the three of us and said we must have agreed on this in advance. I admitted that her father and I had been conspiring, but that I knew nothing about the new teacher. Of course that wasn't the only gift my father gave her, as I would have to pay for the teacher, so it wasn't a proper gift. He also had a pearl necklace that had belonged to my mother. It went perfect with the new dress, so again Gianna looked at both me and my father, and this time we both shook our heads simultaneously.

She got a lot more gifts that day. Her grandmother gave her a new pony, and a riding outfit with a coat in the brightest red and a pair of trousers that were perfectly white, along with some black boots. This gift was almost enough to match her fencing equipment and she thanked her grandmother from the bottom of her heart. Besides that, she got more dresses and jewelry and also a beautiful doll house complete with furniture and dolls. I bet it was the best day of her life so far.

After the presents there was food, which of course included all her favorite dishes, and dancing. And she might not have had dancing lessons yet, but she sure had a lot of fun being swirled around by all the men at the party. Very few could refuse her puppy eyes and she used those on every man in the room. The dancing kept her awake for the entire party and afterwards she said goodbye to every guest that was going home, even though she couldn't stifle all her yawns then. Afterwards my father and I took her to bed and he invented her a short bedtime story on the spot, about a little fencing girl. It was very cute to watch him like that. When Gianna was in bed, I took my father to my sitting room and we talked until deep in the night, about my relation with Rodrigo, about how much he missed my mother and about pretty much every aspect of life we could think about. It turned out that he hadn't been able to find another woman yet, because he compared them all to my mother and found each and everyone lacking. I confided in him that Rodrigo didn't actually love me and had only needed me to get a child and he felt sorry for me. I told him that it wasn't his fault, that I didn't blame him for the two of us to be unable to grow as close as he and my mother had been. He'd made the best possible match and it simply didn't work out the way we had hoped. It could have been much worse, he could have been beating me senseless. Where I didn't mention that he'd tried a couple of times, since I had dealt with that myself and it wouldn't occur anymore. We finally started yawning and I let him out so I could go to bed.

The lessons begin again

The next morning was Giovanna's first lesson, she had kept begging and begging until I caved in and told her her first lesson could start right away. I decided to join in, since I could probably use a couple of refreshing lessons. Giovanna was very disappointed when she wasn't even allowed to wear her weapon in the first half hour of the lesson, and she complained that I always started fencing right away. She kept on complaining right up until the point that she didn't have the breath to do so anymore. The teacher pushed her on mercilessly and I didn't say anything, as my breath was a bit short too. I was actually amazed that my condition was a bit better than Gianna's, after all she was only a five year old child and despite the fact that most of her day was taken up by lessons, she did get outside a lot. When Gianna seemed about ready to collapse the teacher announced that the actual fencing lesson would begin and that she was allowed to pick up her weapon now. We both took our training weapons and the teacher took us through the first fencing exercises and I had been right. I really could use a bit of freshing up, as became obvious by the many comments he had on my pose and the way I held my weapon and the way I didn't properly stretch my arm when I struck. Normally Giovanna might have been sniggering about all the things I did wrong, but today she was too tired to waster her breath on it. Pretty soon her weapon sank to the ground every time the teacher didn't pay attention. An hour after the lesson had started, Giovanna was dismissed to her other lessons. Our teacher then took me through another workout, trying to see how well I could stand up against him. And despite the fact that he beat me soundly, he was still satisfied, so I guess all my practice against the guards lately did pay off. And so the days went on again. Day after day we started with a fencing lesson, which was followed by our regular duties. And for Giovanna that meant a writing lesson from her tutor, a dancing lesson from a new teacher we had hired for her, lessons on etiquette and behavior in court, lessons on arithmetics and lessons on how to run a household from our housekeeper. As I had when I was younger, she collapsed into her bed every evening, but she didn't seem to mind. The fencing lessons kept me occupied for part of the day, but soon I got restless again. My archery didn't get any better, my fencing had reached a point where it wasn't noticeably improving and horse riding in the neighborhood had lost most of it's charm as I'd seen all of it before. And so I decided to plan another trip. I asked Eva for a likely destination and after some preparations we simply set of. As long as the surroundings were new, I didn't really mind where we were going. We rode around for a week and saw farmers at work on the fields near tiny villages, markets in small town, deer in the forest, bunnies in the field, and falcons in the sky. I felt free again and I was happy. Which was infectious, because Eva began humming under her breath and at one point one of the two guards I had taken began whistling softly. Until he discovered he was doing it. He started blushing and was quiet after that. Which had me laughing and I asked him why he had stopped. He was rather surprised that I didn't mind as it was a habit that had always driven his comrades mad. I told him that I wasn't one of his comrades and that I didn't mind. His whistling was not that bad, I'd heard a lot worse before.

And then on the third day after we had set out, we were ambushed. I guess we must have looked easy prey, two women who only had two guards to protect them. Unfortunately for them they had failed to notice the rapiers at our sides, and so they had not two but four opponents. And it was true that they were still in the majority, but we were much better armed than they were and we had the advantage of knowing how to use our weapons. It wasn't long before the first bandit lay dead. One of them tried to run away, but Eva shot him through his leg and he fell down screaming and crying, begging alternately for mercy and for a quick death. Their fellows hurriedly threw down their weapons and we tied their hands behind their back. We roped them all together and had them walking single file behind our horses. The dead one we left for the ravens and the one that couldn't walk anymore was slung over a horse. Eva walked behind the bandits to make sure they didn't try anything stupid. It was still quite a while before we reached a village that was large enough that it might have some kind of law enforcers where we could dump them to be tried. Since they confessed their guilt of having tried to rob us, there was no need for us to stay. I didn't want to stay to have them hanged for trying to kill some travelers, as we could have killed them on the road. In the end we dumped them at a small town where the innkeeper claimed a constable would drop by in the morning. He locked them up in a room in his cellar that was empty and we took their weapons with us, just in case the innkeeper was lying. Even though we had easily defeated the bandits, the guards got nervous, so in order to appease them we went homeward again.

Every day I was at home, my fencing lessons continued and soon I could give tips to the guardsmen when they fenced with me. I think that they were very proud that their lady could fence and beat most of them in a contest. And they all took my advice to heart when they got it. As soon as I had told them to start working on something, I could see them in the yard making extra hours to get that one detail right. And then came the time for the next great match, in the last couple of months I had had them keep track of their rank amongst their peers. And when the great day of the match came, I had made a list according to their rank so we would need a lot less matches to determine the twelve best fencers. The competition was fierce, even though the winners were all but predetermined by their results in the last half year. Giovanna had originally wanted to join the competition too, until I told her that it was only for guards and that I wouldn't be joining either. Instead I let her help us judge, which she like too, even though she wasn't very good at it.

It turned out that the best fencers of last year were still pretty much the best fencers, of the twelve there were only two weapons that changed hands. The old owners graciously offered them to the new champions, with a smile, a slap on the back and a promise to win them back next year.

The family trip

In the months that followed I took short trips more and more often, preferring to be on the road to being at home, even though I loved my little girl very much. Until at Giovanna's sixth birthday I knew pretty much the entire country in a circle of three days riding around our village. After her birthday Gianna started begging to come along on my trips, claiming that she was old enough now. She kept on begging until she drove her father nuts and he promised her we would all be taking a trip. Of course since Giovanna and Rodrigo were coming along, we'd need a lot more things to be taken care of. We'd need a baggage train of mules with supplies for our lunches, and fresh clothes to wear. We'd need a lot more guards, and I had to make sure everything would be taken care of at home too. We planned a one week trip past the most beautiful villages and forests I knew. I knew there would be plenty of inns along the road so we could stop often if need be. The first day on the road Giovanna was still having fun. She pointed at every animal she saw, stopped to watch every flower she hadn't seen before, and invented stories about the gnarled trees that lined the road. She was interrogating every staff member at the inn we visited, having them tell her all about their life. The innkeeper laughed uproariously all night, feeding her little treats and sips of watered wine. The waitress told her stories of exotic men that gave her enormous tips, although she took special care not to mention what she had to do for them. And she even wheedled out from the innkeeper that she could visit the kitchen to speak to his wife who was cooking. When there was music in the evening she danced, even though the dances were nothing like the ones we had at home. She insisted that she wasn't tired and that she could stay up to dance and Rodrigo who had drank a few beers, weak heartedly gave in. And so she wasn't all that fit the next morning. She loved riding, and normally spent at least an hour every day in the saddle. But her lessons had kept her from riding any more and the second day she was becoming saddle sore. She was still having fun, but she had already stopped chattering about everything she saw. On the third day she was almost crying. Everything hurt, she hadn't slept well and she just wanted to go home. So after lunch we turned round and picked up a bit of speed to be home as quickly as we could. We had to spend another night in an inn as we had already crossed too much distance to ride back in one day, but early the next afternoon we came home again. I ordered hot baths for all of us and some healing salve for Giovanna to ease the pain in her legs a bit. She swore she would never take a trip that far again, if she didn't absolutely have to. Which made Rodrigo pretty happy, as he had been nervously glancing around to see if there was any danger on the road, be it bandits or a rock that could trip the girl's horse.

