Esther slid her cloak from her shoulders. Though the party was high in the mountains, the sun beat down. She stared toward the alpine slopes. Excitement filled her. She was coming to the place she'd always thought of as home. She glanced at her father who rode at her side. His face was grim. Was he angry that he'd had to come to the home where his beloved wife had died? Not her mother, but his second wife, the one he had married for love. His marriage to Esther's mother had been for wealth and power.
She turned to look at the carts. One held baggage and the other supplies. Her young half-sister and the aging relative who acted as nurse and companion rode in the second cart. A troop of men surrounded the party for there had been trouble in the mountains. Men had formed bands to fight against the taxes collected by the king and his counts.The carts had added to the time spent on the road. Esther had had time to remember summers spent in the mountains where the air was cooler than in the lower lands and in Count Rudolf's castle. Here, she'd had friends who didn't court her for her father's wealth and status.
Trude and Berwin had been her playmates. Berwin was the son of one of the town's elders and Trude, the daughter of one of the castle's maids. Had the pair married? That had been Trude's plan to escape the lowliness of her mother's place in the community.
At the end of the pass, Esther stared at the shining waters of the lake below. Mountains cupped the lake. By evening, they would reach the town on the shore and the castle on a slope above the town. She wanted to race past the dark green firs and the trees just turning autumn bright.
She gulped a breath. Gerald would be here. A distant kin of the count, he'd been sent to gather the taxes. Months ago, he'd cornered her and taken a kiss. Fortunately, she'd escaped before he'd done any harm. She didn't like him and had no intention of being forced into a marriage.
The sun was low on the horizon when they rode through the town. Esther glanced at the shops and hoped Mathilde would allow her to visit places she had as a child. They reached the castle, though the structure was more like a moated manor house than the massive structure where she'd lived for most of her life.
Berwin and his father waited in the hall. A fire burned in the massive fireplace. Esther removed her cloak and stood beside the fire. She glanced at Berwin.
He was so tall, so broad-shouldered, so handsome. His brown hair held streaks of gold and his eyes were the color of the lake in sunlight. He was nothing like the boy she hadn't seen for years. He looked up and their gazes meshed. She felt heat shimmer through her body.
He stepped toward her. "Esther, you've changed."
"She's a lovely young lady," his father said. "We've missed you and your father."
When the servants brought food to the table, Mathilde came to Esther. "Adelle is nearly asleep. I'll take her to our room."
Esther turned to her father. "Should I go up with them?"
He shook his head. "You're my hostess. Any business will be discussed later." He gestured to the guard who stood at the door. "Where's Gerald?"
"Gone, my lord. He's overseeing the harvest and collecting the taxes."
"Harvest Festival is next week," Berwin said.
Esther sighed. She would love to go, but this was not the time to ask for permission. Her father looked so drawn, so old. She felt sure he wished they hadn't been forced to come.