Our Gracious Queen

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Stones and Cabbages

July 1374

Eleanor did cry when Henry climbed into the state coach and rolled away. She sobbed helplessly, Clothilde holding her and speaking soothingly. She didn't stop crying for some time, even when everyone went back inside the palace. Her ladies seemed to think her pregnancy was causing her emotional state, but she was feeling her husband's absence already and he had been gone for less than an hour.

She and the King had made love most of the night before, and she became even more emotional when she felt the first fluttering movements of her child. Henry was overcome when she placed his hand against her belly to let him feel the first motions of their baby, and she had felt his teardrops on her skin as he spoke to him, telling him to be good to his poor Mama while he was gone.

The Queen finally managed to regain her composure by suppertime and sat at the table in the Great Hall, eating without enthusiasm. She would be alone for almost two months, and she wasn't sure how she would cope. She had gone from being physically attracted to him, and obviously sexually aroused by him, to genuinely enjoying his company and sincerely liking him. He was no great thinker and his conversation was prosaic at best, but he was the kindest and most considerate of men, and such a wonderful lover.

"Eleanor, everything will be fine," Clothilde said, as the peach tarts were being served. "The King will return before you even know it and by then, you'll be… "

"Fat and weepy," Eleanor said softly, her eyes filling with tears again when she realized she would also have to do without sex for two months. Funny, but she had gone without it for sixteen years, and had even abstained when being courted and caressed by Constantine, but she could not deny that she enjoyed sex a great deal. She relished the rush of it—the excitement, the passion, the spontaneity—and the sweetness of being held and kissed and caressed and loved. There was nothing that felt quite so good as lovemaking, and Henry had been a patient teacher, and she had been an eager student. Lately, though, it was she who was teaching the King a few things, and she relished his responses.

"Now, Eleanor, you mustn't let yourself become depressed. You are much stronger than that."

She glared briefly at Clothilde, not appreciating being interrupted in her thoughts of what she and Henry had done last night. "I don't feel strong now. I just want to curl up in bed and cry."

"Well, that's what happens when you are pregnant, whether your husband is with you or not. You need to stay healthy and active, for the baby's sake, so we shall go for a walk after we eat these lovely peach tarts. You like peaches, don't you?"

A sudden memory, unbidden, came back to her, of eating a peach while Constantine watched her. She had not been aware, then, of the effect that had on him. She knew her own power now—she had been learning about it since her wedding night. "Yes," Eleanor mumbled. "I do like peaches."

"Then eat. I would recommend you eat a bit more, Eleanor. You're eating for two, and you will need strength for the birthing--good food and exercise will help a good deal, no matter what that silly doctor says. How many babies has he pushed out into the world?"

I'd rather be shagging Henry, Eleanor thought, and blushed. But Clothilde was right. She did need to maintain her health and strength, and sitting around blubbering all day and feeling sorry for herself wasn't going to accomplish that by any means. Besides, she had a great deal of work to do, in the palace and in Luvov.

The days that followed were quiet and uneventful, for the most part. The baby moved more and more, its fluttering turning into distinct kicks and bumps. She took to calling him Alexander in private, and she marveled at how her body was changing—her breasts were often sore and were becoming fuller, and as her pregnancy progressed, she began putting on weight, her formerly slim waist thickening. She still went on daily walks with Clothilde and her sons, who were such sweet, fun-loving little boys, and they were a great means of cheering Eleanor up when she started feeling low. Her afternoons were spent reading through countless Court records, or reading or writing out her thoughts and ideas about what to do about the dreadful situation in the north.

On her first Saturday alone, she was asked if she wished to attend the Petitions Court, over which Henry and past Kings had always presided, and she readily agreed. She was willing to do almost anything if it would distract her from her loneliness.

It amazed Eleanor to see the number of people gathered in the large room, which was in a building in the center of Luvov called the Hall of Justice. There was a lengthy procession into the hall, where men blowing trumpets preceded her, and she had to wear her crown and heavy ceremonial robes. She took her seat on the gilded throne set on a dais at the end of the marble assembly room, and her ladies took seats in chairs on either side while everyone else bowed and curtseyed.

