War and Rumors of War
Quote from I Samuel
25: 32-34, Old King James Version, paraphrased
"Exiling Beauchamp might not have been the best course to take," Count von Hesse told Eleanor.
"I do not wish to see him again," Eleanor answered. She sat down on a stone bench and exhaled slowly. It had taken a great deal of subterfuge to slip out of the palace without anyone noticing, and Lord Hallam was keeping Henry at bay until she returned, having challenged him to an archery competition. She didn't care that her arm hurt, much less that she started at every sound—she needed to see the Count, to seek his advice and comfort.
"Remember the advice I gave you, though—keep your friends close and your enemies closer. If you truly believe Beauchamp murdered D'Acre and hired Rieti, then he needs careful watching over. Sending him away gives him far more freedom than he needs or deserves."
They were in the beautiful water gardens at the palace, and Eleanor admired the artfully placed pots of chrysanthemums and geraniums. The pools of water that spilled down a series of cascading steps finally filled a large, ornate fountain that jetted water several feet in the air from the trumpets of numerous carved water sprites. Tall, meticulously trimmed hedges created quiet walkways through the gardens, and huge, majestic oaks provided ample shade. In the spring, the garden was a lush, fragrant Eden, overcome with every imaginable kind of flower. Eleanor had spent many an hour, last year, sitting in the garden, reading, and she and Henry had made love there once in a secluded spot, under an oak tree.
"His agent attacked me and threatened my children, sir," Eleanor told von Hesse, looking up at him. He sat down beside her. "I do not think I can bear to even look at him. He cut Lord D'Acre's heart out, probably with his own hands. Lord Beauchamp is a vicious, hateful, violent man, and only his kinship to the King keeps him alive now."
von Hesse paused, pondering, and finally looked at her, seeing the sweet, beautiful girl he had raised transformed into a Queen—a woman willing and able to defend her family by any means necessary. A mother lion will die fighting for her cubs, he thought, and was filled with pride and fear for his beloved daughter.
The execution of Rieti the assassin, yesterday morning, had been a truly horrifying thing to watch—Henry had made sure the man had suffered immensely before finally being beheaded in full view of the citizens of Gravonia. The warning was clear and simple: attempt to harm the Queen, and the results would be quick and brutal. Henry did not know, however, that instead of Rieti's head being impaled on a spike and displayed at the Lower Bridge outside the palace, it and the rest of his dismembered body had been delivered to Pontrefact Castle and showered down on Beauchamp's guests. Five trustworthy and fiercely loyal knights had been sent on the mission and they had returned looking quite pleased with the chaos they had caused. Lord Hallam had personally drawn up the plan and was pleased to hand the report to the Queen the following morning.
The injury to her arm failed to slow the Queen down, and despite Henry ordering her to stay in bed and rest, she knew she had work to do. Even sitting down with von Hesse in the garden for a few moments had her agitated and anxious. Her sons were still under round-the-clock guard, but Eleanor chaffed at being confined indoors when there was such a threat lurking.
Had she been a man, she would have gone herself to Pontrefact and simply finished Beauchamp off. But Queens don't call traitors out for a swordfight. She was going to have to take a subtler but not less firm line with her enemy. The 'showering' at the castle had been merely the opening salvo in her war against the man who now posed a serious threat to her family.
"I'm afraid you will have to bear it, Eleanor. Keeping him away only stirs up his anger, and his ambition. He will strike again, I'm sure, and probably very soon. He has tried and failed to kill you. Now I suspect he is considering killing your husband instead."
Eleanor's fists clenched and she stood, pacing to the rosebushes, and she stared out across the cascading water to the east. "How can I possibly protect Henry and my sons at once? I'm only one woman—and an eighteen-year old at that."
"Since when has your age been an issue?" von Hesse asked her, remaining seated. "Your instincts are excellent. I can perhaps be forgiven for saying you are extremely well-trained for your role, and you know how to fight. From what you had done with Rieti's corpse last night, you even know how to fight very, very dirty when required. I have no doubt about your ability to protect your sons and the King."