The sick bed

But then one bright winter morning, disaster struck. Gianna wasn't feeling too well and I tucked her into bed again. She was feeling very hot, so we called for a physician. The man said it was just a bit of a cold and that she would be up and about again in a couple of days. But two days later, the fever was only running higher and she was turning delirious. We immediately called the physician again, who put some leaches to her fair skin and bled her. But the only change in her condition was for the worse, as she was now getting breathing problems as well. In our desperation we even called for the herb woman who had helped deliver her. But even she couldn't do anything, she gave some herbal remedies that brought the fever down a bit, but she had no cure for the breathing problems. She tried her very best and probably tried every remedy she could think of and even some that she couldn't, but to no avail. And so there was noting we could do but sit beside her bed holding her hand, feed her some weak broth, and tell her stories. After two weeks our pretty little girl took her last labored breath.. We buried her in the church and everybody came. Her grandparents, all the nobles who had only ever seen her at her birthdays, or on one of the balls we had given over the years. And when the nobles were gone again all the villagers filed by her little casket too, most of them with tears in their eyes. Those days I cried my eyes out, and Eva had to literally hold me up most of the time, to prevent me from collapsing to the ground. Rodrigo didn't cry, but I could see that he wanted to. Instead he began drinking again, and this time I wasn't strong enough to stop him. Our little girl was buried beside her grandfather, Rodrigo's father. In the place we had reserved for her grandmother, since her grandmother insisted on it, saying that we could later bury her beside little Gianna, so she would be in between her grandparents.

In the next four weeks I didn't stop crying and Rodrigo didn't stop drinking. Not only did he fiercely miss his little girl, the joy of his life, but he was now also robbed of an heir again. And since I was now too old to safely bear him a child, he would either have to find a mistress to bear him one or simply appoint the child of another man as his heir. I knew he probably wouldn't take a mistress, as he fancied men and had been only too pleased that he didn't have to sleep with a woman anymore after Gianna had been conceived.

Finding an heir

After those four weeks the pain got a little less pronounced. I still hurt all the time and expected Gianna to come walking in on me, every moment of the day, but I could stop myself from crying most of the time. Slowly I picked up my life again. I didn't have the guts to tell my husband to stop drinking, but I did start organizing balls and hunting parties again. We had to find out who we could appoint as our heir. Rodrigo wasn't getting any younger, and I had no doubt his drinking wouldn't extend his life as I often found him passed out in his chair. I also prodded him to go out and visit other people's balls, parties and gatherings again, as we really needed to meet more people so he could make his choice. As his drinking kept him angry and listless, I had no choice to finally start rationing him again. He still got drunk, but most of the time not before he'd had his diner and I could force some decisions out of him at times. When he still didn't choose an heir, I cut his ration even further and took him out to visit the estates of the nobles that had second and third sons, and sometimes even those where they had bright daughters that were of a marriageable age. We, or rather I, specifically looked at the state the holding was in and at how apt the candidates were at handling the affairs of the estate. Most of the candidates hadn't been raised to take care of matters, but some nobles had been careful enough to educate all their children, just in case the eldest died without an heir of his own. I didn't listen only to the stories the parents and the candidates themselves told, I also had Eva and Alessa inquiring among the staff, to check if the stories they told us were actually true. In the end there were three candidates, all of them male and we invited them over to stay with us for a couple of weeks so we could see them in action and could base our decision on their performance. They came with us eagerly.

Each of them got a week to prove that he could run the estate properly. During that week the other two had to work as well, but didn't get any say in how things were run. The first candidate was named Patrizio and though he performed well, he was also arrogant and didn't take any advice from the others, even when it was offered. The second candidate was named Nicolò, and was a gentle lad. He led with a firm hand, but also listened to the ideas of others and wasn't afraid to use them when they seemed good and to credit them when the plan worked out. The third candidate was called Alessio, and though he too performed well, he relied to heavily on the advice of others. He was always doubting which decision to make and asking others, even the staff, what they thought was the best idea. Most of this evaluation was conducted by me as Rodrigo was still drinking heavily and wasn't actually interested. In the end, I simply told him that Nicolò was probably the best choice and since he didn't protest loudly, drew up a charter that proclaimed Nicolò as his new heir. I hadn't told the boys yet, because as long as Rodrigo hadn't signed the charter it wasn't official yet. I begged Rodrigo to sign the charter, but he didn't even listen to me. For three weeks I kept badgering him about appointing an heir, as the boys kept running the estate in weekly turns. It got ever more obvious that Patrizio expected to be chosen as heir and that Nicolò and Alessio were more or less accepting him as their leader. It was therefor imperative that the decision would be made public all the sooner, since the longer we would wait, the more we would hurt Patrizio's ego. And noblemen with a wounded ego could get pretty nasty. After that time, I got desperate and locked him up again. The whole story of the rage and ranting repeated itself again, but I knew it would work. This time it took a lot longer than the last time, probably because the grief ran a lot deeper, but in the end I got my way. As soon as he was fully sober again and had been let out of the tower, I told him to sign the charter, so we could get it over with. He was once again meek as a little lamb and immediately put his signature and seal beneath it. I then went on to tell the boys.

As I had expected Patrizio threw a fit, ranting about how he clearly was the best choice and that even the other two could see that. I sternly told him, that it was exactly that attitude that had led Rodrigo to choose Nicolò in the first place. Nicolò thanked me and Rodrigo for the opportunity and promised to fulfill his role as heir as best as he could. Patrizio and Alessio went to pack their belongings.

I'd seen the look in Patrizio's eye, and had told the guards to watch all three boys closely and to make sure that the two others got home safely again. And a good thing I did too, as no sooner had he packed his things, or Patrizio tried to take up a knife against Nicolò. We took away the knife, bound him and put him on a horse with four guards to make sure he got there. I bet they weren't very gentle, but he got home in one piece. Alessio was truly shocked by what his fellow had tried and left immediately after him, heading for the safety of home. Nicolò wasn't all that shocked, and told me that he too had suspecting something along these lines. Which confirmed to me once again that I had made the right choice. Slowly Rodrigo climbed out of his depression and started showing some interest in business again. He praised Nicolò for his work and showed him the ropes of how he did things. About two months after the adoption had been made official, he went out on a trip, taking Nicolò with him. He promised me that he wouldn't be drinking, and I told him that there was no need for him to make such a promise, as I already knew that he wouldn't. I kissed him on the cheek when he left.

Traveling abroad

And so life slowly settled into a routine again. There was another fencing match, I took more trips with Eva, Nicolò started taking control of matters more and more and Rodrigo became ever more quiet. He even took up fishing of all things. Sitting by a river all day with a fishing line. Hardly ever catching anything, but claiming to enjoy himself anyway. One day Nicolò even went with me to see where my trips took me. We made a two week tour of the near surroundings of our holding, and I showed him my favorite places. I was even almost tempted to seduce him, but in the end I didn't. Mainly because he didn't seem interested in me at all. He truly saw me as a mother, and I decided not to make our relation awkward by hitting on him. Eva had no such restraint, and had him in her bed in no time. I merely laughed when she told me and asked her if she had aspirations to become his mistress. Which in turn made her laugh out loud. She shrewdly added that she might give it a try. Life was good, but didn't hold any great surprises for me anymore. Everything staid more or less the same.

