Afton was bored with the feast. The food was a treat because figs, dates, raisins, oranges, and pomegranates never found their way to Wido’s house, and for a while it was interesting to watch Lord Perceval and Lady Endeline as they ate on their raised table at the entrance to the huge stone castle. But they ate little and talked even less, and after a while Afton tired of looking at them.
After the tables were cleared and the games begun, Afton found that the holiday had become sheer torture. Corba expected her to watch her five younger brothers, and Jacopo, Marco, Matthew, Kier, and Gerald had more room to run and more avenues for mischief in the castle courtyard than at home.
She was too young to be a candidate for lady of the May and too busy watching her brothers to join the May dancers. After two hours of chasing the energetic boys, Afton noticed Wido leading Corba toward a quiet bench in the shade of a tall hedge around the women’s quarters. Afton herded her brothers toward their mother and stood silently at her side.
She and her mother had always understood one another. As the boys swarmed over Corba’s lap, Corba saw the question in Afton’s eyes and nodded. “Yes, daughter,” she said, sighing. “You may go play.”
Afton turned and scampered away.
There was much to see within the castle walls. Outside the kitchen buildings, two sheep and a calf were penned, awaiting slaughter for the lord’s dinner. A group of richly-dressed nobles lounged on benches outside the mews where the lord’s hunting hawks roosted, and Afton slipped quietly by them, not wanting to attract attention. She paused outside the stables–horses were so beautiful, so majestic! Just like the rich people who owned them.
After circling for the space of half an hour, Afton decided there was no safe place to play inside the castle walls. She knew she ought not to visit the horses, for they were the lord’s, and she was frightened to death of the knights who lounged outside the huge stone tower that served as a garrison. The castle itself was off limits, of course, for the lord and lady actually lived inside, and Afton feared she would be clamped into prison if even her shadow fell upon one of those august persons.
She tiptoed quietly through the rowdy crowd of merry makers until she spied an open field of green grass through the imposing barbican that opened the castle to the world outside. In a flash she was through the castle gate, bolting for the meadow.
The meadow was delightful, not at all stuffy like the castle courtyard. She skipped through tall grasses that had not yet been devoured by hungry sheep and cattle and collected an armful of flowers: bluebells, buttercups, daisies, dog roses, and red poppies.
“What are you doing there?” An unfamiliar voice startled her and she nearly dropped her load of flowers. Was it against the law to pick the lord’s wildflowers? For a moment she was frightened beyond reason, but then she saw who had spoken. It was a boy, about her age, and obviously he had been overwhelmed by the feast, too. Why else would he be out here in the meadow?
“I’m gathering flowers,” she said simply, stooping to pick another bunch of daisies. “I’m going to make a garland for the queen of Sheba.”
“I’ve never heard of her,” the boy answered, coming closer.
Afton cocked her head and studied the boy. He was not from her village, but the castle was filled with people from many of Perceval’s estates. The boy was finely dressed, though, without even one hole in his tunic or surcoat. His eyes were the color of the creek water when it ran clear, with the same sparkle. His hair reminded her of the golden flax of wheat, and his smile was open and frankly curious. He allowed her to look him over without interrupting, then he repeated himself: “I’ve never heard of the queen of Sheba.”
“She lives in the village,” Afton replied, tossing her head. “In my house.”
“Really?” His tone was curious, not challenging. “Can you show me?”
Afton considered a moment, then nodded. “If you help. I’ve got to get a few more flowers so I can weave a crown. The queen loves flowers, and I like to make her a crown as often as I can.”
“Will these do?” The boy tugged at an unfamiliar plant, breaking off a twig loaded with small white flowers and shiny black berries.
“Bee-utiful.” Afton tucked the berries into her bouquet and they continued through the meadow, running from flower to flower until their arms were full. Then they sat breathless in the grass and Afton showed the boy how to weave the flowers and twigs into a wreath.
“That’s a very large wreath,” the boy said when they were done. He frowned. “How big is the queen’s head?”
Afton’s laughter echoed through the stillness of the meadow. “It doesn’t go on her head, silly, it goes around her neck. Come, and I’ll show you.”
“All right, but tell me your name.” The boy’s eyes shone with friendly interest.
“Afton. What’s yours?”
“All right, Calhoun, let’s go.” Together they held their wreath and walked down the road toward the village.