Eleanor hugged herself, wincing at the pain in her arm, and shuddered. "I did not relish having him… cut up like that. But… " She turned back to look at von Hesse. "Beauchamp has a strong force of men at Pontrefact, and they are superbly trained. The royal army itself is spread rather thin, what with soldiers being placed in every town along the northern border. What if he brings his men here?"
"He cannot. The law forbids such a thing—every noble in Gravonia is required to leave his own knights at his castle when he come to the capital."
"Since when has any law stopped Beauchamp?" she asked, turning back to stare at the water. Finally, she faced von Hesse. "What does it say about me, that I am afraid?"
"There is nothing wrong with being afraid, Eleanor. It's how you handle yourself in moments of fear that define you. What will you do, afraid or not, if and when Beauchamp strikes?"
"I will… do what is necessary."
"And what would that be, child?"
She wavered, looking down. She had killed a man, long ago, to defend her home and family. She had ordered the dismemberment of a second man to warn another. "I will protect Henry and my sons," she said softly.
"How, Eleanor?" von Hesse asked her sharply. He stood and came to her side, and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her to him. "I am not given to brutality, Eleanor, and I know you are not either. But if you wish to see Henry live to an old age, and your son established firmly on the throne one day, you will have to do things you might otherwise never do. Let me put it this way, child: if Beauchamp injures one of yours, you must kill one of his. If Beauchamp threatens you, you must not only threaten him, but you must also follow through immediately and ruthlessly—to the pain. This is not a game, and there will be nothing sweet or gentle about it—the knives are out, Goosey. Beauchamp and the others are out there… they will not hesitate to kill you or your children. They think nothing of it. This is war."
Feeling frantic, Eleanor pushed away from her mentor and sat down on the bench again, shivering. "I did not ask to come here. If I had married Constantine… "
"You would be the wife of a warrior still, and would have to make decisions like this even more often," von Hesse said sternly. "Eleanor, now is the time to act."
She wiped her eyes and stood, bobbing quickly to him before walking away without another word. von Hesse watched her, wishing again that he had never made her give up her own name and dreams for this. But, as God was his witness, she was the right woman for the job. She would fight tooth and nail for her children, and if he knew anything about his sweet little Goosey, she would return blow for blow, eye for eye and tooth for tooth, and she would not stop until she had put down all threats and placed the crown of Gravonia on her son's head.
Beauchamp had no idea what he was up against.
Beauchamp stopped his horse in front of the line of his private army of knights, mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, glaring down at them as they stared back up at him. He was pleased they had assembled so quickly, and nodded his approval. They were all wearing the black and gold tunics of the royal army, and were wearing the royal crest of the King.
"Well, gentlemen, I believe we're in for some sport this morning," he shouted. "If any of you has any qualms about attacking Morvenia, leave now in your shame and cowardice!"
The men raised their swords, roaring, and Beauchamp grinned. This time, he would succeed, he thought as he galloped along with his men toward the Morvenian border. This raid would take only a few minutes, but he intended wholesale destruction, and Henry would be the one to pay for it. As he kicked his horse into a fast gallop, his grin widened. The bitch thought she could fight dirty—well, he could fight dirtier, and he would bring in a dragon to strike the final blow.
The small Morvenian village of Trask, just two miles from the Gravonian border, was well known for its clear air, warm, sweet water and excellent sausage. With less than three hundred residents calling the town home, it was hardly a bustling metropolis. At best, it could be called 'sleepy'. Nonetheless, it was actually considered a fine vacation spot for folks from southern Morvenia, who liked to sit and gaze at the peaceful, sheep-infested rolling hills or bathe in the warm springs that were said to cure skin conditions and muscle aches.