And then a traveling minstrel came by with stories from the countries he had been to. He told of lands that were completely flat, lands that had not a single piece of flat land, lands that consisted of more water than land, lands were nothing grew, and lands were the trees towered higher than any mountain. He told of the most wondrous creatures that inhabited those lands. Creatures with necks that were longer than their entire body, snakes in all the colours of the rainbow, strange human like creatures that sat around eating all day, shapeless dogs that swam the seas, of sharks and dolphins, of tiny creatures that wore suits of black and white. He staid for many nights and had several new stories every day. He told of the cities he had been to, some made of mud, others of brick, and yet others of marble and gold. The more he told, the more I started longing to see all those wonders myself. And now that Gianna was gone, I had nothing keeping me here. Rodrigo had a new heir and didn't need me anymore, the staff were now so used to me being away on a trip that the housekeeper could arrange matters just fine on her own. And so one night, I asked the minstrel if he already had plans for his next trip. For a moment he actually appeared a bit scared, but he recovered so quickly that I started believing I had imagined it. He started telling me that he would like to make a trip around the world as soon as he had the money for it. When I told him that I could provide the money if he took me along, he hurriedly exclaimed that such a journey wasn't fit for a lady, and that if I wanted to come along, he would show me some other countries that were a bit closer to home and that could be reached by carriage. I laughed and said that that would also be fine, since I hadn't seen any of them. And so I set out packing for a long journey. I packed clothes for any kind of weather, foods that would keep for a long time, some trading goods, in case I got to be short of cash, and I arranged for four guards to accompany me. I bought some extra mules to carry it all, and prepared the horses we would take. I asked Eva if she wanted a promotion to be my bodyguard and she gladly agreed. When the morning of departure came, Rodrigo didn't even show his face to say goodbye. Nicolò did come out to wish me a safe voyage however, and I embraced him and told him to look after my husband. I even whispered in his ear that he might need to ration the wine Rodrigo would get if things got out of hand. He promised he would take good care of him and said he'd miss me. I kissed him on his forehead and he almost ran back inside, but not before I had seen his eyes glistening suspiciously. Just as Nicolò had gone back inside, the minstrel finally came out. When he saw all the horses and mules, he looked around with a vaguely alarmed look and asked where the carriage was. I laughed and said we wouldn't be traveling by carriage, as I preferred seeing the country I traveled through. He almost looked green when I pointed him the horse I had picked for him. Based on the description of his adventures I had picked him a spirited beast that had a lot of stamina and also speed. But the guards had only just helped him onto it, when the horse reared and threw him off. Everybody laughed and I went back to the grooms to request a gentle animal for him. Half an hour later, he was on another horse, looking absolutely horrified. And we were finally able to leave. I had chosen a horse that would simply follow the lead of the other animals and was very hard to spook, mostly because she was hard of hearing and usually didn't hear the sounds that spooked the other horses.

I gave a wave to the staff members who weren't coming and gently kicked my horse into action. Our little group was finally under way. I set a general course south, as that was where the border to other countries by land was. In every other direction you would eventually come to the sea, and while I wanted to make a sea voyage one day, I decided that going by land would be adventure enough for now. Especially when I remembered how quickly the minstrel had changed his mind about the going around the world voyage at the prospect of actually being able to make that voyage. The first few days were through known territory of course, as I had traveled these lands often. We slept in inns at first, since there were many along the way. But after two weeks of traveling we came to a place where we hadn't found an inn or a village by the time the sun set. And so we made a fire and simply slept out in the open. I was very glad that the weather was nice, since it was bad enough to hear the minstrel moan as it was. I didn't want to find out yet how he would respond if it had been pouring. Eva shot a couple of birds and we roasted them above the fire, so at least we didn't have to listen to the minstrel moaning and fantasizing of the wonderful meal he would have had if we had staid at the last inn we had encountered. Which had been just before lunch. After we had eaten, we rolled ourselves in our cloaks and went to sleep. With the exception of a single guard who would keep watch. In no time at all Eva and the guards were sleeping, but I could hear the minstrel tossing and turned and muttering about rocks and sticks prodding him in all kinds of nasty places. I smiled as I thought of the adventures that still lay ahead of him and wondered who had told him all those stories of traveling. I bet they never told him the horrors of sleeping out in the open.

The town we encountered during those first few weeks were pretty much the same as the ones back home. The structures were the same, the clothing was the same and even the language was still not all that different. After three weeks the gentle hills became actual mountains. There was still a road, so we simply kept following it. In the end we came to a town where the road ended. It was built about halfway up the hill, and we decided to stay there for a couple of days. At the gate of the town, the fact that our group consisted of two woman, a man and four guards drew some attention. We simply announced who we were, and that we were going to stay there for a few days before moving on. The guards were amused and maybe even a bit shocked that a woman would travel without her husband, as it was very clear that the minstrel was not my husband, but more like my servant. They pointed us in the direction of a good inn in the center of town and we thanked them. The inn was easy to find as the road from the gate led straight to it. The sign beside the door announced it to be the inn the guards had mentioned and we went inside. It was indeed a place that catered to the wealthy, as the floor was strewn with fresh rushes and there were hardly any of the smells that we had encountered at the inns along the road. Instead we were greeted by the smell of diner from the kitchen and the scents of the perfumes of the ladies in the common room. We drew quite a bit of attention as we entered. Apparently it wasn't common here to take your servants in. The innkeeper hurried toward us and took us along into the back room. He explained to me that we could of course spend the night there, but that my servants were not expected to come into the common room. There was a servant room where they could sit in the evening to spend their time beside the hearth and to enjoy their meal. I didn't like being in the common room on my own, but we agreed to spend the night there anyway. The minstrel protested the loudest of all, as he felt it was beneath his dignity to be counted among the servants, but in the end he went along grumblingly, as I had sweetly suggested that if he thought so much of himself then surely he could pay for his own stay here. We had diner and fell into our beds exhausted. The next day I started inquiring after a way across the mountains. I first asked the innkeeper, but he didn't know. Which rather surprised me as innkeepers in general had the reputation to be the person to ask any and all questions. If they didn't know, they generally knew someone who did. But I guess this innkeeper was the exception to the rule. One of the other patrons had heard my question and told me that I would need a guide, but when I asked him if he knew any, he had to tell me that he didn't know. Which meant that I still hadn't gotten any further. After a breakfast of some bread and cheese, I went to fetch Eva and the guards and we went outside. The minstrel hadn't awoken yet, and so we left a single guard to tell him what we were planning. He didn't mind being left behind too much, as there were some other guards in the servants' room that were in for a game of dice. I told him that if he lost his weapons I would be most displeased and he laughingly promised that he wouldn't. We wandered through town leisurely trying to locate a guide, but also enjoying the sights the town had to offer. At the daily market there were lots of people proclaiming themselves to be a guide, but Eva didn't trust a single one, saying that they would most likely guide you to some remote pass where they would rob you and dump your body in a ravine, never to be found again. I trusted her judgment and decided to inquire at some sources that would at least have a semblance of decency and trustworthiness. We inquired at several inns that seemed respectful, but nobody seemed to want to help us. At the end of the day it became rather frustrating and we decided to try another approach tomorrow. That night I sat alone in the common room near the fire. As it was a busy night, it wasn't long before a group of other people had joined me at my table. They were mostly ignoring me and talking amongst themselves but I was enjoying their conversation. I had a glass of wine, but declined when another was offered to me by a strange gentleman at the bar. Because our table was already full, he couldn't join me, but I bet he would have if he could. But despite seeming like a well bred gentleman, there was something about him I didn't like, and I decided to follow my instinct and ignore him. When the topic drifted to hunting, I was suddenly asked how the hunting was in my home town, and suddenly I had joined the discussion. It became quite a pleasurable evening, and when I looked up again the gentleman at the bar had left. It was quite late when I got up and went to bed. The next day, I sent Eva and the guards out to go to some inns and bars to listen to all the local gossip and to try to entice out some stories on crossing the mountains. Anything that could help us to get through them. That night they came back, most of them slightly drunk, although they had taken care not to go too far. They had heard stories all right, but not one of them seemed reliable, they were all just tavern stories. After informing me of their results they went straight to bed to sleep of the alcohol. I went to the common room to have a drink of my own. And again got offered a drink by the strange man. I yet again declined, since I still didn't trust him. Only this time there was a seat at my table free, and he came to join me. He tried taking on a look of being hurt, but his eyes still gleamed mischievously. He asked me why I didn't want his drink and I told him I didn't take drinks from strangers. And cursed myself for saying it right away, as he stuck out is hand and introduced himself. I dryly added that knowing a man's name wasn't the same as knowing him and that it only made him fractionally less a stranger. Which in turn set him off to tell long tales about who he was. He had a talent for telling tales and soon he had me laughing. When next he offered me a drink, I told him that having heard stories about someone still didn't mean you knew him and deliberately ordered my own drink. Which had him laughing and telling me he liked a lady who took care of herself. I told him that I had to since my husband was still at home taking care of business, and not here to take care of me. Which in turn made him make the dubious offer of taking care of me. Which I also declined in a way as if I hadn't heard the ambiguous meaning, saying merely that I could take good care of myself. Shortly after that I excused myself and went to bed. I locked the door carefully and kept my knife at hand. About an hour after I had gone to bed and had just about fallen asleep, I heard somebody at the door, trying to open it only to find it barred. I heard a muffled curse and then it got quiet again. The next morning I had a surprise waiting for me, just after breakfast a courier came in delivering an invitation to me to attend a banquet in my honor that night at the lord's castle. The castle that was in the absolute center of the town had a look of power to it. It was large, strongly manned and looked in good shape. I was sorry I hadn't brought along a finer dress, but I made do with what I had brought. In the afternoon I ordered a bath, and had Eva wash my hair. After that she helped me dry and dress. I was glad she was there, because I couldn't have laced the dress myself, as the lace was on the back. And it would have been awkward if I'd had to ask one of the guards to do it for me. Not to mention the fact that Rodrigo would probably not have approved of my trip if I hadn't taken at least one female servant. When I was ready, I had one of the guards order a carriage, but before he could go out to look for one, a carriage was already waiting for me, sent by the lord of the castle. I got in, had two guards hop on the back, and we left for the castle. I wasn't sure how my guards would be received, but I wasn't about to walk into something unprotected. Not that I had any illusion that my guards could protect me if they would want to detain me, just the men on the walls could overpower them easily. I was wondering what this lord wanted from me and if he could maybe help me find a guide. When I arrived at the castle I was welcomed by the lord himself. He was a large, both in length as in girth, stately man that looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't think of why. Until I walked into the banquet hall and was introduced to his oldest son. My first words to him were to tell him that this proved what I meant and he started laughing uproariously. His father and the other people in the hall looked rather surprised, but I decided to remain a bit mysterious if the son didn't explain. And he didn't, so I kept my mouth shut. I was seated in between the lord and his son and was introduced to all the nobility present First there was of c0urse his son, and then there were his wife and two other sons. Next I was introduced to his two daughters. I was thinking that it was a good thing Rodrigo wasn't here, as I believed he would be spurred into drinking by his jealousy. After that I was introduced to a whole string of nobles I had never heard of, but greeted politely nevertheless. Over diner I heard that my suspicion that the son might have arranged my invitation was unfounded. The man had simply heard of me from his guards and the fact that I had guards of my own was reason enough for him to assume that I was nobility too and thus reason enough for a banquet. At first the discussion was about other nobles we knew, trying to find somebody we both knew. And soon we had a whole bunch of joint acquaintances. After that the discussion veered of to trading and finding out if we had to offer each other anything. There was very little of that, but I told him to write Rodrigo a letter anyway. After that the talk was about hunting, as there were no other subjects that we both enjoyed. When that subject petered out a bit and I took the topic to my own trip. When I mentioned that I wanted to cross the mountains, there was a sudden silence. The tone of my host suddenly turned frosty as he asked me why I would want to do that. I suddenly understood that we had been missing something all these days. I told him that it was merely because I wanted to visit lands that I had never seen and asked with a perfect edge of fear in my voice if perhaps the lands on the other side of the mountains here were unfit for a visit. My innocence took away the frost from his tone as he explained that the lords of the other side frequently raided his holdings on this side and that it was certainly not a good idea for a lady like me to visit those lands. I asked him if there was a war going on then, that they would raid the lands of a gentleman, or perhaps a feud, as no noble man would ever raid without a reason. He assured me that it wasn't as bad as a war yet, but that there was indeed a feud going on. The lords on the other side were all related to each other and claimed that he had stolen a wife of them thereby giving them the right to part of his crops and new cattle each year. I asked him about the lady in question and he told me that she had been the wife of his late grandfather. His grandfather had fallen in love with her on a hunting trip through their lands. She had loved him as well, but her father would not give permission for their marriage, saying that my grandfather was no good match and that he had already bespoken her to another man. My father went home heartbroken, but my grandmother followed him through the mountains, almost losing her life in the process. She told him she would never go home again, since she would die of a broken heart if she did. My grandfather saw that she meant it and married her. A few weeks later her father came to collect her, but by then they were already married and he was too late. He told my grandfather that he was due a bridal treasure now and that he would have to pay half his crops and half of the new cattle that was born every year. My grandfather refused, supported by my grandmother and her father left empty-handed. From then on there had been raids at the beginning of each fall. They had never been able to cross the mountains with an army either, since the passes were heavily guarded. I expressed my disappointment and asked him if he knew where I could go instead. He replied that I could travel more to the east, where I would find passes that led to lands that didn't belong to those barbarians. I assured him I would do that instead and we spent the rest of the night talking about the travels he had undertaken and the lands he had visited. Or rather, he was talking and I was either listening raptly or fishing for more details.

