continued from here.
The world seemed to stop spinning. Eleanor heard a faint buzzing in her ears, and felt suddenly light headed. The carriage bounced over a rock in the road, shaking her into reality, but it didn’t last.
“We don’t know where the blaze started, only that it must have been somewhere near the bedchambers,” Michael continued, “for they all seemed to have sustained the most damage. There seems to have been no chance to escape.” He paused briefly, then coughed again.
Eleanor leaned back against the velvet cushion, focusing briefly on her breathing. She did not cry, she noted absently. She did not feel anything. It seemed as though she had somehow disconnected from the world around her, and none of it mattered, none of it could touch her.
Michael was looking at her expectantly, as though he expected her to burst into tears, or react in some emotional way. Feeling as though she ought to say something, she licked her dry lips, and managed to say, “I see.”
Her voice was barely a whisper; her throat was suddenly dry. She swallowed, cleared her throat, and then said in a slightly louder voice, “Is anyone else injured? Or…dead?”
“Stephen,” he said, “and Emilia are both dead. Which, I suppose is to be expected; their rooms were nearest your parents.”
“And Joseph?” Her brother’s manservant.
“Is badly injured,” Michael confirmed. “I’m afraid I don’t know any details. The physician was summoned from the village, and all those who remained are making there way there.” He was discussing matters of the house now, adopting a businesslike tone Eleanor recognized from his many conferences with her father. “Aside from those, there are only minor injuries, mostly from the cold, and the dangers of attempting to evacuate in the dark. Smoke inhalation.”
“I see…” Eleanor said again. Absently she wondered how her father would have handled this matter. Or even Rupert. She had no idea. Like her emotions, the situation seemed distant and unreal.
They arrived that night in a small inn halfway between the destroyed house they’d left behind in Rawae and their intended destination of Antella. A cold rain had begun to fall shortly before sunset, and when the carriage pulled to a halt before the inn, the road had become a muddy mess.
Eleanor was still dressed in her nightgown and the cloak someone had given her after the fire. Someone had found her a pair of boots that were a bit too large, and she didn’t have any stockings, but this was better than going about barefoot.
“It’s warmer inside, milady,” Michael said quietly, urging her to disembark, and at this urging, she pulled her hood over her head and climbed down from the carriage.
The inn was quiet, with only a handful of travelers in the common room, eating and drinking quietly while a roaring fire kept them warm. As they entered, a man burst into boisterous laughter, his joy infecting the rest of the group until the entire crowd was near hysterical.
Eleanor stopped, half in the doorway, and listened to the sound of the laughter as though outside her own body. Absently, she wondered if she might feel joy again. She felt nothing for now, neither joy nor sorrow.
“Milady,” Michael said quietly in her ear, “We have a room for you, if you’ll come.”
Numbly, she nodded, and allowed him to lead her through the common room to a flight of wooden stairs. They trooped up the steps, where a small, blonde woman held open a door.
“This way, ma’am,” she said in a voice of pleasant sweetness, with perhaps a bit of pity mixed in. “We’ll have a bath for you shortly, and some fresh clothes.”
Eleanor nodded again, feeling as though words were far too much trouble at the moment, and passed through the doorway into the room. It was a simple bedchamber, the bed covered with a pile of homespun quilts, a small but warm fire in the corner fireplace, and a few flimsy wooden chairs scattered about. Threadbare curtains hid a pair of windows on the far wall, and a candle sat on the nightstand, along with a few books.
“Just a moment, then,” the woman said, smiling broadly with the same mix of hospitality and pity, bending a knee just enough for it to be considered a curtsy, and shut the door, leaving Eleanor alone for the first time that day.
She stared at the bed for a moment, thinking of how much things had changed. At this time the evening before, she’d been preparing to sleep in her own, comfortable bed, and now she had no bed. There was only this temporary space, and then a temporary space in Antella, and no family.
She wanted to fall onto the bed, but knew that if she did she would not want to rise again. Instead, she sat on one of the flimsy wooden chairs. As expected, it creaked loudly beneath her, and seemed for a moment as though it would not hold.
Later, she told herself. Later, she would fall onto the bed, and let herself cry, and examine the hopelessness of the situation she found herself in. Later, she would ask Michael, or maybe Lord Antella for help. Surely one of them would give her advice.
She was not quite old enough to be Lady of Rawae, not yet. The title was never meant to be hers. It was to be her mother’s until it fell to Rupert’s future wife. If Eleanor herself became Lady of anywhere, it would be upon marriage, assuming that she was to marry a man who was the heir to some title. She had not seriously considered anyone for marriage yet, having only recently entered society.
Before her thoughts could wander any further down such a path, there was a light tap at her door, and it creaked open slowly.
Michael had returned, and with him a pair of male servants, with a large tub for a bath. He gestured, directing the servants toward the center of the room, where there was enough space for such a thing.
“Milady, I hope you will forgive the delay. We are presently finding you fresh clothing,” he said then to Eleanor, who had nearly forgotten she was still dressed in the same nightgown she’d gone to bed in the night before. For the first time, she spared a though for her clothing, reflecting that it must have all been burnt in the fire.
She nodded absently, and then felt as though she must offer some reassurance. What did one say in this instance? Bland pleasantries and appreciation seemed insufficient, but required. “Thank you,” she said, “it is appreciated.”
The servants left the room and then returned, carrying buckets of hot, steaming water for the tub. Michael bowed and took his leave, as his presence would not be required.