The market in the square was opening up, various vendors setting up their stalls and spreading out their wares. A few locals were milling about, chatting with the fruit and vegetable sellers but showing no interest in watching a man make sausage. The crisp fall chill would soon melt away into warm sunshine, and the first frosts would be coming soon enough. The summer harvests had passed, with healthy crops brought in. The little town was quiet and prosperous, and so no one was prepared to look up and see a large force of Gravonian soldiers riding hard down the hill.
"My God… what are they doing?" one of the merchants asked, bewildered. "Gravonia has not attacked us in years!"
The villagers in the square heard the bells ringing, alerting them to danger, and they quickly began seeking places to hide while the sheriff and the small force of knights prepared to defend the town. Last year, Prince Constantine himself had come to inspect the garrison and had only required a few minor improvements (like staying awake during watches, mainly) and had otherwise seemed pleased. The garrison was well-prepared, and from their places at the walls and tower they released a barrage of flaming arrows at the Gravonian knights when they drew near enough.
The Gravonians were not prepared for such a swift, strong defense and fell back in confusion as several men were felled from their horses. Their leader, a red-faced man on a white horse, shouted at his men, trying to rally them, but they were having none of this surprise defense of the town and turned tail, riding away. Soon, the man was also riding away, shouting in fury at his less-than-resolved forces.
A few thatched-roof buildings had been set afire, and two or three sheep had been killed, but no serious damage had been done. The neighboring village of Naas had suffered a little more damage, but the insult was twice as bad as the injury, and the mayors and sheriffs of both villages sent a strongly worded letter to Garon by messenger, demanding the King make sure the Gravonians receive a proper thrashing for their insolence.
Constantine was sitting outside, in the apple orchard, watching his ten-month old daughter crawl around among the fallen apples, picking one up sometimes to examine it before carefully putting it down again. Apparently she wasn't much for windfalls, he thought with an amused smile. Elizabeth lifted her head and looked around until she finally spotted him and smiled, reassured that her Papa was still nearby.
Isabella was inside, napping, and Catalina was somewhere reading, and he had come in from a morning hunt to find Elizabeth wide awake, her nappy dirty, and the child had been on the verge of a serious tantrum if she didn't get changed and fed very soon. He had managed to change her, if somewhat awkwardly, then he fumbled about in the kitchen until he found some soft food for her—peaches and some sort of strange berry concoction—and had sat out on the terrace with her, managing to get some of the food inside her and only a little on the ground and on himself. Finally, he had stripped her stained clothes off, leaving just the nappy, and set her loose in the orchard to play. She seemed to be having a grand time so far.
The ten-month old crawled back to him and pulled herself up on his knee, getting blackberry jam all over his pants, as well as dirt, and she grinned up at him, positively delighted to be with the nice man who always brought her toys and gifts and played Horsie with her, letting her ride him around the Great Hall.
"Baba!" she squeaked, holding her arms up.
Constantine picked her up, settling her on his knee, and wondered if he could persuade Isabella to let him take Elizabeth hunting with him, next time he went out. He suspected the baby would enjoy a gallop through the woods, sitting on steady old Amiel's withers.
"Constantine? Oh my God, you have the baby! I thought someone had kidnapped her!"
Isabella rushed around to his side and peered down at their daughter. "Um… Constantine, why is she nearly naked... and so dirty?"
"Uh… well… um… we were inspecting the orchard, after she had her breakfast, and… "
"Inspecting the orchard?" Isabella picked the baby up, and Elizabeth squealed and kicked her feet, reaching back to her father.
"Well, she found the windfall apples far beneath her standards," he shrugged, standing up. Elizabeth lunged for him, and he caught her.
"You changed her nappies and… fed her?"
"I'm afraid so. She likes peaches and blackberry jam… and whatever that other stuff was… but she really doesn't like that brown stuff or the green stuff, and I ended up with a lot of both jars of the stuff on my shirt… what?" He asked, aggravated, when he caught Isabella's amused expression.
Isabella started laughing. "You tried to feed her the brown stuff… and the green stuff?"