She was handed Henry's jeweled scepter by the Court chamberlain, and sat for a moment, breathing in slowly and looking at the assembly of people. They seemed to represent every class of citizen of Gravonia save the nobility, and were separated as such. "Your Majesty, there are many petitioners here today," he told her. "Mainly citizens wishing to appeal to the Crown for justice in legal matters. We will begin as soon as you are ready, ma'am."

This might not be such a good idea, Eleanor thought. She was sixteen years old, judging tricky legal cases? For a moment, she closed her eyes, calling up her lessons at Count von Hesse's feet--it was important she be impartial for one thing, as well as merciful and tactful, she recalled, and not just hear but to also listen carefully to both sides of a dispute. But for heaven's sake, she was still only sixteen...

She swallowed nervously and signaled to the chamberlain to come back to her, but he mistook her gesture as meaning she was ready. Immediately, he banged his silver-tipped staff on the floor and called out, "Henry Howland and Reginald Mowbray, please come forward with your case!"

Two rather ragged-looking men came forward, up the red-carpeted center aisle, and bowed to Eleanor.

"Your Majesty," they both said at once, and glared at each other. Eleanor cleared her throat.

"Gentlemen," she said, nodding and smiling at them both. Neither spoke—they just stared at her. Finally, she leaned forward a little, picked one of the men to start, and nodded. "Mister Howland, please begin with your petition."

"This man's goat ate all my prized cabbages!"

"Oh. I see. That is very unfortunate."

"You're the one who left your gate open!" Mister Mowbray snapped back. "Missy chewed through her rope, ma'am, and escaped from my yard and… "

"What was the value of your cabbages?" Eleanor asked Howland, cutting through to the pertinent facts of the case.

"At least ten marks, Your Majesty," he answered, with a righteously offended expression.

"That is a good deal of money to lose," Eleanor agreed.

"Ten marks, my fat arse!" Mowbray squawked. "No less than a guilder, ma'am, I'm sure."

"Do you have any remaining cabbages, that we might have an unbiased person appraise their value?" she asked, cutting Mowbray off before he could go into a tangent about the value of cabbages. To her mind, they had none whatever.

Howland looked a little uncomfortable, but finally he nodded and turned back to gesture to his wife, a hefty woman with a hooked nose and wide hips. She came up the aisle, carrying a canvas sack, and without preamble dumped several rather sad looking cabbages on the floor in front of Eleanor. "Beggin' Your Majesty's pardon," Mrs Howland said, doing her best to curtsey but mainly looking arthritic. "These here cabbages ain't the best my Harry's raised. These was from his only remainin' batch. That nanny goat got the best of 'em."

"Yes… yes, I see." Eleanor had never cared for cabbage herself. It was used to make sauerkraut, a dish she found revolting in sight and smell. The goat was apparently a very discerning creature, if she could pick out the best from a bushel of cabbages. "Let me see the best of the remaining... er... items, please."

She glanced at Clothilde, who was looking at the ceiling and trying desperately not to laugh. Mrs Howland picked up a few slightly better-looking specimens and held them up for Eleanor to inspect. She honestly had no notion of what made one cabbage look better than the other, and hoped she never would have to again.

Eleanor looked around the room at the gathered people, searching their faces, and finally settled on a man who looked as though he belonged to the same general social class as the two men before her. She gestured to the Chamberlain and asked him to go get the man and bring him over. The man looked a little worried as he was brought to the Queen, and he stared down at the cabbages in silence.

"Sir, what is your name?"

"Albert Diggins, Your Majesty."

"To what value would you assess these cabbages, sir?" she asked him.

"Sorry, ma'am?"

"I do apologize, sir. How much do you think these cabbages might be worth, if they were a bit… younger?"

"Er… a mark I suppose, for the lot of 'em. Cabbages don't sell for much to begin with."

I can imagine, Eleanor thought, not missing the unhappy look that crossed Mr Howland's face. "A mark, you say? Not five or ten marks?"

"Nay, ma'am."

"What sort of business are you in, sir?"

"I work in a tavern, ma'am."

"Do you buy cabbages often?"