After diner his son took me back to my inn. When we got there, he once again offered me a drink, and I once again declined, using the excuse of going straight to bed. He kissed my hand before I could prevent it, and went back to the castle in his carriage.

The next morning I told the rest of the group the course of events and we discussed our new plans. We decided that we would indeed go east, as we wouldn't find a proper guide to take us through the mountains here. In a way I felt sorry I wouldn't see the lands on the other side here, as I was rather curious to the people who lived there and to hear their side of the story. I had a vague idea tumbling around my head that once on the other side of the mountains, we might veer west again, to see those lands after all.

The journey east was almost boring. The roads were good, the views were excellent, but nothing happened and it's almost hard to remember anything of that part of our trip. After a week we came to the next big city, where we suspected some passes through the mountains. Big cities were seldom built in the middle of nowhere, and in general if they were built beside a mountain, there were either rich mines or passes and preferably both. We looked for an inn again and quickly found one to our liking. Once again we asked the innkeeper about a way to pass the mountains and whether we would need a guide to cross them. He started laughing and asked me how stupid we thought we were. My guards bristled, but I signaled for them to stay calm, expecting what was to come. The innkeeper continued that there was a very good road leading across the mountains and that we'd have to be blind to miss it, as carriages crossed the mountains for trade almost daily. I laughed with him and ordered some wine and diner. This inn had no problems with my servants staying with me, much to the pleasure of our minstrel. When the innkeeper found out that he was a minstrel, he asked him if he could play for him. The minstrel almost felt too good to play there, but when the innkeeper offered free lodgings and I nodded encouragingly, saying that I would enjoy his singing very much, he gave in. As soon as he had finished his diner and a mug of ale, he took his harp from it's case and sat by the hearth to sing. Whatever his shortcomings, he did know how to sing. When the song was done, all the patrons applauded him, and some even threw him some coins, that he accepted with a bow.

Crossing the mountains at last

The next morning, I asked the innkeeper what we would encounter on out trek through the mountains, and what we would need to bring in terms of supplies. He told us to bring food for a week and to bring some extra blankets. He also advised us to bring a load of firewood, just in case we wouldn't find any. I sent out Eva and a couple of guards to take care of buying those supplies. I spent the rest of the morning waiting and talking to the innkeeper. Mostly about what we would find on the other side of the mountains and if the people there would still understand us, as I now knew we would be crossing the border somewhere along the way. He told us that mainly they would speak another language, but that most of them would still be able to understand us, as they lived of trading with people from this side of the mountains.

In the afternoon I took a stroll through the town to see the sights. I walked over the market, went to the church to pray for our safety during the rest of our trip. In the afternoon I went back to the inn and was told by Eva that all was in order and that we could leave the next day. And so we did. The journey through the mountains went without any trouble. On the other side of the mountains we traveled gradually westwards. We saw many wondrous things, but we didn't find the people who were supposedly raiding the town where we had first tried to cross the mountains. Of course we couldn't go around asking them if they did, since that would most probably cost us our lives. We traveled through at least three different countries and saw many wonders. I even negotiated some business contracts for Rodrigo, that he would probably hear about even before I got home again. After about five months of traveling, I decided it was time to start thinking about going home again. By now they must be getting worried, despite the letters I had sent home. But since they couldn't send me one in return, I had no idea if any of them had arrived. Just before we headed south east again, we encountered a large city. They had a beautiful, elegant castle and we decided to visit that town. This time, the gatekeepers of the town didn't seem to trust us when we said we were just traveling around and we were all taken to the castle right away. We weren't thrown into any dungeon, but we were kept waiting for half a day, without food or drink. And then we were finally taken before the lord of this area. He interviewed us sternly, and his questions made us think he suspected us to be spies. Since we kept up our story that we were mere travelers he decided that we might indeed be as we said, since each of us told the exact same story. He must have decided to keep an eye on us, since he then went on to invite us to stay in his castle. We accepted the invitation and spent the next couple of days there. One of his sons even took us around town to show us the sights. We were treated as guests, but there wasn't a minute that they left us alone. Apparently they weren't taking any chances and wanted to know what we were doing every minute of the day. The minstrel played for our host and his guests every night and was asked to come into the lord's service. He said he would think about it, but I could see that he had already accepted and was merely stalling them to figure out a way to tell me he would be leaving my service. The next time I caught him alone, somewhere during the next day, I told him that he should accept the generous offer, as there was no way I could match it. He was very relieved and thanked me for my understanding. I congratulated him when he told me he would accept that same night. I took his leaving us a cue to start moving homeward again. That night we took our leave from our host and made ready to leave the next day. In the morning we bought some last supplies and left.