"Don't tell me it was something I shouldn't have given her. I don't have a clue what I'm doing… "
"No, no, it was food for the baby, but she does hate both. Immensely." She cooed at her baby, and Elizabeth gurgled happily in her father's arms. "You have good instincts, Constantine, and she adores you."
"Eh… " He shrugged. He knew nothing of babies. Only that Elizabeth easily charmed him every time he saw her, and he loved nothing more than spending a few moments with her whenever he could.
The house he had built, intending it for himself and Eleanor, had finally been finished three months ago, and he and his wife and household had moved in during the summer. Catalina had her own room, at the other end of the house, and Constantine had his own room next door to Isabella's, but he rarely slept there. When he was at home, he slept with his wife. His determination, on their wedding day, to remain detached from her and only visit her bed to conceive children, had fallen by the wayside fairly easily. Her warm, soft body was hard to resist, and her feistiness and intelligence were both very invigorating after his weary travels. After a while, he had stopped resisting, and was thus far less miserable than he had been last year.
He was rarely home, though. Though he was Heir Presumptive, he had to make frequent trips aboard, helping besieged neighbors defend themselves from invaders, or more often these days, he was spending a great deal of time training soldiers for the royal army and hoping perhaps they could be the ones to go to other countries to help drive off invading armies. All in all, he preferred life at home a great deal over living in a camp or a garrison, listening to shouting during the day and snoring at night. Isabella's soft voice and quiet ways and Elizabeth's squeals and giggles were like aloe, and he quietly relished his time with them. He even enjoyed Catalina's company, though not in heavy doses.
The fact that Isabella had not conceived again was a matter of some concern, at least with the Dowager Queen (he refused to call her 'Queen Mother'), and even Philip seemed a little uneasy now that the sole heir, after Constantine, was Elizabeth. Morvenia had never had a Queen Regnant before and Philip had admitted to Constantine, during a boar hunt during the summer, that he wasn't sure he could bear to place such heavy duties on the little shoulders of his niece. "A little girl should be playing with dolls and learning how to wrap men around her finger, not learning how to talk with government officials. Who wants to talk to bloody government officials anyway? I hate talking to them!"
Constantine was fairly certain that Isabella would conceive again, soon enough, and if God willed it, they would have a son or two. Right now, he was enjoying a brief respite from war, and the quiet life agreed with him, as it meant spending time at home, and his evenings in bed with Isabella.
Despite their physical intimacy, however, they still had some difficulty talking to each other. They got along well, of course, and even shared a few interests, but he was unable to express his feelings to her on any matter, and he often saw disappointment in her eyes when she tried to draw him out. She certainly wanted to be closer to him in some way besides just lovemaking, and the guilt and regret he felt over letting her down gave him more than a few sleepless nights.
He couldn't get Eleanor out of his head or his heart. He still dreamed of her, and with every dream he would wake up in mourning yet again. Isabella did not miss his misery—anyone could see it, and her confusion increased his own guilt.
Forget calling me the Dragon, he thought bleakly as Isabella cuddled Elizabeth. He was better called Constantine the Fool.
"What do you mean the Gravonians have attacked our northern border towns?" Philip asked his chief minister. "They haven't attacked us in almost fifty years."
"Two villages were attacked by a force of almost three hundred men, total, and though they were driven back by our soldiers, they did a bit of damage and caused no small amount of havoc. This kind of affront cannot be tolerated, sir."
Philip sighed. This needed to be addressed, but the last thing he wanted or needed was a war. King Henry might be impetuous and often rather foolish, but he had married Eleanor of Livonia, who had a cool head on her shoulders. She had been very good, it was reported, at keeping Henry from making unwise moves and as a result, his country was finally pulling itself out of the mire of hundreds of years of backwardness and failure. However, he had made a very, very unwise move at attacking Morvenia—his army had won the Battle of the Field of Stones, but it was still far outmatched by Morvenia's well-disciplined, ferocious and fast-moving forces. What was he thinking?