"Sometimes. Not lately. But my wife does. She ain't never paid more than a guilder for a good-sized fresh cabbage, and wouldn't, neither, I can tell you. She hates cabbage—only buys 'em when her mum comes to stay a month for a year. The old bat loves sauerkraut, even if it does make the whole house smell like cat piss, and then she gets horrible gas and makes the place smell even wor—… "

"Thank you, Mr Diggins, you have been most helpful. You are dismissed until we may have the pleasure of hearing your petition."

Diggins went back to his place and Eleanor looked at Howland and Mowbray. The former looked disgruntled and the latter looked smug. Eleanor fingered the scepter, thinking, and finally leaned forward a little. "How many cabbages were eaten by this… adventurous goat?"

"About half a dozen, ma'am," Howland told her.

She calculated guilders in her head. Four guilders made up one mark, but if cabbages sold for slightly less than a guilder, then half a dozen cabbages might be worth roughly one mark at best.

"Mr Mowbray, you will pay Mr Howland one mark for his loss, and Mr Howland, you will see to it that your gate is kept closed against future… forays by Mr Mowbray's goat, and Mr Mowbray, you will please do more to restrain your goat."

"The goat's been off her feed for three days now, Mildred Mowbray told me t'other day," Mrs Howland said helpfully. "Prob'ly from eatin' them bloody cabbages. I told you not to take this to court, Harry—all this kerfuffle for one bloody mark! Everybody hates cabbage! They even give goats stomach aches!"

Eleanor's first day of presiding over Petitions Court was one of the most bewildering, bizarre, rewarding and frequently hilarious of her life. Squabbles large and small were dealt with, and she hoped she had been fair to everyone. Still, she wasn't sure that someone her age ought to be placed in charge of such things. The last thing she wanted to do was offend anyone, though she had not sensed any resentment from even the people she ruled against—everyone seemed to accept her verdicts fairly well. Whether they were indulging her or not, she wasn't sure, but she left the Hall of Justice to further fanfare and outside received enthusiastic cheers and applause from the crowds.

She did enjoy meeting with the ordinary people of Gravonia. She found them straightforward, artlessly blunt and even rather charming in their way. Many commented, when asked, on how much better things were in Luvov—the streets were clean, the buildings were safe to enter, and even more, people were finding work. One old woman in particular gave Eleanor the best news of all: "We may not be rich, ma'am, but we can walk on the streets and not sink into mud-holes now, and our little ones have food in their stomachs, what with their fathers workin'… and Luvov don't stink no more!"

The day was long and exhausting, but Eleanor retired to her rooms feeling better, and slept fairly well, though she missed Henry's arms around her. At some time during the night, however, she dreamed of Constantine again—he was on Amiel this time, and there was an arrow piercing through his heart and another through his thigh, yet he wasn't bleeding from either wound. Instead, the prince seemed to be made of stone—he showed no feeling at all. He just stared at her in silence before turning Amiel and riding slowly away. She woke up sobbing and lay in bed until time for Mass, confused and feeling more lonely than she ever had in her life.

Eleanor was tired of sewing. She was tired of listening to her ladies droning on about dreary subjects like the quality of some meal they had eaten or some dress they were making or their husbands. It was pouring rain outside, so going for a walk today was out of the question, and even worse, Clothilde had sent a message saying she was not feeling well and would not be attending at Court today. So she had no one to talk to at all.

Bored and agitated, Eleanor sat down at her table one morning after chapel, when she was alone, and composed a letter—one she had been meaning to write for the past several days.

Mrs Bolingbrooke,

Her Majesty the Queen requests your attendance at the time of the birth of our child, which is estimated to be at around the end of December of this year. If you find it congenial to accept this position, you will be paid one hundred marks, and you and your household will be supplied with a large and very comfortable home in Luvov, to live through the winter until such time as it is safe and convenient for you to return to your own residence. Her Majesty looks forward very eagerly to meeting you, as we have heard of your prodigious skills at midwifery, and we are very hopeful that you will accept the Queen's request to attend us upon our confinement.

If you might please respond to this letter as soon as possible, the Queen would be most grateful. The Queen is aware you are well known and respected in eastern Gravonia and your skills might be required there, and your duties at home must take precedence over even us. We do not wish to draw you away from the ladies you are already attending.