Going home

We set a swift pace for the journey home and reached the mountains again in the course of a week's time. We quickly found a guide, as the pass here wasn't as clear as the one we'd crossed the first time. I was rather happy that we had left the minstrel behind, as it spared us his complaints. It was nearing winter again, and the nights were getting cold. And of course there were no inns in the mountains to keep us warm at night. We did build ourselves a small shelter every night, to keep off the snow that was already falling here. It took us over a week to traverse the mountains again, and we rewarded the guide handsomely for taking us through safely.

After the mountains it was easy traveling once more. The fact that we were almost home must have let our guard down, because about a week before we actually got home, we were attacked by a large group of bandits. We only barely kept them from killing us all, but before we had killed half their number and driven the rest off, they had killed two of our guards and wounded all the rest of us. For one other guard we didn't even know if he would make it through the night. We just made it to an inn before night fall, and scared the innkeeper with our looks. He hurried off to fetch a physician to bandage our wounds. The guard who was hurt the most did indeed contract a fever and after he fell asleep never woke up again. We staid in that inn for a week to get us all fit again, and we buried the three guards in the church yard there. My worries over the guards and the burial had kept me from noticing that Eva had taken quite a liking to the innkeeper who had recently buried his own wife who had died in childbirth. And it wasn't until we left and I saw her giving him a kiss that I noticed. All the way home I teased her about it.

When we finally came home again, I found that nothing much had changed. Rodrigo thanked me for the contracts I had arranged for him and mentioned that he was expecting the first profits soon. Nicolò had grown into his role as heir perfectly and was a great help to Rodrigo.

As the days at home passed by and we fell back into the old patterns again, Eva grew more silent by the day. After a month, I ordered her to take a trip and suggested that she visit a certain innkeeper, and that I didn't expect her back for the next month. Which would give her at least two weeks with her man. That seemed enough time to me to decide if she wanted to keep him. I had no idea what we would do if she did decide to keep him, because I doubted he would give up his inn, but I decided to cross that bridge when we got there.

After a lonely month, Eva came back filled with stories about life in the inn. I asked her if she didn't want to stay there forever, and she said that she didn't. But as the weeks went by again, she became quieter again. I thought it was time for some distraction and ordered another big hunt. It was a huge success again, but Eva still remained rather quiet. And so I ordered her into my sitting room to have a talk. I asked her again if she didn't want to quit my service and join her love in his inn, and this time the answer wasn't so quick. She said that she missed him awfully, but that she would also miss me if she went there. She had missed me fiercely when she was there the last time. I told her that if she changed her mind, she would just have to let me know and she left my room. I went to Rodrigo to talk to him about it, to see if he didn't know of a solution, and found him in conversation with Nicolò. I put my problem before them, and Nicolò suggested that maybe the man could open up an inn that was a bit nearer to us. At first I dismissed that as a ludicrous idea, as we already had all the inns the town needed, but Rodrigo suggested we might buy out one of the innkeepers, so they could sort of swap their inns. Put like that the idea seemed a lot more viable. Nicolò offered to go round the town to see if he could find any innkeepers that were interested.

Two weeks later he reported that he had found three innkeepers in town that were willing to accept our offer, so we called in Eva, told her about our idea and sent her to her man to see if he was willing to come over to have a look. She had brought an extra horse, and so two weeks later, they came back to inspect the inns in town. He looked at all three inns and announced that one of them looked interesting. Right after that he announced that he had to go back, but not after giving us permission to set up the deal. Eva staid behind with some instructions on the way he wanted things. She told us that he didn't have many relatives any more, and that of the few he had left some were even on bad standing with him, so moving was no problem for him. We made arrangements with the innkeeper that would move out to the country and arranged wagons for the things that would have to be moved. We set a date for the actual transfer and Eva went off with half the wagons and some guards to pick up her man and his children and their furniture and other belongings. When the big day arrived, we went out to say goodbye to the innkeeper and to hand him the money we had promised. He had already packed everything on the two wagons and had cleaned the inn he left behind. We posted some guards in the inn to keep off the thieves and bandits that might have plundered or claimed it otherwise. One week later Eva and her man came in with their wagons. The guards Eva had taken had remained behind to guard that inn as well, although the chances of plundering were not as great out there in the country. They would probably be heading back about now as the new innkeeper must have arrived there by now as well. Eva helped her man install his family in the new inn. After about a week all was settled and she came back to resume her duties.

After about a week I asked her if she was going to marry him and help him in his inn. Since as we didn't have all that many hunts any more there was no need for her to stay on as game warden. Whenever I would feel like hunting, I could always ask her if she could be spared for a couple of days. She considered that idea and talked it over with her innkeeper. He said he would love to have her even without a dowry, and the date for the marriage was set. I ordered a bridal dress to be made for her and arranged that the marriage was to be held in the large church, where normally only the nobility wed. Nicolò went to the innkeeper and had some seamstresses fit him a new suit for the wedding. When the man protested that he couldn't pay for such a suit, he informed him that it was to be his wedding gift to the man, and that he should stop complaining. Rodrigo and I paid for the entire wedding and invited most of the guests. Which was another gift in itself, as many of them would be staying in the inn. I ordered some servants to help them out, so the new couple would have some time to prepare for the wedding as well, besides helping out all the new customers.

After the wedding, Eva left her quarters and moved into the inn. I visited them at least once a week, she was settling into her new role remarkably well and three months later, her belly started bulging. I commented on it, and she replied that it was her first one and that she was very happy about it, even if it was a bit late for her to have babies. I promised to send my own midwife over to look in on her every now and then, to make sure that everything was alright.

By now I was getting restless again, but I decided to merely take small trips with Nicolò so I would be home when the baby arrived. During one of those trips he brought up that he had seen a girl he had taken a fancy to. The first thing I asked him was who she was and when he told me it was a young daughter of a nobleman, I told him he would have to ask Rodrigo for permission to court her. He admitted that he was dreading that, and that he wondered if I couldn't check him out first. I promised I would and as soon as we got back from our trip, I talked to my husband about it. He roared with laughter and told me he had already been wondering when the lad would work up the nerve to come and tell him about it. At some of the diners they had been to where she had also been a guest, the boy had been all moon eyed at her. The next day when I caught Nicolò alone, I told him that Rodrigo already knew and was wondering when he would come by. The boy was practically skipping when he left me. Over the next few months he courted his girl, but he wasn't the only one. We held a ball and I offered to host another hunt, but he thought she wouldn't approve of a hunt organized because of her, so I didn't.

And then Eva's son was born. She named him Massimo and confessed that it was at least partially inspired by my name. I told her I was honored and prayed for a healthy, long life for the boy. Eva's good physical condition must have helped, because she came out of the birth unscathed and was up again after a couple of days. I was named godmother for her son, with the full consent of her husband. I told them I doubted I'd be a good godmother, what with my being away all the time and Eva wittily replied that I would at least bring him nice gifts when I came back.

My first sea voyage

Seeing the little boy grow like cabbage kept me home for much longer than I anticipated, but finally when he was six months old, the traveling fever caught me again. I started preparing and when all was packed, I took along a couple of guards and set out for the closest harbor, determined to make my first naval voyage. The closest harbor was only a week away, but it turned out to be hard to find a captain who would take a woman on board. It seemed that sailors believed having a woman on board was bad luck. I must have talked to at least a dozen captains, before I found one who was willing to take me across the sea. It would cost me a small fortune, but I was determined and paid up. The first few days were fine, I dined with the captain every night and spent most of the days on deck trying to stay out of the way. But after a few days boredom struck. There was absolutely nothing I could do. And so I started studying the sailors. Soon I picked up some slang and learned about the parts of the boat. As long as the weather stayed nice the sailors didn't mind and even pointed out some parts of the ship and named them for me. The captain was amused as well and reviewed me every night. I also picked up some swear words of the crew, but I'd better not mention those.