Wishing again that he had been born a fisherman's son, Philip wrote out a declaration of war, to be sent straight to King Henry of Gravonia, and wrote a message to Constantine to come to Garon immediately to mobilize the army.
"Damn," he muttered under his breath when his minister left. "Can't we just settle this with a game of chess?"
Eleanor snuggled into Henry's arms, sighing contentedly against his chest. His suggestion of an afternoon nap had inevitably led to some vigorous and very satisfying lovemaking, and so Clothilde and two guards were minding the princes and the Venetian ambassador's appointment with the King had been rescheduled. Henry yawned and stretched, a man-shaped puddle on the bed.
"This must be what they call 'decadence'," Henry said.
Eleanor got out of bed and began dressing quickly when there was a knock at the door, and Henry grumbled but followed suit. She wiggled into her bodice, adjusted the diamond and pearl tiara still in her hair, sat down at the fire, grabbed up her sewing and looked positively serene when the messenger came in.
"Your Majesty," he said, bowing. "This just arrived from Morvenia, sir."
"Morvenia?" Henry looked confused and tore the seal and looked down at the letter. He looked positively bewildered as he read, and finally handed the letter to Eleanor. "King Philip has declared war on us!"
She read it quickly, her hands beginning to shake as she thought of the damage Philip and Constantine could to Gravonia if they executed a full invasion.
Then she thought of the damage Constantine would do to her and felt a wave of terror and excitement all at once.
Henry began pacing the room, clearly unprepared to face King Philip and his legendary brother. No one had ever beaten Constantine in battle, and Philip was renowned as an excellent leader of men in his own right. To throw his only half-rebuilt and widely dispersed army against such a force was a death sentence and Henry knew it.
He looked at his wife, desperate for her advice, and Eleanor stood, straightening her skirts. "You must go and gather your soldiers and prepare to defend the country, Henry," she told him. Henry studied his wife before he finally nodded. He gave her a quick kiss then strode from the room. Eleanor looked down at the message from King Philip—it was simple, terse declaration, and if she was reading properly between the lines, he was not delighted to be drawn into a fight, but he would do so to protect his people.
As it was reported that soldiers of King Henry of Gravonia did invade our country and attack innocent people in the villages of Trask and Naas, we feel it is our only option to prepare our men for battle at the border between our two nations. We are of course more than prepared to meet with the King to receive his apologies and remunerations for losses suffered by our good people…
Eleanor looked at the young messenger. "Do you know how many of the King's men attacked these two villages?" she asked.
"Roughly three hundred men, according to estimates, ma'am," the boy nodded.
"And they were all wearing the black and gold of the royal army?"
She puzzled over this. "Yet the royal soldiers are not to leave their posts without orders from the King and I have heard of no such thing happening yesterday—what reason would our men have to attack Morvenia? Even more, all our best soldiers are in the north, patrolling the border with Lacovia and are garrisoned at those villages. The soldiers along the southern border with Morvenia had never reported any kind of skirmishes with that nation's army." She folded up the letter, more bewildered than ever. "This makes no sense. Has there been any kind of tension with Morvenia? Any sort of squabble between perhaps just two men, or two small groups?"
"Nay, ma'am. Not one."
"And you have it on good authority that the Morvenian army is mobilized and camped at their border?"
"We have heard of a force of five thousand at the border, ma'am, between Trask and Naas, ma'am. I believe they are waiting for orders to… " He swallowed and looked down. "Invade, ma'am."
She pursed her lips, thinking. Constantine would wipe the entire Gravonian army off the face of the earth, with little effort, and Henry would very likely be killed in the fray—he would never send his men into battle and not be right there with them, fighting as any soldier should.
She knew the royal soldiers were more loyal than they were skilled, and the army was young and still inexperienced. Their confidence had grown at the Field of Stones, but confidence did not win battles against Prince Constantine of Morvenia. Nothing ever had, in fact, and in her mind she could see the images of fire, destruction and death raining down on her husband's men. Constantine had wreaked havoc on the finest armies in the world, and sent them running for the hills each time. He had even thrashed the Turks, using a smaller defending force to throw a very large invading force back into the sea at Vienna.