God bless you,

Yours very sincerely,

Eleanor the Queen

She put the quill down, sealed the letter with her own personal stamp, and called for a palace messenger. "See that this letter is delivered directly into the hand of Mrs Elizabeth Bolingbrooke, at Ravensburg Castle in the Turon Valley in Livonia, and no other. Do you understand me?"

The messenger nodded. "Of course, ma'am."

"Then go. Quickly."

10 August 1374

July faded hazily into August, the weather becoming hot and sticky, with Clothilde telling her that she did not recall a hotter summer in her years in Gravonia. Eleanor supposed she was lucky, therefore, because she felt cold all the time. While everyone stood around sweating and mumbling about the dreadful humidity, Eleanor was wrapping herself up in warm shawls and shivering. Clothilde still made her get up and go walking every morning, despite the other ladies-in-waiting thinking continuing to exercise would be bad for the baby.

The two women were just finishing breakfast one morning when a messenger came rushing into the Great Hall, looking agitated. When he saw the Queen, he bowed to her and handed her a letter. "Your Majesty, General Seebolt has reported that the Lacovian army is preparing for a full-scale invasion at the northern border!"

At first, Eleanor wasn't sure if she had heard right. She looked at Clothilde, who looked stunned, and finally looked at the sweating, exhausted-looking man. "In—invasion?" she gasped and stood up, ignoring a brief moment of dizziness, and read the letter—it was a frantic plea for as many soldiers as could be mustered to come to the border to defend Gravonia.

Eleanor drew in her breath, touching her belly for a moment and feeling her baby kick. Then she turned to Clothilde. "Send for my carriage. Immediately." She looked calmly at the wide-eyed, panting messenger as her lady-in-waiting left. "The Queen will travel to the border to speak with the generals. See this message is delivered to the royal garrisons and to every knight and soldier in the area-they are all to be at the border as soon as possible, at the Queen's order. They are not to delay even one moment."

She wasted as little time as she could. By the time her carriage pulled up in front of the palace doors, she was dressed in her finest scarlet red velvet outfit and Clothilde was at her side. Lord Hallam had arrived moments after the messenger and made a brief, pointless objection to the Queen traveling to the border, but he saw the look of determination on the Queen's face and climbed into the coach with Eleanor and his wife.

There was little conversation on the journey northwards. Eleanor was searching her memory for the lessons of Count von Hesse on battlefield formations and strategies, and the importance of the army being supplied properly with weapons, food and water, and the great importance of morale. Considering her own present condition, she knew there was no way she could put on armor and join the men in the fight (nor would it have been allowed even if she hadn't been pregnant), but she knew she could do something to aid her husband's army, and by no means would she allow Lacovia to succeed in invading her country.

The coach arrived at the camp of General Thomas Seebolt, the commander of the Gravonian army, and Eleanor got out unassisted and walked up to the tent. She went in unannounced and startled the men, who were standing around a table studying a map. She searched their faces as they all stared at her, wondering which was Seebolt, and finally she nodded.

"Gentlemen, I am Queen Eleanor."

"Good God!" one of the generals whispered, and they all bowed.

"Indeed. And I believe He is with us in our defense of our country."

"Madame, you should not be here!" another of the men said.

"Except that I am here, and I will remain here, regardless of your disapproval, sir. Which of you is General Seebolt?"

A lean, wiry and very handsome man in his early forties stepped forward. "I am, Your Majesty."

"What is our strategy in defending Gravonia?" she asked.

"We… " He frowned and looked at the other generals. "We have not yet drawn a conclusion, ma'am. The Lacovians are sitting just over the border, roughly five miles to the west of us, and so far they are not moving, but their position indicates they intend to invade with full force… possibly today. I suppose they think they can do so, with the King out of the country."

"I see." She thought carefully. "Might I see the map?"

There was murmuring among the generals, but Seebolt gestured for her to come over and look at the map spread out on the table. She studied it, noting that the Lacovians had the advantage of high ground if they moved directly south of their current position. Such a place for battle could be disastrous for Gravonia's weakened, underfed and underpaid army. They needed high ground and a more easily-defended position. She scanned the map, looking for some place to draw the Lacovians in, and her finger traced over the place marked 'Field of Stones', remembering having seen the place on Count von Hesse's map.