When we were about halfway, the captain starting hitting on me. At first he merely made me clumsy compliments, saying how pretty my hair looked, just as it had been blown out of the coupe I had tried putting it into for diner. But soon he was making more overt approaches. And then one night, he came into my cabin, wearing only his night gown and night cap. Telling him to leave seemed to not get the point through that I wasn't interested, and so I had to resort to my knife. I actually had to give him a jab on his arm to get my message through his thick skull. And from that moment on I had no more rest. I had to lock my cabin door and stay inside all day. If the sailors hadn't like me so much, I doubt I would have had any more food. But as it was, I left the ship as soon as we had arrived in port, never to return to it again, even though I had paid for the return voyage as well. I took the guards to the first tavern we encountered and we all had a hearty meal. By the way my guards ate, I guessed they hadn't had much food either. After that we went looking for some horses we could buy to explore the lands on this side of the sea. We soon found some and went on to buy some supplies. We left before the evening fell, as I didn't want that captain to come after me. We spent the night out in the field. Only the next day it came on to me how beautiful this land was. The skies were blue, the buildings a marvelous white, and the plants a vibrant green. The whole country just seemed more alive. I spent two months touring around, having myself ferried from island to island. Drinking sweet wine, eating vine leafs filled with rice, walking on white sandy beaches, talking to locals and being chased by about every man I encountered. My blond hair was rare back home, but it seemed that it was even rarer here. Fortunately most men were good natured about my rejections, and I soon learned the kind of jests that would make my rejection clear without offending. After having seen most of the islands I went in search of another harbor to find a ship home. But once again the captains refused taking on a woman. It seemed that it was only all right to take a woman on board if the journey lasted no more than a day, since none of the ferry captains seemed to have any objections to take me on. In the end I ended up buying some Greek silk and having some seamstresses making me a male outfit, so I could pretend to be a man. The only thing that I didn't know how to fake was peeing overboard like I had seen the sailors do. One of my own guards came with the solution and told me to bring a lot of vine leaves with me, that I could shape into a funnel. I would merely have to prevent the sailors from coming too close to me, so they wouldn't actually see me peeing. Before I went to search for another boat to take me home, I spent a couple of days practicing, as I didn't want to be caught halfway through the trip. I drank quite a lot those two days, but in the end I managed without getting my breaches wet.

Posing as a man, it was a lot easier to find a ship that would take me home. Strangely a lot more sailors came onto me that trip than on the way out. I kindly rejected all their attentions and kept to myself. I spent my time on deck fencing with my guards, which kept the sailors even further away. The only thing happening on that trip was the storm we ran into. Except for a few broken lines, we escaped unscathed. Once back in port, I found an inn, got changed again and put the men's clothes into my pack. I got a few strange looks from the innkeeper, but he asked no questions.

All in all the trip had taken me a little over three months, but it seemed like a year when I looked at little Massimo. He seemed to have grown at least a hand span in the time I had been gone. I had brought him a tiny wooden mill like the ones that had been all over the place on the other side of the sea. Eva put it on a shelf for when he was older, as she told me he would merely put it in his mouth right now. After she had put the little man into bed, I told her all about my adventures of the trip. And she laughed heartily as I told her about posing as a man and the fact that as a man I had to fend of even more sailors than as a woman.

From that time on, I took many trips, both by land and by sea. Sometimes I crossed the mountains again, and sometimes I simply went south. Sometimes I crossed the sea, and sometimes I simply went along the coast. And on every trip I brought Massimo a little gift. Sometimes a toy he could play with, and sometimes something that he could only look at until he was a bit older. As the months and years passed by, he grew up to be a handsome boy. Eva taught him shooting a bow and I taught him fencing, and he excelled in both. And in many ways he reminded me of my own Gianna. Most of the times that was the reason for another trip, if the feelings of loss got too big again, I went out to fill that emptiness with new experiences.

The desert

And then one day, I crossed the sea to the south, after having followed the entire coast until it bent back on itself. The lands on the other side were nothing like I had seen before. To start with, they were a lot warmer than any of the countries I'd been to, and my own country wasn't that cold to begin with. All the expensive things like oranges and dates that we had at home, apparently came from here, cause you could buy them everywhere. The markets were a lot different from those at home. They smelled different, the sounds were different and the colors were different too. I spent many an hour, simply perusing them, with my guards at my heels. It was hard to stop myself from buying all the gifts for home, as I thought of buying Eva and her husband spices for their kitchen. For Nicolò and Rodrigo I saw beautifully curved knives set with gems, and I saw beautifully colored silks for myself.

To prevent myself from buying anything just yet, and burdening myself down with them, I tore myself loose from the market and went inland. Over here they weren't riding horses, or rather some of the rich people were, but the locals advised me that if I wanted to go inland, I would have to take camels. Telling me that camels went almost as fast as a horse, and that a well watered camel would outlast a horse any time, as the temperatures would rise even further as soon as I left the city.

And indeed as I left the city, I found that the greenery ended pretty soon, but my guide told me that he knew an oasis nearby where we could water our camels and ourselves again, and that he would show me all the beautiful places of the desert. And he did indeed show me many wonders. Rocks balancing on top of one another, beautiful red cliffs dotted with small holes that birds hopped in and out of, strangely sharp peaked dunes, places where it looked as if the waves of the sea had left their pattern despite the fact that the sea waves never came here, small creatures that hopped from foot to foot on the scorching sands, scorpions that lifted their poisonous tails if you got too close, and many many more marvelous wonders. The thing that surprised me most was that there still was so much life in so barren a place. And then we reached the oasis, another marvel. There was a tiny lake, just ten meters or so across, and around it grew an abundance of plants. There were date palms, cacti, strange spiky plants that sported flowers in every possible color, and even more animals than we had seen so far. Here there were mice and birds, and I even saw something that looked like a fox. We staid in that oasis for a couple of days before heading back. Our camels drank their fill and we filled our water bags again. On the way back, I checked with our guide if we were going back the same way, cause almost everything I saw looked different. The red cliffs were still there and the balancing stones too, but everything else was entirely different from before. He laughed and said that you needed to be very good at navigating by the sun and the stars, in order not to get lost, as the desert itself was never the same. When we arrived safely back in town, I marveled that it actually was still the same from the town we had left before. I paid the guide handsomely and our ways separated.


When we found an inn that could accommodate us all, we took quarter there. After dumping my pack in my room, I locked it behind me and went into the common room. In the common room I found that they had an actual bard there. He was in the middle of telling a grand tale of how he conquered the sultan's daughter and I sat down to listen. When the bar maid came by, I ordered a goblet of wine. I took care to sip it, as it was a heady brew. When the tale was done I applauded the bard along with the other patrons. I took a good look at the bard, who was kind of out of place here. It was very obvious that he was not from here, as his hair was even paler than my own, and though he was bronzed by the sun, it was clear that his skin was as white as mine, and not olive toned like the natives around here had. And also just as mine, his eyes were blue. And if all of that wasn't enough to set him apart, he was also towering above the largest man in the room. When his tale was done he picked up a lute, and the way he played it made it perfectly clear that it was his own instrument. He plucked the strings almost reverently. He had a very nice voice and he sung a song about his love for the sultan's daughter, perfectly matching the story he just told. As his song seemed about to finish, I beckoned the bar maid and asked her to bring the bard a tankard of beer, as all his talking and singing must be thirsty work. And as the song ended, she brought him one. She pointed in my direction and he lifted the tankard in appreciation. I stayed up all night, listening to his songs and tales. And when he was done for the evening, he joined me at my table. I bought him another drink, as my time with my minstrel had taught me that free drinks were always welcome. I asked him his name and he told me people called him Dokandor. But when I asked him where he was from, he turned vague. I in turn told him my name and where I was from and he said that now he knew why I was so pretty. When I inquired what that reason might be, he replied wittily that it was because I was from such a beautiful country. He told me he had been almost everywhere, with the exception of the hottest parts of the deserts and the coldest parts on the poles. I asked him what poles he meant, and he told me that it didn't matter, that they were merely places where ice could be found year round and that were inhabited only by penguins and polar bears. I was intrigued, as the stories he told me matched my own experience, and were much more detailed than the ones my minstrel had once spun me.