"Get my horse," she said, and the messenger turned away. "No… wait! Call for Lord Hallam, then go to the stables and prepare the covered coach—the one with latticed windows, and see that Lady Agnes and Lady Clothilde are sent here immediately." She opened King Philip's declaration again, tracing her fingers over the dragon seal at the bottom of the page. "Go!"
Constantine reined his horse to a stop and looked across the gently rolling green hills between the two recently-attacked villages. Sheep were everywhere, impeding quick travel for his army, and he recalled Eleanor saying she hated lamb. Right now, he could see her point. They were such dull-eyed, vapid creatures, standing around looking either addled or just plain daft. He personally couldn't bear wearing wool, and mutton really was far down his list of foods he attacked with any degree of enthusiasm. Frankly, he didn't like mutton at all.
The fires in Trask and Naas had been put out already, and there wasn't even any lingering smoke. The pleasant scent of burning wood was all that remained, and that was only from fireplaces inside the cozy houses dotting the rock-walled green fields of blasted sheep.
"Damn it, could somebody come move these blasted sheep out of the way?" he shouted over deep-bassed baas of ewes and the quavering bleating of lambs as a flock of black-faced Morvenian sheep gathered around him, some of the sheep nibbling at his boots. His mount was not the reliable Amiel, but instead was a dark-bay animal that apparently had little appreciation for sheep, as it started tossing its head and snorting, aggravated.
A shepherd boy came running up, accompanied by two dogs that appeared to have been made entirely of coiled springs, and soon the sheep were moving away in one mindless group. He nodded his thanks to the boy and tossed him a gold coin before continuing on, followed closely behind by the footmen and archers of the army. The cavalry was bringing up the rear, moving in tight, fast-moving formation, and he expected to be right at the border before nightfall.
Henry had his army moving fairly quickly and they were soon assembled two miles away from the southern border to Morvenia, placed well at an elevated point. An encampment was soon set up, and Henry consulted with General Seebolt, who didn't look extremely confident even from their advantageous position. He used his spyglass to catch sight of Morvenian flags flapping in the breeze, and swallowed nervously.
"This is not going to go well," he whispered to his lieutenant, who frowned.
"We probably shouldn't say that in front of the soldiers, sir."
Seebolt nodded in agreement. "Still, we must defend our honor," he said, but the younger man looked just as uneasy. "I've asked every soldier here if he had any part in the raid into Morvenia, and to a one they say they never even heard of the attack until now. What the bloody hell is going on here?" Seebolt asked.
"I'm sure I don't know, sir. But I do not look forward to going against the Dragon of Morvenia, that's for sure."
"It will be a bloodbath," Seebolt whispered, looking back at the young men setting up tents and preparing for what might well be their last night's sleep. He turned his horse and rode back to his own tent. This was going to be a long, nerve-wracking night.
After some bad-tempered growling and a few choice words about a ewe and a lamb that invaded his tent, Constantine was finally able to sit down and go over the lay of the land with Philip. A map was spread out between them on a small table, and he was grumbling about the high ground Henry's army had taken. It was a good place to stand and fight, he conceded, but the Gravonian army was small, inexperienced and undermanned. He and Philip agreed to split their forces and attack the Gravonian flacks, driving them back until they were going downhill and could be cut down by archers and cavalry coming up at the rear.
He did not relish this war. He no longer relished going into any battle. Not that he was afraid—he had never been afraid a day in his life—but he got no pleasure from killing, and in fact when he noticed any soldier showing too much fondness for bloodshed, the man was immediately discharged and sent home. Philip was called the Just, and for good reason, and Constantine was called the Dragon, but frankly sometimes he wished he could be called the Merciful. He had no quarrel with King Henry—the man was known for being kind of stupid, and very impetuous, but he had done so much to improve his country's position in the world in just the past three years… and now, he seemed willing to just throw it all away for more sheep?