"What is this place?" she asked, tapping the mark.

"It's a narrow sort of canyon, ma'am. Very dry ground—the drought has made the soil very brittle, and the rocks make moving armies through it damned near impossible."

"But a small force might be able to move through it quickly, if required?"

"Yes, but… "

"How high are the canyon walls?"

"At least eighty or a hundred feet, ma'am," one of the other generals told her.

"So if a small force was able to lure the Lacovian army into chasing them into the Field of Stones, the Lacovians might suddenly find themselves trying to move over ground that is crumbling beneath them, correct?" She drew her finger along the line drawn on the map to indicate the canyon. "Is the canyon very wide?"

"Wide enough for a good-sized army to attempt to go through, in formation," Seebolt said. "But if they started to break ranks while pursuing…"

"The would have to attempt to stay together in such a place—the Lacovians are not known to break formation, even in retreat." She made a quick slashing motion against the northern end of the canyon marking. "Once the Lacovians were in that valley, might they be cut off from escape from that end? In the meantime, Gravonian archers could take positions on the cliffs… plus they could also pour water and boiling pitch down on them, could they not? Dry, brittle ground becomes thick muck if saturated well enough, right? Even more, we can use pitch to light the arrow points and rain down hell on them as well, and when the pitch pools on the ground, that can also be set afire."

She heard one of the men mutter something about a woman commanding an army, but she ignored him. She ran her finger down along the line of the marking on the map to a symbol indicating a forest at the southern end of the Field of Stones, and directly behind the forest was a small river called the Argo. "Is this a sizeable forest here?" she asked Seebolt.

"Aye, ma'am, it's fairly thick."

"If the Lacovians are trapped in the valley, bogged down in mud, pitch and fire, those few that even manage to escape could be cut down by footmen and cavalry waiting in the woods, could they not?"

"I… " Seebolt scratched the back of his head. "I think they could, but… that is not a common strategy, ma'am. Armies face each other on battlefields… "

"This is not a common enemy and we are not a common people, General," Eleanor said, looking up at Seebolt, whose eyes widened a little. "It is time the Lacovians learn that. They have raided countless villages, burned crops and homes, murdered many innocent folks, orphaned countless children and have much accounting to do for hundreds of years of violence. There is no time for 'common' strategies. It's time the Lacovians received a proper thrashing, and if we must fight dirty against a dirty enemy, then we shall."

Seebolt stared at Eleanor, staggered to encounter a sixteen-year old girl who knew something about how to win a fight, and he saw a resolve in her eyes that he had rarely seen in even his best soldiers. She stared back, not at all willing to back down. "Sir, I am a soldier's daughter. I might not be able to fight, but I know a good bit about how to win not just a fight but even a war," she told him. "And I am not afraid."

He looked around at his generals, who were all now staring at the marks on the map that Eleanor had pointed out. They were all thinking the same thing: they could actually win.

"Gather the regiment leaders," Seebolt said, gesturing to his lieutenant. "We need a small force to draw the Lacovians in and have them chase them to the Field of Stones. Go!"

Eleanor nodded. "We must draw them away from any means of calling for reinforcements, cut them off, and then ruthlessly destroy them." She drew in her breath. "General Seebolt, we can have no more of Lacovia determining the destiny of Gravonia." She lifted her chin, remembering her own parents' murders. "Today, sir, we shall make Lacovia pay."

The Queen sat next to Clothilde, watching as the generals shouted out orders to the regiments of soldiers gathered. She was tired, her back was starting to hurt and she desperately needed to relieve herself, but as she watched her husband's soldiers, she realized they were in far worse shape than she. They were hungry, underpaid, and outnumbered, and she knew that years of just barely managing to maintain the borders to the north had been demoralizing—there had not been a clear, decisive victory against Lacovia in over two hundred years, and she knew they were all discouraged. Even with this battle plan being set in motion, however brilliant the generals conceded it might be, the men were the ones whose lives were being risked, and they had every right to feel uncertain.