When at last we separated and went to our bedrooms, it was long past midnight. As soon as my ear hit the bed, I was fast asleep and I didn't wake until noon. I had drunk slightly more than I had intended the night before, so I was feeling rather groggy when I entered the common room for a breakfast that was lunch to most people. I spent most of the day inside, nursing my headache, as I did not feel like facing the hot afternoon like this. By the time I had drunk enough fluids to feel slightly better I saw the bard coming in, looking almost as bad as I did, and I grinned at him, feeling a bit better because of his looks. He joined me at my table and ordered a beer. I immediately ordered two jugs of goat milk and shoved one in his direction. He gave it one withering glance and kept ignoring it, until I drank it to keep it from spoiling. When it was gone and he had downed two tankards he looked slightly better and was able to tell me that it wasn't often that the persons he drank with looked better than him the next day. I actually laughed out loud, even though it made my head hurt so bad that I winced. I countered him with a comment that it might have something to do with knowing some restraints and the fact that I had downed the morning production of at least three goats to keep my headache in check. He merely grunted that milk was for babies and goat milk was for baby goats, not for grown men. To which I was happy to reply that I was neither and felt perfectly happy that I was able to cure the worst of my headache with it as I didn't feel like curing it with more wine or beer, that would only give me an even worse headache in the morning. And that shut him up, as he didn't know any witty answers yet. At least not until he'd had a couple more tankards. As his headache eased a bit, we talked some more about his travels and I dared him to show me some of the more wondrous places he had been to. He told me he didn't believe I could make it to some of them, as he hadn't ever heard of a woman who had. I merely laughed and asked him how many women he knew, who had seen as much as I had while leaving their husbands at home. He had to admit that he knew none, and then tried getting out by saying that he didn't want to be responsible for my protection. Which of course had me laughing only harder. It took me a couple of minutes before I had breath enough to tell him about my guards who were the men dicing over in the corner. Not to mention the fact that one on one I hardly needed them. From the look I gave him I could tell that he believed I was boasting, that somehow the men around me had been pampering me and were merely letting me win for my amusement. On seeing that look I laughed even harder, not even explaining why. He gave me an amused look, but didn't inquire as to why I was laughing. My guards who had seen the discussion were grinning at each other as well, no doubt anticipating the moment he would find out for himself. I didn't beg for him to join me, as that was beneath my dignity, but instead simply let the conversation flow on. Intending to bring up the subject again later at a more appropriate time. After three days I went to the harbor to find a ship that would take me back home. All the time I had been on this side of the sea, I had worn my men's clothes, so it wasn't too hard to find a ship that was willing to take me, when I found a ship that was going in the right direction.

When he heard I was leaving, Dokandor for a mere second got a wistful look on his face, but it left his face so soon, I couldn't even be sure I'd seen it. But right after he started boasting that he still hadn't seen anything on this side of the sea, so he would stay a bit longer. I wasn't leaving for another couple of days, so I spent most of my days hanging around the inn. Of course i didn't forget to buy the gifts I wanted to take home. In all those days I not once saw Dokandor leave the inn and he was playing every night. And soon I got a feeling that I had indeed seen the wistful look and that he simply couldn't afford passage back and was now entertaining guests to earn his keep. I decided to ask him to come entertain me back home, offering to pay his passage, without letting it become too obvious that I knew about his plight. He graciously accepted, saying that he had rather staid here, but that he couldn't refuse such an offer. And so we boarded the vessel a few days later. In order to stave off the advances of the crew, I took to fencing on deck again. And while Dokandor still didn't believe I was any good, I could see that it got ever harder to think so. As he had a rapier of his own, after about a week, he asked us if he could join us. Of course I let him. At first he would only play against the guards, no doubt trying out how good they were. That's when I saw that he was a rather good fencer himself. And as soon as he had beaten all my guards, I challenged him. It was a good fight. We were closely matched and gave as good as we got. The game kept going on and on and on, as neither of us could gain the upper hand. In the end I suggested we call it a draw. He tried to end the game then by attacking me, but I wasn't distracted by speaking as he had thought. Instead I nodded to one of my men who started to make a racket, which did as I had intended distract Dokandor, allowing me to score my final point. Of course he was furious saying I had only won by trickery, which I countered with the statement that I had offered to give up and that he had tried the same. Which he blatantly denied, so I merely laughed, saying that won was won, no matter how. For the rest of that trip he didn't challenge me again, saying that I cheated. Every time he repeated it, I merely laughed. On board of the ship he was friendly enough to agree to call me Massimo, which was the name I use on board ships. But as soon as we had left the crew in the docks he announced he would call me Cat, as that fitted me much better. I laughed and graciously allowed it, knowing that the fact I wouldn't let it get to me, would only annoy him further.

Traveling home

Back on my own side of the sea, I didn't feel like finding me another ship that would take us along the coast and instead bought horses for all of us. Dokandor didn't mind riding and was indeed a decent horseman, which to me was more proof that he was indeed the traveler he claimed to be. Those who didn't ride and didn't own carriages didn't get as far in their life as he had claimed going. The ride home was a long, yet pleasant one, and Dokandor and I kept bantering. I could see my guards both liked and disliked him. Liked because of his stories and songs, that entertained them, yet disliked because of the way he treated me. But as the journey lasted, they got used to it when I didn't put him in his place. And I didn't, as the bantering back and forth enjoyed me. And accepting him more or less as an equal allowed a much wider range of banter than treating him like a servant would. When we finally got home, I was torn in two, actually take him home and force him to become my servant, or let him stay at Eva's place so I could keep on pretending he was my equal. In the end I opted for Eva's place, knowing that Rodrigo might actually have him flogged for the liberties he was taking with me. I told him I had changed my mind and that I would pay for his lodgings in the inn until he decided to move on, instead of having him as my servant. He seemed to understand, even though he put up some display of injury. As it was my habit to visit Eva regularly, my going there to see him sing and hear him tell his tales didn't attract any notice.

And despite being a traveler, Dokandor stayed in the inn until the traveling fever struck me again. Apparently my stories of my own travels and the time we had spent together had intrigued him enough, because two months later as I decided to take another short trip, and told Eva about it, he announced he would be traveling in the same direction. This time to annoy him, I didn't offer him a horse. As I had guessed he was too proud to ask for one, but he had earned himself enough money in the inn to pay for his own animal, even though it wasn't as fine a horse as I might have provided him.

We roamed from inn to inn and sampled the wine and dishes in each. Most of the entertainment we found however was a lot worse than what he could have provided. But at markets and fairs we also saw lots of artists that provided tricks that we didn't know. Once we saw a juggler and we got talking to him. Dokandor asked if he could attempt it too, as it didn't seem too hard. He wasn't very good at it, but a lot better than I was when I tried as well. The next morning when Dokandor was still asleep, I went out into the market again to find him some juggling balls, as I felt that he might like them as a reminder of this trip. I found some and stored them in my bag, as I didn't plan to give them to him before the trip was over.

The ambush

After roaming about for three months, we headed back for home. While going through a forest we were ambushed again. The bandits seemed very poor, and were probably mere farmers, and we dispatched of them quickly as their wooden clubs and knives were no match for our rapiers. They must have been real desperate to attack a force of men that were very obviously better armed than they. The next city we came to, we went to complain to the local lord about being harassed by farmers. I told them they should make sure that their farmers didn't have to rob honest travelers in order to survive. They told us they would take care of it, and we were dismissed. By the time we came out it was already turning dark. As we went in search of an inn that would provide us with food and shelter, we were followed. And then as we went through a smallish alley, we found that there were men in front of us too. All of them young and dressed in rich clothes, with beautiful rapiers that they had already drawn. They were cocky though, and that might have been what saved us. Their leader challenged us and accused us of having cruelly slain their farmers. I replied that we wouldn't have had to if they hadn't attacked us. He countered that since we were so much better armed we should have left them alone with a warning. I told him that our weapons had been carried sheathed where they could be seen and that we hadn't threatened the farmers in any way. And that if we hadn't killed them, they would have killed us instead. And that if one of the farmers would have turned and ran from the fight, we would not have pursued, but none of them had ran. He had the nerve to claim that he had heard otherwise and that if the law wouldn't take us to account, he would. They charged then, but my guards had already drawn their weapons and had taken the most advantageous positions they could. And though the toughs could fight, my men had been chosen from amongst my elite fencers. The fight was rather even, but the small alley they had chosen to confront us was more to our advantage than to theirs. Blood was drawn on both sides, but they couldn't maneuver themselves around the men, and were forced to fight standing still, which was clearly not their preferred way of fighting. I challenged the leader by asking him why he had chosen this place as it was so clearly to their disadvantage, which only annoyed him more. Dokandor and I had our weapons drawn, but hadn't joined in the fight, as there wasn't any enemy for us left, as my man had them all detached. And then one of the young men fell down, his hamstring slashed. He was screaming piteously, but it only served to spur his friends on. But their renewed frenzy only made them more careless. I told my guards not to kill any of their opponents unless they had no other choice, so the young man just lay there screaming, while my guard retreated a bit to watch the rest of the fight in case he was needed by one of the others. The fight went on and on as my guards were hampered by the fact that I disallowed killing. Both sides got ever more cuts and the street turned red with the blood of both sides. And just when it seemed that mere fatigue must soon lead to a mistake on one side or the other, the bailiff and his men arrived, taking us all into custody. And so I had to spend the night in prison with my men and Dokandor. Apparently they had overlooked the fact that I was female, and I didn't feel like filling them in, as they might get some strange ideas. And with my weapons taken away, I didn't feel like braving them.