When the tub was nearly almost full, a rush of hurried footsteps on the stairs heralded the arrival of another person, this time a young woman with her arms full of cloth. Only when she’d set it all down on the bed did Eleanor recognize Lily.
“Beg pardon the delay, milady,” she said, pausing to curtsy. “It took some time, and I’m afraid no one in town quite had the same size as you, so a few of these may be too long or too short. I figured it was better than going about in your nightgown, though.”
“Yes, thank you,” Eleanor replied with some relief, for once Michael had reminded her, she had begun to feel some panic at the idea of appearing in Antella wearing only a nightgown.
“Shall I help with the bath?” the maid asked, and Eleanor immediately agreed to this proposition.
Her hair was knotted and tangled, dirty from the fire, with bits of ash and small pieces of dirt and splinters of wood mixed in. Her skin was no better, sweat and dirt having combined to form an unpleasant coating.
Removing the worn nightgown, Eleanor stepped into the hot water and discovered almost immediate relief. Although the tub was far from large enough to be luxurious, and she could not stretch her legs out fully, the water was sufficiently hot enough to thaw frozen limbs.
She rubbed the soap over her skin while Lily combed the tangles from her hair, a pleasant experience in any circumstance. When she was finished, and the water had turned a dark brownish-gray, she stepped out to a warm, soft towel.
Lily had found a clean nightgown in her excursion into the town, and, when she was dried, Eleanor pulled it over her head. It was thin, undoubtedly well-worn from many years of use, made of soft woven wool with knitted cuffs and hem. It was a bit long, so that she had to roll up the long sleeves and lift the hem, but it would serve as a sleeping garment.
“They’ve told the kitchen to bring you a meal, so you didn’t worry about going out this way,” Lily said, “and then if you’d like to sleep, you can try on these other clothes tomorrow. I found myself a needle and thread, so I can alter where needed, and of course once we reach Antella, we can use the lady’s seamstress.”
Eleanor nodded in agreement, not having thought at all about food or clothing. She thought somewhat longingly of the bed. Before she could voice her thoughts, however, a knock on the door interrupted them. Lily went to answer; the aforementioned food and drink had arrived.
There was only a small table on which to set the food, but as she was alone, this was plenty. Lily gathered up the soap and comb, and left; the servants came to retrieve the tub and water while Eleanor ate her supper. She barely tasted the food, but ate it dutifully, and then fell into bed.
The inn was positioned almost exactly halfway between the now smoldering ruins of Rawae and the majestic cliffs of Antella. The snow that Michael had predicted had fallen overnight, blanketing the road and the small village with the white powder, and leaving the temperature hovering near freezing.
Eleanor stepped out into the cold still wearing borrowed boots, which were warmer and slightly more practical than any of the shoes Lily could hope to procure from the village women, even though they were far too large. Lily had also found her warm woolen stockings, which kept falling down and needed to be tugged up again, and a dress of dark purple that was far too long in the skirt and sleeves. “It’s better to have too much fabric than too little in this weather,” she had explained, and Eleanor agreed. Over her shoulders was the same fur-lined cloak with which she’d left Antella, its original owner also unknown.
Michael and the driver of the carriage, dressed in warm cloaks and hats, were engaged in a rather heated debate as Eleanor approached. They paused this discussion to bow politely when she came within hearing.
“Is there some problem?” she wondered, and they could not easily pretend that all had been fine before then.
“We were wondering, milady, whether it would be best to stay at the inn,” Michael replied. He gestured toward the sky above, which was covered with gray clouds. “The weather is calm for the moment, but I doubt it will be that way for long.”
She turned toward the driver, whose name she did not recall. It did not seem the best time to ask, however, so Eleanor launched right into conversation. “You disagree?”
He obviously was not used to being directly addressed by his employer, as he blushed bright pink and stammered a moment. Clearing his throat, he began to speak, and Eleanor realized then that he might actually be younger than she was. “If it’s a big storm, m-milady, we don’t – we might be stuck here for days before the roads are passable. I – I was thinking maybe we should – maybe we’d best hurry – uh – make haste – toward our destination.”
It was still early winter. Although Eleanor was not in the habit of making lengthy journeys at this time of year, she had been alive and living in this part of the world long enough to remember that once the snow started, it might not stop. She could see the wisdom of hurrying along.
“If we do not beat the snow – and there is more snow – we may be stuck on the road and all freeze to death,” Michael retorted bluntly. Eleanor must have rather clearly displayed her thoughts on the matter, as he continued in a more reassuring tone, saying, “An extreme possibility, milady, but not impossible.”
Eleanor frowned, studying the snow piled up beside the inn. It was not a significant amount at the moment, and the carriage would undoubtedly be fine as long as it traveled on the main road. She glanced back at the inn, and remembered the pitying smile of the innkeeper, and the curious glances of the other visitors as she’d passed through the common area that morning.
“I don’t want to stay another night here,” she declared. “Let’s get to Antella as quickly as we can.”
Michael and the driver both seemed surprised by her declaration, but neither managed to speak. Eleanor didn’t wait for them to argue their positions again, but turned toward the carriage. Lily, who had followed her outside, hastened to open the door and assist her up the steps.
A few minutes later, preparations apparently complete, Michael himself entered the carriage. He had a thoughtful expression as he took his seat across from Eleanor.
“I’m sure you disapprove of the decision,” Eleanor told him, waiting for some sort of a lecture on the matter, “but I feel as though I must keep moving now.”
“As you wish, milady,” he replied, and offered no further comment.