A small platform had been built for the generals to stand on while they yelled out orders to each regiment. One of the generals was wrapping up his orders when he saw a flash of red beside him and gasped to see the Queen standing there, looking out at the men. "Your Majesty!" he gasped, bowing.

Eleanor smoothed her skirts and briefly touched her belly, feeling little Alexander bumping and kicking. The soldiers all stared up at her, not a little stunned to see their Queen at a battlefield. She drew in her breath.

"Good men of Gravonia," she said, raising her voice to a near shout. "I know you are all here because your service to the Crown requires it of you, and your devotion to duty serves you well and commends you to your King. But I know you are here for a far greater reason than duty to the Crown or even devotion to your country. Indeed, you are here because of your love for your families and your homes, and for your wives and for your little ones. You are here to defend and protect them, as is the sacred duty of every man into whom God has placed an eternal soul. Today you will face a fierce enemy, and your love for those dearest to you, along with your dedication to your King and your country, will help you drive this enemy from the field in blood and in shame. Tonight you will revel in a great victory, for I can assure you all that there is no one in the royal household who is in the least bit discouraged; we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat, good men, because we know that they do not exist. So I say to you all, as your devoted Queen, that as God is on our side, there is no one who can be against us! God save the King and God save Gravonia!"

The soldiers were silent for several moments, and Eleanor drew in her breath again, fearful that she had not been at all helpful, when she heard a soldier, far away, shout, "God save the Queen!"

More of the soldiers began shouting the same, until they were all shouting the phrase again and again, banging their swords on their shields, roaring their approval of the young woman in red standing on the platform. Eleanor dropped a low, graceful curtsey to them all, and that only made them shout louder, until the noise of shouting and clanging was deafening. Eleanor gazed out at the men, accepting their homage, then took the offered hand of the general beside her and allowed him to help her down the steps and back to her seat beside Clothilde.

"My God…" Lord Hallam whispered to his wife. "That slip of a girl rules this whole country!"

"Don't ever forget it," Clothilde replied.

Eleanor, at the edge of the canyon and surrounded by a group of ferociously overprotective knights, used General Seebolt's spyglass to watch the battle as it unfolded.

Roughly two hundred Gravonian knights made a lightning-fast attack on the right flank of the Lacovian army as they began moving across the border, but as soon as the Lacovians turned on them, they fled, racing their horses at breakneck speed to the Field of Stones, turning into the canyon and racing along the walls to the woods on the other end. By the time the Lacovians—far outmatched in speed but eager for bloodshed—made it into the valley, the Gravonian knights were in the woods and dismounting, taking cover in the trees. The Lacovians came charging in, led by at least three generals, and when the entire Lacovian army had streamed into the canyon, they were suddenly caught in a deadly volley of flaming arrows. Almost immediately, two of the Lacovian generals were felled, and as the men tried to turn back to escape, they found themselves facing a large force of Gravonian cavalry, lined up six deep to block any escape.

Boiling pitch began pouring down into the valley as well, creating thick, scalding pools, and more flaming arrows were coming down on them at such a rate that chaos soon ensued as the pools were set on fire by more fiery arrows. More and more Lacovians were falling, and at a general's signal, water began being poured down into the valley from huge barrels. Within just a few minutes, the Lacovians were floundering in thick mud and pitch, and fires were breaking out in the dry grass around them, but a strong wind blew it back, over the heads of the Gravonian cavalry blocking the northern passage. Eleanor could hear the screams of men and horses, and the sights were truly awful, but she continued to watch.

She was thus stunned when she saw that among the Lacovian soldiers, wearing a battle crown, was their own king. He had been thrown from his horse already and was shouting at his men, trying to rally them, but as he yelled, an arrow pierced his left eye and Eleanor had to put the spyglass down, her stomach lurching. Clothilde helped her get to the grass in time, and Eleanor vomited up her breakfast.

"It is a rout, Your Majesty," Seebolt told her, when she was finally able to return to her position. He handed her his spyglass again, and she looked out at the canyon floor. Flames still licked the canyon walls and was consuming the corpses of men and horses. A shift in the wind brought the stench of burning flesh and hair to her, and she had to rush away to vomit again.