I hardly slept that night, unlike my guards. One of them was awake at all times, but they took turns at standing guard. It wasn't likely there would be trouble, but they didn't want to have to tell Rodrigo that something had happened to me because they had been sleeping. Dokandor was soon fast asleep as well, apparently better used to such harsh conditions. The next morning I was feeling horrible. My entire body was aching, I was still tired, I hadn't eaten anything the previous night, and I sorely needed to relieve myself as well. All in all it didn't make my mood any better. The next day both parties were taken before the local lord, and I saw a mild look of surprise cross his features as he saw me. I angrily demanded why he had taken us prisoners. His secretary reminded us that we were in no position to demand anything, as we had been taken into custody for disturbing the peace at night. Before I could even explain that it was my peace that had been roughly disturbed, he quietened me and told me that both parties would get a chance to explain themselves. By now I was livid, how dare they just pick somebody off the streets and lock them up when all they had done was defend their lives. As the youth gang were locals and apparently known, they got to tell their story first and they told a strange tale of us having sneakily provoked and attacked them. My mouth literally fell open. When he was done Dokandor applauded him and when the secretary asked him why, he told that it was because they were telling such compelling lies. He then took off on a story of our own, that was told with much more feeling and that was in contrast to the tale before the perfect truth. But I think they thought it sounded too much like a story, because they asked me to tell the story as well. My version was a lot shorter and a lot simpler, but basically told the same story. As I said, they knew the gang and knew they were always looking for fights, but I was afraid that our recent telling of our being attacked by the farmers might not help our case. And indeed we were put in a room nearby while they debated which version of the story was the actual truth. And I must admit that it was a very unpleasant hour, locked up with that youth gang. The youths had taken good care that the only witnesses were me, Dokandor and my guards, and if they'd had their way, we wouldn't have been left either. And it didn't help either that the youths kept taunting us, but I ordered my men to ignore them and there were no incidents. After an hour, they came for us again and we were led back to the court room. Where we heard that we were going to be fined. As we had done more damage to the youths than they had done us, our fine was higher. And that really was the last drop, I literally exploded, ranting that it was an outrage that a lady couldn't safely go across the streets here anymore and that if she protected herself with guards she was fined. And that my order not to kill anyone was now going to cost me even more. As killing the youths would have finished the fight sooner and then no one would have been the wiser and it seems that it would have solved their problems too. I added that they might after all not have liked that since it would rob them of a nice source of income. I even went so far as to ask if the lord's son was in on this too. Since they hadn't asked my name before, I hadn't provided them with it and they had assumed I was male, as my garb and the fact that I carried a rapier did suggest as much. The lord visibly paled when it got through to him that I was not some noble youth, but a noble lady, and when they finally did inquire after my name and I provided it, he paled even more. It turned out that even though I didn't know this man, he certainly knew me, or rather Rodrigo. He hurriedly said that this was all one big misunderstanding and transferred our fine to the youths, doubled even to pay me for reparation. He even hurriedly ordered a physician to come to look at the wounds my guards had sustained. Through the whole ordeal the youths got enraged too, and their leader was virtually screaming. He raged that I was merely going for sympathy and that it was an outrage that they suddenly changed their minds. The lord quickly had them taken away. He insisted that I stay as his guest so he could make up for his mistake. What he didn't add was that I could wait until the youths had paid their fines so he could pay me what he owed me by his own words, but I let that slide. With youths like this running around, he might be a little short of cash. I agreed that we would stay for a while so I could recover.

It turned into a pleasant stay, we even went hunting, as the stories of my passion for the hunt had preceded me, never mind that they were outdated stories. I politely accepted and also accepted the loan of a bow, as I hadn't brought my own. I hadn't fired a shot in years, so I was terribly rusty and I already wasn't a good archer to start with, so I only got one arrow in a deer, but my host claimed that that one shot had killed the doe, even though it was clear that it couldn't have. He even tried to blame the bow of my failure, but that went too far. I told him that I was simply a lousy shot and that I hadn't practiced for months, so that I was simply a bit rusty. I don't think he believed me, but loved me even more for my modesty. Every night by the camp fire, Dokandor told some of his stories, usually one about hunting. I was truly amazed by the number of stories the man knew. I had been traveling with him for months now, and not once had I heard a story twice. After the hunt there was the usual feast and they had a wonderful cook. I think the feast was made extra lavish for me and I made sure to show my appreciation by sampling every dish. The next day the lord paid me what he had promised, although I think it hurt his treasury dearly so soon after the feast.. That same afternoon, we left again and started out for home. Nothing else happened on our way and we were home quickly, with a whole bunch of stories. This time I invited Dokandor over to stay with us, as I would like to hear the story he would spin about this trip.

Because of my return there was a small feast at home as well, and after diner I asked Dokandor to tell the tale of our journey for us. And an impressive tale he spun too. To my surprise he didn't even embellish the story too much, but that might have been because he knew I might contradict him if he did, and no bard likes to be interrupted in his tale. When the tale was done, everybody including me applauded him and I handed him the juggling balls I had brought for him. They made him laugh, and he spent the rest of the evening practicing. I also gave everybody else the gifts I had brought for them, all but Eva and her family as they weren't present. Everybody loved the gifts and there was a festive air.

Dokandor moved to Eva's place after a day, as he claimed my place was boring him. Secretly I thought he believed he could earn more money in the inn. I joined him on the way there, as I still had to deliver my presents to them. They too loved their gifts and we spent the night listening to Dokandor retelling the story of our adventures and this time there were a few slight embellishments, but I didn't interrupt him as the embellishments only enhanced the tale.

My new talent

Dokandor soon grew restless and came by one day to tell me he would leave. He'd drop by again one day, to tell me of all the countries I still hadn't visited, but he couldn't stay here waiting for me to find the time for another journey. I felt sorry to see him go, but did nothing to stop him as I knew he was right. I wished him a safe and pleasant journey, with lots of adventures happening to the people around him so he could tell of it. He thanked me again for the juggling balls and told me that the next time we would meet, he would have added it to his arsenal of tricks. I promised that the next time he came by I too would have found another talent to show off. I slapped him on the back, he nodded and then he walked away. As soon as he was gone I started thinking about the talent I would develop. Archery was out of the question and since my aim was so bad, I didn't even consider knife throwing. I toyed with the idea of juggling for a while, but soon gave up on it, as Dokandor would probably best me in that, and that was unacceptable. And then one night in Eva's inn I saw a man absentmindedly playing with a coin. He twirled it across his knuckles, had it fly through the air and had it perform all kinds of other acrobatics, all without paying any real attention to it. I bought a tankard of ale and joined him at his table. I put the tankard of ale in front of him and told him I'd like to learn his tricks. He emptied the tankard and told me that if I paid for his stay here, he'd stay to teach me. I quickly agreed and we shook hands on it. I practiced for days and days, it was hard work, for my fingers seemed to be made of sticks and they weren't very cooperative. But after a few weeks I had finally mastered the first basic trick. By now I had also written down how the man did his tricks and I paid him for another week and then he left. I kept practicing on my own, looking at the notes I had made and made slow progress.

To be honest I hadn't expected Dokandor to come back, as the world was wide and there were many tales out there waiting for him to collect. But to my great surprise he was back a year later, with grand stories of the adventures he had been in and of those he had witnessed. He was also quite keen on taking me along on a new trip. I hadn't been on any large trips since I had last seen him and so quickly agreed. He didn't want to tell me where he was going to take me, but that didn't keep me from badgering him about it at every turn of the road. He took me over the mountains again and kept his silence all the while. Or rather, he kept his silence about our destination, he was quite willing to talk about everything else. In the end it turned out he took me to a fair where people came dressed up in every kind of costume, it seemed like a huge gathering of theater players. It was truly a dazzling sight. There were elves and goblins, kings and dragons, beggars and noblemen, queens and maids, dwarfs and giants, ogres and fairies. It truly was as if we had entered a different world. And there were also a lot of people showing off their talents, even though they barely got any attention because there was so much to see. Of course there were also the usual stalls and stands where you could buy pretty much anything you could think of. Dokandor told me that this was an annual fair, and told me that this was where we would make our fame and, in his case, fortune. We would organize a talent hunt, to focus some of the attention of the public on those artists who were worthy of recognition and thereby steal a bit of their fame.

That first year it was hard to get recognized as we hadn't prepared ourselves properly. When the fair ended, Dokandor took me home again and we made wild plans for the next year. There would be a banner and a miniature, movable stage, we would have bells to attract attention. Next year, everything would be different...