Having agreed on their strategy, they walked out into the twilight, catching the scent of lanolin and burning wood and Philip rolled up the map. He was stuffing it into his saddlebag when a young knight came rushing up, dismounting from his horse and landing at a flat run. Constantine envied him his agility—lately, his bones had stopped tolerating such rattling. The knight bowed deeply to the King.
"Sir… there is… someone to see you, he gasped.
"The Queen of Gravonia, sir! She is just across the border—see?" He pointed over the gentle rise of the hill, to the immediate northwest of their camp, and they all saw a man waving a white flag of truce.
"Is that Lord Hallam?" Philip asked, astonished. "It is! My God, I haven't seen him in years. Bloody good boarhunter he is, that man, and as brave as they come, and one time we ended up riding across a field where there was this giant black bull that chased… " He caught Constantine's exasperated look and wound down. "I know. Shut up, Philip." He turned back to the panting young knight. "What does she want?"
"I was only told to come get you and His Highness," he said, nodding to Constantine. "She will speak only to yourself and to the Prince, my lord."
Constantine was already mounting his horse and riding toward the flag-waving man, and Philip quickly jumped on his horse and followed.
Eleanor had Agnes and Clothilde hang black gauze inside the lattice doors of the coach, and she ordered Lord Hallam to stand ready at the coach door, shielding her from Philip and Constantine's view. She settled back in her seat, shivering, her heart pounding as she heard hoof beats coming.
"They are here, Your Majesty," Lord Hallam told her.
Hallam stepped forward, bowing politely to the King of Morvenia and his brother. Philip nodded to the Gravonian nobleman. "I believe the Queen has sent for us?"
"Yes, my lords," Hallam nodded. "Her Majesty wishes to speak with you in private."
"All right," Constantine said. "She can come out then."
"I'm afraid that's quite impossible. No one even knows she is here, and she will not show herself."
"Then how do we know she's the Queen?" Philip asked.
"I come as a wife and mother in Gravonia," Eleanor called, raising her voice, and Hallam stepped aside. "Those titles alone trump even my crown. You can understand how I might be eager and willing to sue for peace with Your Majesty and Your Royal Highness, for the sake of my husband and my children. As any mother would."
Constantine dismounted and strode toward the wagon, eyes narrowed. Eleanor shrank back in her seat, but she could see him through the gauze and lattices. God help her, but he did look spectacular, even without armor and plating. His shoulders were wider, his eyes almost glowing green in the fading light, and there was more grey in his hair. She noticed his limp and knew he was tired, and she saw more laugh lines around his eyes. His arms were as strong-looking as before, and she remembered how the warm and safe she felt in his embrace. .
"Majesty," he said, bowing his head slightly as he stood outside the door, less than three feet from her. The scant distance between them made her want to weep.
"Your Royal Highness," she said. "I can say with almost complete certainty that the attacks on the villages of Trask and Naas were not perpetrated by any soldier of His Majesty the King of Gravonia."
"You know this, ma'am? How?" he asked, a skeptical eyebrow lifting.
"I know that a very evil and wicked man, from among Gravonia's own nobility, is the one who led the raid. I do not, I am afraid, possess concrete evidence of his actions, but in any event the king's soldiers are garrisoned in villages and towns all over Gravonia, and all report that not one of them was mustered to come and take part in any raid into Morvenia."
Philip stepped forward, fascinated. "You speak as though you know something of military matters, ma'am."
"I am the granddaughter of a King and the daughter of a soldier, and as such I could hardly miss a few discussions about martial matters," she said coolly. "One learns what one needs to know."
"And none of the King's own men were involved in the raid?" Constantine said. "You're certain of this?"
"The man and his knights will be dealt with, my lord, and appropriately punished. He will also be required to compensate for any damaged property or lost revenues. My Lord, my husband is not always the wisest man, but by all accounts even you agree that he is a good man, and he is not the kind to send his army to attack innocent folk. He has never done such a thing and abhors such hideous behavior from among his soldiers or his nobles, and his wrath will be frightful when he learns of their actions."