The very few men that had managed to get out of the mud had been cut down or captured by the archers in the forest, and the few stragglers that had managed to turn back had been ruthlessly cut to shreds by the cavalry covering the north. The archers on the canyon cliffs were cheering, and she could hear roars of triumph from the forest as well.

"The King of Lacovia has been killed," she heard one of the generals say as she sat in the grass, Clothilde supporting her.

"Get his armor and shirt," Seebolt told him. "Bring them here."

The Queen was more composed by the time the king of Lacovia's body was located and he was stripped of his clothes and armor and wrapped up to be sent back home. She was sitting in the tent, Clothilde persuading her to drink a little water. Eleanor could feel Alexander kicking her vigorously, and she needed to pee again, but she otherwise felt better. Somewhat. She doubted she would ever get used to the sight of a battle—nothing could ever make her be able to stomach such things.

A soldier came in, carrying a bloody shirt and dented armor, as well as a damaged battle crown, and started to hand them to Seebolt, but the general shook his head and pointed at the Queen. "Give them to her. She won this battle, not me."

"Your Majesty," the soldier said, dropping down on one knee as he handed the items to her. "You have won a great victory." She looked down at the blood-soaked shirt and the bent crown, and answered him by bursting into tears.

"It was a huge force, sir," one of the generals was telling Seebolt. "There had to have been thirty thousand men, and we… my God, we just mopped the canyon floor with them! It was a great victory! It will go down in history as one of the greatest routs of all time!"

"The Queen did it," Seebolt said, giving him a sharp look. "We didn't think of that strategy. Give credit where it is due, Morris." He turned and observed four Lacovian knights being dragged into the camp. The four men were bruised and bloody, and he wasn't sure if those were battle wounds or if they were from a sound beating from his own enraged knights. He raised his hand for the men to be released, and all four wounded Lacovians dropped to their knees, gasping for breath, and groveled before him, pleading for mercy.

"Go get the Queen," he murmured to Morris, who bowed and left. A few moments later, the Queen and Lord and Lady Hallam came out of the tent. Seebolt did not bow to her, but instead saluted her sharply. "Your Majesty… these are a few of the surviving Lacovian knights."

She clasped her hands at her waist, staring down at the men for several moments before finally stepping forward. "We ask that you will please deliver a message to your new King… Paul, is he?"

One of the soldiers nodded.

"Tell your new King Paul that Gravonia will tolerate no more attacks from Lacovia. We do sue for peace with all our neighbors, but when we are attacked, we will strike back with such force as you felt today, and tenfold. Do you understand me, good gentle knights?"

The men said nothing, but all four nodded, not daring to look at her.

"Tell your little King that the King of Gravonia does require remuneration for what has been stolen from the citizens of this kingdom, and that he will give no quarter should your King send even ten men into Gravonia for any reason except to travel to each village along this border to apologize for hundreds of years of cruelty, violence, assault, thievery, rape and murder." She glared down at the men, seeing the face of her mother clearly for the first time in years as she spoke. "And let him know that the village of Teslo, in my own country of Livonia, has finally been avenged."

With that, she turned and swept back into the tent. The soldiers were released and sent away, barefoot, to walk back home. As night fell, the soldiers lit bonfires on the cliffs and celebrated well past dawn. Eleanor, Lord and Lady Hallam were escorted home by a small force of fiercely protective bodyguards, but the triumphant sixteen-year old Queen wept all the way home, and was put to bed in tears, refusing to be consoled.

News of the triumph at the Field of Stones traveled quickly, not just throughout Gravonia but throughout the region and across the Continent. Eleanor insisted on sending the bloody shirt and armor of the dead King of Lacovia to Henry, but she did not allow anyone to write to him to tell him that she had even been at the battlefield. The King of Livonia sent a congratulatory message, praising King Henry and his army for their victory, as did King Philip of Morvenia. Eleanor read his message several times over, touching the parchment paper and wondering how Constantine was doing—was he well? Was he happy?

It was agony, to not even be able to ask.

Pregnancy was making her temperamental and difficult. She was short with everyone, even Clothilde, and her good humor was far less in evidence. Fortunately, her newest lady-in-waiting was understanding and let Eleanor's increasingly frequent fits of pique roll off her back, commenting to her husband that she had been the same way during her own first pregnancy, and laughed when he agreed and took a step back, ready to be smacked for his insolence.

