As her fiance Thomas, chosen by her parents and community but whom she hardly remembers, returns from the crusades, an unwilling Eleanor must decide how to react and their sympathetic priest sends them on a journey to benefit both their community and themselves. 14-year-old Eleanor knows she has been betrothed to Thomas, son of the most powerful nearby family, in an arrangement of power and convenience since she was born. Yet for years, she has not had to deal with the issue, as Thomas, now 22, has been fighting in the crusades. Now he has returned, and both are somewhat leary of the fate neither one chose and of each other. Eleanor also dreads marriage in general as her own mother died giving birth to a younger sister who also did not survive. Eleanor does not wish to suffer the same fate. Their priest realizes they have much in common and that their community is depending on their marriage, but that the two need time. He sends them on a pilgrimage to Italy on behalf of the village, with the stipulation that the two must not be married - or consummate a marriage of any sort - until the pilgrimage is completed. Both are relieved at the delay.
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As the journey starts, they do not speak much to each other, and Thomas can see that Eleanor wants as little to do with him as possible, preferring to remain silent or speak with any traveling companions they come across unless necessary. Thomas, however, is quite necessary to the journey with his experience abroad during the crusades.
During the journey, their companions include a monk, a philosophy student, and Marthe, a lower-class mother of two. Eleanor becomes fond of each of their companion in turn, especially of Marthe's two children, and never having ventured beyond her village, she also learns much of the world in their company. As the two approach southern France, they meet more and more pilgrims, who they join. Upon running into some trouble of their own, a local authority puts Thomas in charge of safely leading the pilgrims through to their destination. He takes this job seriously and rises to the occasion.
As the journey wears on, Eleanor gradually warms up to Thomas, who she grows to respect as a kind, patient, knowledgeable, and competent companion. Once she lets down her cold facade, Thomas also begins to appreciate Eleanor's good qualities while recognizing her need for someone to look out for her. At one point during their time with the group of pilgrims, one of their companions gives Eleanor a dog, to whom she immediately becomes quite attached. When the dog is lost, Eleanor goes after it. A Muslim man rescues her and gives her food. Eleanor discovers how little she is able to defend the religion for which she has become a pilgrim. Fortunately, Thomas comes after her and rescues both her and the dog.
In the end, Eleanor and Thomas face several tribulations, including sickness and broken bones, that prevent them from reaching their destination before winter comes. They receive a dispensation from a local authority - basically, through their ordeals, they can be excused from completing their pilgrimage and still receive peudo-credit due to their extenuating circumstances. Both have learned to appreciate the each other and decide to accept each other and be married.
Best part of story, including ending:
Their priest's way of balancing his compassion towards Eleanor and Thomas with the needs of the community shows he understood and served his community well.
Best scene in story:
When Eleanor is lost and is rescued by the Muslim man, she realizes how little she knows about her own religion; yet Thomas, having had more experience during the crusades, is able to cover for her.
Opinion about the main character:
Eleanor is expected to grow up quickly, like girls of her time, yet maintains many characteristics of modern 14-year-olds.