"But he doesn't know you're here, I think," Constantine said. He was trying to see past the gauze, curious about what the Queen of Gravonia looked like—he had heard stories of her breathtaking beauty, virtue and wisdom. But he could not see her, and Lord Hallam was a dedicated watchdog—he positioned himself politely but firmly between himself and the coach door. Constantine stepped back at last.
"He would be horrified to know that his Queen is on a battlefield, my lord, but as his Queen my first duty is to look out for his best interests, then those of our children, and then those of our country. In respect to all three of those charges, I am simply doing my duty by coming here. If you must blame anyone, sir, you may blame me, as the man who committed this evil act is an enemy of the crown and hopes with all his heart to destroy me and my family."
Constantine and Philip looked at each other. Finally, Philip nodded, his shoulders sagging with relief.
Constantine bowed to the Queen. "Perhaps you should call yourself Abigail, ma'am," he told her.
He smiled, shrugging. "Blessed be the Lord God, and blessed be thy advise, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood and avenging myself with mine own hand. For in very deed, as the Lord God liveth, which hath kept me back from hurting thee, except thou hadst hasted and come to meet me, surely there had not been left unto Gravonia by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall."
"You know the Scriptures well, sir," Eleanor said softly, longing with all her heart to just touch him, once, to know he was alive and well. He looked well enough, but there was a bleakness about him that was heartbreaking. "I understand you are to be congratulated on the safe delivery of a daughter last year, sir."
"Aye, yes, I am very pleased," he nodded.
"Her name is Elizabeth, sir?"
"Yes. She is ten months old now, and a credit to her mother." Constantine cleared his throat. "And you've two sons now, ma'am."
"Yes." She settled back against her pillows, her throat constricting. A thin wooden carriage door separated her from him, and it was the most devastating inch of wood in the world to her. "God has blessed me and my dear husband, and Gravonia, and I thank Him daily for His indulgence," she finally managed.
A strange silence fell between Eleanor and Constantine, and she gazed out through the lattices at him, memorizing every feature of his face. She would take the memory of him out when she was alone, half comforted, half agonized, and relish every word he had said, the rough timbre of his voice, and the green of his eyes.
God help her, but she loved him. Still, and with her whole heart.
Finally, Philip cleared his throat. "Well then, I think a rather silly war has been averted, eh?" He looked at his brother, who nodded absently and turned away, walking to his horse and easily swinging astride. "Thank you from my whole heart, Your Majesty, and bless you for stopping us from shedding innocent blood—we did not relish the notion at all, and are relieved to be spared from sinning against God. We were not looking forward going to war with Gravonia at all. Perhaps one day we all might meet again, under happier circumstances."
Eleanor knew that was impossible. She could never, ever see Constantine face to face again—the circumstances would not be at all happy if they did ever meet again.
Her eyes filled with tears, and she resolutely wiped them away. I will never see him again.
The gypsy woman's voice suddenly rang in her memory. Seize your destiny! She shook her head, bewildered.
"Perhaps," she finally said, her voice shaking. "Good day to you, Your Majesty, and may God bless you in every possible way."
Philip nodded to the Queen, and the coach lurched forward and slowly trundled away, over the hill and back toward Luvov. The King of Morvenia mounted his horse and rode away to tell his army they could go home.
Queen Eleanor rode back to the palace, hidden in her coach, and her ladies were startled to open the doors to find her weeping, and she would not be comforted, even when she was put to bed. She wept through the rest of the night, curled up and refusing even to see Clothilde. The next morning, when Henry arrived, looking bewildered at the letter he had received from King Philip saying he was withdrawing his soldiers, having learned that it was all a 'hideous misunderstanding'. She sobbed in his arms and finally slept as the sun rose.
A few days later, Eleanor announced that she was with child again.