Eleanor could not even bear the sight of Agnes or Harriet any more, and refused to allow them into her chambers. She took to shouting at anyone for the mildest offense, and then would burst into regretful tears, ashamed of herself and apologizing profusely. Thus she stayed in her rooms except for her morning walks with Clothilde, hoping to avoid offending any more people.

As the day Henry was to return home drew nearer, she began to ask that the attics of the palace be searched for a cradle, a proper crib, and other necessary items for the baby, and she spread her old, familiar blue quilt on the bed.

"You are nesting, Eleanor," Clothilde said, needles clacking as she knitted a cap for the coming infant.

"Do you think Henry will be angry at me, for going to the battlefield?"

"I think he might be a little… put out, at first, but your victory over the Lacovians will likely temper whatever dismay he might feel about it."

Eleanor sighed. "I didn't win that battle. The soldiers won it, pure and simple. I will take no credit."

"You should. You came up with the idea."

The Queen picked listlessly at her roasted beef and vegetables, and Alexander kicked and turned a somersault. "So I'm nesting, am I?"

"Yes. All expectant mothers do it, to some degree. I certainly did. I gathered up all the soft toys and blankets and set up the nursery and rearranged the bedroom, so I could more easily hear the baby when it cried… that kind of thing. Of course, the first few months after Wolfgang was born, he slept in our bedroom."

"How… um… long was it before you and James could… you know… " Eleanor asked, keeping her eyes downcast.

"About four months. Believe me, Eleanor, after the baby is born, you'll be too tired for sex, at least for a while. I suppose it's God being merciful there—the last thing a woman needs, right after having a baby, is to get pregnant again very soon. Right now, you need to get as much rest as you can, in between walking and eating properly. There will be little sleep for you or Henry after that little one is born."

A messenger arrived with the morning post, and Eleanor sorted through the letters until she found one that made her hands stop and her heart swell. She tore into it and scanned the words excitedly.

Your Majesty

I would be most honored to assist in the delivery of your first child, and will be pleased to arrive in Luvov on the first of December. I will bring along some members of my own household, if that will please you, and will be delighted to attend Your Majesty at any such time as you begin your confinement, day or night.

Yours very sincerely,

Elizabeth Bolingbrooke, Midwife

Eleanor smiled and tucked the letter away. Sealed with it was another letter that she dared not open, even in trustworthy Clothilde's presence. Only when her lady-in-waiting excused herself to go see to her children did Eleanor break the seal and open it, greedily reading, running her fingers over each precious word.

My darling sweet Goosey,

You have no idea how delighted we were to receive your letter. Betsy shed many tears on reading it, and I confess to a few of my own, in relief for your success and thankfulness to God for your health and apparent happiness. Word had already reached us that you were with child, but none of us expected you to ask Betsy to come and attend the birth. She is, of course, beside herself with joy and if she could now, she would come immediately to Luvov to see you. But propriety forbids such a thing.

I have made sure to see to it that she will be presented to you as a Gravonian, of course, and if it will not cause you trouble, Christiane will also come. I, meanwhile, hope to also come to Luvov separately, as part of the Livonian diplomatic retinue. I have put my name forward as a candidate for the position of Ambassador to Gravonia. The King seems amenable to the idea, at this point, and if all goes well in December I am certain to have the post and can live in Luvov for at least the next few years.

We are all well. The spring and summer have been glorious and the harvests are bountiful. God has blessed us all, and very abundantly. You know that we all miss you horribly and can barely contain ourselves in our eagerness to see you, my beloved girl.

We will speak on many other things when we see each other in December. To say much now would make our time together much too short. I could speak with you for days, as you well know.

Your loving Papa,

Count Frederick von Hesse

Eleanor folded the letter carefully and hid it in the box under her bed, with her copies of her mother's books. When Clothilde returned, she was sitting at the window in her room, placidly watching light rainfall coming down in the courtyard and smiling, feeling utterly happy for the first time in several days.

"You look better, Eleanor," Clothilde said, sitting down.

"I feel better." Eleanor smiled, bubbling over with joy. "Much, much better!"

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